In the 1960s, sociologists widely predicted that religion would soon disappear. Now that we’re well into the 21st century, many of these same sociologists admit they were wrong. Religion didn’t go away. Just the opposite in fact: Religion is poised to be a dominant player on the world stage in this century.
This comes as no surprise for those of us who believe. Spirituality can’t be wiped out; humans are fundamentally spiritual beings, created by and for God. As Rebecca McLaughlin puts it in her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, the question for this generation isn’t “How soon will religion die out?” Rather, the question is “Christianity or Islam?” (14).
For many today, both Christianity and Islam are unappealing because they seem violent and oppressive. But is the God of these great monotheistic religions really as bad as we think? When it comes to Christianity, McLaughlin—regular TGC contributor and cofounder of Vocable Communications—thinks the answer is surely no. Moreover, the common moral and intellectual objections to Christianity aren’t insurmountable. McLaughlin engages 12 of the hardest objections to Christianity, expertly showing how each challenge—when properly probed and understood—points to a good and loving God.Understanding Scripture in Context
Many of the hardest questions for faith arise as a byproduct of our now largely biblically illiterate culture. Religion hasn’t gone away, but knowledge of the Bible has. The loud and incessant cries of the so-called New Atheists—that “religion poisons everything” or that “the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster”—haven’t helped either. A key strength in McLaughlin’s book is her ability to cut through that noise and help the reader see and understand the Bible on its own terms.
The question for this generation isn’t, ‘How soon will religion die out?’ Rather, the question is ‘Christianity or Islam?’
The chapter “How can you take the Bible literally?” is worth the price of the book. McLaughlin helpfully distinguishes between literal and figurative language, showing that “some of the deepest truths [of the Bible] are metaphorically expressed” (95). This idea of metaphor helps us understand the big picture. Humans are created male and female in God’s image. Marriage is the joining of two into one. This union is a visible reminder of deep spiritual truths: the relationship between Christ and the church. Understanding the Bible’s overall story, as well as its use of metaphor, helps us see the goodness and beauty of Jesus and the gospel.Clearing Up Misconceptions
Other common objections to Christianity rest on misunderstandings. Contrary to popular assumption, Christianity doesn’t crush diversity, hinder morality, cause violence, undercut science, or denigrate women. In virtually every chapter, McLaughlin treats the reader to empirical studies from history, sociology, or psychology to dispel common misconceptions.
It’s simply not true that Christianity is a white man’s religion or innately Western. From the beginning, “the Christian movement was [a] multi-cultural and multiethnic” reality (35). Rather than hinder morality, the evidence shows that Christianity has provided the motivation and theological foundation for universal human rights and religious freedom. Moreover, study after study shows a direct link between religious participation and improved moral character (61). The world is a better place because of Christianity.
Christianity doesn’t crush diversity, hinder morality, cause violence, undercut science, or denigrate women.
When it comes to violence, it’s true some have perpetrated evil in the name of Christ. When they do so, however, they act inconsistently with the teachings of Jesus. “Christianity does not glorify violence,” McLaughlin writes. “It humiliates it” (93). The same can’t be said for Islam, which was violent from the beginning, or atheism, which has inspired much of the evil and suffering perpetrated in the last couple of centuries.
Moreover, science doesn’t disprove God. On the contrary, “belief in a rational Creator God provides the first and best foundation for the scientific enterprise” (110). And Christianity doesn’t denigrate women. In the first century, Christianity provided a “radical elevation of women” (145). Christianity has never been, nor is it today, a male-dominated or male-oriented religion. Generally more active than men in spiritual affirmation and practice, women are vital to the global church and its efforts to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth (145–46).Embracing Inconvenient Truths
Some Christian truths are unpopular today, particularly when it comes to the Bible’s teachings on sex. The Bible affirms sex as a gift from God, but there are boundaries. “The Bible is clear that sexual intimacy belongs exclusively to heterosexual marriage” (156). This “boundary cuts off the possibility of sex with anyone else” (157), including sex outside of marriage and homosexual sex. This is an “inconvenient truth” for many, including McLaughlin, who has struggled with same-sex attraction for much of her life.
Christianity is better than you think, because Christ is.
But there is a “greater truth,” too: All of us, married or single, sexually active or not, are invited into a deep spiritual intimacy—communion with God through union with Christ (155). God isn’t a cosmic killjoy. He wants to provide for us. For those who doubt, the evidence from psychology can help us see that God’s divinely imposed boundaries for sex actually bring greater freedom and pleasure, while commitment-free sex—the holy grail of secularism—has resulted in unhappiness, decreased sexual satisfaction, and increased loneliness (146–48).Answering Tough Objections
Two of the toughest objections to Christianity concern evil and hell. How can a good and loving God allow evil? And how is it just or loving for God to send unbelievers to hell? These objections are as difficult as they come. But McLaughlin helps us see that things are even worse if there is no God. For if God doesn’t exist, there is no objective evil. Nor is there final justice for the wrongs we experience in this life, nor any ultimate comfort in suffering.
In the Christian story alone, though, we find the genuine possibility of hope. Jesus Christ took all sin, suffering, and evil on himself on the cross. They’ve been defeated, and one day they will be eradicated. When we locate our lives in the sweeping story of God, we begin to see that “suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has been built” (194).
Suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has been built.
We also begin to understand the question of hell. God has created us as free creatures, capable of morally significant action. God respects our dignity and freedom, even until the end. If we live with a clenched fist toward God, he won’t force us to join him upon death. However, the perfect justice of God demands that the penalty for sin and evil be paid. The natural consequence of a self-directed life is hell: permanent separation from a good and holy God.
But God desires our good. He wants to bring us into a relationship with him, and he gives his Son to pay sin’s penalty in our place. The cross of Christ helps us understand the problem of hell, for there we see the perfect intersection of justice and love.God Who Pursues
There are plenty of apologetics books that address the same objections discussed in Confronting Christianity. What makes this book unique is the weaving together of evidence and story.
What makes this book unique is the weaving together of evidence and story.
McLaughlin reframes each objection by taking the reader into the biblical story. She helps us see the goodness, beauty, and truth of the divine drama. She also helps us see that God is better than many of us think, for he pursues us. In love, he sends Jesus so we can find genuine happiness, wholeness, flourishing, and forgiveness.
Indeed, everything points to Jesus as our only hope in this life and in the next. As McLaughlin summarizes,
In Jesus’s world, we find connective tissue between the truths of science and morality. We find a basis for saying that all human beings are created equal, and a deep call to love across diversity. We find a name for evil, and a means of forgiveness. We find a vision of love that is so much deeper than our current hearts can hold, and a true intimacy better than our weak bodies could ever experience. We find a diagnosis of human nature as shot through with sin and yet as redeemable by grace. We find a call to care for the poor, oppressed, and lonely, a call springing from the heart of God himself and grounded in the hope that one day every tear will be wiped away, every stomach will be filled, and every outcast will be embraced. But we do not find glib answers or an easy road. Instead, we find a call to come and die. (222)
Christianity is better than you think, because Christ is.
She sits in my office, tears running down her face. Two years ago her mother died in hospice while she lay asleep at home. She was trying to get a decent night’s rest after days spent at her mother’s side. “I just can’t forgive myself. I let her die alone. I knew I should have been there, but I was selfish. I can never forgive myself for that.”
Dozens have shared similar confessions with me. Does this resonate with you? What guilt do you bear? What burdens are you carrying because you can’t forgive yourself? If Christ has forgiven you, do you also have to forgive yourself?
If Christ has forgiven you, do you also have to forgive yourself?
Many are trapped because they can’t forgive themselves. My friend isn’t alone. And she feels trapped. Because she’ll never hear her mother offer her forgiveness, she feels like she can’t release herself from guilt.What Does Scripture Say?
Why can’t you release yourself from your sin? Is it because the weight is too much? Because you know you haven’t changed? Because the ripple effects of your sin can’t be reversed?
I have good news—such good news. You don’t need to forgive yourself, because you can’t forgive yourself.
I know, this answer sounds foreign. Our contemporary therapeutic culture tells us that self-forgiveness is not only a category of forgiveness, it’s actually the most important of them all. Writing in Psychology Today, psychotherapist Beverly Engel says, “I believe that self-forgiveness is the most powerful step you can take to rid yourself of debilitating shame.” But here’s the vital question for Christians: Can you point to one example in Scripture of someone forgiving themselves?
There is no category of self-forgiveness in the Bible. And what a freeing truth! Your shame and guilt does not depend on your ability to forgive yourself.Two Kinds of Forgiveness
There are two—and only two—biblical categories of forgiveness: others’ forgiveness and God’s forgiveness. Horizontal and vertical.
Horizontal forgiveness marks us as Christians. Seeking the forgiveness of others is not optional. Forgiving one another is not optional. Paul writes:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col. 3:12–13)
It’s not enough to ask forgiveness from God; we must also ask forgiveness from those we’ve injured.
I have good news—such good news. You don’t need to forgive yourself, because you can’t forgive yourself.
As important as horizontal forgiveness is, even more fundamental is vertical forgiveness, which comes from God alone. After committing the heinous double sin of adultery and murder against Bathsheba and Uriah, David cries out to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned!” (Ps. 51:4). How can David say this? Is he minimizing his horrifying sins against Uriah and Bathsheba?
David realizes that as awful as his sin is horizontally, it’s much worse vertically. He has profoundly offended his Creator—and the Creator of Uriah and Bathsheba—by devaluing one life and snuffing out another. He has offended his righteous, covenant-making God with his wicked, covenant-breaking actions.Sing! You’re Forgiven.
But you know what David never walks through? The process of self-forgiveness. He doesn’t entertain for a second that he must forgive himself or that, once he’s sought forgiveness from God, he must self-flagellate to fully release himself from his sin. In fact, David would probably shock modern therapeutic sensibilities with how quickly he feels release. He admits that, once forgiven, he will have the audacity to sing: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (Ps. 51:14).
