Philippians 3:11–14: The One Reason to Live

Christians don’t coast to the finish line. They don’t become cavalier about assurance. They don’t ignore the warnings of falling away. In this lab, John Piper explains that Christians finish the race by looking to Christ.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:11–14:

  1. How would you answer the question, “What is the one reason to live?”
  2. Read Philippians 3:11–14. How did Paul resolve to live the rest of his life? What did he press towards? What did he leave behind?
  3. What are some things from your past that you need to forget? How can you now move forward to what lies ahead?

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Principles of Bible Reading

Defining Terms in Context

Often, we come with our definitions of words before we understand what a verse or passage means. This can work at times, but we must not silence the passage. Rather, we must let the passage itself define what certain words mean. Words help us understand verses, and verses help us understand words.

So, as you read, take time to ask, “What can I learn about what this word means from the passage?” Set aside a couple of days to read through a whole book several times before walking through it in a slower, more in-depth way.

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Meet the Maker of Middle-Earth: The Magic in Tolkien’s Story

Tolkien, a biopic by Finnish director Dome Karukoski, focuses on the early life of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien. Heavily intercut, chronologically it begins with his late childhood in the idyllic village of Sarehole, and ends with his undergraduate years at Oxford and his experiences as a newly commissioned officer in the horror and mud of the Battle of the Somme. A brief final scene jumps to show Tolkien, now married and the father of four, writing the famous opening line to The Hobbit.

Having read a number of disparaging reviews, I was prepared for a mix of frustration and disappointment but instead found that I enjoyed Tolkien a good deal more than I had expected.

Stories That Stick with Us

It’s been said that when it comes to Middle-Earth, there is no middle ground. Readers are either great admirers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or they dislike them greatly. Those who admire them greatly are likely to have read several, perhaps many, reviews before this one, so I will not spend much time covering the usual ground.

Anyone looking for an extensive plot summary, a thorough evaluation of the cinematic elements, or a detailed account of the film’s historic accuracy can easily find these things elsewhere. My brief take is that the cinematic elements in Tolkien are quite impressive — particularly the casting, acting, and period design — and that the film is, for the most part, historically accurate, although these kinds of movies are usually intended to capture the emotional truth of events rather than the actual facts. For example, in the film we see Tolkien about to be shipped off to France just moments after he and Edith have been reunited. While this makes for great cinema, in reality they had been reunited for three years, and married for two months, before he was sent to the front.

Tolkien foresaw such embellishments. In chapter three of The Hobbit, the narrator points out, “Things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to.” Some good lives are not worth watching on the big screen, and yet, people tend to think authors of particularly interesting fiction must have led particularly interesting lives. If Tolkien’s life was not exactly the stuff Hollywood movies are made of, where is the appeal of a film that sets out to depict it? While there are a number of possible answers, I would suggest that the best one has to do with the unique quality of Tolkien’s fiction.

Daniel Taylor has written that there are certain, special stories that “receive us at birth, accompany us through the stages of life, and prepare us for death,” giving pattern to “otherwise chaotic experience, making it memorable and meaningful.” For countless readers, The Lord of the Rings is this kind of story, and for them seeing the author’s early years brought lovingly to life will be a rare delight. For others, Tolkien may serve merely as a moving tribute to the way that art — whether fiction, poetry, music, or painting — has the power, as we are told in the film, to change the world. And, of course, the power to change one person’s life as well.

The Glaring Absence

Notably missing from the film is much about Tolkien’s Christian faith, and it is missing in a certain way — not like a piece of a puzzle or a slice cut from a cake, but missing like an element that is, or would have been, part of everything.

We meet the Catholic priest who became Tolkien’s guardian, but we are never given much indication that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own — one that was a profound source of comfort in the trenches and later a critical factor in his writing. The film tries to show other elements that went into the creative formation of one of the world’s most beloved authors — Tolkien’s lifelong enchantment with language, the short-lived fellowship of his friends in the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, and Tolkien’s devotion to his first and only romantic love. We never see, however, the devotion that would later lead him to tell a correspondent seeking the really significant facts about him, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).”

Early in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is told, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” Tolkien is filled with many moments of courage, the kind found on the battlefield as well as the kind found in the living of an ordinary life. It is clear that the makers of Tolkien approached their subject with a great deal of affection, understanding, and reverence. Although they extracted the heart from the man, we who have eyes to see can still benefit from the film.

One other point should be made. In a manner that fails to do justice to the creative process, the filmmakers take pains to show us Tolkien’s hallucinations of monsters, fire-breathing dragons, and knights on horseback who appear on the battlefield as well as a soldier named Sam who looks after the young Lieutenant — as though this is the way authors get their ideas.

In Sarehole we almost expect to see a birthday party taking place under a giant tree or, later as the bullets and shells begin flying, to hear someone repeat the words Gandalf says to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

A Magic Greater Than Grief

In The Fellowship of the Ring as the members of the quest approach the boundaries of Lothlorien, their guide, an elf named Haldir, observes that although the world is full of peril and many dark places, “Still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

As we travel through our own dark places, we take heart knowing that, as candles shine brightest in the darkness, the fireplace warms best on cold nights — love’s rays pierce the more beautifully through shadows of grief. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” said the apostle (2 Corinthians 6:10), and rejoicing the more heartily because of the sorrows, replies the Christian. Our laughter comes from deeper wells — wells Tolkien depicted well.

In Tolkien we also see this fallen world with its mingling of love and grief, joy and sorrow. Companionship, sacrifice, loss and heartache, laughter and tears take residence here where dragons aren’t wont to dwell. And yet, though no Morgul-blades stab or Nazgul roam, here too love grows beyond grief and becomes the greater of the two.

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The Year My World Fell Apart: My War with Spiritual Depression

Twenty-five years ago, my world fell apart.

I had just turned 39, was happily married with five kids, and served as the associate pastor of a growing two-year-old church plant. My health was good, I enjoyed an active life, and ministry opportunities abounded. Everything looked good from the outside.

But on the inside, it was a different story. Starting in January of 1994, fear, hopelessness, depression, detachment, anxiety, and emptiness became my daily companions. All my life, I had taken pride in my ability to think clearly, but suddenly, thoughts began racing through my mind that I couldn’t stop. Panic attacks came regularly. I imagined I would be dead within months.

And then there were the physical effects. Most days, I found it hard to catch my breath. My arms itched incessantly, and no amount of scratching relieved the sensation. When it didn’t seem like a 200-pound weight pressed against my chest, I often felt an eerie hollowness. My face buzzed. I was light-headed. I spent many nights pacing and trying to pray.

‘This Doesn’t Happen to Pastors’

Other than the normal pressures of a church planting pastor, there were no obvious reasons why I seemed to be going crazy. In an effort to rule out potential causes, I made an appointment with my doctor for a complete checkup. The results came back. I was “fine.”

Nothing had prepared me for what I was going through. My internal accusations that “this doesn’t happen to pastors” only made me more frantic. I looked fruitlessly for something that would give me victory over whatever it was I was battling. Scripture. Prayer. Worship music. A retreat. A vacation. Even a trip to Canada during the “Toronto blessing.” Nothing helped.

Early on, I thought about seeing a counselor, maybe even a psychiatrist. I was aware of occasions when people with hormonal imbalances, an inability to sleep, or traumatic personal histories benefited from medical intervention. I wondered if drugs might help me get back on my feet to deal with what I was experiencing.

I also identified with various labels I had read about. Nervous breakdown. Burnout. Anxiety disorder. Depression. Whatever was going on was affecting me emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The symptoms were too numerous and intense to think this was only a “sin” problem.

But no label I assigned to my condition identified root causes. If what I was experiencing originated in my own heart (as it seemed), I wanted to explore that first. I wanted to press in to the gospel to see what I might be missing.

The next two and a half years were the hardest of my life. But knowing what I learned from them, they were, without a doubt, the best years.

Many people, most significantly my wife, Julie, were invaluable means of grace during that time. I hope to be a means of grace to you or others you might know who have been through something similar to what I’ve been describing. These are a few of the lessons God taught me during that time.

We Might Not Be Hopeless Enough

About a year into my dark season, I told my good friend, Gary, that I felt dead inside. Life didn’t make sense. I felt completely hopeless. Gary’s response was one I’ll never forget and have passed on to countless people, “I don’t think you’re hopeless enough. If you were completely hopeless, you’d stop trusting in what you can do and trust in what Jesus has already done for you on the cross.”

