During a contentious and trying month, I found an interesting theme in my morning Bible reading. Every passage mentioned the Devil or the spiritual forces of evil.
“This terrible week is about spiritual warfare,” the Lord was saying. “You’re under attack.” Sure enough, when I started praying against the Devil, there was a distinct turn in the spirit of my week. Through the gospel, God has given believers the power to resist Satan and pray against his legions in the name of Jesus.
I’m aware of this in my ministry life. When our youth group goes on mission trips, I often pray against darkness. It can seem I’m engaging in spiritual warfare morning and night. When our team gets trapped in petty conflict, we often first pray against the spiritual powers of evil before we enter into reconciliation.
As I read through the different Bible texts about the Devil that month, however, I had to ask myself, Do I ever engage in spiritual warfare when I pray for my own children? I pray for spiritual protection for myself often, but I never really intercede for my kids. Through these passages, I learned that waging spiritual warfare on behalf of our kids constitutes a valuable aspect of daily prayer.Holding the Devil in Proper Perspective
The New Testament paints a dark picture of the Devil. Peter writes that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Jesus describes Satan as a liar who seeks to deceive, confuse, and draw people away from the Lord with half-truths and false doctrine.
Waging spiritual warfare on behalf of our kids constitutes a valuable aspect of daily prayer.
So let me ask this: Would you stand idly by if an evil person were plotting to destroy your child? Would you tolerate an impostor actively working to deceive your child? Would you allow someone to condemn your baby?
Not a chance. If a human did any of these things, you would oppose them wholeheartedly.
But the reality is that a spiritual being seeks to do all these things. Praying for the spiritual defense of our children, therefore, is a wise and necessary practice.
We don’t need to do this in a spirit of fear, because the Devil is a loser. Christ has defeated and disarmed him. As the apostle John puts it, “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Yet we should still respect the power and danger of Satan. He remains “the father of lies” (John 8:44). He is like the lion at the zoo, whose cage has a faulty door. Each day we need to check the door and securely shut it to keep the lion in his place. And the secure door is the power and Word of Christ. When we plead with him to defend our children, we are shutting the door on evil.Why Don’t We Act?
Why do we become so complacent in this area?
As post-Enlightenment Westerners, we might be embarrassed to admit that we believe in the Devil or demons at all. The secular world certainly views them as mere vestiges of anti-intellectual mythology. In a 2013 interview with New York magazine, a journalist all but mocked the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for believing in the Devil. The patronizing tone implied, Could an educated person really believe such things?
Simultaneously, Satan himself works to deceive us into believing that, well, he doesn’t exist at all. Kevin Spacey said it well in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
But Jesus wasn’t deceived. He maintained such vigilance against Satan that prayer for spiritual protection was part of his daily routine. In the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus says “deliver us from evil,” he is calling for protection against the Devil to be a standard theme in our prayer lives.
Jesus wants protection against the Devil to be a standard theme in our prayer lives.
So what shall we do? I recommend praying for your child’s protection against the spiritual forces of evil in your daily prayers. Pray in the name of Jesus that he and his angels would defend your child. Ask him to banish the forces of darkness, waging spiritual war on behalf of those you love.
No pastor begins his ministry hoping to quit. Or burn out. Or fail morally. And yet sadly such categories exist, since this is precisely where many end up.
We all want to finish well. We want to faithfully endure to the end. But this is no easy task. And when it comes to the hard grind of church planting, finishing the course God has laid out before us takes divine power.
So how can we end up like Paul, who was able to write to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7)?
Ray Ortlund and Sam Storms help us think about this on today’s podcast.
Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches, or watch the video below.
Over the weekend, two mass shootings shocked the nation’s conscience and opened another cultural wound.
The details are still emerging. Two gunmen, in El Paso and Dayton, slaughtered 31 people. In Dayton, nine people lost their lives, and it appears that the shooter was obsessed with mass shootings and violence. He even developed a hit list of religious and political groups.
In El Paso, 22 people were killed. Given a “manifesto” posted online, the shooter’s motivations appear to be more apparent—and appalling. He targeted Hispanics and espoused racist and white supremacist views.
We will eventually know more. In the meantime, there will be political finger-pointing. Various solutions will be offered. The clash of ideas and worldviews will become apparent. And the gravitational pull toward our respective “corners” will be strong.What Can We Say?
Amid the trauma and tears, how should the church talk about this? Silence sends an unhelpful message, especially to our minority brothers and sisters when they consider the shooting in El Paso. However, the uncertainty of the moment creates an understandable caution.
How do we weep with those who weep when the fog of a national crisis descends?
Christians can start by lamenting. We can use the historic prayer language of sorrow to talk to God about the messy grief we feel. When the psalmist’s life was hurtful and confusing, he reached out to God in prayer, laid out his pain, pleaded for help, and renewed his trust in God.
The Bible is full of this kind of prayer language. More than a third of the psalms are laments. No wonder! The sorrows of life are many.
When tragedy strikes, when the stakes are high, and when it’s important—for many reasons—to express our grief, prayers in pain that lead to trust can be comforting and redemptive.Lament for Mass Shootings
As I’ve pondered the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, here is my lament.
How long, O Lord!
God, we watch the news in disbelief as we battle despair. In El Paso and Dayton, 31 image-bearers—people who reflected your glory—were killed in yet another mass shooting. We know our world is broken. We know evil is real. We know the loss of life was not limited to El Paso and Dayton this weekend. But the scale of this senseless and wicked assault on human life is shocking and troubling. It causes us to turn to you.
We lament the presence of sin in the world and its destructive effects. We mourn the loss of life that will create empty spaces at dinner tables, birthday parties, and graduations. We weep with family members whose lives will never be the same.
We lament the devaluing of human life and its bitter fruit in our culture. We mourn the demonic rage that would lead to the slaughter of men, women, and children. We weep with El Paso and Dayton in the shattering of their peace.
We lament the wicked ideologies behind these shootings and their devastating results. We mourn beliefs that view people as our enemies because they are different, feelings of prideful superiority over others, and the use of violence to advance a wicked agenda. In particular we weep with our brothers and sisters who deeply feel the targeting of Hispanics and the white supremacist ideology behind the El Paso shooting.
Jesus, we need your help! We call on you to give us comfort and hope in our sorrow. We ask you to give us grace to care for one another during these volatile and divisive times. We plead with you to make churches a place of refuge—a shelter of Christ-exalting, neighbor-loving, compassion-giving people. We beg you to change hearts immersed in deep loneliness, superiority, rage, and hatred. We cry out for the ending of all actions and ideologies that do not fit with your kingdom.
Our King, we thank you for our city and national leaders. Tragedies create important conversations about future solutions. And they also surface deep divisions. Help them to work together for the common good of our communities and for the peace of our nation. In their words and actions, give them wisdom and grant them grace to model the kind of leadership that fits with your heart.
National tragedies remind us about the depth of our collective depravity and our need for a Savior. Our solutions will never be enough to eradicate the sinfulness embedded in our lives and our land. We need you, Jesus, to save and change us—both as individuals and also as a culture. We long for the day when our faith will be sight. We feel the urgency of the need for your return.
Until then we look to you through the tears.Hope of Redemption
Christians know that our world is broken. We read in our Bibles that the entire creation groans (Rom. 8:22) and that sin has created the curse of death (Rom. 6:23). But we also know the hope of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). Christians long for the day when all tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). We know a day is coming when demonic ideologies and mass shootings will never again threaten the peace of this world.
But until then, we lament.
We grieve the killing of image-bearers. We mourn the hard-heartedness that hurts innocent victims. And we weep over ideologies that broadcast anti-God lies from the pit of hell.
A lament doesn’t solve all the problems. It’s never enough by itself. More can and should be done.
But when a tragedy strikes, and we’re not sure what to say, “How long, O Lord?” is a good place to start.
“You don’t look WASPy. What are you?”
It’s not the usual greeting a visitor hears after church, but it was mine that day.
I shared my ethnic background with her, satisfying her curiosity about someone who didn’t look White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She carried on the conversation, eventually asking me about my occupation. I told her I was a teacher at a local school. Her response was equally unusual: “That’s great! I’m glad they hired someone . . .” she paused, searching for the right word “. . . impure!”
I stood there, trying to process what she said as she laughed at her own joke. Acknowledging the homogeneity of the school staff, she was commending the school for hiring someone like me, someone not white. Someone whose skin color makes her “impure.”
On a different occasion at another church, a woman told me that she and others in the congregation believed I was a mail-order bride and that I didn’t speak English. In the context of the conversation, her point was clear. Since I wasn’t ordered from a catalog, I was acceptable and could start developing relationships at the church.
I could go on and on about well-intentioned comments and so-called compliments I’ve received as an ethnic minority in the church. Nobody has been violent. No one has been directly hateful. All the comments have come from “harmless” jokes and poor word choices. Though I’ve asked the Lord to help me forgive the individuals who have said such things, the sheer volume of the comments in the local church have affected the way I approach public worship.
At times I’ve felt like Pavlov’s dog, with the mere mention of the word church prompting a sense of dread instead of delight. What hurtful comment will someone make to me today? Many times, I’ve wished I could go to worship as a white person and experience the freedom of just existing without the inevitable questions. Why wouldn’t people get to know me beyond trying to figure out my “exotic” skin tone and dark curly hair? Why couldn’t I just be . . . “normal”?What Is ‘Normal’?
In summer 2016, on the night before my denomination voted in favor of an overture on racial reconciliation, the Rev. Duke Kwon gave a phenomenal talk that finally made me feel seen and understood. He addressed the general culture of many majority-white churches that maintain a sort of “right” way to do things or a “normal” way to be, typically rooted in white American culture.
These standards aren’t always intentional or articulated but are embedded in activities and attitudes. Unfortunately, people swimming in the waters of what is considered “normal” often make incorrect assumptions about those who don’t fit the norm.
You can see this just from my personal examples. By calling me impure, the woman gave words to what she considered “normal”: educators at the school are white. By assuming I was a mail-order bride, the woman revealed her expectation that white people marry white people and that brown people usually don’t speak English.
Their assumptions about me demonstrate that even Christians have a perception of what is normal, common, or acceptable—and it often elevates the comfort and experiences common to white people while devaluing the dignity and perspectives of people of color. It causes the dominant group to see the ethnic minority as “other” and never fully part of the community. Kwon calls this “white cultural normativity,” and it has poisoned many of our churches and affects our members in painful ways.
When we treat people not like us as “other,” making assumptions based on differences, we’re guilty of what Scripture calls the sin of partiality. James 2 explains:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (vv. 1–10)
When we subliminally maintain a culture of “white is right,” or assume the culturally white way is the normal, preferred, or even neutral way, we are showing partiality to one group over all others.
