Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Updated: 1 hour 12 min ago

How to See Human-Trafficking Victims, Even in Your Church

3 hours 37 min ago

Hollywood movies like Taken infect our understanding of human trafficking with notions of kidnappings on distant shores and a rogue FBI agent saving the day. But is that an accurate picture? What if a human-trafficking victim was a member of your youth group? Is that even possible? Raleigh Sadler, founder and executive director of Let My People Go, says it is.

Sadler tells the story of Anna, a 17-year-old girl trafficked for sex by her boyfriend. Every Sunday, she sat in the back of a neighborhood church. When Sadler asked Anna how her congregation served her during her exploitation, she laughed. “No one noticed anything. Everyone thought I was happy.”

How many Annas are sitting in your church pews?

In 2013, Sadler founded Let My People Go to equip churches to fight human trafficking in their communities. In his book, Vulnerable: Rethinking Human Trafficking, he offers an extensive discussion of human trafficking and how the church is uniquely qualified to address the problem.

Understanding Human Trafficking

Sadler defines human trafficking as “the exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain.” Human trafficking, he asserts, can happen anywhere, “because there are vulnerable people everywhere” (3).

Vulnerable people can be lonely teenagers, a homeless mother desperate for shelter, or an illegal immigrant brought here under false pretenses. They can be runaways—children fleeing physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Their vulnerability places them on a collision course to encounter human traffickers, who are actively looking for them.

Traffickers aren’t “thugs” dressed in black leather jackets. Instead, they can be teachers, intimate partners, or family members, even parents. They use force, fraud, and coercion to manipulate their victims. Traffickers often threaten violence to other family members or deportation to keep the vulnerable working for them. The chains they employ aren’t physical but psychological, yet they are just as real and effective.

Defending the Vulnerable

Vulnerable is written for the reader who is anguished and angry about human trafficking but has no clue what to do. How do we launch a fight when the person we seek to help is invisible, even though she may be sitting right beside us?

Vulnerable is written for the reader who is anguished about human trafficking but has no clue what to do.

We must recognize that many who are vulnerable to human trafficking are people we don’t readily associate with human slavery: the homeless, the poor, and children in the foster-care system. In the quest to be a “voice for the voiceless,” we sometimes don’t hear or see the people who need our help. Sadler challenges us to open our eyes:

We need God to open our eyes to the vulnerability right in front of us—on our commutes, in our neighborhoods, and yes, even in our churches. . . . When we intentionally throw ourselves into the paths of foster children, immigrants, and the homeless, for example, we will find ourselves naturally doing the work of prevention, intervention, and aftercare all at once. (109–10)

Vulnerable offers practical tools to help churches and individuals address human trafficking in their communities. The appendix offers “100 ways you can fight human trafficking today,” which include book, website, and video suggestions as well as trustworthy organizations dedicated to ending human slavery.

Theological and Practical Insight

One of the great strengths of Vulnerable is Sadler’s comprehensive approach. He gives a clear understanding of what modern-day slavery looks like in the United States, but he also drenches his thoughts in robust theology, and his insights are often profound.

“Vulnerability, or the perceived weakness, is actually not a result of the fall, but rather a gift of God to aid us in loving God and serving others,” he writes. “The fall did not produce vulnerability; it produced the exploitation of vulnerability” (120). Vulnerable people can be exploited because someone promised them food, a safe place to stay, or a job—things they desperately need for survival.

Sadler also discusses two opposing motivations for fighting human trafficking—a theology of glory versus a theology of the cross. “A theology of glory will place a premium on our role in the immediate ‘event’ of rescue, while a theology of the cross directs our focus to see the idea of rescue as more of a process than a defining moment” (54).

Where’s the God of Justice?

I’ve seen firsthand the ravages of human trafficking on a young soul. I’ve heard their stories of praying to die rather than face another day of torment at the hands of multiple abusers. It conjures up the age-old question: “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal. 2:17).

Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, gives a moving answer in his book Terrify No More, which Sadler includes in Vulnerable:

The more I come to know him, the harder it has become for me to ask such a God to explain where he has been. In fact, surprisingly, I don’t generally hear victims of abuse doubting the presence of God either. Much more often I hear them asking me, “Where have you been?” (83)

If you’re angry about the injustice of human trafficking, pick up this book and learn to do something about it.

Eschatology in an Age of Artillery Fire

3 hours 37 min ago

I live in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I teach theology at a small university. Last summer, I was directing an independent study in eschatology during a particularly unstable and violent season. Our task was to think through the coming of Christ in the context of Israel’s future hope. What had God promised his chosen people? What were God’s people expecting from him?

We were reading the prophet Micah when the thunder of distant artillery fire began to shake the room. I’ll never forget the moment.

The text we were reading, Micah 4:3, speaks of the “latter days,” when all the nations will gather at Mount Zion to hear the word of the Lord:

He shall judge between many peoples,

and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.

“What if all of those AK-47s and RPGs were to be gathered up, melted down, and refastened into . . . ” I struggled to complete my metaphor, “basketball goals!” I’m sure I could have come up with something more meaningful, but I think they got the point.

Modern Congo and Ancient Israel

Gunfire has echoed through hills of eastern Congo for more than two decades. I’ve heard my students, most of whom have lived their entire lives in this war’s shadow, voice their confidence: “This why we have come here to study! God has called us to serve this hurting nation and lead it into a brighter future!” Still, the political and economic realities of our context frustrate every step toward peace or progress. Could anything be farther from the scene of Micah’s vision? How should the war-weary Congolese Christian read such a text?

Israel also knew the horrors of war in Micah’s day. God’s people lived under the swords and spears of imperial oppression. Peace was a political impossibility. The Lord spoke into this hopelessness. Instruments of destruction transformed into instruments of production and prosperity? This does sound a lot like Yahweh, the God who speaks into chaos and creates a cosmos (Gen. 1:2), who sets an entire nation of captives free (Ex. 14:30), who breathes life into corpses (Ezek. 37:10), the God who redeems. This cosmic promise that God makes through Micah, fulfilled in Christ, is indeed the hope of eastern Congo: in Christ, our God makes all things new.

Already but Not Yet

Even if we believe God will keep these promises, there remains a pressing question: Has the glorious future of Micah’s prophesy arrived? New Testament scholars have wrestled with this question for centuries. To what extent does the New Testament present a realized eschatology? Did the New Testament authors believe God’s promises had been fulfilled already in Christ, or were they awaiting their fulfillment at Christ’s return and the redemption of all things?

On the one hand, we believe Christ has come to embody and announce the inauguration of God’s kingdom. Jesus told his followers the kingdom of God was “at hand,” “in your midst,” and even “within you.” The New Testament uses the language of “fulfillment” and “completion,” and often cites the prophets to announce that in Christ the “Day of the Lord” has arrived.

But who are we kidding? You don’t have to live in a war zone to know our present reality is radically different from the scene in Micah’s vision. If the “Day of the Lord” has come, it’s rather disappointing. Suffering saints plead for God to save them, churches struggle and divide, and world powers appear increasingly resistant to Christianity. It seems little has changed. Can my Congolese friends and colleagues stand amid violence and uncertainty and announce, “The kingdom of God is at hand”?

But we live in this tension, between the times of the already and not yet.

Today in eastern Congo, the Lord is raising a new generation of God-fearing leaders who are seeing lives changed through their ministry, but we await the day when all violence and death will cease, and the peace of God’s everlasting kingdom will reign.

Why Eschatology Matters

I like to tell my students that when the Spirit-filled people of God follow Jesus in love and sacrifice, they become a sort of sneak preview of the new heavens and new earth. We offer a glimpse of how creation, unspoiled by sin and death, should (and will) look one day. What an honor that our lives could tell the story of a God who steps into the depths of his fallen creation and restores it to its intended glory.

Why does eschatology matter? Because it motivates, directs, and makes sense of our mission as Christ’s ambassadors.

What troubles you most about our fallen world? What breaks your heart? Where do you find the greatest distance between Micah’s vision and the world around us? Imagine what it might look like for God’s kingdom to come in full. What would it look like for swords and spears to become plowshares and pruning hooks?

That frustration and dissatisfaction with the darkness around us shows neither a lack of faith nor a lack of trust in the God who has called us—it shows the opposite. It shows that you believe in God’s promise to remake the cosmos, that you hate sin as he does, that you’re not at home in a world so devastated by death. That hunger for God’s promised future should propel us into faithful service to his coming kingdom. Pray that through God’s transformed people, the Spirit would bring that perfect future into our broken present. This is Christian eschatology: trusting in the promises of God and getting in step with the Spirit as those promises come to fulfillment.

No More Weariness, No More Conflict

When the fighting in our region intensified in late 2017, and our community began to strain under the weight of war, a dear friend wrote to me these anticipatory words:

On this day, you look out over a region at rest—long-overdue rest from generations of weariness and conflict. You enjoy the scenery of a place now restored, weight and oppression lifted and now alive with hope and joy. The air now still and quiet as bombs and gunfire are replaced with the sounds of serene life and a functioning creation restored. On this day you observe villages and towns scattered across the landscape and know the people in those places are safe and secure, going about their lives and attending to family needs but not in fear or despair. The violence and corruption that once loomed over and plagued the simplicity of life is no longer present on this day.

This scene, promised in God’s Word, is both our future hope and our present motivation. My students can imagine their beloved country through the lens of Scripture’s promises, and they can work toward that future, knowing they serve a God who turns swords into plowshares.