Our problem isn’t that we have no hope. We just hope in things that aren’t God. Our own abilities. A preferred outcome. Our reputation. Financial security. You fill in the blank. And when the idols we’ve hoped in don’t deliver as promised, we panic. We despair. We lash out. We go numb.

That’s why the psalmists speak of hoping in the Lord and his word at least twenty-five times, and why David tells us to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3). It’s easy and common to hope in something other than God.

Blessed Are Those Who Know Their Need

For most of my life up until that point, my heart agressively served the idols of credit and control. Those idols revealed a selfish ambition that desired not only people’s approval but their applause, even their adoration. I wanted to receive the praise only God deserves.

When I couldn’t get everyone to think I was as great as I thought I was, or when I realized the world didn’t bow to my desires, my idols punished me: mentally, emotionally, and physically. I thought I was a victim. I thought depression was “coming on me” from “out there.” Actually, I was the one producing it, through my own fears, unbelief, and false worship. I was forsaking my only hope of steadfast love (Jonah 2:8).

Over time I came to see God was guiding the whole process in order to turn my heart to him. He wanted to wean me from my self-centered idolatry so I could find the greater joy of pursuing his glory instead of mine.

Benefits We Don’t Think We Need

In the first year of my trial, I was often unaffected by normal spiritual disciplines like reading Scripture, gathering with the church on Sundays, and prayer. The promises of the Bible seemed like empty platitudes, meant for those who were doing well. In reality, I didn’t see the depths of my need clearly enough.

A friend introduced me to John Owen’s Sin and Temptation and God used it to show me how deceived my heart could be. Rather than wondering why I felt so hopeless and fearful, I started to own those feelings as the effect of functionally seeing myself as my own savior. Apart from Jesus, I was completely hopeless and had every reason to fear. But Jesus died on the cross to save hopeless and fearful people. And I was one of them.

That thought process, repeated a thousand times, pointed me again and again to the Savior I needed more than I had ever realized.

Feelings Are Unreliable Proofs

The Psalms teach us that a relationship with God involves our emotions. God’s presence brings joy, God’s promises bring comfort, God’s provision brings satisfaction (Psalm 16:11; 119:50; 145:16). But I was trying to root my faith in my experiences rather than in God’s word. I was looking to sustained peace as evidence that the Bible was true, and found myself chasing experiences rather than Jesus.

When I was unaffected by the gospel, I began to see that other desires were at work in my heart. Selfish ambition. Self-atonement. Works-righteousness. A love of ease.

Feelings tell me something is happening in my soul, but they don’t necessarily tell me why I feel (or don’t feel) a certain way. We discover that through patiently and consistently trusting and pursuing God (Proverbs 2:1–5). When I insist on finding relief from my emotional distress before I believe God, I’m living by sight, not by faith.

Self-Focus Won’t Ultimately Defeat Self-Sins

In March of 1995, I went on a personal retreat. After 24 hours, I determined my problem was that I had been depending too much on my own righteousness and needed to trust in the righteousness of Christ.

When I got home, I committed myself to a rigid discipline of Scripture memorization. Julie told me I came back more bound up than when I had left. One reason my dark season lasted so long was my belief that both the problem and solution ended in me. It was my lack of faith, my legalism, my poor choices. I needed to memorize more Scripture, do more, do less, do nothing, do everything.

Over time, God graciously showed me that putting sin to death involves me but doesn’t depend on me. God’s grace comes to humble, needy people, never to those who think they deserve or can earn it. Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s counsel is still wise: “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ!” His perfect life, substitutionary sacrifice, and glorious resurrection are a never-ending stream of delight, hope, and transformation (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Take Every Temptation to Christ

Maturity isn’t freedom from temptation, but responding to temptation more often with what God has said and done for us in Christ. I often thought I was backsliding when the temptations of anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and depression reappeared (or even increased). In those moments, I was tempted to think what I had been doing and believing “didn’t work.”

But John Owen observed, “Your state is not at all to be measured by the opposition that sin makes to you, but by the opposition you make to it.” In my discouragement, I was tempted to run to something other than God’s word and the gospel as my refuge. I started to doubt that hearing the Bible preached on Sundays could do any good. But God’s promises remain true no matter how many times we forget or neglect them. Jesus will always be the only Savior who died for my sins to bear my punishment and reconcile me to God (1 Peter 3:18). In him I am truly forgiven, justified, adopted, and eternally secure in God’s love and care.

As I continued to confess my inadequacy with phrases like, “You are God, and I am not,” I saw more clearly how God alone will always be my rock, steadfast love, fortress, stronghold, deliverer, and refuge (Psalm 144:1–2).

Traveling Through the Valley

The lessons I learned during those years have shaped my walk with God to this day. I still battle many of the same sins I fought twenty-five years ago, but I fight with greater clarity and trust in the one who has won the war. Temptations are less frequent and less intense. I’ve been able to point others who have been going through similar seasons to the life-transforming hope we have in the gospel.

Removing difficulties, problems, and trials isn’t the only way God shows he is good. Instead of superficial solutions, Jesus actually delivers us from our false hopes of ultimate salvation, satisfaction, and comfort. We want relief from the pain — God wants to make us like his Son. We want a change in our circumstances — God wants a change in our hearts. A crucified and risen Savior proves once and for all he’s actually able to bring that change about.

I’ve learned that the goal of the battle against emotional turmoil isn’t simply emotional peace. The goal is to know Christ. That realization led me to pray at one point, “If being like this for the rest of my life means that I will know you better, then leave me like this.” Thankfully, God didn’t leave me like I was. He gave me a deeper trust in the care of my heavenly Father, a more passionate love for Jesus and the gospel, and a greater awareness of his Spirit’s presence.

I know better now what Paul meant when he said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Which is why I thank God that, in his abundant mercy, he caused my world to fall apart twenty-five years ago.

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Should a Gay Couple, Once Converted, Stay ‘Married’?

Audio Transcript

Today’s question is one a lot of pastors face. I know because I see it frequently pop up in the inbox. As people find Christ, are converted, and are called to live differently than their pre-conversion passions, this raises endless questions about living arrangements. This question originates as a follow-up from a listener named Cameron.

“Hi, Pastor John! In episode 920, “Divorce, Remarriage, and Honoring God,” you argued that people should stay in a second marriage, even though it was entered wrongly. You said, ‘A prohibited relationship can become a consecrated and holy one.’ My question is along this line. Does this principle also apply to people in same-sex marriage relationships or in polygamous marriages? After conversion, would you advise them to stay in similar relationships and somehow consecrate them? What makes those two scenarios different in your mind?”

No, I would not recommend that two men or two women living together, practicing homosexuality, remain in that relationship. The reasons are several. The situations are different between a man and a woman entering a marriage they should not enter and a man and a man entering a relationship they should not enter. Let me try to explain some of those differences that would result in my decision not to recommend that they stay there.

Truly a Marriage

The reason I took the position that a man and a woman in a marriage that they should not have entered should stay in that marriage and seek to consecrate it to the Lord is because the Bible, while not condoning the entrance into the marriage, nevertheless calls it a marriage.

“Two men or two women entering a relationship of sexual union with promises is not a marriage.”

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Here’s what it says in Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery [so don’t do it, in other words], and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” He does use the word marry, not just sleep with. He calls it a marriage.

Jesus says to the woman who had been married five times, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17–18). Jesus differentiates the five from the one, even though she’s living with the one. He says, “No, he’s not your husband. The others were, and he’s not.”

I conclude that while it was an adulterous act to marry under the conditions that Jesus disapproves of in Luke 16, nevertheless, it’s called a marriage. A marriage is a matter of covenant faithfulness between a man and a woman. Therefore, I would encourage that couple to repent of what they did wrong and to ask for forgiveness and to consecrate their union, which, though it should not have happened, may nevertheless be holy before the Lord.

Not a Marriage

But two men or two women entering a relationship of sexual union with promises is not a marriage. It’s not a marriage. You can’t consecrate a marriage that should not have taken place if it is not a marriage at all. The union of two men and two women is not gay marriage — it’s no marriage. I don’t like the idea that so many people are willing to use the term gay marriage instead of calling it so-called gay marriage, because there is no such thing in the universe as so-called gay marriage.

Marriage, which is defined by God in this world according to his word, is not a man in union with a man. That’s our imagination. His definition goes like this. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That’s where Jesus went in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, and it’s where Paul went in Ephesians 5, when they were seeking to give the most essential definition of marriage.