The result is devastating: our strong belief about the image of God in all people isn’t matched by our churches’ cultures and actions in everyday situations with ethnic minorities. Our dedication to biblical fellowship is undermined by poor word choices, assumptions, and cultural insensitivity. We are failing to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves.
If you haven’t experienced this cascade of indignities yourself, you may not realize their severity. Hasn’t the Enemy already proven his tactics of causing sin to seem innocuous? James reminds us that any form of partiality within the church is violating the command to love our neighbors.Where Do We Go from Here?
Learning how to love our neighbors is a process that is often littered with mistakes and differs from person to person. Here are some ideas to help you begin.1. Start with humility.
When Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, they quickly asked, “Lord, is it I?” I used to think their faith was weak, but now I wonder if they knew that no sin is beneath us. Instead of getting defensive, we should follow the disciples’ example and ask: “Lord, is it I?” Prayerfully ask the Lord to give you humility about the experiences of ethnic minorities around you. Believe your neighbors, and lament with them when they’re vulnerable enough to share.2. Consider your assumptions.
Think about the judgments you make when you see someone not like you. Take an implicit-bias test online. Intentionally diversify your friends, podcasts, music, books, and spaces, and let others break your stereotypes. Join a study group committed to doing the work of racial unity. Learn the history of racism in the church. Remember that acknowledging your assumptions is just the start. Intentionally undoing your assumptions will help you truly repent of your sin, be on guard against temptation, and intentionally avoid hurting others with your words and actions.3. Practice making biblical assumptions.
Scripture teaches us that each person is made in God’s image and has inherent dignity (Gen. 1:27–28). Assume you are called to love each person with brotherly affection and even go above and beyond to show honor (Rom. 12:10). Assume each person is more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3). Assume each person is your neighbor, and you are to be compassionate, kind, and patient (Col. 3:12). Then, allow these biblical assumptions to transform the way you speak, how you form your questions, and how you understand and steer your own curiosity about someone not like you. Welcoming others begins with your assumptions, then your words.
The woman who called me impure may have been on to something. I am impure, not because of my skin, but because of my sin. Every one of us is impure in this way, and that’s what makes our relationships difficult. Yet thanks be to God who has given us his Son! Jesus is building his church regardless of our weaknesses, blind spots, and unintentional prejudices. Our King is calling us to live out the reality of his colorful, unified kingdom—right here and now.
This past weekend, dual massacres occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least 31 people were killed, and dozens more were injured in these mass shootings.What is a mass shooting?
Despite the common usage of the term, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a mass shooting. Because media outlets, academic researchers, and law enforcement agencies use different criteria to determine what constitutes a mass shooting, the number of such incidents can range from less than 10 to more than 350 a year.
For the purposes of this article, the term mass shooter will be defined as an active-shooter incident in which a mass murderer used a firearm to indiscriminately target and kill at least four persons (excluding the shooter). The elements of this definition include:
Active-shooter incident — The Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms(s), and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.
Mass murderer — The FBI defines mass murder as four or more murders occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders.
Use of a firearm — This element excludes killings where the firearm was included in the killing spree but was not the main cause of death.
Indiscriminate targeting — This element excludes crimes of armed robbery, gang violence, or domestic violence.
While this definition may be considered overly narrow (hundreds of shootings involve fewer than three deaths), I believe it most closely matches the common public perception of what constitutes a mass shooting while remaining precise enough to be accurately measured.How many mass shootings occur each year?
According to the FBI, there were 277 active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2018. Of those, 64 meet our definition mass shootings.
In 2019, about five shootings—including the ones in El Paso and Dayton—fit this definition.What weapons are most frequently used in mass shooting incidents?
Here is a breakdown of the weapons used in each of the 64 mass shootings from 2000 to 2018:
Rifle and handgun: 9
Shotgun and handgun: 6
Rifle, shotgun, and handgun: 5
Rifle and shotgun: 3
Shotgun: 2How many deaths were involved in each shooting?
Of the mass shooting from 2000 to 2018:
4 deaths: 12
5 deaths: 11
6 deaths: 14
7 deaths: 5
8 deaths: 3
9 deaths: 3
10 deaths: 2
11 deaths: 1
12 deaths: 3
13 deaths: 2
14 deaths: 1
17 deaths: 1
26 deaths: 1
27 deaths: 1
32 deaths: 1
48 deaths: 1
49 deaths: 1
58 deaths: 1What is the gender of mass shooters?
Of the 64 mass shootings from 2000 to 2018, 61 were by men, two were by women, and one incident included one man and one woman (a husband and wife).Is the number of mass shooting increasing?
Based on a 44-year period (1970-2013), data show that there were on average:
- one (1.1) incident per year during the 1970s (5.5 victims murdered, 2.0 wounded per incident),
- nearly three (2.7) incidents per year during the 1980s (6.1 victims murdered, 5.3 wounded per incident),
- four (4.0) incidents per year during the 1990s (5.6 victims murdered, 5.5 wounded per incident),
- four (4.1) incidents per year during the 2000s (6.4 victims murdered, 4.0 wounded per incident), and
- four (4.5) incidents per year from 2010 through 2013 (7.4 victims murdered, 6.3 wounded per incident).
According to the Congressional Research Service, “these decade-long averages suggest that the prevalence, if not the deadliness, of ‘mass public shootings’ increased in the 1970s and 1980s, and continued to increase, but not as steeply, during the 1990s, 2000s, and first four years of the 2010s.”Do gun control policies increase or decrease mass shootings?
The Rand Corporation conducted a systematic review of seven broad classes of gun policies that have been implemented in some states (background checks; bans on sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines; child-access prevention laws; concealed-carry laws; licensing and permitting requirements; minimum age requirements; and waiting periods) and the effects of those policies on mass shootings.
They found no qualifying studies showing that any of the policies either increased or decreased the prevalence of mass shootings.Is mental illness a primary factor in mass shootings?
A study of mass killers found the majority exhibited no evidence of a severe mental disorder, such as psychosis or hallucinations. The 2016 analysis of 71 lone-actor terrorists and 115 mass killers also found the rate of psychotic disorders to be roughly 20 percent.
The overall rate of any psychiatric history among mass killers—including such probable diagnoses as depression, learning disabilities, or ADHD—was 48 percent. However, about two-thirds of this group had faced long-term stress, and more than 40 percent had problems with alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.
Yet as American Psychological Association president Rosie Phillips Davis noted after the recent shootings, “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them.”Why are there more mass shootings in America than in other countries?
America is no more divided than Afghanistan, nor do we have a higher rate of mentally ill people than Australia. What makes our nation distinctive is our access to firearms. Although we make up less than 5 percent of the global population, we own approximately 46 percent of the world’s guns.
Currently, out of the 857 million civilian-held firearms, American civilians own an estimated 393 million guns. There is approximately 120.5 guns per every 100 people in the country, or 1.2 guns per person.
If we repealed the Second Amendment and the government began confiscating guns at the rate of 1 million firearms a month, it would take 33 years before we removed all the firearms in circulation. That’s likely why gun policies have a negligible impact on mass shootings. The sheer number of guns in the United States makes it nearly impossible to prevent someone willing to die to commit mass murder from obtaining a firearm.What can Christians do about mass shootings?
The Violence Project, a nonpartisan think tank, conducted a study and found four commonalities among the perpetrators of recent mass shootings.
1. The vast majority of mass shooters in their study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age.
2. Almost every mass shooter had reached an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting.
3. Most of the shooters had studied the actions of other shooters and sought validation for their motives.
4. The shooters all had the means to carry out their plans.
Christians should find ways to have an effect in each of these four areas. For example, churches can help by reaching out to young people suffering trauma. As researchers Jillian Peterson and James Densley say, churches contribute by “initiating conversations about mental health and establishing systems for identifying individuals in crisis, reporting concerns and reaching out—not with punitive measures but with resources and long-term intervention.” We can also, as individual Christians, reach out to those in our sphere of influence who might have reached an “identifiable crisis point” and offer them the hope that can only be found in Jesus.
Another way we can make a difference after such evil acts is to make it more difficult for potential perpetrators to find validation for their planned actions. “[W]e all can slow the spread of mass shootings by changing how we consume, produce, and distribute violent content on media and social media,” Peterson and Densley say. “Don’t like or share violent content. Don’t read or share killers’ manifestos and other hate screeds posted on the internet.”
Finally, we can support private and public actions that make it more difficult for would-be perpetrators to obtain firearms. For some people this may mean securing access to their own weapons. (In 80 percent of school shootings studied by the Violence Project, the murderers got their weapons from family members.) For other people this may mean supporting policies such as red-flag laws.
Christians can and will disagree about what public policy is most effective. But we must debate the issue in love by following the dictates of a biblically informed conscience that has been shaped by facts and evidence. Though we may be divided about policy solutions, we should be united in opposing the climate of hate and division that has allowed evil and violent ideology to flourish. Above all, we must continue to point our broken world to Jesus as the ultimate source of solace and salvation.
“Are we following God?”
My husband put this question to me as we walked through our neighborhood. The dog tugged at her leash. On the one hand, it was a startling question, one that seemed to beg an obvious answer. Both of us practice the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. Around the dinner table, our family’s conversation turns to Scripture’s wisdom. We attend church regularly, serving and financially giving to its mission; we speak freely of Christ to our irreligious neighbors and friends. I write Christian books, for goodness’ sake.
Still, I shared my husband’s doubts. Are we following God? We’d married at 22, dreaming of the places we’d go in response to the call of God. Many years later, in 2011, we moved to Toronto, North America’s fourth-largest city and one of the most multicultural cities in the world. As I write, it’s a city draped in rainbow flags, proud testament to the modern ethic of individual freedom, a city often openly hostile to the perceived bigotry of Christianity.
My husband’s question surfaced our fear that despite our commitment to seeing our city transformed by the gospel, Toronto is having its subtle way with us, conforming us to its desires (cf. 1 John 2:16). As we continued to talk, we were both sensing a need for the kind of renewal Mark Sayers writes about in his new book, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture.Good News
Sayers, an Australian pastor and writer, begins by acknowledging the “brilliantly good news” that cultural Christianity is eroding and secularism is on the rise. This isn’t the moment for being anxious, he reassures. “Are we punch drunk by the problems of our age, or do we see the opportunities before us?”
Instead of fretting about increasing social isolation and mental illness, social fracturing and polarization, Christians can celebrate the luminous hope of the gospel for our historical moment. In other words, the cultural glass may be half-full, but the gospel has never brimmed with greater power. As the creeds of secularism prove fragile and unsatisfying, the church of Jesus Christ has the opportunity to live and proclaim a more compelling, more enduring story for such a time as this.