Have you experienced such freedom? Have you ever felt the complete forgiveness of God so deeply that you had to sing with joy?
Vertical forgiveness allows you to experience the power and release that comes through the cross—and then it sends you back to the horizontal, where you are made right in community.
Dear fellow sinners, does guilt plague you? Seek forgiveness from those whom you have sinned against. Seek forgiveness from God your Rescuer, who has purchased your salvation through the death of Jesus. And then sing! Celebrate your forgiveness. Enjoy your freedom.
We are, all of us, having a moment. Watching the beautiful cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris apparently consumed by fire brings everyone up short: French or not, Christian or not, Catholic or not.
As we watched the conflagration, slack-jawed on our smartphones, we were suddenly faced with any number of uncomfortable thoughts: Nothing lasts. Life is transitory. Permanence is an illusion. Is this the end?
Architecture has this power: What inspires us can also undo us. The power that Notre-Dame has exercised over humanity was brought to a head on Monday, almost 700 years after this cathedral marking the center of Paris was dedicated in 1345. One of the Gothic cathedrals that for centuries has defined Western culture appeared to go up like a bonfire at a Texas A&M pep rally.
And we were brought up short. Undone.We Want Something That Lasts
Why is that? No lives were lost. One firefighter was reported badly injured—in terms of human cost, this hardly even counts as news, let alone a tragedy. But we all sense the tragedy of it, even as we cling to the hope that Notre-Dame can be rebuilt, must be rebuilt, will be rebuilt. What was lost? Surely some very fine and very old carpentry in a cathedral’s attic that only maintenance workers ever see. Possibly some irreplaceable works of art (reports are still incomplete); certainly some irreplaceable craftsmanship.
But it’s more than lost carpentry, isn’t it, that we mourn? We mourn the violation (by fire! during Holy Week!) of a sacred space, a symbol of the universal church, even though in the present moment that church is neither very universal nor universally regarded. We mourn the destruction of a space so beautiful that to describe it in words makes the best writers despair of their impoverished vocabularies. We mourn that nothing lasts. We want something to last.
There is a large and leafy branch of evangelical Christianity that thinks the burning of Notre-Dame is an object lesson: Nothing on this earth will last, it’s all just going to burn in the end. I strongly disagree, both in the general sense (there are human works that will somehow accompany us into the new Jerusalem) and in the particular sense (the burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost). Notre-Dame was and is a pillar—no, a pinnacle—of human civilization, and on April 15 we saw this pinnacle seemingly destroyed before our eyes, and it was too much for many of us. Only a true Philistine could say of the fire, “Ah, it was just a bunch of wood and shingles and some pointy spire.”
The burning of Notre-Dame is not a lesson; it’s a tragedy—a full-stop tragedy where no lives were lost.Gratitude for Gifts
I’m hopeful Notre-Dame’s sturdy stone walls will survive the fire, the drenching, and the subsequent exposure to weather. I’m hopeful the engineers will soon determine that the cathedral can be rebuilt. And I’m hopeful the Catholic church, so buffeted by Western progress and its own missteps, will see fit to rebuild one of its most important sites. Having seen photographs of German cathedrals after World War II, I’m confident this work can be done, and hopeful it will be. And I’m cautiously hopeful than no world-famous architect will be enlisted to “modernize” what was lost in the fire, which would only compound the tragedy of fire.
As one who has a personal 9/11 story (I was airborne that morning), I have learned to appreciate every day as a gift. Paris is a gift. Notre-Dame is a special gift, one that we have enjoyed, appreciated, and been astonished by for nearly 700 years. On April 15 we learned (again) that gifts should be appreciated, that they should never be taken for granted, that they can in fact be taken away.
And this Holy Week reminds us again of the one gift, and the one Giver, that cannot.
There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week to say “yes” to everything comes along. We know we should say “no” to temptation and sin, but it’s much harder to say “no” to good things, especially gospel opportunities.
Jen Wilkin, Jackie Hill Perry, and Jen Michel talk about how they’ve learned to use discernment in evaluating the requests and opportunities that come their way. Each of these busy women has realized the toll that overcommitting takes on them, their families, and their local church community—and so they no longer say “yes” to every good opportunity. “If you’re constantly over-capacity in terms of the workload that you have, you don’t have the time to just continue to encounter Jesus,” says Hill Perry. “What we give away [when we overcommit] is our life with Jesus.”
The Billy Graham Library stands about 20 miles from the church I serve and the community I love. Built as a testament both to a man’s faithfulness in ministry and also the gospel he proclaimed, it draws thousands of visitors per month. One of the best parts is a guided tour of Graham’s life, which ends with a gospel presentation and invitation to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ.
But amid all of the memorabilia, my favorite item can be easily missed: a small plaque listing the names of the people God used to get the gospel to Billy Graham. There are recognizable names: F. B. Meyer, Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, and Mordecai Ham. But at the beginning is a name you’ve probably never heard: Edward Kimball.
Kimball was a Christian man who shared the gospel with a shoe clerk named D. L. Moody. Moody influenced Meyer, and on the story goes—until we come to Graham, who responded to the gospel preaching of Ham at a tent revival. We all know the ways that Graham went on to be used mightily by the Lord.
None of Billy Graham’s ministry would’ve happened apart from the faithfulness of a Sunday school teacher sharing his faith in a shoe store.
But here’s the thing: None of Graham’s ministry would’ve happened apart from the faithfulness of a Sunday school teacher sharing his faith in a shoe store. God used that man to change the world, and most of us don’t know his name. (Kimball’s legacy is similar to that of Charles Spurgeon’s boyhood cook, Mary King.)Faithfulness to Follow
When I think of the church planters in the New Testament, there are many recognizable names: Paul, Silas, Timothy, Titus, even the unnamed guy famous for his preaching (2 Cor. 8:18). We’re familiar with these faithful men.
But there’s another name you may not have heard as often: Epaphras. He met Paul and was transformed by the gospel, and then returned to his hometown of Colossae to share the gospel. Disciples were made and a church was planted. Paul calls him “a faithful minister of Christ” (Col. 1:7).
When I read Paul calling another church planter ‘a faithful minister,’ my ears perk up. I want to know what that looks like.
Now as a church planter, when I read Paul calling another church planter “a faithful minister,” my ears perk up. I want to know what that looks like. Thankfully, Paul gives us four marks—evidenced in Epaphras—of a faithful church planter.1. Disciple Maker
The gospel was “bearing fruit and growing in the people of Colossae” (Col. 1:6). Why? Because they had learned it from Epaphras (Col. 1:7). The word learned is closely connected to the word for disciple. Epaphras’s faithfulness was seen in his disciple-making.2. Humble Servant
Epaphras is called a servant of Christ and of the church twice (Col. 1:7; 4:12). His humility was evident in his willingness to ask Paul for help. Faithfulness looks like serving Jesus and others in humility.3. Praying Pastor
Paul tells us that Epaphras was a pastor who struggled on behalf of his people in prayer (Col. 4:12–13). Epaphras agonized in prayer for their spiritual maturity. Thus, we see that a faithful minister labors in prayer on behalf of his people.4. Hardworking Leader
Epaphras “worked hard” for those in his care (Col. 4:12–13). Certainly this is seen in Epaphras’s discipleship, service, and prayer. But the Greek word also speaks of the emotional weight and toll of ministry.
Now, none of these four things is going to surprise anyone in ministry. No one will read this and think, I didn’t think prayer and faithfulness went together. And yet living these out amid the difficulties of church planting can be brutal. Here’s why.Honest Assessment
When I honestly assess my own heart, the desire to be famous competes with the longing to be faithful. In my sin, I don’t want to be Epaphras in Colossae: an unknown guy planting a church in a small town. I want to be Paul in Rome or Timothy in Ephesus. I don’t want to be the guy sharing the gospel with a shoe clerk—I want to be the guy with the library.
When I honestly assess my own heart, the desire to be famous competes with the longing to be faithful.
And, when I’m driven to be famous more than I desire to be faithful, everything we see in Epaphras gets turned on its head.
- I want to make disciples, but I get busy with my agenda.
- I want to be a humble servant—until someone treats me as such.
- I want to be faithful in prayer, but I listen to the “I’ve got this” background noise in my soul.
- Then, when the emotional weight and toll of ministry hits, I’m primed to depend on me rather than on God.
And in that moment, I have to acknowledge my drive to be famous for the idolatry it is. And then repent and remember the gospel.Repent and Remember
The only one truly worthy of fame is Jesus. Just look at these credentials:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:15–18)
Jesus is the head of the church and the only name worthy of remembrance. Faithfulness means pointing people to that name rather than hoping they remember mine.
Then I have to repent and remember the ongoing hope in the gospel that Epaphras brought to his hometown. I received Jesus in helpless dependence on him. I continue walking in helpless dependence on him. Faithfulness in ministry doesn’t look like “God, I’ve got this” but “God, I need you”—from the first day I met Jesus until I see him face to face.
Faithfulness means pointing people to that name rather than hoping they remember mine.
Edward Kimball and Epaphras were normal, redeemed, faithful men who played their part in God’s story. May we do the same.
She was angry with me. As any parent might expect, her reasons were both just and unjust. It was the unjust ones, of course, that I rehearsed the next morning, remembering how the house had shook with the gale of tearful, bitter words the night before. Standing at the sink, I reassured myself that self-preoccupation was the stuff of adolescence, that the relational chafing was normal as her high-school graduation loomed. I felt battered all the same.