That’s the main reason one relationship can be consecrated as a holy marriage and the other one can’t. One is a marriage and the other is not a marriage — no matter how many thousands of times legislators and laws and judges and news commentators say that it is. It isn’t. That’s the first difference.

Shameful Acts

Here’s the second reason that I would recommend that a man and a man or a woman and a woman in such a relationship not try to consecrate it but move out of it. The second reason why I treat a man and a woman entering a marriage they shouldn’t differently than a man and a man entering a relationship they shouldn’t is that you can’t make honorable what God has said by nature is dishonorable.

“No amount of repenting, faith, or consecration can turn that which is by nature dishonorable into an act that is pure.”

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In other words, homosexual behavior is not wrong just because it’s commanded that we don’t do it. It’s wrong because, by nature, it is dishonorable and shameful. In other words, sexual relations between a man and a woman are not, by nature, dishonorable and shameful. But sexual relations between two men or two women are by nature dishonorable and shameful, according to Romans 1:26–27.

Romans 1:26–27 goes like this:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

No amount of repenting, no amount of faith, no amount of consecration can turn that which is by nature dishonorable and shameful into an act that is holy or pure or honorable. That’s why I would encourage two men or two women involved in such acts to renounce the sin, repent, ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus, and no longer make any provision for the flesh, as Paul says in Romans 13:14.

What About Polygamy?

We did an APJ on polygamy about three months ago in episode 1304: “Did Jesus Endorse Polygamy in the Parable of the Ten Virgins?” Maybe I can just refer Cameron back to that one for some thoughts on that issue.

It’s not exactly the same issue when he raises it alongside homosexuality. It’s not the same issue because it doesn’t involve sexual acts which, by nature, are dishonorable and shameful. But it is not in accord with God’s original will for marriage, according to Genesis 2:24. It can’t be consecrated in the same way that the marriage of one man and one woman can be.

The aim would be to help those who realize this to find the most just and gracious way to bring a polygamous relationship to an end. That won’t be easy, and great wisdom will be needed, especially in missionary contexts.

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Philippians 3:11–14: Can I Really Have Assurance?

God’s sure promise that you will make it to the end is bought by Christ. In this lab, John Piper shows that the way you get to the end is by taking seriously the warnings not to lose your faith.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:11–14:

  1. Can you really be assured of your salvation? What needs to be present to feel such confidence?
  2. Read Philippians 3:11–14. Does verse 12 show that Paul has assurance or that he doesn’t?
  3. How would you live differently if you knew Christ had made you his own?

Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.


Principles of Bible Reading

Ground

This is one of the richest relationships in the Bible. A ground gives support or a reason for another statement. One way to think of it is that it is the ground upon which another statement is built. The supporting (or grounding) statement comes after the statement it supports. When you come to a grounding statement in the Bible, ask what came before it that it supports.

Key Words

Conjunctions, or connecting words, are very important in the Bible because they tell us how two statements are related to each other. In this case, a grounding relationship is usually connected with for, because, or since.

For example: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” How do we know that Jesus loves us? For (or because) the Bible tells me so.

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All God Promises to Be for You

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

What does faith rejoice in? If you’re a believer right now, what is your joy?

Saving faith begins with the word of God. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word (Romans 10:17). So, faith rejoices in the word of God. “Your testimonies . . . are the joy of my heart” (Psalm 119:111). “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162). “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

That’s your experience, born-again believer. What does the word hold out to us and reveal to us? For sinners, most preciously, it reveals the love of God for sinners — undeserving sinners. “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love” (Psalm 31:7). It holds out salvation. The love of God brings salvation from sin and from guilt and from the wrath of God and from hell and from death and eventually from disease. Salvation is a glorious thing. The greatest thing in the world is to be saved.

Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory [or glorified], obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

How do Christians walk toward that salvation? I’m just trying to get inside the head of what the joy of faith is. We walk toward that salvation through weakness and suffering with joy.

For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. (2 Corinthians 13:9)

It’s almost a paraphrase of Philippians 2:17, right? Paul is basically saying, “I am so glad when I can die for your faith. I’m glad when I’m weak, if you’re strong by my weakness.” He’s an unusual human being. He’s born again.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3–4)

Blessed are you when people hate you . . . on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. (Luke 6:22–23)

I mean, this is just over the top, Jesus. Blessed are you when people hate you, revile you, cast out your name on account of me. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, like a lamb coming out of the stall. Something’s crazy here. Something is so different than our fallen human nature. You must be born again.

This is a work of God. No human being rejoices at being hated, unless this miracle happens by the Holy Spirit through his word. That’s why I’m here. The great reward is what sustains our joy in suffering. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Which means that the endpoint and final satisfaction of all our joy is God himself in Jesus Christ.

I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:4)

You make known to me the path of life;
   in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

So at the end of Philippians 2:17, when Paul says he’s rejoicing with them and rejoicing in their faith, it includes all of this: rejoicing in the word of God, rejoicing in the love of God, rejoicing in the salvation of God, rejoicing in the great reward of God, rejoicing in God himself. That’s the most basic facet of the diamond of Christian joy.

All that God promises to be for us in Christ, we have. And it is our treasure and gladness.


Read, watch, or listen to the full message:

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions: For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions

For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

May 7, 2019

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You Are Not Special, But You Are His

As I recently prepared to celebrate my 51st Easter, it occurred to me that one of the most important journeys I have taken during my life in Christ has been to close the distance between a John 3:16 spirituality and a Galatians 2:20 spirituality. Most of us are familiar with these two passages:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The life I now live . . . I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is a great thing to confidently affirm one’s secure place in the big world upon which God has set his great love for us in Jesus — to gladly be among that vast number of whoevers who believe in Jesus. But it is quite another thing to be able to say with both certainty and astonishment, “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.” I was a general affirmer of God’s love long before I was a specific delighter in it.

No Longer Nameless

When it comes to the grandeur of the gospel, every analogy falls short, but here’s one born from my own experience. I have always loved the music of Paul McCartney, one of the four members of the legendary band the Beatles. As a gift, a friend took me several years ago to see Sir Paul at a sold-out concert in Atlanta, and our seats were dead center, ten rows from the stage. I felt quite honored just to be among the 21,000 screaming fans.

But a few months later, one of our church members was on the Fox News broadcast team for the Super Bowl, and Paul McCartney just happened to be the halftime entertainment for the game that year. Watching him perform that day brought back rich memories of having seen my favorite Beatle perform live.

The next Sunday, my TV-personality friend showed up at church with a brown paper bag. With a hard-to-hide grin on his face, he lifted a framed picture of Paul McCartney with this hand-written inscription in bold, big letters: “To Scotty, Cheers, Sir Paul McCartney.” To say I was blown away would be an understatement for the ages. I was no longer just a nameless guy in a huge coliseum. I had a personal inscription from Paul McCartney to me — a picture I still treasure.

Here’s where the analogy falls gloriously apart. Though I have never met Paul McCartney, I have met Jesus. God was pleased to reveal Jesus to me (Galatians 1:16). God has written my name in heaven — much better than any autograph I have (Luke 10:20). And now God knows me (Galatians 4:9), which is way more profound than the fact that I know him. All these personal pronouns matter, including the first-person pronouns I, me, and my.

Characters in God’s Story

This isn’t to privatize our faith, but to prize it — not to individualize Christianity, but to understand the deeply personal dimensions of the gospel. We are to grow into a heart-inflaming, knee-buckling, worship-fueling realization that God loves each of his daughters and sons, and not just the whole collective entity of his every-nation, redeemed family. And ramping that up a big notch, we are to see and savor that God loves me (and you) to the same degree and with the same delight that he loves Jesus (John 17:23). That’s not a game-changer; it’s an everything-changer.

The resurrection day visitations of Jesus underscore the to-be-cherished reality of individual relationship with Jesus.

Mary at the Tomb

Mary Magdalene was the first post-resurrection evangelist — first to the empty tomb and first to declare Jesus’s triumph over the grave to the disciples. Though we have precious few details about Mary’s healing and the nature of her “seven demons” (Luke 8:1–3), we know her name and part of her story.

Mary was a person, not a metaphor. She became a committed follower of Jesus because Jesus poured forth great mercy, grace, and love upon her. Some of us also have stories of tremendous brokenness, bondage, and illness. We too have individual names, and Jesus has come to set us free. We’re not mere categories; we are characters in God’s great story of redemption. For God so loved the world, he gave Jesus. For God so loved you, he gave Jesus — to you and for you. You’re not a type or project, or a set of letters or numbers from a personality test.