Let Fiction Help You Embrace Tension

3 hours 37 min ago

I’m thankful for Christians doing the hard work of writing or promoting fiction.

I think of fiction writers like Randy Alcorn, who challenges skepticism toward Christian fiction in this refreshing article. I think of non-fiction writers who choose to write novels—Jared C. Wilson, author of Otherworld, and Trevin Wax, author of Clear Winter Nights. Of course, I can’t fail to mention great works of literary criticism like Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well.

I’m hopeful these works will inspire not only an increased enthusiasm for reading fiction, but also an increased dedication to writing fiction. By all means, let us read Flannery O’Connor. Let us read Tolkien and Lewis. (Let us also read contemporary works.) But we shouldn’t stop there. Reading great works should compel us toward writing great works.

Fiction Is Sustained Conflict

Many who want to do this stop due to a difficult question: Why do fiction? What problem does it solve? What is its function in the Christian community?

There are many good answers to these questions, including some great ones by S. D. Smith. But these answers are more helpful for readers of fiction than writers of fiction.

A fixation on what fiction can do reinforces a stifling idea: Fiction is only valuable when it uses narrative to teach us about some non-fiction category—psychology, theology, virtue ethics. If I’m always thinking about what I should say, then I’ll lose sight of how I should say it.

We need to re-orientate ourselves to the how of fiction: Simply put, fiction consists of characters with goals who face tough conflicts. A fixation on the what—the moral, the message, the answer—may tempt me to solve my conflict too quickly, overlook my characterization, or rely on clichés to define characters’ goals.

Fiction is sustained conflict. In this line of thinking, a specifically Christian kind of fiction would be a sustained conflict that stems from being in Christ and living in the world.

Here is such a conflict: All Christians long to be in perfect union with the God who created us, dwells within us, and promises to perfect us. Before I say more on this, let me unpack this conflict with the help of two famous authors.

(1) T. S. Eliot and Historical Sense

First is the 20th-century modernist poet and Anglican social critic T. S. Eliot. Eliot was particularly keen on modern fiction that took the form of something old, like Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel set in Dublin but framed like Homer’s Odyssey. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot reveals why he liked Joyce’s novel so much. He says any mature poet has something called “historical sense.” This term “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence . . . [it] is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together” (406).

In other words, Eliot wants his readers to know that good literature—fiction included—is defined not by what it does for the reader, but by how accurately it reflects the temporal tension emanating from the author. James Joyce lived in Dublin with concerns vastly different from Homer’s. And yet a sense of timelessness connects them both: There’s something about this tension, between the temporal and the timeless, that is essential to humanity and expressible only in fiction.

(2) Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Driving Force of All Literature

The second writer is the globally acclaimed 21st-century Norwegian novelist who wrote a six-volume, 3,600-page novel about himself trying to write his six-volume, 3,600-page novel. You may wonder how this could be at all interesting, and if so you’re not alone.

For me, its main intrigue comes from the struggle caused by the desire to be something great and the hard work it takes to achieve that desire.

Knausgaard, perhaps like many of us, has an urge to be great, divine even—not at the expense of others, but more so for the benefit of the self. Knausgaard’s desire is a kind of secular, literary form of denying himself to strive after something transcendent: literary greatness. This pursuit brought him great fame and fortune, a place in the literary canon forever, but it also brought him great pain.

Like Eliot, who wanted literature that stems from the tension between timelessness and temporality, Knausgaard wants literature stemming from a similar tension. Knausgaard was invited to speak at a lecture series at Yale University in 2017 on this prompt: Why I Write. He said:

The contradiction between the illimitable that dwells within us and our simultaneous limitation and earthboundness is the driving force of all literature and all art . . . but not only that; the longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction and simply exist in the world, undifferentiated from it. (43)

What I want us to get from his answer is this: We are finite, and there is something infinite within us. We are mortal, and there is something immortal within us. Fiction then, as Knausgaard sees it, is​ the capturing of a personal journey to both articulate and seek a remedy for the tension created as longing to make our limited selves one with the illimitable “that dwells within us.”

As a writer, I hold fast to this idea. And as a Christian, I’ll morph the language a little bit: Christian fiction is sustained conflict where the writer both articulates and seeks to remedy the tension between our human nature and God’s holiness working in us.

This means fiction writing doesn’t have to perfectly teach or represent God’s holiness, but it can demonstrate my pursuit of holiness.

Fiction can be a story that describes and sustains the intense, personal struggle between our sinfulness and our sanctification. For who among us has seen this struggle resolved?

This emphasis on the struggle between sinfulness and sanctification gives Christian writers a unique, biblical conflict that can be useful for any genre of fiction.

No Choice but to Write

I think of writing, then, as stemming directly from the tension between our finite selves and the Infinite One who says our body is his temple.

Fiction isn’t the resolution to that tension. What makes fiction good is not its resolution, but its tension. I agree with Knausgaard: Tension is the driving force of all literature, of all life, and that’s why every story needs conflict.

What makes fiction good is not its resolution, but its tension.

I say this not to discourage any writers from caring about resolutions, or to stop everyone from wishing to use their narratives to shed light on theological or historical matters. I say this primarily to writers who are looking for a place to start, and want to know if it’s okay to write if they don’t know where they’ll end up. The answer is yes.

Let fiction be a means of coming to terms with the conflict you face on this earth—an attempt to understand your own longings for and against God’s Spirit dwelling in you. So let tension reign in your fiction. Never let it go. Hold on to it as long as you can, and don’t settle for cheap resolutions.

Christians, we are beings in tension. And this is biblical. We live in an already/not yet world, where God has promised to resolve all things, eradicate all evil, and redeem all his elect to him. His victory is assured. Nothing can stop his plan, but he hasn’t yet brought everything to completion.

Fiction offers a unique and unparalleled way to point to God’s glory without diminishing the tension we experience. That is the nature of fiction, and that is why we have no choice but to write.

Small-Town Ministry Is Big with Opportunity

3 hours 40 min ago

While I was in seminary, I attended a church-planting conference put on by Acts 29. One of my main takeaways was the strategic importance of planting urban churches and reaching big cities with the gospel. This all resonated with me. Ministry is about going where the people are, and increasingly, people are in the cities.

As I continued my studies, I started to make plans to plant a church in Vancouver, British Columbia (population 2 million), where I was attending seminary. I could see the massive need for gospel witness in that city, and I reasoned there was no point in moving elsewhere.

In God’s providence, I moved to rural Ohio.

There and Back Again

God opened the door for me to pastor a small country church in the town of Sulphur Springs (population 194). I served four years there before being called to another church Waverly, New York (population 4,444). Though still a small town, this community had a different vibe to it. The neighboring town even had a Walmart.

After about three years, my wife and I sensed God was calling us elsewhere. Having cut our teeth on small-town, small-church ministry, we thought it was maybe time to make the jump to urban ministry. Perhaps not as big as Vancouver, but at least a city we had actually heard of before.

To make a long story short, we were called to serve in Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania (population 765).

Snow Shoe is an old coal-mining town situated on a mountain just off I-80 in central Pennsylvania. When we first moved to Snow Shoe, there wasn’t much housing inventory to choose from, so we rented until a suitable house came on the market. During this time, many people in the church made it clear they wanted us right in Snow Shoe and not “down the mountain” or in some neighboring community. It was evident this was a tight-knit community where relations run deep.

Surprises Galore

I’ll never forget the first big snow that first winter. It was around 6 a.m., still dark out, and I was just waking up. To my great surprise, I noticed someone plowing our driveway. Turns out it was our next-door neighbor, John. In the three years since, we’ve never once had to plow our driveway. Even the time after John had surgery, he still found someone else to plow our driveway. Crazy, but that kind of benevolence isn’t uncommon in Snow Shoe.

One of the things I love about our town is there are no backyard fences. Granted, there aren’t many streets, and there is lots of space, but it’s great not to be confined in a way that most city-dwellers are. In all reality, kids don’t spent time outside playing like they used to, and that’s unfortunate. My wife and I try to get the kids outside as much as possible and our yard (along with the neighbors’) gives them plenty of safe space in which to explore and have fun.

Another surprise for us were the rattlesnakes. We were warned many times about them, and the one time I did spot one, I kept my distance. But I’ll never forget when our church hosted a “wild game night.” There were all kinds of delicacies like turtle, venison, elk, bear, beaver, wild turkey, and more. But my personal favorite was rattlesnake. “Tastes like chicken,” we were told. (Sure enough, it did!)

Small Community, Big Accountability

As we became more visible in those early months, I realized that people in the community (who didn’t attend our church) knew me before I knew them. I wondered how, since we’d just moved. Evidently, word got around that there was a new pastor in town.

I soon discovered that our local grocery store, Halls, was a great place to meet people. Halls is also a hardware store, our only bank, our only “chain” anything (Subway), and our local library (the bookmobile comes once a week). It’s rare for me to go to Halls and not meet a member from our church or an acquaintance from the community.

This reminds me that living a godly life matters for the pastor (1 Pet. 5:2–4). I don’t want the headline on the community Facebook page to read, “Pastor flips out on cashier!” As much as I crave anonymity and invisibility, it’s not going to happen in a small town, and that’s a good thing. Every visit to Halls is a ministry opportunity. You never know who you might bump into, and this has given me several opportunities for gospel conversations. And I thank the Lord for it.

