The garden needs weeding. Two, no, three loads of laundry need folding. A conversation with a friend whose husband was recently diagnosed with cancer is interrupted by my littlest who’s craving a popsicle. There’s a project for work to finish. An invoice to send. Tonight we’re hosting our small group for dinner, but I haven’t yet defrosted the chicken.
What do all these mundane tasks have to do with God’s mission? Is checking items off a to-do list what I was made for?
It’s easy to lose a sense of how these responsibilities and relationships are integrated into the gospel story—the story of God’s creative, redemptive, restorative work in the world. But a new book is reminding me that while the story of the Bible defines the contours of my worldview, it also imbues every day with meaning when I understand my mission as exalting Christ as king in every task and conversation.
In The Gospel of Our King: Bible, Worldview, and the Mission of Every Christian, Bruce Ashford, a professor of theology and culture, teams up with Heath Thomas, an Old Testament scholar, to demonstrate how every movement in the Bible’s story should inspire and inform the mission of the church:
If we ignore any one part of the biblical storyline, we will end up with a mission that is incomplete at best and harmful at worst. In fact, we think that people are often tempted to think about mission in ways that ignore or underemphasize the beginning and end of the biblical narrative—creation and new creation. (8)
If our mission is to be holistic, then we have to position the central climax of the narrative within the revealed beginning and end. We can’t skip the first and final acts.
There are lots of books out there on the Bible, on worldview, and on mission. But it’s rare to find one volume on the essential connections among all three. Often the motivation for Christian mission has been tethered to a few seminal New Testament passages when, in fact, the whole testimony of Scripture is vital for a comprehensive understanding of mission. As James K. A. Smith says in Imagining the Kingdom, “Our hearts traffic in stories.” This book is a prolonged plea for the church to become a “storied community” (118), which is a community that finds our identity, meaning, mission, and future hope within the four main movements of the biblical narrative—creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.When Everything Is Mission
Current conversations around Christian mission tend to be characterized by concern on two opposing fronts. On one hand, some assert that broad definitions of mission that encompass ministries of healing, justice, and culture-making erode commitment to gospel proclamation, disciple-making, and church planting. On the other hand, some worry that defining mission too narrowly reinforces an unhealthy divide between mission professionals and everyone else in the church, unnecessarily flattening mission when it should be multi-dimensional.
Ashford and Thomas creatively resolve the friction between these two positions by expounding on the breadth of mission while holding fast to its center. Christian mission is broad because “every act of obedience—in every dimension of Christian life—is part of the Christian mission, a bold declaration that we support God’s claim to the throne. And because the assault on his throne comes from every corner of the world, we must aim our redirective efforts at every nook and cranny” of human life and culture (124). But the breadth of mission is oriented around and animated by a central, essential task that animates the whole: “Gospel proclamation must never be displaced as the center of mission” (196).
While the story of the Bible defines the contours of my worldview, it also imbues every day with meaning when I understand my mission as exalting Christ as king in every task and conversation.
Their balanced approach diffuses any perceived tension between ministries of proclamation and ministries of culture-making, care, and justice that alleviate human suffering and promote human flourishing. This fusion is most clearly seen in their definition of social mission as any sort of relational ministry that involves interaction with people. Social mission, then, includes unity within the church body, sharing gospel words through evangelism, and living out the gospel through acts of mercy and justice (136). Mission in word and deed are both fundamentally social because we engage in them within the context of relationships.
While this broad definition of mission may rankle those who like to remind us that when everything becomes mission then nothing really is, the characterization of mission as social is grounded on a theological foundation—a reminder that “the Bible’s radical monotheism is profoundly relational” (120). The roots of this aspect of mission run deep into the biblical story in which God speaks, reveals, covenants, saves, heals, restores—in sum, relates. Social mission, then, isn’t an equivocation or catch-all; it mirrors the character of the God who first related to us.
This framing of mission reminds me that restructuring my carefully engineered schedule to encourage and pray with a friend grieving a cancer diagnosis is part of mission, that prayerfully considering the percentage of my salary that should be given away to those in need is part of mission, that worshiping with my church is part of mission, that weeding my garden and crafting a beautiful sentence is part of mission. So long as I’m being obedient to the call God has placed on my life today and interacting with people in a way that brings glory to Christ, I’m on mission whether I’m walking across the street or flying across the Atlantic.King for Our Secular Age
The Gospel of Our King was written to us—Western Christians immersed in a secular age plagued by an unraveling social fabric, epidemic loneliness, idolatrous exaltation of the self, and an insatiable appetite for consumption. This culture leaves us feeling anxious, God-haunted, and “fragilized” (115–17). In this context, mission requires much more than intellectual argument and a working knowledge of apologetic strategies. It demands a “comprehensive witness to Christ through word and deed in the totality of [our] personal, social, and cultural contexts” (196).
Jesus isn’t just my king; he’s our king—sovereign over every square inch of our world.
Holistic mission should be seen “not as a problem but as a prerequisite to understanding the nature of the new life found in Christ” (112). In this approach to mission there’s a refreshing eschewing of triumphalism. In our secular age Christian mission must be characterized by grace, conviction, civility, “humility rather than pride, persuasion rather than coercion, and a willingness to sacrifice and even suffer” (166).
The Gospel of Our King is incisive, accessible, informed, and, above all, Christ-centered: “Jesus is the prism through which the bright light of the Old Testament is broken into its full color” (4) and his dominion and redemption is “as wide as creation” (102).
No story is complete without the denouement. It’s fitting, then, that a book about the gospel of our king ends with a global vision of a multi-ethnic church worshiping around a single throne, the throne of the Lamb. Jesus isn’t just my king; he’s our king—sovereign over every square inch of our world.
It started off small, so small you’d never guess what was coming.
Two pastors in Iowa—Rod Dooley of the predominately African American Oak Hill Jackson Community Church and Daniel Winn of the predominately white Cedar Rapids Family Church—met to pray together.
Then they did it again. And again, until they were praying together every week.
The next step was also small, and completely normal. Every once in a while, they’d switch pulpits.
Pastor Daniel Winn / Courtesy of New Life Church
After a while, they decided to do an Easter service together.
Both churches were healthy and growing, and at the joint choir rehearsal the Thursday before Easter 2017, Dooley told Winn about his search for a bigger building.
“Everything we’re looking at is either too small or too big,” Dooley explained. Nothing was fitting quite right.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Winn shot back, “You know, it wouldn’t be too large if we merged our churches together.”
It wasn’t an impulsive suggestion. “I had been thinking for a long time about merging our churches,” Winn said. “But I knew that was a crazy thing.”
Daniel, you’re out of your mind, he told himself. He’s not going to go for that.
For a beat, there was dead silence.
“Are you serious?” Dooley asked.
“One hundred percent,” Winn answered.
“I’ve actually been thinking that myself,” Dooley said. “But I wasn’t going to bring it up to you.”
That’s because healthy churches don’t merge together. Especially not if they’re both growing. Especially not if one is white and one is black. Especially not if both senior pastors are planning to stay.
It’s been 18 months since their first service. The transition has been relatively smooth. Both pastors share the leadership equally. They’re still growing. And the congregation seems happy.
That’s maybe the oddest part. In a small, predominately white Iowa city, the approval to merge was 98 percent—at both congregations.Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids is the second-biggest city in Iowa (after Des Moines), grown to 132,000 people by a meatpacking plant (once one of the four largest in the world) and an oatmeal factory (that would merge with three others to become Quaker Oats). Today, about 7 percent of the city’s population works for avionics designer and manufacturer Collins Aerospace, which supplies the same number of jobs as the next three biggest employers—insurance provider Transamerica, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the public school district—combined.
The city isn’t very racially diverse. Primarily settled by white Europeans who built farms instead of cities, Iowa wasn’t a viable option for most African Americans migrating north during the 20th century. At the time of the 2010 census, Iowa was about 90 percent white; Cedar Rapids was a bit more diverse at 86 percent white.
Pastor Rod Dooley / Courtesy of New City Church
So it’s not surprising that the same year—when Cedar Rapids had 88 evangelical, 75 mainline, 18 Catholic churches—it had just a handful of black Protestant congregations.
One of them was Shekinah Glory Missionary Baptist Church, planted in 1993 by James Toney. He stayed 10 years before moving to Texas to start a new church, leaving Shekinah to his youth pastor—Dooley.
Dooley had been bivocational, combining youth pastoring with his full-time job in human resources at Rockwell Collins (later changed to Collins Aerospace). That meant he saw the needs of a wide swath of Rockwell’s 8,000-plus employees.
“He had a grander vision—of black, white, Indian, Chinese together,” said LaShunda McFarland, who joined Shekinah when she was in high school. “That is something God put on his heart.”
Dooley promptly changed Shekinah’s name to Oak Hill Jackson Community Church, making it both easier to pronounce and also easier to identify with the Oak Hill Jackson community it sat in. At the same time, he started talking about reaching out to the whole town.
“We live in a predominately white city,” Dooley said. “If we were going to grow, we had to reach [the white] community as well. That was always on our heart.”
His congregation was game—most of them worked in predominately white jobs or went to predominately white schools or lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, so it didn’t seem too hard to add some diversity to their worship. But white Cedar Rapidians weren’t walking in the door.
If we were going to grow, we had to reach [the white] community as well. That was always on our heart.
“I’d never bring my family to your church,” one white Rockwell colleague told Dooley honestly. “It’s all African American.”
“We became frustrated,” Dooley said. “I felt like, ‘God, I know you’re calling us to do this, but it’s just not happening.’”
About five miles away, Winn was feeling the same thing at the predominately white Cedar Rapids Family Church he’d planted in 2003.
“My vision was to create a diverse church in Cedar Rapids,” said Winn, who had begun his ministry at a racially diverse church in Des Moines. “We had become somewhat diverse, but probably weren’t even 5 percent African American. I wanted to see more progress.”
It felt like God was asking for something that neither church could deliver.Frustration
But diversity wasn’t the main problem Dooley was working on in spring 2017.
“We were outgrowing our space,” he said. The congregation was pushing 125 and running more and more programs. “We also had multiple levels in an old building but no elevator. We knew if we were going to continue to grow, we needed to do something different.”
One location looked promising, but it fell through. Others were too big, or too small, or didn’t work for the church’s needs.
“God brought a bit of frustration to the process,” Dooley said.
It was that frustration he was sharing with Winn before the Easter service, prompting Winn to toss out the perhaps-unprecedented, clearly impossible idea of combining two healthy, growing churches.
“It was like everybody else in the room disappeared, and we talked for the next 45 minutes about what could be,” Winn said. “We had both been thinking about this for more than a year.”
They went home and told their wives, who both agreed it was worth pursuing. Then they asked their elders.
“They weren’t like, ‘Let’s do it,’” Winn said. “But they thought we should at least begin investigating it.” On that, there was 100 percent agreement from both church elder boards.Investigating
The investigation phase was the perfect time for the idea to die. Deciding where to worship, or where they stood on end-times theology, or where to place the welcome desk, all could have been deal-breakers. But they weren’t.
“Of course, we went through our bylaws and statements of faith,” Winn said. “And there were a couple of things that came up.”
New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church
For example, not everyone was on the same page regarding the gifts of the Spirit given through healing or speaking in tongues. Some couldn’t get on board with once-saved-always-saved theology. And not everybody agreed on the chronology of the end times.
“The gospel needs to be held in a closed fist—we cannot let go of some things,” Winn told his elders. “But some other things, like healing, we can hold in an open hand. Not everybody is going to believe the same, but I’m not going to drive ministry based on it.”
And in fact, doctrinal questions weren’t worrying the congregation so much as culture questions.
“We knew early on there was going to be differences there,” Winn said.
“Mostly when you hear two churches have merged, it’s really one acquiring the other,” Dooley said. “That’s not been the case here.”
But it could have been. Because even though Oak Hill Jackson was growing to around 125, Cedar Rapids Family was pushing past 250. And instead of finding a new building, Oak Hill Jackson moved into the larger space Cedar Rapids Family already had. And the culture of the town and the state—like Cedar Rapids Family—is overwhelmingly white.
It would have been easy for Oak Hill Jackson to be swallowed up—to be acquired.
New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church
“In all honesty, it was like, ‘Wow, Rod, you guys are making the greater sacrifice here,’” Winn said. Early in the process, he learned that in many multiethnic churches, the white culture is still dominant. And Dooley told him black church culture is so distinct because it was one of the few places African Americans could lead without white interference.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t even consider that,’” Winn said. “And I felt shameful, to be honest, because there’s a sinfulness of white privilege that I don’t even know I’m walking in.”
For Dooley’s congregation, the idea of driving 15 minutes down the road to join with a white church got more approval than you’d expect.
“There were definitely some people who were skeptical,” Dooley said. A handful of people didn’t make the transition. “But overall, we had overwhelming support.”
Some, like MacFarland, were “super excited.”
“Maybe it’s because I’m married to a white guy,” she said with a laugh. “And I can’t speak for everyone. But I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ It was more like, ‘How is the worship going to be?’”Worship
When Dooley and Winn gathered the congregations to ask questions, they didn’t hear, “Should we even be doing this?” but logistical concerns such as, “Which ministries will we continue?” “Which building will we use?” “Are we going to cut any staff?” and “What will worship look like?”
The combined church—named New City Church because both churches wanted to help renew the city—kept all the previous ministries. They used Cedar Rapids Family’s building because it is bigger (though it was redecorated to make it seem new for both congregations). And the leaders combined their staffs without cutting anyone.
But worship was a little trickier.
Worship at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church
From the beginning, Dooley and Winn were careful to balance Sunday mornings, trading the pulpit between them every other week. (Now, about 18 months later, they’re thinking about doing a series at a time.) They kept both music leaders. And they included Gospel and contemporary Christian songs in each service.
“Even before the concept of the merger came up, our heart was to reach more Caucasians,” Dooley said. “So we’d been singing more contemporary music.”
When the congregations combined, then, most of the people knew most of the songs. But the emotion was off.
