We doctors are fixers. Medical school teaches us to conquer disease with an arsenal of technology. In the best circumstances, our determination to cure illness fulfills the call to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:39). A physician’s diligence can win people more time to love their families, pursue what matters in life, and glorify our Lord (Col. 3:17).
Yet while we can postpone death, only Jesus has overcome it. Eventually our cures run out. Cancer cells evade chemotherapy. The heart stretches and thins under the strain of living. Infections overwhelm. Ravaged by a sinful world, the body falls apart, its perfectly orchestrated mechanisms collapsing. While we can delay death with our advances, we can eradicate it for no one.
Yet despite its inevitability, many physicians falter when death confronts us. Death feels like failure when we’re trained to focus on the next treatment option, the next test, the next procedure. Our instinct to charge onward can corner the dying and their families into crushing predicaments. We offer options that won’t bring the dying home. We pursue measures that crack ribs and rob people of a voice, without any hope that they’ll again kneel in a garden or recline in a favorite chair. We forge ahead with our technology, inadvertently trampling the lives we aim to protect—not because we’re cruel, but because that’s all we know how to do.
Amid this troubling landscape, one doctor calls for stillness. Dr. Sunita Puri, a palliative care specialist at the University of Southern California, has partnered with myriad people at the end of life and wants to shift the conversation. In her poignant memoir, That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour, she unravels the tension between our human impulse to survive at all costs and the reality that death claims us all. In a narrative flowing with compassion, she inspires us to pause in our frenetic struggles against death, to take a breath, and to consider what instills our lives with meaning. Although Dr. Puri doesn’t write from a Christian perspective, the discerning believer can follow her inquiry straight to the cross.Medicine and Spirituality
At a time when physician memoirs achieve bestseller status, Puri’s book stands apart in its engagement of spiritual concerns. While Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air [read TGC’s review] offer rich insights into the complexities of medicine, Puri delves deep into the facets of life that supersede the technicalities of our bodies. She weaves her experiences in medicine with memories of her own upbringing to illustrate how the threads of our lives braid together.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Puri especially draws from her parents’ teachings on religion to untangle conflicts, as in a conversation with her father about a young man with a brain injury: “‘Sometimes, God tests us,’ my father told me. ‘Believing in the impossible is a part of having faith.’ But, I later wondered, isn’t accepting the unbearable also part of having faith?” (58). This tension between acceptance and determination will ring familiar to Christian disciples navigating the hospital. How do we proceed when we know God can perform miracles (Matt. 19:26) but we’re also to trust his sovereignty even over our suffering (Gen. 50:20; Prov. 3:5; Matt. 26:39)?
God’s work through illness and death sharpens in clarity as Puri’s narrative unfolds. “We have our plans as doctors,” she recalls a mentor commenting, “But what if God has another plan for our patients?” (151). Her reflections on faith ultimately foster a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of death and dying: “God’s call. A tiny phrase I had never heard in a medical conversation. Two words that said something enormous, eternal: dying is spiritual, not just medical” (145).
Puri’s reflections on spirituality steer her toward palliative care, a specialty that allows her to come alongside others in their suffering. “As a young doctor,” she recalls, “I was learning how to prevent or fix the body’s dysfunction, but that was different from the act of acknowledging and being with the suffering of another” (65). Throughout, Puri’s luminous prose reflects deep respect for the people under her care. That Good Night swells with empathy and points us repeatedly to the dignity of each individual as an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26).Call to Contemplate
While Puri’s poetic writing lulls one into calm, the content of her memoir demands we snap to attention. That Good Night captures the transience of life, our reliance on God, and the elusiveness of meaning in a medical system that intimidates us with wires, tubing, and jargon. Amid the clamor of intensive medicine, Puri summons us to pause and reflect:
I thought and thought that night, making mint tea and taking a few sips, watching the steam rise from the cup and then disappear. It felt strangely calming to focus on the cooling of heat, to appreciate the fact of temporary warmth. Maybe this, too, was the lesson of mortality: appreciating what we have now, in the midst of life, knowing that it is all a temporary gift. (268)
For the Christian, Puri’s invitation to quiet contemplation doesn’t end with metaphors of life’s temporality. Living our days in the shadow of the cross, we remember that one day the sufferings of this life will roll back like a scroll. Through the promise of Christ, we rejoice in the hope of a new heavens and a new earth, when the need for hospitals, medicines, and hard conversations will be obsolete. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to return to Dr. Puri’s wisdom and to sit with her reminders to prayerfully cling to meaning when the remedies run out.
“The Beatles for the 21st Century.” That’s how the BBC describes seven-member South Korean K-pop group BTS, who have rocketed to global stardom since 2013. They have become “a global sensation that generates mania and devotion in equal measure” (comparable to Beatlemania), shattering records and breaking stereotypes in their ascent to become “the world’s biggest boyband.” A recent performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert made the Beatlemania comparisons explicit. Watch below:
What should Christians know about the BTS phenomenon, and why does it matter?BTS Phenomenon
“How did [BTS] do the impossible, and crack the elusive and highly competitive American market?” Forbes asked. But they didn’t just crack it. They “smashed it to the tune (no pun intended) of 1.6 million song downloads, over a billion online streams, and a veritable army . . . of screaming admirers at each and every appearance on their recent U.S. circuit.” The mania extends internationally.
Koreans everywhere are watching with curiosity. Some are a bit embarrassed, others are quietly proud, but for the most part, we can’t help but be intrigued at our fellow Koreans’ achievements.
Whether you’re a BTS fan or not, it’s hard to ignore their impressive headlines:
Perhaps most astonishing about the BTS phenomenon is that the band’s success has come without them ever making an English-language song. Yet thousands of teenage and adult fans around the world are enjoying, supporting, dancing, and singing along with BTS in transliterated Korean, which they may or may not understand. And they are loving it.
Recently, a non-Korean pastor friend tweeted the following dinner conversation with his teenage girls:
Me: “Who’s BTS?”
Girls frown and pull out their phones.
Me: “So it’s a boy band?”
Girls frown even more. More videos.
Me: “All I see are New Kids on the Block, with better complexion.”
Girls: Who are New Kids?
Two things stood out to me from this tweet: (1) the Korean-speaking/singing BTS is indeed the new New Kids on the Block (or Backstreet Boys, or NSYNC, or One Direction, depending on your generation), and (2) today’s American teenagers receive a minority cultural icon so naturally.What Does BTS Have to Do with the Church?
The Western church should take note of the BTS phenomenon. There are a few lessons it can teach us about our changing world.1. The next-generation church is more open to diversity and willing to be influenced by diverse leaders and influencers.
If the BTS phenomenon reveals anything, I can speculate with hope that the church of tomorrow will be more open to diversity and more willing to be influenced by diversity. Today’s generation of believers, unlike previous generations, will have been more exposed to diversity and will be more willing to submit to diverse leadership. This is a good and hopeful thing.
Today’s generation of believers, unlike previous generations, will have been more exposed to diversity and will be more willing to submit to diverse leadership.
According to Ephesians 4:11–13, God gave the church diversely gifted saints “for the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Imagine the advantage of a diversity of men (and women) in local congregations. How much more will we experience the fullness of Christ when diverse experiences, wisdom, viewpoints, and gifts are cultivated through covenanting together in local churches, by the common unity of the gospel of Jesus Christ?2. The next-generation church ought to look more diverse.
By showing the way pop music can transcend borders and cross cultures, the BTS phenomenon reminds Christians that the gospel of Jesus Christ has always been this way. From the start it was cross-cultural, and today it touches nearly every culture and people group of the world. This is one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of Christianity, and it’s why our churches should work hard to represent the vast multi-ethnicity of God’s kingdom: for the sake of a faithful gospel witness. For our churches to remain generally segregated by color, while continuing to debate about racial reconciliation and social justice, would be to miss the biblical vision of the eternal congregation (Rev. 7:9–12). Our churches should endeavor to grow not in diversity for diversity’s sake, but in gospel-revealing diversity, modeling relationships that would not exist but for the truth and power of the good news. In such congregations, unity is God’s goal, diversity is God’s gift, and discipleship is God’s plan for church growth (Eph. 4:1–16).
Unity is God’s goal. Diversity is God’s gift. Discipleship is God’s plan.
In Western evangelicalism today, I am burdened that there are so few healthy multi-ethnic churches pastored by ethnic minorities. Why is it so difficult for ethnic-minority churches to become multi-ethnic churches? Would it not glorify Christ if more of those in the majority chose to lay down certain privileges and submit to the godly leadership of minority pastors? Of course, the same challenge should also be considered by ethnic-immigrant churches and second-generation homogenous churches. The burden of our segregated churches today should fall on both ethnic majority and minority churches.3. The next Billy Graham may not be white.
On a recent episode of the For the Church podcast, Jared Wilson asked Ed Stetzer who he thought the next Billy Graham would be. Stetzer responded, “The next Billy Graham is the Uber driver who tried to evangelize my wife and me.” Indeed, the BTS phenomenon suggests that the answer to Wilson’s question may be quite unexpected.
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being a no-name house-church pastor in China, faithfully preaching the glorious gospel of Jesus under severe government persecution?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the bold gospel preacher in Kenya, mobilizing pastors and churches against the epidemic tide of prosperity gospel?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the ex-Muslim convert, pastoring alongside a 70-year-old missionary church planter in Iraq?
Could you imagine the next Billy Graham being the persevering Christian in the underground church, evangelizing hundreds of hopeless suffering North Koreans?
No one said he couldn’t be, but I confess I didn’t imagine the next Billy Graham as a person of color—until BTS became the new Beatles.
This should remind us that the aim and standard of Christianity is not one kind of man—whether white, black, brown, or yellow—but the one God-man, Jesus Christ, who laid down his life as a ransom for many. For in him, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Eric Johnston passed the bar exam and started practicing law in 1973. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion on demand. As the founder and president of Alabama Pro-Life Coalition, Johnston has spent much of his legal career fighting to end abortion in this country. Johnston helped to write the Alabama Human Life Protection Act, which makes providing abortion a felony except in cases where there is a serious risk to the mother’s health. Many expect the new law, signed by Alabama’s governor on May 15, to make its way to the Supreme Court where it could, potentially, overturn Roe v. Wade.
Eric Johnston is an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is a member of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. He joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about the legal fight for the right to life for all people.
