Both Calvinists and Arminians see grace as powerful and necessary, but not in the same way. Pastor John gets at the heart of the theological divide.
Preaching, what I call expository exultation, is a unique kind of communication. It is something not brought from the world into the service of the church. Nor can the world take it from the church and use it for its own purposes. It is different, radically different, from anything in the world.
First, there is God. Then, there is his work and his way in the world — his creation and redemption and providence. Then, there is his book, his infallible book, the Bible, written by mere men, carried along by the Holy Spirit. Then, there is a divine calling, a mystery of providence, family, church, desire, delight, duty. A preacher comes into being.
Then, there is the sweat and prayer of preparation — the pounding on the closed door of the text, until it cracks, and beams of light shine out. Then, there is the seeing of truth and wisdom and power. And then, there is the laughter of joy and the tears of repentance, and in both, the savoring — oh, the savoring — of the glory. Then all day, and if necessary all night, the work of reason and imagination, praying, toiling, weaving dark and bright strands of truth into a fathomable fabric, a message to enfold the people.
Then, while praying (again and again), there is the opening of the mouth, the heralding of the horrors and the glories. There is the explaining, the clarifying, the showing, the amazement, the rejoicing, the exultation, the offering, the pleading, the looking in the eyes. And all the while, there is the utter self-engagement, and, please God, the utter self-forgetting in the brightness of the truth. And then, God knows, the everlasting fruit, and weariness and thankfulness.
And it all begins again. There is nothing comparable to this. Expository exultation is unique.We Are Here for Him
For all its essential value in the service of evangelism, expository exultation is God’s design and gift for his people gathered in worship. No other form of speech is as beautifully fitting in this God-exalting wonder called “worship.”
God exists as one who knows himself perfectly in the eternal image of his Son. And he exists as one who is infinitely pleased by the one he thus knows. And we, the creatures of this glory-knowing, glory-loving God, are made in his image. We too exist to know God and to be pleased with God — to see and savor and show his glory. This is the essence of what it means to be human.
The gathering of God-seeing, God-savoring, God-showing human beings in one place to join their hearts and minds and voices in making much of this God is a miracle, and a miracle in the making. About to come into being is the miracle of corporate worship. And one indispensable flame that the Spirit uses to ignite that miracle, and make it burn, is the preaching of the word of God.
By grace, the light and heat of worship spread. The preacher has come burning and shining. In his preaching, he is worshiping and awakening worship. He has come seeing and savoring and showing the beauty and worth of God. He is overflowing with the truth of exposition and the warmth of exultation.
The preacher is aware, and his people are aware, that the miracle of Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, God-treasuring worship is a God-pleasing end in itself. God is being enjoyed here not as a means of making the budget. We are trembling in God’s presence not as a means of political impact. We are exulting in God’s power not to impress visitors. God is an end in himself. And our delight in him is our end, or it is not in him.Thousands of Good Effects
And yet the preacher knows, and the people know, that the ripple effect of this hour — this authentic, miracle hour of meeting God in worship — is unfathomable in its depth and extent.
Because of this encounter with God, and this Spirit-anointed expository exultation, a thousand problems that had not yet come into being are solved in people’s lives. A thousand decisions are shaped for good without any conscious forethought. A thousand relational corruptions are averted. And hundreds of hearts are softened in the presence of God so that impossible obedience suddenly seems possible — like saying, “I’m sorry; I was wrong.”
And yet we do not gather for this. We gather to see and savor God. He is the end. And where we try to make him a means, worship begins to die.
The preacher knows, and the people know, that preaching and worship services are not the totality of the life of the church. There are a hundred worthy ministries for the children and the young adults, the men and the women, the singles and the married, the grieving and the aged. There are untold possibilities of reaching out to the unbelieving world. There are countless good deeds to show the glory of our Father in heaven. There are more ways to meet in small groups than we can imagine, to encourage each other and pray for each other and care for each other. The preacher knows this, and makes no pretense that preaching is all people need.All Replacements Will Fail
But the preacher also knows this: if he fails in his expository exultation, if corporate worship languishes in lifelessness because the word of God does not come with clarity and faithfulness and soul-satisfying power, all the ministries suffer.
Preaching is not everything, but it affects everything. It is the trumpet of truth in the church. And it echoes in every ministry and every household, for joy and strength and love and perseverance — or not. If every part of the engine is in working order but the spark plug fails to fire in its appointed rhythm, the whole car lurches or stops.
Nothing can replace preaching. Books are wonderful. Who has not been deeply affected by a great book? Lectures and discussions and drama and poetry and film and paintings are powerful. But any effort to replace preaching with anything else will — sooner or later — fail.
People have tried experiments that replace preaching. Marginal, disillusioned people flock to the experiment. It lasts a few years. And it dies. Meanwhile, preaching goes on from decade to decade and century to century. Why? Because God has created and appointed this unique, anointed embodiment of his word for the explanation and celebration of his glory and his worth.God Will Stand by You
If God has called you to preach, the task, of course, is humanly impossible. Preaching is worship. And preaching aims to awaken worship. Both worshiping and awakening worship are miracles. They are not mere choices. You cannot worship at will any more than you can be thrilled at will. It is a work of God, opening our eyes to the ultimately thrilling.
But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Jesus, for the glory of God. He will help you.
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). If you accept this calling, and fear him and trust him, you will know an intimacy like no other. He will take you into his counsel and show you things you could not have seen any other way. He will work wonders for you.
After a full day’s “fruitless” labor over his word, distressed at the lateness of the hour, on your knees, through tears, in one five-second flash you will see the reality of the text. You will apprehend in an instant how the text works. It is a gift. He will make sure you know this. Again and again. Your labor for his glory, in the name of Jesus, for the good of his people, will never be in vain.
How many times have I trembled that I was not sufficient for this moment, or this great crowd, or this tiny gathering, or this painful topic, or this inscrutable text? And, as I have ventured on, trusting that his word never comes back empty, he has stood by me. He is faithful. “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed” (2 Timothy 4:17). He will do this for you, if you trust him and give yourself utterly to his word, confident in the cross, loving your people, and glorying in the worth and beauty of God.Worth Every Cost
Every calling of God is good. To be sure, faithfulness in every calling — even in the smallest task — is greatness in heaven. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). But some callings, because of their potential for helping and hurting so many, are dangerous and glorious in a special way. “Not many of you should become teachers [or preachers], my brothers, for you know that we who teach [and preach] will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
If you hear this call and accept, you will embark on a great and dangerous work. Ambassadors of the king are not safe in enemy territory — unless they are protected and empowered by the king himself. But safety is not our goal. Our King will keep us, and use us, as long as he pleases. That will be a perfect term of service. We are, as Henry Martyn, missionary to Persia, said, immortal till our work is done. And, of course, he would agree, we are immortal after our work is done and we are gone.
As I look back over four decades of preaching, I bear witness that it has been worth every effort and every cost.
The smell of the place is what I remember most. That nearly universal odor of old church buildings that simultaneously brings to mind old books and the polish on pews.
Anyone who has spent time in church — and especially old church buildings — knows what I’m talking about. For me, the odor is connected to a network of memories: Miss Ann teaching Bible stories as she played the autoharp. Doodling during the sermon as my legs dangled from the pews. These are good memories. Church memories.
The eyes of a child have the innate capacity to look past brokenness, perhaps because children haven’t yet been exposed to the cynical harshness of sin, their purity calling back the lost world of innocence. Or perhaps they simply don’t know what to see. My eyes certainly missed the problems of that church — which I later found out were legion. As a child, church was a place only of positive associations. Now that I’m an adult, I long for that lost ability to see with purer eyes — to love the church the way I did as a child.
Much modern writing exposes and excoriates the problems of the church. But I want to remind you why she is beautiful, even in her brokenness. Criticism can be darkly enjoyable to write and often darkly delicious to read. But here I offer none. Instead, I offer the sadly less-familiar language of praise for the church. And I pray God gives you a momentary dispensation of grace to silence your inner cynic, critic, and skeptic long enough to join me in praise of the church that Jesus loves so much.People of the Living God
The author of Hebrews wrote that our Lord endured his cross and all its shame “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). But joy in what, exactly? Joy in his Father? Joy in obedience? Joy in defeating the works of his enemy? No doubt all of those things. But there is another joy too: the joy of rescuing his broken but still beautiful bride (Revelation 19:7–8).
