The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released a report last Saturday on sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination.
According to the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the report is intentionally designed to educate churches on the sexual abuse crisis, equip churches on how to care well for survivors, and prepare churches to prevent abuse.What was the impetus for the report?
The focus in the past two years on the sexual abuse crisis in American society and in the church—represented by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements—prompted SBC president J. D. Greear to commission a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group within the denomination. The group was tasked with “considering how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernible action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions.”
The group was also asked to study both how Southern Baptists are currently engaging these issues and develop recommendations in consultation with relevant SBC entities on strategies and resources for ministering to victims and protecting people and churches from predators.
In preparation for the report, the Advisory Group heard from hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse as well as from church leaders and national experts in the field of abuse recovery and counseling. The purpose of this report, the SBC says, is to convey the key findings that have emerged from this effort in a way that “reflects on the realities of the past, recognizes the challenges of the present, and resolves to embrace the opportunities of the future.”How does the report define sexual abuse?
For purposes of the report, sexual abuse was used as an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. The American Psychology Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”What are the findings in the report?
Some of the key findings included in the report are:
• Research shows that 60 percent of child sexual-abuse victims never tell anyone they have been abused. Only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults perpetuated against women and girls were reported.
• According to three insurance companies that insure a majority of Protestant congregations in the United States, there are approximately 260 annual reports of children being sexually abused by ministers or other church workers.
• Sex offenders who are most committed to church throughout their life (what the researchers called “stayers”) accumulated the most victims and the youngest victims of all sex offenders. They found that a perpetrator’s involvement in a church community did not seem to deter their criminal sexual behavior; in fact it seemed to worsen it.
• The majority of survivors of sexual abuse know their abuser. The Department of Justice found that three out four of female adult victims knew their offender. Additionally, 90 percent of child victims of sexual abuse know their perpetrator.
• Adult women who were sexually abused as a child are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as women who were not sexually abused. Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to report a suicide attempt. Females who are sexually abused are three-times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than females who are not sexually abused. And among male survivors, more than 70 percent seek psychological treatment for issues such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide.
• Research finds that church attendance among survivors decreases, they are less likely to trust God, and their relationship with God often ceases to grow. Although a strong and responsive church community can and should be a source of healing and comfort for a survivor of sexual violence, it has not always been the case. When abuse has been mixed with twisted theology or survivors have been met with skepticism or shame within their church community, the effects on their faith can be devastating.
What does the report say about failures of churches to respond to sexual abuse?
The report acknowledges that failures in responding to sexual abuse have occurred in many ways, including:
• Failing to adequately train staff and volunteers—on the national, state, and congregational levels—to be aware of and respond appropriately to abuse
• Using church autonomy improperly to avoid taking appropriate action
• Failing to care well for survivors of abuse
• Failing to take disclosure seriously and to believe the survivor
• Failing to report abuse to civil authorities
• Recommending suspected perpetrators to new employment
• Promoting political, institutional, and congregational leaders whose language and behavior glorifies mistreatment of women and children
“We lament the fact that it took a national movement of reckoning for abuse to force us to take this issue seriously in our own convention,” the report says. “It should now be obvious that the problem has been and still is more widespread than anyone has realized, affecting our congregations all over the country, from the smallest church pastored by a bivocational minister to the megachurch with hundreds on staff.”
“Abuse has known no bounds, affecting seminaries, mission boards, and denominational entities, including our own,” the report adds. “And all too often, it has not been handled justly.”What does the report say about responding to sexual abuse?
“In the past, some SBC churches and leaders have been most concerned with protecting the reputation of their ministry and the church when abuse comes to light,” the report notes. “Thus, they have failed to protect the survivors of sexual abuse themselves and failed to prevent future victims.”
The report also says that churches “must recognize that our primary responsibility in caring well for survivors of abuse is to place their protection and care as paramount above all other considerations in the process.” The report recommends that churches develop appropriate protocols based on the size, location, and makeup of their congregations, such as:
• Developing a team of caregivers, including both men and women, to walk alongside a survivor of abuse
• Knowing the legal requirements for disclosure
• Getting to know local Child Advocacy Centers (CAC) and other agencies that work with survivors of abuse
• Implementing a policy for how to deal with the accused perpetrator, especially when minors are involved
• Developing an after-care ministry for survivors of abuse or connect them with local resourcesWhat happens next?
The SBC has recently committed to taking measures to “root out and confront abuse within their communities.” For example, ERLC; the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention; Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas; and others drafted legislation in Texas that would “give immunity from civil liability to churches or other non-profits that in good faith report allegations of sexual abuse to an individual’s current or prospective employer.” Representative Scott Sanford explained this bill seeks to “end the silence that allows predators to move between organizations.” The bill was signed into law on June 10.
The ERLC and the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group have also launched a new initiative called “Caring Well” designed to confront church sexual abuse. According to the SBC, the initiative “provides churches with a simple, adaptable, and attainable pathway to immediately enhance their efforts to prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors.”
There are three persons in the Trinity, all coequal, coeternal, and coessential. There can hardly be a deeper Christian instinct than the one that prompts us to do equal justice to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But alongside this instinct, there is also a deep wisdom to recognizing a certain order in the way we deploy Christian teaching on the Trinity—and especially on the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. In fact, there is a long and healthy tradition in Christian doctrine of letting pneumatology, the doctrine about the Holy Spirit, fall into place after certain other matters have already been established. In this tradition, the main lines of the Christian confession are established first without a focus on the Holy Spirit—and nothing goes wrong on account of this temporary postponement of pneumatology. But when, in a later move, reflection on the Spirit is added to those main lines, a world of greater depth opens up, and the full glory of trinitarian soteriology shines forth. Nothing changes, but everything is better.
Let me show this by a few key examples.1. The Nicene Creed
At the end of the creed, having elaborately affirmed that they believe in the Son, the fathers of Nicaea added the unimpressive phrase “and in the Holy Spirit.” Period.
But, 56 turbulent years later when this creed was retrieved and expanded at Constantinople 381, this paltry third article blossomed forth into the confession we recite in the Nicene Creed today:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the prophets.
What shall we say happened when the creed of Nicea, with minimal explicit pneumatology, added the rich pneumatology of 381? Trinitarianism came into its own. More truth was declared. The whole statement became richer, fuller, deeper. You might say the fathers of Constantinople took a step back. It might be worth saying here that the movement I am describing only works if there is some pneumatology in the first step; I won’t provide any examples of theology that altogether omit any recognition of the Spirit. These would be harder cases; they might run afoul of orthodoxy or of correctness. You can’t say nothing about the Spirit. What I’m drawing attention to is the tradition of initially saying little about the Spirit, and then later saying much.2. Athanasius
A parallel development can be seen in one of the greatest pro-Nicene fathers, Athanasius of Alexandria. Most of his theology is a relentless hammering home of the Nicene recognition of the full deity of the Son, consubstantial with the Father. He only occasionally mentions the Holy Spirit, and never as a focus of attention in his own right. Athanasius had message discipline, and the message was: Arianism is false. But then, at the request of Serapion of Thmuis, Athanasius wrote a series of letters explaining the person and work of the Holy Spirit, which amount to a brief treatise so powerful and integrated that it’s hard to believe Athanasius had held all that understanding about the Spirit subliminally in his mind throughout the Arian crisis.
What happens when the Christological Athanasius extends his attention to explicit discussion of the Holy Spirit? His work achieves a rounded trinitarian contour that is a wonder to behold. Perhaps contour is the wrong metaphor; the shape and form of Athanasian theology do not change, but drawing out the pneumatological depths transfigures everything he says.3. Calvin’s Institutes
The structure of John Calvin’s Institutes shows a similar dynamic. For various reasons, he postpones much discussion of the Spirit until book 3, when he asks how the salvation which the Father has worked out in Christ can become ours. His answer is faith, but then he climbs high into the mysterious workings of the Spirit, and expounds a practical pneumatology of magisterial power.4. New Testament
Rather than tracing out this tradition in later examples, I want to reach back to the sources and suggest, reverently, that Holy Scripture itself follows a similar pattern in several places. The Gospel of Matthew reaches a first climax in chapter 11 when Jesus says nobody knows the Father except the Son, and vice versa, but it reaches a rounded conclusion in chapter 28 when the risen Christ extends that formula to include the third person, the Holy Spirit—whose work he left implicit in chapter 11. John’s Gospel likewise expends considerable energy on the dyadic relation of the Word to God, and then of the Father to the Son, before turning sustained attention to the Holy Spirit around chapter 14 or especially 16. In Romans, Paul works out the righteousness of God and the propitiation in Christ before turning his attention fully to the Spirit in chapter 8, in which Romans reaches a doxological and kerygmatic highpoint.5. Fulfillment of God’s Promises
To end with the broadest possible gesture at the structure of the entire economy of salvation, the Spirit, never absent but often anonymous in the early phases of God’s work, is conspicuous precisely at the fulfillment of God’s promises—when his name and character and distinctive work come into their own and become a matter of proclamation and teaching. Or to say that in Michale Horton-esque idiom, covenant and eschatology are the main poles of pneumatology.
It’s wrong to neglect the Spirit. But it’s also wrong to belabor pneumatology in a distracting way, or to attempt to lay a pneumatological foundation in the first moves of systematic theology.
It’s wrong to neglect the Spirit. But it’s also wrong to belabor pneumatology in a distracting way, or to attempt to lay a pneumatological foundation in the first moves of systematic theology. There is a wise tradition of establishing the main lines of theology before drawing out the implicit pneumatological realities that have undeniably been at work all along. At least in the order of instruction, this seems to be a prudent way of working for pilgrim theologians instructing the church.
In Thomas Goodwin’s book The Knowledge of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, he notes around page 351 that his whole project has a dyadic, not to say “binitarian,” ring:
There is a third person in the Godhead, the Spirit of God the Father, and of Christ; who in my handling the point will fall in, and appear to be that only true God, as well as these other two named.
As it turned out, the Spirit did in fact “fall in” to Goodwin’s handling, not only in that book but also later when he wrote an extended pneumatology. If the Spirit had never fallen in, we would judge Goodwin’s dyadic start differently in retrospect. But he did fall in.
My suggestion is that this happens all the time in Christian theology, and that it’s good.
The English Reformation began when King Henry VIII broke with Rome over the pope’s failure to approve an annulment of the king’s marriage. This inauspicious beginning virtually guaranteed the tumultuous and erratic history of Puritanism that followed. The Reformation was everywhere tied up with disputes over state power and the allegiances of monarchs, but nowhere more so than in England, which whipsawed between Catholic and Protestant rulers until Elizabeth I’s long reign for the last four decades of the 1500s secured the nation for her version of Protestantism. But during her tenure as queen, the term “puritan” began to appear as a term of insult against the “hotter sort of Protestant,” who felt the Reformation had not brought the Church of England fully in line with biblical mandates for church and law.
The fate of Puritanism and of the English Reformation became even more complex and fractious on the founding of the Separatist-led Plymouth Colony in 1620. Separatists believed that the Church of England was so corrupt that true believers should “separate” from it and form their own congregations. Doing that in England was illegal, however. Puritans formed their own colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 1630s. They technically advocated for reform of, rather than separation from, the Church of England, but the journey across the Atlantic effectively represented their ecclesiastical declaration of independence from that denomination.
Puritan lawyer John Winthrop secured a charter for Massachusetts—where the main events of the Puritan story in America played out—that gave the colony unusual flexibility to set up a godly church and commonwealth, free from London’s meddling. It stayed that way until the disastrous revocation of Winthrop’s charter by English authorities in the 1680s. A new charter, granted by the Protestant (but non-Puritan) monarchs William and Mary in the early 1690s, heralded the end of the Puritan cause (though not their piety) on both sides of the Atlantic.History of Puritan History
Dating back to the 1800s, American historians commonly saw the Puritans as key players in forming the American “character” and its system of participatory government. Many Christians in America and elsewhere looked back to Puritan writings as special expressions of warm piety and devout biblicism. But the Puritans’ reputation fell on hard times in elite circles in the early 20th century, as they seemed out-of-step with the “progressive” political ethos of the time.
