Self-examination can quickly turn into self-condemnation. Pastor John offers three strategies to keep introspection in its proper place.
The tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team is hard to process. Eyewitness testimonies from the scene Friday evening are unspeakable. People have been asked not to share photographs from the scene, and so far it seems they haven’t.
That scene has been dubbed “the valley of the shadow of death” — a team bus, with 29 on board, colliding with a semi truck in rural Saskatchewan.
Fifteen members of the team were killed, including the head coach. Fourteen injured. At the time of writing, twelve remained in hospital, four with critical injuries such as severe head trauma and coma, and four with serious injuries such as paralysis.
Today I connected with Canadian Mary Kassian, a Christian author and speaker who is closely connected to the hockey scene in Canada. One of her sons is former NHL hockey player Matt Kassian.He Knew Their Names
“The head coach was a Christian,” Mary said today, “and he used his position to mentor the boys on his team to be men with character . . . and to know Jesus.” Her son, who knows two of the families of those who died, said with tears streaming down his face while watching the team vigil, “I’m so glad those boys had people in their world who told them about Jesus.”
Christ had been the theme of the team’s pastor. And during the Sunday night vigil, that team pastor, Sean Brandow, shared with a watching nation the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.
He did so in a heavy setting of sorrow, in the Humboldt Broncos arena, in a town of about 6,000. There, in tears, he said, “I liked to look at the names on the back of the jerseys, and I think it’s really fitting now. I want you to know that we hurt with you. Each name represents a family. The Bible tells us that God knew each of them before they were born. He gave them breath. He ordained their days” (Psalm 139:13–16).Jesus Has Walked Here
Into this shadow of death, Pastor Brandow offered the light of Christ’s resurrection.
Jesus did not stay dead. . . . He says to his disciples who are listening to him in John 10:11, ‘I am the good shepherd,’ and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
So how do we know that God is with us in our suffering? Because Jesus was here, Jesus went through every bit of suffering before we ever did. We have someone that has gone ahead of us and before us into the heavenly realms and who now sits and intercedes on our behalf — we talk to Jesus, we commune with Jesus, we cry out to Jesus. And it’s in this time that we need a shepherd who has walked through this valley before, who can guide us.
Through tears he went on to comfort a broken team, a broken town, a broken country, with the sovereignty of our good Father.
God is on the throne and God is with the brokenhearted [Psalm 34:18]. We know that God is on the throne, Jesus walked this earth, he died, he was buried, he rose again. It says in the Scripture that he is now seated at the right hand of the Father, in control of setting up our leaders, putting people in the place where they need to be at just the right time, for just the right purpose, making sure that things line up according to his plan.
I don’t claim to understand how this seems like it’s in God’s control at all, but it is. He’s still on the throne, he’s still God. . . .
“You need Jesus,” Brandow pleaded at the vigil, just as he has been recently pleading with each player on the team. “Jesus has walked here. He’s walked it first, and death couldn’t hold him. He’s alive.”
“I have never seen the media in our country write about Jesus so openly,” Mary said, “or even dare to speak of Christ in a positive manner. But that small-town hockey chaplain, in his raw, honest brokenness, is opening doors for sharing the gospel in an unprecedented way.”
Memorizing God’s word puts heavenly treasure in the pockets of the mind and the heart.
Memorizing God’s word puts heavenly treasure in the pockets of the mind and the heart.
God exists everywhere and everywhen. He is eternal and omnipresent. And not only is he present everywhere, he is everywhere pursuing us. He is the hunter, the king, the husband, approaching us at an infinite speed. Central to C.S. Lewis’s vision of the Christian life is the basic fact that we are always in God’s presence and pursuit.
This basic fact about reality yields a basic choice. We can either embrace and welcome this reality, surrendering ourselves to this eternal, omnipresent, and pursuing God, or we can vainly try to hide from him, to resist his advances, to reject his offer. Thus, though it is true that we are always in God’s presence, it’s equally true that we are perpetually called to come into God’s presence, to unveil ourselves to him.
A chief component of this unveiling is the confession of our sins. If we are to come into God’s presence, we must come honestly. We must come as we are. And what we are is a bundle of sins, fears, needs, wants, and anxieties, so our honesty and unveiling must include the confession of sins.
Lewis is aware that the confession of sin is difficult and fraught with danger. Thus, in a number of places, he offers counsel on the perils and pitfalls of confessing our sins.1. Beware of vague guilt.
One of the main hindrances to unveiling before God is a vague cloud of guilt that often hangs over us. And vague guilt is particularly troublesome. For you can’t repent of vague sins; you can only repent of real ones. And all real sins are specific sins.
This means that if you find yourself in the fog of vague guilt, begin by asking God to show you the details. Press through the smoke to see if there is really a fire in there somewhere.
If you do, and you find yourself unable to discover any real concrete sin underneath the vague sense of guilt, don’t feel compelled to go rummaging around until you do. Instead, treat the guilt like a vague buzzing noise in your ears — something to be endured as you continue to seek to unveil in God’s presence (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 34).2. Confess your sins quickly and specifically.
Other times, our reluctance to unveil is driven by the fact that we are guilty and we know exactly why. We know what the guilt is about, and we’re trying to avoid the conviction. In such moments, we often also feel that God is standing there, watching us hem and haw and dance and make excuses and saying to us, You know you’re only wasting time. In such cases, the best solution is the simple one. If there’s a specific sin in your life, confess it to God, clearly, honestly, and forthrightly, without using euphemisms (Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” in God in the Dock, 124).
This means using the biblical words for sins. “I’ve lied,” not “I’ve not been quite honest.” “I’ve stolen,” not “I’ve used something without asking.” “I’ve lusted in my heart. I’ve committed sexual immorality. I’ve envied another person or coveted his gifts. I’m full of bitterness and hatred toward that person in particular. I’m puffed up and arrogant. I’m full of anxiety and fear. I’m not trusting God with the future.” In the same way that you can’t really confess vague sins, you can’t vaguely confess real sins.3. Ask God to forgive you, not to excuse you.
Often when we ask God to forgive us, we are really asking him to excuse us. But according to Lewis, forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites (Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 178–181). Forgiveness says, “You have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you.” Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” Therefore, to excuse someone is to let that person off the hook because he didn’t really belong on the hook in the first place. We refuse to blame someone for something that wasn’t his fault to begin with.
When it comes to God, Lewis notes, “What we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” We want him to remember the extenuating circumstances that led us to do what we did. We go away “imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.”
When seeking God’s forgiveness, we must set aside the excuses and the blame-shifting. If there were extenuating circumstances, God is more aware of them than we are. What is required of us is to find what’s left over after every circumstance has been stripped away, the little ball of sin that is hardened like a cancer. That is what we are to bring to God. That is what he must (and will) forgive.4. Don’t camp at the cesspool.
