Christian community is a precious gift from God. But our love for the community must never replace our love for the Lord of the community.
Many are willing to share in Christlikeness only as long as it doesn’t mean sacrifice. But Christlikeness led Christ to the cross.
Many are willing to share in Christlikeness only as long as it doesn’t mean sacrifice. But Christlikeness led Christ to the cross.
The children in front of us had been found in gutters, dumpsters, alleyways, and other deserted corners of the city. Most of them were born with physical or mental disabilities — burdens that felt too heavy to parents already buckling under poverty. So they were left for dead.
Our team had traveled to Africa’s horn primarily to train a group of local pastors, but one of our team leaders also coordinated a visit to an orphanage. We rocked infants, laughed with toddlers, encouraged the staff, and prayed over the heads of these abandoned children.
On our way out, the staff gathered to thank us for coming. At first, their gratitude seemed a touch over the top — certainly more than our short visit had warranted. But I began to understand as one man shared a brief but startling sentence: “No one ever visits.”No Visitors
No one ever visits. A world of activity rushed past the orphanage every day — shop owners, teachers, farmers, businessmen — but no one ever visited these children on the other side of the wall. Left behind at birth, they were still being left behind by neighbors too busy to notice.
Since returning home, I’ve wondered about people around me who might echo the words we heard at the orphanage. What neighbors, what church members, what relatives are watching hordes of people pass by while they quietly ache for a visitor?
Westerners may not walk past many orphanages, but we constantly walk past people who feel forgotten, neglected, and desperately lonely: the depressed, the disabled, the socially awkward, the grieving, the elderly. Though often surrounded by people, many of the most hurting rarely receive a visitor. They rarely find someone who will not merely brush by with a smile, but will stop, sit, and linger for a while. Someone who will climb down into the miry bog of their complex problems and place a tender hand on their shoulder.
When was the last time you strayed from your circle of family and friends, set aside the to-do list, and simply visited with someone needy?Visiting Disciples
Of course, we could think of a legion of reasons for why we neglect to visit the most broken among us. Their issues are thorny and ingrained, with no quick fixes. Their pain can drain our emotional reserves to the dry bottom. Demands already lean into us from all directions — the needs of our own souls, the problems of our family and friends, tasks at work or school.
Nevertheless, Scripture repeatedly describes the people of God as a people who visit. According to James, visiting sits near the center of sincere spirituality: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). And according to Jesus, visiting is one of the indispensable marks of his sheep: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For . . . I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34–36). Disciples of Jesus not only preach, sing, pray, and serve. They visit.
But if we cannot escape the Bible’s summons to visit the needy, neither should we try. Our Father’s commandments are not burdensome chores (1 John 5:3); they are glad invitations into the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10). And that includes visiting.
Among the Bible’s many incentives for visiting the hurting, consider just one: when we visit, we imitate our Father and give the needy categories for grasping what God is like.Imitate Your Father
Most fundamentally, Christians visit the needy because God does. The God of the universe is a visiting God, a God who is never too busy to knock on the door of the lowly and come in for a while.
He may oversee the orbits of distant solar systems, but he is still mindful of man, even the smallest of them (Psalm 8:2–4). He may sit enthroned “in his holy habitation,” but he still befriends the orphan, protects the widow, and settles the solitary in a home (Psalm 68:5–6). He may be “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God,” but he still takes up the cause of the afflicted and, like a tender nurse, binds up the brokenhearted (Deuteronomy 10:17–18; Psalm 147:3).
As Zechariah praised God for the coming of the Messiah, he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). When God came down to earth, he came to visit — to dignify the outcasts (John 4:7–10), to feast with the despised (Mark 2:15–17), to touch the leprous (Matthew 8:2–4), to hear the forgotten (Luke 18:35–43), and to raise the broken children of Adam from the dust of death.
When we visit the needy, we are reflecting the image of our visiting God. We are joining Jesus on the roads of love. We are following at our Father’s heels.Show Them God
Visiting gives the hurting categories for grasping what God is like. When we visit, we take God’s promises and give them a body — our own body. We take God’s testimony about himself and bring it into living rooms and coffee shops and front porches. And as we do, we help desperate people believe that God might actually be as good as he says he is.
When we listen to a depressed twentysomething with steadfast patience, we are embodying God’s invitation to come and pour out your heart before him (Psalm 62:8).
When we befriend an autistic neighbor and labor to understand his peculiar world, we are displaying, on a small scale, God’s intimate knowledge and care for him (Psalm 40:5; 1 Peter 5:7).
When we engage in a conversation with a socially awkward small group member, not looking for an escape, but pressing in with creative questions, we illustrate the warm welcome Jesus offers to us in the gospel (Romans 15:7).
When we pursue the grieving, not only in the weeks after the loss, but months and even years later, we act out God’s ongoing healing and comfort on a miniature stage (Psalm 147:3; 2 Corinthians 1:3).
When we visit the nursing home to hear the stories (even if we’ve already heard them ten times), we become a flesh-and-blood symbol of God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).Little Ambassadors
Of course, God can use his word to communicate all of these truths about himself in the absence of visitors, and he often does. But God loves to carve his people into little images of himself, and send them out as ambassadors of his character. He loves to bring his children into rooms where visitors rarely enter — whether in an orphanage in Africa or in the kitchen across the street — and reveal himself through hands and hugs and mouths and ears.
Every day, we walk past people who could say the same words I heard at the orphanage: “No one ever visits.” As we visit the hurting, consistently imitating our Father and speaking his word, our aim is not simply to leave them saying, “Someone finally visited me,” but to leave them with the holy sense that, through us, God himself has visited them.
This is the last day — the last hours — of National Poetry Month. The month-long celebration of poetry was inaugurated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets.
I love poetry. I like to quote Leland Ryken to the effect that one third of the Bible is written in poetic forms. Poetry has been for me a way of seeing. I see more — it may be dreadful or beautiful — when I try to say what I see with some poetic effort. And I read poetry in the hopes that the poet has succeeded in saying what he or she saw in a way that would open my eyes as well.
