My husband, Jim, loved cars—Mustangs in particular. For years, a small matchbox sufficed for the real thing. When a financial windfall came our way, he bought his dream: a deep red Mustang with a black convertible top.
The day we picked her up, Jim looked like a 5-year-old waiting to blow out the candles on his birthday cake. He dropped the canopy while I searched for a Beatles station. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .” transformed that vehicle into a time-machine joyride. Jim drove his beloved treasure only on weekends, since he wanted her to last.
A year later Jim took his Mustang to University Hospital, where he died from complications after surgery. I carried his clothes and personal items back to his car, sat in the driver’s seat, and wept. We often say someone who has died is with the Lord. I couldn’t comprehend what that meant. Jim and I put many happy miles on this car, but now, without him, it wasn’t the same.Occupied with Joy
What does it mean for God to keep us occupied with joy? Could it have something to do with our focus being on him and not our circumstances and treasures? The days of my life and the things in it, God says, I won’t remember. But what about a Mustang?
I squeezed the steering wheel of Jim’s dream machine. The day we left the car dealer laughing together seemed like yesterday. I remember. But Jim? For as much as he loved his car, Jim wasn’t giving this sweet ride a moment’s thought. Nor the mahogany antique game table he loved. Ditto the framed set of Star Trek pictures or any other precious-to-him-thing I might name.
The best of what this world has to offer isn’t made for our transition to eternity.
There’s Someone he loved more, and Jim now stands in his presence. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose,” Jim Elliott said. My husband’s car must now seem smaller than the matchbox replica he kept on his desk. The best of what this world has to offer isn’t made for our transition to eternity.
As Don Carson asks, “Is not some of the pain and sorrow in this life used in God’s providential hand to make us homesick for heaven, to detach us from this world, to prepare us for heaven, to draw our attention to himself, and away from the world of merely physical things?”Things Now Burdens
Jesus warned that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). I knew that intellectually, but I now know it experientially. As I looked to downsize and relocate, my possessions had become burdens. So, I planned an estate sale. Some friends and family thought I’d lost my mind:
“You aren’t selling your good China, are you?”
“How can you sell so many wonderful memories?”
“Please try and keep that desk in the family. I couldn’t bear the thought of it going to strangers.”
One friend, armed with a layman’s knowledge of suicide and depression, asked, “Sometimes hurting people give away their treasures before ending their lives. I am concerned for you. Do you have a plan?”
“Yes.” I reached for a notebook. “I’ve received several recommendations for estate planners along with their estimates. A small U-Haul will transport the few things I planned to take with me to my new home—on earth, of course.”
Relieved, she rolled her eyes, shook her head, and walked out the door.
When the purging material things craze hit the secular community, Marie Kondo entered the scene. Before an item is given or thrown away, she encourages her clients to thank the lifeless item for its service. As I looked at a pile of almost-never-worn clothing on my bed, I opted to ask the living God for forgiveness.
Two weeks later, everything I owned had a price tag on it—from leftover Fourth of July paper plates to the half-used bottle of shampoo in the guest bathroom. Even my garbage was priced to sell. “You’d be surprised,” one estate planner told me, “what people will buy.”
Amid the trash were things I did treasure—a beautiful set of bookshelves my husband bought me for an anniversary gift. The tag read $100 for the set. John Piper puts it strikingly:
The pleasures of this life and the desires for other things—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.Worship the Giver
It can be tricky to enjoy your material blessings, without making them idols. Friends helped me store the bookshelves and later brought them to me. I can’t look at them now and not think of their kindness and God’s provision. Oh, that I would see everything I own as gifts from God and a reason to give him praise. When we worship the gift, not the Giver, it’s akin to buying someone’s garbage. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
When we worship the gift, not the Giver, it’s akin to buying someone’s garbage.
My granddaughter often clutches a toy so tightly, it’s hard to coax her to let it go, even for something far greater. What is the heavenly Father asking me to let go of that I might embrace more of him, my true treasure?
It was sobering to witness Jim leave behind every material thing we owned. One day, I will do the same. What will my true treasure be then? I pray I might heed Elliot’s exhortation: “When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.”
The shriek of my 1-year-old son broke the short reverie. I rinsed his hands and wiped down the high-chair tray before swinging him to the floor. He toddled off to tackle his sister, who was reading a book in the family room.
I went to join my tousling children, fighting my own rising wave of frustration. Writing was my passion; I had been a writer and a writing teacher for years before becoming a mom. When we had our daughter, my writing work had to scale back; after the birth of our son, it had become almost nonexistent. I felt the loss of that outlet nearly every day. In my worst moments, I saw my children as hindrances to the passions I wanted to pursue.
As mothers, our desires and passions may need to be shelved for years at a time. Whether it’s a ministry we want to join, a hobby we want to pursue, an activity that energizes us, or educational goals we want to accomplish, many good pursuits have to wait—or be dramatically scaled back—when we’re in the thick of mothering young children. This is true both for moms who are full-time caregivers and also for moms who work outside the home. I certainly know the frustration firsthand. But as I sought the Lord’s help, asking him what to do with my feeling of frustration, he began showing me that the frustration itself was a gift—and a way to point me back to him.
Over the long years of wiping runny noses rather than writing eloquent sentences, I learned three ways that frustrated passions can bless us.1. It Centers Our Affections on Christ
The passions and pursuits that bring us joy—things like a jog on a beautiful day, or facilitating a ministry, or making art—are gifts from a loving Father. But they are still gifts, and they aren’t promised or guaranteed. They shift and change depending on our season of life. What is promised is the unchanging love of God (James 1:17)—and that is something we can pursue in any season of life.
Exhausting days full of messy meals and needy children may make it more difficult—or even impossible—for a mother to write a new book or launch a new ministry. But one of the many gifts of the gospel is that it can be lived out in any context or season of life, and external pressures can often help us to focus on the internal presence of Christ with us. We can be mothers who pray while we change diapers and who sing songs of praise in the car. When other tasks outside of mothering become nonexistent, the eternal task of loving Jesus becomes central, and we can be women who choose to adore Christ in the chaos of our everyday lives.
When I didn’t have the time or energy to derive joy from the writing I so deeply loved, I asked God to help me find more joy in him alone, and to experience his joy in mothering as I worked unto him (Col. 3:23–24). He loves to answer this prayer and fill us with his joy as we do what must be done.2. It Offers Us an Eternal Perspective
In his classic essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis writes that “the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.” Lewis eloquently explains that when we experience beauty and transcendence in things here on earth, it is because they spark in us a longing for heaven.
When our pursuits on earth are stopped or shelved because of our role as mothers, we can remember that the longing we feel isn’t ultimately for the activities that bring us joy but for a permanent experience of that joy, which will be found in Christ’s presence eternally. We can allow our frustrated passions today to point our hearts to our true longing—for heaven—which should cause us to worship the Father who welcomes us there through the work of his Son (John 1:12–13).3. It Places Our Hope in the Right Place
Our culture says mothers should be able to do it all—juggle every ball with ease, have a “side hustle,” work harder, look better, and become the best version of ourselves. Our pursuits of education, physical transformation, artistic expression, and even ministry can lead us to think we must work to better ourselves. But that puts the onus for life transformation squarely on our shoulders—which isn’t only exhausting; it’s impossible.
We can only become the best version of ourselves when our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Getting stronger at the gym won’t necessarily strengthen our souls, and flourishing as an artist won’t automatically yield spiritual fruit. Any lasting change comes through God’s process of sanctification in and through us (1 Cor. 6:11). When we have no external activities to look to for our own transformation, and when all of our passions and pursuits have been lovingly stripped away, we find where our hope for change and sanctification truly lies, which is in Jesus alone.
While a pause on our passions in a season of motherhood can be painful, it can also help to keep us aware that this life was never meant to be fulfilling. Rather, it is meant to make us holy and—joyfully—more like Christ, which is the greatest gift of all.
Should I stay or should I go? How can I discern if I’ve picked a career that doesn’t suit me, or if I’m just generally a discontent person who will never be happy?
I’m writing this to myself as well as you. Today, after the fifth dirty diaper, my mind began to drift to my days of full-time work. The grass is always greener, isn’t it?
Discontentment is exhausting and hard to understand. It’s tricky, because it can stem from several different sources and isn’t always a bad thing. The opening scenes of Scripture shed light on questions of contentment and calling that are otherwise enigmatic.Creational Discontentment
In the beginning, God carefully crafted all of the essential stuff of the Earth, and he called it good. He made us to be like him in the way we care for it, develop it, and enjoy it. He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, smiling as they discovered beautiful aspects of his world and experimented with its potential. Humanity was never meant to be content to leave the world as is, but to cultivate it according to God’s wisdom and rule.Distorted Discontentment
Then in an instant, Adam and Eve’s rejection of God’s good authority flipped everything on its head. Instead of walking with God, they hid from him. Instead of serving each other, they shifted blame. Thorns and thistles fenced out the harmony they once enjoyed with the creation, making it painful to pursue. Life now comes through agony and ends in death.
This was the beginning of the distorted discontentment that you and I feel. Brokenness is the only reality we know, but it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.Redemptive Discontentment
Thankfully, God wasn’t content to leave his world to death and decay. The Creator of the universe did the unthinkable to rescue his beloved creation from the grips of sin. He took on flesh and submitted himself to be mocked, tortured, stripped naked, and hung up on a cross.