Worry had woken me early that morning, and I had obeyed it, following it down the stairs to the kitchen. As the kettle heated, I scanned the morning headlines. Luke Perry was dead, and dozens were still missing from the mile-wide tornadoes that had roared through Alabama. Grief, it seemed, was still the confirmed condition of the world. I climbed the stairs to my office, hot coffee in hand, and in the hush of the still-sleeping house, began trying to untangle the previous night’s conversation, which I had not ended but punted to my husband after crawling into bed with a book—a book ironically on the seeming indecency of need. On the pages of my journal, I unwound fears for the future and the besetting guilt of all that I’d gotten wrong these past 18 years. I worried over the fossilization of those mistakes, wondered if the years had hardened them beyond repair. She was turning 18, and time was running out.
The words dripped and sputtered on the page. But they did not console the terrible anguish of being human.Paradox of Being Human
Like any other human being, I’m a riddle to myself. I want to parent my children well. I will to do right by them. Yet even on my best days, I fail these good intentions by virtue of being human, limited in understanding as well as capacity. I don’t sovereignly know the secret burdens my children bear, nor can I always rise, indefatigable, to carry them. On the worst days (and there are more than I wish to count), I fail my best parental intentions, not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a sinner. When my phone rings, my oldest daughter’s angry, accusing voice on the other end of the line, I won’t answer with sympathy or love. I will hang up.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul insisted on this paradox of being human, which is to say, in one sense, that we’re both morally frail and also morally aspiring. In Romans 7, he confesses his own tragic doubleness: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In this, we’re a mystery to ourselves: We fail the good that we will, and indulge the evil that we hate. Empirically, I prove Paul’s point every day.
We’re a mystery to ourselves: We fail the good that we will, and indulge the evil that we hate. Empirically, I prove Paul’s point every day.
According to G. K. Chesterton, the paradox of being human is that we’re both “chief of creatures” and “chief of sinners.” Made in the image of God, we shared his moral likeness, loving the good and hating the evil in the very beginning. We were the “statue of God walking in the garden,” and our great grief, after the fall, wasn’t that of beast but of “broken God.” Though we were meant to be like God and rule with him, we choose autonomy and rebellion over submission and worship. One bite of forbidden fruit has damned us, self-loving creatures that we are, to paradoxically choose the harm of sin every time. In the garden, God graciously offered life, and we willingly refused it. Body of death, indeed.
On the one hand, human depravity is such terribly bad news—a devastating indictment rendered by the Paul, earlier in his letter to the Romans, like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” On the other hand, to acknowledge ourselves to be sinners is a terrific relief—far better news than the optimism of the secularist who gives short shrift to human capacity for breaking things.
One paradox of the gospel is: The bad news is God’s very good news.Paradox of the Gospel
Paradox, Chesterton argues, is the beating heart of the gospel. In Chesterton’s journey to faith, the paradoxes of Christian thought particularly compelled him. Reading secular atheists and agnostics, he observed that while Christianity was consistently attacked, it was always attacked for inconsistent reasons. Some criticized it for being too optimistic—others for being too pessimistic. Some faulted it for being too bold—others for being too meek. Christianity was to be blamed, although no one could agree why. Was it too ascetic and monkish—or too insistent on pomp and circumstance? As Chesterton continued to reflect, he began to wonder if Christianity wasn’t in fact all these “vices” at once: pessimistic and optimistic, bold and meek, ascetic and worldly.
In other words, was the only fault of Christianity its hospitality to paradox?
Built on the idea that God had donned human flesh and remained God, Chesterton eventually concluded that Christianity isn’t a theology built on tidy eithers and ors. Instead, compared to other religious systems, Christianity is uniquely hospitable to paradox, which is to say the apparatus of both and and. In fact, as Chesterton saw it, paradox is the sharp edge on which much of God’s truth could be found: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”
We must remember the paradox of grace: the gospel announces both leniency and violence; mercy and judgment; rescue and death. What blazes up on Golgotha is God’s embrace of contradiction: weakness as power, foolishness as wisdom.
And it’s odd to affirm, in the same breath, that human beings have reason for “great pride” and “great prostration” (Chesterton again). Nevertheless, to grapple with the paradox of being human is the small step that, with God’s help, can become the giant leap toward salvation. At least this was the conclusion of Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician, philosopher, and converted Christian, in one of his famous “fragments” of religious reflection, or Pensées, that he left behind before his premature death. “It is wretched to know that one is wretched,” Pascal wrote, “but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched.” The paradoxical condition for salvation isn’t moral merit but moral fault. We can’t offer to God pledges of consistency and purity and fidelity because these are promises we can never keep. Our lot is moral failure every time, even should we try willing it otherwise. We are only helped by admitting our need.
But according to Athanasius in On the Incarnation, it’s not just the depravity of humanity that necessitates his salvation; it’s, paradoxically, his greatness. How could God allow his special creation, endowed with his likeness, to fall into disrepair? And if he did, could he call such apathy love? “It was impossible . . . that God should leave man to be carried off into corruption because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself.” It was God’s glory, even his glory bequeathed to humanity, that demanded a rescue. As Chesterton wrote, “Let him call himself a fool and a damned fool . . . but he must not say fools are not worth saving.” As God has willed it, humanity has been saved by paradox: that falling short of the glory of God, he should be rescued to, once again, become like him.
The reasons for salvation seem paradoxical; consider also the means. According to the great surprise of God’s story, Jesus Christ didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, humbling himself to death on a cross. The firstborn of all creation became last, and humanity’s life was found in God’s own losing. Further, lest we think of Christ’s self-sacrifice only as means to acquittal, we must remember the paradox of grace: the gospel announces both leniency and violence; mercy and judgment; rescue and death. What blazes up on Golgotha is God’s embrace of contradiction: weakness as power, foolishness as wisdom.
It’s a paradox to make men stumble.Invitations of Paradox
It would seem, at least to me, that God has a kind of preference for paradox—that given the choice between either and or, God would often choose and. Paradox is, of course, the way we can rightly reckon, not just with our nature, but God’s: that he is immanent and transcendent; merciful and just; mysterious and knowable. In the person of Jesus Christ, the great I AM became the great I And, neither moderating his godhood nor his humanity but clothing himself with what seems to be contradiction.
In Christ, the great I AM became the great I And.
There are certainly more paradoxes to uncover in the story of God than I have room to mention here—including the nature of the kingdom (as a reality both now and not yet); the nature of grace (as “God’s working in us that we might will and work for his good pleasure”); the nature of lament, which, like on the morning I scanned the headlines and sat down to journal, invites us simultaneously into grief and hope. These are the irreducible mysteries that no systematic theology can logically explain, and it’s best that we imitate Moses when confronted with paradox. When he stood before the bush that burned and was not consumed, he did two things: drew closer for a better look, then removed his shoes.
Paradox inevitably offers these two invitations: curiosity and humility.
Recently, I was rereading Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. As she describes some of her assumptions about Christians before she became one, she admitted she thought they lacked curiosity. She thought they read the Bible badly, bringing the Bible into conversation only to stop it, rather than deepen it. They seemed to always be offering answers, but like Rosaria noted ironically, “Answers come after questions, not before.”
Instead of evading truth claims, paradox is a mechanism for affirming that truth, while knowable, can yet remain mysterious, even beyond the reach of reason.
Sadly, Butterfield’s experience has sometimes been my own—that we short-circuit our curiosity by insisting, too prematurely, on certainty. I’m not one to argue against certainty, for the Scriptures were written and the creeds argued to establish theological and doctrinal certainties. To maintain the importance of paradox isn’t the ambivalent shrug of postmodernity, which dismisses human capacity for objective knowledge. Instead, paradox gives a category for a different kind of certainty: “of truths that do not logically cohere.” Instead of evading truth claims, paradox is a mechanism for affirming that truth, while knowable, can yet remain mysterious, even beyond the reach of reason.
When we unearth the tension of paradox in the Scriptures, we should move toward it with expectation, rather than from it in fear. To be left with tension, complexity, and mystery necessarily moves us toward humility: the still smallness of knowing that he is God and we are not. Such childlikeness seems argument enough on its own, though curiously, it’s also a compelling witness to our secular age, which, despite having rejected the reality of God, yet longs for the transcendent—for something bigger and more enduring and more beautiful than their muddled, material lives. Our most compelling witness may not always be our reasoned arguments and sophisticated apologetics.
It may also be paradox.The Both-And
On the morning after the explosive argument with my teenage daughter, I came to the end of several journal pages with a clearer understanding of the way to move forward. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions were mostly built on the both and the and. I needed to both persist in a ministry of words and a ministry of silent presence—because God had given me both the command to talk to my children as a means of spiritual formation and the example of his own quiet ministry of kindness to Elijah, who’d arrived dejected and despairing on the other side of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. As a both-and, it was an answer full of tension and one that cast me back, not on my own understanding, but on God’s. Unlike an either and or, it was an answer that left me with the conviction that ongoing dependence on the Spirit’s wisdom would be needed.
I suppose the sufficiency of the both-and is what Job discovered at the end of his long, angry tirade which God never saw fit to answer. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job never got answers to his questions. He never had definitive reasons from God for why he had permitted his suffering.
And the paradox is:
It was enough.
On Monday more than 400 French firefighters attempted to save Notre-Dame Cathedral from a devastating fire. Here are nine things you should know about one of Europe’s more historic and iconic religious landmarks:
1. Notre-Dame de Paris (French for “Our Lady of Paris”) is a Catholic cathedral in Paris that took centuries to complete. The cornerstone was laid in 1163 in the presence of Pope Alexander III, and initial construction was completed in 1260, nearly a hundred years later. The cathedral wasn’t officially consecrated, though, until 1345. Even after completion, construction and restoration continued. A half-dozen other major construction campaigns were undertaken from the 12th to 14th centuries, and changes and restorations took place from the 17th to 21st centuries.
2. During the anti-Christian fervor of the French Revolution, Notre Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason and rededicated to the atheistic Cult of Reason. Later, when the Committee of Public Safety, which controlled France, decreed worship of a Supreme Being, it was rededicated to the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. When interest in the new religions waned, the cathedral was converted into a storage warehouse for food.