I wrote this poem to draw attention to National Poetry Month, on the last day, as a way of saying: Don’t let it stop. And surely the glory of Jesus in the last book of the Bible is a worthy subject for the last day of Poetry Month.
The vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:12–16 has always soared above me. How can I rise to this? How can I feel what John must surely want us to feel? “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” So I thought I would apply some poetic effort to say what he saw in different words. The result was “Seeing the Son of Man: A Meditation on Revelation 1:12–16.”Seeing the Son of Man What greater gift, than that God take My mind, my heart, and turn Them to the Son of Man, and make Me taste and see, and burn With holy joy that he Would show himself to me. Clothed with a crimson robe, bound at His chest, around his heart And lungs, the love-gashed habitat Of Life. O Christ, impart From ’neath this golden sash Breath from your boundless cache. His hair a woolen glacier, white As snow, vast, ageless, cold, In airless, Himalayan height, A mystery as old As God, this ice defies The fire in his eyes. But not his feet. Like solid air, Translucent bronze, pure heat, As from a burning furnace, bare, They terrify the street. If all beneath is dread, Do I not fear his tread? His voice, the roar of myriad tons Of water, as a wall Of crystal crashing like the guns On battleships that maul The beach, and haunt the day A hundred miles away. And in his hand, the hand that holds The universe, and plies Omnipotence, he thus unfolds The boundless evening skies, And there kindly bestirs His cosmic messengers. And from his mouth a two-edged sword, So sharp it severs light From dark, as if they never warred, And pierces, in the fight With death, between the bone And marrow of a stone. And then, at last, he comes to me. And as I fall, undone, As if to die from joy, I see: His face, the blazing sun, Before me one sword-length, Is shining in full strength.
What defines a Christian isn’t just a one-time decision but lifelong delight. God gives us new hearts that treasure Jesus more than anything else.
I spent five years immersing myself in the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It was truly a transformative season in my life. What was the biggest takeaway? The answer may surprise you. He taught me how to pray.
Those who really knew Lloyd-Jones will not find that answer surprising at all. His wife once said, “No one will ever understand my husband until they realize that he is first of all a man of prayer and then an evangelist” (Bethan Lloyd-Jones). In particular, Lloyd-Jones, as a man of prayer, taught me how to pray in the Holy Spirit.
My hunger for learning how to pray in the Spirit came from a perplexing problem. I read Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” This text really bothered me because I could parse the words and diagram the grammar, but I had this nagging sense that I was not experiencing the reality of it. Lloyd-Jones served as a mentor for me in making this verse a living reality. He led me on a three-stage guided tour of discovery: (1) what it is not, (2) what it is, and (3) how it is done.What Praying in the Spirit Is Not
First, he helped me see what praying in the Spirit means by contrasting it with its polar opposite: praying in the flesh. Prayer in the power of the flesh relies upon human ability and effort to carry the prayer forward.
We all know what it is to feel deadness in prayer, difficulty in prayer, to be tongue-tied, with nothing to say, as it were, having to force ourselves to try. Well, to the extent that is true of us, we are not praying in the Spirit. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Living Water: Studies in John 4, 99)
How do we overcome this difficulty in prayer? Praying in the flesh calls upon human ability and effort to push past the difficulty. If we are tongue-tied in prayer, we may try to overcome that difficulty with a stream of many words. Jesus warned us against thinking we would be heard because we use many words (Matthew 6:7). If we struggle with wanting to give up after a short time in prayer, we may focus upon how long we pray. Success in prayer does not depend upon how much time we can log in prayer. Sometimes people try to overcome deadness in prayer by focusing on how well we can pray. We subtly trust in having perfectly composed, doctrinally correct prayers that rely upon the right diction, cadence, language, emotion, or volume.
These attempts to push past the difficulty in the power of the flesh are attempts to imitate the liveliness that the Spirit gives in prayer.
The Spirit is a Spirit of life as well as truth, and the first thing that he always does is to make everything living and vital. And, of course, there is all the difference in the world between the life and the liveliness produced by the Spirit and the kind of artifact, the bright and breezy imitation, produced by people. (Living Water, 99)
If praying in the flesh is the counterfeit or imitation of praying in the Spirit, what is the genuine article? The second part of the guided tour was discovering what praying in the Spirit is.What Praying in the Spirit Is
Here is the key difference: in the flesh, we are pushing the prayers forward, while in the Spirit, we feel caught up in the way the Spirit carries the prayer forward. Praying in the Spirit is experiencing the Spirit of life bringing prayer to life.
Praying in the Spirit means that the Spirit empowers the prayer and carries it to the Father in the name of Jesus. The prayer has a living quality characterized by warmth and freedom and a sense of exchange. We realize that we are in God’s presence speaking to God. The Spirit illuminates your mind, moves your heart, and grants a freedom of utterance and liberty of expression.
Lloyd-Jones frequently used stark contrasts to make his point. He did not often go back and nuance the contrast between praying in the flesh and praying in the Spirit. He did not plot different degrees of experience; he simply posed sharp polarities to help us see the difference between the two.
It is helpful to acknowledge that there are varying degrees of experience when it comes to praying in the Spirit. It does not feel like revival every time we pray in the Spirit. There are varying experiences of feeling carried along or pushed forward. Sometimes praying in the Spirit will not feel electrifying at all. It will feel like groaning. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us according to the will of God (Romans 8:26–27).
I remember going on a bike ride where there was a gradual incline for the first half and a gradual slope down for the second half. I sometimes think of that as the experiential difference between praying in the flesh and praying in the Spirit. Praying in the flesh feels like an upward climb in which we are having to power up the hill. Praying in the Spirit reflects the reality of the downward slope. Obviously, there are degrees of decline. But the basic awareness of a downhill energy and momentum are present in all of the different degrees of a downward slope.