Redemptive discontentment is the kind that’s awakened by the Spirit of the risen Christ and makes us long for the kingdom to come. Our work is an opportunity to enter into this story as we tie a towel around our waists, kneel down, and begin to wash the feet of the world.Cultivating Contentment
So how can we discern the root of our discontentment? Is it one of the ways we image God as we cultivate his world? Sinful preoccupation with our own comfort and status? Frustration with brokenness and a desire to reknit the fabric of creation?
Those aren’t easy questions to answer. Here are a few tangible practices to help.1. Re-narrate your life.
The American story says you should “do what you love,” “pursue your passion,” and “follow your dreams.” If you aren’t happy, you’re probably doing the wrong thing, and you should make a change. Less explicit in this narrative is the source of that happiness—power, money, status, titles, autonomy, progress, or a general sense that our work uniquely fulfills and expresses who we are. This story is all about us.
But the true story is all about God. Reorient yourself to that story. Spend time in Scripture—read it, memorize it, pray it, sing it, talk about it, and respond to it in the small details of your daily life. Our vision for work must be regularly restored to God’s design for it. Paul’s words in Romans remind us to “not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).2. Re-imagine how God sees your current work in light of this story.
Use these questions as a guide:
- How do you reflect aspects of God’s character in what you do? What about your coworkers?
- How does your work give you a unique vantage point into the hurt and brokenness in our world?
- How do you get to uniquely love your neighbor and participate in Christ’s renewing work through the products or services you provide?
Seek out ways to serve in your church, community, or current job that can help you connect with how God has distinctly designed you. Think about your service as an overflow of Jesus’s service to you. And intentionally rest. Sometimes we’re discontent at work because we begin to believe it should bring us joy and success and identity. Repent and fight against that idolatry by deliberately stopping for a while to rest in God’s good providence.4. Seek counsel.
Ask godly people who know and love you to speak into your gifting and search out your fears and motivations. Trying to know ourselves apart from community is like grasping for the wind. It can truly lead us to frustration or deep despair. (Major bonus points for older, wiser counsel if it’s available to you!) If you seem to keep getting the same counsel—either to stay put or move on—consider following that advice, at least for a time.5. Actively wait.
There’s no harm in keeping an eye on the job market or letting others know you might be interested in changing jobs. Do this calmly, relaxed in the knowledge that God loves you and leads you. If and when the time is right, he’ll open the door for a different position. In the meantime, you can serve him wholeheartedly—with both godly contentment and discontentment—where you are.
If you’re looking for the butt of a joke, Christian art is an easy target. The phrase alone conjures up sentimental paintings of pastel angels, novels where the godly girl gets the guy, and films in which every character learns his lesson and the team who prays wins. Yet for much of the past two millennia, Christians were the ones making the best, most enduring art. What happened?
Brett McCracken, Ryan Lister, and Thomas Terry sat down to discuss why Christian art—particularly Protestant art—is so often bad. They pose some plausible hypotheses—such as an overly utilitarian view of art driven by an urgency to get the Christian message out, or a tendency for Christians to put more emphasis on placing boundaries than exploring beauty. In spite of this, all three men are hopeful about the future of Christian art and the ability for the church to produce works that stirs our hearts’ affections toward our Maker.
My husband and I are raising four boys. One of the things they know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that on Saturdays in the fall we gather with friends to watch the LSU Tigers play football. Our home fills with fans dressed in purple and gold. We visit, eat, and look after the little ones all while rooting for our favorite team.
Cheering for LSU is part of our family culture. We’re proud to be well on our way to raising the next generation of LSU football fans.
But what else are we raising them to be? What does the culture of our home esteem to be of eternal significance?
My husband and I have been greatly influenced by our local church’s commitment to planting churches—in both the United States and beyond. And we want our family to be about making disciples of all nations, which is accomplished best through the local church. Therefore, we’re raising our boys in a church-planting culture.‘Extended’ Family
Our kids are familiar with each of the church planters sent out from our local church. They are like extended family. We pray for and give to them. We talk about the necessity of church planting and challenge our kids to participate in this vital mission when they grow up.
We want our kids to view their participation in church planting as normal.
We want our kids to view their participation in church planting as normal. We don’t want them to grow up thinking about church planters in terms of “us” and “them.” Since we want them to identify with the work and participate in it in various ways, we’re raising them in an environment where church planting is an everyday aspect of a gospel-shaped lifestyle. It’s what “we” do.
How, then, do we normalize church planting for our kids? Consider five suggestions.1. Establish a church-planting culture in your home.
There are several good ways to do this. First, surround your family with church planting by covenanting with a church committed to this endeavor. You may consider being part of a church plant yourselves (after all, a church-planting team requires more than just the pastor).
You can financially support church plants, and make sure your kids know other church planters. One way to do this is by keeping pictures and prayer cards of church planters on your fridge. Read church planters’ newsletters aloud at the dinner table, then pray for them and their ministries. Visit church planters and offer to host them when they come to town.2. Eliminate inconsistencies in your words and actions.
Kids aren’t stupid. If there are inconsistencies between what we say and what we do, they’re likely to sniff them out. Parents, you won’t get away with talking up disciple-making among the nations without some skin in the game. Encourage your kids toward the church-planting lifestyle by embracing it yourselves. If you say you’re passionate about planting churches, then be about the business of planting churches. Kids learn best by seeing something in action and emulating it. Allow your kids to both hear and also see your passion.3. Endeavor to connect their work to God’s work.
Disciples make disciples. If your children are united with Christ, then the Great Commission is for them. Train them to long for the glory of God and the eternal good of others. Show them how various professions can further the cause of church planting.
If your children are united with Christ, then the Great Commission is for them.
After all, to see healthy churches planted, we need more than just pastors: We need mechanics, teachers, and stay-at-home moms. We need business owners, real-estate agents, and students. As the apostle Paul writes,
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:23–24)
Aim to teach your kids to connect their vocation to this mission.4. Expect them to take part in church planting.
Think about your expectations for your children. Many of us expect our kids to make good grades, get into good schools, be good citizens, and take care of us when we’re older. These are all good things. But do we expect them to participate in church planting?
Teach them to love the church and the lost, then show them how both of these loves meet in church planting. Help your sons and daughters envision themselves as part of a church-planting team.5. Encourage their hearts in the Lord.
Your children have an Enemy who hates them. As they pursue the ministry of reconciliation, he will pursue their destruction. Encourage them. Remind them of the great promises of God. Pray with and for them.
And keep before them a vision of that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9–10). Entice them with the glory of what’s to come.Future Church Planters
We spend a lot of energy encouraging our kids to chase their dreams. Are we encouraging them to pursue Christ and his kingdom by planting churches? Are we raising kids who will obey the Great Commission? Parents, cultivate your child’s heart toward going and making disciples of all nations. Make disciple-making a regular rhythm in your home. Strive to raise your kids in a church-planting culture.
Teach your kids to love the church and the lost, then show them how both of these loves meet in church planting.
As our children transition from childhood to adulthood, let’s aggressively pursue their transition from being hearers of the Word to doers of the Word. As God raises our kids to new life in Christ, let’s raise them up to plant churches for the sake of his glory among the nations.
Growing up I remember hearing preachers say God doesn’t actually send anyone to hell—instead, people choose to go there. God simply gives them what they want. These preachers were echoing a claim that C. S. Lewis made popular:
It’s not a question of God “sending” us to hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
In this quote, hell is less of a judicial punishment meted out by God and more of a natural consequence, something less like being fined for stealing and more like getting lung cancer from smoking.
A related idea is that in allowing people to go to hell, God is simply giving them what they want. As Lewis says,
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says . . . “Thy will be done.”
This is sometimes coupled with the claim that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.”
As a preacher, I can understand the appeal of this language. In talking about hell, we wish to show how it can be just, and we don’t want God to seem cruel in people’s eyes—because after all, he’s not. But hell is an awful place, and we’re conscious that our hearers might think God was cruel for sending people there.
Defending God’s character and removing stumbling blocks can be laudable goals. But as preachers and as Christians, we must be so careful to give the Bible functional authority over all our preaching and speaking, perhaps especially over those parts that are currently most offensive. We must be willing to say all that Scripture says and resist the urge to deny or soften things that Scripture explicitly affirms.
My concern is that statements like “God doesn’t send anyone to hell” or “The people in hell want to be there” are misleading when made the main focus of our apologetic on hell. As I hope to show, they capture something true, but they also run counter to clear biblical statements and risk making hell seem more bearable than Scripture presents it.Fitting Punishment and Passive Wrath
Let me say first that there is something hellish growing up in each of us that has to be nipped in the bud. Did you realize that the imagery of fire isn’t just used to describe hell? It’s also used to describe sin. Sin is also like fire—in its ability to cause pain, in its capacity to destroy, and in its refusal to be satisfied (Prov. 30:15–16).
There is something hellish growing up in each of us that has to be nipped in the bud.
In fact, James 3:6 connects these dots when it speaks of our sinful use of the tongue:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6)
The fiery connection between sin and hell isn’t arbitrary or coincidental. The fire in our tongues comes straight out of hell, and if we don’t learn to fight it it will one day overtake us (Matt. 12:36). Statements like these can help us see why hell is a fitting punishment for sin. It’s fitting that we should be given over to the destructive power we were already running after (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). This is what lies beneath the biblical principle of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7–9). There’s an organic connection between the sins we sow and the corruption we reap—both now and into eternity.
Further, the Bible has a place for viewing God’s wrath as passive. His delight in saving and his delight in damning aren’t symmetrical. There is a real sense in which judgment is his “strange work.” He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather they repent (Ezek. 33:11). In the judgment scene of Matthew 25, the kingdom is said to have been prepared for the sheep, while hell is said to have been prepared—not for the goats—but for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:34, 41).Horror of Hell and Perversity of Sin
The problem isn’t so much what these popular statements affirm as what they often seem intended to deny. And other statements about hell in Scripture simply won’t allow us to justify God by focusing exclusively on passive divine wrath and active human agency.