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
On Tuesday afternoon, the pastor is pulling into the church parking lot after a long lunch meeting with a member when his phone rings. “Hello pastor. As you know, my wife is still recovering from surgery. It’s been a really hard couple of weeks, and I just wanted you to know that nobody has cared for us. Well, a little, but not like we expected. I appreciate you coming to the hospital to pray with us, but we won’t be coming back to your church.” The pastor offers an apology and hangs up the phone—discouraged.
An hour later, he makes a call to check on a sick member. “Pastor, thank you so much for the call. We’ve been so overwhelmed and blessed by the way the church has loved and cared for us during this crisis. Thank you for everything.” After praying with them, he hangs up the phone—grateful.
As he prepares to leave the office for the day, a deacon drops by unannounced. “Hey pastor, do you have a minute? Listen, some folks are really struggling with what happened in that last business meeting. They don’t feel they had much of a voice in the decision, and they’re pretty upset. Just thought you should know.” The pastor leans back in his chair—fearful.
That evening, at a local restaurant, another deacon stops by his table on the way out. “Good to see you, pastor. Listen, I want you to know that we are thankful for your leadership. We support you and the other leaders. Let me know if there’s anything I can help with.” He finishes his meal—encouraged.Wednesday
The next morning, he takes a break from preparing for Wednesday Bible study and checks his email. “Good morning, pastor. I was hoping to meet up, but everyone’s busy. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that we’re going to start visiting other churches. Just looking for something different.” He hangs his head and lets out a deep sigh.
Later in the day, he opens a card that came in the mail. “Pastor, thank you for preaching the Word each week. My family has grown so much in the Lord, and we appreciate your hard work to carefully teach us the Bible.” He tucks the card in his Bible so that he can read it often.
That evening, his phone rings at 10:20 p.m., which is unusual. “Hey pastor, Mom isn’t doing well. The hospice nurse says it won’t be too much longer.”
“Okay, I’ll be right over.” He gets out of bed and gets dressed.Thursday
After returning home in the middle of the night, a notification on his phone wakes him at 8:45 a.m. It was a long night, but he grabs his phone and plays the voicemail. “Pastor, I came by to see you at the office . . . again. Where are you? I need to talk to someone and nobody is ever around. Call me.” He hangs up the phone—exhausted.Saturday
Early Saturday morning he sits at his kitchen table, working on the sermon he tried all week to finish by Thursday. He types out the next sentence feeling disappointed in himself—yet another Saturday where he still has sermon work to do.
Saturday evening, around 10:30 p.m., after a full and fun day with his family, he kisses his wife goodnight and makes his way back to the kitchen table to finish up his sermon. Finally done hours later, he quietly crawls into bed and falls asleep praying.Sunday
The alarm goes off early on Sunday morning. The pastor prepares for the day. He gathers with the saints to worship Jesus, enjoy the fellowship of believers, and preach about the grace and comfort of Christ.
He walks among the flock, shaking hands, listening to prayer requests, and welcoming new faces. After lunch, he grabs a quick nap in his recliner before it’s time to head back for evening activities. His heart is thankful for the call to be an undershepherd of Christ’s flock.Awesome and Awful
Every pastor can relate—at least on some level—to such a week. Some weeks, being a pastor feels like riding an emotional roller coaster. Like the apostle Paul, we have days when our concern for the church is a daily pressure (2 Cor. 11:28). But also like Paul, we have moments when we’re on our knees praying with others, weeping together on account of the gospel’s blessings (Acts 20:36–37).
The mature pastor knows three things.
This is what it’s like when we “shepherd the flock of God among us” (1 Pet. 5:2). The mature pastor knows three things. First, Jesus is the chief shepherd who has called him to be an undershepherd of the flock. Second, shepherds look and smell like sheep, because that’s what they are. And third, all sheep have a way of making the ministry both awesome and awful.
We must remember that what the sheep really need is a heart so full of love for Jesus that it spills out in ways that look and sound like Jesus. That’s why you are their pastor, to preach the good news of Jesus to them, to be among them to teach them to trust Jesus, and to help them get to the end of their race with joy in Jesus.
Each Sunday you walk them down the aisle to Jesus. You remind them of his grace, you seek to stir up hope, and you encourage them that this life is a vapor (James 4:14), that soon they will joyfully bow before their King in glory. On that day, he will wipe away every tear. The emotional roller coaster will come to an eternal end.One of a Thousand
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, there is a picture of a pastor displayed in a room of the Interpreter’s House. He has “his eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth written upon his lips, the world behind his back, ready to plead with men, and a crown of gold did hang over his head.”
Christian asks for an explanation. The Interpreter replies:
The man whose picture this is, is one of a thousand: he can beget children; travail in birth with children; and nurse them himself when they are born. . . . He is sure in the world that comes next to have glory for his reward.
This is you, pastor. One in a thousand, with glory to come. You have been called to a noble task. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Run well and serve in the strength of the Lord, so that on the day of accounting you can joyfully present the bride to Jesus as you hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
According to Scripture, the priority of disciple-making is undeniable. Jesus himself made it abundantly clear: We’re to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). This lies at the heart of the church’s mandate: To make disciples who make disciples.
And church planting is a catalyst for this very endeavor. Church planters, then, must be those who are able to develop a culture of biblical discipleship in their churches.
If we want to see God glorified in the world through the planting of healthy churches, discipleship must be one of our highest priorities. But how does discipleship catalyze church planting? And what exactly do we mean by biblical discipleship?
To help us think about these things, I’m excited to have my friend Scott Zeller with me on the podcast today.
I was trying not to cry as I spoke into the receiver, but I couldn’t hold it in. The tears came, and as a 30-year-old man, I cried into the phone like a 10-year-old boy. It wasn’t pretty. I was speaking with my 60-year-old mentor, and I experienced a great sense of relief as I opened my heart to him.
Also, I’m a pastor. Does that strike you as odd in light of my above experience? Does it change your perception of me? Pastors aren’t superheroes. To be sure, God-called men are meant to be models of Christian maturity, but mature sheep are still sheep. They need a shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4).
As I’ve gained experience as a pastor, I feel little pressure to be a perfectly polished man. Sure, I wrestle with fear of man and other ungodly emotions, but I’ve learned to not hide my brokenness. It serves no point. God sees it, and it will come to light eventually (Luke 8:17). Why not get ahead of it and watch God use the church to help me grow in sanctification?
With all this mind, below are some brief thoughts for both church members and pastors.For Church Members
Church member, your pastor lives in the same fallen world you do. He must meet the moral qualifications of a shepherd (1 Pet. 5:1–5; 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), but there will be times when he cries out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). When your pastor experiences such emotions, pray for him and love him well.
Your pastor is a shepherd, but he’s still a sheep.
Your pastor is a shepherd, but he’s still a sheep. You can serve him by making sure he’s able to attend conferences, workshops, and pastoral groups that will build him up. Shepherd him even as he seeks to do the same for you. I have two brothers in my congregation who are not elders, but whom I nonetheless call or email when I’m struggling. I may not share much other than, “Hey brother, tough day today. Pray for me,” but it’s comforting to know godly brothers are praying for my labors (James 5:16).For Pastors
Pastor, be open and vulnerable with your congregation. Be quick to repent, lead the way in transparency, and seek prayer for issues in your life. Let your congregation see that you are human. It will be good for you own soul, and it will set a healthy example for them. If you aren’t willing to be honest about your pain, your church members will never learn to do so either.
It doesn’t have to be complicated or dramatic. Here are a few practical examples you can implement in your ministry:
- Don’t be afraid to share hard news with the church—anything from relatives dying, to a cancer diagnosis, to learning disabilities in your children.
- As members share their struggles with particular sins, use stories from your own battles to encourage them. Many sheep feel like their shepherds have never struggled with their particular brand of sin. Admitting you’ve had similar issues can go a long way.
- Find church members to whom you can reach out in discouraging times.
One brief warning is in order: Transparency isn’t the ultimate virtue, and it shouldn’t be pursued at all costs. It’s true, many of my fellow pastors would do well to fear man less and be more vulnerable, but others have fallen into the trap of using vulnerability as an excuse for self-promotion. Too often, “being real” trumps being prudent.
If you aren’t willing to be honest about your pain, your church members will never learn to do so either.
While it’s good to be honest with our struggles, even our sins, there is a wise way to do it. The path of wisdom often involves concentric circles of congregational involvement (Matt. 18:15–20) and discretion. Sometimes “exposing” sin means not mentioning the particulars (Eph. 5:11–12), for doing so would be shameful. So pursue transparency wisely, lest you treat sin and the effects of the fall flippantly.
Finally, consider the gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ displayed transparency to his followers in his greatest moments of weakness. From anguish-laden blood drops in prayer (Luke 22:44) to crying out to his Father under the burden of sin on the cross (Matt. 27:46), Christ shows us the way to shepherd in humble transparency. May his undershepherds follow his pattern well.
I don’t know that Koko had ever opened a Bible, let alone studied it verse-by-verse. But as an international student desperate to pass the TOEFL test, she wanted all the English practice she could get.
Koko’s name was actually Hiroko. She was a Japanese college student staying with my young family. My 18-month-old son couldn’t pronounce “Hiroko,” so she quickly became “Koko,” a friend who brought him candy and taught him Japanese words.
While we kept complimenting her English, she was always asking us to correct her. When I asked one day if she’d like to study English with me using the Bible, she quickly said yes.
I’d previously taught ESL during seminary as a way to earn grocery money. But my lessons with Koko were something new. Instead of focusing on conversational vocabulary, I had to find basic English words to explain complicated theological concepts like the Trinity and the incarnation.
The Gospel of John led Koko to new English words—and new ideas about God. But that wasn’t the only way it was new. It was also another unexpected place for me to use my theology degree.Why Go to Seminary?
My plan hadn’t been to teach a Japanese college student while living with my pastor-husband and 18-month-old son in St. Louis. Originally, I went to seminary with the plan of returning to sub-Saharan Africa to teach at a Bible college where I’d spent a summer during college. I was the nerdy girl who got a thrill translating passages from Greek or Hebrew to English in my little cubicle in the quiet library.
I was determined to quickly finish a degree, raise support, and get back to Malawi. I had seen women in many roles on the mission field and knew my degree would be helpful. What I hadn’t anticipated was God’s creativity, and the need for such a degree right here at home.
It’s true that women aren’t licensed or ordained in my denomination. But I had the benefit of some strong female role models and a church that paid for my seminary degree. The Christian men and women around me encouraged me to use my analytical mind and desire to do ministry without worrying too much about what shape any future ministry might take. They gave me the freedom to be trained, asking God along the way how he would want me to use this great gift.
