A few years ago, I served on a pastoral search committee. After the church leadership asked me to serve, I immediately felt the weight of the responsibility to find a pastor for our church. Little did I know what faith-building trials lay ahead for our committee.
No matter the church, no matter its size or circumstance, looking for a new pastor is challenging. For members of the search committee, the process involves hours of work: reading resumes, listening to sermons, and interviewing candidates. It also requires pursuing unity of mind and purpose among all the members of the committee. I expected all of that. But there’s one thing I didn’t anticipate when I agreed to serve on the committee: spiritual attack.
During the year-long process, the members of our committee faced illness, hardship, and tragedies in our personal lives and in the lives of loved ones. These trials demanded our time and divided our attention. Hardships and medical issues kept people away from our weekly meetings. Our commitment flagged. At times, weary and frayed, the members of our community struggled to foster unity with one another.
We were under attack.Satan Hates Search Committees
Our adversary, the Devil, doesn’t want a search committee to succeed. Consider the goal of a committee: to find a godly pastor to preach God’s Word and strengthen his kingdom here on earth. A search committee, then, seeks someone to oppose the works of the Evil One, to speak truth against his lies, and to snatch slaves from his death-grip.
As Paul wrote to the Ephesian church: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
From the beginning, our committee made a commitment to fast one day each week. We prayed daily as individuals and together at the start of each meeting, doing as Paul urged—“praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18). We shared our requests with the whole church so they would be praying as well. Alongside God’s Word, prayer was the sharpest weapon in our arsenal.
If your church is seeking a new pastor, your search committee needs you to pray. They need you to stand against the evil forces at work to undermine their labors. Here are four specific things to pray for.1. Unity
Pray for the unity of your committee. There are many potential areas for disagreement, both small and big. Members will have to figure out which qualifications are negotiable and which aren’t, and what makes for a good sermon. Some will like things about a pastoral candidate that others don’t like at all. Some are willing to overlook things about a candidate that others aren’t. Unity is essential for the committee. If they aren’t united, they’ll struggle to settle on a pastor to call. And their disunity will spread to the rest of the church, likely creating wider discord.2. Spiritual Strength
Spiritual attacks can easily overwhelm a pastoral search. Before I started on the committee, previous members were adamant they didn’t want to serve on the committee. I assumed it was because of the time commitment. But I soon realized it had more to do with the spiritual attacks.
Pray for your committee to stand strong. Pray for them to seek Christ in the midst of the many distractions, challenges, and hardships they may face in their personal lives. Pray also for their families—Satan will often attack them as well.3. Wisdom
Pray for your committee to filter through the many resumes to find the pastor who best fits your church’s needs. Pray they’d set aside distractions and secondary issues and focus on what’s important. Pray they’d be able to quickly identify pastors who wouldn’t be a good fit for your church. Pray for the many decisions they must make.4. Endurance
The search-committee process is a long process. It takes most churches at least a year to find a new pastor, some even longer. People will regularly ask, “Why haven’t you found someone yet?” The committee will ask themselves the same question. They’ll grow weary from the work and discouraged when the applicants don’t fit their standards. Pray for your committee members to have endurance to find the pastor you need.
It’s a great privilege to serve on a pastoral search committee. But it’s also hard work. It’s work that keeps committee members from their families. It’s work that often breeds disagreement and even discord among the members. But most of all, it’s work the Evil One wants to frustrate.
So pray for your church’s search committee, making supplication to the Father on their behalf. They need your prayers more than you know.
Every pastor wants his congregation to know the Bible well. But sometimes people’s familiarity with certain translations can actually pose a challenge. For example, one of the most widely memorized passages in all of Scripture is the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). When I played high-school basketball, my team would recite the Lord’s Prayer together in flawless King James language before every game. But when pastors today preach or read the Lord’s Prayer from the English Standard Version (ESV), it can often result in raised eyebrows and troubled hearts.
Wait a minute! people wonder. Where’s the ending? What happened to “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen”? The ESV and almost all other modern translations place these words in a footnote that begins, “Some manuscripts add . . .”
This is a prime example of what scholars call a textual variant—a place in the Greek or Hebrew manuscripts where different readings exist. In this case, some manuscripts contain the familiar words, and some don’t, leaving textual scholars to determine which reading is original.
This process can be unsettling for many Christians. They aren’t likely to be familiar with the process of how the Bible went from the original handwritten Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to the printed English version in their lap. But they rightly believe the Bible to be God’s Word, and they know the warnings about not adding to or taking away from it (Rev. 22:18–19). So it shouldn’t surprise us that they might wonder whether the ESV and company are guilty of changing God’s Word. Others might worry that the entire Bible is now up for grabs. And as those tasked with shepherding their souls, we pastors owe them a patient explanation, not a timid side-stepping and certainly not a patronizing eye-roll.
The fact that this issue arises in a passage as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer shows that we can’t avoid it. If you teach for long enough, you’ll encounter textual variants like this one. I’ve been preaching and teaching to the same congregation for more than a decade and have had to deal with this issue many times—from the ending of Mark’s Gospel to the ending of the Lord’s Prayer. And since my congregation hasn’t yet fired me, I hope I might be doing something right.
Here are four ways to shepherd your flock through textual variants.1. Know Your Flock
How well you can do this will vary depending on the size of your church. But as much as possible, know what kinds of people sit in your congregation. What are their backgrounds? What Bible translations are they using?
In my context, I know that some of my older hearers use the King James Version. Others come from a fundamentalist, King James-only background (or have friends still in those circles). And while I know they wouldn’t be at our church if they were still hardcore King James-onlylists, still—having been a King James-onlyist myself—I know that old fears and ingrained thought-patterns can linger for a long time.
Be aware that some people have been trained to believe that instances like the NIV’s “omission” of the phrase “though his blood” in Colossians 1:14 are part of a Satanic conspiracy to pervert the Bible. You may have found this argument easy to laugh about with your seminary buddies back in the dorm, but you’ll feel differently when dealing with a troubled (or angry) parishioner who actually believes it.
They’re not idiots; they’re your sheep. And they deserve to be instructed, not belittled.
If social media have taught me anything, it’s that it’s easy to be obnoxious in an echo-chamber. When you assume everyone listening to you shares all your assumptions, it’s easy to speak contemptuously of the “idiots” out there who believe “stupid” things. You need to be aware that some of these people are probably sitting in your audience.
They’re not idiots; they’re your sheep. And they deserve to be instructed, not belittled.2. Teach the Basics of Textual Criticism
Textual criticism may sound bad—who wants a pastor who criticizes the text of Scripture? But it’s actually not. Textual criticism is the unavoidable process of evaluating different manuscript readings in order to determine what the authors originally wrote.
I know—you’re not an expert in textual criticism. Neither should you pretend to be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the experts. Indeed, pastors have rarely had as many resources as we do now. For instance, evangelical textual critic Daniel Wallace has entire courses available online. A new book called Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter Gurry, is scheduled for release later this year and geared toward helping ministers and laypeople understand these issues. On the pastoral level, James R. White has also well modeled the teaching and use of textual criticism in his book The King James Only Controversy.
Christians want to know why their Bibles differ from each other. You can teach them the basics.
In my church, I once dedicated two or three weeks in the adult Sunday school class to explaining the basic principles of textual criticism. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive. Just things like: The reading that best explains the existence of the other readings is probably original (which is why Mark’s Gospel probably ends at 16:9). Or, the non-harmonized reading is probably original, which is why the words “to repentance” are likely original in Luke 5:32, but not in Mark 2:17 or Matthew 9:13.
This lesson doesn’t have to be boring. Christians want to know why their Bibles differ from each other. You can teach them the basics.3. Assure Them These Issues Aren’t New
Christians who worry about the “omissions” in new translations are usually the kind of people who have a respect for the old and reservations about the new. That’s why it can be helpful to assure them that though these issues might be new to them, they are not new to the church.
For example, while recently studying the “missing” ending of the Lord’s Prayer, I discovered that William Tyndale didn’t include it in his first English translation of the Bible in 1526. Knowing that Tyndale is someone my congregation reveres as a godly martyr as well as good translator, I made sure to share this fact with them.
I’ve also found it useful to point out that the original King James Version included textual variants in the margin, and the King James translators defended this practice against the same objections people still have:
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point.
If it was good enough for the King James translators, it’ll likely be good enough for them.4. Model Faithfulness to the Word of God
Your congregation doesn’t just need to trust God’s Word; they need to be able to trust you. You can say all the right things, but it won’t matter if they’re not convinced that you trust the Bible and would never dream of tampering with it. Hopefully they’ll charitably grant you their trust at the beginning, but over time you need to earn it.
I know the persuasive power of example from experience. I grew up in a setting where the KJV was the only Bible allowed, and text-critical questions were “solved” by reasoning that “the KJV is the Bible, so that settles it.” I was given the impression that preachers who used modern translations were apostates who didn’t believe the Word of God.
Your congregation doesn’t just need to trust God’s Word; they need to be able to trust you.
What brought me out of that mindset was not first and foremost hearing technical arguments but listening to faithful preachers: men like John Piper who preached expositionally from modern translations and clearly trembled at God’s Word. This shattered my paradigm and made the technical arguments plausible.
You need to model both theological integrity and intellectual virtue. I can’t promise that everyone will like you. And you won’t convince everyone. But over time, your example will exert influence, and people will see that the presence of textual variants in the Bible doesn’t need to shake anyone’s faith. And perhaps when youth in your church to college and read Bart Ehrman, they’ll be able to say, “This is nothing new; I learned about this sort of thing in Sunday school.”
There’s a form of pride that can lurk in a pastor who seems humble. He may be the first to admit he’s wrong, the first to apologize for impatience, and the slowest to criticize others. He’s happy to give young, inexperienced men the opportunity to share in ministry responsibilities; he may even be open with his flock about his personal struggles with sin. He’s approachable. Every question is met with a listening ear and an admission of not knowing everything.
And yet, all of this can be present in a man who is actually proud—too proud to lead with conviction in ways that will make him less liked. It’s an attitude that communicates a lie: What matters most as a pastor is that you fulfill what others want you to be.
Though I’m not an elder, I already see this form of pride in myself. It’s not at all exclusive to those in leadership, and it’s a sin that is exceedingly deceitful.Passive Pastor
Not all passive pastors are prideful. They may act from a genuine desire for congregational authority, or a well-founded fear of being authoritarian. Or maybe they’ve worked for so long that they’ve fallen into a worn-out indifference to the future of the congregation. But whether by pride or by negligence, God’s commands to elders can be glossed over in favor of the flock’s desires. Rather than shepherding the flock (1 Pet. 5:2), the elder begins to follow them helplessly into their favorite pastures. He’s teachable, but at the expense of being able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). Urging sound doctrine (1 Tim. 6:2) turns into suggesting good ideas. The overseer who should be keeping watch over the souls under his charge (Heb. 13:17) and the teaching that he gives them (1 Tim. 4:16) can become the puppet of those souls, teaching them only what they want to hear because he knows they want to hear it.
If we met the apostle Peter, we’d all be surprised to see how much he, a fellow elder, was tempted with this very thing. Underneath his bold, quick-to-speak tendencies, he too loved the applause of fellow men. He loved endorsements as much as you and I do. If you doubt this, consider how he stood for truth in front of Pilate’s servant girl (Mark 15:66–72), or check out how his gospel-based, Gentile-affirming principles held up when Jews walked in the room (Gal. 2:11–14). And yet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, listen to how he exhorts his fellow elders:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)
Notice the main command: Shepherd the flock. That’s a word picture we can learn a lot from. When we think of sheep, we think of short-sightedness, rash decisions, and a lack of discernment. They’re prone to wander, skittish, and quick to run the wrong way when danger is near.