Matthew 25 pictures Jesus seated on a throne at the final judgment passing sentence. And when he speaks to the goats on his left, his language is not “Your will be done,” but “Depart from me, you cursed” (Matt. 25:41). The emphasis is on the King’s verdict. It’s his will that’s being done here, not theirs. When they “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), they go at his command.
Additionally, Scripture frequently suggests that they don’t go willingly. Not only does Jesus speak of people being sent to hell, he often describes them as being thrown into hell. For example:
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:41–42; cf. Matt. 13:50; 22:13; 25:30; Mark 9:47; Rev. 20:15)
Given Jesus’s descriptions of hell as a “fiery furnace” filled with “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” it shouldn’t be hard to imagine why people don’t march in willingly, but must instead be thrown in. This language clearly suggests a punishment forcibly inflicted, not merely a consequence freely chosen and stubbornly endured.
The fact that people want the sins that lead to the penalty doesn’t mean they want the penalty. . . . Conversely, the fact that people want out of the penalty doesn’t mean that they’re willing to accept God’s terms.
It’s doubtless true that the people in hell neither love God nor wish to be with him. But that doesn’t mean they want to be in hell—it simply means that the option they would prefer (personal autonomy and fulfillment apart from God) doesn’t exist. That’s the perverse nature of sin. To borrow another line from Lewis, “It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had.” But that’s how sin operates.
The fact that people want the sins that lead to the penalty doesn’t mean they want the penalty. An unrepentant thief may not want to be in prison and would escape if he could, but neither would he stop stealing if he were free. Conversely, the fact that people want out of the penalty doesn’t mean they’re willing to accept God’s terms. The rebellious Israelites didn’t want to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Indeed, they quickly became eager to enter the Promised Land—but only after they were no longer allowed to (see Num. 14:39—45; cf. Luke 13:24—28).
That’s the perverse picture of us all apart from grace. We want the pleasures of sin without the wages. But the pleasures are fleeting. And unless we repent, the wages are coming—whether we want them or not.Preaching Hell Like Jesus
Jesus is far less careful than many of us are when speaking of these realities. We need to ask ourselves why we often prefer to avoid the kind of language Jesus so deliberately uses.
Could it be that we have our own inward misgivings about how a loving God can send people to hell, and consequently prefer to speak of him as passive? Are we secretly fearful that people in our day simply can’t embrace the idea of a divine Judge who orders his angels to throw people into a fiery furnace?
However tender and loving toward sinners we may be, we’re not more tender and loving than Jesus is. And we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are.
I’m not sure. But there are a couple of things I know. The first is that even when people dislike what you’re saying, they prefer you to shoot straight with them. They can read the Bible, too, and they can tell when we’re embarrassed by our own holy book. And though they may outwardly praise us for our willingness to bend the text in order to placate them, they will inwardly lose respect for us (another perversity of sin).
The second is this: However tender and loving toward sinners we may be, we’re not more tender and loving than Jesus is. And we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are. So let us tremble at God’s Word more than we tremble at man’s response. Let us give the Bible functional authority over all our statements, especially on offensive subjects like hell. And let us not be afraid to preach hell like the One who came to rescue us from it.
Early in the year 1633, a rural Anglican priest named George Herbert lay dying of tuberculosis in the village of Bemerton, England. He was not quite 40 years old. Herbert entrusted a friend with a handwritten manuscript of religious and devotional poems. He asked him to deliver the manuscript to their mutual friend Nicholas Ferrar. Ferrar could burn it if he wished. Or, if he thought the poems might help others, he could publish them. Herbert had never before published his English poetry; he wrote his poems for God and kept them to himself, though he seems to have envisioned the possibility of eventual publication.
Herbert died soon afterward, on March 1, 1633. Nicholas Ferrar received and read his poems. Deeply moved, he had them printed that same year, and the book met with instant success, selling edition after edition. That single volume of poems established George Herbert as one of the great metaphysical poets. It also inspired many imitators and even more admirers over subsequent centuries (Richard Baxter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Spurgeon, and C. S. Lewis, among countless others).Rich Source
Many still read and prize Herbert’s poetry. But his only published prose work, Country Parson: His Character and Rule of Holy Life, is much less known. It wasn’t published until 1652, at which point Herbert was already long-dead, and it was never the publishing success that Herbert’s poems had been. It has existed ever since in their shadow, often used primarily as a means of understanding Herbert’s life or his poetry.
But what if we were to read Country Parson for its original purpose: as a guide for doing rural ministry? I’m eager to read it that way, because I’m a small-town pastor, and I want to learn from other small-town pastors. The book itself consists of 37 short chapters dealing with various aspects of a country pastor’s life and ministry. In his opening note to the reader, Herbert reveals he wrote the book as a goal toward which he might strive in his own rural ministry. It’s personal.
There’s plenty to question or disagree with in Country Parson, including Herbert’s sweeping generalizations of “country people” (are all country people “led by sense more than by faith” and “by present rewards or punishments more than by future”?) and his extremely broad mandate for the role of the country parson (should the country parson really desire to be “all” to his parish, “not only a pastor, but a lawyer also, and also a physician”?). Nevertheless, there is much to learn. I’ll suggest just three reasons (there are many more) why I’ve been drawn to read, re-read, and return to this classic work.Engaging the Culture
First, I care deeply about developing a theological vision for small-town ministry. That requires thinking carefully about small-town culture, and the culture of my own town in particular. Herbert is nuanced on the importance of engaging with local culture. He notes that pastors who “dwell in their books” will never understand their people, but if they “carry their eyes ever open, and fix them on [their parish],” they’ll soon discover the idiosyncrasies and particularities of country people.
Throughout the book Herbert models engagement with culture, both local and national. Sometimes he critiques it. “The Country Parson hath not only taken a particular survey of the faults of his own parish, but a general also of the diseases of the time. . . .” At other times Herbert seeks to affirm and engage it. After all, eschewing all local culture will only discourage your congregation. The country parson should accept what is good in local customs, leaving behind what isn’t. “If there be any ill in the custom that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on.”
Herbert’s careful discernment of local culture, and his encouragement to engage thoughtfully with it, holds enormous value for all pastors, including rural ones.Loving the Common
Second, although Herbert was from a wealthy family, was educated at Cambridge University, and had moved in the highest circles before becoming a country pastor, he calls for faithful ministry to simple, humble people. He is motivated here by a strong theology of God’s presence and a deep commitment to the gospel. The country parson doesn’t disdain “to enter into the poorest cottage, though he even creep into it, and though it smell never so loathsomely; for both God is there also, and those for whom God died.” Herbert believes it is good for the country pastor to spend time with the poor both because he is able to be of more comfort to them than he would be to the rich—and because it’s more humbling for him.
This impulse toward highly valuing what is common and unimpressive runs throughout Country Parson. Herbert says that a country parson’s parish, composed of country folk rather than of urban movers and shakers, is to be “all his joy and thought”—not a thing to be transcended, but a people to be loved. This emphasis on the importance of being fully committed to one’s local congregation is especially valuable in our day of social media, big conferences, and celebrity pastors.Beautiful Truth
Third, George Herbert doesn’t just see truth; he communicates it pithily, beautifully, and memorably (he is, after all, a remarkable poet). He describes the country pastor praying “with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.” He instructs preachers to dip and season all their words and sentences in their hearts (what an image!), so that their hearers will “perceive that every word is heart-deep.” Sermons, he argues, are meant to both inform and enflame. The pastor is to pray for his people that God will sanctify them so that they may come to church with “holy hearts and awful minds.” Herbert notes that “disputation is no cure for atheism.” And, reflecting on God’s comprehensive knowledge of humans, he writes that God “sees hearts as we see faces.” As in his poems, so here in his manual on pastoral work, Herbert’s ability to express truth cogently and attractively lodges it deep in the hearts of his readers.
A great poet and humble pastor writes a guide for rural pastors. That’s a book I want to read and re-read. It’s a book worthy of being reclaimed by small-town and rural pastors (and many others) in our own day.
Shortly after becoming a Christian I moved to Texas to study under a well-known pastor. His Bible teaching has forever blessed me, but he wasn’t the only person God used to teach me about Jesus during that season.
In my first few months at the church I started ministering at a local nursing home. Preaching there was good training, because no one remembered my name, most slept through my messages, and I was asked to come back if I simply projected my voice loudly enough. Many of those saints encouraged me, but one showed me the beauty of Jesus in a way I’ve never forgotten.
Mama Ruth was small in stature, but her presence was larger than life. Though her 99-year-old body was confined to a wheelchair, she didn’t let that slow her down. One of her mottoes was “Fun greases the wheels of life, and I keep mine well greased!”
Mama Ruth was full of wit and wisdom. She had walked with Jesus for 92 years, and his radiance shined in her. She was comfortable with silence, but she also had no problem breaking it to share a nugget of heavenly wisdom. I’d like to share a few with you.Bloom Where God Plants You
My first encounter with Mama Ruth followed a worship service. Her wheelchair was parked by a window, and her eyes seemed mesmerized by something outside. As I knelt beside her, her wrinkled face turned toward mine; without any introduction, she said:
When I first came to this place I was very sad. I thought God couldn’t use me any more. But one day while I was sitting right here feeling sorry for myself, the Lord reminded me that we should not worry because if God feeds the birds, he will take care of us. So I thought to myself, Maybe I can help God feed the birds.
