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“Was today a good day?” I crawled into bed and prepared to sleep, my mind anxiously evaluating the previous 24 hours. Using a haphazard set of metrics, I interrogated myself, “Was today a success? Did I accomplish my goals and get what I wanted?”
I never fall asleep quickly when my thoughts spiral like this. And any sleep that I get is not particularly restful. My problem is that I tend to overanalyze my day once it has ended.
Instead of this end-of-the-day anxious spiral, the psalmist provides believers with a confident prayer that flips worry on its head. Psalm 90:14 says, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” It is easy to read these nineteen words quickly, but this verse contains glorious truths that enable us to evaluate our day before it even begins.Our Ultimate Request: Satisfy Us
That first word, satisfy, might be the most important word in this verse. At the start, the psalmist asks God to satisfy him, giving us both an example and permission to ask God to make us happy.
While our long lists of dissatisfactions often cause sleepless nights, our neediness and dependence unmistakably reveal the truth that we are not meant to achieve satisfaction on our own. In every circumstance, this psalm calls us to turn to the Lord and ask him to satisfy us.
What might a prayer for satisfaction in God look like in different circumstances? If we are disinterested or lethargic, we should ask God to fascinate and animate us. If we are bored or distracted, we should ask God to delight and captivate us. When we are lonely or miserable, we can ask God to accompany and comfort us.Morning by Morning
While the others spend the entire day searching for satisfaction, God satisfies his children at the start of their day. Having received satisfaction from God in the morning, believers are liberated each day to glorify God.
This satisfaction of God sets us free to navigate our lives in faith. The world uses work to chase satisfaction through personal accomplishments. We are freed by God’s satisfaction, liberated to glorify God with our work and provide for our families.
The world uses recreation to chase satisfaction through the pursuit of pleasure. We are freed by God’s satisfaction, liberated to find joy whatever the circumstances. The world uses people to chase satisfaction through approval. We are freed by God’s satisfaction, liberated to glorify God by loving people — genuinely interacting and caring for them.
God’s love helps us receive and interpret our circumstances instead of having our hearts controlled by them. Rather than looking at our schedules and hoping for a good day, or creating a plan to make a good day, we look to the satisfying love of God that he generously offers each morning.Steadfast and New
And we don’t need to wonder whether God’s love for us is going to fade or fail; God’s love is just as steadfast as he is. As Jeremiah wrote, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” God’s love and mercy, the prophet tells us, are “new every morning.”
We describe God’s love as both “steadfast” and “new” — a confusing pair of adjectives. But because God’s eternal nature never changes, his love toward his children is steadfast. And because God upholds the universe through new, creative energies that he inexhaustibly sustains (his gloriously plural, “mercies”), his love for his children is new every morning.
“The Lord is my portion,” the prophet concludes, so we can “hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22–24). God gives us his merciful love each day; this is our daily baseline for hope.Daily Satisfaction, Eternal Happiness
Normally, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism. That means that the Psalms make their point by using two (or more) closely corresponding lines. A strictly parallel reading leads us to expect the verse to say something like, “Satisfy us in the morning, that we may be glad till the evening.” If God satisfies us at the start of the day, we expect to remain happy until the day’s end.
Here, however, the psalmist surprises us. In a twist of gospel math, a daily (“in the morning”) prayer for satisfaction is answered by a lifetime (“all our days”) of joy and gladness.
How can one morning’s worth of satisfaction provide a lifetime of joy? Certainly some of the answer rests directly in the verse — God’s steadfast love will last our entire lives.On Easter Morning
But the rest of the Bible explains this equation even more fully. One morning, the Lord Jesus Christ walked out of his grave, conquering sin and defeating death. And the resurrection power of the Son of God has been given to all God’s sons and daughters (Romans 8:11). So, now, because of that greatest morning of all, we can rejoice and be glad all of our days.
We don’t need to wait until an evening of anxious evaluation to determine whether today was a good day. God loves us with a steadfast love. The Lord Jesus conquered sin and death on Easter morning. And because we belong to him, today is a very good day.
In nearly twenty years of regular Bible reading, one of the most frequent mistakes I’ve made is trying to do too much.
Over the years, I have sat down many times to brainstorm and outline my ideal “time in the word.” I would drum up fresh resolve and dive in again to the newly demanding scheme: read broadly in multiple places, study deeply in one, identify applications, journal, memorize, pray through lists. But if I had ever paused to make a realistic assessment on how long the whole process would have taken, I may have realized how undoable it was (two and a half hours would have been tight). That kind of time may be hard to come by for a monk.
Idealism about daily devotions usually has some good in it, but it can be a recipe for frustration and ungodly guilt over time. I don’t want to disparage good intentions — may God fulfill your “every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11). And as someone who’s walked the path for a few years, I’ve found help in this simple word for faithful realism in daily Bible meditation: gather a day’s portion.As Much as You Can Eat
The phrase comes from Exodus 16. God’s people have been freshly freed from slavery in Egypt and passed through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Moses and the people erupt in a song of praise (Exodus 15:1–21). And then, in barely three days, the people already are grumbling (Exodus 15:22–24). God responds with grace, “heals” the bitter water, and then brings them to a place of plenty, an oasis with “twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees” (Exodus 15:25–27). Soon they set out from the oasis, and then they are grumbling again (Exodus 16:2), now to the point of delusion (Exodus 16:3).
Their collective immaturity has come out immediately, but again God responds with grace: “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). This bread from heaven they call “manna,” and Moses gives the further instruction, “Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat” (Exodus 16:16).
Of course, the story is not first and foremost about Christian Bible reading today. But God does give us a glimpse into who he is, and what it means to have him as our God, and for us to be his people. He is the kind of God who provides for our needs on an everyday basis. He is the God who is with his people every step of the way, to give them, by his own hand, daily provision in the wilderness to get them safely to his Promised Land. His Son teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), and warns us not to adopt the build-bigger-barns mind-set of the rich fool, who put his hope for the future in his own store rather than in the Father’s daily, active care.
God wants our sitting down with his Book each day to be more like coming to dinner than going to the grocery store. Come to eat and drink here and now, for today, not mainly to store up for someday in the future. God doesn’t mean for us to focus on developing our own stash and personal pantry, but to feed straight from his warehouse.
Coming to God’s word to gather a day’s portion has come to have at least three facets for me.Slow Down
Modern life is harried enough. What I desperately need each morning is to slow down in God’s presence for an unhurried season steeping my soul in his grace and truth. This means taking in his words at a more reflective and enjoyable (you might even say “leisurely”) pace — rather than rushing through to cover as much ground as possible. I remind myself that the goal is to find food for my soul, with the accompanying pace, not check reading-plan boxes and just avail my mind of additional biblical data.
Call it “eating mindfully,” or just use the old-fashioned, biblical term, “meditation.” Whatever you call it, finding a slower pace goes hand in hand with faithfully gathering a day’s portion.Feed Your Heart, Not Just Head
My natural tendency is to engage God’s words with a cerebral bent. What takes more work is reading with and for my heart. The mind, of course, is important. Even essential. And so too are our spiritual affections. God means for his word to meet us, and change us, in the whole of our person, including the depths of us. He means for us to read with our minds, all the way down to our hearts, and through them out into the outward dimensions of our lives.
