The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Mon, 25 Jul 2022 08:01:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 20 Jazz Masterpieces You Should Hear Mon, 25 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 If you like the idea of jazz but don’t know where to start in a journey of appreciating the form, here are 20 suggestions of ‘essential’ jazz recordings.]]> Jazz is a uniquely American art form, a story born out of the experience of African American people. Several tributaries have flowed into the main river we call jazz: spirituals, gospel, blues, and ragtime, to name a few. Styles vary greatly, from the laidback subtlety of Count Basie’s piano to the frenzy of Charlie Parker’s bebop saxophone, and so many more. Some jazz artists have achieved worldwide fame. Others remain relatively anonymous. Many of the legends have “moved on up a little higher,” as Mahalia Jackson memorably described death. Still, the music goes on.

Even among jazz fans, few understand its spiritual nature. The best jazz (as I explain in A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel) reflects the narrative—familiar among people shaped by the Christian gospel—that moves from deep misery to inextinguishable joy.

The best jazz reflects the narrative that moves from deep misery to inextinguishable joy.

If you’re a Christian who likes the idea of jazz but doesn’t know where to start in a journey of appreciating the form, here are some suggestions of “essential” jazz recordings. The chronologically ordered list below is very partial. But perhaps it will inspire you to delve more deeply into this beautiful art form. You can listen to these selections in a special playlist on Spotify or Apple Music.

Scott Joplin, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (1899)

This is the masterpiece of the greatest of all the ragtime pianists. Unlike the feverish popular impression of rag music, Joplin’s compositions are poised, calm, and deeply artistic. This 1970 version by Joshua Rifkin gives the idea. Often pianists quip that ragtime is easy until they try to play it!

Jelly Roll Morton, ‘Black Bottom Stomp’ (1926)

Here is a masterpiece by the great New Orleans innovator Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known as Jelly Roll Morton. This quintessential early jazz piece is rendered by Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. As the title implies, it connects jazz to the dance. Its variety and swing are astonishing.

Louis Armstrong, ‘West End Blues’ (1928)

Composed by King Oliver, this classic 12-bar blues opens with a remarkable solo trumpet cadenza by Armstrong. He recorded it with his Hot Five ensemble, a cast of jazz legends. The West End was the last train stop in the popular Lake Pontchartrain section of Orleans Parish, Louisiana. The piece established jazz as a “legit” art form.

Robert Johnson, ‘Crossroad Blues’ (1936)

The King of the Delta Blues died at 27 but not before leaving his mark on this illustrious genre. Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant are part of his legacy. Even today his music has a timeless quality. The crossroad in question is a place where Johnson is said to have met the Devil, leading to a Faustian bargain to give him greater prowess on the guitar. It may reflect an old African story of the Devil as the white man.

Duke Ellington, ‘Take the “A” Train’ (1939)

Composed by Ellington’s collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, “‘A’ Train” has been recorded hundreds of times. Named after the New York City subway line connecting Harlem to Bedford Stuyvesant, the song became Ellington’s signature orchestral piece. It displays the combination of showmanship and musicality so characteristic of the Duke’s performances.

Coleman Hawkins, ‘Body and Soul’ (1939)

Hawkins moved the tenor sax from an orchestral horn section to a solo instrument, as demonstrated in his version of the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” His tenor sax solo only refers to the notes of the melody sporadically—providing instead a creative “riff” on the chords.

Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939)

One of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded, the subject of “Strange Fruit” is the horrifying brutality of lynching in the U.S. South. The “fruit” is black bodies hanging from trees. The FBI tried to shut down the song and ruin Holiday, but she went on to sing it. Its message needed to be heard.

Dizzy Gillespie, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ (1945)

A defining piece at the beginnings of bebop, this song has a Caribbean feeling, with the bass a rising and falling series of eighth notes. This instrumental version, recorded at the Town Hall in New York, features an astonishing series of solos by the jazz greats of the day, including Charlie Parker.

Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, ‘Ko-Ko’ (1945)

Based on the Ray Noble song “Cherokee,” this tour de force is played at a vertiginous tempo—a showcase for bebop’s phrasing and melodic array. What keeps it from sounding like a monotonous hurried series of solos is the phrasing, with carefully placed accents and discreetly executed shapes.

Art Tatum, ‘Hallelujah’ (1950)

Words fail to describe the musical superiority, compelling rhythm, and chord selection of this recording by the greatest of all jazz pianists. Though he excelled at stride piano, Tatum synthesized numerous styles into a glorious whole. “Hallelujah” was composed by Vincent Youmans and found its way into the Broadway musical Hit the Deck in 1927. If you sing it you’ll “shoo the blues away.”

Erroll Garner, ‘Autumn Leaves’ (1955)

Master pianist Erroll Louis Garner plays this classic with great artistry. The song is from his 1955 live album, Concert By the Sea, perhaps the best collection of Garner’s virtuoso recital work. In addition to his memorable renditions of the timeless American Songbook, he was a considerable composer, having penned such pieces as “Misty” and “Erroll’s Bounce.”

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)

Many of the individual songs on this album have become classics, including “So What?” “Freddy the Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” and “All Blues.” Musicians include Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane. The sound is “modal,” sounding more like Gregorian chant than Mozart. It may be the best-selling jazz album of all time.

John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps’ (1960)

This is the lead piece in the revolutionary album by the same name. The unusual chord progressions have made it into a showcase for the music called “the new thing.” Coltrane was an experimenter, often using a plastic saxophone.

Bessie Griffin, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ (1961)

Spirituals are at the origins of jazz. The “black” way of singing them lends a beauty that pierces the heart. Bessie Griffin (née Arlette B. Broil, 1922–1989) was raised Baptist and was a protégée of Mahalia Jackson. The “motherless child” is the archetypal African American during slavery, abandoned yet with a grain of hope.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (1965)

After his spiritual renewal, John Coltrane expressed his gratitude to God for his new life, resulting in the four-song collection known as A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” On saxophone, Coltrane leads a quartet that also includes McCoy Tyner (keys), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (percussion).

Aretha Franklin, ‘Precious Lord’ (1965)

The Queen of Soul grew up in the church. Her rendition of Thomas A. Dorsey’s masterpiece conveys the passion and the faith of a suffering people. Its exquisite simplicity tells us much about the black believer’s quiet confidence in God. Aretha’s live album, Amazing Grace, is widely considered the greatest gospel concert of all time.

Nina Simone, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ (1967)

Nina Simone’s version of Billy Taylor’s classic reveals the depths of the desire to be free—a universal desire but one especially resonant for black people. The song served as an anthem of sorts during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Keith Jarrett, ‘Spiral Dance’ (1974)

One of the masterpieces of eccentric, multitalented Keith Jarrett, “Spiral Dance” combines the exotic sounds of Jan Garbarek with Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on percussion. Though it hovers around the same key and same sounds, there is great variety in this modern jazz creation by a contemporary master.

Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Duets in Hanover’ (1975)

Two geniuses on their instruments, guitar and voice. Individually they’re superb. Together they’re incomparable. The combination of talents from very different backgrounds (watch on YouTube) is remarkable, proving the point that creativity in jazz cannot be programmed.

Monty Alexander, ‘Renewal’ (2016)

One of the most memorable compositions of Jamaican-born piano wizard Monty Alexander, “Renewal” signifies a spiritual renewal he experienced some years back. Accompanied by Ed Thigpen on drums and Robert Thomas Jr. on hand drums, the simple but thoughtful melody is complemented by a syncopated rhythm.

