The pulpit isn’t a place to put on a show, but to rejoice in the riches of revelation as you draw others to encounter God.
Only humans are made in God’s image, and only humans can be redeemed. So do we have any biblical basis for saying our pets will be in heaven?
We all have felt the sting of death. We’ve lost loved ones to cancer. We’ve wrestled with our own weaknesses. We’ve tried to live with our failures. We’ve navigated broken relationships, and battled against the cruel consequences of sin. We know firsthand that the whole world is dying for resurrection.
How has death crept into your life? Where have you felt the sting the most? We have felt the shadows that darken our stories. And we have heard the deafening chorus of false promises in book after book, ad after ad, lifehack after lifehack. They all promise some kind of relief, some kind of deliverance, some kind of life. Resurrection, it turns out, is an easy promise to make — and a near impossible promise to deliver.
Life that comes to us too easily will slowly suffocate us in time. The only road out of the grave for any of us is covered in the blood of the one who suffocated for us. Death, in the end, is the very way we defeat death.What If Jesus Never Rose?
The man who wrote 1 Corinthians had not only tasted the darkness of death, but he himself had killed Christians. He had been willing to murder followers of Jesus to silence them. When he writes about death, he writes with blood on his hands — the blood of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But the risen King met the murderer, and raised him from the dead. If God could breathe life into a story like Paul’s, imagine what he could do in the darkest, deadest parts of yours.
But what if Christ had never risen? That same former murderer says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19). If Christ never took another breath, never left the tomb, never appeared to his disciples, and never ascended into heaven — if he never lived again — then we would never stop dying.
We would carry our sin, our shame, and our pain through the grave into something far worse than death — if Jesus had not risen from his grave. If his final breath on the cross had been his final breath, and if we never stopped dying, fear would rule our short and hopeless lives.
But death could not stifle his breath. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Our King borrowed the tomb for two long nights before securing his victory over death forever. And his victory is our victory if we are willing to die with him into everlasting life.Do You Believe This?
Many days, however, our fears feel far more real than his victory. Before Jesus died, he said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). He said that in the moments after Mary and Martha watched their brother Lazarus die. They had called for Jesus, but he hadn’t come right away, so Lazarus died. Martha was distraught, wondering why Jesus didn’t come sooner. Have you ever felt like God was late in your life — like he watched you suffer when he could have done something?
What does Jesus say to Martha? “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). Martha did believe him, and four days after Lazarus had died, Jesus called him out of the tomb. And a matter of days later, Jesus himself walked out of the tomb. And when he did, he called us all out of the tomb. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Do you believe this?
If you do believe, death has no power over you anymore. Whenever fears begin to creep in again, you can sing with apostles and prophets, “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57). Fear melts away in the face of something stronger than our fears: in the face of our fear-conquering King. Jesus. His name is our victory — over sin, over shame, over death, and one day over all the awful consequences of our brokenness.Fear Gives Way
Jesus came to save a world enslaved to fear and desperate for resurrection. He partook in our flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15). The futility you experience in your relationships, in your ministry, even in your body bears witness to why he came.
Death and all its tentacles are terrifying until something stronger than death dethrones death — until life invades where death once ruled, saving the dying and setting the captives free.
The fear that held us now gives way
To him who is our peace.
His final breath upon the cross
Is now alive in me.
In him, you are not a slave to fear and death anymore. You are being resurrected by the Resurrected One. Now, not even death “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). What used to be our worst fear now brings us home to him forever.
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns.
A Christianity that never inconveniences us, never discomforts us, never costs anything, is not Christianity.
Many Christians assume that Christ was able to perform miracles because he was God. It certainly is true that he is God. However, if we argue, for example, that Christ’s divine nature necessarily and always acts through his human nature, thus enabling him to perform miracles, a serious problem emerges concerning the many texts that speak of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of Christ.
If the divine second person of the Godhead is the sole effective agent working on the human nature, then we need to ask ourselves a serious question: What is the point of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ? Many Christians (and even some formidable theologians) seem unsure what to do with the Holy Spirit when speaking about the person and work of Christ.Savior by the Spirit
For example, neither Roman Catholic nor Lutheran theologians can adequately account for a meaningful role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ if they remain faithful to the basic christology of those traditions. Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians generally do not know what to do with Christ’s gifts and graces (for example, faith and hope).
However, the Puritan John Owen (as well as others) had an insightful way of explaining the relation of Christ’s two natures. To my knowledge, this had not been as clearly articulated by anyone before him. One of his chief concerns was to protect the integrity of Christ’s two natures (divine and human). In so doing, he made a rather bold contention that the only singular immediate act of the Son of God (the divine second person) on the human nature of Christ was the decision to take it into subsistence with himself in the incarnation.
Every other act upon Christ’s human nature was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed his miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power. In other words, the divine nature acted not immediately by virtue of “the hypostatic union” (the joining of two natures in Christ’s singular person) but mediately by means of the Holy Spirit. The conventional way of understanding Christ’s miracles has typically been to argue that Christ performs miracles by virtue of his own divine nature. But on Owen’s (and others’) model, the Holy Spirit is actually the immediate author of Christ’s graces. This manner of understanding the relation of the Spirit to Christ’s human nature preserves his true humanness and answers a host of biblical questions that arise from a close reading of various texts.He Took a Human Soul
Some Christians seem to imagine that Christ’s divine nature takes the place of his soul. This idea, though well–intentioned, is wrong. Christ was a perfect man with a rational soul as the immediate principle of his moral actions. In other words, Christ had a human self-consciousness. Some might say that the person of the Son is Christ’s self-consciousness, but as Reformed theologians argued, personality is not an act but the mode or identity of a thing. “Who is Jesus?” refers to his personhood. The answer: “He is the God-man” (which refers to his identity).
Importantly, Christ’s humanity, both body and soul, does not get lost in or “gobbled up” by his divinity. Because of this, Christ’s humanity needed the Holy Spirit in order to have communion with God. His prayers to God were never simply the prayers of a man, nor even the prayers of the God-man to the Father; but more specifically they were the prayers of the Son of God to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Never was a prayer uttered before God from the lips of Christ that did not have the Holy Spirit working powerfully upon his human nature to enable him to speak the words the Father had given him to speak. In this way, we aim to pray as our Lord prayed: in the Spirit.
Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry as a true man was the Holy Spirit. Therefore, at all of the major events in the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit took a prominent role. The Holy Spirit was the immediate, divine, efficient cause of the incarnation (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). This was a fitting “beginning” for Christ since Isaiah spoke of the Messiah as one endowed with the Spirit (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1).
