It’s humbling to read the sermons and homilies of the church fathers. Grab virtually any passage from Augustine’s Enarrations on the Psalms, and you’ll find a tour de force, as Augustine leads you on a labyrinthine journey from the psalm to Genesis and Exodus to the Gospels to Revelation and back. William Blake trained himself to see the world in every grain of sand; Augustine sees the kaleidoscope of Scripture refracted through every verse.
Augustine isn’t humbling to read because he gets everything right. Some of his twists and turns lead to blind alleys, and he has to back his way out. He’s humbling to read because he’s able to range across the whole Bible without any of the props and crutches we rely on. He didn’t have a written concordance, much less Bible software or a search engine. From the patristic age to the Reformation, Christian teachers roamed freely across the canon because they had stored it in the palace of memory.
It’s probably too much to hope we can replicate their knowledge of Scripture. But is there a way to approximate it? Perhaps, if we grasp and practice four axioms.1. Trust the Text
What I really mean is: trust the Author. At bottom, that means believing this book is God’s speech in human language. These words are God’s words. If you don’t believe that, nothing else I say will make much sense.
Trusting the text also means believing that everything belongs and everything is meaningful. The Spirit doesn’t waste his breath. There are no incidental details. We’re told that Abraham had 318 fighting men for a reason, and the Spirit wanted us to know the man at the pool of Bethsaida had been lame for 38 years. Is 153 fish mere local color? No; it’s part of the Word of the Lord.
From the patristic age to the Reformation, Christian teachers roamed freely across the canon because they had stored it in the palace of memory.
If someone asks why Scripture tells us Lazarus was in the tomb for four days, don’t answer, “Because he was.” Sure; but why are we told? When a narrator uses an odd turn of phrase, don’t jump to the pseudo-scholarly conclusion that it’s an “ancient Hebrew idiom.” Expect it to communicate.
Trusting the text also means expecting coherence. I have to confess: I find a lot of commentaries on Revelation exasperating. You read a few chapters, and just as things get revved up, you’re told John has stuffed in another “interlude” or “digression” that has little to do with the surrounding chapters. Leave aside the divine Author for a moment. Why would John have put the book together so ham-handedly? Why would he gather momentum, only to hit the brakes at the last moment? Give the human author some credit; he writes as he does for a reason. Most of all, give the Author credit, for if he’s able to harmonize the billions of motifs of human history, he can write a coherent book.2. There Are No Shortcuts
When I’ve taught hermeneutics over the years, I’ve often paraphrased Robert Penn Warren’s comment about poetry: The best and most natural reading of a poem doesn’t occur on the first reading, or the 10th reading, or the 50th reading. The best reading comes on the 100th reading. On the 100th reading, we “remember forward” as well as backward. The entire poem is with us at every line.
Warren’s observation runs against the grain of our cultural conditioning. We think spontaneity is natural, and so we expect the first exposure will be the freshest. But Warren is right. Whether reading a poem or a biblical book or the whole Bible, there are no shortcuts. Read, then re-read, then re-re-read, until the whole book goes with you through every verse. Only then will the text come to seem natural.
Read, then re-read, then re-re-read, until the whole book goes with you through every verse. Only then will the text come to seem natural.
When writing a commentary, I read through the book as often as I can. Reading three chapters a day, I was able to read Revelation roughly every week during the seven years I worked on my commentary. Of course, I gave concentrated time and attention to each line of the book, but some of the freshest insights emerged from repeated reading of the whole.3. Find and Mimic Readers Who Are Better Than You Are
My youngest son is a composer. We’ll sometimes listen to a piece of music together. There’s often a moment when he stops and asks, “Did you hear that? Did you hear the piano come in? Did you hear the key change? Did you notice the rhythmic complexity?” I stare dumbly and say, “Nope. Didn’t hear any of it.”
I might conclude my son is delusional and hears sounds that aren’t there. What’s happening is simpler, if more humbling: his ears are better than mine. Partly because of superior gifts, partly though sustained training, he hears what I can’t.
We don’t like to admit this kind of inequality applies to reading the Bible. We Protestants believe in the perspicuity of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers. We don’t chain Bibles to library stands. Everyone can read and understand.
Some people are, by the Spirit’s gift and through long practice, better readers than others.
That’s all true. But it’s also true that some people are, by the Spirit’s gift and through long practice, better readers than others. Some readers notice things everyone else overlooks. Good readers make connections no one else would think to make. Some readers can make out the pattern in the tapestry, while the rest of us are staring at a few threads.
Throughout my adult life, my teacher has been James B. Jordan. I’ve been listening to him and teaching with him for decades, yet he nearly always says something I’ve never heard before. He has a musical gift for noticing echoes that bounce between one passage and another. Sometimes, he’ll jump from A to Z without explanation. I frown skeptically. Then, five years later, I fill in B–Y and conclude he’s right. If I’ve learned to read the Bible through the years, it’s mostly because I’ve tried to mimic Jim.
I think everyone should learn from Jim. But if you don’t, find your own Jim. Find someone whose reading of the Bible electrifies and delights you, someone who makes your heart burn. Listen. Mimic. As you read, imagine he’s standing at your shoulder pointing to all the things you missed.4. Worship at a Church with a Bible-Saturated Liturgy
Pre-modern Bible teachers had some advantages on us. We have Bible software and the internet and books galore. They had the liturgy. Medieval monks spent their days in the scriptorium, copying and studying texts. They also chanted the entire Psalter each week, and listened to large chunks of the Bible during their hours of prayer. The Bible entered their souls through their eyes, but God’s Word was also in their ears, and they tasted it in their mouths.
Sadly, it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of experience in many Protestant churches. Many churches with “Bible” in the name rarely have much Bible in worship. The hymns contain small snatches of Scripture. The pastor reads a few verses for his sermon text, but otherwise little of the Bible is read and heard. By a weird irony, many traditionally liturgical churches are more immersed in Scripture than Bible-believing evangelical ones are.
If evangelicals want to approximate the depth of the church fathers, a good start would be making sure their worship is as biblically saturated as a Lutheran or Anglican service.The Word Speaks
If you’re a pastor, get more Bible into the worship service. If you’re not a pastor, clamor to get more of the Word by which we live. If you’re a Christian at all, read and read and re-read. Expect everything to communicate. Find and follow a mentor, and learn to see through his eyes.
Trust that the Word that spoke the world into existence will re-speak you as a new creature in Christ.
That’s something Matt Chandler has learned over the past 17 years of pastoring The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. He learned it by watching Christians in his church suffer. “I learned, from listening to and praying with and watching my brothers and sisters, that in the day of trouble, [God will] be there,” Matt said. “That doesn’t mean the day of trouble’s not a day of trouble. It really is a day of trouble. But that’s where he meets us.”
Matt and Lauren Chandler’s own “day of trouble” came in 2009 when, on Thanksgiving Day, Matt collapsed from a malignant brain tumor and was given two to three years to live. Despite that diagnosis, Matt is healthy today, and he joins me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about his own experience of suffering, which he tells in a new book, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and Its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well (The Good Book Company). Along with Matt and Lauren’s story, the book includes nine other stories of suffering and joy told by members and former members of The Village Church.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
Chances are, if you’re a church planter, you know of a dying church in your neighborhood. You’ve maybe even wished their building were yours.
Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) started 624 new churches. Concentrated mostly in urban areas, the plants meet in living rooms or rented-out theaters or public schools. Every week, pastors and volunteers set up and take down chairs and sound systems and pulpits. Within a few years, they’ll grow out or get kicked out and find someplace new. Most are dreaming about a permanent home.
Courtesy of Santa Cruz Baptist Church in California
Also last year, the SBC closed about 850 churches—which isn’t unusual. Many were church plants: more than half of those closed in the last four years were less than a decade old.
The rest are dwindling, aging congregations. By the time a church dies, the building is usually behind in maintenance and capital improvements—some need major work such as new HVAC units or mold removal or sewer line repair. But they have sanctuaries and kitchens and Sunday school classrooms.
More than that, they have a plot of land and a place in the neighborhood.
“We know the church isn’t a building,” said Mark Clifton, author of Reclaiming Glory: Revitalizing Dying Churches. “But our neighborhood identifies what we believe with that church building. If we say Jesus is the answer for 40 years on that corner, and then they see a ‘for sale’ sign, that robs God of his glory. Nothing about it says, ‘Our God is great, and the gospel is powerful.’”
Better by far would be to give old buildings to new work.
“Over four years, easily 300 churches have engaged in the replant process—maybe more,” he said. Momentum is picking up—140 of those were in the last 12 months.
TGC took a closer look at the equation that seems simple—empty building, meet growing congregation—but never adds up quite so cleanly.Myth #1: Churches Die in Dying Towns
You’d think you’d find most declining churches in a small town somewhere, slowly graying as the young people move to opportunities in the city. And it’s true that cities are both growing (by 2010, the census showed 80 percent of Americans lived in urban areas) and younger (in 2010, the average median age in urban areas was 45, compared with 51 in rural areas).
But most dying churches sit in urban and suburban neighborhoods crowded with people.
“It seems counterintuitive,” Clifton said. “But it’s not. A church in a rural area can go on with 15 people almost indefinitely. It still has social validation.”
Most dying churches sit in urban and suburban neighborhoods crowded with people.
But in the city, thanks to technology and trade, neighborhoods change more rapidly than they used to. Memories are shorter. As areas decline or gentrify, as families earn enough to move away or move back, pastors “have to constantly be missionaries,” he said. Adjusting can be especially difficult for older congregants; for most of their lives, the culture changed more slowly.
“I’m talking with people who are north of 60, easy,” said James Nugent, who works with dying churches at the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention (SCSBC). “One church I’m working with has an average age of 72.”
By then, a person may feel pretty comfortable with his church experience—the music, the sermons, the friends, the parking space.
When a church begins to dwindle, it can make changes, Clifton said. But if it doesn’t, it’s hard to stop the slide.Myth #2: Dying Churches Can Think Logically About Their Demise
Gary Cromer joined Harbor Light Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Membership hovered around 40 members, down from a peak of about 130 in 1998.
“As time went along, you’d notice, Boy, there aren’t many people here this Sunday,” he said. Within a year or two, attendance would dip to less than a dozen.
The former Harbor Light Baptist Church / Courtesy of Holy City Church
“We wound up taking half the pews out,” he said. “I began to wonder, What in the world can be done?”
Down to six members, Harbor Light hired an interim pastor out of retirement, one with a great track record of revitalizing churches. But it didn’t help. Finally, a 90-year-old lay leader read Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Holy smokes, he thought. That’s us. We’re dying.
Usually, crisis forces the situation, Nugent said. Not many contact him after reading a book; no one calls after a long and logical thought process. It usually takes a jolt—the longtime pastor retires. A matriarch or patriarch passes away. Or something expensive happens—an insurance bill comes due, or the air conditioning breaks, or the roof starts leaking—and there is no money to pay for repairs.
Even then, Nugent had to quit using the word replant because “older congregations think they can take everything they’re doing and put it in a nice new bigger pot or get the right pastor and everything is going to work,” he said. “So we came up with language of restart. It means starting over with new leadership, new ministries, a new decision-making process, and often a new name.”Myth #3: Dying Churches Have Lots of Options
A dying church in a centralized denomination may have no options at all. Catholic parishes are closed by bishops. Episcopal churches are owned by the denomination; if the congregation ceases to meet, the building is likely to be sold and the proceeds used for other ministries.
Baptist churches are independent and autonomous, which makes things both easier (members can do what they like with the building) and more difficult (members have to agree on a course of action).
Harbor Light Baptist Church lay leaders discussing the replanting opportunity with leaders of the Holy City Church plant and the sending Immanuel Baptist Church / Courtesy of Holy City Church
A dying Baptist church has three choices, Nugent said. First, continue indefinitely. He saw one church slowly convert Sunday school classrooms into decoration storage for Christmas, Easter, and July Fourth. Another is down to meeting once a quarter to pray about the future.
Second, a church can sell the property—which can be worth a significant amount—and give the proceeds to missionaries or a ministry the members like. (Members aren’t legally allowed to pocket anything.) But that’s easier said than done, especially when trustees may no longer be lucid or even living, Nugent said.
A more popular decision is to “give it to a like-minded entity, such as a local Baptist association or another nonprofit,” he said. This decision can include church planters—his favorite option.
Probably the biggest obstacles to this decision are an idolatry of the building and ignorance that it exists, Clifton said. “The more stories get out there, the better. Once it becomes the norm, they’ll naturally do it at the end of their life.”
Before Harbor Light members realized the church was dying and called their state SBC convention, they’d never heard of church planting. They couldn’t believe pastor Brian Powell—along with two other co-pastors and several other families—would move from Louisville to Charleston to start Holy City Church in their building.
They wondered if he was part of a cult. They asked him if he was committed to them. They talked about what would happen if it didn’t work, if he didn’t stick around. What would happen to the building then? They quizzed him on the worship style and type of hymnal he’d use.