Peter by the Sea

And then there’s Peter, who was outrun by fellow apostle John to Jesus’s tomb (John 20:3–4). Even though Peter was slow of foot, we should appreciate his desire to get to Jesus as soon as possible. His was a story of failure, pride, and denial — just like many of us.

But Jesus’s story is one of welcome and restoration — a kindness Peter had already experienced many times in the previous three years. Before long, Peter would hear his name firmly and tenderly spoken by the resurrected Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The dialogue was far more healing and freeing than it was painful (John 21:15–19). We cannot run to Jesus without discovering that it is Jesus who is always running first and fastest to us — to you and me. Jesus is the answer for all our guilt and shame too.

Cleopas on the Road

Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, we meet Cleopas — one of two forlorn friends walking on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). They had hoped Jesus was the promised Messiah. But now, they assumed, Jesus lay as a lifeless corpse — a victim of treachery and murder.

But their stone-cold hope segued into burning hearts when Jesus revealed himself to them and gave them the Bible study we all wish were recorded. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 NIV). What love and care, engagement and personal hope, Jesus gave these two men — just two men from a covenant family as numerous as stars, sand, and dust, but men with names and stories, just like me and you.

Jesus continues to reveal himself, by the word and Spirit, to each of his beloved disciples. In fact, our position in the history of redemption is even more to be desired than what Cleopas and his friend enjoyed. For we have the completion of God’s revelation, the Old and New Testaments, which both attest to the glory and grace of Jesus and our glorious salvation in him. We are that known, loved, and pursued by Jesus.

Not Special, But His

The whole gospel is for the whole family of God, a family which is being gathered from every race, tribe, tongue, and nation. But take a few moments to marinate in the love our Father has lavished on you in Jesus. This isn’t a selfish act. It’s an act of wonder, love, and praise.

Because Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience for you, as your substitute; and died in your place upon the cross, exhausting God’s judgment against your sin; and was raised from the dead for your justification, God loves you just as much as he loves Jesus. God cannot love you more, and he will never love you less. God doesn’t love you to the degree you are like Christ, but to the degree you are in Christ, which is one hundred percent. God has hidden your life safely and completely in Jesus. Your Father has begun a good work in you that he will most definitely complete. All of this doesn’t make you special, but it certainly makes you his.

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Philippians 3:11–14: Does Paul Think He Could Miss the Resurrection?

Why do I need to press on to make the resurrection my own, if Christ has already made me his own? John Piper responds by showing that praying a prayer will not save you. Running hard after Jesus for a little while will not save you. If you do not persevere, you will not enter heaven.

Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:11–14:

  1. Can we know whether we are saved? How? Do you have confidence that you are saved?
  2. Read Philippians 3:11–14. Did Paul think he might miss the resurrection from the dead? Is so, did he have assurance?
  3. Watch the lab. Why do you need to press on to make the resurrection your own, if Christ has already made you his own?

Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.


Principles of Bible Reading

Humble Convictions

When studying the Bible, we walk on dangerous ground when we close our ears to other positions besides our own. We can read passages in the Bible and hold such a conviction that we refuse to consider other interpretations.

Others of us are tempted towards the opposite: We feel so insecure about our ability to understand Scripture that we refuse to hold any convictions about what we thought we read. Often we won’t have any confidence in our understanding unless our favorite pastor, study Bible, or Bible teacher gives us an interpretation.

So we can err in two ways. We can be proud in holding right (or wrong) convictions to the point where we don’t consider the alternatives, or we can have a misguided humility which holds no personal convictions at all but exclusively parrots what respected leaders have said.

A better demeanor in Bible reading is to hold humble convictions. Wisdom from above is “open to reason” (James 3:17), and we ought to be open to reasons that our positions are underdeveloped or incorrect. When the best and only theologian that you know happens to be you, bad interpretation will surely follow.

On the other hand, the fact that we do not have perfect understanding should not paralyze us from holding deep convictions. Perfect understanding eludes all in this life, but the refusal to own our current understanding hinders us from developing better understanding later. Humility in Bible study does not refuse to believe things strongly; it refuses to close our ears when reasons — good or bad — challenge our present understanding.

Adopting humble convictions honors God as it enables us to not only understand but to believe his word and respond appropriately. We must first believe we know what God says in order to put faith in and obey him.

Therefore, stand before God as a Christian with convictions, asking him to lovingly correct you through other believers, his Spirit, and his word.

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Mature Joy Will Free You from Fear

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:17–18)

There are three facets of the beautiful, supernatural diamond of Christian joy in those two verses. And I’m going to try to show you that this multifaceted joy is the power to free from cowardice, free from consumption, and free from comfort for the sake of Christ’s mission.

1. Joy in Being Poured Out

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad . . . (Philippians 2:17)

The first facet of the peculiar joy called Christian joy is joy in being poured out as an offering for faith. “I am glad. I am glad that I am being poured out. If I must be poured out, I’m glad. Glad. Glad, glad, glad to be poured out.”

What is Paul talking about? He’s talking about dying, and we know that because he uses that phrase “poured out” for himself one other time. Second Timothy 4:6: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” He’s dying. What he means in the beginning of Philippians 2:17 is: “I am glad if it costs my life to build your faith.”

So, the first facet of Christian joy is joy at the prospect of dying to bring other people to faith. How are you doing? This is clear. There is joy that I can die and not be safe.

2. Joy of Faith

I . . . rejoice with you all . . . (Philippians 2:17)

If he’s rejoicing with them, they’re already rejoicing in something. I have my joy in dying. You’re rejoicing. And I’m rejoicing with you. What are they rejoicing in?

He has just said, “I live and die for the sake of your faith,” and now they are rejoicing and he’s joining them in their joy. This must be faith and joy going together. Paul believes he’s going to have a season of ministry with them alive before he dies. He says,

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith. (Philippians 1:25)

Literally, the last phrase is: “joy of faith.” When Paul says, “I’m rejoicing with you and you’re already rejoicing, that’s because I have labored for your faith, and your faith is that faith in Philippians 1:25: the ‘joy of faith.’” You’re rejoicing in all that you have by faith in Jesus.

The second facet is the joy of faith that gets created by the mission of being poured out.

3. Joy Together

Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:18)

And what did Paul say he was already rejoicing in? His death for faith. He is telling them, “Look: it makes me glad if I must be poured out in death, to strengthen, create, preserve, advance, multiply your faith. Be glad with me in my death.”

To which we can easily imagine the Philippians saying, “Paul, it’s asking too much. May we not have a season of sorrow at your death? We love you.”

To which Paul would answer — I think — “Why do you think that what I have said means you may not have a season of sorrow?”

“Oh, well Paul, you said you are rejoicing to be poured out in death for our faith, and then you summoned us to rejoice with you, even in your death for us. That’s why.” And I think Paul, being the man that he is, would smile gently, and look at them and say, “Children, you have so much to learn about joy in Christ. Why would you think, Philippians, that sorrowing and rejoicing shouldn’t be simultaneous, in the same heart, at the same event?”

Ten verses later, in Philippians 2:27, after Epaphroditus almost died in serving Paul from the Philippians, Paul says,

Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.

Paul would have wept if Epaphroditus hadn’t gotten well. It’s right to weep when you lose a great apostle whom you love. It’s just not right to stop rejoicing, because Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:10, We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

And I know I’m talking to hundreds of you who probably, in your walk with Jesus, just haven’t quite gotten there yet. To you, it’s always sequential. There are seasons of sorrow and seasons of happiness, but this talk about sorrowful and always rejoicing through and in sorrow, you think that’s a contradiction. It’s not. Just give yourself time. That’s why I think Paul would have smiled gently and spoken of these facets to his children.

Those are the three facets of the diamond of joy. To recap, I’m going to rename them in the order that they happen in reality, not the order that they happened in the text.

  1. The joy of faith (verse 17, at the end).
  2. The joy of pouring out your life for the sake of the joy of faith (verse 17, at the beginning).
  3. The rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy (verse 18).

Read, watch, or listen to the full message:

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions: For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions

For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

May 7, 2019

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Do You Have Your Attention?

One of your most valuable assets is your attention. What sights get before our human eyes, and what words get into our human ears, influence us image-bearers of God and bring deep and lasting impact in the world. Including how we spend our money.

In a previous generation, the largest companies sold oil and gasoline. Today, the largest companies sell human attention. Facebook and Instagram want your attention, to sell it to advertisers. Google and YouTube want your attention for the same reason. And Apple, the largest company of all, created the device that turned all of life into endless possibilities for capturing human attention — the pixelated billboards we now carry around with us all the time.