Some Christians have thought that one of the chief marks of Christian growth is a permanent and permanently horrified perception of one’s own internal corruption (Letters to Malcolm, 98). The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner stink. We feel that faithfulness demands pitching our tent by the dark caves and slimy bogs of our hearts.
Lewis thinks this is a bad idea. But it’s not a bad idea because we’re not that corrupt. We are that corrupt. All of us are worse than we think. Our hearts really are slimy. When you look in there, it’s true that there is depth upon depth of self-love and sin. But Lewis commended an imaginative glimpse of our sinfulness, not a permanent stare. The glimpse is enough to teach us sense, to humble us so that we don’t regard ourselves more highly than we ought. But the longer we stare, the more we run the risk of falling into despair. Or worse, we might even begin to develop a tolerance for the cesspool, even a perverse kind of pride in our hovel by the bog.
Thus, we must cultivate the practice of imaginative honesty about our sin. We must look at it clearly and acknowledge it. We must not try to hide it or make excuses for it. But, equally, we must not wallow in it either. We need to know sin is in our hearts, and we need to feel the ugliness of it. But then we must also remember that Jesus covers all of it.5. Surrender self-examination to God.
In our attempts to lay ourselves open to God’s view, we must remember that self-examination is really God-examination. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24). This doesn’t make us passive. We’re active, but our activity is mainly in opening ourselves up to divine inspection. Self-examination is only safe when God’s hands are on the reins.
This is what this might look like. We surrender ourselves to God; we give Christ the keys to every room in our heart. No dark closet held back. No basement corner off-limits. The whole house belongs to him (and he is free to demolish, if he deems it best). We lay ourselves open before him and ask “for just so much self-knowledge at the moment as [we] can bear and use at the moment” (Letters to Malcolm, 34). There may be deeper sins, down in the black caves, that we don’t yet see. But perhaps we don’t see them because God knows we’re not ready to face them yet. We must learn to crawl before we can walk. God wants us to complete boot camp before sending us off to war.
Then, having surrendered and having asked for our little daily dose of self-knowledge, we believe (and, for some, this is one of the greatest acts of faith that they ever do) that he is fully capable of drawing our sin and our sinfulness into the light, into our conscious attention where it can be confessed and killed.
In the meantime, if we are daily surrendering ourselves to God in this way, we ought to forget about ourselves and do our work.Are You Avoiding Good?
Finally, as we confront our own reluctance to unveil in God’s presence, it’s worth remembering what God is really after. C.S. Lewis tells a story about his wife, Joy,
Long ago, before we were married, she was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) “at her elbow,” demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in — I know how one puts it off — and faced Him. But the message was, “I want to give you something,” and instantly she entered into joy. (A Grief Observed, 46–47)
How much effort we put in to avoiding all that would do us good. This is the great paradox we carry with us into God’s presence. God is here and now, and he demands all of us. But God is here and now, and he wants to give us everything. God is for us, not against us. He may not be safe, but he is most definitely good.
And he won’t settle for half measures, because he loves us and wants to give us himself. And he can’t give us himself as long as we’re full of ourselves. But if we give up ourselves, if we die to ourselves, then he will give us himself, and, in giving us himself, he will give us back ourselves.
In fact, when we unveil in God’s presence, we find that we become our true selves — stable, strong, full of life and joy, and conformed to the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another.
Joe Rigney will be speaking on C.S. Lewis at the April 20–21 Theologians on the Christian Life Conference in Minneapolis, along with Michael Reeves, Tony Reinke, Sam Storms, Jason Meyer, Stephen Nichols, and Dane Ortlund. The event is hosted by Bethlehem College & Seminary, and registration is free of charge. Rigney is author of the forthcoming Lewis on the Christian Life.
A one-of-a-kind death, and a one-of-a-kind resurrection, has been carried out by this one-of-a-kind Person who is more valuable than all else.
Evil isn’t just about the things we do, but about the God we forsake. Turning away from him yields every horror.
If you look at Jonathan Edwards from the wrong standpoint, everything is wrong. Some people look at him as a great eighteenth-century thinker, writer, and preacher, and that is as far as they go.
But Edwards’s thinking, writing, and preaching are what they are because of what he was. And we will be helped most if we see something of what John De Witt meant when he wrote, “[Edwards] was greatest in his attribute of regnant, permeating, irradiating spirituality” (quoted in Jonathan Edwards, xvii). Behind the greatness of his thought was the greatness of his soul. And his soul was great because it was filled with the fullness of God. In our day we need to see his God — and the soul that saw this God.Marriage and Call to Ministry
Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703, in Windsor, Connecticut. He was the only son among the eleven children of Timothy Edwards, the local Congregational pastor. Tradition has it that Timothy used to say God had blessed him with sixty feet of daughters. He taught Latin to his son when Jonathan was six and sent him off to Yale at twelve. The school was fifteen years old at the time and struggling to stay afloat. But it became a place of explosive intellectual excitement and growth for Jonathan.
Edwards graduated from Yale in 1720, gave the valedictory address in Latin, and then continued his studies there for two more years as he prepared for the ministry. At nineteen, he was licensed to preach and took a pastorate at the Scotch Presbyterian Church in New York for eight months, from August 1722 until April 1723.
In the summer of 1723, between his first short pastorate and his returning to Yale, he fell in love with Sarah Pierrepont. Four years later, on July 28, 1727, they were married. He was 23, and she was 17. Over the next 23 years, they had eleven children of their own, eight daughters and three sons.
In 1727, Edwards became the pastor of the prestigious church of Northampton, a church he would pastor for the next 23 years. It was a traditional Congregational church that had 620 communicants in 1735. During his ministry at this church, Edwards delivered the usual two-hour messages twice each week, catechized the children, and counseled people in private, and spent thirteen or fourteen hours a day in his study.Awake in the Woods
For all his rationalism, Edwards had a healthy dose of the romantic and mystic in him. He wrote in his diary, “Sometimes on fair days I find myself more particularly disposed to regard the glories of the world than to betake myself to the study of serious religion” (quoted in Marriage to a Difficult Man, 22). Edwards really believed that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). He describes one of his experiences in nature like this:
Once as I rode out into the woods for my health in 1737, having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love and meek, gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency, great enough to swallow up all thought and conception — which continued, as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, xvii)
With such reflections in our ears, it is not as difficult to believe the words of Elisabeth Dodds when she says, “The mythic picture of him is of the stern theologian. He was in fact a tender lover and a father whose children seemed genuinely fond of him” (Marriage to a Difficult Man, 7).Limits of Godliness
There are other aspects of Edwards’s life that do not fit with his “mythic picture,” even if one broadens the lens to see his tenderness. For example, Edwards’s freedom from conformity to the fallen world did not include freedom from slaveholding. The eradication of slavery in the body of Christ, to which God had pointed in the New Testament (Matthew 7:12; 23:8–12; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; 5:14; Philippians 2:3–4; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 16; Revelation 5:9–10), was long overdue.
