Why does God answer yes to some prayers and no to others? Why does God miraculously heal some people and not others? Why does disaster strike one city and not another?
I’ve been pondering these questions since Hurricane Florence devastated much of Eastern North Carolina last year. I live in the center of the state, and contrary to the foreboding predictions, we were relatively unaffected. In response, a friend said, “I know why we were spared catastrophe and the storm circled our area and went south. I was praying that God would keep us safe and he answered my prayers!”
I had no words.
I know that God answers prayer. And we need to pray. God tells us to ask and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7). But my friend’s words made me wonder if she thought that no one in Eastern Carolina was praying. I know people whose livelihoods were destroyed in the storm. Everything they owned was gone. They escaped with their lives but nothing material left. Some of them begged God to spare their city.
One Died, Another Lived
What are we as believers to infer from these natural disasters? Can we simply draw straight lines between our requests and God’s answers? Years ago, I heard a pastor tell of his cancer that went into remission. When he told his congregation the good news, several commented, “We knew God would heal you. He had to. So many people were praying for you.”
While the pastor was thankful for others’ prayers, he also knew God did not owe him healing. Faithful believers throughout the ages have earnestly prayed and yet not been healed. The apostle Paul was not healed to show God’s power could be made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And then there was my own son, Paul, who died as an infant. We had prayed, fasted, and asked friends to pray for his healing. Several years after his death, we met a man who said when he learned of our loss, “Don’t take this wrong, but we prayed for all of our children before they were born. And they were all born healthy.” We had no words.
Why Did God Save Peter?
In considering the question of when and why God chooses to rescue, I was reminded of Acts 12 which begins: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. . . . So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:1–5). Peter was then rescued the very night that Herod was about to bring him out, to presumably kill him as he had killed James.
Why did God let James die and Peter live?
Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’s closest disciples. These three were often selected to be alone with Jesus. Yet their earthly lives after Christ’s resurrection were markedly different. John was the last of the disciples to die, Peter was rescued from prison in Acts 12, but church history records that he was later martyred by being crucified upside down.
James was the first of the disciples to be martyred. The Bible records that Herod killed James with no elaborating details. We simply know that Peter was spared while James was not. What are we to make of this? Did God love Peter more than James? Was James’s life less important? Did James have less faith? Were people not praying for James?
Our Father Knows Best
Looking at the fuller counsel of the Bible, it is clear that God has plans that we do not understand. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). Because we believe that death is just a passage into eternal life (2 Timothy 1:10), one that all of us will go through, it ultimately doesn’t matter when we pass through it. God numbers our days before they begin, and he alone determines when we will die (Psalm 139:16).
Though we often cannot understand God’s purposes in this life, we can be sure that James’s life as a disciple and his death as a martyr was intentional. Everything God does has purpose (Isaiah 46:10). Because of that, we can be sure that at the time of James’s death, he had accomplished what God had called him to (Philippians 1:6), while Peter’s work on earth was unfinished (Philippians 1:24–25).
Living or dying, being spared or being tortured, being delivered in this life or the next is not an indicator of God’s love for us or the measure of our faith. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and our future is determined by what he knows is best for us (Romans 8:28, 35–38).
Paul understood this principle well when he said in Philippians 1:21–23, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, that is far better.” Departing this world and being with Christ is far better because eternal life is far better than life on earth. No matter what this life holds, we will eventually be deliriously happy in heaven where God has all of eternity to lavish us with his kindness (Ephesians 2:7).
Suffering Is Not Punishment
Even though I know these truths, I have often been discouraged that others have been rescued while I was still suffering. Prosperity gospel proponents have told me that if I had prayed in faith, my body would have been healed, my son would have been spared, and my marriage would have been restored. It was all up to me. If I just had the faith, I would have had a better outcome.
Their words have left me bruised and disillusioned, wondering what I was doing wrong.
But that theology is not the gospel. God’s response to our prayers is not dependent upon our worthiness but rather rests upon on his great mercy (Daniel 9:18). Because of Christ, who took our punishment, God is always for us (Romans 8:31). He wants to give us all things. Christ himself is ever interceding for us (Romans 8:31–34).
If you are in Christ, God is completely for you. Your suffering is not a punishment. Your struggles are not because you didn’t pray the right way, or because you didn’t pray enough, or because you have weak faith or insufficient intercessors. It is because God is using your suffering in ways that you may not understand now, but one day you will. One day you will see how God used your affliction to prepare you for incomparable weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is the gospel. And it holds for all who love Christ.
Pastor John is back in the studio. Listeners, thank you for your weeks of prayers, and weeks of patience too, as we navigated this busy season of travel. As a result, we have a backlog of questions to catch up on soon, but I wonder if it would be best for us to start with a brief update from your travels and ministry in South America. Pastor John, how did it go? What do you want to share with podcast listeners about your recent travels? Can you debrief your trip for us?
Joining God’s Work
I’d love to share about the trip. From February 24 to March 6, 2019, Noël and I and some others were in Brazil and Argentina. Fiel Ministries in Brazil, the local Gospel Coalition, and the leaders of a weeklong Christian celebration in Campina Grande in northern Brazil invited us to come there. In Argentina, the leaders of a Bible conference reached out to us. That was the cluster of people who said, “Would you please come and minister here?”
“We are not marketing the brand. We’re encouraging local, indigenous movements that God’s already doing on the ground.”
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I want to underline that idea of invitation. The way we look upon these kinds of international trips — and this became clearer to me on this trip than ever, and I feel really happy about it — is not as a way of spreading what you might call the Desiring God brand or the Bethlehem College & Seminary brand or the John Piper brand. That’s just not the mindset at all. We didn’t foreground those ministries. We are not marketing the brand. We’re encouraging local, indigenous movements that God’s already doing on the ground. He’s doing it all over the world.
I wrote down 23 countries I know of where there is a resurgence of Reformed, evangelical, gospel-centered, exposition-oriented, lovers-of-the-sovereignty-of-God people. These were just two of the countries, Brazil and Argentina.
The key biblical text that gets at it for me is Romans 1:11–12. Paul has never been to Rome, but he knows God raised up the church in Rome. Paul didn’t raise up that church in Rome, and now he’s coming, and he writes like this: “For I long to see you” — he’s never met these people — “that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” And then he pauses, and he says it a little differently: “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12).
That’s exactly the way I feel. I do have something I want to say. Yet, when I pause and I look back on it, there was a mutuality of encouragement. At least, I know the encouragement came my way. I hope it went the other way. All over the world God is creating indigenous movements like this.
When I think of movement, I want people to have a sense of what I mean. First, it’s a fresh awakening to the power and the preciousness of the sovereignty of God in salvation and providence. That is a very different message from man-exalting views that give the human will the power to thwart God’s omnipotent wisdom.
“I go to encourage them and to nourish them, to make my little contribution. But I leave more affected and more encouraged.”
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Second, it’s a fresh awakening to the sweetness of his omnipotent care in suffering. This is a message very different from the prosperity preaching, and that’s probably the note that people brought up to me most often with thankfulness. It was the note that we strike about God’s sweetness and care and omnipotent power in suffering, not escaping from suffering.
Third, it’s a fresh awakening to the glories of the gospel of free grace. This is a message very different from the sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism, for example, in Brazil or Argentina.
Lastly, it’s a fresh awakening to the depth and wonders of Scripture experienced by God’s people through powerful expositional preaching. It’s those four pieces that I see all over the world.
Partners in the Gospel
These outcroppings of renewal movements are rising up at God’s bidding. What I think I’m called to do with the team at Desiring God is to simply discern as best we can how we can serve these movements. We need the help of people on the ground, and people like Rick Denham, who is gifted at this. He’s such a helpful person. What I’m called to do is to discern authentic indigenous movements, and then serve them in whatever way they think would be most helpful with the message God has given us.
You can hear — at least I hear — in that a tension: they are looking for me to serve, and yet I have a message that I’m not going to compromise. I’ve seen it in the Bible. I love it. And I would say it anywhere, where anybody wants me to say it. There’s this tension, and the solution to the tension is that these people who invite us to come know us. In other words, the Web has created the possibility of watching and listening for years, so that they can grow in their confidence. They can say, “Well, here’s a person who, if he says what he believes, would probably serve us well. So let’s invite him to come do that now.”
God Is in Charge
Another thing I felt so strongly is that I feel no illusions in going into a place like this and a movement like this that I’m that supervising or controlling what God is doing on the ground around the world.
My picture is something like this: God is preparing a great loaf of bread in these various ethnic settings, and he’s kneading the dough with his fingers. Piper’s role for those few days is as one of the coworkers with God. It is to contribute a certain kind of biblical leavening or some theological spices. I hope and pray they these might add just a little nutriment to the bread and a little flavor to the dough that would make it even more nourishing to the church and to the world.
But God’s the baker, and he’s doing the kneading. He decides what goes into this bread and what doesn’t. He decides what the loaf looks like when it comes out. So I don’t think we should have illusions when we do ministries like online work like at DG. We shouldn’t think we’re going to shape and control the world. That’s just ridiculous. The world is huge and complex. And God is running it, not us.
“I was blown away by my experience of standing before this sea of people hungry for the word of God.”
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In Brazil and Argentina, that included messages focused on God as the gospel: God himself is the greatest, best, final good of the good news. That led to messages on Christian Hedonism. Well, if God is the gospel, if he’s the greatest good, how does that impact the way we are worshiping or the way we love people? That led to the thought, “Okay, if God is the gospel, and the way you glorify him is through being satisfied in him and loving people, then how do you preach with expository exultation?” That was kind of the package or the cluster of truths that we laid out.
Of course, it should not go without saying that the tables are always turned. I go to encourage them, and to nourish them, and to make my little contribution of spices and nutriments into the loaf. But I leave probably more affected and more encouraged than I gave or than I influenced. Here are some examples.
Stories of Grace
I met a Muslim convert to Christ from Morocco who feeds daily on Solid Joys, which is translated into both Portuguese and Spanish. He feeds on that for his faith. I met two women, both of whom asked to see me. They both have cancer, and with tears thanked me for the note of help in suffering, not escape from suffering. They felt like they were sinking in the teaching of prosperity in their particular situation.