“At the members’ meeting, there was a lot of argument back and forth,” Cromer remembers. But they did end up giving the building to Holy City Church—mainly because, as Cromer told them, “one thing I think we’re all forgetting is that we don’t really have a lot of options here.’”Myth #4: If Somebody Offers You a Free Building, Take It
It was Thanksgiving morning when church planter Drew Cunningham got a call from the dying Baptist church where he had been renting space.
“We want to give you our building,” said the pastor, who was recovering from a heart attack and looking to retire.
Sanctuary before remodeling / Courtesy of Santa Cruz Baptist Church
“I had no clue he was going to be saying that to us,’” Cunningham said. He called his friends and family and got advice ranging from “Buildings are expensive and a lot of work. Are you sure you want this?” to “You’d be an idiot not to take this.”
He presented the option to his church, which voted to take it because the building’s size and location were right. That’s not always true. Planters shouldn’t accept a building that’s in the wrong neighborhood or the wrong size, just because it’s free, Nugent said.
“A planter can also have an idolatry of building,” Nugent said. “A building is not always the answer.”
Sanctuary after remodeling / Courtesy of Santa Cruz Baptist Church
A congregation’s identity shifts when it has a permanent physical space, he said. The time spent together feels different. Expectations of members and staff evolve. Culture changes. A larger share of the money and energy transfers to the building.
“You’re no longer thinking it’s life or death every Sunday, with everybody on the field using their gifts,” Nugent said.
Also, buildings are expensive.
“There’s probably deferred maintenance and needed renovations,” he said. “Most will plan for that. But also consider the yearly cost of utilities, the insurance, the upkeep, the roof that goes bad in three years, the parking lot that has to be repaved. You have to take money away from ministry to do that. You can go from 20 percent to 60 percent overhead overnight.”
On the other hand, there’s a beauty in the building, he said. Buying conveys a commitment to the neighborhood. Inhabiting a physical, easily identifiable space invites curiosity. And it’s easier for visitors to find a building with a sign than it is to locate you in an apartment or high-school gym.Myth #5: Obtaining a Building Is an Impersonal Transaction
A church is not just a building—it’s people, even if small in number. And the relationship is sensitive right from the beginning.
“For most of our older congregations, church plants are perceived as threats rather than partners,” Nugent said. “Relationships are key. That’s where you build trust. So keep praying for those struggling churches. Have coffee or lunch with those pastors.”
Don’t do it so that they’ll give you their building, he said. Do it to love and serve them.
It’s okay to ask if you can lease their space, he said. If they say yes, make sure to be good stewards and to get to know the people by name.
A church is not just a building—it’s people, even if small in number.
But even a warm relationship doesn’t mean they’ll give you their building. Nugent estimates only about half—at most—of the churches he’s working with will eventually partner with church plants. But when a dying church lets go of its space, programming, and scheduling, “nothing demonstrates the beauty of the gospel more than a dying church going from death to life,” he said.
Giving away a building full of history and real-estate value is humbling. It’s important to honor that sacrifice and the former church, Cunningham said. Remember that “most of these churches were planted faithfully,” he said. Get to know their culture, look up their history, and research their doctrine.
Find out, if possible, what led to their challenges. But also ask about “the ways they’ve been faithful in the past and encourage them in that,” he said. “Find ways to truthfully say, ‘This is how we’re going to carry the baton of the people who started this church.’”Myth #6: Once You Get Control of the Building, You’re Home Free
When West Chester Community Church (formerly Emmanuel Baptist Church) gave their building to a plant in 2006, attendance picked up for a while and then dropped. By 2015, when pastor Raymond Johnson arrived, the finances were in the red.
“One person wanted female elders, there was no distinction on baptism, and one lady denied inerrancy,” he said. “The associate pastor I inherited committed moral failure with a woman in the church. The previous associate pastor committed a different type of moral failure.”
Raymond Johnson’s congregation / Courtesy of Christ Church West Chester
Johnson introduced a new constitution, a new covenant, a new confession of faith, and a new name—Christ Church West Chester. Four years later, just 12 of the 41 members have stuck around. “The church basically died—again—while we were in it,” he said. “But the Lord was merciful.” Attendance is now at 110 regularly.
Murray Mullins, who was instrumental in urging the original church to donate to the plant, “never felt any kind of regret, just a continuous praise for seeing God’s goodness and direction.” These days, “we see that God is really working in the congregation.”
While some of the older members leave after a building donation, “more and more of them stay,” Clifton said. “We encourage them to stay, and we encourage the church plant to reach out to them. . . . It’s a healthy thing for a young church to have older saints.”
Healthy, but sometimes also exhausting. Powell’s Holy City Church plant was large enough to give him the majority in membership meetings, which was “absolutely crucial,” he said. “They also brought the healthy church DNA, so when I’m preaching, I know half my congregation is already doing these things.”
Still, he kept fielding questions from older members: Why does the church need three pastors? Is this a cult? Why do we need to celebrate communion more than once or twice a year? Why do we need to have updated membership rolls? And church discipline? Are you sure this isn’t a cult?
Powell kept answering.
“Every question I would have, Brian would be able to back the decision with the Bible,” Cromer said. “That’s when I began to realize these guys are genuinely interested in being biblically centered.”
Cromer couldn’t argue. He’s been inviting his neighbor to church. The other day, he shared his faith with a friend at Starbucks. He’d never done that before. Another original member—the 90-year-old who discovered the church was dying by reading Rainer’s book—has been inviting his granddaughter to church, participating in a weekly small group, and regularly having younger families from the church to his home for meals.
“I think in many ways the Lord has allowed them to see the things they really hoped for,” Powell said.
He’s baptized 12 people in the past three years, and his core team cheered loudly every single time. After a while, the older members joined in too.
In the logic of Scripture, reproof is a gift. In the logic of certain secular mindsets, reproof is an act of oppression. For one kind of secularist, even the word “sin” is intrinsically oppressive. It implies, the secularist suspects, that you think you know the standards and I don’t. You, therefore, hope to use them to lord it over me. You want to control my behavior. This view makes sense from the perspective of a flat, two-dimensional world, where contests for power flavor all human interaction.
By contrast, Scripture assumes that God exists and has spoken to rebellious wanderers prone to take the wrong path, to their harm. He’s ordained that his speech be written down and studied, so its wisdom can be widely disseminated, both by ordinarily people and by his agents. In that context, reproof is a gift:
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. . . . Reprove a man of understanding, and he will gain knowledge. (Prov. 9:8–9; 19:25b)Love Accepts and Transforms
Faithful preachers understand that, apart from the Spirit, secular people have little interest in Scripture’s correction. But church visitors and even faithful members can experience reproof in ways that owe something to secular thought. As we know, there is an increasing interest in “safe places” that are free from challenging ideas, which can be construed as micro-aggressions. Believers who have adopted this perspective may expect the church to be a “safe place” where people enjoy unconditional acceptance, where they can be themselves without fear of judgment. Bob Yarbrough rightly notes that in “self-esteem cultures, pastoral rebuke may be a paradoxical and unwelcome notion.” But since God is holy and people are not, someone must address the disparity.
The teaching of Scripture goes like this: God accepts people as they are because of their union with Christ, but he does not leave them where they are—and neither should pastors or friends. If a new convert is a drug addict, we love him (or her) unconditionally, as the Lord does. Still, it’s not loving to ignore the addiction or to abandon him or her to self-destructive habits. Genuine love both accepts and transforms. Jesus accepted sinners, then transformed them. Transforming love wants people to become the best versions of themselves. Transforming love is necessary because people offend God, hurt others, and wound themselves. Everyone is better off if godlessness and injustice cease.
Transforming love wants people to become the best versions of themselves.
But transforming love and accepting love need each other. Without accepting love, transforming love criticizes and pesters and is never satisfied. But without transforming love, accepting love decays into indulgence, even neglect.
Suppose a man is about to put a plate in an oven that will damage the plate, the oven, or both. It’s vital for his wife to “reprove and correct” him promptly. But if he is a sloppy eater, prone to get mustard on his chin and spinach in his teeth, his wife is in a more delicate position. If she swiftly and sharply points out every misplaced drop of sauce, accepting love disappears. But if she never comments, he will soil his clothes and, at least slightly, harm his social reputation. It’s not always easy to decide when to correct and when to be silent. This is a matter of wisdom and prayer, yet the Proverbs above offer clues. Before we speak, we may ask: Is it likely that a wise man will love me after hearing my correction? Will he “gain knowledge” from me? Will a wise woman “be still wiser” after I speak, or will she plausibly be hurt or annoyed?Scripture Is Always Profitable
Whatever Scripture says, God says, and for that reason it is profitable—useful or beneficial—for its God-ordained purposes. It reveals the way of salvation and it teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17). For Paul, “teaching” commonly refers to doctrine (1 Tim. 2:12; 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:12; 2 Thess. 2:15). The teachings or “traditions” (ESV) are the apostolic message, preserved in speech and writing (Gal. 1:6–12). The terms “reproof” and “correction” are similar, but not identical. To reprove is to show a fault, to refute, rebuke, or reveal error. Reproof is also an act of love (Lev. 19:17), since it points out errors in doctrine and practice.
In 1 Samuel 25, Abigail, a woman whom Scripture calls wise, corrects David as he descends a mountain, breathing death threats against her fool-of-a-husband Nabal after he’s insulted David. She certainly reproves David and does so with such insight and gentleness that he blesses God for her. She takes the blame for Nabal’s insults, then reminds David that the Lord has fought his battles for him and preserved him (with allusions to the events with Goliath). She notes God’s promise that he will rule Israel one day and says David won’t want to take the throne with bloody hands (1 Sam. 25:28–31).
David listens, repents, and praises the Lord for her correction:
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you who have kept me this day from bloodguilt. (1 Sam. 25:32–33)
As she reasons from the law, the nature, the acts, and the promises of God, Abigail assuages David’s reckless rage, and David praises God for it.Never Wrong
It is never wrong to offer reproof and correction, but if we hope for the ideal response, we want to remember the times and the manner of those who excelled at effective rebuke. After all, we live in a self-esteem culture in which pastoral rebuke is considered “paradoxical and unwelcome.”
What, then? Let the preacher, the teacher, and the friend surround transforming love with accepting love, as Jesus did. And let us show the discretion of Abigail, gently appealing to God’s laws and promises, to move rebels back to the Lord’s way.
Why go on the road with Saint Augustine? Why turn backward to this old saint?
Augustine’s journey was haunted by painful questions, uncertainties, and longings. James K. A. Smith’s new book, On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, connects with those aspects of Augustine’s life, but, on a deeper level, it connects with those aspects of my own life. Some of the deepest questions of my heart somehow found their way into Smith’s book, and Augustine painted a way forward for my own heart’s journey.
I decided I’d review this book in an Augustinian way, not as primarily a thinking being as much as a desiring being. I read this book with my affections. I didn’t just want to review it; I wanted to encounter it. So I tried to articulate the questions it was answering for me—although I’m not sure “answering” is the right word. Maybe I should say that I joined Smith (and Augustine) in a conversation around the following questions. These are my questions and the questions that I’ve heard from people I’ve pastored.1. Why are rational answers to my skeptical questions never enough?
As Augustine would tell me, I’m not just a rational being. Rational questions alone will never satisfy my doubts. Humans don’t understand in order to believe; we believe in order to understand. To demand that Christianity answer all our rationalistic questions to our complete satisfaction requires something from the faith it was never meant to supply. Our faith doesn’t explain everything on our terms; it does, however, give us enough insight for the journey. Answers to our questions are supposed to create better questions and take us another step down the path. Having new and better questions is the way life works; it’s how we grow in truth and wisdom. Answers will never satisfy our souls; only love will do that.
Understanding doesn’t transcend belief; it relies on belief. (149)
To demand that Christianity answer all our rationalistic questions to our complete satisfaction requires something from the faith it was never meant to supply.2. Why am I so restless, even after I know that God calms a restless heart?
Augustine’s own journey demonstrates that ultimate rest isn’t yet ours. While we’re no longer traveling aimlessly, we still haven’t arrived to the safety and peace of our home. The road is hard—even now that we know where home is. The peril of the road reveals to us the sources of our discontent and draws us toward our source of rest.
Augustine also shows us that, even though we aren’t yet fully at rest, eternal rest does exist. Our present unsettledness isn’t useless; it awakens within us a greater longing for the never-ending peace of eternal home.
For Augustine, so much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to find the hometown we’ve never been to. (50)3. What is the cause of all the evil in this world? Sin? Free will? God?
To explain evil is to naturalize it, to make sense out of nonsense. Try to think of an ultimate reason for evil or suffering. Is the answer satisfying? “Suffering is the consequence of free will.” Is that good enough? Was the suicide of our best friend’s teenage daughter worth free will? “God made evil for his own glory.” Really? Does that make us feel any better about the ravages of evil, or God, for that matter?
