Christian preaching is a God-appointed means of transforming its hearers in both head and heart — not only in intellect, but also in affections.
Her father-in-law played professional ice hockey for the Canadian National Team. Her three sons are all accomplished athletes, two in hockey and one in volleyball. One of her sons, Matt, is a former NHL hockey player. Mary’s husband, Brent, is a bi-vocational pastor and serves as an Athletes in Action chaplain for pro football and soccer teams in Canada. He also works as director of a physical therapy sports medicine rehab center. With so many sports connections, Mary says, “We have professional athletes through our home all the time.”
With decades of experience, Mary is conversant with the amateur athletic world (as well as the professional), so I value her wisdom in helping parents navigate the high-pressure, specialized world of youth sports. In anticipation of the upcoming spring and summer seasons, I asked Mary Kassian questions about the costs of team sports, the value of travel teams, and the tensions that come along with sports and church attendance.Kid-Driven?
The first area of caution she offers is a check on parental drive. Are the athletic aspirations driven by the child? Or are they driven by mom and dad? She’s concerned about kids who carry the vicarious ambitions of parents who take amateur sports too far, too fast.
“I fear we push our children to be far too busy, and to specialize far too early, and to commit far too much time. And it can be parent-driven, rather than driven by a parent discerning a child’s natural bent and inclination and abilities.”
Before long, kids grow weary of the over-specialized sport.
“I’ve seen 13- and 14-year-old boys burned out by a sport, and sick of it. Or they feel that they need to excel at it in order to please their parents, and their parents have communicated that their worth and value are wrapped up in how well they do at a particular sport. They get to high school and they’ve already had so much of it, they don’t enjoy it anymore.”
But obviously a lot of sports are driven by the aspiration of the child, which raises questions about the cost of the sport on the family.Weighing the Costs
As sports specialize and demand year-round practices or training, the costs add up quickly. The price tag is a huge consideration, an expense some families attempt to justify because of potential college scholarships. “Given all these team costs — training, registration, travel, hotels, equipment — the amount of money that you pour into sports to get to the level where you’re going to get a scholarship, you could have probably paid for a lot of college tuition by the time your child turns sixteen,” she says honestly. And that’s no exaggeration, especially compared to the small sliver of high school athletes who land major-college scholarships.
But the cost is not only a drain on the budget; it’s also a glut to the schedule. Serious amateur athletics come with intense practice schedules, training, and weekend competitions at distant places of various range. Travel sports is not just a question about Sundays (more on Sundays below); it also may cost a family its summer vacation time together and needed downtime. Summer-sports travel is hardly relaxing, especially when you add in the adrenaline — the wins and thrills, the losses and disappointments. A full schedule of sports tournaments can be a taxing abuse of the summer months.
Parents must weigh whether a summer without all these demands on their kids is better for everyone. “Whenever you say ‘yes’ to sports, you must say ‘no’ to other options,” she says. Sports commitments always come with a price. “Often that means saying ‘no’ to giving your child the time and space to simply run around in a field till their feet turn green, or time to kick back and enjoy a childhood that’s not regimented and scheduled.”Team Travel on Mission
But good reasons remain to take up spring and summer athletics. Travel teams provide missional opportunities for us to enter the lives of other families and athletes in ways often not otherwise possible. Sitting in the stands with the same families offers new opportunities. “Everything we do is missional, or ought to be,” Mary says. “So when we’re sitting in the stands with parents, or doing team fundraisers, and the weekend travel — in all of this, you invest a concentrated amount of time with people in a way that you will not spend time with people again in your life.”
Even without mentioning the potential of Christian athletic coaches, simply being the parent of a child on a travel team can push us into the lives of people we otherwise would not know. Travel sports can “take our families out of the Christian bubble, into the real world, and into people’s lives, and into the broken places of what those people’s lives are really like,” she says. “You need to take that into account when you’re making your decisions, because it definitely is an amazing, concentrated season for sharing the gospel, for displaying your faith, and for just being present and ministering to people where they’re at in terms of their needs. I still have friends from those sports years — hockey-mom friends and volleyball-mom friends. We spent so much time together in the stands, that we’ve remained friends over the years.”Christian Life on Display
Sports can be a place to share life together with others. To be real. With the pressures of travel sports, sports tournaments compress life and raise the stakes for kids — and for parents.
“All the emotions in your own heart come out when you’re watching your own son or daughter treated unfairly. These pressures really bring out what’s on the inside of the heart. I’ve seen Christian parents — and I’ve been the Christian parent that’s fumbled the opportunity at times — getting so caught up in the game, and wanting your child to excel, and to do well, that you lose sight of greater, bigger, more important things.”
“You don’t have to be a ‘perfect Christian,’” Mary reiterates in these moments. “These are great opportunities to show what you do when you mess up. It provides opportunities to confess to the other parents and to say: ‘You know, it was wrong for me to lose it like that at the ref, and I’m really sorry. And I ask your forgiveness, because I’m sure it was offensive to you as well.’ These are gospel opportunities to be a real Christian who admits their sins and to be transparent in a way that many families would never otherwise see.”Five Ways to Navigate Sundays
With the potential of amateur sports, we come back to the question of weekend games and travel sports. How do you balance the demands of travel sports with the priority of the weekly gathering of the local church?
For the Kassians, the question was amplified with Brent serving as a pastor every Sunday. They had to get creative and think about youth athletics in ways that could balance the unresolvable tensions.1. Consider a rec league with fewer demands.
