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Updated: 1 hour 51 min ago

Morality Is Not Scientific

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 12:03am

One of the enduring questions of our time is this: How do cultures characterized by moral pluralism promote human flourishing, despite vastly different visions of the good life?

With the Enlightenment’s turn away from the medieval Catholic worldview, modern moral philosophers sought to construct a unifying view of morality that didn’t depend on religiously based values. Increasingly, this involved attempts to ground morality in various “scientific” ways, capable of some sort of empirical verification.

Science and the Good is the historical and sociological record of this quest. The book’s subtitle—The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality—gives the reader a preview of the authors’ conclusions about the success of this quest. While recognizing the need for a common foundation for a moral culture (19), they ask this question—”Can science demonstrate what morality is and how we ought to live?” (11).

In other words, can science move beyond descriptive ethics to normative ethics—can it tell us not only the origins of morality and how people and cultures make moral decisions, but also give us enduring moral norms that can unify pluralistic cultures?

Search for Scientific Morals

In Science and the Good, University of Virginia professors James Davison Hunter (a sociologist of knowledge and culture) and Paul Nedelisky (a philosopher) give readers a selective survey of the history of ethics for the past 400 years. They present and assess the three main schools of moral philosophy: the moral psychology of Hume; the utilitarian ethics of Bentham/Mill; and evolutionary ethics, the attempt to account for morality as a product of evolutionary development. The authors conclude the survey with a discussion of newer trends toward a scientific morality based in neuroscience and moral psychology.

The historical survey is only half the book, however. Once this groundwork has been laid, the authors begin their assessment of the quest for a scientific basis for morality. They distinguish between three levels of results. Level one would provide specific moral norms that could help settle enduring moral debates and tell societies what kinds of things are morally valuable. Level two findings wouldn’t provide the moral obligation that level one provides, but “would give evidence for or against a moral claim or theory” (100). Level three provides what is commonly called “descriptive ethics,” telling us how moral decisions are made, and the origin of moral norms (100).

Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that the overwhelming majority of the new science of morality contributes at level three—interesting, but nowhere close to providing a unifying foundation for morality, not to mention anything that approaches normative ethics. They conclude that the scientific quest ultimately ends up in moral nihilism, with morality being redefined essentially out of existence, replaced with subjective accounts of well-being or the admission that moral norms are arbitrary (191). They point out that the scientific quest continually overreaches, moving uncritically from the descriptive to the normative, then finally giving up the normative quest altogether.

The book is full of insightful commentary on the historical figures and the current evolutionary and neuroscientific bases for morality. The authors maintain that the neural or evolutionary basis for particular traits or virtues may be interesting but tell us nothing about whether they should be adopted or rejected (143). They’re insightful in their critique of contemporary “science of morality” advocates Michael Shermer and Sam Harris, in that they both make “assumptions about what is valuable, independent of science” (158). They also cite the shift of emphasis from morality being “a source of objective action-guidance” to “understanding morality socially (and psychologically) and prudentially” (183). They further point out that this quest for moral foundations has proceeded apart from any reflection on the dynamics of power and position (201–2).

The list of insightful comments could be multiplied substantially.

Failed Quest

They conclude that the scientific quest for morality has failed, largely because the prior commitment to philosophical naturalism precludes anything resembling traditional morality. This is where Nedelisky, the philosophical member of the co-authoring team, significantly contributes. In what seems to be almost a side comment, the authors state that “no one in fact has any idea how enchanted [non-scientifically verifiable, such as souls, etc.] features [such as morality] emerge from scientifically tractable reality.” To put it differently, no one has any idea how we get moral properties from mere matter—chemistry and physics.

No one has any idea how we get moral properties from mere matter.

Even atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie famously regarded this as a fundamental difficulty with atheism. He put it this way: “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them” (115). Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, whom Hunter and Nedelicky reference, maintains in Mind and Cosmos (controversially in the philosophical community) that naturalism can’t account for moral properties. Some suggest that moral properties emerge from physical properties in the same way that wetness emerges from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen. But those are physical properties that emerge from physical reality, not non-physical properties emerging from the physical world.

Religion and Morality

The authors reject the scientific quest for morality, but they also say that “to look to religion for such a unified, socially binding foundation [for morality] is out of the question” (191). In what sense is that true? They may mean it’s historically or culturally true, given global religions’ penchant for violence and divisiveness. Or as a practical matter, it can’t be such a foundation given the non-religious segments of most cultures. But it should be noted that ontologically, morality and moral properties are most at home in theistic worldviews, though the authors don’t attempt to make this point. Their work shows the awkwardness of trying to situate morality within scientific naturalism, and that its proponents have largely given up the original quest.

Instead, the authors argue that we should find a common understanding through our differences rather than in spite of them, but they don’t explain what that might actually look like. Perhaps that is the direction of a follow-up work, one that will address the pressing issue of getting along amid deep and passionate differences about morality. 

God’s Image. God’s People. God’s Mission.

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 12:02am

People are naturally compelled to ask questions of identity: Who am I? What am I worth? Why am I here? The answers culture offers only lead to more questions. To properly answer all these questions, we need to look all the way back to the beginning—to our creation—and see that all people are made in the image of God.   

Having a well-rounded view of the imago Dei will help us better understand ourselves, God, and the restoring work of salvation that comes to us through Jesus Christ. We can understand what God intended the imago Dei to be, how sin corrupted it, and how Jesus restores it through the power of the cross and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Published by The Gospel Coalition in partnership with LifeWay, Imago Dei is a new group study by Mike Cosper that examines the image of God biblically within the grand narrative of Scripture, relationally as it applies to ourselves and others, and missionally in our service to others and in our obedience to the Great Commission.

This Bible study will help you:

  • understand what it means to be created in the image of God;
  • discover renewed purpose in serving others for the glory of God;
  • be better equipped to participate in the mission of God.

The Imago Dei Leader Kit includes a Bible study book and two DVDs with 14- to 18-minute video sessions. The videos include teaching sessions featuring various contributors, including Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, Nancy Guthrie, and many more (see below). The kit also includes codes for access to digital video downloads and additional resources available through Wordsearch Bible. The value of these additional resources is more than $200.

The Imago Dei Bible Study Book includes a small-group experience for six sessions, personal study between group sessions, applicable Scripture, “How to Use This Study,” tips for leading a group, and a leader guide. It’s also available as an eBook. 

  • Gain a clearer understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God.
  • Learn how to see yourself and others in light of their status as image bearers.
  • Recognize your power and dignity as an image bearer.
  • See the biblical story of redemption through the eyes of an image bearer.
  • Hear leading voices in the Christian community explore the meaning and implications of the imago Dei.
  • Respond to God’s call to be on mission, serving people who are different from you.
  • Realize that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature.
  • Recognize the inherent worth of the people God has placed in your life.
  • Find practical, redemptive ways to engage with image bearers in your community and the world.
  • Discover how the image of God can be renewed through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Rosaria Butterfield
  • D. A. Carson
  • H. B. Charles Jr.
  • Kevin DeYoung
  • Ligon Duncan
  • Karen Ellis
  • Gloria Furman
  • Nancy Guthrie
  • Tim Keller
  • Jen Pollock Michel
  • Albert Mohler
  • Russell Moore
  • Miguel Nunez
  • Jackie Hill Perry
  • Juan Sanchez
  • Sam Storms
  • Shar Walker
  • Afshin Ziafat
  • And more!

9 Movie Moments of Unmerited Grace

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 12:00am

Movies, and stories generally, are structured as they are for a reason. Conflict builds, obstacles intensify, the downward spiral accelerates until the protagonist reaches bottom. There is seemingly no way out. No hope. But then, the turn.

It usually happens in the film’s third act, sometimes in the final moments. The tension climaxes to an unbearable degree, and then catharsis: despair and darkness suddenly met with a glimmer of hope. A rescuer arrives: unexpected, unearned salvation from out of nowhere. In a land of deep darkness, a light dawns (Isa. 9:2). Sound familiar?

Stories can’t help but gravitate toward such climaxes. Why? Because this is the plot of The Greatest Story. This is the “turn” that compels us so universally: a rescuer who saves us because we can’t save ourselves, who plucks us out of the pit of death and gives us new life; a savior with the power to deliver us “from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13) and “from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24).

Our bodies tense, a lump rises in our throat, the tears well in our eyes when we watch these scenes in movies. We know this is us too. These scenes, even if they don’t depict Jesus explicitly, often remind us of the beauty, the heroism, the unearned gift of our divine Rescuer.

These scenes, even if they don’t depict Jesus explicitly, remind us of the beauty, the heroism, the unearned gift of our divine Rescuer.

There are countless movie scenes that beautifully echo this theologically significant moment of messianic rescue, but the following nine (in alphabetical order) are, I find, particularly powerful.

All Is Lost (2013) — A hand from above

J. C. Chandor’s “lost at sea” thriller is a one-man movie that follows a man (Robert Redford) who fights to survive when his yacht starts taking on water somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The majority of the mostly wordless film finds Redford marshaling all his energy and creative resources to save himself. But after setback after setback, confidence in his survival skills wanes. In the film’s powerful final scene (watch here), Redford’s character appears to give up. Having accidentally burned his raft after trying to light a signal fire, he lets himself sink, drifting deeper into the sea. The titular moment has come: All is lost indeed. Still conscious, he spots a flashing light on the surface. He starts swimming toward it, and in the film’s final shot we see a hand reach down and grab Redford, pulling him to oxygen again. We don’t know whose hand it is; only that rescue has arrived. A lost man is pulled out of the depths.

Captain Phillips (2013) — “Captain, you’re safe now.”

This heart-pounding film from director Paul Greengrass (United 93) narrates the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which merchant mariner Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009. The film’s third act—showing the Navy SEAL operation to rescue Phillips—is almost unbearably intense to watch, culminating in an emotional scene where a just-rescued and deeply shaken Phillips is treated by Navy medics. In the scene (watch below), the medic treating Phillips tries to calm him as she surveys his injuries. “Captain, you’re safe now, okay?” she says. In shock and still processing the fact and manner of his rescue, Phillips starts crying and repeatedly exclaims: “Thank you!” Nearly dead one minute, alive the next, Phillips can’t fathom what just happened. “Thank you” is all that makes sense. It’s all that needs to make sense.

Children of Men (2006) — Rescued by tomorrow

The third act of Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller (based on the P. D. James novel) is a relentlessly dark, punishing action sequence in which hope breaks through only in the film’s final minute. Theo (Clive Owen) and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey)—who has just delivered a baby in a world where women have stopped having babies—are trying to survive amid a violent battle in a refugee camp. Their goal is to take a small rowboat out to sea to rendezvous with an ark-like vessel, fittingly named Tomorrow. In order to get Kee and the baby to the Tomorrow safely, Theo sacrifices his life (his final word: “Jesus”). Alone with her baby in a small rowboat, and her protector dead, Kee is at her most vulnerable. But as the music of Christian composer John Tavener plays, the fog at sea clears, and the Tomorrow emerges (watch here). Upon a bleak and hopeless world, hope dawns.

Dunkirk (2017) — “Home”

The keys to this powerful scene (watch below) are the music and the eyes: Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score, to be exact, and Kenneth Branagh’s eyes. Branagh plays a Royal Navy commander tasked with overseeing the evacuation of trapped British troops at Dunkirk. Just when all seems lost, with the enemy encircling the beleaguered troops, hundreds of British civilian boats arrive. The rescue of more than 300,000 otherwise doomed troops begins. Zimmer’s score has until this point been a relentless, dissonant bombardment meant to mimic the soldiers’ increasingly hopeless plight—a wall of sound that employs the Shepard tone to convey perpetual escalation. As the musical tension climaxes we see Branagh on the mole, his eyes enlarging as he sees something in the distance. He looks through binoculars. “What do you see?” someone asks. “Home,” he replies—a word matched in the music that at last resolves to a “home” major chord. We see the triumphant arrival of rescue boats, and then Branagh’s eyes fill with tears (as ours do) as the music swells. We resonate because we too cannot get “home” on our own. Home comes for us.