We aren’t supposed to feel good about evil’s existence, for any apparent reason. God doesn’t explain it or give its cause. Instead, God’s solution is himself, giving his own life for us, experiencing evil’s most heinous extreme: killing God’s Son. We have a humble God who joined us on the journey to make a way out for us.
In [Augustine’s] sermons, what is offered is not an “answer” to evil, as if it were merely a problem or a question; instead, what is offered is a vision of the gracious action of God, who takes on evil. (185)4. Why does the goodness and beauty in this world seem so distant and ultimately unsatisfying?
Our hunger is infinite; it can never be satisfied with anything finite. The beauty in this world isn’t meant to fulfill us. Beautiful mountains, kind gestures, and delicious food point to the goodness and grace of God. They’re designed to envision eternal life with him, not to be enjoyed as a temporal end in themselves. The aesthetics of this life open up the imagination to who God is and what it will be like when we’re finally home with him at the end of our journey.
Our hunger is infinite; it can never be satisfied with anything finite. The beauty in this world isn’t meant to fulfill us.
To be honest, I don’t want to let go of this world. I want to believe it can give me everything I desire. I want it all and I want it all now. Inside, I feel a great sense of loss when I turn my focus to what awaits me after this life. But this world will never meet the deepest longings of our hearts. And the sooner we let go, the sooner we will live a life that is “happy in hope.” The hope that we are going to a place enlivened by the presence of God everywhere, in everything, with no presence of evil. No loss. No dying. No pain. No tears.
The heart’s hunger is infinite, which is why it will ultimately be disappointed with anything merely finite. (13)5. Why hasn’t Christianity made my life easier?
In some ways it has. Because of the gospel, we now inhabit a better story that helps us make some sense out of who we are and why we are here. But it also enlivens within us an awareness that we don’t completely fit here. We were made for another place. This isn’t home. Knowing the way home and envisioning the place we’re going isn’t the same thing as being there.
To know where you’re headed is not a promise of smooth sailing. (17)6. Why is finding myself and my purpose so elusive?
We live in a time that philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as “the age of authenticity”; it’s the generation of “you be you.” Resist the man. Do not conform. Write your own story.
As a consequence, we’re alienated from others. We feel lonely and purposeless. Sometimes, we share our personal stories to show how unique and special we are. But instead we should share our story in order to connect with others, to reveal that our lives have a common script. Our purpose isn’t found by resisting “they,” but in opening ourselves to “us.” Not being better than others, but being with them.
Freedom to be myself starts to feel like losing myself, dissolving, my own identity slipping between my fingers. (62)7. Why should I get close to people when the pain of losing them or being hurt is so great?
The pendulum also swings the other direction. Friendship becomes everything. People give us meaning. Knowing and loving them is life’s end. But we can lose them. Tragedy strikes. In an instant, they’re gone.
Our first love, then, must be for an infinite, unchanging being who loves us with a never-ending love. Established in that love, we can love others in God. We share the love with them that we have in God, a love that can never be taken from us. Any love we receive from them, we receive it as from God. Since all true love flows from God, we’re free to open up ourselves to the love of others.
Even the most beautiful things and faithful friends share something in common: they are made, created, finite, temporal, and therefore mortal. To love them as ultimate, to cling to them as what gives meaning, is to stake one’s happiness on realities that are fugitive and fleeting—or as Augustine . . . hinted: it is to build one’s house on the sand. (214)8. Why do my closest friends still seem distant?
Augustine would tell us that we don’t even know ourselves. How will our friends ever truly know us when we can’t know ourselves truly? Long ago, I came to the realization that the most important thing isn’t that I know God, but that he knows me (Gal. 4:9). But there will be a day when we will know even as we are known. In that eternal day, the shame and the guilt, the façades and the masks, the fears and insecurities will be no more. We will know each other with the depth of intimacy we truly long for. No more hiding and covering ourselves in the garden. We will know and be known, and it will be good.
I know Alypius better than anyone, and Alypius knows me better than anyone, Augustine is saying. And yet we remain mysteries to ourselves. (140)9. Why doesn’t my personal relationship with God feel more personal?
Perhaps we try to relate to God intimately and existentially without knowing him eschatologically. We’re disappointed because we simply want a direct, mystical encounter. Others seem to have that kind of relationship with God, but not us.
But maybe, in this world, we know him ironically in our longing for him, in our hope for the beatific vision when we will see him in everything, with our new bodies, in a new heaven and new earth. We know we should know him that way, but maybe what we long for can’t be fully realized until we see him with our glorified bodies. Sure, we can know God now in this foreign land—in exile—but we will know him best when we dwell with him in his homeland; until then, our hearts will never be fully satisfied.
To aspire to friendship with God . . . is an ambition for something you could never lose. (88)10. Why has achievement left me empty? Is ambition wrong?
Augustine admitted his struggles throughout his life. Confession isn’t something he did once, but a pattern he maintained. He especially struggled with ambition, a desire instilled in him by his parents. And he achieved much notoriety and success before his baptism.
But his ambitions and accomplishments only revealed his deep unhappiness. He realized that the joy of accomplishment always fades, but friendship with God could never be lost. Happiness in God would only grow stronger throughout time and eternity. He discovered that ambition for God is good because it’s fueled by the knowledge of God’s love. You pursue things for God because you’re free to fail in his grace. But even as he matured, and maybe because he matured, Augustine could admit he often served God and his own vanity simultaneously.
If you ask him, “Are you doing this for God or for your own vanity?” Augustine’s answer is an honest, “yes.” (91)11. Why are my attempts at apologetics so ineffective?
Often we understand apologetics as primarily rational. In defending our faith, we must convince others of the intellectual viability of a set of facts about Christianity. There is another way to see it, and Augustine points us toward it.
The language of apologetics is love, which woos others to the Way.
If we consider apologetics as primarily constructive—as a story, a script for our lives, a way of being in the world—it can appeal to the imagination and affections, as well as to the intellect. Ultimately, apologetics should involve the whole person. Augustine’s apologetic is often poetic and pastoral, rather than merely syllogistic. There is an aesthetic attractiveness to his apologetics that invites people to a journey toward goodness, truth, and beauty. It invites others to “try on” the faith, to live it and experience it. The language of apologetics is love, which woos others to the Way.
Why does Augustine give us the drama of this narrative instead of the arguments of a treatise? Because his apologetic is aesthetic. (173)12. Why do I sometimes feel like I would rather just fade away into nothingness than live forever?
Eternal life isn’t just the endless duration of our sad existence here on earth. Feelings of loneliness, failure, uselessness, and apathy can overwhelm our lives until we just want to give up and cease to be. But eternal life isn’t a never-ending continuation of more of the same or, even, a numb existence forever. It’s not just a good place to go in order to avoid hell. Entering the new heaven and new earth will be like being welcomed into a place you’re not from but feels like your hometown. It’s a welcome home!
But what if forever weren’t just an extension of a sad, solitary present but instead mean being welcomed home? (207)Reimagine Your Journey
While I have borrowed some words, several phrases, and many concepts, I haven’t stolen Smith’s thunder. The best part of the book may be the way he writes. He personally inhabits his subject matter, the way Augustine did.
I’d encourage you to read On the Road with Saint Augustine with your imagination and affections. Allow the book to probe into your most difficult questions. Perhaps it will help you reimagine your journey to the homeland you’ve always longed for.
For almost 40 years of my life, I was a sexual abuse victim and didn’t know it. That thread, if we pull on it long enough, leads to much more than an individual story of suffering and healing. It leads to bigger questions about the role of institutions—such as families, churches, businesses, and governments—and their role in contributing to people’s willingness to ignore and cover up abuse, but also the importance of fighting to save them.
Rachael Denhollander’s book What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics showed me how to pull that thread. Her 2018 testimony in Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing was, for me, much more than a spellbinding expression of how the gospel illuminates justice. That testimony and her subsequent work speaking out for justice, especially in churches, was part of a process by which I discovered that events in my early childhood had more significance than I had wanted to realize.
What Is a Girl Worth? shows how the individual experience of abuse is formed and malformed by institutional claims to authority and incentives to self-protection. But it also shows that our institutions—our families, our churches, our businesses, our schools, our governments—are worth fighting for, worth rescuing from their own worst instincts. And it shows how important carrying out this work is to the gospel of Jesus Christ.Don’t Assume You Understand
When I was a boy at summer camp, the head of the camp pulled me out of an activity on a pretext. Then he cajoled and finally bullied me into going into the big communal shower in the men’s room and showering at the same time—not “together,” but not apart, either. Thankfully, we were discovered by another adult at the camp, who saw what was happening and put a quick stop to it before anything else occurred. Also, earlier in my childhood, a babysitter had exposed himself to me.
Strange as this may sound, I didn’t realize until fairly recently that these were instances of abuse. It was a wounding invasion of my sexuality, and a violation of my trust and integrity, by figures who had power and authority over me. But in the moment, and for a while after, I was so disturbed that I couldn’t articulate or categorize the experiences at all. Eventually I just called them “weird” and tried to stop thinking about them, eventually with success. (I was all too eager to succeed.) Only now do I see how this early abuse contributed unconsciously to the arc of my emerging adolescence, which was not what it should have been.
Something analogous happened to Denhollander, who did not at first realize she was being abused. One of the gifts of What Is a Girl Worth? is the way it helps the reader understand the experience of abuse. Victims not only typically feel an overwhelming sense of inability to fight back or speak up, but very often don’t even understand what is happening to them.
This psychological incapacitation is not a character fault or a lack of virtue; it’s an unavoidable effect of the victimization itself. You might just as well blame the victim for being a child, or for being in the doctor’s office or at summer camp, as blame them for being psychologically affected in this way by what was done to them.Institutions Are Essential
Denhollander realized she had been abused because her mother recognized something was wrong and would not let the issue rest—even when Denhollander resisted dealing with it. She found healing through the support of her parents and family, and later her husband. And she ultimately carried on her fight for justice because she found people in other kinds of institutions who were determined to do their jobs: journalists, police, prosecutors, politicians.
Abuse cases are hazardous to institutions, which thrive by maintaining public trust and good reputations.
But abuse cases are hazardous to institutions, which thrive by maintaining public trust and good reputations. Anything suggesting that life in the institution is anything but sweetness and light is felt as a danger. An abuse case feels like an existential threat. Churches, businesses, schools, governments and (alas) even families can respond to such cases with a sort of instinctive horror.
Institutions have a powerful natural instinct to protect themselves. This instinct is not necessarily wrong. Institutions do face threats and have a legitimate need to protect themselves. An animal in the wild without any instinct for self-preservation would be eaten swiftly by predators.
But we are not animals. If we wish to be human and not revert into beasts, the needs of real justice must take precedence over the needs of self-preservation. That is what being human means. Or, to put it from a theological perspective, if we wish to recover the authentic humanity that was ruined in our fall into sin, we must learn how to put justice ahead of self-preservation.
One of the most shocking moments in What Is a Girl Worth? comes when we first realize Denhollander’s case against a Michigan State University doctor will be investigated by a detective from the Michigan State University police department. In effect, the university will be investigating itself. We all know perfectly well how strongly institutional incentives will affect such a case and which way they pull.Institutions Are Formative—and Malformative
We may not realize how this problem of self-interested incentives affects every abuse case. The people around the victim have to decide whether to prioritize justice or protection. And we have all been consciously and unconsciously trained, by our daily participation in the life of our institutions, to protect the institution. Meanwhile, few have experienced a similar level of training—day in and day out, over the course of many years—in the virtues necessary to do justice.
We experience this imperative to protect the institution as a sense of loyalty and mutual care. When it is rightly ordered, the loyalty and mutual care of its members is the institution’s lifeblood, and a great source of human companionship and purpose. But how often is it rightly ordered in a fallen world? And how often do we assume that our own institutions cannot possibly be the wrongly ordered ones?
The camp employee who discovered my situation and rescued me is a perfect example. That person quickly separated me from my abuser. But they didn’t speak to me about it, neither to ask what had happened and gather facts, nor to find out whether I was hurt and how they could help. They didn’t want to know. Looking back, I get a strong impression that this person found us only because they knew the abuser did this sort of thing—they were checking on him.
In other words, the employee was not protecting me so much as protecting the camp. I’m glad I was rescued before worse happened to me. But by protecting the camp, this employee also protects the abuser.
The abuser was protected from accountability not only because the person who found us didn’t ask what happened, but also because they didn’t show concern for my well-being. As a result, I never realized I had been abused. If this person had asked me if I was okay, I might have realized that I wasn’t.
To be fair, I think this person was totally unaware of the fact that they were enabling abuse. I think they were even unaware of the fact that they didn’t want to know what was going on. But that also shows how huge the problem is, and how essential it is for us to work against it consciously and diligently if we want to become faithful people. Good intentions aren’t enough. One of the main themes of What Is a Girl Worth? is that it was not only malefactors but well-meaning people who did all the wrong things and enabled abuse.The More You Love, the Harder You’ll Fight
A consistent motto in What Is a Girl Worth? is “the more you love, the harder you’ll fight.” This motto applies to institutions as well as to individuals. The fight for justice cannot be effective if it is carried out in a spirit of destruction; it must be carried out in a spirit of redemption.