Mary says that parents can step back and consider whether playing recreational league sports is better than higher level sports, which require more travel. “Our son Matt got to the NHL in a way that was really unusual. Because Brent was pastoring at the time, it wasn’t until our oldest son started driving that we could consider higher-level leagues that required significant travel. Our son never attended summer hockey camps. He never went to the developmental programs. Yet he had a lot of natural athletic ability that he developed by playing lots of different sports — baseball, basketball, and football.” All locally.2. Weigh the specific costs with each team.
Parents should go into any sport or team with an up-front knowledge of the cost in terms of practice time and travel. Mary stresses this point. “Even when you’re in grade school, some of the commitment levels that are required are astronomical. Never commit to a team blindly. Ask, Is this team commitment going to cost us five Sundays at church? Eight Sundays? Twelve Sundays?” Be realistic up front.3. Embrace the consequences of missing practices or games.
Consider absorbing the consequences of missing sports on Sunday. Even the recreational league featured Sunday practices, and this posed a problem. “Because it was a rec level, we felt free to tell the coach that we were going to miss some Sundays,” Mary says. “There were times when we went to church and missed hockey practice, and that meant that our son was sitting out the next game.” The consequences were worth it.4. Find creative ways to prioritize church attendance.
You may have some flexibility with church. For those who are not pastors, “If you have a Sunday morning game, see if you can attend church on Saturday night. And maybe you go to church on Saturday night in another city as you travel. Or, if a game is at noon, there may be time to go to church first.”5. Draw your child into the conversation.
Maybe most importantly, before you make any decision about Sunday morning sports, and before missing church because of travel, bring your child into the tensions.
“Your child will sense what is most important to you. So I think it’s really valuable for a child to watch his or her parents wrestle with keeping Jesus at the forefront, making the planets of our lives revolve around the sun of Christ at the center. Let them know that whatever we decide in the end, they should see a parent wrestle with the tension, asking, ‘You know what, this team is a really great opportunity, but missing church is hard, and we must pray about the costs and the opportunities.’”
There’s a teaching moment here for our kids, educating them on the family’s greatest priority. “The bottom line about these hard church questions,” Mary says, “is that we don’t have pat answers or easy formulas. I think you can have a professional athlete, who must play on Sundays, who upholds Christ as supreme. It can be done.” Yes, and when appropriate, we can work that logic back into youth athletics, too.Athletic Idols
In this conversation, there’s no doubt that amateur athletics have claimed a central place in the pantheon of our culture’s false gods, and youth athletics is a further subset of the idolization of children. A Sunday morning drive past any youth sports fields will show just how far-reaching these idols have become in our culture.
“Athletics is such a competing god,” Mary says soberly. “I think that it’s so critical that the parents are always checking their own hearts. I needed to check my heart through our process. Where are you drawing your identity? Where are you drawing your sense of meaning? What is in your heart? If this were to end tomorrow, what would be left in terms of your sense of wholeness, and well-being, and who you are? Are you drawing that from the Lord? Is hockey a bigger delight for me than God is? I asked my son to wrestle with that question on an ongoing basis, too.”
For Christian parents, the questions over teams and leagues and travel opportunities require a lot of humble wisdom and prayer — exposing our motives, evaluating the missional potential, and reaffirming the family’s love for the local church. Given our culture’s love of amateur athletics, and the increasing specialization of these sports, these questions will only become more complex for us and for our kids, requiring greater wisdom — which is what our Father is eager to give us when we come to him in faith (James 1:5–6).
Christian preaching is a God-appointed means of transforming its hearers in both head and heart — not only in intellect, but also in affections.
All who follow Jesus must find their ultimate identity in him. But Jesus never asks his followers to drop their ethnic distinctions, culture, or language.
It’s been fifteen years since I wrote When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. I wrote it because hundreds of people who hear the message of Christian Hedonism with hope drift into discouragement because they don’t have the joy in God that they know they should. Christian Hedonism says that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which makes matters worse if that satisfaction is missing. That’s why I wrote the book.
I have been asked, What would I say now, with the accumulated wisdom of 72 years, to those still struggling to “delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4)? This is not theoretical for me. Not only do I share the struggle, but I have conversations with real people struggling like this. I followed up one such conversation recently with an email. I’m going to share that with you below. But first a caution.Wisdom for the Darkness
Whether we can help someone struggling with joylessness in the Christian life depends not primarily on the quantity of wisdom we have accumulated over the years, but on how we apply the truth we have, and whether the Spirit of God turns that truth into life and freedom and joy.
I am not minimizing the value of accumulated wisdom. The Old Testament sage commands, “Get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Paul prays that we would be “filled with spiritual wisdom” (Colossians 1:9). We know that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). Paul calls us to admonish each other “in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). James tells us that if we “lack wisdom,” we should ask for it from God (James 1:5). For there is a “wisdom that comes down from above” (James 3:17). We can never get too much wisdom.
But my point is that if you are 30 instead of 70, you should not be intimidated or paralyzed by the fact that you still have 40 years of wisdom accumulation in front of you. As you read your Bible tomorrow morning, praying for supernatural insight, God may grant you a glimpse of some precious truth that later in the day will be exactly the truth that your struggling friend needs.Am I Beyond Hope?
After the conversation that I had recently with my friend, he followed up with an email. He was still in distress. What do you say when you feel you have said all you know to say — in the book and in conversation?