The New Testament confirms Isaiah’s testimony in several places, noting, for example, that Christ received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). At Jesus’s baptism the Spirit descended upon him (Matthew 3:16); and the Spirit plays a significant role in leading Christ to and sustaining him before, during, and after his temptation (Luke 4:1, 14). In that same chapter Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1–2 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”) and announces that he is the fulfillment of that prophecy (Luke 4:21). Christ performed miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:18; Acts 10:38). Hebrews 9:14 may be taken to mean that Christ offered himself up not by his own spirit but by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Like his death, Christ’s resurrection is attributed to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11), and by it he “was declared to be the Son of God . . . according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4; see also 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18).
Because the Spirit was Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry, there is little doubt that Christ called out (prayed) to his Father by the enabling of the Spirit, which would put an implicit christological emphasis upon Romans 8:26–27. The preponderance of references to the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Christ finds its best explanation in the Reformed interpretative tradition.He Humbled Himself
Given the basic christology above, Hugh Martin (1821–1885) argued that Jesus inevitably placed himself, therefore, in a position of acknowledged weakness and infirmity — of absolute dependence on God — a dependence to be exercised and expressed in the adorations and supplications of prayer. He was born of a woman, under the law — under the law of prayer, as of other ordinances and duties — the law by which a man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven, and except the Lord be inquired of for it (Ezekiel 36:37).
Christ exercised, according to his human nature, faith, love, reverence, delight, and all the graces proper to a true human nature in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he naturally would have desired to offer vocal requests and supplications to his Father in heaven. He also would have praised God with the knowledge he had of his Father. Additionally, he would have sought God out with a holy determination, making all other duties subservient to the duty of communion with God. In other words, true and proper humanity is realized only in communion with God.Christ’s Gift to Us
What does this mean for us? Consider three truths, among others. First, the Spirit’s ministry to us comes from Christ (Acts 2:33). Just as Christ ministered to us on the cross, his heavenly exaltation continues his ministry whereby he pours out the Spirit upon us since he is now the exalted Lord of the Spirit. The Spirit, therefore, comes in his name (“the Spirit of Christ”).
Second, the Spirit makes us like Christ. What is the role of the Spirit who has been given to us from the hand of Christ? He takes the copy of Christ’s religious life in the Spirit and works those same affections and desires in us so that we are truly Christlike (Romans 8:29).
Finally, the Spirit glorifies Christ. The Spirit, who worked in and through Christ during his life on earth, now works in and through us. Just as the Spirit enabled Christ to bring glory to his Father, so now the Spirit enables us to glorify both the Son and the Father. In other words, a true understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers begins and ends with the declaration that we are here on earth to glorify the Son and the Father by the power of the Spirit.
Jesus indeed has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). He has poured out on us and in us the very Spirit through whom he lived perfectly, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously.
The pulpit isn’t a just place for a lecture or even mere teaching. Every sermon should sing with worship over the glories of God’s word. John Piper delivered this message during a breakout seminar at the Sing! 2018 Conference in Nashville.
The most recent Marvel thriller, Captain Marvel, cannot be accused of hiding its uniform. In the lead actress’s own words, “It’s mythology, it’s story, and it’s the human experience on this large scale. And on top of it, they said they [directors and the powers that be at Disney] wanted to make, like, the biggest feminist movie of all time.” Written by women and led by a woman, Captain Marvel hoped to be for women what Black Panther was for the black community.
So who is Captain Marvel? The evolution of Carol Danvers into the mighty warrior was progressive. In the original comics, released in 1968, Captain Marvel was a male alien with the name Mar-vell, and Ms. Danvers, a former Air Force officer, was girlfriend to the hero. As the feminist movement of the ’70s advanced, so did her prominence. She soon became a superheroine known as Ms. Marvel (“Ms.” in honor of Gloria Steinem). According to its writer, Ms. Marvel was “a feminist role model.” She eventually became Captain Marvel in the 2012 rendition of the comic.
The movie follows her journey of self-discovery after suffering from memory loss. She finds herself on an unfamiliar planet and must regain her identity as a woman and heroine. The character, in the words of Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, “had been held back much of her life from being able to pursue the kinds of things she wanted to pursue. She’s constantly being told, ‘Girls shouldn’t do that,’ or, ‘It’s too dangerous for you; you’ll get hurt.’ This film is very much about this character learning to not hold back and not accept the boundaries put in front of her.”
As the fate of the Marvel Universe hangs in the balance, its long-awaited female savior and protector steps forth to face the seemingly unstoppable Thanos. In a world of the all-but-defeated Avengers, comprised of gods, warriors, kings, and assassins, we wait for Captain Marvel to save the world from an enemy whom the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, Spiderman, and the Hulk could not defeat collectively. According to Feige, we have reached the era of Captain Marvel (the new face of the Avengers), who is “the most powerful character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” However, to become the hope of the Marvel Universe, she first must break free from all that limits her.An Unmitigated Masterpiece?
I do not blame Marvel for inserting the trending feminist agenda into its universe. Where else can this lucrative ideology — which contrasts so unapologetically with reality — go to be sustained, if not to an alternative universe? Verse after verse, story after story, fact after fact, study after study, example after example dispels the myth of sameness between the sexes. The alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers, however, seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda.
So, did the movie live up to the hype? Did it come close to being “the biggest feminist movie ever,” the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the movement? Was it, as one understated tweet suggested, an “unmitigated masterpiece” and “a triumph in feminine valor over the twitching remnants of a dying patriarchy” (written by a woman whose next line read, “I can’t wait to see it”)?
Squint as I might, I can’t imagine how it did. The film was not the worst movie I’ve seen, but it stood galaxies away from the best. Maybe suitable for Redbox.Lamenting Disney’s New Queen
As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
The great drumroll of the previous Avenger movies led to this: a woman protecting men and saving the world. The mightiest of all the Avengers — indeed, after whom they are named — is the armed princess turned feminist queen, who comes down from the tower to do what Prince Charming could not.
Am I nitpicking? It is a movie after all. I wish it were. Instead of engaging the movie’s ideology as mere fiction, a fun escape to another world, we have allowed it to bear deadly fruit on earth. Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?She Will Not Be Appeased
The ideology that sends Brie Larson soaring fictionally around outer space has sent our real daughters, mothers, and sisters — devoid of such superpowers — to war to serve and die in place of men. Real wars, the kind where “horribly smashed men still [move] like half-crushed beetles” (Surprised by Joy, 240). Real wars, the kind C.S. Lewis elsewhere describes as the amalgamation of every temporal evil.