The church — the seemingly ordinary, weak, and foolish church (1 Corinthians 1:26–28) — is the gathering of God’s elect on the earth (Romans 8:33). And if Jesus so loved her, and in joy died to rescue her, we also should love and honor her.
This gathering houses the very presence of God on earth (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). No longer does he dwell in a temple complex administrated by layers of priests and Levites. Now we — the people of God, the bride of Christ — are individually and corporately the temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a truth profoundly better than we can yet imagine.
Living redeemed, Spirit-infused lives, together we stand as a new humanity (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are a holy priesthood and a newly formed body politic (1 Peter 2:9) who act as God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), chosen for a missionary exile (1 Peter 1:1) in a world that is under renovation until the Bridegroom comes to claim his bride (Revelation 19:6–9).Faithful Witnesses
What’s more, the church has a purpose beyond housing God’s presence and participating in the life of the Spirit. We have a mission to bring his name to our neighborhoods and the nations (Acts 1:8). These fellowships of Christ-followers surprisingly reveal God’s wisdom to powerful spiritual authorities (Ephesians 3:10) and become Christ’s means of destroying the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). They humbly wash the feet of the weary and faithfully witness to the hope of the gospel (1 Peter 3:15) in a world that sets its hopes in counterfeit gods, like wealth and entertainment.
For some members of Christ’s bride, the church’s mission will cost them their lives (Revelation 6:9–11). For others, it will mean a long life of faithfulness (Revelation 2:10). For all, it will mean presenting our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) — seeking to grow more alive to God and more dead to self and sin each day. What kind of God would be so good to give us not only the forgiveness of sin and new life, but a new family, a new purpose, and a whole new identity? The kind of God who gave birth to the church.
Just as Mary pushed the baby Jesus into the world, the church midwifes spiritual sons and daughters into a new world, the kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 17:21) and yet still to come (Ephesians 1:21). In this overlapping time of old and new ages, the church, and the church alone, stands between these two worlds with the message of gospel hope, the mystery into which even the “angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).
This faithful witness to the good news ends up building hospitals and schools, dismantling the scourge of structural racism, encouraging the adoption of orphans, sending missionaries overseas, standing up for the powerless, and, of course, starting new local expressions of the universal bride of Christ. Birthing praise from pain, the Father is using the imperfect and broken stones of his saints (1 Peter 2:5) to build a beautiful edifice upon the perfect cornerstone of his Son (Ephesians 2:19–22). It is an unspeakably gracious and glorious work God is doing.No Greater Privilege
I’m older now. No matter how I might wish it, my childlike eyes aren’t coming back. And neither are yours. I see the people more clearly now. My inside view as a pastor to all their complexities, problems, failures, struggles, and tragedies has sobered me. The church is not old books, polished pews, and autoharps. It’s people, in all their weakness and frailties.
But if it’s true that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), what power we can see among his people! He has chosen me — chosen us (Colossians 3:12) — to be and become the beautiful bride that moved his Son for joy to endure the cross. If there is a greater privilege, I don’t know it. And this privilege means we can move beyond the smells and sounds of glossy memory to the hope and wholeness of our blood-bought destiny.
We are the church. We get to be the church. And the glory of our collective story is sufficient to cause us to love Jesus’s bride, however broken she may yet be. Because, by God’s grace, he is making her beautiful.
God wants us to grow up and leave behind childish ways. And he has done everything necessary to ensure it can happen.
Every age builds a moral vision around the things it holds sacred. The Renaissance enthroned man and made him “the measure of all things.” Economic progress was the Industrial Revolution’s vision of the good. Post–World War II America built its morality around prosperity and growth.
Our age is defined by a kind of emotivism, which I have elsewhere called “feelism.” Feelism drives emotions to the center, distorting and amplifying them until “How does this make me feel?” becomes the measure of truth. When something causes me to feel bad, I judge it as “wrong for me.” We’ve all seen this logic play out in the lives of people around us and, at times, in our own hearts.
Feelism suggests that anything causing us anxiety, pain, or discomfort is wrong. But Jesus allowed himself to be wearied, slandered, mocked, beaten, and ultimately crucified for the sake of love. And, as he says in Matthew 10:24, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” What should we, as followers of Jesus, expect life to feel like? What does the gospel say to our emotions?
Jesus’s dying and rising offers sanity and stability to our emotions in at least three ways.1. The gospel normalizes suffering.
In Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul acknowledges something we’d rather gloss over: Jesus’s life takes a downward path into death before moving upward into resurrection. The path to resurrection power and victory involves “[sharing] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Visualize this pattern by tracing out the letter “J,” which takes us down into death, then up into resurrection. Paul describes this path as the normal Christian life — a reenacting of the death and resurrection of Jesus — but, under the influence of feelism, it doesn’t feel normal to most Christians.
If dying and rising with Christ is the normal rhythm of the Christian life, then when we encounter dying, we don’t have to collapse or withdraw into ourselves. We can be weak and sad, even depressed. This pattern frees us from our tendency to be depressed about our depression. It’s a relief to realize that dealing with hard things should influence our emotions. Jesus models how to walk through the deepest mental darkness as he felt the weight of his coming death (Matthew 26:36–46). Our modern obsession with creating a pain-free self lays a great burden on us. When we see that our life is shaped by Jesus’s narrative, dying no longer controls us.2. The gospel helps us fight cynicism.
Living in Jesus’s path keeps us from becoming cynical. Many of us are fearful of good news because bad news awaits. We protect ourselves emotionally from being whipsawed back and forth between the two by shutting down on hope. Fear of hope disappointing us leads us to denigrate hope, which feeds a culture of cynicism — always doubting the good. But the story of Jesus has a distinct path — rising, not dying, has the last word. Easter follows Good Friday. If our lives take the shape of Jesus’s, our small deaths will always be followed by resurrections.
Plus, if God shaped the dying, then he controls the resurrection as well. Both are gifts. That enables us to enjoy joy! We don’t have to try to freeze the story in rising either; we can trust the Spirit to weave as he wills.3. The gospel brings our emotions to life.
Jesus’s pattern of dying and rising not only balances our emotions but helps them come alive. Jesus does not deny emotions like sadness and grief, nor does he make joy absolute, as if the command to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) leaves no room for sorrow. It’s easy to gloss over this point, particularly in the West, where some segments of the church continue to be imprinted by the influence of Greek Stoicism and its distrust of the emotions. Jesus acknowledges his distress in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39), but his feelings are not the measure of truth. His Father is. He takes the cup of suffering.
In a similar way, the apostle Paul experiences anxiety on behalf of the churches he loves. Love feels. In the gospel culture, we’re eager to analyze our emotions, turning the microscope inside to find sin. I can imagine someone hearing about Paul’s anxiety in Philippians 2:28 and thinking he has made an idol out of his relationship with Epaphroditus and the Philippians. But Paul’s anxiety reflected his love for them. As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken” (The Four Loves, 121).
Of course, Paul is attentive to the opposite danger: a life controlled by anxiety. Because of the resurrection, we can “not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). We do not have to heed the constant whispering to play it safe, which reflects the pseudo wisdom of this age, but misses the risk of love. We are free to sacrifice because of love. We are free to experience the full range of human emotions without being enslaved to them. When we suffer for the sake of love, we don’t have to be offended or confused. We can rejoice like “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).Anchored Emotions
We expect suffering, but we aren’t cynics. We are alive to our emotions, but willing to put them to death in order to love others. In these ways and more, the gospel anchors us. If moving back and forth between dying and rising is God’s normal, that gives a certain feel to the Christian life, a mixing of joy and sadness, even an enmeshing of the two. Otherwise, we chase joy and recoil from sadness, which always yields a fragile, jittery self.
Instead, with this “J” shape in view, we can revel in even fleeting joy, knowing this is a down payment on future joy, and embrace sadness, knowing that dying with Christ is the launching pad for joy. Knowing the shape of the path anchors our emotions.
If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit. But is this the same as being baptized in the Holy Spirit? Pastor John explains the difference.