A few months into the combined services, Winn told a reporter how much the emotion in the worship experience had gone up and how much he loved it. That’s not how Dooley saw it.
“It’s gone down for us,” Dooley told the interviewer.
Winn was floored. “What? I had no idea.”
“I think culturally black people are more expressive than Caucasians,” Dooley told TGC. “It wasn’t the music—it was the expression around the music. . . . It’s taken some time, but we’ve definitely gotten better. I think it will even more as time progresses.”
McFarland feels the same way.
Fellowship at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church
“In the beginning, the choir and praise-and-worship team were trying to please everyone,” she said. “You had two personalities come in and they were operating like, ‘Oh, I want to make sure you have that’ or ‘Why don’t we just do two of those?’”
That preference, modeled in Dooley and Winn, made the merger work. But without a clear leader, operations can feel jolted at first. Each team—from administration to hospitality to children’s ministry—has to find its way.
“It’s not like, ‘This is the way we do it, so this is the way I want to do it,’” McFarland said. “It’s more like, ‘How did you do it? How do you want to do it?’ Then we come together.”
Over time, the experience—including musical worship—has smoothed out, McFarland said. “We don’t want to do exactly what Oak Hill and Cedar Rapids Family did. We want to be New City. Now when they sing, I don’t think, ‘Oh, that’s an Oak Hill song.’ I think it’s New City music.”Better Together
For the original congregations of New City, life is better together.
The folks from Oak Hill Jackson still tell each other old stories over coffee in the back, and so do folks from Cedar Rapids family. But they’re also getting to know each other—now they serve in children’s ministry together, and gather for small groups together, and play softball together. They’re dreaming together about using the old Oak Hill Jackson building to set up an outreach center.
Children at New City Church / Courtesy of New City Church
And they’re watching God bring them new growth. More than 100 new people have begun attending since New City opened in January 2018.
“We’re seeing people’s lives being transformed,” Winn said. A few weeks ago, they baptized nine teenagers of different ethnicities. When the teens shared their testimonies, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
“People are interacting with people they never would have before,” Dooley said. “In the first few months, it wasn’t uncommon to have grown men from both churches coming up to us after the service with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘This is so great.’”
That’s because the churches were finally walking into the vision they both had of “renewing the city by helping people find authentic relationship in Jesus.
“We aren’t just doing this for diversity’s sake, but for the gospel’s sake and for Christ’s sake,” Winn said. He hopes that the church can be an example to the community—which has noticed what they’re doing—in how Christians behave toward one another.
“We still have discrimination and stereotypes and fear in Cedar Rapids,” said elder Edwin Hung, who was born in Hong Kong. “I love my church because I know it stands for unity, and unity is the heart of God. We know the Enemy doesn’t want unity, and we know part of our mission at New City is to bring awareness of the need for healthy relationships cross culturally, to break down stereotypes, and to serve and prefer one another.”
New City hopes their example will “unlock opportunities for us to speak into people’s lives, to minister, to encourage, and to love people,” Hung said. “God is definitely moving, and we want him to go before us.”
By now, most of our readers have heard the news that Joshua Harris has not only separated from his wife, but also no longer considers himself a Christian. Many have already commented on Harris’s seeming apostasy (for our part, we are still praying that this is a wandering from the path rather than a final abandonment).
Some have taken this news as a reflection of the spirit of our age, some as a moment of profound sadness for Harris and for those he harmed, and some as an indictment of the Young Restless Reformed movement of which Harris was a part. There is much to affirm in each of these angles. But before we venture any thoughts on the bigger picture, let us paint a more personal portrait.
It would give us great joy to see our friend return to the gospel he proclaimed, the Bible he affirmed, and the Jesus he held out to others.
We’ve known Josh for almost 15 years. We’ve been with his family. We’ve been in his home. We’ve been to his church. At one time, we were fairly close, as a group of us (then) young men gathered semi-regularly for prayer, for encouragement, and for just hanging out. While we don’t know what Josh might think of us—it’s been several years now since we were closely in touch—we remember Josh as perpetually friendly, warm, engaging, and sincere.
That’s why we are holding out hope that the faith we saw in him and heard from him was not spurious. It would give us great joy to see our friend return to the gospel he proclaimed, the Bible he affirmed, and the Jesus he held out to others.Word of Caution
There is certainly nothing wrong with adding public comment to a public story—and when Josh announced his deconversion on Instagram he made it a public story. Nor is there anything wrong with searching for larger themes and extrapolating broader trends from individual incidents. There has already been, and will likely continue to be, a proliferation of reports and reflections on Josh’s recent trajectory—from renouncing I Kissed Dating Goodbye, to separating from his wife, to rejecting the label Christian altogether.
Nevertheless, our comment is a word of caution. While some basic ruminations can be justified, we ought to be wary of making sweeping judgments either corporately or personally.
Corporately, it’s too simplistic to take one defection and say, “See, that’s what’s wrong with X.” The problem is X is usually in the eye of the beholder. In this case it could be: homeschooling, fame at a young age, Neo-Calvinism, the charismatic movement, purity culture, Sovereign Grace, lack of a seminary education, or all of the above. Or none of the above. People are shaped by thousands of moments and make their decisions for hundreds of reasons. The logic that says “this bad thing is the result of this cultural phenomenon I don’t like” is an argument easily made and impossibly refuted.
While some basic ruminations can be justified, we ought to be wary of making sweeping judgments either corporately or personally.
What is worth exploring in this instance—and, we can tell you, has already for years generated a great deal of soul searching—is why a number of young men who were at one time closely associated with The Gospel Coalition have been forced to leave the ministry. Our primary takeaway is that in years past our tribe was too quick to elevate gifted men who may not have had enough time to prove themselves faithful for the long haul. But even here, we would note that the public crises always get more attention than scores of young men who have quietly continued to serve the Lord with growing maturity.
Finally, a word of caution on the personal side of things. No doubt, there have been a myriad of decisions (and we might say defections) in Josh’s soul over the past years. We don’t know the details of what has transpired. We don’t know the conversations, the tears, the possible hurt, the possible compromises. We don’t know what Josh’s next Instagram post might say. We can only imagine the pain this has caused for Josh’s family and oldest friends who are likely dismayed at the current trajectory. When it comes to confident theories of what went wrong, we should tread lightly.
Our hope is that we may once again boast in the cross with our old friend. At the very least, we hope he will travel this new path with a bit more caution himself. Divorce and deconstruction are confusing. They are painful. They are destabilizing. It seems, therefore, better that they would be largely out of the public eye. Instagram seems a poor vehicle for honest self-assessment. Transparency, overrated in our day as it is, is certainly less sanguine when we aren’t sure who we are or what we will become.Keeping in the Love of God
While we grieve Josh’s decision (and have told him as much), we are not without hope (and we’ve told him that as well). We will continue to call on the God of sovereign mercy, the God Josh once extolled and the God who still sits on the throne.
We pray for our friend, for our churches, and for ourselves—that we may keep ourselves in the love of God (Jude 21), as God keeps us from stumbling (Jude 24).
You probably share my angst about biblical illiteracy. I think we sometimes assume, though, that this illiteracy is simply a problem in the broadest sweep of cultural Christianity. It is there, to be sure. That’s why Christian bookstores (or their digital equivalents) don’t sell many books on the meaning of justification in Galatians, but tons of books with diet tips from Ezekiel or channeled messages from heaven.
The problem, though, is far bigger.
I had never really known how to articulate the scope of the biblical illiteracy facing us—until I read a sentence in David Nienhuis’s helpful book, A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament. Speaking of the students in his college New Testament classes, Nienhuis writes that they struggle with the biblical material “because they have been trained to be Bible quoters, not Bible readers.”
He is exactly right.
Nienhuis locates part of the problem in the way higher criticism has sought to remove the Bible from the terrain of the church to the alleged expertise of those able to discern the “original context” in ways novel to the reading of the church through the ages. But the problem goes beyond this, he notes. The problem is also the way the Bible is used in churches.Short Text, Out of Context
“Some of my students attend popular non-denominational churches led by entrepreneurial leaders who claim to be ‘Bible believing’ and strive to offer sermons that are ‘relevant’ for successful Christian living,” Nienhuis writes. “Unfortunately, in too many cases, this formula results in a preacher appealing to a short text of Scripture, out of context, in order to support a predetermined set of ‘biblical principles’ to guide the congregants’ daily lives. The only Bible these students encounter, sadly, is the version that is carefully distilled according to the theological and ideological concerns that have shaped the spiritual formation of the lead pastor.”
I would say the problem goes far beyond non-denominational churches, or even entrepreneurial churches, since biblical interpretation in American evangelicalism tends to be trickle-down, from the entrepreneurial ministry pioneers to everyone else.
Here’s the end result, according to Nienhuis: “They have the capacity to recall a relevant biblical text in support of a particular doctrinal point, or in opposition to a hot spot in the cultural wars, or in hope of emotional support when times get tough. They approach the Bible as a sort of reference book, a collection of useful God-quotes that can be looked up as one would locate words in a dictionary or an entry in an encyclopedia.”
He continues: “What they are not trained to do is to read a biblical book from beginning to end, to trace its narrative arc, to discern its main themes, and to wonder how it shapes our faith lives today.”Broad Problem
This is not a matter of the educated versus the uneducated. The same problem exists among both. I have noticed people who were experts in the grammar of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles who didn’t really get the flow of the old, old story. But if the Bible is God’s Word, and it is, we must raise up people who don’t merely believe it but also know what it says.
If the Bible is God’s Word, and it is, we must raise up people who don’t merely believe it but also know what it says
The answer is not easy. Part of the problem is what Nienhuis mentions: the modeling of the use of Scripture in some teaching and preaching. Part of the problem is the larger cultural question of whether the distracted, fragmented modern mind still has the attention span to read a text (an actual literary text, not a text message). And part of the problem is that in order to train people to read their Bibles, the church must be gathered more than just an hour or two a week.
Counteracting a potent cultural narrative requires—pardon this metaphor, my paedobaptist friends—not just a sprinkling, but an immersion in the Word of God.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable saying grace before a meal, even at home, and when I’m in public I dread it. I try to time the prayer so that the server won’t interrupt us. The idea of a server waiting while my family prays over a meal makes me feel self-conscious and guilty, as if I were imposing my religion on them. I don’t want anyone around me to feel uncomfortable watching and listening to me pray. Besides, I tell myself, does it even matter if I pray for the food? I paid for it. I know I’m grateful. And I’m in a hurry. Isn’t the necessity of saying grace just legalism—empty ritual that actually makes me less grateful? In the moment, especially when I’m hungry, it’s much easier to start right in on the food and maybe, if I feel guilty, I can pray something silently like, “Sorry, God, but you know my heart.”
It could be that you haven’t experienced any reticence toward praying over a meal in public, but I hope you can see that many other Christians do feel uncomfortable. No small part of this discomfort stems from the rise of secularism in our country. Even in the fairly religious states I’ve lived in, such as Texas and Oklahoma, you don’t see most people praying over their meals in public. Our society’s broad assumption is that religious exercise belongs in our hearts, in our homes, or in our churches. It doesn’t belong in a booth at McDonald’s.
Our society’s broad assumption is that religious exercise belongs in our hearts, in our homes, or in our churches. It doesn’t belong in a booth at McDonald’s.
Public displays of religion are more offensive than public displays of affection, which I think partially explains some Americans’ reactions to Muslims who say their daily prayers. For many Americans, seeing someone practicing religion in public feels a bit like watching the inebriated or mentally unstable in public. What are they going to do next? Why aren’t they being rational? Why couldn’t they keep this to themselves?
Which is one reason why saying grace can be a testament to a watching world that our faith is not a personal preference that we keep discretely hidden behind our “normal” public life. And insofar as saying grace defies the secular social etiquette of privatizing religious practices, it is a disruptive witness.Right Motive
We certainly shouldn’t say grace in order to be seen saying grace, or to make people uncomfortable. We don’t pray loudly so that others will be shocked and disturbed by our piety. Being a “Jesus freak” just to be a freak capitulates to the game of secularism in that it turns our faith into an advertisement, a signal to others. The practice of our faith turns out to be the advertising of our faith, which is the exact kind of hollowness at the core of so many contemporary beliefs we are seeking to avoid.
If our public prayers or any other public display of faith ceases to be primarily about the spiritual purpose—in this case, thanking God for his provision—and instead becomes about others seeing us be thankful toward God, then we have exchanged the thing itself for the appearance of the thing. Our motive ought to be gratitude to God, not seeking attention. But if we actually avoid public prayers because it feels socially awkward, or because it feels like we’re imposing our faith on our neighbors, we need to be able to call that avoidance what it is: a capitulation to secular ideas of the public square.
If we find ourselves avoiding public prayers because it feels socially awkward, or because it feels like we’re imposing our faith on our neighbors, we need to be able to call that avoidance what it is: a capitulation to secular ideas of the public square.Challenging Materialist Accounts
Another way that saying grace is a disruptive witness is that it challenges a materialist account of provision. Although there are nearly innumerable acceptable visions of fullness in our secular age, the majority of them assume that we live in a closed universe wherein everything or virtually everything can be explained through an empirical, materialist, scientific account. Physics and chemistry account for the totality of existence. We may come to many different conclusions from this assumption, however. For example, someone might look at the purely material world as a kind of nearly transcendent gift that requires our admiration and worship. Such a person may show gratitude for the idea of the Earth in all its vastness. Others may believe that the food in front of us is a testament to the human potential for greatness—our ability to cultivate the earth and produce fine food efficiently and economically. Still others may simply take provision as a given, not bothering to consider it at all except insofar as they are responsible for paying for the food.
What is uncommon is the view that whatever food lies before us is a gift from a personal God who provides for us because he loves us. The more divorced we are from the cultivation of crops and animals, and the more mechanical and manufactured our food appears to us, the less we see it as a gift. When our meals come to us carefully wrapped in paper from hands wrapped in latex gloves that took ingredients from hermetically sealed plastic bags that were created in a sanitary, automated factory, it is no easy thing to see the hand of God at work providing for us.