Home Alone (1990) — “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Though less grandiose than some of the scenes on this list, the climax of Home Alone captures a lovely moment of grace and rescue. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) has worked hard for his salvation for much of the film, priding himself on the ways he has managed to thrive independently and evade the burglars who seek to harm him. But in the end he can’t save himself. Captured by the “Wet Bandits” and hung up on a door, Kevin is all out of tricks. But just as he’s about to lose a finger to Harry (Joe Pesci), Kevin is rescued by the snow shovel-wielding neighbor (“Old Man Marley”) he once feared. Having knocked out the bad guys, Marley (Roberts Blossom) picks Kevin up, grandpa-like, and utters the words that ease the movie into its restorative finale: “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) — “At dawn, look to the east.”

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of moments that could be included on this list, but one that stands out is the moment in The Two Towers when the tide turns in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It has been a long, bloody night, and the orc armies of Saruman have penetrated all lines of defense. With nowhere to go and seemingly endless enemy forces on their way inside, our heroes have little hope of survival. But just at this moment—perhaps the darkest point in the whole trilogy—Gimli says, “The sun is rising,” and we remember Gandalf’s promised return: “Look to my coming at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.” The promise comes true. In a scene (watch below) that unmistakably alludes to Christ’s second advent (see Rev. 19:11–14) Gandalf-the-White appears on a white horse (Shadowfax), behind him the Rohirrim remnant and the rising sun. They charge down the mountain into the fray, bringing hope and light to the beleaguered people dwelling in deep darkness.

The Pianist (2002) — “Don’t thank me, thank God.”

Most of this Holocaust drama’s 150 minutes are utterly bleak, as we watch Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Jewish pianist, try to survive World War II in Poland. Increasingly gaunt and starving as the film goes on, Szpilman appears to meet his doom when Nazi captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) discovers him hiding in the ruins of Warsaw. But instead of killing him, Hosenfeld saves Szpilman. In one of cinema’s most truly arresting musical moments (watch here), Hosenfeld listens as Szpilman sits down at a grand piano—in a cold, bombed-out house—and plays Chopin’s “Ballade in G Minor.” Hosenfeld not only spares Szpilman, but he also risks his own life to help him, hiding Szpilman in an attic where he brings him food and even gives him the coat off his own back. Because of Hosenfeld’s unexpected, out-of-nowhere grace, Szpilman is by the end of the film in a tuxedo again, performing Chopin with a backing orchestra. We see Hosenfeld, meanwhile, bruised and bloodied in Soviet captivity, where he would die in 1952. “I don’t know how to thank you,” Szpilman tells Hosenfeld in their last interaction. Hosenfeld responds as anyone should to unmerited grace: “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”

The Road (2009) — Found by a family

John Hillcoat’s film is just as dark as its source material: Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son seeking to survive in a world so scarce of food that many humans have turned to cannibalism. Yet there are moments of quiet and grace—one scene in the ruins of a church stands out—in this narrative of total depravity. In the film’s final scene (watch here), after man (Viggo Mortensen) has died and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is left alone, all seems lost. The boy encounters a man (Guy Pearce) on the beach who offers to let him come with him rather than be alone. Everything in the child’s experience says he shouldn’t trust him; that he’s better off alone; that unconditional gifts should not be trusted. But he trusts the man, and he is saved. The film ends with the man, his wife, and two kids adopting the boy as their own. “We were following you, did you know that?” the mother says. “We were so worried about you, but now we don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Saving Private Ryan (1998) — “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic is one big rescue operation. Few films more powerfully capture the cost of salvation. Many characters die, and much blood is split, all so that one (seemingly unimportant and undeserving) private (Matt Damon) can be saved. Private Ryan himself can’t understand it. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad find him and announce their mission to take him out of harm’s way (watch below). “Why do I deserve to go? Why not any of these guys? They all fought just as hard as me.” Indeed, one cannot understand unconditional election; one simply receives it with gratitude. At the film’s climax when a dying Miller uses his last words to tell Ryan, “Earn this,” we rejoice that these were not the final words of Christ on the cross. We know what Private Ryan doubtless knew as well, in that moment. We can never earn such amazing grace.

How Are Those Resolutions Going? A Path for the Rest of 2019

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:04am

It’s the end of January, which means either you’re doing great with your resolutions, or you’ve already fallen off the wagon. Making New Year’s Resolutions is a venerable tradition, and it’s worthwhile to try to make proactive lifestyle changes.

However, changing the way you think about resolutions might help them last through the year. By redefining them as milestones or markers on a journey, you can focus on the things that will help propel you through the year and whatever God has next for you. That can involve either starting something new or making a necessary ending.

In thinking of resolutions this way, I believe there are three things that help us succeed in our resolve: purpose, a loose grip, and an abundance of grace. When we keep these points in mind, we’re far more likely not only to succeed, but also to thrive in meeting our goals.

1. Envision Your Purpose

In order to succeed, you need to envision the purpose behind your resolution. Kevin Plank always thought about how to make the next dollar. He sold T-shirts outside of concerts, bracelets outside of shows—you name it. This purpose didn’t have depth; it was only monetary. It wasn’t until he was sweating on the football field, and uncomfortable in his cotton T-shirt, that he found his purpose. He saw the need for a shirt made of material that absorbed sweat. So he made a product that would change the way athletes performed and recovered. After many successes and failures, questions and trials, he managed to create Under Armour—and invented the industry we now know as performance apparel. Plank found the purpose behind the sweat.

As Christians, we know that work is about more than just making a living. The Lord calls us to our vocations with purpose and has created us for meaningful work. Each and every person is uniquely gifted and thrives when given the opportunity to use those gifts in his or her vocation. Think about this deeply when determining your goals. What is the end, the telos, for which you are working? What is the purpose of this time? Is it aimed toward thriving in who God has created you to be?

2. Loosen Your Grip

When we have a clear purpose for ourselves, we tend to hold on to it for dear life. But that approach often goes badly. Have you ever heard about how to trap a monkey? If you put a banana in a jar with a small opening, the monkey’s hand will get stuck inside holding onto the food. They can easily free themselves if they let go of the banana, but they don’t want to lose their prize. And so it is for us. We have a purpose and then hold on to to it so tightly that we get stuck. We forget about what else is going on and focus on what’s in our hand at the moment, not realizing we’re trapped by it.

It seems contradictory, but in order to reach our markers, we must hold them loosely in our hands. We must pray that God would help us to remain focused on the objectives, even if the means don’t pan out exactly how we envisioned. Not every resolution is meant to be achieved.

In order to reach our markers, we must hold them loosely in our hands. . . . Not every resolution is meant to be achieved.

So when making goals with purpose, ask the Lord for a willing heart to let them go if necessary.

3. Remember Grace

Above all, there’s no more important component in reaching your markers than rooting yourself in grace. I don’t know a single individual who has succeeded in his or her goal without falling short many times, myself included.

Failure, mistakes, and shortcomings are natural. They keep us humble. As Christians, we have a deep well to draw from when moments of uncertainty rise to the surface.

The grace we experience from the Lord helps us deepen our love for him. Augustine of Hippo, arguably the most influential theologian in Western Christianity, grappled with this concept until his death. The weight of grace was a burden he couldn’t comprehend. He knew his mistakes and realized he didn’t deserve such grace from a holy and awesome God. Even on his death bed he had Psalm 51, the psalm of confession David wrote after sleeping with Bathsheba, written on his wall so he could recite it repeatedly. He was a man who knew the depths of his sin, humbling himself under the weight of the Lord’s powerful grace.

Of course it’s easy to look at Augustine and think he’s an incredible example. But we normal folk also feel the weight of grace in our everyday life. Saying “I’m sorry” and admitting our faults is one of the hardest things to do. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for grace and receive grace from someone else, or especially from God. It’s the great strength of the Christian to ask for and receive grace.

The purpose of making annual goals for ourselves is more than just achievement. We are little reflections of Christ, made in the image of God; and therefore, we bear a weight of responsibility. The way we make and pursue goals, hold them loosely, and embrace grace along the way all showcase the Savior, who exemplifies pursuing grace with unwavering commitment to his sheep.

Why Church Planters Must Be Able to Teach

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:03am

The call to pastor involves the work of teaching the Bible. One cannot miss this recurring emphasis in the pastoral epistles (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1–2).

Not all Christians will be gifted in this area, but pastors must be. The same, therefore, has to be true of church planters. Anyone who aspires to plant a church must be able to teach the Word of God.

To help us think about teaching Scripture in the local church, I’m excited to have my friend Ross Lester with me today.

You can listen to this podcast episode here.


Want to Change the World? Invest in Institutions

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 12:00am

It’s not uncommon for those keen to see social change or change within the church—people passionate about causes that matter to them—to dismiss institutions as enemies of their vision for the church or society.

It’s often assumed that if you care deeply about social change, you are anti-institutions. If you really care about the church, for example, that means you care about “community” and people, not institutions. If you want to make a substantive difference in your town or city or country, the last thing you need is an institution to get in the way because, it’s assumed, institutions are about maintaining the status quo.

A classic example is the Occupy Movement that started with an agenda to “get money out of politics.” It eventually spread to 82 countries and ended up being a protest movement that addressed everything from social ills to demands for democracy in Hong Kong. But as cofounder Micah White acknowledges, it didn’t achieve its objectives despite lasting long and receiving front-page coverage. Consider Occupy Central, in Hong Kong. It lasted 10 months, and yet there is nothing to show for all that time and effort. Why? As Susan Cole puts it in that same interview, to accomplish anything you need some level of organization. Or, more simply, you need to create an institution.

It’s unavoidable: If we rightly care about the church or society and want to make a difference, we must think in terms of institutions. If we long to see certain core values informing real-life circumstances, we need to know both how institutions work and also how we can work most effectively within them. We can either fight institutions and view them as an inherent problem, out of some sentimental notion of what makes for human flourishing, or we can learn how to live with and within them. We can develop institutional competency—understanding how institutions work while learning how we can function most effectively to their effectiveness.

If want to make a lasting difference, we must think in terms of institutions.

Institutional competence means, at least, two things: first, that we think and act in light of an institution’s purpose (the mission), and second, that we grasp and can work within a governance model or system. This can’t be stressed enough: Those with institutional intelligence think about organizations in a particular way. They think in terms of the mission. They also know how to work toward the mission alongside colleagues and associates. And they know how to work effectively within a governance system—an approach to making and implementing decisions and to leveraging power.

Is there more to institutional competency? Certainly. But these two are foundational.

The Mission: Clarity about Institutional Purpose

First, institutional competency means we learn what it means to be part of something bigger than ourselves. One problem with the Occupy Movement was that it was about everything—trying to protest or change or influence anything that anybody was concerned about. All of these might well have been legitimate concerns, but the movement lacked focus. The genius of an effective institution is clarity regarding purpose: We know what business we’re in, and we’re determined to engage it with excellence and specificity.

But the key is that this purpose is bigger than any one of us; it’s not about doing my own thing. Institutions are about a shared objective. It is a shared vision or mission. Though this means the institutional purpose may not align perfectly with our own vision, it does have to overlap enough that we can join in. For example, no religious denomination is perfect, but rather than each of us starting our own church, we must embrace a tradition that sufficiently reflects our values. We don’t each start our own political party because we can’t agree with the whole platform of any group. Going off on our own means that nothing would get done; the legislation we long to see happen will be just a dream. The goal isn’t to create institutions in our own image. Rather we find as much overlap as possible and then commit to the objectives of the collective.

If we rightly care about the church or society and want to make a difference, we need to think in terms of institutions.

By mission, I mean more than just the mission statement. What I have in mind is institutional identity and purpose. What business are we in, and what constituency do we serve? What are the core values and commitments that shape what we’re trying to do together? When we say “no” to X or Y opportunity, it’s because we know our mission well enough to know what is not our mission. Effective leadership is always talking about mission, because mission thinking energizes and inspires, which also fosters our capacity for focus.

Further, effective organizations step back every so often—perhaps every eight to 10 years—and review how the mission might need to be adjusted to new social, cultural, and economic realities. It’s not that the mission is fluid; it’s that our changing world requires that we refocus our energies. We realign our mission focus so that the original organizational impulse actually happens.

And then, knowing the mission, we do our work with that mission in mind. If we teach in a college, we don’t merely teach a discipline; we teach toward the mission. If we attend a church, it’s not just about our personal spiritual and social needs; it’s about a shared vision, and we invest our talents with this particular congregational purpose in mind. Whether we’re part of a business or a nonprofit, the principle is the same: We’re involved in and committed to this shared institutional mission.