When we pray in the Spirit, according to Lloyd-Jones, we experience being carried or driven in prayer to God by the Spirit, but how is it done?How to Pray in the Spirit
Praying in the Spirit has three aspects: (1) admitting our inability, (2) enjoying the creation of a living communion with God, and (3) pleading the promises of God with boldness and assurance.Step One: Admitting Our Inability to Pray
We should start with confession: we must admit our inability to pray as we ought. We must come face to face with our tendency to try to pray on our own. We start with the recognition that prayer is a spiritual activity, and the power of the flesh profits nothing at all. We should feel our dryness and difficulty and confess to him our dullness, lifelessness, and spiritual slowness and sluggishness (Living Water, 86).
But this step is not passive; it is the act of yielding ourselves to the Spirit. Confession leads to expectation and prayerful anticipation.Step Two: Enjoying Living Communion with God
You are aware of a communion, a sharing, a give-and-take, if I may use such an expression. You are not dragging yourself along; you are not forcing the situation; you are not trying to make conversation with somebody whom you do not know. No, no! The Spirit of adoption in you brings you right into the presence of God, and it is a living act of fellowship and communion, vibrant with life. (Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Soldier, 100)
The place where you pray seems to be transformed. I start out praying in my living room, and suddenly I sense that I am in the throne room.
One of the key differences here between praying in the flesh and praying in the Spirit is that you don’t feel the need to rush to say anything when you pray in the Spirit. The living reality the Spirit creates is the awareness of God’s presence. Experiencing his presence will seem much more important than any petition you are going to make (Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Soldier, 82). But the Spirit will not lead you merely to rest in God’s presence in a passive way. There will be a holy boldness to plead the promises of God.Step 3: Pleading with Holy Boldness
The result of the Spirit’s work is that we bow before God as humbled children of God in awe of God. We don’t bow before an unknown or far away god, and we don’t skip into God’s presence with breezy familiarity. We come with an awakened sense of intimacy and awe. The Spirit also breathes bold life into our prayers — a holy boldness that pleads the promises of God with God in the presence of God.
The beauty of this boldness is that it is a humble and holy boldness. There is no presumptuous sense of demand.
Do not claim, do not demand, let your requests be made known, let them come from your heart. God will understand. We have no right to demand even revival. Some Christians are tending to do so at the present time. Pray urgently, plead, use all the arguments, use all the promises; but do not demand, do not claim. Never put yourself into the position of saying, ‘If we but do this, then that must happen.’ God is a sovereign Lord, and these things are beyond our understanding. Never let the terminology of claiming or of demanding be used. (Lloyd-Jones, The Final Perseverance of the Saints, 155)Don’t Quench the Spirit
Lloyd-Jones once said that the quickest way to quench the Spirit is to not obey an impulse to pray. This point is very, very personal to me, so let me tell you a story from my own experience.
Once I was driving home from working at UPS. I worked the night shift during my doctoral days and never seemed to get enough sleep. I was driving home very early one morning, around 4:30, and falling asleep at the wheel. I tried everything to stay awake. I turned up the radio and tried to sing along. I even slapped myself. The next thing I knew, I woke up in my driveway. I was more than a little shaken. I didn’t know how I got there.
I walked inside the house now eerily wide awake, and as I walked into our bedroom I noticed the strangest thing: my wife was wide awake, too. She would normally be asleep, but instead, she was sitting up in bed waiting for me.
She said, “Hi, honey, how was your drive?”
I said, “It’s funny you should ask. I really struggled to stay awake on the drive home. In fact, I don’t know how I got here.”
She said, “Yeah I figured. . . . ”
“Okay,” I said, “please continue!”
“Well,” she said, “I woke up at about 4:30 very suddenly, and felt this intense prompting to pray. I figured you must be struggling on the road since that is around the time you normally come home. So, I prayed for you.”
I think I am still alive, and typing these words, because my wife did not quench the Spirit in that moment. She obeyed the Spirit’s prompting to pray. I hope this story gives you a greater sense of what is at stake in prayer. Our tendency to quench the Spirit is not a small and inconsequential problem. Let us give ourselves to the reality of praying in the Spirit and renounce the temptation to try and pray in our own strength. And let us, after Lloyd-Jones’s example, always obey every impulse to pray.
There were fewer miracles in the Bible than many of us think, and there are more miracles today than many of us know.
If the apostle Paul himself had not warned us about quenching the Spirit, who among us would have thought it was possible (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22)? To suggest that the omnipotent Spirit of God could ever be quenched, and thus restricted in what he might do otherwise in our lives, and in the life of the local church, is to tread on thin theological ice.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5 that God has granted to Christians the ability either to restrict or release what the Spirit does in the life of the local church. The Spirit comes to us as a fire, either to be fanned into full flame and given the freedom to accomplish his will, or to be doused and extinguished by the water of human fear, control, and flawed theology.
How many of us pause to consider the ways in which we inadvertently quench the Spirit’s work in our lives individually and in our churches corporately? Do we church leaders instill fear or courage in the hearts of people by the way we speak and preach and lead? Do we so repeatedly pepper our sermons and small group Bible studies, even our personal conversations, with such dire warnings of charismatic excess that we effectively quench the Spirit’s work in their lives? Or, after listening to us and observing how we conduct ourselves in Christian ministry, do they find themselves encouraged, courageous, and confident to step out and take risks they otherwise might not take?
The Spirit obviously desires to work in your life and in your church. To use Paul’s metaphor or analogy, the Spirit is like a fire whose flame we want to be careful not to quench or extinguish. The Holy Spirit wants to intensify the heat of his presence among us, to inflame our hearts and fill us with the warmth of his indwelling power. And Paul’s exhortation is a warning to all of us lest we become part of the contemporary bucket brigade that stands ready to douse his activity with the water of legalism, fear, and a flawed theology that, without biblical warrant, claims that his gifts have ceased and been withdrawn.Seven Ways We Quench the Holy Spirit 1. We quench the Holy Spirit when we rely decisively on any resource other than the Holy Spirit for anything we do in life and ministry.