But shepherds don’t despise sheep for their vulnerability. They care for them proactively. They consider the dangers around, think through ways toward new pastures, help the weak, separate the bullies, care for the lambs, and look out for predators. They don’t fulfill their responsibility by being liked by the rams or playing their harps for the ewes or petting the lambs. Rather, they exercise oversight to help their sheep find nourishment, safety, and health. They know that if they return to the chief shepherd having lost some sheep, excuses like, “but they really liked that pasture next to the cliff!” will be self-condemning.Not Just Any Oversight
Peter makes it clear that not just any kind of oversight will do. A pastor’s oversight must have the right attitude: willing, eager, exemplary. And this is where the analogy of a shepherd reaches its limit, because no sheep ever looked at its shepherd and thought, I want to follow his example. I think I’ll start looking out for danger, too. A sheep doesn’t do that, because their shepherd isn’t a sheep. But an elder is an example because though he’s entrusted with God-given authority, he knows that he’s no different from his flock. He knows himself to be a sinner in need of God’s mercy, in need of his flock’s help. So he exercises authority through sacrificial love.
Think about a choir conductor who stops the rehearsal to tell one singer that he’s out of tune. He need not have written the music; he must only know how to read the music to speak with confidence and clarity. Bach’s motet will be performed no better under a shy conductor who refuses to correct the bass than under a conductor who pontificates endlessly over why he could have written it better. But here’s the thing: Both conductors are misusing their authority. One’s too passive, while the other’s domineering. Either way, the result is the same: The whole group suffers.
Likewise, the elder who shies away from exercising oversight does the church a disservice just like the authoritarian elder who rules with an ungodly dominance. The authoritarian may do more initial and more obvious damage, but the puppet elder who’s silently ruled by the opinions of others may do more harm in the long run.Crave Praise from Above
In short, an elder’s authority must be carried out with both confidence and humility, as both an overseer and an example, recognizing both his God-given role and his deep need of God’s help.
And humanly speaking, that’s impossible, which is why a pastor must look to his chief shepherd as the head of the church. He must let the Lord’s grace fill his heart with awe, and surround himself with people who remind him of his need for grace. Everything he does to help others to be changed by the Word must come from a heart that’s being continually changed by that same Word.
But most of all, the passive pastor must realize the praise he longs for cannot come from men. It isn’t circumstantial, and it’s not based on the ever-changing opinions of others. Instead, the praise he longs for will be given by the Chief Shepherd on the final day. It’s certain, kept in heaven.
So pastor, live, teach, and lead as one who will one day be vindicated, judged, and rewarded by the slain and resurrected King of glory.
One glance at the headlines will tell you that the world is a dangerous, confusing place. From natural disasters to church scandals to heartbreak closer to home, it can feel like nowhere is safe. Maybe the best thing you can do is just hunker down and try to survive. But what if God wants more for you than survival? What if he wants you to thrive and enjoy his goodness despite the brokenness around you?
In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers—people like you and me—who are overwhelmed by the world around them: “I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them. . . . Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15, 17).
Instead of retreating from the world, God intends to equip us to meet its challenges with confidence and joy. Instead of changing our circumstances, he intends to change us by making us people who can discern the difference between what’s good and what’s not. Or as Paul puts it, God intends to transform us by renewing our minds so we’ll know what is good, perfect, and acceptable (Rom. 12:1–2).
So what do discerning people know that the rest of us don’t? What do discerning people do that makes them uniquely capable of navigating a broken, complicated world? At least 10 things.1. They live in right relationship to God.
The first thing that sets discerning people apart is that they’re humble. They know how much they don’t know. It’s tempting to rush into situations or decisions confident that we already know the answer. Maybe we think we’ve already learned the “right” answer. Or maybe we rely on our gut instinct. Either way, we don’t pause long enough to remember that our minds are limited, and our hearts are easily led astray. Scripture is clear: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). In other words, discerning people know that God—not their experience or instinct—is the source of wisdom and ultimately the source of safety. From this place of humility, discerning people seek help from the One who gives it freely and abundantly.2. They focus on finding goodness in brokenness.
In a sin-cursed world, we can quickly become distracted by the brokenness and begin to believe it’s more powerful than God’s goodness. But when this happens, we also begin to make decisions from a mindset of fear and self-protection. Trapped by negativity, we’ll only have eyes for what’s wrong. We’ll shrink back from any kind of risk and hunker down in our safe places, seeing anyone who is different from us as a threat. Isolated and alone, we’re unable to enjoy what goodness the world offers.
Discerning people know that God made the world good and that he sustains it in goodness. Yes, the world is cursed by sin but through Christ, God is redeeming it and us. “I would have despaired,” David wrote, “unless I had believed I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). Discerning people have confidence in divine goodness.3. They know the difference between the way things are and the way things should be.
As much as discerning people look for goodness in the brokenness, they don’t deny the brokenness or pretend it doesn’t exist. They’re not idealists. They know the “way the world works” isn’t always the way God intended it to work. So they evaluate everything by the authority of the Scripture and the person of Jesus, testing it to see whether it meets God’s standard of goodness. Sometimes this means rejecting the status quo or questioning their own long-held beliefs. But through it all, they know God is the ultimate standard of what is right, and they must submit all things—even their most deeply held customs and practices—to him.4. They invest in things and relationships that will last.
Because the world isn’t yet what it should be, we all experience trouble and difficulty in this life. When we do, we can be tempted to comfort ourselves with fleeting pleasure: expensive gadgets, addictive substances, unhealthy relationships, and mindless entertainment. At first, these things may bring us a kind of relief. The new car or that third glass of wine will make you happy, at least temporarily, but you’ll quickly need another hit when the initial pleasure wears off. And you’ll be running in circles trying to find it.
Discerning people know that lasting happiness comes from eternal things. They aren’t immune to suffering in this life, but they invest in relationships and things that bring long-term stability instead of short-term relief.5. They know the importance of truth.
In a world of #fakenews and #alternativefacts, it can seem like we live in competing realities. “Your truth” isn’t “my truth” and whatever we personally want to believe becomes truth for us. This makes for a fractured world where we’re isolated from even our friends and neighbors.
Discerning people know that truth isn’t a private matter and that we must have shared truth to flourish. They’re willing to submit themselves and their ideas to scrutiny, knowing that opinions and commentary do not replace facts. And when they encounter information they’ve never heard before, they test it, not by their own opinions or emotions, but by the larger body of shared truth. Ultimately they know we all must submit to the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” In this sense, discerning people are honest people. Honest with themselves, honest with the facts, and honest with others.6. They listen to experts.
Not only do discerning people walk humbly before God, they also walk humbly before their fellow man, deferring to those who have more experience and knowledge than they do. In a world of search engines and social media, it can be tempting to believe everyone’s opinion on any given subject is equally valid. But access to information isn’t knowledge, and tips and trick aren’t skill and expertise. Discerning people know it takes years of study and life experience to become an expert, and they honor that.
They also know the difference between an expert and an elitist. An expert is someone who has expertise in a particular field of knowledge, while an elitist is someone who thinks they have expertise in every field of knowledge. In Romans 13, Paul tells us to give honor to those who deserve it. Discerning people know to honor those whose life experience or education give them particular insight—whether it’s a mother who knows her child better than anyone else or a doctor who knows her field. In both cases, a discerning person will honor the specific expertise of each.7. They pay attention to words and actions.
One thing that makes the world so confusing is that people behave inconsistently. Politicians promise one thing but do another. Husbands and wives vow faithfulness only to cheat a few months or years down the road. It’s hard to know whom you can trust. At its root, this disconnect between our words and actions reveals a deeper disconnect in our hearts. The book of James describes this as being “double-minded” and says double-minded people are unstable in all their ways.
Discerning people know that people with mixed motives will be unstable, so they don’t trust them. They pay attention to the difference between a person’s words and actions and aren’t easily swayed by lip service.8. They embrace goodness wherever they find it.
In the chaos of the world, we tend to cluster in like-minded groups, believing our tribe will give us a sense of safety and security. Sadly, this “us vs. them” approach can blind us to the weaknesses within our group. It can also make us miss the good things that happen outside it. Discerning people know that both good and bad exist in every space. That’s why Paul tells us to think on “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report” (Phil. 4:8).
Rather than toeing the party line, discerning people are committed to finding goodness wherever it may exist. “If there be any moral excellence,” the verse continues, “and if there is be anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”9. They pursue the best possible solution, knowing that no solution is perfect.
Because the world is broken, our decisions will be inadequate in many ways. We simply don’t have the ability or the options to find perfect solutions. But if we wait for the perfect, it’s likely we’ll miss the good. So discerning people know how to make pragmatic decisions. This doesn’t mean that the ends justify the means or that we can do whatever we what. It means learning the difference between “unprincipled pragmatism” and “principled pragmatism.” Unprincipled pragmatism takes advantage of the brokenness, using and manipulating it for self-serving purposes. Principled pragmatism, on the other hand, accepts the reality of brokenness and tries to make decisions that promote healing and wholeness, all with an eye to the day when God sets all things right.10. They use their wisdom to help others.
Instead of seeing discernment as a source of superiority, discerning people use their insight to serve those around them. Whether it’s in their church, their family, or their neighborhood, they use knowledge to build up and unify—not tear down or create division. Sometimes this means having the patience to wait while others think through what you already know. Sometimes it means foregoing your preferences for the good of others. Sometimes it might even mean being misunderstood precisely because others can’t yet see what you do. But because discerning people know the difference between what’s good and what’s not, they also know to evaluate their own actions. They resist the temptation to flaunt knowledge or prove themselves right. They know that any wisdom they have is given to them for the common good.
God hasn’t left us alone in this world. Through the Spirit and the Scripture, he is renewing our minds so we can discern his holy and perfect will. But this process requires humility and a willingness to be changed. God isn’t interested in our being right so much as our being made right—right with him and right with each other. As we grow in wisdom and the knowledge of Christ, we’ll increasingly meet the challenges of a broken world. And little by little, we’ll experience all he’s planned for us. Little by little, we’ll be made good and discover all that’s good in the world around us.
One of the biggest U.S. bestsellers of the 20th century, a Christian reflection on the modern world’s political and social crises, is almost unknown among Christians today. It was number one on The New York Times bestseller list for 13 consecutive weeks in 1952 because it is a powerful personal story of good, evil, despair, and redemption. The story is told with a literary beauty that can be compared without hyperbole to that of Augustine’s Confessions. But it is also worth recovering today because it would provide us with a fresh vantage point for thinking wisely about the problem of the gospel and modern politics.
In Witness, Whittaker Chambers used the lens of his amazing life story to show that the modern world has gone badly wrong because it has turned its back on God. He was diagnosing the crises of the 20th century, especially the confrontation between a smug, materialistic liberal democracy and the monstrous totalitarian systems of communism and fascism. But his diagnosis of how spiritual complacency creates political chaos provides just as much clarity about the crises of the early 21st century, like the breakdown of the moral consensus within liberal democracies into fragmented and polarized extremes on the Left and Right.
Spiritual complacency creates political chaos.
From global wars and genocide to the persistence of poverty in a world of plenty, Chambers described how the modern world has unleashed unprecedented political troubles. All these ills are the political expression of a decline in socially functional religion. In practice, if not always in theory, we believe that there is no rationality higher than the human mind and no morality higher than the human will.
For all its technical and economic marvels, the modern world does not provide people with the two things they really want most: something worth living for and something worth dying for.Chambers’s Biography
Chambers’s life story mirrors the crisis of the modern world. He was a man with a passionate concern for justice, but he could see no viable answers for the political crises of the modern world. Driven to desperation, he became a true believer in communism. He eventually worked as a Soviet spy, participating in espionage, sabotage, and assassination. But this path produced an even more profound desperation, as it became clear to him that the communist answer—for which he had sacrificed not only his life but his conscience—was as bankrupt as all the others.