This is the last example, and probably the most moving one for me. I met three teenagers who asked to see me in the green room before I spoke one night. Their parents, earlier this year (I’m not sure how long ago, maybe six months ago), were about to get divorced, which was breaking their hearts. They heard a message or they read a message (I couldn’t quite discern) from me about marriage not being mainly about being in love, but being covenant keepers. It revolutionized their attitudes. They have resolved to work it out, and the kids wanted to thank me. The 14-year-old girl had tears in her eyes and gave me a piece of paper written in Portuguese that said, “I know you can’t read this, but maybe you can get it translated.”
I’ve been praying the end of Psalm 90 since I’ve been back. I scattered my seed, I put my leaven in the loaf, I tossed my spices in, and I met a lot of people. I’m now praying, “O Lord, establish the work of our hands” (see Psalm 90:17).
Christ Replaces Carnival
If I think back on one of the most striking things, it would be being a part of the conference in Campina Grande in the north of Brazil. I spoke twice. It was in a huge tent that holds about 12,000 people, and about 100,000 people come through this conference in the week that it was held. What’s so striking is that twenty years ago, that city was totally dominated with the Mardi Gras–like celebration they called Carnival.
“The world is huge and complex. And God is running it, not us.”
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It’s pretty bleak. For example, a woman was walking around scantily clad, and she had devil horns sticking out of her head. The sign around her neck said, “Are you still afraid to go to hell?” — meaning, “I’ll be there. Come.” That’s the kind of thing that dominated.
Well, this conference grew from a teeny apologetics conference to offset things that were being said from the occult to now being the event, and Carnival has been pushed out of the city. All of those I would call godless, cultish, satanic influences are still there, but they’re marginalized. I saw them walking around the lake where our hotel was, but as far as the center city that used to be filled with these influences, it’s now filled with gospel preaching. I was blown away by my experience of standing before this sea of people hungry for the word of God.
The man who leads it is just a powerhouse of vision and energy. I can’t remember exactly what his background is, but he would just probably be a big-hearted Bible evangelical guy who loves Jesus and wants to see the gospel triumph. Yet, when the thing started to grow, he looked around for counsel as to whom he should invite to these events. He began to trust — this is my understanding anyway — the key leaders of this Reformed awakening who gave him names.
He didn’t know me from Adam. He trusted them to let me address what he has grown up under God’s hand. There’s a stream of very Bible-oriented and Reformed spokesmen — not only, but largely — who are coming to that event.
Faith is the experience of Christ as our surpassing worth and all else as rubbish by comparison. In this lab, John Piper clarifies that fake faith can say the right creeds, sing the right songs, even pray the right words, but it cannot pretend to count all as loss compared to gaining Christ.
Some questions to ask as you read and study Philippians 3:8–9:
How would you help people who want to know if they are really in Christ? How could they be sure?
Read Philippians 3:3–9. What does it mean to be found in Christ? If Christ came today, do you believe that you would be found in him?
Watch the lab. What is one way you know if you are in Christ?
Watch this video offline by downloading it from Vimeo or subscribing to the Look at the Book video podcast via iTunes or RSS.
Principles for Bible Reading
Cultivating New Love for Old Texts
Several verses in the Bible are much more familiar than others. Many very popular texts are deserving of the attention they receive, but if we are not careful, they can become so familiar that they lose their wonder in our eyes. The solution is not to stow certain verses away and come back to them later; the solution is to go deeper into them.
One way to do this is to trace the themes in the familiar verses throughout the book or letter. Often, the themes from beloved verses can be found in people, situations, and other statements in the same book of the Bible which can deepen our understanding and appreciation for the familiar.
Few stains cling so stubbornly to the soul as sexual sin. Memories linger. Distorted desires rise up unbidden. Old temptations find your new address and come knocking.
Even those without a dark sexual past know something of sexual brokenness. Married or single, seasoned saint or new believer, former adulterer or lifelong virgin — none of us is yet what we ought to be. We are not yet rid of the inner swamp that gives rise to sexual sins big and “small”: fantasies, lingering glances, impulsive evaluations of another’s body, vanity, a lust for emotional intimacy, inordinate curiosity. The path to complete sexual purity ends only in heaven.
On this lifelong journey, we can easily lose our way. The path is long, and we grow tired. The path is hard, and we crave comfort. The path is beset with temptations, and we get deceived. In the grind of daily self-denial, we can forget where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
From time to time, we need to lift our eyes above tactics and strategies — essential as those are — and take a look backward and forward: We are not what we once were, and we are not yet what we will be. God has already clothed us in Christ’s purity (Isaiah 61:10), and God will one day make us “like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Strength for taking daily steps toward sexual purity comes, in part, from celebrating what God has already done and where God is taking us.
The prophet Hosea gives us a story to grip our imaginations: God’s justifying grace turns a harlot into a virgin, and his sanctifying grace turns the virgin into a faithful bride.
She was a stunning bride. Delivered from misery in Egypt, Israel traded her slave’s rags for a wedding dress, her chains for silver and gold (Hosea 2:8). She lived as a queen in the midst of the nations. Until she slowly forgot the husband who saved her, and climbed into the bed of other lovers (Hosea 2:13).
Israel’s descent into adultery is an abiding picture of the madness of sin, including sexual sin. Israel left her God to search for intimacy, forgetting that his arms were open (Hosea 2:5). She spurned him to find pleasure, not realizing that the best pleasures are at his right hand (Hosea 2:8). She gave herself away to other lovers, only to find herself stripped and enslaved (Hosea 2:10; 3:1–2).
Twice, God responds with the terrible consequences — two therefores that display the just wages of Israel’s adultery:
Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. (Hosea 2:6)
Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. (Hosea 2:9)
No matter how pleasurable in the moment, the paths of sexual sin inevitably lead us here: naked, forsaken, and caught in the thorns of our iniquity.
Unless God intervenes. Hosea goes on to give us a third therefore, but this one entirely unexpected — a coal flung from the fires of heavenly logic, burning with mercy and grace.
In the midst of judgment, mercy speaks: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). This is deeper logic from before the dawn of time. God finds his unfaithful wife in the very bed of her impurity — and instead of condemning her, he saves her. Irresistible grace rips her from the arms of her enslavers and takes her for himself.
The salvation is so thorough that, through the mouth of another prophet, God could call his people, “O virgin Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:4). Not “O adulteress Israel,” “O shame-faced Israel,” or even “O should-have-known-better Israel,” but “O virgin Israel” — O spotless, undefiled, virgin Israel! Not content to merely pardon her sin, God makes her (and us!) new. The adulteress has become a virgin.
Only in the New Testament do we find the fountain of such redeeming love. The adulteress can become a virgin only because the Husband spread himself upon a cross — naked, forsaken, and wearing the thorns of her iniquity. Only at the cross can we hear the news of a fresh beginning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Every dark, distorted, and damning stain disappears beneath this river of justifying grace.
The power for sexual purity begins with Christ crucified, and from Christ crucified renews its strength. Here, repentant strugglers remember that Jesus is their righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). They feel the love of God poured into their hearts (Romans 5:5–6). They listen again to that glorious, heavenly therefore, and breathe in the grace of God.
The glory of what God has done, however, is just the first verse in Hosea’s song of redemption. He goes on to take out the tambourine and the lyre, the flute and the harp, and to sing of what God will do:
I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)
Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. These are not only the qualities God brings to the marriage, but also the qualities he creates in us — progressively now, completely later (Hosea 2:16). Now, we fight and ache for perfect purity, and feel the thrill of God’s sanctifying grace going to war with our sexual madness. Later, we will no longer fight and ache to be pure as he is pure, because we will be (1 John 3:2).
The result will be peace. Peace within ourselves, peace with the world around us, and peace with our God (Hosea 2:18, 21–23). Our sexuality will no longer be a swamp of impurities and distortions, but will become like the very garden of the Lord. Every desire, thought, and impulse will say, “You are my God” (Hosea 2:23). The virgin will become, once and for all, a faithful bride.
The power for sexual purity comes not only from looking backward to Christ crucified, but also from looking forward to Christ glorified in a new heaven and new earth. When the beauty of that country rises in our hearts, we will feel renewed strength to turn from today’s dark pleasures (1 John 3:3). We will tremble at the thought of giving up the journey and making a home among the thorns (Hebrews 4:1). We will treasure up God’s promise of a sure arrival (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). And we will find that one day, we’ve stepped into a new country, where our Groom reigns in glory.
The apostle Paul did not let his suffering for Christ turn him against Christ or away from his mission.
That doesn’t mean his sufferings were light or few. In fact, they were heavy and many. For example, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24–25). Think with me about how your own mind might work in the midst of such recurrent sufferings.
Paul has devoted himself utterly to obeying Jesus Christ. The result of this faithfulness to the risen, all-powerful Christ is that Paul is wounded over and over again in the path of obedience. How would you respond? I have known professing Christians who become so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the Christian faith.
Who Is the Decisive Cause?
Some of you might think: What such people need is to be taught that God did not bring these miseries, and so they should not turn away from him as though he did. Paul did not agree with that. He was too steeped in the Old Testament. He knew how things actually went, for example, with Job.
Why I Love the Apostle Paul
Apart from Jesus, no one has shaped John Piper more than Paul, the famous persecutor-turned-missionary. In 30 short meditations, Piper explains why.
To be sure Satan was a great mover in the miseries of Job. He is the one who went before God and unleashed the deaths of Job’s children and the miseries of Job’s boils (Job 1:6–19; 2:7). But when Job expressed his own understanding of what happened in these calamities, he ascribed the decisive cause to God. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). And in both cases — the loss of his children and the horrible boils — the writer of the book said, “Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22; 2:10).
And when all was said and done, in the last chapter of the book of Job, the inspired writer says that Job’s family “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So, we may put aside any idea that Paul thought his sufferings were random, or that they were only demonic or decisively from the hands of man. He knew they were from the Lord Jesus himself, who had told him they were coming (Acts 9:16).