The Great Depression and the world wars, however, gave even some secular historians a new dose of realism about the human condition, and suddenly the dour Puritans seemed intellectually respectable again. The scholar most responsible for rehabilitating the Puritans was Harvard’s Perry Miller, the greatest historian of the American Puritans and the founding editor of the scholarly edition of Jonathan Edwards’s works. Miller was a self-described atheist but also a fan of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He admired the Puritans not so much for their biblicism or piety, but for their realism about sin and their rigorous intellectual commitment. These people acted on what they believed.
In a sense, every historian of the Puritans since the 1950s has operated in Miller’s shadow. Michael Winship of the University of Georgia is one of this generation’s leading contenders as Miller’s heir. It’s hard to imagine any one scholar ever having Miller’s titanic influence on the field again, but Winship has written a number of terrific books on the Puritans, including 2012’s Godly Republicanism (Harvard). In his newest offering, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America, Winship seeks to fill a need that not even Miller addressed: a single-volume, readable introduction to English and American Puritanism. Winship has succeeded in that aim, and if I were looking to assign one up-to-date scholarly book on the Puritans to students, Hot Protestants would be it. But Winship still labors in Miller’s shadow, and his book left me wondering why Winship thinks we ought to learn about the Puritans. On that question, Miller was never in doubt, even if his answers might not always satisfy a Christian audience.Why Should We Know About the Puritans?
Puritanism doesn’t suffer today under quite the same stigma it did in the early 20th century, when the acerbic journalist H. L. Mencken assigned virtually all of America’s ills to the spirit of the Puritans. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” But today’s students still need to know why they should study or even respect the Puritans, and in Hot Protestants Winship gives us little guidance. Instead, he takes many swipes at the Puritans—perhaps in the name of readability—that may confirm students’ initial dismissiveness toward them.
Winship is no superficial pop writer, though. His command of the Puritan story in England and America is authoritative, and I’m not aware of another book that so seamlessly tells the story in such a fluid, comparative way. He does it through a number of capsule biographies of Puritan men and women, whose own stories testify to the compelling power of Puritan piety.
One of my favorites is the account of the conversion of John Bunyan, the “wandering mender of pots and pans” from Bedford, England (147). Bunyan was transformed by a conversation with a small group of Puritan women at the Bedford Congregationalist church. “The Bedford women spoke with such joy, fluency in the Bible, and signs of grace that he felt he had arrived in a new, unsettling world,” Winship writes. Bunyan came to realize his need for salvation, and grew ever-more confident “in Christ’s capacity and intention to save him” (148). Bunyan eventually became a preacher in an illegal house church, and when he wouldn’t promise to stop preaching, he landed in jail for 12 years. There he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, which became arguably the greatest classic of Puritan faith and one of the most seminal texts of English literature.
We see in Bunyan’s story the compelling nature of Puritan faith, but Winship repeatedly intervenes to remind us why many readers today would (should?) find the Puritans aggravating and unpleasant. They were “godly busy-bodies” (18). They were sometimes almost terroristic, operating in church-takeover plots “like activated sleeper cells” (45). Mao-like, the Puritans sought to lead a “cultural revolution” (161). Observing that the Puritans (like virtually all English people in the New World) didn’t condemn slavery per se, Winship notes that “the Old Testament’s God was fine with slavery itself” (168). And he goes out of his way to note that Harvard College wouldn’t admit women (169), an unexceptional truth in a time when few men and no women went to college anywhere in England or America, a fact that wouldn’t change until 150 years after Puritanism’s end.
The book has no conclusion, which would seem stranger if it didn’t confirm the impression that Winship is simply not certain about why the Puritans matter. The movement did leave “cultural baggage” to later generations of New Englanders, an assortment of traits including “anti-Catholicism, high intellectual endeavor, communitarianism, visionary zeal, coercive, moralistic evangelism, and a participatory culture in church and state” (292). All those traits did characterize the Puritans, or at least some of them, some of the time. The Puritans themselves, however, would have seen most of those traits as serving higher ends: the glory of God and the cause of true Reformed Christianity.
At their best, documentary films document some phenomenon of culture or nature that needs to be seen, reckoned with, learned from. A great documentary bears witness to truths that need to be told and stories that need to be remembered, especially in a cultural zeitgeist as noisy and forgetful as ours.
Emanuel is a powerful documentary, for all these reasons and more. In an American society where the ubiquity of mass shootings and racially motivated violence leave some tragically numb to their evil, films like this are urgent and important.
Emanuel reminds us. It reminds us of what happened at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, and what happened two days later in a courtroom. It reminds us of the evils inflicted on black Americans for centuries. It reminds us of the ongoing pain of racism and the often-scandalous power of forgiveness. It reminds us to not dismiss this massacre as just the isolated action of one unhinged young white supremacist—but to reckon with the sort of society and the web of ideas that could lead a 21-year-old man to enter a historic black church, sit through a Bible study with mostly older congregants, and then, when the group closed their eyes to pray, take out a gun and slaughter them.
Take your small group, your friends and family. Churches: Buy out theaters.
The film, produced by Steph Curry and Viola Davis, will show in U.S. theaters on June 17 and 19. Go see it. Take your small group, your friends and family. Churches: Buy out theaters. Emanuel is difficult to watch, yes. But it’s essential viewing.Radical Grace
Emanuel is directed by Brian Ivie, whose 2015 documentary The Drop Box was a moving look at South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak’s efforts to save abandoned babies. Like that film, Emanuel looks at Christians whose faith prompts radical responses to tragic circumstances.
Ivie focuses on a handful of Emanuel survivors and family members of those killed. These include Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel, was killed in the massacre and who wrenchingly describes hearing that her mother didn’t make it out of the Bible study alive. “What hurt the most is I didn’t get a chance to see her,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me see my mama.”
We listen as Polly Sheppard recounts the terrifying moment when, hiding under a table, Roof pointed the gun at her and asked, “Did I shoot you yet?” To which she replied, “No.” Roof then said, “I’m not going to. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”
Felicia Sanders shares a harrowing story of surviving by lying on the ground with her 5-year-old granddaughter and playing dead, even as her 26-year-old son Tywanza tried to reason with Roof, telling him he didn’t have to this. Roof shot and killed Tywanza, the youngest of the attack’s nine victims, which also included pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Sanders had to watch her son as he took his last breath.
These three women—Nadine, Polly, and Felicia—are the heart of the film. Despite the traumas they’ve endured, each bears witness to the amazing and costly grace of Christ that leads them to love and forgive their enemy. Each finds solace in the truth of their church’s name. God is with us. He is the God who suffered and bled and felt the scourge of hate. He is with us in suffering. And yet even as he suffered, even on the cross, he said of his killers, “Father, forgive them.”
God is with us. He is the God who suffered and bled and felt the scourge of hate. He is with us in suffering. And yet even as he suffered, even on the cross, he said of his killers, ‘Father, forgive them.’
At Roof’s bond hearing, 48 hours after the shooting, Nadine addressed her mother’s killer by saying, “I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Felicia addressed her son’s killer by admitting her deep pain (“Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.”) but also saying to Roof: “As we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.” In the film Polly talks about how she didn’t want Roof to receive the death sentence. “I wanted him to live so maybe he could repent, turn his life around.”Bigger Picture
Not all Emanuel victims forgave Roof. The documentary is wise to acknowledge that some felt the quick forgiveness was too easy, dodging or minimizing deeper questions about racism. Does the “feel good” forgiveness aspect of this story let society off the hook for the uglier realities it exposes? Ivie leans into this question in Emanuel, even as he rightly celebrates the beauty of forgiveness and the unique responses to suffering and hate that Christianity enables.
The film does a good job situating the Emanuel massacre in a bigger picture, even as it focuses intimately on those most closely affected. Emanuel incorporates the voices of an array of historians, scholars, politicians, and activists—including Walter Strickland of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—who speak to the larger contexts of the black church, “Mother” Emanuel in particular, and Charleston’s fraught racial history.
The context makes the attack on Emanuel all the more painful. This wasn’t just a random location. It was a black church, a cultural institution described in the film as “a home away from home” and “that space where the black community had a sense of ownership.” As one character remarks, “If you want to hurt someone or something, you go after what matters to them.” That’s why massacres at houses of worship, like the recent New Zealand mosque attack or Sri Lanka church attack, feel especially heinous. To desecrate sacred spaces in this way is to pierce the heart of a community’s identity and place of peace.
To desecrate sacred spaces in this way is to pierce the heart of a community’s identity and place of peace.
This is especially true of the shooting at Emanuel, which isn’t just a random black church. It’s the oldest AME church and first freestanding black church in the South, an enduring symbol of black strength and resilience in the face of oppression.
And Charleston isn’t just a random city. It was the main port city of the slave trade, the Civil War’s origin point, and a city whose highly charged racial history included the Denmark Vesey slave revolt, countless church burnings, and—just a few months before the Emanuel massacre—the shooting of Walter Scott.Haunting Questions
Into this history enters Dylann Roof, a young man prosecutors said was “self-radicalized” online—formed into a terrorist by an evil internet culture where existing tendencies (be it racism or nationalism or any other ism) can be inflamed by all manner of conspiracy theories and niche propaganda.
The film shows haunting surveillance footage of Roof entering and exiting Emanuel church before and after the massacre—a massacre he reportedly told investigators he almost didn’t carry out when the Bible study members were so kind to him.
Yet most haunting are the questions that linger about Roof and his motives. To be sure, his evil acts are his alone in the sense that every individual is personally culpable for the sins he commits. But we can affirm this even as we consider the contexts that formed Roof and what we can do—what we must do, out of love for our neighbor—to address them.
What can we do about the toxicity of the internet and the way it can be a breeding ground for all manner of grievances, prejudices, and proclivities? How can the church lead in efforts to model empathy and fellowship across the lines of race and politics? How can white Christian leaders confront subtle and overt white supremacy in their communities? How might we diffuse the fear, anger, and denial that often makes conversations about race so unproductive?
These are just some of the questions Emanuel raises. Their complexity may scare off some Christians. Others might be exhausted by the conversation. Still more may be tempted to watch Emanuel and find its depiction of a tragedy compelling, but of no practical relevance to their lives. If so, that would only compound the tragedy.
Shona Murray was always a type-A extrovert. She was a doctor, a pastor’s wife, a homeschooling mom, and an enthusiastic Christian. She didn’t consider herself the type who would ever experience depression. When it hit, it hit her hard.
Shona now understands the path of relentless responsibilities and physical exhaustion that led to her crash. It took a major depression to help her see that asking for help is a normal and good part of the Christian life. To learn more about burnout, how to avoid it or come through it, check out the book Shona wrote with her husband, David: Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands.
- How to Counsel Burned-Out Christians About Anti-Depressants
- What to Do When Your Spouse Is Struggling With Depression
The Muslim world has not been without its share of missionaries throughout history. Many faithful men and women have left hearth and home and given their lives to see the Middle East evangelized. We praise God for these brothers and sisters.
And while that’s true, there remains immense gospel need in this part of the world. I believe there is something lacking in our efforts to reach the Muslim world—and that thing is often faithful, gospel-preaching churches. At one level, this is understandable given the historical realities of the region. But this part of the world is changing such that this need no longer be the case.
I’ve yet to meet a missionary here who doesn’t share my desire to see churches planted among the unreached—specifically Muslims. But for most, this seems to be a distant dream—a prize yet to be obtained, maybe only just visible on the horizon of the future.
In most cases today, churches are being planted only after years, if not decades, of evangelism and discipleship. In the current state of affairs, the church tends to follow as a consequence of the gospel instead of an attractive and compelling argument for it.
We have a God ordained missional instrument to make the gospel of Christ known in the Muslim world. Her name is the Bride of Christ.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional missions strategies: doing the hard work of learning language, connecting with local people, and sharing the gospel in the context of relationship. We must continue doing this (often slow) work in difficult places. But I am suggesting that we add something to that strategy.