We ought to lament that feminist lust cannot be appeased, even with blood. It takes its daughters and now, calling men’s bluff, advocates for sending its mothers into the flames.
Unquestionably, men ought support women’s desires to be affirmed, respected, and honored. But indeed, few actions display our resolve to honor our women more than excluding them from the carnage of the battlefield. Where can we more clearly display our ultimate resolve to love our women as queens than to step into hell on earth as sacrificial pawns in their defense? Generation after generation has mobilized its men to be devoured — that its women might not be.
Yet the feminist agenda does not condone this exclusion. It will not be patronized by any messages of “you can’t,” “you won’t,” or “you shouldn’t.” Even when we say, “You can’t go into the lion’s den for us”; “You won’t risk a brutal death to protect us”; “You shouldn’t expose yourself to the bullets bearing our name” — even then, the deprivation still causes offense. But our God, our nature, our love must firmly say, You are too precious, my mother, my daughter, my beloved. It is my glory to die that you may live.Marvel Indeed
Yes, Marvel may be on the verge of ruining a decade-long movie saga with identity politics. So what? Will we fuss more about this than the government sending our daughters — stripped of photon blasts and the ability to fly — to fight our wars? We used to be attuned enough to know how shameful it is for men to hide behind their women, hoping she will take down Goliath. Have we forgotten how precious our women are? Have we forgotten that it is our glory to die in their place?
God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride. Jesus did not put his woman forward, and neither should we. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. He is the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for his people. Even from the cross, God’s wrath crushing him, he saw to the welfare of his mother (John 19:26–27). Should we so cowardly send our women to protect our children and us? Protecting our women with our very lives is not about their competency, but their value.
The authentic Christian life is the obedient Christian life. Pastor John shares an acronym that helps him to walk in the power that God supplies.
How do you share the gospel? Does marriage limit missions? Will I always struggle with doubt? John Piper addresses these questions and more.
Who would have thought that Pascal’s Wager from the seventeenth century would trickle down to a twenty-first-century Sunday School class? Alas! Here’s what happened.
I had breakfast recently with a 28-year-old man who grew up under my preaching and rejected all of it until four weeks ago. He was converted watching the documentary The American Gospel. The changes that have happened in his heart and life already are remarkable. He is now re-listening to sermons he heard fifteen years ago. “It’s all there,” he said.
I asked him what I could have done differently in my preaching that might have helped him hear what he couldn’t hear. He said two things. The second one surprised me.
The first was: “Better to tell it like it is than to soften things unrealistically. But if you’re going to say hard things in the first part of the message, maybe give a heads up that good news is on the way at the end — which it was, if I could have heard it.” That didn’t surprise me, and it’s good counsel.The Wager for Students
What surprised me was this: “Make sure that what you say in the pulpit is taught in Sunday School.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like never saying to young people (he was talking about high schoolers), ‘Don’t you think you should accept Christ just in case it’s all true?’”
“Really?” I said, “They said that?”
Well, that is not what was preached in the pulpit! And my young friend knew it, even when his heart was not yet ready to embrace the truth. He knew something was really wrong with that Sunday School counsel: “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true.” He said that it threw the whole thing into question — the whole Christianity and church thing.
Now I am virtually certain that this counsel was not standard Sunday School practice and teaching. But some teacher must have thought that was a good strategy to get students to trust Christ.
So what’s the problem with saying, “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true”?Gain All, Lose Nothing?
What’s wrong is this: It’s a Sunday School version of Pascal’s Wager. One is designed for kids. The other is designed for philosophers. Both are badly designed for awakening genuine saving faith. My breakfast conversation was Exhibit A.
Four years ago, I was so concerned about this approach to evangelism that I wrote a whole chapter on it in A Peculiar Glory titled “Pondering Pascal’s Wager.” Here’s the version of the wager for philosophers. It’s found in Pascal’s Pensées, #233.
God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. . . . A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason . . . you can defend neither of the propositions. . . .
You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? . . . Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. . . . But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. . . .
If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
The trickledown, Sunday School version is, “Accept Jesus just in case Christianity is true.”
So I ask again, What’s wrong with this? Why did my young friend shake his head and say to himself, “If that’s the way you become a Christian, the whole thing is a charade”?Bad Way to Wager
Teaching students to wager like this is deadly because it communicates a falsehood about the nature of saving faith. It gives the impression that faith in Christ is a choice we make without seeing him as true and compellingly beautiful and valuable. The wager says to the high-school student, “You don’t know if Christ is who he says he is. And you are not drawn to trust him by his greatness or beauty or worth. So just . . .”
Just what?! Accept him? Trust him? Believe on him? Receive him? What would any of this mean?
Accept him as what? Believe on him as what? Receive him as what? True? Beautiful? Supremely valuable? How could that be anything but mere words? The reality is that the teenager does not see Jesus as true and beautiful and precious beyond words. He cannot accept Jesus as beautiful and precious, when he does not see him as beautiful and precious.
The Sunday School Wager treats faith as a choice the student would make while standing before two options, with one offering short-term pleasure (self and sin) and the other offering long-term pleasure (Christ and heaven). The wager says: “Though you find neither option to be compellingly true or beautiful, choose one.” And then it calls that choice faith. It’s not.Faith Embraces
Faith is an effect of a heart-miracle called the new birth, as the apostle John said, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1). The new birth changes what the heart sees as true and beautiful and valuable. Then faith embraces what it sees as real.
That change is a work of God, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That God-given sight of glory is the basis of saving faith.
If faith is a decision made without a sight of Christ’s glory, it does not honor him. In fact, it dishonors him. It says, “I do not see you as real or as beautiful or as more valuable than my sin, but to save my skin, I will sign up for heaven.” This is not saving faith.Take Heart
Here’s the silver lining around the cloud of Sunday School confusion. This young man could smell the difference between what was preached and Pascal’s Sunday School Wager. The preaching was not in vain. It could have been better. But it was not in vain. Fifteen years later, God is bringing it all home.
So, pastors, take heart. Preach the glories of Christ. And train your Sunday School teachers in the whole counsel of God.
We can feel safe before a holy God and boast of a sure eternity. But we cannot do that by looking to ourselves.
Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man has always unsettled me. I’m an American. I’m as middle-class as Americans go, which means I live in a level of affluence and abundance unknown by most of my co-inhabitants of this world today, and by a far, far lower percentage of people in history. In global and historical terms, I am that man.