Attention Economy

In one sense, this so-called “attention economy” is not new. It’s almost two hundred years old, going back to the 1830s when a New York businessman created a newspaper costing just a cent, because instead of selling the content to readers, he planned to sell his readers to advertisers (Cal Newport tells the story in Digital Minimalism). Eventually newspapers were filled with ads. Then when television came, it filled with ads. Then, the Internet.

In the last decade, the smartphone has taken this attention economy to previously unforeseen heights, because we keep our mobile devices constantly on our person. And the “attention merchants” like Facebook and Google are doing all they can — with sophisticated psychological tactics — to compete for the scarce and lucrative resource called human attention. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, says, “We are moving from a world where computing power was scarce to a place where it now is almost limitless, and where the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention” (quoted in Competing Spectacles, 57).

We thought Facebook and Instagram and YouTube were free services. They are not. They may not cost us any money, but we are paying with a more precious commodity: our finite and valuable human attention.

Modern Spectacles

While some advocate for an attention resistance movement, we as Christians will want to ask what we’re saving our attention for. If we steward what finite, precious attention we have, and keep ourselves from wasting it on worthless distractions, to whom, then, will we pay attention? Simply keeping it from the attention merchants won’t produce any positive good on its own. How will we invest the capacities for attention God has given us?

Tony Reinke’s Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age addresses this pressing issue in our day by focusing on “the competing spectacles” of modern media versus the person, work, and words of Christ. Reinke defines a spectacle as “something that captures human attention, an instant when our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us” (14).

Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age

Competing Spectacles

Treasuring Christ in the Media Age

Tony Reinke

The rise of media saturation has ushered in a new age of rivalry with the gospel for the human gaze. We live in an age of competing spectacles.

Attention and spectacles go together. The spectacles of life, whether the transient and trivial media spectacles online or the massive and eternal Spectacle of what God himself did for us in Christ, call for our finite human attention. The question is not whether we will “pay attention” or “fix our attention” somewhere, but to what, and to whom, will we give our attention?

This is not just about what we see, but perhaps just as pressing, if not more so, is what we hear, and to whom we listen. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul (Romans 10:17; also Galatians 3:2, 5). What voices we allow habitually into our heads have profound shaping power. “In the sensorium of faith,” writes Reinke, “the ear is chief” (148).

Who’s Paying Attention?

The digital age may be newly realizing the value of human attention, but the reality is nothing new for the people of God. From the beginning, God made humans to anchor the rhythms of their attention in him, to see his eternal power and divine nature in the things he has made, and to honor him as God and give him thanks (Romans 1:20–21). Then, with Christ, came faith in a new, decisive sense (Galatians 3:23–26), and this saving faith has us, as a vital prerequisite, giving our attention to the great Spectacle of Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection.

Faith grows in the finite garden of human attention. Apart from particular investments of our attention in its Object, faith will not thrive, or even survive. As we fill the limited soil of our attention with more and more shrubs, we first restrict the growth and health of faith, then crowd it out, and eventually leave it for dead.

Attention in Scripture

From early in his ministry, Jesus enjoined his disciples, “Pay attention to what you hear” (Mark 4:24), and the author of Hebrews highlights the importance of our attention not just in our coming to faith, but in enduring in the faith. “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). How will Christians stay true, and keep from drifting from the gospel? Not by moving on to other foci, but by paying increasing attention to “what we have heard” in Christ.

Such faith, then, will have its specific expressions in the everyday Christian life. Peter notes “the prophetic word . . . to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Paul points to the fixing of our attention on God’s word (“holding fast to the word of life”) as the key to showing ourselves to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14–16).

In such faith, we do not overlook self-examination and self-awareness and personal vigilance: “Pay attention to yourselves!” (Luke 17:3; 21:34). Including the specific call of pastor-elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).

Fix Your Attention

First Timothy in particular addresses the long-standing war for human attention. Those who were being led astray in ancient Ephesus were devoting themselves — giving their attention (Greek prosechontes) — “to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:4; so also Titus 1:14). False teachers had captured their attention, and now they were departing from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1).

Paul counters with the pastoral devotion and attention of Timothy and the elders to the threefold ministry of God’s word: “devote yourself [pay attention] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). As Paul had charged these same elders to “pay careful attention [same word] to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28), he charges them again, “Keep a close watch [fix your attention] on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

With these public charges to the pastors comes an implicit charge to the people, the “hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16): pay careful attention to the teaching and preaching of God’s word. Not just on Sundays but in all of life. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16), with the attendant habits and patterns of life that will serve such “devotion” or “paying attention to” Christ himself.

For the Christian, each new morning is an opportunity to freshly anchor attention in our Lord. We call it “devotions” because we’re recalibrating our highest devotion through the refocusing of our attention. Every meal is a reminder of his goodness, a chance not just to rehearse our gratitude but to make it holy through prayer (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Weekly worship gathers together our collective attention on the singular tie that binds us in Christ. And each evening, as we retire for the night, is an opportunity to recall the grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and that will lead us home.

Who Has Your Ear?

Hearing God’s word through faithful, healthy teaching is a matter of life and death, because “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). Not just one-time hearing, but ongoing hearing. Whom we pay attention to really matters. Those who regularly have our eyes, and get inside our heads through our ears, are leading us somewhere, either towards life or towards death. So, who has your attention? To what are you giving your attention? What’s on your screen? Who’s in your ear? Whatever is on our screens today (or in our podcast feeds) is a glimpse into who we will be tomorrow.

Jesus is worthy of our ear. Christian teaching, formed and filled by Scripture, culminating in Christ himself, is worthy of our attention. He will not disappoint, both in this life and forever in the life to come.

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How Does the Gospel Speak to Self-Hate?

Audio Transcript

Self-hate is a topic that gets talked about a lot. So how would you go about sharing the gospel with an unbelieving friend who struggles here? “Hello, Pastor John. I’m Reynaldo from Jakarta. I listen to your podcast more than I read my Bible — and I should change that habit!” Yes, Reynaldo, you should change that ratio immediately! “My question: I have a friend, and she is a Buddhist. She struggles with self-hate, and I am confused about what I have to do about it. I listen to her, and I want to help. But what should I do?

“I could give her a self-help book, I suppose. I’m afraid if I get straight to the gospel (which I don’t have a problem saying to her), she will not listen to me. But if I gave her a self-help book, with tips about overcoming this anxiety, I’m afraid that she might improve without experiencing the forgiveness of Christ. So I guess I want to share the gospel sooner than later. If you had a non-Christian friend who struggled with self-hate, how would you proceed?”

Complicated Struggle

Well, let me just underline Tony’s misgiving about reading or listening to Piper more than the Bible. That really is a serious problem, so fix that. The Bible is the source. Piper’s just a muddy stream. Fix that.

“All of our hateful, sinful ugliness will be taken away, and Jesus will return and transform our lowly body.”

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This question is difficult to answer because there’s just so much to say from the Bible about someone struggling with self-hate. The problem in answering this question is not a lack of biblical material that addresses it; the problem is that I don’t know her, and I don’t know Reynaldo.

I need so much more information about what her true issues are. I need to know what’s going on to bring her to this point. How’s it expressing itself? How deep and serious is it? And on and on. I really want to be careful here. I’m going to make some suggestions, but I make them provisionally as to what the best strategy is here and trust that the Holy Spirit will help Reynaldo to know what to do with what I say.

Give Her Bible

What about drawing her, Reynaldo, into a discussion about biblical passages that leads to a sharing of the gospel through her own curiosity and her own perplexity about those very texts — those passages that you share with her? I’m thinking this might be a path forward because of the little bit I know about Buddhism and because it comes to my mind as I pray for how to help. Here’s what I have in mind.

Ask her if you could give her some passages from the Christian Bible with a view to getting her opinion about what she thinks about them and how they make her feel. If she’s a Buddhist, she would probably approach them in a more or less moral or philosophical way, so you wouldn’t expect that she would have any grasp of the gospel at all.

You simply want to get her into God’s word on a topic that is very relevant to her. Now, if she’s willing, then you might share with her texts like the following. You might give her a whole Bible, put some bookmarks in, circle the verse or show her where to find them, and that way she would be able to read the context as well if she were curious.

Surprise Her with Truth

If she is willing, you would be pointing her to verses like these:

“Self-hate is redeemable by the amazing blood of Jesus and what God has done to save her.”