Edwards did not see this. In his mind, the New Testament simply taught that slaves should be welcomed into full membership in the church, and treated kindly and without cruelty. His “servant maid,” Leah, was baptized into Edwards’s church in Northampton in 1736 and her name appears on the list of full members (Edwards Encyclopedia, 535).
We may wonder (and hope) that there was a trajectory in Edwards’s mind and heart that, if he had lived longer than 54 years, may have led him to think differently. It is suggestive, for example, that his latter years working among the Indians “convinced him that some Indians were better Christians than many white colonists he knew, and he became a strong advocate for their rights” (536).
One hopes that Edwards may have eventually drawn from his own understanding of “true virtue” what others did. For example, his son, Jonathan Jr., and Lemuel Haynes, a former slave, and admirer of Edwards, both used Edwards’s own theology to undergird their abolitionist convictions.
Edwards’s flaws are part of larger questions about 1) why Christians are not sanctified more quickly and more fully; and 2) how our sin and finiteness and family background and culture blind us to important realities; and 3) how we should learn from “heroes” whose lives are not entirely exemplary. This is not the place to wrestle with these questions, but I would point you to a helpful message on Edwards and slavery by Thabiti Anyabwile, and to a short video and podcast I made about these issues.Inglorious Dismissal
In 1750, Edwards was dismissed ingloriously from his Northampton pastorate due primarily to a disagreement over the Lord’s Supper. The church’s previous pastor (Edwards’s grandfather), believed that people could take communion in the hope of obtaining conversion by it. By the spring of 1749, it became generally known that Edwards had come to reject this view. Edwards wrote a detailed treatise defending his position, but the treatise was scarcely read, and there was a general outcry to have him dismissed.
After almost a year of stressful controversy, the decision for dismissal was read to the people on June 22, 1750. Edwards was 46 years old. He had nine children to support, the youngest, his son Pierrepont, having been born three months before his dismissal.
In early December of 1750, the church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about forty miles west of Northampton and very much a frontier village on the edge of settled New England, called Edwards to consider being their pastor. On August 8, 1751, he was installed as the pastor of the little church made up of colonists and Indians.
In Northampton, Edwards had been financially well off, receiving (in his own words) “the largest salary of any country minister in New England.” But in Stockbridge, he was so pressed for funds before selling his home in Northampton, that he lacked the necessary paper for writing. The mission and church in Stockbridge were beset with problems that demanded Edwards’s attention. A house had to be built, sermons had to be prepared and preached, special concerns of the Indian converts had to be addressed (for example, the language issue and what sorts of schools to provide), parties had to be reconciled, misuse of mission funds had to be confronted. Edwards gave himself to these duties with faithfulness.President Edwards
But the greater purposes of God in this strange and painful providence of Edwards’s removal to Stockbridge, I would venture, are in the thinking and writing that Edwards did in these seven years. Four of Edwards’s weightiest, most influential books were written in the years 1752–1757: The Freedom of the Will, The End for Which God Created the World, The Nature of True Virtue, and The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. Paul Ramsey says that they “are not wholly undeserving of such high praise as ‘four of the ablest and most valuable works which the Church of Christ has in its possession’” (Freedom of the Will, 8).
Four months after the completion of the last of these four great works, on September 24, 1757, Edwards’s son-in-law and president of Princeton College, Aaron Burr, died. (Burr was the father of Aaron Burr, Jr., the politician who shot Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel). Two days later, the “corporation of the college” met and “made the choice of Mr. Edwards as his successor.” Edwards was “not a little surprised” to receive word that he had been elected president of Princeton, if he would accept. Although Edwards responded with serious misgivings, he closed the letter with the promise to seek counsel and take the matter seriously.
The advisory council was held January 4, 1758, in Stockbridge and decided it was Edwards’s duty to accept the call. When he was told of the decision he “fell into tears on the occasion, which was very unusual for him in the presence of others” (Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, clxxvii). He protested that they too easily overlooked his arguments, but in the end he acquiesced. The missionary society with whom he served gave their permission, and he left for Princeton in January, planning to move his family in the spring.Good God, Dark Cloud
On February 13, 1758, one month after he had assumed the presidency of Princeton, Edwards was inoculated for smallpox. It had the opposite effect from that intended. The pustules in his throat became so large that he could take no fluids to fight the fever. When he knew that there was no doubt he was dying, he called his daughter Lucy — the only one of his family in Princeton — and gave her his last words. There was no grumbling over being taken in the prime of his life with his great writing dreams unfulfilled, but instead, with confidence in God’s good sovereignty, he spoke words of consolation to his family:
Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God that I must shortly leave you; therefore give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. And as to my children you are now to be left fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a father who will never fail you.
He died on March 22, 1758. His physician wrote the hard letter to his wife, who was still in Stockbridge. She was quite sick when the letter arrived, but the God who held her life was the God whom Jonathan Edwards preached. So on April 3 she wrote to her daughter Esther,
What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it, he has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. Oh what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be.
Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah EdwardsTo the Sun and Ocean
So ended the earthly life of one whose passion for the supremacy of God was perhaps unsurpassed in the history of the church. The pursuit was with vehemence because he knew what was at stake, and he knew that no mere speculative or rational knowledge of God would save his soul or bless the church. All his energy was bent on serving the true end of all things — the manifestation of the glory of God in a spiritual sight and enjoyment of that glory.
The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.
God calls Christians to be peacemakers. But when and how should we intervene in other people’s conflicts?
Have you ever felt like the odd one out at a church service, the only one who’s not “feeling it”? Does it sometimes seem like everyone else is on the emotional mountaintop and you’ve been left behind in the valley?
For some time now, many churches have structured worship gatherings to heighten natural emotional stimulation. Dim the lights. Pick songs that tug the heartstrings, despite their thin context. Make sure the choir or band swells at just the right moment. Deliver the sermon to land with a poignant climax, a welling up of feeling that may not even necessitate the new birth.
All of this may be well-intended. But we will not find any evidence in Scripture that a marked emotional “high” is the normative experience for Christian worship. Will we be moved emotionally, and often? Yes. And hopefully with spiritual affections, not simply natural feelings. Can we depend on a weekly jolt of euphoria? I don’t think so.
In corporate worship we find something far better than a typical rush of feeling. Here are three reasons why we shouldn’t expect each Lord’s Day to produce an off-the-charts mountaintop experience, and why we can instead delight in the regular, ordinary, supernatural joy of engaging with God together.Ordinary Means, Extraordinary God
First, God has ordained that churches worship him through ordinary means. The elements of a Christian service are quite plain: texts recited and preached; prayer; human voices singing out loud; bread and wine; the water of baptism. The churches of the New Testament didn’t model their worship primarily on the rich ceremonies of the temple, with its incense, sacrifices, and golden trappings. Rather, it seems that they adapted the simpler format of the Jewish synagogue meeting, where the focus was on hearing the word of the Lord (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 36).