The most disturbing thing about the young man is that he seemed so familiar with his affluence-shaped religious and cultural assumptions that he didn’t realize how out of touch with spiritual reality he was. I doubt that many around him discerned how out of touch he was. From the very brief glimpses of him we catch in the synoptics, and by Jesus’s response to him in Mark’s account, this man doesn’t seem to match the arrogant rich oppressor we envision when we read James 5:4–6. Those around him might have assumed his prosperity was God’s affirmative blessing.
After all, this man was spiritually earnest — running to Jesus and kneeling before him to ask him if there was more he needed to do to be saved (Mark 10:17). He had all the appearance of piety — having kept (or believed he did) the commandments Jesus listed since he was young (Mark 10:19–20). And he was sincere — Mark records that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). He was all these things, yet he lacked the kind of faith that saves.
Spiritually earnest, sincere, apparently pious — perhaps more than most around him. Isn’t that what faith looks like? No, not necessarily. Faith looks like trusting. And when it comes to what we really believe, trusting looks like treasuring. For when it’s all on the line for us, we always trust in what we truly treasure.Show Me What I Trust
The most loving thing Jesus could do for this earnest, sincere young man was show him the god he trusted: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then the man saw his real god, and he walked away from Jesus’s incredible invitation “sorrowful.” Why? “He had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). This led to Jesus’s devastating observation:
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23–25)
When it was all on the line for the young man, he trusted his wealth, his possessions, more than God. His wealth was his god, and that kept him from entering the kingdom. The thing is, he didn’t see this until he really had to choose.
Do you find that disconcerting? The disciples did: “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). As an affluent American living in the midst of unprecedented historical abundance, I do. I don’t trust my faith self-assessment (1 Corinthians 4:3). I can trust only God’s assessment (1 Corinthians 4:4). And since faith is really proven genuine only when it is tried (1 Peter 1:6–7; James 1:2–4; 2 Corinthians 13:5), we must be willing, like the young man, to say to Jesus,
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)
And if Jesus doesn’t call us to leave our abundance, but to continue living faithfully in it — if we are to really trust God and not our abundance — then we need the faith to abound.Faith to Abound
Paul said he had learned to be content in whatever situation he found himself:
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12–13)
If given the choice, most of us likely would prefer to be given the faith to abound rather than the faith to be brought low. I think that’s because we aren’t fully cognizant of the dangerous nature of material prosperity. Paul meant it when he said it requires God’s strength to “face plenty.”
“Abundance” (prosperity) and “need” (scarcity) are very different circumstances. They both require faith in order to handle them in ways that glorify God. But they demand the exercising of different sets of faith muscles. Scarcity requires faith muscles for trusting God in a place of needy desperation. Prosperity requires faith muscles for trusting God in place of bountiful material security.
Exercising faith in scarcity is not easy by any means. Most of us fear scarcity more than prosperity because the threat is clearly seen. But ironically, that’s one reason it can be easier to exercise faith in scarcity than in prosperity. Because in scarcity, our need is clear and our options are typically few. We feel desperate for God to provide for us and so we are driven to seek him — to exercise our faith.
But exercising faith in prosperity is different. It’s a more complex and deceptive spiritual and psychological environment. It requires that we truly trust — truly treasure — God when we don’t feel desperate for his provision, when we feel materially secure, when nothing external is demanding that we feel urgency. When we have lots of options that look innocuous and we can spend precious time and money on all sorts of pursuits and enjoyments. This environment is so dangerous that Jesus warns it is harder for people in it to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle. Test yourself. When have you sought God most earnestly: in need or abundance?When God Is Our Option
Christians have always found it harder to voluntarily give away security than to desperately plead for it. It requires different faith muscles to trust God in divesting ourselves of prosperity for his sake than to trust God to meet our scarcity for his sake. In some ways, it takes greater faith to trust God when you have other options than when he is our only option.
That’s why the laborers are so few when the harvest is so plenty (Luke 10:2). Few want to face worldly need in order to experience kingdom plenty. It makes the kind of faith that saints like George Müller and Hudson Taylor exercised so remarkable.
Yes, they trusted in God in scarcity. But what made this all the more remarkable was that they could have raised money in other legitimate ways to support their work and avoid many of those needy moments. But they voluntarily chose (which is different from being circumstantially forced) to place themselves in a position of desperation to demonstrate that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). They, like Paul, learned the secret of facing abundance and need: fully trusting God, their Treasure.Whatever It Takes
We Christians who live in abundance need to heed the story of the rich young man. We need him to unnerve us. For the whole history of the church bears witness to the general trend that the wealthier she grows, the more corrupt, indulgent, and apathetic she grows. And the less urgent over lost souls she feels. It’s harder for people in our environment to be real Christians than for camels to pass through a needle’s eye.
But Jesus does not leave us without great hope. He announces, “With man [handling material abundance faithfully] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). So, let us run to Jesus — who has power to do what is impossible for us — kneel before him, and plead:
Whatever it takes, Lord, help me to truly trust you as my greatest treasure. I would rather lose my material security and gain the kingdom than gain the world and lose my soul. All I have is yours — my life, my family, my time, my money, my possessions, my future — and I will steward them as you wish, even if it means losing them (Philippians 3:8). And I invite you to search my heart and put my faith to the test.
Your smartphone is changing you, whether you realize it or not. Tony Reinke explains the costs of smartphone overuse, and how we can resist.
Earlier today heiress Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, said she thinks CEOs in general are paid far too much:
If your CEO salary is at the 700, 600, 500 times your median workers’ pay, there is nobody on Earth — Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.
So Jesus is not worth 500 x $45,000 = $22.5 million annual salary.
I just had to jump on this opportunity to say how right Ms. Disney is. But perhaps for reasons different than she intends.Immeasurable Value
Jesus is not worth a $22.5 million annual salary, first, because the skill set he brings is worth infinitely more. Infinitely, literally. Paying Jesus $22.5 million annually would be an insult. Like paying Churchill a dollar for his part in defeating Hitler. Or paying Martin Luther King a quarter for his part leading to the Civil Rights Act. Or paying Alexander Fleming a nickel for discovering the existence of antibiotics. Paying Jesus only $22.5 million annually would be worse. Infinitely worse.