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  • “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Now, that would really perplex her, I presume. I’m guessing it will really bother her, which is what we’re after.
  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13).
  • “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
  • “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
  • “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28–31).

Now, my guess is that these texts will simply leave her baffled. Hopefully, when you have your next conversation, she would say, “What in the world did you give me these texts for?” You would say, “Let’s just take them one at a time, and you show me what they made you think and feel.” You’re into it.

Follow Up

Where you go from there would depend almost entirely on how she responds to these passages. My assumption is that she would be really perplexed about a passage like John 12:25, which calls for self-hate, and some that assume self-love, like Matthew 22:39.

Then, from there, you’d want to lead her toward teachings about sin in relation to the glory of God and talk about how that affects our worth. Then, hopefully, you’d go toward the coming of Christ and his death, who laid down his life — a kind of self-hate — for the sake of our life (1 Peter 2:24). Then, you’d move on from there to how that purchases sinners for God to love them and forgive them and accept them and possess them as his treasured possession (1 Peter 2:10). That would lead on to a life of loving and treasuring Christ more than life itself because he’s so valuable.

“Jesus’s death purchases sinners for God to love, forgive, accept, and possess as his treasured possession.”

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That would lead on, maybe, to the promises you could give her that we will be changed into the image of Christ. All of our hateful, sinful ugliness will be taken away, and Jesus will return and transform our lowly body (Philippians 3:21). I don’t even know if her issue is body hate or if it’s mind hate or soul hate. I don’t know what’s going on, but he’s coming back to give all of us a brand-new body. This body will be glorious like his glorious body.

The Blood That Redeems Us

Who knows where the Lord may lead these discussions, Reynaldo, but what I’m suggesting is this: Instead of a frontal presentation of the gospel for which she might have zero categories in her Buddhism to comprehend at first, try drawing her into a serious give-and-take engagement with the Bible. Remember, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Then, pray earnestly for the Lord’s guidance toward the gospel where she can see it. I pray she will see what self-hate looks like and feels like when it is deeper than she thinks, and yet redeemable by the amazing blood of Jesus and what God’s done to save her.

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The Invincible Power of Joy for World Missions: For Cowards, Consumers, and the Comfortable

As I have pondered the age range of this conference, with a huge group of younger people, a modest group in the middle, and a small group of people like me, what has come to the front of my mind is that there are peculiar obstacles to global missions in each group.

These are peculiar obstacles that would hold you back from red-blooded, risk-taking, unashamed engagement in taking the gospel of Jesus to the least reached peoples of the world. They may not be the biggest obstacles in your life or your generation, but they are the ones I feel burdened to address, and for which I believe God has given me a specific word.

So, I want to begin by naming one peculiar obstacle to world missions in each group, and then let God address them with one word from Philippians about the invincible power of joy in world missions.

Politically Correct Cowardice

In the youngest group, a new form of politically correct cowardice has appeared in the last five to ten years. It takes the form of opposing those whose message you don’t like by claiming that you don’t feel safe when they talk. In other words, you protect yourself by turning your preferences into thought police that have the authority to shut other people down so you can stay in your little self-defined safety. So, for example, on a Christian college campus, a speaker recently talked about the entanglement of abortion and race, and a group of students protested that this kind of talk made them feel unsafe.

I’m calling that a politically correct form of cowardice. And I am referring to it at a conference on global missions because the more deeply and widely that mindset takes root in the Christian community, the greater the hindrance to the global mission of God.

“A life devoted to consumption consumes life.”

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Why is that? Because if you are so committed to feeling safe, how will you ever risk your life for Christ? There is no Christian mission without the surrender of safety. “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). If you are so fragile and cowardly that you must shut down those who love you with hard truths, how will you speak in love to those who hate you?

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you,
how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5)

I assume from the fact that you younger people are at a conference like this means that you are probably not entirely infected with this mindset of politically correct cowardice. And I am hopeful that God will use these messages to make you valiant for the truth and for God’s mission to reach the nations. I have a word from God for you.

Unquenchable Consumption

For those of you in the middle years, the peculiar obstacle I see between you and missions is probably not politically correct cowardice, but the obstacle of unquenchable consumption. The consumption I have in mind is not the consumption of the bread of life and the word of God, but the consumption of social media, movies, the demands of career, and the quest for more and more stuff.

The quest to consume more and more entertainment, and toys, and travels, and the money that buys them, is insatiable. It does not satisfy. A life devoted to consumption consumes life. “They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:18–19). It is a snare that plunges people into ruin and destruction, all the while giving the sensation of success (1 Timothy 6:9). A life devoted to the unquenchable consumption of more and more media, movies, and mammon will not be able to compute the spiritual calculus of Jesus words,

Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)

And where that kind of calculation (lose now to gain later) doesn’t compute, missions is over. If you are being lured to this kind of unquenchable consumption, I have a word from God for you.

Acceptable Comfort

And for those wonderful sixty- and seventy- and eighty-somethings among you — “we few; we happy few!” — our peculiar obstacle is not politically correct cowardice, or unquenchable consumption, though both of these threaten us as well, but rather the creep of acceptable comfort.

From every corner of our culture we are told that the biblical command, “Let us not grow weary of doing good” (Galatians 6:9) has an expiration date on it. It expires at 65. We no longer exist for creating; we exist for comfort.

What makes it different from the lifelong temptations to live for comfort is that now the entire culture says, “You’ve earned it. You deserve it. It’s what this season of life is for.” And it is deadly. It is not what this season of life is for.

Near the end of his life, Paul referred to himself only once as an old man. And when he did, he was not in the comforts of paradise; he was in prison. “I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus” (Philemon 9). And when he wrote what were almost his last words, he did not describe the final years as a breather before meeting Christ. He said,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)

So, if you are feeling the creep of acceptable comfort threatening your engagement with Christ’s global mission, I have a word from God for you.

A Word for All

The word that I would like to offer all of you from God is designed by him

  • to set you free from the captivity of politically correct cowardice, and make you courageous for Christ,

  • and to cut the choking cords of unquenchable consumption, and set you on a totally different quest,

  • and to halt the creep of acceptable comfort, and help you dream a better dream for the final chapter.

You’ve been very patient. The word from God is found in Philippians 2:17–18. I invite you to turn to it with me. This is God’s word for you:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Three Facets of Christian Joy

There are three facets of the beautiful diamond of Christian joy in these two verses. And I am going to try to show that this multifaceted, supernatural, Christian joy is the power that frees from cowardice, cuts the cords of consumption, and halts the creep of comfort.

First, there is Paul’s joy in being poured out on the offering of their faith at the beginning of verse 17: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad.” There is no doubt what this picture of being poured out refers to. It refers to dying. Because Paul uses the exact phrase again in 2 Timothy 4:6, where he says, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” The first facet of Christian joy in these verses is Paul’s joy at the prospect of dying in the service of their faith.

Second, at the end of verse 17 Paul says, “and [I] rejoice with you all.” So if he is rejoicing with them, they are already rejoicing. What are they rejoicing in? He just said, he “poured out” his life for their “faith.” How does Paul think about the relationship of their faith and their joy?

“When joy is given away, it is not halved; it is doubled.”

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Here is what he said in Philippians 1:25. Though he is in prison, he expects there to be a season of life to minister to the Philippians, and he describes it like this: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith [literally: joy of faith].” For Paul, joy and faith are inseparable. When you have saving faith, you have tasted the joy that belongs to faith — the joy of faith. That is the second facet in the diamond of Christian joy: the joy of faith.

Third, verse 18: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” Paul has just said that his joy was the joy of being poured out for the sake of their faith — the joy of dying so that they could have the joy of faith. And now Paul says, rejoice with me as I die for your joy of faith.

To which we can easily imagine the Philippians responding, “Paul, this is asking too much. May we not have a season of sorrow at your death — your dying for our faith? We love you!” To which Paul would answer, “Why do you think that what I said means you may not have a season of sorrow?” “Because you said you are rejoicing to be poured out in death for our faith, and then you told us to rejoice with you.” Paul would look at them, perhaps with a gentle smile: “You have so much to learn about joy in Christ. Why would you assume that joy and sorrow are not simultaneous experiences for the Christian?”

Ten verses later, Paul is going to say that his precious friend Epaphroditus almost died for Paul. And he said, “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27). Paul would have wept if Epaphroditus had died. But he would not have stopped rejoicing in Epaphroditus’s joy in dying for Paul. We know this because in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul says he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

So there are three facets of the diamond of Christian joy in Philippians 2:17–18. Let me name them in the order that they actually occur in life:

  1. The joy of faith (verse 17, at the end).
  2. The joy of pouring out your life for the sake of the joy of faith (verse 17, at the beginning).
  3. The rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy (verse 18).