3. Napoleon Bonaparte signed an agreement in 1801 to restore the cathedral to the Catholic Church. Three years later he decided to hold his coronation ceremony at the cathedral, becoming the first Frenchman to hold the title of emperor in a thousand years. Pope Pius VII handed Napoleon the crown—which the young conqueror of Europe placed on his own head.
4. In 1831, novelist Victor Hugo wrote Notre-Dame de Paris, published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Hugo began writing the novel in part to bring attention to the value of Gothic architecture. A few years earlier, Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (“War to the Demolishers”) aimed at saving Paris’s medieval architecture. Based in part on Hugo’s effort to draw attention to the cathedral, King Louis Philippe ordered in 1844 that it be restored.
5. From 1856 to 2012, the four major bells atop the northern towers of the cathedral were rung every 15 minutes. They also rang for significant events, such as the end of World War I in 1918, the liberation of Paris in 1944, and in honor of the victims of 9/11 in 2011. The four bells—which were named Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne, and Denise-David, after French Catholic saints—were melted down and replaced by eight new ones in 2012. The reason for the change was to recreate the sound of Notre Dame’s original 17th-century bells.
6. The cathedral’s pipe organ dates back to the 18th century and is the largest in France. The instrument has five keyboards, 109 stops, and nearly 7,374 pipes. In the 1990s, the organ was restored at the cost of $2 million and took 40,000 hours to complete. The update included a musical-instrument digital interface (MIDI) that records and allows for instant replay, a voice synthesizer, a printer, and a telephone line to an office near Versailles.
7. In 2013, a hive of honey-producing bees was placed on the roof of the sacristy (i.e., the room where the priest prepares for a service). The types of bees—Buckfast bees—were bred from a special strain at a Benedictine monastery, and known for their gentleness. The beehive is hosted on the cathedral to “recall the beauty of the Creation and responsibility of man towards it.”
8. The wood used for the framing of the cathedral consisted of 1,300 oak trees representing more than 21 hectares (2.5 acres) of forest.
9. The current fire is part of a long history of damage to the cathedral. In the 16th century, both the Huguenots and also the French king vandalized and altered the structure of the building. During the French Revolution 28 statues of biblical kings located at the west facade were beheaded because they were mistaken for statues of French kings. Minor damage to the medieval glass was also caused by stray bullets during the liberation of Paris in 1944. Even nature has taken its toll, as five centuries of wind damage forced the removal of the original spire in 1786.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Kathryn Butler—a trauma and critical-care surgeon who recently left clinical practice to homeschool her children and author of a book on end-of-life care through a Christian lens, Between Life and Death—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about faith and medicine, and more.
What books are on your nightstand?
This will be fodder for my husband. The piles have gotten out of control.
I actively read about four books at a time: something to teach, something to write about, something to help my child with special needs, and something to indulge my love for words. Right now that amalgamation looks like this:
- Something to teach: Running from Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace by Anthony J. Carter
- Something to write about: Hostility to Hospitality: Spirituality and Professional Socialization within Medicine by Michael J. and Tracy Balboni
- Something to help my child with special needs: Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary ‘Executive Skills’Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
- Something to refine my mind and heart: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Other titles heaped on the nightstand in various phases of completion include:
- The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy by Tim Keller
- All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson
- Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology by J. P. Moreland
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins
- In the Crucible by Daniel L. Schlueter
- Closing the Chart: A Dying Physician Examines Family, Faith, and Medicine by Steven D. Hsi
- The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears by Lawrence Cohen
- The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s by Temple Grandin
- The Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer
- The Waves by Virginia Woolf
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- The Aeneid by Virgil
- The Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett
What are your favorite fiction books?
I gravitate toward the Lost Generation writers: William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, James Joyce. I love how they all pair an unflinching eye for detail with a deftness for capturing the moment, the essence of a thing. Their realism is unsettling, but it’s also their gift: I can’t read Dubliners or The Great Gatsby or even The Sound and the Fury without thinking, Yes, that’s why the gospel is such great news!
What books have most influenced your thinking about faith and medicine?
For years the problem of suffering was a stumbling block to my faith, even driving me for a time to agnosticism and existential depression. An in-depth study of the book of Job played a crucial role in deepening my faith, giving me a biblical framework that revealed God’s goodness even in our anguish. It also shaped my thoughts on end-of-life care.
Regarding medicine specifically, Dr. Robert Orr’s Medical Ethics and the Faith Factor has been an excellent resource, as have John Dunlop’s Finishing Well to the Glory of God and David VanDrunen’s Bioethics and the Christian.
What’s the last great book you read?
For classics, The Aeneid. For modern books, I loved Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (which I reviewed for TGC). Her research was excellent, and her writing was stunning.
In the past year I’ve also read some pretty amazing children’s literature with my kids around the breakfast table that I know I didn’t appreciate decades ago. I expected to cry with Charlotte’s Web and the Narnia chronicles, but the poignancy of The Cricket in Times Square took me aback.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, but he does a spectacular job illustrating the skewed priorities of modern medicine and how the missions to fix and to keep safe often deprive people of what matters most in life. Our medical technology is a gift, but it comes with a steep price when wielded without discernment.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
For so long I didn’t understand grace. I knew my sin down to my bones, and daily dwelt on my inadequacy, but I really couldn’t comprehend that God would sacrifice anything of worth to save someone so corrupted.
The move from the hospital to homeschooling has compelled me to put aside any notion that I can redeem myself and has unveiled for me the sweetness and luminosity of grace in Christ. As I flunk daily at homemaking stuff, and as my son’s needs bring me to my knees, I’m amazed at how little we can do ourselves, how desperately we need the Lord, and how he works such wonders when we stop striving, start trusting, and come before him broken and humble. What he accomplishes far outshines anything we can do with our own awkward hands. And my heart bursts with gratitude that even when we’re so undeserving his love covers us and buoys us through.
“It felt like a video game where all the mechanics are broken.”
These are the words of a heartbroken father, whose efforts to save his young son proved futile. Ryan Green is a game designer from Colorado, married to Amy. But when their 1-year-old son, Joel, was diagnosed with brain cancer, life seemed anything but a game.
Usually video games put the player in the driver’s seat. Your decisions determine the outcome. With skill, cunning, and perseverance, you can overcome every obstacle. You can defeat the dragon. But in real life, cancer proved to be a dragon that could not be slain. Tragically, in 2014, Joel died at age 5.
How can parents cope with such tragedy?
Ryan and Amy made a memorial to their son, “That Dragon, Cancer.” They made a game (read TGC’s review) that pits you against the dragon of cancer. Yet this game is unlike other games. This game is unwinnable. Instead the gamer is carried through experiences they did not choose, experiences they would not choose. Through the darkest valley, though, there is Easter hope. Ryan and Amy are Christians. They know a Dragon Slayer. But the Slayer isn’t Joel, and he isn’t us. Instead there is One who carries us through death to a place of feasting and joy. It’s not for the strong or the brave. It’s for the Joels of this world. For those who know they need to be carried.
Whether from a desire for “authenticity” or from a mistrust of formal statements of faith, the use of creeds has fallen out of favor in many evangelical churches. However, in The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits, Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and TGC Council member—argues that creedal statements are, indeed, relevant for “such a time as this.” As the subtitle suggests, when we employ those ancient words in our worship, we have captured “authenticity” at its best. The Apostles’ Creed frames the essence of Christianity, for it “expresses and summarizes the faith given by Christ to the apostles” (xiv).
Internalizing majestic statements of belief enriches our more spontaneous expressions of worship with infusions of known theological truth. Mohler explains the Apostles’ Creed line by line, phrase by phrase, applying its truth to life on the ground in the 21st century. The effect is a well-organized, timely presentation of truth.Delight in the Details
If, as A. W. Tozer succinctly stated, “What comes into our minds when we think of God is the most important thing about us,” we would do well to align our understanding of God’s identity and character with his self-revelation. Mohler dives deeply into who God is with scriptural affirmations of his power—and right—to rule the universe.
With the largest part of the creed devoted to God the Son, readers are invited to delight in the details of our great salvation. Mohler laments “this strange time in which it appears to people that heresy is exhilarating”—and then rolls up his sleeves to equip believers with truths that move us beyond a mere “all I want is Jesus” mentality. The creed insists that Jesus’s identity is a crucial point in refuting heresy and helping us anchor our own stories in the metanarrative of the Jesus story.
Readers are invited to delight in the details of our great salvation.
The Christian faith is unmistakably Trinitarian. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, and Mohler devotes chapter 11 to a clear and helpful expansion of the creed’s six-word assertion about the third member of the Trinity. He writes about the Holy Spirit as the member who abides with us, teaches the church, testifies to the truth about Christ, and indwells each believer with his truth-bearing presence.Not an Accessory
Christianity is social, not solitary. In affirming belief in “the holy catholic church and the communion of saints,” believers confess that church isn’t an optional accessory to a flourishing Christian life. Further, our consumer mentality about worship styles, personalities, or the presence of a coffee bar gets swallowed up in a glorious call to recognize our “identity as eternal members of the eternal family of the eternal God” (164).
Church isn’t an optional accessory to a flourishing Christian life.
Unfortunately, the only eligible members of congregations happen to be sinners, but even this—“the sinfulness of the entire human race, and . . . the horrible reality of our own individual sin”—is accounted for by creedal words of hope (170). Belief in the forgiveness of sin sets all believers in the position of gratitude for a robust grace that matches the depth of our need.Trusting All That Scripture Reveals
The Apostles’ Creed is an expression of certainty to encourage belief in an era when believers may prefer mystery or ignorance. God’s incomprehensible nature is distilled into statements of truth that cut through opinion and offer borrowed words to help the heart along. While it’s true the repetition of a creed has no saving value, there is great faith-anchoring value to a deeper understanding of the affirmations that define historic Christianity.