There is an asymmetry here. We worship a supernatural God. But the building blocks of our worship are natural and unremarkable on their own. Their ordinariness should help us focus less on what we’re doing — and even what we’re feeling — when we’re worshiping, and more on the God whom we’re worshiping.
Since the Spirit of Christ now dwells in us (2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:5), we don’t need certain external aids — whether incense or organs or subwoofers or fog machines — to “feel” his presence. When we engage with God through Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit, using the simple elements of worship he’s given us, our hearts rise before his beauty, strength, and wisdom.
To be clear, Scripture says we should experience joy when we meet together. Our gladness as Christians, though, is grounded in the character of God and built on his work for us at the cross. We can cheerfully obey the psalmist’s command, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalms 32:11). We distinguish the sturdy, supernatural joy of knowing Christ, which endures throughout various seasons of life, from the natural, hyped-up, full-tilt, caffeinated intensity that many today often seek in worship.
Christian joy is supernatural, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our hearts always feel transported to the emotional mountaintop. Rather than granting us the cotton-candy rush of a particular natural feeling, God instead feeds our hearts with the supernatural joy of a wholesome dinner over a lifetime of Sundays.My Emotions or Your Edification?
Second, the New Testament instructs us to give special attention to others in the body when we gather. In other words, though corporate worship can be wonderfully refreshing to our own souls, we also gather to build up God’s people and find our own good in the good of others.
We might summarize the Bible’s priorities for corporate worship using two words: exaltation and edification. Exaltation is oriented toward God. It involves praise, singing, prayer, proclaiming Christ’s work in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and magnifying God by heralding his glorious word (Hebrews 13:15; Ephesians 5:19; 1 Timothy 2:1; 1 Corinthians 11:26; 2 Timothy 4:2). At the same time, everything done in the public gathering is “for building up” the church, or edification (1 Corinthians 14:26). This involves public reading, exhortation, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13); “addressing one another” in song (Ephesians 5:19); and mutually stirring one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
Notice what is absent from those verses. They don’t reference the emotional state of the worshipers. Certainly, gathered worship will often stir godly feelings. If the message of God’s grace to undeserving sinners, through Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, does not stir our souls, we may be showing up to church, but we’re not worshiping. If we mainly gather to receive a personal jolt of inspiration, we’ve missed the point. God calls us to assemble to pursue his glory and to build others up. Ironically, our own emotional experience in worship will grow and deepen as we’re increasingly focused on God and his people.Worship in the Already and Not Yet
Third and finally, we worship in between Christ’s two comings. This is an age of both joy and sorrow, satisfaction and yearning mingled together. Psalms of lament provide us with a vocabulary for pilgrims who have “no lasting city” in this broken world (Hebrews 13:14). Our hearts are deep wells (Proverbs 20:5), sometimes still prone to the deception and sickness that characterized us before redemption (Jeremiah 17:9). This means that on this side of glory, our emotions can be wonderful servants, but woeful masters.
When we join the angelic throngs in praising Christ on that final day, we will experience a full-bodied encounter with God that far transcends any emotional “mountaintop” experience we felt in this age. Until then, our emotions will likely move in fits and starts in this life. And that is why it is better to drop our expectations of natural, high-octane passion every single week in worship, even as we raise our hopes for genuine, God-exalting spiritual affections.
From time to time, or even often, God may graciously bless us with satisfying emotional highs, but there is something far greater we can seek. This is what we get to enjoy each time the church meets: shared wonder at the glorious God who made us and redeemed us for his own praise.
The word of God is not merely medicine for our sickly souls. To the born-again heart, it is food for our enjoyment and drink for our soul’s delight.
When suffering comes to us, we naturally — instinctively — want to know what or who has caused it. The answer to that question often affects how we respond to the pain. We focus immediately on the obvious causes. For an illness, we think about what has gone wrong with our body biochemistry. After an accident, we visit and revisit what happened, how it happened and whose fault it was.
When a so-called “natural” disaster strikes, we may think about why people were living where they lived, why the early warnings didn’t work, why the flood defenses were inadequate, and so on. We want to blame somebody or something. And, whether or not we can blame a human agent, behind all that we want to blame God. For God — if there is a God — must have something to do with it all.
After that, we may react with bitterness, recriminations, or resentment. Perhaps these are specific, or maybe we are just left with a residual sense that we have been unfairly treated. At the beginning of the book of Job, Job suffers four terrible tragedies (Job 1:13–19) before losing his health (Job 2:7–8). Two of the four tragedies we might today call “natural disasters” (although the Bible never uses this expression); the other two would perhaps come under the label of “terrorism.”God’s Job or Satan’s?
One of the deepest questions in the book of Job is this: who caused Job’s terrible sufferings? There is one clear answer, given or assumed by Job, by his three so-called “comforters,” and by the divinely-inspired storyteller. This answer is expressed crisply at the end of the book, where the narrator describes how Job’s family and friends “comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).
The Lord, the covenant God, is the one who brought these sufferings upon Job. He did not simply allow them; he caused them to come upon Job (the Hebrew verb here indicates active causality). Job shows that he knows this is true when he says, “. . . the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). He reiterates this conviction when he says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). In saying this, the inspired narrator indicates that “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. . . . Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10). Job believes God has done it; and Job is right to believe this.
In both Job 2:10 and Job 42:11, the word translated “evil” indicates not moral evil, but disaster — things that are terrible to experience. The three friends share this conviction. The most common title for God in the book is “the Almighty” (e.g. Job 5:17).God’s Strange Servant
But under and alongside this shared conviction of the active sovereignty of God, there is an important subsidiary conviction: Satan causes Job’s sufferings. Satan (or, more properly, “the Satan” – this is more of a title than a name, and means something like “the adversary”) is a supernatural creature who has a strange place in the council or cabinet of the “sons of God” (ESV) or “angels” (NIV). He is utterly evil and malicious; and yet he has a job to do. It is his “hand” that actively strikes Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). So, in a sense, he causes them. But as we see if we read the book carefully, he is not the ultimate cause.
Older liberal commentators take the easy way out of splitting Job into a part in which God causes Job’s sufferings and a part in which Satan causes them. So, for example, H.H. Rowley takes the words “that the Lord had brought upon him” in Job 42:11 as simply indicating the (erroneous) assumptions shared by Job and his friends. But these words are spoken by the inspired narrator of the story, so we must not take this erroneous, albeit easy, way out.
But more responsible commentators recognize that the Bible holds these together. The parallel accounts of David’s census demonstrate this same parallelism of views. Who motivated David to call this census? The Lord did (2 Samuel 24:1); and Satan did (1 Chronicles 21:1). The Bible — and the book of Job — hold these together. Satan is God’s strange servant to do the will of God by afflicting Job with suffering. Satan does this out of malice; the Lord out of a loving concern for his glory. Satan is — as Luther so vividly put it — “God’s Satan.”