Jesus’s value for the human race, and his particular skill set, are immeasurable. For example, in Jesus God did what no other human — or even any divine law — could do: “God did what the law . . . could not do. By sending [Jesus] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
In other words, all the billions of sins of history deserve divine condemnation. God is just. Nothing is swept under the rug. There were two just options: All humans bear their own condemnation (hell). Or Christ bears the condemnation of all who trust him. That’s what he did. It’s worth more than $22.5 million annually. To put it mildly.The Only One
Another example of his immeasurable worth to the corporation called “the human race” is this: Jesus is the only human who obeyed God perfectly. And he did it so that his perfection could be counted as ours at the last judgment. “As by Adam’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by Jesus’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous” (Romans 5:19). This is called justification. And anyone who has faith in Jesus receives it: “Because a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
How could Jesus do this? Because, unlike every other corporate head, he is both God and man. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
Which means that his value is infinite. He is God. And his skill set is unique: he is the God-man. He can die. Which he did. But not for his own sins. And he can rise from the dead. Which he did.
Which also means that, unlike every other CEO, he holds his office forever. And he knows everything about everything. And he rules the universe. He brings competencies to his office that are infinite.Works for Free
One last reason (among many more) that Jesus is not worth $22.5 million annually: he can’t be bought. For any amount. If you try to put a payable value on his worth, you insult him. He works for free, or not at all. He doesn’t need a salary. He owns everything. So he has no needs.
Here’s what he said about himself:
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
He is not for sale. You can’t get his service as CEO by agreeing to work around the clock for him or by offering him $22.5 million annually. His infinite value and his unique skill set are free. He calls it grace. Either you see it and treasure it above everything (faith). Or you don’t (unbelief).
So, yes, Ms. Disney: “Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.” First, because his value as the God-man, and the uniqueness of his skill set, are worth infinitely more than $22.5 million. And second, because his services are free. Free for everyone who will have him as their greatest treasure.
You got that right. I hope.
We humans have a love-hate relationship with work. We associate labor with childbirth for a reason. And this is no new development; the apostle Paul did it two millennia ago (Galatians 4:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Labor is painfully difficult, and then exceedingly rewarding. Serious work in a fallen world is like childbirth in microcosm. It doesn’t come easily — not if it counts. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. We encounter obstacles both expected and unexpected. It takes pushing, often beyond our sense of ability. And in the end, it’s undoubtedly worth it.
Paul listed “labors” among the pains he had endured, alongside beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5). He knew firsthand that life in a fallen world is not easy, and the Christian life all the more. In fact, the Christian life is not just cursed like physical labor, but opposed by demonic forces. Expect the friction and obstacles to be all the more difficult. And yet Paul charges Christians to rise to it. He means for us to encounter resistance and endure, not fold.
Christians of all humans shouldn’t be surprised that our world struggles with work in all its forms. Into the confusion about work we all feel in this fallen, broken age, we have an important word to say about the labor God made us for, even as it is cursed and often feels relentlessly frustrating.Work as God’s Idea
From the very beginning, God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). Work is not the product of sin, but a major facet of God’s original plan for human life in his world.
God designed us to move and be active, to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. Before sin entered the world, God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And then God made the man “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God made men and women to use, not squander, the energy he gives us daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. Work, then, we might say, is the exertion of energy, investment of time, and application of skill toward the ends of God’s calling to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, as well as subdue it and have holy dominion. Such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.
And so, it makes sense that when sin enters the world, and God curses the creation, he also curses our work:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)
Work is good. And work is cursed. Such is our lot in this age, until the creation is set free from its bondage to corruption and enters with us, the redeemed, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Even then we will not sit around doing nothing, but we will be freed to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.
In the meantime, we learn to work, despite the curse, at our work.Work with Your Hands
We often have career and work-for-pay in mind when we talk about our work. But for Christians, the concept of work and labor extends far beyond simply what other people pay us to do. Let’s begin, though, with the weekly labors that pay mortgages and put bread on the table.
In all the Scriptures, no one talks about work more than the apostle Paul. “Work” was more than just “working with our own hands” (1 Corinthians 4:12), but not less. Paul himself was a tentmaker. Such work was an especially pressing issue in Thessalonica, where some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.
You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)
And he expected the same from every Christian. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).
Paul knew the transforming power of the Spirit, and expected mooches and thieves alike to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not just to relieve the need for others to be burdened by you, but to secure enough, through honest hard work, to be able to share with others in need.
And yet, for Paul, such work-for-pay was only one aspect of work or labor for the Christian. He didn’t mean for converts to work their forty-plus hours, Monday to Friday, and be idle for the other eighty waking hours of the week. He both embodies and teaches a work ethic that is relevant at the office and at home, even for “time off” and vacation. It begins with a particular kind of rest.Final Rest from Labor
The first word, and foundational word, for the Christian about work is that the labor of our hands cannot get us right with God. Human effort and exertion, no matter how impressive compared to our peers’, cannot secure the acceptance and favor of the Almighty. God’s full and final acceptance — which we call justification — comes to us “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). God’s choice of his people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16), and so, fittingly, his final and decisive approval and embrace of his people is through their believing in him, not their working for him (Romans 4:4–5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5).
The Christian faith — rightly understood, grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). And then in this rest, God supplies remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.Freed for the Good of Others
As we come to Christ in faith, we receive another gift, in addition to justification: “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new life in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. By the Spirit, our coming into such rest does not make us idle or lazy. Rather, Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:8, 14).
The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. It’s been called “the Protestant work ethic.”
Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35; Romans 16:6, 12; Colossians 4:13; 2 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 7, 11; Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:24, 27; 19:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice do we hear this refrain:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)
The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–11; 20:4; 21:25; 24:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:13; 26:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).
But Christians should be the freest people on the planet to work hard. Because we know we do not have to earn the favor of God Almighty with our works — but that it has been secured for us by Jesus — we have been liberated to pour our energy and time and skill and creativity into blessing others. Which leads to one of the main ways Paul talked about work.Christian Ministry as Labor
Paul wasn’t the first to see Christian ministry as labor. Jesus talked about a plentiful harvest, and few laborers, and told his disciples to ask “the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38; Luke 10:2). Such laborers in kingdom work, he said, deserve their wages and food (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18).
Paul not only worked with his own hands, and charged others to do the same, but he saw Christian ministry as labor. He wasn’t worried about collapsing tents when he spoke regularly of concern that his labors not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). A dozen times in his letters he refers to ministry helpers and associates as “fellow workers.” He knew that “living on in the flesh” in this life would mean “fruitful labor” (Philippians 1:22), not retirement, excess leisure, or extended vacations. He wanted every Christian, not just his delegates and assistants, to join him in “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).Work with Your Love
Paul knew that hard work in and of itself was inadequate. In Christian ministry, the point is not the hard work itself but the goal: love. He spoke of the “labor of love” — the hard work we do for others (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Hard work in service of private, selfish ends is not commendable, but selfless, others-oriented, loving labor is.