To that end, Mohler tackles common questions about the ancient rule of faith. For example, because Jesus truly died, we’re safe in interpreting his descent “into hell” as an entrance into the realm of the dead. Scripture doesn’t support much speculation beyond this point, and so “even as we confess that Christ descended into hell, we get ready to celebrate that hades could not hold him” (93).
In an attempt to defuse the controversy over male pronouns referring to God, Mohler teases out two distinct functions of “he.” Biblically, God is without gender, so the use of “he” denotes personhood, not maleness. So too fatherhood and gender are not one in God. Even though fatherhood has been corrupted by human failing, “it is God the Father who defines what a human father must be like, not the other way around” (10).
In this methodical and engaging exploration of the Apostles’ Creed, each credo is a stand-alone lesson, deeply theological and heart-stirring in a way only good theology can be. Creedal statements are servants, summarizing the content of belief so the truth can be succinctly communicated, unifying us on the essentials and directing our minds toward life-giving orthodoxy.
Every year in the lead-up to Easter, films about Jesus and scenes of his resurrection are not hard to find. This year’s Jesus: His Life on the History Channel is one of the latest, but other recent examples include Risen (2016) and Son of God (2014). Cinematic depictions of resurrection, however, are not confined to Easter-season adaptations of the New Testament.
In one sense, almost every film is a resurrection film. The traditional cinematic plot arc is from “Friday” to “Sunday.” A person, community, or cause is “dead,” lost, hopeless (Friday). There is lament, struggle, tension, darkness (Saturday). But in the end, there is rebirth, resolution, a new day’s dawn (Sunday). Human beings resonate with this movie structure for a reason. It’s the greatest story ever told.
But beyond this familiar story arc, resurrection is often a more explicit theme in movies. You see the death-resurrection cycle often in superhero or fantasy movies, where a seemingly defeated hero nevertheless revives and returns (e.g., Gandalf the White in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, or Batman’s ascent out of the abyss in The Dark Knight Rises). Then there are the countless action movies where the hero is left for dead, pummeled from every direction by every imaginable weapon, and yet somehow bounces back, again and again.
These “resurrection” tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.Ordet (1955)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (Danish for “The Word”) is almost always near the top of lists about the best films about Christian faith, and for good reason. Dreyer (one of three filmmakers whose work is featured in Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film) has a knack for capturing the transcendent in the mundane. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ordet and its famous, unexpected scene of resurrection near the film’s end. Though clearly a film about faith (or lack thereof), Ordet has a spartan style and ordinary setting that makes the literal, straightforward resurrection scene all the more startling when it comes. A woman, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), is lying dead in a coffin. Her brother-in-law Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) simply says, “Inger, in the name of Jesus Christ, I bid thee arise!” And she does. Watch on The Criterion Channel.Munyurangabo (2007)
When I think about films that capture the beauty of resurrection, I always think of this small, little-seen indie from director Lee Isaac Chung. Set in post-genocide Rwanda, it focuses on the friendship of two adolescent boys who come from opposing ethnic groups (the Hutus and Tutsis). The wreckage and blood-stained trauma of Rwanda’s past is everywhere, but the focus is on the hope, reconciliation and resurrection that can come in death’s wake. This lyrical, neo-realist film (using all non-trained actors) came out of a trip Chung and his wife, both believers, took to Rwanda with Youth With a Mission (YWAM), to help teach filmmaking to young people. Resurrection is not literal in the film (though a few unexpected, magical shots suggest it) so much as it is a pervasive possibility that infuses every frame. It’s a film that beautifully captures the lament and hope of the “already, not yet.” Watch on Amazon.The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s masterpiece is thoroughly Christian from start to finish (as its title would suggest). There is birth and death, but also resurrection. Genesis, Job, and Revelation loom especially large, shaping a narrative that essentially follows Scripture’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration structure. Life’s ending is perhaps cinema’s most vivid depiction of the Christian eschatological idea of the resurrection of the dead. Set to the music of Berlioz’s “Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts),” we see people rising from graves, along with a variety of images evoking Revelation 21: a lamp (v. 23), an open gate (v. 25), a bride (vv. 2, 9), the nations walking (v. 24). To cap it all off, the boy about whom the film’s final line refers (“I give you my son”) is named “R. L.,” an abbreviation I suspect is a nod to John 11:25: “Resurrection and Life.” Watch on Amazon.The Salt of the Earth (2015)
On first appearance, this documentary might seem to be more about death than resurrection—more Friday than Sunday. Directed by Wim Wenders (a believer), along with Juliano Salgado, the film explores the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who turns his cameras unflinchingly on war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and other human struggles in our fallen world. But as much as it captures visceral lament and anger over suffering and injustice, it also captures eschatological, “swords into plowshares” hope for renewal: not just for individuals, but for creation itself. This is stunningly captured in a sequence showing Salgado re-planting a decimated rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, showing the new life potential that always lurks beneath the soil of barren, drought-ridden ground. Watch on Amazon.Happy as Lazzaro (2018)
This Italian film from director Alice Rohrwacher suggests resurrection in its very title (Lazzaro is the Italian name for Lazarus). Sure enough, the beguiling-but-beautiful movie does indeed have a jarring resurrection scene involving its titular character, though it’s not a parallel to the biblical Lazarus story. Still, Happy as Lazzaro—which is full of biblical imagery and has been described as a “religious parable”—is a powerful example of how awe-inspiring it is when resurrection happens in an otherwise realistic course of events. More than any other film I’ve seen outside the zombie genre, Happy as Lazzaro captures the “whoa” nature of seeing someone you thought was dead, very much alive and in the flesh. It puts us in the shoes of Thomas and the other disciples, friends, and family of Jesus who struggled to believe the resurrected man was really, truly resurrected. Watch on Netflix.
Every year on Palm Sunday, children enter our worship service with palm branches, delightfully waving to the congregation (or devilishly whipping one another) in celebration of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Many know the story of the Lord Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey to the adulation of the crowds.
But not everyone knows that long before Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey—hundreds of years before he was even born—another man rode a donkey into Jerusalem. And in that first triumphal entry, we uncover precious truth about the second.Cold King, Conniving Prince, Ruthless Partnership
Our story begins in 1 Kings. Here, King David—the boy who defeated giants as a child and who conquered armies as a youth—is an old man too sick and weak to warm himself (1:1–4). It’s clear to everyone that David’s life is almost over. Soon there will be a new king.
One of David’s sons, Adonijah, decides he wants to be king (1:5–10). He starts by forging two strategic relationships—one with the military leader, Joab, and one with the priestly leader, Abiathar. He gathers them for a private coronation party.
Alert readers know David had already appointed Solomon to be the next king (1 Chron. 23:1; 29:22). Adonijah’s power play, then, was a hostile takeover and a murderous threat to his rivals—his royal brother, Solomon, and his queen mother, Bathsheba. But even more, it was a threat to God’s promises. The Lord had promised David would have an enduring royal dynasty (2 Sam. 7:12–13), specifically through Solomon (1 Chron. 22:9–10).
This family crisis was a life-and-death struggle for the kingdom of God.Brave Woman, Faithful Prophet, Rightful King
Bathsheba enters our story to alert the clueless King David about what’s happening in his kingdom (1 Kings 1:11–27). Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan remind David of the oath he made in response to God’s covenantal promises (Bathseba’s name actually means “daughter of the oath”).
David affirms his plans to crown Solomon (1:28–31) and moves into action (1:32–37). He summons Nathan, Zadok, and Benaiah—a godly prophet, a godly priest, and a godly adviser to the king.
David gives his royal mule (a sort of ancient Air Force One) to Solomon and parades him into Jerusalem from the Gihon Spring across the Kidron Valley. Solomon was anointed and enthroned in public with triumphant celebration. This is no secret self-exaltation like Adonijah’s private party, but God’s people publicly celebrating God’s king with a loud cheer (1:38–40). The private party for Adonijah dissolves as the cheers for Solomon drown out the imposter coronation (1:41–49).First Triumphal Entry Points to Second
Solomon’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey across the Kidron Valley and the Gihon Spring (1:33, 38) declares the true king. It announces that the priestly leader Abiathar—and all the religious leaders following him—are phonies. It announces that the military leader Joab—and all his military powers—aren’t in charge. This one, this king on a donkey, is the true son of David.
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus retracing Solomon’s path across the Kidron Valley and entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt. 21:1–10). It’s certainly a picture of humility—entering on a donkey instead of a war horse (Zech. 9:9). And it certainly evokes a contrast between God’s kingdom and the sort of entrance that Herod or Pilate would’ve received as they entered the city that week.
But as a reflection of Solomon’s coronation, Jesus’s triumphal entry teaches us even more. It testifies that the scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders who opposed him—are phonies. Like the sons of Eli, they are disqualified from representing the true and living God (1 Sam. 2:31ff). And it also says that Rome with all its military might isn’t in charge. Even the blind could see (Matt. 20:30–31) that Jesus, this king on a donkey, is the true son of David (Matt. 21:9, 15).
Here, at last, is the true king.Greater-Than-Solomon Is Here
Thankfully, Jesus’s kingship is unlike Solomon’s in many ways.
Solomon disbelieved God and trusted in idols; Jesus never did. Even while suffocating to death on the cross, Jesus committed his spirit into the Father’s hands (Luke 23:46).
Solomon sinfully took for himself foreign queens to bolster his own status (1 Kings 11:1–4), but Jesus gave himself up for his bride, the church. Solomon was polluted by his foreign wives (Neh. 13:26), but Jesus cleansed and sanctified his bride, “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
Solomon built a temple, but then he led his people to worship foreign idols. Jesus established a new temple and is the worship leader for his assembled people: “I will tell of [the Lord’s] name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Ps. 22:22; Heb. 2:12). Solomon led his people down the path to exile; Jesus becomes the path to God—the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Solomon died, just like David died (1 Kings 11:43). But Jesus rose from the dead to give everlasting life—not only to David and Solomon but to all his royal sons and daughters (Heb. 2:10).