One answer is this: Don’t think that you need the tailor-made answer to the presenting problem. Instead, realize that any precious biblical truth that has ministered deeply to you, though it may seem irrelevant to your friend’s situation, may be more helpful than you realize. Just go ahead and overflow from your morning devotions. They will know the truth (which may seem random to us), and the truth may set them free.
You also can give the sober counsel that struggling has hope of success, but forsaking the struggle does not. I think it is a mistake to give unqualified assurance to a struggler when you do not know if they are born again. You hope they are. They hope they are. But you are not God. And they are in a season of darkness. What you do know beyond doubt is: if they finally abandon Christ and hope, there is no hope.
So I thought it might be helpful to share with you how I responded to my friend’s email. Keep in mind that his struggle has to do with patterns of repeated sin which make him feel hopeless about ever getting victory. These failures leave him feeling distant from God and, at times, wondering if he is a Christian, or perhaps whether he may even be an Esau who has spurned grace so often that true repentance is no longer possible (Hebrews 12:16–17).
This is a terrifying position to be in. I don’t think my friend is unusual. I think thousands of Christians, if they will pause to be painfully honest, will admit to the same struggles. It is hard to admit this, because it is so scary.
Parts of the following letter are exact quotes. Other parts are altered enough so as not to betray any confidences.Letter to a Distressed Friend
I totally empathize with the frustration and fears of possibly being an Esau because of sinning so deeply against God’s mercy and light and patience. There is no comfortable answer to how one conquers such fears and escapes such a condition. From my own experience, what I would say is this: If you have the grace to hold on to God’s mercy and not throw it away in apostasy, there is hope.
This is not a comfortable answer. It doesn’t speak in terms of simple certainties — namely, that you will definitely prove not to be an Esau. But it is the only way forward into light and hope and relief. I can’t promise that you are a child of God, but I can promise that if you throw away hope, you will prove not to be a child of God.
God’s word speaks often about “waiting” for the Lord, as in Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1–2)
How long was David in the miry bog? It doesn’t say. But what is clear from all the psalms is that the psalmists never forsake God when they feel like he has forsaken them. Something holds them.
Not only does the Bible speak of waiting for God in the miry bog, but it also speaks of true believers walking in a kind of darkness. Perhaps you have considered this word from Isaiah:
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Isaiah 50:10–11)
We may not be able to describe adequately what it means both to walk in darkness and to trust the Lord. They seem contradictory. And yet there it is. I’m suggesting that it would mean this: When the darkness of uncertainty and fear hangs over you, inasmuch as by grace it remains in you, don’t let go of the One you knew in the light. Keep holding on, if only, it may seem, by your fingernails. Know this: his hands are on his children’s fingernails — day and night. Pray for dawn and deliverance. From where I stand at age 72, I believe I can encourage you that it will come.
Paul speaks in a way that captures some of the mystery of the ongoing battle with sin:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25)
Paul is ashamed of his inconsistency in these times of defeat. But he does not despair. He looks away from himself, confesses his divided self, and presses on in the battle.
But he also tells us that the way he fights as an imperfect saint is by the hope that Christ has a firmer grip on him than he does on Christ. He may feel like only his fingernails grip the cliff. But he believes that Christ grips his fingernails:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)
Or, to paraphrase, “I grasp for the hope for future perfection, because Christ has already grasped me and will not let me go.” Sometimes we feel his grasp more sweetly than at other times. It is a fearful thing when we are going through a season where we don’t feel it at all.
I’m not going to give you a list of ways to fight for your joy. Those are all in the book that you already read. What I am doing in this letter is simply reminding you (1) that God is present in the darkness, (2) that he is holding on to his people when they feel barely able to hold on to him, and (3) that though you may feel unsure of your salvation in this struggle, you may be totally sure you will not have salvation if you give up the struggle and walk away.
May I recommend a song about God’s precious keeping power? In the last several years, the song “He Will Hold Me Fast” has gone deep with me and become very sweet. I love the robust congregational affirmation of this recording of Capitol Hill Baptist Church singing it.
I could never keep my hold
Through life’s fearful path.
For my love is often cold,
He must hold me fast.
May God give you the grace to sing it anew.
The aim of wartime simplicity is not to be as poor as possible, but to use all of our resources for the advancement of the gospel.
When we look at oceans or mountains, whales or bears, God wants us to see his beauty, power, and wisdom in creation and think, “What must God be like!”
The Lord says, “No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent” (Psalm 91:10). But what if evil has befallen me? What if disaster has come into my tent? Does that mean God’s promises don’t apply to me?
Psalm 91 has been close to my heart for over a decade. I memorized it and recited it to my youngest daughter as she fell asleep every night. I assured her that God would protect us, especially after her dad left and our world disintegrated. But even as I said those verses aloud, I wondered how they related to us. Evil had befallen us. Angels hadn’t borne us up. We felt like one of the ten thousand fallen.
I wanted to ask, though I dared not say it to her, “Where was God in this mess?” I wanted to read the Bible and ransack it for promises, but so many of those promises felt distant from me. How was I to interpret the verses promising protection, deliverance, and provision when I was experiencing the opposite?In the Shadow
Several weeks ago — years after I had first recited the psalm to my daughter — I was reading Psalm 91 again. Encouraged by the opening verses, I just wanted to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. But reading the promises for protection brought up old disappointments.
I was concerned because my physical struggles were escalating, and my right hand was declining rapidly. New weaknesses had surfaced, and I wanted reassurance from God. I wanted to rest on God’s promises, but this passage made me wonder how.