Aiming to just gather a day’s portion not only helps me slow down, but slowing down is vital to engaging the heart, which takes more time and attention, and patience, to stir than the mind. I have found that when I’m not just reading for breadth, but reading to feel the weight of the text, I’m freer to pause and linger over some striking glimpse of God’s goodness — not just to learn more, but to enjoy more.Focus on Today
In seeking to simply gather a day’s portion, I am liberated from needing to make up for yesterday, on the one hand, or get ahead for tomorrow, on the other. When coming daily to God’s word is focused on finding food for my soul for today, I’m kept from the pressure and distraction of trying to go back or surge forward. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23). I can’t go back to collect yesterday’s mercies, or go forward to seize and store up tomorrow’s, but I can receive and relish today’s. And as Jesus says, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
This also means I’m free not to finish all the assigned readings for the day. The point is finding soul food, not reading every chapter and verse. When God gives me some fresh, compelling, soul-satisfying glimpse of himself, I want to linger there, and meditate there, not run on to the next chapter.Faithful Realism in Daily Reading
Gather a day’s portion is my reminder not to try to do too much in morning devotions, and not to miss the main thing. My most pressing need is not to master the Bible in a few short months (or weeks!), but to be mastered by God, through his word, just a little each day, for a lifetime. Developing a daily habit of feeding on him is more the marathon than the sprint. The sprinters may feel good about their progress for a few laps, but in the end it will be those who persevere, one day’s meal at a time, who will be most reshaped and reformed.
Trust God to supply what he loves to supply: today’s portion.
The Scriptures shine with supernatural glory for our souls, but the Bible also has more physical manuscript support than any other ancient document.
What we feed our eyes will eventually rule our hearts. And I’m not just talking about pornography.
Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22–23; Luke 11:34).
Yes, our eyes will be drawn to what our hearts desire, but they also often hold sway. Our eyes are not neutral. They influence and even drive our hearts. If we feed them what is true, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, our eyes can grow our faith, heighten our love, and intensify our happiness. But where the eyes wander, the heart quickly follows — and falls. How many of us leave our eyes on too long a leash?
For some, tragically, it is pornography. For others, it’s something less salacious, like sports scores or news headlines. For others, Instagram or Facebook. For still others, it’s Amazon or Target, YouTube or Netflix. Just because something isn’t inherently bad, doesn’t mean it can’t fill our eyes so full as to crowd out the one who matters most. That’s what darkened eyes are: eyes so full of something other than Christ that they can no longer see him and enjoy him.Lamp of the Body
When Moses warned Israel about idolatry, he stared directly into their eyes:
“Watch yourselves very carefully. . . . Beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them.” (Deuteronomy 4:15–19)
The eye is the lamp of the body, he said to God’s people, and if you allow yours to lust after the things you have made, or even after the wonders God has made — your eyes will lead your heart astray and eventually destroy you.
Moses didn’t mention sexually explicit images. No, he knew the people would be tempted to worship even the good in creation — animals, birds, and fish; sun, moon, and stars — the wonders God had placed all around them. The wonder of wonders is that we often end up worshiping the wonder and not the Creator.What Your Eyes Say
How do our eyes lead our hearts away from God? When Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” he’s in the middle of a word about treasure. Three verses earlier, he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). And then two verses later, he says, “No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Our eyes will always be drawn to what we treasure. But more than that, they play a role in what we treasure. If our eyes are sick, we’ll inevitably have heart trouble.
And money, as Jesus teaches, carves as many images as anything today. If we’re not content to have him, we’ll fall in love with whatever else we can have (or buy).
If we have little appetite for Christ, and a voracious craving for sports, our treasure is free of charge at ESPN. If Christ cannot keep our attention, but we hunt and shop for hours on Amazon, our treasure should arrive in two business days or less. If we lack ambition to know Christ and carry out his mission, but we work hard to advance our career and build our retirement fund, we’ll finally receive our treasure as our time on earth expires. If time with Christ is the first thing we surrender when we’re busy, but we never miss a meal or our favorite television show, we have treasure, but it’s not him.
And if it’s not him, every other good goes dark.Eyes Full of Adultery
The apostle Peter says that the wicked “have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin” (2 Peter 2:14). They have looked at Christ and found him unlovely, so they lust after something else (often someone else). “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). We were given the option between the fullest loveliness and the weakest pleasures, and we loved the latter. That is wicked — and pitiful. Eyes full of adultery have chosen cyanide over ecstasy.
Those were our eyes, but we were washed, we were sanctified, we were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11). We received laser eye surgery from the one who invented retinas. He stooped down and, with compassion, spit in our eyes to heal those who had spit on his glory (Mark 8:23).
And if he has made our eyes healthy, our whole body will be full of light.Watch What You Watch
If you have let your eyes get out of shape, it’s not too late to learn to guard them and keep them healthy. First, fill your eyes with the words of God. If you want to make sure there is room for God, let him in first. Before you’re exposed to everything else you will see today, decide to see him. Let a fresh vision of him in his word be the day’s first wonder, the sun that eclipses and illumines every other beauty. Steep your soul in Scripture long enough that you begin to see God in all the other wonders around you.
Second, compare your prayer life with your screen life — which will humble almost anyone alive today. When we set the time we spend on our phones, or in front of televisions, next to the time we spend on our knees, what do we learn about our eyes and our hearts? The decisive concern here is not with the time spent, but with the commitment, passion, and affection we exert. Where do we run for rest and pleasure? Too many of us have not closed our eyes and bowed our heads enough to find the rest and pleasure we think we’re getting from a screen.
Third, do not train your eyes to overlook ungodliness or to tolerate immodesty. Neither will happen passively or accidentally. Godliness will require vigilance in what we watch, especially in a society aggressively marketing everything else. Some of us have drawn the lines to forbid the worst, while allowing an endless stream of sexually suggestive or immodest scenes into our eyes. We have also learned to ignore (and even indulge) the gods in our entertainment, instead of discerning and exposing them. This is not a call not to watch, but to watch what we watch, lest we raise our eyes to deceitful desires, are drawn away, and bow down and serve them.Eyes Wide Open
The warnings from Moses and Jesus are not meant to limit what we see, but to focus and expand what we see. They want us to see more, to have healthy eyes wide open for God. Steve DeWitt writes,
The beauties of this world whisper to our souls that there is someone ultimate. But the ultimate is never found in the wonderland of creation. We keep looking and longing for the beauty behind the beauty, the One who will satisfy the cravings of our soul. This explains why the drug addict keeps shooting up and the porn addict keeps looking and the materialist keeps buying and the thrill-seeker keeps jumping. On the other side of one thrill is the constant need for another. (Eyes Wide Open, 71)
As you walk through the wonderland of God’s creation, watch your eyes carefully. These thrills are whispers of Wonder, mere shadows of Light. They’re meant to make us more in awe of Christ, and to prepare us to spend eternity looking to him. “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7). We all will see him. How we use our eyes today will determine whether he is lovely when we do.
God wants his people to have serious joy. But at least three obstacles threaten the joy and the seriousness of this generation.
Is the joy of the Lord your strength?
This question can be difficult to answer — all of the words are so simple and familiar to Christians, yet the statement can get lost in a fog of ambiguity. When life is simple and sweet, we are quick to affirm without understanding, because surely “yes” must be the right answer.