Any attempt to conjure up “hope” apart from that power which is the Spirit (Romans 15:13) is to quench him, as well as any effort to persevere in ministry and remain patient with joy by any other means than the Spirit (Colossians 1:11). Any effort to carry out pastoral ministry other than through “his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29) is to quench the Spirit. Any attempt to resolve to carry out some good work of faith through a “power” other than the Spirit is to quench him (2 Thessalonians 1:11).2. We quench the Spirit whenever we diminish his personality and speak of him as if he were only an abstract power or source of divine energy.
Some envision the Spirit as if he were no more than an ethereal energy, the divine equivalent to an electric current: stick your finger of faith into the socket of his “anointing presence” and you’ll experience a spiritual shock of biblical proportions! The result is that any talk of experiencing the Spirit is summarily dismissed as dishonoring to his exalted status as God and a failure to embrace his sovereignty over us rather than ours over him.3. We quench the Spirit whenever we suppress or legislate against his work of imparting spiritual gifts and ministering to the church through them.
Every gift of the Spirit is in its own way a “manifestation” of the Holy Spirit himself (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Spirit is made manifest or visibly evident in our midst whenever the gifts are in use. Spiritual gifts are the presence of the Spirit himself coming to relatively clear, even dramatic, expression in the way we do ministry.
Does this mean that the doctrine of cessationism is a quenching of the Spirit? Whereas I don’t believe cessationists consciously intend to quench the Spirit, I do believe the ultimate consequence of that theological position quenches the Spirit.
Most cessationists desire for the Spirit to work in whatever ways they believe are biblically justified. They simply don’t believe that the operation of miraculous gifts today is biblically warranted. Thus, the unintended, practical effect of cessationism is to quench the Spirit. By means of an unbiblical and misguided theology that restricts, inhibits, and often prohibits what the Spirit can and cannot do in our lives individually and in our churches corporately, the Spirit is quenched.4. We quench the Spirit whenever we create an inviolable and sanctimonious structure in our corporate gatherings and worship services, and in our small groups, that does not permit spontaneity or the special leading of the Spirit.
Twice — in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 — Paul refers to “spiritual songs,” most likely to differentiate between songs that are previously composed (“psalms” and “hymns”) as over against those that are spontaneously evoked by the Spirit himself. I believe the best explanation of what Paul meant by “spiritual songs” are unrehearsed, unscripted, and improvised, perhaps short melodies or choruses extolling the beauty of Christ. They aren’t prepared in advance but are prompted by the Spirit and thus are uniquely and especially appropriate to the occasion or the emphasis of the moment.
Could it be that we quench the Spirit’s work either by denying the possibility that he might move upon us in spontaneous ways like this or by so rigidly structuring our services that there is virtually no allowance for the Spirit’s interruption of our liturgy?
In addition, we read in 1 Corinthians 14:29–31 that the Spirit may well reveal something to a person at the same time another is speaking. This spontaneity is not to be despised or scorned but embraced, as Paul counsels the person speaking to “be silent” and give room for the other to communicate whatever the Spirit has made known.5. We quench the Spirit whenever we despise prophetic utterances (1 Thessalonians 5:20).
No matter how badly people may have abused the gift of prophecy, it is disobedient to Scripture — in other words, a sin — to despise prophetic utterances. God commands us not to treat prophecy with contempt, as if it were unimportant.
Rather than quenching the Holy Spirit by despising prophetic utterances, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “test everything” — meaning examine or judge all prophecies. Paul doesn’t correct the abuse of this gift by commanding disuse (as is the practice of many today). His remedy is biblically informed discernment and only “hold[ing] fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Such discernment should be applied to all spiritual gifts.6. We quench the Spirit whenever we diminish his activity that alerts and awakens us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God (Romans 8:15–16; Galatians 4:4–7).
In both of these texts, the experiential, felt assurance of our adoption as the children of God is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. To whatever extent we diminish this experiential dimension of the Spirit’s work, we quench him. To whatever extent we fail to lead people into the conscious, felt awareness of their adoption as God’s children, we quench the Spirit.7. We quench the Spirit whenever we suppress, or legislate against, or instill fear in the hearts of people regarding the legitimate experience of heartfelt emotions and affections in worship.
I find it instructive that Jesus, as he extolled the Father, is described as rejoicing “in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). Affections for God such as joy, peace, love, zeal, desire, and reverential fear are an essential dimension in Christ-exalting worship. How often do we orchestrate our corporate gatherings and issue strict guidelines as to what is “proper” in times of worship and in doing so inadvertently quench the Spirit in people’s lives?
John Piper says it best: “the vibrant fullness of the Spirit overflows in appropriate expressions like singing and making melody from the heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18–19). And if you don’t like those expressions and you resist it, fold your arms — ‘I am not going to do that sort of thing; I am not going to sing’ — you are quenching the Holy Spirit.”
May I urge you to carefully search your own heart and assess the possible ways in which you may have quenched the Spirit in your own life and in the experience of your local church? Yielding to and making room for the Spirit’s work in our midst is not to be feared but fostered. May God grant us both the wisdom and confidence in his goodness to facilitate a greater and more life-changing experience of the Spirit’s transforming power.
Happiness that is not permanent is not a joy that is truly satisfying.
Children laugh and play with puppies and hamsters. Boys and girls twirl and dance in the rain, squeal in the mud, and swim in public pools in the summer and in snow piles in the winter. They play tag and hide-and-seek. They run and evade and hunt.
Often play requires little more than a soccer ball, football, baseball and bat, dodgeball, or tennis ball. Our kids play organized sports. And for fun we attend and watch amateur and professional athletes in large stadiums and on national television.
Play is not a limited phase for kids. Adults have their own play — in pools and lakes and oceans and in slow-pitch softball leagues. Hunting and fishing are considered sports for a reason. And healthy husbands and wives regularly “laugh together” (Genesis 26:8).
Play is not the product of a particular culture. God wired play directly into us, across all societies and cultures, as a native impulse to run and twirl and laugh we learn to express before we can learn to speak or read. All of this laughing and twirling and dancing naturally expresses God’s creative design in his creatures.