Let’s ponder each of those a little more deeply.

The Joy of Faith

First, the joy of faith. In verse 17, Paul not only rejoices to be poured out for the sake of their faith; he also rejoices with them in the joy of faith which they have because he is being poured out. So I ask, What does faith rejoice in?

The answer, of course, is inexhaustible. But don’t be put off by this. Don’t fail to take repeated sips from the spring of God’s greatness because the spring is inexhaustible. Don’t say, “I won’t drink any, because I can’t drink it all.” So let’s drink at least a little. What does faith rejoice in?

Through the Living and Abiding Word

Saving faith begins with the word of God. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word (Romans 10:17). So faith rejoices in the word of God. “Your testimonies . . . are the joy of my heart” (Psalm 119:111). “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162). “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

And what does the word reveal? Most preciously for sinners, the love of God: “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love” (Psalm 31:7).

Sin and Guilt Are Gone

And what does this love hold out to us in Christ? Salvation — from our sin and guilt and the wrath of God:

Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory [or glorified], obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

The ransomed of the Lord shall return
   and come . . . with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain gladness and joy,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:11)

Behold, I bring you good news of great joy. . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. (Luke 2:10–11)

Walk with Weakness

And how do Christians walk toward this great salvation with our Savior? Through weakness and suffering with joy.

For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. (2 Corinthians 13:9)

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3–4)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2–3)

Blessed are you when people hate you . . . on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22–23)

Sustaining Promises

Yes, it’s the promise of great reward that sustains our joy in suffering. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Which means that the endpoint and final satisfaction of all our joy is God himself in Jesus Christ.

I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:4)

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
   nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
   and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
   and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17–18)

You make known to me the path of life;
   in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

So when Paul implies at the end of Philippians 2:17 that they are rejoicing with the joy of faith, he means their faith joyfully embraces all this and more — the word of God, the love of God, the salvation of God, the great reward of God, and God himself. That’s the most basic facet in the diamond of Christian joy — the joy of faith — joy in all that God promises to be for us in Christ.

The Joy of Being Poured Out

The second facet in the diamond is the joy of pouring out our life for the sake of the joy of others. Verse 17: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad.” He is glad if he is to die in the service of their faith.

“There is no Christian mission without the surrender of safety.”

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The diamond of Christian joy is not natural. It does not flow from fallen human nature; it is supernatural. It is one thing to rejoice because you are the instrument of someone’s faith. But it is beyond all normal human experience to rejoice particularly because it costs you your life to serve another person’s faith.

More Blessed to Give

What is behind this strange facet of Christian joy? There are multiple levels of explanation. I will mention only two. One is that Jesus had taught Paul by his own words as well as actions, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). So, it is blessed or joyful to see another person’s joy in God increase. But it is more blessed — more joyful — when your sacrifice is the very means of their joy.

How is it more? It’s more joyful because, when you give yourself to bring them joy, your joy expands as it becomes their joy, and theirs becomes yours. You are “more blessed” — more joyful — as their joy in Christ becomes part of your joy in Christ. You all know this experience. When joy is given away, it is not halved; it is doubled. So, Paul is not losing as he dies to increase their joy. He is gaining. And so he rejoices. That’s the first explanation of Paul’s strange joy in verse 17: the joy of dying for their joy.

Become Like Him

The other explanation of this strange facet of Paul’s joy in dying for the faith of the Philippians is found in the next chapter, where Paul says, “ [I aim that I] may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).

In dying for the sake of the faith of the Philippians, Paul was “becoming like [Christ] in his death.” That’s why Christ died. Few things give us more joyful confidence in our own resurrection than the grace of God at work in our lives to help us love like Christ — especially in suffering and even dying for the joy of others.

So, the second facet in the diamond of Christian joy is verse 17a: the joy of pouring out our lives, even in death, for the sake of the joy of others.

Gladness in Grief

Finally, the third facet of the diamond is found in verse 18, namely, rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy. Verse 18: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”

In other words, be glad in my gladness in giving my life for your faith. We already saw: this does not mean it’s wrong to grieve at Paul’s death. But it does mean it is right to rejoice in the midst of your grief.

“Someone died to bring you joy in God’s word, God’s love, God’s salvation, God’s great reversal.”

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Paul was about to become a martyr. How are we to feel about those who risk their lives to bring the gospel to the unreached, and die? Paul tells us at the end of the chapter, “Honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (Philippians 2:29–30). Epaphroditus was not a fool to risk his life. He was to be honored. Jim Elliot was right: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

And in the book of Revelation, how are we to respond when the martyrs conquer Satan by dying, not killing? Here’s the answer:

They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! (Revelation 12:11–12).

That is what Paul is saying we are to do in Philippians 2:18. As I, Paul, rejoice in pouring out my life for your joy, “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”

Liberated to Love

So when I say that this is a word from God for the young, the mid-lifers and the happy few seventy-somethings, I mean that all three facets of this diamond of Christian joy are yours in Christ. If Christ is in you, all of this is yours.

  1. The joy of faith.
  2. The joy of pouring out your life for the sake of other people’s joy.
  3. The joy of rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy.

This threefold joy is an invincible force in global missions. But let me close by showing how these three facets of joy correspond to the peculiar obstacles I mentioned at the beginning that may hold you back from red-blooded, risk-taking, unashamed engagement with God’s global mission to bring the joy of faith to all the peoples of the world.

Cowardice Cannot Survive

What becomes of politically correct cowardice that shuts other people down, if you experience the joy of pouring out your life for the sake of other people’s joy? It cannot survive.

Cowardly ostracism of those who offend you cannot survive in the same heart with joy that is ready to die for those who hate you. The cowardice of self-serving safety cannot live in the same heart with the joy of martyrdom. “If I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad” (Philippians 2:17). That is not the voice of politically correct cowardice. But I pray it is your voice.

Consumption Is Cut

What becomes of the choking cords of unquenchable consumption in midlife, if you drink deeply from the inexhaustible spring of the joy of faith? What if you are the recipients of the joy of faith that someone died to bring you? And you are. You are! Someone died to bring you joy in God’s word, God’s love, God’s salvation, God’s great reversal. God’s presence. God himself.

If with the psalmist you go to God, to God your exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4), and drink of the river of his delights (Psalm 36:8), you cut the cords of unquenchable consumption. You will be free from bondage to more and more media, more and more movies, more and more mammon. The joy of faith — joy in all that God is for us in Jesus — is a mighty and powerful liberator.

Comfort Quits Its Creep

And what becomes of the creep of acceptable comfort among us sixty- and seventy- and eighty-somethings if we rejoice with those who rejoice to lay down their lives for the joy of the unreached peoples of the world — if we live verse 18: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” — as I am poured out for the nations?

One very specific answer: We who are grandparents will never, never say to our thirty-something children, “Don’t you ever take my grandbabies to that dangerous place!” What! Would you hear your son or daughter say, “We are ready to be poured out for the faith of the nations,” and respond to them, “How could you do this to us?” No! God has a better dream for you. Be glad and rejoice with them. Or better: go with them.

Let Joy Have the Last Word

So, let us all be done with every obstacle between us and global missions. Let us be done with politically correct cowardice, be done with unquenchable consumption, be done with the creep of acceptable comfort. And let us embrace God’s word to us about the invincible power of joy in world missions:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:17–18)

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Does Christ’s Righteousness Cover My Joylessness?

Audio Transcript

Jesus is my substitute. He became sin for me, that I might stand before God righteous and forgiven (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is beautiful. But is Jesus also my joy substitute — my hope for when I fail to delight in God as I ought? It’s a sharp question from a listener named Jake.

“Hello, Pastor John! I love the fact that Jesus is my substitute. In any way I display Christlikeness, that is something made possible by the cross of Christ and the Spirit’s work inside me. Christ was sexually faithful for me because I was not. In him I find forgiveness for my past and power to fight my lust today. Similarly, Christ was never arrogant for me so that I can be forgiven of my angry past and given the power to fight my own arrogant heart today.

“I wonder if this paradigm also applies to my joy? Is it true that Christ was fully satisfied in God for me so that I am not condemned for my sourness, but my lack of joy in God is forgiven, and I can be freed to pursue my joy in God daily? When I fail, I rest in Christ, the perfect Christian Hedonist, who paid for all my heart’s idols; there I find renewed hope to press on in seeking after God. In other words, is Jesus my joy substitute?”