When Trouble Arises
Now, back to my suggestion above that we put ourselves in Paul’s place and try to imagine what we might feel under his relentless sufferings, and how your mind might work.
I can hear some people in Paul’s place respond by saying, “Look, Jesus, I have pledged my life to you. I have heard you say that your yoke is easy, and your burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You have promised me peace and contentment (Philippians 4:7, 11–13). But almost every time I try to bear witness to you, what do I get? Pain. This is not the kind of reward I expect from a strong and kind Leader. This is not the way I thought you would treat your faithful followers. So, unless you use your power to make my life easier rather than harder, I’m finished with this Christianity.”
Jesus predicted that there would be such seeming converts who would respond like this. He said, “They have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).
“I have known professing Christians so embittered at the hardships in their lives that they turn away from the faith.”
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Jesus had warned his followers to expect abuse: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16) “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Luke 11:49). And when Jesus turned Paul’s life around on the Damascus road and gave him his life mission, he was explicit: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
So, when Paul suffered in the path of faithful obedience to Jesus, he did not accuse Jesus of bait and switch. He did not criticize his ways or murmur against his sovereign wisdom. He did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came (Acts 22:25–29); sometimes it didn’t.
Passion for Christ in Suffering
One time in particular, when deliverance from suffering did not come, was especially difficult for Paul. He called it a “thorn . . . in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) and tells about it:.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9)
How does this land on you? It is an astonishing response from Jesus. How would you have reacted to Jesus’s words? Would you say, “Your power! Your power is made perfect in my weakness! Jesus, for goodness’ sake, it’s my body that’s in pain! And your power gets the glory? How about some grace for deliverance!”
It is frightening how many Christians in the affluent West respond like this to suffering in their lives. They get angry at God. And if they were told that God’s design is to magnify the glory of his grace in their suffering, they would be furious at God and the one who suggested such a thing.
Content with Calamity
That kind of fury throws in the sharpest relief the way Paul responded to Jesus’s words when he was told his thorn would not be removed. Paul said,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Can we even imagine such an emotion? Gladly! After crying out three times for relief, and being told no, to say “I will boast all the more gladly” in the weakness brought by this thorn.
“Paul did ask for deliverance. Sometimes it came; sometimes it didn’t.”
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This is how much Paul loved Jesus Christ. This is how much he lived for the glory of Christ. If Christ says that his glory will shine more brightly through Paul’s suffering, then Paul, amazingly, rejoices in suffering. That is how his heart works. His supreme value is magnifying the glory of Christ. So, I will be content with persecutions and calamities.
This is the kind of person I admire most, the kind of person I want to be — the kind of person I love.
When was the last time a trial came so swiftly and forcefully that you did not know what to do?
My wife has lived in chronic pain for eight years. Recently, however, she woke up one morning with new health concerns that brought another hard, confusing, and frightening reality — a heavy one laid on top of the one we’re already living with day to day. We had just moved to a new home, and were going to a new church. I was the new pastor of that church. Our newborn was only six weeks old.
We felt like the armies of our circumstances were closing in around us with nowhere to go. As a husband and father, I felt completely off-balance. No one could encourage me. I felt helpless to help my wife, overwhelmed by the weight of her suffering. Why, God? Even after years of her chronic pain — and seeing the good God does through it — I felt like I was back to square one of faith, just clinging by a thread. I was supposed to be pastoring others, but I felt like I could speak but one word to God: “Help.”
Around that time, I found a story of a king who felt helpless to protect and care for the people he was responsible for. A king also overwhelmed with fear. King Jehoshaphat finds out that there is a “great multitude” coming soon to attack his people (2 Chronicles 20:1–2) — an army they know they cannot compete with on their own.
Most of us will never feel what he felt; we will never literally be under the attack of a great army marching up to our door. But we can all relate to overwhelming circumstances in our life that make us feel trapped, helpless, and certain we won’t make it much longer. The Bible is honest about how King Jehoshaphat felt when he got the news about the army of certain doom heading his way — he was afraid (2 Chronicles 20:3). His response to that fear is remarkable. He calls a fast in all of Judah and gathers the people to seek the Lord and his help (2 Chronicles 20:4).
This is not a natural human response. If someone asks us how we are doing at church, the answer almost automatically spills out, “I’m good.” Our profiles put our best, most carefully portrayed images of strength and sufficiency forward. We don’t readily admit that we’re often afraid, broken, lonely, despairing, failing in sin, and struggling to see or trust God.
Jehoshaphat could have pretended he wasn’t afraid. He could have acted like he had it all together. He could have gathered the generals and made the best plan possible. Instead, he gathered the people, admitted his weakness, and sought the help of the Lord together — instead, he prayed. He prays, “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). He not only runs to God in prayer himself, but he also calls others to pray with him.
Did You Not, Our God?
While Jehoshaphat is admittedly afraid and without a good plan himself, he is not despairing. In fact, his prayer rings with boldness and steady hope in the God of his people. Where does his courage come from?
Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, “If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you — for your name is in this house — and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.” (2 Chronicles 20:7–9)
Jehoshaphat’s hope is built on the promises and presence of God. It is God’s name that dwells in Judah, and therefore his glory is at stake in this great horde marching against them. Jehoshaphat knows that God is passionate about his glory and faithful to keep all his promises, so he appeals to him with great confidence and directness knowing he’ll find well-timed help because of the covenant love of God (Hebrews 4:14–16).
In the same way, even when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances, steady hope lives and endures in the promises of God to us in Christ. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will lead us even in the valley of the shadow of death, pursuing us with his goodness and mercy all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:4, 6). Jesus will not break a bruised reed or put out a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42:3). Jesus will pour out his all-sufficient grace as we boast in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:7–10). Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord as he works all things for our good (Romans 8:28–39).
When we are afraid, we pray with confidence because of these sure and steady promises — promises that are ours because Jesus bled and died to make us sons and daughters of God.
God Spoke Through Whom?
As Jehoshaphat draws the people together to pray, God sends strength and encouragement in an unexpected way. The Spirit of God fills, not Jehoshaphat, but a man named Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:14). Jahaziel rises and declares, “Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s’” (2 Chronicles 20:15). Do not fear; God will fight for us. And despite everything we can see, we will win (2 Chronicles 20:17).
The particular word of hope that needs to be spoken does not always come to the king — or, in our day, to the pastor or small-group leader. As we suffer, share our burdens with one another, and seek the Lord together through prayer, God very often will speak through someone else.
Our individualized society, at least in the West, has often invaded our churches. We gather together once a week to sing, pray, take the Lord’s Table, and hear God’s word preached (still a beautiful thing!), but often don’t actually live like a blood-bought family — at least not like the one we see in the New Testament (Acts 2:42–47; 20:28).
Members of the early church were so close, and the self-giving love of Christ was so prevalent among them, that none of them counted any of their possessions as their own. They gladly met the needs of one another. The apostle Paul calls Christians to join him in prayer, so that as many pray and God answers, God gets more glory (2 Corinthians 1:11). It feels simpler and easier and more comfortable to keep our struggles to ourselves and search for our own answers. But God has placed believers in a body — in a family where he manifests his love through mutual care and prayer.
In other words, if we don’t let other people into our trials and crises, we miss out on the blessing we might have received from God.
What Is Our Victory?
The people of Judah received Jahaziel’s word with joy. The next morning, Jehoshaphat calls them to believe the word of the Lord, and they march out to face the army. Oh, that we would pause when the circumstances are hard and ask ourselves if we believe the word of the Lord, receiving the Spirit’s witness of the Father’s care for us in our hearts (Romans 8:15–16).
Again, they do a surprising thing. They send the band out first (2 Chronicles 20:21–22). This is not sound practice for winning a battle. It is sound practice for worship, when you trust the God who has given you a promise. As they begin to sing, the Lord routes the greater, stronger army. Israel praises his name for the great victory.
You might be thinking, How can I worship when it seems like the Lord is not winning the battle that way for me? How can we worship as we march into what seems like overwhelming odds, without a specific word from God about our situation?
The answer is that our victory in Christ is as sure as the victory promised to Judah, if we believe what God has said in Christ. The Bible promises us that, whatever we may face or suffer or lose in this life, those whom God predestined are called, those called are justified, and those justified are glorified. It is certain. Our future is secure. For us “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Welcome God (and Others)
We can lay down our self-sufficiency, invite others into our fears, and then pray and worship expectantly, knowing that one way or another, our victory is sure. As sure as Judah’s victory over the Moabites and Ammonites.
As my bride and I have walked through our current trial, we’ve felt God lead us to let people into the war with us. And we have been overwhelmed by the prayers and encouragement we have received. Under God, they have sustained us and held up our eyes to Jesus in the midst of what feels, at times, like overwhelming pain and fear.
God will work in and among his people to save and sustain us as we boldly approach him together. He has designed his universe to work this way, so that we are weaned off of self-sufficiency, into fuller dependence on him for everything we need, so that, over and over again, he gets the glory.
The gears of God’s justice sometimes grind slowly — so slowly that we may not even notice them turning during our brief sojourn on earth. We even begin to wonder if they’re really turning at all.
Asaph writes, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But . . .” (Psalm 73:1–2). But what? But Asaph had really struggled to believe that. His biblical theology and history told him God is good and God is just, but as he looked on the way things evidently operated in the “real” world around him, Asaph read a different narrative.
He watched unashamedly wicked people prosper, seeming to avoid the hardships most of humanity is subject to (Psalm 73:3–5). He watched them violently oppress others without God seeming to lift a finger to stop them or protect the oppressed (Psalm 73:6–8). He watched them in their luxuriant ease blaspheme God with apparent impunity (Psalm 73:9–12). Like many suffering Christians today, he watched while the godless flourished.
Hard on Those He Loves?
Meanwhile, when Asaph looked at his own experience, he couldn’t help wondering why in the world he was fighting so hard to keep his heart clean and his hands innocent, only to find himself “stricken and rebuked [by God] every morning” (Psalm 73:13–14). What’s with that?