Animals, kids, adults — we all were made for play. Wild animals play in the woods (Job 40:20). Leviathan plays in the waters (Psalm 104:26). David plays during worship in ways you’d never see inside our less expressive church services on Sunday (2 Samuel 6:14). And Zion will be “full of boys and girls playing in its streets,” and when they bore of the streets, they will play in the fields and harass snakes (Zechariah 8:5; Isaiah 11:8).In the Beginning: Twirling
The apparent frivolity of play, I suspect, scares off a lot of serious thinking about the subject, and that’s unfortunate, because when we talk about play, we talk about something deeply embedded in God’s created world.
When he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:29–31)
This poetic interlude takes us back to the triune drama of creation in the rejoicing of play, better interpreted as twirling or tumbling.
We meet two characters here: “he,” a father figure (the LORD) who creates, and “I,” a child at his feet — perhaps a co-craftsman, certainly the father’s object of delight. There are two ways to see the twirling child.Pre-Incarnate Christ or Female Child?
Is the Wisdom character here an appearance of Christ? Consider four pointers in this direction.
One, some commentators like Roland Murphy notice a doubled “I am” (or “I was”) in verse 30, suggesting this child figure is divine. Second, commentators see the delight of God in the Wisdom character to echo the Father-Son delight we see in the Gospels. Third, many commentators have suggested that Proverbs 8:22–31 is the backdrop for Paul’s christology in Colossians 1:15–17. Fourth, commentators also connect personified Wisdom here to the personified Logos in John 1:1–5, who is Christ.
In his act of creation in Proverbs, this pre-incarnate-Christlike figure stands in the presence of his Father as they unfold creation together in a blend of craftsmanship, art, and play. If this is the case, if the pre-incarnate Christ stands at the genesis of the cosmos, he participates in the story, not merely as an observer, but as the master builder, laboring as he sings and dances in joy like a twirling child, thrilled with the unfolding wonders of creation, all leading to his being filled with delight in the people designed.
But this Christological interpretation is inconclusive. Other commentators, more careful here, suggest that the “he” is God, but the “I” should not be seen as anything beyond a female character — a youthful, child-aged form of Wisdom personified, and leave it there.Five Ways We Play
We can debate this, but less debatable is the proximity of play in this creation account of Proverbs 8:29–31. We see it in at least five ways.1. Play Is Creational
Playfulness finds its place in the act of creation itself. Creation is make-believe that actually makes — a play that crafts. The holistic nature of play is hardly better put than in a hymn by Gregory of Nazianzus, who picks up on the Wisdom-Logos relationship when he writes, “The Logos on high plays, stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills, into shapes of every kind.”
Play is not mere frivolity; it’s creational.2. Play Is Productional
We remember the repetition of God’s declared “good” in Genesis 1 as he looks over what he crafted, and we can imagine, in light of Proverbs 8, this “good” spoken in a playful tone. This is not a deadpanned, quality-control employee at the end of a conveyor belt looking for flawed widgets. This is the Creator of all things looking on with delight.
Yes, our work is now under sin’s curse, and God’s work then was not. But we adults tend to divorce our craft from our play, and at the beginning of creation, we see them closely linked in God’s activity. This reality asks all of us adults to consider whether our responsibilities to produce have lost their power because we can no longer play as we make. Are we too serious to make as God made?3. Play Is Relational
The interplay between the “he” and “I” — however we finally interpret the persons — reveals a relationship mediated in the play. It’s the context of the relationship as creation unfolds.
Play has been, from the beginning, a potent social connector between persons, even at the divine level, within the triune God or in his relationship to personified Wisdom. And when God delights in you, how can you not play before him?4. Play Is Restrictional
Play is provoked by boundaries. Putting off childishness is not putting off play; it’s putting off foolishness (1 Corinthians 13:11–12). To be fully wise — to embody Wisdom — is to be easily made appropriately playful.
The ethical edges of wisdom unleash our play. Sports are most enjoyable when the rules and boundaries are clearly marked and fairly enforced. Watching a sprinting wide receiver make a one-handed catch with one foot inbounds and the toes of his other foot sliding on the turf as the body falls out of bounds is exciting because of the imposed restriction.
Play flourishes within plain boundaries. It’s why, as G.K. Chesterton comments, “children will always play on the edge of anything.” Fools are hypocrites who make-believe outside the boundaries. The honest soul is wise because she knows the best play is found inside the parameters of God’s will. No one is better suited for play than Wisdom.5. Play Is Immortal
When time began, play had already begun. Play began in the presence of God, perhaps within the triune God. Play predates time and creation. If there is whirling and laughter in our sports and on playgrounds and in running through mud in the rain, it’s not because the scenario made the play, but that the scenarios of life give expression to the primordial desire to play hardwired within us all, and our world, by God himself.
Play can become frivolous, but it is not itself frivolous. Play is divine. God not only created play, but we can say that the act of creation was in some sense an act of play itself. Play is creational, productional, relational, restrictional, and immortal. The cosmos was created as play, and it was created for play, a grand theater for our sporting. And you indeed were made to play.
The most basic distinction between the church and the world is not godly decisions, good deeds, or even true doctrines, but glad delight in God himself.
When we work for God, our primary duty is to depend on him and receive his strength. We can’t give him anything he doesn’t already have.
Christians are, in many respects, both-and people. We live much of life in this age in a God-designed tension. We must learn how to both encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and rebuke one another (Titus 1:13). We must both rejoice and weep with one another — sometimes within minutes (Romans 12:15). We must live simultaneously as both sorrowful and rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). We must live contentedly in both abundance and need (Philippians 4:12).
And we must learn how to be both peaceable (Romans 12:18) and contentious (Jude 3).
Whoa, contentious? Isn’t that bad? Well, at certain times and in certain ways, yes, contentiousness is very bad. But at certain times and in certain ways, it is very good. It depends on what kind of contentiousness we’re talking about. And the Bible speaks to the good and the bad.UnChristian Contention
Paul addresses one kind of contentiousness when he says, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). The Greek word he uses here is philoneikos, and it means what most of us associate with a contentious person: a carnal disposition to be quarrelsome or argumentative.