I felt a familiar grumbling bubbling up inside of me. Did I not make God my dwelling place? Why was evil allowed to befall me? Why hadn’t God guarded and delivered me?
I wrote my concerns in my journal. I wanted to know how to understand this psalm. How was I supposed to read it? Should I even pray it? In the quietness, two different thoughts came to me.Safe in the Kingdom
First, I needed to rethink my definition of evil and even of rescue and deliverance. Evil may indeed befall us, as “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Job hoped for good, but evil came (Job 30:26). Yet the evil that can befall us is temporary; its effects are limited to this life. The worst evil, which is eternal separation from God, will never come near us. And even in this life, what man means for evil, God intends for our good (Genesis 50:20).
In his last recorded writing, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Paul was not rescued from death. On the contrary, according to tradition, soon after this letter was written, Paul was beheaded by Nero, an undeniably evil man. But Paul was rescued in the fullest sense as God brought him safely into his heavenly kingdom.
I have been rescued from the consequences of my sin. From eternal damnation. From ever being separated from God. True rescue is this: he has rescued me from the dominion of darkness and brought me into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Colossians 1:13). So as I reconsider the terms evil and rescue, I see that God always protects me from evil and always rescues me.Prayers and Promises
Second, Psalm 91 is a great passage to pray. It is good and right to cry out to God for provision and protection. He is my heavenly Father, and he cares about every detail of my life. He holds my tears in a bottle and redeems my life from the pit (Psalm 56:8; 103:4). Even the hairs on my head are numbered (Matthew 10:30).
He tells me to bring all my concerns to him, which the Psalms model beautifully. They have given me strength to go on and revived me when I was weak. Indeed, the Psalms are the prayer book of the church. But the prayers and promises in Scripture cannot all be interpreted in the way we want. Many of the Psalms are wonderful prayers for this life, but promises only for eternity.Our Present Help
As I read the remainder of Psalm 91, I am captivated by the end: “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him” (Psalm 91:15). I sensed the Lord asking, Haven’t I always been with you in trouble? Have I ever left you? Don’t I speak to you? Do you see how I’ve rescued you?
God has gloriously rescued me. He has spoken to me through Scripture. He has been abundantly faithful to his word, and he has never left me.
My discouragement came because I wanted him to deliver me out of trouble on my timetable and to answer all my requests with an immediate “yes.” But as I pondered verse 15, I realized that God’s presence in trouble has been far better than the absence of trouble without him.Until Earthly Danger Ends
As I read over Psalm 91 now, I see it with a different perspective. God has given me everything I need. I can abide in the shadow of the Almighty forever. True evil will never befall me. Because of Jesus, I will never experience the recompense of the wicked.
When I’m in earthly danger, I can ask that his angels guard me in all my ways. I can count on him as my refuge and my fortress. I can be assured he will be with me in trouble. I can cry out to him for protection. And when I cry out to him, this is my rock-solid comfort: for all the days ordained for me, the Lord will unfailingly give me what is best, until he brings me safely home.
Many do not blossom with the beauty of Christlikeness because they are not rooted in the word of God.
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people.
We know praise from others is sometimes good because the writer of Proverbs says, “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). The apostle Paul encourages those who serve as deacons to “gain a good standing for themselves” (1 Timothy 3:13). The Bible is full of praise for people — for their physical beauty (Genesis 24:16; 1 Samuel 16:12), humility (Numbers 12:3), wisdom and understanding (Daniel 1:17), godliness (Luke 1:6), faithfulness in ministry (Colossians 4:7, 9), and more.
But praise from other people always arrives with potential dangers. Therefore, if we’re wise, we will reflect biblically on the perils of praise.1. Praise from others may mislead us.
On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, granting Adolf Hitler control of Czechoslovakia so long as Hitler agreed not to go any farther. That same day, Chamberlain and Hitler agreed on a peace treaty between Germany and the United Kingdom.
Chamberlain returned home to exuberant English crowds, declaring “peace for our time.” He was showered with praise. One member of Parliament spoke of his “courage, sincerity and skillful leadership.” Another said, “Our leader will go down to history as the greatest European statesman of this or any other time.” This all must have felt very good to hear. But most historians today regard the Munich Agreement as part of a disastrously failed policy of appeasement led by Chamberlain. Applause and adulation was not what he needed.
Praise for our mistaken or sinful thoughts and behavior can entrench us in error and rebellion. “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them” (Proverbs 28:4). Effusive praise may in fact be much less helpful than painful correction. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).
We should not ignore or spurn all praise. But we should be constantly alert to the dangers of being misled by it.2. Praise from others may distract us.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for living to be praised by other people (Matthew 6:2). The problem is that human praise can become an idol that distracts us from a greater, higher praise we’re made to enjoy and meant to pursue. Astoundingly, the New Testament teaches that God’s people will one day receive praise from God himself (Romans 2:29; 1 Peter 1:7). We’re meant to live for God’s pleasure-filled praise, for his “well done.” But it’s almost impossible to do that when we’re living instead for the good opinion of those around us.
The Gospel of John says the religious authorities “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). They were distracted by a lesser glory. We’re meant to live for a greater one.
In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” C.S. Lewis reflected on “the irresistible light” of God’s future judgment. It will be, he said, the only absolutely infallible and final verdict on every person who has ever lived. “We shall not only believe, we shall know, beyond doubt in every fiber of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more, nor less, nor other.” At that final day, the good or bad opinions of others will matter not at all. We’re made and meant to live undistractedly for God’s praise.3. Praise from others may destroy us.