The Secret to Happiness Mon, 25 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Happiness is outside of you and inside your reach. ]]> Happiness is declining.

Americans have grown less happy since the 1990s, with an even steeper decline since the 2000s. A global pandemic has made the trend even worse. According to a 2020 University of Chicago poll, Americans were the unhappiest they had ever been since conductors started collecting data in 1972.

How can we reverse the trend? How can we be happy?

Ancient Wisdom for Today

Believe it or not, this isn’t a new question. Our cultural moment makes the problem feel acute, but the pursuit of happiness is a well-worn path.

The book of Psalms, written about 3,000 years ago, begins with this exact issue: “Blessed is the man” (Ps. 1:1). Another way to translate this word is “happy.” “Happy is the man.”

Do you want a happy life? Listen to the wisdom of this psalm; the answer may surprise you. Happy is the man whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2).

Don’t be misled by Psalm 1’s simplicity. This is profound wisdom, guaranteed to produce the joy our souls crave.

Meditate on Scripture

The two lines of Psalm 1:2 are parallel. To delight in the law of the Lord is to meditate on it day and night. That’s quite the task! Do you have to become a monk to be happy? Do you need to spend all day studying God’s Word and doing nothing else?

If I spent one less hour per day meditating on my phone, and one more on God’s Word, I would almost certainly be happier.

The short answer is no. But we should delight to know God’s Word—and one way we do that is by setting aside time to study it. If I spent one less hour per day meditating on my phone, and one more on God’s Word, I would almost certainly be happier. Psalm 1 beckons us to make Bible meditation an everyday thing. When you see a beautiful spring flower, you can pause and praise because you remember that James says all good things come from God (James 1:17). When you’re faced with a dilemma at work, you can ask God for wisdom because you read that he loves to give it (James 1:5).

God’s Word is joy fuel. Our happiness will ebb and flow to the extent we’re mulling it over in our minds and hearts.

Follow the Science

Interestingly, social science points us in the same direction. Studies show religious people are far happier than nonreligious people. They’re happier in their work, and they’re more emotionally (even physically) healthy.

One study looked specifically at church attendance. Of those who attend a church service “seldom or never,” only 26 percent report being “very happy.” Of those who attend monthly or less, 31 percent report being very happy—an improvement. And of those who attend weekly or more, 43 percent report being “very happy.” From 26 to 43 percent—that’s a big difference!

By the numbers, 2020 was one of the unhappiest years in recent memory. But there’s one subgroup whose mental health actually improved in 2020. Can you guess it? Those who attended a religious service weekly or more.

Do you want a happy life? Follow the science! Come to church every week. It is especially by hearing God’s Word proclaimed,  Sunday after Sunday, that we learn to delight in his law and find true happiness.

Look to Christ

Our culture says, “Follow your heart,” “You do you,” “Live your authentic life,” and so on. Such platitudes imply the key to happiness is found within. But Psalm 1 disagrees. The key to happiness isn’t inside of you; it’s outside of you. The key to happiness is found in God and his Word.

Studies show religious people are far happier than nonreligious people.

We’ve bought the lie that God’s law stifles our happiness. To one degree or another, we all live that way. But the truth is that the law of God is the key to our happiness.

Do you want a happy life? Put all your trust in Christ. Practice repentance. Strive to live in obedience to God with his help. See if it doesn’t make you happier.

He Secures Our Happiness

God has given us the key to happiness. Tragically we often reject it, delighting instead in ourselves and our sin. We don’t deserve to be happy in this life or the next. We deserve to perish in the day of God’s judgment (Ps. 1:5–6).

But the good news is that there is One who has never sinned and has fully delighted in the law of the Lord. Jesus Christ chose to stand in our place, taking God’s judgment we deserved. He suffered, died, and rose so that now we can stand in the judgment—not by our own merit, but by his perfect righteousness. Our eternal joy is secure in him.

Happy is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and in the Lord of the law.

Faithful for 5 Decades in Ministry: Honoring Sam Storms Mon, 25 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 When faithful pastors run a long race of ministry well—like TGC Council member Sam Storms—it’s worth pausing to honor them.]]> They say you should never meet your heroes. I worked for mine.

Like so many young people, I was partially discipled by far away authors and YouTube heroes. Unlike so many, I actually met my hero. Better still, I got to work with him. Best yet, this hero really loves Jesus and taught me to do the same.

In August, my pastor and mentor (and The Gospel Coalition Council member) Sam Storms will be retiring from his role as lead pastor of Bridgeway Church here in Oklahoma City. On the occasion of Sam’s retirement—and because it’s always a good exercise to publicly honor those who stay faithful over a long ministry tenure—here are a few reflections on what he’s meant to me.

1. In a world of false dichotomies, Sam is committed to having his cake and eating it too.

Sam taught me that I didn’t have to choose between being enthusiastically expositional and charismatic. This is what first drew me to Sam’s teaching. In Sam Storms, I found a man who was committed to both the functional authority of Scripture and the eager pursuit of spiritual gifts (some use “Word and Spirit” as shorthand for this approach). Sam is Reformed in his soteriology, a Christian Hedonist in his affections, and unapologetically charismatic in his ministry to others. He wrote the book on amillennialism (or, at least, one of the best), and he routinely led a prophetic ministry time at the end of his sermons.

It’s always a good exercise to publicly honor those who stay faithful over a long ministry tenure.

To some, Sam is a walking contradiction. To me, Sam has been a proof of concept. In an evangelical culture often shaped by false dichotomies, Sam has shown me (and many others) that I need not feel pressed to pick between good things. I can be both passionately Reformed and fervently continuationist. I can love both the serious exposition of Scripture and the eager pursuit of prophecy. Sam has exposed the myth of mutual exclusivity.

He has not only demonstrated this on paper. He has also contended for a local church culture that displays the convergence of Word and Spirit. Such an approach requires both wise courage and tenacious intentionality. By God’s grace, Sam has exercised both.

2. In an age of cynicism, Sam is childlike.

When I’m in my 70s, I want to be as youthful and enthusiastic in my faith as Sam Storms.

Over his nearly five decades in ministry, Sam has had countless opportunities to yield to the temptations of cynicism or cold aloofness. Pastoring is often a front-row seat to the darkest moments life has to offer. By God’s grace, 40-plus years of shepherding members through tragedies, moral failures, sinful conflict, and apostasy have not blunted the edge of Sam’s exuberance in Christ.

This is because Sam foregrounds the supremacy of Christ, not just in his preaching but also in his heart’s affections. As a result, Sam prays like God is good and is really listening to his petitions. He shepherds as one who is both a present and future “partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5:1). He takes boyish delight in discussing God’s Word. In fact, were it not for the outward marks of aging (sorry, Sam!) you might just mistake his enthusiasm for that of a first-year seminary student.

3. In an age of celebrity, Sam is a local church pastor.

The pride that often accompanies fame is one heck of a drug. An obsession with amassing fans seems to be the undoing of many pastors who gain notoriety. In humble contrast, Sam’s gaze has been set firmly and noticeably on those in his own congregation—those he can truly know, love, and shepherd with care. Yes, many of his works have profoundly benefited faraway sheep, but Sam’s heart is decidedly focused on the local flock over which Chief Shepherd has made him an overseer (1 Pet. 5:2–3).

Sam has loved my family well, caring for us as whole individuals. I never had the impression he was simply interested in my abilities or my ministerial output. He was never too busy to take meaningful pastoral interest in my life.