“When the night is at its darkest, the dawn is on its way. We find ourselves again at such a moment.”Call to Repentance
Still, Sayers’s optimism vis-à-vis the broader culture falters with regard to the present state of the evangelical church. Though it’s a moment ripe for gospel renewal, and “the gaps between [the promises of secular progressivism] and reality are widening,” Sayers laments that many evangelicals, enamored with the “pseudo-Christianity of lifestyle enhancement,” aren’t positioned to seize it. As it turns out, we’re not living the better, more enduring story of the gospel. Instead, the church is weakened by sin and stagnation, by heresy and religiosity. “Over the last ten years, I have seen countless incredible kingdom initiatives suffer and fail as leaders and disciples, with hearts for God, fall into . . . all of the above.” This is reason for Sayers’s call to renewal, the climactic moment in a cycle repeated throughout human history. When faith stagnates, then declines, a remnant of God’s people, in responsiveness to his Spirit, must seek a renewal of God’s presence and power.
As the creeds of secularism prove fragile and unsatisfying, the church of Jesus Christ has the opportunity to live and proclaim a more compelling, more enduring story for such a time as this.
Sayers cites this historical pattern of repentance, then renewal, as a reliable one—like the 1904 movement that swept through Wales, which saw the conversion of nearly 100,000 people, after a small group of young people was challenged to make four commitments:
- “You must put away any unconfessed sin.”
- “You must put away any doubtful habit.”
- “You must obey the Spirit promptly.”
- “You must confess Christ publicly.”
“When we cry out to [God], when we repent of the ways that we have ignored him and pursued our human-driven plans of renewal in our own strength, when we take a posture of contending for his kingdom to come with power—we see that he moves.”Paradox of Renewal
To consider the story of Jonah is to consider the paradox of renewal. Did renewal come to the wicked city of Nineveh because the people, in their earnestness, repented in sackcloth and ashes? Or, did renewal come to the Ninevites because God, in his kindness, had sent his (however unwilling prophet) to walk the streets of the city, crying out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”? In other words, is renewal ever possible apart from God’s willing it?
While Sayers wants to insist on the responsibilities that lay at our feet when it comes to renewal, Sayers makes clear that renewal is nothing we can orchestrate. “We cannot create a program or campaign for renewal and revival. For in the history of the church, this has rarely if ever had success.” Instead, “we cry out to God to change us, to start His renewal in our hearts.” And this is the paradox of renewal, both that it doesn’t depend upon our effort and also that it doesn’t happen apart from it. In fact, this is the paradox of the whole of the Christian life, for as Paul writes in Philippians 2:13, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s willing makes us more willing, not less, and his work never make ours unnecessary.
To Sayers’s larger point, what moves the needle of renewal is first and finally this: prayer. To pray is to practice the both/and of faith. God’s work, even the work of renewal, is never fully up to us—but we get on our knees anyway. And this is what Sayers, his wife, and a group of Korean Christians are doing on a tour through John Wesley’s bedroom in London as the book closes.
“God, do it again.”
Several years ago, I entered an immigration line with a missions team from church. As I filled out the immigration form, I encountered a familiar list: Check the occupation that applies.
Somewhere between “hairdresser” and “human resources,” I found what I was looking for: housewife. In the past seven years I have had the great privilege of participating in short-term ministry trips, even though I have four young children. And I have come to see that housewives—or homemakers, or domestic engineers, or whatever you want to call them—are often uniquely equipped for short-term ministry.Moms Make Good Missionaries
A mom who is active in her local church can bring God glory on a short-term trip. God’s people around the world do the same thing moms do every day at home and in fellowship with other believers.
In the cross-cultural environment of a ministry trip, a mom with an available and willing attitude is a blessing.
The best and most effective team members are those who are ready to serve humbly wherever the missionary or local partner asks them to. Moms continually, day by day, do things that are uncomfortable or that they would rather not do, but that are necessary to get the job done—clean messes, change diapers, apply bandages, wait in line. In the cross-cultural environment of a ministry trip, a mom with an available and willing attitude is a blessing.
But not only is it good for missions teams to include moms, it’s also good for moms and their families to participate in short-term projects. Here are four simple ways.1. Missions Affirms Our True Identity
“Housewife,” as the immigration form called it, is a facet of who I am and what I do in this season of life. As moms, however, we should pursue opportunities to step out of the routine where we are tempted to find our identity and purpose. On a short-term ministry trip, factors we tend to unconsciously rely on for security are stripped away. Some of us find our security through being indispensable at home, thinking: They can’t survive without me. In contrast, some of us might worry that things will go well while we’re gone: What if they think they don’t need me?
It also might be tempting to think that if we make the monumental effort to leave home, time away could be better spent on vacation. But refreshment and spiritual renewal don’t come from the perfect amount of “me” time. Spiritual refreshment comes from delighting in Christ and serving others in his name.
Refreshment and spiritual renewal don’t come from the perfect amount of ‘me’ time. Spiritual refreshment comes from delighting in Christ and serving others in his name.
A ministry trip is a time to focus on Christ and our secure foundation in him, not our parenting and homemaking. We grow spiritually when God nourishes us outside our motherly comfort zone.2. It Encourages Our Children
Our children need our example of service to others, not just our example of service to them. On a recent trip, my 7-year-old sent me a text to remind me she was praying for me. My children were a part of the prayer team. I missed them, but I continually reminded them that it was a joy to serve Jesus this way. We begin to set the example of service while they are young, so they grow up understanding this is the norm, not the exception.3. It Allows Others to Serve
Moms often think leaving on a ministry trip would inconvenience other people or be too difficult to coordinate. It’s true that planning and coordination are an enormous task. But family and church community flourish as they serve in support of God’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). For each trip I took, my family and church knew they were truly a part of the ministry team.
When the church members overseas asked me how I could leave my children, I told them my husband and church family were caring for my children, which enabled me to come. They told me to pass along their thanks for making it possible. When a mom goes on a missions trip, each individual helping back home becomes a partner in ministry.4. It Opens Our Eyes
Moms with small children have a tendency to focus on day-to-day struggles and challenges. We rarely appreciate the broader perspective of what God is doing in our neighborhood, in our country, and around the world. We’re too busy trying to catch up on sleep!
Often we are content with our status quo, not wanting anything to interfere with the carefully balanced routine we’ve arranged for our family. But we need to step away periodically and gain a broader perspective. This is one of the most important results of a short-term ministry trip. The experience can restore a more intentional, missional, and Christ-centered focus to our parenting and our church community when we return.
I was recently in a country that, until 1991, was closed to Christianity. Nearly all the believers I met in a local fellowship were first-generation Christians. After chatting for a few moments with one woman, she pulled out her cell phone and showed me a picture of four young women she’d been discipling for a year. Then she introduced me to a friend who’d been a believer for less than a year, yet was discipling four even newer Christians.
I reflected back over my 30 years of faith and realized I had been a Christian for a lifetime, but these women had done a lifetime’s work in just a few months. I was greatly encouraged by their example of ministry.Consider It
With the explosion of short-term ministry opportunities over the last decade, the thought of going on a trip may have crossed your mind. Moms, don’t be misled by your fears, or derailed by your own longing for comfort. Instead, recognize that the Spirit may be prompting you to consider joining the team. In this environment, our souls are cared for in ways we can’t preordain.
Pastors, spouses, and friends, be willing and available to bless the work-at-home moms in your church by encouraging and enabling them to participate in your church’s future short-term ministry trips. Assuming your church is doing short-term ministry well, moms should prayerfully consider joining the team.
“How do I know I’m really a Christian?”
In my teenage years I brought this question to a godly mentor. The answer I received was encouraging, seemingly logical, and dangerously misleading. “Why are you concerned about it?” was the reply. While I forget the details of the conversation, the point was clear: if you fear hell and you want to be a Christian, isn’t that evidence enough?
He seemed to make a good point. So I happily moved on, confident my ticket to heaven was at will-call. Why wouldn’t it be? I was pro-Jesus and anti-hell.
Of course, that assurance was perilous because I was not yet a Christian.
Actually, any casual assessment of a person’s salvation is dangerous, since a Christian-looking life isn’t necessarily related to salvation. It’s entirely possible to tack on biblical habits and religious-like affections to an utterly unsaved soul.
I know this far too well. I was once a Bible-school graduate, aspiring missionary, and committed evangelist. I was also a non-Christian.
Unless our head knowledge shifts to life-altering trust, it’s not biblical Christianity.
I’m afraid many find themselves in a similar predicament of pretense after growing up “Christian,” developing “Christian” habits, and embracing “Christian” ideals—all without any real knowledge of the truly narrow road that leads to eternal life. People have come to believe that a Christian-looking life is ample assurance of salvation. And such self-deception is dangerous—perhaps the most dangerous deception of all.Deadly Eight
Here are eight deadly ways we can look, feel, and act like Christians without actually trusting in Christ.1. I said the ‘sinner’s prayer.’
We all know a rote prayer doesn’t save a soul, yet a particular prayer is often pointed to as the primary evidence of one’s salvation. Prayer is often associated with the moment of conversion, but no matter how memorable a prayer is, salvation only occurs when wholehearted repentance and faith (Acts 20:21) is a reality in a person’s heart.2. I’m convicted when I sin.
Whether Christian or non-Christian, God’s law is written on our hearts, and therefore we should feel guilty when we sin (Rom. 2:15). Even unrighteous Esau cried over the consequences of his sin (Heb. 12:17). Non-Christians often feel bad about their sin, but what we do with our conviction—that is, whether we repent and obey God—is most telling (2 Cor. 7:10).3. I feel close with God.
Feelings are one of the most common deceivers in this day and age. What we feel is quickly elevated to the status of truth. But the truth is, we can feel a whole host of things that may or may not align with reality.4. I’m becoming godly.
This was my most prevalent flaw: I was convinced I was saved because I was far more Christlike (and humble!) than most other people. The pre-converted apostle Paul probably felt the same way. In Philippians 3, he says if anyone had reason to trust in his own righteousness, he had more! In fact, when it came to “righteousness under the law,” he was “blameless” (Phil. 3:6). As a young man, Paul would’ve been “godly” by today’s standards—and he wasn’t yet converted.5. I pray, read the Bible, and go to church.
Prayer, Scripture reading, and church attendance are central habits for the Christian life. Yet some people who attend our churches are not saved (Matt. 13:24–30). Some taste the goodness of God’s Word and have no relationship with God (Heb. 6:4–9). And non-Christians everywhere pray for any number of reasons (Matt. 6:5).6. God is blessing my life.
God kindly gives sunshine and rain to Christians and non-Christians alike (Matt. 5:45), along with a multitude of other daily blessings (James 1:17). His common grace fills our lives. Though we’re right to credit God for his kindness, we can’t assume his gifts imply his saving grace.7. I’ve made a difference for Jesus.