And that she did. After every mealtime, Mama Ruth wheeled around and collected leftover bread from the residents’ plates. When people asked what she was doing, she invited them to join her at the window to see. She would wheel over to the door and have someone throw the bread into the courtyard. She then parked her chair to see the birds receive their promised bread. As they did, she would tell anyone in earshot that this is exactly how God treats his children. He always cares for them, just like he promised he would.
Mama Ruth didn’t want to be in a wheelchair or in that nursing home. But it was where God put her, and she made the best of it. She taught me to “bloom wherever God plants you” and to know that since God provides our most basic needs, he will certainly provide a way to serve him.Treasure God’s Faithfulness
A framed copy of “How Great Thou Art” and a few faded photographs decorated the walls of Mama Ruth’s one-room apartment. The hymn was her favorite, and God’s faithfulness to her could be seen in the stories told by those photos.
The most prominent picture was of a handsome man she affectionately introduced as Fred. They had been married for decades, but his untimely death had left her a widow. I was unmarried at the time and often received counsel about what sort of husband I ought be.
“The Bible tells us that words can be like a sword that cuts deeply,” she once said after staring at Fred’s picture for a while. “Garrett, if God gives you a wife, be careful with your words. Words can hurt. Or words can heal.” Then after a long pause she said, “Fred never hurt me with his words.” She went on to explain: “Fred knew he was supposed to show me the love of Jesus, and he always tried his best. I knew Jesus better because of how Fred loved me.”
Mama Ruth beamed as she spoke of Fred, but she always made it clear that every good thing, including Fred, was a gift to her from God. His faithfulness was her treasure. You could hear it in her stories, in her feeble singing, in her praying. She made me want to trust God more so that I could know his faithfulness just like she did. After 20 years of walking with Jesus, I look back at Mama Ruth as one of God’s great gifts to me. She helped me treasure the faithfulness of Jesus.Remain Amazed at God’s Love
On one occasion my roommate Scott was sitting with Mama Ruth, watching the birds eat. They had been silent for a while when she suddenly said, “I couldn’t have done it.” He asked her, “Done what?” She replied, “I have one son. I couldn’t have given him away for anyone.” They watched the birds for a few more minutes, and then she retired to her room.
That was Mama Ruth. As she got closer to seeing her God, she couldn’t help but grow in amazement of how God could love her so much. She knew that God giving his Son for her was something she didn’t deserve, which made it her most treasured gift.
Mama Ruth showed me the beauty of Jesus so powerfully because Jesus was beautiful to her. After 90 years of knowing him, she never got over how much her Lord loved her. In fact, her delight in this truth seemed to deepen until the day she died.
Her funeral was small and mostly attended by family. She was not famous in this world, but I trust things will be different in the world to come. Mama Ruth showed me the beauty of Jesus, and I hope that in some small way this reflection can help you to glimpse it too.
You can read previous installments in this series.
According to a recent survey, about half of all Americans believe that evangelicals face discrimination. Some have even talked about them facing persecution. Others argue that Christians are merely mistaking their loss of privilege for persecution. We are clearly living in a post-Christian society where Christian faith is no longer automatically respected. But does a post-Christian world mean that Christians are subject to discrimination?
Having studied Christianophobia—or the unreasonable hatred and fear of Christians—I can answer that question. First, I’ll look to see if Christianophobia exists to any meaningful degree. Then, I’ll examine the nature of Christianophobia to assess if it does represent unreasonable hatred of Christians. Finally, I’ll explore evidence of anti-Christian discrimination in one place in our society: academia.Anti-Christian Attitudes
Are anti-Christian attitudes widespread, or are we talking about a couple of nutcases? In my book So Many Christians, So Few Lions, I document that about 32 percent of all Americans like conservative Christians significantly less than other social groups. In comparison, about 31 percent of all Americans like Muslims significantly less than other social groups. So it’s fair to say that if we’re concerned about anti-Muslim prejudice, then we should also be concerned about anti-Christian prejudice—at least prejudice against conservative Christians.
It’s also worth noting who tends to have this type of animosity. My research indicates that those with anti-Christian attitudes are more likely to be white, male, wealthy, highly educated, politically progressive, and irreligious. Those first four markers indicate individuals who have quite a bit of per-capita social power.Mild Disgust or Irrational Hatred?
On to the second question, about the nature of those who don’t like Christians. Do they merely feel mild disgust, or is it irrational hatred that can lead to discrimination? I sent a questionnaire with open-ended questions to a group of progressive activists who tended to be white, male, wealthy, educated, and irreligious. They were the type of people one would expect to exhibit Christianophobia. And they did. Here are just a few of the answers I received on my survey:
Kill them all, let their god sort them out.
A torturous death would be too good for them.
I’d be a bit giddy, certainly grateful, if everyone who saw himself or herself in that category were snatched permanently from our societal peripheries, whether by holocaust or rapture or plague.
I am only too well aware of their horrific attitudes and beliefs—and those are enough to make me see them as subhuman.
Clearly we are seeing the type of hatred that is unreasonable and can lead to discrimination. It is the type of dehumanization one expects to precede unfair treatment. But does it? Is it possible that values of tolerance and fairness among secular progressives inhibit their willingness to mistreat Christians?Discrimination in America Today
To examine that question I looked at academia, an area where one expects to find the type of highly educated progressive secularists likely to have anti-Christian animosity. I asked academics if they would be less willing to hire someone who is either a fundamentalist or an evangelical. I found that more than half would be less willing to hire a fundamentalist, and almost two in five would be less willing to hire an evangelical. The academics answering my survey explicitly stated they would discriminate against a job candidate who is a conservative Protestant. (You can read about this research in my book Compromising Scholarship.)
There is other research indicating that conservative Christians face discrimination in academia. Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter find that academics with socially conservative perspectives wind up with lower-status academic positions even when controlling for their productivity. Albert Gunn and George Zenner show evidence of religious discrimination against Christian medical students.
Some will argue that Christians still have advantages in America, such as political power. I don’t dispute that there are benefits to being a Christian in the United States. However, such advantages don’t negate the fact that among powerful individuals who tend to be politically progressive and irreligious, unfair treatment of Christians is possible, and perhaps even likely.
For example, my recent book looks at the media. My co-author and I find evidence that media are less sympathetic to stories where Christians face hate speech or violence than identical stores where other groups are victimized. Social institutions such as academia, media, entertainment, and the arts are likely to be places where anti-Christian prejudice and discrimination take place. Those institutions greatly shape our cultural values, and thus those with anti-Christian attitudes are in a position to create and sustain anti-Christian perspectives.
There is evidence that anti-Christian hate can lead to discrimination. Is it persecution? This is a complex question I recently struggled with. By a clinical definition of persecution, yes, Christians are persecuted in the United States. But I still discourage Christians in the United States from saying they are persecuted, since what we face today isn’t what most people envision when they think of persecution.
However, as Christians we should be aware that anti-Christian discrimination is real. Further, those likely to engage in such discrimination have an ability to shape larger societal values. Thus, anti-Christian discrimination isn’t going away any time soon.
How should we deal with this reality?How to Live in a Post-Christian World
We must work together to protect each other from discrimination. We no longer live in a society generally supportive of Christians. We’re going to have to support each other. An important way to do that is to develop our Christian communities. For example, support of Christian-owned businesses may be vital to help minimize the economic costs of anti-Christian discrimination. Working together to socialize our children is vital for allowing us to pass down our faith in a post-Christian culture. We can’t count on support from the larger society.
But we can’t neglect working to influence the larger society. While those with anti-Christian perspectives have more power in cultural creation, we can still make our presence known. Our Christian colleges, media, and arts are going to be important, but we must also encourage talented Christians to work in mainstream academia, secular media, and the larger art community. We won’t immediately alter the anti-Christian attitudes in these institutions, but we can lessen some of the negative effects these institutions can have. Research on intergroup contact shows that it’s harder to hold onto negative stereotypes when we know members of the out-group.
Of course, Christians must also engage in politics. But we should consider how to use politics to defend ourselves rather than to assert power. When Christians look like they want power for its own sake, we only feed into the negative images some have of us. Don’t get me wrong: some who hate us won’t change their mind no matter what we do. But many individuals neither love nor hate us. They can be persuaded to reject measures that engage in religious discrimination if we’re seen as fighting for our freedoms and not to “take over” the country. A smart brand of politics, rather than a scorched-earth culture-war attack, is needed in a post-Christian world.
“Mom and Dad, can we talk?”
With this seemingly ordinary request, your 14-year-old son goes on to reveal that he identifies as a girl. He tells you he’s been quietly uncomfortable in his male body for years. Recently, he’s connected with transgender teens at school and online, and the similarity of their feelings and experiences has confirmed to him that he is transgender. He asks you to start referring to him as your daughter.
Perhaps you’re a parent of a teen or preteen who has told you something similar. Or you know someone going through this experience. According to a 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are approximately 500,000 trans children in the United States, or 0.7 percent of the population.
If they haven’t already, many Christians will face the resulting jumble of questions: Will I harm my child if I don’t embrace their trans identity? What should I say in response to their confusion? How can I help my child?
While Christian parents can’t affirm their child’s misplaced desires, they have a God-given responsibility to lovingly help their child through a real struggle with gender identity. Rather than being bewildered into ineffectiveness, parents can proactively care for their child in at least three basic ways.1. Acknowledge the Struggle; Speak the Truth
It’s true that transgender youth have higher rates of depression and other mental illnesses than others in their peer group. Whether or not this is a direct consequence of discrimination and victimization isn’t easy to discern. But the fact remains that trans students are more at risk for depression, self-harming behaviors, and suicidal ideation than their non-trans peers are.