And when it comes to finances, mission is always the bottom line. Organizations align their financial resources to leverage the mission. If we have to make hard budget decisions, it all comes back to mission—keeping lean and focused so that the mission happens.

Determining Your Mission

Each college or university is different; there is no generic mission. Thus the university where I serve asks, “What is our history, our social and cultural location, and our key niche within higher education in our part of the world?”

A congregation will consider its location within a city but also its denominational heritage while asking, “Given our history and our theological convictions, along with where we are located—and then also, whether we are multiethnic or monoethnic, older demographic or younger—what is it that we are called to be and do?”

A nonprofit will step back and assess the landscape and ask how they’re being called, as an organization, to accomplish some specific outcome—a particular agenda will ensue from the mission.

For each case, the mission is something that can be assessed: as part of our institutional planning and review, we’ll identify the indicators that we, as an organization, are effective.

Governance That Delivers on the Mission

Institutional competency requires that we first think in terms of mission. But then, second, we also need to consider the matter of governance. Governance is about how authority is exercised and how power is leveraged to accomplish the mission. It’s about leadership, at all levels, that does what leadership has to do: inspire and act and decide and deliver on that mission. Grant Munroe, in a review of Micah White’s book The End of Protest, speaks to his own involvement and disillusionment with the Occupy Movement and addresses directly what he calls “the allergy to leadership.” This is precisely the problem: Being anti-institution often means being against having anyone in charge, on the assumption that “leadership” or “administration” is inherently problematic.

It’s often assumed that flat organizations are more consensual in their processes, more democratic, and thus more human and community minded. But to put it bluntly: Without leadership, the mission doesn’t happen. Without leadership, there can be much talk and perhaps even much protest, but there will be no substantive and meaningful change. Without leadership that knows how to lead and is empowered to lead, a protest movement is just noise.

Without leadership that knows how to lead and is empowered to lead, a protest movement is just noise.

And yet, leadership must be located within a governance structure that makes sense. And this mean two things: first, leadership is empowered to lead—to leverage power with the authority to deliver on that mission, and, second, leadership is accountable and transparent in the exercise of power. It’s always both-and.

Consider both sides of what it proposed here. On the one hand, leadership has to actually lead. Effective institutions empower leaders to act—to do what needs to be done so that the mission happens.

Decisions are made that are essential to the mission of the institution, and those decisions are implemented. Stuff gets done. The model of governance can’t be so flat—that is, that everyone has an equal vote on the key decisions to be made—that nothing gets done. Churches need leadership, and there is no leadership by consensus. Someone needs to have the authority to do what needs to be done. Leadership is doing what needs doing so that the mission happens.

But then, on the other hand, leadership must be accountable and act transparently. True leadership isn’t about autocracy or unrestrained power; it has to be accountable leadership. Leaders are only effective if they work within an appropriate system of governance that includes intentional accountability. Yes, leadership is about the exercise of power, but there must be transparency, which is why mature organizations have a clearly defined conflict-of-interest policy.

Where Should I Lead?

As members of organizations, we need to ask: Where am I being called to provide leadership? Within a church, it may be to lead the team of ushers or the group that designs the morning liturgy. Within a college or university, maybe it’s to be the chair of a committee or to coordinate a program. The point is that leadership is found throughout the institution, and the organization only works if folks “step up to the plate” and lead where they have the opportunity and responsibility to lead.

This means also that we encourage others to lead and that each of us knows how to follow. We believe in leadership; therefore we support the necessary leadership so that the mission of this organization happens. This doesn’t mean compliance; it doesn’t mean that we can’t challenge decisions. But it does mean that if we’re a minority voice, we register our concerns out of a shared commitment to the mission and in support of the leadership. Beware of those who only believe in leadership if they’re the leader.

Beware of those who only believe in leadership if they’re the leader.

Leaders must also ask: to whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my leadership? And quickly we need to note that leaders aren’t accountable to everyone. Senior leadership is often accountable to a board of trustees. A vice president is accountable to the president. A faculty member is accountable to a dean. The U.S. president is accountable to Congress. The head usher at the church needs to be clear to whom accountability is due; no one is a lone ranger—even as a volunteer. And that accountability needs to be open, generous, and willingly given. Grudging accountability or accountability that is only for show is neither genuine or, of course, effective.

Institutions that understand the role of governance in mission have empowered and accountable leadership. The genius of an effective organization is having leadership that can genuinely lead and also be accountable in the exercise of their leadership.

I serve an organization where the board gives me the authority to lead: to act, put together a budget, and make personnel decisions that are deemed essential to the mission of the university. But I’m also intentionally accountable. I report to the board but also to church bodies invested in this university. I report to the faculty, and as much as possible, I’m transparent about my decisions. Not everyone will be happy what my leadership; that is fine and, in many respects, to be expected. There will be minority voices; and these voices need to be heard, as long as they aren’t toxic, and as long as they recognize that in the end I’m accountable to the board.

Much more could be said about institutions, of course. But it often comes back to this: Effective organizations are clear about their mission, and they have a governance model that leverages power so that the mission happens. Those who know how to invest in institutions think and act in terms of the shared mission and they learn how to function within an authoritative community. Leaders are empowered to lead, and those same leaders are accountable for their decisions and transparent in the exercise of power.

Nothing said here is meant to sentimentalize or idealize organizations. Institutions can be difficult places. At some point we will all experience them as painful places where decisions are made that strike us as wrongheaded or that affect us adversely. But the way forward isn’t to dismiss or demonize institutions. Rather, we each must do all we can within our spheres of influence, however great or limited that might be, to help make the organization effective—with mission clarity and a system of governance that works for this particular institution.

4 Facts Every American Should Know About Third-Trimester Abortions

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 4:02pm

A video clip of a Virginia lawmaker saying she would allow abortions up until the moment of birth went viral yesterday. In the video Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) is asked if her proposed legislation, House Bill No. 2491, would let a woman ask for a late-term abortion for mental health reasons.

“Where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth . . . she has physical signs that she is about to give birth would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion if she was so certified? If she’s dilating?” asked House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).

“Mr. Chairman, that would be a decision that the doctor, the physician, and the woman would make at that point,” Tran responded.

“I understand that,” Gilbert said. “I’m asking if your bill allows that.”

“My bill would allow that, yes,” answered Tran.

Many people are rightly appalled by the callous disregard for the life of a soon-to-be born infant. But we should not be shocked. Allowing women to have an abortion for mental-health reasons anytime in the third trimester (28 weeks until birth) is already the law of the land in the United States.

Here are four facts you should know about third-trimester abortions in America.

#1 — Third-trimester abortions are already protected by federal law.

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings in the cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Roe has become more famous, but Doe is equally significant. As Justice Harry Blackmun said at the time of the rulings, both Roe and Doe “are to be read together.”

The Court’s opinion in Doe stated that a woman may obtain an abortion even after viability (i.e., the period when the fetus could potentially survive outside the womb) if necessary to protect her health. The Court defined “health” as follows:

Whether, in the words of the Georgia statute, “an abortion is necessary” is a professional judgment that the Georgia physician will be called upon to make routinely. We agree with the District Court, 319 F. Supp., at 1058, that the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.

In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. CaseyThe ruling replaced the trimester formula in Roe with an emphasis on viability:

Before viability, the State’s interests are not strong enough to support a prohibition of abortion or the imposition of a substantial obstacle to the woman’s effective right to elect the procedure. Second is a confirmation of the State’s power to restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health.

By claiming that the “essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed,” the Court was claiming that the same standard of “health” applied as before.

As the Guttmacher Institute notes, in Roe, Doe, and Casey the Court has held that:

  • even after fetal viability, states may not prohibit abortions “necessary to preserve the life or health” of the woman;
  • “health” in this context includes physical and mental health;
  • only the physician, in the course of evaluating the specific circumstances of an individual case, can define what constitutes “health” and when a fetus is viable; and
  • states may not require additional physicians to confirm the attending physician’s judgment that the woman’s life or health is at risk in cases of medical emergency.

In other words, if a physician determines that the child is “non-viable” and/or the abortion is necessary for the physical or mental health of the mother, a woman can have an abortion from the moment of conception until the child’s natural birth.

The standard is so broad that the infamous abortionist George Tiller was able to assign a mental-health diagnosis to justify late-term abortions for spurious reasons, including for a woman who wanted to “go to prom” and another who wanted to “avoid hiring a babysitter while attending rock concerts.” Even the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute admits that “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

#2 — State laws restricting third trimester abortions are unconstitutional under the precedent of Doe.

Much of the confusion about this issue lies in the misunderstand of how Casey affects abortion, and the fact that numerous states have laws that ban or restrict abortions in the third trimester. Because these statutes remain on the books or have not yet been contested in federal court, they may give the public the impression that they are allowed by federal law.

But because federal law trumps state law, no restrictions can be enacted that do not also allow the doctor to determine if abortion is necessary for the “health” of the mother. This is why abortion-rights supporters frequently say the decision to have an abortion must be left up to the “woman and her physician.” As long as a woman can find a doctor who says the abortion is necessary for her physical or mental health, her access to abortion—anytime from conception to birth—is currently protected by federal law.

#3 — The Democratic Party officially supports keeping third-trimester abortions legal.

Del. Tran’s position is not an outlier within her party. The official position of the Democratic Party is that no restrictions are allowed for any reason at any time during the pregnancy—including in the third trimester or anytime prior to natural birth.

As the 2016 Democratic Party platform states, “We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”

#4 — Overturning Roe and Doe won’t end all third-trimester abortions.

As I noted in an article last week, Democratic legislators in places like New York and Virginia are moving to codify abortion rights in state law to prepare for the day when Roe and Doe are overturned. When the Supreme Court throws the abortion issue back to the individual states, third-trimester abortions will still be protected in states that reiterate Doe’s standards for “viability” or “health.”

Opposing these measures won’t affect many third trimester abortions today, but they can prevent this gross injustice from continuing in the post-Roe future.


Addendum: During a radio interview, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam was asked if he supported Tran’s abortion legislation. He replied:

This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved. When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of obviously the mother, with the consent of the physician—more than one physician, by the way—and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s non-viable.

So in the particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother. So I think this was blown out of proportion. But again, we want the government not to be involved in these types of decisions because we want the decisions to be made by mothers and their providers. And this is why legislators, most of whom are men, shouldn’t be telling a woman what she should and should not be doing with her body.

The most generous interpretation of the Gov. Northam’s comments are that he was confusing and conflating a third-trimester abortion with a child that has been delivered and is already dying. In the second case, the choice whether extraordinary measures should be taken in an attempt to keep the child alive is usually left to the parents and attending physicians.

However, if Gov. Notham, a former pediatrician, is saying that if a child comes out of the womb alive after a botched abortion and should be left to die, then he is advocating infanticide. In that case, the response by TGC Council member Russell Moore is appropriate:

The governor’s statement is morally reprehensible and ghoulish to the core. How seared must a conscience be for a leader to discuss leaving born-alive children to die with the cavalier indifference as if he were discussing the relative merits of a water treatment plant in Danville or Culpeper? Human beings are not animals to be farmed, and not machines to be deprogrammed when they are not considered state-of-the-art. Children have intrinsic value that is defined not by their power, nor by the whim of doctors, but by the image of God each one of them bears.

Go Ahead, God. Test Me

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:04am

“We tend to think that the identity we connect with, our self-evaluation, is when we’re good, and that the aberration, the not-real self, is the bad. We have phrases. . . . We say, ‘I’m just not myself today.’” — Nate Shurden

Text: Psalm 139:23–24

Preached: January 20, 2019

Location: Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Franklin, Tennessee

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

Why John Piper Loves the Apostle Paul

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:03am

John Piper’s preaching and publications have constructively influenced countless Christians. If you were wondering who has most influenced John Piper (after Jesus Christ), we now know for certain—it is the apostle Paul (14).

Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons is both a tribute to Paul and also a testimony to the ways the apostle has shaped Piper’s thinking, priorities, and life. This slim book, by design, is “not anything like a comprehensive overview of Paul’s thought”; instead it is “highly personal, and even idiosyncratic” (14). Piper explains why Paul’s writings, ministry, and life have won his “admiration and affection and appreciation” (14). He writes with an expressly apologetic aim—“I believe that the reasons I love him, taken together, are a compelling case that he is not a liar or a lunatic. I want you to be deeply and joyfully persuaded that he is admirable and trustworthy and that what he writes is true” (15).