Matthew 7:22–23 is abundantly clear that some who think they’ve done great works for the cause of Christ will be denied access into heaven. No amount of leading small groups, helping with service projects, or going on mission trips can ensure salvation. Many with such résumés will hear the Savior’s chilling words: “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23).8. I know Jesus died and rose again.
This one is, by far, the most deceiving of what might be considered spiritual fruit. Agreeing with the facts of the gospel isn’t equivalent to saving faith. Just think, the demons have far deeper theological understanding than do any of us, yet not one is saved (James 2:19). Unless our head knowledge shifts to life-altering trust, it’s not biblical Christianity.Surviving the Deadly Eight
All of these assurances were a part of my non-Christian life. I certainly looked, felt, and acted like a Christian, and it deceived me (and everyone who knew me) for decades. And yet, counterintuitively, this same lifestyle now serves as evidence of real salvation.
Pre-conversion, I was buried under the weight of conformity. I wanted to do what I thought Christians were supposed to do—and I did it with all my might. For years, I was busy putting on Christianity.
Then the day came when God showed me my sin—the day I truly understood what separation from a holy God meant. It was the day I turned from my sin (even the sin couched in “Christian living”), to trust in what Christ did on the cross to grant me forgiveness. From that point on, my assurance of salvation had nothing to do with what I had done, or could do, or will do; instead it had everything to do with what Christ had already accomplished. My confidence turned to him, and there’s nothing more assuring.
But here’s the irony: when looking Christian was no longer my highest goal, a Christ-follower is what I became (1 John 2:3–6). When our trust is in Christ, a Christian-looking life will naturally follow.
For the person who rests in Christ, godly habits, ideals, and affections don’t spring from conformity to Christian culture. That type of evidence is not sufficient. Our fruit comes from a heart transformed by the Spirit of God (Ezek. 36:26) through the forgiveness found in Jesus (Acts 10:42–43).
And once our focus is fixed on Christ alone, any and all assurances that come from a godly life become reasons for sweet rejoicing! When we know our salvation is in him, a godly, prayerful, church-going, conviction-driven, Bible-reading life becomes beautiful evidence of the work of God.
A Christian-looking life is never enough. A life lived in Christ always is. At that point we can—in fact ought to—rest assured.
For most of us, evangelism doesn’t happen on its own. We hope for opportunities to spontaneously speak about Jesus with unbelievers, but if we wait for complete spontaneity, it may never happen. We also fear being overly scripted or goal-oriented in our relationships with non-Christians.
Yet surely we can find middle ground between waiting passively for evangelism to happen and forcing the gospel into every conversation. Toward that end, Joshua Ryan Butler and Thomas Terry discussed some things to prioritize in order to increase our opportunities for evangelism.
Butler recommends practicing hospitality—something church families can do together—and prayer. He learned the priority of prayer in evangelism from an older man who was always having conversations about Jesus with people around him. The man’s secret was that each week he prayed God would bring him people to speak with, to make him attentive to the opportunities, and give him words to say. And God answered.
Terry urges us not to underestimate the power of intentional engagement. Whether it’s his barber or the barista at his favorite coffee spot, Terry tries to build a relationship over the course of small interactions to the point where he has a relational foundation to share the gospel. In his context of Portland, people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus in the first interaction. “They just won’t hear you,” he says, “they won’t listen to you, and in many cases, they don’t even really know who Jesus is.”
I’m a crier. After a long day, seeing something sad on the news, or even just watching my son earnestly try to befriend another child, can cause the tears to flow. I even cry during nature documentaries. (It’s the music!) But I don’t usually feel comfortable crying in front of others, and I’ve often noticed friends apologize when they tear up too.
Why are we ashamed of crying? How should we, as Christians, respond to it? When should we cry? And what does God say about our tears?Tears Reveal Weakness
In our Western culture, we often consider crying embarrassing and something to be avoided. “Big girls don’t cry,” many of us were told. I grew up feeling ashamed of my tears and wondering what was wrong with me. I worried others would think I was weak and inadequate.
Often our problem with crying is that it exposes us, revealing to another our innermost feelings. It forces us to be vulnerable and honest with someone, and requires humility as we admit that we are, in fact, weak and inadequate.
How wonderful (and counterintuitive) that Christ’s strength could be displayed through the weakness of our tears.
But, as Christians, we don’t need to find our identity in having it all together or proving our lives are going great. The gospel has freed us from this. Our worth and righteousness has been perfected in Christ, who promises to use us in our weakness. Our very salvation depends on confessing our weakness and helplessness, so we may receive forgiveness and salvation.
Tears might expose our weakness. But admitting weakness is exactly what we should be doing. Paul says we can even boast in our weakness “so that the power of Christ may rest upon [us]” (2 Cor. 12:9). How wonderful (and counterintuitive) that Christ’s strength could be displayed through the weakness of our tears.Tears Acknowledge Brokenness
Perhaps another reason our culture is so uncomfortable with crying is that it points to the brokenness of the world. People often like to believe that life is good, that there’s no need to cry. Social media features mantras and memes that tell us to always look on the bright side.
But the truth is, relationships break down and people become sick, get hurt, even die. We suffer disappointment, rejection, and loss in all kinds of ways. Of course there will be tears.
As God’s children, we don’t need to be afraid to admit that this world is full of suffering and sadness, since it doesn’t threaten our purpose or value. We can stare brokenness in the face and weep, knowing that redemption and restoration will come. When discussing the death of Christians, Paul assures us that “[we] do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (1 Thess. 4:13–14).
Unlike those who don’t know Christ, we have real hope because of the resurrection. We don’t have to pretend life is always great, because we know that eventually it will be. The Lord has promised that, one day, he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Rev. 21:4–5).Tears Model Christ
Jesus certainly cried. It wasn’t because he was sinfully weak, but because he was human. His tears are a profound example to us. Approaching Jerusalem on a donkey, he wept over the city, at the blindness of the people’s rejection of him as Messiah (Luke 19). How often do we weep over the lost, remembering the eternity they face without Jesus?
Most famously, Jesus sobbed at the tomb of Lazarus—a powerful reminder that death is not the way it was meant to be. We aren’t supposed to gloss over death, avoid the topic, or pretend it’s natural and benign. Death is an enemy that Jesus came to defeat. He wept over death and so should we.Weep over Sin
It’s also appropriate, at times, to weep over our sin. After all, it was our sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. The Bible records countless instances in which God’s people wept over their sin. After David sinned, he wrote, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). After Peter denied knowing Jesus, he “wept bitterly” when he realized what he’d done (Matt. 26:75).
Our sin should grieve us. It separates us from God and leads to death. But praise God that we don’t have to weep forever, since “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9). Hallelujah!Crying in Community
It’s good to cry sometimes. It’s even good to cry in church—as we worship alongside our brothers and sisters and allow the truth of Scripture to penetrate our hearts and emotions.
I remember barely making it to church two weeks after my dad died. As soon as the first song began, the tears poured. A friend in the row in front simply turned around, wrapped her arms around me, and wept with me. Someone else offered to find a quiet space to talk, and another said she’d watch my kids. No one overreacted to my tears or appeared uncomfortable. My friend listened intently and didn’t rush to “fix” my tears.
Most importantly, these friends asked to pray for me. When I was utterly unable to lift my head, they interceded for me. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” More than our sympathy or listening ear, we can come with those who weep into the throne room of God, our Great Comforter, who is able to do more than we could ask or imagine.
When we cry, we can also comfort one another other with the certain hope we have in him, knowing that, one day, he will turn all our weeping into songs of joy.
Maybe it’s just me, but holidays like Christmas and Easter are always weird and complicated in ministry. I become preoccupied with who’s there, who’s not, and what everyone is thinking. Will the music be to their liking? Will I preach in a way that is accessible yet bold? Will these people come back? and so on . . .
Unfortunately, this past Easter was no different. Despite our service being well attended and going surprisingly well, I still wrestled with a lack of contentment the following week. After God convicted me and I repented, I was reminded of a simple—yet all too easy to forget—truth: I’m called to pastor those whom God has put in front of me.Worldly Idealism
It’s easy for church planters to dream of the kind of church they’d like to plant and lead. After all, we need to envision what the church we plan to start will look like, and part of that involves thinking about the people we need to make those plans happen. In many ways, this process is normal in seeing a healthy church planted and established.
And yet there are inherent dangers in this process. In our sin, it’s easy to operate from a worldly idealism, which inevitably leads to growing frustrated with what God has given us now. Whether it’s the slow rate of growth, a lack of leaders, a financial shortfall, or something else, discontentment can subtly seep into a church planter’s heart. And when we’re discontent with the church God has given us, we won’t be able to obey Peter’s command to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2).
I’m called to pastor those whom God has put in front of me.
So church planter, how often do you look to seemingly greener pastoral pastures? Do you peer over the fence and envy another’s flock? I’ve been guilty of this myself. Here are three particular dangers to this kind of discontentment.1. Pragmatism
When we’re not satisfied with the church God has given us to shepherd, pragmatism is a possible pitfall. Just add water and stir, and you’ll get these amazing results, pragmatism whispers. I’ve seen it many times; well-meaning church planters resort to the latest gimmicks, fads, and methods—often doing a kind of copy and paste from another “successful” ministry. There’s nothing wrong with learning from others, but this must never replace faithfulness to the task at hand.
One subtle danger of pragmatism is that you may gather people, but you may not disciple or shepherd them.
Overly pragmatic planters exchange the shepherd’s rod and staff for “what’s new” or the latest formula for success. And when such methods, rather than the Bible, become our functional authority, we’re in more trouble than meets the eye. Further, one subtle danger of pragmatism in church planting is that you may gather people, but you may not disciple or shepherd them.2. Overlook
It’s difficult to love your people well if you’re constantly focusing on who’s not there. Of course, we should be evangelistic—I’m not suggesting we abandon a fervent desire to reach the lost. But we mustn’t overlook our flock in our zeal to reach more people.
Our people need us focused on discipleship, leading the church well by the Spirit’s power. They need us to labor as we prepare to preach God’s Word; they need us to be fervent in prayer; and they need us to lead them to the Good Shepherd, time and again. We do all of this with the flock God has given us, not the “church of our dreams.”
Church planters won’t be in tune with their peoples’ needs if they’re constantly looking past them to the horizon of what lies ahead.3. Miss God’s Grace
Further, if you’re always living in the future, not only will you miss what God has graciously done in the past, you’re likely to look past the work he’s currently doing.