Sam and Ann Storms have walked with my wife and me through several dark valleys. Last March, Sam concluded a sermon with an admonition that the church pray for couples struggling with infertility. After inviting couples to stand for prayer, Sam walked off the platform and made a beeline to Brit and me (we were both standing). He prayed for us. He really prayed for us. There was passion in his tone and no platitudes in his vocabulary. He prayed as one who loved us deeply and as one who believed that the Lord still does miracles. I can only describe it as fatherly fervor. The next week, we found out Brit was pregnant with our son, Shepherd.

Thank God for the prayers of faithful local church pastors.

Best Kind of Leader

The best kind of leader takes off his robe to wash feet. The best kind of shepherd leads you to the Good Shepherd. The best kind of spiritual father leads you to the Father of Lights. The best kind of friend cuts holes in a thatched roof so you might gain an audience with the Great Physician.

Sam is this kind of leader, shepherd, father in the faith, and friend.

The best kind of shepherd leads you to the Good Shepherd.

I don’t want to eulogize or canonize Sam here (he is neither dead nor perfect). But I do want to honor him, as a son honors a faithful father and as the healed paralytic honors those friends who sawed out a skylight over Jesus’s head.

Honoring one another should be a staple of Christian life together (Rom. 12:10). There are many faithful, honorable pastors, like Sam, who run the race of ministry well. Let us honor and celebrate them, thanking God for the gift of exemplary leaders we can look to, learn from, and follow in the path of long obedience.

How to Starve Bitterness Sun, 24 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 If we don’t actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us. So how do we starve it?]]> I once had a conversation with a friend who had been hurt by someone he loved. He told me he was doing everything in his power to not harbor bitterness toward this person. He then said something I haven’t forgotten years later: “I’ve heard it said that harboring bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. The more I feed bitterness in my heart, the more it brings death to me.”

Bitterness is poison dipped in honey. It tastes sweet going down, then it kills us from the inside out. In this way, bitterness is the poster child for the deceitfulness of sin. Whenever we love something that brings death to us, the devil has us right where he wants us.

If we do not actively starve bitterness, it will bring death to us. So how do we starve it?

How Is Bitterness Fed?

To starve bitterness, we must first know what feeds it. Proverbs 17:9 gives us a helpful starting point: “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.”

The antithesis of forgiveness is something called “repeating a matter.” There are three primary ways we can repeat a matter, and each feeds bitterness in our hearts.

1. We repeat the matter to ourselves.

We replay the tape of the other person’s offense over and over again in our minds. This is perhaps the most common feeder of bitterness and unforgiveness. Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.

2. We repeat the matter to the sinner.

Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, calls this “gunnysacking.” This is when we collect the other person’s sins in a figurative bag (gunnysack), which we carry around wherever we go. Then, whenever we get into an argument with this person, we dump out her old sins and throw them back in her face. Our goal? Don’t let her forget what she did.

3. We repeat the matter to someone else.

The Bible calls this gossip. (The CSB actually translates Prov. 17:9 as “Whoever gossips separates close friends . . .”) One thing to notice about gossip is that it harms four different parties:

  • It harms the speaker of the gossip (Prov. 25:9–10; 26:20).
  • It harms the subject of the gossip (Prov. 26:20).
  • It harms the listener of the gossip (Prov. 22:24–25; 26:20, 22).
  • It grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:29–32).

Every time we repeat a matter in one of these three ways, we feed bitterness in our hearts.

Every time we replay someone’s sin in our minds, we water the seed of bitterness in our hearts—and it grows.

Important Caveats

There are certainly situations where we must lovingly and prayerfully confront the person who sinned against us and discuss his offense with him. (In fact, it’s our duty to lovingly communicate how we’ve been hurt so he can take steps toward growth.) There are also situations where we should report an offense to the authorities (especially in criminal activity or abuse cases) or times when we should discuss sins committed against us with a counselor, therapist, or pastor. None of these things is what Proverbs 17:9 warns us about when it talks about repeating a matter.

Rather, this verse warns us of the danger of allowing bitterness and vengefulness to consume us, causing us to repeat the matter with the intent to harm the sinner or to justify our own sin. Whenever we do this, we give the devil a foothold to sow death-producing bitterness inside of us (Eph. 4:26–32; Heb. 12:14–15).

Ask yourself, Which of these feeders of bitterness do I need to be on guard against in this season of my life?

How Is Bitterness Starved?

Ephesians 4:31–32 is helpful here: “Let all bitterness . . . be put away from you. . . . Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

In order to starve our souls of one thing, we must feed our souls with something else. We “put away” bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us. How does God love and forgive us? I love how J. I. Packer puts it in Knowing God: “There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me.”

We ‘put away’ bitterness in part by preoccupying ourselves with God’s love and forgiveness toward us.

God is constantly pursuing us—even when we wander from him—eager to embrace us, kiss us, bless us, forgive us, and celebrate with us when we repent of our sin and return to him (Luke 15:20–32).

Rehearsing the gospel of God’s grace and love toward us is always the first step in starving bitterness and cultivating forgiveness toward others (1 John 4:19–21).

Remembering God’s Promises

Christlike love and forgiveness are cultivated by keeping three promises of God at the forefront of our minds:

1. God is grieved by the evil committed against you, and he will avenge you (Prov. 20:22; 24:17–18, 29; Rom. 12:19–21; 1 Pet. 2:22–23).

2. God is pleased by your desire to forgive, and he will reward you (Prov. 25:21–22; Eph. 6:8; Heb. 11:6; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 4:19).

3. There is mercy waiting for every repentant sinner, including you in your imperfect forgiveness (Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9).

If we rest in these promises, our hearts will become fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to work. Remember: bitterness is not something you have or don’t have; it’s something you cultivate. The same is true for forgiveness (Luke 6:45).

It has been said that “to forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then to discover that the prisoner was you.” May God work forgiveness in our hearts—as we are compelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ—for God’s glory, the good of others, and our own freedom and joy.

Your Preparation to Be a Martyr Starts . . . Now Sat, 23 Jul 2022 04:03:42 +0000 Christian witness amid suffering is the pattern of the church’s martyrs and a model for disciples in the future.]]> On February 15, 2015, members of ISIS beheaded 20 Coptic Christians (plus one from Ghana) on the beach in Sirte, Libya. To trumpet their brutality, they posted a high-quality video of the event online for the world to see.

Most of the slain men hailed from a poor village in Upper Egypt and were working in Libya to send money home to support their families. During their 43-day captivity in which they were tortured, their captors ordered them daily to recite the Islamic shahadah (“I declare there is no other god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”). Each day the captives refused.

Just before they were executed, the martyrs were heard softly but boldly declaring in Arabic, “Ya Rabbi Yessua(“O Lord Jesus”). While the world watched a barbaric massacre, they also heard a verbal testimony of Christian faith amid severe persecution. Such witness in suffering follows the pattern of martyrs in the early church and offers a model for Christian disciples in the future.


Martyrs in the Early Church

Through their suffering witness, the 21 imitated the examples of many martyrs from the early church period, particularly before the early fourth century when Constantine came to power and gave peace to the church in the empire. Though most discrimination against Christians occurred at the local community level, at times governors and even emperors also persecuted the church.

When Christians appeared in court or before the authorities, they often declared their allegiance to Christ. For example, in Pergamum (Asia Minor) in the mid-third century, a believer named Carpus refused to make pagan sacrifices, confessing, “I am a Christian . . . and I venerate Christ the Son of God.” His fellow martyr Papylus added, “I have served Christ from my youth, and I have never offered sacrifice to idols. I am a Christian.”