But what about when spiritual complacency sticks to every inch of you, like Mississippi humidity? Or when you’ve allowed sin to overtake you for weeks, months — even years? When the word strength mocks you? When the joy of the Lord feels impossible, evidence against you at trial?
Failure or lack of faith can be the very thing that forces us to squarely confront this question. In that confrontation, where can we turn for help? Like new treasure hiding in an old package, the answer hides in plain sight in Nehemiah 8, waiting to be unwrapped.Marriage in Crisis
To understand Nehemiah, we must start before the story begins. God chose a man named Abraham to be the father of a family who would possess a special land and have a special relationship with God. When his descendants became slaves in Egypt, God rescued them and promised to make good on his covenant with his people — he the husband, his people the bride.
Heartwarming, right? Except his people had a problem — a rejecting-the-good-husband-for-worthless-lovers problem. And after centuries of mercy, patience, warning, and pleading, God sent his bride away. Their exile was severe, both in its brutality and how it burned into the minds and identity of the people. Who were they without the land, without the temple? How do they relate to God now? Was their special relationship also lost, the greatest marriage felled by common, sin-sick adultery?
The questions still haunted them when God brought them back to the land. At a key point in rebuilding Jerusalem — the sacred city, which had been utterly lain to waste — Ezra the scribe gathered all the people. He read to them from God’s book and had skilled ministers explain the words and their meaning to the people. Nehemiah 8:8 says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
And once the people understood — really understood — they wept.Renewing Vows in the Wreckage
Now, it can be easy for Christians to read God’s law like it’s the Apple “Terms of Service.” We scroll and click “yes” so that we can move on to something else — agreement without emotion. But what if God’s law is less like terms of service and more like wedding vows?
God’s relationship with his people is much like a marriage, which makes the covenant document between him and them much like vows. Sacred promises, made in love. Deep commitments. We speak them on our wedding day with hope and promise. And a little naïveté.
Married couples occasionally hold a vow-renewal ceremony. Why do couples do this? As the popular wedding website The Knot puts it, “Perhaps you’ve made it to 2, 5, 10, 25, or 50 years together and you want the world to know you’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Maybe you want to reaffirm your commitment to each other after a rough period in your relationship.”
A rough period is a mild way to describe what had happened between God and his people. But there the people were, at a vow renewal with their God. Gathered to hear again all the promises made centuries before. Gathered to hear the commitments that constituted their identity as a people, their relationship to their God. And the words are read out clearly, to be understood.
The people of God hear, and what is before their eyes is the destruction they caused — a city still barely rebuilt. And what is before their minds’ eyes are all the ways they and their ancestors had broken — sometimes with glee — every last one of those vows. They had been wretchedly unfaithful. There they are, standing in a beautiful dress as it were, and they feel crushed under the weight of their infidelity. How could they not weep?How Joy Strengthens Us
Nehemiah, a leader of the people, steps in to comfort and command them, “Do not be grieved,” — why? — “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Imagine again the scene of the vow-renewal. The bride is grief-stricken and ashamed. But there stands the husband. He is immaculately dressed, just as he was on their wedding day. His face is fixed on his wife, his eyes shining. His cheeks ache from smiling. He holds out his hands expectantly, full of delight. The warmth of love he feels when he looks at his bride radiates joy. He hears the vows and he thinks, “Yes, I’m still committed. Yes, these are the promises I will always keep to her, because I love her. I can’t wait to declare them again.”
On that day, this was God’s posture toward his people. Nehemiah twice tells them not to weep for “this day is holy to the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:9–10). The Levites — the tribe especially assigned to the things of God — calm them a third time with that same phrase, “this day is holy” (Nehemiah 8:11). It’s not “the day of the Lord,” that future time of final judgment. Perhaps that would have felt more realistic to the crowd experiencing the depth of their failure.
No, it’s not that day — it is this day in their history. The day the exiles gathered as a returned people, the fullness of the bride. The day God reaffirmed to them that they were still his chosen people, and he was still their God.
That is a joy that could impart strength. God declared through his law and his leaders that he loved and delighted in his people. He was fully aware of what had transpired, but his commitment was even more steadfast. There was no shaming, no “I told you so,” no clenched jaw hoping for a better turn this time. Only joy and love.
I had read Nehemiah 8 expecting to come away with a tidy lesson about the importance of the public reading of Scripture. Instead, I was overwhelmed by who God is — a wildly passionate husband whose love looks almost reckless, brimming with joy over his bride.For the Joy Set Before Him
The Israelites’ initial unraveling mirrors how we feel when we’ve failed Christ again, and again, and again. Our shame echoes in our hearts when we realize we’ve been too tired or too busy for God to get our true attention in a good long while, like he’s some vacation scrapbook we keep half complete in the basement. We may not be Israelites, but we know how heavy our faces can be to lift toward the eyes of another — even toward loving eyes.
My own record of wretchedness is endless. But we have something more secure than the law. Moses’s received commands were certainly like vows, but a few centuries after Ezra’s reading to the people, the husband himself visited that same city. He longed to gather his bride in his arms, but she turned away. For her sake, and for the sake of all who would trust him, he instead allowed his arms to be violently spread in death. No one forced him — he did it all for love, paying the debt for his runaway bride. When he looks at us now, washed by his work, he declares, “Beloved.”
We have been secured forever because Jesus perfectly kept our end of the vows. And that love transforms us into vow-keepers (albeit imperfectly for now). Your string of failures can be obliterated by confession. Your days of apathy can drop off your record through affectionate forgiveness. I breathe that in, and I feel strength rise — the strength of not merely being known, but being treasured by the Lord.
The joy of the Lord is our strength.
When we finally see the Lord face to face, we want to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant,” not, “Your labor was in vain.”
Two hours before writing this sentence, I received a phone call from a friend whose adult son was just told by the doctor that the medical professionals have done all they can do, and that barring a miracle, his cancer will be fatal. This would be the second child my friend has lost to cancer. I mention this because I am painfully aware that not everyone gets a reprieve from the cancer diagnosis the way I did — so far.
There are several ironies surrounding my own experience with cancer. My biopsy for prostate cancer happened on our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary, and the surgery to remove the cancerous gland happened on Valentine’s Day. It’s okay if you smile, even though cancer is not a laughing matter.Routine Exam, Everything Changes
Let me set the stage. It was a routine checkup with my urologist, after years of dealing with the troubling effects of an enlarged prostate. I was sixty years old and, I thought, in good health. Strange, isn’t it, how we presume we are in good health when, in fact, we have no idea what is growing inside of us.
When people ask me now, “How’s your health?” I never say, “Fine,” like I used to. I say, “I feel fine.” Which, being translated, means, “I don’t know how I am. Only God knows. For all I know, I could have fatal cancer, or an aortic aneurysm that will burst tomorrow, or a blood clot in my leg that will release tonight and cause a fatal stroke as I sleep.”
Here’s what changed that simple habit of saying, “Fine.” My routine exam is over. But the doctor says, “I felt some irregularities. I’d like to do a biopsy.” Pause. I say, “Okay, if you say so. When?” “Now,” he says, “if you have time.” Pause again, as this sinks in. “Sure.”