Hard on those who love him, and seemingly easy on those who hate him — that looks a lot like turning justice on its head. Asaph’s “feet . . . almost stumbled” over whether God truly is good to Israel (Psalm 73:2). He could have said, as Teresa of Ávila allegedly did, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”
Thus, Asaph is endeared to us — an ancient friend who understands. He understands the hard experience of living in what can look and feel like a world of inverted justice.
Where Bitterness Takes Root
We know deep down God can’t approve of this inversion. The fact that humanity shares such a massive consensus regarding what’s just and unjust bears witness to what God considers just and unjust. Philosophers call this the “moral law.” Theologians call it God’s law written on the heart (Romans 2:15–16). Even the unjust bear witness to this reality by what they desperately try to conceal (or rationalize if their power is removed and they are held to account for their actions).
But when they aren’t held to account, when they do as they unjustly and wickedly please and God doesn’t intervene, we try to understand. And, like Asaph, we can find it “a wearisome task” (Psalm 73:16). We can become “pricked in heart” and embittered in soul (Psalm 73:21).
Here’s the real danger: the indignance we feel toward injustice — the way we’re supposed to feel toward injustice — can metastasize into bitterness in our soul toward God and his apparent lack of concern and willingness to take action against injustice. This can turn us “brutish and ignorant” (Psalm 73:22), leading us to fall away from God (Hebrews 3:12) or to distort his word into saying what it does not say, because in our lack of faith, we cannot bear it. Few things drive us to twist the Scriptures like the problem we have with evil and the pain it can cause us or those we love. This is a “root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 29:18) that defiles many, as Hebrews warns us (Hebrews 12:15).
Counsel for the Embittered Soul
So, what do we do when, like Asaph, our heart is pricked and we feel that bitterness in our soul that makes us question if God really sees, if he cares, if he’s really in control, if he really exists? The remedy God provides us against the brutish ignorance of unbelief is simple, but it is profound, and it is pervasive:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8)
This can sound so trite, so cliché, when what we want from God are answers — and, more immediately, action! This is not cliché. This is the Bible — all of it. The Bible is God’s book of justice. The whole thing is about God’s justice — about his ultimately making every wrong right and exhaustively settling every account of every moral agent, visible and invisible to us, that has ever perpetrated even the smallest injustice. Nothing will be missed, for God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18) without fully satisfying his holy, righteous law — the one to which all our consciences bear witness.
God is working with a timetable toward this end that is long — and our lives are short. We may not see the justice needle move much during our time under the sun. That doesn’t at all mean God is not relentlessly and fearfully moving toward the terrible, unfathomable destruction of evil.
We must trust him with all our hearts and not lean on our own very limited perspective and understanding of the “real” world. If the catastrophe of Eden teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are ill-equipped to manage the knowledge of good and evil. The bitterness of soul that Asaph describes is a warning that it is time to hand God back the fruit before it bears something poisonous and bitter in us.
How God Treats His Friends
If the eucatastrophe of the cross of Jesus teaches us anything, it teaches us that God does not take injustice lightly — that he is, in fact, willing to go to extremes we would never imagine in order to fully settle accounts. At the cross, God’s righteous unwillingness to clear the unjust kisses his righteous desire to pardon the repentant unjust and be at peace with them (Psalm 85:10). It is the miraculous moment when the righteous Judge takes upon himself our unrighteousness, paying for it in full that we might become his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is the place where God becomes both just and the justifier of the unjust ones who put their faith fully in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
This is how God treats his friends: he gives his only Son for them in order to give them eternal life (John 3:16).
It is this God, and the remembrance of his mercy foreshadowed in the old covenant, that Asaph beheld when he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17). Then his perspective on justice changed. He saw the long-term end of the short-lived unrepentant wicked. God was not inattentive or inactive as they brazenly oppressed and blasphemed.
Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:18–20)
He saw the mercy in his being “stricken and rebuked,” for it was this very discipline that kept him from going astray (Proverbs 3:11–12; Psalm 119:67). And he saw an approaching judgment upon those who were not being led to repentance by the kindness of God (Romans 2:4). He remembered the long-term end of his short-lived afflictions: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24), the same hope the apostle Paul expressed (2 Corinthians 4:17).
How Bitterness Leaves
And when Asaph gave up his wearisome task of trying to understand how God can let injustice and evil persist, and instead trusted God with all his heart, the bitterness left him. And out of the healing and refreshment he experienced, he sang,
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)
Thus, if we have ears to hear, God is endeared to us — our far more ancient and future Friend who understands how hard it can be for us to endure evil while he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). For it was his compassion that moved him to inspire these words in our friend, Asaph, and make sure his song of the rescued cynic was preserved in the canon to help rescue us from our bitterness of soul.
Organic? Free-range? Many of us are learning to consider the long-term effects of what we’re eating. What consequences will the hormones pumped into the chickens and cows produce for me and my family over time? How harmless is it to consume a “genetically modified organism”?
Such questions, of course, can be overdone, but for many, these are sober-minded, diligent concerns. Especially when we’re not just choosing our own food, but sustenance for others, even our children. And if such bodily concerns can be of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), should we be any less careful about our spiritual diet?
Week after week, Christians sit under the preaching of God’s word in worship. How do we know if the food we’re receiving is spiritually healthy? What will be its long-term effects on our soul-health? If I keep feeding on this teaching, will my spirit be better off for it, or will I look back someday and wish I’d made wiser choices?
More to the point, how will we know whether the full sweep of Christian content we’re regularly feeding on is healthy — not just weekly sermons, but daily devotionals, Christian books and podcasts, social feeds, and even real-life spiritual conversations? Aside from generally knowing the Scriptures better from cover to cover, which is a lifelong pursuit, how can we tell along the way that the places from which we’re feeding are nourishing?
Put another way, might there be any key indicator or determining factor for discerning whether Christian teaching or doctrine is healthy or not? Is there any litmus test, or organizing principle, or heart, or core, or touchstone, of what makes teaching “sound” or unsound? Healthy or unhealthy? Paul doesn’t provide a comprehensive plan, but he does give us something tangible to lean on in 1 Timothy 1:10–11.
The phrase “sound doctrine” (literally “healthy teaching”) at the end of verse 10 is one of the most important concepts in 1 Timothy, as well as 2 Timothy and Titus (“the Pastoral Epistles”). Paul paints a stark contrast between good teaching and bad. Between healthy teaching and unhealthy. Between the kind of teaching that produces healthy spiritual lives (“godliness”) and the kind that does not. False teaching will produce spiritual sickness (1 Timothy 1:3; 6:3–4). True teaching will produce long-term spiritual health (2 Timothy 4:3–4; Titus 1:9; 2:1).
And what’s especially important about this first mention of “healthy teaching” in 1 Timothy 1:10 is that, more than anywhere else, it answers for us what is the key to “healthy teaching” or “sound doctrine.”
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” At first, this might seem too simple to be true. The heart and core and center and organizing principle of Christian theology is the gospel — in the words of verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” That’s the good news. That’s the heart and soul of the Christian message in all its expressions. True doctrine explains and supports and complements the Christian gospel, and false teaching blurs and mutes and obscures it.
God sent his Son into the world, as the pinnacle of all time and history, to save sinners through his death and resurrection, and to ascend to the throne as the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. This is the gospel, or good news, of the Christian faith: Jesus saves sinners. This is the climax and heart and core of why God made the world, and all that Christians believe and confess relates in some way to this. Not just the truths we think of as exciting and comforting, like God’s love and mercy, but also the dark and difficult and unsettling truths like sin and divine wrath and eternal punishment in hell.
“Sound doctrine,” Paul says, is “in accordance with the gospel.” Christian doctrine, in all its details, gets its bearings from a particular message. Good, healthy teaching (that produces healthy Christian living) has the gospel of Jesus Christ at its center. It explains and upholds and expresses and is relentlessly shaped by Jesus’s person and work as its unifying theme. When there’s no nutrition label on the side, apply the litmus test of the gospel.
Not Enough to End with Gospel
But it’s not enough here to end with “the gospel.” Paul says healthy teaching is “in accordance with the gospel” — but he doesn’t stop at “gospel.” He continues: “. . . the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” I’m so glad he does. Because the words that follow give us an amazing look into what makes the good news so good.
At first glance, this phrase (“gospel of the glory of the blessed God”) may not seem all that extraordinary to us, but these are not throwaway words for the apostle Paul. Here we find, piled on top of each other, three of the most important words in Scripture, three of the most important realities in the universe, and three words Christians can be prone to hear and say so often that we miss the depth of their meaning. Gospel. Glory. Blessed. “The gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”
Gospel, as we’ve seen, is the good news that God himself, in the person of his Son, has made a way to rescue us, by faith, from our sins and the eternal death we justly deserve. The heart of our faith is gospel, not law. Good news, not good advice. Glory is the beauty of God’s diverse perfections, or the visible display of God’s infinite value and worth. “God made us for his glory” means he designed us to show his greatness in the world (and in a special way: “in his own image” as Genesis 1:27 says). And what is God doing in all of history in this visible, tangible world? Showing us his glory — the height of which, Ephesians 1:6 says, is “the glory of his grace.” Jesus and his rescue, called the gospel, is where God’s glory shines out the clearest and brightest.
Blessed may be the trickiest of all. What does it mean that God is “the blessed God”?
Blessed here doesn’t simply mean he’s worthy of worship, that we should “bless” him in praise. That’s true, but as an adjective for God, it’s deeper than that. He is worthy of our worship, but his being “the blessed God” means, in essence, he is “the happy God,” and in no trite way. He is infinitely, unassailably, unimpeachably happy. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). He has and is infinite bliss.
At the outset of his recent Kistemaker Lectures at RTS-Orlando on “the blessedness of God,” Fred Sanders begins with this striking phrase in 1 Timothy 1:11 and says this about God’s blessedness:
The good news is about the particular character of this God, the one whose nature it is to shine out in glory and to repose in blessedness. God is not only the God of salvation, the sovereign rescuer of lost humanity. God is not only the King in his splendor bursting forth in unimaginable glory. Above or beyond or behind that, in a secret sanctuary of the depths of divinity, God is something even more astonishingly unimprovable. God is blessed.