Paul testifies, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29), not because he simply had a hard-working personality type, but because he was driven to proclaim Christ for the good of others: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Because “godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8), he said, “we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).
He also saw the ministry of Christian preaching and teaching, done rightly, as hard labor (1 Timothy 5:17–18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), not a nice fit for guys with soft hands and a preference for an indoor job. Such labor is not only cursed and opposed but specifically targeted by Satan, who often focuses his assaults on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the leadership and supply lines, he will soon overwhelm the ground troops. A pastor who doesn’t sweat and strain, especially at his study and teaching (2 Timothy 2:15), is not fulfilling his calling.
Perhaps Paul would acknowledge that he had some unusual wiring. Maybe it was his singleness that freed him for extraordinary ministry output. Not only did he testify to “far greater labors” than his detractors (2 Corinthians 11:23), but even compared to the other apostles, he said, “I worked hard than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). But again and again, he put his uncommon exertions forward not as an exception to admire, but as an example to follow — within the capacity God had given each, and with the understanding that every Christian can grow and expand our capacity for productive labor.We Are His Workmanship
Few, if any, will match Paul’s labors. As John Piper shares why he loves the apostle Paul, he commends his work ethic:
His achievements were unsurpassed. Now and then, he referred to his hard work and spiritual authority and fruitfulness. But every time he did that, he confessed his utter dependence on the grace of God. He wanted to glory in Christ himself, not in his own hard work. (88–89)
There is a word of hope here for those who battle laziness. Paul professed again and again that the key to his seemingly tireless labors was God at work in him (Philippians 2:12–13; Colossians 1:29). It was not in his own strength to do what he did. Christ was strengthening him (1 Timothy 1:12; Philippians 4:13). In the same breath, he says he “worked harder than” the other apostles, and he says, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And still today, Christ strengthens his church by grace (Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:1).
Paul would be quick to challenge today’s hardest workers with the truth that, apart from God, our best labors will prove futile in the end. And for those who know they need help, who have more regrets about laziness than over-work, he would remind them, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God doesn’t leave us to labor in our own strength. He has our good works prepared ahead of time. And he doesn’t demand a dead sprint, but invites us to walk in them.
God didn’t adopt because we had anything he needed. He chose his people before the foundation of the world so his grace — not our beauty — might be praised.
I hate my sexual past, and I regret it all the time in marriage. I wish I could retrace every adrenaline-filled step I took into romance and intimacy, and heal every wound I inflicted. I wish I would have made Jesus look real, trustworthy, and satisfying in all of my dating. Instead, it often looked like I didn’t really believe what he said, and that he wasn’t enough for me. I dated, at times, like I simply did not know God.
The lesson we receive from the world is that sex is fun and even valuable, but selfish and fleeting. The sexy, tantalizing “love” of Hollywood mixes seduction, scandal, and passion. It suggests that the best love is found in forbidden love, and with as many lovers as possible. Get yours — you “need” it, and you deserve it — but don’t trust anyone. And don’t be surprised if they leave after they get what they wanted. Just move on.
The media says men have uncontrollable sexual cravings that have to be satisfied somewhere. Women are either helpless objects of their desires, or wield their own sexuality as an instrument of power and influence over men. The default sex education we receive in our world will only produce fallen, selfish ideas about sex, and false ideas produce bad decisions, and bad decisions produce bad habits, and bad habits breed shame, guilt, and hopelessness.
Sex doesn’t breed those things. Do you know that? Sex, as God designed it and gifted it to us to enjoy in marriage, breeds life, and hope, and love for Jesus. Counterfeit sex — distorted sex, plagiarized sex, self-gratifying sex — steals the life and pleasure it was meant to give. I know, because I tried to cash the checks and came up empty, ashamed, and despairing.My Favorite Verses About Sex
My favorite text in the Bible about sex isn’t even about sex (and there are plenty about sex). Paul writes,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8)
When we’re asking questions about how to date and where to draw the lines sexually, we draw a cross. It was the highest act and expression of love the world has ever known, and it’s the mold for our relationships, and for our pursuit of sexual purity. If our love for one another looks selfish — if it takes, rather than gives — it simply isn’t love.
If we aim to love each other like Christ loved us on the cross, we’ll avoid a lot of the sexual immorality, confusion, and heartache that are so common in dating. We’ll love each other enough to say, “No.” What if our love was so strong that it freed us from selfishly indulging now, or taking anything from one another too soon?
True love — the purest, fullest, most pleasing love — was designed by God for our good, and then displayed by God at the cross. That’s the love we need in marriage — sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience — and so that’s the kind of love we should be searching and waiting for in dating.Flee from Sexual Immorality
Sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience looks like Jesus’s love for us on the cross, and it also looks to that love and sacrifice as its driving hope and incentive. Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. . . . Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18–20).
When you begin to feel overwhelmed with temptation and the desires are raging inside of you, remember that you were bought with a price, paid for in full with blood. Sadly, many of us take the purchase of grace at infinite cost, and foolishly and suicidally justify more sin. We assume Jesus will just forgive us, again. But the cross — those two grace-charged beams of murderous wood — call us to do exactly the opposite.
God spent the precious, sinless blood of his one and only Son not just to forgive our sin, but to keep us from it. He wanted us to see the thorns in his head, the open flesh in his back, and the nails in his wrists, and run like crazy away from sin. When we begin to realize that we will never be able to grasp the fullness of the love God revealed in Jesus’s wounds, in his agony, in his last breath, we will dread doing anything to make that price look cheap, like a clearance-rack redemption. When we commit sexual immorality, we discount the cross.What Sex Says
But when we choose to pursue purity and postpone intimacy, Jesus’s sacrifice looks costly — like our most expensive and prized possession.
When we do not push boundaries, we announce the priceless weight of every one of his wounds. When we keep our clothes on and our hands from wandering, we celebrate the immeasurable mercy he carried on a back destroyed with lashes. When we wait in dating, we declare again that he really is risen from the dead and reigning in heaven. Our sexual purity will either make the cross look real and valuable, or it won’t.
With our eyes happily fixed on Jesus, the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins, we can say with Paul, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage, now as always, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by [singleness] or by [marriage]” (Philippians 1:20). Looking to the cross and all Jesus paid to make us his own, we trust God for the grace and courage to resist our impulses to dishonor him and to disgrace the cross. And instead we wield our God-given and grace-filled bodies to honor him, to glorify him, to help others see the beauty of his strength, wisdom, love, and sufficiency.