Contingencies of weather and seasons, human errors, and animal behavior and health have been carefully, systematically, and technologically reduced as much as possible. Think, for example, of the fact that modern people expect to be able to go to the market and buy apples year-round. Humanity has mastered nature, and we owe humanity no gratitude—just some monetary compensation. This of course makes the act of giving thanks to God all the more disruptive.Specific Thankfulness
If I am thankful to the cook or the restaurant chain or capitalism or modern farming techniques or my job that allows me to afford the food or even a semimystical conception of Mother Earth, I am still fundamentally accepting that the food before me is completely the result of processes in the material world. But to thank God is to defy this logic. This is not a generic or impersonal sense of gratitude toward nature or the universe, but a specific thankfulness for a meal to a personal God whose common grace provides for us all.
Practiced regularly, saying grace is a reminder that the way things appear to us as modern people is not the truth of being. Underneath all the packaging and production and procedures remains God’s providence and sustaining power. In truth, the world and our being within it is far more contingent than we know.
One of the most interesting debates in homiletical circles is the degree to which contemporary preachers should preach like Jesus. On the surface, we might think it absolutely necessary to preach like the greatest Preacher ever. Isn’t he, after all, the perfect model? Shouldn’t we exhibit his simplicity, his connection with people, his boldness?
Some go even further and suggest that 21st-century preachers should adopt Jesus’s methodology. Often authors and homiletics professors support their approach to preaching by appealing to some aspect of his technique or style. He was a storyteller, they say, so sermons should be stories. The suggestions continue: He spoke in parables. He preached inductively. He preached deductively. He preached gently. He preached boldly. Opposing approaches to preaching often locate their respective convictions in Jesus’s preaching.
In some ways, however, modern preachers should no more emulate Jesus’s preaching than contemporary Christians should copy the crucifixion. Just as the work of redemption was his alone, a work in which we may merely share, so elements of his preaching can only be reflected in ours, but never actually appropriated.Jesus Preached About Jesus
The unique and distinctive marks of Jesus’s preaching are inextricable from his person, specifically his place in the Godhead. He preached with an intrinsic authority; our authority is derived. He looked into the hearts of men and women and perfectly saw their worth by divine creation and their sin by human commission; we can only approximate knowledge of either one. His preaching had the unmistakable gleam of the glory of God; on our best days, we struggle to get self out of the way and hope God might just show up for a little while.
At times the heavenly prerogative and intent of his preaching was to “conceal everything from the outsiders” (Mark 4:11) in order to keep to his divine timetable and plan, while our purpose can only be to help everyone—without distinction or discrimination—understand clearly the text’s meaning.
Most of all, Jesus preached about himself. Admittedly, for us that would be not only blasphemous, but pathetic. Like Paul, we must declare,
We don’t go around preaching about ourselves; we preach Christ Jesus, the Lord. All we say about ourselves is that we are your servants because of what Jesus has done for us. (2 Cor. 4:5)
From the time he announced to an exasperated Joseph and Mary that he had to be about his Father’s business, Jesus engaged in a self-centered and decidedly theocentric ministry of proclamation. As odd as that sounds, he could do nothing else. He is the Son of God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. To preach anything other than self would be to deprive his audience of knowing the only way of escape from their spiritual squalor and alienation from God. Were mere mortals to preach self, we would be delusional. Jesus, on the other hand, was just being accurate.
His entire life was a series of sermons about himself. Whether he was standing on a ship beside the shore of Galilee preaching to a pressing throng of listeners or quietly speaking in hushed tones with his disciples in an upper room, Jesus was always preaching his glorious self, revealing more of himself. Without him, nothing else would matter. What would the kingdom be without a King? Where are the sheep without the Great Shepherd? What are the branches without the vine? What is a story about forgiveness without the one who alone can forgive? The Last Supper fades into meaninglessness apart from his body and his blood.He Has Too Much on Us
For all these reasons, it would be extremely dangerous—even blasphemous—to indiscriminately model one’s preaching after Jesus. He just has too much on us. He’s God after all, and has a few more tools in his homiletical utility belt than we are equipped to handle.
On the other hand, the need of our day is every bit as acute as when Jesus walked on the earth. The truth he taught remains the only antidote to the world’s spiritual poison. The insight of the parables, the beauty of the Beatitudes, and the woes against the ways of religious hypocrites are not at all out of style or step with the times.
While we cannot preach like Jesus in certain ways, we must follow his example in some significant identifiable ways.
The key lies in distinguishing the person of Jesus from the preaching of Jesus, his divine prerogatives from his human performance. In other words, if our preaching can reflect him rather than merely mimic him, our preaching can honor him. Jesus’s preaching was both self-centered and God-centered, while ours can only be the latter. If we can distinguish between the aspects of his preaching that belong solely to his deity and those characteristics that can still be communicated by earthen vessels, we can learn how to reflect him better when we preach.
Once we take a step back from his person and evaluate his preaching, we understand five key ways in which Jesus preached himself. One could easily find additional ways that Jesus preached himself which we can emulate, but these core issues should mark and define our preaching as they did his.1. Jesus Preached About Himself Decisively
Whenever Jesus preached, he always preached and pushed for a decision. He never concluded a discourse with, “But that’s just what I think. You might feel differently.” He forced a crisis, asked for a verdict, often confronting his audience with only two options—follow or don’t, be wise or be foolish, sell all or turn back, be a sheep or a goat. He made it clear that indecision was impossible because making no decision was actually making the choice to reject him and his message.2. Jesus Preached About Himself Theologically
A growing fault of contemporary preaching is a pervasive belief that people are either incapable of comprehending doctrine or at least uninterested in it. I hear it in conferences; I read it in books; I see it in churches. The last several decades of preaching seem to have shifted from theological content to psychological therapy. The preacher has become less prophet, more cheerleader; the holiness of God has been shunted aside for the happiness of man. Rather than teach our members concepts like justification and sanctification, we preach coping strategies and time management. We have placed man squarely in the center of our religious universe.
By placing himself at the center of his preaching, Jesus packed his preaching with doctrine. He may have preached simply and even to simple people, but never at the expense of theological content. His preaching revealed the person and the character of God as the most significant consideration. When answering questions about divorce, for example, his answer was about God’s intention in marriage rather than about man’s happiness (Matt. 19:3–12). When he taught the disciples how to pray, he trained them to begin their prayer with the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven and to end it with God’s kingdom, power, and glory. He taught his disciples to fear God rather than man, to honor the Lord of the Sabbath more than the tradition of the Sabbath, and to put devotion to God even above keeping the law.3. Jesus Preached About Himself Ethically
I once preached a series of sermons on the family, working through passages of the Bible that teach what a Christian home should be like. Frankly, I had a lot of trouble.
The exegesis of the passages is not what troubled me. After all, I’ve spent years in classrooms and study learning how to handle the technical aspects of the biblical text. I don’t find the homiletical structure to be any more difficult than usual either—that part is always tough. Still, I had a hard time preparing and delivering these sermons because the part of the series that gave me a disconcerting pain is how I fell far short of the standard that I present to my people each week. I often preach with a broken heart, not only because of my love for my people, but because of my realization that I have failed in some key ways and my preaching does not always match my life.
Jesus, on the other hand, never felt conviction about his sermon topic; he never heard Satan whisper in his ear what a phony he was. Jesus never knew any distance between the vast sky of intention and the hard earth of performance. His character was completely consistent with the concepts he proclaimed to others.4. Jesus Preached About Himself Scripturally
Jesus’s preaching was saturated with Scripture. His teaching had the smell of leather scrolls on it. His words dripped with the language of the prophets. He was as comfortable with Moses as he was making a table in his carpenter’s shop. He was as familiar with the Psalms as the streets of Nazareth. He used the Old Testament authoritatively and easily.
Scripture signaled his ministry’s inauguration, both privately and publicly. In the wilderness he rebuked Satan’s temptation with scriptural truth. In the synagogue of Capernaum, he read a messianic prophecy of Isaiah’s, rolled up the scroll, and informed his audience, “Today . . . this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:18–19). In other words, Jesus was saying, “Folks, that’s about me!” In each case, Jesus revealed his identity and authority through the authoritative use of the holy text. His use of Scripture in the Sermon on the Mount showed not only his reverence for Scripture, but also his authority over it.5. Jesus Preached About Himself Passionately
Jesus never preached from a manuscript; he preached from his heart. Whether he was preaching a carefully formed sermon, like the Sermon on the Mount, or giving an impromptu answer to critics, one can still feel the deep feeling and emotion in his words. One couldn’t dispassionately tell an audience they should cut off a hand or pluck out an eye! Standing firmly in the tradition of the prophets who had foretold his coming, Jesus delivered his messages with fervor and feeling.
Jesus was passionate as he wept over Jerusalem and lamented that they had stoned the prophets and now rejected him. He was passionate in his public criticism of the Pharisees. Not only did he invoke passion, he even elicited it. His preaching made people want to throw him off a cliff sometimes, and at others they were simply astonished at his preaching.No and Yes
To the extent that our preaching can mirror these qualities of Jesus’s preaching, we can follow it. To preach decisively, theologically, ethically, scripturally, and passionately is to adopt the aspects of Jesus’s preaching that are normative, that are, in fact, essential to Christian preaching.
But at the center of Jesus’s preaching beats the heart of a self-aware deity, the incarnate Word, the Savior of the world. Ultimately, we must preach him because he preached himself.
The Story: New survey data reveals that almost one-in-four black women in America now identify as bisexual.
The Background: Since 1972, the biannual General Social Survey (GSS) has provided politicians, policymakers, and scholars with data on what Americans think and feel about a variety of issues. In 2008 the survey began including a question on sexual identity.
Over the past decade the rates of Americans who identify as gay or lesbian have remained about the same (currently, 1.5 percent for gay men and 1.9 percent for lesbian women). Similarly, the rate of bisexual men in the U.S. also hasn’t changed much (currently, 0.6 percent). In contrast, the number of Americans who identify as bisexual women has skyrocketed—from 1.5 percent in 2008 to 5.6 percent in 2018.
Almost all of this shift is happening among young women ages 18 to 34. In the age group of 50 to 65 and over, the rate ranges from one to 1.4 percent. For those age 35-49, it has risen from 0.9 percent in 2008 to 3.6 percent in 2018. However, in the category of 18-34 the rate has risen from 3.5 percent to 12.6 percent.
The most dramatic change has come in the demographic category of black women. Currently, about one in four black women (23 percent) identify as bisexual. This is more than twice the rate of white women (10.1 percent).
What It Means: Why are so many young black women identifying as bisexual?
Some social scientists speculate that it may be driven by a lack of marriageable men due to high rates of incarceration of black men in the U.S. But the number of black men in prison has declined over the past decade, not risen. Also, it seems more likely that black women would respond to a shortage of black men by dating or marrying a male companion outside of their race, rather than turning to a partner of the same sex. (Opposition to interracial marriage has fallen sharply among black Americans, from 63 percent opposed in 1990 to 14 percent in 2016.)
A more likely explanation is that the rise of bisexuality is being driven by pornography.
While the connection is tentative and the rise may not be monocausal, there are a number of factors that make this a plausible explanation.
First, over the past forty years an abundance of social science research has established that consumption of pornography affects perceptions of sexuality and of sexual norms. As far back as 1973 researchers were finding that exposure to pornography at a young age increased involvement in homosexual practices.
Second, for years the most popular search term for pornography has been “lesbian.” Pornography that includes women engaging in sexual acts with other women is also the most popular category among 18- to 24-year-old men and women. Among women looking for online pornography ‘lesbian’ is the most searched-for term overall, and such content is twice as likely to be watched by women as men.
Third, black Americans are more likely to consume video pornography than are white Americans. According to sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Cyrus Schleifer, “Analyses revealed that Black Americans in general were more likely to view pornography than Whites, and they were increasing in their pornography viewership at a higher rate than Whites.”
According to the data, black Americans were roughly nine percent more likely to report viewing a pornographic movie in the previous year than white Americans. Overall, black men are statistically more likely to consume porn than white men, and the porn consumption of black women is closer to that of white men than to white women.
If we combine these three factors, we can speculate that the viewing of same-sex pornography by black women is affecting their perceptions of same-sex behavior, leading them to increasingly identify with bisexuality.
If this is true, what does it mean for the church? I believe there are two main takeaways.
The first is that female bisexuality is likely to increase among all races. As sociologists Tristan Bridges and Mignon R. Moore point out, “demographic research shows that black women have led the way in other trends related to gender.” For example, black women began to outpace black men in completion of a four-year college degree as early as 1980, while that trend didn’t occur for white women until a decade later. Similarly, in the first half of the 20th century, more unmarried black women started having children. As Bridges and Moore say, “Eventually, more unmarried white women started having children, too.”
We have a moral obligation to act now to help the black women who are falling under the sway of same-sex attraction. But we also need to prepare for this to become an issue affecting women of all racial and ethnic groups in our churches.
The second takeaway is that all churches need to be aware that not everyone in their church has the same perspective on the harms of pornography. In their research Perry and Schleifer found that even among religious people use of pornography varies both by gender and by race:
How might religion further moderate the links between race, gender, and pornography use? Beneath the different racial histories with pornography as a public issue, researchers have consistently shown that different ethnoreligious communities connect religion and sexual behavior in different ways, which would lead us to expect that religion influences Black and White Americans differently with regard to pornography use. For White Christians, religion and traditionalist sexual norms are often closely connected, and thus higher religious commitment is usually quite predictive of sexual behavior patterns (Patterson & Price, 2012; Regnerus, 2007; Wright, 2013; Wright et al., 2013; but see Perry, 2017). Yet even though Black Americans tend to be more conventionally religious than Whites on average (Shelton & Emerson, 2012), research has shown that Black Americans, and especially Black men, do not tend to connect their religious piety to their sexual norms and behaviors to the extent that Whites do (Bearman & Bruckner, 2001; McCree et al. 2003; Regnerus, 2007; Steinman & Zimmerman, 2004).