Many Gospel Opportunities

Many more stories could be told about what makes ministry in Snow Shoe both unique and rewarding. But the greatest blessing is being able to minister the Word of God week in and week out. Three, and sometimes four times a week, I have the privilege of preaching and teaching God’s Word. Just like anywhere (both urban and rural), there is much gospel illiteracy, but God has given me a platform to bring his light to a people searching for answers.

Ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. At the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord.

One example is our annual “Light the Night” community event, which kicks off the Christmas season. Our first year I was privileged to give a 10-minute message before they lit the big tree and Santa showed up. I did my best to give a clear presentation of the gospel to this large crowd, most of whom were unchurched. To my surprise, after it was all finished, the organizer said, “See you next year, pastor.” I was expecting a “one and done” kind of thing, but that was not the case.

I’ve come to realize that ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. Just like any town or church, there are many challenges, but at the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord. Snow Shoe is a small town, but there are still many unregenerate people. Much work remains.

If the Lord calls you to pastor a small-town church, expect to be blessed. Expect to be blessed in surprising ways, and don’t see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Oh there will be challenges, no doubt, but preach the Word, love the people, and believe in the power of the gospel to change lives.

Is Allowing Abortion Exceptions the ‘Best Way to Be Pro-Life’?

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 12:04am

Last week the state of Alabama enacted one of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country. The law makes the performance of an abortion a felony punishable by life imprisonment of not more than 99 years or less than 10 years.

The law allows an exemption if the abortion is deemed necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother, but it allows for no exception in cases of rape or incest. In what appears to have been a response to the law, President Trump tweeted over the weekend,

As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. . . . We must stick together and Win . . . for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!

When asked what prompted the president, a senior White House official told CBS News, “It’s private conversation, but also I think it’s a personal thing that this is the best way to be pro-life . . . which is that you have these exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.”

Many Americans seem to agree with President Trump that “best way to be pro-life” is to allow these three exceptions. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of pro-lifers (57 percent) think abortion is allowable if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and also two-thirds (71 percent) think abortion should be legal if a woman’s life would be endangered.

Are they right? Should a consistent pro-lifer consider one or all of these exceptions to be a legitimate reason to allow the death of an unborn child? Let’s examine the justification for each exemption and weigh them against the standards normally accepted as being a consistent with a robust defense of unborn life.

(NB: For the sake of brevity I’ve had to elide over the more emotion-based arguments that are often used to justify these exemptions. However, Christians should not ignore such concerns. While the issue can be debated in an emotionally neutral manner, we should never forget that these exemptions are considered necessary because they result from difficult or horrific situations and can have a profound effect on the lives of women.)

Evaluating the Exemptions


The fact that incest remains on the list of possible exemptions to abortion is a sign that many people have not given the issue sufficient consideration.

The legal definition of incest is sexual contact between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces. In 18 states first cousins are also included in the definition of incest.

Incest is a crime in all states, and is illegal in 48 states even if consensual by both parties. Yet when most people think of incest they are likely assuming that the sexual contact was nonconsensual, such as in cases where a father impregnates his minor child. But a pregnancy that results from nonconsensual sex is rape—even if the rapist is a blood relative. If what we oppose about a pregnancy resulting from incest is the rape, then there is no need to create a redundant category. We could reduce “rape or incest” to the single category of “rape.”

What about when the sexual contact was consensual? Even if we believe (as I do) that incest between consenting adults should remain illegal, there is no reason to think it justifies allowing an abortion. If abortion is prohibited on moral grounds, why would there be an exception for a woman who was impregnated by consensual sex with her cousin?

The reasoning against incest is usually grounded in the potential damage it can have to family life or the risk of passing on genetic diseases. Neither reason, though, is moral grounds on which a consistent pro-lifer would support an abortion. We don’t support the killing of an unborn child because the child might disrupt a family. We also don’t support aborting children when they have already been diagnosed with a genetic malady, such as Down syndrome, so why would we support an abortion to prevent potential genetic conditions?


Including an exemption for rape is understandable, and it may even be necessary legally. But from a consistent pro-life perspective it would not be moral. As Trevin Wax says, “Allowing abortion in the case of rape is not the way to express sympathy toward a victim of this crime. Abortion only destroys the life of another victim.”

The philosopher Steven Wagner provides a thought experiment to show why rape, while a horrific crime, is not a legitimate justification for an abortion. Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin and has no idea how she got there. She goes to the window and sees snow piled so high that she can’t leave. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says, “You will be here for six weeks. You are safe, and your child is, too. There is plenty of food and water.”

Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. She then goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.

Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later. The police say, “We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?” Mary says, “There was.” The police search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation. Did Mary do anything wrong?

Our moral intuition tells us that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby. She didn’t ask to put in that situation, but we still think the obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child. And even if the note Mary found had a fourth line saying, “If the child in the cabin dies, you will be rescued immediately,” we still would not think she was justified in killing the baby either actively or passively. Dependency is not a justification for killing an innocent human being.

The situation for Mary is similar to the plight of a rape victim. As Wagner explains:

Mary didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation in which she now finds herself, with a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Similarly, the woman pregnant from rape didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation, but she now has a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Both Mary and the woman pregnant from rape are de facto guardians, and as such, they both have the obligation (moral and legal) to feed and shelter the children in their care, regardless of the fact that they didn’t consent to be in the situation they are in.

Protecting the Life of the Mother

Our final category of exemption is the strongest, and likely to be the only morally consistent justification for allowing an abortion: to save the life of the mother. But even this category is more morally complex than most people realize.

The standard most often applied to this category of exemption is the principle of double effect. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, “According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or ‘double effect’) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end.” This principle requires an action to meet four criteria:

1. The act itself must be good.

2. The only thing that one can intend is the good act, not the foreseen but unintended bad effect.

3. The good effect cannot arise from the bad effect; otherwise, one would do evil to achieve good.

4. The unintended but foreseen bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good being performed.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center explains that the classic case of this principle is a pregnant woman who has advanced uterine cancer. The removal of the cancerous uterus will result in the death of the baby, but it would be permissible under the principle of double effect.

One can see how the conditions would be satisfied in this case: 1) The act itself is good; it is the removal of a diseased organ. 2) All that one intends is the removal of the diseased organ. One does not want the death of the baby, either as a means or an end. Nonetheless, one sees that the unborn child will die as a result of the removal of the diseased organ. 3) The good action, the healing of the woman, arises from the removal of the diseased uterus, not from the regrettable death of the baby which is foreseen and unintended. 4) The unintended and indirect death of the child is not disproportionate to the good which is done, which is saving the mother’s life.

This principle, however, does not justify abortion for any and all serious medical threats. A woman with hypertension might become less likely to die of the condition if she were to have an abortion. Yet that in itself would not provide a moral justification to kill an unborn child.

Setting aside whether the category is moral, the legal exception may be allowable on the ground that it is unlikely ever to be necessary. Despite the claims made by pro-abortion groups, there is a dearth of evidence that an abortion is every medically necessary to save the life of a mother. From 2011 to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control recorded 2,726 deaths that were found to be pregnancy-related caused by 11 conditions. While some of the conditions could be caused by abortion and thus led to a woman’s death, there is no evidence that having an abortion would have prevented any of the deaths.

Church Planter, Don’t Despise the Mess

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 12:03am

My neighborhood in Detroit is rightly classified as “the hood.” To be sure, there are more dangerous areas in the world, but my block isn’t Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.

Here, “neighboring” has become a lost art. People live in close proximity, but most are relationally distant, if not complete strangers. Constant crime, mistrust, fear, and poverty are pervasive and have shattered notions of being neighbors for many Detroiters.

While it’s easy to criticize others, years ago I realized I’d effectively removed “neighboring” from my own life. I walked the streets in a hoodie, scowling, with my hand in my pocket to look threatening and unapproachable. Subconsciously—yet inexcusably—I’d closed up my life because of trauma. The pain and loss I’d experienced just felt too suffocating.

So over time, I put up walls—hoping to protect myself from more pain. Having my brother murdered—and then losing many others to violence here in Detroit—had a devastating effect on me.

I’d allowed pain and fear to prevent me from being a good neighbor.

Hard-Won Credibility

Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to love those in our community, for this command is central to Christianity (Matt. 22:39). So once I’d repented of my lack of neighbor love, we began the journey of planting a church here in Detroit. Knowing the city’s history—and the historic lack of love those around us have experienced—we wanted to address some of the community’s most pressing felt needs.

So before we had even a single worship service, we partnered with a local school, various city organizations, and completed five service projects—all with the ambition to love and serve our neighbors in practical ways.

Why did we choose to prioritize these things? Unfortunately, the church as a whole—and black clergy in particular—often carry a stigma of fleecing the flock in my community. Our motives were constantly questioned. I had to acknowledge the past errors of others, often repeating the same phrase: “I’m so sorry that happened here, but we are different. We are here to serve, not take.”

I’ll never forget the bittersweet mix of exuberant gladness and sobering realism as we led an initiative called Project Nehemiah. With the help of partnering churches, we commercially secured 13 abandoned homes and cleared several overgrown grass lots. But there were several homes we had to avoid altogether due to fear of what we might discover.