Don’t let the possibility that gender-questioning, gender-dysphoric, or trans children will respond unfavorably to your words prevent you from speaking with them. Instead, acknowledge the particularly tender and broken hearts and spirits of children and teens who struggle with their gender identity. Approach them from a posture of steadfast love. Don’t refuse to speak, but be tender.
Loving your child doesn’t mean affirming everything they think or do. Parents in particular have the uniquely difficult calling of teaching their kids to reason through life from the perspective of God’s Word (Deut. 6:5–9). His Word is our most helpful resource. It’s living and active, with the ability to speak powerfully to the hearts of our children (Heb. 4:12). And what God says about gender and identity is what’s best for our teens. The law of God is the law of a compassionate King who created and sustains us and who, therefore, knows exactly what is best for us.
As we approach God’s Word with our children, we can use it to help them discern truth from falsehood, reality from feeling, true identity from counterfeit. For the parent of a child who struggles with gender, it means affirming your love and commitment for your child, while giving them tools to navigate a confusing series of feelings and messages coming from both without and within.
Approaching this information from a biblical perspective, parents and caregivers of gender-questioning, gender-dysphoric, or trans children will want to prayerfully speak the truth in love to the young ones under their care. God deals tenderly and compassionately with his children, remembering our fragile nature (Ps. 103:13–14; Isa. 42:3). He calls us to reason with one another gently and bear with one another in love, realizing we ourselves are recipients of his grace (Eph. 4:1–2).2. Discover the Struggle behind the Struggle
As you talk with your child, seek to understand why they feel the way they do. Ask questions that will help you understand some of those feelings and beliefs, such as: When did you first begin to feel uncomfortable with your gender? How did you come to understand that gender was the issue? How has this struggle led you to feel about yourself? What are some ways you feel that I’ve made this struggle more difficult for you?
Leading with this kind of empathetic, compassionate information-gathering will help you understand some of the struggle behind your child’s struggle with gender. And it will communicate to your child that though you may not approve of their gender self-identity, you unquestionably and faithfully love them and are willing to be present with them no matter what their particular struggle looks like.
If you’re a parent or a caregiver who can’t affirm your child’s gender self-identity, communicate to your child that you want this to be an ongoing conversation. Get to know the deep places of your child’s heart through the context of hard but authentic conversations that come from seeking the Lord’s wisdom together, from his Word, and through prayer.3. Talk About Self Harm
One thing to keep in mind as you have these conversations is that your child may experience thoughts about self-harm. About three-times as many trans youth contemplate self-harm as the general youth population does. You can be prepared to address these thoughts, if they arise.
As a parent or caregiver, include questions about self-harm and suicide in your conversations with your child. Ask if your child has ever thought about harming themselves, or committing suicide. Tell them it’s not unusual to think about such things. Don’t be afraid to hear that they’ve had such thoughts.
If your child does say that they’ve contemplated self-harm, ask how often they’ve thought about it, and whether or not they know how they’d carry out a plan for self-harm. Particularly if your child says they know how they’d act to carry out those thoughts, assure them there are better ways to cope than hurting themselves. At this point, don’t panic—but do contact a qualified mental-health professional as well as a Christian counselor as soon as possible to get your child into treatment. Until this happens, minimize the amount of time your child is alone. With help, your child’s suicidal thoughts can be brought under control, and depression can be healed—or at least, controlled.
And if you ever feel your child has the means, and is in imminent danger of acting on their suicidal or other self-harming behaviors, you should drive them to the nearest hospital or call 911 immediately.
Parents and caregivers can show their children the merciful love of God through their own steadfast love and mercy. Together, we can walk our children to the throne of grace, where God delights in lavishing grace in our time of need.
Being a youth pastor at one church for the entirety of my ministry career is one of the greatest blessings of my life.
My first students are now in their late-30s. I’ve baptized them, married them, and seen them raise their own kids. My own kids (whom they babysat back in the day) now babysit their kids. Some serve as volunteer leaders in the ministry.
I feel like the Lord has answered the psalmist’s prayer in my life: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation” (Ps. 71:18). I’m just a few years away from being able to minister to the children of my former students. I never would have anticipated it, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I appear to be one of the exceptions.Not My Plan
Youth-pastor turnover remains very real. The revolving door continues to spin at the churches all around me. People find out I’ve been a youth pastor at one place for this long and it’s like they’ve seen a UFO. But I never set out to stay at one place for this long. In fact, I never set out to be a youth pastor.
I fell in love with youth ministry accidentally. I needed a job out of seminary, and this random church up the road needed a youth pastor. Fine, I’ll do this for a year till something else comes along, I thought.
That was 21 years ago.
I can’t take credit for staying here as long as I have. In fact, I’ve tried to leave a couple times, but the doors I thought were opening elsewhere got slammed shut. Nevertheless, a number of key factors have contributed to my “unintended” longevity.Retention Secrets
Four important factors have kept me around. If you’re reading this as a leader in your church, whether paid or volunteer, take these to heart. If you can help your youth minister in these areas, there’s a much better chance he’ll be around for more than a little while. These are four things my church did right.1. My church validated me for choosing a career, not a stepping-stone.
My friend Jon Coombs wrote a terrific article that inspired this one. His message: Youth ministry is more than a stepping-stone; it’s a viable lifelong ministry. In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
They may or may not, but it’s an actual vocation, not simply a training ground for becoming a “real pastor.”2. My church helped me fight burnout.
In my experience, the number-one reason youth pastors don’t last long is that their pace is unsustainable. Most new hires are young, full of energy, and, Red Bull in hand, ready to conquer the world.
You want me to teach middle school on Sunday mornings, high school on Sunday nights; lead midweek Bible studies; visit students after school at their extracurricular activities; attend staff meetings; recruit leaders; plan the middle- and high-school lock-in, the middle- and high-school retreats, the middle-school summer camp, the high-school mission trip; and also be in a small group for myself? You’ve got it!
No wonder they only last 18 months. Youth ministry needs to be seen as a marathon, not a sprint—but churches like to hire sprinters. They look great in miles one and two. Yet running that hard out of the blocks, they’re never going to make it to mile four, much less mile 26.
Ideally, younger youth pastors will have a Jethro-type person in their lives (Ex. 18:17–23)—someone who can help them delegate, help them learn to say no to things that will burn them out, and who will have their back, no matter what. A youth pastor must be challenged to raise up leaders who can share the burden of ministry, rather than doing it all himself. Burnout is real and must be addressed head-on.3. My church paid me enough.
I know former youth pastors who would’ve loved to stay in youth ministry, but as their family grew, they simply couldn’t afford it. A simple rule of thumb is to investigate how much a local schoolteacher is paid—and do all in your power to match that salary as quickly as possible. Then do all you can to help your youth pastor buy (rather than rent) a house, which will help him settle into the community.
There was a crossroads about four years into my ministry where it was time to either put down roots or move on. A group of families raised money on the church’s behalf to help us with a down payment on a home. We still live in that house 17 years later. That was an incredible show of support for us, and the roots that went in the ground have only deepened over time.4. My church found opportunities for me to use my gifts outside of youth ministry.
Some youth pastors are content investing all their time in youth ministry. Others, especially as they get older, begin to look around and wonder, Are there other aspects of church ministry where my gifts and experience could be used? This isn’t always an option, but where it’s possible, give your youth ministers every chance to exercise and develop their gifts.His Plans Are Better
I wish I could say I had this life planned for myself. Far from it. But it’s a good life.
Churches, do everything in your power to make this possible for your youth ministers. You won’t regret it.
Of all the apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the type that is probably least persuasive to skeptics (though most philosophically compelling for believers) is ontological arguments, a category of philosophical arguments that rely on the nature of being.
Although such arguments may be of limited value in convincing atheists, they may be of more value in literary criticism and interpretation. The reason they can be useful is because they establish that the God of the Bible exists within the structure of every narrative and story that has ever been told.
Depending on your perspective this may be an absurd claim or a banal truth.* But before you dismiss it as either, let’s consider what that means and how it can illuminate literature.Why God Must Exist in All (Possible) Worlds
(Note: Ontological arguments are a bit complicated and aren’t always easy to follow. If you get bogged down trying to make sense of this section, try skipping ahead to the end of the article and then coming back to this part later.)
The acclaimed philosopher Alvin Plantinga formulated an ontological argument that relies on modal logic and the concept known as possible worlds. As Wikipedia explains:
Those who use the concept of possible worlds consider the actual world to be one of the many possible worlds. For each distinct way the world could have been, there is said to be a distinct possible world; the actual world is the one we in fact live in. The modal status of a proposition is understood in terms of the worlds in which it is true; thus:
• True propositions are those which are true in the actual world (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969.”)
• Possible propositions are those which are true in at least one possible world (for example: “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969.”)
• Contingent propositions are those which are true in some possible worlds and false in others (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969,” which is contingently true, and “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969”, which is contingently false.)
• Necessary propositions are those which are true in all possible worlds (for example: “all bachelors are unmarried.”)
• Impossible propositions (or necessarily false propositions) are those which are true in no possible worlds (for example: “Melissa and Toby are taller than each other at the same time.”)