Even regular church attendance didn’t change this outcome, as Perry and Schleifer found in their latest study:
While worship attendance was strongly and negatively associated with reporting pornography use in the main effect, the positive interaction term indicates that Black Americans who were monthly worship attendees were slightly more likely to report viewing pornography than White Americans who were not monthly attendees. This suggests that religious commitment does not diminish pornography use for Black Americans the way it does for White Americans, affirming our third hypothesis [Religious commitment will influence the pornography consumption of White Americans but not Black Americans].
Church leaders too often assume that while church members may “struggle with” pornography and sexual sin that they at least are committed to the biblical sexual ethic. Current trends in American are showing, though, that such assumptions are faulty. Many of the people in our pews are being catechized more by X-rated culture than by a gospel-centered culture. We need to become aware of this dispiriting reality and redouble our efforts to show how Jesus models a better way to be human.
My carefully typed five-page birth plan went out the window in a moment. In its place, one phrase played on a continuous loop through the rest of the delivery of my first son: “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). Experiencing birth pains gave me a deeper glimpse into the unthinkable pain Christ endured for me.
I’m not the only one who has made theological connections during labor. In their new book, Labor with Hope: Gospel Meditations on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood, Gloria Furman (with insights from Jesse Scheumann) offers theological insights into pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. From the marriage of their two perspectives—a mother in the trenches and a teacher who wrote a dissertation titled “A Biblical Theology of Birth Pain”—an interesting book has been born.
Mothers desperately need resources that accord with reality as defined by the God who thought up childbearing. They need eternal perspective that will carry them through not only gestation and delivery but also the marathon that is motherhood. These 25 short meditations do both.
Though each meditation is bite-sized, they’re nourishing for the hungry souls of would-be, soon-to-be, or already-are mothers. The overarching concept is the idea that “the entire human experience of childbirth is a signpost for overwhelming joy and realities that will endure forever.”Doxa and Diapers
Into the world of doctor visits and diapers, Furman brings doxa (the Greek word translated as “glory” throughout the New Testament). Furman disarmingly invites her readers to see motherhood in light of the grand narrative of redemption.
Likening a mother’s pain in childbearing and childrearing to the pain Christ endured to birth a new covenant people through his blood, Furman gives even the harrowing parts of motherhood a more holy meaning. When speaking of the curse that increased pain in childbearing, she writes, “Our multiplied pain in multiplying is intended to point us to a profound theological reality: we need a Deliverer.”
While being honest about the challenges of motherhood, Furman consistently points to the living hope offered in Christ. Furman writes, “In the face of all our sorrow-inducing fears, our hearts are assured that Christ has conquered death and guaranteed our everlasting joy.”
She also invites women who aren’t physical mothers into the conversation by opening the scope of motherhood to those seeking to nurture, disciple, and mentor others.
In a conversational and come-alongside-the-reader way, Furman takes principles and presses them into the reader’s experience. For example, after admitting that her feelings don’t always align with God’s truth, she encourages the reader to pray along with her:
Help me, Father. My feelings don’t match your Word. I want to love your Word and follow you more than I want to follow my feelings. Please change my feelings.
Over and over, Furman gently takes her reader by the hand, walking her away from fear, anxiety, and exhaustion and back toward the rock-solid truths of God’s Word.First Things First
In today’s polemical culture, it’s easy to either set motherhood and children on a pedestal or push them to the periphery. Yet Furman continually bids her readers to keep first things first. Motherhood exists to point us and others to Christ and to conform us to his image.
Motherhood exists to point us and others to Christ and to conform us to his image.
Boldly swimming against the self-care movement, she invites her readers to follow the model of the Suffering Servant. In a meditation on Isaiah 53, Furman reminds the reader:
Our willingness to sacrificially lay down our wants and needs for the sake of our children’s good (when the world would insist that we crawl off the altar and refuse to lay our lives down) is our testimony of confidence in our powerful God to lead us through death to self and death itself into glory.Theological Feast
In each meditation, Furman brings a theological feast to the table. She doesn’t limit herself to Psalm 139 and Proverbs 31; rather, she takes a historical-redemptive approach, tracing the concepts of labor pains and childbirth across the entire arc of Scripture. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths and realities like abortion and the judgment that remains for those who don’t hide in Christ.
I’d recommend this book to new moms. In it, they will find the straightforward yet beautiful and biblical perspective that is so often lacking in motherhood books. Furman admits in her introduction that “at times our pace will be quick.” As such, a reader unfamiliar with the greater arc of Scripture might find herself a little lost or dizzy. But a woman who knows the Bible—or who is willing to do some work to know it better—will benefit from the rich theology here.
When my son finally made his appearance in the delivery room, I couldn’t believe the wonder of his tiny fingernails, perfect toes, and downy hair. In that moment, my pain yielded to joy. As Furman reminds her readers, “All our groanings will end when we finally see what we’ve been hoping for, as the consummation of God’s promised restoration bursts forth in full.”
Irresponsible speculation about hell has made discussing the doctrine considerably more difficult over the years. Whether it is vivid descriptions of Dante’s Inferno or revivalist “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, the impression is too often given that we must go beyond biblical description to alert people to avoid such a dreadful place.
The problem here is that hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear. But consider Jesus’s sober warning:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
Hell is not horrible due to alleged implements of torture or its temperature. (After all, it is described variously in Scripture as “outer darkness” and a “lake of fire.”) Whatever the exact nature of this everlasting judgment, it is horrible ultimately for one reason only: God is present.Presence of God
This sounds strange to those of us familiar with the definition of hell as “separation from God,” and heaven as a place for those who have a “personal relationship with God.” But Scripture nowhere speaks in these terms. Quite the contrary: If we read the Bible carefully, we conclude that everyone, as a creature made in God’s image, has a personal relationship with him. Therefore, God is, after the fall, either in the relationship of a judge or a father to his creatures.
And God, who is present everywhere at all times, will be forever present in hell as the judge.
Hell is not ultimately about fire, but about God.
And just as heaven is not purely future, but is breaking in on the present through the kingdom of God, hell, too, is breaking in on the present:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Rom. 1:18–19)
But unrepentant humanity is without excuse (v. 20). Their tortured consciences drive them to expel the thought of God entirely from their horizon, but they cannot evade the revelation of his wrath.
Hell is not ultimately about fire, but about God. Whatever the exact nature of the physical punishments, the real terror awaiting the unrepentant is God himself and his inescapable presence forever with his face turned against them.Beauty of Justice
A measure of our own ongoing sinfulness is that we just don’t understand the beauty of God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice—and the equal ultimacy of these attributes with his love. But one day we will not have a problem with eternal punishment. It will make perfect sense. We have no right, in our present condition, to defend the doctrine of eternal punishment in ways that either exceed Scripture or reflect a perverse delight in damnation.
One day we will not have a problem with eternal punishment. It will make perfect sense.
Since God does not delight in the death of the wicked, neither can we. Hell is both the vindication of God’s justice and the prerequisite for his creation’s restoration. But it is also a tragedy that will forever memorialize the horror of human rebellion.Wonder of Justification
God justifies the wicked: This is the astonishing, counterintuitive claim that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion. In any defense of the traditional doctrine, we must let our conversation partner know that, unlike the terrorist’s “Allah,” God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” for the salvation of every believer. Islam has no concept of the fall, original sin, or the impossibility of attaining righteousness by good works, and, consequently, knows nothing of justification, sanctification, and redemptive mediation.
For Islam, it’s simple: Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell. It’s self-salvation from beginning to end. In sub-Christian versions, the “good news” is that sinners can be partly saved and partly condemned; they can atone for at least some of their sins by their own suffering. But the good news that rings from the pages of Scripture is that God justifies the wicked who place their trust in Christ—and find God to be a reconciled friend now and forever, world without end.
I remember the woman who made me terrified of becoming a mother.
My husband and I were attending a Bible study with another family who had four small children. Every time they came to the study, the mom and dad couldn’t keep their eyes open. The mom just stared blankly at the study leader and groaned every time she had to get up to chase the children.
I couldn’t relate to that level of exhaustion. But I would learn soon enough. I would walk that sleep-deprived road five times with five babies. I myself would become that bedraggled, blankly staring lady who scared all the young women in the church into never wanting kids.
Now I can look back on that season and laugh at the craziness. I’ve come out the other side. I survived. Now I tell my kids, “I was so tired when I had you, I put my phone in the fridge. I forgot the words to ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ I put olive oil in my coffee instead of creamer. I ran all over the house trying to find you and then found you nursing on my breast. I started the dryer with nothing in it. I made choo-choo sounds whenever I saw a train, even if I was completely alone.”
I can laugh now, but I couldn’t laugh when I was in the midst of it. My season of sleeplessness was one of the hardest times of my life.Facing Our Physical Limitations
When my first baby was 4 weeks old, I got into a horrible cycle of insomnia. My postpartum hormones were out of control, and the roots of anxiety strangled out every opportunity for me to sleep. I would put the baby down for the night and lie in my bed staring at the clock. I knew I would have a couple of hours at best before the baby woke up to eat. As the minutes ticked by, I pictured my stores of strength for the next day draining away. I knew I would have nothing left.
But what could I do? I felt completely helpless. Sometimes I had panic attacks, and I had to get up and pace just to try to slow my heart rate.
I begged God to let me sleep. “Don’t you know I need this?” I pleaded. “How can I do what you called me to do if I can’t sleep?” I was confused. Being a mom was hard enough. How could I do it with no sleep?
It is true that we need sleep. Sleep is a good gift from God. God does not treat our physical needs lightly. He is the one who created us with these needs, and he delights in meeting them. But, as with many good gifts that meet our needs, this one had become an idol to me. My heart was telling God, “I cannot trust your care for me unless I have sleep.” My hope was in the gift, not in the Giver.
God was prying my hands open to make me let go of my dangerous self-reliance. I was terrified of what I would find if I truly came to the end of myself. I didn’t want to know. But God didn’t give me a choice. Sleeplessness forced me to stare my utter helplessness in the face. But instead of finding a black hole of despair, I found the grace of God.Daily Mercies
In my own sleepless nights and the torturous days that followed, I saw God’s mercy. There were many days when I couldn’t see anything but God’s mercy. I saw his mercy in friends and family who provided food when I could barely remember where the fridge was. I saw his mercy in naps I was able to take at completely unplanned times. I saw his mercy in coffee. I saw his mercy in verses that had been hidden in my heart for years that suddenly came alive to hold me tight when I felt like I was falling through thin air.
This sleepless stage of life is a great reminder of things that are guaranteed—and things that are not. I’m not guaranteed a good night’s sleep. God doesn’t owe it to me.
But there is comfort that runs deeper than simply outlasting a particular stage. There is something that is guaranteed to us, right now, with sleep or without sleep: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21–23).
I love that that verse uses the word “morning.” As a sleep-deprived mom, mornings can be especially grueling. But that’s exactly where God meets us with fresh mercy.
I might not feel “new” every morning, but God’s mercies are always new. My energy might be small (or non-existent), but God’s faithfulness is great. My legs might be wobbly, but God’s love is steadfast. Sleeplessness has stripped me of all my strength time and again, but it has never destroyed me. No matter how weak my body, my mind, or even my faith, God has been “the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26).
My flesh and my heart have failed me many times—but God has never failed me.Our Limitless God
When everything is going well, it’s easy for us to say we trust God. We don’t even realize that we have placed conditions on him until those conditions are tested. My sleepless nights revealed that I was really thinking, God can help me through the day (as long as I get a good night’s sleep). And by taking away sleep he was graciously taking away those conditions. He was showing me that he is enough.
Do we trust God to equip us for the tasks that he calls us to? When he called me to be a mom and gave me my marching orders, I didn’t need to hand him a list of his marching orders, too. “You must give me sleep, physical strength, energy, clarity of mind, and emotional stability. Then I can do this.” Instead I should have said, “All I need is you.”
When God gave Mary the task of bearing his Son, she didn’t ask for a supply list. She said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The God who knows the number of the hairs on our heads and knows the number of the stars and calls them each by name (see Ps. 147:4; Matt. 10:30)—that same God has planned exactly how much sleep we will get each night, down to the last second. And each moment will put his mercy on display.
Many church planters today affirm what’s come to be known as “big-God theology.” We have, at least, the Young, Restless, Reformed movement to thank for this change. This movement’s preaching, conferences, and abundant content skillfully highlight the beauty of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, power, and grace.
But over the years as a church planter, I’ve found that the bigness of God—often beautifully declared from the pulpit—can easily be missing in the daily grind of ministry. Or, at least we pastors don’t always know how to connect the dots. The “bigness of God” can be present in our words, but less so in our daily lives.
And that’s a big problem. God’s majesty is not merely something the Scriptures set forth to satisfy the minds of the theologically inclined. It’s the massive meal our hearts hunger for (Eccl. 3:11), the ultimate purpose of every moment (Eph. 1:10), and the answer for every problem (1 Cor. 2:2).
God’s majesty is not merely something the Scriptures set forth to satisfy the minds of the theologically inclined.
But the ongoing presence of sin in our lives—which stems from our deceitful hearts (Jer. 17:9)—can create a disconnect between our proclamation and our practice. And we know that sin is serious (Rom 8:13). In order to help me cut through the lies I believe, and to see how my heart really views God day-to-day, I’ve continually examined the following two areas.Prayer Life
For a long time—even as a pastor—I didn’t have a meaningful, daily prayer life. The reason wasn’t complicated. I didn’t have a big enough view of God. Sure, I could’ve rattled off the correct theological terms. But my lack of prayer showed a functional belief that God couldn’t deal with the intricacies of my problems and plans.
And yet, if we really believe God is big enough to meet our needs, then we’ll pray. Moses prayed because he believed God could lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. And what happened? Ask the floor of the Red Sea (Ex. 14). Nehemiah prayed about the broken walls because he believed God was big enough to do something about it (Neh. 1). The church prayed about Peter’s deliverance the night before he was supposed to be executed because they believed God was more powerful than Rome (Acts 12:5–19).