“The more you love, the harder you’ll fight” nicely captures the uniquely Christian response to the problem of reform. The natural tendency is either to hold back from fighting at full strength because we’re afraid we’ll stop loving, or to hold back from loving at full strength because we’re afraid we’ll stop fighting. The Christian metaphysic of creation and fall, and the doctrines associated with redemption, are the only sound basis for uniting the two impulses—and thus the only way to keep either love or fighting holy and pure.
In the long run, doing justice is in the best interests of our institutions.
In the long run, doing justice is in the best interests of our institutions. They need authentic moral community and trust to thrive. Both are undermined when institutions ignore injustice. When MSU Detective Lt. Andrea Munford assured Denhollander her loyalty was to what was right and not to the school, it would have been just as correct to say her highest service to the school lay in doing what was right. What’s true of institutions, we already know to be true of individuals. Every parent knows that holding people accountable for their misdeeds is one of the most important ways we love them.
I said before that institutions experience abuse cases as existential threats. The profound irony is that they are never an existential threat to an institution that responds to them rightly. Any institution that is even minimally viable as an institution can survive the exposure of an abuser. But no institution, however strong, can survive persistent distrust that it lacks minimal honesty and integrity.The Unique Challenge in the Church
Churches by their nature have the strongest positions of moral authority and trust. Abusers gravitate to this authority, and the authority also creates powerful temptations for anyone who possesses it to become abusers. The same extraordinary social position of moral authority also intensifies people’s false sense of urgency to protect the institution from any scandal that might tarnish it, and gives them more power to suppress victims.
The public scandal of abuse is not prevented by churches that suppress it, but only delayed—and the bill accumulates interest at an appalling rate every year it goes unpaid.
Of course, this only means that churches suffer all the more in the long run when they fail to handle abuse the right way. Precisely because the church occupies this unique position of moral authority, it lives or dies by whether people find that authority plausible. The public scandal of abuse is not prevented by churches that suppress it, but only delayed—and the bill accumulates interest at an appalling rate every year it goes unpaid.
Like others in the church, in the past I have sometimes been dismissive about this problem—even as someone who has suffered abuse—on the theory that abuse is nobody’s problem except the court system’s. Personally, I am entering a period of confession and repentance in this regard, and I hope to see others do so.Called to the Resurrection Life
Fighting for justice in our institutions is hard. Fighting for justice in our churches is even harder. But it is only hard in the same way that the Christian life is always hard. To follow Jesus means to be locked in a deadly war with evil—with the evil outside us as well as the evil inside us. This is the cost of discipleship.
I told a friend that reading Denhollander’s story in What Is a Girl Worth? is in one way like watching Sherlock Holmes hunt down and finally trap Professor Moriarty. Later that day, I came to a sobering realization. In the end of that story, while Holmes does trap Moriarty, Moriarty also traps Holmes. The great detective has to sacrifice himself to bring the villain down.
There is a strong element of that in What Is a Girl Worth? Denhollander, with so many others, is made to pay the cost.
But there is one difference. When Holmes and Moriarty go over the falls and plunge to their deaths, that really is the end of their story. But we, as followers of Jesus, know that graves have exits as well as entrances.
If Denhollander’s 18-month fight to bring Nassar to justice against all opposition has the qualities of death, What Is a Girl Worth? has the qualities of new life. Even when recounting great sorrow and anger, it bursts forth with an unmistakable joy and power of life in the Spirit that no grave of injustice could contain. And, like another resurrection, it not only is new life, it summons us to new life.
It summons us to follow.
It isn’t easy being a man today. In fact, it’s probably harder now than it ever has been. Back in the old days, society worked hard to develop its men. We set out a clear vision of manhood and taught our boys how to live up to those ideals. We honored manly role models. When men fell short of the standard—as they often did—society tended to rebuke them. Producing men with a brave and beneficent masculinity was an important cultural goal.
But now we push our men down. Confuse them. Refuse them. Verbally abuse them. And so we’re going to lose them. What is going on?
One of the worst ideas that has emerged in our culture today is “toxic masculinity.” It doesn’t matter where this notion came from. The point is, it’s everywhere. If you haven’t heard the term, you’ve at least heard the concept: that traditional manhood is poisonous. When men exercise any kind of leadership, or use their strength to shape our culture in a powerful way, they are—so say the critics—a toxic fog upon our society.
That isn’t true. Don’t let anybody tell you it is.
The world needs good men. Why? Because there are bad men too. Lots of them. And only good, brave men, can stop the tyrants from spreading their funk all over our society. This is something many great leaders have understood. But no one has brought it out in story form better than J. R. R. Tolkien.Why Tolkien?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) is a man I’ve long admired. I remember my first boyhood encounter with his world. My initial exposure to Tolkien wasn’t through his writings. It was more concrete. I had just moved to Oxford with my parents in the summer of 1981. As I wandered down the lane from the house where my family was staying, I noticed a plaque above a neighbor’s door. It was at 76 Sandfield Road. The plaque said, “J. R. R. Tolkien Lived Here 1953–1968.” There was also a picture of a dragon, a compass, and a hill with a hole in it. Quite fascinating to my 11-year-old mind, but I didn’t think much more about it.
It wasn’t until I had come home with a new book from Blackwell’s Bookstore on the Broad Street—the very bookstore that had published Tolkien’s first poem in 1915—that my love for all things Middle-earth was awakened. I read The Hobbit in a day. It was quickly followed by the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve been enamored with the story ever since.
Tolkien himself was the quintessential Oxford don. We picture him with a tweed jacket, a pipe in his hand, and a stack of dusty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts on his desk. Yet this doesn’t mean he wasn’t “manly.” Quite the contrary: it’s very masculine to be wise and scholarly, as we shall soon see.
Yet the young Tolkien embodied other ideals of masculinity as well. According to his online biography from The Tolkien Society, he heeded the patriotic call and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers to fight the Germans in World War I. The new recruit arrived in France just in time for the Somme Offensive, a brutal example of the horrors of trench warfare, and one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
After several months of combat in the trenches, Tolkien contracted a deadly fever and was sent back to Britain, where he recuperated and finished out his wartime service. All but one of his schoolboy friends, with whom he had once formed a literary club, were killed in combat. Now married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, he began to raise a family. The manly exploits and romantic interests of the young Tolkien have been made into a 2019 motion picture. He was a guy you probably would have liked.
Tolkien’s literary depiction of manhood took many forms. Drawing from his LotR characters, I will now propose six distinct models of masculinity. These aren’t traits that only men can have; women often exemplify them too. But in his stories, Tolkien masterfully describes how these virtues are lived out in a masculine context. All six models depict traits that good men should have. If you are a man, your question is not, “Which one am I?” but “Which one do I need to be right now?”Model 1: Gandalf, the Sage
One of the rarest and most valuable virtues to be achieved by a man is wisdom. A sage is someone whose words provide insights that most people don’t have. They offer a new way of thinking, often through a pithy statement that grabs you, makes you ponder, and improves your moral life. Such wisdom is born from deep familiarity with lore: the books and writings that contain a culture’s history and accumulated experience. Consider these sagacious sayings from Gandalf:
- When Frodo is burdened by the weight of the One Ring and bitterly says, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
- When the dear friends of the Fellowship are parting forever, Gandalf remarks, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” He understands that grief is a real part of living in a broken world. Even strong men can weep.
- When Frodo longs for the punishment of twisted Gollum, Gandalf rebukes him: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Wisdom, of course, doesn’t only have to be the mark of old men with long, white beards. Young men can be wise too. But they will have to study lore and accumulate knowledge. They also have to observe life and gain experience. Only then can the sage’s words make magic in the world.Model 2: Aragorn, the Warrior
Probably the most popular of Tolkien’s LOTR characters is Aragorn. He is a hero of royal ancestry whose restoration to the throne is chronicled in The Return of the King. Aragorn is proficient with a bow and a blade; he makes fires; he hunts game; he leads men and elves and dwarves into battle. After many great sacrifices, Strider the Ranger (his incognito identity) assumes his rightful place as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the king of Gondor. Tolkien writes, “On the throne sat a mail-clad man, a great sword was laid across his knees, but he wore no helm. As [Frodo and Sam] drew near he rose. And then they knew him, changed as he was, so high and glad of face, kingly, lord of Men, dark-haired with eyes of grey.” Truly Aragorn was a warrior-king, a man worthy of the days of yore.
Yet this powerful king was a self-controlled man. He didn’t rush into unjust wars. Aragorn had no chip on his shoulder, no desire to fight simply for the sake of dominance, ego, or the thrill of battle. So humble was this king that at the moment of his coronation, when everyone was honoring his prowess in battle, he bowed before two lowly hobbits and set them on his throne with the cry, “Praise them with great praise!” At all times, Aragorn’s awesome power was under his command. He unleashed it against evil. But until it was needed, he reined it in and preserved it for the day of battle.
Aragorn the warrior was also a provider. He cared for the weak. When the Hobbits were assailed on Weathertop by the Black Riders, it was Aragorn who defended them against those hideous wraiths with a burning torch. Even so, Frodo was stabbed by a poisoned blade. Aragorn the Warrior knew battlefield medicine and found a healing plant to help his friend. The tender warrior always uses his strength, not for pride or selfish gain, but to defend the weak and innocent.Model 3: Frodo, the Self-Giver
Frodo is often interpreted as the primary Christ-figure in LOTR. He chose to bear a burden that wasn’t his own, one that took a terrible toll and demanded an infinite price. Even so, Frodo walked willingly into the enemy’s lair. He carried on his body an evil curse that he didn’t deserve so he could eliminate it and save the world. This fearsome road Frodo walked to the end, even to the point of death.
When the One Ring was finally cast into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, the strength of Frodo was spent. He and Sam collapsed side-by-side on an “ashen hill” surrounded by torrents of lava, soon to engulf them. It was from high above, amid the swirling smoke and ash, that Gwaihir the Eagle spotted them. To his sharp eyes, they were only “two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand on a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.”
In that moment, Frodo had come to “the end of all things.” He had proved his willingness to give himself totally for a cause that required the ultimate sacrifice. He had relinquished everything he held dear, everything he left behind in his beloved Shire. And he did so freely, by the courageous choice of his will. “I will take the Ring,” he had declared to the Council of Elrond in his small voice, “though I do not know the way.” And then he gave his all. Just like a man should do.Model 4: Legolas, the Beauty-Maker
Legolas the Elf was one of the strangest of his race. He made a lifelong friendship with Gimli, a dwarf whose people were deeply repugnant to elves. This reflects Legolas’s ability to see beyond superficial categories or stereotypes. He pursued peace, even when finding it was difficult, knowing that peace between enemies is a beautiful thing.
Legolas was a poet and singer. When the Fellowship came to the mystical forest of Lothlórien, it was Legolas who told them forgotten tales “of sunlight and starlight upon the meadows by the Great River before the world was grey.” And then, while everyone rested by the river after much travail, Legolas sang to his friends. Accompanied by the “music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows,” the noble elf began to sing “in a soft voice hardly to be heard amid the rustle of the leaves above them”:
An Elven-maid there was of old, A shining star by day: Her mantle white was hemmed with gold, Her shoes of silver-grey.
This ancient hymn soothed the Fellowship, bringing peace to their weary hearts.
The attentive eye of Legolas often saw beauty when others missed it, especially in the realm of nature. Legolas was a great lover of the natural world, and he introduced his friends to its charms. When he first saw Fangorn Forest, he rejoiced; when he gazed at the stars, he marveled at their grace; when he contemplated the Sea, he sang of its distant shores. Legolas was not one to stay closed inside a cottage. His intrepid masculinity made him entirely at home in the rugged and refreshing outdoors.
Legolas also appreciated the beauty of good craftsmanship. His gear was well made, and his clothing was attractive and sharp. He paid attention to his appearance, not because he was proud, but because he respected himself. He also honed his skills as an archer so he could carry out his duties with proficiency. His diligent practice with his bow paid dividends when one of the wicked Nazgûl attacked the Fellowship. Legolas’s well-aimed shot turned the Fell Beast away. “Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string . . . The sky was clean again.” Wherever he went, Legolas created beauty and spread goodness. Everyone around him benefited from his art.Model 5: Gimli, the Energizer
The dwarven race in Tolkien’s world was known for its busy activity. They were constantly digging and building and creating. Tolkien himself had a complex relationship with the world of industry, especially as turn-of-the century England became more industrialized. Felled trees and smoky chimneys are depicted as nefarious emblems in the hands of Saruman at Isengard, or later in his “Sharkey” persona during the Scouring of the Shire. Sometimes, Tolkien literarily rebukes the dwarves for “delving too deeply” and awakening demons, as happened with Durin’s Bane, the fiery Balrog whom Gandalf battled to the death.