Some of the needs for theologically trained women seem obvious and pressing. We need seminary-trained women on the mission field. We need women who teach Sunday school, lead Bible studies, and mentor younger women. We need women’s ministry directors who help discern how to meet the needs of the women in the church.
I knew these things when I enrolled in seminary. What I didn’t know was all the other ways God would use my exegesis and systematics and Greek and Hebrew for his glory.Loving the Stranger
Koko wasn’t the first person who made me thankful to have theological training. Lydia was another. An Azerbaijani refugee, Lydia first came to our church through the food pantry. She attended our worship gathering sometimes and quickly became known as the generous but sometimes picky regular.
Between her little bit of English and my little bit of Russian (Lydia had learned some Russian as a girl in school), we became friends. I soon learned Lydia was in the process of trying to become an American citizen. English lessons and long, arduous conversations with lots of laughing at ourselves and each other commenced. As a former baker, Lydia would often bring baked delicacies to our meetings.
I heard terrible stories about life in her village that had led to her eventual escape. In the midst of our meetings I was able, little by little, to explain the gospel to her—though her hospitality and generosity far surpassed mine. Through my weak and faltering lessons and her tenacity and hard work, Lydia became a citizen of the United States. I hope one day she’ll become a citizen of heaven, too.
Could a theology degree enable you to welcome the strangers in your own community?Answering Students
After six years as an associate pastor, my husband accepted a call to Savannah, Georgia, to serve as a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship on the campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
There, I got to know young women learning how to create new fibers, animate for films that would end up on big screens, and design the buildings of tomorrow. But they were also learning about God, and they had deep questions.
During the semester, a student and I co-led a women’s Bible study, where—along with the basics of Reformed theology—we discussed the issues on the students’ hearts and minds: What does God think of art? What does your sound-design major have to do with God’s kingdom? How can I make entertainment for the glory of God? Their questions were sincere, but they weren’t simple. In answering them, I was grateful for being trained to interpret and apply the Bible.
Could a theology degree allow you to answer the complex questions of younger women?Writing Curriculum
About five years ago, a friend on staff at my church was looking for Bible study curriculum for busy young moms that was relevant and nourishing, but could be done quickly. They wanted to deepen their understanding of Scripture, but they didn’t want to do homework.
In a moment of frustration at not being able to find the right materials to serve the women of our church, she asked me to write something. Together, we wrote a study on Romans for that group of 20 women, but we found it filled a need for many other Christians. That friend and I are now writing our sixth study for busy women who want to study Scripture in depth but have little time to do so.
Could a theology degree equip you to produce a blog, newsletter, curriculum, or podcast to serve your local church?
I still haven’t made it back to Africa with my diploma. But, over the years, God has shown me that my education hasn’t been wasted. If you’re a woman with a theology degree—or just a solid foundation through your childhood, church, or college ministry—you are needed. Ask God to show you where you could serve others and teach his Word. He just might surprise you.
Where does bad theology begin to go bad? Are there common origin points for heresies?
In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat makes the compelling case that heresies often begin with attempts to neatly resolve the inherent paradoxes of the Christian faith, opting for either/or where orthodoxy is able to hold the both/and in tension:
The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.
This is true of how many heresies begin. When there are knotty paradoxes that are hard to wrap one’s mind around (e.g., the full divinity and full humanity of Christ), we might be tempted to choose one or the other (e.g., Gnostics downplaying Christ’s humanity). We see this even with modern heresies. Those who can’t handle a God who is simultaneously loving and wrathful just dismiss one or the other. Those who struggle to see the both/and of sola fide and James 2:17 tend to pit the two against each other.
But sometimes heresy begins not in a place of head-scratching, frustrating paradox. It simply begins with boredom. It begins when the thrill of orthodoxy is simply not very thrilling to us anymore, when our familiarity with faith breeds contempt, discontentment, and a dangerous restlessness. And so we take it upon ourselves to dress up Christianity, modernize it, reframe and repackage it for a new age.
I see it all the time, particularly (sadly) with people who have grown up in the faith.Boredoms That Can Lead to Heresy
The sort of Christian boredom that can lead to heresy comes in many forms. Here are a few common culprits.1. Boredom with the Bible
Apart from periodic new translations or clever designs, the Christian Bible hasn’t really changed for 1,600 or so years. Some Christians wish it would. What should be a source of great confidence and thrill for Christians—Scripture’s continuity from generation to generation, and its relevance in every epoch of history—is for some a source of angst. They lament the ancient, old-sounding nature of Scripture. They long for a Bible that fits our modern moods and neuroses. They want fresh revelation, a new movement of the Spirit to fit our changing times.
Bored with tired old Sunday school stories that sound like crazy fairy tales to modern ears, and moral dictates that feel harsh or painfully outdated, they start to lose interest in Scripture and its supposed authority. And that’s where problems begin.2. Boredom with the Local Church
I see this one all the time, especially among those who grew up in the church and/or attended a Christian college. Reared with low ecclesiology and an approach to church that casts it mainly in “what you get out of it” consumerist terms, these folks naturally disengage from local church life when it becomes inconvenient, frustrating, or uninspiring. Churches perpetuate the problem by focusing on entertainment and keeping church “fresh” and “relevant” by any means necessary. Invariably, though, even the trendiest church with the greatest zing will bore attendees who have been conditioned to love novelty more than continuity and gimmicks more than the gospel.
Sadly, when boredom leads Christians to stop going to church—even if they say they still believe in Jesus—it almost always leads them to theological heterodoxy. And this should be unsurprising to us, of course: Church community is one of the great checks against heresy. Churchless, DIY faith inevitably becomes unorthodox.
Even the trendiest church with the greatest zing will bore attendees who have been conditioned to love novelty more than continuity and gimmicks more than the gospel.3. Boredom with Christians
This one hits close to home. I grew up in the church. I went to a Christian college. I worked at a Christian university. My full-time jobs have all been with Christian nonprofits. I am an elder in a local church. I’m around Christians constantly and always have been. They can be annoying. The “niceness” can wear on you. The hypocrisy. The jargon. I get why many Christian college graduates long to work in a secular workplace and be “in the world” more relationally. I sometimes long for this myself.
But when boredom leads us to ditch Christian community, it leaves us theologically vulnerable—like the sheep who’s wandered away from the flock. The people who surround us, who we process life with, shape our hearts and ideas profoundly. A Christian life that’s an island is a Christian life bound for theological confusion, or worse.
A Christian life that’s an island is a Christian life bound for theological confusion.4. Boredom with Long Obedience
Eugene Peterson famously described the life of Christian discipleship as a “long obedience in the same direction.” The “long” part and the “same direction” part can be just as challenging as the “obedience” part, especially in our fast-paced, attention-deficit, insta-everything world. Many Christians grow weary by the long, slow process of sanctification. They want immediate results. When change comes slowly and relapses happen often, apathy sets in. Why even bother with the spiritual disciplines? Day after day, week after week, year after year—do I really want to spend my short life beating myself up for my struggles when I could be enjoying myself and accomplishing goals more attainable than Christlikeness?
The question is understandable. But the minute we become bored and apathetic about discipleship is the minute we start softening on the gravity of sin, which leads to all sorts of bad things.5. Boredom with Tradition
Church tradition is not inerrant. Let’s get that out of the way. Where it needs to be reformed, it should. But church tradition—orthodoxy and orthopraxy passed down from generation to generation—is a source of guidance and wisdom we should treasure.
Sadly, many Christians today have bought into the chronological snobbery of our age, where “the newer is the truer” and the past is at best undervalued and at worst viewed with scorn. Many Christians are either ignorant of Christian history, bored by it, or both. They are not compelled by the idea of inheriting a Christianity that has more continuity than discontinuity with the faith of their great-grandparents. They are compelled by a “fresh,” “relevant” Christianity that dispenses with all the old, dusty things in favor of new, shiny things. But this anachronistic posture is dangerous and prone to all manner of theological confusion.
Church tradition—orthodoxy and orthopraxy passed down from generation to generation—is a source of guidance and wisdom we should treasure.Fight Boredom with Wonder
What can we do proactively to avoid these and other types of boredom—and the vulnerability to heresy that comes with them?
We can recognize that all of these things—Scripture, the church, fellow believers, discipleship, tradition—are beautiful gifts to receive, not novelties to reinvent. They are things to steward and cherish, not to use as they suit us and trash when they don’t. They are relevant not because they shape-shift to accommodate the zeitgeist, but because they don’t.
Ultimately when we become bored with things that should actually inspire in us awe and gratitude, the problem is pride. We think our spiritual path is ours to chart. We think when it comes to knowing God and living rightly, “I got this.” But just as pride came before the fall in Eden, so too does this sort of spiritual pride precede our veering away from orthodoxy.
We should see orthodoxy as beautiful because it is bigger than us. It came before us and will be there after we’re gone. We should see its continuity as ballast amid the tumult of life—a source of beauty and stability that is anything but boring.
Hollywood movies like Taken infect our understanding of human trafficking with notions of kidnappings on distant shores and a rogue FBI agent saving the day. But is that an accurate picture? What if a human-trafficking victim was a member of your youth group? Is that even possible? Raleigh Sadler, founder and executive director of Let My People Go, says it is.
Sadler tells the story of Anna, a 17-year-old girl trafficked for sex by her boyfriend. Every Sunday, she sat in the back of a neighborhood church. When Sadler asked Anna how her congregation served her during her exploitation, she laughed. “No one noticed anything. Everyone thought I was happy.”
How many Annas are sitting in your church pews?
In 2013, Sadler founded Let My People Go to equip churches to fight human trafficking in their communities. In his book, Vulnerable: Rethinking Human Trafficking, he offers an extensive discussion of human trafficking and how the church is uniquely qualified to address the problem.Understanding Human Trafficking
Sadler defines human trafficking as “the exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain.” Human trafficking, he asserts, can happen anywhere, “because there are vulnerable people everywhere” (3).
Vulnerable people can be lonely teenagers, a homeless mother desperate for shelter, or an illegal immigrant brought here under false pretenses. They can be runaways—children fleeing physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Their vulnerability places them on a collision course to encounter human traffickers, who are actively looking for them.