An Old Testament example of a similar kind is seen here: “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Proverbs 25:24, NASB). The Hebrew word is mādônîm, and it means quarrelsome, nagging, or dissentious. It can even have violent connotations, which is why the King James translators called her a “brawling woman.”
These are bad ways to be contentious. They are not to characterize a Christian, because “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome (machesthai, another Greek word in this vein) but kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24).Christian Contention
So, what is kind and commendable Christian contention? We find it in Jude’s epistle:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
The Greek word Jude uses here is a version of epagōnizomai. And all the most credible English translations choose the word contend, because there isn’t really a better English word. It means a kind of striving in debate in order to persuade and protect, or a kind of fighting for the sake of someone else’s benefit.
If you look, you can spot in epagōnizomai the same root that produced our English word agony. This is not an argumentative, sarcastic, pugilistic, social-media smackdown kind of contending. This contending has elements of agony, distress, and anguish — things we can experience when we are engaged in a struggle that is motivated by a deep love and true kindness. And we all know that true, humble, loving kindness is not always “nice” because sometimes kindness means speaking a hard truth people don’t want to accept, or boldly refuting a false teaching that threatens to destroy others’ faith.
This is Christian contention.When Christians Must Contend
It is true that we Christians must fight hard for peace, “striv[ing] for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). But it is also true that there are times we must contend for truth, for the love of God and vulnerable souls. And those moments of contention almost always look like we are disturbing the peace, not making it.
When are such times? In the next verse, Jude gives an example from the churches he was writing to:
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)
There are a lot of things we are called to bear with (Romans 12:14; 1 Corinthians 13:7). But we are not called to bear with those who pervert the gospel and distort the biblical revelation of the person of Jesus Christ. Such things will bring souls to damnable ruin. We must do everything we can to live at peace with all (Romans 12:18), but we cannot live at peace with those among us who “depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
And such people are frequently, and in lesser and greater degrees, among us. Which means as much as we strive for peace with everyone, there will nearly always be something calling us to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). Which also means the right kind of contentious Christians are a great mercy to the church of God.Thank God for Contentiousness
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8). God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And when Christians are contentious at the right times in the right ways, it is a beautiful thing. J. Gresham Machen writes, “Every true revival is born in controversy, and leads to more controversy. That has been true ever since our Lord said that he came not to bring peace upon the earth but a sword” (Contending for Our All, 30).
Yes, this has been true. All the clarity we have on who Jesus is, what the gospel is, what the church is, and what it means to live the Christian life we owe to our courageous forebears in the faith who contended against those who were perverting the grace of God and denying the biblically revealed Jesus Christ.
Not only that, but we have the New Testament itself because of such courageous saints. As John Piper says, “If you remove the documents from the New Testament that were not addressing controversy you will, at most, have a tiny handful from the twenty-seven books” (Contending for Our All, 33).
If you had been on the ground, in the middle of such historic contending, you would have seen messy moments. The Christian contending would not have been perfect. You probably would have witnessed philoneikos and perhaps even mādônîm moments mixed in with the epagōnizomai moments. But thank God for the imperfect saints who have loved God and the church enough to be Christianly contentious when necessary.
We Christians must be both peaceable and contentious. God has made everything beautiful in its time. But before we contend, let us examine the occasion to make sure contention is called for, and examine our contentiousness to make sure it is of the godly, loving kind.
Protestants insist that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to believers, while the Catholic Church claims that he imparts it. What’s the difference?
Christian preaching is a God-appointed means of transforming its hearers in both head and heart — not only in intellect, but also in affections.
On a trip to Australia, I met an Anglican bishop who had been mightily used in evangelism and church planting in three African nations. He was sometimes referred to as “the apostle to Tanzania.”
After he “retired” from his missionary work in Africa, he set up a seminary in the United States. But when I met him, his suffering from Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he could no longer talk. He could communicate, just barely, by printing out block letters in wavering hand that was almost indecipherable. He often had to draw a word three or four times for me to understand him.
We “talked” about a number of matters close to his heart — at least, I did the “talking,” and tried to ask most of my questions in a form where he could signal merely yes or no. In the short time I spent with him, I sensed a man of unshaken faith, and I had the audacity to ask him how he was coping with his illness. After decades of immensely productive activity, how was he dealing with his own suffering, with the temptation to feel he was now useless and fruitless?
He penned his answer twice before I could make it out: There is no future in frustration.Reconciled to God
In the Bible, the dominant form of suffering peculiar to God’s people is discipline.
In Romans 5, such discipline is tied both to what it means to be a Christian, and to the kind of character it produces. Paul begins to draw out some of the implications of the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification has a certain primacy in his thought — not that it is necessarily the key around which all other Christian teaching turns, but that it is the entrance point into Christian life and discipleship. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith” — that is the given — “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, NIV).
Such peace with God is to be desired above all things. As Paul has taken pains to prove at the beginning of the book, we are all by nature and choice under the wrath of God, and the drama of the epistle to the Romans, like the drama of the Bible as a whole, is how rebels who attract only the wrath of God can be reconciled to him.Rejoicing in God
The answer is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of his coming, death, and resurrection. God sent him to die in our place, “so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, NIV). Because of what Christ has borne, those who trust him are “justified”: they are declared just by the holy God himself, not because they are, or because their sins do not matter, but because Christ has stood in their place. And the consequence of having been “justified through faith,” Paul writes, is that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
All of this is the work of God’s grace, the unmerited favor which, despite his wrath, he mercifully bestows on needy sinners like me. It is through Jesus, Paul goes on to say, that “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2, NIV). This, surely, is the cause for unbounded joy.