He takes me to another examination room, tells me to change into the robe hanging on the hook, and says he will be back in a few minutes with the machine for the biopsy. He goes out and leaves me alone.Perfectly Timed Gift
At this point, you remember your best friends — the ones you spend the most time with and who tell you what you most need to hear, when you need to hear it. Well, I had spent significant time early that morning with my friend the apostle Paul. In fact, I had loved his words so much that morning that I had committed two verses to memory.
As I sat there on the examination table with my legs dangling over the end, wearing my open-backed hospital gown, and waiting for I knew not what, Paul’s words came back to me.
God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for [you] so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10)
This was an exquisite gift to me. Perfectly timed. Perfectly expressed. Paul had spoken the words that morning. But God had arranged for me to read them during my devotions. God had put it in my heart to memorize them. God had brought them to my mind in the examination room. And God had given me the faith to embrace them as the sweetest gift he could give in that moment. Yes, even sweeter than “You will be healed.”No Maverick Cells
But Paul was God’s instrument. His spokesman. His emissary to my need. I knew the voice of God, because I knew the voice of his ambassador. This was vintage Paul. Here’s the tailor-made news he spoke to me:
First, he told me, “What you are about to experience — cancer or not — is not wrath! If you have cancer, it is not owing to God’s punishment.”
To feel the full force of this, you need to realize that I share Paul’s unshakable conviction that God is absolutely in control of whether anyone gets cancer. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). He said, “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
So when Paul said to me, “This is not the wrath of God,” he did not mean, “If you have cancer, it’s not from God.” No. No. If I have cancer (which I did), it is most certainly owing to God’s ultimate purposes. God controls every molecule in the universe. He is God! There are no maverick cells outside his control.
What Paul meant when he said, “This is not the wrath of God,” is that, cancer or not, “God is not punishing you.” This is not punitive. God has his purposes, but they do not include punishment for my sin. They are all mercy. All love. How do I know that? Paul answers that question. I will come back to it in number four below.Better Than No Death
Second, Paul told me, as I waited for the doctor, the positive side of “This is not wrath.” He said, “God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation.”
This cancer is not wrath. It is the path to salvation. Salvation is the positive counterpart to no wrath. Did he mean, “The biopsy will come back cancer-free. You will be saved from having cancer”? No. That is not what he meant.
There is no question about this. Paul said, in effect, that I might die from the cancer they are about to detect. So what, then, does salvation consist in? He will get to that.
Third, Paul told me that God does not guarantee I will escape death from this cancer.
He said that I would be saved “whether [you] are awake or asleep.” This means “whether you live or die.” Paul called death sleep not because after death there is no conscious fellowship with Jesus (Philippians 1:23), but because the body of a dead Christian looks like it is sleeping, and that body will be raised from the dead (as from sleep) at the last day (1 Corinthians 15:20).
You might think this would be small comfort — not being told that I was going to survive this cancer. But that is not the way it worked. What I needed at that moment was a comfort far more solid and lasting and unshakable than a few more years of life after cancer. I needed just what I got: “This is not wrath. You are destined for salvation. And that is true — absolutely true — whether you live or die!”Of First Importance
Fourth, Paul gave the awesome answer to the question I left open at the end of number one: “How do you know this cancer is not the punishment of God for your sins?” Answer: because Christ already died for my sins. Cancer or no cancer, death or life, Paul told me that I was going to “obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for [you].”
At moments like these, we realize why Paul said, “I delivered to you as of first importance: . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). “Of first importance” is that “Christ died for our sins.” Why?
Because, if he died for them, we will not die for them. That would be double jeopardy. That was the reason he came — that my condemnation under the wrath of God (John 3:36) would be endured by Jesus when he died on the cross (Romans 8:3). The person who is united to Christ by faith in him “does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
That’s why Paul said, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). No condemnation because Christ bore the condemnation. No wrath because Christ bore the wrath. That’s why Paul said to me so clearly and firmly and joyfully, as I waited for the biopsy, “This cancer is not wrath.”Promise of a Person
The final thing he said to me was very personal — namely, just what he meant by salvation. “God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for [you] so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] might live with him.”
Whether you live or die, you will live. But not just live in some misty, unspecified immortality, but very specifically, you will “live with him” — the one who died for you and rose again. Which means at least two great truths. One is that I will live forever, since the one I live with cannot die. “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again” (Romans 6:9). The other is that I get to live forever with the one who loved me enough to die for me. This is a very personal and deeply satisfying promise.
The doctor called me the next day and said, “You have cancer. I’d like to meet with you and your wife when it’s convenient for you and discuss your options.” We took the radical option: take it out. That happened seven weeks later — on Valentine’s Day. That was twelve years ago. How am I doing? I feel fine.
Today hundreds of thousands of people will wake to the burden of severe debt. It is tempting to believe that the solution to debt and the pathway to financial freedom begins with paychecks, budgets, and investments. Educating yourself about money is wise, and a budget can be practically helpful, but it cannot be our starting point. That would be like teaching a little boy to throw a football but not helping him to understand the basic purpose, rules, and fundamentals of the game.
It is both impossible and dangerous to solve personal debt by only talking about money. Like every other issue in our life, debt must be rooted in a distinctly biblical worldview. We must allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to correct our assumptions about debt and shape our spending. Otherwise, we won’t be able to gain ground in the way we understand money, avoid debt, and use our finances to bring glory to God.Debt and Surrender
Addressing the issue of debt doesn’t begin with money education and budget information; it begins with surrender. You and I will never use money the way it was meant to be used, and we will never break disastrous money habits, if we are not living in light of the fact that life is not about us.
We are God’s idea, we reflect his design, we exist for his purpose, and we have been commissioned to do his will. When it comes to money, you and I weren’t designed to find our own way, to make it up as we go along, or to write our own set of rules.
The world wasn’t first created to be a vehicle for realizing our personal definition of happiness. Money wasn’t created for the sole purpose of bringing into our lives all the things we crave. If we don’t start with surrender, even if we’re not in debt, we will use money in a way that God never intended.
In this way maybe many of us have more money problems than we realize. We think we’re okay because we are able to pay the price of our pleasures. But we’re not okay, because what shapes our money matters is a spirit of ownership rather than a spirit of surrender. The first step in money sanity is surrendering to the glory of one greater than you.Debt and Contentment
Debt is not fundamentally an overspending problem; it is a contentment problem. If you carefully read the following words from the apostle Paul to Timothy, you begin to get a clue that the love of money is connected to things significantly bigger than money:
Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6–10)
Paul begins his discussion with contentment because the roots of our problem with money are found there. It’s only when God’s grace has formed in us truly contented hearts that we can live financially restrained lives, not following the rabbit trail of every selfish desire that our wallets can afford.
Don’t misunderstand. It’s not wrong to invest in a home for your family or to feed your children well or to take a weeklong sabbath of rest and relaxation somewhere nice with your loved ones. God calls many of us to do those things in love. I’m attempting to get you to examine how much discontent drives the way that you spend your money.