Traffickers aren’t “thugs” dressed in black leather jackets. Instead, they can be teachers, intimate partners, or family members, even parents. They use force, fraud, and coercion to manipulate their victims. Traffickers often threaten violence to other family members or deportation to keep the vulnerable working for them. The chains they employ aren’t physical but psychological, yet they are just as real and effective.Defending the Vulnerable
Vulnerable is written for the reader who is anguished and angry about human trafficking but has no clue what to do. How do we launch a fight when the person we seek to help is invisible, even though she may be sitting right beside us?
Vulnerable is written for the reader who is anguished about human trafficking but has no clue what to do.
We must recognize that many who are vulnerable to human trafficking are people we don’t readily associate with human slavery: the homeless, the poor, and children in the foster-care system. In the quest to be a “voice for the voiceless,” we sometimes don’t hear or see the people who need our help. Sadler challenges us to open our eyes:
We need God to open our eyes to the vulnerability right in front of us—on our commutes, in our neighborhoods, and yes, even in our churches. . . . When we intentionally throw ourselves into the paths of foster children, immigrants, and the homeless, for example, we will find ourselves naturally doing the work of prevention, intervention, and aftercare all at once. (109–10)
Vulnerable offers practical tools to help churches and individuals address human trafficking in their communities. The appendix offers “100 ways you can fight human trafficking today,” which include book, website, and video suggestions as well as trustworthy organizations dedicated to ending human slavery.Theological and Practical Insight
One of the great strengths of Vulnerable is Sadler’s comprehensive approach. He gives a clear understanding of what modern-day slavery looks like in the United States, but he also drenches his thoughts in robust theology, and his insights are often profound.
“Vulnerability, or the perceived weakness, is actually not a result of the fall, but rather a gift of God to aid us in loving God and serving others,” he writes. “The fall did not produce vulnerability; it produced the exploitation of vulnerability” (120). Vulnerable people can be exploited because someone promised them food, a safe place to stay, or a job—things they desperately need for survival.
Sadler also discusses two opposing motivations for fighting human trafficking—a theology of glory versus a theology of the cross. “A theology of glory will place a premium on our role in the immediate ‘event’ of rescue, while a theology of the cross directs our focus to see the idea of rescue as more of a process than a defining moment” (54).Where’s the God of Justice?
I’ve seen firsthand the ravages of human trafficking on a young soul. I’ve heard their stories of praying to die rather than face another day of torment at the hands of multiple abusers. It conjures up the age-old question: “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal. 2:17).
The more I come to know him, the harder it has become for me to ask such a God to explain where he has been. In fact, surprisingly, I don’t generally hear victims of abuse doubting the presence of God either. Much more often I hear them asking me, “Where have you been?” (83)
If you’re angry about the injustice of human trafficking, pick up this book and learn to do something about it.
I live in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I teach theology at a small university. Last summer, I was directing an independent study in eschatology during a particularly unstable and violent season. Our task was to think through the coming of Christ in the context of Israel’s future hope. What had God promised his chosen people? What were God’s people expecting from him?
We were reading the prophet Micah when the thunder of distant artillery fire began to shake the room. I’ll never forget the moment.
The text we were reading, Micah 4:3, speaks of the “latter days,” when all the nations will gather at Mount Zion to hear the word of the Lord:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
“What if all of those AK-47s and RPGs were to be gathered up, melted down, and refastened into . . . ” I struggled to complete my metaphor, “basketball goals!” I’m sure I could have come up with something more meaningful, but I think they got the point.Modern Congo and Ancient Israel
Gunfire has echoed through hills of eastern Congo for more than two decades. I’ve heard my students, most of whom have lived their entire lives in this war’s shadow, voice their confidence: “This why we have come here to study! God has called us to serve this hurting nation and lead it into a brighter future!” Still, the political and economic realities of our context frustrate every step toward peace or progress. Could anything be farther from the scene of Micah’s vision? How should the war-weary Congolese Christian read such a text?
Israel also knew the horrors of war in Micah’s day. God’s people lived under the swords and spears of imperial oppression. Peace was a political impossibility. The Lord spoke into this hopelessness. Instruments of destruction transformed into instruments of production and prosperity? This does sound a lot like Yahweh, the God who speaks into chaos and creates a cosmos (Gen. 1:2), who sets an entire nation of captives free (Ex. 14:30), who breathes life into corpses (Ezek. 37:10), the God who redeems. This cosmic promise that God makes through Micah, fulfilled in Christ, is indeed the hope of eastern Congo: in Christ, our God makes all things new.Already but Not Yet
Even if we believe God will keep these promises, there remains a pressing question: Has the glorious future of Micah’s prophesy arrived? New Testament scholars have wrestled with this question for centuries. To what extent does the New Testament present a realized eschatology? Did the New Testament authors believe God’s promises had been fulfilled already in Christ, or were they awaiting their fulfillment at Christ’s return and the redemption of all things?
On the one hand, we believe Christ has come to embody and announce the inauguration of God’s kingdom. Jesus told his followers the kingdom of God was “at hand,” “in your midst,” and even “within you.” The New Testament uses the language of “fulfillment” and “completion,” and often cites the prophets to announce that in Christ the “Day of the Lord” has arrived.
But who are we kidding? You don’t have to live in a war zone to know our present reality is radically different from the scene in Micah’s vision. If the “Day of the Lord” has come, it’s rather disappointing. Suffering saints plead for God to save them, churches struggle and divide, and world powers appear increasingly resistant to Christianity. It seems little has changed. Can my Congolese friends and colleagues stand amid violence and uncertainty and announce, “The kingdom of God is at hand”?
But we live in this tension, between the times of the already and not yet.
Today in eastern Congo, the Lord is raising a new generation of God-fearing leaders who are seeing lives changed through their ministry, but we await the day when all violence and death will cease, and the peace of God’s everlasting kingdom will reign.Why Eschatology Matters
I like to tell my students that when the Spirit-filled people of God follow Jesus in love and sacrifice, they become a sort of sneak preview of the new heavens and new earth. We offer a glimpse of how creation, unspoiled by sin and death, should (and will) look one day. What an honor that our lives could tell the story of a God who steps into the depths of his fallen creation and restores it to its intended glory.
Why does eschatology matter? Because it motivates, directs, and makes sense of our mission as Christ’s ambassadors.
What troubles you most about our fallen world? What breaks your heart? Where do you find the greatest distance between Micah’s vision and the world around us? Imagine what it might look like for God’s kingdom to come in full. What would it look like for swords and spears to become plowshares and pruning hooks?
That frustration and dissatisfaction with the darkness around us shows neither a lack of faith nor a lack of trust in the God who has called us—it shows the opposite. It shows that you believe in God’s promise to remake the cosmos, that you hate sin as he does, that you’re not at home in a world so devastated by death. That hunger for God’s promised future should propel us into faithful service to his coming kingdom. Pray that through God’s transformed people, the Spirit would bring that perfect future into our broken present. This is Christian eschatology: trusting in the promises of God and getting in step with the Spirit as those promises come to fulfillment.No More Weariness, No More Conflict
When the fighting in our region intensified in late 2017, and our community began to strain under the weight of war, a dear friend wrote to me these anticipatory words:
On this day, you look out over a region at rest—long-overdue rest from generations of weariness and conflict. You enjoy the scenery of a place now restored, weight and oppression lifted and now alive with hope and joy. The air now still and quiet as bombs and gunfire are replaced with the sounds of serene life and a functioning creation restored. On this day you observe villages and towns scattered across the landscape and know the people in those places are safe and secure, going about their lives and attending to family needs but not in fear or despair. The violence and corruption that once loomed over and plagued the simplicity of life is no longer present on this day.
This scene, promised in God’s Word, is both our future hope and our present motivation. My students can imagine their beloved country through the lens of Scripture’s promises, and they can work toward that future, knowing they serve a God who turns swords into plowshares.
I’m thankful for Christians doing the hard work of writing or promoting fiction.
I think of fiction writers like Randy Alcorn, who challenges skepticism toward Christian fiction in this refreshing article. I think of non-fiction writers who choose to write novels—Jared C. Wilson, author of Otherworld, and Trevin Wax, author of Clear Winter Nights. Of course, I can’t fail to mention great works of literary criticism like Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well.
I’m hopeful these works will inspire not only an increased enthusiasm for reading fiction, but also an increased dedication to writing fiction. By all means, let us read Flannery O’Connor. Let us read Tolkien and Lewis. (Let us also read contemporary works.) But we shouldn’t stop there. Reading great works should compel us toward writing great works.Fiction Is Sustained Conflict
Many who want to do this stop due to a difficult question: Why do fiction? What problem does it solve? What is its function in the Christian community?
There are many good answers to these questions, including some great ones by S. D. Smith. But these answers are more helpful for readers of fiction than writers of fiction.
A fixation on what fiction can do reinforces a stifling idea: Fiction is only valuable when it uses narrative to teach us about some non-fiction category—psychology, theology, virtue ethics. If I’m always thinking about what I should say, then I’ll lose sight of how I should say it.
We need to re-orientate ourselves to the how of fiction: Simply put, fiction consists of characters with goals who face tough conflicts. A fixation on the what—the moral, the message, the answer—may tempt me to solve my conflict too quickly, overlook my characterization, or rely on clichés to define characters’ goals.
Fiction is sustained conflict. In this line of thinking, a specifically Christian kind of fiction would be a sustained conflict that stems from being in Christ and living in the world.
Here is such a conflict: All Christians long to be in perfect union with the God who created us, dwells within us, and promises to perfect us. Before I say more on this, let me unpack this conflict with the help of two famous authors.(1) T. S. Eliot and Historical Sense
First is the 20th-century modernist poet and Anglican social critic T. S. Eliot. Eliot was particularly keen on modern fiction that took the form of something old, like Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel set in Dublin but framed like Homer’s Odyssey. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot reveals why he liked Joyce’s novel so much. He says any mature poet has something called “historical sense.” This term “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence . . . [it] is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together” (406).
In other words, Eliot wants his readers to know that good literature—fiction included—is defined not by what it does for the reader, but by how accurately it reflects the temporal tension emanating from the author. James Joyce lived in Dublin with concerns vastly different from Homer’s. And yet a sense of timelessness connects them both: There’s something about this tension, between the temporal and the timeless, that is essential to humanity and expressible only in fiction.(2) Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Driving Force of All Literature
The second writer is the globally acclaimed 21st-century Norwegian novelist who wrote a six-volume, 3,600-page novel about himself trying to write his six-volume, 3,600-page novel. You may wonder how this could be at all interesting, and if so you’re not alone.
For me, its main intrigue comes from the struggle caused by the desire to be something great and the hard work it takes to achieve that desire.