Over recent years, there have been many television shows aimed at helping people get properly dressed. Sometimes the premise revolves around experts helping people to pick the right outfit for a wedding. At other times, someone with a woefully poor fashion sense receives a total makeover with the help of fashion gurus and some serious spending. In a similar way, Christianity helps people become properly dressed, although not in the typical sense.
Paul advises the Ephesians that there are certain things Christians must put off and others they must put on. More specifically, he tells them (and us) to put on the Christian armor so we can be properly equipped to stand up to the assaults that inevitably come our way in this spiritually dangerous world.God’s Armor
According to the Bible, life is not a picnic but a battle, an armed struggle against a powerful adversary. To engage in that battle properly, we need a spiritual makeover in which our flimsy, inadequate natural attire is replaced by suitable armor and weaponry. So Paul concludes his magnificent, gospel-saturated letter to the Ephesians with a final charge to be prepared to engage with the battle of life in the right way, dressed in the armor of God.
Many people assume that, as Wikipedia puts it,
the various pieces (the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit) are correlated to what Paul would have witnessed firsthand as the arms and armor of Roman legionaries during his life in the Roman Empire.
This assumption, however, misses the fact that each of the pieces of armor has a rich background in the Old Testament, where they describe God’s armor — the armor that God himself dons to rescue his people. The Old Testament, not the Roman legionary, provided Paul with his inspiration — and if we miss this background, we may misinterpret and misapply the various pieces of the armor.Breastplate and Helmet
The most obvious examples are “the breastplate of righteousness” and “the helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:14, 17), both of which are drawn directly from Isaiah 59:17. There the prophet says of God, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.” In the preceding chapters, Isaiah describes God’s promise to deal with the physical enemies of his people, especially Babylon. But now the prophet describes the divine warrior coming to deal with the far greater and more dangerous enemy of their souls: sin.
God’s people have no righteousness of their own to bring; their best righteousness, apart from divine help, is nothing more than filthy garments (Isaiah 64:6). If the Lord were to deal with his people according to their own deeds, there would be nothing to anticipate but fearful judgment. But Isaiah declares that the divine warrior would not come as a wrathful judge; instead, he would come as their Redeemer to bring them salvation.Ready Feet
Similarly, Paul’s image of “feet readied with the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15, my translation) does not stem from observing Roman sandals; rather, the picture draws directly on Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Ephesians 6 and Isaiah 52 (together with Nahum 1) are the only passages in the Bible where the words feet, good news, and peace occur together.
This Old Testament background clarifies a potential ambiguity in Paul’s words. When Paul speaks of feet shod with “the readiness of the gospel of peace,” does he mean the readiness given by the gospel of peace or the readiness to spread the good news that brings peace? Many translations and commentaries opt for the former interpretation. But if Paul is thinking about Isaiah 52, then the readiness he has in mind is primarily the readiness to share the good news as heralds of the gospel. Heralds need good shoes to enable them to travel far and fast to bring their message to those hungry to hear good news.
Isaiah imagines the watchmen bursting into joyful song on the walls of Jerusalem (Isaiah 52:8). Those who had long strained their eyes with fearful anticipation of an approaching enemy now herald good news of deliverance to the beleaguered citizens of Zion. Paul applies this same image to our privilege of hastening to share the gospel of peace with believers and unbelievers alike.Belt of Truth
The belt of truth also comes from Isaiah. In Isaiah 11, God’s people, Israel, had turned their back on the light and chosen to live in darkness, spurning the Lord’s revelation. Yet God promised he would send a messianic figure from the line of David to deliver them. This coming King would wear righteousness as a belt around his waist and “faithfulness” as a belt around his loins (Isaiah 11:5).
The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same Greek word (aletheia) for faithfulness in Isaiah 11 that Paul uses in Ephesians 6, where our English versions translate it as truth. This messianic King will save his people and bring in the final blessing of peace — a peace that extends throughout creation (Isaiah 11:6–9). The toxic effects of the fall, brought about by the first Adam listening to Satan’s lies, would be reversed by this second Adam and heir of the line of David, whose foundational qualities are truth and faithfulness.Sword of the Spirit
The sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is drawn from Isaiah 49:2. There the promised servant of the Lord says, “[The Lord] made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” In other words, the Lord was preparing his servant to come as a warrior with sharp words of judgment. In the original context, the servant was Israel, who was supposed to be God’s faithful servant, equipped by him to bring light to the Gentiles. Yet in Isaiah’s time, there was much that needed to be judged and condemned in Israel and Judah themselves. They were not fit to be the Lord’s servant, so he had to send his servant to bring light to them as well as to the Gentiles.
This promised servant, the new Israel with a mission to historic Israel, is Jesus himself. Yet even though Jesus could have entered this world with sharp words of judgment, condemning all those who fall short of perfect righteousness, in his first coming he came to seek and to save the lost, both those from Israel and from the nations (Luke 19:10). In his second coming, Jesus will return as a warrior riding out on a white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth with which to judge all nations (Revelation 19:11–16).Shield of Faith
The Old Testament background for the phrase shield of faith also clarifies an ambiguity in Paul’s imagery. When he says, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16), Paul is not saying that faith in itself has remarkable defensive power against Satan. Rather, he is saying that faith protects us from Satan’s attacks because faith takes hold of the power and protection of God himself.
Throughout the Old Testament, it is God, not faith, that is repeatedly described as our shield. In Genesis 15:1 the Lord tells Abraham, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Proverbs 30:5 says, “[God] is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” God is our shield and refuge; he is our hiding place in the day of difficulty; his faithfulness will keep us safe when we are being shot at by arrows, flaming or otherwise (Psalm 91:4–5). Faith becomes our shield in Paul’s imagery because it is the means by which we flee to God for refuge.Christ the Warrior
Most importantly, the Old Testament background challenges the common view that the Christian armor is primarily a set of disciplines we must perform to measure up as Christians. It is certainly true that God’s armor describes essential qualities for us to pursue passionately if we are to stand firm under Satan’s assault. Yet the armor is first and foremost God’s armor rather than ours. Through the gospel, the divine warrior gives us his equipment, which he wore first triumphantly in our place in his definitive struggle against the forces of evil.
Jesus Christ is the triumphant warrior over Satan, death, and sin through his faithfulness and righteousness, and his victory is now credited to us as if it were our own. Because he stood firm in his battle, we Christians — weak, fearful, and unprepared as we so often are — also will ultimately stand. By faith, his righteousness becomes ours, and in Christ we have a shield of refuge in God, who will never leave us nor forsake us.
This is the good news that we have been given the privilege of heralding far and wide throughout the world, as well as preaching to our own hearts on a daily basis. The armor of God speaks mercy and grace to broken sinners, and a salvation that the combined forces of hell itself can never steal from us, as we rest in him.
Overeating and laziness can be sensitive topics. For that reason, they are not raised often in the church. As far as I can tell, preachers do not preach on these vices as much as other sins. Yet ministers need to be conscious of dealing with these sins, not only in their preaching ministry, but also in their personal lives.
One way to get at these issues is to observe their relevance to the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). This commandment is not to be limited strictly to murder but also includes the need to lawfully preserve life, both our own and the lives of others. The faithful preservation of our own life includes, in some sense, and among other things, aiming to eat well (if possible), refraining from gluttony and drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20), and engaging in appropriate bodily exercise.Good Gift of Exercise
The apostle Paul acknowledges, as we all should, that “bodily training is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Naturally, like other divine gifts, exercise can be a form of idolatry, especially in our day, to the point that some people would rather Paul have said, “Bodily training is of the most value.” But clearly the apostle was not unaware that bodily training has certain advantages to our overall health and well-being. And countless modern studies have confirmed the positive effects that exercise can have on alleviating anxiety, stress, and depression.
Physical exertion is an important part of normal human life. Yet it is becoming rare to see kids playing together in neighborhoods, engaging in games of their own devising. Today our playdates typically occur in highly controlled environments. Often the kids are not allowed to climb trees, wrestle, or do anything with any moderate risk involved. Gone are the days of seeing our children walk around with multiple scrapes and cuts on their hands and knees due to imaginative exercise.