When my heart is committed to and satisfied by the glory of God, my heart is content, and I am thereby freed from the debt-inducing tyranny of hoping that the next big purchase will finally make me content. Spending in pursuit of personal happiness never results in lasting happiness; it only results in the acquiring of debt and all the emotional and spiritual stress that goes with it.Debt and Gospel Hope
I am writing this not just for you, but also for me. I don’t carry a credit card, but my heart still looks for life where it can’t be found. I am still way too attracted to stuff I don’t need. I am way too skilled at justifying expenditures that should never have been made. And I struggle with these things because I still live with too much allegiance to the kingdom of self.
That’s why I cling so closely to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s grace carries with it a message of fresh starts and new beginnings. Getters can become givers. Controllers can live lives of surrender. We can climb out of debt. God’s grace opens the door to a whole new relationship with money for each of us, not because we are good and deserve it, but because God is that good, and he offers us grace that is that powerful.
God’s grace offers us the only hope of real change when it comes to our personal finances. There is no mountain of debt so big that God’s grace isn’t bigger. There is no money-problem pit so deep that God’s grace isn’t deeper.
As we face money problems, we don’t need to panic, we don’t need to be paralyzed by fear, we don’t have to deny reality to get some peace, we don’t have to relieve our consciences by shifting the blame, and we don’t have to cynically abandon hope. We can face our money issues with hope not because we are wise or able, but because God is, and he offers us his forgiving, rescuing, and transforming grace.
Making money is not evil. But our possessions can subtly tempt us to find our contentment in what God gives rather than who God is.
“All I need is God.”
The words were becoming increasingly familiar in his new Christian vocabulary. He sang them in verses and choruses on Sunday morning. He heard them in sermons and testimonies. And, of course, he read some variation of them all throughout his Bible. “All we have, all we need, all we want is God.”
The words often felt false on his lips. He thought of how many things he treasured after God. Big things like his parents, his girlfriend, and his nephews. Small things like his bike, his books, and the river by his house. He knew he wanted these things. At times he felt like he even needed them — they energized him, delighted him, comforted him.
He wondered, Can I really say I need God alone?What a Quiet Time Can’t Do
The phrase “all I need is God” captures the cornerstone of Christian hope, but it is not the only word God himself speaks over the Christian life. To be sure, God alone in Jesus Christ is our greatest and final need. He is the one we need to be born again, justified, forgiven, adopted, and placed on the road to glory. God is also the only one in this world that we cannot truly live without. But when the Bible talks about how Christians fulfill their mission, or find strength in depression, or feel comfort in sorrow, or mature overall, it has more to say than simply God alone.
As we keep repeating, “All I need is God,” over time the phrase may elbow out other biblical ways God gives himself to us. We may subtly give the impression that the Christian who is always alone with his Bible, away from the world, will be first in the kingdom. And we may foster a false sense of guilt for brothers and sisters who, try as they might, need more than prayer and Bible reading to cope with trials and temptations.
Throughout Scripture, God’s people often need more than God alone — they need God through the things he has made. They need not only the grace of God in the gospel, but also the gifts of God in creation.
Consider the stories of three biblical characters: Adam, Elijah, and Paul.Flesh and Bones in the Garden
As Adam walks through Eden, a sinless man in a perfect garden, with the trees and rivers clapping their hands, and the shalom of God pulsing through the air, two words smack against the sky like a bird hitting a window: “not good.”
“It is not good,” God says, “that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). In order to fulfill his mission to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28), Adam needed more than God alone. He needed “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). He needed Eve.
And then, even together, Adam and Eve needed more than God alone. If God had wanted to, he could have created Adam and Eve as pure spirit — two angels alongside Michael and Gabriel and the rest of heaven’s hosts. Instead, God made a man and a woman, spirits fastened to flesh and bone. And then he placed them in a world teeming with more than God alone: stars and moons, tulips and oaks, dolphins and rabbits, and a few billion other plants, animals, and minerals.
In God’s very good world, Adam and Eve needed the rain to grow their food, and wine to gladden their hearts, and oil to make their faces shine, and bread to strengthen their bones, and lights to mark the seasons (Psalm 104:13–15, 19).
Adam and Eve needed more than God alone in order to fulfill their mission. They needed God’s help through each other and every other good thing.Eat, Sleep, Repeat
Jump forward a few thousand years. The prophet Elijah stumbles through the wilderness outside Beersheba, running from a queen who wants his head. “If a sword is not thrust through that prophet by this time tomorrow,” Jezebel had said, “so may the gods do to me and more also” (see 1 Kings 19:1–2). A hundred miles later, Elijah collapses beneath a broom tree, exhausted, depressed, and ready to die (1 Kings 19:4).
Elijah needs God to revive his faith. He needs God to speak to him. He needs God to show himself. But first, he needs to sleep and eat.
And God knows. After letting his prophet rest, God sends his angel with these most practical of words: “Arise and eat” (1 Kings 19:5). So Elijah eats, and then he sleeps again. The angel comes back: “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (1 Kings 19:7). Man shall not live by bread alone — true. But man should not try to live without bread.
Elijah needed more than God alone to find strength in his depression. He needed God’s help through food and sleep.God of All Friends
What about Paul, the single apostle and frontier missionary? Didn’t he find all his help in God alone?
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls God “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of comfort — a God who tracks us down in the wasteland of our fears and anxieties, wraps his arm around us, and leads us back home.
But how does God deliver his comfort? Sometimes, God comforts us directly through his word. When Paul felt the thorn pierce his side, and when he pleaded for relief, Jesus met him with a word: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Other times, God comforts us through his people. When Paul came into Macedonia, and was “afflicted at every turn,” God wrapped his comfort in a person: “God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:5–6).
Often, God sends comfort to his people by sending them a friend. He sees us in our affliction, taps one of his image bearers on the shoulder, and says, “Go and show him what I’m like.” So we get a knock on our door, or a conversation after church, or friends who ask how they can pray for us. And through them we feel our Father’s comfort.
Paul needed more than God alone to feel comfort in his sorrow. He needed God’s help through a good friend.From Whom All Blessings Flow
“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God,” C.S. Lewis writes. “The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere incognito” (Letters to Malcolm, 75).
Throughout Scripture, and throughout our lives, God often ministers to us incognito. He wraps the world he has made like a cloak around him, he masks himself with his creation, and he walks about the earth on a mission to bless his people.
So when we find help from more than God alone, we should not be surprised. All of God’s created gifts are medicine from our Physician, green grass from our Shepherd, flowers from our Bridegroom. And therefore, they are avenues for adoring him.
We may need more than God alone, but he alone is the fountain from whom all blessings flow, the giver of every good gift (James 1:17). So he alone deserves the glory for all the strength and hope and comfort we find — wherever we may find it.
Everyone wants to be a part of something larger than themselves. This is no accident. God designed you to join him in his goal of global glory.
Sometimes we need a good dose of reality therapy — a reminder that reality is far wilder and more wonderful than we often realize.
We have this strange tendency to take our own existence, others’ existence, and the world we live in for granted, as if these are just mundane facts. As if living on a giant sphere spinning at 1,000 miles per hour, while orbiting around a gargantuan fireball at about 67,000 miles per hour, in a solar system that’s traveling around the Milky Way at over 500,000 miles per hour, while the galaxy itself is hurtling through space at more than 1.3 million miles per hour is just sort of ho-hum. And the real exciting action is taking place on Facebook or Fortnite.