During Israel’s transition from slaves in Egypt to possessors of the promised land, the Lord repeatedly commanded that they remember and recall his deliverance and mighty deeds (Deut. 6; 8). But they consistently rebelled by turning to idols. And we’re no different. When we fail to see God’s grace, given to us daily, we wander, having our hearts are drawn to other things.Shepherd from Among the Flock
One reason I love my wife significantly more than the waitress who routinely takes my order at the neighborhood Coney Island (my favorite greasy-spoon restaurant here in Detroit) is proximity. While my favorite waitress knows my order and is kind, my wife knows me intimately and we share deep love. More than that, I’ve made a covenant with my wife (something I haven’t done with the Coney Island waitress).
As planters, it is of chief importance that we love the people God has put under our spiritual care. We have covenanted with them, and they are the sheep with whom we have closest relations. We cannot merely pastor people from the pulpit (as important as that is). We must also minister to them in their living rooms and on their front porches.
The more I’m with the sheep, the more I love them.
I can personally attest to how proximity with the flock God has given me has softened my heart toward them. The more I’m with the sheep, the more I love them, and the more vibrant my prayer life is concerning them. At the same time, proximity reveals my sin. This can be painful, but by God’s grace it has driven me to deeper dependence on the Lord Jesus. Walking closely with the flock also clarifies pastoral needs in the midst of both the mundane and mania of church planting. Yes, reaching more people is important, but so is caring for the flock God has given you.
To love people well, we must be proactive in prayer and persistent in our pursuit of wandering sheep. Robust and implemented church membership, encouraged accountability among the church family, much prayer, and intentional shepherding have allowed us to see many wanderers return home.
Church planter, your primary task is to shepherd the sheep God has given you. Do this by taking them to the Good Shepherd, over and over.
A friend smiled across the dinner table. “So, you’re moving to another state? Exciting! How did God reveal his will to you?”
My wife and I glanced at each other knowingly, scrambling to answer honestly without making our friend feel awkward. As far as we knew God hadn’t said anything about our move. No specific direction, no goosebumps in prayer, no timely Bible verses about sojourning to a far-off land.
We had done our best to honor God in this move—praying together, seeking advice from friends and mentors, planning and saving for years. Yet whenever the topic came up, what people really wanted to know was how God spoke to us to reveal his will.
People seemed to assume God always provides tangible, individualized counsel for life’s big decisions. Admittedly, the thought of receiving a custom message from the Lord, transmitted just for the Andersons, is exciting. And I don’t dismiss that longing, given the glorious hope of communicating with God face to face in ways unimaginable now (Matt. 5:8; 1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 22:3–4).
Maybe you’ve been there too, facing a significant decision and wondering how to discern what God wants you to do. Life’s weighty decisions—where to attend college, whom to marry, whether to take that job—make us crave divine direction. But is it realistic, or biblical, to expect an audible “go for it” (or tangible equivalent) from God before making every major decision?What Do We Mean By ‘God’s Will’?
Clear language matters. Unfortunately the way we define the will of God is often quite unclear in the church. Kevin DeYoung explains the confusion:
The “will of God” is one of the most confusing phrases in the Christian vocabulary. Sometimes we speak of all things happening according to God’s will. Other times we talk about being obedient and doing the will of God. And still other times we talk about finding the will of God.
Let’s turn briefly to Scripture for clarity. Theologians commonly speak of two aspects of God’s will: his will of decree and his will of desire (often called God’s secret and revealed will, respectively).1. God’s (Secret) Will of Decree
God’s will of decree means he sovereignly ordains all things. He totally controls the goings-on of the world. This soaring truth is seen in passages like Ephesians 1:11: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Nothing can hinder God’s plans. History, as well as our individual lives, are moving toward the destination God intends. This is good news because God’s heart for us, and the world, is to redeem, purify, and make whole (Rev. 21:1–5).2. God’s (Revealed) Will of Desire
God’s will of desire refers to his biblical commands: how he wants us to live. As moderns we tend to resist imperatives, but for believers they’re the gift of a good Father who lights our path rather than leaving us to stumble blindly (Ps. 119:105).
Jesus masterfully summarizes the will of the Father in two clear commands: love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40). If you’re looking for get-to-the-point theology about God’s will, there it is.
God’s will of desire means we know what he expects of us. Instead of grasping for an individualized plan for our lives, Scripture universalizes his will for all believers: everything boils down to loving God and neighbor.
Love God and love neighbor. If you’re looking for get-to-the-point theology about God’s will, there it is.God’s Will of Direction
Still, some wonder if God reveals his will for everyday decisions not directly addressed in Scripture. In addition to his will of decree and desire, people seek his will of direction.
You’re at a fork in the road, poised between option A and B. Which way, Lord, should I go?
The issue isn’t in the question; we should seek God for wisdom (James 1:5). The problem is how we expect God to answer. The popular conception is that God, through some obvious means, will answer us. Perhaps it’s option A vanishing, or a feeling we get in prayer, or a Bible verse that seems to nudge us in one direction, or . . . fill in the blank.
But what if much of the time God simply invites us to choose? What if option A or B fall equally within his will, in ways we can’t explain or comprehend? What if, instead of option A versus option B, God is actually interested in how we walk the road, not which road we take?
Again, DeYoung is helpful:
God is not a Magic 8-Ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That’s wonderful. The problem is we think he’s going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know—and need to know—what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God’s will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than freedom.
Along those lines, a friend once shared this principle in a sermon: “God’s will is a compass, not a road map.”
We’re often preoccupied with the destination—where God wants to take us. But maybe he’s most interested in who he’s shaping along the way. The point is not to disparage well-meaning Christians from wholeheartedly seeking God’s will for their lives. It’s just that . . . maybe he’s already told us!
God’s will is a compass, not a road map.Unsustainable Expectation
For too long faithful saints have been told that God’s will, like a divine Siri, will call out step-by-step directions at every juncture. When God doesn’t direct in this way, a plethora of false narratives about him are born. In the perceived silence, some contrive answers, putting words in God’s mouth. Some feel abandoned by God, like he’s left them in a lurch. Others feel guilt, assuming God is being dismissive because they lack faith or have sinned in some unforgivable way. And still others become paralyzed, frozen in indecision until the desired answer comes, if it ever does.
Ultimately, the expectation for God to reveal every decision for us is unsustainable. There’s a better way.Freedom of God’s Will
It’s been about six months since my wife and I moved; and, for multiple reasons, we’ve now moved back home. Here’s the new question we’re getting these days: “So, do you regret moving away in the first place?”
Our answer is a resounding no. Moving out of state wasn’t a step out of God’s will. Things didn’t turn out how we thought they might, but the beauty of God’s will is that returning to square one isn’t a bad thing. God’s resets are progress, even when they shatter our paradigms of advancement and success.
God’s resets are progress, even when they shatter our paradigms of advancement and success.
What was God’s will for us in this move? I don’t fully know, but what I can say confidently is that my wife and I have drawn closer to Jesus in these past six months. We’ve stared into the gaping holes in our faith, asked for forgiveness, and tried to learn how to fulfill Jesus’s words to love him and neighbor with everything we have. We know that, regardless of which city we’re in, this is his will for us.
Do you see the freedom in this view?
Since God’s sovereign hand can’t be thwarted, ditch your fear of wandering irrevocably off the path of his will. Stop fretting that you’ve rabbit-trailed beyond the bounds of providence. Plan, obey biblical principles, seek the counsel of others, bathe it in prayer, then make a decision! Don’t worry if God isn’t calling out turn-by-turn directions along the way. Just love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—that’s your true north.
I’ll never forget a particular sermon during my Bible college days. The young preacher (and fellow student) had just finished opening up a narrative portion of the Old Testament when he paused and said, in his distinct Australian accent, “So what?” (I must admit, I was originally struck just by how he pronounced those words.)
This narrative is saying something to us. It applies to us. Though he didn’t quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, he was being true to the spirit of Paul’s understanding of the importance of applying Old Testament narrative.
First Corinthians 10:11 sums up the reason Paul has been applying the wilderness narrative to new covenant believers in Corinth. He has warned them about their many sins committed against the backdrop of redemptive privilege and gift. Don’t let the lessons of Israel’s past be lost on you, Paul says. In proving this, he gives an axiom regarding the believer’s (and the preacher’s) use of Old Testament narrative: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
This use of the Old Testament is certainly in keeping with Paul’s view of inspiration and the use of Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
The God-breathed Scriptures are profitable for doctrine (teaching), reproof (exposing our errors—mental and moral), correction (restoring to an upright position), and instruction in righteousness. This last phrase is particularly interesting. The word Paul uses, usually translated as “instruction” or “training,” literally means “child training”—referring to the patient, repetitive, and illustrative manner in which children learn. How do you instruct believers to live righteously? In part, tell them stories over and over again and apply them to their lives.
There was a day when such an assertion was neither unusual nor controversial. To be sure, there have been abuses with what I’m encouraging. It’s possible to misuse and misapply Old Testament narrative apart from the main redemptive, Christ-centered theme of the whole Bible.Remember Lot’s Wife
Paul makes his Spirit-inspired application of the Old Testament to “the man of God.” The Scriptures have made Timothy wise unto salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, this gospel-centered note is sounded increasingly in our day, but it has led some to shy away from other uses of the Old Testament in preaching. Though Christ is, to be sure, the grand theme of the Old Testament, he doesn’t present himself as the exclusive application of every text. After all, Jesus warned people to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). And Jesus paralleled the behavior of his disciples (accused of breaking the Sabbath) to David and his men eating the showbread (see Matt. 12:1ff, 1 Sam. 21:3–6).
How does the preacher, teacher, or student of the Word remain faithful to the apostolic teaching and the examples of Jesus and Paul, without falling into mere moralism?
It’s important to distinguish between “moralism” and “morality.” One is anti-gospel, the other is a byproduct of the gospel. Moralism focuses on outward behavior and is generally encouraged for personal profit and reputation. Moral transformation and conformity to the will of God is rooted in the fear of God, the pleasure of God, and is demonstrably tied to the Word of God.
Preaching Christ’s person and work without moral imperatives denies the goals Jesus died to obtain for his people—“that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4b). Thankfully, demonstrating this reality from the New Testament is pretty simple: Peter, John, James, and Paul make the applications for us. They teach the doctrine, then tell us in one way or another what it means for our lives.
More is required of the preacher working through large swaths of historical narrative, however. Sometimes God’s Word describes things, and no application or moral comment is made. For instance, we read of the horrific offer and compromise that Lot makes to the wicked men of Sodom who want to rape the angelic visitors. Lot offers his daughters to satisfy the mob’s lust. Should the preacher make comment on the sexual ethics of this man, his low view of women, and his shocking lack of love as a father?
Should he draw lessons from David’s fall into sin and the failure to make no provision for the flesh?
Should the lessons of Samson’s moral compromise be pressed home to the consciences of church members? Should we ask why was Samson going through a vineyard, when those who took Nazarite vows were to avoid the grape from “seed to skin”? Why did he gather honey from the body of the lion he had killed when one of his vows was to not touch the dead?