Whenever we’re praised, we’re probed. Commentators debate the exact meaning of Proverbs 27:21, but one common understanding is that the praise we receive reveals our hearts. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise.”
Will we keep the praise for ourselves, or give credit to God? Will we become puffed up, feeling superior to others, confident in ourselves? Charles Bridges wrote, “Praise is a sharper trial of the strength of principle than reproach.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that praise, in fact, may be a catastrophically bad thing for us. The Puritan minister John Flavel issued a clear warning: “Christian! Thou knowest thou carriest gunpowder about thee. Desire those that carry fire to keep at a distance. It is a dangerous crisis, when a proud heart meets with flattering lips.”The Safest Praise
Very much like fire, praise from (and of) other people is both a gift and a danger, meant to be carefully stewarded. We ought to be wise, thoughtful, and measured in receiving it — and in giving it.
In stark contrast, we need not hold back or restrain ourselves in our praise of God. Instead, we may be extravagant and exuberant. That’s because God doesn’t face the same dangers in giving and receiving praise. He is never misled, distracted, or destroyed by it. In fact, he made us (Isaiah 43:21) and saved us (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14) so that we would praise him.
We’re exhorted again and again, throughout the Bible, to cut loose in our praise of God — to praise him “more and more.” We’re urged to praise God continually (Psalm 34:1; 71:8; 145:2), corporately (Psalm 35:18), creatively (Psalm 98:1), skillfully (Psalm 33:3), loudly (1 Chronicles 15:16), universally (Psalm 48:10; 66:8), enduringly (Psalm 30:12), increasingly (Psalm 71:14), and supremely (Psalm 96:4).
It is sometimes good, and often dangerous, to be praised by other people. It is always good and never dangerous to sing God’s praise for his strength, wisdom, beauty, and worth.
Download ‘Reading the Bible Supernaturally’ free of charge in three digital formats, and learn to read the Bible from John Piper.
The particular instruments we have or the style of music we use in corporate worship don’t matter nearly as much as the heart behind what we sing.
I have a “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t like it. I often wish I didn’t have it. At times I am exasperated by it. It makes almost everything harder, daily dogging me as I carry out my family, vocation, and ministry responsibilities — nearly everything I do. It weakens me. I often feel that I would be more effective and fruitful without it. I have pleaded with God, sometimes in tears, for it to be removed or for more power to overcome it. But it remains.
No, I’m not going to explain what it is. The details aren’t germane to the point I want to make, and I think they would actually make this article less helpful. Because you have your own thorn in the flesh, or if you live long enough you’ll be given one (or more). Yours will be different from mine, but its purpose will be similar. For we are given thorns that significantly weaken us in order to make us stronger.The Most Famous Thorn
We get the term “thorn in the flesh” from the apostle Paul:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
Paul’s thorn is among the most famous afflictions in history, and we don’t even know what it was. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years. Paul’s thorn could have been a physical affliction. This is plausible given all the physical violence and deprivation he endured (2 Corinthians 11:23–27), and some think he may have suffered from an eye disease (Galatians 4:15).
Or since he referred to his thorn as a harassing “messenger of Satan,” he could have been vulnerable to significant spiritual-psychological struggles. This is plausible given the cumulative trauma of violently persecuting Christians, then suffering violent persecution, living in constant danger as a Christian, and then living with daily “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Or given the context of 2 Corinthians 11–12, his thorn could plausibly have been the “super-apostles” and false brothers constantly dogging him and wreaking havoc in the churches he planted (2 Corinthians 11:5, 26). Or it might have been something else altogether.
The fact that we really don’t know what Paul’s thorn was turns out to be both merciful and instructive to us. It’s merciful because, given the various possibilities, we all can identify with Paul to some degree in our afflictions. It’s instructive because what Paul’s thorn was isn’t the point. The point is what God’s purpose was for the thorn.Sent from God’s Hand
Paul makes two amazing, and somewhat initially disturbing, statements about his painful thorn — in the same sentence:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
The first amazing claim Paul makes is that God gave him his thorn. It’s clear from the context that Paul identified God as his thorn-giver, not Satan. And he understood that God’s purpose was to keep Paul humble and dependent on Christ’s power (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Now, most of us can’t identify with the sorts of revelations Paul was given, and when we read the kinds of suffering Paul experienced (2 Corinthians 11:23–27), it’s probably safe to assume our thorns don’t pierce as deeply as his did. But God’s purpose in our thorns is similar.
Pride, in all its manifestations, is our most pervasive sin and the most dangerous to us spiritually. Anything God gives us to keep us humble and prayerfully dependent on him is a great gift — even when that gift causes us pain. And here we see clearly that God disciplines his children with affliction in order to protect them from having their joy destroyed by the sin of pride. Ponder that: pain can protect us from pain; redemptive pain can protect us from destructive pain.Satanic Harassment
But the second amazing claim Paul makes is more shocking: the redemptive pain God gave Paul to protect him from the destructive pain of his pride was delivered to him by “a messenger of Satan.” Suddenly, we find ourselves in an even deeper part of the theological pool. And given the ease with which Paul says this, he clearly expects Christians to be able to swim here.
Satan pierces us with a thorn from God? Yes. Does this trouble us? Does it trouble us that it didn’t trouble Paul? Paul feels no need to qualify or explain how God can give his child a redemptive gift of pain through an evil means. Why? Because this phenomenon occurs throughout the Bible. Paul knows his Old Testament like the back of his hand, and it has truths like this woven throughout it: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). And he knows that the most redemptive gift of pain in history, the death of Christ the Lord, was given to us through the evilest means.