Knausgaard, perhaps like many of us, has an urge to be great, divine even—not at the expense of others, but more so for the benefit of the self. Knausgaard’s desire is a kind of secular, literary form of denying himself to strive after something transcendent: literary greatness. This pursuit brought him great fame and fortune, a place in the literary canon forever, but it also brought him great pain.
Like Eliot, who wanted literature that stems from the tension between timelessness and temporality, Knausgaard wants literature stemming from a similar tension. Knausgaard was invited to speak at a lecture series at Yale University in 2017 on this prompt: Why I Write. He said:
The contradiction between the illimitable that dwells within us and our simultaneous limitation and earthboundness is the driving force of all literature and all art . . . but not only that; the longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction and simply exist in the world, undifferentiated from it. (43)
What I want us to get from his answer is this: We are finite, and there is something infinite within us. We are mortal, and there is something immortal within us. Fiction then, as Knausgaard sees it, is the capturing of a personal journey to both articulate and seek a remedy for the tension created as longing to make our limited selves one with the illimitable “that dwells within us.”
As a writer, I hold fast to this idea. And as a Christian, I’ll morph the language a little bit: Christian fiction is sustained conflict where the writer both articulates and seeks to remedy the tension between our human nature and God’s holiness working in us.
This means fiction writing doesn’t have to perfectly teach or represent God’s holiness, but it can demonstrate my pursuit of holiness.
Fiction can be a story that describes and sustains the intense, personal struggle between our sinfulness and our sanctification. For who among us has seen this struggle resolved?
This emphasis on the struggle between sinfulness and sanctification gives Christian writers a unique, biblical conflict that can be useful for any genre of fiction.No Choice but to Write
I think of writing, then, as stemming directly from the tension between our finite selves and the Infinite One who says our body is his temple.
Fiction isn’t the resolution to that tension. What makes fiction good is not its resolution, but its tension. I agree with Knausgaard: Tension is the driving force of all literature, of all life, and that’s why every story needs conflict.
What makes fiction good is not its resolution, but its tension.
I say this not to discourage any writers from caring about resolutions, or to stop everyone from wishing to use their narratives to shed light on theological or historical matters. I say this primarily to writers who are looking for a place to start, and want to know if it’s okay to write if they don’t know where they’ll end up. The answer is yes.
Let fiction be a means of coming to terms with the conflict you face on this earth—an attempt to understand your own longings for and against God’s Spirit dwelling in you. So let tension reign in your fiction. Never let it go. Hold on to it as long as you can, and don’t settle for cheap resolutions.
Christians, we are beings in tension. And this is biblical. We live in an already/not yet world, where God has promised to resolve all things, eradicate all evil, and redeem all his elect to him. His victory is assured. Nothing can stop his plan, but he hasn’t yet brought everything to completion.
Fiction offers a unique and unparalleled way to point to God’s glory without diminishing the tension we experience. That is the nature of fiction, and that is why we have no choice but to write.
While I was in seminary, I attended a church-planting conference put on by Acts 29. One of my main takeaways was the strategic importance of planting urban churches and reaching big cities with the gospel. This all resonated with me. Ministry is about going where the people are, and increasingly, people are in the cities.
As I continued my studies, I started to make plans to plant a church in Vancouver, British Columbia (population 2 million), where I was attending seminary. I could see the massive need for gospel witness in that city, and I reasoned there was no point in moving elsewhere.
In God’s providence, I moved to rural Ohio.There and Back Again
God opened the door for me to pastor a small country church in the town of Sulphur Springs (population 194). I served four years there before being called to another church Waverly, New York (population 4,444). Though still a small town, this community had a different vibe to it. The neighboring town even had a Walmart.
After about three years, my wife and I sensed God was calling us elsewhere. Having cut our teeth on small-town, small-church ministry, we thought it was maybe time to make the jump to urban ministry. Perhaps not as big as Vancouver, but at least a city we had actually heard of before.
To make a long story short, we were called to serve in Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania (population 765).
Snow Shoe is an old coal-mining town situated on a mountain just off I-80 in central Pennsylvania. When we first moved to Snow Shoe, there wasn’t much housing inventory to choose from, so we rented until a suitable house came on the market. During this time, many people in the church made it clear they wanted us right in Snow Shoe and not “down the mountain” or in some neighboring community. It was evident this was a tight-knit community where relations run deep.Surprises Galore
I’ll never forget the first big snow that first winter. It was around 6 a.m., still dark out, and I was just waking up. To my great surprise, I noticed someone plowing our driveway. Turns out it was our next-door neighbor, John. In the three years since, we’ve never once had to plow our driveway. Even the time after John had surgery, he still found someone else to plow our driveway. Crazy, but that kind of benevolence isn’t uncommon in Snow Shoe.
One of the things I love about our town is there are no backyard fences. Granted, there aren’t many streets, and there is lots of space, but it’s great not to be confined in a way that most city-dwellers are. In all reality, kids don’t spent time outside playing like they used to, and that’s unfortunate. My wife and I try to get the kids outside as much as possible and our yard (along with the neighbors’) gives them plenty of safe space in which to explore and have fun.
Another surprise for us were the rattlesnakes. We were warned many times about them, and the one time I did spot one, I kept my distance. But I’ll never forget when our church hosted a “wild game night.” There were all kinds of delicacies like turtle, venison, elk, bear, beaver, wild turkey, and more. But my personal favorite was rattlesnake. “Tastes like chicken,” we were told. (Sure enough, it did!)Small Community, Big Accountability
As we became more visible in those early months, I realized that people in the community (who didn’t attend our church) knew me before I knew them. I wondered how, since we’d just moved. Evidently, word got around that there was a new pastor in town.
I soon discovered that our local grocery store, Halls, was a great place to meet people. Halls is also a hardware store, our only bank, our only “chain” anything (Subway), and our local library (the bookmobile comes once a week). It’s rare for me to go to Halls and not meet a member from our church or an acquaintance from the community.
This reminds me that living a godly life matters for the pastor (1 Pet. 5:2–4). I don’t want the headline on the community Facebook page to read, “Pastor flips out on cashier!” As much as I crave anonymity and invisibility, it’s not going to happen in a small town, and that’s a good thing. Every visit to Halls is a ministry opportunity. You never know who you might bump into, and this has given me several opportunities for gospel conversations. And I thank the Lord for it.Many Gospel Opportunities
Many more stories could be told about what makes ministry in Snow Shoe both unique and rewarding. But the greatest blessing is being able to minister the Word of God week in and week out. Three, and sometimes four times a week, I have the privilege of preaching and teaching God’s Word. Just like anywhere (both urban and rural), there is much gospel illiteracy, but God has given me a platform to bring his light to a people searching for answers.
Ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. At the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord.
One example is our annual “Light the Night” community event, which kicks off the Christmas season. Our first year I was privileged to give a 10-minute message before they lit the big tree and Santa showed up. I did my best to give a clear presentation of the gospel to this large crowd, most of whom were unchurched. To my surprise, after it was all finished, the organizer said, “See you next year, pastor.” I was expecting a “one and done” kind of thing, but that was not the case.
I’ve come to realize that ministry is ministry, no matter where you go. Just like any town or church, there are many challenges, but at the heart of it all is this: People need the Lord. Snow Shoe is a small town, but there are still many unregenerate people. Much work remains.
If the Lord calls you to pastor a small-town church, expect to be blessed. Expect to be blessed in surprising ways, and don’t see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Oh there will be challenges, no doubt, but preach the Word, love the people, and believe in the power of the gospel to change lives.
Last week the state of Alabama enacted one of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country. The law makes the performance of an abortion a felony punishable by life imprisonment of not more than 99 years or less than 10 years.
The law allows an exemption if the abortion is deemed necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother, but it allows for no exception in cases of rape or incest. In what appears to have been a response to the law, President Trump tweeted over the weekend,
As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. . . . We must stick together and Win . . . for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!
When asked what prompted the president, a senior White House official told CBS News, “It’s private conversation, but also I think it’s a personal thing that this is the best way to be pro-life . . . which is that you have these exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.”
Many Americans seem to agree with President Trump that “best way to be pro-life” is to allow these three exceptions. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of pro-lifers (57 percent) think abortion is allowable if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and also two-thirds (71 percent) think abortion should be legal if a woman’s life would be endangered.
Are they right? Should a consistent pro-lifer consider one or all of these exceptions to be a legitimate reason to allow the death of an unborn child? Let’s examine the justification for each exemption and weigh them against the standards normally accepted as being a consistent with a robust defense of unborn life.
(NB: For the sake of brevity I’ve had to elide over the more emotion-based arguments that are often used to justify these exemptions. However, Christians should not ignore such concerns. While the issue can be debated in an emotionally neutral manner, we should never forget that these exemptions are considered necessary because they result from difficult or horrific situations and can have a profound effect on the lives of women.)Evaluating the Exemptions
The fact that incest remains on the list of possible exemptions to abortion is a sign that many people have not given the issue sufficient consideration.
The legal definition of incest is sexual contact between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces. In 18 states first cousins are also included in the definition of incest.
Incest is a crime in all states, and is illegal in 48 states even if consensual by both parties. Yet when most people think of incest they are likely assuming that the sexual contact was nonconsensual, such as in cases where a father impregnates his minor child. But a pregnancy that results from nonconsensual sex is rape—even if the rapist is a blood relative. If what we oppose about a pregnancy resulting from incest is the rape, then there is no need to create a redundant category. We could reduce “rape or incest” to the single category of “rape.”
What about when the sexual contact was consensual? Even if we believe (as I do) that incest between consenting adults should remain illegal, there is no reason to think it justifies allowing an abortion. If abortion is prohibited on moral grounds, why would there be an exception for a woman who was impregnated by consensual sex with her cousin?
The reasoning against incest is usually grounded in the potential damage it can have to family life or the risk of passing on genetic diseases. Neither reason, though, is moral grounds on which a consistent pro-lifer would support an abortion. We don’t support the killing of an unborn child because the child might disrupt a family. We also don’t support aborting children when they have already been diagnosed with a genetic malady, such as Down syndrome, so why would we support an abortion to prevent potential genetic conditions?
Including an exemption for rape is understandable, and it may even be necessary legally. But from a consistent pro-life perspective it would not be moral. As Trevin Wax says, “Allowing abortion in the case of rape is not the way to express sympathy toward a victim of this crime. Abortion only destroys the life of another victim.”