This Palm Sunday, we celebrate the triumph of the second king to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. He enters to the praise of children and adults, unmasking all pretenders to his throne and reminding us that he—and he alone—is the only king worth following.
According to what I’ve heard, improving a country’s GDP is more important than any form of aid. Does that mean that, in order to most obey Jesus’s commands to love the poor, I should buy products and services—particularly those produced by the less advantaged? Let’s say, for example, that I have $100 and I live in the Middle East. What is more helpful—to give the $100 to a charity that helps refugees in my country or to take that $100 to a locally owned-and-run supermarket and buy the desserts they make and sell there?
This question plagues me. It seems counterintuitive that the best way for me to help the poor is to buy stuff from them. That’s not intuitively how any of us interpret Jesus’s commands, but if it is the case, it raises a host of issues about what effective generosity really is.
Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people in extreme poverty fell by nearly 1.1 billion, even as the world’s total population expanded by nearly 1.9 billion. Was this the result of aid or development policy from Western governments and NGOs? No. Without a doubt, the single most important factor in lifting over a billion people out of poverty was sustained economic growth—rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in countries with substantial poverty.
If rising GDP has done more to decrease poverty than any charity or aid program, how does one best leverage one’s personal finances to help the poor? Is buying stuff in order to raise GDP the most faithful way to obey Jesus’s commands to love the poor? As with most important things, the answer can be complex.
Suppose you concluded that you should spend money to increase GDP. There are multiple ways to do that, but they aren’t all equal. Consider the following ways to spend $1:
- Spend $1 on ice cream and eat it yourself.
- Spend $1 on ice cream, then find a poor person who couldn’t afford to buy ice cream and give it to them to eat.
- Give $1 to that poor person and tell them, “Spend it however you want.”
Each of those options will likely increase GDP by the same amount, but in terms of generosity No. 2 is better than No. 1, and No. 3 may be best of all. In No. 3, the poor people may spend the dollar on ice cream, or they may spend it on something that is even more useful to them. Indeed, they may invest in growing their personal business, on provisions for their future, or on things that lead to better health outcomes for themselves or their families. (There is lots of research on the effectiveness of “unconditional cash transfers.”)
Spending money on ice cream will only possibly increase a country’s GDP in the short run, but the best way to help the poor is to contribute toward economic growth in the long run. Economic growth comes from broad improvements in technology, innovation, efficiency of and access to markets. (Even if you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there’s probably not much you can do here.)
Additionally, while in general the best way to lift the most people out of poverty is through economic growth, people can remain in dire poverty even as GDP increases. In the last several decades, economic growth in many countries has increased incomes but also inequality, creating new problems for those countries. For example, the people Mother Teresa ministered to would not benefit at all from GDP growth. The best way to help those people is to serve them directly, whether doing so helps GDP or not.
In other cases, economic growth has actually hurt people. In the United States, globalization has been good for growth overall, but has also displaced many workers who used to have manufacturing jobs. Those people need to learn new skills so that they can get new jobs; helping them benefit from economic growth requires not economic investment but individual attention.
So what is the best way to leverage your personal finances? Don’t make it too complicated. Find things that effectively improve people’s lives without hurting them. The answer will be different in different contexts, so it’s helpful to refocus on the individual: Sometimes the easiest thing is giving money directly to responsible people with need. Or increasing someone’s long-term income potential by connecting them with resources, training, or access to jobs. Or seeing an organization around you that does good work and giving there.
Don’t necessarily worry about GDP. How you give needn’t contribute toward economic growth. Not everybody can contribute in that way, and that’s okay. Instead, focus on being faithful with what you’ve been given. Help the people you know need help. Give out of the resources you already have. And rest in the knowledge that God has more resources, and loves the poor, more than you ever will.
See previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.
Why it’s worth talking about: Although Shazam! aims to be nothing more than a goofy and fun superhero blockbuster aimed at younger viewers, there are several overtly Christian themes that provide parents an opening to talk about theological topics.
Note: The rest of this article contains spoilers. None of the revealed information will lessen your enjoyment of the movie, and it will prepare you to have a robust discussion after seeing it with your child.
What it’s about: Billy Batson, a 14-year-old foster kid, is chosen by the wizard Shazam to be the next “Champion of Eternity” and defender of humanity. By saying the magic word SHAZAM! Billy is transformed into an adult-costumed superhero who has the power of seven heroes: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. (His actual powers include bulletproof skin, super speed and strength, and the ability to fly and shoot lightning from his fingers.)
Demons called the Seven Deadly Sins tell Thaddeus Sivana, who is bitter over not being chosen as the champion 40 years earlier, that if he kills Billy/Shazam he’ll gain additional power.
Only by discovering he needs to stop focusing on himself and use the power of his foster family is Billy able to defeat Sivana and the Sins.Concepts and Characters You Need to Know
To aid in your discussion, here are the characters you need to know.The Superheroes
Billy Batson/Shazam (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) — The superhero alter ego of Billy Batson.
The Shazam family — Near the end of the film, all of Billy’s foster siblings gain similar superpowers.The Villains
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana — As a boy Sivana was summoned by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), but was not chosen because he was not “pure of heart.” He instead decides to gain power through evil means.
The Seven Deadly Sins — The Sins are a group of ancient, powerful demons that represent the worst aspects of human behavior: Pride, Envy, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust. These demons have the power to take control of people’s bodies, forcing them to indulge in the sins they represent. At the beginning of the film, the Sins are imprisoned in seven stone statues at the Rock of Eternity. Sivana frees them, and when they are put in the Eye of Sins (which replaces Sivana’s right eye), it gives the mad scientist the same powers as Shazam. When the demons are released to fight individually, though, Sivana loses his powers.The Supporting Roles
Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) — Billy’s foster brother and sidekick. Disabled, nerdy, and lonely, Freddy desires to become a superhero too (which he eventually does).
Billy’s other foster siblings — Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton), Pedro Peña (Jovan Armand), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman).
Billy’s foster parents — Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans).Talking Points and Discussion Questions
Purity of Heart — Billy is chosen to be champion because he is supposedly “pure of heart.” But throughout the first half of the film we see him acting in a way that does not seem pure. Being pure of heart can’t mean being without sin or never doing anything wrong, since Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Talk to your child about Psalm 24:3–4 and what it means to be pure of heart. As John Piper explains:
You can see what David means by a “pure heart” in the phrases that follow it. A pure heart is a heart that has nothing to do with falsehood. It is painstakingly truthful and free from deceitfulness. Deceit is what you do when you will two things, not one thing. You will to do one thing and you will that people think you are doing another. You will to feel one thing and you will that people think you are feeling another. That is impurity of heart. Purity of heart is to will one thing, namely, to “seek the face of the LORD” (Ps. 24:6).
The Deadliness of Sin — Because the main villains are demons who embody the seven deadly sins, it can provide an opportunity to discuss the topic in a unique way.
For younger children, here’s a helpful and simple definition of sin: “Doing things our way instead of God’s way.” Walk them through various Bible stories—starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—to show that doing things our way instead of God’s way hurts and angers him, separates us from him, and leads to negative consequences, including death. Explain that Jesus died to take away the worst effects (our eternal separation from God), and that if we love Jesus, we will avoid doing things our way and instead strive to do things God’s way.
While the list of the “seven deadly sins”—pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony, and lust—is not found in the Bible, Christians have found these are the ones we tend to struggle against the most. Explain what the terms mean and ask your child to think of an example of each.
Overcoming the Sins — Billy is given special power that allows him to overcome the Sins. By the end of the film, the demons are recaptured and once again imprisoned. Explain how we, relying on Jesus and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, are given similar ability to fight against sin in our own life.
In the Bible, Paul says that because we are made alive in Christ, we are to put sin to death (Col. 3:5). Putting sin to death is therefore a daily task for all believers. As the Puritan John Owen famously said, “Be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work. Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” But sin in our lives, like in the film, is a monster that’s continuously defeated and yet has the potential to return time and time again. Explain that rather than “killing sin” once and for all, we must—with the Holy Spirit’s help—continue to overcome its power throughout our lives.
The Importance of Family — Billy keeps running away from foster homes because he’s searching for his birth mother. When he finds her, however, he learns she abandoned him intentionally. This leads Billy to realize that he’s not alone; he has already has a family who loves him. Ask your child how Billy changes when he discovers how he needs his new family.Cautions and Concerns
Shazam! contains mild profanity and rude gestures (i.e., the middle finger). Billy and Freddy also enter a strip club (twice), though the building is only shown from the outside. There are also several deaths and some scenes (e.g., a surprising car crash, people being eaten by demons) that might be disturbing for children under the age of 7.Extra Information
You don’t need to know this stuff to enjoy the movie, but it might impress your kid.
• In the movie, Billy gets his powers by saying the name of ancient wizard Shazam, the last of the Council of Seven Wizards. But in the original version of the comics, the magic word that transforms Billy into a superhero—”SHAZAM!”—is an acronym of six “immortal elders”: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Solomon is the only real historical figure—the rest are ancient Greek gods (Zeus, Mercury) and heroes (Achilles, Hercules).
• Many funny suggestions are made about what Billy’s superhero name should be (“Captain Sparkle Fingers”), but they never mention what it actually is—Captain Marvel—because that’s the name of a Marvel Comics superhero (whose movie is also in theaters). Obviously, Billy can’t go around telling people his hero name is Shazam, since that’s the magic word that transforms him back and forth between being a hero and being a teen. Although the character first appeared in 1940, Shazam wasn’t used as his official name in the comics until 2011.
• Because the movie is set in the DC Extended Universe—the shared universe centered on DC Comics superhero films—Shazam exists in the same world as the recent film versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.
• Due to censorship standards in 1940s-era comics, the Seven Deadly Sins are also known as the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. They are Shazam’s oldest enemies, having appeared in the second issue of the comic in 1940.