When God’s people face their problems with a big God in view, they pray. And as a church-planting pastor, when I have a true sense of God’s transcendent majesty, I’m confident to ask him to unleash his unlimited resources in specific ways. And in church planting especially, the needs are seemingly endless.
To help me document some of these needs, I keep an Evernote card containing specific prayer requests. This card includes the date I started praying for each need, and a section for answers to prayer (a version of an approach I learned from Paul Miller’s A Praying Life). I log each answer to prayer, whether God answered in the affirmative or not.
As I review this list, I can see where I’ve asked God to cause unbelievers like my friend Nick to trust Jesus; to make my children want to read the Bible more by the end of the week; to cause a man to generously give our church plant a part of his land; to encourage me in some unusual way by the end of the day—to name a few.
Affirming the reality of a big God means we can trust that he knows better than we do.
God answered all of these with a “yes,” some after a few moments and others after a few years. Many of our requests, however, don’t receive such obvious answers. But affirming the reality of a big God means we can trust that he knows better than we do.
Just this past December, I prayed for a record-high giving month for our church. Much to my surprise, we had a record-low. As anyone involved in leading a ministry knows, December giving often saves the annual budget. Having just taken on some significant new costs—adding staff and moving into a new building—this record-low was especially concerning. Over the past couple of months, as I’ve pleaded with God to provide financially, we made up the lost financial ground with some record-high giving in other months.
I don’t know all the reasons for that December “no,” but I sense one of them has to be that God doesn’t want me looking to a “big month,” he wants me looking to him—a big God.Disposition During Trials
Second, when we trust a big God, we can be certain that his unending goodness will sustain us when trials come our way. And there’s no problem-free path in Christ’s kingdom (Acts 14:22). Whether the challenge is a perpetually difficult person; a complex pastoral situation; having only eight days to find a new worship space (happened to us!); a financial crunch; or any number of other difficulties, how you handle “it” reveals what you think of God.
Planting a church will inevitably involve trials of various kinds. While my initial inclination is to worry when things don’t go according to my plans—whether that’s a Monday morning email letting me know a key family is leaving, or news that friends believed the slander about me that I thought they’d easily dismiss—a big view of God leads me to fight to see these uninvited realities as opportunities to experience more of Christ.
When our view of God is small, then our problems will loom large.
If you have a big view of God, then you can have peace in the face of any and every difficulty. Like Paul, you’ll see every problem as a chance to relish the all-sufficient grace of Christ (2 Cor. 12:7–10). But when our view of God is small, then our problems will loom large. Perhaps this is why our anxiety levels are so high.
How many of us, I wonder, would respond like Jonathan Edwards, who in the midst of being fired, had it said of him that “his happiness was out of reach of his enemies.”
A big God offers inexplicable peace (Phil. 4:6–7). Rest comes from trusting him, not controlling our circumstances. And when you know this God, perfect peace will transform how you live (Is. 26:3).
So let’s not settle for prayer-less and peace-less lives and ministries. Let’s fight daily—as church-planting pastors—to see God for who he is, helping those around us do the same, all for his glory in our churches around the world.
Sermons shape us. Sometimes they shape us because the preaching is excellent. Sometimes they shape us because the timing is right, and the preacher says exactly what we need to hear. And sometimes they shape us in spite of the preacher, because “the Word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). If God’s Word is a sharp sword (Heb. 4:12), it can cut even when wielded by a novice.
Both H. B. Charles and John Piper are skilled and experienced preachers, but they trust in the sharpness of God’s Word rather than their own swordsmanship. That fact comes through in their discussions of the sermons that shaped their lives.
- TGC Word of the Week (sermon podcast archives)
- Preacher’s Toolkit: How Do I Prepare My Heart to Preach?
- The Best Kind of Preaching
What do you want to be when you grow up? We’re asked this question often as children. My answer changed from “Firefighter!” (4 years old) to “The world’s greatest female soccer player!” (10 years old) to “A successful businesswoman with an office overlooking downtown” (teenager).
Perhaps a helpful follow-up question would have been, “Why do you want to be that when you grow up?” I don’t think it was a passion to save people from burning buildings, to train and play game after game, or to propel a business into success. It was the idea of appearing great to others, receiving praise, being in charge. Plain and simple: I wanted the glory, the honor, the power.
I grew up blissfully unaware of my insatiable appetite for status. I just wanted to be great and recognized for it. So I excelled in academics. I soared in athletics. I learned how to make people laugh. As one of the few black girls in my private school, I definitely wasn’t considered the prettiest. But I figured out how to be popular.
But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to be my friends who were even more athletic, more successful, more popular. My inferiority complex haunted me. I wasn’t satisfied with status, but I dared not admit it. Could life offer something more?My First Taste of Freedom
I couldn’t answer until I met a girl in my junior-year English class who seemed to possess what I didn’t: peace, joy, and love. We ended up playing on the same volleyball team that year. As I spent time with her and her family, I witnessed their freedom from the tyranny of trying to seem impressive. They loved freely. I wasn’t the successful student-athlete when I visited their house. I was just Quina, beloved friend. I wanted whatever they had.
Soon enough, I learned this freedom could only come through a relationship with Jesus. My friend showed me what the Bible said about me: I was alienated from a perfect God by my sin. I was created to know and love God, giving him the glory and credit in all I do. He alone could satisfy my deepest longings to be known and loved. But I had settled for the praise of people, and I had come up empty.
I cast my life—all of my sin and all of my need—on Jesus, and I knew I wanted to live a life of service to him. I took my first sip of satisfying, living water.
It finally became clear to me I couldn’t even impress God with my attempts at being moral and virtuous. How could I conjure up some sort of holiness to impress the Holy One? I needed him to rescue me from my sin. God let me feel the vacancy in my soul despite my attempts to fill it with worldly acclaim. That emptiness was the alarm that jerked my eyes open to see my desperate need.
My friend pointed me to the God who became a man, who died for me just so I could be his child. What amazing love! I cast my life—all of my sin and all of my need—on Jesus, and I knew I wanted to live a life of service to him. I took my first sip of satisfying, living water.Unspoken Expectations
Fast forward to my first year after college. I was unemployed. I had no car. I was confused. I had focused much of the past four years on (imperfectly) sharing the good news about Jesus, leading and attending Bible studies, and seeking to serve others while making disciples of Jesus. It’s not like I did all of this to the neglect of my studies. I graduated with a near-perfect GPA. But my friends got salaried jobs immediately after graduation. What had I done wrong?
What happens when following Jesus doesn’t lead us where we expected to be? How do we cope when following Jesus doesn’t seem as rewarding as we thought it would?
I had been taught that following Jesus meant suffering in various ways. I knew intellectually that trusting him didn’t keep me from trials. When I first began growing in my faith, I often said rather boldly, like James and John: “I will suffer for you, Jesus! I’ll die for you!” Yet here I was with a dull diploma and deep debt, doubting the goodness of God. I kept wondering, What did I do wrong? Why isn’t God blessing me like he’s blessing my friends? I was asking the wrong questions.
What I truly needed to ask was this: Who is this Jesus I said I’d follow, and what does it really mean to follow him?Who Is This Son of Man?
And that’s what Jesus intended to teach me. He clarified what true greatness is and how it’s achieved. True greatness is a lifestyle of serving others over yourself. This is what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus trod the path of pain first. He told his disciples they must focus on sacrificial service to others, not just because he said so, but because he would do so. They must serve “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). When Jesus tells his disciples, “Follow me,” he goes first.
There’s no station in life so small that God can’t use it for his glory if my aim is to serve him as I serve others.
Jesus would embody his own teaching when he got to Jerusalem. He had already revealed to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, be killed, and be raised on the third day. But a suffering Christ wasn’t the King they were expecting.
Perhaps this is why Jesus so often called himself the “Son of Man.” With this title, Jesus could clarify his identity and mission (Dan. 7:13–14). Yes, the Son of Man was the promised King, but this meant that he must first become God’s suffering servant, as the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isa. 53).
The glory and honor of the Messiah would be most fully displayed after he accomplished the humiliating, excruciating task of paying for sins with his own life. He would be humbled before he would be exalted (Phil. 2:5–11). The cross would come before the crown, even—especially—for the Christ.
His resurrection on the third day proved that Jesus truly is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) who paid our sin debt in full. All who put their trust in this Son of Man find freedom that no amount of money, political power, or fame can buy.Way Up
Jesus’s disciples eventually grasped the paradoxical character of his kingdom. Little by little, I think I’m getting there too. After about six months of post-college unemployment, I landed an administrative job at a hospital. This wasn’t my dream job by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never had any burning desire to work on schedules and spreadsheets in a small room tucked behind the ER. But as I worked an unglamorous job behind the scenes for three years, Jesus continued to teach me that true satisfaction will never come from recognition or the praise of people. He showed me there’s no station in life so small that God can’t use it for his glory if my aim is to serve him as I serve others.
The humble will be exalted. The way up is down.
I now see that while I was asking “What did I do wrong?” and “Why is this happening?” Jesus was graciously calling me into that same huddle with his disciples to answer far greater questions: “Who is this Son of Man?” and “What does it mean to be great?”
If we want the work of our hands to endure, if we want the labor of our lives to be praised, if we want the glory that comes from God, then we must follow our Savior’s example of sacrificial service. He calls his followers to pursue faithfulness over fame, devotion over dominance, sacrifice over status. The humble will be exalted. The way up is down.
In a comedy sketch by the British duo Mitchell and Webb, a couple of Nazi soldiers taking a respite from trench warfare suddenly become self-reflective. They begin to notice that something feels off about their role in the war; the skull and bones on their uniforms are unsettling. Some of the things they’ve heard from the higher-ups bother them. Finally, one looks grave and asks his fellow soldier quietly: “Are we the baddies?”
The bit is funny, not only because it’s unexpected, but because there’s something oddly satisfying about watching someone wake up to reality. There is an important cultural moment right now that illustrates this point. Many religious and political conservatives are watching with fascination (and gratitude) as a small but vocal and credentialed group of secular thinkers challenge major progressive orthodoxies of the day. The spectacle of anti-liberalism liberals, headlined by writers and educators who are themselves far from conservative Christianity, has added a wrinkle to conventional “worldview” categories. They’re liberal “whistleblowers” against the unreality and tyranny of contemporary liberal culture.
More than anything, though, the secular revolt against liberalism is a movement toward questions of human nature, the givenness of reality, and the foundation for public and personal flourishing. If Christians can listen carefully and wisely to this fractious moment, we’ll hear the trappings of secularism start to peel off the consciences of many, and an unspoken invitation for something—or Someone—to fill their desire for truth, justice, and mercy.Anti-Liberalism Liberals
Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor turned millionaire author and YouTube sensation, is a kind of philosophical whistleblower. Instead of spilling classified documents about the government, Peterson has blown the whistle on a more formidable target: progressivism. Not that Peterson is a conservative in the classical sense; he is mythological but not religious, a devotee of anti-clerical iconoclasts like Carl Jung and George Orwell. He supports same-sex marriage. In any other era, Peterson would be sorted in a large category of psychoanalysis-wielding, liberalism-assuming secular commentators. But because he finds himself on the wrong side of progressive history on issues like deconstructionist feminism, transgender laws, free speech, and the virtues of capitalism, Peterson is at odds with the elite academic left. He represents a secular revolt against the bastions of secularism.
Peterson’s critiques of the modern American university and his therapeutic appeals to religion and transcendent morality are often dismissed by his critics as the conservative, millennial-shaming perspective of a privileged white male. Camille Paglia, though, is not so easily ignored. Paglia is a lifelong feminist scholar, who self-identifies as transgender and was a “radical” of the 1960s. So why has she lately been quoted approvingly by complementarian evangelicals and conservatives? Paglia, like Peterson, has gone turncoat against the campus liberalism that shaped her.
In particular, Paglia unflinchingly decries and mocks what she believes to be contemporary feminism’s flight from biological realism. Paglia sees progressivism’s denial of meaningful biological differences between men and women as a dishonest posture meant to appease activists and foster political ends rather than wise and truthful scholarship. In her most recent collection of essays, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, Paglia derides the reality-ignoring, speech-policing left with withering essays that eschew everything from deconstructionist literary theory to laws against “misgendering.” For her impieties against intersectional orthodoxy, Paglia now faces passionate opposition on the campus of the very institution at which she has tenure.
While Peterson is first and foremost a psychologist whose political positions are somewhat incidental, Paglia explicitly takes aim at her colleagues’ social and political hegemony. Again, it’s not that Paglia disagrees with their secular framework. She’s a sexual revolution enthusiast, fond of pornography and abortion. What Paglia challenges is progressive ideology’s suppression of givenness, biology, and historical norms, and its use of speech codes and legislation to enforce that suppression on dissidents (like herself). Where campus feminists see only rape culture, Paglia sees eons of male sacrifice for the survival of women and children. Where Obergefell champions see homosexuality as innate and finds queer subtexts in 1 Samuel and Jane Austen, Paglia sees anti-intellectualism and pandering. Perhaps most significantly, where modern progressives see opportunities to protect self-esteem and cherished beliefs, Paglia sees a ruthlessly censorious, anti-democratic orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is an important word, because the most intense protest from the emerging liberal anti-progressivism—and the point at which Peterson and Paglia most agree with each other—is that modern liberalism, particularly that which descends down from college campuses, has abandoned its rationalistic, “free thinking” spirit and become an alternative fundamentalism. For a long time, progressivism contrasted against conservatism most clearly over the primacy of the individual and the ultimate importance of actualizing individual rights, over and against the religious/right-wing consensus of preserving moral structures that transcend individuality. It’s why the cultural and political Left has owned mantras such as “Think for yourself” and “My body, my choice.”
But now the gatekeepers of that same progressivism have shifted toward a program of building and preserving their own secular versions of moral structures that transcend individuality. Free thinking stops where transgender theory begins. Thou shalt not take the name of intersectional diversity in vain.