The philosopher Steven Wagner provides a thought experiment to show why rape, while a horrific crime, is not a legitimate justification for an abortion. Imagine that a woman named Mary wakes up in a strange cabin and has no idea how she got there. She goes to the window and sees snow piled so high that she can’t leave. On the desk by the window, she finds a note that says, “You will be here for six weeks. You are safe, and your child is, too. There is plenty of food and water.”
Since she just gave birth a week ago, she instinctively begins tearing through each room of the cabin looking for her infant son. She finds an infant in a second room, but it is not her infant. It is a girl who appears to be about one week old, just like her son. She then goes to the kitchen area of the cabin and finds a huge store of food and a ready source of water. The baby begins to cry, and she rightly assesses that the baby is hungry. Mary sees a three-month supply of formula on the counter in the kitchen area.
Now imagine that the police show up at the cabin six weeks later. The police say, “We’re so glad you’re okay. Is there anyone else in the cabin?” Mary says, “There was.” The police search the cabin and find the infant formula unopened on the counter. They find the infant dead on a bed. The coroner confirms that the infant died from starvation. Did Mary do anything wrong?
Our moral intuition tells us that Mary was wrong for not feeding the baby. She didn’t ask to put in that situation, but we still think the obligation to feed the child exists even if her only option is to use her own body to breastfeed that child. And even if the note Mary found had a fourth line saying, “If the child in the cabin dies, you will be rescued immediately,” we still would not think she was justified in killing the baby either actively or passively. Dependency is not a justification for killing an innocent human being.
The situation for Mary is similar to the plight of a rape victim. As Wagner explains:
Mary didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation in which she now finds herself, with a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Similarly, the woman pregnant from rape didn’t do anything to put herself in the situation, but she now has a child totally dependent on her body for survival. Both Mary and the woman pregnant from rape are de facto guardians, and as such, they both have the obligation (moral and legal) to feed and shelter the children in their care, regardless of the fact that they didn’t consent to be in the situation they are in.
Protecting the Life of the Mother
Our final category of exemption is the strongest, and likely to be the only morally consistent justification for allowing an abortion: to save the life of the mother. But even this category is more morally complex than most people realize.
The standard most often applied to this category of exemption is the principle of double effect. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, “According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or ‘double effect’) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end.” This principle requires an action to meet four criteria:
1. The act itself must be good.
2. The only thing that one can intend is the good act, not the foreseen but unintended bad effect.
3. The good effect cannot arise from the bad effect; otherwise, one would do evil to achieve good.
4. The unintended but foreseen bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good being performed.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center explains that the classic case of this principle is a pregnant woman who has advanced uterine cancer. The removal of the cancerous uterus will result in the death of the baby, but it would be permissible under the principle of double effect.
One can see how the conditions would be satisfied in this case: 1) The act itself is good; it is the removal of a diseased organ. 2) All that one intends is the removal of the diseased organ. One does not want the death of the baby, either as a means or an end. Nonetheless, one sees that the unborn child will die as a result of the removal of the diseased organ. 3) The good action, the healing of the woman, arises from the removal of the diseased uterus, not from the regrettable death of the baby which is foreseen and unintended. 4) The unintended and indirect death of the child is not disproportionate to the good which is done, which is saving the mother’s life.
This principle, however, does not justify abortion for any and all serious medical threats. A woman with hypertension might become less likely to die of the condition if she were to have an abortion. Yet that in itself would not provide a moral justification to kill an unborn child.
Setting aside whether the category is moral, the legal exception may be allowable on the ground that it is unlikely ever to be necessary. Despite the claims made by pro-abortion groups, there is a dearth of evidence that an abortion is every medically necessary to save the life of a mother. From 2011 to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control recorded 2,726 deaths that were found to be pregnancy-related caused by 11 conditions. While some of the conditions could be caused by abortion and thus led to a woman’s death, there is no evidence that having an abortion would have prevented any of the deaths.
My neighborhood in Detroit is rightly classified as “the hood.” To be sure, there are more dangerous areas in the world, but my block isn’t Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.
Here, “neighboring” has become a lost art. People live in close proximity, but most are relationally distant, if not complete strangers. Constant crime, mistrust, fear, and poverty are pervasive and have shattered notions of being neighbors for many Detroiters.
While it’s easy to criticize others, years ago I realized I’d effectively removed “neighboring” from my own life. I walked the streets in a hoodie, scowling, with my hand in my pocket to look threatening and unapproachable. Subconsciously—yet inexcusably—I’d closed up my life because of trauma. The pain and loss I’d experienced just felt too suffocating.
So over time, I put up walls—hoping to protect myself from more pain. Having my brother murdered—and then losing many others to violence here in Detroit—had a devastating effect on me.
I’d allowed pain and fear to prevent me from being a good neighbor.Hard-Won Credibility
Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to love those in our community, for this command is central to Christianity (Matt. 22:39). So once I’d repented of my lack of neighbor love, we began the journey of planting a church here in Detroit. Knowing the city’s history—and the historic lack of love those around us have experienced—we wanted to address some of the community’s most pressing felt needs.
So before we had even a single worship service, we partnered with a local school, various city organizations, and completed five service projects—all with the ambition to love and serve our neighbors in practical ways.
Why did we choose to prioritize these things? Unfortunately, the church as a whole—and black clergy in particular—often carry a stigma of fleecing the flock in my community. Our motives were constantly questioned. I had to acknowledge the past errors of others, often repeating the same phrase: “I’m so sorry that happened here, but we are different. We are here to serve, not take.”
I’ll never forget the bittersweet mix of exuberant gladness and sobering realism as we led an initiative called Project Nehemiah. With the help of partnering churches, we commercially secured 13 abandoned homes and cleared several overgrown grass lots. But there were several homes we had to avoid altogether due to fear of what we might discover.
I was moved to tears of joy as I saw people in my community embrace sweaty strangers alongside whom they served. And yet many of us shed tears of a different kind as we heard of the horrific crimes committed in these homes. The pain and brokenness in our community echoed throughout the halls in which we labored. But, difficult though this project was, it both strengthened our credibility in the community and also provided us immediate contact with numerous locals.
Church planter, do the people in your community see your church as merely a provider of religious goods and services, a spiritual organization vying for their attention in competition with other churches? Or do they recognize you as humble and loving servants of Jesus Christ?Through the Valley
To this point in our young church, the funerals have outnumbered the weddings, and I’ve been to more arraignments and court cases than graduations. We’ve walked with many through the valley of the shadow of death, in order to display the Lord of life.
We’ve seen much gospel transformation, by God’s grace, but we’ve also walked with people through incredibly dark seasons. This has become an unexpected way we’ve loved people in our neighborhood.
To this point in our young church, the funerals have outnumbered the weddings, and I’ve been to more arraignments and court cases than graduations.
Recently we experienced a situation that had our church reeling for months. A grievous sin issue left lives damaged, our body devastated, and my leadership tested. God be praised that he permitted his light to pierce through this darkness.
By providing extensive counseling, shoulders to cry on, and tangible resources and care, we saw the Lord work restoration in this situation. And not only that, we’ve discovered that many in our community look to our church as a stabilizing force and consistent presence amid their chaos and inconsistency.
Is your church body a place of refuge for your neighbors amid the storms of life?
“It is not good for man to be alone.” These words, spoken by God, initiated the first marriage. Adam and Eve never had to question whether they had found “the one.” There were no other options!
If you hope to be married some day, you’ve probably asked the question our first parents didn’t. So how can you know when you’ve met the person you should marry? Do you need to share all the same interests? What about physical attraction? Is it okay to have theological differences? Is it normal to get cold feet, or should that be a red flag?
In this discussion, Jackie Hill Perry, Jen Wilkin, and Jen Pollock Michel discuss the relationships that led to their own marriages, and how and when they met the men they would marry.
Is your church budget helping or hurting your church’s ministry? That’s an especially important question if you’re the pastor of your church.
So often as pastors, we largely dismiss the budget as something quite unrelated to our work. But your budget is probably the best record of what your church really values. More than your website, more than your glossy brochures, more than what you say you value. And that means that moving toward a healthier church will necessarily involve moving toward a healthier church budget.
With that end in mind, here are five things that a pastor needs to know about his church’s budget.1. Your Budget Contains Your Real Philosophy of Ministry
Consider how often budget conversations are actually ministry conversations. The children’s ministry director wants to turn his wing of the building into a first-rate children’s attraction. He sees that as funding the Great Commission. Others fear it would simply encourage church consumerism. Who’s right? That’s a really important question to answer.
Your budget is probably the best record of what your church really values. More than your website, more than your glossy brochures, more than what you say you value.
All too often, churches try to move toward a healthier, more biblical model of ministry without realizing that, like a ball and chain, the budget is pulling them back. We might want our people to see that being a Christian is to be a spiritual provider rather than a spiritual consumer, but the programs enshrined in the budget are all geared toward treating people as consumers. Or maybe we want our people to discover the joy of friendships where we share only Christ in common—like the Jew-Gentile friendships of Ephesians 2:14. But a quick glance through the budget shows money for a singles ministry, for a contemporary music service, for a senior adult breakfast, and so forth—programs that emphasize homogeneity. That doesn’t mean those ministries and programs aren’t worth funding, but we often don’t fully understand how the budget might be competing with the direction we want the church to go.2. Your Budget Is a Tool for Teaching
Your budget is written in the language of money, but it isn’t fundamentally about money. It’s about value. That means it’s full of opportunities to teach your congregation about the things they should value. A few examples:
- When you present budget reports, you can talk about why we give. Not to “lend God a hand” (as if his purposes are helplessly on hold until we cough up some cash), but to be counted as faithful.
- When you’re behind budget, teach that God will always provide what we really need—and a budget that is 10 percent behind is simply a budget that was 10 percent overextended.
- When you’re ahead of budget, teach the importance of finding excellent opportunities to deploy that money for the kingdom. Being ahead doesn’t mean we’ve succeeded; it simply means we have more work to do to be faithful stewards.
Your church budget is full of rich opportunities for teaching in a language (money) that everyone understands. Why would you ever talk about the budget without taking advantage of that opportunity to teach?3. Your Budget Is a Tool for Prayer
Your budget is an excellent summary of how your church is seeking to obey the Great Commission. “Make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 18:19–20)—that’s what your budget is all about, isn’t it? And if you’ve designed your budget well, there isn’t a single ambition in your budget that can happen unless God does the work. “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Moving toward a healthier church will necessarily involve moving toward a healthier church budget.