And this blessedness, this divine happiness, in all its glory, is the ground of the possibility of his creatures being truly, deeply, enduringly happy in him, forever. God is not the cosmic killjoy many of us may have feared. He is not frustrated and sad. He is not grumpy and sour. No, he is blessed. He has infinite happiness, and is infinite happiness, and shares infinite happiness.
When Daddy Is Happy
This infinitely happy God, in his mind-stretching fullness, has gone public in creation and redemption with his infinite value and worth, called his glory. And the height of his glory is the demonstration of his fullness in the sacrifice of his Son for the eternal happiness of his people, called the gospel. And what good news it is for natural-born law-breakers like us. Not just that God rescues sinners. But that he is glorious. And he is gloriously happy.
And when Daddy is contagiously happy, the whole house is happy, and it’s a safe place to be honest about your disappointments and struggles. As his people, we are God’s household, “the church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15) — and what good news it is that the Father of this household is happy. Such a church is a good place to heal, and be restored to joy, and find joy that is deeper than all your pains.
The aim of my exposition of the Book, in the sermon for those 33 years, was to fuel me first, to set my heart aflame with the glories of God revealed in the text of this Book, so that I, as I opened those glories through the text, could draw other people into my experience of God. That’s preaching in my understanding of what it is.
The aim of preaching was only secondarily to keep their marriages together, or to make them bold in witness, or to make them fervent in prayer, or to release them into God-centered living and mission, or to grow the church, or to meet the budget. All of those things were secondary.
“The aim of my exposition was to set my heart aflame with the glories of God.”
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Now, I was a pastor. Of course, I wanted their marriages to stay together. I wanted them to be a praying people. I wanted them to boldly witness. I can’t win everybody to Jesus. They have to talk about Jesus. I wanted them to be involved in missions. I wanted them to be sacrificial in their giving. I wanted the church to grow.
Some pastors, however, feel the burden and the urgency of all those practical things so deeply that they switcheroo, and begin subtly or blatantly to make those the primary aim of preaching, failing to realize that if this church is not thrilled with the God of this Book, the soil in which those things grow won’t be there. And over time you may think you’re doing a little end run around worship over the word to get more “practical,” but it’s going to backfire. So, yes to changed lives, just not that way. I think those things, and a hundred other practical fruits of righteousness that grow in the Christian life, grow in the soil of worship.
So, my primary task was to lay open texts in such a way that the meaning of the author could be understood, and the reality in the meaning — the reality of God and Christ and salvation — could be displayed so that I and they could exult in that meaning, in that reality.
So, you can hear two pieces to that, I hope. I call it, like the title of the book, Expository Exultation. Make it plain. Make it plain. These are not your ideas. I don’t give a rip about your ideas, preacher. I want to know what’s in this Book. Make this plain. I call that exposition. Get into the text, show the clauses and the words, how they work, how they make the points, and then go through it to reality. You’re not playing games grammatically. Get to the reality.
And then, two, Do you see? Do you feel it? Is it meaningful to you? Are you blown away by it? Pastor, do they see that?
Christian Preaching as Worship
Christian preaching is a God-appointed means of transforming its hearers in both head and heart — not only in intellect, but also in affections.
Expository Exultation — that’s what I call Christian preaching. When I say that we are to exult over the reality coming through texts from the Bible, I have in mind a kind of proportional emotional response to the text, to the reality in the text. And the proportion has to do with the kind of reality that we see there.
So, if it’s a heavy reality that this text just opened, you’re not lighthearted. If it’s a terrifying reality, you’re not chipper. If it’s a tender reality, you’re not harsh. If it’s a harsh reality, you’re not tender. And on and on. I’m talking about a proportional, appropriate affectional experience of the reality that you’ve just opened for the people.
“You can fool unspiritual people forever. You can’t fool Christians.”
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If you handle the majesties of God with the same casual demeanor you use when you told the illustration about your cat, you’re out of touch with reality. And over time the people are going to know this. You can fool unspiritual people forever. You can’t fool Christians. I’m talking about people who have the Holy Spirit and are walking into your service with the living God in them, expecting to hear his word dealt out with exultation that corresponds to the nature of the reality you’ve just opened in the text. They know. They know whether you are in touch. Don’t fake it. Just quit the ministry, if all you can do is fake it.
There are actors in the pulpit. They can pull it off for a long time because they grow a church of unspiritual people, and unspiritual people are deceivable. Spiritual people are going to just drift away from that church. The church will grow like crazy. But the real Christians are down the street in a little church where the pastor is real. He’s real. He walks in there from the closet with God and the aroma of Jesus is on him. And the people can smell it.
Many Christians assume that Christ was able to perform miracles because he was God. It certainly is true that he is God. However, if we argue, for example, that Christ’s divine nature necessarily and always acts through his human nature, thus enabling him to perform miracles, a serious problem emerges concerning the many texts that speak of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of Christ.
If the divine second person of the Godhead is the sole effective agent working on the human nature, then we need to ask ourselves a serious question: What is the point of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ? Many Christians (and even some formidable theologians) seem unsure what to do with the Holy Spirit when speaking about the person and work of Christ.
Savior by the Spirit
For example, neither Roman Catholic nor Lutheran theologians can adequately account for a meaningful role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ if they remain faithful to the basic christology of those traditions. Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians generally do not know what to do with Christ’s gifts and graces (for example, faith and hope).
However, the Puritan John Owen (as well as others) had an insightful way of explaining the relation of Christ’s two natures. To my knowledge, this had not been as clearly articulated by anyone before him. One of his chief concerns was to protect the integrity of Christ’s two natures (divine and human). In so doing, he made a rather bold contention that the only singular immediate act of the Son of God (the divine second person) on the human nature of Christ was the decision to take it into subsistence with himself in the incarnation.
Every other act upon Christ’s human nature was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed his miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power. In other words, the divine nature acted not immediately by virtue of “the hypostatic union” (the joining of two natures in Christ’s singular person) but mediately by means of the Holy Spirit. The conventional way of understanding Christ’s miracles has typically been to argue that Christ performs miracles by virtue of his own divine nature. But on Owen’s (and others’) model, the Holy Spirit is actually the immediate author of Christ’s graces. This manner of understanding the relation of the Spirit to Christ’s human nature preserves his true humanness and answers a host of biblical questions that arise from a close reading of various texts.
He Took a Human Soul
Some Christians seem to imagine that Christ’s divine nature takes the place of his soul. This idea, though well–intentioned, is wrong. Christ was a perfect man with a rational soul as the immediate principle of his moral actions. In other words, Christ had a human self-consciousness. Some might say that the person of the Son is Christ’s self-consciousness, but as Reformed theologians argued, personality is not an act but the mode or identity of a thing. “Who is Jesus?” refers to his personhood. The answer: “He is the God-man” (which refers to his identity).
Importantly, Christ’s humanity, both body and soul, does not get lost in or “gobbled up” by his divinity. Because of this, Christ’s humanity needed the Holy Spirit in order to have communion with God. His prayers to God were never simply the prayers of a man, nor even the prayers of the God-man to the Father; but more specifically they were the prayers of the Son of God to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Never was a prayer uttered before God from the lips of Christ that did not have the Holy Spirit working powerfully upon his human nature to enable him to speak the words the Father had given him to speak. In this way, we aim to pray as our Lord prayed: in the Spirit.
Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry as a true man was the Holy Spirit. Therefore, at all of the major events in the life of Christ, the Holy Spirit took a prominent role. The Holy Spirit was the immediate, divine, efficient cause of the incarnation (Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). This was a fitting “beginning” for Christ since Isaiah spoke of the Messiah as one endowed with the Spirit (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1).
The New Testament confirms Isaiah’s testimony in several places, noting, for example, that Christ received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). At Jesus’s baptism the Spirit descended upon him (Matthew 3:16); and the Spirit plays a significant role in leading Christ to and sustaining him before, during, and after his temptation (Luke 4:1, 14). In that same chapter Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1–2 (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”) and announces that he is the fulfillment of that prophecy (Luke 4:21). Christ performed miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:18; Acts 10:38). Hebrews 9:14 may be taken to mean that Christ offered himself up not by his own spirit but by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Like his death, Christ’s resurrection is attributed to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11), and by it he “was declared to be the Son of God . . . according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4; see also 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18).
Because the Spirit was Christ’s inseparable companion during his earthly ministry, there is little doubt that Christ called out (prayed) to his Father by the enabling of the Spirit, which would put an implicit christological emphasis upon Romans 8:26–27. The preponderance of references to the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Christ finds its best explanation in the Reformed interpretative tradition.
He Humbled Himself
Given the basic christology above, Hugh Martin (1821–1885) argued that Jesus inevitably placed himself, therefore, in a position of acknowledged weakness and infirmity — of absolute dependence on God — a dependence to be exercised and expressed in the adorations and supplications of prayer. He was born of a woman, under the law — under the law of prayer, as of other ordinances and duties — the law by which a man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven, and except the Lord be inquired of for it (Ezekiel 36:37).
Christ exercised, according to his human nature, faith, love, reverence, delight, and all the graces proper to a true human nature in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he naturally would have desired to offer vocal requests and supplications to his Father in heaven. He also would have praised God with the knowledge he had of his Father. Additionally, he would have sought God out with a holy determination, making all other duties subservient to the duty of communion with God. In other words, true and proper humanity is realized only in communion with God.
Christ’s Gift to Us
What does this mean for us? Consider three truths, among others. First, the Spirit’s ministry to us comes from Christ (Acts 2:33). Just as Christ ministered to us on the cross, his heavenly exaltation continues his ministry whereby he pours out the Spirit upon us since he is now the exalted Lord of the Spirit. The Spirit, therefore, comes in his name (“the Spirit of Christ”).
Second, the Spirit makes us like Christ. What is the role of the Spirit who has been given to us from the hand of Christ? He takes the copy of Christ’s religious life in the Spirit and works those same affections and desires in us so that we are truly Christlike (Romans 8:29).