You see, we have a God-ordained missional instrument to make the gospel of Christ known in the Muslim world. Her name is the bride of Christ. I’m not speaking simply from theological conviction, though I’m convinced the concept is biblical. I’ve also witnessed such things.Neglected Instrument
A few years ago, a church-planting team was sent out from an existing church here on the Arabian Peninsula. I had the privilege of leading this team. We were sent by an English-speaking church in this region to plant another English-speaking church here. Most of us didn’t learn Arabic, nor any trendy new evangelism strategies. We simply went with the ambition to be the church.
To this day, we gather together weekly around the Word of God—we preach, sing, and pray it. We strive to love another by the Spirit’s power. We bear one another’s burdens, mourn one another’s losses, and rejoice in one another’s victories. We don’t divide ourselves by ethnic, racial or socioeconomic differences, but unite around our great commonality: Jesus Christ.
This is nothing radical or new. But guess what? People notice.
I’ve sat with many seekers and not-yet-believers during my time in Arabia, a number of them Muslims. The consistent thing that drew them into gospel conversation was the church—a community comprised of dozens of nationalities from every economic level loving one another and pursuing Jesus together. It’s simple, yet beautiful. This is exactly what the gospel does. It creates unity in diversity.
But I fear it’s a missional instrument we too often neglect.Global World, Global Church
Many assume that Muslim nations are closed to an overt Christian witness. And yes, there are predominately Muslim countries largely closed to Christians. I’m not ignoring that. But there are also many nations where Christians are largely free to gather and worship Christ. This is true in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
In an increasingly global and urban world, the local church—meeting primarily in a trade language like English—offers real benefits to our mission strategy among Muslims. A strategy we hope will ultimately lead to the planting of healthy, sustainable Arabic-speaking churches.
Here are a few things the local church does.1. Models the inclusivity of the gospel.
I’ve heard people liken the cities of the Arabian Peninsula to a (poorly) tossed salad. Unlike a mixing pot, people stay in their clumps. Tomatoes stay with tomatoes, carrots with carrots, cucumbers with cucumbers, and so on. This is generally true.
Although this oil-rich peninsula has gathered people from every corner of the earth, most have remained neatly divided along ethnic and economic lines. Racism, classism, and inequality are largely accepted as part of life here—diversity and integration don’t just “happen.” But in the local church, the gospel’s power shines as these divides are abolished in Christ.
One of the first Muslim-background men we saw turn to Christ had come to the Peninsula assuming he’d find solidarity with his Muslim brothers. The opposite proved true. He wasn’t from the “right” country or class, and this deficiency was clearly communicated to him, even in the mosque. He was devalued and excluded.
But then he met the church. He saw a community where men and women, black and white, rich and poor, were all treated with dignity. All were equally loved—not on the basis of their identity or heritage, but on the basis of Christ’s finished work on their behalf. It wasn’t that our brother was just told that all were welcome; he saw and experienced that welcome, and it changed his life.2. Demonstrates Sprit-filled community.
Whether in corporate worship or personal relationships, Christian community depends on the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit—which results in our singing to one another, our giving thanks to God, and our mutual submission (Eph. 5:18–21). How will we display these things to the nations unless we are gathered together in the church?
An Arab friend looked at me after we read Acts 4 together and said, ‘next time we get together, tell me about your church.’
An Arab friend looked at me after we read Acts 4 together and said, “Next time we get together, tell me about your church.” A little confused, I asked what he meant. He answered, “You Christians have something different. I go to the mosque. We have a community. But when I visited your church, I saw something altogether different. The way you relate to and love one another is unique. I sense you have something we don’t, and I want you to tell me about it.” Friend, his name is the Holy Spirit.3. Mobilizes Christians for mission.
I love missionaries. I love that many men and women have left the comforts of their homeland and crossed cultures to share the gospel with the least reached. Their stories are an encouragement to our souls. But there are still so few. In reality, those willing to go are limited, as are the financial resources to send them. What if we could equip the Christians already living among the least reached to do the work of mission through the local church?
One African brother came to the Peninsula to find work. He was a young Christian when we met him, with little concern for God’s mission. But God began to grow him. Over time, he came to see the connection between his faith and his vocation: he was working in a place where very few people knew Jesus. Shortly thereafter, this brother began bringing a Muslim co-worker to church. Hardly a week goes by without both of them sitting there as the gospel is preached.
Now, this brother didn’t have to go through formal training or raise funds. He doesn’t have a list of partner churches. But he is active in the work of missions among the unreached. Even better, there are thousands like him who, if they were connected to a healthy church and discipled well, could be mobilized for the spread of the gospel on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
Let’s not wait to introduce the world—and yes, the Muslim world—to the church. Let’s plant churches that plant churches to this end.
Stressed at the thought of my anxiety-inducing to-do list, I decided to test the popular meditation and mindfulness app Calm, which has been downloaded 12 million times to help people de-stress. I click on the “chasing wonder” thumbnail and am soon immersed in the sights and sounds of a gushing lake, surrounded by trimmed fir trees and dwarfed by snow-capped mountains.
Meditation-via-app has become fashionable recently, popularized by the likes of Lionel Messi, Novak Djokovic, and Katy Perry, who practice it to boost their performance. Historically, however, meditation had different purposes. The practice was tethered toward encountering the transcendent.
How has the use of meditation change in our secular age? And why, despite its ease and popularity, does it leave us impoverished?Overstressed World
The proliferation of meditation apps like Calm and Headspace has become a $14 billion business because it addresses a bigger societal problem: Work is stressing us out more than ever. The increasing pressure and burnout we face at work stems from a new religion that Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson calls “workism”—the doctrine that work is “not only necessary to economic production but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
When work becomes the centerpiece of existence, it will inevitably beckon us to strive harder and will set us up for exhaustion. This is the trap I fell into, in my late-20s. Hustle-Eat-Sleep-Repeat became the pernicious beat I marched to as I chased the secular standard of perfection in London. Days felt like a race to the finish line, such that even lunch breaks were tinged with guilt.
Times are changing. Today it’s common to find a crowd of hipster employees sitting in zen-like poses, meditating on the boardroom floor during lunch breaks. This is no longer considered weird. “Especially in Silicon Valley, it’s surprising if somebody doesn’t meditate,” explained Calm CEO Alex Tew, whose app boasted 30,000 new users per day in 2018. Employers are also aware of the workism problem and recognize that employees need space to de-stress and meditate. Many testify to the benefits, including Perry: “I meditate before I write a song, before I perform. I feel my brain open up and I feel my most sharp.”Gospel of Self-Optimization
It’s noteworthy that the most popular meditation app, Calm, draws heavily from nature, immersing users in an ecosystem of natural beauty. For a moment, the grandeur of mountains and the sounds of crashing waves lift our heads above the doldrums of our day and remind us there’s more to life than what our strict enclosures offer. There’s something about the vastness of creation that shrinks the self, kindles spiritual questions, and puts our day-to-day problems in perspective.
But such experiences are flattened when meditation is reduced to a life hack—an efficiency tool to help transform every minute of our day into economic value. It’s entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (who once worked 120 hours a week) who admonish us to sacrifice at the altar of work, since “nobody ever changed the world on a 40-hour week.” This belief fosters a culture in which burnout is celebrated and work is worshiped. But inside we all know this suppresses what’s important, reducing wonder and beauty to mere cogs for utilitarian ends.
Historically, the practice of meditation and wondering at the beauty of the world moved people to upward belief, a curiosity about higher things and a sense of transcendence beyond the self. But in the age of meditation apps and “mindfulness” techniques, contemplation—like much else in our flattened, buffered, secular frame—is re-framed in terms of immanence and personal life-enhancement. Rather than pulling us out of the orbit of self into higher ends, things like nature are pulled into our orbit to be harnessed for our ends.
Meditation has become a life hack to the gospel of self-optimization. Akin to an eerie scene from a Black Mirror episode, we’re powered up from meditation and optimized as human capital to increase our net productivity. Meditation apps are just one more tool in our toolbox to help raise a generation of lean, mean, production machines. But it’s having the opposite effect. By forcing even nature’s spacious, awe-inspiring beauty into the claustrophobic confines of personal productivity, we further reinforce the notion that the world revolves around us and our optimized utility. That is a heavy burden indeed, and it’s not making us happier.
Meditation apps are just one more tool in our toolbox to help raise a generation of lean, mean, production machines.Mindfulness That Points Upward
One of the earliest forms of mindfulness in the Bible was practiced by Israel’s King David more than 3,000 years ago. When he considered creation around him, unmediated by technology, he contemplated its wonder. David didn’t know then what NASA tells us now about our tiny place in a vast cosmos: We are one of 7.7 billion people who inhabit Earth. The earth and sun are part of the solar system. Our sun is one of at least one 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. The Milky Way galaxy is just one of a hundred billion galaxies in the universe.
But even without knowing the mind-blowing scale that science has since discovered, David knows just by observing nature with his senses that it is vastly bigger than he is:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them? (Ps. 8:3–4)Mindful God
We are not unique snowflakes. We are literally the lowest numerical denominator possible—nano blips to the minus nth degree. Yet the Creator “crowned us with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). The implication is this: We don’t have an impersonal designer, but one who is mindful of us despite our smallness.
When we detach meditation from a Godward orientation and use it only for self-optimization, we limit our ability to be mindful of the God who is mindful of us. We numb ourselves to the beauty around that points to the ultimate Beauty—God himself. We risk ignoring the divine signs that Paul describes: “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).
Contrary to what meditation apps and their soothing waterfall sounds might suggest, nature does not exist to optimize personal productivity. It exists to point us to a personal God, without whom we will always be spiritually malnourished.
I’m writing about caring for terminally ill church members while going through treatment for an incurable non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’ve been coming to terms with the reality that, apart from divine intervention, my life expectancy is much shorter than I had anticipated for decades.
No doubt, I see terminal illness from a new angle. That, as a gift from the Lord, has helped shape my thoughts on serving the terminally ill.
Honestly, visiting a home or hospital with a terminal patient can be uncomfortable. We may say the wrong thing. We may fret about how we’ll react when we see a friend’s grim physical decline. Or we may grow anxious that we won’t have the answer to questions a family member asks. Those are reasonable fears, but not reasonable enough to keep us from serving those who need gospel ministry more than ever.
There’s something about vulnerable, compassionate service in the name of Christ, dependent on the help of the Spirit, that allays such fears. The Lord has called elders to shepherd the flock, even those sheep facing the immediacy of death. How should we shepherd terminally ill church members?
Let’s consider seven aspects of shepherding the terminally ill.1. Shepherd them the way you would want to be shepherded.
As my wife and I walked the long corridors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where I was receiving treatment, I commented, “There are so many terminal patients here.” She reminded me, “We’re all terminal.” Living to be 80 or 90 may seem like a long time, but it’s a speck of dust compared to eternity. As we seek to serve those that may be much closer to death than we are now, let’s keep in mind our own mortality. How would we want to be shepherded in such times?
You want someone who’s compassionate, who seeks to enter into the anguish you’re facing rather than just wanting to check another duty off a to-do list. The terminally ill need someone who’s realistic about what lies ahead, not a well-wisher who keeps repeating, “I just think everything is going to be okay.” Yes, everything will be all right when we see Jesus, but right now it’s not. Face reality with this suffering saint.2. Shepherd them with compassion, eye contact, gentleness, and touch.
Terminal illness can bring an almost non-human sense to the suffering person. The way that person had lived for so long has suddenly changed. Now they live with IVs, beeping machines, bedside monitors, lack of mobility, too-frequent visits from the phlebotomist, medical personnel coming and going, the weakening of body and mind, shortness of breath, and struggles to do what should be normal. The appetite has waned or disappeared. Kidneys start to fail. Skin color changes.
What do they need in such a time?
They need your focus, touch, and sensitivity. Unsightly things and unpleasant odors may be around, but you’re there to serve with love and compassion.