And the apparent lack of activity among kids, along with technological innovations and the digital revolution, seems to create lifelong patterns as they enter adulthood. Many children are addicted to video games and lack adequate exercise; they turn into zombies and develop intense emotional reactions to the wrong things. But of those children in that position, how many of them who go to church have a minister who could, in good conscience, tell them they need to exercise more?Respectable Sin
Based on observation at various ministerial conventions and conferences, some ministers may be overweight because they do not eat healthily or exercise much. There are also some ministers who do not set a good example. Of all the people in the church who should be most conscious about exercise and healthy eating, should it not be ministers of the gospel? God calls pastors to be examples in our conduct — that is, in our overall lifestyle (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:1–3).
It amazes me that some ministers rail so strongly against the evils of alcohol from the pulpit, but they are overweight themselves due to what may well be a combination of physical laziness and immoderate use of food and drink (soda/pop). Imagine the minister being the type of person that Solomon warns us not to be among: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21).
We know there are some people who have weight issues that are not simply a result of laziness and gluttony. Being large is not necessarily a sin. The human body is complex, and there may be other health factors at work that limit a person’s ability to exercise. We should be careful not to judge too quickly, especially since poor eating can actually be the result, in many instances, of socioeconomic factors.
Nonetheless, I’m persuaded that overeating, as the fruit of a generally indulgent lifestyle, has become a tragically acceptable sin among many Christians in North America. I’m also equally persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life.Rules of the Good Life
As a minister, there are many reasons to eat well and exercise frequently. You may extend the duration of fruitful ministry, you will find yourself more energized for the vocational labor God has called you to, and you will set a good example to your flock. But if you’re lazy, and make a habit of eating too much bad food, then you’re effectively telling God’s people that they can do those things.
Often, I’ve found that exercise can be a unique way to enjoy God. We can enjoy his creation by walking, running, or biking. We can use this time to pray or meditate upon his goodness to us. Exercise is a friend of the Christian, and one that, unless prohibited by health reasons, should be part of the ordinary Christian life. Remember, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy to take an intentional physical step (“use a little wine,” 1 Timothy 5:23) in order to help with his ailments so that he may, one would think, be able to better serve the Lord and the church.
We all have particular sins that we struggle with and need to mortify (Romans 8:13). Some struggle with attraction to persons of the same sex; others struggle with pornography; many struggle with gossip; and, it seems, laziness and overeating are also prevalent among God’s people. Like all of these other sins, mortification by the Spirit in obedience to God’s commands is our calling, and leaders in the church should lead the way. God gives us his commands to help us, not hinder us. The sixth commandment offers us the good life — the life where we not only care about others but also ourselves.
So, do not kill: that is, preserve your life, within reason, as you are able. You’ll be happier in God, and he will be magnified in your life and church by your enriched joy in him.
Church history is a mighty resource for Christian ministry. This is true, in the first place, because of the way it teaches us to read. Reading history with integrity requires us to reckon with an objective reality that is outside of ourselves. People in the past — even our heroes — did not act as we do, and it does not help to pretend that they did. As novelist L.P. Hartley recognized, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This means we can’t read events of fifty years ago — much less fifteen hundred — and expect to find dim images of ourselves.
But it is precisely by forcing us to acknowledge this otherness that church history equips us to face contemporary challenges. Reading an unfamiliar history requires us to read patiently, carefully, inquisitively, sympathetically, and above all humbly. As we do, we are being freed from our innate self-absorption and formed into sensitive listeners, skilled in hearing and helping others. Reading church history well is a spiritual discipline for reshaping the self-centered soul.
Second, once we acknowledge this difference of the past, we are ready to hear what it has to say. And what we discover is that the branches of the previous centuries are heavy with the fruit of good answers to ongoing questions. To take one example, providing Christlike help to another person has been an enduring challenge. The following four examples offer a taste of the way our forebears in the faith recognized the complexity of the biblical call to care for one another as well as sample some of the strategies they put in place to address it. All four are still in print or available online.Gregory of Nazianzus, Reflections on the Priesthood (AD 362)
Gregory compared the vocation of a pastor (though it applies as well to a fellow disciple) with that of a doctor. “As the same medicine and the same food are not in every case administered to men’s bodies, but a difference is made according to their decree of heath or infirmity, so also are souls treated with varying instruction and guidance.” Not only is every person unique in the help they require, but the help each of us needs will change across seasons of our life.
This complexity is compounded by the fact that a pastor is called not only to treat “the hidden person of the heart” but to do so among people who hide from their own healing. “The very eagerness with which we should lay bare our sickness to our spiritual physicians we employ in avoiding this treatment.” The duty to press through the “armed resistance” offered by those who excuse their sin, and then to discern a suitable restorative for their spiritual disease qualifies pastoral care, in Gregory’s estimation, as “in very deed, the art of arts and the science of sciences.”
This high view of the pastoral calling results in an equally high emphasis on a pastor’s character. But to prevent us from the discouragement that comes when we try to discharge these responsibilities in our own strength, Gregory lifts our attention to the sufficiency of Christ and the power he works through the ministry of his word.Gregory the Great, On Pastoral Care (AD 590)
This second Gregory builds on the observation of the first — pastoral care is the art of arts — by identifying eight concrete tensions we embrace as we care for God’s people. To take one example, Gregory notes that there are times we should stay silent and times when we must speak. This tension means that in ministering to others, we must be on our guard against “hasty” or premature speech. Even if what we say is true, our words will serve ourselves instead of profit our brother or sister unless they are coupled with careful listening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoed this instruction in his Life Together: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them.”
But that is only one aspect of the tension. An equal and opposite temptation invites us to keep what Gregory calls “an indiscreet silence.” Careless quiet occurs when we “leave in error those who might have been instructed.” Often, this hesitation stems from the fear of man. So, at the ugly root of both unprofitable speech and indiscreet silence lies the love of self. “When the mind of the spiritual director is seized by self-love, sometimes it carries him off to inordinate laxity, other times to undue austerity.” Our speech and silence must rather depend on what is best for the other.Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls (AD 1538)
Reformer Martin Bucer also recognized the complexity of soul care, describing “this so varied ministry” that must be “carried out in such a way as to help any and every one of the elect.” The way he reminded himself of the different kinds of care his congregation needed was to create five categories of sheep who need different ministry from their shepherd. The lost sheep need to be sought out, the stray sheep need to be restored, the injured sheep need to be healed, the weak sheep need to be strengthened, and the healthy sheep need to be fed a diet on which they can continue to grow strong. Bucer and his elders conceived of and carried out their local ministry by giving attention to these distinctions.
Bucer chose the pastoral language of shepherd and sheep in order to highlight his conviction that “Christ our Lord . . . is truly present in his church, ruling, leading, and feeding it himself.” To be sure, this sounds a Reformation note: Christ does not need a “vicar” (substitute) on earth over his church because he is himself present and active among his people. The way Jesus has chosen to shepherd each congregation is “through the ministry of his word, which he does outwardly and tangibly through his ministers and instruments” — namely, elders who preach, deacons who serve, and believers who steward God’s “varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). This distinctly Protestant understanding of Christ present and active in his church gives great hope to believers called, in Paul Tripp’s phrase, to be instruments in the Redeemer’s hands.Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (AD 1656)
The Puritans are often referred to as “physicians of the soul.” Richard Baxter is one of the reasons why. His ministry, like the title of his book, lingered over the reform still required in England to bring personal and church life into alignment with Scripture. The avenue through which Baxter sought to realize this transformation was the ongoing catechetical instruction of each member of his congregation. A more thorough grasp of God’s revealed truth, Baxter believed, would edify each of those under his care.
Baxter had an uncommon appreciation for the flexible manner in which unchanging truth must be ministered to his people. He recognized that “God breaks not all hearts alike.” The sensitive pastor, therefore, will “speak to each individual’s particular necessity.” Much of Baxter’s book strives to show this “personal dealing” in action so that others may begin to practice it themselves.
The picture that emerges, contrary to caricature, is a Puritan pastoral practice that was drenched in mercy. To take one example, Baxter counseled his fellow ministers, “When you perceive that they do not understand the meaning of your question, you must draw out their answer by an equivalent or expository question; or, if that will not do, you must frame the answer into your question and require in reply but Yes or No.”