• Shazam/Captain Marvel was the first comic-book superhero to be adapted into film. He appears in a 1941 12-chapter film serial called Adventures of Captain Marvel (you can watch it online here). The character was also in a live-action television special in the 1970s and an animated series in the 1980s.
Other Articles in This Series:
“Jesus is saying the same kind of thing to everyone. When we rightly understand what he teaches about sexual ethics and about marriage, it is deeply humbling for every one of us. It’s challenging for all of us because none of us naturally lines up with what Jesus teaches. His teaching on marriage and sex has been countercultural in every single culture in one way or another. This has never been easy.” — Sam Allberry
Date: March 16, 2018
Event: TGC Arizona Regional Conference
Ministry is warfare. Sunday services, reading, sermon prep, visiting the sick, staff meetings, counseling, conflict, our flesh, and the flaming darts of the evil one make ministry a slog.
How can we make it? How will you stay faithful in ministry, not just through this year, but through the next 25? Do you have 40 years left on your tires? You don’t have to burn out or spiral out from hidden sin.
God has a way for you to make it.What Powered Paul?
In his new book, Remaining Faithful in Ministry: 9 Essential Convictions for Every Pastor, John MacArthur guides pastors through nine convictions held by a minister of the gospel who remained faithful till his martyrdom in Rome. Paul, after Jesus, is the perfect case study for endurance in ministry.
MacArthur, who’s been pastoring for 50 years now at Grace Community Church, notes Paul’s characteristics that are worthy of imitation: “his courage, his faithfulness, his deep love for Christ, and his willingness to stand alone” (10). And what becomes clear through the book is the extent of the difficulties Paul faced in ministry and how amazing it was that he endured until the end. Consider this biblical snapshot of his ministerial sufferings while spreading the news of the risen Christ:
Five times I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers; toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and without clothing. Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24–28)
I’ve never been whipped for the Word made flesh. Has anyone reading this review been pelted with rocks for preaching Jesus? Once I had a flight delayed on the way to Thailand for a mission trip—not quite the same as floating around in the sea. I’ve never faced a legitimate danger in ministry; a cranky church member is as bad as it gets. What pastor among us has ever skipped a meal because we gave that line item in our budget to the poor in our city? Brothers, compared to Paul, we have cushy callings.
Convictions are the calories every pastor needs to keep running the race.
But there is at least one thing in Paul’s list that every faithful pastor understands: concern for the church. Paul agonized over the saints and their walk with Jesus and their mission in the world. Add this super-charged concern into the mix of the holy and hectic week of pastors, and we can teeter.
So how did Paul remain faithful, with even heavier burdens and wounds on his back?Convinced of These Convictions
MacArthur walks readers through nine convictions from Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, showing how these truths can help you endure in whatever ministry the Lord Jesus has given you. If these convictions propelled Paul forward, they can do the same for every pastor today.
But there’s a hitch.
You can’t merely know these things. You must be convinced of them. They can’t be in your theological file cabinet. They have to be in your coffee. Ingested. Absorbed. Energizing you for the next pastoral task and the subsequent suffering. Convictions are the calories every pastor needs to keep running the race. The Holy Spirit takes these truths and puts them to work in our lives.
If you’re convinced of the superiority of the new covenant (ch. 1; 2 Cor. 4:1), then you know and act on the truth that you are made righteous in Christ. Preaching great sermons doesn’t make you righteous. Making church members happy doesn’t increase your standing before God. Just Jesus. Your stability and peace can’t come from attendance or giving numbers. Be convinced of the new covenant.
If you’re convinced of the need for a pure heart (ch. 3; 2 Cor. 4:2), then you’ll pursue holiness and not just preach on it. You’ll make disciples, live as a disciple of Christ, and not disqualify yourself. Brother pastor, turn from sin and turn to Christ; let the headlines remind you that sin won’t go undiscovered by the Light of the World.
We’re Amazon boxes. We deliver the good news, finish our course, and then we are folded up, forgotten, and the faith once for all delivered to the saints keeps going.
Pastors who make it are convinced of their own insignificance (ch. 6; 2 Cor. 4:7). We are clay pots. There’s nothing special about us. You can get another clay pot, and it’ll do the same job just fine. “Clay vessels were the cheapest, most common pieces of household crockery—literally disposable” (53). We’re Amazon boxes. We deliver the good news, finish our course, and then we are folded up, forgotten, and the faith once for all delivered to the saints keeps going. Let this truth crucify any impulse for big-dealness—this truth may save your ministry from drowning in the bird bath of pastoral egos. MacArthur explains:
The talent, intellect, and skill of the apostle Paul could never be the explanation for the long-range impact of his life’s work. . . . He was feeble, suffering, despised by adversaries, and abandoned by virtually all his friends. But God used those very weaknesses to demonstrate the power and perfection of divine grace. (60)
The full sense of these convictions won’t hit while you are reading this short book. You’ll feel them long after you’re done reading. The next church discipline issue, or the next leadership conflict, or the next cancer news in the church: that’s when these convictions will strengthen our resolve to keep looking to the Chief Shepherd.
Conviction after conviction, MacArthur shows exegetical insights connected to Paul’s persistence as ways pastors can stay faithful to Christ, Christ’s Word, and Christ’s church until Christ himself summons us home. These nine convictions helped John MacArthur make it 50 years in the same church. Maybe, by God’s mercy, they’ll do the same for you and me.
“My Bible died.”
I was teaching a class and asked for someone to read a Bible verse. As soon as the student had opened his Bible app and located the verse, his digital tablet—and Bible—died. This declaration made me realize we are living in a brave new world of Bible reading.
The digital age is doing some curious things to the Bible. Not only can modern Bibles “die” because of low batteries, but they can also speak, search, share, notify, and hyperlink. It takes two taps to tweet text from Titus. It is normal to announce to an empty room, “Alexa, add blueberries to my grocery list and read Esther chapter four.”
Social media, smartphones, and new media are changing everything, including how we interact with the Bible. The digital age has created a cornucopia of new opportunities for us to read, mark, learn, and digest the Word of God.
To navigate this brave new world, God’s people need both biblical literacy and digital literacy.Bible in a Digital-First World
We live in a “digital first” world. Newspapers now write almost exclusively for digital platforms and print only a fraction of their total content. Amazon is first and mostly a digital bookstore that only recently built a few brick-and-mortar storefronts.
The Bible is not impervious to this trend. Every year we’re seeing more and more Bibles that reflect digital trends and innovations. Take Streetlights Bible as an example. Producing audio, video, and curriculum, Streetlights is a “team of ‘Digital Scribes’ mobilizing Missional Creatives to translate and teach God’s Word so all people can understand and know Jesus Christ.” One of Streetlight’s main projects is the Streetlights App, which allows listeners to hear Scripture read aloud over a hip-hop score. This digital technology provides a tremendous opportunity for a wide range of people to experience God’s Word.
We live in a ‘digital first’ world. The Bible is not impervious to this trend.
Digital personal assistants are another instance of Scripture intersecting with digital technology. With a simple voice command, Alexa or Google Home can read the Bible to you. YouVersion has integrated its Bible reading plans with these smart speakers. Likewise, Concordia Publishing House created an Alexa Skill for reviewing Luther’s Small Catechism. These smart speakers allow for the unusual experience of hearing God’s Word and listening to devotional writings while making dinner or doing the dishes.
The digital age is even influencing analog forms of Scripture. For example, Alabaster Co. designs Bibles for a “visual culture” and has been described as catering to the Instagram generation. Created by a graphic designer and a digital artist, Alabaster publishes artfully designed books of the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of Mark is laid out with captivating photographs, beautiful typography, and a powerful aesthetic. These printed Bibles are designed for readers living in a digital first, visually saturated, social media-steeped culture.Good? Bad? Both?
Binary-based Bibles tend to elicit binary responses:
“These are awesome” or “These are horrible.”
“Digital Bibles are the future” or “Print Bibles are real Bibles.”
Moving beyond a binary response will require a more nuanced understanding of digital technology and how it is shaping our interactions with Scripture.
Designers use the term “affordance” to describe possible actions allowed by an object. A door allows someone to walk through a wall without a sledgehammer. A staircase allows someone to ascend without the help of levitation. A “like” button allows users to express appreciation for a social media post. These affordances allow us to do certain tasks, they inhibit our ability to do other tasks, and they incline us to use an object in a specific way.
Digital and analog Bibles have their own unique affordances. A Bible app allows you to digitally scroll, share, and search. An audio Bible allows you to hear God’s Word while walking, commuting, or mowing the lawn. Print Bibles allow you to quietly leaf through pages without notifications, email alerts, or the blank screen of a dead battery.
These affordances provide unique, practical benefits but also powerful, subtler influences. Having your Bible just one tap away from Facebook influences how you experience God’s Word; toggling between an envy-inducing newsfeed and the envy-indicting New Testament creates internal dissonance. Hyperlinking Scripture to the internet can affect your theological understandings, sending you on meandering rabbit trails that can complicate or distort a passage’s meaning. A sea of unfamiliar words on an austere page conveys a certain visual message.
Design is never neutral. It is a form of persuasion and communication. Whether digital or analog, a print Bible or a Bible app, designed technologies have an influence on how we think, feel, see, and act.
Design is never neutral. Whether digital or analog, a print Bible or a Bible app, designed technologies have an influence on how we think, feel, see, and act.Slow Down, Ask Questions
As Bible readers, we must pause to reflect on the technology we are using to receive God’s Word. This means slowing down and taking time to consider the design of a print Bible, a Bible app, or an audio Bible. Only when we slow down can we begin to ask ourselves good questions about how the medium may be shaping the message of Scripture.
How does a hip-hop score played alongside Ephesians affect the message? How does constantly toggling between social media apps and the Bible influence my daily Bible reading? Does it matter if there are paid ads surrounding Scripture on a webpage? Is hearing the Bible the same as reading the Bible? How is this technology influencing my experience of God’s Word? Addressing these questions will help us begin to develop some basic digital literacy as it relates to Bible reading.