Years ago, I got a call that one of our members was nearing death. I drove to the home where she lay on a hospital bed, receiving hospice care. The sights and odors were enough to turn my stomach, but God gave grace to stay and serve this dear lady and her husband until the last breath. I had to get over my squeamishness, realizing how self-centered it would be to do a pop-in visit when her husband needed me to help spiritually and physically at such a time.
So what do you do in such cases? You give eye-to-eye focus. You hold a hand as you talk and pray. You speak with tenderness. You look for ways to serve. You treat them as a suffering saint who will soon see Jesus.3. Shepherd them with gospel truth.
It’s always appropriate to talk about Christ. Reading Gospel portions breathes peace into a weary soul (e.g. John 5; 6; 10; 11). We derive great comfort from the faithfulness and sufficiency of Jesus revealed in the gospel (2 Tim. 1:8–12; Titus 2:11–14).
If there is no comfort in the gospel, there is no real comfort anywhere.
So speak about what Christ has done (John 19). Rehearse the effectiveness of his work (Heb. 10), the power of his death over sin (Rom. 3), and the triumph of his resurrection over death (1 Cor. 15).
Talk about how nothing more can be added to what Jesus has finished (Gal. 2). Reflect on his faithfulness to bear us up until the end (Rom. 8). If there is no comfort in the gospel, there is no real comfort anywhere. Rely on the sufficiency of Christ to help that suffering saint walk the last steps into the arms of the Savior.4. Shepherd them with a view to eternity with hope fixed on Christ.
Here’s where we need to lay groundwork in our weekly exposition of God’s Word. So much of Scripture focuses on eternity. We’re a generation far more accustomed to thinking about living than about life’s brevity and the glory of eternity.
If we’ve worked through passage after passage that helps us to think about death and eternity, then our bedside conversations with a dying saint will be spent returning to those passages. We read these texts, offer brief comments, maybe even share an excerpt from a past sermon that this brother or sister has heard, share in the joy of what lies ahead, and help them ponder the staggering reality of seeing the glory of Christ. If you’re not excited about seeing Christ and spending eternity with him, it will be quite evident when you icily discuss eternity.5. Shepherd them toward assurance of salvation.
When someone’s body and mind is weakened in the face of death, when a long life narrows to a few brief days, expect the adversary to attack. Satan never seems to back off, finding fiendish pleasure in denying believers joy in Christ. So talk about assurance of salvation with the dying saint. Read Romans 8 and John 10 with joy. (Greg Gilbert’s new book, Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation, is helpful medicine.)
Gently ask questions and make comments about relying on Christ alone. Help to them see that Jesus is faithful to keep his own for eternity, that nothing can separate us from his love.6. Shepherd them toward joy in God’s sovereignty.
I’ve been helped over and over by Revelation 5, where John gives us a picture of the sovereign rule of Jesus over the details of our lives—including our suffering and dying. When John explained that the Lamb “came and took the book out of the right hand of him who sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:7), he gave assurance to suffering saints that affliction is never in vain. Everything is on schedule to display the goodness and grace of God.
Everything is on schedule to display the goodness and grace of God.
Romans 8:28–39 details the way “God is for us” despite dark circumstances. Knowing his love for his people breathes comfort into that brother or sister who needs to be reminded that the loving Lord is on the throne.7. Shepherd them with Scripture-soaked prayers, good hymnody, and stories of saints finishing well.
Prayer must always be part of your service to the terminally ill. Let your prayers reflect the application of Scripture you’ve read and discussed. You want to help this struggling saint visualize God’s faithfulness to his promises. Include them in your pastoral prayers so the entire congregation joins in interceding for them during this critical time. Let them know that though they are weak and may find prayer difficult, the body is praying with them and the Spirit is helping them in their weakness (Rom. 8:26–27).
Singing or reading a hymn at the bedside may also offer special comfort. Sing “He Will Hold Me Fast,” “Be Still My Soul,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “And Can It Be,” “The Power of the Cross,” “In Christ Alone,” or other great hymns. Bring along a couple more members to join you in singing with that brother or sister.
Borrow lines from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that help to tell the story of crossing over into eternal glory. Read portions from the Puritans, who seem to be in a category of their own in visualizing the glories of eternity. Tell about Henry Martyn or Eric Liddell or David Brainerd or Robert Murray M’Cheyne or Charles Spurgeon—or any number of believers as they faced death.Help Them Cross Over
My wife and I visited with one of our oldest members the night before she faced serious heart surgery. We didn’t know that the next morning during the surgery she would see her beloved Savior face-to-face. But we talked about the Lord Jesus, his faithfulness, eternity ahead, the joy of hope fixed on Christ, the beauty of heaven, and the deepest satisfactions found in knowing Jesus.
She was terminal, and we didn’t know it.
Yet the conversation, the Scripture discussed, the reflections on recent sermons, and the prayers all filled her with joy. Hours later she saw with clearer eyes, felt with deeper emotions, and heard with more delight the sights and sounds we’d attempted to talk and pray about together.
Our ministry to the terminally ill extends what we’ve been doing from the pulpit each week by bringing it home in fullest application. Let’s never be afraid to linger with the dying in order to help them cross to the other side ahead of us.
A friendship grew between David Powlison and me when I was teaching at Westminster Seminary from 1984 through 1989. During that time we were on the session of New Life OPC. (As a PCA minister I had no vote and was there by invitation, but I was very much part of the elder community, a formidable one that included many professors from the seminary.) I also connected with David through the practical theology department of the seminary. At that time it included David and Ed Welch and John Bettler, Harvie Conn, Roger and Edna Greenway, Bill Krispin of the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS), and George Fuller, who was the president.
David was working toward his PhD at Penn, re-thinking the biblical counseling movement, of which he was (in my opinion) the “thought leader.” I think David stayed true to the original vision of Jay Adams, namely, to be critical of modern psychology’s presuppositions and its medicalizing of personal problems that had (yes, sometimes) biological roots but often moral-spiritual roots as well.
The trouble with biblical counseling at the time was that, when it chalked up many personal problems to “sin,” it did so behavioristically. It tended to see all sin as individual, voluntary, and deliberate—something you could change with an exercise of self-discipline. I think David’s groundbreaking work on idolatry showed that the Bible spoke to both (a) corporate, systemic evil in family and social systems and (b) how sin distorts the inner life, creating denial, false identities, a “delusional field,” and harmful motivations. David put the biblical teaching about the deceitfulness of the heart back into the center of biblical counseling.
David put the biblical teaching about the deceitfulness of the heart back into the center of biblical counseling.
Now, I am no expert on the history of Christian counseling, but I had many conversations with David during those years and I realized that he, John Bettler, and Ed Welch were enlarging the foundation for the biblical counseling movement in a great way.
David’s seminal article, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” was a major influence on my ministry, both as a preacher and a pastor. After reading it I began learning about idolatry and finding a great deal about it in the Puritans, in Jewish thought of course, and in cultural critique. Counterfeit Gods grew directly out of that essay.
I can’t add much to what others are saying—about how David was unparalleled as a wise, gentle, yet truthful counselor. I could go on about that, but others are doing a good job. Kathy and I often said that we would have gone to David as a counselor before anyone else we knew in the world.
He will be deeply missed as friend, counselor, and teacher.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Dean Inserra—lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, books that have most influenced his thinking about ministry, and more.What books are on your nightstand?
I was encouraged a few months ago by a pastor friend to pick an author “outside of my camp” and become as familiar with his/her works as possible. At first I rolled my eyes, thinking about how we all only have so much time to read. Spending that precious time reading all the published works of someone outside my tribe didn’t sound like the wisest use of my time.
But I decided to give it a try, and since I had a Methodist background as a child, I chose William Willimon from Duke Divinity School as my author from outside the camp. Reading Willimon has introduced me to a great deal of pastoral wisdom and has also allowed me to become familiar with his narrative style of preaching. It has been helpful to see how different people communicate the gospel. Works of his I am currently reading or have recently read are
- Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry
- The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon
- Resident Aliens
- A Peculiar Prophet, a collection of writings about Willimon and excerpts from his books and sermons.
I highly recommend taking the time to become familiar with an author who influences a lot of the church but whom you haven’t been exposed to. It has introduced me to a whole new segment of the Christian faith.
In my theological persuasion, I currently am reading anything I can get my hands on from Matthew Barrett of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book Salvation by Grace is fantastic. I’m about to start a book he edited on justification and his newest book, None Greater.
On my bookshelf is also The Life of John Calvin by W. J. Grier, which is a great introduction to Calvin’s life. I’m going to recommend it to the students in our college ministry. I’m also reading The Gospel of Our King by Bruce Ashford and Heath Thomas. I’m not sure if anyone currently in evangelical life is more read and researched in public theology than Bruce Ashford, and I’m really looking forward to this book.What are your favorite fiction books?
I don’t read much fiction (I know, gasp!). I enjoy reading memoirs on American travel and especially of the old South. My wife really enjoys reading Rick Bragg, and she passes books by him on to me. I also read a lot of books about baseball. My favorite book about baseball is Baseball and Memory by Lee Congdon. I get my baseball book recommendations from a podcast called Baseball by the Book.What books have most influenced your thinking about ministry and pastoral care?
- The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer
- Seeing through New Eyes by David Powlison on pastoral care
- The Mission of God by Christopher Wright immediately comes to mind regarding overall ministry
When I was in my 20s and about to plant City Church in my hometown of Tallahassee, I had a passion to plant a theologically orthodox local church in my community that also cared a great deal about reaching the lost. I could never understand why so many Bible-believing and gospel-preaching churches were in such a secluded subculture that there was no real connection to the lost. I wanted my conservative theology to fuel mission in our city. I had a hard time 12 years ago finding someone who could articulate what I had been desiring. I walked through LifeWay and saw a book called Confessions of a Reformission Rev by Mark Driscoll. He wrote about “reaching out without selling out,” and although I approached things a lot differently from Driscoll, his writing on that topic resonated with me and helped me see that it was possible to be the church we were envisioning.What’s the last great book you read?
None Like Him by Jen Wilkin
Reaching cultural Christians is a true passion of mine, and one of the main tenets of cultural Christianity is a generic or vague theism. Jen’s book is one I can and do put in the hands of my friends. It’s such a helpful book on seeing the God of the Bible, not a “big man upstairs” or distant force that’s so prevalent in cultural Christian thought. From content, readability, and Jen’s engaging writing style, I believe this is one of the better books recently written.What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
Mark Dever’s two volumes Promises Made and Promises Kept. They have been helpful for my preaching ministry. I don’t preach in the style of Mark Dever (who can?), but they helped me to understand what it looks like on the practical level to preach books of the Bible through the lens of gospel centrality and biblical theology. I would encourage everyone to have these on their shelves and to use them for sermon prep.
I know I’m breaking the rules by having more than one here, but reading R. C. Sproul has been so foundational for me and helped me develop a love for theology. The Lord often uses people to perk an interest or cause a stir in our hearts, and Sproul has done that for me. My uncle gave me The Holiness of God for my 18th birthday and until then, I had never read a book in my life that wasn’t required for school or at bedtime with my parents when I was a little kid. Sproul’s classic truly rocked my world, and I couldn’t get enough. I think I read it in two days, which for a high-school senior was something. I’m currently taking a discipleship group through Sproul’s Chosen by God, and seeing their love for God grow as they think about God’s sovereign grace has been rewarding for me to witness. Pastors need to be able to explain deep truths to regular ears. Reading Sproul helps me to do that, as I am much more an everyday guy than an intellectual.What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning that I really have to deliberately distinguish in my heart and mind between what is my American spin on Christianity, and what is actually the biblical model for the Christian life. Far too often I unintentionally see everything through comfortable American eyes, and I’m trying to make sure I’m not guilty of a laughable attempt of trying to conform Jesus to my image. I’m also learning that we can’t define Christian maturity and growing in Christlikeness apart from being part of his mission. I’m convinced that we are the most like Jesus when we’re following him into the world.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Michael Behe’s latest book—Darwin Devolves: The New Science about DNA That Challenges Evolution—without also touching on the commotion that ensues whenever this gentle Catholic puts his thoughts on paper. Under more ordinary circumstances, I’d consider myself too close a colleague to review the work, but since this is as much about defending the person as reviewing his book, who better to assume that role than a friend?