Other Christians confessed their faith in creed-like fashion, even clarifying aspects of the gospel. During his trial, which resulted in exile and later execution, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) testified, “I am a Christian and a bishop. I recognize no other gods but the one true God who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them.”

Responding to the Prefect Rusticus’s questions about the nature of his faith, Justin Martyr (d. 165) answered,

I have committed myself to the true doctrines of the Christians . . . the belief that we piously hold regarding the God of the Christians, whom alone we hold to be the craftsman of the whole world from the beginning, and also regarding Jesus Christ, the child of God, who was foretold by the prophets as one who was to come down to mankind as a herald of salvation and teacher of good doctrines.

Witness amid Suffering

Each of these early followers of Christ earned the distinction of being a martyr. While the word “martyr” in essence means “a witness” (martus) or “to witness” (martureo), by the second century, the term began to refer to those who witnessed unto Christ through laying down their lives.

This could lead to the conclusion that martyrdom simply means a person dying for being a Christian. But these martyrs died for their faith while continuing to give verbal witness for their hope in Christ. The early Christians preached the gospel and used words because those words were necessary.

These martyrs died for their faith while continuing to give verbal witness for their hope in Christ.

They were also able to testify during persecution—to be faithful Christian martyrs—because they were first disciples. For the early church, the pre-baptismal discipleship curriculum was a creed, a statement of faith that summarized the gospel and provided a window into the whole of Scripture and the story of salvation. Sometimes called the rule of faith, these creedal statements eventually developed into the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which were then recited weekly in corporate worship.

The trial testimonies of many early Christians sounded like parts of a creed. And this makes perfect sense. When pressured to deny their faith, they leaned into the core of their spiritual formation and articulated the essence of their faith. On one hand, they were preaching the gospel to themselves, which sustained them in persecution. On the other hand, their testimonies were a clear and articulate witness to their interrogators and everyone else in the vicinity.

Discipling Future Witnesses

The body of sacred biography that emerged from the early church (often called “Acts of the Martyrs“) reminds us that its martyrs clung tightly to the gospel by remembering the creeds and confessing them before others.

The early church reminds us that its martyrs clung tightly to the gospel by remembering the creeds and confessing them before others.

Together, the 21 martyrs of 2015 and the early Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire have much to teach the global church today. They recognized that part of following Jesus was the expectation of suffering, even laying down their lives instead of denying their faith or bowing to idols. When pressured and squeezed by their persecutors, they articulated the gospel to the point of death.

But we also see that faithfulness in the moment of testing is often the fruit of earlier discipleship. One significant way the church prepares its members for persecution is through its gospel-centered worship and creeds. Those who witness as faithful martyrs can do so because they’ve been trained to treasure Christ and suffer well for his sake.

The Privilege of Reaching the Unreached Fri, 22 Jul 2022 04:04:22 +0000 Lloyd Kim teaches on why taking the gospel to the unreached is a social justice issue. ]]> In his message at TGC21, Lloyd Kim defines social justice as giving equity, fairness, and inalienable rights to all people, and he explains why the gospel is included as a right. Kim gives five objections and solutions for why Christians might not be answering the call to global missions.

Objection 1: Mission work is associated with colonialism and imperialism.

Solution: Christians should be honest about our generational sin in this and lament the past mistakes moving forward.

Objection 2: Local missions are more important than global missions.

Solution: When unreached people come to the United States, they then have access to Christian resources, but those in unreached countries still do not. We must go to them.

Objection 3: Raising support is overwhelming.

Solution: Trusting God for his provision in missions is faith-building, and raising support allows for God’s people to participate in the Great Commission when they can’t go themselves.

Objection 4: Short-term mission trips aren’t enough.

Solution: Short-term missions don’t allow time to build relationships that are necessary for discipling new believers, but they do allow opportunity for people to feel a call to full-time missions. Therefore they’re still valuable.

Objection 5: Bi-vocational missions are complicated.

Solution: Going on mission primarily through a job doesn’t allow the time or support needed as a missionary—unless one connects to a mission organization and gains the needed support and prayer. Support is essential.

In addressing all these roadblocks to missions, Kim provides encouragement to answer the call to the Great Commission and bring Jesus to the unreached.

Christ Can Redeem Eyes Blinded by Racial Prejudice Fri, 22 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Sin is a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.]]> Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an expansive, landmark text that traces the pain of black life in the Jim Crow South and the thinly veiled racism of the urbane North. The novel is comedic and tragic, gritty and surreal, mythic and symbolic, layered and accessible. Ellison tells of a nameless protagonist’s quest to find dignity in an American society devout in its denial of his humanity.

What determines the protagonist’s invisibility? It isn’t a personal defect in Invisible but a moral fault in those who behold him: “My invisibility . . . occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”

Invisible’s diagnosis of society piques the interest of theologically minded readers. It draws us toward the notion of sin as more than mere disobedience. Sin is a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.

Sin is a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.

For Ellison, this “peculiar disposition” is “a matter of . . . our inner eyes,” an observation that suggests blindness to racial prejudice and societal disparities is not an occasional slip-up, but an error bred in our bones. Yet this ontological problem manifests functionally when image-bearers degrade and limit other image-bearers, making them invisible. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “What makes sin so serious is precisely the fact that man [uses] God-given and God-imaging powers and gifts to do things that are an affront to his Maker.”

How Broken Eyes Degrade

Though the inner eyes of fellow image-bearers are the cause of his invisibility, Invisible feels the restriction bodily. The novel’s early battle-royal scene exemplifies the visceral and bodily consequences.

As the high school valedictorian of his southern school, Invisible is invited to deliver a speech on black humility to the town’s most important white leaders. Upon arrival, Invisible isn’t called to the podium but is instead forced to partake in a traumatizing, degrading debacle. Ten black students are led into a smoky ballroom under the drunken gaze of “the most important men of the town . . . bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants.” They’re stripped naked, set in a makeshift boxing ring, and commanded to blindly beat each other while the townsmen hoot, holler, and hurl racial epithets. Bruised and beaten, Invisible closes the night with his speech, swallowing his own blood and saliva to expound on the need for blacks to be humble and socially responsible. He’s rewarded with a briefcase and a scholarship to a Negro college and feels “an importance I had never dreamed.”

In the novel’s view, the battle royal is society in miniature: black people are visible only within the confines of a commodified existence. Society gazes on Invisible as a means to an end, a human prop for fetishized entertainment, and a muzzled voice to proclaim the absence of black responsibility as the source of inequality. Because Invisible is invisible, he must entertain before he speaks, and even his rhetorical pursuits are confined to the talking points of a segregated society. Invisible must “know his place” and embrace the townsmen’s limits on his freedom, body, and image-bearing. His body must perform violence and his mind and mouth preach a false gospel of dignity through merit.

Skewed Sight, Skewed Actions

The struggle for visibility and dignity are at the crux of much of African American history. When Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wanted to pray in the front of their church undisturbed, they sought to be seen in body and soul. When Sojourner Truth raised her voice for the rights of black women, declaring, “Ain’t I a woman?” she was demanding to be seen. They sought to be seen as those made and dignified by God, for they knew they were viewed by most as invisible.