We know God will accomplish his purposes for good, but he doesn’t promise our children’s eternal good. How can we be satisfied in God with this unknown?
I’m not writing for those who think they’ve got little sin problems. If you imagine you’re getting an A-, or at least a C+, in self-sanctification, you probably won’t resonate with what I’m saying.
I’m writing for the Christian who’s reading this a few hours after you’ve fallen sexually. I’m thinking of the deacon who has just exploded in anger at his children. Or the campus ministry leader who went to college with every intention of following Jesus, but is now waking up with a hangover and can’t remember what she did the night before. I’m writing for the pastor who told a lie in last night’s elder meeting. Or the Bible study leader who became Peter-the-Denier when her upper-class neighbor asked her if she really thinks that everyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ will go to hell.
For all who are weary of struggling with sin, I want you to be able to face your most disappointing failures without drowning in despair.Gutsy Guilt
Let me tell you about gutsy guilt. John Piper first introduced me to this idea — and his teaching on this has sustained and strengthened me for over a quarter of a century of being “tempted, tried, and sometimes failing.” Piper found an example of “gutsy guilt, bold brokenness, confident contrition, rugged remorse” in the words of the prophet Micah, who teaches us how to fight when we have fallen.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me.
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication.
Then my enemy will see,
and shame will cover her who said to me,
“Where is the Lord your God?”
My eyes will look upon her;
now she will be trampled down
like the mire of the streets. (Micah 7:7–10)
It seems counterintuitive to sin and then immediately to fall on your knees and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We harbor in our hearts the false belief that, somehow, we have to pay for our sins — just a little.
But repentance isn’t groveling. You repent when you agree with God that your sin is wicked and flee to the only one who can do helpless sinners any good. So, what if after you’ve sinned you didn’t grovel for a week, but instead ran immediately to the Savior who “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)?
Micah shows us that even at our very worst, there remains a God in heaven who will not reject repentant sinners. “Look to him,” Micah says — “the sooner, the better!”
Satan loves to tempt you, trap you, and then taunt you with your guilt. He loves to watch you wallow in the mire of your misery. He wants you to embrace failure as your identity. Micah says, “Don’t listen to those lies. Call on the Lord. Do not delay. Fight when you fail.” And he shows us how in verses 8–10.Talk Back to the Enemy
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me. (Micah 7:8)
Here is a vivid and dramatic rebuttal to Satan’s prosecution — a complete reversal of his accusatory strategy. The heart of faith defies despair. Faith refuses to believe that our sin is the end of God’s story for our life.
The tempter is a cruel tyrant who wants to terrify you with the greatness of your sins. Learn to turn his own weapon back on himself, like Martin Luther did:
When you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and weapons against yourself, so that with your own sword I may cut your throat and tread you under my feet, for Christ died for sinners. As often as you object that I am a sinner, so often you remind me of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer on whose shoulders and not on mine lie all my sins. So when you say I’m a sinner, you do not terrify me, but comfort me immeasurably.Submit to God’s Discipline
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication. (Micah 7:9)
Gutsy guilt doesn’t shrink from the real-life consequences of sin. The fiery wrath of God’s holy condemnation of our sin has been extinguished at the cross, but the fatherly anger of God’s displeasure at our sin is a sign of our adoption into his family. When God disciplines us, he treats us as his sons and daughters (Hebrews 12:7). His anger is bathed in love, aimed at restoration, and results in what is good for us.
God’s discipline is also temporary. Notice the hope-filled word until in Micah 7:9: “until he pleads my cause.” Here’s where Satan’s theology and the gospel collide. Satan says, “See how God is disciplining you? That’s proof he’s against you.” But the gospel says, “He will champion my cause and establish justice for me. He will bring me into the light; I will see his salvation.”
Yes, God is able to keep you from stumbling when you look to him for strength in the face of temptation. But when you do stumble, he is able to keep your stumbling from destroying you. He will “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
In the end, the enemy is going to witness the vindication of God’s blood-bought children. By grace, through faith, we will be righteous and shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom (Matthew 13:43). And we will look upon the enemies of our soul, and see them trampled down like dirt and mud on the streets — it doesn’t get any lower than that. That’s Satan’s destiny (Micah 7:10).Fuel for Our Fight
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18–19)
When you fail, fall on him. He won’t resent your repeated returns to his throne of mercy. He’s not sighing or sulking when he sees you trembling at his feet. He delights to show mercy. As Richard Sibbes writes, “He is more ready . . . to forgive than you to sin; as there is a continual spring of wickedness in you, so there is a greater spring of mercy in God.”
Imagine being with Moses and the children of Israel on the far shore of the Red Sea. You’ve just watched Pharaoh and his army disappear into the depths of the sea, never to torment you again. Someday that’s what’s going to happen to your sin.
Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore,
Our sins they are many, his mercy is more. (“His Mercy Is More”)
Many a preacher has repeated this memorable saying — but when you’ve failed, it will do you great good to preach it to yourself: When God throws your sin into the sea of forgetfulness, he puts up a sign that says, “No fishing allowed.”
The question in my inbox was a familiar one: “For so long I have striven to put my life on the altar. I don’t even know how to pray about the longings I continue to feel. How do I give over to God the desires of my heart while still praying boldly about these strong — yet unmet — desires?”
We all struggle with questions like, “How long, Lord, will you ask me to wait? Why me? Why this? Why now?” As we press God for an answer, we try to remind ourselves that we belong to the God “who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). But we feel that this waiting is forced upon us, and we wrestle with it. Wouldn’t a good God lift this oppressive burden? Why doesn’t he? When will he?
We pray, we groan, we cry to the only one who can act for us, but no matter where we turn, just like Job, we cannot see him anywhere around us (Job 23:3, 8–9). He seems silent, and we try to fight down the fear that he might not fulfill this desire. We fret that he won’t come through for us. We fuss about what life might look like stretching out before us with this unfulfilled longing still beating in our heart. We wonder if it is a sin to keep longing, to keep praying, crying, groaning. How do we live well in that waiting space between asking and receiving?Patient in Our Waiting
That’s where patience comes in — patience both with our own personal faith and with the God who calls us into this patience-producing faith.
Patience is not quite the same as waiting. While waiting is something we do, patience is something we offer. We wait because we must — we have little choice in the matter. But patience is our gift to our Father while we wait. In the silence, in the waiting, patience chooses to declare, “Lord, I love you. I know I don’t love you as I ought, but I want to love you more than your answer to my prayers. I will try to offer you my patient heart as long as you ask me to wait on this.”
What is patience? Patience looks like perseverance. James encourages us to quietly persevere like a farmer waiting for his crops to grow (James 5:7–11). Paul tells us to “be patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12), calling us to bear up without complaint or anger in the midst of painful circumstances. And he reminds us that patience is one outworking of the Spirit’s ever-increasing life within us and proof that we belong to Christ Jesus (Galatians 5:22–24).
Patience proves our love for God and our trust that his plan is worth waiting for. Patience offers to our heavenly Father a calm heart. We repent of our agitation and annoyance at his seeming silence. We look calmly into the darkness around us, and we choose to believe what he tells us about himself, resting in the knowledge that truly he does see, he does know, he does care, despite how it appears in our present situation.Love Lived Out
Patience is a beautiful way to live out our steadfast love for God. Paul tells us that real love is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4), and so we love God through our patience as we
- tenaciously keep praying for that wandering child,
- calmly absorb the dreaded diagnosis,
- courageously bear up as we face our grievous goodbye,
- diligently think through that unavoidable debt,
- faithfully persevere through that less-than-exciting job, or
- quietly accept God’s plan for our future, even when it differs from our dreams.
Patience, like every Christlike virtue, is nurtured in our love for God — a God who can be trusted in all his ways and in every circumstance. Patience displays our love for God. Patience says, “Lord, I love you more than my longed-for answer to this hard circumstance.” We can show God our love through our patient endurance as he tests the genuineness of our faith, a faith more precious than gold, a faith that can bring praise and glory and honor to Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).The Key to Faithful Obedience
Patience is the key to faithful obedience, living out a peace-filled surrender to God’s ways and will. Think with me how patience can help us embrace the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3–17):
- A patient heart helps us be satisfied with God as our only God. He becomes enough — always and forever.