I was moved to tears of joy as I saw people in my community embrace sweaty strangers alongside whom they served. And yet many of us shed tears of a different kind as we heard of the horrific crimes committed in these homes. The pain and brokenness in our community echoed throughout the halls in which we labored. But, difficult though this project was, it both strengthened our credibility in the community and also provided us immediate contact with numerous locals.

Church planter, do the people in your community see your church as merely a provider of religious goods and services, a spiritual organization vying for their attention in competition with other churches? Or do they recognize you as humble and loving servants of Jesus Christ?

Through the Valley

To this point in our young church, the funerals have outnumbered the weddings, and I’ve been to more arraignments and court cases than graduations. We’ve walked with many through the valley of the shadow of death, in order to display the Lord of life.

We’ve seen much gospel transformation, by God’s grace, but we’ve also walked with people through incredibly dark seasons. This has become an unexpected way we’ve loved people in our neighborhood.

To this point in our young church, the funerals have outnumbered the weddings, and I’ve been to more arraignments and court cases than graduations.

Recently we experienced a situation that had our church reeling for months. A grievous sin issue left lives damaged, our body devastated, and my leadership tested. God be praised that he permitted his light to pierce through this darkness.

By providing extensive counseling, shoulders to cry on, and tangible resources and care, we saw the Lord work restoration in this situation. And not only that, we’ve discovered that many in our community look to our church as a stabilizing force and consistent presence amid their chaos and inconsistency.

Is your church body a place of refuge for your neighbors amid the storms of life?

How Do You Know When You’ve Met ‘The One’?

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 12:02am

“It is not good for man to be alone.” These words, spoken by God, initiated the first marriage. Adam and Eve never had to question whether they had found “the one.” There were no other options!

If you hope to be married some day, you’ve probably asked the question our first parents didn’t. So how can you know when you’ve met the person you should marry? Do you need to share all the same interests? What about physical attraction? Is it okay to have theological differences? Is it normal to get cold feet, or should that be a red flag?

In this discussion, Jackie Hill Perry, Jen Wilkin, and Jen Pollock Michel discuss the relationships that led to their own marriages, and how and when they met the men they would marry.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast or watch a video.


5 Things Every Pastor Needs to Know About the Church Budget

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 12:00am

Is your church budget helping or hurting your church’s ministry? That’s an especially important question if you’re the pastor of your church.

So often as pastors, we largely dismiss the budget as something quite unrelated to our work. But your budget is probably the best record of what your church really values. More than your website, more than your glossy brochures, more than what you say you value. And that means that moving toward a healthier church will necessarily involve moving toward a healthier church budget.

With that end in mind, here are five things that a pastor needs to know about his church’s budget.

1. Your Budget Contains Your Real Philosophy of Ministry

Consider how often budget conversations are actually ministry conversations. The children’s ministry director wants to turn his wing of the building into a first-rate children’s attraction. He sees that as funding the Great Commission. Others fear it would simply encourage church consumerism. Who’s right? That’s a really important question to answer.

Your budget is probably the best record of what your church really values. More than your website, more than your glossy brochures, more than what you say you value.

All too often, churches try to move toward a healthier, more biblical model of ministry without realizing that, like a ball and chain, the budget is pulling them back. We might want our people to see that being a Christian is to be a spiritual provider rather than a spiritual consumer, but the programs enshrined in the budget are all geared toward treating people as consumers. Or maybe we want our people to discover the joy of friendships where we share only Christ in common—like the Jew-Gentile friendships of Ephesians 2:14. But a quick glance through the budget shows money for a singles ministry, for a contemporary music service, for a senior adult breakfast, and so forth—programs that emphasize homogeneity. That doesn’t mean those ministries and programs aren’t worth funding, but we often don’t fully understand how the budget might be competing with the direction we want the church to go.

2. Your Budget Is a Tool for Teaching

Your budget is written in the language of money, but it isn’t fundamentally about money. It’s about value. That means it’s full of opportunities to teach your congregation about the things they should value. A few examples:

  • When you present budget reports, you can talk about why we give. Not to “lend God a hand” (as if his purposes are helplessly on hold until we cough up some cash), but to be counted as faithful.
  • When you’re behind budget, teach that God will always provide what we really need—and a budget that is 10 percent behind is simply a budget that was 10 percent overextended.
  • When you’re ahead of budget, teach the importance of finding excellent opportunities to deploy that money for the kingdom. Being ahead doesn’t mean we’ve succeeded; it simply means we have more work to do to be faithful stewards.

Your church budget is full of rich opportunities for teaching in a language (money) that everyone understands. Why would you ever talk about the budget without taking advantage of that opportunity to teach?

3. Your Budget Is a Tool for Prayer

Your budget is an excellent summary of how your church is seeking to obey the Great Commission. “Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 18:19–20)—that’s what your budget is all about, isn’t it? And if you’ve designed your budget well, there isn’t a single ambition in your budget that can happen unless God does the work. “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Moving toward a healthier church will necessarily involve moving toward a healthier church budget.

So do you pray for the items in your budget? Does your congregation pray for the items in your budget? How many ministries are worthy of your church’s money but not worthy of their time in prayer?

As you consider the hopes attached to each line item in the budget, pray that God would do everything you’re dreaming of—and more. Follow Paul’s model in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “We constantly pray for you . . . that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.”

4. Your Budget Can Show That People Are More Important Than the Budget

One of the most precious commodities a pastor trades in is his congregation’s trust that when he asks them to give, it’s because he loves them, not their money. Many times, I’ve said something like this to my congregation: “I don’t care nearly as much about meeting this budget as I do the conversation you’ll have with Jesus someday about your faithfulness. I love all the good in our budget, but you being faithful is much more important.”

Yet how genuine does that sound if my congregation knows that my back is up against the wall, the budget is tight, and unless they give, I’ll need to lay off staff? Structure your budget to help your people know that you love them more than you love their money. Build a reserve fund, include flex in the budget, save some one-time expenses until late in the budget year—these are all important tools at your disposal so that you will rarely have mixed motives in asking your congregation to give.

Use your budget to help your people trust that you love them more than you love their money.

And when your church does need to meet the budget—either to avoid some dire consequence or take advantage of some unique opportunity—be honest with your church. Explain that this is an exceptional situation, explain how you got here, and explain what you’re doing to make sure that this remains an exceptional situation.

Use your budget to help your people trust that you love them more than you love their money.

5. Your Budget Is a Pastoral Responsibility

In many ways, a church budget operates like a spiritually oriented mutual fund. In a financial mutual fund, thousands of investors entrust their money to an investment manager who looks for the best opportunities to invest that money in line with the fund’s goals, so that someday those people will see a return on that investment.

Do you see the similarity to your church budget? Every year, your congregation entrusts a significant portion of their wealth to the church. Your church “invests” that money in kingdom-oriented work. And one day, each of these saints will stand before the Lord to give account for how they’ve stewarded what he entrusted to them (2 Cor. 5:10). I hope that on that day they are grateful for every bit of money they gave to your church budget.

Your church budget is a far more potent pastoral tool than many church leaders realize.

Now, who are the right “investment managers” for that spiritual mutual fund? As administratively complex as a budget is, it’s even more complex at a spiritual level. Should we invest more in this missionary or bring him home? Are we better off putting more money toward the church building or giving it to a local ministry? How much should we pay our staff? Those questions require spiritual discernment and to answer them you should take advantage of the spiritual leaders God has given you: your pastors/elders.

Pastors need help from administratively minded individuals. Pastors always work with accountability to the congregation. But at least at a high level, budget leadership should come from a church’s pastors. In particular, I’ve found it useful for pastors/elders to be involved in the budget process at whatever level of detail is necessary to oversee seven basic tasks:

  1. Set the budget’s income estimate.
  2. Determine if high-level allocations of money within the budget are appropriate (staff vs. missions vs. programs vs. building, and so on).
  3. Ensure quality control for each budget line (Is this a worthy use of a church’s money?).
  4. Balance long-term plans with emerging opportunities for ministry.
  5. Assess which opportunities for ministry a church is uniquely equipped to undertake.
  6. Communicate the budget.
  7. Decide when and how to break the budget.

A church’s philosophy of ministry is locked into its budget, and so your budget will either stifle or accelerate any attempts to move your congregation toward a biblical model of church health. That means that your church budget is a far more potent pastoral tool than many church leaders realize. Use it wisely!

20 Quotes from the Book Your Pastor Wishes You’d Read

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 12:04am

The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Christopher Ash’s brilliant new book, The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (But Is Too Embarrassed to Ask) (The Good Book Company, 2019).