Then he turned to God in Christ. He left the communist underground, throwing away everything he had given his life to. Over the next 10 years, he became a political journalist and rose to the top of the profession as a senior editor at Time magazine. Then he threw it all away again, agreeing to testify to Congress about his work in the Soviet underground. Chambers’s heartbreaking testimony electrified the nation, but it cost him his career—as he had known it would.
The modern world does not provide people with the two things they really want most: something worth living for and something worth dying for.
Chambers wrote that his witness for God was a witness against the twin evils of the modern world. By throwing it all away and leaving the Soviet underground, he bore witness against the temptation of revolutionary violence. By throwing it all away again and leaving his career at Time, he bore witness against the temptation of materialistic success.God or Man?
The fundamental question for individuals and for society, Chambers wrote, is: “God or man?” There have always been individuals who answered man. What is new in the modern world is that whole societies will now answer man, and organize their political lives around that answer. Some do this through the totalitarian politics of revolutionary violence, others through the liberal politics of materialistic success. The passing of the old, agrarian traditions of life under the pressure of modern technology and markets has left us without a reliable way to make religious faith an active and architectonic force in the structure of our lives.
Chambers’s profound radicalism lies in his unsparing, prophetic witness against the religious complacency of mid-century America. He identified this spiritual anemia as the root cause of our political problems. The communist East, he wrote, has chosen man, and practices totalitarianism because it has the courage of its convictions. The capitalist West has also chosen man, but it doesn’t want to admit this to itself. It is haunted by the specter of its Christian past, so it is not yet ready to abandon the rule of law and respect for human rights. But it has lost the spiritual conditions that make those legal structures humane and sustainable.
The rot in the political tree of liberal democracy is clearly visible and slowly spreading. The rot is there because the spiritual roots are already gone. Without God, Chambers warned, man can’t organize the world for man. Without God, man can only organize the world against man.
The rot in the political tree of liberal democracy is clearly visible and slowly spreading. The rot is there because the spiritual roots are already gone.
This was a breathtaking stand to take in 1952. America was still riding high on its victory over fascism. We were the global good guys, the saviors of the world. And the nominal Christianity of American culture, while it may have shown some signs of wear, still seemed basically immovable. To suggest that our political, social, and cultural order was spiritually bankrupt was like declaring that the sky was green.
Yet the testimony of this witness was heard. The book was a sensation. It topped bestseller lists, and quickly established a credible claim to be one of the most important books of the century.
Unfortunately, the success of Witness contained the seeds of its undoing. Fans on the political right, who relish the book’s devastating portrait of the evils of communism, have kept it in print. Yet, for just this reason, it gradually became misidentified as a mere right-wing, anti-communist tract. It is certainly anti-communist; it is one of the most important books ever written against communism. However, its attack on communism is grounded not in right-wingery, but in the holy love of God for a sinful humanity—a stance that set Chambers against the spiritual bankruptcy of capitalist America as well as the tyranny of the communist Soviet Union.Lessons for Today
There is much we can learn from Witness for our own time. The idea that political dysfunction arises from spiritual dysfunction isn’t as radical among Christians today as it was for Chambers’s original audience. But Chambers provides deep understanding of the “hows” and “whys” of the connection between a nation’s spiritual state and its political state—vital knowledge if we want to outgrow the cheap and counterproductive responses to our dilemma.
Without God, man can’t organize the world for man. Without God, man can only organize the world against man.
Above all, I’m convinced that an encounter with Chambers would help Christians on the political left and right understand one another better. His witness against totalitarianism, with its staunch defense of the rule of law and human rights under a system of freedom and personal responsibility, would help Christians on the left understand conservative concerns better. His unsparing portrait of the many forms of injustice that thrive in America—the mistreatment of workers, the brutality of white supremacy, the alienation of the outsider—would help Christians on the right understand progressive concerns better.
Chambers broke with revolutionary radicalism and also with the pursuit of material success. There are vital lessons for all of us in both of those breaks.
I know it’s crazy, but I wish time travel was readily available. Why? Because I’ve got a few things I’d really like to say to the younger version of me. First, I’d tell myself not to freak out while watching the Steelers in the 1972 AFC Championship game, because Franco Harris will pull off the “Immaculate Reception” in the final 30 seconds. I’d also tell myself that computers are not a passing fad, and then I’d mention it may be wise to invest in a little company called Google. Oh, and I’d tell myself to eat less pizza and more salads. Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that at all.
But I would love to tell my younger self a few things about pastoral ministry. I’ve been in this for more than 28 years. Over the decades, I’ve learned some things I wish I would have known as a freshman pastor.1. Pastoring Is First About People
I was an impatient, driven, type-A kind of person, who didn’t necessarily have time for people and their problems. It was easy to think of pastoring as more about leadership, programs, and preaching, rather than being involved with people. But the reality is, pastoring is about being intimately involved in the lives of people—being a shepherd of their souls. Peter said, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you . . .” (1 Pet. 5:2). Paul said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
To be a faithful shepherd, you must care for sheep.
I missed that at first. I remember when a member left a counseling appointment with me feeling more managed than shepherded. His feedback tutored me. He came looking for a shepherd to care; what he got was a soul mechanic looking to make a repair.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones hit the nail on the head: “To love to preach is one thing, but to love the people to whom you preach is quite another.” If I could grab a coffee with my younger self, I would talk to him about what it means to “love the people to whom you preach.”2. You’re Called to Pastor Broken People
Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). I’d want to tell my younger self that when people come to pastors for help, they bring their baggage with them. We live in a broken world where sin and sickness debase God’s image and defraud human beings. They mess with people and mess up people. Pastoral ministry doesn’t happen in Eden. It happens in the untidy trenches of a fallen world. People come to pastors marred by the effects of sin.
I didn’t get it, at least not in the beginning. But God was faithful, and reality crashed my pastoral party. I seem to recall it happening around a depressed woman who didn’t get better from the passages I told her to memorize. Fortunately for me, older pastors were there to help. I began to see that the complexities of brokenness are not so simple, not so easily catalogued, not so expedient. I began to understand that this is why God created shepherds.
It’s an illuminating moment when a leader realizes, “Oh my, this is ministry. This is what ministry is really about.” We don’t usually think about pastoring this way. We romanticize the role, seeing ourselves in a living room or behind a pulpit, with soft music playing as eloquent words drip from our lips.
But in reality, ministry is messy. How could it not be? We’re not yet what we shall be. I know I’m not. That’s why I need the gospel every day. That’s why I need—we all need—pastors.
I wish I would’ve learned that earlier.3. Pastoring Is Suffering
Second Corinthians 4:7–12 gives us a snapshot of the reality of suffering in ministry. Paul describes his work in terms of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Not exactly your best life now. And yet Paul also makes it clear that God not only works all things for Paul’s good, but also for the good of the people Paul serves (2 Cor. 1:7).
It’s easy for young pastors to expect a different path—to only think about the glamorous, public aspects. But ministry is tough business. It’s not for the faint of heart. Only a suffering servant can truly serve suffering people. When a pastor touches darkness, he learns how to find light. Then he learns how to pass it along to others.
Somewhere along the way I began to see that more clearly. I began to comprehend that if I wanted to experience the power of his resurrection, I would have to share in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10).
I think that’s been the hardest lesson. Probably the most surprising as well.Called to Be Spent
Unless a Flux Capacitor (if you have to ask, watch Back to the Future) becomes a reality soon, I won’t have the opportunity to talk to my younger self. But I can talk to you, and you can, perhaps, learn more quickly from one who was too slow on the uptake. I hope it helps you view ministry more soberly.
But even more, I hope it helps you see a Savior who redeems our misses, so that even slow guys like me can “gladly spend and be spent” (2 Cor. 12:15) for the ones he is called to love.
The Story: Half of Christian pastors feel occasionally or frequently limited in their ability to speak, given concerns they will offend people, according to survey conducted earlier this year. Here’s why addressing controversial issues can be an important way of uncovering disobedience to Christ.
The Background: As Christianity Today‘s Griffin Paul Jackson notes, many pastors say they are “subject to scrutiny from outside their congregations as well as within them.” “The stakes are high in the public square,” the researchers wrote. “The issues pastors feel most pressured to speak out on are the same ones they feel limited to speak on,” with LGBT issues and same-sex marriage at the top.
Almost half (44 percent) of Christian clergy say they feel limited in their ability to speak about homosexuality by people within their own churches. At the same time, more than a third (37 percent) say they feel pressured by their congregations to speak on the matter. Most pastors (64 percent) also worry more about how their own congregants will respond than they are about the outside world.
What It Means: You’ve probably heard the decades-old tale about how the rock band Van Halen included a provision in their backstage concert rider (i.e., an addendum to a contract that contains additional obligations) that stipulated that brown M&M’s were to be banished from the band’s dressing room.
For years I assumed this was another arbitrary and outlandish demand by spoiled rock stars. But the provision served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.
As Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography:
Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.
The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . . ” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
Roth’s “Brown M&M Test” provided a simple but effective early warning system to warn the band of impending danger. Pastors can apply a similar test by preaching about controversial social issues, especially homosexuality, or by having a type of “brown M&M” clause within our church membership documents.
LGBT issues and same-sex marriage are not the most pressing issues in America, much less in our churches. But the pressure to uncritically accept homosexuality and the increased acceptance by Christians provides us with our own need for a Brown M&M Test. By speaking out about an issue Scripture has clearly addressed we can gain insight about our people from their reaction.
When we receive backlash for teaching what the Bible says about sexual ethics, it’s a clear indication that we should be looking for a broader failure of discipleship. The people in the pews who condone or endorse homosexuality and transgenderism are almost assured to have a lower view of Scripture, a reluctance to submit to biblical authorities, a degraded perspective on sexual ethics, and a general unwillingness to obey Christ in all areas of their life.
When using this test we should be aware that it is unidirectional. While embracing the LGBT agenda is a danger sign, the rejection of such homosexual issues is not in itself a sign of a healthy church. In some congregations it may also be necessary to use another issue, such as racial superiority, as the litmus test.
Overall, though, having such a test can be a useful and indirect method for exposing the true idols of the heart.
Church planter, one of the key questions to answer early on is whether you are committed to a compelling or a competing vision for your church plant.
Let me explain. After more than a decade in the church-planting world, I’ve seen many a planter crash on the rocks by pushing a vision that, in the end, can neither carry the weight of the task nor take the core group with it.
And at the end of the day, we already have the compelling vision we need.Compelling vs. Competing
The gospel of Jesus Christ has enough wisdom, depth, wonder, utility, power, attraction, compulsion, and desire within it to plant and grow a church (Col. 3:6–7). And yet there’s been a church-planting culture over the years that says unless you can come up with some funky, original vision that nails it—or gives the impression that you know what you’re doing and are therefore trustworthy enough to follow—then this thing won’t fly.
Of course, we don’t plant churches in a cultural vacuum. There’s constant pressure on planters to justify what they are doing. In order to signal that we have a departure point from “the church down the road”—a difference in approach that legitimizes us—we feel the need to come up with a vision that grips people.
But I fear this is precisely where many planters lose their nerve. They pitch what they think is a more compelling vision in order to excite people, but which in the end—even if subtly—becomes something that competes with the already compelling vision of the gospel. And what we attract people with is what we attract them to.
What we attract people with is what we attract them to.