Our redemptive thorns also may be delivered by a satanic messenger. But we can know this: it will only be one more way that God “disarms the rulers and authorities and puts them to open shame” (Colossians 2:15). Our God is so powerful and so wise that he can work all things — including our satanically delivered thorns — for our good (Romans 8:28). Trust in this kind of sovereignty is what fuels our joyful, confident contentedness while experiencing the weakness and weariness of our affliction.Pierced for a Purpose
Just like Paul’s, our thorns weaken us. Sometimes they are visible to others, but often they are hidden from public view, known only to those who know us best. And they are never romantic, never heroic. Rather, they almost always humble us in embarrassing rather than noble ways. They not only seem to impede our effectiveness and fruitfulness, but they also are more likely to detract from rather than enhance our reputations. Which is why we, like Paul, plead with God to remove them (2 Corinthians 12:8).
But this is the way our thorns have to be. Because if they were noble and heroic, if they enhanced our reputations, they would be of no help at all in guarding us from our pervasive pride. Which is why, as with Paul, God often answers our pleas for deliverance with a “no.” Because without the thorn, we would never experience that “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us],” that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This is the reason we have our thorns. They are weakeners that strengthen us. Without them, we would choose a weaker strength and miss experiencing the glory of God’s powerful grace and realize lesser joys as a result. It’s just one more wonderful kingdom paradox: our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful. The more we press into this paradox, the more we will say with Paul,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
The sign of forgiveness is not that you forget the pain another caused you, but that you relinquish the desire to punish, and instead seek their good.
The Citadel of Erbil in Northern Iraq sits high in the center of town. It’s an UNESCO site filled with ancient history. “The oldest continuous living community on the planet,” reads the marker on the gate.
One day friends came to Iraq to visit us, and we took them to the citadel. We wandered into the Gemstone Museum and then to the museum shop. The proprietor approached me with some crystals in hand. After some polite exchanges, he said to me, “Many Europeans think that if you hold these crystals to your chest you can achieve inner peace.” He held out the crystals expectantly.
He seemed to think I might be one of those odd Europeans who might actually believe such nonsense. I knew he was trying to make a sale, so I examined them and said they were pretty. Then I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t think you get inner peace from a rock.” He rolled his eyes, too, and we both smiled. It was clear that we were in agreement about rocks and inner peace.
And that was it.Missed Opportunities
It didn’t strike me until later how much I had blown it! As you read this, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already thought of the things I could have said — should have said. “May I tell you where I find peace?” Or, “Hey, I know a rock that brings peace. Do you know what the Bible calls Jesus?” Or, “I remember when I didn’t have peace, but I do now.” You can think of other things I might have said.
But I said nothing. I settled for a smile, a quip, and a departure.
Why am I so slow in evangelism? Why am I so good at thinking up stuff to say after the fact? There’s lots of reasons, really. But before I answer, let me lay out for you some thinking that comes from years of blowing it and replaying my failures.It’s Not Really Evangelism
First, just what is evangelism? I’m embarrassed to say that it took me 30 years to come to a good definition:
Evangelism is preaching or teaching the gospel message with the aim to persuade or convert.
Notice four things about this definition. First, it’s not really evangelism if you aren’t proclaiming the gospel by explaining, teaching, preaching, or otherwise talking. That’s because if you only do good deeds without proclamation, you’re lifting you up, not Jesus.
Second, it’s not really evangelism if you don’t talk about the message of the gospel. What is the gospel? The gospel is the message from God that leads us to salvation. This gospel message answers three huge questions: Who is God? Who am I before him? And what bearing does the life and claims of Jesus have on my life?
Third, it’s not really evangelism if it doesn’t have the right end in mind. It’s not just information transfer — a gospel dump from one hard drive to another. Evangelism is intentional and purposeful. We’re always ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), because we want this person to have the hope that is in us.
Fourth, it’s not really evangelism if the aim isn’t to persuade or convert. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:11, “We persuade others.”
Without these four things we’re not doing the work of evangelism. I’m not saying if one leaves parts of this out that you’re bad, or unchristian; you’re probably doing wonderful, helpful things. It’s just not evangelism.Proven Ways to Overcome Fear
So, why am I so slow of speech, so thick of tongue when it comes to evangelism? Why am I such a coward? Fear. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid because we don’t know what to say. We fear making other people uncomfortable. Sometimes in the Middle East, I fear going to jail — or worse.
Most of you reading this don’t worry about going to jail (at least not yet), so let’s take that off the table for the moment. And besides, the actual fact is I’ve found the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq some of the most winsome, engaging, and willing people to talk to about spiritual life in the world — which makes it all the more maddening that I missed talking to the shop owner. Our reluctance to evangelize usually boils down to one thing, and that is our fears — and primarily one fear, what the Bible calls our “fear of man” (Proverbs 29:25).
If you, like me, struggle to speak up for Christ when the opportunity comes, here are three ways I have learned to fight the fear of man.1. Just slay it.
If you find a scorpion in your kid’s bedroom, you don’t get to it tomorrow. You kill it now, and with gusto. Slay your fear of man the way you would slay a scorpion.
The way to murder our fear of man is to love God more — to be so in love with Jesus and what he’s done for us that we live for him anywhere, all the time. This is the way to put to death the fear of man. Evangelism happens most naturally not when we’ve psyched ourselves up with motivational sermons on evangelism, but when we have fallen so in love with Jesus that the gospel pours out of us. Because we like to talk about whatever we love.2. Die to perfectionism.