No, we need to pull our heads out of our virtual worlds of self-preoccupation and remember what’s real — what’s breathtakingly, gloriously real. Let me try to revive your memory by riffing on just a few astonishing things about you.You’re Here!
First, you’re here. When was the last time you really thought about that? You’re here! And you’re here because God wants you here — regardless of the circumstances surrounding your birth, how much or little others have valued you, your abilities or disabilities, how sweetly other people have nurtured you or how terribly they have abused you, what kind of sinner you were or how long you were. You are here because God chose here and now for you.
You exist because God wanted you to exist (Acts 17:26–28). And as a Christian, God chose to make you his child in Christ. He began to love you as his own before the universe as we know it existed (Ephesians 1:3–6). And God is pursuing you with goodness and mercy every day of your life (Psalm 23:6) — yes, every day — and he will bless you exceeding abundantly beyond anything your remarkable but still relatively limited imagination has yet conceived (Ephesians 3:20).
That is your reality. Do you believe it? I mean, really? Not as a mere abstract theological fact, but as something that sometimes makes you catch your breath and your knees go a bit wobbly. Does it ever hit you that you are God’s idea and God’s creation — that he intended you to be?
There’s far more to your existence than lunch and soccer practice and Netflix and turning in that report and that broken relationship and the congressional elections and retirement savings and Abercrombie & Fitch. Yes, as Jesus said, your “life is more than food, and [your] body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23). So much more.You Are Alive!
Now, let’s just think for a moment on the amazing truth that you have this thing called “life.” Where did you get your life? You got it from God (1 Corinthians 7:17). You are alive? Do you even understand what that means? No, you don’t — and neither do I!
No human being has been able to define exactly what life is; we just know that life is. Scientific definitions of what life is are really just descriptions of how living matter differs from nonliving matter and how living matter behaves. We might know a lot about what propagates life, sustains life, and ends life, but we can’t capture life’s very essence, that mysterious thing that is life. And that’s because all life comes from the Life (John 14:6), the one Great Existential Fact (Exodus 3:14).
Do you know how rare you are as a living being? Life in the physical, observable universe is very, very, very, very rare. And that’s a dramatic understatement. The conditions that must be met for life to exist are so restrictive that, far from it being likely that other intelligent beings exist in the cosmos, it is nothing short of a miracle that any life, not to mention intelligent life, exists anywhere.
And you — statistically speaking, you should not exist. Given the incalculable billions of sperm and ova combined with the incalculable billions of circumstantial twists and turns over the course of human history, any one of which could have resulted in you not being here at all, it’s nothing short of a miracle that you are. You, as a living being, are so rare, and as a statistical probability, so unlikely, we can scarcely begin to comprehend the marvel of your existence. You’re alive because, against all the obstacles and probabilities, God gave you life.You Have a Brain!
And speaking of comprehension, of the teeniest fraction of universal matter that is alive, you are of the rarest kind because of your brain. That thing in your head that’s allowing you to read and contemplate this right now. Your brain is the most complex thing ever discovered in the material universe. Nothing else even comes close.
We often talk about the brain in clinical terms as if it’s just a normal, matter-of-fact thing. It is not a normal, matter-of-fact thing. It’s a miracle of matter. Through an incredibly complex nervous system, your brain manages your vision (sight), audition (hearing), gustation (taste), olfaction (smell), and somatosensation (touch), equilibrium (balance), digestion, cardiovascular system, pulmonary system, epidermal (skin) system, immune system, and a whole bunch of other systems, and synthesizes them all together so that you can go about your life thinking about and doing other things.
And what kinds of things are those “other things”? Grinding prescription eyeglasses and building skyscrapers and managing newspapers and choosing homeschool curricula and designing space shuttles and engaging in cross-cultural evangelism and preparing delicious meals and architecting a landscape and programing computer software and installing indoor plumbing and undertaking Bible translation and installing kitchen cabinets and projecting trends in global finance and coaching youth soccer teams and painting with oils on canvas and planting 500 acres of wheat and teaching graduate level English literature classes and installing water wells in arid regions and conducting pharmaceutical research and composing symphonic scores and planting churches and monitoring grocery store inventory and writing a difficult email and organizing a public library and repairing automobiles and planning convenient gas station locations and playing hide-and-seek with children and placing a satellite into orbit and creating GPS maps that talk to you while you drive and composing a sonnet and laying the footers for a suspension bridge in deep ocean water and committing Scripture to memory. These and a hundred billion “other things” are the result of the human brain — like yours.Who You Are
This is only the tip of the iceberg of the awesome reality of your existence. Take this in any direction you choose and just let yourself think about the astounding thing it is to be alive and conscious in this incredible world.
Don’t let the morbid and horrific commandeer your thoughts, neither allow your weaknesses, discouragements, sins, or defects to cloud your skies. These are realities, but they are subordinate, fading realities. Cast what you must upon the cross, but then pull up and soar above introspection. Remember for a while that your existence — and the world’s — are wild things, awesome things, fearful and wonderful things (Psalm 139:14). And remember who holds them together “by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).
You exist because God wanted you to exist and you are who you are, what you are, how you are, where you are, and when you are because God made you (John 1:3), wove you in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), called you to be his own (John 10:27; Romans 8:30), and assigned you a life to live (1 Corinthians 7:17). And this infuses your entire life — its good and evil, its sweet and bitter, it’s health and affliction, its prosperity and poverty, its comfort and suffering — with an unfathomable dignity, purpose, and glory.
God doesn’t want his secret to contentment to stay secret. He wrote it plainly in a book.
“If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13).
Gideon asked the question thousands of years ago, and we have been asking it ever since. Haven’t we all asked that question secretly, if not out loud, at some point in suffering?
The Israelites were disheartened by the Midianites’ continual oppression. To many, like Gideon, these hardships didn’t make sense if God truly was with his people. They had heard the stories of God’s power, but since they had never seen it displayed, they doubted his presence. That’s why Gideon asked the angel of the Lord, almost sarcastically, “Where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?” He followed his question with bleak despair, “But now the Lord has forsaken us” (Judges 6:13).
Looking at the circumstances, Gideon saw no evidence that God was there or that God cared.Why Did This Happen?
For years I felt like Gideon. I wondered why hard things happened when a loving God was supposedly in control. When people told me that God loved me, I thought, If God loves me, then why did this happen to me?
As a polio survivor from infancy, I had multiple surgeries each year, living in and out of the hospital. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was convinced that a good God couldn’t love me and watch me suffer. So, I had concluded that God wasn’t good, didn’t exist, or didn’t care. If he was good and cared about me, then why had all that happened to me?
But when I was 16, God in his mercy answered that lifelong question through John 9. His answer was simple and direct: “that the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:3). And with that revelation, my world shifted.One Little Word Fells Us
I took comfort in the truth that God was with me and could use my suffering to demonstrate his glory, but when new struggles surfaced, sometimes I would return to that familiar question: If the Lord is with me, then why did all this happen?
After my son died, I felt abandoned by God. If God loved me, why didn’t he spare Paul’s life? And after my husband left me, I would scream into the darkness, “God, if you love me, why are you letting this happen to me?”