Piper’s Relationship to Paul

Why I Love consists of 30 brief meditations on aspects of Paul’s teaching, ministry, and life. Piper has grouped these meditations into seven sections:

  1. The Beautiful Transformation: Before and After Christ
  2. Loving the Man Who Shaped My Life
  3. A Mind for Logic, a Heart for Love
  4. Making the Mysteries Sing
  5. A Personal Passion for Precious Community
  6. Counting Others More Significant Than Himself
  7. The Best Gift Paul Could Give

There is overlap and even repetition among the sections, but their cumulative effect is to communicate the profound affection Piper has for Paul and to draw us into Piper’s delight.

One virtue of this book is its careful exegesis of Paul’s writings. Whether Piper is showing us how his “Christian hedonism” was birthed from a study of Philippians 1:20–23, or how Romans 8:32 “changed the way I think about everything,” he helps readers to see the great spiritual dividends that a careful reading of Scripture yields (49, 191; cf. 45–51; 185–91). Piper also demonstrates that profound insights into the meaning of Paul’s teaching can be brief and clear.

Some of the most moving meditations show how Paul’s writings have ministered to Piper in times of trial. Piper relates how 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10 served as a spiritual “helmet” during his prostate cancer diagnosis (71). He models how the promises in Paul’s writings can fortify the soul in the face of profound uncertainty and distress. He further relates how the apostle helped him to identify five “besetting sins” and take up the fight against them with “a kind of intentionality I had never exercised before” (74, 80). Piper concludes the meditation with a demonstration of “what [killing sin] looks like in practice” (80).

Balanced Portrait

Piper constantly emphasizes that the apostle Paul is not a man given to extremes. To the contrary, Paul’s thinking and life everywhere testify to the proportion and wholeness of a life transformed by Christ. Paul had a “towering intellect,” but he was a man equally possessed of “emotional maturity,” “willing to reveal . . . the depth and tenderness and intensity of his emotions” (85, 86). Paul is known for his tightly reasoned prose, but he was capable of scaling poetic heights in such passages as 1 Corinthians 13 (96). In both cases, Paul used his “outstanding logical and poetic gifts” in an effort “to help ordinary people love each other” (96).

Paul was neither a pessimist nor an optimist—he was possessed of an “utter realism about human sinfulness,” even as he reflected a “spectacular vision of human splendor” in Christ (120). Paul was an apostle and conscious of his authority as an apostle, but passages such as Romans 16:5–16 show he was a “friendly giant,” a man who served and loved people (134). Paul’s demeanor with people was neither craven nor bullish. He was both blunt and “beautifully affirming” (139). The balance and proportion Piper exposes breaks down the caricature of Paul as aloof, censorious, and authoritarian.

Full Portrait?

Piper recognizes that Why I Love is an intentionally fragmentary work. Even so, there are certain emphases in Paul’s writings that are either muted or absent. Paul everywhere understands the accomplishment of redemption in Christ to be the fulfillment of a long succession of promises administered to God’s people prior to the new covenant. He furthermore points believers to God’s moral law as the norm for human obedience (see Rom. 13:8–10; Eph. 6:1–3; Gal. 5:13–14). Paul was deeply concerned about the church’s government, particularly the qualifications and tasks of elders and deacons (see the Pastoral Epistles). Attention to such concerns would have yielded an even richer portrait of Paul than Why I Love paints.

Readers will also need to judge for themselves whether Why I Love successfully realizes Piper’s apologetic aims. To be sure, Piper’s depiction is winning and compelling to the Christian heart. It effectively responds to the tired canards that circulate about Paul. Whether it establishes that Paul was “an authorized and truthful spokesman for the risen Lord, Jesus Christ,” however, is another question (13).

Taken as a whole, Why I Love is a fitting homage to a master teacher by a seasoned and grateful student. Novice and expert alike will walk away from this book with deep impressions of the learning and devotion of Paul. And, if they have listened carefully to Piper, they will walk away with a profound sense of the love Paul had for his fellow believers—a love that is, of course, “the embodiment of the love of Christ” (195).

Should We Pay Kids to Do Chores?

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:02am

Teaching children responsibility is a primary task for parents. The question of whether or not an allowance should be paid for completing chores requires parents to consider training in two areas simultaneously: responsibility for work and responsibility for money.

As a recent Atlantic article points out, “The vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.” With new apps to organize paying kids per chore, allowances have obviously advanced beyond the dollar-a-week payments of my own childhood. There’s not necessarily one right answer to the question of whether completion of chores should be tied to monetary reward.

I know parents who have used allowance as compensation in effective ways. On the surface, at least, simply granting an allowance could lead to a sense of entitlement. And unhitching it from chores raises the question of how to incentivize kids to actually complete them. Even in light of these challenges, our family chose the minority approach: We decided not to tie allowances to chores. If you’re considering this option, I offer our experience as a snapshot of how (and why) we chose it.

Clear Responsibilities

We set clear expectations for what the kids were responsible for (for example, unloading the dishwasher, doing their laundry, and so on), and then we held them to the list.

If a chore wasn’t completed in a timely or thorough manner, we gave another deadline along with an additional chore. The longer noncompliance occurred, the more unsavory the additional chores became. It was a pretty effective strategy that almost never went beyond about two rounds. Let’s just say no one wanted to clean the baseboards. Ever. (I once asked my youngest what his least favorite chore was, and he fired off “baseboards” before I even finished the question.)

Allowance Is for Extras

Allowance was something we just gave. It was given in an amount appropriate to their age, increasing as they got older, and going away once they were old enough to earn money by working outside our home (for example, babysitting or lawn-mowing).

They were free to use their allowance, and any other savings, at their discretion to purchase wants. As parents, we committed to cover their needs. If a child needed a new pair of shoes, I would spend enough to cover the need—store-brand sneakers. The child could contribute the difference in price if they wanted a nicer pair.

We saw allowance as an opportunity for them to learn self-control and the difference between needs and wants. But we didn’t treat it as compensation.

Work for Hire

We did offer to pay for certain jobs that wouldn’t be categorized as everyday chores. If a child needed extra money, and if the job was something we would hire someone to do or something we didn’t have time to do ourselves, we would offer the chance to earn.

Each time we had house guests, my oldest daughter cleaned the guest room to earn money for a trip she was taking. I was so sad when she met her goal because the job fell back to me again, and I have a bad attitude. I started leaving travel brochures on her pillow.

Contribution vs. Compensation

A few years ago, I met pastor Tom Nelson, a man who has devoted quite a bit of time to examining the relationship between faith and work. He articulated a principle that I hadn’t been able to put into words, a framework for how the believer should think about the work he or she does.

He said that work ought not to be primarily about compensation but about contribution. As those whose work is ultimately done for the glory of God, we ask “How much can I contribute?” before we concern ourselves with “How much will I receive?” Think how differently the world would function if everyone regarded work through this lens.

Work ought not to be primarily about compensation but about contribution.

This is why in our home we didn’t tie allowance (compensation) to chores (work). Instead, we explained to the kids that their contributions to the upkeep of domestic order are absolutely essential. We weren’t merely trying to train them to obey or to be responsible; we actually needed them to share the burden of work for our family to flourish. It wasn’t an overstatement.

When our kids were still in the home, my ministry responsibilities required me to be gone 26 weeknights a year. I also traveled occasionally for speaking. Jeff and I explained to the kids that they were acting as ministry partners by keeping the house in order when I couldn’t be there. It materially lightened my load (and Jeff’s) when everyone did their part.

Rather than resent their responsibilities, the kids came to see them as a source of the best kind of self-esteem: They knew their contributions were both needful and deeply valued.

And we lived happily ever after in a spotless house where no one ever complained about chores or spent money frivolously.

Okay, not exactly. But we did manage to keep the focus on contribution rather than compensation.

Joy of Contributing

When our kids began to plan for their futures at college and beyond, I was encouraged to see my almost-adult children’s hopes: “I want to make a difference teaching science,” or “I want to help make green energy a viable option.”

I certainly hope my kids will end up with jobs that pay a fair wage, but more than that, I hope they will end up with jobs that allow them to contribute joyfully, working as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). To that end, we sought to make our home a place of joyful contribution—perhaps not joyful in the moment (when the cloth is on the baseboard and the knees are bent), but joyful in the final analysis, knowing that every good effort matters. And every worker is a treasured child.

Churches Brace for the ‘Illinois Exodus’

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:00am

If Illinois were your best friend, she’d be asking to borrow some money.

And you’d be wondering what she did with the money you already loaned her.

The state hasn’t had a balanced budget since 2001, every year sliding deeper into debt as it scrambles to cover expensive pension promises to public-sector workers. For nearly 20 years, lawmakers have borrowed and rearranged finances to cover the enormous obligation—the amount needed to pay off promised retirement benefits now stands at more than $200 billion, or about $50,000 from each Illinois household.

At least one pastor is sounding the alarm for what that might mean for churches.

“What worries me is that I think most Illinois churches are unprepared for what will happen—i.e., in an effort to meet pension obligations, legislators will raise taxes and reduce social programming, which will shift the safety net to churches (and other NGOs),” Chicago-area senior pastor Mike Woodruff wrote in an open letter to Illinois pastors this month (full text). “To all of this I add that it seems likely that this will happen during a time when giving to the church is declining.”

It’s hard to see a bright economic future for Illinois, at least before a serious reckoning. Already so many people are leaving (more than 45,000 in 2018 alone) that the trend has been named the “Illinois Exodus.”

That means fewer taxpayers to share the burden, which likely leads to higher taxes, which likely leads to more departures. (This is also a trend in California and New Jersey.)

For churches, that means fewer bodies in the pews, fewer checkbooks opened, fewer staff members employed. And, as Illinois looks at cuts to social programs it already struggles to fund, more people are looking for help.

But that doesn’t mean pastors should be scooting across the border to Wisconsin or Indiana.

“Remember that the months and years ahead will provide a wonderful opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news and engage in good works,” Woodruff wrote. “Challenging times are often times of great ministry.”

Illinois or Greece?

Pastors in Illinois are struggling to figure out how to respond to a crisis of this kind.

“The underlying problem is that for several generations, pastors have not seen these issues as something they need to know anything about, so now they’re unable to do much because they don’t know anything,” said Greg Forster, director of the Oikonomia Network at Trinity International University. “We need to play catch-up and fast.”

Mike Woodruff / Courtesy of Christ Church

Three years ago, Woodruff was one of those pastors. Until he ran across an article in the The Economist on Illinois’s pension woes—the magazine ran four that year—and at the same time, happened to glance up at the airport TV screen.

“It was showing rioting in Greece,” he said. “I had an epiphany. I thought, Okay, they’re having riots largely because of pension issues. Oh my goodness, will there be riots in Illinois?

Of course not, he told himself. Settle down.

But the thought lingered—after all, Chicago isn’t a stranger to riots.

And The Economist itself had drawn the parallel a few months earlier—”Illinois is like Greece in one obvious way: it overpromised and underdelivered on pensions and has little appetite for dealing with the problem . . . Illinois will either sink further into a Greek-style morass of debt or start its long-delayed rehabilitation.”

“I was trying hard not to be a fear-monger, but if there were riots, I had no idea what I’d do,” Woodruff remembers. “If I’m a Christian leader, supposedly part of a societal safety net, I should know what I’d do.”

He started calling his friends, many of whom were pastors at large churches in his area.

“Have you thought about this?” he asked them. “To a person, they said no.”

It wasn’t surprising. Pastors “tend to see people hurting and move in that direction,” Woodruff said. “Anticipating what is coming has not been a strong suit of evangelicals.”

Looking for advice, he picked up books and articles by Martin Luther King Jr. He pulled together a few dozen people to talk about the future. He wrote a book called Future View: Gaining Perspective on the Rising Waves of Change. And he spent three days in Detroit, asking pastors how they managed through that city’s bankruptcy.

“For some people, life goes on as before with just a few new hassles—e.g., the potholes are larger, police response times are slower, and the Department of Motor Vehicles office hours are reduced,” Woodruff explained in his letter. “For others—and here I mean, home and business owners, the poor, students, bond holders, and perhaps public pension holders—the pain is much greater. How a specific church would be affected depends greatly on who attends the church and where it is located.”

“A lot of pastors don’t want to think about it or get very depressed,” he told TGC. “And yes, social programming and stability will go down, and taxes and pensions will go up. But still, it will be better here than in 175 other countries. So don’t panic.”