If you attract them with a household-church vision, then they’ll demand household church even if the gospel vision would take things in a different direction. If you attract them with a big-church vision with all the bells and whistles, then switching to an “unsexy” small church, perhaps meeting in a community center on a rough estate, will see them scrambling for the exit—even if there’s great opportunity for the gospel.
Your core group will be gripped by some vision, so make sure it’s the right one. If it’s not the compelling gospel vision of the Lord Jesus—and his call to proclaim his excellencies and disciple people into love and obedience—then no amount of bells and whistles will do the trick. You’ll end up with a church plant full of consumers, the very thing many planters are so desperate to avoid in the first place.
The safety net for all church plants, given the variety of circumstances that planters and their churches will experience, is the compelling gospel vision that enables them to keep going—even if their original planting vision must change due to external circumstances.Don’t Stray
Because what’s the alternative? Change the gospel vision?
By no means. And yet you’d be surprised how commonly the ultimate compelling vision falls by the wayside. For example, I remember a church plant of about 15 people that had remained that size for nearly a decade. No (visible) fruit, no conversions, no baptisms, and more than a little ennui and drift from the core group.
The diagnosis, as far as I could tell, was that their vision of being a household church plant had overridden any gospel vision. They were a group of Christians tired of “big church” and, to them, household church seemed to be the answer. But their “solution” was an answer to the wrong question. Their approach was reactionary, their vision was not a gospel one, and the results were plain to see.
Of course, competing visions are nothing new. Paul brought the gospel to Corinth, establishing a church in that pagan city. But for some it wasn’t compelling enough, which meant they were easy pickings for the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) who came with something exciting that matched the vision and values of the surrounding culture.
How could week-in, week-out gospel preaching, loving and serving each other, and seeking ways to quietly serve achieve anything in Corinth? The church blinked in the face of the pressure, and Paul had to spend an inordinate amount of time refocusing it on Jesus.
In our secular age, church planters must hold their nerve, first planting their people into the gospel’s compelling vision and then growing them up in that same vision. Keep it that simple, year-in and year-out.Down and Up
From the beginning, our six-year-old church has sought to make the Sunday gathering our primary meeting. We encourage people to gather around food, to share Scripture, and to pray together at least once per month in whatever form helps them. We take peoples’ work seriously, giving them time and space to honor God in the 40 to 50 hours they’re in the office, on the site, or on home duties.
We said to a church culture that views ad hoc attendance as normal: “Discipleship begins by showing up.” We shape weekly gatherings around prayer, liturgy, the preaching of God’s Word, and communion. We’re constantly told that our approach won’t attract young people. Yet our fastest growing demographic is 18- to 30-year-olds.
We’ve watched ordinary people in our ordinary church begin to pastor each other—across demographics—on a regular basis through the Word.
We’ve watched ordinary people in our ordinary church begin to shepherd each other—across demographics—on a regular basis through the Word. And intriguingly, outsiders—both Christian and non-Christian—have noticed something different.
As Colossians 2 calls for, we’ve grown down and up in the gospel’s already compelling vision. Marriages have been restored, sins confessed, addictions and habits kicked, holiness renewed, love for the unlovely grown, and costly forgiveness offered.
How? By showcasing God’s compelling vision for his church and his cosmos (Eph. 3:10).
One of our elders is a race-car designer. His favorite engineering maxim is, “Add lightness and simplicity.” You don’t add something to make a race car lighter or more simple; you take something away.
Church planter, maybe it’s time to dump the urge for a super-unique vision that looks great on paper. Add the lightness and simplicity of the gospel’s compelling vision that will, by the Spirit, do the work in you, your people, and those you want to reach—that no other vision can.
If anything distinguishes evangelicals from other religious groups, it’s Bible study. And yet you wonder sometimes if it’s something we like to talk about more than do. Unless it’s debating things like creation. That’s always a favorite past-time for evangelicals of all ages.
Jen Wilkin is a gifted Bible teacher and veteran advocate for Bible literacy in the church. And she’s not afraid to tackle the hard topics, which start on the first page of Scripture and continue all the way through to the end, from Genesis to Revelation. Her latest Bible study published with LifeWay is God of Covenant: A Study of Genesis 12–50. Jen joins me to talk about Genesis, Bible teaching, parenthood, Christian education, and more.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
On a frigid day in February, I lowered the tiny casket of my daughter into a newly dug grave. A few days earlier, my wife had given birth to our stillborn daughter, Sylvia, after carrying her for nearly nine months. Her due date was just a few days away. And then Sylvia’s heart stopped beating with no explanation.
Family and close friends huddled around us. After gently placing the casket in the ground, I gathered my wife and three boys. We walked away from the graveside, our hearts pierced by unfathomable grief.
It was the beginning of a long journey.
Our road led us through conflicted emotions, nagging questions, and additional disappointments. We suffered multiple miscarriages and a blighted ovum (a false-positive pregnancy). And while we finally conceived and gave birth to healthy daughter a few years later, we fought every day not to yield to the crushing grip of anxiety and fear.
Through this painful odyssey, it seemed something was missing.Missing Element
My wife and I firmly believed in God’s goodness. We knew he was going to work in our pain for his glory and our good. We treasured his sovereignty. But daily life was still hard—very hard. Grief wasn’t tame. Through our dark moments, we talked to God about our pain, our questions, and our fears.
When I occasionally shared the struggles of my soul, however, some responded uncomfortably or oddly. They often tried to find something positive to say. Others stumbled by attempting to make a personal connection with our pain. When I was honest with the depth of our wrestling or doubts, people usually wanted to move on—quickly.
It became clear that most people didn’t know how to walk with us in our grief. I know every person had good intentions. I don’t blame them or hold resentment. But it was as if they didn’t speak our language.
The missing element in our grief was a familiarity with lament—the heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life.
Looking back, I can now see that the missing element in our grief was a familiarity with lament—heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life.
Lament was a new language for us, too. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, even though I was a seminary-trained pastor. Somehow I missed the fact that laments are found in more than a third of the biblical psalms. Lament just wasn’t familiar terrain to me, and my pain made that gap plain.Re-Tuning My Heart
Loss tuned my heart to yearn for the candid honesty of lament. I longed for others to understand the tension of knowing that hard isn’t bad, but it’s still hard.
As I read books on grief, I noticed that most attempted to either explain the psychological process of sorrow or provide a defense of God’s allowance of suffering. Lament was virtually ignored. As I listened at funerals and Sunday services, it struck me that they were lament-lite. Celebration and songs of triumph were the norm. And while I have nothing against either, the absence of lament was noticeable.
My heart longed for the minor-key tune of lament—a song for when you’re living between the poles of a hard life and trust in God’s sovereign care.Grace of Lament
As I started to talk about lament and preach on it over the years, I witnessed an interesting response. Hurting people came out of the woodwork. When I asked someone why we were meeting for counseling, he said, “What you said on Sunday made me think you really understand.”
We were speaking the same language. I started to see lament as a gift.
My heart longed for the minor-key tune of lament—a song for when you are living between the poles of a hard life and trust in God’s sovereign care.
Instead of giving God the silent treatment, falling into either despair (“I can’t do this”) or denial (“everything’s fine”), lament encourages us to talk to God about our struggles so that we can reaffirm our trust in him. Simply stated, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.
I discovered there is grace available if we learn the language of lament and even re-order our prayer life around this divinely given liturgy for loss. There are at least four steps in this painful journey:1. Turn to Prayer
When pain creates struggles or hard questions, lament invites us to talk to God about it. Even if it’s messy or awkward, lamenting is better than faking it or not talking to him.2. Bring Our Complaints
Lament invites us to bluntly tell God our questions, fears, and frustrations. There is grace in this minor-key song as we get honest with God, knowing that biblical laments ask gutsy questions: “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Ps. 77:9).3. Ask Boldly
Calling on God to act in accordance with his promises runs parallel with our complaints. Pain can create disappointment, but lament provides the language that dares to hope again. Lament invites us to ask for help—again and again.4. Choose to Trust
The destination for all laments is an affirmation of trust in God. Gut-level, honest prayers provide a pathway for hurting people to move through their pain. Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faith.
Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faith.
For example, Psalm 13 begins with the question of why God seems so far away: “Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). But it ends with this hope-filled statement: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5).
This is where lament leads us—back to trusting the grace of God.Faith-Filled Laments
Life is filled with sorrow. It seems we should be more familiar with this inspired expression of grief. Even Jesus poured out his heart to the Father by quoting a lament Psalm while on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
My personal and pastoral journey taught me that it takes faith to lament.
God has given us this minor-key song because of the grace that comes as we turn, complain, ask, and trust. More than formulaic stages of grief, this prayer language invites us to keep talking to God about pain, even when the dark clouds linger.
Simply stated, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.
Lament is more than tears and sorrow. It turns to the Savior who promised to return. Lament vocalizes the longing for the day when “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4). Christians believe in the goodness of God, and they know the arc of the plan of redemption: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
In the meantime, as we long for the completion of that glorious plan, we lament.
That’s why lament shouldn’t be missing from our praying, singing, teaching, or counseling. We should allow it to bring grace to small group meetings, grief recovery groups, or pastoral prayers in the midst of a national crisis.
Recovering the historic, biblical language of lament can be a ballast for the soul as we journey through a broken world.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Rebecca McLaughlin—regular contributor for The Gospel Coalition and author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway/TGC)—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, books that have most influenced her thinking about apologetics, and more.What books are on your nightstand?
I tend to read dead people. There are upsides to this! It weeds out the flimsy literature that won’t survive beyond its cultural moment, and it reveals what in the human condition is perennial. But for the last year, I’ve committed to giving authors with a pulse a chance.
Currently, my nightstand features Sam Allberry’s excellent new book, 7 Myths about Singleness, as well as Sight, a debut novel about birth, death, grief, and scientific discovery by British author Jesse Greengrass.
I’m also halfway through Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is highly traumatic. I’m having to read it in stages, with space in between to lament. But as a white person living in America, I must confront the horror of slavery at an emotional level, and Morrison’s extraordinary writing gives me access to that.What are your favorite fiction books?
As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book. I’ve returned to it every few years since, waiting to forget enough to enjoy it afresh. Right now, I’m reading it to my 8-year-old daughter—much to our mutual delight! Tolkien’s grasp of joy and lament and the depth of non-erotic love have always appealed to me. The moment when Eowyn defeats the Witch King of Angmar, and the scene when Sam sings to his imprisoned master to let Frodo know he’s there, exemplify these themes. At a holistic level, the possibility of an even more magical world than Tolkien’s actually existing is one of the reasons I find Christianity so compelling. We who believe in the resurrection have that hope!
As a child, The Lord of the Rings shaped me more than any other book.
Jane Austen’s last completed book, Persuasion, is my favorite novel. It is, at heart, a tender love story. But it is a hard-won love, increased by disappointment. Austen was a serious Christian, and the book starts with a brilliant depiction of idolatry as she describes the heroine’s father, Sir Walter Elliot. Like someone given to extreme piety, Sir Walter is a one-book man. But his book is not the Bible. It’s the Baronetage—the yearbook of the British aristocracy—which includes a page about him that he paws over repeatedly. Two of his daughters have imbibed his self-obsession. But his middle daughter, Anne, is self-forgetful. She is Austen’s heroine.You studied poetry for many years. Are there particular poets you’d recommend?
Yes! Much as I love prose, I managed to navigate my way through three English literature degrees on an almost exclusive diet of poetry. Shakespeare was my focus. He is the English poet par excellence, and lines from his plays play around my mind on an almost daily basis. But two more recent poets I’d recommend are the 19th-century Anglo-Italian poet Christina Rossetti and the early 20th-century Anglo-American poet T. S. Elliot. Both were deeply shaped by faith. Rossetti is most known today for the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Her work treads the line between pain and ecstasy, and we meet Christ in that margin in her poems. If you want a taste of that, try “A Better Resurrection.” It begins, “I have no wit, no words, no tears; / My heart within me like a stone / Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears”—and brings us around to union with Christ.