- A patient heart helps us worship God as he has asked us to — without crowding our hearts with godlets of our own desires.
- A patient heart remembers whose holy name we take and helps us bear a family resemblance to our firstborn Brother.
- Patience helps us step out of our demanding schedules so that we develop a God-centered schedule.
- Patience helps us offer gratitude and respect to our less-than-perfect parents.
- A patient believer is a life-giver, not a life-drainer.
- A patient heart is fortified against sexual temptation and marital mayhem.
- Patience turns grasping hoarders into generous givers, because a greater reward awaits us.
- A patient heart helps us be truth-tellers, because we know that when God’s purposes are all fulfilled and all wrongs finally righted, God will bear a true witness about his servants.
- A patient heart can tell God, “When I have you, I need nothing else.”
Patience is loving God through a contented heart. It is the composure that helps us pause long enough to ask ourselves, “What is it about God that I don’t understand in this situation? Why am I so restless? Why isn’t God enough for me here?” Patience takes us deeper into the heart of God. It creates a sense of expectancy for tomorrow because of God’s goodness, which he has “stored up for those who fear [him]” (Psalm 31:19).
We never know what goodness God might pour out on us in the days ahead!All We Need
Patience is loving God enough to say, “Thank you,” even for the difficult things. True patience, throughout the life-altering and soul-shattering experiences between birth and heaven, is a humble gift we offer up to God. And he is the one who enables us to offer him that gift.
Paul tells us that it is the might of his glory that strengthens us with all power “for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). Ultimately, patience is the risen Christ living in us as we proclaim, “If I have Jesus, I have all that I need.”
Those who live for riches and the praise of man today will have hunger, mourning, and weeping tomorrow.
Have you ever paused to marvel at the compassion of Christ? What a wonder that when God himself takes our own flesh and blood, and walks among us in our fallen world, he is known for his compassion.
We might expect he would be erupting with anger and frustration at every turn. Human sin is cosmic treason against him and his Father. To purchase a people for himself, he would be brutally abused and mistreated, even to the point of an excruciating death. Make no mistake, it was fitting for the Son of God to burn with righteous anger. He did (Mark 3:5), and he will (Revelation 6:16). And yet, as God himself moved among us, in utter holiness and perfection, he gave us stunning glimpses into a heart of compassion.
The explicit mentions of Christ’s compassion in the Gospels, though precious few, are more than we might assume. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each give us at least three clear glimpses into his compassion. For one, these are priceless windows into his full humanity. As Calvin said, Christ put on our feelings as well as our flesh. In the warmth of his compassion, we see the fully human emotional life of our Savior, one of us not just in body but also in mind and heart. Jesus didn’t just perform compassionate acts; he felt compassion.
Yet these glimpses also show us his Father. They are windows into the very heart of God, sight lines into the divinity himself. Long had the God of Israel shown himself to be utterly free in divine sovereignty to bestow his grace on whom he chooses, and be compassionate toward his suffering people (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19). Now, as we see compassion in the God-man, we see the compassion of God in man. In each peek at his compassion, we see our Savior as both truly man and truly God.Compassion Walked Among Us
However surprised we might be at Christ’s compassion in one sense, in another, the compassion of Christ shouldn’t surprise us, knowing what we now know. After all, he is the God of Israel come in the flesh. In that sense, as Warfield observed, we should not be startled:
The emotion which we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to Jesus whose whole life was a mission of mercy, and whose ministry was so marked by deeds of beneficence that it was summed up in the memory of his followers as a going through the land “doing good” (Acts 11:38), is no doubt “compassion.”
The glimpses we catch of Christ’s compassion are the incarnation itself in miniature. He came to suffer with us — and more, to do so on our behalf. The Christian gospel itself fills the gap between what we should expect from God, because of our sin, and what we receive from him, because of his Son. Christ is divine compassion himself come in the flesh. “Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners,” John Piper explains, “because he was the incarnate display of the Father’s tender compassion for sinners” (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 94).Compassion on the Crowds
In the Gospels, we find ten specific mentions of his compassion, and see the kinds of people he suffers with, and what actions he takes to help.
First, Jesus had compassion on crowds. A trickle of followers would have captured his concern and heart in one way, but the sheer fact that masses assembled showed how poorly the people had been led. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The numbers demonstrated the acuteness of the needs and how many were hurting. And note that compassion in Christ corresponds to the masses being “harassed and helpless.” Any of us today who would hope to be recipients of Christ’s compassion must also be ready to own our own helplessness.
It was compassion on “a great crowd” that led him to perform healings. “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). So also was it compassion on a hungry crowd that prompted him to feed four thousand. “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way’” (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2).
The same compassion led to his serving the five thousand, whom he fed after a long day of teaching: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). For those ill-taught, because of poor leadership, he has compassion, and then opens his mouth to teach.Compassion One by One
But it’s not only hurting people in large numbers that receive his compassion. Also solitary and specific individuals. He has an ear to hear our pains one by one, swell his heart toward them, and provide his perfectly timed solution. When he drew near to the town of Nain, and came upon a funeral procession for a widow’s only son, he took notice, felt compassion, and took action.
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” (Luke 7:13–14)
He saw her painful circumstances. Not only was she now alone but also helpless. But with a full slate of other good works, and great crowds to teach and heal, Jesus takes notice and feels compassion for a bereaved mother. Then he raised her son from the dead.
When a father with a demonized son asked, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22), Jesus responded, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). Indeed he can, and indeed his heart beats with compassion. And when Jesus has compassion, it multiplies. Just as raising the widow’s son came from compassion on her, so now casting out the evil spirit comes from compassion on the boys’ father and family (“have compassion on us and help us”).
We also hear of Jesus’s compassion in his pity. When he encountered two blind men, “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34). To a desperate leper, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). And Jesus told a parable of a master who “out of pity” for a servant “released him and forgive him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). Jesus has compassion for those who cannot see, and grants sight. Compassion for the untouchable, whom he heals. Compassion for those with an unpayable debt, which he forgives.Tender and Tough
Where was this compassion when he drove out the moneychangers with a whip (John 2:15)? Or when he pronounced the sevenfold woe on the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–36)? Or when he turned away presumptuous crowds with offensive language (John 6:60–66)? Where was his compassion when he rebuked his own lead disciple for trying to protect his life (Matthew 16:22–23), or spoke unnervingly to a Gentile woman, likening her people to dogs (Matthew 15:26; Mark 7:27), or heard his beloved Lazarus was ill and “stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6)?
One answer is that true compassion will, at times, take up a whip and strong words. Compassion for God’s people, and zeal for God’s house (John 2:17), might require extreme measures to disperse the obstacles and diversions to true worship and lasting joy. Compassion for God’s people might require the piercing language of rebuke to those who sat in Moses’s seat (Matthew 23:2) but “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Compassion for the flock demands desperate measures against its abusers.
Also part and parcel of his compassion for hurting sinners was considering the true and enduring good of the one suffering. Never did he so lose himself, and his Father, in the feelings of the hurting that he ceded a vision for their good on his Father’s terms. His surprising lack of empathy with the Gentile woman was an act of compassion, designed to elicit faith (Matthew 15:27–28; Mark 7:28–29); his delay in coming to Lazarus, designed to display the glory of God (John 11:4, 40). His compassion led him to bring true relief, not be steered by the hurting in their pain to dictate divine goodness and timing. In no instance in the Gospels does Jesus feel compassion for someone and then simply suffer with them. His compassion led him to action, sometimes uncomfortably so. It “moved” him (Mark 1:41).
And so, as Jonathan Edwards observed three centuries ago, we see in Christ “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” His tenderness with the humble is all the more striking because of his toughness with unbelief. His compassion for the afflicted would be undermined if not accompanied by righteous anger toward their afflicters. He emphatically did not demonstrate compassion for wicked kings, conniving priests, and self-righteous Pharisees — which makes his compassion all the more precious when he directs it toward his trusting sheep.His Two Greatest Parables
Remarkably, the two parables which may be Jesus’s greatest, and most well-known, turn on the compassion of Christ.