Fully Justified

That’s pretty thoughtful. I like that. I like this question a lot, but I’m sure that not all of our listeners are tracking with Jake’s pretty remarkable grasp of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Let me put some Bible verses under it and then answer his question.

“The sinful defects of our joy in this life are forgiven, and the righteous joyfulness of Jesus is imputed to us.”

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He’s applying the doctrine of justification by saying that all the defects of my obedience to God — all my shortfalls in keeping God’s commandments — do not keep me from being justified in the courtroom of heaven or from being vindicated and declared not guilty, but in fact, I am declared righteous in God’s sight. He’s saying rightly that all this is owing to the perfect obedience and righteousness of Jesus, which through faith alone is counted as mine in union with Christ. Christ’s perfections are credited to my account so that God’s wrath is taken away, and he is one hundred percent for me as I am in Christ.

Here’s where Jake is getting that:

  • “Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  • “For as by the one man’s disobedience [namely, Adam’s] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
  • “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [in union with him] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him [in union with him], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8–9).

Perfect Rejoicing

Now, Jake is asking if this applies to our joy failures in the Christian life. Joy is commanded by God: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). One of the central tenets of my life is that joy is essential for honoring God and obeying God because we’re commanded to treasure Christ and be satisfied in him and rejoice in him above all things. Jake is asking, “If we are defective in this regard, is the perfect rejoicing of Christ counted as mine like all the other aspects of his obedience are?”

“Our joy, with all its defects, is a real fruit of the Spirit.”

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Now, here goes my answer, so I want you to listen carefully, everybody, because I took a long time thinking about this sentence or (these two sentences). Here’s my answer: The sinful defects of our joy in this life are forgiven, and the righteous joyfulness of Jesus is imputed to us, in the same way that all of our sinful defects as Christians are forgiven. All of Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by our union with the perfect Jesus Christ. We enter that union by faith — by faith alone — and we confirm it by Spirit-enabled holiness, including holy joy in Christ.

Now, let me take a minute and unpack that answer. There are two implications of what I’m saying. One has to do with the faith by which we enter union with Christ, and the other has to do with the works of faith that the Holy Spirit enables us to do after we are in Christ, which confirm that we really are new creatures in Christ. Let’s take one at a time.

Genuine Faith Required

The implication regarding faith in Jesus, through which we enter into union with Christ, is that Christ does not perform faith for us or instead of us in such a way that no faith is needed in us to enjoy union with him. In other words, the way Jake is applying the doctrine of justification has been taken by some people to the extreme.

They say — I’ve read this; I’ve really read this — “We don’t even need to be believers if we are elect because Christ believed perfectly on our behalf, and his belief is credited to us when we are unbelievers.” Now, Jake is not saying that, but others have followed that logic of imputation to that unbiblical conclusion. The reason it’s unbiblical is that faith is the instrument God uses to unite us to Christ, and only then in union with Christ do his perfections count on our behalf. The faithfulness of Christ doesn’t replace the requirement of faith to be united to the faithful Christ.

That’s the first implication. Justification by faith does not mean that Christ’s perfect belief replaces the requirement for us to believe.

Genuine Joy Required

Here’s the second implication. Christ’s obedience, which is imputed to us, also does not replace the obedience we are required to have as the fruit of our union with Christ. Here’s 2 Thessalonians 2:13: We are saved “through sanctification by the Spirit.” In other words, the reality of saving faith is confirmed in sanctification that is in lived out Spirit-enabled obedience, including the obedience of joy in Jesus, treasuring Jesus, and being satisfied in Jesus. Christ’s holiness does not replace the requirement of our holiness.

“Because of our union with Christ, his perfect joy is counted as ours, and it covers all the defects in our joy.”

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Look at Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s spoken to believers. To be sure, our holiness is not the ground of our justification, Christ’s holiness is, but our holiness confirms the reality of the faith that unites us to Christ and his holiness.

What does that imply about our joy in Christ? It implies that Christ’s perfect joy does not replace the requirement for us to rejoice in Christ above all else, but because of our union with Christ, his perfect joy is counted as ours, and it covers all the defects in our joy. Our joy, with all its defects, is a real fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is a real fruit of the Spirit and thus a real confirmation that we belong to Christ.

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Grab Hold of God: The Importance of Wrestling in Prayer

I struggle with knowing how to pray. Should I trust that everything is in God’s hands and rest knowing he will do the best thing for me? Or should I cry out to God earnestly to change the situation, giving him reasons to answer my prayer?

Wrestling with God or resting in him. Which is better?

Resting seems godlier, trusting that God will give me what I need without even asking. It seems more holy, more faith-filled, more biblical. Resting seems to indicate a more mature faith. But when I look at the Bible, I see a fuller picture of prayer. Jesus tells us to ask, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7) and that if we abide in him, we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (John 15:7).

Not only that, Jesus exhorts us “always to pray and not lose heart.” He tells the parable of the unjust judge, who gave the widow justice because she kept coming to him and likened that to the way we need to cry out to God (Luke 18:1–7). He commended the Canaanite woman for her faith and did what she asked because she was persistent, giving Jesus reasons to answer her (Matthew 15:21–28). When Jesus spoke about prayer, he told us to bring our requests to God.

Wrestling with God is asking him for what we want, persisting in prayer, crying out to him for ourselves and others. There can be no detachment or apathy in wrestling; it involves direct and constant contact. When we wrestle, we believe that our cries and prayers matter. We have hope that our situation will change. We are fully engaged.

They Grappled with God

Throughout the Bible, we see people wrestling with God. Moses wrestled with God, interceding on behalf of the people to change God’s mind. He pleaded with God. He gave God reasons to answer his prayer. He reminded God of his promises. And as a result, God often relented of his judgment (Deuteronomy 9:18–19). Moses was willing to ask God anything, and when the answer was “no,” Moses rested. Moses deeply trusted God and dared to believe that what he said mattered.

David also believed that his prayers mattered. He poured out his lament through tears, expecting God to answer. Most of David’s psalms of lament melt into praise because through his wrestling, David came to rest and trust in God. When David’s child with Bathsheba was ill, David sought God on behalf of the child. He fasted and prayed and lay all night on the ground. But when the child died, David got up, anointed himself, and went to the house of God and worshiped (2 Samuel 12:16, 20).

Habakkuk begins his book asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2) But after his wrestling, Habakkuk is content to rest in God declaring “though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).

We see the apostle Paul’s pleading with the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh, but then be content in his weakness so that the power of Christ would rest upon him (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

Ultimately, we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God to remove the cup from him, sweating drops of blood in his agony. And yet ultimately, Jesus declares, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Closer to God

Throughout Scripture, we see that wrestling leads to resting, which leads to worship. That’s been true in my life as well. Despairing for a loved one years ago, I prayed day after day, face down on the carpet, begging God for deliverance. And then it happened — the situation miraculously changed. I remember reading that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), grateful and wide-eyed that God answered my prayer. I fell on my face in worship and gratitude.

Yet another time when I wrestled with God, asking just as persistently and earnestly, God said no. I was heartbroken but kept wrestling with his answer, voicing my frustration and disappointment to God. Like the psalmist I cried, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). In clinging to God, honestly lamenting my pain, I grew closer to God; I felt his presence. This was worship also.

My wrestling has brought me closer to God. It did that for Jacob too, when he wrestled with an unknown man until daybreak. This man was clearly stronger than Jacob (he simply touched his hip to put it out of joint), but this stranger knew that wrestling was important for Jacob. Jacob clung to him, refusing to let the man go until he blessed him. After he was blessed for his persistence, Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:22–32).

Resting Begins with Wrestling

This wrestling with God in prayer doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rest in him. As we give our burdens to Jesus, he gives us rest. We can cease striving and find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28–29). We can find peace and contentment when we are fully satisfied in him, trusting in his care (Isaiah 26:3).

Yet sometimes resting can be a cover for resignation because we’ve given up hope. Sometimes saying we are trusting is a way of protecting ourselves from disappointment. Sometimes not asking is a sign of drifting from God, unwilling to actively engage him. We need to understand where our rest is coming from.

Resting begins with wrestling. So pray bold, daring prayers. Expect God to move. Talk to the Lord constantly. Ask, seek, and knock. And when your wrestling is over, you’ll find an intimacy sweeter than you have ever known. And that wrestling will lead you to true rest in the one who is worthy of all our worship and praise.

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