Those who reject the sovereignty of God will either ignore clear verses on God’s sovereignty over our suffering (like Job 1:21; 2:10; 42:11) or assign it (as Rowley does) to the possibly mistaken view of the human characters. Nevertheless, when referring to the “evil” that came upon Job, it is clear “that the Lord had brought [it] upon him” (Job 42:11). This is clear throughout the book and it is written for our instruction.Evil for Our Ultimate Good
It is of great pastoral importance that we grasp what the Bible teaches about the causality of disaster when it comes to believers. There are two common mistakes. On the one hand, we may neglect Satan altogether and just assume that God rules the world in a simple and direct way. This is, I am told, close to the view of Islam. Some Christians tacitly assume this, but it is not the teaching of the Bible. On the other hand, we may think of Satan as a second, independent, autonomous power of evil, in which case the universe becomes a terrifyingly uncertain place, since we may never be sure whether God or Satan will win any particular round of their contest.
The Bible, however, teaches that God has chosen to exercise his absolute, direct, and intentional sovereign government of the world through the agency of his chosen council or cabinet of intermediate powers (the “sons of God” or “angels”), some of whom are evil. These powers have no autonomy whatsoever. And yet, in the purposes of God, they are significant and do exert influence, as God has chosen that they will.
To grasp this deep truth about the government of the universe will give Christian believers great confidence — for the sovereignty of God is unchallenged — and yet also great realism, for we will take seriously the role of supernatural evil in the infinite wisdom of God, who is himself utterly untouched by evil, and yet who chooses to weave evil into his purposes of ultimate good.
You did not make yourself believe. The Holy Spirit works a miracle in our hearts to open blind eyes to the beauty of Jesus.
Of the three most important spiritual disciplines of the Christian life — Bible reading, prayer, and Christian fellowship — prayer is the least exercised. Why do we struggle so much to pray?
That question has many answers, and we’ve probably heard most of them. We’re distractible, we’re lazy, we’re busy, we’ve had poor models, we lack a clear plan for how and when to pray, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people and things to pray for, our Adversary opposes our praying, and the list goes on.
But I think a significant reason for many of us is that we find prayer mysterious. We don’t understand how it works — or more accurately, we don’t understand how it doesn’t work. For example, we read promises in Scripture like this one:
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)
Then we pray and we don’t see answers to our prayers. We’re left asking, what’s the problem? And we conclude that either our faith is so pitifully small faith that God essentially ignores them, or that there must be so many inscrutable, complicating factors inhibiting his answers that we end up as prayer agnostics. Either way, the net effect is we’re discouraged from praying much, unless we feel very desperate. Mark 11:24 must be for Christians with heroic faith.
But this is not the way God wants us to respond to unanswered prayer. He wants us to seriously press into the question, “What’s the problem?” Because in the audacious promise above — “whatever [we] ask in prayer” — is an invitation to an intimate relationship with him.Further Up and Further In
“Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” I know this is a difficult promise for us. I know it exposes the littleness of our faith. I know it raises thorny, even grievous questions regarding prayers that have seemed to go unanswered. I know, I know. We’re tempted to respond sardonically, “Yeah, whatever . . . ”
And Jesus knows it’s hard for us too. He knows this promise presses us beyond our limits. He means it to. That’s why he made it. He is drawing us beyond what we’ve yet seen and experienced, and he’s calling out a trust in us that we don’t think we have — and are scared to really exercise. Jesus’s purpose is not to shame us for our little faith. He’s inviting us to come further up and further in.
What did Jesus mean by “whatever”? He made this promise to the disciples when they marveled that the fig tree Jesus cursed had shriveled up. One of the men who heard Jesus’s promise firsthand helps us understand what “whatever” means:
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14–15)
“Whatever” is “anything according to [God’s] will.” But this is no divine bait-and-switch. This is not a radically sounding promise that isn’t actually radical. The fig tree really withered. Jesus really means for us to move mountains (Mark 11:23). But we are meant to move the mountains God wants moved.All the Idiosyncrasies of a Relationship
This is what we must keep in mind: prayer is a relational interaction, not merely a service transaction. Faith is not divine currency that we pay God in order to receive whatever we ask in prayer. Faith is a relational response of trust in what God promises us. Faith says to God, “I trust what you say so much that I will live by what you say.” And those who are audacious enough to really live by what God says will see mountains move that God wants moved. That’s why Jesus said,
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)
“Abide in me, and . . . ask whatever you wish.” This sounds so simple, just like “love one another” (John 13:34) sounds so simple. But abiding, like loving, is not simple at all, because it is profoundly relational.
Think about this. Which of our other close relationships are simple? How hard do we have to work, especially because of our own selfish sin, to understand and communicate clearly with those we love? Isn’t relational communication among the most difficult things we deal with daily? And these are relationships we encounter face-to-face. Should we expect knowing and relating to God will be less difficult?
Prayer has all the idiosyncrasies of a relationship because it is the way we relate to God.
In every other human relationship we have, effective communication is something we must learn. It’s not unusual to feel very perplexed at first. It can feel mysterious and frustrating. We find out that good communication requires more intentionality and pursuit and careful listening and humility and persistence and perseverance and real love than we originally expected or probably wanted to give. But if we really press into it, we tend to discover far more about that person than we knew before and experience new levels of intimacy and friendship with them. If we don’t, we won’t.
The same is true of God.Whatever You Wish
This is why Jesus tells us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He knows that we are tempted to lose heart by what seems like unanswered prayer. We do have small faith. Jesus knows this and he wants to grow our faith. God tells us there are complicating factors that delay answers to prayer, but he doesn’t mean for those factors and delays to make us prayer agnostics and give up. He wants us to press into his promise because there is no mountain he cannot move.
Those who abide in Christ, and have Christ’s words abiding in them, may ask whatever they wish, and it will be done for them. What does such a life look like? It looks like the Old Testament saints listed in Hebrews 11 who really pressed in to know God. It looks like the faithful men and women of the New Testament. And it looks like the lives of audacious saints throughout church history who have taken God most seriously at his word — the David Brainerds, the Adoniram Judsons, the George Muellers, the Hudson Taylors, the Charles Spurgeons, the Robert Chapmans, and a host of other men and women.
If “whatever you ask in prayer” has not happened yet, do not assume it can’t or won’t. Don’t give up. This promise is an invitation to come further up and further in to knowing God. And those who have taken God up on this invitation testify that the audacious promises of God are for those audacious enough to believe them.
Our culture often stereotypes women as hyperemotional and men as rational. But is this a biblical dichotomy?
Sometimes it feels like life is falling apart.