If you and I do not care for our pastors, then they will not be able to care for us. (11)

We tend to see our pastors at their most polished. I want us to see them, or at least imagine them, as they are. (13)

Delegation is evidence that our pastors do care for us, not that they don’t. (29)

We might want to say that motivating the pastor is up to them; they need to find motivation from the depths of their own souls, from their own walk with the Lord Jesus, or—failing that—from their fellow pastors or perhaps a more senior pastor. All that may be true. But the surprising answer the Bible gives is that we, the ordinary church members, are the ones who can motivate our pastors. (31)

Unless there is at least some whisper of joy in [pastors’] hearts as they do their work, some spring of gladness in their step, they will never persevere to the end. And—and this is the point—it is we who will suffer. (32)

Nothing so drains a pastor of vital energy as having to preach to, having to go on praying for, having to try to lead and care for men and women who are impervious to the good news of God’s grace. Hardness of heart is the great pastor-killer. (40)

Few things so encourage a pastor as eager listeners and learners. “I am so looking forward to Sunday’s sermon!” I remember a church member saying this to me, and the effect on my prayer and preparation was electric: “If they are so eager to hear, the least I can do is get out of bed in the morning and labor hard at the word, so there is something worth hearing!” (41)

It is much easier to criticize preaching than to do it. (43)

It is a tremendous encouragement to our pastors when we thank them for their preaching, their teaching, or their personal words of Bible exhortation or comfort. . . . Being specific about something that helped you will be a particular encouragement to your pastor. (45)

Joy in pastoral ministry is fueled, perhaps most deeply of all, by signs of a local church who are walking in the truth together. In contrast, one of the most common and most corrosive vices is the Western habit of casual attendance. . . . You and I have no idea just what a motivating effect our simple regular presence can have on our pastors. (50–51, 56)

The way we speak of a church is rather like the language we might use of a sports team we support. The transition from “they” to “we” is the big marker. When I first began to follow Swansea City F.C., I used to say, “They are in such-and-such a place in the football (soccer) league.” But the time needed to come when I said, “We are. . . . We signed a good striker” (or maybe we didn’t). Is there a church you attend or is it a church to which you belong? Is it “they” (or “it”), or is it “we”? (52)

If you are a pastor and your church members think you have it all sorted, then you are unwittingly deceiving them. (62)

Pastors have no monopoly on pressure. And yet there are some distinctive ways in which pastoral ministry is draining, because people in need are draining, and it is in the nature of pastoral work that it involves intensive engagement with people in great need. All Christians rub up against sadness—but pastors are required to live with grief up close and personal. When the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus by faith, he was somehow conscious that power had gone out from him (Mark 5:30); there may be an analogous sense in which those who show pastoral care can feel how it drains them. Plenty of pastors can testify to this. (77)

There is no doubt in my mind that churches that show kindness will have still better pastors as a result; for it is only natural that their pastors will return to their pastoral leadership with a fresh determination to love and care for, to teach and preach to, and to pray for these who have so loved them. . . . We must never underestimate the significance of our simple, practical, loving kindness to our pastors. (85, 86)

When we expect too much of our pastor’s children, it can become a crushing burden for them and their parents. When they feel they are growing up in a Pharisaical goldfish bowl, being watched and judged for every misdemeanor, it is not surprising if they kick against the faith of their parents. (89)

A church leader is particularly vulnerable to rumors, gossip, and false accusations, especially in our litigious age. Paul invokes a principle from Old Testament law, which said that an accusation must be properly checked and double-checked, to make sure it is really true. So, when we hear a tidbit of gossip about our pastor, how should we respond? Check that it’s true. “So, who did you hear this from? Have you spoken to the pastor directly about this to check it out? No? Well, then you are joining in with malicious gossip. So, how about you and I meet the pastor and say we have heard this rumor? Let’s see what explanation there might be.” (95–96)

I remember shocking the church I served by saying once, in a sermon, “If I have an affair, I hope you will love me enough to put me out of fellowship until I repent, and to stand me down from being your pastor.” But it was true; I did hope that. I would hate to serve a church who didn’t care about my godliness. (98)

Even with shared leadership, we should let the one entrusted with senior leadership actually lead. (104)

Some people are dreamers and visionaries who find it deeply uncongenial to sign up for another’s leadership; they always want their church to be pursuing their particular version of the gospel vision. They will be a pain in the pastor’s neck. (107)

We need to learn gladly to submit to the gospel authority of our pastors as they lead our churches. And not just to submit negatively—resolving not to cause trouble—but to submit gladly and energetically, engaging our energies with zeal in playing our part in pursuing a gospel vision that may not have been our first choice. (107–08)

If you want a better pastor, you can get one by praying for the one you already have! (122)

A Fresh Look at the 5 Missionary Martyrs in Ecuador

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 12:03am

Speared to death.

The phrase has been written so many times it’s almost lost its meaning.

Five American missionaries, speared to death by members of an Amazonian people group. The widow and the bereaved sister who forgave the killers and lived with them in order to share the story of Jesus.

American evangelicals tell this story again and again—on radio and in magazines, at concerts and conferences, in books and movies. Sometimes we flesh it out, sharing details from that week in January 1956 when the five men died, or from Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint’s early life with the tribe. More often we mention it in passing, a reminder of why we’re talking about Elisabeth Elliot in the first place or the lead-in to an update on the Saint family’s ongoing relationship with the Waorani.

We’ve been telling the story for 63 years and counting, after all. We know what happened.

But in God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador, historian Kathryn T. Long suggests we may not know as much as we think.

Romanticized Version

We never know all the details when we report on a true story, but even those we do know often can’t fit in the space allotted to our telling. We have to pick and choose which details to weave into the account, and which to lay aside. This process of selection, whether we’re aware of it or not, shapes what we believe to be history.

Long gathers up the available threads of America’s most-told missionary story. She re-examines the familiar portion of events, filling in historical and cultural context around the 1956 attempt to contact the Waorani. Then she goes on to trace the story as it continues to the present.

Disciple-making appears to be slow, uncertain, and messy in the rainforests of Ecuador, just as it is in the United States.

In the process, Long introduces an array of characters almost entirely absent from the story we usually tell: additional evangelical missionaries, Catholic missionaries, oil company executives, plantation owners, land grabbers, politicians, environmentalists, anthropologists, reporters, tourists, and especially the Waorani themselves. She shows a bigger picture, both in the variety of perspectives and also across time.

As Long retells the story, she also explores the narrower ways it has been told over the years. With meticulous research, she reports the initial evangelical response to the deaths of the five Americans. Elisabeth Elliot’s first book, Through Gates of Splendor, set the tone for subsequent characterizations, although she wrote it, hastily and unexpectedly, less than a year after the traumatic death of her young husband. The dust of her grief hadn’t even had time to settle when she was tasked with deciding how to present the story of her loss to the world.

The book provides an invaluable alternative to our cultural tendency to treat facts as ammunition, useful primarily to convince others that we’re right.

Long points out that one of the storytelling choices made in Through Gates of Splendor was the elision of context. She calls it “a brief book that created its own world.”

There were no overt references to missionaries of the past or any but the most cursory discussions of social and cultural contexts apart from those defined by the lives of the five missionaries. Readers weren’t told that other missionaries besides the five men had hoped to contact the Waorani.

Long examines the way in which the decision to simplify events was made again and again as the story was told and retold through the years. While all storytelling necessitates curating facts, a pattern emerges: The details that have been repeatedly included tell a straightforward, understandable, and triumphal story. Those laid aside convey complexity, messiness, and mundanity. Over time, Long suggests, a “romanticized” version of history became “entrenched” as the story: “A group of jungle killers had embraced Christ, rejected violence, put on clothes, become literate, and were reading the New Testament. . . . The deaths of the five missionaries had been vindicated by the redemption of the Waorani.”

The story that emerges in God in the Rainforest is more complicated. Some Waorani professed Christian faith. Many didn’t. Christianity has meant different things to different Waorani at different times. For some it seems to have been an economic system as much or more than a spiritual system. Some Waorani rejected violence. Others continued to spear. Literacy is far from universal. A Wao New Testament wasn’t available until 1992. Disciple-making appears to be slow, uncertain, and messy in the rainforests of Ecuador, just as it is in the United States.

Provocative Questions

Long’s approach is thoughtful, scholarly, and eminently readable. She is interested neither in defending nor in challenging the prevailing story, but in providing “enough evidence for readers to make up their own minds.” In this way the book offers an invaluable alternative to our cultural tendency to treat facts as ammunition, useful primarily to convince others that we’re right.

It’s beyond the scope of God in the Rainforest to answer some of the most provocative questions it raises. But Long’s two-strand approach—retelling the story with more facts that change it in important ways, while also examining how we’ve chosen to tell ourselves the story over time—gives us a chance to grapple with them.

We can ask why we’re still telling this story, this way, more than six decades later. We can consider the ways in which telling a story might be both the same as and different from telling the truth. We can question how our 21st-century American lens changes the stories we tell, and how we might seek a global historical perspective.

What we do with these questions will shape our understanding of the past—and how we share the life of Jesus in the present.

When Kids Express Worldly Grief

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 12:02am

Last week I sent my son to his room for being unkind to his brother. I heard wailing for a long time. Well, at least he feels bad about what he did, I thought.


When I went in to talk to him about it, it was clear that his tears were self-centered. He was sad about his circumstances, but he wasn’t sad about his sin. I asked hopefully, “Are you crying because you hurt your brother?” Yeah, right. His blank stare told me he hadn’t even considered that.

Nobody likes discipline. Hebrews 12:11 calls all discipline “painful rather than pleasant.” It’s no surprise when our kids respond with sadness. But sadness isn’t always a sign of repentance.

In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul puts feelings of guilt into two categories, godly grief and worldly grief: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” One grief produces life and one produces death.

So, how do we know if our kids are experiencing the right kind of grief, and how can we respond?

Worldly Grief

Feelings of guilt are a natural, human reaction to sin. We all have God’s law written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). Everyone has a conscience. But guilty feelings aren’t sufficient to save us.

Instead of crying out to God for mercy, worldly grief runs from guilt. It stifles it through self-pity, anger, and pride. Worldly grief makes excuses: “I couldn’t help it.” It blames others: “It’s her fault.” It compares: “I’m not as bad as he is.” It negotiates: “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m usually good.”