In Luke 10:25–37, Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan. Verse 33 is the hinge: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” Both priest and Levite had passed by the man lying there half dead. But when the Samaritan passed by, he — like Jesus himself — had compassion.
Compassion here, as the link to the many other compassion-of-Christ glimpses in the Gospels, is the key for seeing the heart of the parable. Compassion is his calling card in the Gospels; it is attributed to no one else. Jesus is the one who characteristically has compassion and then acts: he shows us mercy by approaching us, addressing our wounds, carrying us to safety, and making provision for our care until his return. First and foremost, the Son of God himself has been a neighbor to us sinners — stemming from his compassion. Now, having become recipients of his mercy, we then echo it in our treatment of others.
The second, of course, is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). How will the father respond to his son who has “squandered his property in reckless living”? The turning point is verse 20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Here again, a heart of compassion, rather than contempt, unleashes a series of merciful actions. Like the Good Samaritan, the father moves toward his half-dead son, rather than away. And he runs, showing us not only the heart of Christ himself but his Father’s heart toward us through him. The Father feels compassion for his prodigals, runs to them, embraces them, and kisses them by sending his own Son as his compassion incarnate.Compassion of His People
The implications for Christ’s people — those who are the recipients of his compassion — are plain enough in the Gospels, but the Epistles make them even clearer. Christ not only has compassion on his people and gives them his help, but he also forms his people into instruments of his compassion on others. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Such people show compassion on fellow believers in prison, even at great cost to themselves (Hebrew 10:34). We learn to show sympathy and comfort to the hurting among us, not like Job’s three friends (Job 2:11) but like his brothers and sisters (Job 42:11). And we put on, with compassion, its accompanying virtues: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12); “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). In other words, we become the kind of people who see others and then have compassion on them.
Both the good Samaritan and the prodigal son may turn on compassion, but in both parables, and in Jesus’s own life and ministry, seeing preceded feeling. “When he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). “His father saw him, and felt compassion” (Luke 15:20). And Jesus himself, with the widow at Nain: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13). As with the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36). “He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them” (Matthew 14:14; Mark 6:34). Perhaps the biggest obstacle to our doing likewise is that our gaze is so often fixed on self, not others. May God give us eyes to see — and the compassion of Christ.
When we think God has hardened someone’s heart, we should not assume that the hardening is permanent. God can and does break in and save.
The average person speaks at least 7,000 words a day, or about 50,000 words a week — the length of a short book. We are authors, all of us, publishing 52 books a year from this printing press called the mouth.
Which should make us pause occasionally to consider what kind of words we’re sending out into the world. Is it a better place because of our words, or worse? Do we wound others, or heal them (Proverbs 12:18)? Do we commend the fear of the Lord, or pour out folly (Proverbs 15:2)? Do we refresh others’ spirits, or break them (Proverbs 15:4)? For how little we often think of our words, they hold the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21).
If we’re going to steward our speech well, we need to regularly remember why God gave us words at all. Perhaps no one verse captures his purpose clearer than a command from Paul to the Ephesians:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
Here is a charter for the dinner table, the classroom, the smartphone, the office, and everywhere else we open our mouths: give grace.Speak Grace
Given all that Paul says about grace in Ephesians, he could scarcely have handed our mouths a higher calling. Grace is that redeeming quality of God by which he saves us, seals us, and sanctifies us. By grace, God has blessed us in his beloved Son (Ephesians 1:6), raised us from the dead (Ephesians 2:5–6), and rescued us from our sins (Ephesians 2:8). God’s grace is rich, overflowing, immeasurable. Eternity will not exhaust his storehouses (Ephesians 1:7; 2:7).
Now, Paul says, let your mouth give that. Take the grace you have received from God, and let it change the accent of your soul. Then take your little words, flavored with grace, and use them to carry on Jesus’s redeeming work in someone’s life.
Whenever God makes someone an object of grace, he also makes them an agent of grace. Just as Paul received a “stewardship of God’s grace” to preach the gospel (Ephesians 3:1–2, 7–8), so too “grace was given to each one of us” (Ephesians 4:7). Even if we should feel as slow of speech as Moses (Exodus 4:10), if we have the Holy Spirit, we have a whisper of heaven in our hearts and on our tongues. We have grace to give.Built Up in Jesus
Practically, giving grace means speaking words that are “good for building up” (Ephesians 4:29). Gracious words straighten bent-over saints, strengthen tottering legs, bind up bruised arms, and grow each other into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
“Give grace,” in other words, is a call to imitate the God whose words make worlds bloom into being (Psalm 8:3). Give life. See the image-bearer in front of you, and skillfully apply “the truth . . . in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). Match specific words from God to specific needs in others. Give your words weight; make them meaningful; say something worth saying. All to the end that others might grow up into Jesus — protected from lies, established in truth, rooted and grounded in grace.
Such grace is not confined to the sermon or the Bible study. Paul’s command rests over every Christian and every conversation. Give grace when you kneel beside your child’s bed, when you eat lunch with coworkers, when you sit around the campfire with friends, when you walk with your wife in the evening, when you stand in line at the grocery store, when you send your thirtieth email of the afternoon.
Lest we misconstrue the character of these gracious words, let’s add two qualifications: gracious words are not always nice, and gracious words are never easy.Tough and Tender Grace
First, gracious words are not always nice. Despite the testimony of many thousands of cross-stitched pillows and greeting cards, grace is not the fluffy thing we sometimes make it out to be. Grace is not always comfortable, not always cozy, not always nice. Whereas nice words aim to make us feel good, gracious words have higher ambitions: to make us actually good — actually Christlike.
At times, then, gracious words will be tough words. The same apostle who told us to “give grace” did not refrain from reminding us that we were once dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), nor from exhorting us to stand firm against the devil (Ephesians 6:10–11), nor from warning us of God’s wrath (Ephesians 5:6).
Neither did our Savior, the man whose words were ever “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Sometimes grace fell from his mouth tender as the dew, and sometimes it thundered with the force of a prophet. Sometimes it bound up bruised reeds, and sometimes it pruned vines with a slice. Sometimes it said, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20), and sometimes, “Take up your cross” (Luke 9:23).
We too must sometimes broach conversations that make us feel like running away. For if our words are always nice, always pleasing, always politically correct, we are giving no more than half a grace.What Gracious Words Cost
For all their variety, however, gracious words are not capricious, as if we speak a tough word here, a tender word there, hoping to strike the balance. No, grace tailors its words to the needs of the moment; it searches for speech that “fits the occasion” (Ephesians 4:29). Which means such words never come easily.
Gracious words are always specific words — words that match this situation, not that one; words that fit this person, not another. We must move beyond our favorite promises and favorite stories to ransack “the truth . . . in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21), applying appropriate parts of God’s multifaceted truth to our multifaceted experience. As we talk with others, we must go to work in the mines of our mind, passing words through the fire of careful thought, and smelting from them fresh, pointed truth.
Too often, my words fail to give grace because I haven’t first given due attention to the person in front of me. I drift in and out of the conversation, my mind drawn to all manner of irrelevancies: What’s for lunch? What am I going to do tonight? I’m not sure that shirt fits him. Words that come from a distracted mind are graceless words, words as weightless as the air that carries them.
Our tongues do not drift into giving grace. Words worth speaking come at the cost of fully engaged attention, wise discernment, creative thought, emotional investment. But oh, what a reward they bring! Gracious words drop from someone’s mouth like fruit from a tree of life, satisfying giver and receiver alike (Proverbs 15:4; 18:21).Question and Prayer
How shall we cultivate this kind of speech? We know from Jesus that grace will come out of our mouths only if grace is already living in our hearts (Matthew 12:34). But even when grace is doing its work of demolishing, building, and renovating inside us, learning how to package that grace into words often takes practice.
As a simple first step, consider stopping for a moment the next time you are about to enter a conversation, and take up a question and a prayer.
Question: What does this person need? What kind of words will “fit the occasion”? The need will not always be obvious, but even asking the question can posture us to pay attention.
Prayer: Lord, keep corrupting words from coming out of my mouth. Fill my mouth with grace.