As for Darwin Devolves itself, I found it well worth reading. This second extension to his 1996 classic, Darwin’s Black Box (where he first outed himself as an advocate of intelligent design), argues that unguided mutation and natural selection are indeed able to adapt organisms to their environments, but only within strict limits. “The very same factors that promote diversity at the simplest levels of biology,” Behe observes, “actively prevent it at more complex ones” (38).
Moreover, if Behe—a biochemist and a founding senior fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture—is right, even small-scale evolutionary adjustments tend to be irreversible. Like tattoos, they involve commitment. Choose your sleeves carefully, because you get them only by giving up what you can’t get back. Likewise, the white “sleeves” that suit polar bears for more frigid climes than their brown-bear cousins were purchased at the cost of a damaged LYST gene, which can’t easily be repaired.Necessity of Design
This is but one of a many criticisms Behe levels against evolutionary theory. And, as these complaints stack up, I suspect some readers will see the book’s thrust as mainly negative. That would be a pity, because the main point is clearly positive. In declaring that “minor random variations around a designed blueprint . . . are severely limited in scope,” Behe is paving the way for the new idea that replaces the inadequate old one: “For new basic designs such as those at the level of family and above, additional information is necessary, information that is beyond the ability of mindless processes to provide” (169).
In other words, where the old theory drew only on unguided natural mechanisms, the new one absolutely requires the input of a superhuman intellect. Hence the commotion. By making the scientifically intriguing point that limited biological adaptation works only because living things were brilliantly designed to adjust in remarkable ways to their environments, Behe has placed himself in the thick of something more like a culture war than an intellectual debate.Scientific Groupthink
And that point compels us to consider the bigger picture. It’s possible that Behe will turn out to be incorrect in some respects, and yet I’m absolutely certain he isn’t wrong. I mean, what could be more right than a biochemist having the courage to lay out evidence in support of a new theory that runs counter to the old mainstream theory—a new theory that, if correct, would have more profound implications than anything the science establishment has to offer?
What’s wrong here is neither Behe nor his theory but rather the groupthink that stultifies scientific discourse on all matters of political or worldview significance, none more egregiously than biological origins.
The preemptive review of Darwin Devolves published in Science before the book’s release illustrates this problem well. The editors of this epitome of establishment journals were duty-bound to publish a hostile review, of course, and they did. The usual custom is for one person to review a book, but since opinion might look split if only one reviewer had opposed this one author, three people teamed up for task.
The authors of the review—Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski—are all fine scientists when they want to be, but you don’t need a biology degree to see what’s going on here. When a group of scientists opens their critique with an appeal to judicial authority (a decision by a U.S. federal judge), you know they aren’t really talking science.
It’s the familiar unconvincing stuff: complaining about Behe’s word choice; inflating their favorite evolutionary stories to the level of scientific demonstrations and their favorite critiques of Behe to the level of scientific refutations; piling on the standard he-failed-to-mention-this complaints.
They’re brandishing fake weapons. You aren’t supposed to read the papers they cite in their attempt to give the impression that Behe has been refuted. If you did, you’d find that impression false. In fact, you’d find all sorts of telling statements, like this: “Our inability to demonstrate any sequences that correspond to the full lengths of those vertebrate fibrinogen chains implies that a genuine fibrinogen does not exist in sea cucumbers.” Or like this: “This apparently recently assembled pathway does not function very well—pentachlorophenol hydroxylase is quite slow, and tetrachlorohydroquinone dehalogenase is subject to severe substrate inhibition.” Or like this (referring to how long it would take for an adaptation requiring a mere two mutations to evolve): “For humans . . . this type of change would take >100 million years.”
Instead of actually engaging the literature, the authors of the Science review engage in citation parading. They’re signaling that they’re on the academically respectable side of the issue—the anti-Behe side.Science Has a Moral Code
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has described the situation perfectly. Science, he observes, operates in a culture with its own moral code. The most reliable way to demonstrate this, Smith says, “is to violate moral norms and observe the reactions.” Behe has performed this experiment for us, and the result is exactly as Smith predicts. If you break the moral order in a Behe-like way, “at first you may be amusingly dismissed as nuts, unworthy of a serious response.” But if you “come to be perceived as serious and as garnering some legitimacy,” as Behe has, “then agents of the relevant moral order will come down on you with fierce emotion and retribution to eradicate the desecrating offense.”
This is the part of the scientific method they don’t teach in school—and the part that can quickly hinder progress on any hot-button issue. So when Behe refers to “the epidemic of tongue-tied Darwinists unable to explain how their theory might account for the real functional intricacies of life” (218), he’s not exaggerating. Neither Lents nor Swamidass nor Lenski can explain with the technical rigor expected in all serious scientific disciplines how natural causes can transform simple bacteria into everything we see around us. Indeed, nobody can.
It’s time to let science do its thing properly, then. Like it or not, Behe has offered an interpretation of the evidence that’s worth serious consideration. In fact, for the sake of science, you should like it, even if you don’t accept Behe’s conclusions. Because, as important as it is for scientists to be free to express their disagreement with Behe, it’s equally important that they do so in a way that acknowledges the invaluable contribution dissenters like Behe make.
You are safe; you are loved. You are safe; you are loved.
That’s what I heard the foster dad saying over and over in a comforting tone as he rocked a terrified, sobbing baby. My close friends began fostering the infant several months ago.
Even if the baby hadn’t arrived with a bruised face, he had other signs of trauma. He became hysterical when left in a crib for a moment or when hearing loud voices. The very people who should have protected him had harmed him. Although the bruises are long gone, the pain and trauma are not.
The local church, like my friends, should be a welcoming family to those who have undergone crisis. Brokenness in families, experiences with disordered authority, and histories of sexual abuse leave long-term damage because good things God created have been wrongly used. As believers, we need to understand this, so we can walk patiently with those affected by trauma, helping to bind up the brokenhearted.Broken Family
God lays out his beautiful intent for the family in Scripture: A parent is meant to love (Luke 15:11–32), protect (1 Cor. 10:13), provide (Matt. 6:8–15), discipline (Heb. 12:3–11), and teach (Ps. 32:8). God even depicts himself as a heavenly Father (1 Cor. 8:6).
But when a human parent, instead of pointing to the beauty of God, burns a child with cigarettes or abandons the family, there are profound consequences for that child.
Adopted children also experience the trauma of a broken family. Adoption is a way for healing to come through healthy relationship and love, but every adoption is preceded by loss. The adopted child has lost a parent through death, abandonment, removal by the state, or another circumstance.
In order to help, not harm, a church must understand this loss. When they understand the effect in an adopted child’s life, the church will pray and support the adoptive family in difficulty. Friends and family can facilitate a newly adopted child’s attachment by promoting the parents as the ones who provide affection, gifts, necessities, and discipline to the child. No adoptive situation is the same, so we need to attend to each with wisdom, love, and compassion.
Marriages aren’t always exempt from trauma either. The Scriptures describes Jesus Christ as a bridegroom. A husband is meant to nourish and cherish his bride as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:25–33), but what happens when instead he harms her through gaslighting or physical abuse? When the person who has covenanted to be one with you abuses you physically, there is no quick fix.
The church should absolutely be swift in securing and prioritizing the safety of a battered spouse, but the church must also be ready to walk through the long-term trauma inflicted by domestic abuse. Just because the spouse is out of danger doesn’t mean the trauma disappears.
Caring for those who suffer is always complex and specific, but you can move toward the suffering by believing them, helping them form a safety plan, giving them agency by letting them determine steps and a timeline to pursue justice, and providing needed shelter and finances.Disordered Authority
Authority is God-given. Whether in our state and nation, our workplace, our churches, or even our homes, God has blessed us with authorities to direct us. While worldly leadership may seek personal gain, godly leadership serves those under it (Matt. 20:25–26;1 Pet. 5:2–4). Christ uses his authority for his followers’ good (John 10:11).
When an authority seeks his or her own good at the expense of others or conflates good and evil, the souls of those under authority suffer. When people experience serious injustice at work, spiritual abuse at a church, or when their life is turned upside-down by a so-called Christian ministry, they might have a hard time trusting themselves or trusting authorities. They may be exhausted from all the confusion and soul-searching. Some may even walk away from the church.
We in the church should listen to and care for those affected by disordered authority even when they can seem skittish or distrusting. We should be ready to listen, but also be patient when sufferers are reluctant to share their stories. Abuse often trains people to believe they don’t have worth, agency, or the ability to think for themselves. So when you see their talent, gifting, or growth, encourage what you see. Trauma has disrupted their world; show them you aren’t going anywhere.Sexual Abuse
In Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, John Piper explains God’s purpose in creating sex: “[God’s] goal in creating human beings with personhood and passion was to make sure that there would be sexual language and sexual images that would point to the promises and the pleasures of God’s relationship to his people and our relationship to him.”
When what was meant to reveal God more fully is distorted, what happens? What happens when what was intended to bring oneness and intimacy is instead used hatefully and harmfully? Sexual abuse is life-shattering and alters daily practices and future relationships.
When someone shares with you they have been sexually abused, believe them. Survivors often wrongly blame themselves, so don’t ask questions that shame or blame. Weep with them (Rom. 12:15). Ask what would be helpful by way of contact, conversation, and support.
All of these traumatic experiences—broken families, abusive power, and sexual abuse—result in brokenness and alter lives. Jesus redeems these things, but everything isn’t perfect today. We should expect grief, distress, fear, and physical responses.
Rather than ignoring these situations or only briefly acknowledging them, the church needs to be prepared to meet the brokenness of this world head-on and to offer consistent safety and love. We must roll up our sleeves in Christlike service. Like my friends’ care for their traumatized foster child, this will entail long-term self-sacrifice and loving reassurances. We can reach out our hands to the wounded in the congregation and repeatedly remind them: “You are safe; you are loved.”
Did you know life was going to be this hard? I must have missed all the school assemblies devoted to disappointment and failure. I don’t remember any class on how to adult. At least sports were somewhat realistic. Neither the teams I rooted for nor the teams I played on experienced much success. More often than the thrill of victory I knew the agony of defeat. But ecstasy usually chased agony with a trip to McDonald’s for french fries and a McFlurry. Ah, the wonders of an 18-year-old metabolism.
A little later on I recited the vows. Better or worse. Richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. But how was I supposed to know what any of this meant at 22 years old? You’re too young to even understand you’re poor. Sickness? At our age? That only happens in summer blockbusters young men are obligated to take their girlfriends to see.
When life seems worse than expected, we’re told, “It gets better.”
But what if it doesn’t?
You need more than a cliché when real life dawns. Because life is hard. You don’t always know what will get you. You just know something will. Addiction. Depression. Unemployment. Student loans. Rejection. For me the hardship came in threes, one after the other: I couldn’t find a job. My wife and I couldn’t conceive a child. We lost much of our savings in the Great Recession.
I didn’t know if we were going to be okay. Nothing had been promised to me. Not the job I pursued after three years of additional graduate education. I left wonderful co-workers to follow what I thought to be God’s call. But what did I have to show for it? I hadn’t been promised a child, either. I wondered if my wife and I had waited too long. It seemed so easy for all our friends and family. They wanted a child, they got a child . . . or two or three or four. I wasn’t promised financial security. We made the right decision to buy a house. Until it wasn’t the right decision anymore. In fact it was the kind of decision you make at 23 that still haunts you at 33. And with student loans on top of it all, and no promise of a lucrative career, I didn’t know how to provide for the kids we couldn’t have.
When life seems worse than expected, we’re told, ‘It gets better.’ But what if it doesn’t?
I couldn’t change my circumstances. And that was the hardest part for me. I’m a fixer. A planner. I had been taught as a child that if you work hard enough, you can reach your goals. And for the most part that advice proved true. When I worked hard, good things happened. Until they didn’t. I had been responsible. I had been discerning. I had been diligent. No matter. The effect would have been the same if I had slacked off at work, binged on Netflix instead of studying, and gambled away my inheritance on those bad sports teams I still love.