The new liberal orthodoxy has spawned an impressive cast of heretics. Andrew Sullivan became one of the most important journalists of his generation through tireless advocacy of LGBT causes, including same-sex marriage, and made a lucrative career out of leveraging his gay Catholicism against the “Christianist” (his trademark portmanteau of “Christian” and “Islamist”) conservatives. Not too long ago Sullivan was one of the fiercest critics of traditionalist thought in the area of sexuality. You would never guess that from his forthright condemnation of transgender activists and the heaps of scorn such writing has earned him from many former admirers.
Then there is Jonathan Haidt, a sociologist based at New York University. Haidt’s work in moral psychology, especially his two books The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff), has fiercely critiqued the identity-driven, “fragile” ethos of contemporary progressivism. Haidt is not religious and identifies as a political liberal; yet his advocacy for better protection of free speech, as well as his appeal to emphasize the insights of ethics and science rather than ideology, have sorted him (perhaps to his regret) alongside figures such as Paglia, Peterson, and Sullivan.Natural Affinity
It’s obvious why many evangelicals resonate with these critics of liberalism. Christians see givenness and objective reality throughout the whole fabric of existence, since the Bible begins with the assumption that “In the beginning, God created” (Gen. 1:1). Thus believers are right to be highly skeptical of any public rhetoric that undermines the embodied givenness of the world or denies the real moral agency of human beings, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or amount of social privilege.
The religious tone of this new progressive spirit should not surprise us. Augustine wrote that the human heart is restless for God, Bob Dylan sang that “You gotta serve somebody,” and David Foster Wallace observed, “Everybody worships.” It’s not a question of whether we will believe in a transcendent something or Someone, it’s a question of what that something or Someone will be. In an era in which many are comfortable relegating questions of religion to the sphere of “opinion” and “Whatever works for you,” the secular religion of politics reveals our innate need to discover the truth and impress that truth onto others. Secular progressives may call this truth intersectionality, but for much longer, Christians have called it the gospel [not sure what that means].
Substituting political consciousness for spiritual practice is a recipe for personal and social disaster, a reality that the anti-liberals seem to be hovering over. Peterson’s enormous public profile owes much to his perception (and willingness to say) that secular students, particularly males, are lost and dissatisfied with life. Relatedly, Paglia chastises universities for avoiding robust education in religious traditions and warns that this shortcoming will cripple our culture’s self-understanding. When life is reduced to the economic or sociopolitical, and the transcendent is actively suppressed, these writers argue we can expect severe polarization, social resentments, and disillusionment among the many who feel their deepest needs being unmet or even ridiculed. That’s precisely what many see today.
Though it’s easy for evangelicals to cheer these talking points, the church is, in a real sense, inheriting its own wind. Conservative Christianity in particular has been exposed as often baptizing unregenerate social structures simply because they were traditional or American. As Patrick Deneen writes in How Liberalism Failed, the triumph of classical liberalism in the West was a pyrrhic victory: maximal personal liberty and self-determination were won at the cost of the things that give life and society the deepest meaning. Repeated failures to speak prophetically to the fault lines in classical liberalism have left confessional Protestants on their heels, dependent on partisanship and reactionary ideology to represent them to the public square.
Conservative Christianity in particular has been exposed as often baptizing unregenerate social structures simply because they were traditional or American.
On this point evangelicals and the anti-liberals are really in the same boat. Paglia and Peterson often come across as if they want to challenge the foundations of liberal society, but, like the Pharisees, are afraid of the questions such a query might pose to them. Defense of biological norms and the value of religion to Western civilization notwithstanding, none of these writers goes further to explore the fundamental disputes between religion and secular liberalism (indeed, most of these critics go out of their way to avoid giving the impression they could ever do this). Consequently they end up framing the problem as procedural rather than philosophical. Because these dissenters from progressive orthodoxies have not (yet) challenged the base truth claims of liberalism, they can only throw away the rotten fruit, not pull up the root.Livable Alternative
Gospel-believing Christians understandably feel some solidarity with these secular anti-liberals. But there’s a dangerous temptation here. Allowing ourselves to be sorted with secular critics of PC culture can be a sort of trap, a way of marginalizing the unique testimony of the gospel in deference to tribal instincts. Nothing in Scripture suggests that being willing to offend elite cultural gatekeepers is necessarily a sign of courage or even truthfulness, especially if such willingness to offend comes wrapped up with influence or political power. Christian love comes with built-in dilemmas about speaking the truth in love; mainstream political discourse can’t be outraged enough.
Also, though the PC critics are right to sound the alarm about the worship of identity politics and activism, there is an important sense in which these trends are more sympathetic to Christian imagination than not. The intensity of “wokeness” in students, for example, is nothing if not a stirring rebuke to empty-headed platitudes about how heavy doctrines and difficult conversations alienate people and should be avoided. What if the resurgent interest in justice among American young people is, at least partially, a testimony to consumer culture’s inability to satisfy moral and spiritual desire? A robustly Christian critique of progressivism cannot merely scoff at fragile millennials without giving them a satisfying, livable alternative. Articulating that alternative may mean withdrawing from the mud-slinging of most Right vs. Left discourse, gratifying to the flesh as it may be, and building something of eternal value instead.
The challenge facing Christians in a secular age isn’t merely to push back against ideological enemies, but to, as Flannery O’Connor put it, push back against the age itself. Camille Paglia is right that modern sexual politics is rife with nonsense and delusion about human nature. But she cannot (for now, anyway) recognize that this nonsense descends from her own, from her generation’s embrace of absolute personal autonomy over and against revealed creational norms. Andrew Sullivan refuses to see how his throwing off the restraint of historic orthodoxy is part of the gnawing spiritual hunger now feasting on cancel culture. Jordan Peterson, the most traditionalist-friendly of the bunch, can’t bring himself to accept the historical truth of the risen Jesus Christ, and thus shortchanges his eager audience of the transformation they most need. In their failures lie a gospel opportunity.
The whole gospel for the whole of life to the whole world is a true social revolution—authentic conversion without coercion, justice in the already and the not-yet, and identity that dignifies and unites rather than enslaves and divides. If nothing else, the tensions within American liberalism are hunger pains for this kind of life-giving message. The only question is whether those pains will be met, and by whom.
As I was growing up, I am quite sure that I first saw the beauty of Jesus in my parents, who in different ways pointed me to my Father in heaven. But I didn’t make that connection until later. The first person whose life I directly connected to the beauty of Jesus was a Young Life leader in high school. His name was John Smith.
My high school in Tampa, Florida, had little in the way of Christian witness until John came from Atlanta with a few recent college grads to start a Young Life ministry. I first met him at a Monday night Young Life club meeting about three months after his arrival. I’m not sure why I said yes to a friend’s invitation to that meeting—in those days I called myself an agnostic and had no interest in anything religious. But this John Smith character immediately got my attention.
He was rather slight of build, with some sort of impediment in one arm, but rumor had it that in high school he had set a national record in the long jump. But more intriguing to me was that he was said to be an “ordained minister.”Good Life
He certainly was unlike any minister I had known. There was nothing particularly “religious” about him. He had a beard and wore jeans (which was much more remarkable in those days!), and he had a striking resemblance to the comedian George Carlin. And like George Carlin, he was really funny. I didn’t think ministers could be funny, and I had never associated religion with fun.
But most of all, I was puzzled by the way John seemed to live in the presence of God. He didn’t make a show of his faith, but it was real, as if he had a personal relationship with this man Jesus. He acted like Jesus is someone who’s alive and is someone you could talk to, and he would listen. His Christian faith wasn’t some compartment of his life; it was a natural, almost casual, part of everything he did. I had never seen that before.
I was at a stage in life when I was starting to think about my future. I was asking myself what I would need to achieve to be successful. What would a “good life” look like? Would academic accomplishment do it? What about athletic glory? John and these Young Life guys didn’t seem to have a lot of what the world called success, but they had a sense of contentment and purpose, and an inner joy, that I found appealing. I wanted to know what they had that I lacked.Love of Christ
From that first night, John Smith showed me the love of Christ. He immediately took an interest in me. He invited me to play frisbee golf, to hang out at the house where the Young Life guys lived, and to come to a weekend camp. I hesitated to go at first—I was new to the group and didn’t know many people. “But you know me!” he insisted, and I went.
And during the next five months I felt my heart slowly warm to the things of God. For the first time, I began to take this man Jesus seriously, as John recounted the Gospel stories in a way that made them come alive. I realized that if this Jesus really is who he said he was, he would be the answer to my most pressing questions. He would open the door to the life I was made for. At my second Young Life camp, at the end of my junior year in high school, in faith I made a commitment to Christ. My life has never been the same.
In many ways, John was an ordinary man (his name was “John Smith,” after all—and he later married a woman named “Dolly Pure”!), but his effect on me was extraordinary. God used him to bring me to faith, as through him I was drawn to the beauty of Jesus Christ.
You can read previous installments in this series.
Summer means baseball season. It also means short-term missions season. What do the two have to do with each another? Consider the middle relief pitcher.
In baseball, you have starting pitchers, and you have closers. Many of these athletes are often well-known and well-paid franchise players for their respective teams; they might even be the face of the organization. Yet on teams you also have middle relievers. They are often nameless, faceless players who might replace a starting pitcher for any reason (perhaps player fatigue, perhaps for strategy). They usually enter at any time after the start of a game and pitch several innings. In some instances, such as in a close game, a reliever might be called in to face a single batter and throw only a few pitches. A manager who knows the skills and abilities of his players on the bench makes these pitching decisions.
These relievers are strategic role players. While they are not well known, no team could ever succeed without their contribution.Short-Term Missionaries as Middle Relievers
Some missionaries live abroad in long-term service. Some visit on short-term missions (STM). Both play a critical role.
My family and I spent three years living and working in Cambodia from 2010 to 2013. My wife and I were bi-vocational “tentmakers” working alongside full-time, long-term commissioned missionaries with Mission to the World (MTW). In our time there, we hosted dozens of short-term missions teams throughout the year. The makeup of the teams was as diverse in purpose as they were in experience. Medical teams, for example, had team members who were practicing medical professionals as well as college students with aspirations toward graduate school. Teams included Sunday school teachers with years of experience as well as young adults who had never led VBS in English, let alone in Khmer (the Cambodian national language). Some were on STM because they sensed a potential call to long-term missionary service. Others were sent by their parents with the hope that they might take their spiritual lives more seriously.
I submit that someone on STM plays a similar role to that of a middle reliever in baseball.
You’re not the starters. You’re not the closers. You’re somewhere in the middle. No one knows your name. Your picture is not on the wall of a church. For such a time as this, you were called up to offer a few mundane yet critical innings of work to advance the mission. You do whatever you are asked to do, and you are honored just to participate.
For such a time as this, you were called up to offer a few mundane yet critical innings of work to advance the mission. You do whatever you are asked to do, and you are honored just to participate.
Some middle relievers are asked to pitch several innings regularly, while others are summoned to pitch to one player, say, a left-handed batter who has historically performed poorly against a left-handed pitcher with a decent slider. Your job is to come in and do that one thing you’re especially gifted to do. Whether you are called to three weeks, three months, or three years, what’s critical is you know you’re a role player—called to serve faithfully and joyfully in that role. It’s not for you to know what ultimate purpose you served in your role; how it fits in the big picture game plan. Only our great heavenly manager knows when to put people in, when to take them out, and why.Humble Service of Middle Relievers
It’s important to note that middle relievers are still baseball players. They participate in the same rigorous training and are expected to maintain all their physical conditioning, even if they get little playing time. Likewise, all Christians should prioritize spiritual disciplines, biblical literacy, and learning how to defend the gospel. You never know when God will call you out of the bullpen for a specific missional task.
Most kids playing baseball probably aspire to be a starting pitcher, or the heroic game-ending closer. Few dream about becoming a middle reliever. The same might be said of Christians. Most probably never aspire for their service to be so mundane and invisible. Some full-time servants, pastors, and missionaries might think of themselves as kind of special. After all, some hold advanced degrees, received some form of ordination, and were likely commissioned for their current sphere of ministry. These honors and credentials might lead some to become dissatisfied with having to be a role player (e.g., assistant pastor, youth leader, language teacher, and so on). We might grumble or find envy in our hearts when our efforts for the kingdom go unnoticed or uncelebrated. We might want more acknowledgment and appreciation. If we’re honest, we don’t really want to be middle relievers.Middle Reliever Calling
But in reality, we’re all middle relievers in kingdom work. We neither started, nor will we finish, the work of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. Even a lifetime spent on the mission field is a “short-term” span in the big picture of God’s mission.
The STM can be especially effective if they understand and accept the middle reliever role. What does that look like? In brief, five things.
1. Know your role. Know what you’re specifically supposed to be doing to best serve the larger team. Your contribution is small yet a significant part of the bigger picture.
2. Embrace your role. STMs shouldn’t spend their time telling the long-term missionaries how they should do things differently. As amazing as it may seem that you were able to figure out the lay of the land in two short weeks, remember you were not sent as a missions consultant.
3. Learn to be content. Serving in any aspect of kingdom ministry is a glorious calling. Even if you’re not a starter, a closer, or someone famous, God has called you to be faithful in the role you play. No one person can possibly play every position.
4. Do no harm. Do your best not to exhaust your host missionaries. They love hosting you, but they’re not there for you; you’re there for them. Remember, the locals and host nationals will be just fine without your brief presence.
5. Remember, this was never about you or me. God will be faithful completing the work he started, using different people at different times. We can’t stay on the field forever, even if we want to, because we know the time will inevitably come for us to be replaced. Learn to let go. In the end, we are all just middle relievers.
Here is the subtitle to Peter Enns’s new book: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. That rambling, whimsical description fits with the hokey front dust jacket, which sports three little hands pointing to a “Holy Bible.” The back cover promises “A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding the Mission of the Bible.”