Finally, the Spirit glorifies Christ. The Spirit, who worked in and through Christ during his life on earth, now works in and through us. Just as the Spirit enabled Christ to bring glory to his Father, so now the Spirit enables us to glorify both the Son and the Father. In other words, a true understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in believers begins and ends with the declaration that we are here on earth to glorify the Son and the Father by the power of the Spirit.
Jesus indeed has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). He has poured out on us and in us the very Spirit through whom he lived perfectly, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously.
The most recent Marvel thriller, Captain Marvel, cannot be accused of hiding its uniform. In the lead actress’s own words, “It’s mythology, it’s story, and it’s the human experience on this large scale. And on top of it, they said they [directors and the powers that be at Disney] wanted to make, like, the biggest feminist movie of all time.” Written by women and led by a woman, Captain Marvel hoped to be for women what Black Panther was for the black community.
So who is Captain Marvel? The evolution of Carol Danvers into the mighty warrior was progressive. In the original comics, released in 1968, Captain Marvel was a male alien with the name Mar-vell, and Ms. Danvers, a former Air Force officer, was girlfriend to the hero. As the feminist movement of the ’70s advanced, so did her prominence. She soon became a superheroine known as Ms. Marvel (“Ms.” in honor of Gloria Steinem). According to its writer, Ms. Marvel was “a feminist role model.” She eventually became Captain Marvel in the 2012 rendition of the comic.
The movie follows her journey of self-discovery after suffering from memory loss. She finds herself on an unfamiliar planet and must regain her identity as a woman and heroine. The character, in the words of Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, “had been held back much of her life from being able to pursue the kinds of things she wanted to pursue. She’s constantly being told, ‘Girls shouldn’t do that,’ or, ‘It’s too dangerous for you; you’ll get hurt.’ This film is very much about this character learning to not hold back and not accept the boundaries put in front of her.”
As the fate of the Marvel Universe hangs in the balance, its long-awaited female savior and protector steps forth to face the seemingly unstoppable Thanos. In a world of the all-but-defeated Avengers, comprised of gods, warriors, kings, and assassins, we wait for Captain Marvel to save the world from an enemy whom the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, Spiderman, and the Hulk could not defeat collectively. According to Feige, we have reached the era of Captain Marvel (the new face of the Avengers), who is “the most powerful character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” However, to become the hope of the Marvel Universe, she first must break free from all that limits her.
An Unmitigated Masterpiece?
I do not blame Marvel for inserting the trending feminist agenda into its universe. Where else can this lucrative ideology — which contrasts so unapologetically with reality — go to be sustained, if not to an alternative universe? Verse after verse, story after story, fact after fact, study after study, example after example dispels the myth of sameness between the sexes. The alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers, however, seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda.
So, did the movie live up to the hype? Did it come close to being “the biggest feminist movie ever,” the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the movement? Was it, as one understated tweet suggested, an “unmitigated masterpiece” and “a triumph in feminine valor over the twitching remnants of a dying patriarchy” (written by a woman whose next line read, “I can’t wait to see it”)?
Squint as I might, I can’t imagine how it did. The film was not the worst movie I’ve seen, but it stood galaxies away from the best. Maybe suitable for Redbox.
Lamenting Disney’s New Queen
As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
The great drumroll of the previous Avenger movies led to this: a woman protecting men and saving the world. The mightiest of all the Avengers — indeed, after whom they are named — is the armed princess turned feminist queen, who comes down from the tower to do what Prince Charming could not.
Am I nitpicking? It is a movie after all. I wish it were. Instead of engaging the movie’s ideology as mere fiction, a fun escape to another world, we have allowed it to bear deadly fruit on earth. Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?
She Will Not Be Appeased
The ideology that sends Brie Larson soaring fictionally around outer space has sent our real daughters, mothers, and sisters — devoid of such superpowers — to war to serve and die in place of men. Real wars, the kind where “horribly smashed men still [move] like half-crushed beetles” (Surprised by Joy, 240). Real wars, the kind C.S. Lewis elsewhere describes as the amalgamation of every temporal evil.
We ought to lament that feminist lust cannot be appeased, even with blood. It takes its daughters and now, calling men’s bluff, advocates for sending its mothers into the flames.
Unquestionably, men ought support women’s desires to be affirmed, respected, and honored. But indeed, few actions display our resolve to honor our women more than excluding them from the carnage of the battlefield. Where can we more clearly display our ultimate resolve to love our women as queens than to step into hell on earth as sacrificial pawns in their defense? Generation after generation has mobilized its men to be devoured — that its women might not be.
Yet the feminist agenda does not condone this exclusion. It will not be patronized by any messages of “you can’t,” “you won’t,” or “you shouldn’t.” Even when we say, “You can’t go into the lion’s den for us”; “You won’t risk a brutal death to protect us”; “You shouldn’t expose yourself to the bullets bearing our name” — even then, the deprivation still causes offense. But our God, our nature, our love must firmly say, You are too precious, my mother, my daughter, my beloved. It is my glory to die that you may live.
Yes, Marvel may be on the verge of ruining a decade-long movie saga with identity politics. So what? Will we fuss more about this than the government sending our daughters — stripped of photon blasts and the ability to fly — to fight our wars? We used to be attuned enough to know how shameful it is for men to hide behind their women, hoping she will take down Goliath. Have we forgotten how precious our women are? Have we forgotten that it is our glory to die in their place?
God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride. Jesus did not put his woman forward, and neither should we. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. He is the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for his people. Even from the cross, God’s wrath crushing him, he saw to the welfare of his mother (John 19:26–27). Should we so cowardly send our women to protect our children and us? Protecting our women with our very lives is not about their competency, but their value.
What are some practical ways that I can share the doctrines of grace with my friends in a hostile environment? (1:13)
Doctrines of grace — that’s a code word for Calvinism. I’ll sum up the doctrines of grace and then I’ll try to briefly answer the question.
You got saved ultimately and decisively by the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s the first premise. Those words decisively mean you do have a will and you did have to choose and your will matters and you are accountable, but when it comes down to it you were dead and your heart was going after other things. Jesus was not your treasure. Then, owing to something, Jesus became more precious to you than anything else. My Calvinism simply says the Bible teaches God was the decisive cause for why Jesus became your Supreme Treasure. That’s the bottom line.
Then all of the other things give the background and the implications of that. People don’t like it because it seems to call into question, it does call into question, the ultimate self-determination of the human will. If you define free will as I have ultimate self-determination, then I think you’re wrong. You don’t have that. Human beings have never had that and they never will have that. Only God has ultimate self-determination. You have a will. It must incline to the right or you’re guilty. You don’t have ultimate self-determination. Only God does. Therefore, we are utterly dependent on God for whether we live or die or believe or don’t believe.
Now, there’s hostility to that. Your question is what might you do? What you mustn’t do is become a warrior, a fighter, for this. There’s a place and a time to fight. Probably in a campus setting where you got to live with people day in and day out, who are not sold on this, you have to be more patient and more kind. You have to out-rejoice them.
If my Calvinism didn’t produce the kind of joy that can endure through suffering I would give it up. I’m on the earth to be happy forever — ultimately happy. I don’t think there’s any other path to this kind of ultimate lasting happiness than this. Out-rejoicing people is a key to winning them over. Then be saturated in the Bible. Most people who reject these doctrines do it for philosophical reasons, not biblical reasons. You just have to stay with the Bible. Just say, “I may not be able to answer all the questions, but I see it in the Bible. This is what the Bible says. I’m a Bible guy. I’m not going to lay it down because philosophically you think it’s contradictory.” Those are some suggestions: stay with the Bible, out-rejoice them, be patient.
What is your prayer life like? How long do you pray and how important is prayer for mission? (6:10)
Let me answer that in two ways. One is that you go through seasons of life where you venture different kinds of things. Nights of prayers, months of fasting and praying, weeks of fasting and praying. You can’t live on that. There’s fasting in my life every week. This is really dangerous for me to answer, because Jesus said, “Go into your closet and don’t tell people when you fast. Wash your face.” The fact that I tell you that fasting is in my life every week is dangerous. It’s a pride thing, probably. Even though I’m trying not to be glad about that. I’ll say what I can. Build fasting into your life, because Jesus says, “When you fast,” not if you fast. You have to have desires that are strong enough and I’ve got a lot of desires in my life, a lot of brokenness in my family that I desperately want God to move on. Therefore, fasting is part of that.
Every morning I’m in the word and prayer. I put those two together for about an hour. Sometimes a little longer. Sometimes a little shorter. I read through the Bible every year. Started over again three days ago. I mingle the reading of those four chapters with praying. That’s why it lasts an hour. I could do it in twenty minutes if I wanted to just read through it. It is: read, pray, read, pray, read, pray.
When that read, pray, read, pray is over — maybe forty minutes or so. Then I’ve got concentric prayer circles. I’m the neediest person I know. I pray a lot about me. Sanctify me, break me, humble me, protect me. Guard me from the evil one. All these biblical prayers. Then I move out to my wife and my kids and I pray about the needs there. Then I move out to Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary and Bethlehem Baptist Church, my circle of loves that I have. Then I move out to conferences and the wider evangelical movement and the missionaries with the missionary calendar that I have in our living room.
Then, if I’m really cooking with the Holy Spirit, I’ll pray for more global things — pray for your rulers and leaders. That’s the way I go about it. On average I would say in the word and prayer at least roughly an hour every day. Now, that doesn’t count “pray without ceasing.” I’m crying out to the Lord all through this evening. I’m walking up there on the platform, crying out to the Lord. I was praying in my hotel room a little while ago. And I have no idea how to quantify the cries to the Lord all day every day as you move from situation to situation.
For those of us who are discerning a call to missions, how do we discern where to go? (9:28)
It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle why people decide to go where they go. It’s not rational. If you say, “I’m going to go to the most rational place or the place with the greatest need,” or whatever it just never works. It’s a miracle how God burdens people first to go — that’s a miracle — then how he providentially works to get them to carry a burden to go to a certain place. I would simply say take a book that lists the needs of the nations, then take a year and pray through all the peoples or countries of the world. See what God does. Talk with half a dozen agencies, or one or two, and see what opportunities there are. Go to the opportunities page.