It means that we are not only reconciled to God here and now, but that one day we shall see him in his unshielded glory. That is what Paul means when he adds, “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2, NIV). The word “hope” does not here suggest mere possibility, but certain prospect: our boast is in the prospect of one day seeing the glory of God.Provedness
So sweeping a vision changes all our priorities. Maximal comfort in this fallen world is now low on the agenda. The real question is how our current circumstances are tied to our faith in Jesus Christ, our peace with God, and our prospect of seeing him. So Paul insists that we rejoice not only in the hope of the glory of God, but “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3–4, NIV).
Here, then, is a philosophy of suffering, a perspective that ties it both to the salvation we now enjoy and to the consummation of that salvation when the glory of God is fully revealed. Like the discipline of physical training, suffering produces perseverance.
This is not a universal rule, for suffering can evoke muttering and unbelief. But when suffering is mingled with the faith of verses 1–2, and with delight in being reconciled to God, it then produces perseverance. The staying power of our faith is neither demonstrated nor developed until it is tested by suffering.Felt Christianity
But as perseverance mushrooms, “character” is formed. The word character suggests “provedness,” the kind of maturity that is attained by being “proved” or “tested,” like a metal refined by fire. And as character or “provedness” is formed, hope blossoms: our anticipation of the glory of God (verse 2) is nurtured and strengthened.
This hope “does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5) — it is not illusory, and so it will never leave us in the lurch, ashamed of our foolish beliefs. Far from it! The object of this hope is certain, and already the hope is reinforced and proves satisfying “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5, NIV).
The Holy Spirit is given to the believer as the down payment and guarantee of the full inheritance that will one day be ours. This Holy Spirit is the agent who pours God’s love into our hearts: this is felt Christianity, and Paul elsewhere shows that this experience of the richness of God’s love is an essential part of Christian maturity, something for which to pray (Ephesians 3:14–21, especially 17–19). Such experience of the love of God is not yet the perfection of the vision of God; but it is fully satisfying, and strengthens hope, and places our sufferings in a light where they make a certain existential “sense.”Christ Grew Through Suffering
There is a certain kind of maturity that can be attained only through the discipline of suffering.
During the days of Jesus’s life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7–9, NIV)
The idea is not that Jesus was disobedient before he suffered, but that in his incarnate state he too had to learn lessons of obedience, levels of obedience, that could only be attained through suffering. In this sense, he grew to “perfection”: not that he was morally imperfect before his sufferings, but that the fullness, the perfection of his identity with the human race and of his human, temporal obedience to his heavenly Father, could be attained only through the fires of suffering.
This “perfection” he achieved, not only with the result that “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” but also with the result that he is able “to empathize with our weaknesses” since he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV).
If even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered,” what ghastly misapprehension is it — or arrogance! — that assumes we should be exempt?Share in His Sufferings
Indeed, it is the set of values articulated in Romans 5 and the example of Jesus adumbrated in Hebrews 5 that accounts for the strong language of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3. He weighs up everything the world offers, sets it against all that he has in Christ Jesus, and concludes,
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:8–9, NIV)
But this is not a static attainment; Paul is committed to growth in his knowledge of Christ Jesus. So he adds, “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV). How we handle the suffering of testing and discipline, therefore, depends not a little on what we focus on.
That Anglican bishop, “the apostle to Tanzania,” was indeed right. He understood Romans 5 and Hebrews 5. There is no future in frustration — but what a future we do have in Christ.
Don Carson tells the story of the Anglican bishop in How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Baker Academic, 2006). Used here with permission.
Her hoped-for plans were probably similar to my own, I imagine. Get married. Have kids. Raise a family. Live a blissfully normal, predictable life. When she caught the attention of the new guy in town and was whisked away into plans of marriage, it appeared to be the beginning of all her hopes unfolding.
Just when life seemed to settle into a sturdy and stable routine, things went seriously wrong. The marriage festivities were long over and impatience grew. Maybe it was not a disgrace for a woman to be childless two or three years after the wedding day, but ten years had earned her a new title: barren. The hope for a family of her own faded into quiet humiliation. She would not become a mother. She could not embrace the life she longed to live.
Then it happened, her worst nightmare. The woman without children was now also without a husband. He died and left her with another unwanted name: widow. Everything she had hoped for herself had been ripped away without any expectation for restoration.
As if things were not painful enough, she had to learn to navigate a whole new life. Grief changed her. Faith inspired her to do something crazy. She’d go somewhere new, even though there was no hope of fulfilling her dreams. And once again, she would take on a new, uncomfortable role: foreigner.
None of it was part of Ruth’s plan.A Widow: Plans Unfulfilled
Ruth and Mahlon. They’re two names you don’t often hear together because this part of the story, and the undoubtable grief she must have felt, is hard to swallow. Mahlon was probably the fulfillment of what Ruth had been waiting for. He made her a wife. She hoped he would make her a mother, but those plans would not be realized. Mahlon died after ten years of marriage, leaving Ruth without a husband and provider. She was a widow, and she would carry that with her for the rest of her life.
The wound of unfulfilled plans burns with the grief of what could have been. Whether it’s the loss of someone close to us or coming to the dead end of a long-awaited dream, when we’re forced to confront the reality that our plans will never be, it can feel like the death of our future. But just as the unfulfilled plans were just the beginning of Ruth’s story, we can also trust the disappointment we experience now is not the end.A Foreigner: Plans Redirected
The path God leads us toward may not always make sense to us. If it’s not the plan we hoped for ourselves, it will be challenging to understand how it could possibly lead to something good. Embracing a new direction requires courage — courage to let go of the past, and courage to move forward with God’s plans for the future, especially when we can’t see what comes next.
When Ruth first married Mahlon, it probably never entered her mind she would someday move to a different place with her mother-in-law, and now as widows. It was a scary and big change. Since she would be a foreigner in Naomi’s homeland, she would not only leave behind her familiar life, but it was unlikely she would ever marry again (Ruth 1:11–13).