With every second we deny selfish sexual desires, we say that we trust him more than we trust ourselves, and we say that he is more than enough for us.Sex Without God
At its simplest, we should have sex (or not) like people who know God. Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
The Gentiles — people in the world and not in Christ — are involved in all kinds of sexual nonsense, and that makes sense, because they don’t know God. We should expect them to go too far, and too fast — to fool around with the random person at the party, or sleep with their third or fourth person in a month, or move in with their boyfriend.
If God is out of the picture, sex can be as good a god as any. It will still fail them forever, but that doesn’t bother them, because they don’t believe in Jesus or sin, heaven or hell. They believe in now, in living it up here on earth as much as possible, and for as long as possible.Like We Know God
But we know better. We know that sin, death, and hell are as real as the roof over our heads, last month’s cellphone bill, and the Grand Canyon. They’re not ideas flying around in our philosophy class. They’re realities hanging over every inch of our lives, including our sex lives.
We live every moment in the shadow of a real Creator and a real judge, one who knows our every thought and move. We know that we deserve less than nothing because of our sin, that we’ve earned conscious, relentless, inescapable destruction for ourselves, and that “everyone who is sexually immoral or impure . . . has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:3–5). And we know that Christ came to die — the crown of the thorns, the whip filled with rocks, the nails in his hands and feet, the terrifying wrath of God — for our sin and to rescue us out of sin.
God made each of us and invented sex, why would we act like we know better than him?
God warns us that sexual immorality only leads to pain, shame, slavery, and ultimately judgment, why would we risk so much for a little pleasure now?
God bought our forgiveness, freedom, and purity with the blood of his own Son — an infinite cost — why would we heave more sin on his shoulders and drive the nails even deeper?
God waits with open arms to welcome us into a never-ending adventure of peace and happiness with him, why would we trade it away for a few seconds of satisfaction?What We Already Know
Sadly some of us still do. Temptation overwhelms us in moments of weakness. I knew what sexual impurity was, and does, and says, and I still fell. I did not fall because I did not know enough, but because I did not take what I knew with enough seriousness and joy — not yet. Paul is saying what we already know about God is enough to keep us from sexual sin. To know God — his sovereign power, his surprising mercy, his sacrificial love, his satisfying friendship — is to hold the keys to sexual purity, even in a sex-crazed society. Especially in a sex-crazed society.
As we set our eyes and hearts above, “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14), and more and more, we “know how to control [our] own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust” (1 Thessalonians 4:4). We put on sexual selflessness, generosity, and patience.
Few things threaten our faith more than when a good gift of God, beautiful and innocent in itself, slowly becomes necessary for our happiness.
“The most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth,” John Piper writes. “For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable” (A Hunger for God, 18).
“The simple pleasures of earth” are good things, of course. A satisfying career, a healthy body, a best friend, a fulfilling marriage, and every other good gift comes down from the Father of lights and, like the heavens themselves, declares something of God’s glory (James 1:17; Psalm 19:1). When Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), he really means enjoy. God’s ocean of gifts is meant for swimming.
But the simple pleasures of earth are never completely safe in the hands of sinners — even redeemed ones. Without care, we feast on the abundance of God’s house and forget that it is his house. We eat and eat, and gradually neglect the host. Eyes lower from heaven to earth. Spiritual senses dull. “Desires for other things” begin to choke the word (Mark 4:19).
In moments like these, it is one of God’s severe mercies to deal with us as he dealt with Israel, and to send us into the wilderness.Not by Bread Alone
Forty years had passed since God stretched his arm over Egypt. Israel stood on the edge of the Jordan with their backs to the wilderness, about to trade manna for milk and honey. But before they did, Moses pressed the lesson of the manna down into their hearts:
He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Bread is another one of earth’s simple pleasures, a kindness from God meant to “strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15). But when Israel was in the wilderness, the giver of bread took away bread so that Israel might know where life comes from. Life — true, deep, abundant life — does not come from bread, or from any of God’s other gifts. Life comes from the words of the living God — words better than gold, sweeter than honey, more nourishing than Canaan’s best wheat (Psalm 19:10).
If Israel was ever going to stand in the promised land, with their hands full of bread, and say, “I know how to abound,” they would first need to walk through the wilderness, with God’s word in their hearts, and say, “I know how to be brought low” (Philippians 4:12). They would need to learn how to look around at a wasteland of sand, and sing for joy to the one who gives and takes away.Exposed in the Desert
So it is with us. Often, God teaches us how to handle his gifts rightly by first withholding them. He does so for at least two reasons.
First, the wilderness exposes what’s inside these chests of ours like little else does. For all the beauty of the promised land’s hills and forests, they offer dozens of hideouts for our idols. It is frighteningly easy to give lip service to God while our hearts are lost in his gifts — and to trick even ourselves in the process. We can sing, “Hallelujah! All I have is Christ!” with both hands lifted, while the tendrils of our heart slowly wrap themselves around a marriage, a friendship, or a career — scarcely recognizable, almost incurable.
Not so in the wilderness, where our idols can only sit on sand beneath a barren sky. What comes out of you when you are in the rubble of a broken friendship, or a prolonged season of singleness, or a job that feels utterly hollow? Some of us, like Israel, find ourselves “painting pictures of Egypt,” as Sara Groves puts it: we idealize our former life and pine for its comforts, forgetting how godless it was (Numbers 11:4–6). Others of us run to sexual sin or some other pleasure in an attempt to ease the pain (Numbers 25:1). Many of us grumble against the God who takes away (Exodus 15:24).
Our seasons of lack do not create the cancer that comes out of us; they expose what was already there, but hidden by abundance (Deuteronomy 8:2). In God’s kindness, he puts our idols in plain view so that we might see them, hate them, and give them a desert grave.Fellowship of the Desperate
Second, the wilderness can cultivate in us that quality so beneficial to living faith: desperation. Left to ourselves in uninterrupted comfort, many of us wander. Sleep gradually swallows up our mornings, leaving little time for Scripture and prayer. We live as if sin no longer crouches at the door and Satan has ceased to prowl. We become careless with that one part of us we cannot afford to lose: our soul.
But the desperate, finding themselves in some wasteland of life, do not have the luxury of indifference. They stir themselves to seek God. They come to their Bibles like David: “Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). They find that they can scarcely go through an hour (much less a day) without lifting up their hearts to the only one who can help. Eventually, they become part of that great fellowship of the poor in spirit, who know not just in theory but in blood-earnest reality that God is near to the brokenhearted, that he hears the cries of the afflicted, and that, compared to a godless promised land, a God-filled wilderness is a heaven.