T. S. Eliot’s poetry is also explicitly Christian at times. Like Rossettii’s, Eliot’s best-known Christian-focused poem is connected to Christmas: “Journey of the Magi.” But most of his poems function more like the Book of Ecclesiastes, exposing life’s futility and making us long for more. Eliot dismissed his most famous poem, “The Wasteland,” as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” and, despite years of analytical training, I would honestly have a hard time explaining to anyone who wasn’t gripped by it why it’s compelling. But the grip is there. Indeed, for all Eliot’s checkered history and mixed-up life, a friend of mine came to Christ while he was a student at Oxford simply from studying Eliot’s works.Which childhood books stick with you most?
I can’t read Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant without crying. I’ve tried. Multiple times! It’s an intensely beautiful children’s story about a giant whose selfishness keeps the spring away from his castle, until he learns to love. At the end, we find he has met Christ. It moves me partly because of Wilde’s deeply conflicted relationship with Christianity.
This comes out in a brilliant scene in his most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After years of cruel debauchery, committed only to beauty and pleasure, Dorian’s decadent mentor, Lord Henry, poses this question: “By the way, Dorian . . . what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose—how does the quotation run?—his own soul?”
Though a far less sophisticated tale, The Selfish Giant weds beauty to redemptive love. Both stories start with sin and end with death, but only one protagonist finds redemption.What books have most influenced your thinking about apologetics and Christianity’s claims?
We all suffer from confirmation bias, which makes us liable to accept weak arguments for our beliefs. To compensate for this, I try to major on books by non-Christians that engage apologetic questions from the other side—either with a perspective that is hostile to Christianity, or with a somewhat neutral lens, looking at potentially relevant data without a Christian rinse. This helps me figure out what is and isn’t defensible and where the pressure points are—both for Christianity and also for alternative belief systems. As someone who is trying to address non-Christians and equip believers, I don’t want to add my bias to that of another Christian author and produce something with two layers of Christian veneer that would need to be scraped off to get to the facts.
The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true.
That said, I’ve benefited greatly from books by Christian academics. Two recent reads that stand out for me are Peter Williams’s Can We Trust the Gospels? and Christian Smith’s Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver. Williams offers a timely and accessible briefing on the best arguments (old and new) for the authenticity of the Gospels. Smith evaluates whether prominent atheist intellectuals make a credible case that atheism supports their moral ideals. His conclusions are devastating. It’s a hard read if you’re not academically minded, but it’s worth the effort. The idea that our commitment to universal human rights and sacrificial care for the global poor are better grounded by atheism than Christianity gets ripped apart. But there is no bravado. Smith calmly dismantles the claim, from a purely academic point of view.What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
The further I go on in life, the more I find the things the Bible says to be actually true. It’s not always a pleasant discovery! Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. God’s answer was no, no, no: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In the past few years, I’ve been learning again and again that God doesn’t need my strength, but graciously uses my weakness. This isn’t an excuse for us to wallow in sin or self-doubt. Quite the opposite. It means we can stop agonizing over whether we have what it takes (we don’t), or whether people will think well of us (they won’t), or why we don’t seem to be able to make it without help (we can’t)—and so give our weak selves to the work God has given to us.
God has knocked the stuffing out of me multiple times in the past few years, but that’s okay. I don’t need to be filled with stuffing to serve him; I need to be filled with his grace.
Jenny’s got a job, a cat named Jake, Thirty-one candles on her birthday cake next year Thought by now she’d have a man Two car seats and a minivan But it still ain’t here . . . .
When LeAnn Rimes sang these lines, her angst didn’t have a name. But clearly she wasn’t alone. “Something’s Gotta Give” reached the number two spot on the Hot Country Songs chart in June 2006. Thirteen years later, that feeling of I-don’t-think-I’m-where-I’m-supposed-to-be finally has a name: The Quarter-Life Crisis (QLC). Rachel Jones defines the experience in her new book, Is This It?:
You feel a little bit lost, a little bit lonely, a little bit like you’re looking for something, but you’re not even sure what.
The Quarter-Life Crisis creeps up on birthdays and New Year’s Eves, and it rears its head any time you see on social media that someone you went to school with has had a baby, got a promotion, or simply had the audacity to look happy in a photo. It’s that desire to change something about your life, but being overwhelmed by the options. It’s the uneasy feeling that comes when you take stock of everything around you—the people, the places and the relentless routines of work and washing up—and find yourself asking, “Is this it?” (11)
This may sound strangely familiar—but no—it’s not a midlife crisis, Jones says. “Unlike its older brother, the Midlife Crisis, the Quarter-Life Crisis has nothing to do with buying an expensive sports car.”Crisis or a Transition?
While the image of a 50-something chasing his fading youthful years, speeding away from responsibility in a red Maserati remains the stereotype, I’d counter Jones. The Midlife Crisis isn’t about a sports car. Most medical experts now identify the Midlife Crisis as a transition, not a crisis. The Midlife Transition (or Crisis) is a similar search for identity and meaning during a period of change, which can bring about an opportunity for growth (or a plunge to deep depression).
As a new widow in my 50s, I struggled with my identity, where I ought to go from there, if God was real, and if anything truly mattered anymore. (If burying the love of your life some 30 years too early isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is.)
So the Quarter-Life Crisis does sound familiar. But is it truly a crisis? Transition can be a tough sell. But call something a crisis and, at least as I understand it, it garners an outsized focus. To me, the Quarter-Life Crisis is neither unique or new. Even though it may certainly feel like a unique crisis, it’s an experience that’s “common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Anticipating these objections, Jones writes:
People my parents’ age tend to think that my generation just needs to grow up. God thinks something different: that we need to grow like Jesus. . . . Because persevering in following Jesus offers us something truer and better than chasing anything else in our 20s and 30s can. (13–14)
Persevering in following Jesus offers something truer and better? Amen and amen.
Crisis or not, we shouldn’t dismiss the younger generation’s search for answers to some of the oldest questions on the planet. As one old enough to be Jones’s mom, I could choose to shake my head and roll my eyes and miss an important opportunity to empathize with a younger fellow-seeker. I’d then miss the chance Rachel Jones does not: to point a younger person to Christ.Successes and Shortcomings
Jones offers a warm conversational tone with a slightly self-depreciating sense of humor. Each chapter stands alone, but the entire book could be read in an afternoon. After listing 31 reasons why you might need this book, Jones walks readers through 12 struggles that relate to the QLC and asks some honest questions such as:
- Has everyone else got it better than me?
- What should I do with my life?
- I’ve got how long until I retire?
- Is God even real or am I wasting my life?
Jones wraps things up with the all-encompassing statement that captures the gist of the QLC: “This just isn’t how I imagined my life would go” (199).
One of the shortcomings of Jones’s book is that she heavily leans on experience and less on research, but she does offer concrete applications of the gospel to a 20-something’s needs. Every chapter points to Scripture that speaks directly to each angst. In the chapter on dissatisfaction, Jones’s conversational tone transforms into something rather gorgeous: She lists nine qualities of Christ applied to the verse “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). This book can speak to Christian and non-Christian, young and old, as a poignant reminder where true satisfaction lies.Don’t Waste Your Life
Almost two decades ago, John Piper spoke to 40,000 college students and challenged a generation to not waste their lives. He read an account of a couple’s dream: to retire early and collect seashells on the beach. He called their dream a tragedy as he envisioned what lies ahead for them after their earthly life is done:
With all my heart I plead with you—don’t buy that dream. . . . As the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account with what you did: “Here it is, Lord—my shell collection. And I’ve got a good swing. And look at my boat.”
A generation of believers has since been somewhat haunted by the fear of making such tragic choices. Perhaps millennials are simply seeking to be certain that their lives matter as well, in their own way. LeAnn Rimes hoped to find meaning in human relationships. Rachel Jones rightly tells us where it is: in Christ alone.
Christ Memorial Church launched in 1992 from the back of a green 1976 Dodge Aspen station wagon. That little Slant-Six Chrysler engine faithfully transported hymnals, Bibles, rugs for the kids, and communion elements to a college campus in Burlington, Vermont, for two years. It was a cold church plant (and not just because of the weather).
A thousand decisions had to be made quickly—about recruiting a core group, finding a meeting place, purchasing equipment, choosing musicians, starting ministries, and, perhaps most importantly, deciding what to preach.
We launched the church with 1 Timothy. And I would encourage any pastor, whether planting or replanting, to start by preaching through the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus).
Why the Pastorals? Here are my top four reasons.1. Church Leadership
A clear leadership structure is foundational to the well-being of a church. And the congregation should be able to get behind it. Teaching from the Pastorals offers the best chance of that happening and guides the congregation in how to identify and hold accountable those who would lead. The Pastoral Epistles address:
- The need for elders (2 Tim. 4:3–4; Titus 1:9)
- The plurality of elders (1 Tim. 5:17, 20; Titus 1:5)
- The role of elders (1 Tim. 3:2, 4–5, 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:1–5; Titus 1:9)
- The qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9)
- The gender of elders (1 Tim. 2:9–3:7)
- The authority of elders (1 Tim. 3:4–5, 5:17; Titus 1:11–13, 2:15)
- The compensation, discipline, and ordination of elders (1 Tim. 5:17–25)
The Pastoral Epistles present a clear leadership structure through which to build a church.2. Gospel Purity
The Pastorals protect a young church from at least two gospel errors: works-based righteousness and works-free conversion.Error 1: Works-Based Righteousness
The Jewish false teachers were promoting a works-based righteousness (1 Tim. 1:6–11; Titus 1:10–16). Paul, himself a trophy of the Lord’s mercy (1 Tim 1:13–16), responds with the gospel of grace. Salvation is by grace, granted in Christ from all eternity and revealed at Christ’s appearing (2 Tim. 1:8–10; Titus 3:5–7). And God desires that all men, both Jew and Gentile, be saved (1 Tim. 2:1–8; Titus 2:11–14). In fact, Paul was strengthened so the proclamation of the gospel might be fully accomplished, that all the Gentiles might hear (2 Tim. 4:16–17). The Pastorals are clear that God freely justifies the ungodly.Error 2: Works-Free Conversion
But the Pastorals also protect a young church from a mere “sinner’s prayer” gospel that doesn’t result in transformed lives. The true gospel always accords with godliness (Titus 1:1), and justifying faith always produces good works (particularly, the work of brotherly love, 1 Tim. 1:5; also James 2:14–26 and 1 John 3:11–18). This insistence on corroborating works that prove saving faith is found throughout the Pastorals and applied to the entire church:
- Elders must be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2).
- Ministers must train for godliness and not be deceived by some ascetic heresy, so that the man of God might be equipped for every good work (1 Tim. 4:1–7; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).
- False teachers have departed from the doctrine conforming to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3; Titus 1:16).
- Godly women must lead lives characterized by good works (1 Tim. 2:9–10, 5:10).
- The rich must be wealthy in good works (1 Tim. 6:18).
- Believers must live godly lives, zealous for good works (Titus 2:1–14, 3:1–8).