What do you do next when your life’s motto turns out to be a lie? If you’re like me, first you turn to despair. I didn’t handle things well. I was lost. And the more I looked inside myself for answers and solutions, the more frustrated I grew. I found no resolution. I found no peace. After all, I’m the one who got myself into this mess. Why did I think I could get out of it by the same way? I wasn’t in control. And that was the hardest part of all for me to handle.
I learned there are many paths to lose your way. And only one way to find it.My Shepherd
Throughout this ordeal I knew myself to be a Christian. God had shocked me at age 15 with an experience of his grace. I wish I had the proper words to explain it to you. I just remember that one day I was a brooding teenager who didn’t understand himself and didn’t know how to fit in. And the next day I knew joy and belonging. I’m not sure at the time if I comprehended much more. At some level I finally felt the truth of what I had previously only been told: that Jesus loved me and had forgiven my sins, so I will live with him forever.
This conversion surprised me, because all I had known of church to this point was begrudging participation. I couldn’t wait to graduate from church. I didn’t understand the fuss. There are many good ways to spend your Sunday. Sleeping. Watching football. More sleeping. Unless this Christianity thing is real. But it sure didn’t seem real to most of the folks I knew at church. Why bother with the charade of dressing up and dragging yourself out of the house to hear old songs and a short message of questionable relevance? Jesus might have risen from the dead on the third day. But we didn’t know where to find him. Or bother to look very hard.
So it caught me, my friends, and my family off guard when suddenly I knew Jesus lived in my heart by faith (Eph. 3:17). And I was happy. That was the weirdest thing. I’ve always been known as a fairly serious person, even as a young child. It’s not easy for me to make fast friends through small talk. Jesus, though, made me happy. I felt as though I had found myself and the way I was meant to be. The truth is that I had been lost in myself, but Jesus had come to find me.
In my church growing up we had a big, beautiful stained-glass window in the back. Jesus held a shepherd’s rod in one hand and cradled a little lamb in the other. It’s the kind of symbolism you take for granted if your earliest memories include the church. But it’s understandably confusing if you’re reading the Bible for the first time and wondering about all these seemingly outdated images of God as a shepherd. Probably the most famous example comes from Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
We see here an image of a God who goes before his people and walks beside his people. The psalmist, David, understands God as an intimate companion, a reliable comfort. When Jesus arrives in human flesh in what we know as the New Testament, he picks up on this shepherd imagery of God. And he applies it to himself, as the good shepherd (John 10:11). But Jesus confuses the exact people who have been reading, reciting, and singing Psalm 23 their whole lives. You see, Jesus doesn’t approve of the religious leaders. And they don’t approve of him, because he prefers to hang out and eat with the sinners, the folks shunned by their polite religious society.
Jesus turns religious expectation on its head. The head of the line is actually the back. Only the lost will be found. Even the most insignificant person in the world’s eyes matters infinitely to God.
Jesus turns religious expectation on its head. The head of the line is actually the back. Only the lost will be found. Even the most insignificant person in the world’s eyes matters infinitely to God. Jesus explained by telling the religious leaders this story:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4–7)
Only the lost will be found. And the 99 who don’t realize they’re lost will never find their way home to God.Amazing Grace
I don’t know whether you know Jesus or not. I don’t know if you grew up in church or in another religion or in no religion at all. Whatever your background, I want to ask: Have you ever really met Jesus? Have you ever heard him speak in the pages of his Word? Do you know his good news, or do you only hear of him through his self-appointed spokesmen on cable news?
The Jesus of history—the Jesus who lives yesterday, today, and forever—might surprise you. He surprised everyone he met during his 30-some years walking among us. And no wonder. No one ever spoke like he did, then or now. He spoke with authority and yet also with the gentle touch of an intimate and sympathetic friend. He spoke with consistency, across the years and among different audiences. Our record of Jesus comes from witnesses who followed him for years. These witnesses believed in him, though they didn’t always understand him. Not until his death on the cross, his resurrection on the third day, and his subsequent appearances among them did they begin to truly grasp his purpose, his message, his gospel. But once they learned, they never forgot. Once they realized they were lost, he found them.
Jesus taught his followers many things during three years of public ministry. But none of it really made sense until they emerged from the daze of disappointment during those dark days in the shadow of the cross. After his resurrection, Jesus helped his followers discover their true selves. It had been his plan all along. And that plan involved his own death. He told them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there my servant will be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24–26)
By all appearances Jesus lost on the cross. His mission was thwarted. The religious leaders finally caught up to him. The Roman authorities added another notch to their gory, bloody belt. But Jesus tells us that’s not the way of God’s kingdom. Death brings life. If you live only for today, you’ll dread tomorrow.
Today we’re told to find ourselves by looking within. We’re told that love means accepting everyone else just as they are. But it doesn’t work.
You’d struggle to find any clearer teaching from Jesus, as confusing as he may seem to modern ears. Today we’re told to find ourselves by looking within. We’re told that love means accepting everyone else just as they are. But it doesn’t work. Sometimes we don’t do what we want to do. We hurt others. And they hurt us. We plan. And others thwart those plans. We rage against the evil of this world. And the evil seems to grow. What can break the cycle of hate?
“Whoever finds his life will lose it,” Jesus tells us, “and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
What does he mean? Anyone can love someone who loves them back. Anyone can thank God when things are going well. But what would give you the power to love and even forgive and reconcile with someone who hurt you? What would cause you to feel thankfulness even when you don’t get the promotion, when you don’t get the scholarship, when you don’t get the girl? The same power that led Jesus to cry out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Only the kingdom of God can help us find hope in a lost world. When we pick up that cross and follow him, we find the meaning of a life worth living.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus told his disciples. At this point he hadn’t yet gone to the cross. So they didn’t understand. But they never forgot. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
You need good news that will sustain you even in your worst nightmare. When all your planning is for naught. When yet another pregnancy test is negative. When you don’t know when the next paycheck will come. When you don’t know how to pay the mortgage. When you look inside yourself for answers and emerge only with despair. When all the affirmation of the world can’t help you love yourself. When the clichés of youth slip like sand through your fingers.
And you need this good news even more when everything’s going well. When you get the girl. Land the job. Buy the vacation home. Because Jesus tells us that when you feel at home in this world, you won’t enjoy the next.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus told a crowd. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?’” (Mark 8:34–36; see also Luke 9:23–25).
In order to find your life, you must lose it for the sake of Jesus. To discover your true self you must forsake this world. This book, Lost and Found: How Jesus Helped Us Discover Our True Selves, aims to help you understand and believe these words from Jesus. We want you to know how you can endure any hardship with faith and peace. We want you to see how love overcomes evil with good. We want to introduce you to the One who brings healing and hope and purpose to life. We want you to lose your life so that God would find you.
I’ve never found that life gets easier. Or better. But I have found that God is with me. That Jesus walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death. That he will leave the 99 in order to find me when I call out to him. That he promises me nothing in this world except that the God of the universe sees and knows and loves me, and that in the next world I will see him face to face, when he lifts the burden of my sin and the evil of this fallen world.
Once I was blind, but now I see. Once I was lost, but Jesus came and found me. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! It saved a wretch like me.
I can still remember the first time I saw David love someone in the hallway at New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania, almost 30 years ago. It was between services, and I walked past David as he was talking with a woman. As elders, we both knew this woman had significant mental illness, and yet he was attentive to her, dialoguing with her as an equal. I didn’t hear a single word he said, but I could tell by his posture, the way he leaned in and listened, that he was valuing her as a person. My “yet he was attentive” summarizes how much I needed to learn about love. Without realizing it, I’d put her in a box called “mental illness” and de-humanized her. That single theme, “rediscovering the person,” sums up David’s life.
It was about that time that I reached out to David for support and wisdom with some difficult relational issues I was facing—I became that needy woman. Now David was leaning into my world, attentive to me. Over time, a close friendship blossomed. Last month, knowing God was taking David home, I re-read C. S. Lewis on Friendship in The Four Loves. Lewis reflects that Lovers face one another while Friends face a common project. So what did we look at together?Facing the World
We had many things in common—we both grew up out West surrounded by natural beauty, David in Hawaii and I in northern California, with families that cultivated a love for beauty. Several months ago, David and I wondered if that experience tuned us into beauty. In one of our last long breakfasts together, we reflected on Plato’s triad of truth, goodness, and beauty and how strong the church was at truth, but weak at cultivating a vision of goodness and beauty. Bob Kramer, David’s close friend who led him to Christ, told me last week that David was initially apprehensive about coming into Christianity because he didn’t want to ruin its beauty!
We loved the Word. Almost every meal we’d talk about some portion of the Word. Nothing organized, just “What are you reading?” We especially loved the Psalms, but we’d bounce all over the place. The person of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John and Luke, was a frequent topic of conversation. We sensed that the church was weakened by not systematically studying the person of Jesus and how he loves. In the last couple of years, we particularly reflected on how Jesus uses space in relationships: he draws people out, asks questions, or is just silent, thus creating space for people to emerge. A year ago, David said, “We’ve been completing one another’s thoughts on the person of Jesus for many years. Let’s write a book together on the person of Jesus.”
We loved the fine wine of Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Robert Alter, Erich Auerbach, and so on, especially as they made some part of the Word come alive. I remember one meal where we just chewed on Chesterton’s insight from Orthodoxy how life has a fairytale structure. That is, one “small” mistake and evil is unleashed. Pandora opens the box, and out comes evil. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and all creation becomes twisted.
We both loved well-written historical biography, often sharing books and favorite passages together. We loved to laugh. I often entertained David with stories of my wife, Jill, a feisty Philadelphian and reincarnation of Lucille Ball. David is one of the few people I know who could correctly pronounce vitameatavegamin from Lucy’s famous commercial where she gets drunk on alcohol-based vitamins!Facing Each Other
But we didn’t just look at an outside world—we looked at one another. In fact, we bonded over caring for one another in suffering. I don’t know what I would have done without David’s help through some very dark times. In time that became mutual. After open heart surgery, David called me from his hospital bed overcome by depression. I could immediately hear it in his voice. I knew my words couldn’t touch him, so over the phone I read through all the Psalms of Ascent (120–134). His spirits lifted as I read.
We frequently shared our hearts and weaknesses with one another. It is sheer delight to open up your deepest heart aches and besetting sins to a good friend and have them love you as you are, counsel you, and pray for you. Lewis writes, “Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.” We’d share some particular struggle and say, “What do you think?” About 10 years ago, we started praying together, sometimes over the phone, sometimes in the car after lunch. Not complicated or long, just the things on our hearts that we’d talked about.
Is there an art to friendship? I think so. David and I gave one another space, neither of us talked too long, sucking the air out of the relationship. Lewis reflects, “For Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed.” We were quick to listen to the other, although David is a remarkable listener. I learned to listen. David lived it.
Our times together rarely had any structure. They were completely open. Lewis describes his time with close friends as those “golden sessions . . . when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk . . . Life—natural life—has no better gift to give.” Nor were we structured as to when we met. Maybe every six weeks for a two-hour lunch. David was too much of a free spirit to have a regular schedule.A Precious Jewel
Lewis perceptively calls friendship the “least natural of loves.” That is, it doesn’t happen naturally, especially with men. In the early 90s I realized that I didn’t have any deep male friendships, and I was poorer for it. I had what Lewis calls “Companions,” men I loved to laugh with, who I enjoyed being with, but not Friends. I’d seen mature Christian men flounder as they aged partly because they hadn’t cultivated strong male friends who could speak honestly into their lives. So I prayed for and then quietly pursued a friendship with David.
Lewis reflected, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves . . . the modern world ignores it.” As Christians, we have some remarkable tools for deep friendship, and yet, I think it is quite weak among men, especially Christian leaders. I look back now on our friendship as a precious jewel, one of the best gifts God has given me—both of us.