This history shows us that when it comes to the imago Dei, one’s doctrinal statement can be on point while one’s inner eyes are unholy. One pastor observes,

As I reflect on several racial flashpoints over the past few years, I fear I have been too quick to think to myself, Yes, of course, image of God. Every Christian already knows that and believes that. But white Christians in this country have not always believed that, or at least they have not always acted like they really believe it.

The test of our belief in the imago Dei is not what we say about the doctrine but how we, in real life, view, treat, and relate to our fellow image-bearers—particularly those most prone to invisibility. We can even be attuned to the particulars of black plight without this knowledge changing our behavior. Anytime we eye and engage others for personal gain, our seeing is skewed.

New Ways to See

Honest introspection—if we dare stomach it—may reveal how normal we’ve made it to render others invisible. When we view children as a drain or nuisance, coworkers as footstools, and significant others as receptacles for our frustrations or dispensers of our happiness, we walk in this tragic tradition of fallen humanity. We see God’s visible image-bearers not through the true lens of their dignity but as commodities. We render them invisible. Such sight is a profound moral emergency.

Honest introspection—if we dare stomach it—may reveal how normal we’ve made it to render others invisible.

What, then, is the way forward? If our eyes cause us to sin, we must tear them out, Christ declared (Matt. 5:29; 18:9). How is this done with our inner eyes? How can our moral and social imaginations be redeemed? We must replace our evaluative gaze with convictions about common kinship as image-bearers. This requires both repentance and a Redeemer who can give us fresh vision.

Christ—the image of God—must continually be the center of our vision as the image of true humanity and the Redeemer of broken humanity. He is the One who seeks the outcast and dissolves hostility, hatred, and exploitation. It is Christ, the image of the invisible God, who mends and heals broken image-bearers—body, soul, eyes, and all.

Let Abigail Point You to Christ Fri, 22 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Let’s study the narratives of women not only as inspiration for faithful living but also to see God’s work of salvation.]]> We have a tendency to study the narratives of Old Testament women for their encouragement and inspiration. We want to follow the examples of the “good girls” while avoiding the failures of the “bad.” There’s a place for this. After all, Old Testament events were written down for the instruction of the church (1 Cor. 10:11). It’s wise to consider the pattern of earlier saints as examples and warnings. And yet the Bible isn’t primarily a collection of ethical principles but the epic drama of redemption. We should therefore catch glimpses of the gospel within the tales of its men—and women.

So, let’s study the narratives of women not only as inspiration for faithful living but also to see God’s work of salvation. Consider the story of Abigail told in 1 Samuel. How does her narrative fit into the biggest story ever told? How can it inspire us, warn us, and point us to Jesus?

Humiliation Instead of Hospitality

Abigail was the wife of a wealthy man named Nabal. Her husband was rich in livestock but poor in character. He’s described in 1 Samuel 25:3 as “harsh and badly behaved,” and his careless manner left his wife to face the wrath of 400 warriors.

Let’s study the narratives of women not only as inspiration for faithful living but also to see God’s work of salvation.

Nabal’s shepherds were in the wilderness of Paran at the same time as a fugitive David who was evading a jealous and murderous King Saul. David’s men assumed the duty of protecting Nabal’s shepherds while in Paran (1 Sam. 25:4–7, 14–16), and David hoped to receive hospitality in recognition for his service.

Instead, Nabal handed David humiliation. He repaid the good deed with evil by emphasizing David’s lowered position and refusing to share provisions. So David rallied his warriors and vowed to murder Nabal and his household (1 Sam. 25:22).

Anger Turned to Worship

Here, Abigail stepped into the narrative like a busy triage nurse, assessing damage and treating wounds. It’s clear that the safety of Nabal’s household rested on Abigail’s wisdom. A servant came to inform her of the impending disaster and looked to her for protection (1 Sam. 25:14–17). Abigail made haste and gathered large portions of food and drink—displaying generosity where Nabal had shown greediness. She laid these provisions on donkeys and set out to meet David (1 Sam. 25:18–20)—one unarmed woman heading toward 400 swordsmen.

Abigail saw David and prostrated before him. She was willing to bear Nabal’s guilt for the preservation of her household, but she encouraged David to look to God’s vengeance instead. She gives us the picture of a wise mediator, full of truth. This woman met the force of David’s anger with soft answers that turned away wrath (Prov. 15:1). Her words became a means of salvation for her household and a means of grace to David.

David’s heart went from rage to worship, and he pronounced a benediction: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!” (1 Sam. 25:32–33). Abigail’s mediation kept David from reacting harshly like Nabal did. David turned back to the wilderness and left justice to God.

More than a Model of Wisdom

Abigail’s narrative warns against disbelief and ingratitude while commending the faithful and discreet person. We could leave the lesson at that, if not for this point: Jesus saw himself as the interpretive center of the Hebrew Scriptures. He met two disheartened disciples in Luke 24 who had failed to perceive his coming suffering and glory in the Old Testament Scriptures. So “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). According to Jesus, the words of Old Testament Scripture are not merely the tales of the godly and godless, but a pre-announcement of his work of salvation.

In Abigail we find something more stunning: a glimpse of the wise Mediator who charged forward to face wrath on behalf of foolish sinners—Jesus.

Abigail is often presented as a model of wisdom, and this we can’t deny. Moreover, she was a masterful communicator. Her persuasive ability to reach the heart of a vengeful David was brilliant. But in Abigail we find something more stunning: a glimpse of the wise Mediator who charged forward to face wrath on behalf of foolish sinners—Jesus.

This Mediator offered not just wisdom but his own life: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—but . . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . We have now been justified by his blood, [therefore] much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:7–9). To miss the shadow of the gospel in Abigail’s narrative is to miss the Mediator who turned away God’s wrath to reconcile us to the Father in the biggest story ever told.

Quality Christian Music: 17 Artists to Watch Fri, 22 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Listen to these 17 artists and be encouraged by the diverse beauty of contemporary Christian music. ]]> Every summer I compile a list of quality Christian artists who I think should be on your radar (and playlists), if they aren’t already (see my lists from 2019, 2020, and 2021). I try to pick artists who are both musically interesting and unapologetic about their faith—whose music is not ambiguously Christian but explicitly and sincerely so, in authentic yet non-cheesy ways.

In making these lists I try to focus on artists in a diverse array of genres who are newer and under the radar, and who have released new music in the last year. I also look for artists making music in different nations around the world. This year’s list includes artists from the U.S., Canada, Nigeria, Australia, and the UK, for example.

There’s no shortage of excellent indie Christian music today, and I’m always on the lookout for who I should be listening to. If there are artists you recommend for future lists like this, please share them on the TGC Arts and Culture Facebook group.

In the meantime, check out the music of the 17 artists below (listed alphabetically). I compiled a playlist sampler on Spotify and Apple Music that will give you a good introduction to their music. Give it a listen and if you like what you hear from a particular artist, dig deeper into their music online.

Kelsey Breedlove

If Phoebe Bridgers wrote devotional worship songs, they might sound something like Kelsey Breedlove. The young singer-songwriter, who has a powerful Christian testimony, writes authentic songs overflowing with love for Jesus and gratitude to God. She has toured as part of One Big Family and she released her debut EP, Heaven’s Song, in 2020.

Songs to sample: “Hyssop,” “Northern Lights,” “Promise of Life,” “Ravish”

Will Carlisle

Multitalented Will Carlisle makes refreshing, musically unpredictable songs about God and Scripture. His new EP, SHEMA vol. 1, which puts four Scriptures to song (Deut. 6:4–7; Ps. 150:6; Prov. 18:10; Rev. 4:8), has been on heavy repeat for me this year. Carlisle, who serves as a worship and creative assistant at Christ Covenant Church in Atlanta, has the combo of solid faith and artistic bravery that makes me excited to see what he does next.