The Pastoral Epistles know nothing of a faith that does not result in good works.3. Heavenly Expectations
The Pastorals also protect the church from a “Your Best Life Now” theology by advocating the hope of a bodily resurrection from the dead (1 Tim. 4:8–10, 6:17–19; 2 Tim. 2:14–18, 4:6–8, 18; Titus 2:11–13). A robust belief that our best life is later enables a congregation (and its ministers) to endure hardship. It engenders a willingness to face suffering and persecution, to “endure all things for the sake of the elect, in order that they might obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it, eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10, 3:10–12). Thus, the Pastorals are perfectly suited to help a young church fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith, knowing that in the future a crown of righteousness awaits all who love his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6–8).4. Mission Focus
The Pastoral Epistles provide a pastor and his young church a laser focus on their mission. And what is that mission? Preach the gospel, in season and out (2 Tim. 4:1–4). This is what Paul taught, and what he did. He made the good confession, fought the good fight, and kept the faith, enduring all things so that the elect might obtain salvation. Paul made disciples of all the nations, preaching the gospel and planting churches from Jerusalem to Illyricum. The Pastorals will guide your church to do the same, to proclaim everywhere the gospel that saves lives by a grace that transforms and focuses hope on eternal glory. Such proclamation must be the focus of every church plant, every replant, indeed, every church.
Church planters face many significant decisions—even what vehicle you’ll trust with all your stuff. But none is more important than what to teach a new flock. And you can’t go wrong with the Pastorals: They will keep your leadership sound, your gospel pure, your mindset eternal, and your mission true.
An article in The Spectator recently described Jordan Peterson as “one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years”—and they have a point. Peterson went from being virtually unknown in 2012 to perhaps the most famous public intellectual in the world in 2018.
He has more than 2 million followers on YouTube and more than a million followers on Twitter, and his 12 Rules for Life has sold approximately 3 million copies in less than a year. The book tour is reaching stadium crowds of up to 100,000 people.
Many reasons can be given for Peterson’s rapid ascent and expansive influence. But most important, I think, are his social status as a clinical psychologist and his unique ability to respond to a certain set of conditions inherent to our secular age.
Recently, I wrote a chapter for an upcoming book about Peterson (Lexham Press). My assignment was to evaluate the reason for his meteoric rise. In this article, I’ll briefly summarize some of the main lines of argument.Mapping Our Secular Age
By the middle of the 20th century, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of a “world come of age,” by which he meant a European civilization that had learned to manage life without reference to God. During ensuing decades, a number of cultural commentators explored and mapped out this same phenomenon. Taken together, these maps help explain Peterson’s intuitive and powerful appeal for many young people in the West today.
The sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006)—see my previous article, “The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America’s Social Collapse“—provided a cultural map in his Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, and especially in the first volume, My Life among the Deathworks. In it, Rieff argued that the West is in the midst of a historically unprecedented attempt to sever sacred order from social order. Historically, all civilizations have understood that sacred order (religious and moral norms) shapes social order (society) by shaping cultural institutions. In other words, a society’s religion(s) shapes its cultural institutions and cultural products, which in turn shape its people.
But in the contemporary West, elite power-players have colluded to rip sacred order out from underneath social order, leaving social order to float on its own. Rieff noted the disastrous social, cultural, and political effects of Christianity’s displacement and warned that the worst was yet to come. Most significantly, Western cultural institutions, left unshaped by the Judeo-Christian moral framework, will become “deathworks,” causing social death and decay.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (b. 1931) provides an existential mapping that complements Rieff’s cultural map. In Malaise of Modernity, A Secular Age, and other writings, Taylor explores the existential “feel” of living in the type of world Rieff described. In our era, people both imagine life and also manage life from within the “immanent frame,” with no real reference to the transcendent. Locked within this immanent frame, historic Christian orthodoxy seems implausible, unimaginable, even reprehensible.
Our age is not secular in the sense that most Westerners are avowed atheists or agnostics. Nor in the sense that people hide their religious beliefs in public. Instead, it’s secular in the sense that Christianity has not only been displaced from the default position, but it’s also now contested by myriad religions, ideologies, and “takes” on life—attempts to force the facts of life through one’s restricted notions of what could and could not possibly be true. And yet, even though Christianity seems implausible and even unimaginable to many Westerners, these same Westerners have serious doubts about their own belief systems.
Taken together with other cultural analysts, such as literary critic George Steiner (b. 1929) and Italian political philosopher Auguste Del Noce (1910–1989), Rieff and Taylor repudiate modernity’s move to unseat metaphysics and theology—a move that removes them from the West’s matrix of meaning and morality and thus induces a state of chaos. As a result of this devolution, Westerners feel alone in this world, their lives shorn of God-given meaning or transcendent norms. And with Christianity thus displaced from the default position, secular ideologies and “takes” rush in to fill the void.Explaining Peterson’s Appeal
It’s against this backdrop that Jordan Peterson enters the stage, taking up the challenge articulated by thinkers such as Reiff and Taylor, helping disaffected people regain a matrix of transcendent meaning and morality within which they can bring order to chaos and find meaning for their lives.1. Bringing Order to Chaos
Like our four thinkers, Peterson recognizes that many of the West’s power brokers, together with social and political activists, are engaged in an attempt to beat the Christian moral order to its knees, weakening it and undermining its credibility. As Peterson notes, however, multiple ideologies—such as secular progressivism, socialism, and the alt-right—are moving from the periphery toward the center. Moreover, Peterson argues, reactionary and revolutionary ideologies often bring with them unintended and devastating consequences; thus the West should reject the revolutionary impulse and revive the Judeo-Christian worldview as a way of bringing order to chaos.
Indeed, Peterson often draws on Christian language to give individuals a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. For example, in 12 Rules, he urges his readers to take responsibility for themselves and the world around them by making the world a little bit more like heaven and a little bit less like hell. Doing so, he argues, would help us atone for our sins and replace our shame with pride (63–64). Similarly, he encourages his readers to draw on the Bible’s story of the world as a myth that can help us learn to delay gratification, live virtuously, and build society (163ff.).2. Rejecting Totalizing Solutions
Throughout his writings, Peterson warns of the dangers inherent in social revolutions. In “Rule 8: Tell the Truth—Or, at Least, Don’t Lie,” Peterson urges his readers to live in the truth rather than succumbing to the temptation to embrace the type of “life lies” inevitably told by social revolutionaries (215ff.). He draws on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago detailed how Soviet leadership had taught citizens to embrace small lies (e.g., pretending that the U.S.S.R. was an economic success) so that they eventually were willing to embrace big ones (e.g., the necessity of concentration camps and the killing of dissidents).
Peterson sees a similar danger in the 21st-century West, arguing that modern political ideologies can claim for themselves a kind of “final truth” that compels them to deny any facts that might refute that finality (218). We see this totalitarian impulse most vividly, he argues, in humanities departments that have been commandeered by Marxist humanism.3. Adopting as Much Responsibility as Possible
As ideologies and revolutionaries seek to manipulate us, Peterson urges individuals resist them and to adopt as much responsibility as we’re able (xxxiii). In fact, the admonition toward personal responsibility is one of the primary threads woven into 12 Rules for Life. Rule 1 is “Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back.” He means this both literally and figuratively. To illustrate, he describes how lobsters inhabit a dominance hierarchy in which posture cues (e.g., slouching, strutting) signal to other lobsters their perceived status in the hierarchy. Peterson argues that humans do the same thing: Hierarchy is inherent to our societies, and human-posture cues signal our status to others. So if you want to get ahead, he exhorts, stand up straight and throw those shoulders back already.
What is true physically is also true socially and spiritually. Our status as human beings demands that we “stand up,” accept the burdens and the suffering of life, and live in a way that pleases God (27). It’s up to us to re-establish order in the midst of chaos, to stop blameshifting, making excuses, or becoming cynical, and instead to clean up our own lives, stop doing what is wrong, and begin doing what is right (157–59).4. Revisioning Religion and Regaining Social Order
While Peterson draws on the Bible quite often in his writings and speeches, he reinterprets it in Jungian and Darwinian categories:
The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It’s the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document—a selected, sequenced, and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years. The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which itself is the product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other matter. (104)
While he recognizes the Bible’s teaching as vital to the West’s growth and health, he refuses to affirm its truth. His approach affirms the literal or metaphorical truth of some of Christianity’s ethical themes, but it omits or denies central orthodox themes—such as God’s Trinitarian nature, the necessity of Christ’s atoning death, and the bodily nature of his resurrection.Is Jordan Peterson the High Priest We Need?
In our secular age, Peterson’s status as a social scientist gives him the effectual status of a high priest. As religious authority has been diminished and decentered, social science has moved to the center. Economists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists—each uses “hard data” to draw their conclusions about human beings, personal identity, and social order. As a clinical psychologist, therefore, Peterson’s life-coaching combines the cultural authority of the social sciences with the spiritual appeal of vague religious intimations.
Peterson’s disposition adds to this mystique. He is a deep reader who is able to penetrate to the essence of ideologies such as Marxist intersectional identity politics or alt-right ethno-nationalism. But he is also a deep listener; his interviews and Q&A sessions reveal him as one who listens, sympathizes, and communicates in a way that often fosters genuine respect and dialogue. Indeed, commentators often note Peterson’s resemblance to a religious prophet, priest, or pastor.
Thus, it’s unsurprising to learn of Peterson’s popularity among 20-something males and other disaffected castaways of secular modernity. These are the people who hunger for the security of meaning and significance. And they seem to sense that Peterson has found it.
The irony in all this, however, is that unless Peterson buys wholesale into the Christian faith, his solution is insubstantial; metaphysically, it is little more than a banquet of crushed ice and vapor. Indeed, even though Peterson wisely taps into the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West, he guts it of any real power when he treats it as functionally helpful rather than transcendentally true.
Unless Peterson buys wholesale into the Christian faith, his solution is insubstantial; metaphysically, it is little more than a banquet of crushed ice and vapor.
Peterson wants us to live as if there is a God because he understands well the disastrous consequences of living as if there is not a God. But what good is the recovery of transcendence if it is only an evolutionarily useful figment of imagination? As a high priest of traditional Western values, Peterson’s temple is no less empty than the secularists against whom he prophesies.
Ultimately, Peterson is right about many things, but not always for the right reasons. To Peterson, we respond that we can’t live meaningfully without meaning having been bestowed from above. The reason that belief in God is a personal and societal good is not that belief itself is worth anything, but because there actually is a God who created the world and endows it with significance and meaning.
For Christians, therefore, the encouragement we should gain from Peterson’s meteoric rise is that it proves the real “felt need” for order, meaning, and morality in a secular age. Peterson’s success is evidence that our neighbors are recognizing the malaise of our secular age and are, it seems, are willing to try living “as if” God exists and the biblical narrative is mythically true.
But, as Scripture insists, if Christ hasn’t really risen, then our “as if” is futile (1 Cor. 15:17). Which provides for Christians a golden opportunity to stand up straight with our shoulders back, extending to our neighbors the good news “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). He is risen. And he is the high priest we so desperately need (Heb. 4:14–16). Let us hope and pray that Peterson is on the road toward recognizing this truth.
Some memories set like concrete in our minds.
Learning to ride a bike on a bike that has no brakes. Dabbing my fingers in red paint and chasing my sisters around while screaming “Bloody fingers! Bloody fingers!” Crawling under the choir loft to play war after Royal Ambassadors on Wednesday nights. Those events set up memories early in my life that I’ll never forget.Lesson Learned
While taking the Lord’s Supper recently, I saw again how early spiritual patterns are often the ones that sustain us later in life.
A man named Roger captured my attention because he suffers from early onset dementia. Roger is a faithful husband, father, and grandfather, but he is now in a season where his loving wife picks him up from a residential care facility every Sunday and brings him to church. He provided well for his family over the years and saved enough money to make possible his care.
Roger’s capacity is limited, his memory short, his usefulness waning. Yet every Sunday he shows up to worship King Jesus with a smile on his face. Always in slacks, a dress shirt, and a perfectly tied necktie that lands just above his belt buckle, Roger stands with hands clasped in front, moving them up and down to the sound of the music as he sings every word of every song.