These are complex questions that demand nuanced reflection. We should celebrate how digital technology enables more people to encounter God’s Word, but we must also recognize that how people engage it matters.
The speed and rapidity of modern technology can easily trample over things like wisdom, discernment, and quiet contemplation. Abandoning technology is not the answer. Rather, thoughtful Christians should slow down to discern how technology influences our life, theology, and faith: “The wise of heart is called discerning” (Prov. 16:21).
I invited Katherine to lunch that day because I knew she’d tell me the truth. I was pressuring my husband into a major financial decision—behavior I knew was wrong but was rationalizing in many ways. I needed someone to lovingly set me straight.
Katherine didn’t disappoint. She is my older, bolder friend.
Over the years, God has provided various older women as teachers and examples. In my 20s, I looked up to the women whose children I babysat. In my 30s, it was the older women who led a summer Bible study for young moms. Now in my 40s, I often turn to Katherine for advice. She and my mom have been friends since before I was born. I know she loves me and wants the best for me—and she knows my best means growth in Christlikeness.
Do you have an older, bolder friend? Here are three reasons to commit to spending time with someone who can offer counsel from a deep well of biblical wisdom and life experience.1. Older Friends Are More Likely to Be Bolder Friends
I shared my sin struggle with Katherine that day because I knew she would offer a different perspective from friends my own age. My peers are more likely to excuse my behavior because they struggle with the same issues or because they don’t want to rock the boat of our friendship.
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” I don’t need someone to excuse my sin; I need a friend willing to risk hurting my feelings for the sake of my sanctification.
I don’t need someone to excuse my sin; I need a friend willing to risk hurting my feelings for the sake of my sanctification.
Because Katherine is a mentor-friend and not a peer, she’s wise and bold. Older women have learned from experience that true friendships can bear the weight of confrontation and emerge stronger. She’s less concerned about offending me and more concerned about how my sin offends the Lord. She cares more about my marriage than what I think of her. She speaks the truth gently, but she doesn’t shy away from hard conversations.
When I share a struggle with Katherine, she doesn’t make excuses for my sin or merely commiserate with me about the difficulty of marriage or parenting. She gently asks probing questions to reveal the sin beneath the surface. She encourages repentance rather than rationalization. And she reminds me of the truth of the gospel: Because I’ve been saved by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, I can persevere in holiness for his glory until he makes me perfect in heaven.2. Older, Bolder Friends Offer the Benefit of Hindsight
Our peers are in the trenches with us. They’re struggling to cope with the pressure of others’ expectations, to navigate shifting roles with aging parents, or to keep a marriage fun with a house full of toddlers. Don’t get me wrong—these friendships are valuable. Yes, we need our “I struggle too” friends, but we also need a “here’s what to do” friend.
Yes, we need our ‘I struggle too’ friends, but we also need a ‘here’s what to do’ friend.
Katherine is a pioneer who’s journeyed through my season of life and gained the benefit of hindsight. She’s a guide with greater wisdom, life experience, and time in God’s Word. As Proverbs 16:31 puts it, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”
My older, bolder friend has seen how sinful patterns that start in our 30s or 40s have long-term ramifications in our 50s and 60s. She can look beyond my current circumstances and see how my choices will play out down the road—because she’s seen this before. Her gift of hindsight allows her to give warnings and encouragement from decades my peers haven’t lived.3. Older, Bolder Friends Walk with Us in Wisdom
Katherine has been studying God’s Word and applying the gospel to her life for about three decades longer than I have. Her heart and mind are a treasure chest of wisdom, understanding, and insight. Scripture is constantly on her lips.
She doesn’t give the impression that she’s arrived at perfection. She honestly shares her own struggles and reminds me that we’re in this process of sanctification together. But every trial the Lord has brought her through, every temptation she’s battled, every hour she’s spent in God’s Word has moved her farther along wisdom’s path. I’m grateful she’s willing to turn around and share what she’s learned with a younger sister who’s a few hundred miles behind.
Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Walking with my wise friend encourages me to keep studying God’s Word and growing in the gospel.
When Katherine and I had lunch that day, she lovingly pointed out my discontentment, selfishness, and lack of gratitude for what God has given me. She reminded me of the Lord’s goodness and encouraged me to wait on his timing. She tenderly turned me away from causing damage in my marriage and guided me back onto the path of submitting to my husband and to the Lord.
If you don’t have a Katherine in your life, ask God to provide the right woman. Ask him for courage to risk vulnerability and gain the benefit of her wisdom. It may be that, a few years from now, the wisdom you gain becomes the thing that makes you someone else’s older, bolder friend.
John Stott famously said that the secret to effective preaching is not mastering certain techniques, but being mastered by certain convictions. The same is true for church planting.
And when it comes to planting a church, people commonly suggest various tricks and tips. But we need something more. We need theological foundations that will stand the test of time. Theological foundations drive us to church planting, and theological convictions will keep us faithful in church planting.
And yet, a person with conviction isn’t necessarily qualified for ministry. It’s also essential that others recognize one’s doctrine and life, and thus commend him for the task of church planting. Thus conviction and commendation must go together.
To help us think about these two things as they pertain to church planting, I’m excited to have Eric Mason with me on the podcast today.
My sin doesn’t die easily. Right now, I’m fighting a particular one that seems especially persistent. I might see victory in it for a few months, but then something happens, I let my guard down, and I like feel I’ve taken 10 steps backward in sanctification. It’s frustrating. It’s annoying. It’s discouraging.
My young kids also have sin issues that don’t seem to be going anywhere. Like me, they have good days and bad days. But unlike me, they don’t have the Holy Spirit sanctifying and convicting them. Though Christians may disagree about the spiritual condition of our children, I believe all my kids have is common grace, and more often than not their own sinful hearts prevail.
This besetting sin in my own life, and the besetting sins in the life of my kids, often lead me to despair. What do you do when training and discipline is hard and seemingly unfruitful? How do you keep going when it seems nothing is working?Stiff-Necked Parent, Stiff-Necked Kids
Disciplining our children is hard for many reasons. The difficulty can range from us not getting enough sleep last night to stubborn sin issues in our kids that must be confronted. Illness, external stress, disability, and major life changes can also add to the difficulty of daily discipline.
How do you keep going when it seems nothing is working?
Other times, my own lack of humility makes discipline hard. My child disobeys again after I’ve already told him multiple times to do the right thing. He doesn’t. I get mad. He retreats. I get more frustrated because of his frustration, and the cycle continues.
But if I remember my own besetting sin, then I’m able to see him through sympathetic eyes. If I, a blood-bought child of God, continue to go back to the same sin, how much more will my child who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit? Yes, his sin needs to be dealt with. But so does mine.
At the end of the day, discipline is often hard for me because I fail to see my children through humble eyes, and instead expect behavior that even I don’t exhibit. Discipline is hard because they’re stiff-necked sinners who need new hearts; they’re simply responding according to their nature. They disobey because it’s all sinful people know how to do (Rom. 8:5). They’re unkind because they don’t have new hearts (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). They keep going back to their sin because it’s the only impulse anyone has apart from Christ (Rom. 1; Rom. 3:23).
Only when I see them in that light am I able to respond with compassion—not frustration. They need Jesus again and again and again.
Discipline is hard because sin is serious. Sin demands consequences. But it also requires we take the log out of our own eye first (Matt. 7:5). We’re stiff-necked parents dealing with stiff-necked progeny.Gracious God, Stiff-Necked People
The most glorious truth in parenting is that I’m not the only one parenting my children. God is their ultimate authority, and I care for them as one under his authority, too. I’m my children’s first understanding of what God is like (Ps. 22:9–10). Children learn to trust and obey God by learning to trust and obey their parents, so how I discipline them should testify to how God disciplines us (Eph. 6:1). That truth is incredibly sobering.
What is the general pattern of discipline in Scripture? How does God deal with his children? He’s gracious. He’s slow to anger (Ps. 86:15). He gives them repeated chances to obey. He gives them deliverance even when they don’t deserve it (Deut. 7:7). He provides for them (Ex. 16). And ultimately, he gives his only Son to give them new hearts, so that they can have even a chance at true obedience (John 3:16).
The pattern of parenting we see in Scripture is one of long-suffering patience with wayward, rebellious people set on going their own way. Does that sound like your house? It sure sounds like mine.
When discipline is hard, we tend to respond with frustration and surprise: Surely they should know by now. I’ve told them repeatedly what I require of them. Or we despair: God said in his Word that he’d bless my efforts if I was faithful. Why is this so hard?
But consider your own life for a moment. What besetting sin keeps you humble, ever mindful of your need for growth? Consider the life of the Savior with his disciples, always granting more grace for their lack of understanding and trust.
Discipline is hard because sin is ugly and hard to root out. It’s hard because no one likes to deal with inches of growth when they’re pouring themselves out every day. It’s hard because you really do love these children more than you ever thought possible, but repeated rebellion hurts and is frustrating. It’s hard because no matter how much you try to force obedience, sinful hearts can only be transformed by a power you don’t possess in yourself.You’re Never Alone
But these truths can also lead to encouragement for parents. In the same way that we don’t possess the power to change our children, we also don’t parent without supernatural power from the Holy Spirit. We’re never disciplining alone.
When we are prompted to talk to our children about their sin, the Spirit gives us words, grace, and discernment. When we discipline them, the Spirit provides the necessary patience to discipline in love like God the Father. When we present the gospel to them, it’s never without the power of the Spirit who alone can open blind eyes to the beauty of grace.
Discipline is hard, but that’s why God never leaves us alone for the task. The difficulty of discipline leads us to the end of our own efforts and leaves us coming up short. But it also points us to the Savior who takes dry bones and makes them come alive (Ezek. 37:1–14).