The main concepts to pay attention to in this list are “necessary” and “impossible.” These are propositions that either must be true or must be false in any and all possible worlds
Plantinga uses the concept of possible worlds in his case for the existence of a “maximally great being” (i.e., a being who has such qualities as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection). A maximally great being would also be a necessary being (i.e., it must be true that the being exists). One version of his argument is as follows:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Note the key premise (“It is possible that a maximally great being exists”) is a metaphysical claim (i.e., relating to the fundamental nature of being) rather than an epistemic claim (i.e., relating to what can be known). Ontological arguments often try to use the establishment of the metaphysical claim (i.e., that God’s existence is an ontological necessity) to convince people of an epistemic claim (i.e., we should believe that God exists). But I want to use it in a slightly different way that is directed toward Christian theists.‘God in All Stories’ Theorem
Christians do not need to be convinced that God exists. We know that he exists and that he exists in this world, the actual world, the world he created. What the ontological argument helps us to establish is that God must also exist in any world in which we can imagine. The argument could be outlined as:
- By definition, only one maximally great being can exist.
- God is a maximally great being that exists in the actual world.
- If a maximally great being exists in some actual world, then that same being must exist in all possible worlds.
- Stories and narratives, whether fictional or true, are set in either the actual world or some possible world.
- Since God exists in both the actual world and all possible worlds, he necessarily exists in the world of every story or narrative (even if he is not directly acknowledged in the literary structure).
This means that, whatever the authorial intent, there can be no stories in which a writer or artist creates an imaginary world in which God—the real God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—does not already exist. By the rules of logic—which even nonsensical worlds must follow to some degree—the story cannot exclude necessary truths or necessary beings, such as the God revealed in the Bible.
Whether this “God in All Stories Theorem” has any substantial importance for literary criticism is something I’ll leave to qualified scholars of literature to ascertain. But I think there is at least one way it may prove useful to lay critics and ordinary readers of imaginary fiction.
As a reader of fantasy and sci-fi novels I tend to be drawn in by works that express a high degree of verisimilitude, or likeness to the truth. A story can have unusual or fantastical elements—such as talking animals—if it makes sense within the possible world. That is why stories that attempt to be atheistic, such as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, don’t resonate with me. The creators of such stories are trying to camouflage the existence of the Ultimate Creator within their sub-creations.
In contrast, stories such as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series**, seem more true because they are clearly set within a possible world that acknowledges the existence of the undeniable fact that we all know the one true God (Rom. 1:19-20). Even imaginary worlds populated with talking horses, wandering hobbits, and flying dragons feel more real because they are imbued with a tacit recognition that they are in a universe made by our God.
In this way these stories set in alternative “possible worlds” are similar to the American South as portrayed in Flannery O’Connor realistic fiction. As O’Connor once said,
[F]rom the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
The ontological argument may not help you win over an atheist. But it can help us understand why stories are, as O’Connor might say, all most certainly Christ-haunted.
*On reflection, this idea seems obvious, which leads me to assume I wasn’t the first to think of it or develop it as a concept. If you know of someone else who has previously made this type of claim or argument, please let me know.
** Throughout the series most of the characters appear to be polytheists or henotheists. But in the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, it becomes clear that the characters merely have a heretical view of Trinitarian monotheism:
“There is no cobbler above [referring to the Cobbler God],” Podrick protested.
“There is, lad . . . though you may call him by another name. Tell me, which of the seven gods do you love best?”
“The Warrior,” said Podrick without a moment’s hesitation.
Brienne cleared her throat. “At Evenfall my father’s septon [i.e., priest] always said there was but one god.”
“One God with seven aspects. That’s so, my lady, and you are right to point it out, but the mystery of the Seven Who Are One is not easy for simple folk to grasp, and I am nothing if not simple, so I speak of seven gods.” (p. 369-370)
When is the last time you heard an appeal in your church to serve a particular group of people? Maybe this summer you’ve heard appeals to serve at children’s VBS. Or in the winter to serve the homeless. Or in the fall to consider becoming a youth teacher or small-group leader.
How many of us have heard these appeals to serve somewhere in the church and have thought to ourselves, Oh, I’m not gifted in that area or I’m not called to those people.
We have to be really careful about this kind of thinking.
While there are certainly legitimate reasons to say no to a request to serve a certain group, using “calling” as an excuse can be dangerous. We are essentially putting our perceived “calling” identity above God’s call for us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30–31).How We Misunderstand Calling
For many Christians today, “calling” has become a hallowed thing that goes beyond a particular job or profession; it’s now a way to talk about destiny and ultimate meaning. As a result, anything that doesn’t fit squarely within this framework is viewed as a hindrance.
But in the Bible, God’s calling often works through detours and sudden left turns. God called many people in ways that probably felt like their destinies were being uprooted.
In the Bible, God’s calling often works through detours and sudden left turns.
Abraham was happily living with his family when God called him to pack up and leave (Gen. 12:1–4). Moses had run from Egypt and was comfortable as a shepherd, with a wife and two children. Then he happened upon a burning bush at the ripe old age of 80 (Ex. 3:1–6). David was a shepherd boy until the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king (1 Sam. 16:11–13). Mary was an engaged woman who became pregnant with the Son of God (Matt. 1:18–19). Paul persecuted Christians before God turned his life around and he became persecuted for Christ (Acts 9:1–16).
In each case, God called someone away from the path they felt they were on. Imagine if they’d said, “No, that’s not part of my calling”—instead of holding their perceived destiny loosely?God’s Glory, Not Ours
The Lord has a habit of taking people where they never expected they’d go—and not for their glory, but for his. Consider Hebrews 10:24–25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The author of Hebrews helps us rightly understand biblical community. The church does not exist to help us reach our destiny. We don’t meet together to gain key skills to add to our work résumés. We meet together to encourage and serve.
We are not called to use people in our church for our glory, but to serve them for God’s glory. Rather than using the idea of “calling” and “gifts” to make excuses for why we can’t serve a subset of church members, we should be exhorting one another to take risks in loving and serving others even when it stretches us outside of our comfort zone.
We are not called to use people in our church for our glory, but to serve them for God’s glory.
Admittedly, this is sometimes easier in smaller churches and church plants, where members need to wear multiple hats and fill in the gaps where needs abound. For example, someone on the worship team may also need to help with children’s ministry or small groups. It’s all hands on deck. On the contrary, larger churches and resource-rich ministries typically offer more choices and variety in service opportunities, and often encourage people to serve where they are most passionate. In these contexts, the temptation to find one’s “sweet spot” in serving is more prevalent.Value of Serving in Weakness
The late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International, spent the latter part of his life dedicated to providing love and community to disabled people forgotten by society. He said this about community:
Community is the place where we discover our own fragilities, wounds, and inability to love, where our limitations, our fears, and our egoism are revealed to us. We cannot get away from the negative in ourselves. We have to face it. So community life brings a painful revelation of our limitations, weaknesses, and darkness, and the unexpected discovery of the monsters within us.
This is what’s both beautiful and difficult about community. It reveals our own limitations and weaknesses. But rather than avoiding this by using “calling” as a cover, perhaps we should recognize that serving in uncomfortable areas is our calling. It’s how we grow as Christlike servants. Serving out of your comfort zone will expose weaknesses in ways that will cause you to come before the Lord in desperate need of help. This is what God wants for us: not to be affirmed in our strength, but to depend on his. His strength is gloriously seen in our weakness. When we’re able to serve and minister effectively, we’re reminded it wasn’t by our strength, but by God’s, and for his glory.
Serving out of your comfort zone will expose weaknesses in ways that will cause you to come before the Lord in desperate need of help.Greater Calling
I learned this lesson recently while filling in to lead the elementary program at our church for a few nights. I’d always avoided working with young children because I never felt “called” to this particular group. But I had no choice this time. I felt way over my head the entire 90-minute program. Questions, doubts, and prayers raced through my mind each night: How do I lead the children in song without any instruments? They’re used to singing with hand motions, but I don’t know any; should I just make something up? Why can’t I seem to do anything but jazz hands? Oh Lord, please give me the patience to help this child, who can’t seem to release himself from my legs, to memorize the Bible passage. I have to teach the Ten Commandments; how do I explain what adultery means?
But even with these mini moments of panic, I appreciated every moment of working with these children. I needed an extra measure of joy, patience, understanding, and compassion, but the Holy Spirit never failed to deliver exactly what I needed. In my weakness, I saw the Lord’s strength.
The next time you’re asked to help in a ministry that seems outside your skillset, or to serve a group of people you’re not comfortable with, don’t brush it off because you’re not “gifted” or “called” to it. Think of it as an opportunity to step out in faith and draw closer to the Lord in your weakness. Don’t see it as a detour from your calling; see it as an invitation to be used by God however he sees fit—a calling far greater than what we can dream up.
“If you wanted to take America back for God, how would you do that? Generally, we think in terms of acquiring greater social and cultural power and influence; that’s the way we will ultimately bring this country into line. We’ve got to throw that away. We need to recognize that we have a gospel that doesn’t require us having a position and a status for it to be powerful. . . . Let’s take America back for God—as in the sense of let’s preach the gospel, and let’s see lives change.” — Elliot Clark
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land
- Want Gospel Opportunities? Embrace Opposition
- Christians Need Gospel Audacity
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
This study supplies an initial framework for a biblical theology of hermeneutics. My thesis is twofold.
First, I will argue that the Old Testament (OT) is Christian Scripture, that God originally gave it to instruct Christians, and that the OT authors had a sense that at least some of their words would be more meaningful for those living this side of the cross than for those living before it, whether believer or non-believer. As such, the OT message is in many ways more clear and relevant for Christians today than it ever was for those before Christ.