Songs to sample: “Rivers,” “My Father’s Arms,” “SHEMA (DEUT. 6.4-7),” “PRAISE THE LORD (PSALM 150.6)”


A worship supergroup of sorts, Colorvault combines the formidable talents of Eric Marshall of Young Oceans with Alf Bishai and Alex Taylor of Lower Manhattan Community Church. The result is a spellbinding sound that blends techno beats, up-tempo electronica, and lyrics that sound like psalms. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does. Check out their debut album, Faint, released in 2022.

Songs to sample: “Dwell in Your House,” “Turn to Me,” “With Us Still,” “So Sure”


Raised in a Catholic family, Chris Cortes (a.k.a. Cortes) discovered the gospel in high school and now produces gospel-soaked lo-fi indie music. On staff at Hope Church Toronto West, Cortes makes music that’s both deeply personal (see 2019’s HEADSPACE) and yet uplifting and encouraging to listeners around the world. His most recent release is the 2021 song “Around.”

Songs to sample: “Daily,” “Say I,” “Around,” “Feelings”

Elias Dummer

Canadian songwriter Elias Dummer, formerly a member of City Harmonic, is now a solo artist based in Hamilton, Ontario. He first came on my radar with a song called “The Gospel Is Rest,” which resonated with me even just in the title. Having collaborated with Sandra McCracken, Land of Color, Citizens, and other CCM standouts, Dummer’s music is refreshing in both its musical diversity and lyrical depth.

Songs to sample: “The Gospel is Rest,” “Kyrie Eleison (It’s Mercy We Need),” “Echoing Holy,” “Enough”

Davy Flowers

If you’ve attended a TGC conference in recent years, chances are you’ve witnessed the worship-leading talents of Houston native Davy Flowers firsthand. A resident artist and songwriter at The Worship Initiative and a worship leader at Watermark Community Church, Flowers (who also performed at TGC’s 2021 Advent Concert) just released her debut album, I Was Loved, a collection of powerful, faith-filled anthems for the church.

Songs to sample: “Take All the World,” “Oh But God,” “To the Water,” “Grateful”

Garden Friend

Kevin Dailey is an uber-talented artist who releases music under the monikers Boone River (ambient instrumental) and Garden Friend, as well as producing for other artists (like Mark Barlow and his incredible 2021 album, Hymns & Soul). When I first heard Garden Friend’s “On a Cloud,” from the 2022 EP of the same name, I was floored. I can honestly say nothing in Christian music sounds quite like this.

Songs to sample: “On a Cloud,” “Shine Shine,” “Got Nothing to Worry About,” “King Kong”

Land of Color

Land of Color is the duo of Gary Rea (from South Africa) and Thomas Ewing (from Colorado). Together they create a fascinating hybrid sound unlike anything I’ve heard in Christian music. Think African and American folk influences, with some echoes of Sting and Vampire Weekend, all in a worshipful key. Check out their phenomenal full-length album, Show Me What It Means, released last year.

Songs to sample: “Show Me What It Means,” “Morning Song,” “Running,” “Warriors”

Joshua Leventhal

An American-born, Canadian-raised worship artist and songwriter, Joshua Leventhal creates music for church congregations that’s also musically rich and diverse—blending rock, folk, and black gospel sounds to form “unapologetically cross-centered, hope-awaiting works.” He serves as the director of worship at Main Street Church outside Vancouver. Be on the lookout for his forthcoming LP, All Ye Lepers, later in 2022.

Songs to sample: “Lion|Lamb,” “Washed,” “Jealous,” “L EP E R S”


Samuel Onwubiko (aka Limoblaze) is a Nigerian pioneer in Afro hip-hop on the global scene. Having collaborated with the likes of Lecrae, Da’ T.R.U.T.H, and Andy Mineo, Limoblaze creates fresh, creative Afro-gospel songs that inspire young people all over the world. With five studio albums under his belt, the award-winning Limoblaze is as prolific as he is passionate. Check out his latest album, God’s Favourite Baby (2021).

Songs to sample: “Jireh (My Provider),” “Your Love,” “Sound of Victory,” “For Me”

Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy

There are no categories for the music of Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy (Garrett and Siiri Soucy), variously described on their website as “honest-to-God local music” and “lyrical rescue boat pulling souls from the meta-modern wreckage.” Father of 11 children and pastor of Christ the King Church in Belfast, Maine, Garrett is also a writer for publications like Plough and Theopolis. That the liner notes of their most recent album reference Marshall McLuhan and were published at Modern Reformation tells you much about how singular this band is.

Songs to sample: “Diamond in the Cheek of a Woman When She Speaks,” “Wholesomeness Not Deprived of Pleasure,” “Love Like the World’s Never Known,” “No American Savior”

James Paek

After spending 15 years in ministry—including being on staff at Willow Creek during the painful season when the Bill Hybels scandal unfolded—James Paek is ready to “start again” as an artist exploring healing and raw honesty through faith-oriented music. Last fall you might have seen him as “Kingston Sol” on the Fox reality show Alter Ego, and now Paek is now readying his debut EP, Exit Us (a nod to Exodus), produced by Tyler Chester (Jon Foreman, Madison Cunningham) and James Krausse (Half Alive).

Songs to sample: “Start Again,” “Young Love,” “Exit Us,” “Life’s Reward (Hymn for the Weary)”


The “happy rap” of Isaac Peabody (aka PEABOD) is a breath of fresh air. His bouncy wordplay and infectious joy might give off youth group vibes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Positive rap isn’t always cheesy. I want fun music like this—not only for my kids but also for me. Seattle-based PEABOD, who also works at Northwest University, released a four-song EP, Mad!, earlier this year.

Songs to sample: “Alive,” “Heavenly Father” (feat. Cochren & Co. and Resound), “Love Everybody,” (feat. Tedashii), “Ok” (feat Hollyn)

Leslie Perez

I discovered Leslie Perez through my Spotify “Release Radar” playlist, and the algorithm delivered! The 20-year-old Perez, a Twin Cities native, has a voice that immediately stands out. It’s like Amy Winehouse meets Lana Del Rey, but with lyrics oriented around God. Like Kelsey Breedlove, Perez has recently toured as part of One Big Family. Her debut EP when will we learn to let go? released earlier this year.

Songs to sample: “remedy,” “let go,” “loved me more,” “river” (Leon Bridges cover)

Pyramid Park

Pyramid Park—self-described as “deep indie pop”—is the musical moniker of Pete McAllen, who started his music career at 11, after the death of his father. Though homespun (literally in his garage in the U.K.), McAllen’s music is slickly produced, with spacey electronica/dance/80s vibes that occasionally evoke Pet Shop Boys, Gorillaz, and MGMT. His most recent release is a 2021 EP, /əˈnɒm(ə)li/.

Songs to sample: “You Got Me,” “Never Let Me Down,” “Lead Me,” “Bright Heart”


This Australia-based trio consists of Nathan Staggers, Rory Mckenna, and Sam Adebajo. Formed in 2019, the band takes its name both from the wilderness of Tekoa in 2 Chronicles 20:20 and the Hebrew word for trumpet (tekoa)—an instrument that figures prominently in the band’s eclectic sound. Citing influences from Bon Iver to Billie Eilish, Tekoa just released their debut EP, Hymns + Disparity.