Can believers learn from the story of Solomon—how he fell from having a zeal for the conversion of the nations to embracing foreign gods? Is there no hope to be found in the narratives of godly Ruth, faithful Abigail, or, yes, even David’s faith in the presence of the giant?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is “yes.” We should show how these things apply to Christian morality.Biblical Truth through Biography
In nearly 30 years of preaching through the Old Testament regularly, I’ve enjoyed helping God’s people see that he teaches some of his greatest truths through biography. Warnings and promises take on a vivid flavor when attached to real-life figures who faced profound struggles, doubts, fears, failures, and sins.
God teaches some of his greatest truths through biography.
How do we go about bringing this vital element into our teaching and preaching? In conclusion, here are a few recommendations:
- Commit to teaching Old Testament narrative. If you aren’t doing this already, you’re withholding rich food for people’s souls. Preachers should strive to give the flock ‘the whole counsel of God’. The bulk of God’s written revelation falls between Genesis and Malachi. You may want to start with something like 1 and 2 Samuel. The faith of Hannah, the spinelessness of Eli, the seediness of Hophni and Phineas, the arc of men like Saul and especially David form a rich tapestry of spiritual insight, encouragement, and warning.
- After laboring to correctly exegete the passage, ensure that you tease out the Christ-centered gospel applications of the text. This will keep you from falling into mere moralism or purely exemplary preaching. Almost every text will reveal something of the person and work of Christ and how deeply sinners need a savior.
- Begin your work early in the week. Read the English text repeatedly. Read it out loud or use an audio Bible so you gain a good grasp of the narrative. Allow your heart to marinate in the truths of the text. Strive to enter into the psyche of the historical figures you’re dealing with. Use what one preacher called your “sanctified imagination” to ask what was going on in David’s soul when Nathan pointed out his sin? Did relief wash over his soul? Was there anger at being caught? How did he find hope? How was he able to show his face? In studying a man like Solomon, ask how does a man of God get from the place where he builds the temple to where he is constructing places of worship for idols? What steps led him astray? What “little foxes” spoiled the grapes of his soul? This is more than “exegeting the white spaces” of Scripture, it is striving to understand that these were real men and women who lived in the same world we inhabit. As you read and study, ask yourself, What’s been encouraging or convicting to my own heart?
- Get to know your own people well. You’re not preaching to the air, but to the men, women, boys, and girls who make up your congregation. Is there worldliness and compromise in them that if left unchecked and unmortified will lead them to spiritual ruin? Point them to Samson and his many failures to stand distinct in accordance with his calling. Are there women married to foolish men in your church? Expose them to the grace and godliness of Abigail. Are there ladies struggling with bareness? Allow them to find a friend in Hannah. Where are they hurting, struggling, or failing? Show them David or Joseph or Daniel. God’s Word is designed to help them in their pilgrimage. As you get to know them better, you’ll be more able to specifically apply the Word to their hearts.
- Remember the unbelievers present in your assembly. For them, as for Timothy, these old stories will be the means of divine wisdom that points them to the Savior. Show them over and over again that while God’s prophets, priests, kings and people failed, God sent them one who never failed and who is fit to be their Savior, Lord, and King.
I am indebted to those who’ve shown me beauty of Jesus. In Romans 10, Paul honors faithful messengers: “As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’” (Rom 10:15b, CSB). In former days, messengers might declare the good news of a victory over an enemy nation, but now, gospel messengers are bringing even better news of Christ’s victory over sin and death.
Speaking the good news may involve taking our feet across the world, or it may mean simply taking them across the room, across the street, or across a gym. As I reflect on the question, “Who first showed me the beauty of Jesus?” I could list many people who commended Christ to me. But those who had the most influence include my mother and a few teammates in college.Witness of My Mother
I must begin with my mother, Brenda Merida. She is a lady full of the Bible and full of mercy. She has been a model mom to me and a wonderful wife to my dad. She was a teacher’s aid in special education until her recent retirement. When she retired I told her I wanted to take her on a trip anywhere in the world. She told me she wanted to see the leaves in Vermont in the autumn.
My mom is a simple lady with a genuine faith. She took me to church services at a young age, and through her witness and those in the body, gospel seeds were planted. I watched her read the Bible every day. I watched her care for those in need. I watched her pray. I listened to her counsel me with Scripture.
I didn’t start following Jesus until college, and when that happened my relationship with her deepened. When I went to seminary, I would call her at least twice a week to tell her all I was learning. She still sends me text messages ranging from “Give them the Word, son” to (most recently, in response to a long sermon on Hosea), “Good message. Lots of information.” Distance separates us now, as she and Dad are eight hours away, but she is still my praying, supportive mother, for whom I give God praise.
I must also testify to the Lord’s grace by mentioning that I had the privilege of baptizing my father some eight years ago. He too has become this kind of encouragement to me. Seeing him grow in Christ is one of the greatest joys of my life.
But I feel as though I must recognize a few more people. While my mother was the first person to show me the beauty of Jesus, she wasn’t the only one the Lord used to bring me to faith.Witness of My Teammates
I went to college on a full ride to play baseball, where I was a four-year starter at shortstop. I loved baseball and wasn’t much interested in school. I certainly wasn’t interested in Jesus. My mother made me take my Bible to college, but I had no desire to read it or pursue spiritual things. But the Lord placed two guys on my team—a second baseman named Stephen and a pitcher named Kenny—who showed me the beauty of Jesus. There were other faithful Christians on the team and on our campus too, but these two guys were the spiritual leaders on our team.
Stephen would beat on my door on Sundays, waking me up for church. I would reluctantly get up to go with him. He would take notes, and I’d watch in amazement that a guy my age, who was a good player, was actually interested in the Bible and sermons. Kenny was like him in this regard. I would listen to these two talk to my teammates about the faith in a way I had never encountered before. They gave good arguments, and they were also filled with grace. I felt safe around them, as if I could ask any question.
During my sophomore year I was searching for meaning, freedom, and joy. After conversations with Stephen and Kenny, and after attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) for a few nights, the Lord brought me to himself.
The next practice after my commitment to follow Jesus, we were running sprints, and Stephen said in between sets, “We’re going to start a Bible study for our baseball team.” I went and bought a massive study Bible and began my journey. In that apartment with Kenny and Stephen, I learned the basics, prayed, worshiped, and caught a vision for ministry. The next year I met Jim Shaddix and watched him do expository preaching for three consecutive nights. I want to do that for the rest of my life, I thought. The longing hasn’t left! By God’s grace, until I die, I want to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ from the bottomless Word of God.
I praise God for my mother and for these teammates. I think the lesson for evangelism in my story is threefold. First, consider the simplicity of your witness. None of these individuals did anything sensational. They simply lived out their faith in the ordinary rhythm of life and had gospel conversations with me. Second, consider the unity of your witness. The Lord often uses more than one person to bring a person to faith. And third, consider the sovereignty of God through your witness. I wasn’t looking for Jesus, but God used these witnesses to open my eyes and draw me to the Savior. Both planting and watering are essential, but only God gives the growth (2 Cor. 3:6–8).
You can read previous installments in this series.
Many of us have read books on biblical leadership in which the author dazzles us with his own amazing leadership accomplishments. These leaders are inspiring in the same way Gulliver inspired the Lilliputians—we want to be bigger and better than we are.
Peter Lillback, president and professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, is a man who could write a Gulliveresque leadership book, given his impressive educational and administrative credentials. Instead, Lillback wrote Saint Peter’s Principles: Leadership for Those Who Already Know Their Incompetence, a book that makes the reader feel like Lillback sees himself as one of us. How? By drawing principle after principle (128 to be exact) from the life, writing, and example of the apostle Peter, the pro exemplar of Christian leadership failure and success.
Each of the 128 principles are a few pages in length and include questions for meditation and discussion. These are grouped in general categories, such as formation of the leader, the art of leadership, a leader’s relationships, integrity, and many others. The format feels like “Chicken Soup for the Leader”—and there is a lot of soup between the covers.Acknowledging Pastoral Failure
Lillback’s greatest strength is his humility as he writes about his own struggles with the demands of spiritual leadership. His starting point is human weakness, which he calls “incompetence,” and then he moves to divine leadership redemption. Turning the well-known leadership principle on its head, he asserts that “a leader doesn’t just rise to his highest level of incompetence, but begins with incompetence and seeks to learn wisdom in the midst of that incompetence” (14). This plays itself out in Peter’s life as he went from Peter the Boaster/Denier to Peter the Apostle/Martyr.
This approach to leadership is honest, refreshing, and relatable. For many years, the staff at my church has both joked about and considered hosting a pastoral conference on failure. Few of us can relate to the pantheon of mega-pastors in their amazing successes, but how many thousands of pastors could helpfully relate to guest speakers in their failures? Lillback seems comfortable in this space of inadequacy. Yet, rather than wallowing, he looks to Peter’s incompetence as a basic model for the humility required for any leadership success:
The incompetence of a leader here is seen in the narcissistic impulse that lurks within to believe that it’s all about us. We all have the built-in hubris to confuse the offices we occupy with ourselves, just as followers have a tendency to confuse the message with the messenger. (102)Embracing Servant Leadership
Lillback’s call to humble acknowledgment of our shortfalls allows him to speak graciously into our leadership struggles. Like a coach ever at the ready to help, Saint Peter’s Principles is filled with philosophical and practical guidance. The more I read this book, the more I was blessed, and the more I liked it. Here are a few more gems:
This, then, is the beginning of leadership success, according to St. Peter. It is when a man, knowing his incompetence, nevertheless seeks to meet his deficiencies through God’s gracious gift of wisdom found in his Word. (8)
The St. Peter’s Principle here recognizes that leadership necessarily uses power to serve someone, but that the power of leadership should be used to serve others. Power wisely used is a tool, not an idol. (100)
The plethora of leadership quotes and stories along with the insights from Peter show an astonishing depth of leadership thoughtfulness from this seasoned spiritual leader. Any leader, spiritual or otherwise, would benefit from Lillback’s wisdom. The length of the book (around 600 pages) will likely intimidate many, but the format provides a fork for those willing to eat the elephant. While reading I was regularly brought to conviction and confession for failures in my own leadership. This embrace of my “incompetence” was cathartic and had its inspiring effect as the apostle Peter and Lillback pointed me again to competence flowing from gospel humility and servant leadership.
Like most other pastors, I’m more committed to the theory of servant leadership than proficient in the application. This book inspired me biblically while directing me practically. This is a rare combination, and I suspect Lillback himself to be an exceptional mixture of the two. This countercultural leadership book will be relevant for as long as leaders stumble, struggle, and fail. In other words, until Jesus returns.