When worldly grief isn’t running, it’s often wallowing. Wallowing in guilt might look like repentance, but it’s really a sort of penance. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we experience enough sadness over our sin, it somehow diminishes it. Or at least it distracts from it: “How could I be a bad person if I’m this sad?”

But sadness isn’t enough. We know from Hebrews 12 that Esau was sad about his sin, but his sadness didn’t produce repentance. After he sold his birthright, “when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Esau wanted to change his consequences, but not his heart. Our tears don’t make us right with God. Pain doesn’t equal purity, and suffering doesn’t equal sainthood. Thankfully, God can turn this dead-end grief into grief that produces life.

Godly Grief

We can tell grief by its fruit. Whereas worldly grief produces a hard heart, godly grief produces the chain reaction outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism: We respond to our sin with guilt, receive God’s free gift of grace, and then live lives of thankful obedience. Godly guilt always leads to thankfulness because we recognize the beauty of God’s grace in contrast to the punishment we deserve.

In Romans 7:24, Paul was so overcome with godly grief he cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And we see his guilt immediately turn to gratitude in the very next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Godly grief destroys self-pity. It trades introspection for joy in Christ. It doesn’t run, hide, or wallow. It freely acknowledges the ugliness of sin because it freely accepts the solution. While worldly grief shakes its fist, godly grief falls on its face before a merciful God.

Which Grief Is This?

If you’re like me, you probably see more worldly grief in your little ones than godly grief. But don’t lose heart. We can use worldly grief to lay a foundation for true repentance. Consider how we can leverage worldly grief to point our kids to the gospel.

Regret: Some kids feel guilty very easily, sometimes without any consequences from their parents. But regret alone won’t give them the lasting comfort they need. We can tell them, “I know you feel bad about what you did, and you wish you hadn’t done it. There is nothing we can do to undo our sin. But God can. When we trust that Jesus died for our sin, our sin is gone forever (1 John 1:9).”

Self-pity: Self-pity looks like moping and whining. Instead of admitting their sin, kids will comfort themselves by dwelling on personal injustices or unfairness. We can use that bad feeling to help them understand the consequences of sin: “Sin hurts everyone and breaks relationship. The most important relationship it breaks is our relationship with God (Eph. 2:12). That’s why we need forgiveness.”

Anger: Usually anger over sin is anger over the consequences. Perhaps you see no reaction in your child when he or she sins, until you give a consequence—then you get a colossal reaction. Even though this grief isn’t godly grief, it’s a chance to help your kids connect the dots. You can say, “I know these consequences make you angry, but consequences are a means of God’s loving protection (Heb. 12:6). They remind us that we can never be happy apart from God. Sin makes God angry, too. We deserve his anger. But if we trust in Jesus, we will never experience God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9).”

Hiding: Sadly, kids often respond to their sin with deceit. But deceit shows us that our kids know something is wrong, even if they aren’t responding in the right way. This is an opportunity to remind them: “God already knows about our sin. We can’t hide it from him. It doesn’t go away on its own, and we can’t take it away ourselves. But if we confess our sin instead of hiding it, God promises to forgive us (Ps. 32:5).”

True Repentance

Wordly grief and godly grief often look similar on the outside, but godly grief includes two important ingredients: A willingness to accept Christ’s forgiveness and a desire to change. What does this look like in our kids? It might look like them coming to us on their own to admit their sin, or apologizing without being told. We might also see them turning from sinful habits and taking initiative to obey.

Only God can generate true repentance (Ezek. 36:26). Our response to godly grief is the same as our response to worldly grief: Point to Jesus. The hope of the gospel is for the guilty, the self-pitying, the angry, and the deceitful. When our kids cling tightly to their worldly grief, we can gently open their grasp and say, “Jesus is better. Trade self-pity and anger for repentance that leads to life.”

The Kingdom of God in 8 Words

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 12:00am

The number-one thing Jesus talked about is the kingdom of God. It’s everywhere in the Gospels and impossible to miss. But if the theme of the kingdom is so significant, then we need to make sure we know what it means. A good starting place is to have a solid working definition.

Here’s one: The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.

That’s the message of the kingdom in eight words. Now let’s break down each aspect to begin plumbing the depths.

God’s Reign

The kingdom is first and foremost a statement about God. God is king, and he is coming as king to set right what our sin made wrong. The phrase “kingdom of God” could just as easily be translated “reign of God” or “kingship of God.” The message of the kingdom is about God’s royal power directed by his self-giving love.

Claiming that the kingdom of God is primarily about God may seem obvious, but many today use “kingdom” to refer to the way we as human beings make the world a better place (“kingdom work”) or to refer to all the Christians in the world (“kingdom minded”). Unfortunately, much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne. But if the kingdom is portrayed as a utopian world without mention of God, then the Bible’s vision of the kingdom has been lost. The kingdom of God is the vision of the world reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ.

Much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne.

God is king, and he reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of his kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as a redemptive reign. He’s the king who is reclaiming his creation. His kingdom is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of his royal grace into a sinful and broken world.

God’s People

God the Creator-King reigns over all his creatures, but he also reigns through his people. This was his design from the beginning. Adam and Eve were commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth. Instead, they chose to seek their own path to power and glory, apart from God. Their rebellion fractured humanity’s relationship with God and shattered the goodness of his creation. Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into his renewing work.

God’s reign is a saving reign. The kingdom of God provides a holistic understanding of salvation, including not only what we are saved from, but also what we are saved for:

We are saved from death and for life.

We are saved from shame and for glory.

We are saved from slavery and for freedom.

We are saved from sin and for following our Savior.

We are saved from the kingdom of darkness and for the kingdom of light.

To be saved into God’s kingdom is to embrace God’s comprehensive rule over every aspect of life. This is a far cry from merely “asking Jesus into my heart.” It means a new life, a new identity, and a new kingdom.

God’s Place

The Bible is the story of God making his good creation a glorious kingdom. It all started in the garden, where God commissioned his people to go to the ends of the earth to make the rest of the world like Eden. The garden kingdom was meant to become a global kingdom where people would rejoice and the world would flourish under God’s loving reign.

After the fall, making the world God’s glorious kingdom would require a reversal of the curse and a renewal by grace. And that’s exactly what God set out to do. The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation. God’s reign begins in the human heart, but it will one day extend to the ends of the earth. Many Christians today think of salvation as leaving earth for heaven, but the story of Scripture is quite the opposite. The message of the kingdom is not an escape from earth to heaven but God’s reign coming from heaven to earth. The focus of God’s reign is his people, but the scope of God’s reign is all of creation.

The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

This understanding of the kingdom of God may be new to you, but it would not have been surprising to the first-century crowds listening to Jesus. Their collective hope was that God would come as king to redeem his people and restore his creation. What surprised them about Jesus’s proclamation was not what the kingdom is, but who would bring it and how. Jesus fulfills every kingdom promise, but he establishes the kingdom in a way that is different than they expected and yet more glorious than they could’ve imagined. In our journey to understand God’s kingdom, this introduces a key element. The kingdom message is counterintuitive and surprising, going against the grain of worldly wisdom, because unlike any other kingdom this world has ever seen, Christ’s kingdom is built on grace and advances with compassion. In this kingdom, the throne is a cross and the King reigns with self-giving love.

The Whole Bible in 12 Verses

Sun, 05/19/2019 - 12:00am

If you had to summarize Scripture in 12 verses, which would you choose? Here are mine:

  1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
  2. “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
  3. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
  4. “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18).
  5. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods but me” (Ex. 20:2–3).
  6. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13).
  7. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).
  8. “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 1:14).
  9. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).
  10. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen!“ (Luke 24:5–6).
  11. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6).
  12. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Where Sex Trafficking Occurs in America

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 12:03am

The Story: A recent report highlights the cities and states within the U.S. in which human trafficking is most reported.

The Background: Modern-day slavery, also referred to as “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking,” describes the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Trafficking in persons is estimated to be one of the top-grossing criminal industries in the world (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking), with traffickers profiting an estimated $32 billion every year.

Because the crime is kept out of sight no one knows for sure the extent of trafficking in America. But we can gain a better understanding of the crime by measuring the “signals”—phone calls, emails, and online tip reports—received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which maintains one of the most extensive data sets on the issue of human trafficking in the U.S. From 2007 to 2018, the Hotline received 195,215 signals representing 45,308 “cases” (i.e., distinct situations of trafficking).

The Geoffrey Nathan Law Offices recently analyzed the data from the Hotline to uncover where human trafficking reports are most prevalent.

Their report finds that on a per capita basis (cases per 100,000 people), Washington DC (6.1) and Nevada (5.6) have the most reports of human trafficking in the nation. In each of those states, trafficking reports are more than five times more likely than in states like Wisconsin (1.1) and Utah (1.1). Even larger states like California (1.9), Florida (1.7), and New York (1.1) had fewer reported cases than DC and Nevada.

The report also shows the total number of cases from 2007 to 2016 per capita among the 100 largest cities in America. The top five cities in America for human trafficking reports are Washington DC, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, and Las Vegas. Almost all of the top 25 cities for human trafficking prevalence are large metropolises, and many are major tourist destinations and/or have international airports. The exception is New York City, which has the twenty-second lowest rate of human trafficking in the country. Cities where human trafficking is less common tend to be smaller cities.