Sometimes it comes crashing down in a moment of tragedy. Sometimes it slips slowly through your fingers, like when your health deteriorates or your marriage stagnates.
Since our twin sons were born six years ago with a condition called nemaline myopathy, I’ve become familiar with the anxiety, helplessness, and disorienting feeling of falling apart. It felt slow and gradual when ultrasounds progressively revealed something wasn’t right with our boys. It felt sharp and crushing when I heard the panic in my wife’s voice over the phone. “It’s happening,” she cried. “Isaac’s dying!”
What hope, what help, what grace does God offer that can hold us together when it feels like life is falling apart? I have found that God himself holds me together as I cling to what his word reveals about who he is and how he works to redeem fallen people in a broken world. One of the places I find this grace is the exodus story.God Sees Our Suffering
In Egypt, the Israelites were ruthlessly afflicted with backbreaking slave labor. Circumstances beyond their control made their lives bitter (Exodus 1:11–14). In their agony, they cried out to God for relief. In response, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel — and God knew” (Exodus 2:24–25).
God heard. God remembered. God saw. God knew.
Then out of the burning bush, God told Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7–8).
God saw. God heard. God knew. And God came down to deliver.
When it feels like life is falling apart, it’s tempting to believe that God is distant and disinterested in my plight. But knowing the character of God is a deep comfort. Not only is God omniscient, but he is good, and he is willing and able to deliver.We Often Misinterpret Our Pain
However, the first time Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh with God’s command — “Let my people go!” — the result looked nothing like deliverance (Exodus 5:1). Rather than freeing God’s people, Pharaoh made their work harder and their lives even more bitter (Exodus 5:9).
When their suffering intensified, the Israelites misinterpreted their circumstances as evidence of God’s absence (Exodus 5:20–21). Even Moses was perplexed and “turned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all’” (Exodus 5:22–23).
Fast-forward several chapters. When God finally brought his people out of Egypt, he specifically directed Moses to turn back and encamp by the sea (Exodus 14:2). Why would God lead his people into a corner? Exodus 14:4 says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” It was God’s intention to display his glory to his people by bringing Pharaoh against them and delivering them at the last moment.
But Israel didn’t break out in anticipatory praise and eager expectation of this display of God’s glory. When they saw over six hundred chariots from the strongest army on earth bearing down on them, fear gripped their hearts. And once again they interpreted their situation as evidence that God meant to do them harm:
The people of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:10–12)
Just like the Israelites, I often misinterpret the hardships of my life as evidence that God is against me. Such wrong thinking about God inevitably results in sinful attitudes and actions. When my life is falling apart on the outside, the default response of my flesh is to fall apart on the inside. Anxiety. Despair. Fear. Anger. Bitterness. Just like the Israelites, I am prone to think hard and bitter thoughts toward God when I can’t see a way out.God Always Works for Our Good
The very circumstances that Moses and the Hebrews understood to mean that God was working against them were actually the very circumstances in which God was powerful at work for them. He was actively laying the groundwork for a monument to his glory that would be the joy of his people for generations.
When Pharaoh increased their workload and made their lives miserable, God was at work. When Moses complained, God answered, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh” (Exodus 6:1).
When the people railed against God at the Red Sea, they failed to see that God was at work in their circumstances, not simply in spite of them. And though they impugned God’s motives, they received this comforting word:
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13–14)
I can never rely on my finite, emotional, human perspective. The very events that I misconstrue to mean that my life is falling apart are likely the groundwork God is laying for another monument to the glory of his redeeming grace.
Unlike my fallible feelings, this is reliable grace from God that holds me together. I know it’s true because fifteen hundred years after the exodus, God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us (Romans 8:32). Jesus’s own disciples misinterpreted the crucifixion of their Lord to mean the death of their dreams. Perhaps if they had discerned this pattern in the character and ways of God — that God loves glorious rescues — they wouldn’t have been so slow to believe that the Son of God had to suffer and die before rising to rule and reign (Luke 24:25–27).
So, the next time it feels like your life is falling apart, fear not, stand firm, and brace yourself to see the salvation of the Lord. You have only to be silent while God works for you. The exodus is an example and Jesus is the guarantee that God can and will work all things for the good of those who love him.
She sat across from me with fingers pressed into her forehead. “How did I get here?” she groaned.
Jackie had been a faithful wife for many years. Yet she found herself ensnared in a sinful pit with no way out. Her web of lies had become a suffocating trap. She never imagined she would go this far, and now she saw no way back.
Sadly Jackie’s situation is not uncommon. Whether we are a pastor, president, or housewife, we are all in danger of being wooed, outwitted, and overpowered by sin. Yet we often do not feel the danger until it is too late. Sin is like a seductress who lures her unsuspecting prey with flattering assurances (Proverbs 5–7; Hebrews 3:13). Like a spider, she sets her trap and waits to pounce on those who play in her web.
But God does not desire us to be consumed. He warns us of sin’s schemes by recording the fall of others who were tempted as we are. Few examples are more sobering than those of Samson, Solomon, and David. They are tragic tales of strong, wise, and devoted men who were overcome by the power, trickery, and allure of sin.Sin Is Stronger Than You
The life of Samson was marked by triumph and tragedy. Born to godly parents and empowered by God, he was set up to be a deliverer Israel desperately needed. Prior to Samson’s downfall, his supernatural strength was unmatched. No army or enemy was able to defeat him.
But sin could. Seduction weakened him to willingly surrender his secret source of strength (Judges 16:17). When his locks were clipped, he rose to fight, but “he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). The spider had spun him up, and he was too weak to defend himself. His physical state mirrored his spiritual one. He was blind, broken, and crushed under the consequences of compromise.
Samson’s strength blinded him to his own weakness. The unseen enemy in his heart plotted mutiny — and Samson never saw it coming. As he fed his lust, he strengthened it. As he stoked his pride, he invigorated it. As he submitted to his flesh, it fortified against him. Apart from God’s strength, Samson didn’t have a chance.
What can we learn from Samson’s fall?1. Sin feeds on power.
We are tempted to think that the more powerful we become, the better we will battle sin. But the exact opposite is true. The more power, influence, or prestige we possess, the more temptable we are. The strength of sin feeds on our sense of strength. This is why we are warned that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). In weakness, we feel our need for God, but when we are strong, we lack that saving sobriety.2. Sin flourishes in isolation.
Samson was almost always alone. He had no need for others. He had things under control. But his isolating pride set him up to be ambushed by the prowling lion. Isolation is the enemy of spiritual strength because it separates you from those God has provided to help you. We are not all strong at the same time. We need others to press us into the light of humility and honesty. Samson didn’t see a need for that kind of help — he was too strong.
Sin overpowered the strongest man, and it can take you out, too.Sin Is Smarter Than You
Solomon’s reign began with love for God and his gift of unparalleled understanding. He wrote thousands of proverbs and authored inspired words of Scripture. But his heart had turned away to forbidden alliances, lovers, and idols (1 Kings 11:1–8).