What are some helpful ways to encourage fellow Christians who struggle to integrate their faith with their work? To avoid being, in the words of Dick Keyes, either the musk ox that circles up with other Christians and kicks the outsiders, or the chameleon who never gives any hint that they’re a believer?
Before answering this sincere and common question, we need to acknowledge an underlying assumption. Your work is not able to bear the weight of your faith. As important as your vocation is to fulfilling the first and second greatest commandments, it cannot hope to encapsulate the length, height, and depth of the person and work of Jesus Christ and your identity as his disciple.
Let’s establish up front that you cannot integrate your faith into your work; rather, you must integrate your work into your faith. This reorientation of submitting our entire lives—body and soul—underneath the lordship of Christ will provide the framework we need to avoid both holy huddles and hidden lamps.Holy Huddles
Jesus said the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 15:35). And certainly, working with Christian brothers and sisters is both a gift (especially if they exhibit the gifts of the Spirit) and a witness (as our interactions can show a different way to live).
Yet our unity in Christ is meant to be far more centrifugal than centripetal. Jesus propels us outward into awkward encounters and difficult conversations. From Genesis to Revelation, the Father, Son, and Spirit work to transform outsiders into insiders.
As N. T. Wright puts it, “He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over all creation.”
We aren’t saved from interactions with unbelieving coworkers but to them.Hidden Lamps
There is a certain allure and legitimate appeal to watching, drinking, reading, and consuming the same things as our coworkers. It is a unique joy to share in the fruits of creation with those whom the Creator is calling into repentance.
Paul illustrates this well. After all, he sought to be all things to all people. But we must remember that the apostle did this for the sake of the gospel that he might win more of them to the faith (1 Cor. 9:19-23). The call is not to be changed by the culture. The call is to change the culture through the the gospel.
We aren’t saved from interactions with unbelieving coworkers but to them.
It is one thing to adopt a hobby, attend a concert, or take the fall for a mistake in order to befriend a coworker. It is another thing, a more holy thing, to know them as well as they will allow—to grieve when they grieve, to rejoice when they rejoice. That takes time—maybe walking with her during lunch or grabbing dinner with him after work—but cultivating an authentic relationship is worth it. Trust built on more than commonalities and missions strategies begets natural opportunities to testify to God’s goodness and grace.More Excellent Way
We end where we began: your work is not meant to bear the weight of your faith. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the tale of Christian losing his burden of sin as he gazes upon the weight of the cross. I encourage you to gaze upon the crucified, risen, and returning Lord.
How do we gaze on Christ in our work? We privilege the image of God in our coworkers.
- Pray for them when you’re tired and it’s inconvenient.
- Commit to a healthy local church that will propel and partner with you as you love your coworkers.
- Invite your contract employee over to watch the game with your friends.
- Offer to help your boss move into her new home.
- Be bold enough to tell your employee that her work has cosmic significance whether she sees it or not.
And slowly but surely, the burden of balancing holy huddles and hidden lamps will fade from sight.
Jesus is making all things new by bringing all things under his rule and reign. Your work and work relationships are of utmost important to him, and he will not rest until he wrests them from your grasp. You will find that his yoke and burden are easier and lighter than the weight of worrying and working for him in self-reliance. So come to the cross (Matt. 11:28–30). And just like Bunyan’s Christian, you too will begin to sing:
Must here the burden fall from off my back? Must here the strings that bound it to me, crack? Blessed cross! Blessed sepulcher! Blessed rather be the Man that there was put to shame for me.
My second Sunday as a full-time pastor came five days after the worst tornado outbreak in American history afflicted our city and its surrounding region. I preached from Job 1–2, and we put the sermon title on our marquee: “Where Was God?” Attendance that Sunday doubled and a couple of media members, intrigued by the existential question on our sign, interviewed me.
Natural disasters and tragedies, particularly those that fall on us like a lightning bolt, provoke thoughts in all kinds of people—both the religious and the irreligious—of death, eternal realities, and deity.
Many of us remember the aftermath of 9/11. There was a large ecumenical prayer service held at Yankee Stadium a few days in its wake as a shadow of fear blanketed our country. Similarly, the assassination of national leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy spawned myriad solemn gatherings for prayer and reflection on ultimate realities.
In Luke 13:1–7, Jesus faced a crowd of people who sought the meaning of two tragic events—one an atrocity that brings to mind some of the unspeakably evil activities of Nazi Germany, another that summons the gut-wrenching images of crumbling towers that September morning in 2001.
In the first event, Pilate displayed his brutality by murdering Galileans in the midst of worship and then mingling their blood with the sacrifices—a cruel, blasphemous act. The crowd’s tacit question for Jesus was: What did they do to deserve such a fate? Jesus knew as much, asking them: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?”
In the second event, a tower in Siloam—an area in south Jerusalem near the pool of Siloam—toppled to the ground, killing 18, likely injuring more. The tacit question was the same: Did those victims somehow deserve their fate? Were they especially heinous sinners? As Jesus put it: “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”Repent or Perish
Jesus responded to both situations with the same pointed, sobering answer: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In other words, the Galileans were murdered at the altar, in what they no doubt viewed as a holy place, but they had no time to repent. Similarly, those on whom the tower fell were taken out of this world in the blink of an eye without warning, with no time to repent.
Jesus’s warning may come off as terse, even slightly harsh, but it is a word of grace: Turn to the Lord while there is still time. The point is simple, but we miss it to our peril.
Here are four additional applications we can draw from Christ’s brief encounter with this crowd.1. ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ is not the right question.
“Why do good things happen to bad people?” is perhaps the better question. Jesus didn’t deny the connection between catastrophic events and human wickedness, and it’s true that such events occur because of humanity’s fall into sin. Nevertheless, Jesus was clear: “Unless you repent, you shall surely die.”
Every human born in Adam’s wake, except Jesus, is a rebel against his or her Maker. That God heaps mercy on undeserving sinners like us, then, should mystify us every bit as much—if not more—than why bad things happen to “good” people. We are all heinous sinners. We all need grace.2. Today is the day for repentance.
We never know what a given day will bring. No one’s guaranteed time to prepare for death. Those on whom the tower of Siloam fell were presumably going about their business when tragedy suddenly struck. Workers in the Twin Towers of Manhattan, as well as the fire and rescue workers, expected a normal day at the office. But the Preacher of Ecclesiastes puts it like this:
Time and chance happen to them all. Man knows not his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Eccles. 9:11–12)
On the highway of life, death lurks like an evil shadow around the next bend, hidden from view. It’s true for the Christian as well as the atheist. Is today your day?3. We must speak only where God has spoken.
Attempting to read providence is unwise and dangerous. As we tend to do, the crowd Jesus addressed apparently made a judgment as to why Pilate committed his atrocities and why the tower fell. In the aftermath of 9/11, some presumed to speak on God’s behalf, assuring listeners the terrorist attacks were divine retribution for national sins including abortion and homosexuality. Might that have been true? That’s up to God. We simply don’t know, for God never told us. And what would be our condition if each of us got what our sins deserved? Had Christ not shouldered my debt, I would be in hell.
In his provocative book God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, Steven J. Keillor argues that temporal events may indeed be acts of divine judgment for public sin. God hasn’t been pleased to tell us, however, the particular tragedies that result from particular national transgressions. Christians usually wind up looking foolish when they predict specific dates for Jesus’s return, as well as when they try to read providence. Jesus’s words in Luke 13 demonstrate the folly of the latter.4. Natural disasters are powerful preachers.
On August 31, 1886, the most powerful earthquake to ever hit the East Coast pummeled Charleston, South Carolina, killing 150 and reducing to rubble nearly 90 percent of the historic city’s masonry buildings. More than two-thirds of the city’s 40,000 inhabitants were homeless. Baptist pastor-journalist H. H. Tucker told readers of the Christian Index newspaper that the earthquake was a preacher sent by God to, consistent with Jesus’s words here in Luke 13, rouse a spiritually drowsy culture. He said the awful event preached several doctrines, including the sovereignty of God, the moral responsibility and guilt of man, the uncertainty of life, the value of prayer, and the necessity of repentance. Tucker wrote:
When the continent trembled, millions of people thought of God. A large proportion of these were of that class in all whose thoughts, from day to day, God is not. Millions of people were impressed with a sense of human helplessness and insignificance. . . . In the heyday of prosperity, men invent arguments to disprove [the existence of God], but when appalling danger comes suddenly upon them they forget the arguments and remember [God], showing that deep in the human heart there is an intuition which acknowledges God, and recognizes our proper relations to him.
Jesus took the opportunity to use a human atrocity and a natural disaster to preach both the danger of life in a fallen world and also the need to repent. We should soberly and humbly look for opportunities to do the same. God does not owe us tomorrow.Time Is Short
Above all, Jesus’s brief warning in Luke 13 ought to remind us that we bear a message the entire world desperately needs. Until Jesus returns in glory, natural disasters will occur. There will be a tornado outbreak worse than the one I lived through. There will be atrocities, because there will always be despotic leaders. Towers will crumble at the hands of terrorists.
And because man knows not his time, it is fitting in every season and on every occasion for Christians to gently lead unbelievers from “Why me?” to “Why not me?”—and to lovingly channel Jesus’s words: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”
In Douglas Adams’s comic sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of super-intelligent beings asks a supercomputer to learn the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” It takes the computer 7.5 million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be . . . 42.
That’s not a satisfying answers of course, but the real answer may seem just as cryptic and—at least initially—unsatisfactory: the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is . . . God’s holiness.
Christians talk a lot about holiness, and yet we often don’t understand what the word means. The basic meaning of the term holy is something set apart from other things. We say the Bible is holy because it is set apart and distinct from all other books. Similarly, we are called to be holy because God set us apart and made us distinct for his purposes. When we say that God is holy, though, we are saying that he is set apart in a category of his own.
In Leviticus 10:3 God says, “Among those who approach me I will be proved holy.” When we approach God and get to know him we do indeed begin to see that he is like no other, he is set apart and different from everything else that exists. As John Piper says,
His holiness is what he is as God that nobody else is. It is his quality of perfection that can’t be improved upon, that can’t be imitated, that is incomparable, that determines all that he is and is determined by nothing from outside him. It signifies his infinite worth, his intrinsic, infinite worth, his intrinsic, infinite value.
Holiness is closely tied to God’s glory, for as Piper explains, glory is the going public of God’s holiness. It is the way God puts his holiness on display for people to apprehend. The glory of God is the holiness of God made manifest. Piper defines God’s glory as the “infinite beauty and greatness of God’s many and various perfections.”Value and the Diamond-Water Paradox
Before we delve into what this means for us, though, let’s consider what it means to value things. Imagine you are offered a choice between a cup full of water and a cup full of diamonds. On the whole, water is more useful; it’s even necessary to your survival. But you’d still prefer to have the cup of diamonds. Why?