Don’t panic, but maybe get creative.

Getting Creative

In some parts of Illinois, it’s too late to prepare. Brian Dye, a pastor in Chicago, has been living and working in underresourced neighborhoods for decades.

“The poor and disenfranchised have been here forever, as Jesus promised,” he said. “They have lived in the context of what [Woodruff] is describing as coming in the near future. The church has always been called to use our resources to be a blessing to the poor and disenfranchised.”

Deryk Hayes pastors in Freeport, a town of about 24,000—and dwindling—near the Wisconsin border.

Deryk Hayes pastors FIrst Baptist Church in Freeport, Illinois. / Courtesy of Deryk Hayes

“Many of the parishioners I serve were farmers, or their employment had something to do with farming,” he said. As family farms consolidated into corporate farms, and as factories shut down or moved, the economy in Freeport dried up. Today, the median family income is a little more than $37,000. Nearly 22 percent of people live in poverty.

“The average age of my congregation is 68, so most of them are on Medicaid or Medicare,” Hayes said. “One of the members is in limbo about Medicare and insurance. The state isn’t paying Medicare, and the feds aren’t paying Medicare [during the shutdown], but if he pays his medical bill, it’s considered double-dipping, and his insurance is all out of whack.”

He agrees with Woodruff’s advice to pastors: “Our next steps need to start with prayer and expand into preparation.”

In other words, think like Joseph: When you know lean years are coming, it’s not a bad idea to store up funds—and not just for your own congregants. But don’t save too much, or for too long.

“My main concern is that the problems are so overwhelming and macro in scale that the average pastor will think that there is nothing to do but hunker down, get a handle on the church’s budget, and pray that the state’s disaster days occur after one’s retirement or relocation,” said Bryan Chapell, TGC Council member and pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria. “A paradox of sorts is that the more pastors and church leaders are warned of an impending crisis, the more they will turn inward to shore up their own resources, facilities, constituencies, and future.”

Hayes has seen this happen.

“Once you start saving for a rainy day, you don’t realize those rainy days have come,” he said.

He counsels pastors to save 10 percent of their offering and to invest another 10 percent in the community. He also encourages them to think creatively.

“We have a kitchen here that is never used,” he said. “Could we start a café that creates jobs? We also have a gym. Could we start some type of volleyball tournament that can create revenue? We live in a food desert. Could we turn some of our land into an urban farm? Our [parsonage] sits empty, and we have empty classrooms. Could we offer space to entrepreneurs?”

Pastors might also want to think about ways to supplement their income. “Most of the pastors I know in this area are bivocational,” Hayes said.

Woodruff also suggests developing lay leaders and building connections with other church community leaders.

“If things do turn south,” he wrote, “it will be important for churches to help each other and to work hard not to duplicate efforts.”

Called and Burdened

“I’ve always wanted to leave Illinois and move to Texas,” Hayes said. “But when I had an opportunity to either go to Texas or serve this church, I felt called and burdened to serve in this area. . . . You have to be willing to be in those hard places, if those are the hard places God wants you to be.”

He counsels pastors to pray and to lean on God’s providence. “Whether in Illinois or Alaska, he’s going to provide for his servants.”

Whether in Illinois or Alaska, he’s going to provide for his servants.

Woodruff agrees.

“There will be an opportunity for pastors to lead well and offer hope,” he told TGC. “Don’t build barriers and retreat inside and just take care of your own.”

In difficult times, the church has a chance to show generosity, to open doors.

“We can be gracious and loving and cheerful,” which is easier to do when the disaster isn’t a surprise, he said. “I always do better with 10 minutes of advance warning, whatever it is.”

That’s why Woodruff is offering his own warning, “because I would want someone to alert me.”

But he’s also offering encouragement. “Please be reminded that many things are going well, that God remains fully in control, and that his church will prevail,” he wrote. “I have written this because I suspect we are headed into some white water. The waves are going to knock us around a bit. But our foundations are strong.”

The FAQs: What You Should Know About Bible Literacy Class Legislation

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 12:04am

What just happened?

On Monday, President Trump posted on Twitter his support for Bible literacy classes, saying, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

His tweet came soon after a segment on Fox & Friends in which North Dakota State Representative Aaron McWilliams explained why he’s pushing the legislation in his state.

What are Bible literacy classes?

The Bible literacy classes under discussion are public school elective courses that teach the books of the Bible from the perspective of history and literature.

Which states are introducing legislation for Bible literacy classes?

Bible literacy bills are currently being introduced in six states: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia, and Florida. Similar bills were considered in 2018 but failed to pass in Alabama, Iowa, and West Virginia.

Such classes are already legally recognized in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.

Why are so many states now presenting such legislation?

The Republican Party included promotion of Bible literacy classes in their 2016 party platform:

A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools.

The legislation also appears to have been part of a 2015 initiative called “Project Blitz” whose purpose is to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.” Project Blitz is sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), National Legal Foundation, and WallBuilders.

A key component of Project Blitz is the promotion of model legislation, called the the Bible Literacy Act, that can be introduced by state legislatures. The Bible Literacy Act is an “act relating to public school elective courses in the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras.” The legislation allows school districts to offer to students in grades nine or above an elective course in the history and literature of the Old Testament era and an elective course in the history and literature of the New Testament era.

What is taught in Bible literacy classes in public schools?

The Bible Literacy Act model legislation offers some of the common reasons given for the classes. The courses are intended to familiarize students with:

• the contents, literary style, and structure of the Old or New Testament;
• the customs, cultures, and religions of the peoples and societies recorded in the Old or New Testament;
• the history and geography of the times and places referred to in the Old or New Testament;
• the influence of the Old or New Testament on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture.
• the methods and tools of writing during the period when the Old or New Testament was written and the means by which books were preserved;
• the languages in which the Old or New Testament book was written; and
• the historical and cultural events that led to the translation of the Old or New Testament book into English.

Is it legal to teach the Bible in public schools?

Yes, under certain conditions. In the 1963 case School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from sponsoring devotional Bible readings and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. However, the Court found that First Amendment does not prohibit the teaching of the Bible as part of a curriculum of history and literature. In the majority decision the Court wrote:

In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

Why Church Planting ‘Success’ Is Dangerous

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 12:03am

Last summer, I took a 10-week sabbatical. If you’d asked me at the time why I was taking it, I could’ve listed a number of reasons, all of which were legitimate and sincere. But what I didn’t expect was how God would use my sabbatical to teach me a single, foundational truth that I wish I could grab every church planter by the face, look into their eyes, and tell them: Your joy must be rooted in Jesus, not in doing things for Jesus.

Having gone through the throes of planting a church—the time, energy, and effort it took just to keep our heads above water—the line between my walk with Jesus and my ministry for Jesus was often blurred.

Your joy must be rooted in Jesus, not in doing things for Jesus.

And I came to realize that my identity was more tied to doing things for the kingdom than it was in being a son welcomed into it. This led to an unnoticed, dangerous shift in my heart: At some point I traded being sustained by communion with God for the recognition I received for serving him.

Be Careful with Success

By external measures, our plant was a “success.” And while we knew this was largely in spite of our efforts, the accomplishments felt good. And what the heart loves, the mind will justify. So justify it did.

  • It’s good to want to do “big things for God.” After all, it’s for God.
  • I’m not seeking to build my platform; I’m seeking to build God’s.
  • It’s not my renown I’m after; it’s God’s.

During my sabbatical, God began uprooting these refrains and exposing them for what they really were: joy-stealing rationalizations that were actually less concerned with God glorifying himself, and more concerned with me being the one he used to do so.

Stepping away from the platform and the responsibilities forced me to evaluate whether Jesus was the means or the end. I was even off of social media, which allowed me to realize that the old adage of a tree falling in the woods could be aptly retooled to: “If you have an edifying encounter with the Lord in his Word, but don’t post a picture or tweet a profound reflection, did it really happen?”

Beware ‘Serving’ God

I discovered that my language of “being used by God” or “making an impact for the kingdom” (good things in and of themselves, certainly) was often nothing more than a veiled attempt to baptize my own ambitions.

In The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine recalls realizations from his own testimony that rang painfully true for me: “I did not know yet that serving God could be used, even by me, as a means to try, in line with the Serpent’s old whisper, to become like God” (20). And, “It is possible for ministry leaders to desire greatness in ways no different from anyone, anywhere in our culture. Attaching Jesus’s name to these desires doesn’t change the fact that they look just like the cravings of the world” (30).

By attaching spiritual language to my accolades, I could convince myself and others I wasn’t in it for the glory. It was as if the desire for platform and influence was okay because it was “religious.” But this is precisely what Jesus exposed in the Pharisees:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:39–44)

From an external perspective, no one served God like the Pharisees did. They were masters of Scripture who dedicated their lives to teaching and enforcing God’s law. But Jesus saw through their religious masks. He knew they craved praise and recognition from their fellow man—and serving God was a convenient means to that end.

It’s easy to draw a correlation—even causation—between our own abilities and the ‘success’ of the church.

Church planting can leave us particularly vulnerable to this temptation. For one, it’s easy to draw a correlation—even causation—between our own abilities and the “success” of the church we planted. On top of that, our people are susceptible to being drawn to a single personality. It’s a perfect recipe for the Enemy to spoon-feed our ego.

Behold the True Treasure

We don’t need to adopt a false humility that refuses to either recognize our gifts or be grateful God’s chosen to use them. But it does mean we must be on high alert to the possibility that what we really want, like the Pharisees, is “glory from one another.”

We need to ask hard questions, such as: If God would still get the glory, but the notoriety was taken from me specifically, would I be satisfied? If there would be just as much of an “impact” made for the kingdom, but I don’t get noticed, would I be okay? If I give my life over to toil that’s rarely recognized, but I have deep fellowship with Jesus, would that be enough for me?

Because if Jesus himself isn’t enough, we will turn serving him into a means of usurping him. Our ministry will become a way of satiating our need to be noticed and affirmed. And what follows, tragically, is that the people with whom we’re entrusted become pawns in that game, pieces to be strategically moved and manipulated to maximize our platform—instead of God’s beloved children for whom we’ll give an account (Heb. 13:17).

If Jesus isn’t enough, we will turn serving him into a means of usurping him.

Like the religious leaders in Jesus’s day, we’ll end up trading true fellowship with God for a facade of religious activity and accomplishment. But Jesus is enough. Hence his insistence on where true life is found (John 5:40).

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field—a treasure worth giving up everything for—including the accolades and recognition of ministry. The temporary high of receiving praise pales in comparison to the deep, lasting joy that only communion with Christ can bring.

And when that truth sinks in, we’ll be free to follow in our Lord’s path—a path of selfless obscurity, quietly serving and pointing people to the glory and grace of the Father.

The Best Arguments for and against the Gospels

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 12:02am

All of history hangs on Jesus. It’s hard to argue with that view even if you don’t believe him. He and his message 2,000 years ago changed the world.

But do we know the real Jesus? Do we know what he actually preached? Or are we chasing a shadow, an invention of later generations? Can we trust the Gospels?

That’s the question posed in the title of a new book by Peter J. Williams [read TGC’s review], principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, one of the world’s leading institutes for biblical research. My guest on The Gospel Coalition Podcast is also the chair of the International Greek New Testament Project and a member of the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. He and I assess the best arguments against the reliability of the Gospels and seek to account for Christian faith in Jesus as portrayed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

You can listen to the episode here.

The Secret to Living Well in a Scary World

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 12:00am

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the internet. It dominates political campaigns, talk radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapist couches and speaks on Facebook feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings.

What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?


Human beings have always been scaredy-cats. That observation is not surprising. What is surprising is that even we—evolved “modern” people—are so scared.

On paper, we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets.

Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the chokehold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.

Illusion of Control

The achievements of modern life—medicinal, technological, and otherwise—have given us an ever-increasing sense of control. Actually, more than a sense. We really do enjoy more control over more aspects of life than ever before. We’re so accustomed to a convenient, custom-designed, there’s-an-app-for-that quality of life that we’re more shocked when things are hard than when they’re easy.

Far from loosening the chokehold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.

Without realizing it, this increasing sense of control can begin to feel natural, intuitive, right. Not a gift, mind you—a right. And we start to believe that if we can simply manage our fears, they will never master us.

We are wrong, and we are miserable.