Those questions must have delighted Satan. Satan turns truth into doubt with that little word: if. Satan’s temptation of Jesus began with the words “If you are the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3). Satan and Jesus both knew that Jesus was the Son of God. Everyone at Jesus’s baptism knew he was the Son of God (Matthew 3:17). Yet when Jesus was alone in the wilderness, Satan tempted him to doubt what he undeniably knew to be true.The Lord Is with You
Satan tempts us in the same way. When our prayers seemingly go unanswered, Satan wants us to mistrust God and question his promises. Satan wants us to doubt God’s goodness and demand proof of his love, inciting us to ask, “If God loves me, then why am I suffering?” Or as Gideon asked, “If the Lord is with us, then why has this happened?”
If the Lord is with us? If God loves me? Those statements should never have an “if” before them. God’s presence and love are guaranteed to those in Christ. When Satan tempts us to question God’s character, we must stand firmly on the truth of Scripture.
In Christ we know that God is always with us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He will never fail us or forsake us.Results of His Love
Our Lord loves us extravagantly. God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). In love, God sent his own Son to die for our sins. Nothing can separate us from his love.
All of Scripture assures us that God is with us and that he loves us. Many of us have known this truth from childhood: “Jesus loves me — this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” With reassurances everywhere, we must reframe our question, instead asking, “Because God loves me, then why did this happen?”
Because God loves me. This phrase changes everything. It reorients my heart. It turns me Godward. When I ground myself on the truth that God loves me, I view my situation through a new lens. Rather than questioning his love, I seek to align my thoughts and actions with his, knowing everything in my life is a result of his love and his presence, not his disfavor or absence.
Rather than insisting that God answer me, I can instead ask myself: What is God doing in my suffering? What can I learn from this trial?Receiving Trials with Faith
With this new perspective, believing by faith that my trials are given out of love, I can deliberately look for the good that God is bringing from my suffering.
Sometimes the good is hard to see. And the little I do see can feel insignificant in comparison to the pain I’m enduring. It is then that I must remind myself that my afflictions are producing “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And God has a purpose in each of them.
While we may not learn the specific purpose behind each struggle, we do know that God uses suffering to increase our dependence on him. To deepen our faith and draw us closer to him. To refine our character, to prepare us for ministry, to comfort others with the comfort we’ve received. And as we rejoice in him even through pain, God is glorified.God Doesn’t Love Suffering
God doesn’t love your suffering. He loves you. He will walk with you through the darkest valleys and will never ever leave you.
When God brings trials into your life, don’t question his love or turn away. God is doing something breathtaking in you, for you, and through you. Because the Lord is with you, and because the Lord loves you, everything that happens to you is filled with divine purpose. Every trial you endure has passed through God’s loving hands. And one day, when your faith becomes sight, you will thank him for every difficulty.
God has a mansion with rooms for many, but none can enter without the key.
Every army general serious about success enters a battle with a plan. He knows his strengths, his weaknesses, his tactics, his contingencies. Most of all, for his plan to be successful, he must know his enemy. If he doesn’t, even his best intentions won’t keep him from destruction.
When it comes to battling temptation, however, many of us assume that good intentions are sufficient. We really do want to overcome temptation, but we’ve never considered that our temptations are administered at the hands of a skillful, ruthless enemy bent on our destruction. Our good intentions are no match for the corruption of our flesh, much less the cunning of our enemy.
As the apostle Paul noted, as long as we dwell in corruptible bodies, we’re going to have temptations. And we’re going to stumble — sometimes quite often. The greatest saints have despaired over their propensity toward temptation even in their dying days. In his eighties, John Newton confessed how discouraged he was with his lack of spiritual progress and how acute the temptations of his flesh still felt to him. John Bunyan lamented the fear and faithlessness he felt going into the last chapter of his life.
Even so, we don’t have to throw our hands up and simply give in. If we know a little about Satan’s tactics, we can have much more confidence when he attacks.Satan’s Go-to Tactic
When Satan tempted Jesus, he began by saying, “If you are the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3).
Wait —“If”? Just a few verses earlier, when Jesus was baptized, God the Father had declared from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Satan, you see, rarely starts with lies; he starts with dangerous questions. “If this is really true . . . ”
Satan’s go-to tactic in our lives is to break the hold the word of God has on us. So, he takes what God has declared and casts doubt on it. Satan puts question marks in your life where God has put periods.
Sometimes he’ll move from questioning God’s truth to outright denial. But many times, the question itself is enough. We find ourselves with Adam and Eve: doubting. Does God really have my best interests at heart? The warmth of our affection for him soon cools, and we are left longing for the comforts sinful indulgence will bring.
Often, however, more effective than denial or doubt is simple distraction. After all, Satan is happiest when we are not thinking about the word of God at all. C.S. Lewis depicts this well in The Screwtape Letters. The older demon, Screwtape, is writing to a younger demon-in-training, describing a critical temptation he was involved in. His victim was reading a book that prompted him to think about God. “Before I knew where I was,” Screwtape says, “I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter.” So, what did he do?
He didn’t launch into an attack on God’s existence. He didn’t bring up lustful temptations. He simply reminded his victim that it was almost time for lunch. And by the time this poor sap was on his way out the door, Lewis said, he had completely forgotten about God. Often, Lewis notes, distraction is a more effective technique than denial.Defeating Satan Through Defiant Declaration
If Satan’s main aim is to distract us from God’s word, it makes sense that the primary way we overcome Satan’s temptations is by intentional meditation on God’s word. That’s true. But it may not be true in the way you think.
Many people interpret the big point of Jesus’s temptation like this: the way you overcome Satan is by knowing more Scripture than he does. Growing up, I envisioned this like some kind of Harry Potter duel. Satan throws a temptation, and you ward it off by going, “Oh no you don’t! First Peter 3:8!” Bam! Then Satan comes back with another one, and you say, “Ah, but I know the genealogy between Eliud and Jehoiachin!” And Satan says, “Whoa, I can’t touch that. Foiled again by AWANA!”
Here’s the problem with that: No matter how many years you’ve memorized Scripture, Satan still knows more verses than you. He’s had centuries of practice. And reciting the one verse you happen to know (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”) isn’t going to automatically send him running away in fear.
There is something specific about God’s word that Jesus recalls, something that undergirds every verse he quotes, something so powerful that not even Satan, with all his knowledge, can refute it — his identity in the Father’s eyes. Remember? Satan said, “If you are the Son of God.” Everything Jesus quotes ultimately goes back to the security he possesses in who he is before God. The Father gave Jesus an identity-defining period, and he rested in it.The Root of All His Schemes
People think Satan’s main work is weird stuff — making people foam at the mouth or levitate above their beds. And while he does some of that, that’s not what he goes after with Jesus. He wasn’t even trying to seduce Jesus through the lusts of his flesh. In the wilderness, for instance, he wasn’t showing Jesus pornographic images. Satan tried to make Jesus question God’s presence and God’s plan. He knew that if he could get Jesus to doubt God’s goodness toward him, the rest would fall into place.
That’s the root of his temptations toward us: to get us to establish our identity on something other than God’s declaration over us in Christ. The moment he convinces us to insert that question mark into our lives, our security disappears and our strength evaporates.