“God was the decisive cause for why Jesus became your Supreme Treasure.”
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You just start educating yourself and exposing yourself in the hopes and the prayer that God’s going to touch something. Something’s going to take hold. What I always encourage is that you be careful that a momentary fascination doesn’t make the decision. I think callings or leadings are abiding. That’s what I meant about verses that take hold of you and just won’t let you go. Week after week, month after month, year after year, this verse, this truth won’t let me go. That would be the way forward. There is just no calculus to this. Get on your face before God and say, “I am willing to do anything, go anywhere you want me to go.” He will like that. He will not leave you forever in confusion.
How do you share the gospel with people? If you have five minutes or less to tell someone about Christ, what do you tell them? (12:03)
Well, let’s just use real examples. I’m in Minnesota, so I only do this about eight months out of the year. I call it jogging evangelism. I’m a jogger and I mean really slow — thirteen-minute-miles. I jog through my neighborhood. It’s a very poor neighborhood I know where everything is. I know where the homeless people are. I know where the people are under the bridge. I know where they’re getting up at six in the morning. I just start running. I’m praying, “God, show me somebody to do that.” Five minutes. Two minutes, whatever. They’re easy. Most poor people are easy to talk to. It’s rich people that think you’re a jerk and say “get out of my life.”
I basically start by saying, “Hi, I’m John. I live in the neighborhood.” I used to say, “I’m a pastor,” and that helped, usually. I’d say, “I jog and I pray for people how can I pray for you?” Real standard opening. They’ll say, “Pray for my girlfriend. She just left. She ditched me last night. Pray for whatever.” I say, “Okay, I will do that. Now, may I tell you the best news in the world?” I just ask permission. “Can I tell you the best news in the world?” Sometimes I say, “Do you know the best news in the world?” They say, “No.” Then I just say, “The best news in the world is that God made you for his glory. You and I don’t love his glory. We should. Right? Do you love his glory?” “No, I don’t.”
“Okay, you’re guilty. I’m guilty before God. God, in mercy, is willing to send Jesus his son, to die in our place so that his anger and wrath doesn’t have to fall on us. If we will abandon our sin and trust in him, he will forgive all our sins and bring us into his fellowship.” That’s the gospel. It’s the 1 Corinthians 15:3 gospel. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Then we see where we go from there. That may be the end of it. If they look the least bit interested to talk more. What I just gave you is the gospel.
Does marriage help or hinder missions? (14:51)
Paul said that he loved being single. Indeed, he let himself say, under God’s inspiration, “I wish you were all single.” Then he backed off from that. He knew he was not giving a mandate there. He said, nevertheless, if that’s your calling, you don’t sin if you marry. It’s kind of like whoa, that’s not an exciting view of marriage. It was for Paul second best. Then he gave his reason.
Married people must take into consideration their kids and their wives. That complicates single-minded devotion to particular tasks of ministry. Now, I said it that way, “complicates single-minded devotion to particular tasks” because it doesn’t complicate single-minded devotion to Jesus. Every trial that your children bring into your life, or your wife brings into your life, is a golden opportunity to be Christlike or not, right? Marriage is the school of sanctification.
Nothing will knock the rough edges off of your fallen soul like getting married and staying married for fifty years. Holiness is not hindered by marriage. It’s helped. But single-minded devotion to missions will be complicated. Your kids and she or he are going to have different kinds of sensitivities. The answer is it’s a plus in spiritual ways. It’s a complication in ministry ways. I think every one of you just has to discern is there a calling on my life to live a life of single-minded devotion to certain tasks that require singleness, or is it to marry? I think Paul stayed single because of his lifestyle.
He said, “I expect to be beaten and in prison in almost every city I go to.” He couldn’t bring a woman into that life. He wouldn’t do that to her. Imagine being married to a man who insisted on moving from one beating to the next. Five times he was beaten with 39 lashes. Five times. Imprisoned countless times. Beaten with rods three times. Shipwrecked. If you choose that, don’t marry. Don’t marry. That’s too hard on him or her.
Do you see any difference between an evangelist and a missionary? (18:17)
I think in Paul’s mind there is a difference. He didn’t use the word “missionary,” but he was one. The difference is this: he said to Timothy, not in that text but in another, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Now, Timothy is a local pastor and he said, “Do the work of an evangelist.” He didn’t mean by that for Timothy to go to Spain and reach an unreached people group. That’s what Paul is doing. Yes, they overlap in the sense that missionaries do evangelism, but they do it among the people who have no access to a local church. They don’t have any place to go to worship or hear about the gospel, so we go to them.
“The gospel itself carries in it the natural impulse to be urgent with good news.”
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My dad was a full-time evangelist and was away from home two-thirds of the year, every year of my growing up. For fifty years, he preached, he was a mini Billy Graham. He just went from city to city in churches and evangelized local churches and any unbeliever they would bring to church in the evening. That’s not a missionary; that’s the glorious calling of an evangelist.
How do you navigate the urgency to share the gospel with the argument that it may be more effective to relationally evangelize? And with local campus ministry, should the priority be reaching as many students as possible or to do more evangelizing with classmates you have existing relationships with? (20:04)
I don’t know of any formula that can define or decide for you when you will take an urgent opportunity to share the gospel quickly and fully with a person, versus cultivating a longer term relationship. I don’t know a formula. Both are needed. I think what we need to do is check our hearts. Is the reason I’m cultivating a half-a-dozen relationships in my dorm because I hope that I will have more credibility and lead them to Jesus? Or am I just afraid? If it’s fear we need to change our strategy. Frankly, from my experience over the last twenty or thirty years, friendship evangelism — which is a beautiful thing — has discouraged people from doing what I do in jogging evangelism.
Here’s the problem — it’s my experience anyway. If you move into a neighborhood say, and you got the neighbors on each side and you meet them and you’re just going to say, “I’m going to form a relationship and within a few months maybe the gospel will come up.” When it comes up in six months and they hear how urgent it is they look at you funny and say, “Why did you wait to tell me about this?” In other words, the gospel itself carries in it the natural impulse to be urgent.
I would just encourage you to pray earnestly for discernment as to whether or not, in this moment within the second or third conversation you have with a new friend, you say something like, “Can we do lunch together and share each other’s philosophy of life? You tell me what makes you tick. I’ll tell you what makes me tick.” Just ask for permission.
One other thing, I think we err, I have erred, in not pressing through to tell somebody, “I really want you to believe. We share the gospel de facto. We tell them the facts. We offer it to them and then we stop instead of looking them in the eye and say, “I love you. I would like to spend eternity with you. I want you to be a sister. I want you to be a brother of mine. Would you?” Maybe the Lord would even give you tears at that moment. Very few people ever meet a Christian who talks that way to them.
What are ways that I can be helping and encouraging people to deepen their relationship with God through his word? (23:56)
Hunger for God is a miracle. It’s a gift of God. You cannot coerce it. You can’t make it happen. Let’s just start there. You are totally dependent on God for him to awaken that in someone. But oh, how God uses means, and his word is the key means. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith at its core is falling out of love with the world and falling into love with Jesus. It comes through the word, so you will minister the word to them.
Secondly, you will be thrilled by the word. It won’t be artificial. You won’t work it up. I’ve seen people that get around John Piper and they think they got to sound emotional. It’s fake. It’s fake. You got to be real. Kids know whether you’re real or not. What you do is you go before the Lord in the morning and you read whatever passage you’ve designated and you plead with the Lord, “Show me your glory. Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love that I may rejoice and be glad in you.” You find some particular thing to talk to them about.
This morning I read Matthew 1 where the wise men come to Jesus. When they get there it says, “They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly.” Now, I flipped my iPad over to the Greek and literally it’s, “They rejoiced a joy great exceedingly,” so I tweeted it. The tweet said, “Not just rejoiced. Not just rejoiced with joy. Not just rejoiced with a great joy, but rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly. I was moved by that. I was a wise man leaping for joy and I’m telling you that.
Now, that’s what you do. You tell them off your front burner what did God do to you this morning. He took those four words and just stopped me. I didn’t finish my Bible reading this morning. The first person asked me how often do I pray? How much do I pray? I didn’t finish my Bible reading, which is why I got to go home in eight minutes. I got to finish my Bible reading in Genesis.
If I had a dark year, what would you advise me to do when I feel the darkness coming around me again? (27:50)
I’m known as the joy guy, the Christian Hedonist guy, the satisfaction in God guy. You need to know that my first book is called Desiring God, not having found perfect pleasure in God. It’s called Desiring God. That’s what you want. You desire God. Then you get these black seasons and feel nothing except maybe suicidal, horrible thoughts.
People ask me all over the country, “Okay, you just persuaded me that we ought to be happy in God. But I’m not.” Most people aren’t. That’s not your steady-state experience — I am regularly happy in, satisfied in, content in God. You’re not. I had to go back to the drawing board and say, “All right, what do I need to write?” I wrote the book When I Don’t Desire God. That book has a chapter in it called “When the Darkness Does Not Lift.” That was so helpful to so many people like you, I presume, that they published it as a separate little book. You can get it called When the Darkness Does Not Lift.
I try to address the issue of either depression, that might need medication, or just that the black is dejection that may be just short of a physiological depression. The answer is: be very slow to walk away from the Lord. In other words, understand that seasons of darkness, dark nights of the soul, as they’ve been called by the greatest saints, are relatively normal in the history of the church. Or they might be seasons — and I mean seasons. There was a man in my church, who for eight years came to church, and couldn’t read his Bible. He was dark. He was so depressed that he walked around his house, if his wife went to the bathroom, he would walk up to the door and stand there, waiting for her to come out.
One day God showed up through the word and just lifted it. No reason. No explanation at all that eight years of the blackest darkness, inability to read the Bible hardly, except that he forced himself. From then until he died at our church he was a sold-out Bible memory guy. All he did was try to help people. “Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. Get the Bible in. No matter how dark it gets, God will speak to you.”