Second, I will argue that faith in Christ alone supplies the necessary light for seeing and savoring God’s revelation in the OT and that Jesus’s appearing in salvation history supplies the necessary lens for more fully understanding and appropriating the divine author’s intended meaning in the OT.1. NT Reflections on the Audience of OT Instruction
Paul believed that God gave the OT for new covenant believers. Referring to the statement in Genesis 15:6 that Abram’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness,” Paul asserted that “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom. 4:23–24). Similarly, just after identifying Christ as the referent in Psalm 69, the apostle emphasized, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Further, upon recalling Israel’s history in the wilderness, Paul said, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). In each of these three texts, Paul used third-singular verbs to stress that the OT author wrote his text intentionally for the benefit of believers living this side of the cross. The apostle’s use of the passive does not clarify whether this was only God’s intent as the ultimate author, or whether this was also the OT human authors’ intention. What is clear, however, is that for Paul, the OT was Christian Scripture and fully applicable to believers when read in light of Christ.
How do Christians thrive spiritually in a visually driven media culture? The irony of this question isn’t lost on me. As you begin reading this review, your attention is being sought after as you interact with the screen. Other outlets are competing to draw you in. You might be receiving dings, alerts, and notifications. And like it or not, you and I are shaped by the diet of our attention. We become whatever spectacle we love most, argues Tony Reinke—communications director for Desiring God—in his new book, Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.
Competing Spectacles reads more like a concise instruction manual than a full-length book, with each of its 33 chapters rarely surpassing more than five pages. Divided into two parts, the first defines the concept of a “spectacle” as well as the various distractions they pose to Christians. Part two casts Christ as the true spectacle all humanity longs for, concluding with a number of points of application.Understanding Spectacles
A spectacle is any kind of projection that grabs human attention. And while spectacles exist outside the virtual world, Reinke largely focuses his treatment on digital media. Perhaps more than any other time in history, images invite us into alternate forms of reality that, as Reinke puts it, make the real world optional. So, it’s not the technology itself that distracts, but the spectacles they portray.
It’s not the technology itself that distracts, but the spectacles they portray.
Several sections of Competing Spectacles cover various forms of media—television, gaming, social media—and the ways they shape how we view ourselves and the world around us. Their effects are readily apparent on a daily basis. Our political views filter through whichever news outlet we choose to consume. Our posture toward our bodies and sex are shaded by the lascivious programming we either consume or avoid. None of these spectacles is neutral. Each bears the potential to lead us down dangerous or edifying paths.
The strength of Reinke’s argument comes from his anthropological grounding. Our spectacle seeking, he contends, exists because we’re made in God’s image. We’re hardwired to long for glory. But all created spectacles fall short of the glory we seek. The only solution to this shortcoming is to make the cross of Christ our greatest spectacle. Through it we’re invited into the glory found in belonging to God.Properly Embracing Earthly Spectacles
While the legalistic impulse would be to condemn earthly spectacles outright, Reinke doesn’t do so. In fact, he warns against it. Instead, he helpfully invites Christians to recognize the difference between earthly and heavenly spectacles. Whether they come in the form of video games, sporting events, or the latest superhero blockbuster, they invite us to participate in the glory they promise. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we see them for what they are.
Every year the NCAA caps off its annual basketball season with the “One Shining Moment” montage. For three minutes, viewers are treated to the best moments from that year’s March Madness tournament, culminating in the celebration of its champion. As a fan of the sport, it’s nearly impossible for me to keep from being drawn in, feeling the height of a season of hard work ending in victory. But eventually it fades because it’s only a taste of the ultimate glory we were created to enjoy in Christ. Still, that taste is real and shouldn’t be shunned.
Earthly spectacles offer us a glimpse of the true glory we find in our Creator.
As Reinke writes, “Biblical ethics is not about simply avoiding corrupting things, but learning to see and enjoy and embrace eternal things that truly bring meaning and purpose and joy into our lives.” Asceticism isn’t a reasonable solution, because earthly spectacles offer us a glimpse of the true glory we find in our Creator. If we look closely, we can see his reflection, all the while rejecting what is worthless.
In today’s society, not only are we inundated with screens and images that plead for our attention, we’re also beckoned to embrace pleasure at all costs. In a world broken by sin, pleasure can be a misleading, even dangerous guide. Competing Spectacles is a helpful primer for thinking through how to face a spectacle-obsessed world. It avoids sweeping condemnations of technology in favor of wiser conclusions. We were created to see Christ. He is the spectacle we seek within this earthly theater, and he has made a way for us to thrive, even in a world of competing distractions, when we see them for what they are—shadows of what is to come.
The title of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, immediately frames the movie as a fairy tale. One should not go into the film expecting a historically accurate depiction of Los Angeles in 1969, the Manson Family, and the infamous Tate murders—even though there are aspects of these things Tarantino takes great pains to depict accurately.
No, this is a fairy tale, and it’s set in a mystical dreamland—Hollywood, 1969. It’s a movie that idealizes both the glamorous (parties in the Hollywood Hills) and the mundane (making macaroni and cheese in a Van Nuys mobile home), saturating everything in vivid color and widescreen relief. It’s a movie that pays homage to cinema itself: its history, genres, personalities, and—above all—its ability to do god-like things such as transcend place and time, intervene in acts of injustice, and provide glimpses of a one-day world where everything sad will come untrue (see Rev. 21:1–8). Fittingly, it’s also a film that has one doozy of a Hollywood ending.
Indeed, its much-talked-about “what if?” ending (more on that later) reminds us that movies are an inherently eschatological medium. In their ability to traverse time—to “sculpt in time,” as Andrei Tarkovosky would say—and to “defeat death” by controlling their circumstances, movies present viewers with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them. The dark caverns of movie theaters provide refuges of suspended time—“thin places” that evoke joy because they remind us of longing.
And Tarantino’s film is nothing if not joyful. But in celebrating cinema’s “eternity-glimpsing” power, Once Upon a Time ultimately only stokes the fires of our desire for a better ending. The satisfaction of its ending is powerful, but provisional. We leave the theater pleased with the catharsis we’ve just witnessed—but then we remember it is fiction. Still, insofar as it inflames our longing for injustice to be addressed and death to be reversed, it’s a refreshing meaningful film.How Movies Battle Death
A beautiful scene in Once Upon a Time shows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in an L.A. movie theater, watching herself on screen in a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968). But Tarantino does something important in this scene, because the Tate we see on the screen-within-the-screen is the actual Tate. As Tarantino cuts between the real Tate and Margot Robbie’s Tate, we are reminded of the artifice of movies—something the filmmaker is always reminding us in his over-the-top features.
In their ability to traverse time and to ‘defeat death,’ movies present us with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them.
But we are also reminded of cinema’s haunting power to arrest death. Because even though we know that Tate is gone—that her death came tragically soon after she released The Wrecking Crew—she is still there on screen. Flickering pixels of flesh and blood. Forever preserved as a vital, bubbly, beautiful 25-year-old. When we watch any old film and see a long-dead star in the prime of their life, it’s a momentary defeat of death—a reminder that even though “our bodies are buried in brokenness,” Christians believe “they will be raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43).
This scene is a beautiful foreshadow of the film’s even-more-death-defeating ending. So here goes. Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film.Expecting the Worst
Once Upon a Time had been billed as Tarantino’s movie about the harrowing Manson-family murders of pregnant Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and three others on August 9, 1969. It was a (straight-out-of-a-horror-film) home-invasion nightmare that shocked the world and abruptly ended the groovy idealism of the hippie 1960s.
Knowing this is what the movie is about, and knowing Tarantino’s penchant for gruesome, over-the-top violence, viewers watch the film in a state of perpetual tension (as we do with all Tarantino movies). We know what’s coming. We expect the worst. There will be blood.
But from start to finish, the film surprises us. At various points we feel especially tense. When Brad Pitt’s stuntman character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch and encounters a creepy troupe of Manson Family hippies, we expect terrible things. When Manson himself (Damon Herriman) shows up at 10050 Cielo Drive (the house Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski shared) to scope it out, we fear violence. But there is no blood.
Instead, the movie is joyful and carefree for much of its runtime, relishing the banter and glamorous exploits of its central Hollywood pair (Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), who spend a lot of time in cool cars driving around a cool city, listening to cool music (the Mamas & the Papas, Neil Diamond, Deep Purple, and so on) on AM radio station KHJ. Still, the dread of the inevitable climax—Where is this all going?—lends an intensity to each otherwise-innocent scene, such that the mundane act of Pitt cracking open a can of “Wolf’s Tooth” dog food is terrifying.
When the film’s inevitable violence does come, in the final 20 minutes of a two-hour-and-45-minute runtime, it’s as bloody and extreme as expected. But in perhaps the greatest “what if?” twist of Tarantino’s career (or any filmmaker’s career, for that matter), the violence doesn’t happen to whom we expect it to happen. Much of how Tarantino depicts the actions of the Manson family killers (“Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel) is more or less accurate—up until the moment when they enter the house. They don’t enter 10050 Cielo Drive, where Tate lives. They enter the house next door, where DiCaprio’s character lives and where Pitt is hanging out. And instead of brutally killing innocent people, the Manson killers are themselves brutally killed.Longing for Justice
Watching the Manson killers face their vicious, imaginary comeuppance in this way is unapologetically satisfying. As theologian David Bentley Hart observes, writing about the film in The New York Times (!), the scene “[gives] glorious expression to a perfectly righteous rage,” transporting the viewer into “some other order of reality, if only an imaginary one, where ethereal sweetness had survived and horror had perished.”