My mentor, colleague, and friend, David Powlison, is gone, now home with the One whose love consumed his heart. There are times when words fail to capture the profound impact one man can have on another. The mind scans the years as the heart struggles to accept the reality that one so significant has gone on.A Long Friendship
I first met David Powlison as a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1985. He taught a course on the dynamics of the spiritual life that revealed him to be a wise spiritual surgeon. I drove two and a half hours each way to take that class; few things would have kept me away. That class rose way above a required academic course, each session capturing my mind and stirring up a deeper love for Jesus in my heart. What I didn’t know as I sat under my favorite teacher was that he would become my colleague and friend.
In 1987 I was called to be a faculty member at CCEF and a lecturer at Westminster. David and I shared a heart for the gospel, for the church, and for a street-level application of Scripture to everyday life. In many ways, biblical counseling was in its theological and methodological infancy, and with Ed Welch, David and I spent hours and hours together trying to construct a theology of the heart and how the gospel works change, along with seeking to develop a methodology that would encourage lasting heart and life change.
I’m deeply blessed to have been part of those hours and hours of discussion. I’m passionate and a bit crazy; David was quiet and contemplative, so he would be making insightful observations as I bounced around the room, thinking out loud. David made me think: think deeply, think biblically, and think practically. Those discussions were never a waste of time.
As we got a greater sense of what God had called us to in the field of personal, pastoral, counseling ministry, we knew we needed to train others. Since the church wasn’t coming to Philadelphia, we would need to go to the church. So David and I traveled to churches all around the U.S. Since we were away from the daily busyness of counseling and teaching, we would talk. Those talks in planes, hotels room, airports, and restaurants were rich and formative. Each trip was more than a training opportunity. Each trip was marked by rich gospel fellowship with a uniquely gifted and godly friend. I will always treasure those trips.
Before long, our travel expanded. Multiple trips to South Korea and India deepened our discussions and my love for David. In Korea, we were confused together by food we didn’t know how to eat and customs we didn’t understand. In India, we were sick together, dragging ourselves out of bed only long enough to teach. But in each place, we together got new eyes to see the gospel, and in each place, I would try to get inside David’s brilliant mind to learn what he was seeing. In India, we had long discussions about what the overt idol worship there taught us about the covert idolatry that captures us all. I am blessed to have been able to serve my Lord and his church in those places, but even more blessed, that in his grace, I was able to do it alongside David Powlison. In each discussion, I was stimulated by the nuances of the gospel David was able to understand, by the details he was able to see, and by his surgical facility with Scripture.A Profound Impact
There is so much more I could say about the richness of my 20 years learning from and working with this man whom I esteemed and loved so, but I want to end with two things. First, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would’ve written what I have written, taught what I have taught, and preached what I have preached without the impact of this dear man. But there is something more: I wasn’t just shaped by David’s mind, but more profoundly by the way he lived his life. His infectious love for Jesus, his gentle love for God’s people, his humble scholarship, and his zeal to incarnate God’s love marked me and has marked my ministry to others.
In the last several years, our ministries took us away from the regular contact we enjoyed for so long, but I have carried David in my heart and my prayers until this moment. Today I feel deep sadness mixed with profound gratitude. I am glad that David is in the arms of his Savior, but I am sure no one again will leave this kind of imprint on my heart, mind, life, and ministry.
Last Sunday, after the final blessing, our minister handed the microphone to Kathy. Two weeks earlier Kathy’s grandfather had fallen at church and ended up in the hospital. Kathy wanted to thank everyone who had helped her care for “Gramps” on that day, and to report that he was recovering well.
Kathy brings Gramps to church every week. She takes his arm as they walk, helps him to sit and to stand, and shows him where we are on the service outline.
Kathy’s loving care has had affected our whole church. Others have now become more attentive to Gramps and to the other elderly church members. On the weeks when Kathy gets up to play the piano, other people now lean forward to show Gramps which song we are singing. When an elderly person is struggling to get up, people notice and offer an arm.Who’s Your Family?
Some people argue we should see our church as our “first family.” Jesus certainly refocused membership in God’s family: Now anyone can join the family not by bloodline, but by faith in him (John 1:12–13; Gal. 3:6–9). God’s family now grows primarily through the spread of the gospel, not the birth of children (Matt. 28:19–20). Consequently, those without spouse or children have a valued place and purpose in the family of faith (Matt. 19:1–12; 1 Cor. 7:32–35).
In cases of conflicting loyalties, Jesus did say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). If we’re forced to choose, it’s better to stay alone in the family of God than to leave it for the sake of finding or pleasing an earthly family.
Churches and biological families should be collaborators, not competitors.
But Jesus and his followers also clearly valued natural families. Jesus, affirming the commandments, called people to be faithful in marriage (Matt. 19:1–9) and to honor their parents (Mark 7:9–13). The apostles said it was good for most people to marry and have children (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:8–9; 1 Tim. 5:14). They still wrote to people as wives and husbands, parents and children.
All of this has convinced me that churches and biological families should be collaborators, rather than competitors.Family: A Model
Natural family relationships provide the model for relationships within the family of God. When Jesus announced that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50), he was using well-known categories of relationship. Similarly, Paul advised: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father” (1 Tim 5:1–2). We only know how to treat someone as if they were our brother, sister, mother, or father if we understand the dynamics of those different biological relationships.
In Bible times, a family was much more than a private haven of affection: it was a productive unit spanning generations. Nancy Pearcey, in Love Thy Body, explains:
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home performed a host of practical functions. It was the place where people educated children, cared for the sick and elderly, ran family industries, served customers and the community, and produced a surplus to help the poor. The home reached out to the wider society.
Accordingly, belonging to the “household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15) means more than just spending quality time together. It means people of all generations working shoulder to shoulder in the family business: sharing the love of Jesus in both word and deed.Family: A School
The best practical training I’ve received for my ministry to children has been motherhood. Likewise, Paul saw fatherhood as a good training and proving ground for church leadership: “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5).
Our daily interactions at home force us to practice interpersonal skills like communicating clearly, listening and empathizing, setting realistic expectations, motivating others and helping them cope with disappointment, resolving conflicts, and helping people to mature. Family life equips us for serving the church.Family: A Care Network
In addition to gathering individuals, churches bring together family groups. And, under normal circumstances, our natural family will still be our primary source of practical care.
The early church expected widows to be cared for by their own family:
If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family. . . Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:4, 8)
Even as members of the church, biological ties of care and responsibility still bind us. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility to care for their own children; children bear the ultimate responsibility to care for their aging parents and grandparents. Churches should honor and support these bonds.Family: A Mission Base
Initially, most churches met in homes: families were mission bases. Entire households heard, believed, and spread the gospel together (e.g., Acts 16:30–34; Rom. 16:10–15).
The home is still where much of the church’s mission takes place. Home is where we extend hospitality; home is where we cook meals for those in need; home is where we share our faith—in word and deed—with those closest to us; home is where the next generation learns the ways of God.
Christian families should be strong at the core but flexible around the edges. Strong relationships within the family—between husband and wife, parents and children, older and younger generations—enable a family to extend their loving community to include outsiders.
Theologian Alastair Roberts describes it this way:
The language of “family” for church very much depends on the church being made up of natural families. What gives the church its backbone of community is often the families that are opened up to the kingdom of God. That’s what gives the church so much of its capacity to function as an extended family.
Our churches will become stronger not by denouncing love for family as “idolatrous,” but by calling on families to open themselves up to gospel priorities.Church: A New Family?
In most cases, the church won’t replace our natural family. Instead, we must let the gospel reorient our family relationships—and in turn, these new priorities will strengthen the church.
As a teenager, I came into the family of God alone: I took myself to church while my family stayed home. There I found a loving spiritual family who welcomed me in and showed me the ways of God. Yet all the while I continued to be a sister, daughter, and granddaughter within my natural family.
My family of birth still stays at home every Sunday while I go to church. But I no longer go alone. In time, God blessed me with a husband and children who love Jesus. And I pray that one day, God will also give me a granddaughter like Kathy—whether biological or spiritual—who will take me by my aging arm and lead me into church.
You know a man by what he loves. This is true in any role that man takes. I think it’s fair to say that David Powlison filled the role of primary leader in the biblical counseling movement, and as influencer over those in evangelicalism most concerned with pastoral care. I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this related to his publications and his leadership of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF). But to those who have been closest to his leadership the reason is clear: David embodied love for the things we aspire to love.
David loved many things, but I’d like to point out the particular loves that those of us following in his footsteps ought to follow.
David loved words
We use words to make sense out of this world, to capture our experiences and ascribe meaning to them. David was hungry to read widely from those who are particularly skilled at this—poets, novelists, essayists, commentators. He would delight in those moments when a writer has used just the right wording. The kind of wording so precise and eloquent a reader feels the contours of his inner life are being read themselves. Such words allow someone to say Yes, I’ve experienced what you’re talking about. David tried to be such a writer himself.
David’s writing is not literature. But it is literary. He loved to craft words, not just write them. He wanted truth expressed beautifully. As you read him, you can tell he labored over many of his sentences long enough to make them playful, elegant, or piercing. But his love of words also came out in how he spoke with people. Having listened long, he would describe back to them their experience with words of more vivid variety, with cleaner edges and finer lines. It was masterful. David loved a word fitly spoken—they were like apples of gold in settings of silver for him.
David’s love of words was not incidental to who he was or what he produced. Those of us who wish to emulate David should perhaps turn our hearts to good writing by reading widely. Read for insight into experiences you’ll never have from behind a thousand different pairs of eyes. Read to see what it’s like to have someone else describe something so accurately that you understand your own experience better.
David loved the interrelatedness of God’s world
Whether sliding across coastal surf on his board or reading a recently conducted sleep study, David was convinced that this world and all it contains is one big masterful expression of divine genius. Each layer of existence relates somehow to every other because all of them relate directly to the God of all. He delighted in ivy stretching up brick walls in a slow hunt for sunlight not just because it was beautiful, but because it was God’s.
This same delight allowed him to receive news of cancer with sober joy. God had done this. Yes, cancer is the uncontrolled growth and division of cells that have gone rogue, multiplying outside their designed limits. Yes, what causes cancer is mysteriously complex—was it environmental, genetic, exposure to carcinogens? And yes, our eyes don’t pierce these layers of reality. But God’s do. And they all relate back to his purposes. And he is good. Cancer is part of the interrelatedness of all things to God.
This love for the interrelatedness of God’s world also made David a model for engaging with sources of knowledge outside of God’s Word. Anyone he interacted with who came from a different theoretical approach—even approaches hostile to the tenets he held dear—he did so with a rare combination of humility and conviction. What David did better than most was critical engagement. Both words are important for understanding how he’d do it. To critique is to sense divisions—to discern between what was pleasing or displeasing to the Lord in a given piece of material. But to engage is to acknowledge the inherent legitimacy of this material’s attempt to ask a good question and seek a good answer.
The critiques he made of people he disagreed with were sweetly devastating—made all the more effective by the appreciation he showed for any good he found in their insights. His was a sympathetic criticism, far more devastating than generic dismissals or sweeping condemnations. You always had the sense from David that he had learned something valuable from the people he strongly disagreed with. Each perspective informed him of some factor in God’s interrelated world.
Those who have given their lives to a similar field of study should emulate David here. Every human being has a limited set of experiences in the world, and we grow and expand by collecting insights into a wider variety of experience. If we are consistent in our understanding of human beings as limited individuals in need of community, we must engage with wider material.
David loved the interpretive power of God’s Word
David saw the world with new eyes (wink to those familiar with his writing), but perhaps better would be to say he saw the world with renewing eyes. The eyes of a heart continuously deepening in its love for God’s Word.
When David would share his latest thoughts in written or spoken form, you never got the sense he was excited by a new theory he came across or a new methodology he’d been developing. Instead, you heard his excitement that he’d recently been able to discern another way God’s Word illuminates the world. He loved the themes of Scripture, and the unique perspective of life that each one provides. He had a continual sense of discovery in the world of Scripture.