I don’t want to burden you with a number of verses to memorize or read. I just want to say darkness isn’t the end of your relationship with God. It is normal for Christians to walk through those seasons. I hope you’ll look at the book to see the practical things. Things as practical as sleep and eating and nature and poetry and sunshine and friends. God has so many ways to lift our dark burdens.
If you doubt your salvation, will that doubt ever get better? And is there a danger of being too transparent about your sin? (31:48)
Yes, there’s a danger, but I don’t know what that level is for you. I don’t know you well enough. If I hung out with you I might say, “You don’t need to say that. You don’t need to go there. You don’t need to be that graphic or whatever.” I think discernment about how much you share of your own struggles in a small group or how graphic you describe your own sinfulness. That’s so needy of discernment.
“God has so many ways to lift our dark burdens.”
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Your first question is much harder and much more close. God can handle any level of transparency. He’s not worried about that. He cares much about assurance. He doesn’t want us to doubt our salvation. It’s not a good thing. When I’m scared about hell and my assurance wavers I don’t feel good about that. I don’t say, “Oh, that’s normal. No problem there.” Does it ever go away? For some people. Not for me. I don’t know. Maybe it will. I’m only 73, so maybe it will.
Justification is instantaneous, it is over, it is once for all, you can’t improve upon it, you’re never more justified later than you are at the beginning. To be justified is to be completely accepted by God. I believe that with all my heart. Sanctification, that is becoming holy, is a process. I used to think the progress at seventy would be fifty years more confident and more patient than I was at twenty. I don’t think it works like that.
Here’s what I mean. I don’t want to discourage you. What I mean is that the battle never ends. Satan will never stop shooting arrows at you. He knows your unique vulnerability. He will go after it. He will. It may be that God would so build a fortress around that vulnerability that you will outlive it and you will never struggle with that again. He’s done that with me for sexual sin. This is not a boast. This is just a plain physiological fact. I am never tempted to have adultery. Pornography remains a temptation, but not adultery.
None of you women are attractive to me. None of you. There’s Noël. She is. I’ve told her this, and this is a great gift to your wife, guys, if it’s true. If God touches you so that physiologically the thought of kissing another woman is nauseating, which it is to me — the thought of getting in bed with another woman, besides that woman over there, makes me want to throw up.
Now, that’s a gift to me. It’s a gift to our marriage. Other temptations, she can document my sins and the things we’ve struggled with for fifty years, and they are many. God may do that for you, with your particular bent towards doubt or assurance. I don’t want to say, “No, it will never go away.” It may go away.
Jesus’s encounter with the rich young man has always unsettled me. I’m an American. I’m as middle-class as Americans go, which means I live in a level of affluence and abundance unknown by most of my co-inhabitants of this world today, and by a far, far lower percentage of people in history. In global and historical terms, I am that man.
The most disturbing thing about the young man is that he seemed so familiar with his affluence-shaped religious and cultural assumptions that he didn’t realize how out of touch with spiritual reality he was. I doubt that many around him discerned how out of touch he was. From the very brief glimpses of him we catch in the synoptics, and by Jesus’s response to him in Mark’s account, this man doesn’t seem to match the arrogant rich oppressor we envision when we read James 5:4–6. Those around him might have assumed his prosperity was God’s affirmative blessing.
After all, this man was spiritually earnest — running to Jesus and kneeling before him to ask him if there was more he needed to do to be saved (Mark 10:17). He had all the appearance of piety — having kept (or believed he did) the commandments Jesus listed since he was young (Mark 10:19–20). And he was sincere — Mark records that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). He was all these things, yet he lacked the kind of faith that saves.
Spiritually earnest, sincere, apparently pious — perhaps more than most around him. Isn’t that what faith looks like? No, not necessarily. Faith looks like trusting. And when it comes to what we really believe, trusting looks like treasuring. For when it’s all on the line for us, we always trust in what we truly treasure.
Show Me What I Trust
The most loving thing Jesus could do for this earnest, sincere young man was show him the god he trusted: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Then the man saw his real god, and he walked away from Jesus’s incredible invitation “sorrowful.” Why? “He had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). This led to Jesus’s devastating observation:
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23–25)
When it was all on the line for the young man, he trusted his wealth, his possessions, more than God. His wealth was his god, and that kept him from entering the kingdom. The thing is, he didn’t see this until he really had to choose.
Do you find that disconcerting? The disciples did: “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). As an affluent American living in the midst of unprecedented historical abundance, I do. I don’t trust my faith self-assessment (1 Corinthians 4:3). I can trust only God’s assessment (1 Corinthians 4:4). And since faith is really proven genuine only when it is tried (1 Peter 1:6–7; James 1:2–4; 2 Corinthians 13:5), we must be willing, like the young man, to say to Jesus,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23–24)
And if Jesus doesn’t call us to leave our abundance, but to continue living faithfully in it — if we are to really trust God and not our abundance — then we need the faith to abound.
Faith to Abound
Paul said he had learned to be content in whatever situation he found himself:
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12–13)
If given the choice, most of us likely would prefer to be given the faith to abound rather than the faith to be brought low. I think that’s because we aren’t fully cognizant of the dangerous nature of material prosperity. Paul meant it when he said it requires God’s strength to “face plenty.”
“Abundance” (prosperity) and “need” (scarcity) are very different circumstances. They both require faith in order to handle them in ways that glorify God. But they demand the exercising of different sets of faith muscles. Scarcity requires faith muscles for trusting God in a place of needy desperation. Prosperity requires faith muscles for trusting God in place of bountiful material security.
Exercising faith in scarcity is not easy by any means. Most of us fear scarcity more than prosperity because the threat is clearly seen. But ironically, that’s one reason it can be easier to exercise faith in scarcity than in prosperity. Because in scarcity, our need is clear and our options are typically few. We feel desperate for God to provide for us and so we are driven to seek him — to exercise our faith.
But exercising faith in prosperity is different. It’s a more complex and deceptive spiritual and psychological environment. It requires that we truly trust — truly treasure — God when we don’t feel desperate for his provision, when we feel materially secure, when nothing external is demanding that we feel urgency. When we have lots of options that look innocuous and we can spend precious time and money on all sorts of pursuits and enjoyments. This environment is so dangerous that Jesus warns it is harder for people in it to enter God’s kingdom than for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle. Test yourself. When have you sought God most earnestly: in need or abundance?
When God Is Our Option
Christians have always found it harder to voluntarily give away security than to desperately plead for it. It requires different faith muscles to trust God in divesting ourselves of prosperity for his sake than to trust God to meet our scarcity for his sake. In some ways, it takes greater faith to trust God when you have other options than when he is our only option.
That’s why the laborers are so few when the harvest is so plenty (Luke 10:2). Few want to face worldly need in order to experience kingdom plenty. It makes the kind of faith that saints like George Müller and Hudson Taylor exercised so remarkable.
Yes, they trusted in God in scarcity. But what made this all the more remarkable was that they could have raised money in other legitimate ways to support their work and avoid many of those needy moments. But they voluntarily chose (which is different from being circumstantially forced) to place themselves in a position of desperation to demonstrate that God exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). They, like Paul, learned the secret of facing abundance and need: fully trusting God, their Treasure.
Whatever It Takes
We Christians who live in abundance need to heed the story of the rich young man. We need him to unnerve us. For the whole history of the church bears witness to the general trend that the wealthier she grows, the more corrupt, indulgent, and apathetic she grows. And the less urgent over lost souls she feels. It’s harder for people in our environment to be real Christians than for camels to pass through a needle’s eye.
But Jesus does not leave us without great hope. He announces, “With man [handling material abundance faithfully] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). So, let us run to Jesus — who has power to do what is impossible for us — kneel before him, and plead:
Whatever it takes, Lord, help me to truly trust you as my greatest treasure. I would rather lose my material security and gain the kingdom than gain the world and lose my soul. All I have is yours — my life, my family, my time, my money, my possessions, my future — and I will steward them as you wish, even if it means losing them (Philippians 3:8). And I invite you to search my heart and put my faith to the test.
Pastor John and Noël are back in the Twin Cities. Thank you for your prayers as they traveled and ministered in Brazil and Argentina. The day the Pipers flew to South America, Tony Reinke flew to Texas to speak on campus at Texas A&M (or TAMU, as it’s affectionately called). There he spoke to students about social media, digital temptations, and smartphone habits. The topics for conversation centered around his books 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and the new one, Competing Spectacles.
The campus assembly was put on by Ratio Christi TAMU and by The Veritas Forum. It was made possible by a new friend, Micah Green, who serves as the associate professor of chemical engineering at the school, and an old friend, Jared Oliphint, a PhD student in philosophy at TAMU, who moderated the event. In today’s episode of APJ, we’re releasing the hour-long campus conversation.
[5:54] Tony, tell us about yourself. What is your background, career, family life? Also, what is your role in the smartphone and social-media conversation?
[8:11] What are some of the psychological effects of phone and social-media usage? Are they linked to depression or similar issues?
[12:05] What is the role of our faith in how we respond to our phones and social media? Do we need to look outside the church for advice on how we use technology?
[15:25] Most people assume that spirituality is important for Christianity, and that it affects what we do with social media and smartphone usage. But what about physicality? Is physicality important for the Christian worldview? How does our smartphone usage relate to being present, being physically all there?
[23:50] Does social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) deliver on the promises it makes — promises to connect us, inform us, make life better? What are both the good parts and the bad parts of using social media?
[32:16] How does social media affect our self-worth? What is the right way to think about self-worth and social media?
[39:47] What does it mean to be a social-media “influencer”? What should we think about that whole status?
[46:38] What has the greatest potential for good in the technology world, and what has the greatest potential for destruction?
[49:21] What are some of your personal habits you employ to help you use your phone and social media well?
[53:43] How do I cut out the negative sides of social media — such as bad videos on YouTube — while not cutting myself off from the positive material out there? Is it wise for churches and Christian organizations to even be using social-media platforms to reach people?
[58:40] What is the role of social media in evangelism? How can we use it for the glory of God and not self-fulfillment?
[1:00:39] What’s the best way to confront someone who you believe is addicted to social media?