We don’t battle Satan mainly by what we determine to do, but by declaring what Jesus has already done. By defiantly declaring our identity in Christ. Jesus overcame Satan’s lies when we couldn’t. We overcome Satan by trusting in his victory and asking his Spirit to overcome temptation through us.Take Your Identity into War
Satan’s first temptation toward you will be to get you to base your identity on something about you. Anything about you. How you live. How well-liked you are. How many people come to your church. How much more successful you’ve been than others in similar circumstances. He wants to distract you from the gospel message that in Christ we have the final approval of the only one whose opinion really matters.
We defeat Satan by clinging to that gospel, defiantly, flinging it back in Satan’s face. If I am a child of God? I am a coheir with Christ, chosen in him from the foundation of the world. Seated with him in the heavenly places. In him, all the promises of God for me are yes in Christ Jesus. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
We kill sin with superior promises. John Piper shares his most-used promises and how they have served him over the decades.
He died one year ago this month, at the age of 93. For almost a century, he gave himself in service to the needs of others. He was one of the most manifestly unselfish people I have ever known.
My grandfather gave himself for his country, serving in World World II. He was wounded in combat and received two bronze stars for heroic valor. When he came home from the war, he taught ROTC, studied poultry husbandry at Clemson, and then completed forty years in the South Carolina poultry industry. He served as a deacon in his church, often as chairman. And when he “retired” from work in the late 1980s, he did not retire from serving others. In fact, his serving became all the more demanding and selfless.
In his golden years, he gave himself for his children and grandchildren. He and Grandmommy didn’t move to Boca Raton, but leveraged their retirement years to serve family and church in new and fresh ways. They tirelessly sacrificed for the good of others. As the oldest child, I had a front-row seat for how Granddaddy in particular made life workable for our family of six in those unusually demanding little years (with four kids age 9 and under).
Then, not long after I graduated from college and moved across the country, Grandmommy developed severe dementia and was no longer able to function as normal. It all happened so fast. Without much warning, everything fell to him. A lifetime of private instincts and habits came quickly into full view. Would he care for her when it cost him most? When it meant surrendering the idyllic retirement he’d anticipated for decades? Would he trade golf for going to a litany of doctors, friendship for pressing needs, and vacations for daily vigilance? Soon they were together in assisted living, and eventually she needed professional care and attention, but all along, Granddaddy was there, with remarkable faithfulness, concern, and service. For ten years, he cared for her daily until she died in late 2014.
He was a true husband. He gave himself for her.He Gave Himself
Six times the apostle Paul says that Jesus “gave himself” for his people. He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). He “gave himself as a ransom” (1 Timothy 2:6). He “gave himself for us to redeem us” (Titus 2:14). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). And for Paul (and us), Jesus’s self-giving love is not only corporate, but personal: he “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). In Jesus’s giving of his own self for us, God demonstrates his love (Romans 5:8). And Ephesians 5:25 makes the connection to earthly husbands:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
In modern times, the word submit turns heads in Ephesians 5:22–33, but that’s not the heart of the matter for Paul. Rather, what he lingers over, and gives more space and attention to explaining (in more than three times as many words), is his radical charge to husbands to give yourself up for her — as Jesus did for his church.
But in the ups and downs, and endless shades and ambiguities, of everyday domestic life, what does it mean for a Christian husband to give himself up for her?Giving In vs. Giving Yourself
It’s an important question for Christian husbands to ask themselves because weak and selfish giving in to wifely whims may appear on the surface to be strong and selfless giving himself up. And there is all the difference in the world between a husband giving in and giving himself up for her.
God doesn’t call husbands to “be the head.” He simply says the husband is head (Ephesians 5:23). The question is not whether the man will be head, but what kind of head will he be? An absent one? A lazy one? An evil, abusive one? Or will he be a true husband, the kind Jesus is to his church? The husband’s calling is to be a head like Christ — which is the sort of headship provided by one who is also Savior. “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23).
Jesus made it plain what headship means in Christian terms: not lording it over, but serving.
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)
But every husband needs help with that kind of serving. Is any old semblance of service adequate? How do we know when we’re serving as one who selflessly gives himself up, rather than as one who selfishly gives in? Consider four questions husbands can ask of their patterns and individual acts of service to discern whether they’re simply giving in, or giving of themselves like Christ.Loving Self or Her?
First, am I loving myself or loving her? Or maybe a better way to put it: Am I being sinfully selfish, or admirably self-interested, in serving my wife?
Three times Ephesians 5:28–33 says husbands should love their wives as they love themselves — an understated application of Jesus’s affirmation of Leviticus 19:18: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If such with every neighbor, how much more with my wife?
In the course of marriage, we make hundreds of small, intuitive decisions on a daily basis that affect our wives. We don’t stop to ponder and reflect on all these. But when we do, perhaps even multiple times a day, we come to moments of decision, emotional forks in the road. What is the loving choice and action here? Before taking action, I find it helpful to ask myself, Am I loving her or self? Is this selfish or self-interested?
Selfishness seeks my own private good at her expense. Self-interest finds my good in hers. Giving in is a lazy, selfish kind of “sacrifice.” Giving of myself is typically demanding and depleting, but it is gloriously rewarding to find my good in hers.Dutifully or Joyfully?
Second, am I serving my wife dutifully or joyfully?
Begrudging service, perhaps surprisingly, is often a form of giving in. Something is not right when we grit our teeth and just get it done. We may indeed be doing what we sense is required externally in that moment, but if we’re not doing it gladly, we may be just giving in instead of truly giving of ourselves.
True masculinity is “the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.” Jesus gives himself up for his bride not dutifully but “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). God calls heads to serve “with joy and not with groaning” (Hebrews 13:17), “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). He expects no less of husbands. And his Spirit stands ready to help to those who ask.Her Sin or Her Sanctity?
Third, am I catering to sin or pursuing holiness? First, it’s a question for me. In undertaking this “sacrifice,” am I giving in to my own sinful proclivities, or am I pursuing real holiness (which is typically the harder, not easier, option)? Then, turning to consider my wife, will this sacrifice cater to her sin, or contribute to her holiness?
Ephesians 5:25–27 addresses the motivation that drives true husbandly sacrifice: her sanctity. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Our sacrifices and service will not prove neutral. They will contribute, in the end, to sin or sanctity. Which leads to a final question — and the one I’ve found most helpful.Convenient or Costly?
Lastly, is my supposed sacrifice for my wife convenient for me or costly? Is it the easy action to take or the tough one? Is it a form of laziness in disguise, or does it require physical or emotional energy? Will this be personally convenient, or have some real, personal cost?
Jesus’s giving himself up for his church was not convenient. It was not accomplished by his choosing the easiest, laziest path. And not just at the cross, but throughout his life. So also today as he works by his Spirit in the church. And in marriage, this is a vital way in which our unions point to his gospel. Not just by our being Christians, but by the husband in particular caring for his wife in such a surprising way that the world sees the surprising care of Christ for his church. The world expects husbands to serve when it’s convenient. What catches eyes, and reveals genuine love, is serving when it’s costly.When to Make Momma Happy
It may indeed be true that when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. But true husbandly sacrifice doesn’t just seek to make momma happy now, but for endless ages to come.
Such a husband knows that simply giving in to wifely whims is not just easy, convenient, and weak, but will destroy both her joy and his in the long run. And such a husband knows that gladly giving himself up for her is not only costly, and the heart of real sacrificial service, but what builds her joy, and his, forever.