We should imitate this love so that we are always most impressed with the explanatory power of Scripture over the explanatory power of anything else. Scripture alone provides direct and wholly trustworthy access to God’s perspective of everything, and therefore holds unchallenged authority. Our first and happiest task is to seek understanding of our lives in the depths of divine wisdom. Our love of Scripture should brim up to our eyes, changing the way we see everything.
David loved helping people relate to both God’s Word and his world
David’s love for people and his love for the Word converged together like two streams joining into one mighty river. This river flowed through the center of the landscape of David’s ministry, carrying life to countless people.
His love for people was like an atmosphere you entered into when having a conversation with him. Like few people I know, David would engage his full interest in the person sitting across from him, happy to explore their unique experience. You felt cared for talking about anything from counseling theory to Philadelphia sports.
That love for people was not just a sentiment. It drove him to turn conversations toward what would bring most benefit to their soul. He did this gently, subtly, as if Jesus Christ were the natural end of any human conversation. It was never abrupt, never uncomfortably forced. It was like gravity.
We should imitate the orbit of David’s conversations by valuing people’s experiences enough to listen, then relating those experiences to God as their greatest context. This is perhaps the highest skill set that David displayed, which was something deeper than a skill set. It was a way of being for him.
David loved his unseen God
Though David had never seen God, David loved him. This is the gift of faith. In David, this faith forged a particularly strong capacity to recognize and delight in the beauty of God. But David now sees his God, and even now finds him more beautiful than he could have imagined. David is beholding God with truly new eyes.
These are the loves that characterized David. I pray that these will be the loves that characterize us as we continue his efforts.
“Jesus is saying to us that, left to ourselves, we are all driving through life the wrong way. And we are about to meet the rush hour of God’s purposes coming in the other direction and, therefore, we need to turn around. If God’s kingdom is about to come and we’re lined up contrary to God’s kingdom, then we need to repent.” — Sam Allberry
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.
- 8 Signs Your Christianity Is Too Comfortable
- Love Your Neighbor Enough to Speak Truth
- When You Feel Like a (Christian) Imposter
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
Questions on parenting are universal, and yet no matter how many books parents read and how many seminars they attend, they will always face certain unknowns.
That shouldn’t discourage parents from continuing to learn and grow, however. In fact, maturing as a parent is a great model for our children. Joe Carter’s The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents: Help Your Kids Learn Practical Life Skills, Develop Essential Faith Habits, and Embrace a Biblical Worldview is a tool not just for teaching kids but also for growing parents. This new book succeeds in its objective to teach parents to “empower your children to form a godly character and a Christian worldview” (10).
In many ways, what Carter—an editor for The Gospel Coalition, ERLC, and the Acton Institute—has done reminds of Proverbs. Like Solomon, Carter’s approach is rooted in a Godward focus, but he’s not afraid to also use the common-grace wisdom that surrounds us, such as learning techniques, research on grittiness, science, or medicine.Structure
Here’s a breakdown of the broad themes in The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents. Within these 10 categories are 50 life skills that parents should consider teaching their children:
- Bible Engagement (chs. 1–12)
- Interacting with God (chs. 14–17)
- Interacting with Others (chs. 18–21)
- Discernment and Decision Making (chs. 22–25)
- Mental and Physical Health (chs. 26–30)
- Character Development (chs. 31–34)
- Engaging the Culture (chs. 35–38)
- Learning (chs. 39–42)
- Managing Conflict (chs. 43–46)
- Evangelism (chs. 47–50)
Most systematic-theology textbooks start with either God or Scripture, and Carter follows this strategy. This roots the more practical sections in the importance of first knowing God by reading his Word. He states, “Research has shown the biggest factor predicting the spiritual health of young adults is whether they read the Bible regularly as children” (35), and “our goal in Bible reading . . . [is to] better know Jesus” (36). These chapters provide an invaluable Theology 101 for how to read and understand the Bible.Valuable Insights
Carter readily acknowledges at the start of the book that not everyone will find everything helpful, but his goal is to have people find between 20 percent to 80 percent helpful. Just the beginning chapters on the Bible and God are worth the 20 percent.
A supremely well organized book for parents.
One lesson I immediately implemented after reading it was “How to Say You’re Sorry.” Even if you’re not a news junkie, we’ve all seen celebrities and politicians give the now famous non-apology. Apologizing is a skill you can and should cultivate. Carter recommends a simple structure:
- I’m sorry for . . .
- This is wrong because . . .
- In the future, I will . . .
- Will you forgive me?
In addition, he offers wise words when dealing with how to forgive. For example: “[I]f someone has physically abused you in the past, you can forgive them without putting yourself in a situation where they can continue to abuse you. . . . [W]e are not required to put ourselves in danger” (124).
I also highly recommend the chapters dealing with making wise choices and understanding God’s will. Every child should understand these basics from early on, so they don’t get caught in the trap of reading tea leaves to discern providence.
I mentioned at the start Carter’s willingness to use common-grace wisdom, and his chapter on grit exemplifies this use. Angela Duckworth’s Grit was one of my favorite reads in 2018, and I was delighted to see how Carter wove in her research with biblical themes of steadfastness and perseverance.
The section on skills and habits for engaging the culture is a high point in this regard. I appreciate that Carter didn’t take the all-culture-is-bad approach. For instance, even as he discussed the importance of thinking about the worldview portrayed in the culture we consume, he writes: “A significant danger in teaching worldview analysis of art is that it can override the pleasures of experiencing great works of art” (196).
Carter’s closing chapters focus on teaching children how to share the gospel; this seemed appropriate after starting with knowing and loving Jesus, then looking at a bunch of ways to grow in love, and ending with how to share God’s love with others. A nice send-off to a supremely well organized book for parents.Minor Qualms
I didn’t have any fundamental issues with the book or anything beyond very minor differences of application. For instance, while I agree that reading the Old Testament is tough even for adults, I don’t agree with the advice to teach kids to “start with New Testament commands” because most of the important Old Testament commands are repeated (61). I’d prefer to start with the 10 Commandments and then teach kids to see how all the other Old Testament commands are a practical outworking of “love God and neighbor.”
I was also expecting formal catechesis (like TGC’s New City Catechism) to pop up somewhere in the book, especially with Carter’s emphasis throughout on asking questions and learning techniques, but it never showed up. The church has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to confessions and catechisms, and I would have loved to see a chapter dedicated to incorporating them into parenting.
I highly recommend Joe Carter’s The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents. It earns the term “field book” with practical teaching rooted in Scripture while being unafraid of common grace wisdom no matter where it comes from.
“Remember,” said a retiring nuclear engineer played by Ed Asner in a 1984 Saturday Night Live skit about Chernobyl. “You can’t put too much water in the nuclear reactor.”
The other nuclear engineers were confused. Did he mean they should put a great deal of water into the nuclear reactor (“you can’t put too much”) or a small amount of water (“you can’t put too much”).
My 10-year-old self delighted in the comic effect of the ambiguity. Though this was not the sum total of my knowledge about the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power, it was close.
Thirty-four years later, with great reluctance, I began watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries Chernobyl with my family. The ensuing years made me less inclined to be entertained by the agony of countless people affected by the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history. But I still watched the complete series, and I found it not only compelling drama but full of insights for the modern American Christian. Here are three.1. We Have a Very Watered-Down View of Courage
On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire at Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor spread radioactive contamination across Soviet and European lands. In the ensuing panic, brave and courageous souls sacrificed their health and lives to save others.
The miniseries tells the stories of the firefighters who went to the plant, unaware the radiation would cause their grisly, slow deaths. We meet defiantly naked miners who excavated under the molten core, which threatened to melt the concrete on which it sat and contaminate 50 million people’s water supply. We witness skilled helicopter pilots, willing to risk (and give) their lives to drop boron on the reactor. We see liquidators willing to rush out onto the shaky, torn roof of the reactor to throw graphite over the edge in 90-second increments.
The “courage climax” comes when Soviet nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) testifies in court about the government decisions which helped cause the meltdown, in spite of their efforts to minimize the disaster. After pointing out that he’d already shortened his life because of the radiation, Legasov laments the possible consequences of his truth-telling: “I will get the bullet.”
Even though he believed it would be futile and fatal, Legasov courageously revealed the accurate details of his investigation to the larger world. After his death, his writings eventually caused much-needed reforms, saving an untold number of lives.2. Veracity is Vitally Important
Romans 6:23 warns that the wages of sin is death, and we see this repeatedly in Chernobyl, as engineers refuse to come to grips with the scale of the disaster, officials won’t evacuate people in order to save face, and as Legasov lovingly feeds his cat before hanging himself.
“What is the cost of lies?” he narrates in a voice over in the opening, thematically framing lines of the series. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then?”
The series poignantly shows the despair of a society where dishonesty is the norm, where truth is snuffed out by government officials even at the cost of real human lives. Though American Christians don’t live in such a society, Chernobyl is a sobering reminder not to regard lies as “political theater” or mere “score settling,” but actual evil—especially if they are coming from government officials who are attempting to squelch the communication of truth. The show’s creator, Craig Mazin, told the L.A. Times the series spoke directly to our era: “We are now living in a global war on the truth.”
The series poignantly shows the despair of a society where dishonesty is the norm, where truth is snuffed out by government officials even at the cost of real human lives.
In the last lines of the miniseries, Legasov says deception cannot win, because truth “lies in wait for all time.” Though Mazin may not have been deliberately evoking the idea of an eternal God in this line, the series does hint at the existence of an objective, transcendent reality of truth that can only come from a divine power.3. God’s Omnipotence is Mind-Boggling
After watching the first episode, my college-aged daughter remarked, “It’s amazing how God packed such immense power into individual molecules, how the forces holding a single atom together can wreak such havoc.”
Havoc, in deed. At least 350,000 people who lived around the Chernobyl plant lost their homes and a 19-mile-wide “exclusion zone” was established around the reactor. The disaster cost an estimated $235 billion in damages, and scientists predict the zone around the plant will not be habitable for up to 20,000 years.
So, isn’t Chernobyl a Tower of Babel-style cautionary tale, showing man’s hubris and pride in attempting to get energy in this manner? Didn’t we learn anything from Blinky, the three-eyed fish in Bart Simpson’s Springfield? Not so, according to nuclear physicist Dr. William C. Pollard, the former executive director of Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.
“Our sun is a natural nuclear power plant, and there are over a hundred billion other main sequence stars like it scattered throughout our galaxy,” he wrote. In other words, our very existence depends on the sun (so does the existence of coal, oil, gas, and even wind). Regardless of one’s political views on nuclear energy, we’ve been dependent on it all along. Though obviously the Soviets mishandled such power, Pollard describes nuclear energy as “merely tapping directly the universal energy source for all of creation that previously we have used only indirectly and derivatively.”
A power that can destroy and give life?
As a kid, I learned about God in Sunday School through words like “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” and “omnipresent.” Though these words weren’t the sum total of my knowledge about God, they were close. Unlike the words uttered in the old Saturday Night Live routine, however, they are not ambiguous. They are precise theological definitions about the attributes of God, but my mind has never quite been able to grasp the concepts.
After watching Chernobyl, however, I found my mind wondering about a God who hid such power in simple atoms. After seeing the devastating effects of radiation, the series caused me to ponder a God who could so easily hang the sun in the Milky Way and allow it to burn in a life-giving suspension. And not just our sun. Billions of other galaxies are populated with “suns” as well.
“A large fraction of all the matter in the universe is incorporated in such ‘nuclear power plants,’” Pollard wrote. “It is a sobering thought that God has made more of them than he has anything else.”
Yes, it is.
Author’s note: As a dramatic telling of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl takes some liberties with the facts. (I was disappointed to learn Legasov didn’t actually have a courtroom showdown; the female nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, played by Emily Watson, was a fictional amalgamation of other scientists; and the miners did not toil in the nude.). But even though much in the series was dramatized, Christian viewers should consider Chernobyl’s lessons on courage, warnings about lies, and defenses of truth well after they hear the final, haunting lines of the series:
“To be a scientist is to be naïve,” Legasov says. “We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It will lie in wait for all time.”