In How the Bible Actually Works, Enns—professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania—argues that the mission of the Bible is to subvert much of what Bible-believing Christians through the centuries have thought about the Bible. If you’re such a Christian, you may think the Bible has answers to your questions. No, it rather reshapes the questions you ask. You may think Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. No, New Testament writers just radically reimagined the Jews’ ancestral God and imputed beliefs about Jesus to him. You may think the Bible tells you what God is like. No, it just recounts what other people in other places and times thought about God.
“God” to us is who we imagine him to be. That’s all he can be, because we’re bound by our conceptual and cultural limitations, while God is beyond all human knowing.Threadbare Conceptual World
Welcome to the conceptual world ushered in with a vengeance in the West more than 200 years ago with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). It’s not clear why Enns gives the impression that he has just discovered this outlook. Since that time Christians have been pushing back against what became, and in Kant’s train remains today, methodological atheism in biblical studies. Enns simply embraces the thesis that the Bible’s God-talk is necessarily no more than futile ancient efforts (heavily redacted and embellished) to articulate the ineffable.
Christians the world over, especially in Africa and Asia and Latin America where Christianity is growing, hold that the Bible defies this thesis by claiming revelatory insights for its writers and culturally conditioned but transcendentally informed truth for its contents. But you won’t find in Enns’s treatment the international fellowship of robust Christian belief in Scripture as both a culturally located and also heavenly originated compilation of writings.
Enns simply embraces the thesis that the Bible’s God-talk is necessarily no more than futile ancient efforts (heavily redacted and embellished) to articulate the ineffable.
This a book that certainly needed writing, if Enns’s observation is true: “No one seems to be explaining the Bible in ways that would have helped me, my family, my friends, my students, and many others I have known over the last few decades” (17). Enns throws the benighted world of Christianity (which can’t explain its own Bible helpfully) a life ring in the form of this insight: “The God I read about in the Bible is not what God is like—in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that—but how God was imagined and then reimagined by ancient people of faith living in real times and places” (124–25, italics original). So we have “the sacred responsibility . . . to follow this biblical lead by reimagining God in our time and place” (125, italics original). Enns adds, “There. That pretty much sums up the entire book” (125).
Enns justifies the need for this book by setting up straw men. For example, in the quote above, who reads the Bible to think of God “in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that”? The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is clear that God is a person, not Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Nor do most people go to the trouble to open a Bible and read about God just to dismiss him. Or who views the Bible as “a once-for-all book of rules and static information” (167)? The core gospel message is that salvation is by grace through faith, not by keeping rules. The Bible itself polemicizes against sterile compliance with regulations (Mic. 6:6–7; Matt. 23:23). The Bible’s saving message is borne along on narrative, not plopped down as “static information.”Product of Its Times
On the other hand, the Bible instantly becomes “static information” if it depicts no more than what ancient people thought, with no necessary authority for anyone reading it thereafter. Pity Jesus, who staked so much on what he read and applied from the Old Testament as the true and living written testimony of God (all just culturally bound metaphors for Enns).
If we strain out the straw men, false dichotomies, and parodied images of God-fearing Bible readers, Enns makes some valid points. Yes, Christ is wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30; see 11, 13, 205) to those who know, love, and follow him. Unfortunately, at least in this book, Christ’s contribution to practical thought and life decisions seems to overshadow his divine being and soteriological ministry. And since Enns downplays so much of the Bible as authoritative for the present, there isn’t much sure “wisdom” left there to define what “Christ is wisdom” might mean based on the Bible’s direct teachings.
Readers may reasonably infer from this book that “Christ” should now be thought of as the good and necessary “wisdom” we eventually arrive at in our struggles. On this view, the Bible doesn’t so much give us “Christ” understood as our personal Lord, our crucified and risen mediator at the right hand of God the heavenly Father, as it imparts a certain wisdom. The benefit I observe Enns trying to model is that we become ethically and perhaps cognitively more adept. But since so much of the wisdom Enns finds in Scripture arises from skepticism about what Christians have believed it to say, Enns has reduced the “wisdom” that he equates with Christ to skepticism toward (too) much found in historic Christianity.
The most culturally bound thinking imaginable is to look at the Bible and see no more in it than postmodern skeptical biblical scholarship permits.
“All our language of God, including that of the biblical writers, is inescapably enmeshed with how people of any time think and talk about anything—even as they speak of One who is not bound by time and place” (276). One wonders, then, why we even bother with the Bible. After all, even when it comes to Jesus, terms like “Lord, Savior, and bringer of the Good News of peace and grace,” just “[mimic] the language of the Roman Empire to speak of glorious Caesar as a means of pointing beyond Caesar” (276).
The apostle Peter claimed: “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Enns holds: writers just mimicked the language of their culture.
This book is flippant with respect to what it dismisses (cognitive knowledge of God confirmed at key points by eyewitnesses and the social memory of the Abrahamic heritage, much of it faithfully and spectacularly recorded as Scripture) and shallow with respect to what it affirms: “Whatever any of us think about the Bible as God’s inspired word, it should make us step back and reflect for a moment that scripture itself portrays the boundless God in culturally bound ways of thinking” (276).
The most culturally bound thinking imaginable is to look at the Bible and see no more in it than postmodern skeptical biblical scholarship permits. If conveying that scholarship to a naïve and gullible college-freshman-level audience is the goal, the book communicates its message effectively.
The question is important, because it lies at the heart of Jesus’s explanation of “born again,” of new birth, of regeneration. When Jesus first introduces the category (John 3:3), Nicodemus clearly doesn’t understand what Jesus means (3:4 NIV): “How can someone be born when they are old?” he asks. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Many people think the question Nicodemus poses shows that he is a rather dimwitted literalist. But that’s almost certainly too harsh. You don’t get to be called “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10—possibly a title) if you can’t spot the odd metaphor. When he hears Jesus say that to enter the kingdom one must be “born again,” I suspect Nicodemus understands Jesus to mean that we are not good enough to enter the kingdom: we must start over, have a different origin, spring from a different life. Nicodemus thinks Jesus is going too far: people can’t really start over or claim a new life, boast of a new birth, or enjoy a new beginning. Omar Khayyam had it right: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, / Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
Most of us have faced moments when we wish we could “start over,” or at least expunge some of our worst sins and faults. “Oh, for a man to arise in me / That the man I am may no longer be,” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote. Or, as John Clare said, “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.” Nicodemus perceives the futility of insisting that we must have a new beginning: it’s a bit late to demand a new beginning when we’ve made such a mess of the voyage (John 3:4, 9). And if that’s what is required to get into the kingdom, there is no hope: “How can someone be born when they are old?”
But far from backing down, Jesus repeats the point (John 3:5), yet he does so in such a way that he expands on “born again,” turning it into “born of water and the Spirit,” and thus provides some explanation. That’s why it is so important to understand what Jesus means by this expression.
So what does he mean?Unsatisfactory Proposals
Several suggestions have been put forward that turn out to be rather unsatisfactory. Some propose that Jesus is specifying two births: one must undergo not only natural birth (“born of water”) but also spiritual birth (“born of . . . the Spirit”). People must not only be born, but must be born “again.” There are two primary problems with this interpretation: (1) It is unbearably trite. The first part is saying not much more than that to get into the kingdom, you must exist: you must be born, you must be here. That means all the weight of Jesus’s answer is carried in the second part, “born of . . . the Spirit,” making us wonder what the first part, “born of water,” is contributing to Jesus’s explanation.
(2) I have not been able to find any source in the ancient world that uses “born of water” as a locution to refer to natural birth. It’s not impossible, of course, that the flush of amniotic fluid that precedes natural birth generated the expression “born of water,” but if so, as far as I am aware it has not come to light either in Jewish or Hellenistic sources. On both counts, then, it seems improbable that this is the most likely interpretation.
Others propose what might be called a sacramentarian interpretation: the new birth, they propose, is bound up with both baptism (water) and the Spirit. How in this context Jesus could imagine that Nicodemus could have picked up from the word water an allusion to Christian baptism is not all that clear. Moreover, in the next chapter John draws attention to the fact that Jesus himself didn’t baptize people (John 4:2), but left it to his disciples: there is at least a little self-distancing going on.Better Explanation
There is a better way of proceeding. First, set out John 3:3 and John 3:5 so that their parallels become obvious:
John 3:3 John 3:5
Very truly I tell you Very truly I tell you
no one can see the kingdom of God no one can enter the kingdom of God
unless they are born again unless they are born of water and the Spirit
Immediately it becomes clear that “born of water and the Spirit” (3:5) is parallel to “born again” (3:5). In other words, “born of water and the Spirit” can’t refer to two births, one natural and one spiritual; rather, it refers to one birth, the birth Jesus is referring to when he speaks of being “born again.” It follows that Jesus’s use of “born of water and the Spirit” is Jesus’s explanation of what he means by “born again,” and is intended to answer Nicodemus’s question.
Second, in what follows it becomes apparent that Jesus thinks his explanation should have been enough for Nicodemus. Indeed, Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not understanding, even though he is “the teacher of Israel” (3:9–10). As a learned Pharisee, Nicodemus had studied what we would call the Old Testament, along with a great deal of additional theological reflection. From all this learning, what should Nicodemus have picked up from Jesus’s words that should have given him much better understanding of what Jesus was talking about?
That brings us to the third detail, the decisive clue. The question to ask is this: where do “water” and “the Spirit” come together in the Old Testament in a context that promises a new beginning? There are several possibilities, but the most obvious is Ezekiel 36:25–27:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
So God is promising through the prophet Ezekiel, six centuries before Jesus, that a time is coming when there will be a transformative new beginning, characterized by spectacular cleansing symbolized by water that washes away all impurities and idols, and by the powerful gift of the Spirit that transforms the hearts of people. That is what is required if people are to see and enter the kingdom of God.
Small wonder that Jesus repeats, “You must be born again!”
Fourth, with a little more space it would be possible to show how this interpretation of the words “born of water and the Spirit” coheres with the rest of the passage, and indeed with the Gospel of John. Jesus happily insists that this declaration of the need for this kind of new birth has behind it the authority of revelation: he himself has come from heaven to bring it (3:11–13). And the pattern of God reaching down and powerfully saving his people from their sin and idolatry is already there in the Old Testament (3:14–15; cf. Num. 21:4–9).
Indeed, all of this is grounded in the matchless love of God (John 3:16–21), and is accessible to faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger and its crew embarked on a mission to broaden educational horizons and promote the advancement of scientific knowledge. The most outstanding objective of the Challenger 51-L mission was the delivery of educational lessons from space by teacher Christa McAuliffe. A lesson was indeed delivered, but not one that anyone expected.
Just 75 seconds after liftoff, tragedy struck. Before a watching world the shuttle suddenly erupted overhead, disintegrating the cabin along with its crew. The debris of metal, blood, and bones plummeted to earth, along with our nation’s glory.
What had gone wrong? That was the pressing question everyone asked. As teams of researchers examined the wreckage, the specific cause was soon found. The problem was with the O-rings (circular rubber seals), which had been designed to fit snugly into the joints of the booster engine sections. Evidently, the O-rings had become defective under adverse conditions, and the resulting mechanical failure led to the tragedy.
Was that the whole story?
The truth eventually got out. The New York Times put it frankly: The ultimate cause of the space shuttle disaster was pride. A group of top managers failed to listen carefully to the warnings, advice, and criticisms given by those down the line who were concerned about the operational reliability of certain parts of the booster engine under conditions of abnormal stress. Just think: Heeding criticism could have saved seven human lives.
As a pastor, church leader, and lecturer for Peacemaker Ministries, I am blessed with the opportunity to minister to people and congregations in conflict. Among the many things I’ve come to learn is the dominant role that giving and taking criticism has in exacerbating conflict. Yet even more, I’ve learned that the remedy wonderfully provided by God requires us to return to the cross of Christ. For our present purposes, I want us to look at the problem of taking criticism.Dynamic of Defending Against Criticism
First, let me define what I mean by criticism. I’m using criticism in a broad sense as referring to any judgment made about you by another, which declares that you fall short of a particular standard. The standard may be God’s or man’s. The judgment may be true or false. It may be given gently with a view to correction, or harshly and in a condemnatory fashion. It may be given by a friend or by an enemy. But whatever the case, it is a judgment or criticism about you, that you have fallen short of a standard.
However it comes, most of us would agree that criticism is difficult to hear. Who of us doesn’t know someone with whom we must be especially careful in our remarks, lest they blow up in response to our suggested corrections? Unfortunately, as I travel around the country, the tale is often told that many people would never dare confront or criticize their pastor or leader for fear of retaliation. Many just find another organization to work for or church to attend.
In fact, don’t you know of leaders who select those to be nearest to them who are easiest on them? How many times have you been warned to “walk on eggshells” around that person?
As sad a commentary as this is, such people are not much different from me. I, too, do not like criticism. Any criticism is hard for me to take. I’d much rather be commended than corrected, praised than rebuked. I’d much rather judge than be judged! And I don’t think that I’m alone. The more I listen, the more I hear the dynamic of defensiveness against criticism.
In counseling, I see it in the humorous way a couple will be diverted from the issue at hand to debate who said what, when, and where. Or in how people debate back and forth as to whether it was a Tuesday or a Wednesday when they did something.
Why do we expend so much time and energy swatting at these flies with sledgehammers? Why are our hearts and minds so instantly engaged and our emotions surging with great vigor in our defense? The answer is simple. These issues are not minor or insignificant. We defend that which we deem of great value. We think it is our life we are saving. We believe something much larger will be lost if we don’t use every means to rescue it. Our name, our reputation, our honor, our glory.
If I don’t point out that I’ve been misunderstood, misquoted, or falsely accused, then others won’t know I’m right. And if I don’t point out my rightness, nobody will. I will be scorned and condemned in the eyes of others.
Do you see the idol of self here? The desire for self-justification? But idols have legs. Because of this deep idolatrous desire for self-justification, the tragedy of the Space Shuttle gets played out over and over again in our relationships. It destroys our ability to listen and learn, and it provokes us to quarrel.