After attending the first service, Roger always stands in the back of the sanctuary during the music of the second service. His participation is never distracting, but never passive. He may have forgotten some things, lost a few skills and a few steps, but he hasn’t forgotten how to worship his great God.
As he took the Lord’s Supper a few Sundays ago, he was again reminded, if even for a moment, that God loves him so much that he sent his only Son to bear Roger’s sin and give him new life. Roger can’t volunteer in the preschool ministry and probably won’t serve popcorn at this year’s fall festival, but every time he sits down to take the Supper with the rest of us, he clearly, boldly, and victoriously proclaims the Lord’s death.
The apostle Paul wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy: “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 1:13)Memory Meal
When Jesus first shared the Supper with his disciples, he was giving them something firm to hold onto—like a beam set in concrete. Jesus would soon be betrayed and crucified in their place. He wanted them not only to remember the sacrifice, but to grasp its significance. Jesus was leaving, and other people, priorities, and persecutions would soon threaten the devotion of their hearts. But the Lord’s Supper was a handle they could grasp through it all.
Doubts would come, but they would remember. Dangers would come, but they would remember. Dissenters would abandon them, but they would remember that indelible moment when Jesus broke the bread and served the cup. It was a simple act, a common meal, but it would soon become their sustaining grace.
Roger’s memory is fading, but he’s still able to return to the old ways that shaped his heart in better times. As I administered the Lord’s Supper that day, Roger taught me that learning to worship Jesus early in life allows the Spirit to wash over me, as predictably as the ocean tide washes against the shoreline, to slowly transform my heart and prepare me for harsher days.
Religious routines absent intimacy with God rot our souls, but the faithful practice of corporate worship fueled by God’s Spirit produces enduring joy. Even on the days we don’t feel like it, we show up for worship. Even when we’ve lost our song, we sing through the tears. Even when our kids would rather do something else, we lead the way back into the community of faith. Even when the devil accuses us, we reject isolation and unite with other believers to declare with our voices what we doubt with our heart. Even when our minds wander, we open our Bible, listen to another sermon, and take note of God’s Word to us.Beams in Concrete
These corporate disciplines of grace are beams set in concrete. Singing, praying, standing to read Scripture, observing the Lord’s Supper, listening to sermons, giving tithes and offerings, are all ordinary acts of worship. These acts, however, don’t just train our hearts to hold on when doubt, disease, and discouragement move in; they hold us when our grip begins to fail. These mundane patterns of worship that we practice when life is good, when we feel strong and full of vigor, actually shape our hearts to keep worshiping when we aren’t as strong as we thought, when we discover we’re at the end of our rope, when our potential gives way to reality, when our best days on earth make room for better days in heaven.
So as long as God allows me to shepherd the flock, I’ll keep inviting people to gather each Sunday to practice ordinary corporate disciplines. I’ll watch them with a thankful heart knowing this labor is not in vain. Then I’ll pray for them, knowing they will soon be asked to trust God in private like they worship him in public.
When Roger came forward to receive the bread and cup, not only did he picture the good news of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, but he reminded us all that God’s grace sustains us even when all we have is an old, familiar song to sing from the back of the room.
The following quotes caught my attention as I read Jackie Hill Perry’s beautiful memoir, Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been (B&H, 2018).
[Eve] figured fruit and not faith, sin and not obedience, would give her the wisdom she needed to be more perfect than she already was. Interestingly enough, some of what she saw was true. The tree was indeed good for food and pleasant to the sight; God had made it that way (Genesis 2:9). The deception was in believing that the tree was more satisfying to the body and more pleasurable to the sight than God. (18)
Unbelief doesn’t see God as the ultimate good. So it can’t see sin as the ultimate evil. It instead sees sin as a good thing and thus God’s commands as a stumbling block to joy. In believing the devil, I didn’t need a pentagram pendant to wear, neither did I need to memorize a hex or two. All I had to do was trust myself more than God’s Word. I had to believe that my thoughts, my affections, my rights, my wishes, were worthy of absolute obedience and that in laying prostrate before the flimsy throne I’d made for myself, that I’d be doing a good thing. (19)
Just as Eve let her body tell her what she should do with it, instead of God’s Word, which would’ve reminded her of what it was made for, I was inevitably prone to the same kind of unbelief. The one in which sin seemed better than submission. Or where women, who are beautifully and wonderfully made, just as the tree had been, would be more beautiful and more wonderful than I considered God to be. (21)
Apparently, this body was never mine to begin with—it was given to me from Somebody, for Somebody. (51)
Passing the blunt between us, I shook my head. . . . “Is God trying to get my attention by making my life harder or something?” I said. Blowing out smoke between questions, said out loud but mainly meant for God to hear and relent. “I mean, does God want me that much?” As grace would have it, He did. (64–65)
I know now what I didn’t know then. God was not calling me to be straight; He was calling me to Himself. The choice to lay aside sin and take hold of holiness was not synonymous with heterosexuality. . . . In my becoming holy as He is, I would not be miraculously made into a woman that didn’t like women; I’d be made into a woman that loved God more than anything. (69)
Who gave mercy my address? Or told it how to get to my room? Didn’t it know a sinner lived in it? On the way down the hall, shouldn’t the smell of idols kept its feet from moving any closer. Then I remembered the one verse of the Bible that I knew by heart. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (75)
Is this what it feels like to be a Christian? I thought to myself. Is it to have a quiet war inside of yourself at all times? (83)
I was able to want God because the Holy Spirit was after my affections just as much as He was after my obedience. (84)
The body doesn’t have to have the final say in our lives. (89)
Standing in the backroom at work, I said to God in my mind, where no one but Him could hear me speak, “God, I am really struggling. I wanna go back so bad. Lord, help me.” I stood there straightened up by a familiar interruption. Quieted and listening, my mind held in it this sentence: “Jackie, you have to believe My Word is true, even if it contradicts how you feel.” (89)
What other story was as good as that, and as relevant for us, than the news that Jesus laid down His life for a bride that didn’t want Him in her own? Preston didn’t love me because he was a hopeless romantic. Our situation according to a worldly standard was hopeless. But he had another reference point to draw strength from: the gospel. He loved me because he loved God more. (132)
I don’t believe it is wise or truthful to the power of the gospel to identify oneself by the sins of one’s past or the temptations of one’s present but rather to only be defined by the Christ who’s overcome both for those He calls His own. All men and women, including myself, that are well acquainted with sexual temptation are ultimately not what our temptation says of us. We are what Christ had done for us; therefore, our ultimate identity is very simple: We are Christians. (148)
Unbelief will always contrast sin with God. Making it and not Him glorious. Making it and not Him worth living for. Making it and not Him worth dying for. (152)
Just because we are tempted does not mean that we are our temptations. (155)
It is the identity that we ascribe to God out of doubt or faith in His Scriptures that will determine the identity we will give ourselves and ultimately the life that we inevitably live. If He is the Creator, then we are created. If He is Master, then we are servants. If He is love, then we are loved. If He is omnipotent, then we are not as powerful as we think. If He is omniscient, then there is nowhere to hide. If He cannot lie, then His promises are all true. It is faith in the truths of God’s character that has the power to completely revolutionize how our lives are lived out. (160)
Following Jesus [means] not only eternal life but also a crucified one. (168)
Being strengthened to endure and being given the power to obey doesn’t make obedience easy, but it does make it possible. (173)
The SSA Christian that is called to marriage is no more of an apologetic for the power of God than the SSA Christian that is called to singleness. In both, God is glorified. (183)
Our sexuality is not our soul, marriage is not heaven, and singleness is not hell. (190)
Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:
- Jonathan Leeman, The Rule of Love (Crossway, 2017)
- Tim Keller, The Prodigal Prophet (Viking, 2018)
- Glen Scrivener, Long Story Short (Christian Focus, 2018)
- Brian Seagraves and Hunter Leavine, Gender (The Good Book Company, 2018)
- John Onwuchekwa, Prayer (Crossway, 2018)
- Matthew McCullough, Remember Death (Crossway, 2018)
- Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Muhlenberg, 1957)
- Francis Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Log College Press, 2018)
- Sam Allberry, Why Bother with Church? (Good Book, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, In His Image (Crossway, 2018)
- Trevor Laurence, The Story of the Word (Wipf and Stock, 2017)
- Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018)
- Andy Johnson, Missions (Crossway, 2017)
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think (Currency, 2017)
- Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Crossway, 2017)
- Erik Raymond, Chasing Contentment (Crossway, 2017)
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas (Viking, 2016)
- Scott Sauls, Befriend (Tyndale House, 2016)
- Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Crossway, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, None Like Him (Crossway, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016)
- Mark Dever, Understanding the Great Commission (B&H, 2016)
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016)
- Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent (Thomas Nelson, 2015)
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community (Crossway, 2015)
- Russell Moore, Onward (B&H, 2015)
- Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Crown & Covenant, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Preaching (Viking, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Prayer (Dutton, 2014)
- Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word (Crossway, 2014)
The Story: Texas prisons now prohibits all clergy from the execution chamber. Here’s why Christians should oppose such policies.
The Background: Last week the Supreme Court stopped the execution of a prisoner because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice violated his religious rights by not allowing a Buddhist chaplain into the execution chamber with him. The department only allows prison employees in the death chamber, and only Christian and Muslim clerics are employed with the state.
As Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in his concurring opinion, “As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.” But in his opinion Kavanaugh also suggested a solution: Either allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their faith in the execution chamber or allow none of them to have one.
According to The Texas Tribune, the state chose the latter option. In the future chaplains and ministers will only be allowed to “observe the execution only from the witness rooms.” Currently, friends and family of the murder victims and prisoners, as well as media, are allowed to watch executions through a glass window in small rooms adjacent to the death chamber, says the Tribune.
Why It Matters: “Texas hit upon perhaps the worst possible solution,” says Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, who adds, “Such a policy, surely, represents the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.” Whether or not the policy will pass Constitutional scrutiny and whatever we feel about capital punishment, there are three reasons why all Christians should advocate for the condemned to have ministers available during their execution.
1. It’s a violation of our religious rights
The State of Texas is setting a dangerous precedent on religious liberty: to avoid having to respect the rights of some prisoners, they’ll take away the rights of all prisoners. This is the type of violation of our God-given freedoms that we should not allow the state to infringe upon. As Stephen Carter says,
Spiritual solace is not the state’s to regulate, and clergy confined to the viewing room can’t play the same role as clergy nearer by. The religious leader who comforts the criminal facing death is like Kipling’s “Thousandth Man,” who stays by your side to the gallows’ foot. Putting a wall between prisoner and comforter is exactly what a civilized society should strive to avoid.
2. The dying deserve a comforter
At the most important state execution in the history of the world, the dying man had his friends available to provide comfort (John 19:25-26). We should want the same for all people—especially for our fellow Christians—no matter what their previous crimes or sins. Because of security reasons it would not be prudent to allow just anyone into the execution chamber. But chaplains are trained in how to conduct themselves in a way that won’t interfere with the process. There is no justifiable reason to deny the presence of a chaplain to Christians facing imminent execution.
3. It may impede rehabilitation
As I’ve written before, a primary reason Christians have historically supported capital punishment in America is for the rehabilitation of the murderer through redemption. One of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary for the term “rehabilitation” is “improvement of the moral state of a person, the soul, etc.” As Meghan J. Ryan, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University, explains, when the death penalty was first imposed in this country, it was meant to encourage offenders’ repentance. “Rehabilitation was one of the primary reasons that capital punishment was imposed in early America,” says Ryan.
Law professor Stuart Banner, author of The Death Penalty: An American History, adds that, “[c]apital punishment was . . . understood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to facilitate the criminal’s repentance,” and that “[i]n this respect a death sentence was of inestimable value.”