But it’s even worse. Addicted to what we can control, we extend the borders of our kingdom into realms we can’t control. We try to control circumstances, but trials rudely show up uninvited. We try to control people, but they don’t stick to our wonderful plan for their lives. We try to control our future, but he who sits in the heavens always seems to laugh (Ps. 2:4).

From Scientism to Selfism

In recent decades, as modernity has given birth to postmodernity, our culture’s reigning authorities have shifted, with the sovereignty of science bowing to the sovereignty of the self. Of course, the sovereign self isn’t a new actor on history’s stage; we’ve been climbing up God’s throne to topple him ever since Genesis 3. Nevertheless, there is something genuinely new about our cultural moment in 2019. Fifty years ago, if you asked your unbelieving neighbor where to find truth, he likely would’ve pointed you to science. Ask the question today, and he’ll point you to you. Believe in yourself. Be true to yourself. Follow your heart. From doctoral seminars to Disney films, the religion of expressive individualism dominates the Western world. I don’t know if René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) would be proud, but DNA tests show that he’s the father.

What does all this have to do with our fears? Much in every way, as Paul might say. If you really are “the master of your fate and the captain of your soul,” then everything is riding on you. Don’t crash.

Not only do we have more stuff than ever—and therefore more than ever to lose—but we’ve promoted ourselves to a position for which we’re embarrassingly underqualified. The job description included omnicompetence, and we were arrogant enough to think we’d be a good fit. So we spend our days playing God, trying to figure out the dials while steering the ship.

No wonder we’re paranoid.

Stand-Alone God

So what’s the answer to our dilemma? How can we disentangle ourselves from the fears that won’t leave us alone? One answer is the doctrine of inerrancy. Yes, inerrancy. Simply put, if your Bible is not wholly true, then you should be terrified. Why? Because if your Bible is not wholly true, you have no reason to trust that the One governing your life is both great and good.

I’m so grateful that my college campus minister, Dan Flynn, loved to emphasize these twin truths from Scripture. “God can and God cares,” he would say. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in those simple words he was distinguishing biblical Christianity from every religion on the market. Protestant liberalism, for example, offers a God who is good but not great. He cares, but he can’t. He’s a nice buddy, an experienced life coach, even a world-class psychotherapist, but ultimately he’s just “the man upstairs.” Meanwhile, other religions such as Islam offer the opposite: a God who is great but not entirely good. A God who can, but perhaps doesn’t care.

If your Bible is not wholly true, you have no reason to trust that the One governing your life is both great and good.

But when we open our Bibles, something unprecedented happens. It’s stunning, really. We encounter a living Lord who is both great and good, sovereign and kind, who can and who cares.

If God were only good, I would go to bed frightened. How could I worship someone who, bless his heart, means well and is doing his best? But I would also go to bed frightened if he were only sovereign. What assurance is there in knowing he’s mighty if he’s not merciful? What comfort is there in a deity who doesn’t care enough to plunge into human pain? What hope is there in a God without scars?

Rival Fears

Most of our anxieties are species of one great fear: the fear of man. We’re terrified of being rejected, embarrassed, finally exposed for who we really are.

In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace captured this universal, even primal, human dynamic. Wallace was not a Christian, and yet his words struck a profound spiritual chord:

The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, and you will end up feeling like a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is . . . they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

Paralyzing fears over poverty and aging and weakness and exposure and countless other threats are due, ultimately, to disordered doxology. Our worship is misplaced. Rather than enjoying God in his rightful place—the sun around which everything in life orbits—we dislodge him and replace him with a mirror. And without him as our gravitational center, everything spins off in a thousand directions. Such is the insanity of idolatry. No wonder life feels so chaotic, so exhausting.

According to the Scriptures, we fear man so much because we fear God so little. Fearing the Lord is the ultimate key to understanding (Prov. 1:7) and the antidote to anxiety.

We fear man so much because we fear God so little.

To be clear, we don’t fear him because he’s mean but because he is holy. He’s not a dictator or traffic cop in the sky; he’s the Lord of love. He is beautiful. As the Puritan John Flavel observed, “Godly fear does not arise from a perception of God as hazardous, but glorious.” The One who made us and saved us is worth our esteem, our reverence, our awe. And the counterintuitive beauty of grace is that his forgiveness woos us into even greater fear (Ps. 130:4).

The Lamb Is My Shepherd

In Luke 12, Jesus exhorts his disciples not to be anxious, since their Father in heaven is simultaneously great and good. Then he utters one of the most beautiful statements in all the Gospels: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:42).

Did you catch it? Shepherd. Father. King. One tiny verse, three massive truths. The God we meet on the pages of Scripture—and only that God—is the Shepherd who seeks us, the Father who adopts us, and the King who loves us.

And 2,000 years ago, in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Shepherd King became the Lamb Slain. As comforting as it is to hear “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), there is something even better: “The Lamb is my shepherd” (Rev. 7:17). The One who crafted you in his image is the One you pursued you, lived for you, died for you, rose for you, intercedes for you, and will return for you if you’re resting in him.

Unbroken Streak

Do you know what is the most repeated command in the whole Bible? “Fear not.” I imagine that’s because God knew we would need constant reminding—even as 21st-century sophisticates with smartphones in our pockets.

Human history is the long story of God’s faithfulness to scaredy-cats. He has never failed one of his own—and he won’t end his streak with you. Hasn’t he been faithful to you over the course of 10,000 yesterdays? You can trust him for tomorrow.

And as you look to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of your faith, don’t forget to listen. You just might hear the chains of fear start to crack.

Progress for Its Own Sake Isn’t Growth. It’s Cancer.

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:04am

The other day I met with a friend going through a career transition. He’d just been let go by his employer. My friend had wanted to be a CFO since he was 12, and he had achieved that dream. But now he was being terminated.

He glowed with joy.

The path to a CFO position was rough on my friend and his family. His kids asked why he was never home. He went from companies with toxic cultures to companies with no leadership, motivated by the desire to reach the corner office. And he had made it.

But the CFO position wasn’t what he thought it would be. It wasn’t right for him or for his family. He saw the termination as God’s mercy to help reorient his career so he could pursue joyful work.

American culture is imbued with the desire to hustle, to pursue success for its own sake. But my friend reached the top of his profession and found nothing but emptiness and exhaustion. Solomon had everything and said it was all vanity. And Jesus asked his disciples, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

The pursuit of growth for growth’s sake is reminiscent of cancer, which is the abnormal growth of cells. It’s the multiplication of what didn’t need to multiply. Too often our careers, I’m convinced, are like cancer—unchecked growth for no good reason.

Don’t Conform

It’s easy to assume that a high-status position or healthy bank account will satisfy us, but these are false assumptions. We can work and achieve beyond our wildest dreams, and yet completely lose ourselves in the process.

In seeking success in our chosen field—be it accounting or carpentry or ministry—we become conformed to the rules of the game we play. We just do. To climb the corporate ladder, for example, we must learn the internal rules of play and then abide by them. And thus we’re changed, little by little, until eventually we become a new creation made in the company’s image.

If our identity is anchored in a future accomplishment, we might turn into someone we don’t recognize. But if our identity is secure in Christ, we can safely navigate corporate cultures and work wisely within our profession’s rules of engagement.

Work Hard

Hard work is a good thing. It was present in Eden as God instructed Adam and Eve to steward his creation. But our effort must be yoked to God’s purpose in order for it to bear fruit.

Sin inspires us to build our own kingdoms; God commands us to advance his.

Sin inspires us to build our own kingdoms; God commands us to advance his.

When we try to build kingdoms for ourselves, we stage a coup against God himself. And coups against omnipotence don’t generally end well.

Regardless of what we do for a living, we ultimately work for God. We are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), and we do his bidding here on earth. Though working for our own glory brings disappointment and heartbreak, working for his creates great joy and satisfaction—because we are operating in sync with the way the world is designed.

Seek True Contentment

So how do we win at work without losing ourselves? How do we spend ourselves for God’s glory? How do we find lasting joy in what we do for a living?

It starts with contentment.

We obsessively build our kingdoms because we are malcontents. We have a sinful tendency to measure our joy by our circumstances. So many of us use our careers to fabricate new circumstances. We figure if we can just change our job title or our account balance, then we will be happier.

But temporal happiness will never give what our souls crave. There are two reasons.

First, we live within the bounds of time, so good moments end. We may fly to Hawaii and have a wonderful vacation, but we must also fly home. We may have a really productive, satisfying day at work on Monday, only to be followed by a frustrating, time-wasting Tuesday. Circumstances don’t last.

Temporal happiness will never give what our souls crave.

Second, circumstances are fickle. You can surpass your sales goals one month and fail miserably the next. You can get accolades and a promotion one year and reprimands the next. You can find jobs and lose them in a matter of weeks. Our lives are vapor, and our circumstances change rapidly. If we want to find contentment, we need to seek something that lasts. To find contentment in work—and in every other aspect of our lives—we must consider our hope.

To find contentment in work—and in every other aspect of our lives—we must consider our hope.

The reason Paul could be content in every situation (Phil. 4:11)—and let’s be real, his life was often a train wreck—is because he meditated on the hope of the gospel. He knew that, in Christ, he had been given a perfect future and an unwavering hope. And thus he didn’t measure his hope by his circumstances; he measured his circumstances by his hope.

Too often we treat our careers like the Tower of Babel. We want to attain heaven on earth by building up ourselves. Meanwhile, we forget heaven already came down to us, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we approach our vocations with the understanding that at the cross we were given everything we need, we can proceed in every endeavor with deep joy and durable hope.

Progress for progress’ sake is cancer, but progress for God’s glory is worth giving your life for.

I Feel Invisible After My Wife’s Death

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:03am

Last month I lost my wife to a seven-and-a-half year battle with cancer. I’m a 38-year-old pastor and a dad to three incredible boys who are 12, 10, and 7. I’m learning that grief is an unpredictable, lurking beast that strikes when you’re least expecting it, and in the most unusual places—Disney World, the bathroom at Target, Starbucks. No place is safe from an attack.

I’m also discovering I’m a verbal processor. I think best when talking or with a literal pen in hand, even more so as I’ve been unraveling this tragedy.

Many have asked, “What is it like to lose your wife?” I’m sure it’s different for everyone, as is grief, but here’s one recent attempt, in my journal, to lasso the chaos amid the storm.

Losing the One Who Saw Me

“What is it like to lose your wife?” A number of words come to mind. One is “invisible.” I feel invisible in plain sight. Not physically invisible; I’m a big guy, so it’s hard to miss me, and so many have blessed me and my boys with care and attention. So I’m not saying I don’t feel cared for; I actually feel unworthy and humbled by people’s kindness.

I mean “invisible” almost in the sense of when a girl looks at a guy in a movie and says, “You see me.” She means there is a person in this world who gets her, who understands her with a depth of intimacy no one else does. Of course, in the movies, they usually say this after knowing each other for five minutes. But after 14 years with Cari, I felt like she saw me—all of me—and loved me anyway. The good. The bad. The ugly. She saw my imperfections and challenged me to grow.

In the first years of our marriage, I saw Sunday naps as an act of worship; Cari saw them as sin, since they intruded on family time together. We fought about it, but she patiently loved me anyway. I found it annoying until I asked why it was such a big deal to her. She said, “Josh, don’t you see that one of our biggest issues is that I just want more of you?” That shut me up pretty quickly. How do you process that? A woman who’s watched you for many years still wants more. My first thought was, Why? I came up with two reasons: (a) She’s nuts or (b) God’s grace. Maybe a little of each.

Cari saw evidences of grace in my life and told me about them in ways that made me blush. She knew she could bring me to my knees with just a word, and sometimes she did. She knew my fears. She knew my dreams. We dreamed together all the time. I opened it all to her. Entrusted it to her. Only her.

And she trusted me. She trusted me with the secrets of her heart, with her hopes and fears. Cari allowed me to witness her thought process on all kinds of issues. I saw her and she saw me in a way no one else ever has.

And now the one person who saw me is gone. The only one who could read my every glance and anticipate my response is no longer available. There is no replacing 14 years of being seen by someone every day and night. You can’t replace a soul who covenanted to stay with you no matter what. I miss the warmth and safety of that—the unrivaled beauty of it. So there is a real sense in which a crowded room makes me feel more invisible because she’s not there—the one I always looked for in a crowd, the one who saw me and was for me no matter what.