Songs to sample: “Yahweh Elyon,” “Altar,” “To Be Known,” “None Like You”


Raised in San Diego by Nigerian and British immigrant parents, TEMITOPE is a worship artist, educator, and activist who now resides in Nashville, Tennessee. The name originates from the Yorùbá tribe in Nigeria and means “mine is praise”—fitting for an artist whose songs are energetic, highly singable anthems of unabashed worship. Check out his new EP, MẸRIN, released earlier in 2022.


U.S. House Officially Abandons Support for Traditional Marriage Thu, 21 Jul 2022 04:03:58 +0000 The U.S. House—including 47 House Republicans—voted to codify same-sex marriage into federal law, officially abandoning support for traditional marriage. ]]> The Story: The U.S. House—including 47 House Republicans—voted to codify same-sex marriage into federal law, officially abandoning support for traditional marriage.

The Background: On Tuesday, the House voted to pass the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), a bill that repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and provides statutory authority for same-sex marriages.

DOMA is a federal law that restricts federal marriage benefits and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages. The law passed both houses of Congress by large majorities and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

However, the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor struck down one section of DOMA in 2013. Two years later, the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges stripped away the remaining power of DOMA by requiring all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.

RFMA replaces the provisions in DOMA and defines marriage, for purposes of federal law, as any marriage that is valid under state law. The bill also requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

RFMA had been floating around Congress since 2009, but it gained more attention after Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the high court should “reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell.”

Of the 204 Republicans who voted on the bill, 47 (23 percent) voted in support. All 267 Democrats also supported the bill, including 11 who had voted for DOMA in 1996.

What It Means: There are four obvious takeaways from the vote on RFMA.

First, Christian politicians no longer look to the Christian view of marriage to compel them to support traditional marriage.

Perhaps in 2022 it’s naive to think they should, since, as one pastor famously said in 2017, we’re not electing them “to be a children’s Sunday School teacher.” Still, it’s shocking that an institution overwhelmingly composed of Christians would abandon even the pretense of supporting the Christian position. In the House, 88 percent of Representatives identify as Christian, and yet 63 percent voted to abandon the Christian view of marriage. (Whether you consider it a first, second, or third order doctrine, the orthodox Christian position on marriage is that we cannot endorse same-sex marriage.)

Second, Christian politicians may not be influenced by Scripture, but they are swayed by polling data.

When it comes to how they’ll vote on the issue, many Christian politicians are more concerned about poll results than what Scripture has to say about marriage. About 63 percent of Americans identify as Christian, and yet 71 percent of Americans also support same-sex marriage—meaning there’s a significant overlap between those who consider themselves to be Christian and those who support same-sex marriage.

Almost all of this change came over the past decade. The issue gained majority support among Protestants in 2017 and among Republicans in 2021. The lone holdout is weekly church attenders. But even in this category, two-fifths (40 percent) support same-sex marriage while only 58 percent oppose it.

Third, politicians won’t be the ones to save traditional marriage.

Democrats officially embraced same-sex marriage in their platform in 2012. That same year President Barack Obama finally stopped flip-flopping on the issue and became the first U.S. president to support same-sex marriage. He also may be the last U.S. president to publicly oppose same-sex marriage.

In 2016, the GOP party platform included a plank that said, “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society . . .” The platform also “condemned” the rulings in Windsor and Obergefell.” But a year later the party’s leader, Donald Trump, said Windsor and Obergefell were settled law: “These cases have gone to the Supreme Court. They’ve been settled. And I’m fine with that.”

The GOP did not adopt a new platform in 2020, choosing instead to continue with the one from 2016. But it was clear even then that the new, more socially liberal Republican Party was not going to stand in unified support of traditional marriage. The vote on RFMA was confirmation of that reality. As Albert Mohler wrote in his recent column, “America’s political class intends to support same-sex marriage and move along—no turning back.”

Finally, the church must continue to fight for marriage.

It is discouraging how quickly our politicians and fellow citizens have abandoned the biblical, historic, and traditional view of marriage. But instead of letting that lead us to despair, we must set our resolve to the task ahead. Because marriage requires the specific form of a union of man and woman (Gen. 2:24), applying the term to same-sex unions alters the very concept of what a marriage is for and what functions it takes. We must undertake the slow, grueling, tiring process of reeducating our neighbors and reorienting them to the reality that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

The church must commit to speaking the truth of the gospel and how it applies to this issue. Specifically, we need to make it clear—especially to our neighbors in the pews beside us—that we cannot love our neighbor and tolerate unrepentant rebellion against God. We cannot continue with the “go along to get along” mentality that is leading those we love to destruction. We must speak the Word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31) and accept the fact that those who have fallen away may not ever return. We must choose this day whom we will serve. Will we stand with our all-wise God or with the foolish idol-makers who promote same-sex marriage?

Zwingli: The Forgotten Reformer Thu, 21 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 I’ll confess I was time and time again unable to simply blitz through Gordon’s “Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet.” This book deserves slow, thorough, and reflective engagement.]]> Before I read a work of non-fiction, especially an academic monograph, I glance at the conclusion, assess for myself how much time I believe the book is worth giving, then speed through within the confines of the allotted time frame, identifying the thesis, skipping the familiar, skimming the repetitive, and so on. I’m not going to say how much time I allocated Bruce Gordon’s Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet, but I will confess I was time and time again unable to simply blitz through. This book deserves slow, thorough, and reflective engagement.

Gordon, a prolific writer in the field of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, is perhaps best known for his previous biography, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2011), in which he paints a picture of the second-generation reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, as a complex man in complex times. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) in many ways proves to be even more of a complex figure living, if not in more complex times, then in the initial and fastest-developing episodes of the Reformation.

Gordon’s Zwingli

Gordon brings Zwingli to life, showcases his development, and demonstrates that the Reformation was a slow, arduous struggle for those living through it, with no guarantee of success. He presents Zurich’s lead reformer as both gifted and flawed, a man of conviction and compromise who relied on friends and powerbrokers of the age. A man who in no way played a mere supporting role to Luther or just performed the Reformed tradition’s first act, which needed Calvin’s rescue.

Gordon brings Zwingli to life, showcases his development, and demonstrates that the Reformation was a slow, arduous struggle for those living through it, with no guarantee of success.

The author is upfront about the book’s purpose: “This book explores the ways in which competing impulses and contradictory tensions [within Zwingli] became remarkably generative, fecund and destructive” (2). For our purposes, we’ll split Gordon’s narrative of Zwingli’s life into two main sections in order to look at some of these tensions, the first covering the time before Zurich officially broke with the Church of Rome on Easter, 1525, and the second following on until Zwingli’s death on the battlefield.

God’s Armed Prophet

Gordon introduces us to Zwingli’s childhood world, a valley in the Swiss Alps, a region with a long, martial, and mythical history. He shows how the reformer wanted to retrieve a virtuous past that appealed to his fellow Swiss while downplaying the realities that led to the Swiss mercenary trade that Zwingli hated. Moving from childhood to adulthood, he became a humanist priest and a disciple of the great Erasmus. He excelled in the study of biblical languages and came to the conviction that Scripture is the ultimate authority. Zwingli mastered these disciplines while failing to practice sexual chastity, which would later haunt his public reputation.