This sort of cinematic revisionist history—the unabashed indulgence in cinema’s “what if?” power of supposal—is not new for Tarantino. Django Unchained (2012) presents a justice fantasy of a slave (Jamie Foxx) destroying a plantation and its villainous slaveholding inhabitants. World War II epic Inglourious Basterds (2009) ends with a band of Jews killing off Hitler and Goebbels and scores of Nazis in—what else?—a movie theater.
Don’t miss the significance of the movie-theater setting for the justice-fulfilling ending of Inglourious. Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings, in a world where such things are painfully elusive. He’s doing the same thing in Once Upon a Time, where the celebration of movie fantasy and the moral longing for justice are deliberately and movingly intertwined.
In this way, Once Upon a Time is one of the most redemptive films of the year. As Hart notes, “It is this moral longing for the counterfactual—for the total cosmic justice that history rarely embodies—that informs and animates the most truly redemptive forms of religious, philosophical, and social moral yearning.”
Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings.Reversing the Curse
The final shots of Once Upon a Time are beautiful and haunting, callbacks to that “ghost of Sharon Tate on screen” scene from earlier in the film. We don’t see Tate alive and well, but we hear her happy voice through a driveway call box—a voice from another world, a substitute dimension of cinema’s making. As before, the preserved Tate is mediated to us at a few removes. Here’s how Hart reads the scene:
It’s an exquisitely poignant reminder that she is speaking from that alternate reality, that terrestrial paradise that evil could not enter, that otherworld where the evils of time are all undone. And then the gate opens, and the film’s protagonist is allowed to enter this (for want of a better word) heaven. Even then, the last glimpse the viewer has of Tate is from behind and above, her face turned away because, after all, she is there, not here.
To me it seems obvious that moral sanity requires that otherworld. If it’s real, somewhere and somehow (and I’m one of those fools who wants to believe it is), then it is also the only version of this world worth loving unconditionally, and the only form of existence worth trying to make concretely actual here and now.
Hart eloquently captures how movies, at their best, can give concrete pictures of that “otherworld,” presenting unreality in ways that weirdly feel more real than reality. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Lewis’s Narnia, or all manner of other fictions and fairy tales, the dreamscapes of movies feel truer to us than waking life. Why? Because they give stirring expression to the reversal we long for: the curse-reversing reconciliation and renewal that fallen creation (us included) needs.
What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world?
Far from scoffing and dismissing the “what if?” fantasies of the narrative arts—like Tarantino’s masterful film—what if we valued them for reminding us that longing for a “what if” reversal of the curse is exactly what we should be doing? What if we saw these common-grace expressions as fertilizer for the soil of the gospel—the special grace of knowing the real Aslan, the man Jesus through whom the curse of death is replaced with the gift of eternal life (Rom. 5:12–21)? What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world?
It is widely acknowledged that the gospel was preeminent in Paul’s thought and practice. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians brings the gospel to bear on the many problems that were disrupting the God-given unity and sanctity of the church: divisions (1:10), pride (1:29–31; 5:2), sexual immorality (5:1), a shameful case of litigation (6:1–11), a disparagement of human sexuality (7:1–40), abuses of Christian freedoms (8:1–13), idolatry (10:1–30), and improprieties in corporate worship (11:2–14:40).
Paul signals his intent to apply the gospel to each of these matters early in the letter when he states concerning the emerging factions in the Corinthian church, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The core message of the gospel—“the word of the cross”—is foolishness to unbelievers but has power to transform those who believe (1:18). As Gordon Fee observes, “This paragraph (1:18–25) is crucial not only to the present argument . . . but to the entire letter as well. Indeed, it is one of the truly great moments in the apostle Paul.”
Paul confirms the importance of the gospel for the entire letter in his programmatic statement toward the end of the epistle: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:1–4). Beginning and ending the epistle with the gospel is not merely a literary device. Paul intends to set forth the gospel as the solution to every problem in the church. At times the gospel solution is direct and explicit. At other times, it is less direct but transformative nonetheless.
In keeping with the preeminence of the gospel in Paul’s writings in general, and in 1 Corinthians in particular, our interest in this present essay is to revisit the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16 with the gospel as the interpretive key to Paul’s argument [about gender, head coverings, and the Trinity]. As will become evident, seeing the explicit manner in which Paul appeals to the gospel in this passage serves to strengthen the standard evangelical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 while putting it in its larger gospel context.
Here is how the gospel can be shown to provide the integrative glue for Paul’s argument.
Every teacher gets a bit nervous about answering hard questions well—especially the hard questions being raised in the larger culture that all Christians struggle to answer well. These are the kinds of questions Rebecca McLaughlin deals with in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. McLaughlin’s crisp reasoning and winsome presentation helped me imagine that I might be able to respond to such questions more capably having read her book, which I highly commend.
In our conversation we talked through a number of questions regarding taking the Bible literally, modern science, the denigration of women, and homophobia. And because McLaughlin has a consulting business to help speakers improve their skills in getting their message across, we also talked about specific ways we can get better in our presentation of God’s Word.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
An old friend from high school reconnected with me recently, thanks to the wonders of Facebook. We did a lot of laughing when we hung out in high school, and he thought we could just pick up where we left off. I doubted it. For much of the time we were together—almost 50 years ago!—we were drunk.
Since then, I became a Christian. He’s continued to get drunk. After a few moments of “Wow!” “It sure has been a while” and “How have you been?” we made plans to meet and re-establish our long lost friendship. And we did meet. And we did laugh. But both of us realized things (i.e., he and I) had changed.
He did know I’d become a Christian. The last time we saw each other face to face, I presented the gospel to him and gave him a book about the resurrection. He told me that John Lennon shaped his religious views and that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” He visits Strawberry Fields, Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, whenever he’s back in New York.
Today, I continue to pray for him, reach out to him with phone calls and emails, and talk about meeting up when I’m nearby (we now live more than 1,000 miles apart). I’m convinced I need to pursue some pre-evangelistic conversations with him before he’ll be ready to hear the gospel in a way that can penetrate. I’ve tried the direct evangelistic approach several times, and that hasn’t worked. I need another strategy.
Most of us need another strategy to reach unsaved people around us. If ever there was a time when “people were ready to receive Christ” (and I doubt it was ever that simple), those days are gone. But how do we start?
Here are three strategies for pre-evangelism that might help your friends move from “Are you crazy? Christianity is ridiculous, narrow-minded, homophobic, and stupid!” to “Well . . . maybe I need to rethink this” to “OK, I’ve not been fair in the ways I’ve pigeonholed religious people” to “All right, I’ll take a look at that book about God you gave me.”1. Level the Playing Field
Sometimes, our non-Christian conversation partner feels superior to us. They may think they’re intellectually superior because, they assume, all Christians are simpletons, anti-intellectual, anti-science, or just plain stupid. (In some cases, they’ve seen solid evidence to support this prejudice.) They believe that science “proves things religion can’t” and that it’s the better basis for knowledge.
Or they may feel morally superior to Christians. They see themselves as open-minded and tolerant but see Christians as narrow-minded and exclusive.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too.
Before we can tell them they need to repent and be born again, we may need to show them they’re narrow too. In fact, with enough conversation, we may show them that Christians are in fact more open-minded than they are. This takes work and time and patience. But it’s absolutely crucial, or our gospel presentation will fall on deaf ears.
We can level the playing field by asking people how they’ve come to their belief that science is a better basis for knowledge than faith is. Their trust in science is a faith-based belief. It can’t be validated scientifically. We want them to see that we’re similar—we both hold our beliefs by faith. Now we want to compare our faiths. We should also pursue the realization that we both have doubts, and we should compare our doubts.2. Adjust the Thermostat
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace. Sometimes people get angry or sarcastic or harsh—on both sides of the exchange. Our current political climate exacerbates the problem terribly. In some cases, we need to point this out, take a deep breath, and ask if we need to take a break.
It can sound like this:
“You sound rather upset about all this. Why do you think this is so disturbing?”
“Wow. I think I struck a nerve. Should we change the topic?”
“It’s hard to talk about these kinds of things. Isn’t it? I’d like to try to continue. But I wonder if we can do that with a bit less anger. What do you think?”
In our current overly sarcastic, frequently dismissive, disturbingly insulting times, we would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Proverbs’s insight that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).3. Step on the Clutch before Shifting Gears
Sometimes we need to have a conversation about the conversation. Before we launch into a discussion about religion (often considered the worst taboo), we might need to ask permission to do so. Or we might need to introduce something they’ll accept to pave the way for something they resist.
It’s like stepping on the clutch in a car with a standard transmission before shifting gears. I realize this illustration may be too antiquated for some people. If you’ve never driven a car with a stick shift, just accept this: if you don’t perform a preliminary task (stepping on the clutch), you won’t be able to do the important task (shifting gears).
Some conversations about the Prince of Peace can disturb the peace.
Here’s what it could sound like:
“I realize some people avoid discussions about faith. But I wonder if you’d like to try. Could we grab a cup of coffee sometime to compare our beliefs?”
“You’ve asked me some questions about my views about sexuality. I’m certainly willing to try to answer as best as I can. But I have to first say you shouldn’t be surprised if my views are unpopular. The Christian views about sex have always been in the minority.”
“I think the topic of faith is more complicated than what fits on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. But I’d still like to talk about it. Would you?”
More than 50 years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Pre-evangelism is no soft option.” He was reaching out to disenchanted, secular Europeans who had abandoned Christianity long ago. But he reached many with the gospel and saw a lot of dramatic conversions. His approach needs to be inserted into our evangelistic efforts now more than ever before. I certainly need to try these ideas with my old friend.