Being that seen and loved is as close as any of us will ever come to experiencing the love of God for us in Christ. Christ knew me while I was in my mother’s womb. Not one of my days was hidden from him (Ps. 139). Not one sin has ever escaped his attention. Nevertheless, I have a promise: Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:28–39). That’s good news, and it’s real. But the pain is real, too. It’s deep and barbed. If the agony of separation from Cari is but a small picture of that greater tragedy of separation from God, then God save us all, and only in Christ. Maranatha.

I wrote that a month ago, a few days after Cari’s death. I continue to process, continue to grieve, continue to learn. Here are two simple lessons God is teaching me.

1. He Sees Me

First, the loss of being seen by Cari reminds me that in a much more profound way, Christ sees me. I know Jesus isn’t my girlfriend, but he is the lover of my soul. His laser-like gaze never moves. His attention never wanes. He never abandons me, no matter how ugly I am. He died to bring me out of the grossness of my rebellion to himself.

And he, like Cari, wants more of me. That’s enough to make you skip a few naps.

2. His People See Me

Second, I’ve realized I need to be more transparent with others, especially with some brothers who love me. I need to share the parts of me I’m ashamed about. I need them to speak into my life. And in that process, it feels like my sanity is coming back and grounding me.

Here’s the startling reality. I’m fearful of being seen, being vulnerable, being honest. I fear others will think less of me. And yet the greatest gift in all of this has been the experience of desperately needing to be seen, then being seen and drawn in by the body of Christ. It’s life-giving to be seen in my brokenness and yet still be embraced, not rejected, by Christ’s body. It has served as a healing balm for the sense of invisibility that can only lead to despair.

Science Is No Enemy of Christianity

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:02am

Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins insists: “Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not” (33). Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin says something similar—namely, that the “social and intellectual apparatus, Science,” is “the only begetter of truth.” These scientists operate according to the “warfare model” of the Christian faith’s relationship to science, and they assume the ideology of “scientism,” which everyday Christians often wonder how to address.

Thanks to Biola University’s J. P. Moreland, an important, accessible resource is here! Moreland is considered one of the top 50 most influential philosophers alive today. Not only has he written books and articles at both scholarly and popular levels; he also has a passion to see people come to Christ, to move them toward Christlikeness, and to encourage them to experience the power of the Spirit. For these and many other reasons, Moreland has been a great gift and blessing to the church.

Faith, Knowledge, and Integration

In his most recent book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland reminds readers that the Christian faith is a matter of knowledge, which has the support of reason and evidence; caricatures notwithstanding, faith isn’t mere emotion or opinion (38). The Christian faith is a knowledge tradition that once furnished a unifying vision that helped advance Western civilization, education, and science. The loss of a unified vision in our modern educational system has led to fragmentation. This includes the dichotomy between facts (public, objective) and values (private, subjective) as well as diminishing the humanities in favor of the sciences (42–46). Of course, the problem isn’t with science itself (modern science was established by Bible-believing Christians).

The key issue is the philosophical stance of scientism; this is one of the three major planks of naturalism, the other two being determinism and materialism.

Because of these challenges, Moreland urges parents, pastors, and other Christian leaders to think more Christianly about the world and about science in particular. They must also faithfully teach the next generation about the solid intellectual foundations to their faith and enable them to respond to the prevailing secular views that undermine Christian faith and encourage departure from belief in God.

What Scientism Is

Moreland’s book alerts us to the pernicious influence of scientism, which is anchored in a naturalistic worldview. Naturalism claims that nature alone exists and that matter alone is real (materialism). Thus, this worldview rules out God, the soul, angels, and a post-mortem existence. Scientism insists that “the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality” (24).

Scientism has two versions. The strong version says that science alone gives knowledge; the weak version claims that science is the best way to know. By contrast, ethics and “religion” are private and subjective—not the stuff of real knowledge. (How often have we heard the challenge, “Can you prove it scientifically?”) As a result, the Christian faith has become marginalized; for many, it is outside their “plausibility structure” and is no longer treated as a knowledge tradition. It has also led to moral chaos (since there can be no ethical norms or intrinsic human dignity) and to nihilism (since there can be no purpose to the universe and no telos or goal toward which humans ought to strive).

Modern science was founded by Christians. As Galileo said, when we properly interpret the world of God (science) and the Word of God, they won’t be in conflict with each other. The real problem is scientism, which actually strips away our very humanity—free will, morality, human dignity, purpose, beauty, and even consciousness. Yet Christian parents are often ill-equipped to address this pervasive and corrosive ideology that their children encounter in high school and university settings.

Problems with Scientism

There’s good news, though. For all of the bluster and puffery in realms scientistic, this methodology is both self-refuting and defies commonsense beliefs. Insisting that science is the only way to know (strong scientism) is not something known scientifically (how can you scientifically prove that all knowledge must be scientifically provable?). And if science can’t inform us about the reality of ethics or free will or human dignity, so what? Science has built-in limitations, but some moderns have placed a burden on science that it cannot—and was never meant to—bear. Theology, philosophy, and other sources of knowledge not only help supplement what science can show, but they can also enrich our study of science.

Weak scientism fares no better. Why is this? Weak scientism appeals to authority (“Science”) rather than to actual arguments and evidence. Furthermore, science itself routinely depends on non-empirical laws of logic and on mathematical truths. Scientists must trust the reliability of their cognitive/rational faculties—a trust that is required even before science can get off the ground. As with strong scientism, weak scientism bears out the fact that “philosophy has a kind of primacy over science” (72).

We have all manner of non-scientific knowledge. The logical laws and mathematical truths required for science are necessary truths—as opposed to the contingent truths of science. And in order to study the material world, the non-material realm of consciousness (first-person, directly and privately accessible awareness) is required. And the reality of moral knowledge (e.g., the wrongness of torturing babies for fun) is basic to our proper thinking and function as human beings but doesn’t belong to the realm of science.

Methodological Naturalism

Moreland raises an important point about methodological naturalism. What is it? Well, methodological naturalism is distinct from metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, which is clearly opposed to theism. By contrast, some theists hold to methodological naturalism, which maintains that science should be naturalistic or atheistic in its methodology. God’s existence and action are irrelevant for doing science properly; only natural or physical processes, entities, laws, and principles should be invoked to explain a physical event.

These theists are concerned with the “God of the gaps” charge: in the past, the “God explanation” has been used to plug the holes of our ignorance, but as science advances, appealing to God to explain physical events becomes increasingly irrelevant. Moreland addresses some of these concerns. These include distinguishing between empirical science,—which studies repeated, verifiable natural patterns such as chemical reactions—and historical science, which focuses on nonrepeatable events.

Methodological naturalism has problematic implications, especially for theists. For one thing, “the God hypothesis” can’t be used to explain the beginning of the physical universe. Nor can demonic activity be invoked to explain the most erratic or bizarre physical human behaviors, despite the Gospels’ testimony. But the straitjacket of methodological naturalism is problematic not only for biblical and philosophical reasons. For one thing, there simply is no clear line of demarcation between the scientific and non-scientific. And why can’t personal agency—divine or human—be an appropriate category to explain physical events? After all, an act of God isn’t a law of nature.

For what non-question-begging reason must we exclude divine design as the explanation for the universe’s astonishing bio-friendliness or the cell’s astonishing complexity? And despite the rejection of design as “unscientific,” some naturalists will appeal to the existence of multiple worlds (“surely one of these worlds will produce the conditions necessary to permit, create, and sustain life”). But notice that there is no scientific evidence for such worlds; so why favor this explanation over the God hypothesis? Or consider how some of these scientists will also appeal to the “illusion” or “appearance” of design. Now if the universe or organisms appear designed, perhaps this is because they’re actually designed. Science just can’t help us determine between the apparent and the actual. This is a philosophical or theological judgment. Methodological naturalism is too constrictive. In addition, some scientists create their own “naturalism of the gaps”: No matter how much the apparent evidence for design or divine action, we should always resort to what can be explained by natural processes. Rather than seeking the best explanation, they seek the best natural explanation.

Where the Conflict Really Lies

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies emphasizes how faith in God and science are deeply congruent while conflicting only superficially. By contrast, naturalism and science are superficially congruent but are in deep conflict. In the same spirit, Moreland estimates that “95 percent of science and theology [is] cognitively irrelevant to each other” (e.g., “as a Christian, it doesn’t matter to me whether a methane molecule has four or fourteen hydrogen atoms” [171]). Three percent offers positive support for Christian teaching (e.g., the Big Bang, the second law of thermodynamics) while only 2 percent may seem to undermine Christian theology (i.e., certain interpretations of Genesis 1–11). Keeping the main thing the main thing will help believers to become more adept at faith-science integration—in the home, in the church, and in our academic work.

Furthermore, Moreland reminds us of the social pressure within the scientific community to conform to a naturalistic philosophy as well as a naturalistic methodology when doing science. Also, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that people have personal rather than evidential reasons for rejecting God (e.g., NYU atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who doesn’t want there to be a God).

So when the secularist demands that we “scientifically prove” the Christian faith, we don’t have to play that game. The scientistic assumption that all knowledge must be scientifically provable isn’t scientifically provable. It’s a philosophical claim. Further, even though we may not have scientific training, we can still engage people in the sciences at a deeper level: The scientific enterprise depends a great deal on philosophical assumptions and reasoning (“science” used to be called “natural philosophy”), and a lot of naturalistic scientists like Dawkins and Lewontin make basic philosophical mistakes that we can easily catch.

The scientistic assumption that all knowledge must be scientifically provable isn’t scientifically provable. It’s a philosophical claim.

Yes, the Christian faith is “a highly rational worldview with much evidential and argumentative support” (192), and Paul certainly appeals to the historical evidence for Jesus’s bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15). But scientism as a method of knowledge is incoherent.

Given what naturalism has on offer, we have no good reason to reject the Christian faith in light of what we know from science.

‘Worth Laying Down Your Life’: The Missionary Adventures of Rick Sacra

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:00am

Medical missionary Rick Sacra has been evacuated three times—all from the same place.

He’s spent a career at a mission hospital in Liberia, leaving when he’s in physical danger and then returning again and again—after civil war, political unrest, and Ebola epidemics.

If you ask why he keeps going back, he’ll laugh and tell you he’s stubborn.

But it’s more than that.

Rick and Debbie Sacra / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

“When something happens to the people you love—as hard as it is to be right there with them, it’s even worse to be far away feeling helpless,” fellow missionary and longtime friend Dave Decker said.

It’s the emotion you feel when your child gets sick at school, or your sister in another city gets into a car accident. It’s how you felt if you were out of the country when the planes hit the World Trade Center. It’s what made Bonhoeffer return to Germany, what made Gandhi head back to India.

It’s like that, but not quite. Because Rick was born near Boston. He went to college in Rhode Island and medical school back in Massachusetts. He married a girl from Florida. If anything, his home was on the East Coast.

“During the war, when ELWA Hospital had to close temporarily, the Sacras followed the Liberian refugees to Côte d’Ivoire and ministered to them,” said fellow medical missionary Jon Fielder. Fielder’s organization, African Mission Healthcare, awarded Sacra the Gerson L’Chaim Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Service this past October.

“Think about that for a second: The Sacras could have—very reasonably—decided to return to the United States? Their hospital was closed, the patients gone. They could have gone to a more stable part of Africa. Many places need doctors desperately. So why follow Liberians to another country?”

Boston to Monrovia

Rick grew up in a Congregational church in the Boston suburbs, attending Sunday school and vacation Bible school and youth group.

“A lot of missionaries would come and do presentations,” Rick said. By junior high, he knew he wanted to join them. He’d always ask the same question: “Do you need doctors over there?”

Because he wanted to do both. As a child he checked out library books on the human body, animals, and biologists such as Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming. In elementary school, he asked his dad about going to medical school. In eighth grade, getting his appendix out was the highlight of his year.

Rick and Debbie Sacra in Monrovia in 1987 / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

Rick never wavered from his goal—except for a brief moment of panic at Brown University when his professor told him his grades weren’t good enough for medical school. He dropped the rock band, moved to a room next to his “nerdiest friend,” and pulled his grades back up.

After college, Rick and his fiancée, Debbie, spent a summer in Japan with Campus Crusade (now Cru) to get the feel of overseas mission work. Both loved it, but they heard that almost everybody loves mission trips for a summer. To get the real experience, they were told, you have to stay for at least a year.