So do you pray for the items in your budget? Does your congregation pray for the items in your budget? How many ministries are worthy of your church’s money but not worthy of their time in prayer?
As you consider the hopes attached to each line item in the budget, pray that God would do everything you’re dreaming of—and more. Follow Paul’s model in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “We constantly pray for you . . . that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.”4. Your Budget Can Show That People Are More Important Than the Budget
One of the most precious commodities a pastor trades in is his congregation’s trust that when he asks them to give, it’s because he loves them, not their money. Many times, I’ve said something like this to my congregation: “I don’t care nearly as much about meeting this budget as I do the conversation you’ll have with Jesus someday about your faithfulness. I love all the good in our budget, but you being faithful is much more important.”
Yet how genuine does that sound if my congregation knows that my back is up against the wall, the budget is tight, and unless they give, I’ll need to lay off staff? Structure your budget to help your people know that you love them more than you love their money. Build a reserve fund, include flex in the budget, save some one-time expenses until late in the budget year—these are all important tools at your disposal so that you will rarely have mixed motives in asking your congregation to give.
Use your budget to help your people trust that you love them more than you love their money.
And when your church does need to meet the budget—either to avoid some dire consequence or take advantage of some unique opportunity—be honest with your church. Explain that this is an exceptional situation, explain how you got here, and explain what you’re doing to make sure that this remains an exceptional situation.
Use your budget to help your people trust that you love them more than you love their money.5. Your Budget Is a Pastoral Responsibility
In many ways, a church budget operates like a spiritually oriented mutual fund. In a financial mutual fund, thousands of investors entrust their money to an investment manager who looks for the best opportunities to invest that money in line with the fund’s goals, so that someday those people will see a return on that investment.
Do you see the similarity to your church budget? Every year, your congregation entrusts a significant portion of their wealth to the church. Your church “invests” that money in kingdom-oriented work. And one day, each of these saints will stand before the Lord to give account for how they’ve stewarded what he entrusted to them (2 Cor. 5:10). I hope that on that day they are grateful for every bit of money they gave to your church budget.
Your church budget is a far more potent pastoral tool than many church leaders realize.
Now, who are the right “investment managers” for that spiritual mutual fund? As administratively complex as a budget is, it’s even more complex at a spiritual level. Should we invest more in this missionary or bring him home? Are we better off putting more money toward the church building or giving it to a local ministry? How much should we pay our staff? Those questions require spiritual discernment and to answer them you should take advantage of the spiritual leaders God has given you: your pastors/elders.
Pastors need help from administratively minded individuals. Pastors always work with accountability to the congregation. But at least at a high level, budget leadership should come from a church’s pastors. In particular, I’ve found it useful for pastors/elders to be involved in the budget process at whatever level of detail is necessary to oversee seven basic tasks:
- Set the budget’s income estimate.
- Determine if high-level allocations of money within the budget are appropriate (staff vs. missions vs. programs vs. building, and so on).
- Ensure quality control for each budget line (Is this a worthy use of a church’s money?).
- Balance long-term plans with emerging opportunities for ministry.
- Assess which opportunities for ministry a church is uniquely equipped to undertake.
- Communicate the budget.
- Decide when and how to break the budget.
A church’s philosophy of ministry is locked into its budget, and so your budget will either stifle or accelerate any attempts to move your congregation toward a biblical model of church health. That means that your church budget is a far more potent pastoral tool than many church leaders realize. Use it wisely!
The following quotes caught my attention as I (Matt Smethurst) read Christopher Ash’s brilliant new book, The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (But Is Too Embarrassed to Ask) (The Good Book Company, 2019).
If you and I do not care for our pastors, then they will not be able to care for us. (11)
We tend to see our pastors at their most polished. I want us to see them, or at least imagine them, as they are. (13)
Delegation is evidence that our pastors do care for us, not that they don’t. (29)
We might want to say that motivating the pastor is up to them; they need to find motivation from the depths of their own souls, from their own walk with the Lord Jesus, or—failing that—from their fellow pastors or perhaps a more senior pastor. All that may be true. But the surprising answer the Bible gives is that we, the ordinary church members, are the ones who can motivate our pastors. (31)
Unless there is at least some whisper of joy in [pastors’] hearts as they do their work, some spring of gladness in their step, they will never persevere to the end. And—and this is the point—it is we who will suffer. (32)
Nothing so drains a pastor of vital energy as having to preach to, having to go on praying for, having to try to lead and care for men and women who are impervious to the good news of God’s grace. Hardness of heart is the great pastor-killer. (40)
Few things so encourage a pastor as eager listeners and learners. “I am so looking forward to Sunday’s sermon!” I remember a church member saying this to me, and the effect on my prayer and preparation was electric: “If they are so eager to hear, the least I can do is get out of bed in the morning and labor hard at the word, so there is something worth hearing!” (41)
It is much easier to criticize preaching than to do it. (43)
It is a tremendous encouragement to our pastors when we thank them for their preaching, their teaching, or their personal words of Bible exhortation or comfort. . . . Being specific about something that helped you will be a particular encouragement to your pastor. (45)
Joy in pastoral ministry is fueled, perhaps most deeply of all, by signs of a local church who are walking in the truth together. In contrast, one of the most common and most corrosive vices is the Western habit of casual attendance. . . . You and I have no idea just what a motivating effect our simple regular presence can have on our pastors. (50–51, 56)
The way we speak of a church is rather like the language we might use of a sports team we support. The transition from “they” to “we” is the big marker. When I first began to follow Swansea City F.C., I used to say, “They are in such-and-such a place in the football (soccer) league.” But the time needed to come when I said, “We are. . . . We signed a good striker” (or maybe we didn’t). Is there a church you attend or is it a church to which you belong? Is it “they” (or “it”), or is it “we”? (52)
If you are a pastor and your church members think you have it all sorted, then you are unwittingly deceiving them. (62)
Pastors have no monopoly on pressure. And yet there are some distinctive ways in which pastoral ministry is draining, because people in need are draining, and it is in the nature of pastoral work that it involves intensive engagement with people in great need. All Christians rub up against sadness—but pastors are required to live with grief up close and personal. When the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus by faith, he was somehow conscious that power had gone out from him (Mark 5:30); there may be an analogous sense in which those who show pastoral care can feel how it drains them. Plenty of pastors can testify to this. (77)
There is no doubt in my mind that churches that show kindness will have still better pastors as a result; for it is only natural that their pastors will return to their pastoral leadership with a fresh determination to love and care for, to teach and preach to, and to pray for these who have so loved them. . . . We must never underestimate the significance of our simple, practical, loving kindness to our pastors. (85, 86)
When we expect too much of our pastor’s children, it can become a crushing burden for them and their parents. When they feel they are growing up in a Pharisaical goldfish bowl, being watched and judged for every misdemeanor, it is not surprising if they kick against the faith of their parents. (89)
A church leader is particularly vulnerable to rumors, gossip, and false accusations, especially in our litigious age. Paul invokes a principle from Old Testament law, which said that an accusation must be properly checked and double-checked, to make sure it is really true. So, when we hear a tidbit of gossip about our pastor, how should we respond? Check that it’s true. “So, who did you hear this from? Have you spoken to the pastor directly about this to check it out? No? Well, then you are joining in with malicious gossip. So, how about you and I meet the pastor and say we have heard this rumor? Let’s see what explanation there might be.” (95–96)
I remember shocking the church I served by saying once, in a sermon, “If I have an affair, I hope you will love me enough to put me out of fellowship until I repent, and to stand me down from being your pastor.” But it was true; I did hope that. I would hate to serve a church who didn’t care about my godliness. (98)
Even with shared leadership, we should let the one entrusted with senior leadership actually lead. (104)
Some people are dreamers and visionaries who find it deeply uncongenial to sign up for another’s leadership; they always want their church to be pursuing their particular version of the gospel vision. They will be a pain in the pastor’s neck. (107)
We need to learn gladly to submit to the gospel authority of our pastors as they lead our churches. And not just to submit negatively—resolving not to cause trouble—but to submit gladly and energetically, engaging our energies with zeal in playing our part in pursuing a gospel vision that may not have been our first choice. (107–08)
If you want a better pastor, you can get one by praying for the one you already have! (122)
Speared to death.
The phrase has been written so many times it’s almost lost its meaning.
Five American missionaries, speared to death by members of an Amazonian people group. The widow and the bereaved sister who forgave the killers and lived with them in order to share the story of Jesus.
American evangelicals tell this story again and again—on radio and in magazines, at concerts and conferences, in books and movies. Sometimes we flesh it out, sharing details from that week in January 1956 when the five men died, or from Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint’s early life with the tribe. More often we mention it in passing, a reminder of why we’re talking about Elisabeth Elliot in the first place or the lead-in to an update on the Saint family’s ongoing relationship with the Waorani.
We’ve been telling the story for 63 years and counting, after all. We know what happened.
But in God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador, historian Kathryn T. Long suggests we may not know as much as we think.Romanticized Version
We never know all the details when we report on a true story, but even those we do know often can’t fit in the space allotted to our telling. We have to pick and choose which details to weave into the account, and which to lay aside. This process of selection, whether we’re aware of it or not, shapes what we believe to be history.
Long gathers up the available threads of America’s most-told missionary story. She re-examines the familiar portion of events, filling in historical and cultural context around the 1956 attempt to contact the Waorani. Then she goes on to trace the story as it continues to the present.
Disciple-making appears to be slow, uncertain, and messy in the rainforests of Ecuador, just as it is in the United States.
In the process, Long introduces an array of characters almost entirely absent from the story we usually tell: additional evangelical missionaries, Catholic missionaries, oil company executives, plantation owners, land grabbers, politicians, environmentalists, anthropologists, reporters, tourists, and especially the Waorani themselves. She shows a bigger picture, both in the variety of perspectives and also across time.
As Long retells the story, she also explores the narrower ways it has been told over the years. With meticulous research, she reports the initial evangelical response to the deaths of the five Americans. Elisabeth Elliot’s first book, Through Gates of Splendor, set the tone for subsequent characterizations, although she wrote it, hastily and unexpectedly, less than a year after the traumatic death of her young husband. The dust of her grief hadn’t even had time to settle when she was tasked with deciding how to present the story of her loss to the world.
The book provides an invaluable alternative to our cultural tendency to treat facts as ammunition, useful primarily to convince others that we’re right.
Long points out that one of the storytelling choices made in Through Gates of Splendor was the elision of context. She calls it “a brief book that created its own world.”