The answer is more difficult than it might appear, and it took economists a long time to figure out what they called the diamond-water paradox. What they realized is that what we value at any given time is subjective. We’d prefer the diamonds to water because we already have lots of access to water, but not much access to rare jewels. Yet if we were in the desert and dying of thirst, we’d prefer the water to the diamonds.
So what does this have to do with God and his glory? It helps us understand why we should always value God above everything else. God is the only thing that is never subjectively valuable, for he is always objectively and infinitely valuable. We should prefer God to diamonds or water or even life itself because God is more worthy and more valuable than all other things in the universe combined.
In fact, God’s glory is the reason the universe exists.Why God Created the Universe and Everything
Reflecting on the question of why the universe exists, the great Puritan philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards replied,
Creation must have arisen because of the way it accomplishes something God values. God values things like goodness, truth, and beauty. And yet those words are simply labels we have come up with to describe things that were, before creation, all him. So I think we are logical to conclude that if God could have created the universe to expand and increase himself—and, implicitly, all the things that we have come to know in the abstract as goodness, truth, and beauty—then that best explains the logic behind his decision to create a universe in the first place.
The same logic that leads us to value God more than anything else, Edwards explains, must also lead God himself to value himself more than anything else. God should value himself above all else because his existence and work lead to the existence and work of all other good.
“So, although it seems strange at first,” Edwards adds, “we put God’s judgment into question if we assume that he doesn’t accurately esteem the most valuable entity imaginable: himself.” It’s appropriate, not self-centered, for a holy God to esteem himself above all else since, unlike us, he is fully committed to the prospering of good in the universe.
How does this answer the reason for Creation? Edwards concludes, “Creation must have resulted from the way God saw the value of expanding himself: [expanding] his goodness, truth, beauty, and all the things that are a part of him.”Meaning of Life Explained
All creation exists, in other words, because God valued the expansion of his glory and the enjoyment of goodness, truth, and beauty. We exist, therefore, to glorify and enjoy God. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”
In commenting on Lewis’s observation, John Piper draws three inferences:
1. God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the most loving act.
2. God is most glorified in us when we are the most satisfied in him.
3. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.
Glorifying God by enjoying him forever should be your goal in life because it’s the reason God created the universe. And that’s why the going public of God’s holiness is the only true answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
Fifty years ago this month, the Woodstock Music Festival took place over three days in Bethel, New York. Held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, August 15 to 18, the event drew more than 400,000 young people to an “Aquarian Exposition” that celebrated peace and music. The event has become synonymous with hippie iconography and was the pinnacle of the 1960s counterculture.
Woodstock is one of those generation-defining events that can never be replicated again (though attempts have been made). Half a century later, its legacy remains profound. A new documentary on the festival, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, will air August 6 on PBS. It’s a compelling film that—especially when paired with Michael Wadleigh’s definitive 1970 documentary—immerses us in the event and helps us grasp its meaning.
As I watched the new PBS film and revisited the 1970 documentary, it struck me that Woodstock was a fundamentally religious event: a worship service for a secular age; a liturgy of liberation where the object of devotion was not God, but freedom. The event signaled the dawn of a new spiritual ethos that would extend far beyond the world of hippies: a rejection of authority in almost every sense except for the authority of the expressive self.Before Woodstock
Among the ways Woodstock marks a key moment in Western cultural history is that it helped solidify the move of transcendence and religious awe from the church and institutional religion, into the realm of popular culture. After Woodstock, the outdoor music festival became a key liturgy of secular religion: sacred spaces of communion with nature and fellow man, where music and drugs and alcohol contribute to feelings of physical elevation, emotional escape, and spiritual transformation.
Woodstock might be seen as a sort of a secular descendant of the old religious revivals, “holy fairs,” and camp meetings that had roots in Scottish Presbyterianism and played a key role in the Second Great Awakening. More immediate precedents included the 1950s debuts of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival, and especially the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—which launched the “Summer of Love.” But it was Woodstock that enshrined the festal concert gathering as a spiritual fixture in the liturgies of our secular age.Woodstock’s Liturgy
Consider the many ways Woodstock borrowed from and re-envisioned religious forms. The pilgrimage aspect was an important part of the Woodstock experience. People caravanned from across the country for the festival, to a place called Bethel (a Hebrew word that means “House of God”). Once the program kicked off, attendees took part in what was basically a three-day church service devoted not to vertical worship but to inward transcendence and horizontal solidarity. There was even a Eucharist of sorts, but with weed and acid instead of bread and wine.
The festival included an opening invocation from guru Swami Satchidananda, who “prayed” that through the “sacred art of music” we would “find peace that will pervade all over the globe”—a peace that we “find within ourselves first.”
Richie Havens kicked off the musical performances. His “Freedom”—an improvised, made-up-on-the-spot anthem that riffed on the spiritual “Motherless Child”—was Woodstock’s call to worship. The song became an anthem not only for the festival but also for the era. It declared independence from all authorities, conventions, rigid structures, and stifling traditions. It celebrated the primary religious value of the post-Christian era: freedom. Freedom to be whomever; to sleep with whomever; to do whatever feels real and authentic.
Richie Havens’s ‘Freedom’ was Woodstock’s call to worship. It declared independence from all authorities, conventions, rigid structures, and stifling traditions. It celebrated the primary religious value of the post-Christian era: freedom.
The “worship service” continued on that first night with folk hero Arlo Guthrie, whose drug-addled set included “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “The Story of Moses,” and “Amazing Grace.” Guthrie was followed by Joan Baez, who concluded the night after 1 a.m. with a legendary performance. Bathed in the blue spotlight and standing before a massive crowd whose campfires and lighters looked like a sparkling galaxy, Baez—six months pregnant at the time—was a serene, motherly, almost Marian presence. She opened her set with Gospel crossover song “Oh Happy Day!” and ended it with an a capella performance of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Her captivating performance of “Joe Hill” (an “organizing song”) underscores how justice and political action naturally become primary sources of transcendence in the secular religion.
Perhaps nothing epitomized this shift more than Jimi Hendrix’s iconic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that concluded Woodstock and offered a sort of benediction to the festival. A dissonant, subversive, raging explosion of protest, Hendrix’s display was a forerunner of Colin Kaepernick and a visceral example of how passions that used to be channeled in vertical worship are now redeployed as horizontal activism. Without transcendence, immanence becomes ultimate. Politics, or the politicizing of personal autonomy, becomes the new religion.‘We Must Be in Heaven, Man!’
One of the great paradoxes of Woodstock—and indeed, of the age we inhabit—is that even as it celebrates expressive individualism and unrestrained autonomy, it is fundamentally a communal experience. The 400,000 people who endured mud, rain, unsanitary conditions, and lack of food for three days were happy to do it because they were together. Outcasts or “freaks” in other contexts, Woodstock attendees were among their own at the festival. They were family.
Woodstock attendee Laureen Starobin put it this way in the PBS documentary: “It was indescribable. The feeling that came over me of warmth and Oh my God, there are this many people in the world that think like I think? It was like meeting your brothers and sisters.”
Indeed, the communal spirit of the festival—perhaps best captured in Joe Cocker’s iconic performance of The Beatles’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”—speaks to the importance of solidarity and horizontal transcendence in a world stripped of vertical worship. Having rejected all hierarchies and authorities, what remains is an egalitarian vision of kinship and fraternity—or at least a utopian hope of it.
Having rejected all hierarchies and authorities, what remains is an egalitarian vision of kinship and fraternity—or at least a utopian hope of it.
And it is a utopia. As much as Woodstock may have captured the hippie vision in its purest form, it was also a rather fleeting thing, arguably more meaningful as a novelty than as a legitimate, sustainable idea. Just four months later an attempt to replicate Woodstock on the West Coast in the Altamont Festival failed miserably, ending in violence and death. If Woodstock was the high-water mark of the 1960s counterculture, Altamont marked the beginning of its end. It seems the combination of “no authority but yourself!” hyper-individualism and utopian communitarianism doesn’t really work.
Still, for those brief moments, and in the memory of some looking back on it, Woodstock presented an almost eschatological picture of “what could be.” It was heaven on earth for many who attended, complete with “miracles” of human solidarity. When lack of food presented a potentially epic crisis as the festival went on, Bethel residents and a commune called the Hog Farm stepped up to provide free food to hordes of hungry hippies. “It was like the loaves and the fishes,” one attendee remembers. “We must be in heaven, man!” Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy shouted from the stage.
“It was a functioning city out in the middle of nowhere,” one attendee recalls. “This was ours. This was the new city. This was the alternative city.”Lessons and Legacy
Woodstock lives on, both in its legacy for the world of music festivals but also as a microcosm of the 1960s cultural revolution that still shapes our world today.
The reverberating echo of Richie Havens’s “Freedom!” is still our culture’s rallying cry. The impulse to “look within” for transcendence remains pervasive—if not in acid trips and gurus, then in mindfulness apps and “wash your face!” self-help.
Meanwhile, progressivism is still trying to figure out how to reconcile the dual values of unrestrained personal autonomy and “help each other” communal responsibility, as well as how to speak with moral authority on pet causes (LGBT rights, global warming, abortion rights) despite having built itself on the (inherently unstable) foundation of anti-authoritarianism.
And just as the masses at Woodstock longed for an “alternative city” where they could be known and understood, singing praises (of sorts) with one voice, so do the masses today. The lost souls who flocked to Woodstock were looking for meaning, just as their 21st-century counterparts are when they crowd into stadiums, theaters, concert halls, national parks, or wherever they go to “worship.”
These pilgrims are looking for something more. Revival. Purpose. Transcendence. Something of substance. What can Christians do to present the local church as a place where spiritual wanderers might find these things? Because even as the Western world became more secular, the religious impulse never went away. The human need to worship never fades, as Woodstock’s “worship service” so vividly shows.
But worship satisfies only when its object is utterly and eternally worthy. That’s why, when all the secular liturgies of this age fail to satisfy, the church of Jesus Christ will still be there—singing to the same God she always has, with words and rituals that have outlasted countless cultural trends and countercultural zeitgeists. Will we be ready to welcome these pilgrims?
“What then was the aim of the academy? What was the proper goal of education? For Franklin, it was to impress upon the students the desire ‘to serve mankind,’ to serve one’s country, friends, and family. Franklin knew that some potential supporters would balk at such human-centered vision. Thus in an extended footnote, he insisted that the aim of service to mankind was just another way of saying the glory and service of God. Okay. So here Franklin was restating his notion of true religion: doing good to men is the only service of God in our power, and to imitate his beneficence is to glorify him.” — Thomas Kidd
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- The Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education
- A Conversation with Historian Thomas Kidd on the Religious Life of Benjamin Franklin
- Why Ben Franklin Called for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.