Evangelism doesn’t spring out of us fully formed and perfect. It’s sensitive communication about deep things, with enormous ramifications for people’s lives. It takes effort, practice, and planning. Even after effort and practice and planning, it’s not perfect. Ninety-nine percent of the time I share my faith, I see things after the fact that were slips, fails, and just plain awkward mistakes.
But awkward is better than silent (it’s better than slick and canned, too). I take great joy in knowing that God is pleased with our embarrassing moments sharing about what he means to us.
Besides, how many people have come to faith through some goofy evangelistic effort? Praise God that he hits straight with a crooked stick when it comes to evangelism. He takes our efforts to share our faith and uses them to change eternity for others.3. Share the gospel as a family.
There was a time when I thought it was a cop-out to bring people to church. “Hard core evangelists don’t need the church,” I thought. I don’t think that anymore. If the church is doing what the church is supposed to do — preaching the word, loving each other, pursuing unity in the Spirit, deepening our joy in God, rooting everything in the gospel — then that family is the most powerful witness we have.
Bring your friends to church. Talk to them about the sermon when it’s over. Or just meet people who have wandered into church with the aim to see where they are with Jesus.
When we overcome all the fears we face in evangelism — slaying the deadly fear of man, dying to our fears of failure, and inviting people into our churches — there are deeper joys laying on the other side of the awkward conversations we often dread.
When we come to Christ, we don’t lose our ethnic or cultural identities. But we all put on his insignia and find new possibilities for unity in him.
The more following Jesus falls out of fashion in America, the more we’ll experience what it really means to follow him.
As the risks rise for us, the once large crowds may disperse, but genuine, joy-filled faith will rise. Those who followed Jesus for the wrong reasons will inevitably fall away, not willing to bear any cross heavier than the one around their neck. But those who were willing to lose everything to gain him, who rejoice at the opportunity to suffer for his name, will experience deeper, fuller intimacy with him than ever before (Philippians 3:8–10).
If we almost follow Jesus, tagging along with Christians as long as it’s socially acceptable and psychologically comfortable, we’ll come to the end of the benefits of Christianity. If we truly follow him — desiring him above all else, embracing trials and opposition for his sake, and leaving whatever necessary behind — we won’t need to chase comfort, attention, or happiness here.
If you want to almost follow Jesus, here are three ways from Matthew 8.1. Follow (without) your heart.
When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were amazed and chased after him. Matthew writes, “When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1). They were in awe of his authority (Matthew 7:29) — his boldness, his insight, his miracles — but not ready to submit to his authority.
As the crowds chased Jesus, he went to Capernaum, where he met a Roman centurion (of all people) who pleaded with him to heal his paralyzed servant. Jesus agrees, but the man replies, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). He explains,
“For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)
Like the crowds, he recognizes Jesus’s authority, but unlike the crowds, he seems to understand it. He bows to it. He’s not chasing a show; he cancels the show. Don’t come. Just say the word. Your command carries all the power necessary.
“When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith’” (Matthew 8:10). Don’t miss who he was speaking to: “those who followed him.” He’s teaching “followers” what it really means to follow, and he’s pointing to their enemy, a Roman officer. True followers do not chase me for my miracles, but follow me because I am worthy of their faith and devotion — of their life.2. Fall away when following gets hard.
That evening, Jesus healed many more who were sick or under demonic attack, and so the crowds flocked again. But instead of receiving them, Jesus “gave orders to go over to the other side” (Matthew 8:18) — to flee the crowd, that kind of crowd. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Matthew 8:19). Jesus responded, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
No room in the inn, no room in the caves, no room even in the nests. You follow me for miracles, for fame, for power and comfort, but I will be despised and rejected by men, as one from whom men hide their faces (Isaiah 53:3). To follow Christ is not to share in fame, power, or comfort (at least not yet), but first to share in sacrifice, suffering, and hostility.
Jesus says a couple chapters later, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). I bore the cross of God’s wrath so that you didn’t have to — but anyone who follows me will bear a cross. True followers do not chase me for earthly comfort or reputation, but embrace the suffering and rejection of being united to a crucified Savior.3. Hear, “Follow me,” and drag your feet.
Another disciple spoke up, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matthew 8:21). I will follow you, but I have some other important things to take care of first. Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). Really? Anyone with a father can sympathize with the heartbroken son. Was Jesus being insensitive? Did he over-speak?
He was not insensitive about the son’s loss, and he’s not insensitive about the pain or loss in your life. And he did not over-speak. In fact, he says essentially the same thing several chapters later, but with greater clarity,
“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:28–30)
Following Jesus always means leaving something. You can’t continue to be all you were, and simply add him into your routine. But whatever you’re asked to leave behind — even the most precious relationships — will pale next to all that you receive, now and on your thrones forever. True followers do not fit Jesus in and around their other relationships and priorities, but make him their first love and highest priority — and the lens through which they see and enjoy all else.Are You Following or Chasing?
If we are truly following Jesus, we are not chasing miracles and spectacles like the crowds, but bowing our knees in reverent awe like the Roman centurion. We are not avoiding the costs of following Jesus at all costs, but rejoicing to be rejected, opposed, and afflicted with him. We are not clinging to the loves we had before we met him, but submitting every other love to our first and greatest love.