Solomon had matchless wisdom, yet was outsmarted by sin’s schemes. The tempter sowed seeds of compromise that eventually sprouted and choked his discernment. He counseled others to lean not on their own understanding, yet he did not take his own counsel.
His collection of forbidden horse chariots may have been well-intentioned, but they revealed a distrust in God’s care (Deuteronomy 17:16; 1 Kings 10:26). He made alliances with foreign kings that were sealed with wives who brought idols into his home (Deuteronomy 17:17; 1 Kings 3:1; 11:3). He thought he could keep the compromise under control (2 Chronicles 8:11), but eventually they outnumbered him a thousand to one. It seems Solomon thought he could work the system, but in the end he was eaten by it.
What can we learn from Solomon’s fall?1. Sin wants you to trust your own wisdom.
Solomon knew what God said about multiplying wives and horses and riches. Yet he thought he was wise enough to handle it. This is part of sin’s scheme. The tempter assures you that you are wise enough to see when you are in trouble. He wants you to think you’re safe, even while indulging in sinful exploration (Ecclesiastes 1–2). You’ll be assured that you can keep things under control — after all, God is with you.2. Sin wants you to underestimate small compromises.
The tempter has a crafty plan to patiently have you grow content with small compromises. “It’s just one look.” “A little won’t hurt.” “It’s not as bad as what they are doing.” If Satan cannot tempt you into a great sin, he will settle for a small one, because he knows that small sins pave the way to greater ones. Callousness grows in small degrees. Fear of God does not disappear all at once. You slowly become disillusioned with sin’s severity, and then you wind up with a thousand idol-worshiping housemates. Don’t assume something similar can’t happen to you.
Sin outwitted the wisest man, and it can outsmart you, too.Sin Can Woo You
Few people have known the sweet fellowship David had with God. His delight in God marked the lines of his songs and the steps of his life. Whether in trial, trouble, or celebration, David’s heart was always oriented toward enjoying God.
Yet even those who love God can be wooed away from him. We do not know why David stayed back from battle that spring afternoon. Yet as he strolled aimlessly on his palace roof, his unattended heart fell prey to forbidden beauty. Rather than flee, he lingered. A look, a longing, an inquiry, adultery, lies, conspiracy, murder, and attempted cover-up. David would repent and find forgiveness from God, but the consequences of his sin sent incalculable ripples throughout the kingdom (Psalm 51).
The hot coals of David’s heart for God had grown cold with complacency. He had been strong for so long, yet he hit cruise control. His affections for God diminished and the tempting beauty of sin ignited his flesh. He played roulette with sin, and the thrill quickly turned to devastating destruction.
What can we learn from David’s fall?1. Sin has a deceptive beauty.
We must remember that Satan wears the disguise of an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). He is a master at twisting good things God made and using their beauty to luring our hearts into forbidden waters. The power of sin is found in its presented beauty. The affirmation of adultery. The safety of a lie. The enjoyment of stolen treasure. Remember that the tempter lays before our eyes the beauty of the bait, but hides the hook that ensnares us.2. Seek sin and you shall find it.
Temptation most often enters through a door intentionally left open. If you aimlessly wander in the wilderness near the tempter’s house, you can be certain you will get a visit from him. This is why we are warned to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).
Sin wooed the worshipful king, and it can woo you as well.Jesus Is Stronger, Wiser, More Beautiful
God has given these examples to us that we might be instructed and warned to not fall into the same temptations (1 Corinthians 10:11–13). Yet we must not only avoid their example, but find help from the man who is greater than them.
Our sinful weaknesses need not lead us to despair. Instead, they can lead us to hope in the one who is greater than our sin. Jesus bound the strong man to set us free (Matthew 12:29). Jesus outsmarted the tempter by clinging to the wisdom of the Scriptures (Matthew 4:1–11). Jesus rejected sinful exaltation by drinking the cup of humiliation (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he endured without sin. His life was righteous and his death satisfied his Father’s just requirements. His resurrection gives us liberation, and his intercession grants us help in our weakness. Jesus is stronger than Samson, wiser than Solomon, and more devoted than David — and in him we find help to resist the tempter’s snares.
The more you get to know James Earl Ray, the more tragic it all feels. Martin Luther King, Jr., was everything Ray was not. Then, April 4, 1968, linked them together forever — fifty years ago today.
MLK had the courage to stand before massive crowds, knowing there were massive, violent conspiracies of hatred against him. Ray cowered in a locked bathroom behind a high-powered rifle.
MLK had the integrity to speak, march, and protest under his own name, no matter how despised he became. Ray hid behind a new alias everywhere he went: Eric Galt. Harvey Lowmeyer. Ramon Sneyd.
MLK had faith that even if he were to perish in the march toward progress, God would finish whatever good he was doing. Ray tried to take history into his own hands, believing a bullet could stop what was unfolding in Atlanta, Memphis, Washington, and around the world.
Martin Luther King continues to inspire and mobilize generations of men and women to stand and serve for change with courage, integrity, and conviction. James Earl Ray is remembered only as a footnote in King’s success and legacy. What James Earl Ray meant for evil — and it was indeed evil at every conceivable level — God has worked for good for the last fifty years. And it’s clear he’s not done turning that dark Ray of history into light.What Killed King?
I recently relived the horror that unfolded on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel reading Hellbound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’s riveting and moving nonfiction narrative. Sides walks through the pressure-filled months leading up to King’s assassination, and then through the manhunt to find and arrest the shooter — a manhunt that took two whole months despite the FBI’s devoting every available resource. The book is thoroughly researched and phenomenally well written.
The decisive courtroom of heaven may eventually implicate the Memphis police, or white supremacist groups, or even the CIA and FBI in King’s assassination, but they will not vindicate Ray. Even if he was framed, he could be framed only because of the kind of evil he already had shown — convicted of burglary at 21, then of armed robbery, mail fraud, and theft, earning him twenty years in prison. He escaped after eight.
The evidence, while incomplete and mysterious, still overwhelmingly suggests Ray pulled the trigger, aiming to sever the spine of the blossoming Civil Rights Movement. He may have been recruited, helped, or even coerced, but all that we know fifty years later, despite massive efforts to prove otherwise, makes him the executioner.
Whether Ray acted alone, or as the pitiful pawn of a more sophisticated plot, the motive seems clear: cripple the inspiring and contagious movement for racial equality in America. Yes, King had made enemies by actively protesting the Vietnam War and by advocating for the poor. He was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, not only to stand for African Americans, but to march with underpaid garbage workers without benefits. He was focused in those days on planning his largest protest yet in Washington, D.C., “The Poor People’s Campaign.”