The tragedy of the Space Shuttle gets played out over and over again in our relationships.
Thus, for the sake of our pride and foolishness, we willingly suffer loss of friends, spouse, or loved ones. Some of that destruction comes in the shape of a thin truce. We tolerate a cold war. We make a false peace. We pledge to discuss only those things that have little significance for bettering our souls. We lay out landmines and threaten the other that we will explode in anger if they so much as raise the forbidden subject of my mistake, my error, or my sin.
This is how churches split and factions develop. We surround ourselves with “yes” people—those willing to never challenge, advise, or criticize us.
Meanwhile, while we go on defending ourselves against criticism, we find Scripture teaching something different.Criticism Commended
The ability to hear and heed correction or criticism is commended in Scripture, particularly in Proverbs. Being teachable—able and willing to receive correction—is a mark of the wise. And the wise father or mother will encourage as well as model such an attitude for their daughters and sons.
The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice. (Prov. 12:15)
Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice. (Prov. 13:10
A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool. (Prov. 17:10)
The ability to take advice, correction, and rebuke is not only considered a mark of the wise, and the inability a mark of the fool, but both the wise and the fool reap according to their ability to take criticism:
He who scorns instruction will pay for it, but he who respects a command is rewarded. (Prov. 13:13)
Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning. (Prov. 9:9)
He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding. (Prov. 15:32)
There is gain in taking criticism. No wonder David exclaims in Psalm 141:5: “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.” David knows the profit of gaining wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. He knows rebukes are a kindness, a blessing, an honor.
Ask yourself: Is that how you look at a rebuke? Is that how you perceive criticism, correction, or counsel? Do you want to look at it that way?
How can we move from always being quick to defend ourselves against any and all criticism toward becoming instead like David, who saw it as gain? The answer is through understanding, believing, and affirming all God says about us in the cross of Christ.
The cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than anyone else ever could.
Paul summed it up: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). A believer is one who identifies with all God affirms and condemns in Christ’s crucifixion. God affirms in Christ’s crucifixion the whole truth about himself: his holiness, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth as revealed and demonstrated in his Son. Equally in the cross, God condemns the lie: sin, deceit, and the idolatrous heart. He condemns my sinfulness as well as my specific sins.
Let’s see how this applies to giving and taking criticism.1. In Christ’s cross, I agree with God’s judgment of me.
I see myself as God sees me—a sinner. There is no escaping the truth: “No one is righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:9–18). In response to my sin, the cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than anyone else ever could. This knowledge permits us to say to all other criticism of us: “This is just a fraction of it.”
Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. (Gal. 3:10)
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
By faith, I affirm God’s judgment of myself, that I am a sinner. I also believe that the answer to my sin lies in the cross.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. (Gal. 2:20)
For we know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. (Rom. 6:6)
If the cross says anything, it speaks about my sin. The person who says “I have been crucified with Christ” is a person well aware of his sinfulness. You’ll never get life right by your own unaided efforts, since all who rely on observing the law are under a curse. Again, Galatians 3:10: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Thus the cross doesn’t merely criticize or judge us; it condemns us for not doing everything written in God’s law. Do you believe that? Do you feel the force of that criticism? Do you appreciate the thoroughness of God’s judgment?
The crucified person also knows he cannot defend himself against God’s judgment by trying to offset his sin by his good works. Think about this fact: Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).
To be a Christian is to agree with all God says about our sin.
To be a Christian is to agree with all God says about our sin. As a person “crucified with Christ,” we admit, agree, and approve of God’s judgment against us: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).2. In Christ’s cross, I agree with God’s justification of me.
I must not only agree with God’s judgment of me in the cross; I must also agree with God’s justification of me. Through the sacrificial love of Jesus, God justifies ungodly people (Rom. 3:21–26).
But the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
My goal is to boast in Christ’s righteousness, not my own.
No one will be declared righteous in his [God’s] sight by observing the law. (Rom. 3:20)
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Rom. 3:22)
Pride breeds quarrels, Solomon says. Quarrels are often over who is right. Quarrels erupt in our idolatrous demand for self-justification. But not if I am applying the cross. For the cross declares not only God’s just verdict against me as a sinner, but also his declaration of righteousness by grace through faith in Christ.
The cross of Christ reminds me that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me. And because of this, God has thoroughly and forever accepted me in Christ. Here is how grace works:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal. 3:13–14)
What a sure foundation for the soul! Now, I don’t practice self-justification, but boasting—boasting about Christ’s righteousness for me.
If you truly take this to heart, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, or criticize you, and you will be able to reply:
- “If God has justified me, who can condemn me?”
- “If God justifies me, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism?”
- “Christ took my sins, and I receive his Spirit. Christ takes my condemnation, and I receive his righteousness.”
In light of God’s judgment and justification of the sinner in the cross of Christ, we can begin to discover how to deal with any and all criticism. By agreeing with God’s criticism of me in Christ’s cross, I can face any criticism man may lay against me. In other words, no one can criticize me more than the cross has. And the most devastating criticism turns out to be the finest mercy. If you thus know yourself as having been crucified with Christ, then you can respond to any criticism—even mistaken or hostile criticism—without bitterness, defensiveness, or blameshifting. Such responses typically exacerbate and intensify conflict, and lead to the rupture of relationships. You can learn to hear criticism as constructive and not condemnatory because God has justified you.
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? (Rom. 8:33–34a)
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. (Ps. 141:5)
I won’t fear man’s criticism, for I have already agreed with God’s criticism. And I won’t look ultimately for man’s approval, for I have gained God’s approval.
If I know myself as crucified with Christ, I can now receive another’s criticism with this attitude:
You have not discovered a fraction of my guilt. Christ has said more about my sin, my failings, my rebellion, and my foolishness than any man can lay against me. I thank you for your corrections. They are a blessing and a kindness to me. For even when they are wrong or misplaced, they remind me of my true faults and sins for which my Lord and Savior paid dearly when he went to the cross for me. I want to hear where your criticisms are valid.
The corrections and advice we hear are sent by our heavenly Father. They are his corrections, rebukes, warnings, and scoldings. His reminders are meant to humble me, to weed out the root of pride and replace it with a heart and lifestyle of growing wisdom, understanding, goodness, and truth. For example, if you can take criticism—however just or unjust—you’ll learn to give it with gracious intent and constructive results.
Giving Criticism God’s Way
I see my brother/sister as one for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11).
Keep on loving each other as brothers (Heb. 13:1).
I come as an equal, who also is a sinner.
Are we any better than they? Not at all. For there is no one righteous . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:9, 23).
I prepare my heart lest I speak out of wrong motives.
All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD (Prov. 16:2).
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov. 15:28).
A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction (Prov. 16:23).
I examine my own life and confess my sin first.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5).
I am always patient, in it for the long haul (Eph. 4:2).
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud (1 Cor. 13:4).
My goal is not to condemn by debating points, but to build up through constructive criticism.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may give grace to those who listen (Eph. 4:29).
I correct and rebuke my brother gently, in the hope that God will grant him the grace of repentance even as I myself repent only through his grace.
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth . . . (2 Tim. 2:24–25).
I do not fear man’s criticism, for I have already agreed with God’s criticism. And I do not look ultimately for man’s approval, for I have gained by grace God’s approval. In fact, his love for me helps me to hear correction and criticism as a kindness, oil on my head, from my Father who loves me and says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:5–6).Applying What We’ve Learned 1. Critique yourself.
How do I typically react to correction? Do I pout when criticized or corrected? What is my first response when someone says I’m wrong? Do I tend to attack the person? To reject the criticism’s content? To react to the manner? How well do I take advice? How well do I seek it? Are people able to approach me to correct me? Am I teachable? Do I harbor anger against the person who criticizes me? Do I immediately seek to defend myself, hauling out my righteous acts and personal opinions in order to defend myself and display my rightness? Can my spouse, parents, children, brothers, sisters, or friends correct me?2. Ask the Lord to give you a desire to be wise instead of a fool.
Use Proverbs to commend to yourself the goodness of being willing and able to receive criticism, advice, rebuke, counsel, or correction. Meditate on the passages given above: Proverbs 9:9; 12:15; 13:10, 13; 15:32; 17:10; Psalm 141:5.3. Focus on your crucifixion with Christ.
While I can say I have faith in Christ, and even say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ,” I still don’t always live in light of the cross. So I challenge myself with two questions. First, if I continually squirm under the criticism of others, how can I say I know and agree with God’s criticism in the cross? Second, if I typically justify myself, how can I say I know, love, and cling to God’s justification of me through Christ’s cross? This drives me back to contemplating God’s judgment and justification of the sinner in Christ on the cross. As I meditate on what God has done in Christ for me, I find a resolve to agree with and affirm all God says about me in Christ, with whom I’ve been crucified.4. Learn to speak nourishing words to others.
Just as I want to receive criticism as a sinner living in Jesus’s mercy, how can I give criticism in a way that communicates mercy to another? Accurate, balanced criticism, given mercifully, is the easiest to hear—and even against that my pride rebels. Unfair criticism or harsh criticism (whether fair or unfair) is needlessly hard to hear. How can I best give accurate, fair criticism, well tempered with mercy and affirmation?
My prayer is that in your struggle against the sin of self-justification you will deepen your love for the glory of God as revealed in the gospel of his Son, and that you will grow wise by faith.
The apostle Paul says everything in the Bible was “written to teach us” (Rom. 15:4). Because the Bible was written in various times and contexts, we are left with the challenge of figuring out how God’s Word applies to us. Or as David Powlison said, “Your challenge is always to reapply Scripture afresh, because God’s purpose is always to rescript your life.”
How do we go about the process of applying the Scripture to our own lives? Here are five general ways that you should teach kids.1. Direct Commands
The most obvious passages for personal application are those in which God gives direct commands. The Bible contains about a thousand commands, though many repeat or restate general requirements. For instance, some of the most frequently repeated commands in the Bible are “praise the Lord,” “do not be afraid,” “rejoice,” and “give thanks,” all of which, as Jon Bloom observes, are “commands, in essence, to be happy.”2. General Truths
Scripture frequently provides general truths broadly applicable to a variety of situations and then leaves it to us to discern how they should be applied. In Matthew 22:21 Jesus says to give back to “Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Rather than giving us a list of what belongs to God and what is due the government, Jesus expects us to use godly wisdom to apply this general rule and work out the details for ourselves.3. Indirect Analogy
Sometimes a passage teaches us by example rather than through a stated rule. This is the old-fashioned “Sunday school morality,” in which we look to the Old Testament narratives to learn how we should or should not act. For example, in the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, we learn to flee from sexual sin and adultery (Gen. 39:7-12).
We must be careful, of course, not to think the personal application derived from such stories is the primary purpose of the narrative. Although Joseph’s actions were a godly example, they resulted in his being thrown in prison—a situation God used to carry out his larger purposes. Whenever we apply the Bible indirectly, we need to keep in mind that the Bible is not about us, but about God.
When teaching your child to emulate a biblical hero using indirect analogy, do it indirectly. The child shouldn’t learn, “I need to be like David,” or “I need to be like Esther,” but rather, “When he slew Goliath, David was like Jesus,” or “When Esther showed courage, she was being like Jesus.” As Tim Keller says, Jesus is the true and better Adam, the true and better David, the true and better Esther, and so on. We look to them as examples because they point to the “true and better” example.4. Indirect Extension
Most of Scripture is neither direct commands nor generally applicable truths. For instance, consider the lists of names and genealogies in the Old Testament. How do we apply those passages? Powlison offers this guidance:
In one sense, such passages apply exactly because they are not about you. Understood rightly, such passages give a changed perspective. They locate you on a bigger stage. They teach you to notice God and other people in their own right. They call you to understand yourself within a story—many stories—bigger than your personal history and immediate concerns. They locate you within a community far wider than your immediate network of relationships. And they remind you that you are always in God’s presence, under his eye, and part of his program.
The endurance and encouragement Paul refers to Romans 15:4 come from reading the Old Testament and understanding we are part of God’s story. We can see the promises God made to his people, see how he was always faithful, and be encouraged to endure, knowing he will likewise always be faithful to us.5. Direct Analogy
Many contemporary controversies and concerns are not directly mentioned in the Bible. In some circumstances, we can personally apply biblical principles to situations similar to those mentioned in the Bible. One helpful way to appeal to Scripture on moral issues is to use analogical reasoning.
When we use analogies, we compare parallel cases, transferring information or meaning from one subject (the source) to another (the target). For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life (John 6:35), he is noting a characteristic of the source (the life-sustaining nature of bread) and applying it to a target (Jesus himself is life-sustaining). In analogical reasoning, we reason from like to like, not identical to identical.
James Gustafson says this about the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:
Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.
Although almost any part of the Bible can be used to reason analogically (such as narrative passages), the clearest path is to focus on scriptural commands, proverbs, and rules. These are easier to make a clear “like to like” comparison, allowing us to be reasonably certain we are applying biblical principles effectively.
Consider, for example, the proverbial claim in Hosea 4:11: “Old wine and new wine take away their understanding.” This passage is a reference to drunkenness, which is always condemned in the Bible (See: Prov. 23:20-21,29-35; Isa. 5:11; 28:7; Matt. 24:48-49; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18; 1 Pet. 5:8). With analogical reasoning we understand that other substances that have an intoxicating effect and “take away our understanding” might also be sinful.
For example, we might ask whether it is sinful to use narcotics, such as heroin, for social or recreational purposes (as opposed to medicinal use). Many Christians would consider the answer to be rather straightforward, but this extreme example highlights the reasoning process that allows us to apply biblical principles to our personal life through direct analogy.Remember: The Bible Is About Jesus
Many generations of children were brought up to believe in what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management,” in which “the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects.” The Bible was taught in a manner that led children to believe its main purpose was to tell us how to behave properly rather than being primarily about Jesus.
While application is an essential part of Bible study, we must ensure that our children understand that teaching us how to behave is not the main purpose of Scripture. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus. And that’s why it’s worthy of lifelong study.