Yet in Gimli the Dwarf, we discover Tolkien’s appreciation for industrious work. The dwarves were diggers who created great underground kingdoms and forged many beautiful implements of metal and gems. They also created architectural marvels in stone and masonry. Gimli represents the positive side of productive labor, and the wise use of natural resources. Masculine strength is a powerful force for shaping the world.
The manly trait of endurance is exemplified by Gimli. When tasks become difficult, he perseveres nonetheless. He has a kind of stubborn willingness to keep going even when the workload is too much for others. When the Fellowship—including the frail and short-legged hobbits—have to leave their easy river travel for an overland slog, Boromir shows his apprehension by saying, “That would not be easy, even if we were all Men.” To this, Gimli replies, “The legs of Men will lag on a rough road, while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!” Gimli is always ready for the task ahead, and he calls his friends forward with his contagious brand of fortitude and mettle.
Yet Gimli doesn’t just endure his work with a grim determination; he attacks each challenge with zest and enthusiasm. Even his slaying of orcs becomes a warrior’s game with Legolas. And after the work is done, Gimli energizes the times of celebration. Admittedly, the Peter Jackson LotR films depicted Gimli as much more of a partyer than Tolkien did. Who can forget Gimli’s beer-chugging drinking game with Legolas in the movie version of Return of the King? Or his anticipation of Moria’s “Roaring fires! Malt beer! Red meat off the bone!”?
In the actual books, however, Gimli was more sober. Even so, the dwarves were certainly creatures of mirth. The opening sequence of The Hobbit, when Thorin Oakenshield’s party arrives at Bilbo’s house and empties his over-stocked larder, is one of the greatest feasting scenes in all literature. Real men know how to tackle their jobs with all they’ve got; and when the labor is done, they know how to celebrate with gusto, too.Model 6: Sam, the Friend
In Samwise Gamgee, we discover one of the highest of masculine traits: loyalty to one’s comrades in the journey of life. Real men form profound and lasting friendships. They can love other men deeply, without any strange sexual overtones. One of the classic instances of such love comes from a story that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would have been familiar with. King David is said to have loved his friend Jonathan so much that when Jonathan died, David exclaimed that their brotherly affection was more wonderful than the love of a woman (2 Sam. 1:26).
Sam commits himself to Frodo like a true friend should do. When the Fellowship breaks up and is scattered, only Sam follows the Ring-Bearer as he tries to sail away. Undaunted, he casts his lot forever with his master. This powerful scene could be interpreted as a symbol of baptism:
“Coming, Mr. Frodo! Coming!” called Sam, and flung himself from the bank, clutching at the departing boat. He missed it by a yard. With a cry and a splash he fell face downward into deep swift water. Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head.
It’s only when Frodo reaches down and retrieves Sam that he comes up from the deep, “bubbling and struggling,” yet forever changed. Safely in the boat, Sam pledges eternal allegiance to Frodo, his master and friend. The two of them will walk together into the shadows and fires of Mordor.
Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is put to the ultimate test when they finally reach that terrible land. Betrayed by the treacherous Gollum, they’re led into the lair of the fearsome spider, Shelob the Great. Although she stings Frodo and wraps him in her webs, Sam comes to his master’s aid. Snatching up the sword called Sting, he stabs the bloated spider and drives her away. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it,” he declares as he holds the slime-drenched blade. “Come on, and taste it again!” Sam’s loyalty to Frodo empowers his courageous deed.
Yet Sam’s deepest act of loyalty comes when Frodo can no longer carry the weight of the Ring up the flanks of Mount Doom. Frodo falls to his knees and tries to crawl, but cannot. His strength his gone. Tolkien writes the scene with great vividness and emotion:
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”
“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”
And then, hoisting his spent comrade upon his shoulders, Samwise Gamgee begins the final trudge into the fires of doom. The scene is a metaphor for life. Who has not faced terrible trials alone and afraid? And who has not felt the strengthening aid of a companion at his side? When a man comes alongside another in friendship, even life’s greatest burdens become bearable.Call to Men
Through these time-honored characters, we get a rich picture of true manhood. Tolkien depicted excellent models of masculinity in his books. A true man is mature and skillful in at least these six ways: intellectually, physically, emotionally, artistically, occupationally, and relationally. Again, the question that lies before us is, “Which of these do I need to be right now?”
There is a great scene in The Two Towers when the hobbits Merry and Pippin are given an Ent-draught by Treebeard. The Ent-draught is a drink of magical river water with a taste like earthy roots and a cool night breeze. Just a few sips of this drink adds three inches of height to the friends’ small stature, turning them into the tallest Hobbits who have ever lived.
Real manhood is like this. It isn’t toxic, but intoxicating: a refreshing drink that exhilarates everyone who encounters it. Masculinity is no poison, but a potent elixir that makes itty-bitty Hobbits grow tall and mighty. Don’t you want a drink like that?
When’s the last time you felt your conscience activated at your place of work? Perhaps it was earlier this week, or even today. Something happened, or was about to happen, and you sensed a decision with moral implications hung in the balance.
Perhaps you felt in your gut that you should respond or act in a certain way. But your mind intuitively worked through a pro-and-con list. Action would require guts. You would need to summon courage. You might stand to lose face, or money. All the while, you sensed an inner nagging that wouldn’t go away unless you either listened to it or smothered it deep inside your subconscious.
Your conscience, as Colin Smith has suggested, is like an alarm clock. It’s designed by God to go off at the right time. And just like an alarm clock, our conscience can go wrong in one of two ways.Conscience Gone Wrong
First, it can go off when it shouldn’t. This is what the Bible refers to as a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:7), and it happens when we’re troubled by things God doesn’t explicitly forbid. This causes needless inner torment for ourselves, and at times, outer torment for those around us, since it makes us either timid or harsh. It’s likely what lies behind this statement in the Westminster Confession: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.”
A healthy conscience . . . should be constrained no more and no less than by God.
Second, your conscience can fail to go off when it should. This is what the Bible calls a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). Like a driver who brazenly zooms through a stop sign without noticing it, someone with a seared conscience blows right past violations of God’s good design and revealed will with no concern. The inner alarm has been silenced for so long it can no longer be heard.
A healthy, or clear conscience (Acts 24:16), on the other hand, is an alarm that goes off at the right time, for the right reasons. It should be constrained no more and no less than by God, as revealed in the Bible, under the direction of the Holy Spirit.Healthy Conscience at Work
Our place of work, whether inside or outside the home, is a cauldron of formation—a place where our conscience is often called into action. Consider the following situations:
Your boss gives you credit for great work done, but you know most of the work was done by your colleague. Do you say anything?
A client overpays for a service and would never find out if you don’t mention it. Do you let them know?
You become overly aggressive or demeaning to someone in a team meeting. As the meeting ends, people walk away in awkward silence. Do you apologize?
You gave your word to a client, but as you count the cost of following through with your promise, you hesitate. Do you do what you said even if it is hard?
You are given latitude to work from home, so long as you commit to doing actual work, but are not required to report on your time. Do you work with the same diligence as if you’re in the office?
You see a coworker mistreated or subtly demeaned, and must decide if you will speak up. Do you consider your words carefully and say something?
You are critical of a colleague’s work, but instead of addressing it with them directly, you constantly bicker about it to others. Do you stop gossiping and go directly to the person?
You’re attracted to a team member of the opposite sex who is single, even though you are married and have engaged in subtle—and at times not so subtle—flirting. Do you stop the flirtatious interaction and ask others for accountability?
In each case, a healthy conscience would ring like an alarm, either to alert you to avoid doing something wrong, or to correct a situation where wrong was done.Ropes, Not Chain
To those exhausted from the rules of dead or wrongly zealous religion, the conscience might seem like another socialized, arbitrary chain. But to use another metaphor, our conscience is more like two different kinds of rope than like a chain.
As a leash, our conscience constrains our actions in ways that keep us and others safe. There is room to walk and explore, within the defined limits God has assigned. It keeps us from exploiting or taking advantage of others. As a rappel rope, our conscience also calls and emboldens us to scale walls we might fear, like speaking up when we see injustice or apologizing when we’ve acted wrongly.
Far from being a restricting device, our conscience actually brings freedom. We are set free to use our energy to do what is right, and emboldened to work for the good of others.
What recent situation has rung the alarm of your conscience? What might happen in our places of work if we sought, with God’s help, to keep a clear and healthy conscience?
Far from being an unwelcome constraint, God has given the gift of conscience to bring life both to us and also to the world.
When my wife, Trudi, was a college student, a Christian friend invited her to visit a church on the other side of town to hear a well-known preacher. Since Trudi had been raised in churches that were rather tame when it came to overtly miraculous activities, she was surprised to discover an announcement in the church bulletin:
Do you want to learn how to speak in tongues? Show up Wednesday at 7 p.m., and we’ll teach you how.
The notion that someone can teach another how to do miracles is not new, but appears to be spreading. The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) in Redding, California is representative of a growing number of churches and ministries that claim we can learn—and someone more experienced can teach us—how to do miracles. (For recent TGC articles about Bethel, see here and here.)
But is there a biblical basis for such claims?The Claims
“The cross of Jesus does not simply make us good people; it creates a new kind of people who walk in his power and are naturally supernatural.”
“Scripture calls us to earnestly desire the gift of prophecy. . . . We practice to discern his voice with confidence.”
“We are responsible to grow and develop our gifts to their full potential by stepping out in faith, taking risks, and partnering with God.”
“. . . this is what should be normal for Christians, and is actually accessible to all of us” (source).
Summary: All Christians have been endowed with miraculous power through the cross. Consequently, Christians should desire, practice, and grow in the exercise of the miraculous.
Is this correct? Can any Christian who desires to do miracles simply learn how, with enough practice? My aim in this post is not to discuss cessationism and continuationism (for more on this, see the recent debate between Andrew Wilson and Tom Schreiner). I am, incidentally, a continuationist, but I share the consternation of both cessationists and many continuationists about the assumption that every Christian can learn—and, further, that God expects them to learn—how to perform miracles.Two Problems
There are at least two problems with this assumption.
First, the apostle Paul emphasizes that God has given each of us differing ministry roles (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:8–11). We are not all appointed by God to the same ministries, whether those assigned ministries are more mundane or more manifestational. Note that it is better to view these in the category of ministries—something God has assigned us to do to build up his church—rather than as special abilities, as the English word “gift” makes us think. At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, in a series of questions that require “no” as an answer, Paul makes it clear that God doesn’t appoint everyone to do every ministry. He asks, “Not all are apostles, are they?” (Required answer: “No.”) “Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:29–30 NET). So how can someone claim that every Christian can and should learn to do something that God hasn’t made available to every Christian?
How can someone claim that every Christian can and should learn to do something that God hasn’t made available to every Christian?
Second, the assumption that all of us can learn to do miracles fails to reckon with New Testament teaching: there is both an already-ness (Luke 17:20–21; Matt. 12:28) and a not-yet-ness (Matt. 25:31–46; Acts 1:6) to the kingdom of God. Ministries like BSSM travel in the already-ness, but seem to allow little space for the not-yet-ness of the kingdom message. Applied to miracles, an appreciation of the not-yet entails that many miracles must await the second coming of Christ.Some Nuance
The question, however, of whether anything at all needs to be learned requires some nuance. It hinges on what’s meant by learn. If we mean that any Christian who doesn’t do miracles can start doing them with a little help from a spiritual coach, then, no, we cannot learn to do miracles. Still, in light of the fact that many resist anything that smacks of the miraculous—usually because of an understandable fear of extremes—some of us may require a bit of softening toward what our sovereign Lord may want to do through us—a bit of learning, if you may. In other words, as a consequence of our built-in patterns of resistance, some of us might benefit from talking through the source of our resistance with someone more experienced in praying for healing or in speaking spontaneous words of “edification and exhortation and consolation” (prophecy, 1 Cor. 14:3, NASB). The counsel of such a person could be viewed as a type of teaching, and the removal of hindrances to whatever the Lord might want to do through us, a type of learning.
So, can we learn to do miracles? No. God does miracles whenever and through whomever he sovereignly pleases. But some of us might need to moderate our resistance—that is, learn in a different sense—just in case God decides to use us in surprising ways.
The Story: The tale of two Christian foster care agencies reveals the importance of fighting for religious liberty.
The Background: On Thursday a Catholic adoption agency won a significant victory for the families and children it serves.
The state of Michigan contracts with private child placing agencies (CPA), like St. Vincent Catholic Charities, to provide foster care and adoption services. Private CPAs place children in licensed foster and adoptive homes and assist prospective foster or adoptive parents in applying to the state for licensure, a necessary legal step to adopt a child.
As part of the application process, a CPA performs a home evaluation of the prospective parent or parents that includes a written assessment and a recommendation that a license be granted or denied. Based partly on the CPA’s recommendation, the state itself decides whether to license the prospective foster or adoptive parent. Some Christian CPAs, including St. Vincent, refuse to provide written recommendations and endorsements of unmarried or LGBTQ couples because it is inconsistent with their religious mission. In the past, Christian CPAs would simply refer unmarried or LGBTQ couples to another CPA.