But something remarkable began to take shape in her heart. Naomi urged Ruth to go back to Moab like her sister-in-law, to her false gods and her people. Ruth, however, would not take the easier path. God had grabbed her heart in the midst of pain and grief, and he gave her the courage to do something unimaginable. She would follow her mother-in-law to a land where she would be rejected. She would choose to follow God, and he would set her on a new path, call her to take on a new role of provider for the unconventional family of two, and write a new story with redirected plans.
This is the comfort and hope God provides in the midst of our plans that dramatically change over time — often against our will. When we turn to him and seek his will for our lives, he will be faithful to capture our heart and infuse us with the strength we need to go where he leads (Psalm 37:4–5).Barren: Plans Delayed
God’s plans — although challenging and uncomfortable — did not disappoint. Eventually Boaz enters the story and shines brightly, foreshadowing the love Christ has for us. He takes on the role of Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, even when he was not required to (Ruth 3:12). Boaz would give her a son, bringing joy to both Ruth and Naomi’s life. But that was just the beginning of what God had in store for Ruth.
Ruth’s son would be King David’s great-grandfather (Matthew 1:5–6), meaning the once-barren widow and foreigner was a part of the lineage of Christ. Even though Ruth did not receive the family she had longed for when she first married Mahlon, the delay, redirection, and discouragement opened a path for her to receive something better. She would be folded into a new family that would bring us a Savior.Broken Dreams Are Doorways
God loves us, in Christ, like he loved Ruth. He calls us into his family, and because of grace, we are given a new name (Isaiah 56:5). Sometimes our own plans that are unfulfilled, redirected, and delayed become the pathway he uses to bring us to that place of hope and new identity.
We cannot and will not see the whole picture of what God has begun in our lives. The full realization of the gift of being a part of God’s family is still ahead for us, when Christ returns and we are united with him for eternity (1 John 3:1–2). Then will we understand how every tear and broken dream led us to God himself and his good plans for us.
Grumbling and complaining won’t win anyone to Christ. We can all find plenty to be thankful for if we would just slow down for a moment to look.
The apostle Paul says of God, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord?” A couple verses later, he says, “You may discern what is the will of God.” He says, It is impossible to grasp or understand the mind of God. Then he says, And you will learn it.
We already know, from elsewhere in Scripture, the biggest, widest dimensions of God’s will for us — what he has revealed in his word. Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). His will is for you to become more and more like Christ. And then in the next chapter, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). God’s will is for you to rejoice always, not every now and then, and to pray persistently about everything, and to give thanks in the midst of anything, no matter how hard.
The apostle Peter also says, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). God’s will for you is to do the kind of good, with his help and strength, that the world cannot deny or shame.
We know more of God’s will than we often realize, but there is so much more — infinitely more — that we do not know yet (his “secret will”), and some things we may never fully grasp. Even heaven will not feel like the end of our journey into his will; it will feel like the sinless, liberated beginning of a never-ending exploration into his mind and heart.
So what do we do with what we do not know now?Who Has Known?
Paul himself wrestled with finding God’s will. He said, “[I am] asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you” (Romans 1:10). I don’t know what God’s secret will is for me in this situation, but I am praying that he will send me to you. And then he says, “[Pray for me] so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Romans 15:32). I want the joy and refreshment, but I do not know what God’s will is yet.
What are you hoping God’s will is for you? What do you plan or want to do, if he wills?
Knows what that kind of wondering feels like, Paul says:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)
In Romans 9–11, Paul has climbed the steepest cliffs of God’s sovereign and mysterious will, specifically in election. And as he looks up, and sees another ridge extending into the clouds, he says — no, he sings out — over all he sees (and does not yet see), Unsearchable! Inscrutable! Supreme! “To him be glory forever!”Discern the Will of God
In the very next verses, he says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
When Paul calls us to live as sacrifices, and in doing so to begin to discern the hidden will of God, he’s building a house of worship in the mountains of God’s glory in Romans 9–11.
God’s judgments are unsearchable. His ways are inscrutable. His mind is unknowable. Therefore, live as searchable, accessible, and small sacrifices of praise (Romans 12:1). Lower yourself as his servant in order to lift him up as your treasure. And as you do, God will carry you higher up the mountain. You will search the unsearchable, you will understand the inscrutable, you will know the unknowable. You will begin to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Paul goes as deep and high as possible into the mysteries of God to help us trust God in the things we do not know yet — and there will be much we never know and understand fully in this life. But having made the mission of knowing God’s ways and will look impossible, he then invites us to take up the mission, to do the impossible.
As you live for the sake of God’s glory, you will begin to see more of his will for your life.Transform Your Mind
Does Paul give us any more clues about what it looks like to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God’s beauty and worth? He does: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern . . . ” (Romans 12:2). We break free from the patterns and priorities of this world, and slowly reshape our minds, transforming how we think, what we want, and how we live.
How are we transformed? “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And how do we behold the glory of the Lord? We listen to God’s voice (in his word) as he reveals to us the way things really are. We search the Scriptures, because they all bear witness to the glory of Christ (John 5:39).
We will be able to grasp and explore more of the infinite mind of God the more we steep in his word, and the more we look like him, by the power of his Spirit, in our lives.Break Down the Wall
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to understanding more of God’s will for us is our own infatuation, even obsession, with us — with ourselves. In the next verse — right after saying, “ . . . that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” — Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). What is the wall between us and God’s will? We are. Our pride. Our thinking of ourselves more highly than we should.
If we wanted to stay conformed to this world, then we should see and evaluate everything, including God himself, through ourselves — based on how he (or she, or it) benefits, affirms, and highlights us. But if we want to resist being conformed to this world, and to renew our minds, adapting our wills instead to God’s will, we will not think so highly of ourselves. We’ll begin to see how small we are, and strive to make our tiny, flawed, forgettable existence highlight the massive, flawless, and eternal glory of God. And we will be happier before his glory than we ever were pursuing our own.
If we want to climb the unclimbable mountains of God’s majesty and begin to discern his will, we must die to our sense of our own grandeur. We must break free from our illusions about the pleasures and acceptance of our small world, and fix the eyes of our hearts on the bigness and beauty of our God.