So the couple looked for somewhere they could serve for a year. They found a list of mission hospitals in Africa—the continent with the biggest health-care needs—and asked 10 if they could come for a year.

Everyone said no.

“Medical student blocks are eight weeks,” Rick said. Mission hospitals aren’t set up to take students for any longer.

ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, also said no. The hospital was built in 1964 by SIM missionaries to support the community that had grown up around the first Christian radio station in Africa—call letters ELWA.

But the ELWA community also had an elementary school with about 150 kids, and they were looking for a junior-high social-studies teacher. And Debbie was a junior-high social-studies teacher.

“We knew nothing,” Rick told TGC. “We didn’t feel called to Liberia or anything. When we found out we could go, we had to go to the library and get some books to see where it was.”

They found out it was on Africa’s west coast—a country established by ex-American and ex-Caribbean slaves in the early 1820s, where economic development had been slow to develop, and where president Samuel Doe—who had gained control through a coup—kept power by crushing coups.

The Sacras spent the 1987–1988 school year in Monrovia, on a compound bustling with close to 70 missionaries—doctors, teachers, boarding-school parents, radio staff—and their families.

“We fell in love with Liberia,” Rick said. “We enjoyed the people, the culture—everything.”

Moving to Africa

After the 1987–1988 school year, the Sacras returned to the United States so Rick could finish medical school and residency.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor (not the Canadian philosopher) launched one last coup against Doe. The president was killed in 1990, leaving a power gap Taylor and his rival warlords would fight over for another seven years.

“By the time we got accepted [as missionaries] by SIM in 1994, things had calmed down enough that they were re-opening Liberia,” Rick said. “We didn’t really think seriously about other options or visit anyplace else.”

The compound they returned to looked very different. After two evacuations of staff by SIM, just a third of the missionaries remained. Buildings had been hit by mortar shells. The print shop was burned into rubble. The radio transmitter was looted.

“But there was a lot of optimism in 1995 when we got there,” Rick said. After all, a transitional government was now in power, so there was no need for more fighting. SIM was eager to rebuild.

But the Sacras—Rick, Debbie, and their two small boys—were only in Liberia for about a year when “everything fell apart again.”

Evacuation One

When the fighting erupted in Monrovia in April 1996, most international NGOs pulled their staff out.

“Leaving was excruciating, because the crisis wasn’t over, but it got so bad you couldn’t exist there and do what you were doing,” said Decker, who was flown out with the Sacras. “To have to leave people we knew and loved at their greatest point of need was excruciating like nothing else. As the plane or helicopter takes off, you expect a great sense of relief, but you never really felt that.”

Evacuation from ELWA hospital in 1996 / Photo by Dave Decker

Waiting in the United States was “frustrating and very uncertain,” Rick said. “We would’ve come back to Africa sooner, but Debbie was pregnant and had C-sections with our first two.”

Liberia’s battles calmed down in August with a treaty that promised elections the next year. The Sacras stayed in the United States long enough for Debbie to give birth to their third son, then hopped a plane back to Africa when he was 4 months old.

But they couldn’t return directly to Liberia, which was still leaderless and unstable. So they headed to the neighboring Ivory Coast, where thousands of Liberian refugees had fled. “A couple of us started coming back into Liberia for like 10 to 14 days at a time,” Rick said.

He did that for a year—while Taylor was finally voted into power by a country weary of violence, while SIM told ELWA that it couldn’t open up again after three evacuations in six years, while Liberians said they’d reopen the hospital themselves. Then he talked SIM into letting him serve at ELWA Hospital.

“I loved the hospital,” he said. “I wanted to help it succeed.”

Loading up evacuees / Photo by Dave Decker

And there was his stubbornness, which Debbie calls “stick-to-itiveness.”

“Rick is somebody who sticks with something until God makes it really clear there’s something else to do,” she said. “We just never really felt God was telling us to do something else.”

Rick moved his family back in June of 1998, to a campus with no electricity and no running water. “We’d send the janitor to the well to fill up barrels,” he said. “I’d scrub for a C-section with a nurse or aide pouring water over my hands. If you had to do a surgery, you’d turn the generator on.”

For several years, Sacra shared duties with missionary doctor Steve Befus; when Befus was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, Sacra was the only long-term missionary doctor on staff. He brought on a handful of Liberian doctors and discovered he loved to mentor them.

“I love teaching a younger doctor how to do a C-section, or take care of someone with heart failure,” he said. “I love transferring knowledge and skills to our residents.”

And for five years, Liberia was at peace.

“We live on the beach, literally,” Sacra said. “It’s a great place for kids—as long as there are no bullets flying around.”

Evacuation Two

In 1999, bullets started flying around again, this time in the countryside. By 2003, the rebels reached Monrovia at the same time Taylor was indicted by a United Nations court for war crimes he committed in neighboring Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war.

“ELWA was never in an area with fighting,” Rick said. But that depends on how you define “area”—the battles were “six to eight miles away. We could hear it.”

Debbie and the boys left; three weeks later, SIM pulled Rick out too. But the family didn’t leave Africa; they stayed in the Ivory Coast until Taylor resigned.

“We didn’t ever feel unsafe,” Debbie said. “We felt the Lord was protecting us.”

And he did. After the civil conflict ended, the Sacras settled into ministry at ELWA. New mission-team members arrived. Liberia’s lone medical school opened again.

“Those were truly the building years,” Debbie told TGC.

Can’t Stay Away

The Sacras moved back to the United States in 2010 and stayed for a few years, getting their boys settled in high school and college and taking a breather.

Rick at ELWA Hospital / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

But Rick also “had the conviction I was supposed to start a family medicine residency program.”

The need was intense—after 14 years of civil war that killed 270,000, only 16 hospitals remained somewhat operational. Nine of 10 physicians had fled, leaving 90 doctors for a population of a little less than 4 million. The medical training system was in shambles; there had been no residency programs of any kind for 20 years.

So Rick balanced between two continents, settling into a pattern of working in Liberia one month out of three. (The low-income clinic where he works while in the United States is flexible with his hours.) He spent May 2014 in Liberia and was scheduled to return in mid-August.

That spring, cases of the rare and often fatal Ebola virus were reported in nearby Guinea. ELWA Hospital got an isolation unit ready in April, but the whole time Rick was there, it sat empty.

Ebola Strikes

On June 11, the Liberian Ministry of Health sent ELWA its first two Ebola patients. One died in the ambulance.

Over the next six weeks, Ebola raced across Monrovia. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood and vomit; soon, hospitals became the most dangerous places to be. Health-care workers who weren’t infected quit in fear and frustration. One by one, hospitals shut down.

“[T]he number of patients grew exponentially,” missionary doctor Kent Brantly told Time magazine. He was working in the unit at ELWA when he and nurse’s aide Nancy Writebol came down with the disease. Days later, another nurse was diagnosed. ELWA Hospital closed to decontaminate.

ELWA Hospital set up an Ebola isolation unit in the chapel. / Photo by Bethany Fankhauser

While the State Department worked on transporting Brantly and Writebol back to the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was warning off all “nonessential travel” to West Africa. (Overall, about 60 percent of more than 28,000 Ebola patients in West Africa would die from it.)

But Rick was already booking his ticket.

“My biggest concern was that all of the hospitals in Monrovia were closed,” he said. “We’ve got a capital city of a million and a half people and nowhere to go. If you get appendicitis, you’re going to die. If you have a strangulated hernia or if you need a C-section, you aren’t going to make it.”

And anyway, Rick and Debbie assured themselves, he’d probably be fine. He would be working with the general population, and according to the World Health Organization, if your patients didn’t have significant fevers, they didn’t have Ebola. (“That turned out not to be true,” Rick said.)

He landed hours before Writebol left and got to work helping medical director Jerry Brown reopen the hospital. Scared of contamination, many staff stayed home. One night the entire hospital crew was Rick and one pharmacy tech.

Rick had been in Liberia for four weeks when his temperature began to rise. Right away, he isolated himself. When the tests came back positive for Ebola, he called Debbie.

“She was amazing during that time,” he told TGC. “She never once said, ‘What were you thinking?’ Never once. She was really incredible.”


But other people did. Decker remembers watching the news about Rick on a fitness center television. His workout buddy said, “That is the stupidest thing. I can’t believe he went there.”

Debbie reading to Rick in Omaha / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

He was not alone—comments sections and social media were full of people saying the same thing. The country was so thunderstruck by health care workers who would sacrifice themselves for Ebola patients that they were eventually named Time’s People of the Year.

Neither the criticism nor the praise ruffled Rick. He was flown in an isolation unit to Omaha, and at the end of the first week, was able to talk to Decker a little.

“He filled my ear—and I sat there taking notes—about all he saw in Liberia and what he felt needed to be done,” Decker said. “Here is this guy who just about died from one of the scariest diseases we can imagine, and his full attention is on a crisis in Liberia.”

On September 25, Rick left the hospital. Ten days later, he developed a fever and a cough, and had to return. His left eye fogged up. His muscles felt like sawdust. At first, he could only do three minutes on a stationary bike.

By Thanksgiving, he started to feel itchy for Liberia.

By January, he was back in Monrovia.

Gift of Generosity

“You have to realize it’s who God made them,” said Debbie of people who, like Rick, run toward fires and bullets and deadly contagious diseases when others are running the other way. “I remember realizing early in our marriage that his generosity—not just with money, but with all he is—is a spiritual gift. And I had to always remember that you can’t quench the Spirit, and the way the Spirit moves somebody to work out their spiritual gifts.”

Is it sometimes difficult for the spouse—and the parents and siblings and children and friends—who worry and wait?

“Yeah, I get frustrated with my doctor husband who is always willing to doctor anyone at any time,” she said. “But I have to let my heart be generous too, even if it’s not really my gift. I have to let God’s generosity pour out through him, and I grow in generosity by letting him exercise his spiritual gift.”

That’s “total surrender,” she told TGC. “It’s not putting conditions on how God leads.”

Rick at work / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

“The Sacras are not alone in their headlong abandonment of the rational rules of living which modern, well-educated Western professionals are meant to follow,” Fielder wrote.

He lists some: Jeff Perry, who stayed in rural South Sudan even after his retina detached, determined to work “with or without vision in my right eye.” Stephen Foster, who kept serving in Angola despite cobras, armed soldiers attempting to kidnap his nurses, and his son’s polio. Russ White, who nearly died of septic shock and then nearly died of a brain infection—but you’ll find him still working in Kenya.

“A crazy thing happens [to missionaries] where you no longer feel like you’re in a foreign land with anonymous people,” Decker said. “It becomes home. They’re our people, our family.”

In many ways, it’s a family unit even stronger than one that shares a last name. These are spiritual siblings united by their mission to save lives, both physically and also spiritually.

As a Christian, Rick “goes the extra mile at times, just to help someone in need of his attention,” said Rachelle Harris, a Liberian nurse who runs the HIV/AIDS program at ELWA. “Many of the HIV-positive patients found hope after an encounter with Dr. Rick, who told them, despite their situation, they can still live and become what they want to be. Sometimes he even cries along with them . . . his impact has brought hope to the lost and weary.”

Rick at ELWA Hospital / Courtesy of Debbie Sacra

“I love Liberian culture—I’m really immersed in it and I understand it,” said Rick, who can switch to a Liberian dialect so completely you think for a second he handed the phone to someone else. “I love teaching. I love making a difference in people’s lives.”

He’s not nearly done. With the $500,000 Gerson L’Chaim Prize, he’s planning to train students in family medicine—Liberia still only has one doctor for every 15,000 people. He’s going to install solar capacity so the hospital can have a more affordable source of electricity. And he’s going to create an intensive care unit—crucial in a country that has few resources to treat trauma victims, pregnant women with very high blood pressure, or sick newborns.

The Sacras’ commitment represents the best of the missionary enterprise—to be committed to one people, a place, an institution, with radical love and sacrifice,” Fielder said. “When I hear stories like these I am always reminded of the first chapter of Ruth, when Ruth tells Naomi: ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’”

Among Rick’s friends and family, “I can’t think of a single person who said, ‘Don’t go back,’” Debbie told TGC.

“I’m proud of him for doing it,” Decker said. “We rest on the sovereign goodness of God. We walk in with our eyes wide open. There was no guarantee he was going to survive—same with Kent and Nancy—but we all would have said this is a thing worth laying down your life for.”