How do you almost follow Jesus? These three brief scenes in Matthew 8 paint a vivid and sobering picture. Immediately after Jesus says, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead,” Matthew writes, “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him” (Matthew 8:23). He warned them, and they followed — or did they? They rallied to his hard words here in this chapter, which is encouraging, and stepped into the boat with him. But there were plenty of discouraging moments, too. Two verses later, Jesus says to them in the storm, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
True followers are made in a moment, but proven over a lifetime. We are matured, emboldened, and tested for as long as we live. If you genuinely treasure Jesus, God’s still working in your following. With his help, we will go wherever he calls whenever he calls, knowing that he knows best, and that anything we lose or leave behind will be repaid a hundredfold and more.
God has set before you a feast for your soul in the Bible. Nourish your soul every day with food from his word.
Sound is deadly.
So you play monopoly with cloth pieces and roll the dice on carpet. Even the crunch of a leaf can be fatal, so you pour sand on paths to travel from one place to another. You learn sign language to communicate with children. You bow your head in prayer, hold your family’s hands, but no one raises their voice unto the Lord. You laugh on mute, cry on mute, cry out in pain on mute, sing on mute, live on mute — or you do not live at all.
This is the world in A Quiet Place (PG–13), the new thriller written and directed by John Krasinski who also plays the lead (Lee Abbott). His wife, actress Emily Blunt, plays his wife in the movie (Evelyn Abbott). The married couple fights to survive with their son and daughter as monsters lurk in the woods. For them, there is no such thing as safe and sound. The monsters can’t see them, but they can hear them. And if they can hear them, they will find them.
In such apocalyptic circumstances, the movie follows the Abbotts as they sneak through life, trying to do whatever they can to retain some semblance of a normal, albeit silent, existence.A Quieter Place
But then the couple gets pregnant. And as parents know, no child comes quietly.
Yet, in this world of chilling, life-or-death silence, the Abbotts never even consider preventing a screaming, crying, fussing child from coming into the world. Surely this is a dire threat to the family security. Surely they could not bring the loud infant into their quiet place without risking everything. Surely this baby would get them all killed. Surely such circumstances made it more understandable for one to ponder one’s “reproductive rights” and opt to exercise one’s “reproductive freedom” to “terminate the pregnancy.”
If pregnancy was your reality in this silent world, and you had nine months to make the decision, would you invade the quiet place inside of her and snuff out the voice that would most likely get you killed? The Abbotts chose to silently say, “No.”Death in a Quiet Place
Many in our society hear the same question and quickly, even casually, answer, “Yes.”
We kill our children daily by the thousands. No monsters prowl our woods, but they live in our homes. We have become them. We have turned forceps on those noisy creatures who would interrupt our plans, our comforts, our television shows. And if we know they have a disability — if they will be especially needy — we silence them at an even higher rate. We are the ones who attack the helpless in the quietest place, in their mother’s womb.
A Quiet Place is not properly a horror film, but it is extremely suspenseful and contains violent and frightening scenes. After an hour and a half, you can walk out of the theater and nobody really died. But the same is not true for the horror films taking place in abortion clinics across the U.S. and around the world — silent assassinations in sterile rooms. They wear white coats. They make death a business. They snatch children from deceived mothers, who tragically pay to have them taken away. We live in a society full of this movie’s monsters. And they seem so ordinary.The Church in a Quiet Place
We not only attack those who have no voice, but we attack those who try to speak up for them. One cannot shriek too loudly on social media, in conversations around the dinner table, or in any civilized conversation about abortion. Polite society on this issue means a silent society. Hate that we plunge needles into baby skulls, suction out their brains, and bury them — not in a grave — but in a garbage can, and you too become a target. If we personally refuse to call evil good and good evil, put dark for light and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20), then at least we better shut up about it.
Many Christians in the West have grown weary of being maligned on this issue. They have grown tired of doing good and speaking boldly for a taboo cause. Following Jesus is divisive enough without lending our voices to speak about what grieves and infuriates him. So, his body refuses to speak and we silence him too. And our mumbling of, “We didn’t know” doesn’t suffice.
If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work? (Proverbs 24:10–12)
Many have fainted in this day of adversity. They are reduced to protest on mute, speak righteously on mute, be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation on mute — live Christianly on mute. They live on manicured lawns and must not make a sound while they putt our children into Sheol.
They have retired from the fight and live as good citizens in a quiet place — a quiet, civilized place that muffles its children indefinitely.Sacrifice in a Quiet Place
This is not an endorsement of the movie — for we have enough violence and fright in real life that we do not need to escape into it. But at times, witnessing fictional terror can help us see the domesticated horrors that surround us every day — and the beauty of selfless love that rises to confront it.
Against all the loud, pink, pro-choice banners around us, A Quiet Place stands for human lives worth sacrificing for. Even when a baby would cost them everything, even when they had every excuse to declare their own rights, Lee and Evelyn Abbott fought for their family and their coming son. They risked their lives for their children. They exhausted every ounce of energy to protect them. I don’t know what John Krasinski wanted the world to know about unborn children, but in his movie, I witnessed God’s relentless, sacrificial, and beautiful love for the least and youngest of these.
And what was acted on screen in A Quiet Place was acted out by God in history. “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Jesus, an everlasting father to us, did not sacrifice his children but died for them. He laid his life down so that full pardon and full sonship would be secured for his blood-bought family. He gives former monsters (turned children) a new mind, a new heart, and a new courage to protect and fight for the most defenseless of his creation, hidden within a quiet place.