What It Means: Why is trafficking more prevalent in some cities and states than in others? A key factor appears to be prostitution. “Underlying much of the prostitution industry and illegal massage parlors is the horrible fact that many of the women supposedly working there are being held against their will,” according to the report.

“While some prostitutes may work entirely on their own accord, a very significant number of them are working against their will,” notes the report. “Even in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in certain parts of the state with a license, there are widespread reports of women working at brothels against their will or with falsified identification.”

Despite prostitution being frequently described as a “victim-less” crime, the connection between prostitution, both legal and illegal, and sex trafficking is exceedingly well established.

Nearly half of all incidents investigated by U.S. law enforcement agencies between January 1, 2008, and June 30, 2010 (the last date for which data is available), involved allegations of adult prostitution (48 percent) while another forty percent involved prostitution of a child or child sexual exploitation.

As Donna M. Hughes has noted, “evidence seems to show that legalized sex industries actually result in increased trafficking to meet the demand for women to be used in the legal sex industries.” Melissa Farley adds that “wherever prostitution is legalized, trafficking to sex industry marketplaces in that region increases.”

Christians in America too often assume that trafficking is a problem that only occurs in foreign lands. While sex slavery is certainly more prevalent in other countries, we can’t overlook what is happening in our own cities and states. We can help these women and children, though, by knowing the signs to look for. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the indicators of human trafficking may include a person:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Shows signs of substance use or addiction
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of their own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where they are staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Appear to have lost sense of time
  • Shares scripted, confusing, or inconsistent stories

Each individual indicator should be taken in context and not be considered in isolation, notes the Hotline, nor should be taken as “proof” that human trafficking is occurring. But if you believe you may have information about a potential trafficking situation, you should contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

7 Things to Do When You’ve Blown It (Again) with Your Kids

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 12:02am

Every parent knows how easy it is to say hurtful things to their children. Some of us explode in streams of words. Others of us coldly level our kids with sarcasm. Still others drip with manipulation and self-pity. The ways to speak foolishly are endless, but each one proves false the adage that “words can never hurt me.”

Words can and do.

So what do you do afterward, when you can’t take back what you’ve said? There are a number of things that will make that moment worse—defending or excusing yourself, pretending it wasn’t that bad, ignoring what you did, trying to beg or buy your way back into your child’s good graces, or just hoping they’ll get over it. None of those strategies will rebuild a broken relationship.

Thankfully, the gospel can.

The Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to a deep truth in our relationship with God: He created a way to live with people who would continue to fail both him and each other. That system pointed beyond itself to what Christ would pay on his people’s behalf, but even in its embryonic state, God’s message was clear: Your sins do not have to end your connection with a holy God. There is a way to live faithfully with him in his world—even after failing him.

That’s not just good news in general; it’s good news specifically when you’ve sinned against your child. Here are some ways to live that out.

1. Remind Yourself of God’s Grace

Remind yourself of what God has done to ensure that his goodness—not your sin—has the last word (Rom. 3:21–26). Remind yourself that nothing—not even your foolish words—can separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). Remind yourself that he delights in you because he has changed your heart to love him and his people (Deut. 30:6–10).

2. Be Sobered by Your Sin

Let yourself be sobered by what you’ve done. Our tongues are so hard to control—the apostle James would say impossible (James 3:7–8)—because they provide an outlet for the restless sin nature that never quits fighting against God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Speaking hurtfully gives you a glimpse of how hostile your sin is toward God and those made in his image. Let that reality sink in—not to discourage you, but to strengthen your resolve to wrestle with it daily.

3. Stop and Think

Take a moment to think. Proverbs describes the fool as someone who gushes without first considering what they are saying or its potential impact on others (Prov. 12:18, 23). By contrast, the wise person is intentional and careful with their words (Prov. 15:28). Speaking badly means you’ve played the fool, but praise God, he has redeemed you to become wise. Live now what he has remade you to be.

  • Think about what led to you saying what you did to your child.
  • Think about what you wanted in that moment that was more important to you than loving them.
  • Think about what you wish you’d said in response to what they were doing.
4. Take It to God

The remedy for sinning against someone else (James 4:1–2) involves dealing first with your sin against their Maker (James 4:7–10). God has commanded you to love your neighbor—and your child, along with your spouse, is your closest neighbor. Every horizontal sin, including speaking badly, is first and foremost vertical (Ps. 51:4). So deal with that higher-order sin by confessing it to God and receiving his forgiveness before attempting to work things out with your child.

5. Go and Use Healing Words

Humble yourself and go to your child (Matt. 5:23–24). Ask if they have a minute. Tell them you really wish you hadn’t said what you did. Tell them what was going on in your heart that was wrong. Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs. Ask them to forgive you for what you said. Invite them to talk about how they felt if they want to, but don’t demand that they do.

Be careful not to blame them or what they were doing for what you said. Own your bad reaction as your issue, not theirs.

6. Check Your Motives

Ask yourself if this is a good time to talk about what they did, too. It might be, but be careful not to make your apology a backdoor way of confronting them. Remind yourself you’re apologizing for what you did wrong because you want to restore your relationship, not so you can tell your child how wrong they were. You can always come back later to address their issues.

7. Make Better Memories

Last, consider what you can invite your child to do with you, such as play a game, bake cookies together, take a walk, kick a soccer ball, watch a movie, or plan a trip. You can’t erase the bad memory of what you’ve done, but you can make new ones that give your child a different, better experience with you. In time, those new memories will push out the old ones.

Good News for Bad Words

Behind the glory of the gospel, going all the way back to the first sin in Eden, is the God of a million second chances. This great God comes to his believing people when they’ve fallen—and when they’ve fallen again—and says, “My child, get up. Because Christ has gotten up from the dead, no story has to end in tragedy. Every single one can be redeemed, even this one with your kid.”

Loving Jesus in a Secular Age

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:04am

“If you really do say truth is subjective, that you find truth inside, then you’ve got absolutely no ability to ground your calls to justice. You’ve got nothing to build on. . . . You’ve actually just destroyed your ability to talk about any moral obligation at all.” — Tim Keller

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video of the discussion.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.

Why Christians Need More Paradox

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:03am

Life is complicated—it’s messy, difficult, and full of strange comings and goings. I crave certainty and stability. I want clear-cut answers and black-and-white truths. I often wonder, Why can’t life be easier? Lord, just tell me what I should do.

But just when I think I have a handle on life, God throws me for a loop. I lose a friend. I get laid off from work. His ways are mysterious, and his truths are not simple. But God also brings peace and joy and wonder to me in my valleys, in the presence of my enemies. What a paradox.

I’m learning that paradox is the stuff of sanity. Mystery is at the heart of the gospel. God coming in human flesh, the sinless one becoming sin for us, the God of Abraham saving Gentiles, Jesus resurrected of the dead—these realities are the mystery God has revealed to us (Rom. 11:25; Eph. 3:16; 5:32; Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 15:51). The difficulty of applying these mysteries to our lives is teased out in Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World.

For the Christian, paradox is the stuff of sanity.

Her book covers four themes: the incarnation, the kingdom of God, grace, and lament. Each section straddles a mystery of our faith that allows us to live before God. The four parts aren’t simply categories to hang your hat on; they’re glasses to see the way things are. Michel—a wife, mother of five, and regular contributor to TGC—unpacks how these mysterious truths open the door to seeing God at work, especially when life doesn’t make sense.

Mystery Is the Way to Sanity

The kind of faith seen in Scripture, Michel observes, is “riddled with fallibility and fear. I saw the heroes of Scripture as emphatically human, getting a lot wrong even as they tried mustering some praise” (6). Faith is mysterious, and seeing God at work in our sinful lives is hard.

The biblical path of faith doesn’t lead to the comfort and certainty I crave. Instead, the Lord uses the griefs I go through to awaken me to a hard-learned reality: I am only given peace and sanity when I learn to trust God in my weaknesses and conflicts. “Jesus remains God-and-man: advocating for his brothers and sisters whose weakness and frailty he bodily knows” (25).

God controls all things and works all things for his glory and our good because of Jesus. God’s glory isn’t opposed to our good; it’s a both/and in Christ. So I can relax and let go of my impulsive craving for certainty.

Surprised by God

Surprised by Paradox surprised me. I was delighted, moved, and filled with awe over these beautiful realities I so easily ignore. Seeing God at work in the mundane is so much harder for me than seeing him in the extraordinary. I’m learning this hard truth every day.

Surprised by Paradox surprised me.

For example, in my relationship to my fiancé, I am often tempted to see conflict as bad and “peace” as good. But it’s not that simple, is it? In describing her own marriage, Michel describes a reality that’s difficult for me to grasp:

[It] isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. . . . In marital faithfulness, I am, paradoxically, called to a daily dying and a daily showing up. (27–28)

Conflict in relationships isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. It’s often where we see God at work in my life and in yours. God sanctifies us in our conflicts, the everyday selfishness and misunderstandings.

Christ claims our relationships, lifestyles, personalities, and pocketbooks for himself. This reality described in Michel’s book hits home. When I don’t live in light of these mysteries, I drift by wanting ease, entertainment, and comfort, but this isn’t what Christ wants from me. He wants everything.

Michel urges us to begin to see our daily actions with the eyes of eternity. Christ’s Spirit energizes us to live for him when we serve the poor, change our children’s diapers, and share the gospel. We do this because “we follow a radically generous God who became poor for our sakes” (91).