In 2017, the ACLU sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of two same-sex couples for allowing groups like St. Vincent and Bethany Christian Services to make such referrals. While the state initially defended the suit, the state’s attorney general settled the case and established a policy that CPAs could not turn away or refer to another contracted CPA an “otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple.” After the change Bethany Christian Services, an evangelical organization and the state’s largest Christian CPA, said they would comply with all “legal contract requirements” to continue operations in Michigan.
St. Vincent, though, fought the new policy. In April St. Vincent joined a former foster child and the parents of five adopted children with special needs in filing a lawsuit claiming Michigan had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. On September 26, 2019, the district court agreed, and ordered the State of Michigan to continue working with St. Vincent while this case continues. The court ruled that “the State’s real goal is not to promote non-discriminatory child placements, but to stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with the State’s own.”
“Our nation is facing a foster care crisis, and we are so glad that Michigan’s foster children will continue having all hands on deck to help them find loving forever homes,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit, public-interest legal firm. “The Bucks and St. Vincent Catholic Charities won a victory in Michigan, but there is still work to be done to ensure that faith-based agencies can contribute to ending our nation’s foster care crisis.”
Why It Matters: This ruling in Michigan highlights an important reality in America: we will lose our religious freedoms if we refuse to fight.
Unfortunately, too many Christians believe that caving to the state’s violation of religious liberty is necessary and prudent. For example, last April the CEO of Bethany Christian Services, Chris Palusky, wrote an op-ed for Christianity Today explaining why his organization was conceding to the state’s demands. Palusky explained that his group still believes the Bible is the living Word of God and that God’s plan for marriage and family as it is outlined in the Scriptures. “At the same time, it is clear to us that Bethany cannot cede the foster care space completely to the secular world and leave children without the opportunity to experience Jesus through our loving care,” Palusky added. “Therefore, we will continue foster care operations in Michigan and serve all families in Michigan for foster care and foster care adoption in compliance with our contract requirements.”
Bethany was faced with the difficult decision of complying with the state and continuing to serve families or risk shutting their doors. But St. Vincent was faced with the same choice and refused to bend the knee to an oppressive and unjust state government. Because the Catholic group refused to back down, they won a temporary victory—and will likely win in the long term. More importantly, they showed that refusing to violate one’s conscience is worth whatever sacrifices might need to be made.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Bethany, though, since they were unsure if they would have the support of the courts—or even of their fellow believers. A recent poll commissioned by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission found that only one-third of evangelicals considers religious liberty to be a top political concern. That number falls to 28 percent among the youngest cohort and to 13 percent of black Protestants. If we don’t care about religious liberty as individuals we can hardly complain when our religious institutions fail to hold the line when their freedom—and organizational existence—is threatened.
All believers in America should care, though, and we must continue to fight for our most essential freedoms. As Christians we care about foster care because we understand the importance of family. We should be just as concerned about whether those children are able to grow up in homes and in a country where they are free to follow Christ.
I’ll never forget the day I heard about Ezra Flamm.
It was my junior year in high school, and I had just returned from losing the key game at a varsity basketball tournament. I missed a shot at the buzzer that could have won it. I was depressed as I walked from the garage into the kitchen of my childhood home.
My mom immediately asked, “Did you hear about Ezra Flamm?”Meet Bob Flamm
I suppose every school has that one teacher whom everyone respects but also fears, because you know his class is going to be hard. At my Christian high school, that teacher was Mr. (Bob) Flamm. His tough-to-get-a-good-grade reputation was strangely mixed with a tender heart for students and for God. His signature number-two pencil was always (and I mean always) behind his ear. He was a science teacher whose classroom was filled with skeletons, snakes, and graduated cylinders. This same space anywhere but a school would suggest a mad scientist, if not someone on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Yet here in this science room, Mr. Flamm taught high schoolers about God, his creation, and how it all works. I personally liked Mr. Flamm even as I tried to figure out how to not threaten my GPA by taking his class. Additionally, I was too young to appreciate why he cared so much about memorizing Scripture and the spiritual discipline of fasting. I suspected Mr. Flamm had a deeper-than-normal relationship with Jesus.
Mr. Flamm had a couple of children, including his oldest son, Ezra. Ezra was well known throughout the school. Cute. Tow-headed. Even though he was just a first grader, Ezra had status in the hallways simply because the Flamm name was famous there.Did You Hear What Happened?
The abruptness of my mom’s question that day foreshadowed the devastating news. Ezra Flamm had died. At that point in my life I didn’t know too many people who had died, and certainly not any children. How? What happened? It was most likely viral myocarditis, though they never figured out the exact medical cause. His heart had stopped while taking a nap. In older men heart attacks are shocking, but in 6-year-old boys they are tragic beyond words.
A pall of sadness descended like a fog on the whole school. I wasn’t equipped to handle the death of a child—and have since learned no one is. I attended the funeral, the small casket silently shouting the absurdity of Ezra’s passing. The Flamms gathered with the rest of us in shocked disbelief. What do you say at such a gathering? What should you think? My 17-year-old self had no spiritual place for anguish like this.Beauty of Christ in Ashes of Life
Only in later years could I look back to those somber days and realize Mr. Flamm was teaching us his greatest lesson. It wasn’t an insight about the periodic table or a chemical formula, but about spiritual character. It’s been many years now, but I still remember a lamenting teacher returning to the classroom. I remember feeling awkward as he once again stood before us—but now always on the verge of tears. Often they flowed down his face.
Seeing death through the pain of Mr. Flamm and his family introduced me to the beauty and desirability of Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the spiritual maturity back then to put it this way, but that’s one thing about beauty: you don’t have to name it or theologize it to know it when you see it. In Mr. Flamm I saw gospel grit, not bitterness. I saw hope, not hate. I saw fatherly love in a broken human vessel. What was it that I saw? The reflected beauty of divine love in a real human being.
A science teacher at a Christian high school in northeast Iowa may appear small and insignificant. All his petri dishes and Bunsen burners were as normal as normal can be. Yet for those of us privileged to be there in the winter of 1985, we saw the beauty of Christ in Mr. Flamm. The years have passed and many a leaf has blown across Ezra’s grave. What endures in my heart, though, is the refracted light of Christ’s glory that we beheld in those days of mourning.
The Flamms have remained true to their Savior for decades since. Thank you, Bob Flamm. Thank you, Mary Flamm. Those glimpses of shekinah glory shine on as does Ezra’s life, safe in the arms of our beautiful Savior.
You can read previous installments in this series.
On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Mark Tooley—president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and author of The Peace That Almost Was and Methodism and the Politics of the 20th Century—about what’s on his nightstand, the last great book he read, books that have most influenced his thinking about religion in the public square, and more.What books are on your nightstand?
Macaulay’s History of England Volume I by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1868). It’s a wonderful walk through the struggle for liberty that defines the Anglo-American tradition.
A Christian Manifesto by Edwin Lewis (1934). Lewis was a Methodist theologian, originally of the Boston Personalist school, who renounced his own modernism in favor of orthodoxy and was a Wesleyan counterpart to J. Gresham Machen.
The Washingtons by Flora Fraser (2015). Martha Washington is here shown to be the essential partner to America’s chief founding father.
Historic Christianity and the New Theology by Harold Paul Sloan (1922). Sloan was a Methodist theologian who fought modernism politically and through scholarship, losing the denominational battle but sustaining the faith through dark days.
The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future by Joshua Mitchell (1995). Mitchell articulates Tocqueville’s appreciation for Christianity’s central role in creating and perpetuating American democracy.
Just American Wars by Eric Patterson (2018). Patterson applies the Just War tradition to all of America’s major wars.
The Challenge of Human Rights: Charles Malik and the Universal Declaration by Habib Malik (2000). Charles Malik was a Lebanese Christian statesman and philosopher of human rights. This book is by his philosopher son.
The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War 1945–1947 by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan (2018). President Truman dispatched General Marshall to negotiate peace in the Chinese Civil War, a mission that tragically failed.
Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony by Kori Schake (2018). Here we learn how America, with Britain’s cooperation, first arose as the chief global power and expositor of democratic values.
American Power and Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy by Paul Miller (2016). Miller offers a realist and values-laden perspective on America’s role in maintaining peace and democracy.
Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg (2019). Here’s a fascinating overview of the major characters behind the 1896 Supreme Court case that tragically affirmed racial segregation, focusing chiefly on the lawyer who fought it and the dissenting justice he persuaded.What are your favorite fiction books?
Unashamedly I haven’t read fiction for more than 30 years, since college! Not enough time. During college I most enjoyed William Faulkner. In my boyhood and youth I enjoyed John LeCarre spy novels like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Frederick Foysyth’s international thrillers like Day of the Jackal, and political dramas by Fletcher Knebel (like Seven Days in May) and Allen Drury (like Advise and Consent). I also enjoyed classics like Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.What books have most influenced your thinking about religion in the public square?
In college during the 1980s I read Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which made the then-bracing Christian case for democracy and free markets against statism and liberation theology. Later I took a course with Novak, and then I joined the staff of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which he helped found. He sat on the board from the beginning until my presidency. So he shaped both my thinking and also my vocation. Another IRD founder, Richard Neuhaus, whom I was also privileged to know, was a big influence. His last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, explaining his duel loyalties as Christian and American, was my favorite.What’s the last great book you read?
Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics by Theodore Weber (2001) is a unique explanation of Methodist political theology. It’s unique because Methodists are by nature doers and not theorists. Weber outlines John Wesley’s understanding that each person carries God’s political image, which was corrupted but not erased by the fall. This political image divinely authorizes each individual to participate in politics, ideally seeking political orders that imitate divine justice and love. It explains centuries of Methodist reform-minded political witness.
When I recently reread it, I was struck by its coherent beauty, and I realized how I had intuitively shared this Wesleyan political understanding nearly my whole life as a Methodist without having heard the theory explicitly explained. It naturally flows from Wesley’s emphasis on divine grace’s universal availability, which I believe is intrinsically democratizing and socially ennobling.Is there a page from a book that changed your life?
Yes, and it’s a very un-Methodist story. In college I became more serious about Christian faith through my own reading and under the influence of a revivalistic preacher. I wondered if I were truly saved. Roaming through the Georgetown University Library I randomly, or providentially, pulled Calvin’s Institutes from the shelf, and opened to a reassuring passage. He said someone who struggles with salvation has largely won the battle, as the lost person would be indifferent. For me then the question was answered and settled.What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
The Burning Heart: John Wesley: Evangelist by A. Skevington Wood (1978) is an excellent introduction to Wesley’s passion for saving souls and transforming society.What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m always seeking to learn more about what serving Christ means politically and what God intends for government. Amid contemporary partisan differences, Christians should be able to identify timeless principles about statecraft that are rooted deeply in historic Christian teaching. The late Peter Berger warned that to distort the church’s political witness is to distort the public face of Christ, which is a somber warning indeed.
“If you’re honest as a parent, there are few things you’ll ever identify in your children’s lives that you can’t find artifacts of in your own. That’s the gospel in parenting. Every moment that I’m parenting, the wise heavenly Father is parenting everybody in the room, because everybody in the room still needs to be parented. Forget that, and you’ll have shockingly self-righteous things to say.” — Paul Tripp
Date: March 31, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 Pre-Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
- The Humility of Parenting
- You Are Not Your Child’s Sin
- 7 Things to Do When You’ve Blown It (Again) with Your Kids
- Your Child Is Your Neighbor
- The Bullseye of Successful Motherhood
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
In What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, Rachael Denhollander exposes the truth about the man who sexually abused her, Larry Nassar, and the institution that covered it up, USA Gymnastics.
While it takes courage, strength, and vulnerability for a survivor to tell their story of sexual assault, it takes even more to report that crime and sin to the legal authorities and the church. Denhollander’s story reveals why so many sexual assault survivors don’t report the crime and sin perpetrated against them. This book also testifies to trauma, tells the truth about perpetrators, and warns institutions.Under-Reporting
Given the horrific nature of sexual assault and the shame it brings to survivors, it’s not shocking that it’s one of the most under-reported crimes. The fear of intrusive and re-victimizing court procedures prevents many survivors from reporting their assaults. According to the FBI, sexual assault is “one of the most under-reported crimes due primarily to fear and/or embarrassment on the part of the victim.”
All of this is compounded by a victim-blaming culture in which survivors are often said to have “allowed” their assault (by not resisting strongly enough) or have “asked” for it (by dressing too provocatively, going out alone too late at night, or drinking). The victim-blaming impulse shows up frequently when a story of sexual assault appears in the news or is disclosed in a church.
Denhollander tells about the victim-blaming she experienced directly and sometimes more subtly. She was asked: “Why did you wait so long to tell anyone” or “How did you let that happen to you?” or “Couldn’t you have done something to avoid it?” Social psychology research demonstrates that our culture holds prejudices and negative views of survivors. Thus, survivors suffer from the trauma of the assault itself as well as the effects of negative stereotypes.
Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms isn’t only erroneous, it also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Research has proven that victims who are believed and listened to adjust better than those who are not. Victims who experience negative social reactions have poorer adjustment.
Many survivors know how unlikely it is that their quest for justice will succeed if they do report sexual assault. The statistics from the Department of Justice are staggering. Only 4.6 percent of reports lead to an arrest, and less than 1 percent of cases are referred to prosecutors. Only 0.5 percent of reported sexual assaults will lead to a felony conviction or incarceration. Perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely than other criminals to go to jail or prison. Even if a perpetrator serves jail time, they frequently serve ridiculously short sentences.
Therefore, survivors receive little incentive to report from the criminal justice system and many reasons not to. For many survivors, corruption, laziness, or lack of investigative ability makes reporting not worth the trauma.Trauma Suffered
An important part of Denhollander’s story is the trauma she suffered. It’s difficult to read about the heart-wrenching evil that Nassar and others perpetrated against her. Seeing darkness that up-close will affect most readers. It should. I recommend that survivors be attentive to their own emotions, healing, and trauma if they consider reading the book.
The only thing more staggering than the number of occurrences of sexual assault is the acute damage done to the survivor. The effects are physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Abuse survivors experience the second-highest prevalence rate for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—only exceeded by survivors of war. The best word to describe abuse is “traumatic.” “Trauma” is a state of being negatively overwhelmed. It’s the experience of terror, of loss of control, of helplessness during a stressful event.Known Perpetrators
Denhollander describes the way Nassar manipulated young girls under his medical care to take advantage of them. These girls and families trusted him. He reinforced their trust so that when he violated it, he’d still be given the benefit of the doubt by others.
Like Nassar, most child sexual offenders are known by their victims. Only 10 percent of child sexual offenders abuse children they don’t know. Like Nassar, most offenders have many victims. Those who sexually victimize children likely have victimized dozens or even hundreds of other children during their lifetime. Like Nassar, many offenders offend with other children and even adults in the room. According to one study, 54.9 percent of child molesters offended when another child was present, and 23.9 percent offended when another adult was present.Institutional Warning
Denhollander tells how USA Gymnastics protected Nassar and covered up the abuse done to her and many other girls. It was a systematic suppression of anything that might threaten to derail the institution from its goals. And this was done at the expense of young girls’ lives, bodies, minds, and souls.
Regardless of the institution—USA Gymnastics, churches, schools, businesses, families—too many rally around the accused, minimize the offense or cover it up completely, blame the victims, avoid transparency, mock justice, and cause survivors to feel that their only option is to suffer alone in silence and shame because nobody will believe them.
For churches, consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Churches must be proactive in keeping children safe. They need to be communities of hope, healing, and good news to those who have suffered sexual assault. Failure to do so will result in additional cases of abuse and in lifetimes of agonizing physical, emotional, and spiritual damage.
God calls his people to be agents of good news and tell people that Jesus responds to their pain and past. We get to remind survivors that their story doesn’t end with the assault; that their life was intended for more than shame, guilt, despair, pain, and denial; that the assault doesn’t define them or have the last word on their identity.Not the Final Word
Sexual assault is part of Denhollander’s story, and it’s an important part of her story, but she is clear that it doesn’t define her.
Evil and abuse aren’t capable of creating or ultimately defining reality. That is only God’s prerogative. However, evil and violence can pervert, distort, and destroy. They’re parasitic on the original good of God’s creation. In this way evil serves as the backdrop on the stage where God’s redemption shines with even greater brilliance and pronounced drama. What evil uses to destroy, God uses to expose, excise, and then heal.
Both What Is a Girl Worth? and How Much Is a Little Girl With?—the children’s book Denhollander also wrote—offer hope, healing, and worth as our individual stories are brought into God’s larger story of dignity, healing, wholeness, redemption, and shalom. God redeems what has been destroyed. Denhollander captures this message well in How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?:
No one has the power to change what God’s done, And he says you’re worth everything, even his Son. Worth all the pain, worth great sacrifice, Worth leaving heaven, worth giving his life.
The Latin title of James Gray’s new film, Ad Astra, means “To the stars.” It’s fitting for any sci-fi, space-exploration story, but it feels especially apt for this excellent film—one of the most theologically interesting of the year.
Even though gravity literally pushes us down to Earth, humans have always gravitated to the stars, insatiably curious about what (and who) is up there. Ad Astra is interested in how this orientation creates tension: between above and below, the far away and the right here, the lure of exploration and gratitude for home.
James Gray pondered this tension in his last film, 2016’s wonderful Lost City of Z, but in Ad Astra it takes on a more overt spiritual dimension. Since Babel man has desired verticality—transcending the limitations of gravity and working our way up to divinity. Astra opens with a riveting sequence that takes place, in the “near future,” on a Babel-esque “space antenna” that extends from Earth’s surface high up into space. The image is striking, but especially when we see the small stature of man (Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride) climbing on it and then falling from it, hurtling down to Earth from mind-boggling heights. Gravity always wins.
This sequence signals the film’s theological question: What does it mean that man is so hungry to leave the beautiful planet he’s been given, to explore infinity and beyond?We Want More
No other earthly creature does this. Animals aren’t trying to escape their planet. Only humans have this brazen urge to push beyond limits (like gravity, oxygen, and so forth) to see and experience what seems out of reach. Indeed, the film reflects the famous Robert Browning line explicitly quoted in Gray’s Lost City of Z: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
Reaching for what is beyond our grasp—off limits, forbidden, only for God—has defined humanity since Eden. Adam and Eve’s reach for the forbidden fruit led to the fall of humanity. They weren’t satisfied with the world they had been given. They wanted more. We are so drawn to this, aren’t we? The grass, as they say, is always greener. How interesting that Pitt’s character in Astra is the estranged husband of a wife named Eve (Liv Tyler), and the son of a father who absence looms large.
Reaching for what is beyond our grasp has defined humanity since Eden.
Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) left home when his son Roy (Pitt) was only 16. He went to the stars, becoming a NASA hero and the first man to both Saturn and Jupiter. He never looked back, eventually disappearing. Astra follows Roy as he seeks to track down a distress signal from the ship his father captained to Neptune. Could his dad still be alive? Could they be reunited after all these years? For Roy, the search is loaded with emotional tension (“I don’t know if I hope to find him, or finally be free of him”) in a way that parallels the aforementioned spiritual tension between the “here below” and the “up above.”Too Heavenly Minded
The film’s narrative structure is on one hand geographic—from Earth to Neptune, with multiple stops in between, each with its own episodic adventure (on the Moon, on Mars, and so on). But the trajectory is also emotional, from thrilling, loud action scenes in the beginning (pirate battles, chases, and shootouts on the Lunar surface) to gradually quieter contemplation in the end (reflective of Paul Schrader’s “abundant” and “sparse” means in Transcendental Style in Film). The viewer will notice how the film’s structure goes from more populated with humans to more isolated, such that the farther Roy is from Earth, the lonelier he is. What man gains in wonder and adventure, as he travels farther afield, he loses in humanity.
It’s interesting that the astronauts in the film are the most religious characters. Clifford, NASA’s most decorated hero, talks about being “overwhelmed by seeing and feeling God’s presence so closely” when he’s in space. He describes his mission as “God’s work.” Other astronauts in the film are prayerful, blessing a fallen comrade with the words, “May you meet your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” From Roy’s point of view, his dad left him and his mom because he was more interested in “going up to God.” Earth had nothing for him. The heavens called. The unseen Face up there was more enticing than the known faces of his own son and his own wife.
The otherworldly religious impulse of the astronauts in Ad Astra isn’t depicted as a good thing. Rather (and especially as manifest by Clifford), it is critiqued in a manner akin to the familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes line that some people are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.To the Earth
Even more than the “no earthly good” critique, the tragic flaw of Clifford and others like him is that they’re more driven by a “to the stars” desire to see beyond this world than a desire to “taste and see” (Ps. 34:8) the goodness of God on display in this world. As Roy observes of his father, near the end of the film: “He could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him.”
How true is that of us? How often does our insatiable desire for what we don’t have lead us to forsake, ignore, or cheapen the good gifts we do have? How often do our wandering eyes betray our ability to see what we do have, and be grateful for it, and praise God for it?
This is often the origin point for sin. Ingratitude. Curiosity over contentment. Fidgetiness over faithfulness. As in Eden, so in Ad Astra. That Clifford believes Earth “has nothing for me” reveals how much he is living the reality of Romans 1: having rejected what can be known about God through what is plainly there, in creation (v. 19), he becomes futile in his thinking, his foolish heart ever more darkened (v. 21). He is willfully blind to what can be seen of God right in front of him.
Humans innately long for God. We want to be in his presence. But we go wrong when we seek to find him in our own prideful way—whether building towers to the heavens, eating forbidden fruit, or finding other ways to work our way up to him.
This misses the glorious truth of the gospel. We don’t have to go up to rescue ourselves (nor could we). God came down to rescue us. Our hope is not in man’s “to the stars” mission to be with God, but in God’s “to the earth” mission to be with man. When we look up to the stars, in awe and wonder, our instinctive question should not be, “Is there anyone else out there? Are we alone in the universe?” We should ponder instead the magnificent truth that God came here. He is with us. We are not alone. Our question should instead be that of David (Ps. 8:4), who gazed at the stars and asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
Some suggest that if we go about ministry in the “right” way, we can expect the unbelieving culture around us to appreciate and like us, even if they don’t embrace the gospel we’re presenting. But in this conversation on 2 Timothy, John Currie—professor of pastoral theology at Westminster Theology Seminary—says that Paul’s message to Timothy is that if we’re going to be faithful in ministry, we should expect to suffer.
Paul calls Timothy, and us, to biblical fidelity and gospel courage in a darkening culture. Over the course of our conversation on 2 Timothy, which was essentially Paul’s farewell discourse at the end of his ministry, Currie helps teachers grasp what the book says about shame, repentance, and careful handling of the Word of God.
- 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: To Guard the Deposit (Preaching the Word) by Bryan Chapell
- Teaching 2 Timothy: From Text to Message (Teaching the Bible) by Jonathan Griffiths
- 1–2 Timothy and Titus: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Brian J. Tabb
- The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Pillar New Testament Commentary) by Robert W. Yarbrough
The Story: The rate of abortion in America continues its decade-long decline. How low can the abortion rate go?
The Background: The abortion rate is calculated by taking the number of pregnancies terminated by an abortion, multiplying by 1,000, and dividing by the female population between the ages of 15 and 44 years. According to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate in the United States dropped in 2017 to 13.5, the lowest rate recorded since abortion was legalized in 1973. Abortion rates fell in most states and in all four regions of the country.
Unfortunately, the data from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute is less than completely reliable. Guttmacher obtains its data from surveys of “2,277 facilities in our universe of potential abortion-providing facilities.” They only received responses from 59 percent of the facilities, used health department data for 19 percent of the others, and had to estimate the abortion rate for the remaining 20 percent of facilities. Despite these flaws, this rate is likely to be the best estimate of the abortion rate we have available.
According to the Guttmacher data, the abortion rate climbed rapidly from 1973, peaked in 1982, and declined almost steadily until reaching a new low in 2017 (the last year for which data is available).
Overall, in 2017, 862,320 abortions were provided in clinical settings, a 7 percent decline from 2014. A little less than one in five pregnancies (births and abortions), 18.4 percent, ended in abortion in 2017.
What It Means: While we should be thankful the abortion rate has continued to decline, this latest news should remind us of the horrific scale of abortion in America.
Currently, abortion is far and away the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017 there were 862,320 reported abortions. In comparison, 647,457 Americans died of heart disease, and 599,108 died of cancer. Abortion leads to more deaths each year than eight prevalent causes of death, more than accidents (unintentional injuries), chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke (cerebrovascular diseases), Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, nephritis, and intentional self-harm (suicide) combined.
Because of the scope of the problem, making a significant reduction in the number of abortions is a monumental task without any easy solutions. For example, if abortions were banned in hospitals and physicians offices, the total number of abortions would decrease by 40,270, a reduction of 4.7 percent.
If abortions were banned in every state in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin) the total number of abortions would decrease by 133,120, a reduction of 15.4 percent.
Similarly, if abortions were banned in every state in the West (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming) the total number of abortions would decrease by 209,600, a reduction of 24 percent.
While these figures make such large-scale reductions seem all but impossible in theory, the actual rate fell almost 29 percent during the six-year period from 2011 to 2017. What accounted for this decrease in the rate? If we had to hazard a guess, we could say that it’s likely a combination of fewer teens having sex, increased contraceptive use, lower rates of unintended pregnancies, increased opposition to abortion by the young, and a greater willingness to have a child after an unintended pregnancy. Yet social scientists have been unable to establish how any of those factors could account for the dramatic decline.
The more likely explanation is that over the past decade God has changed people’s hearts. This seems to be the only explanation for reductions in abortion occurring across the nation. (For example, the abortion rate has dropped even in states where the number of abortion clinics has increased.)