But Ray — a poor convict from a poor family who moved from one low-rent apartment to another in the poorest parts of town — was undoubtedly enraged not by King’s efforts to help the poor, but by all that he had accomplished for blacks in America.Conspiracies in the Hands of God
Two thousand years before King was born, Peter and the apostles spoke with similar courage, integrity, and conviction before corruption in Jerusalem. “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). Sounds a lot like what was happening fifty years ago in America, as King stood and preached for change in the name of Christ.
The apostles were thrown in prison for declaring what they had witnessed. The high priest charged them not to teach in Jesus’s name. Peter responded,
“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29–32)
The Conspiracy of conspiracies — man’s greatest effort to defy history — was a miserable subplot in God’s invincible plan. The religious elites thought they were drowning Christianity, but they had simply set it on fire.
In a similar way, James Earl Ray thought he was the bucket of water. In reality, he was gunpowder.Assassinations in Futility
When the Jewish council heard Peter’s response, “they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (Acts 5:33). It’s hard to read that today and not see a smoldering Ray buying his high-powered hunting rifle under a fake name. But before they executed the apostle, a Pharisee spoke up and said,
“Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. . . . For if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:35, 38–39)
Gamaliel rehearsed the stories of two failed movements. Someone named Theudas had risen up, “claiming to be somebody” (probably to be the Messiah). But “he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing” (Acts 5:36). Likewise, Judas the Galilean emerged and led many astray, but “he too perished, and all who followed him were scattered” (Acts 5:37).
What was Gamaliel’s lesson? If a movement is merely formed in the ambition and imagination of men, it will die when the men die. But if it is a work of God, it will outlive us all — no matter how many bullets fly. Assassinations are violent exercises in futility. They almost always defeat themselves — catalyzing, rather than impeding, the opponents.A Dream Within a Dream
King’s conviction and courage became a holy instrument in the hands of a sovereign God with an invincible plan to tear down racial and socioeconomic walls. As John Piper has said,
We don’t know if the world would have changed without him, but we do know he was a rod in the hand of the all-ruling God. Leave aside his theology and his moral flaws. They do not nullify the massive good God wrought through this man. He was used in the mighty hand of Providence to change the world so that the most appalling, blatant, degrading, public (and usually legal) expressions of racism have gone away.
MLK’s agenda was multifaceted and regularly evolving, but God’s plan was and is manifestly clear. He has a dream of his own, and his dreams always come true. He wielded the giftedness and influence of Martin Luther King — and strangely also the tragic hatred and cowardice of James Earl Ray — to further his purposes and exalt his Son. They are both part of a story that ends with us together — black and white, American and African, people from every continent, country, and social class — singing one song:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
Fifty years of slow progress in America, while both significant and frustrating, is still but a wisp of what is to come.
James Earl Ray thought he was bringing down the Civil Rights Movement, but fifty years later, the cause has fresh life and passion. King’s followers were not dispersed or scattered, but unified and galvanized. Because the gospel, and only the gospel, achieves and inspires true racial equality and reconciliation, Ray was found not only on the wrong side of history, but at war with the King of kings.What God Meant for Good
James Earl Ray died on April 23, 1998, thirty years after catalyzing King’s convictions and sealing his legacy.
King gave his life to a righteous cause. God worked good in and through this Christian preacher’s efforts to bring about good. Like the wicked kings in Revelation 17:17, Ray accomplished God’s purposes by opposing them. Like Satan at the cross, what tasted like victory in the moment proved to be his greatest nightmare — every ounce of deplorable evil suddenly and permanently hijacked for good. And every ounce of evil is now being punished under God’s perfect justice.
What James Earl Ray — or the Memphis police, or George Wallace supporters, or the mafia, or J. Edgar Hoover — meant for evil, God meant for great good. And for tens of thousands of Aprils to come, we will celebrate the good he has done in, and through, and after MLK.
Pain and suffering in this life really hurt, but God never leaves us to wallow in hardship on our own.
The racial world I grew up in, and the one we live in today, are amazingly different. Racism remains in many forms in America and around the world. In fact, the last two years have brought a disheartening setback, as advocates of white supremacy have been emboldened to be overt.
But in the days of my youth in South Carolina, it was worse. So much worse. The segregation was almost absolute, its manifestations utterly degrading, and the defense of it rang not only from street mobs, but also from the halls of political power — without shame.
- In 1954, seventeen states required segregated public schools (America in Black and White, 99);
- In 1956, 85% of all white southerners rejected the statement, “White students and Negro students should go to the same schools”;
- 73% said that there should be “separate sections for Negros on streetcars and buses”;
- 62% did not want a Negro “with the same income and education” as them to move into their neighborhood (144);
- In 1963, 82% of all white southerners opposed a federal law that would give “all persons, Negros as well as white, the right to be served in public places such as hotels, restaurants, and similar establishments” (139);
- And in 1952 (when I was six years old), only 20% of southern blacks of voting age were registered to vote.
The upshot of those statistics was an unjust, unsafe, condescending, unwelcoming, demeaning, and humiliating world for blacks. Have you ever paused to ask yourself what separate water fountains and separate restrooms could possibly mean except, You are unclean — like lepers? It was an appalling world.Enter MLK
Between that racially appalling world and this racially imperfect one strode Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t know if the world would have changed without him, but we do know he was a rod in the hand of the all-ruling God. Leave aside his theology and his moral flaws. They do not nullify the massive good God wrought through this man. He was used in the mighty hand of Providence to change the world so that the most appalling, blatant, degrading, public (and usually legal) expressions of racism have gone away.
For that alone, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination, and loss to the cause of justice, is worthy of heartfelt focus.
Martin Luther King gave his life to change the world. And toward the end, he was increasingly aware that “the Movement” would cost him his life. The night before he was assassinated by James Earl Ray outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he preached at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple. He had come to Memphis to support the badly underpaid black sanitation workers.
His message came to be called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He began it by surveying world history in response to a question from God, “When would you have liked to be alive?” King answered, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Why? Because “I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world.”
What was happening? “We are determined to be men. We are determined to be people.” We are standing up. “A man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” For a brief window of time — just long enough — MLK was able to use his voice to restrain violence and overcome hate: “We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do.” He kindled a kind of fire that no firehoses could put out, and a kind of courage that no dogs could defeat.
Oh yes, there was violence in the sixties. But three years before his final message, when King was asked whether the riots occurred because the leadership of his people was no longer effective, surely King was right to say, “The riots we have had are minute compared to what would have happened without their effective and restraining leadership.”To the Promised Land
He continued on that last night: We have pursued “a dangerous kind of unselfishness.” Like the Good Samaritan. “The Levite asked, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight.”
A dangerous unselfishness.
So dangerous it would cost MLK his life. And he saw it coming. That morning there had been a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta to Memphis. He felt it coming. So he closed his sermon prophetically:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Less than 24 hours later he was dead. My world was changed forever. And I am thankful.