Surprised by Paradox helps us recover the paradoxes and mysteries that keep us sane. By them we learn to trust in a God who is so much bigger than our finite expectations. As Michel writes, “God has set the world alight with his presence. We just need eyes to see” (41).

In order to fill the cup of my neighbor with God’s love, my heart must be moved by these mysteries. Sanity for our souls begins when we see Jesus at work in the world once more . . . and being surprised.

Why Good Theology Is Not Enough

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:02am

My favorite painting of Augustine is by 17th-century Flemish artist Philippe de Champaigne. Augustine sits in his study with a feather pen in one hand and his heart, set afire, in the other. His gaze is fixed on a beam of light shining from above, illuminating both his head and his heart. Veritas, Latin for truth, is at the center of the light.

The artwork illustrates the importance of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, what Jesus called the summary of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:36–40). Paul made a similar point, showing us that we can be an eloquent speaker, a generous philanthropist, or even a martyr, and still fail in our relationship with God (1 Cor. 13:1–3). Without love, it all adds up to nothing.

It’s possible you’re wasting your life. Have you considered that? Is love for God captivating your heart? Are you more focused on having carefully parsed theology than on loving him?

I remember the day this question first made sense to me.

No Burning Bush

It was a day when nothing happened and everything changed. I was listening to an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. He was loud. He was pacing back and forth in front of hundreds of students at a youth camp, talking about what it means to follow Jesus. I was captivated.

I’d only been a Christian for about 24 hours. The night before, I believed the gospel message and received God’s love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. This night’s talk was about how followers of Jesus must love him with their whole heart.

The speaker’s final challenge to all the campers was to find somewhere after the service to spend time in prayer. He told us to stay there until we loved God with our whole heart. I was sincere, passionate, and naïve. I couldn’t wait to try. I found a nice quiet spot where I knelt between some bushes. I placed my hands on the ground in front of me and rested my forehead on my hands.

I prayed over and over, “Dear God, I want to love you with all my heart.” When nothing magical happened I began emphasizing each word. “DEAR God, I want to love you . . . Dear GOD, I want to love you . . .” Still nothing.

I was hoping for the miraculous. I was thinking the bushes might catch on fire and that I’d hear a deep voice like that of actor Morgan Freeman saying, “Yes Dan, you now love me with all of your heart. You can go play putt-putt and get a cheeseburger now.”

Still nothing.

After what seemed like hours, I finally stopped praying. I was only 15 years old at the time, and I bet I didn’t pray for more than 15 minutes. But it seemed like a really long time to my adolescent self. To be honest, back then it felt like a whole lot of nothing. I was a bit disappointed.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Those first two days of my Christian life sum up how it can be for many of us. Sometimes we’re wholehearted about living for God. Other times our hearts are elsewhere, with the cheeseburgers and putt-putt. Other things can easily eclipse our love for God.

Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

I wonder what you see as you look back? Was there a time when you felt you knew and loved God more than you do now? When you were wholehearted about following Jesus? Or maybe you’ve never been sure that level of commitment is really for you?

While I sometimes laugh thinking back to that youth camp, I also realize I understood then something I often miss now. Jesus wants my heart above everything else. It was true of me then; it’s true for each one of us right now. Having the right beliefs isn’t enough. He wants your heart.

Believing in God Isn’t Enough

Orthodoxy may sound like a painfully expensive dental procedure, but it just means having proper beliefs about God. A relationship with Jesus begins with truth—with orthodoxy—forming the proper beliefs about Jesus. This is illustrated when Jesus asked the disciples what people believed about him. They volleyed around some of the more generous titles overheard in the villages: John the Baptist, Elijah, or maybe another prophet (Mark 8:27–29). But then Jesus made the question more personal. Why did they believe in him?

Peter spoke up right away. “You’re the Messiah,” he declared. This is where Peter got an A on his orthodoxy test. But in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, we don’t find Jesus questioning Peter’s beliefs or orthodoxy.

We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and still miss the mark.

It would seem to make sense if Jesus did. After all, Peter is about to preach the historic sermon as God launches the church. A captivated 3,000 people will decide to follow Jesus in response (Acts 2:14–41). So it’s important that Peter gets his stuff right.

But what did Jesus ask Peter? He asked him about his love. He asked about his heart. Three times he asked, “Do you love me?” According to tradition, Peter did go on to die as a martyr, just as Jesus predicted. Love for Jesus led him to that place of obedience.

Orthodoxy—proper beliefs—is where we begin. But it’s not where we end. To be clear, we can’t grow much in our love for God without also growing in our beliefs about God. What we believe about God is vitally important. But it’s dangerously possible to grow in our knowledge of God without growing in our love for God. We can accumulate a lot of knowledge while our hearts remain far from him. We can even give our life as martyrs and miss the mark.

Confessions of a Divinity Master

If you came to my office you’d see some degrees on my wall. I have one degree that sounds really impressive: a master of divinity. It means I’ve taken a bunch of classes about the Bible and God, and I have the degree to prove it. Divinity has been mastered by yours truly.

How impressed is God with the degrees hanging on my wall? Not much. To be honest, I imagine he was more impressed with the 15-year-old boy who just wanted to love him with all his heart.

That day so long ago, it felt like nothing happened. But I was doing my best to love God. And that isn’t nothing. It’s something. In fact, it’s what it’s all about. May the truth of God captivate our heads and hearts for his glory. For without that, we’re just wasting our lives.

3 Ways to Steward Good Seasons

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:00am

One by one, the small-group participants shared heavy prayer requests: a lost job, a cancer diagnosis, a broken relationship. Though I was fighting to actively listen, my mind was scrambling to find something hard to share. After all, no one wants to hear a Pollyanna after such a litany of hardship.

As those around me were being tossed in the storms of adversity, it felt strange to be sitting beside still waters. I blushed at the abundance of God’s undeserved blessings in this season. We had recently purchased a new house, our children were thriving at a new school, and the Lord was blessing our endeavors in work and ministry.

God sends both seasons of hardship and seasons of prosperity. Christians know that we should strive to be faithful in difficult times, but it is just as important to be faithful in the good times.

Here are three ways to steward your prosperous times well.

1. Climb up the Sunbeam

In order to best receive seasons of prosperity, we must do the hard work of distinguishing between the gift and the Giver. While good gifts are intended to be enjoyed, they’re also meant to bring us to deeper knowledge and worship of the King who shares his abundance freely.

In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis aptly describes the arduous work of moving beyond acceptance of the gift to adoration of the Giver:

Gratitude exclaims . . . “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.

God’s radiant nature emits sunbeams of his grace. Rather than merely lazing in the warmth of such rays, we’re invited to climb up the sunbeams back to the sun, from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17).

2. Build for the Future

Every time the Lord blesses our family with calm and peace, I think of King Asa. Following a series of horrible kings, God blessed Asa’s obedience with a season of remarkable peace and prosperity. After years marked by disruptions and raids on every side, the land rested. But Asa went to work:

He built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest. He had not war in those years, for the Lord gave him peace. And he said to Judah, “Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers and gates and bars.” (2 Chron. 14:2, 5–7)

While seasons of adversity are marked by efforts to maintain, seasons of prosperity ought be marked by efforts to advance. Just as Asa invested his decade of peace to strengthen and grow his cities, we’re invited by the Lord to strengthen our own souls, households, and spheres of influence.

In seasons of plenty, we have a chance to dig more deeply into theology, spend more time in prayer, and build up relationships. Seasons of adversity will return, and we want to be physically, spiritually, and relationally ready to not only survive them, but even to thrive.

3. Invite Others into Blessing

God made clear the purpose of his blessings to his people millennia ago, as early as his call to Abram: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).

God blesses us so that we might bless others, even those beyond the fold of faith.

If he has blessed you with a season of rest and abundance, invest it by serving those who are currently being whipped by the whirlwind. Your paycheck bonus could be someone else’s groceries; your free afternoon could be someone else’s childcare; your extra car could be someone else’s ride to work. Even your energy—refreshed by the Lord’s abundance—can uphold someone else’s sagging arms by prayer.

Next time you find yourself trading prayer requests—whether you’re in the midst of a storm of adversity or sitting beside a sea of prosperity—you have no need to blush. Embrace and invest the season the sovereign Lord has apportioned, knowing that both storms and stillness are tools in his hands.

Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor on TGC’s Women’s Training Network

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 12:04am

Taylor Turkington and Courtney Doctor are excellent Bible teachers. They are also educated Bible teachers (Turkington earned an M.A. and a D.Min. from Western Seminary, and Doctor an M.Div. from Covenant Seminary.) And they are on a mission to train women around the country—in fact, around the world—to better interpret their Bibles. Through the Women’s Training Network, they want to teach women to handle the Bible, grasp the story of the Bible, and live and lead according to what’s taught in the Bible. At these two-day intensives, women get to choose a particular track that suits their interests and experience, choosing from workshops such as ministry practicals, unity and dignity, and Christlike leadership. I talked to Turkington and Doctor about how their love for Scripture and for teaching it developed in their own lives, and what their dreams are for the Women’s Training Network.

Watch this video about the Women’s Training Network and check out information on tracks, registration, dates, and cities. Registration is open now for workshops in Austin, Sacramento, and Philadelphia. For more information about the Biblical Theology Workshop for Women with Nancy Guthrie, go to

Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.