“Even men condemned to die were still valued as children of God,” Banner says, “who could at least symbolically achieve reintegration into society.” He also writes there was “a consensus about the importance of the criminal’s salvation” to be secured by the power of the impending execution to focus an offender’s attention on his redemption.
This “rehabilitation through redemption” was integral to the way the death penalty was carried out. Ryan observes that, “The offender’s rehabilitation was so central to the reasoning behind capital punishment in early America that the authorities afforded capital offenders a rather significant period of time before the sentence was carried out so that the offenders had opportunity to repent.”
Today, inmates spend approximately 13 years on death row before their executions. “During this extensive period, they have little to do other than contemplate their deaths and how they arrived at this place,” Ryan says. “This is a time during which one might see a transformation in capital offenders.”
Most prisoners will have likely decided to embrace or reject Christ before they enter the execution chamber. But we should still hold out hope they’ll repent in the final moments before their death. Because a person’s eternal fate is at stake, we should want them to have someone in the room who can proclaim the gospel one last time before it’s too late.
“I don’t know what fleeting circumstance is making you struggle with an eternal perspective. It might be your role as a wife or a mom, your income, your back pain, your cancer, your social media, your car, your town, whatever temporary earthly circumstance it is. Whatever you feel defines you, look at this in light of what you read in Colossians—that this life is not all there is. You know that. We all know that. God has put eternity in man’s heart. But we have to do the hard work of remembering that our life is hidden with Christ in God.” — Gloria Furman
Date: June 15, 2018
Event: The Gospel Coalition 2018 Women’s Conference
Mentioned in this podcast: A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent
It is said that “history is written by the victors.” While we might not want to crown today’s cultural elite the “victors”—certainly not in an eschatological sense!—it remains the case that anti-Christian culture warriors permeate the secular publishing industry. Too often, the books they churn out, masquerading as scholarship, have a Christian scapegoat at their center.
Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World is just such a book. It’s the latest among a slew of slanted historical studies that paint early Christianity in the worst possible light, a genre pioneered by Bart Ehrman and Candida Moss. The title makes the book’s premise clear: It will tell the hidden story of how boorish Christians snuffed out the light of ancient reason and ruined the world for the millennium to come. Gone are the days when historians strove to grapple objectively with complex issues. Instead, the construction of a specific narrative is now the goal. History is power.Fall of Pagan Rome
Catherine Nixey’s book addresses a cultural moment that is well worth the attention of scholars. Late Antiquity, from approximately the fourth to sixth centuries AD, was an age of immense societal change. Pagan Rome was giving way to the rise of Christendom. Tensions were running high. Tempers often flared. People found themselves newly at odds with long-held cultural assumptions. The lessons to be learned here are potentially instructive for our own turbulent times.
And Nixey has the credentials to tell the story well, if she had wanted to. She studied classics at Cambridge before entering the journalistic profession. In The Darkening Age, she combines skillful prose with obvious facility in the historical sources.
Unfortunately, objectivity and nuance aren’t part of the skillset that Nixey brings to the project. Her terminology instead constructs a binary opposition of good versus evil. The prologue sets the stage, characterizing the Christians as “destroyers,” “marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots” who were “terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire” (xvii). “Their attacks were primitive, thuggish, and very effective,” Nixey writes. “These men moved in packs—later in swarms of as many as five hundred—and when they descended utter destruction followed” (xvii). All this, in the book’s first 75 words! When an author starts by describing her subject in the terms of an animalistic horde, the reader can hardly expect a nuanced and balanced study to follow.
Pagan writers and leaders are valorized, while the church fathers are repeatedly skewered.
And indeed it doesn’t. The recurring topics, cycling over and over, are the destruction of pagan temples and idols, the eradication of Greco-Roman literature and learning, and the closed-minded foolishness of the ancient church’s leaders as they attempted to root out demonic religion. Pagan writers and leaders are valorized, while the church fathers are repeatedly skewered.
Of course, little is said about the pagan persecution of Christians immediately prior to this era. Standing in the tradition of Candida Moss (see The Myth of Persecution), Nixey can feel confident in dismissing the existence of any real Roman opposition to Christianity, because the percentage of martyrdoms was small (60–67). Her dismissive wave of the hand toward centuries of cultural hostility toward Christianity—a hostility that sometimes turned bloody—is the kind of one-sided storytelling that characterizes every page of her book. “Martyrs have always made good drama,” she writes. (60). Sure. It was just drama. Nothing to see here. Only the Christians can form a bloodthirsty mob.Hypatia vs. the Horde
The trope of Hypatia the Noble Philosopher raises its head in The Darkening Age and serves as a good summary of the book’s premise (137–46). Anyone who saw the well-made yet equally biased film Agora (2009) starring Rachel Weisz will be familiar with Hypatia, though she has a long pre-Hollywood history as a symbol of enlightened, feminine, pagan reason in an age of vicious Christian patriarchy and censorship. Nixey doesn’t disappoint when she tells the story precisely this way.
Serene and intellectual Hypatia is juxtaposed with the Christian parabalani in Alexandria, led by their ringleader, Bishop Cyril. The parabalani were the stretcher-carriers who took sick outcasts to receive medical care in Christian hospitals when no one else would offer it, but Nixey blithely overlooks this point. Instead, her narrative proceeds as follows. One day in AD 415, as Hypatia “stepped out on her daily ride through Alexandria in her chariot” (141), she was set upon by a horde from the “eight hundred marauding, muscular parabalani” that were terrorizing the city and its governor (144). Aiding them were 500 monks who had “descended from their shacks and caves in the nearby hills . . . [u]nwashed, uneducated, unbending in their faith” (145).
The monks formed a “black crowd” that joined with the stretcher-carriers to attack Hypatia. “[B]estial men—truly abominable” was one ancient assessment that Nixey cites with approval (146). The mob murdered “Alexandria’s greatest living mathematician” in a church by scraping her with potsherds and gouging out her eyes (146). This moral travesty can’t be defended. Yet neither should it serve as the centerpiece of a simplistic narrative that pits animalistic Christians against the humane and tolerant pagans. Such an account is just as falsely hagiographical as the exaggerated martyr stories that Nixey elsewhere derides.
The reality is—if Nixey had cared to strive for a balanced approach—that both pagans and Christians could be capable of horrendous deeds. That being said, no bishop ever unleashed, or even advocated, the kind of cataclysmic and fiendishly cruel pogrom that Emperor Diocletian inflicted on the Christians in AD 303, the travesty that historians today call the “Great Persecution.” If we could measure cruelty in a balance, the pagan government of Rome would outweigh the ancient church by a long shot.
If we could measure cruelty in a balance, the pagan government of Rome would outweigh the ancient church by a long shot.
And Nixey also omits the valuable social benefits that Christianity offered the ancient world. Granted, that isn’t precisely her subject of investigation, yet any mitigating factors should certainly be relevant in a book with the subtitle “The Christian Destruction of the Classical World.” The parabalani are a great example. Yes, they could be thuggish. Historian G. W. Bowersock called them a “terrorist charity in Late Antiquity.” But it’s the “charity” part of that phrase that ought to be brought to the fore in any balanced historical treatment.
Early Christianity spawned the rise of a medical-care movement that the world had never before seen. The modern institution of charitable hospitals—facilities that actively seek out and care for the indigent and marginalized, not just those who can pay—owes its existence to Christian ideals of love and mercy, concepts that were foreign to the mindset of pagans, who viewed sick outcasts as deserving their fate from the gods.Why Buy?
All things considered, I wouldn’t recommend buying this book. It exists not to enlighten anyone about ancient times, but to stoke the fires of the already enraged. No attempt is made to understand two sides of a complex cultural shift at a pivotal moment in history. Nixey doesn’t even do the first job of the historian, much less of the enlightened humanist: to generously understand a point of view opposite of one’s own.
The Darkening Age wasn’t published to do history, but to reinforce existing anti-Christian prejudices. Ironically, by suppressing historical evidence and casting the early church in a uniformly negative light, the book actually darkens our understanding of ancient history—and in so doing, contributes to the rise of a new Dark Age.
My uncle died four years ago in the home he was raised in, the home his grandfather built. Our family farm has been owned by a Carlson for more than 100 years. With the exception of a small stint in the Navy, my uncle lived either on that farm or a mile away on another farm, both of which were on the outskirts of a 900-person town. All his kids graduated from the same high school he did.
He never owned a computer or wrote an email. Near the end of his life he upgraded to a flip phone. I don’t think we ever talked on the phone for more than a few minutes, but we did spend a lot of time together.
Would you want to be his pastor?
My uncle was a godly man, but not in the way some think about it. He wasn’t an evangelist, a Bible study leader, or even a big reader. His prayers were short and meaningful. He carried the same KJV Bible his entire adult life and listened to David Jeremiah and Charles Stanley regularly. He didn’t get involved in church leadership. It wasn’t his thing.
These types of Christians sometimes get a bad rap from young believers. Where was his radical commitment to Christ? Where was his passion for the nations? Why wasn’t he reading any good books? What was my uncle’s problem?
Perhaps Paul was giving the Thessalonians an easy way out when he wrote the following?
We urge you, brothers and sisters, to . . . make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:10–12)
Of course, this passage was written at a certain time to a certain people in a certain situation. But were they not facing many of the same issues and scenarios as we do today?Godly Man’s Picture
The type of questions listed above move us into dangerous territory when we begin to compose benchmarks for godliness. Sometimes our soaring rhetoric helpfully rallies the troops and shakes people from a malaise. It can be necessary. Often, though, it doesn’t land in reality.
The entire town knew my uncle. I once had breakfast there (where I’ve never lived) and someone stopped me to ask if I was his nephew. When my uncle was on the farm, he taught countless kids how to work, hunt, fish, laugh, and play. He was a legend to every kid in the area during the time he was delivering mail, often bringing candy and gum too. He would stop almost daily at the barber shop for a game of chess with his closest friend. When I was a kid, I would wait there for him to finish his route so we could golf together. He was the game leader at AWANA for years. He could hold 100 kids’ attention, and he always had a game to play. He could crush your hand with his handshake, but he could also walk young children around with tender care.
Every summer he raised more than 100 ducks for fun. When grandkids came, he invested heavily into them. He took his first two, at age 4 and 2, on a crop duster without telling their mom. A few years ago he chased an F5 tornado with a grandson as it approached a mile from his house. When one of the kids lit his huge shed on fire, the story is he prayed with him and never brought it up again. He would attend all their events and call to check in. In the last 10 years of his life, he volunteered most of his time by driving people all over the state to medical appointments.Pastors Need Uncle Dons—and Vice Versa
My uncle was the guy always serving when many pastors retreated to their office to read. When potholes appeared in the church parking lot, they would disappear quickly; he would fix them without telling anyone. He was the one who’d buy ice cream for everyone with him and secretly pay for all the widows’ meals throughout the year. Could this man be a hero of the faith? Would he be strategic enough for you to consider? There are many men and women like my uncle out there, all of whom need shepherds.
Would he be strategic enough for you to consider? There are many men and women like my uncle out there, all of whom need shepherds.
Uncle Don was a hero and a man worth modeling, but not because he crossed cultures, left everything behind, shared the gospel with everyone, or dove into heavy theological treatises. He was a hero because of what Christ did in his life and how Christ used him to serve others in obscurity.
He loved his wife of 57 years, raised kids and grandkids with faithful presence, worked hard farming his land and delivering mail, played games, drove people to appointments, and so on. He was judgmental toward none. Loved by all. Respected by outsiders. This isn’t hagiography. This is a picture of a godly man. This is radical. Would you be his pastor?