Then walk into the conversation, remembering (wonder of wonders!) that you — weak, struggling you — have grace to give. In God’s hands, your words can become a means of carving a brother or sister into the image of Jesus Christ. Then listen, give your attention, ask perceptive questions, activate the gears of your mind. And when the time comes, open your mouth and give grace.
Do we err when we love others for the reward God offers us? No. Only those who labor for what God promises are rich enough to love others selflessly.
Every marriage is either Christian or idolatrous. And two married Christians can be idolatrous, without even realizing it.
The difference between Christian and idolatrous is giving versus demanding, enjoying versus using, sharing versus manipulating. It’s the difference between humbled gratitude versus undiscerned selfishness. But every marriage, injured by unfair expectations, can be healed through the grace of awakened sensitivity. Every marriage can become honoring to Christ and life-giving to the husband and wife.
Two biblical insights open up new possibilities for every marriage.Privilege of Marriage
One, the privilege that marriage is: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
That is the biblical definition of marriage, from all the way back in the garden of Eden. “One flesh” is one man and one woman, walking hand in hand through their life in this world, sharing together an all-encompassing union of total belonging. No other relationship is like this. Healthy friendships have boundaries, but marriage brings a man and woman together in complete vulnerability with no shame (Genesis 2:25).
I want you to see the glorious privilege of marriage — your marriage. When God expelled us from the garden after Adam sinned, he didn’t take his gift of marriage back. He let us keep it. And even though a long time has elapsed since then, our marriages today are not ninety-ninth-hand, at best. Jesus saw our imperfect marriages as sacred and inviolate, at the same level as the perfect marriage of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:3–6).
So, your marriage is your little remnant of the garden of Eden. Inside the circle of your one-flesh union, where only you and your spouse completely belong, God wants you to cultivate your own personal outpost of Eden into something beautifully Christian in the world today.
But how can we do that, especially long term over the years? That leads us to the second insight.Resource of Christ
Two, the resource that Christ is: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Life is not in you. Life is not in your spouse. The life we all long for is in Christ alone.
His life is our light, illuminating our otherwise dreary existence. His life is more than a bare power surge; his life awakens us to purpose, hope, wisdom. In Christ, we stop dying so much and start living more. In Christ, we stop being so clueless and start growing in awareness. This is just who he is and what he does.
If we believe he is our life, and open ourselves up, our marriages will change. We will stop loving our spouse too much — which, in reality, isn’t too much but rather wrongly, like an idol — and we will start loving Christ more. When that happens, we actually start loving our spouse better.His Love Through Hers
The reason your spouse is not your life and your light is that he or she cannot be those things. That wonderful person you married is, and can only be, secondary, derived, contingent, dependent, and easily exhausted — like you.
Only Christ is, and always will be, primary, original, free, powerful, and eager — unlike you both. When two sinners step inside the circle of the one-flesh union and cultivate there an even deeper union with Christ, they become relaxed about themselves and each other, they become happy about Christ, and Eden reappears in the world today — a Christian marriage.
Here is one way this insight opens my eyes. When I take my precious wife in my arms, the love I experience from her is not from her alone. It is also the love of God through her. The fact that the love of God is coming down to me through her doesn’t mean that that love stops being divine. It is still the love of God — which makes my wife all the more wondrous in my eyes.
Her love is the moment-by-moment gift of his life, and his life is the light that floods each moment with meaning I never would have grasped if the experience were limited to and defined by the human only. Realizing this, I am moved toward gratitude for her and worship of him, and I find myself on holy ground — Eden today.First Things Put First
Not only does Christ himself make a marriage truly Christian, as we look to him, but he also guards a marriage against idolatrous instincts and impulses.
As I remember that it is Christ alone who gives my wife and me all our life and light, I don’t need my wife to be more than she can be. I can receive our life together as the glorious miracle it is, and marvel at how present Christ is with us. Our imperfections are the very place where he dwells the most meaningfully.
A marriage is not Christian because two Christians get married. A marriage becomes truly Christian as two Christians keep looking to Christ for the wherewithal each needs moment by moment. It isn’t a matter of practical tips, though I suppose there is a place for that — like training wheels on a child’s bike. But far more, it’s a matter of seeing him, with the eyes of faith, real-time as a husband and wife walk together through each day. It’s a matter of rejoicing that he is present with you, he is sharing his life with you, his light is banishing the darkness from the sacred circle he has given the two of you.
I’ll let C.S. Lewis have the last word: “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. . . . When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”
“Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.” What are readers of Scripture supposed to learn from a proverb like this?
Who are the freest people in the world? The people who are freest from the world.
So, how free are you? I’m not asking if you can give me the right answer. I trust you know that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) and that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). You and I know that Christ has set us free from needing to achieve “a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law” since we have by God’s grace been given the free gift of “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” in Christ (Philippians 3:9) — a mind-blowingly glorious truth.
The real question for you and me is, are we really living in the freedom Christ has given us? What Jesus purchased and gave to us is not an abstract theological category that we will only realize after we die, but a life-governing, joy-producing, experiential, and radically free reality that begins now. He sets us “free indeed” to live in the world as long as we are in the world (John 8:36).
The secret to experiencing this freedom all depends on where home really is for us.The Key to Living Free
Over and over in the godly lineage of Hebrews 11, we see people who lived remarkably free here on earth. What made that great cloud of witnesses so free?
We might be quick to answer, “Faith!” That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t go deep enough. Because everyone lives by faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Everyone lives by faith in what they believe is true about reality, most of which they cannot see or personally prove. All human beings are wired to live this way.
What made our faithful forebears free was Who they ultimately believed in (Hebrews 11:6) and where they believed he was leading them:
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:14–16)
There’s the key: they desired a better country — a heavenly one. They really desired it because they really believed it existed. They believed in the better country so much that they were content to “[die] in faith, not having received the [earthly] things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
They were free to do the best and hardest good in the world because they were free from needing to belong to the world.“Live as People Who Are Free”
The depth of our understanding of our freedom in Christ is revealed by how free we are, like those saints, to live as strangers and exiles on earth. The proof of our freedom is in the pudding of our pursuits.
True faith manifests both in what we say with our lips (Romans 10:9; Hebrews 13:15) and in the way we live. Yes, the people of old “[spoke] thus” (Hebrews 11:14). But they also lived thus: Abel offered, Enoch walked, Noah constructed, Abraham obeyed and went and offered, Sarah conceived, Isaac and Jacob blessed, Joseph instructed, Moses refused and chose and considered and left and kept, the Israelites passed through, Rahab lived (Hebrews 11:4–31). And “time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32).
Some of these examples are more commendable than others. But their lives of faith, their “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26), still speak, though they have long since passed away (Hebrews 11:4).
This is why Peter tells us to “live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16):
- We are free to no longer live as captives to the world’s values and claims and cravings and threats, since “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14).
- We are free to “walk by the Spirit, and . . . not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16), since “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).
- We are free to not “lay up for [ourselves] treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for [ourselves indestructible] treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19–20).
- We are free to be content in whatever situation we find ourselves, since we know that our heavenly Father will supply all our needs (Philippians 4:11, 19).
- And we are free to die, since to be with Christ in his heavenly country is “far better” than anything we’ve known here (Philippians 1:23).
Yes, all this freedom, and far more, is available to us as Christians. I suspect all of us, no matter how far along we are in the faith, would admit we’re living beneath our inheritance.
The question before us is this: How free do we want to be? This is where we begin to squirm. Our flesh does not want to be free from the world. Our indwelling sin is drawn to “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). To lose them feels like losing life. To which Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
Ponder that sentence. Pray over it, and let it probe you all day. What does the Spirit point out to you in the word “loses”? It is likely that the things he brings to mind — things that feel like losing your life to let go — are, in reality, holding you captive to this world and inhibiting you from living fruitfully in the kinds of kingdom-abundance Jesus wants to give you (John 10:10). Respond to the Spirit! Jesus wants you to find greater freedom and real life.
Whatever it takes, don’t settle for anything less than the full freedom God has for you. Seek with all your might to run unencumbered the race God has set before you, like those who ran before you, who freely chose to live like strangers and exiles here because their real citizenship is in heaven. For those who are freest in the world are those who are freest from the world.