If we learn to live by God’s word in the wilderness, then we will find ourselves more ready to use his gifts for what they really are: servants of our joy in God, not substitutes for him. Those chastened by the wilderness will enjoy God’s gifts, not abuse them; delight in them, not put their hope in them; bless God for them, not forget him in them.
And even if God never gives the gift we want most, and the wilderness becomes a lifetime, we will not grumble our way to eternity. We will instead strive to become a monument in the wilderness, chiseled with the words that are better than abundance: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).How Not to Waste the Wilderness
If you find yourself in some dry and barren land, cut off from life’s milk and honey, do not waste this season. Give grief, sorrow, and tears their place. But do not murmur beneath the hand of the Lord. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” All the paths — even the ones that take us through the desert (Psalm 25:10). Steadfast love has brought you here, and he will never leave you nor forsake you.
If you are in Christ, God has not brought you into this desert to starve you. He has brought you here to teach you that man does not live by bread alone. Your life, your hope, and your joy are not hidden away in some elusive land of plenty, but in the Christ who died and rose again to save you for himself — the one who is your life, your pleasure, your milk and honey, your all.
If you feel in bondage to pornography, don’t assume it’s too late to repent. But don’t assume that repentance can wait until tomorrow.
Strict practitioners would not have approved of my methods, but on one long ago mid-winter Wednesday, I smeared ashes on the foreheads of my two preschoolers and myself.
An offering of the hardwood that had heated our home the day before, these ashes were not “ceremonially correct” in any way. At the time, I did not know that traditional Ash Wednesday ashes come from the remains of Palm Sunday palms. I did not even know about the forty days of Lent to follow.
However, I did know about sin — my own and my children’s. We were in “time out” season with one of our sons. At our wits’ end, we had exhausted Dr. Dobson, Elisabeth Elliot, and every parenting resource available in the nineties. “Why is it so hard to be good?” our little Dobson-buster would ask. His younger brother’s eyes would fill with tears whenever they were caught in collaborative naughtiness.
In this parenting pressure cooker, maternal apologies had become a daily occurrence. I was hoping to model repentance — while at the same time atoning for sharp words and a short fuse. “I was wrong; please forgive me” were the words through which my sons were learning that their mother had not outgrown the struggle against sin. Ash Wednesday gives Christians an opportunity to grow in our understanding of where to take that struggle.Reclaiming Lent for Christ
Historically, our earliest Protestant ancestors revolted against the idea of Lenten practices, and with good reason. In the pre-Reformation mind, penitence, ashes, and self-denial had become ends in themselves. Gradually, however, a biblical understanding of lament has re-entered Christian orthodoxy, anchored in an embrace of our fallen-ness.
Ashes on the forehead rightly represent our need to “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6), and our identity as “a people of unclean lips [who] dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those who recognize their poverty of spirit and mourn the effects of sin on their life and in the world (Matthew 5:3–4).
Grounded in gospel truth that prompts genuine penitence without crippling guilt and deep conviction without devastating shame, Ash Wednesday invites the believer to a renewed awe of our great salvation. While there is no merit in the wearing of ashes, a season of mourning leading up to Easter may actually enhance our celebration of Resurrection Sunday.A Wednesday to Teach
In my challenging season of parenting, Ash Wednesday became a visual aid, a teaching tool to reassure my young sons that our sin does not signal the end of God’s love for us. In our home, hymns around the breakfast table always matched the season, and one year, we learned all four verses of a “cross hymn” in the weeks leading up to Easter. Rich hymns of the faith offer deep gospel truth that requires explanation (but not dilution) for little singers:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to His blood.
The vain-ness of the “vain things” Isaac Watts wrote about becomes abundantly clear when we remember that nothing lasts forever. “Remember that you are dust” is the lyric of Ash Wednesday. God made us from dust, and our bodies do not live forever. This is a dying world we inhabit: everything from goldfish to grandfathers eventually stops living. And we mourn the loss.
Without becoming morbid or frightening, we can prepare our children for the inevitability of death by putting it in the context of the gospel. Thomas á Kempis prescribed a regular pondering of and preparation for death as a route to happiness. Author Gary Thomas suggests that we present-day believers ought to join á Kempis in allowing the reality of death to act “like a filter, helping us to hold on to the essential and let go of the trivial.”
For believers, the “essential” is the eternal, and the eternal comes to us through the cross. The paradox of death leading to rebirth only appears to be a contradiction. All of Christ’s gifts are given to us through death — his death. And it will only be through a different death — our death — that we will finally receive the fullness of life that Jesus died to impart.A Wednesday to Remember
My sons and I stood before a mirror together, the three of us with our smudged foreheads. We talked about our struggle to obey God and our sadness over sin — the sin that causes mayhem in our home, hurt feelings between brothers, and, worst of all, separation from a God who loves us.
When a little boy is struggling with disobedience, even as a preschooler, he already feels the grit and grind of life on a fallen planet. He may not be able to comprehend sin’s cosmic scale: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope. . .” (Romans 8:20). But he is already well-acquainted with the collective groaning, and can love the truth about the hope of our future deliverance from the struggle: “. . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Reading selected, age-appropriate portions of the crucifixion story from Luke 22 and thinking about Jesus’s willingness to endure the weight of all the sins of the entire world on his body provides a focus for the wearing of our ashes as a symbol of our grief — mourning that we have sinned and caused division from God and sadness over the suffering Jesus endured when he died in our place.A Wednesday to Rejoice
If good behavior is all I have to bring to Jesus, he cannot help me. The warm welcome of the gospel on a frigid day in early spring takes into account a little boy’s hopelessness in the face of temptation. Our sin does not signal the end of our relationship with God. It’s a beginning, for it turns out that weakness is a powerful claim upon divine mercy.
Learning to hate sin at a young age, to war against it, and to receive God’s forgiveness is a celebratory milestone. There is a reason to rejoice because of Christ’s obedience to all that God commanded. Then, his love in paying the penalty for our failure to obey gives us a reason for hope, even against the backdrop of my own parenting fiascos and my sons’ serial naughtiness.
God knows well the stuff we are made of. “He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). As a loving heavenly Father, he longs to supply every need for righteous living — in fact it is only his righteousness that will suffice. This orientation provides a solid foundation for a lifelong relationship built on the assurance that God’s purposes will not be thwarted by my sin. He delights to meet me and my children in the ashes.