There were no overt references to missionaries of the past or any but the most cursory discussions of social and cultural contexts apart from those defined by the lives of the five missionaries. Readers weren’t told that other missionaries besides the five men had hoped to contact the Waorani.
Long examines the way in which the decision to simplify events was made again and again as the story was told and retold through the years. While all storytelling necessitates curating facts, a pattern emerges: The details that have been repeatedly included tell a straightforward, understandable, and triumphal story. Those laid aside convey complexity, messiness, and mundanity. Over time, Long suggests, a “romanticized” version of history became “entrenched” as the story: “A group of jungle killers had embraced Christ, rejected violence, put on clothes, become literate, and were reading the New Testament. . . . The deaths of the five missionaries had been vindicated by the redemption of the Waorani.”
The story that emerges in God in the Rainforest is more complicated. Some Waorani professed Christian faith. Many didn’t. Christianity has meant different things to different Waorani at different times. For some it seems to have been an economic system as much or more than a spiritual system. Some Waorani rejected violence. Others continued to spear. Literacy is far from universal. A Wao New Testament wasn’t available until 1992. Disciple-making appears to be slow, uncertain, and messy in the rainforests of Ecuador, just as it is in the United States.Provocative Questions
Long’s approach is thoughtful, scholarly, and eminently readable. She is interested neither in defending nor in challenging the prevailing story, but in providing “enough evidence for readers to make up their own minds.” In this way the book offers an invaluable alternative to our cultural tendency to treat facts as ammunition, useful primarily to convince others that we’re right.
It’s beyond the scope of God in the Rainforest to answer some of the most provocative questions it raises. But Long’s two-strand approach—retelling the story with more facts that change it in important ways, while also examining how we’ve chosen to tell ourselves the story over time—gives us a chance to grapple with them.
We can ask why we’re still telling this story, this way, more than six decades later. We can consider the ways in which telling a story might be both the same as and different from telling the truth. We can question how our 21st-century American lens changes the stories we tell, and how we might seek a global historical perspective.
What we do with these questions will shape our understanding of the past—and how we share the life of Jesus in the present.
Last week I sent my son to his room for being unkind to his brother. I heard wailing for a long time. Well, at least he feels bad about what he did, I thought.
When I went in to talk to him about it, it was clear that his tears were self-centered. He was sad about his circumstances, but he wasn’t sad about his sin. I asked hopefully, “Are you crying because you hurt your brother?” Yeah, right. His blank stare told me he hadn’t even considered that.
Nobody likes discipline. Hebrews 12:11 calls all discipline “painful rather than pleasant.” It’s no surprise when our kids respond with sadness. But sadness isn’t always a sign of repentance.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul puts feelings of guilt into two categories, godly grief and worldly grief: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” One grief produces life and one produces death.
So, how do we know if our kids are experiencing the right kind of grief, and how can we respond?Worldly Grief
Feelings of guilt are a natural, human reaction to sin. We all have God’s law written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). Everyone has a conscience. But guilty feelings aren’t sufficient to save us.
Instead of crying out to God for mercy, worldly grief runs from guilt. It stifles it through self-pity, anger, and pride. Worldly grief makes excuses: “I couldn’t help it.” It blames others: “It’s her fault.” It compares: “I’m not as bad as he is.” It negotiates: “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m usually good.”
When worldly grief isn’t running, it’s often wallowing. Wallowing in guilt might look like repentance, but it’s really a sort of penance. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we experience enough sadness over our sin, it somehow diminishes it. Or at least it distracts from it: “How could I be a bad person if I’m this sad?”
But sadness isn’t enough. We know from Hebrews 12 that Esau was sad about his sin, but his sadness didn’t produce repentance. After he sold his birthright, “when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Esau wanted to change his consequences, but not his heart. Our tears don’t make us right with God. Pain doesn’t equal purity, and suffering doesn’t equal sainthood. Thankfully, God can turn this dead-end grief into grief that produces life.Godly Grief
We can tell grief by its fruit. Whereas worldly grief produces a hard heart, godly grief produces the chain reaction outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism: We respond to our sin with guilt, receive God’s free gift of grace, and then live lives of thankful obedience. Godly guilt always leads to thankfulness because we recognize the beauty of God’s grace in contrast to the punishment we deserve.
In Romans 7:24, Paul was so overcome with godly grief he cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And we see his guilt immediately turn to gratitude in the very next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Godly grief destroys self-pity. It trades introspection for joy in Christ. It doesn’t run, hide, or wallow. It freely acknowledges the ugliness of sin because it freely accepts the solution. While worldly grief shakes its fist, godly grief falls on its face before a merciful God.Which Grief Is This?
If you’re like me, you probably see more worldly grief in your little ones than godly grief. But don’t lose heart. We can use worldly grief to lay a foundation for true repentance. Consider how we can leverage worldly grief to point our kids to the gospel.
Regret: Some kids feel guilty very easily, sometimes without any consequences from their parents. But regret alone won’t give them the lasting comfort they need. We can tell them, “I know you feel bad about what you did, and you wish you hadn’t done it. There is nothing we can do to undo our sin. But God can. When we trust that Jesus died for our sin, our sin is gone forever (1 John 1:9).”
Self-pity: Self-pity looks like moping and whining. Instead of admitting their sin, kids will comfort themselves by dwelling on personal injustices or unfairness. We can use that bad feeling to help them understand the consequences of sin: “Sin hurts everyone and breaks relationship. The most important relationship it breaks is our relationship with God (Eph. 2:12). That’s why we need forgiveness.”
Anger: Usually anger over sin is anger over the consequences. Perhaps you see no reaction in your child when he or she sins, until you give a consequence—then you get a colossal reaction. Even though this grief isn’t godly grief, it’s a chance to help your kids connect the dots. You can say, “I know these consequences make you angry, but consequences are a means of God’s loving protection (Heb. 12:6). They remind us that we can never be happy apart from God. Sin makes God angry, too. We deserve his anger. But if we trust in Jesus, we will never experience God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9).”
Hiding: Sadly, kids often respond to their sin with deceit. But deceit shows us that our kids know something is wrong, even if they aren’t responding in the right way. This is an opportunity to remind them: “God already knows about our sin. We can’t hide it from him. It doesn’t go away on its own, and we can’t take it away ourselves. But if we confess our sin instead of hiding it, God promises to forgive us (Ps. 32:5).”True Repentance
Wordly grief and godly grief often look similar on the outside, but godly grief includes two important ingredients: A willingness to accept Christ’s forgiveness and a desire to change. What does this look like in our kids? It might look like them coming to us on their own to admit their sin, or apologizing without being told. We might also see them turning from sinful habits and taking initiative to obey.
Only God can generate true repentance (Ezek. 36:26). Our response to godly grief is the same as our response to worldly grief: Point to Jesus. The hope of the gospel is for the guilty, the self-pitying, the angry, and the deceitful. When our kids cling tightly to their worldly grief, we can gently open their grasp and say, “Jesus is better. Trade self-pity and anger for repentance that leads to life.”
The number-one thing Jesus talked about is the kingdom of God. It’s everywhere in the Gospels and impossible to miss. But if the theme of the kingdom is so significant, then we need to make sure we know what it means. A good starting place is to have a solid working definition.
Here’s one: The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.
That’s the message of the kingdom in eight words. Now let’s break down each aspect to begin plumbing the depths.God’s Reign
The kingdom is first and foremost a statement about God. God is king, and he is coming as king to set right what our sin made wrong. The phrase “kingdom of God” could just as easily be translated “reign of God” or “kingship of God.” The message of the kingdom is about God’s royal power directed by his self-giving love.
Claiming that the kingdom of God is primarily about God may seem obvious, but many today use “kingdom” to refer to the way we as human beings make the world a better place (“kingdom work”) or to refer to all the Christians in the world (“kingdom minded”). Unfortunately, much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne. But if the kingdom is portrayed as a utopian world without mention of God, then the Bible’s vision of the kingdom has been lost. The kingdom of God is the vision of the world reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ.
Much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne.
God is king, and he reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of his kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as a redemptive reign. He’s the king who is reclaiming his creation. His kingdom is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of his royal grace into a sinful and broken world.God’s People
God the Creator-King reigns over all his creatures, but he also reigns through his people. This was his design from the beginning. Adam and Eve were commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth. Instead, they chose to seek their own path to power and glory, apart from God. Their rebellion fractured humanity’s relationship with God and shattered the goodness of his creation. Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into his renewing work.
God’s reign is a saving reign. The kingdom of God provides a holistic understanding of salvation, including not only what we are saved from, but also what we are saved for:
We are saved from death and for life.
We are saved from shame and for glory.
We are saved from slavery and for freedom.
We are saved from sin and for following our Savior.
We are saved from the kingdom of darkness and for the kingdom of light.
To be saved into God’s kingdom is to embrace God’s comprehensive rule over every aspect of life. This is a far cry from merely “asking Jesus into my heart.” It means a new life, a new identity, and a new kingdom.God’s Place
The Bible is the story of God making his good creation a glorious kingdom. It all started in the garden, where God commissioned his people to go to the ends of the earth to make the rest of the world like Eden. The garden kingdom was meant to become a global kingdom where people would rejoice and the world would flourish under God’s loving reign.
After the fall, making the world God’s glorious kingdom would require a reversal of the curse and a renewal by grace. And that’s exactly what God set out to do. The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation. God’s reign begins in the human heart, but it will one day extend to the ends of the earth. Many Christians today think of salvation as leaving earth for heaven, but the story of Scripture is quite the opposite. The message of the kingdom is not an escape from earth to heaven but God’s reign coming from heaven to earth. The focus of God’s reign is his people, but the scope of God’s reign is all of creation.
The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation.Jesus and the Kingdom of God
This understanding of the kingdom of God may be new to you, but it would not have been surprising to the first-century crowds listening to Jesus. Their collective hope was that God would come as king to redeem his people and restore his creation. What surprised them about Jesus’s proclamation was not what the kingdom is, but who would bring it and how. Jesus fulfills every kingdom promise, but he establishes the kingdom in a way that is different than they expected and yet more glorious than they could’ve imagined. In our journey to understand God’s kingdom, this introduces a key element. The kingdom message is counterintuitive and surprising, going against the grain of worldly wisdom, because unlike any other kingdom this world has ever seen, Christ’s kingdom is built on grace and advances with compassion. In this kingdom, the throne is a cross and the King reigns with self-giving love.