Pro-life Christians should continue to take direct action—from lobbying for anti-abortion laws to volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers—to push the abortion rate even lower. Yet while our efforts are likely having a positive influence, the most we can expect to do on our own is to shave a few percentage points from the current rate. That is why we should never forget that the most important action we can take is to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the unborn. Prayer is our most powerful tool, for despite all our human efforts, only a miraculous and mighty work of God will drive the abortion rate to zero.
I’ve been married for 19 years, and I have many happy memories with my wife. Cara is my best friend by far. We especially enjoy looking back and reliving some of our favorite dates together.
One treasured memory is the time I found out she once dreamed about being in the Air Force. By that point in our relationship, I had learned to plan dates we would both enjoy rather than dates only I would enjoy—no extra charge for that little piece of advice. One of my close friends was a pilot, and I asked him if he could take us flying. He delivered in a big way. He flew us to a nearby regional airport, I took her to a Mexican restaurant, and he flew us back. I have a picture of Cara and me standing next to the plane, and we both have beaming smiles. I love to look at that picture and relive the date.
Memories can be a precious gift that allow us to enjoy the same event multiple times. But our memories can also be a curse.Curse of Memory
One of the most painful moments of my life came during premarital counseling. I tearfully told Cara (my fiancée at that time) about some of my past pornography usage. By God’s grace, porn was no longer a problem in my life, but it was an issue in my past. I wanted her to know the truth about my old struggle, and I earnestly desired her forgiveness for that sin. I will never forget seeing the pain etched on her face. She freely forgave me, but it was a heart-wrenching for both of us.
For several days, I struggled to apply the gospel to my situation. I wanted to beat myself up. I remembered the pain on Cara’s face, and I replayed it in my mind over and over. I raked myself over the coals again and again for the bad choices I’d made years before.
Don’t sit in your sin. Take it on a journey all the way back to the cross and see it nailed there.
Our memories can serve as a kind of time machine. The time machine of memory can be a good thing when we go back and replay the good times. It can help us enjoy a pleasant experience in exponential ways. But the time machine of memory becomes twisted when we use it to relive our past failures and punish ourselves multiple times for the same mistake. When we put our sins on repeat mode, we wince and groan over and over again because it triggers sharp pangs of guilt and shame. Our guilt brings past sins into the present and says, “Look, you made a mistake.” Then shame joins the conversation and adds, “Yes, and you are the mistake.”
Why do we torture ourselves by going back to places of failure in our memory banks? Why do we continue to push the play button and experience it all over again? We wish we could go back and erase our failures, but that’s not an option. We can’t seem to get over it, so we go over it in our minds again and again.Embrace the Full Truth
Here’s the problem with the twisted time machine of memory. We travel back in time under the pretense of a half-truth. Yes, we sinned. No, sin should not be taken lightly. There is appropriate guilt and shame that flow from sin, but as Christians, we know that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). We can’t allow our past shames to cloud the fact that Christ has come.
Discouragement gets stuck in the half-truth that says, “Go back and see for yourself that you failed,” but we can take heart when we realize the full truth that our problem is not that we look back, but that we don’t look all the way back.
Yes, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)—but our debts have been paid. Don’t sit in your sin. Take it on a journey all the way back to the cross and see it nailed there. Then, and only then, will you be ready to move forward in the forgiving love of Christ.
I was sitting in a multi-generational Sunday school class when the teacher asked us to raise our hands if we had “done any evangelizing” recently. Hands flew up across the room. I was overjoyed—and surprised—to think I was surrounded by people who were sharing their faith so fervently and frequently.
But as people began to share their examples, I realized we didn’t all share the same understanding of the word evangelism.
Around the room, I heard:
- I took a meal to a homeless shelter.
- I told the grocery clerk I would pray for her.
- I invited my neighbor to our church’s Christmas program.
- I tutor at a school for at-risk kids.
- I post Christian articles and Bible verses on social media.
Each of these is a good thing. But if we think everything is evangelism, we may not be doing any evangelism. I find it helpful to differentiate between three types of interactions: good deeds, outreach, and evangelism. Understanding the differences between them will help us do each for the glory of God, and allow us to make proclaiming the good news of Christ our ultimate goal.Do Good
When we cook a meal for a shelter or for a friend, pick up trash along the highway, encourage the grocery-store clerk, offer wise counsel, or take care of a neighbor’s yard or pet, we’re doing good—and this is good! These good works don’t save us (Eph. 2:8–9), but they are the fruit—or evidence—of our salvation. True faith always results in good works (James 2:17).
Scripture says that our good deeds serve many purposes. They bear visible witness to our own salvation (Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:10), can cause unbelievers to glorify God (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12), and testify to the character of God by showing the watching world what he’s like: generous, kind, compassionate, and hospitable. So “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). It is good and right to do so.Reach Out
Other interactions—the kind that build sustainable and ongoing relationships—are outreach. If you were to tutor the same student weekly for an extended period of time, you would build an ongoing relationship with that student.
If you didn’t just invite your co-worker to your church’s Christmas program but also started having coffee with her several times a month, you would build a sustainable relationship. Beginning a book club that meets once a month, or walking with a neighbor a few mornings a week—anything that causes you to cultivate a real relationship with someone outside the church—are all examples of outreach.
I have a friend who’s been faithfully present in her neighborhood for more than two decades. She takes meals to the sick, drives the elderly to doctor’s appointments, walks with the active, welcomes the lonely for coffee on her back porch, and cares for the pets and plants of those on vacation. She also hosts an annual Christmas brunch, where she shares a brief message about Jesus.
As a result, when crisis or suffering hits, the people in my friend’s neighborhood know two things: my friend cares about them and she knows Jesus. So who do they call? Her. She’s taken the time to build real relationships.Proclaim Jesus
The third type of interaction is evangelism. Unlike the other two categories, this requires a clear presentation of the gospel. Evangelism requires words like Jesus, sin, cross, forgiveness, resurrection, and life—and it explains how those words relate to a person’s eternal good.
If outreach builds a bridge through relationship, evangelism walks across that bridge at the right time with the specifics of the gospel message. When you spend time getting to know someone, you’re better able to know when they might be ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
If outreach builds a bridge through relationship, evangelism walks across that bridge at the right time with the specifics of the gospel message.
Take my friend as an example again. Because she knows and loves her neighbors, she has known when to share specific spiritual truths with them. She has been able to tell grieving friends about the God who comforts, sick friends about the God who heals, weary friends about the God who gives rest, and rebellious friends about the God who pursues, forgives, and redeems. She never forgets that, while her friends and neighbors appreciate her kindness and friendship, their greatest need is to know Jesus.
Look around and see who you can serve through your good deeds. Pray they will see the character of God as you do. Take the time to build sustainable relationships—invest in people for the long haul. And, when the Lord opens the door, walk through it boldly with the life-altering message of the gospel..
In 2008, Zach McLeod was a 16-year-old high school junior in Massachusetts and, by all accounts, a model evangelical Christian. The son of two parents who worked for Cru as Harvard campus ministers, Zach played worship music on his guitar, memorized Bible verses, worked with orphans in South Africa, and had a reputation for kindness and generosity. He was also a standout athlete, set to be the starting cornerback for his high-school football team.
But a routine play changed everything.
During the team’s first scrimmage of the season, Zach and four teammates tackled the opposing team’s running back. There was no obvious helmet-to-helmet collision, no dramatic violence. But as he got up from the tackle, Zach wobbled, and then, moments later, collapsed. He was flown to a nearby hospital where the diagnosis came in: an acute internal brain bleed. It would require three brain surgeries over the next few months for Zach’s situation to stabilize. Although his life was spared, Zach’s physical and cognitive abilities would never be the same.
Hit Hard: One Family’s Journey of Letting Go of What Was—and Learning to Live Well with What Is—written by Zach’s parents, Pat and Tammy, with the help of Cynthia Ruchti—is the story of Zach’s struggle to forge a new life after a traumatic brain injury. But even more, it’s the story of Pat’s and Tammy’s struggle to do the same: to deal with grief and loss, to care for their son and their three other children, to remain committed to each other and their faith, and—in one of the book’s most important contributions—to make sense of their complicated relationship with the game of football.
With Pat and Tammy alternating as narrators, Hit Hard traces the story from Zach’s injury in 2008 up to the present day. Readers get an inside look at Zach’s progress and setbacks as he works to recover and, in Pat’s words, “smudg[e] the lines between ability and disability.” Although Zach doesn’t fully recover, his enthusiasm for life, his love for others, and his resilience shine through the pages.Different Ways to Handle Loss
On its own, Zach’s story packs an inspirational and emotional punch. But there is a second source of drama that strengthens and deepens the book: the tension between Pat and Tammy as they deal in different ways with the grief and pain of their son’s injury.
Pat likes to focus on the positive, seeing himself and Zach “living in the middle of what could be the ultimate underdog comeback story.” But while Tammy shares some of those sentiments, she can’t escape the deep sense of loss. And she can’t escape the guilt of feeling such sadness while Zach is still with her.
“He was alive. Shouldn’t I be grateful?” Tammy writes. “I couldn’t understand Pat’s uncontainable optimism. And I was convinced he couldn’t begin to understand the depth of my sorrow.”
Football provides a source of tension, too. For Pat, a former college football player whose father coached the sport, Zach’s injury was a tragic but fluke event. For Tammy, on the other hand, the injury reflected a systemic problem built into the fabric of the game.
One of the most revealing scenes comes in chapter 11, when Tammy describes her frustration at Zach’s and Pat’s habit of watching football together on Sundays. Her anger boils over one Sunday as she sees the two cheering a hard hit. “How can you still enjoy watching that stupid game?” she snaps, before withdrawing to her study where she emails Pat stacks of articles on sports-related brain injuries. Undeterred, Pat continues to see football as a net-positive.Coming Together in Faith amid Ambiguity
Despite their differences and struggles, Pat and Tammy continue to find solace in their faith. They write of viewing their situation in light of scriptural truths about God and themselves, and as part of the larger “creation, fall, redemption” story. But even as Pat and Tammy resolve to trust God, the tension between them lingers for most of the book, finally moving toward resolution in chapter 16. The breakthrough, Tammy tells us, came in 2014 when she finally felt that her grief—the pain of having her son and yet not having him in the same way as before—had a name: “ambiguous loss.” A term and idea developed by Pauline Boss, a therapist and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, the ambiguous-loss concept legitimized Tammy’s experience and gave her the freedom to openly admit something had indeed been lost. For Pat, too, the concept resonated, helping him better understand Tammy’s perspective and the depth of her grief.
Pat and Tammy are careful to point out that the ambiguous-loss concept didn’t solve anything on its own. At the same time, it’s clear that Boss’s writings helped to heal Pat’s and Tammy’s relational rift, in part by validating their divergent approaches. “It no longer seemed a curiosity that two faith-filled people could approach the same trauma with opposing perspectives,” Pat writes—an important lesson for those of us who are quick to push people toward Pat’s “let’s look at the bright side” approach and too hesitant to truly mourn with those who mourn.
Getting on the same page hasn’t meant agreement in all areas of life, of course, and football remains a source of friction. At the end of the book Pat is still highlighting the positive benefits of the game, emphasizing how it forged in him the very characteristics that “helped sustain me through our ambiguous loss,” while Tammy is pointing to the links between football and brain injuries (a section in the appendix suggests further reading on the subject). No definitive conclusions are reached. Ambiguity reigns. Yet that very ambiguity makes the book so valuable. By showing two committed Christians who come down on different sides of the football debate, the book provides an open space for conversation and thoughtful reflection about the benefits and risks of football participation.Story First
If the book’s treatment of football serves as one of its strengths, it also reveals its limitations. Hit Hard is first and foremost a story—a captivating, heartbreaking, hopeful story. But the need to keep moving the story along might leave some readers looking for more theological depth and reflection. That isn’t to say that Pat and Tammy are shallow writers. Both have advanced degrees in theology and spiritual formation, and they sprinkle the book with meditations on Scripture and quotes from thoughtful Christian authors like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jerry Sittser, and Henri Nouwen.
Even so, they rarely expound on the theology that underpins their perspectives. They nod and gesture; Pat, for example, writes that “the whole concept of ambiguous loss resonated with the creation, fall, and redemption theme of the larger story that had carried me through.” But he doesn’t stop to explain that resonance nor explore its depths. So it is when it comes to football. Tammy points to her experience of pain and loss and to studies about concussions and CTE; Pat counters with his own experience with the sport and its character- and community-building values. But neither pauses to frame the debate about football in theological terms.
A book can’t be all things to all people, and Hit Hard clearly succeeds at its aims: to reach a wide audience with a compelling story of resilience and of hope amid pain and sorrow. Plenty of books fit within that genre. But few provide the level of insight, nuance, and reflection as this one. For both football fans and critics, for people dealing with or trying to walk with others through ambiguous loss, or simply for those looking for a riveting read, Hit Hard hits the mark.