Zwingli’s ambition brought him to Zurich as a priest in 1519. He spent the next three years of his ministry holding himself back from openly attacking traditional religion, instead building relationships with fellow reformers like Leo Jud and Johannes Oecolampadius, and consolidating his understanding of the role of the state in matters of religion. By 1523, Zwingli had resigned as priest and became preacher of Grossmünster, the primary church in Zurich. There was a radical disconnect between his preaching, which denied transubstantiation and invocation of saints, and the practice of religion in the city. Zwingli (with his state-sponsored religion) deepened his rift with the Anabaptists (his previous friends), which eventually led to his approval of the Anabaptist Felix Manz’s execution by drowning in 1527.

After the institutional break with Rome in 1525, Zwingli’s ideas began to spread in his region and around the world. This brought him into conflict with Luther, a disagreement that infamously came to a head in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 when the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation split over the issue of Christ’s presence in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli’s demand that gospel preaching be freely allowed in all Swiss lands, including Catholic ones, instigated the First and Second Kappel Wars, which ultimately led to Zwingli’s demise. He died defending his city with the sword.

Gordon’s final chapters explain why those like Calvin who inherited Zwingli’s reformation initially distanced themselves from him. He was too divisive a figure both theologically and politically at a time when the Protestant world was trying to unify for the sake of survival. Gordon also includes a fascinating chapter on the legacy of Zwingli in the centuries since his death. It’s much more than a “history of research” section one would expect in a doctoral dissertation. Rather, the survey reinforces the thesis about Zwingli’s complexity and serves as an insightful reflection on the relationship of memory and identity.

Greater Attention

As indicated in the acknowledgments, this book was a lifetime in the making; the nuance, contextual understanding, and impressive research in the primary sources—including Zwingli’s correspondence and annotations from volumes in his personal library—prove this. Gordon is a professional historian, and this book is primarily historical, yet he has an eye for theology and believes that it matters. He’s also a good writer. His prose is engaging and rarely, if ever, overly academic or dense. He organizes his chronological chapters somewhat thematically, avoiding the tedium of some historical writing. It’s well presented as a story of Zwingli’s life with enough historical context and theology to make sense of it.

He was a divisive figure both theologically and politically at a time when the Protestant world was trying to unify.

In addition to Gordon’s expertise and accessibility, the reader, especially the reader little acquainted with Zwingli, is well served by a chronology of his life, detailed maps of the 16th-century Holy Roman Empire and Swiss cantons, and a generous selection of plates in full color, ranging from Zwingli’s childhood home to the celebration in Zurich of the 500th anniversary of his coming to the city. These, along with the introduction, which concisely summarizes keys to understanding Zwingli in context, helpfully prepare the reader for the narrative.

If people today can name anyone from the Reformation, it’s inevitably Luther and Calvin, and then Zwingli. Luther and Calvin have received disproportionate attention when compared to Zwingli. This isn’t to say that the more familiar two have more attention than they deserve, but that Zwingli has less—which has led consistently to simplistic caricature and triumphalism. I hope Gordon’s Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet will help to remedy this problem. It will certainly be my first recommendation to those interested in the man standing at the forefront of the Swiss Reformation.

Worship Leader, Use the Whole Bible Thu, 21 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Worship leaders carefully select songs, prayers, and confessions that complement the service’s sermon. But do you think about how a service begins and ends?]]> Worship leaders carefully select songs, prayers, and confessions that complement the services sermon. But do you think about how a service begins and ends? Do you typically turn to a psalm for a call to worship, pray extemporaneously for your invocation, or rely on a small rotation of benedictions? Do you use calls to worship, invocations, or benedictions at all?

If you’ll consider the history and design of these worship elements and select related passages from the entire Bible, you’ll bring greater unity to your services and more effectively turn the congregation’s hearts and minds toward God.

Beginning and Ending Worship

Many Protestant worship services begin when a minister summons the assembly to worship God. In liturgical traditions, this moment is labeled the call to worship. Though other traditions may not label it formally, worship leaders often start services by inviting the people to lift their voices in song. The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God, published in 1644, references “the minister’s solemn call for the people to worship God” and is the primary influence on traditions that feature this element.

Some churches also begin their services with an invocation, a prayer that requests God’s presence, assistance, and blessing in worship. Though prayers for God’s presence in worship date back to the third century, their location near the beginning of worship services became more prevalent after the Reformation.

Worship leaders carefully select songs, prayers, and confessions. But do you think about how a service begins and ends?

Often Protestant services will end with a pastoral benediction—a pronouncement of God’s blessing on his people. This practice has Old Testament roots, and it gained liturgical regularity and prominence in the late medieval and post-Reformation church.

Each of these elements has a function: a summons to worship God, a petition for God’s presence, and a pronouncement of God’s blessing.

Rooted in Scripture, True to Function

The Bible includes passages that are appropriate for calls to worship (like Pss. 98:4–6; 150:1–2) and benedictions (like Num. 6:24–26; 2 Cor. 13:14). Worship leaders often turn to these passages because they don’t require adaptation.

But God’s entire Word offers richness for these elements, so pastors and worship leaders should consider crafting calls, invocations, and benedictions around more than the popular passages.

To craft new calls to worship, consider adapting passages addressed to the congregation, or about the church, by adding summoning language:

Call to worship incorporating Psalm 40:9–10: Tell the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; speak of the Lord’s faithfulness and salvation; declare his steadfast love and faithfulness in the great congregation.

Call to worship incorporating Ephesians 3:10–12: Through the church, the manifold wisdom of God has been made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Because of the eternal purposes realized in Christ Jesus your Lord, come and approach him boldly, with confidence through your faith in him.

A minister might adapt passages about God’s presence and guiding care into invocations like this:

Invocation incorporating Exodus 15:13: O Lord, you have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. Lead them today to your presence, that they may worship your holiness. Amen.

Invocation incorporating Psalm 27:7–9: Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” The hearts of your people say to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Immanuel, be near us today that we might adore you. Amen.

Similarly, a minister might pronounce a benediction by drawing on passages that declare his benefits:

Benediction incorporating Psalm 23: May the Lord shepherd you and make you lie down in green pastures; may he restore your soul and lead you in paths of righteousness; may he be with you and comfort you; may he anoint your head with oil and bestow his goodness and mercy on you all the days of your life.

Benediction incorporating James 3:17–18: May the Lord grant you wisdom that comes down from above, that is pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, and may he bring forth in you a harvest of righteousness.

Ministerial Authority

Some argue that using extra-biblical language in a call to worship, invocation, or benediction is inappropriate. But when Christ said, “Pray then like this” in Matthew 6:9, he didn’t prescribe worship language but rather demonstrated the structure, posture, content, and manner of biblical prayer.

Pastors and worship leaders should consider crafting calls, invocations, and benedictions around more than the popular passages.

We ought not bind churches with restrictions that are tighter than God demands. A minister is no more offering “strange fire” when he adapts a Scripture passage to say in his own words, “Let us worship God,” than when he says, “Let us pray.”

As a pastor or worship leader, you are vested with the authority to lead the people in their worship of God. Consider afresh how you begin and end worship, how you can bring the richness of the entire Scriptures into these elements, and how you can rightly exercise the rhetorical latitude vested in your ministry office.

Pastor, You Must Die to Live Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Pastoral ministry requires continually level-setting our expectations to the way of the cross and trusting this is best.]]> Parents of young children know the humbling and often humiliating experience of watching their children grow through microphases. Your infant seems to fall asleep best when you feed her right before bed, dress her in a snug onesie, and put one pacifier in her hand and another in her mouth while you rock her and play lullabies from your phone. The pattern works for a week or a month, maybe two. Then it doesn’t. She pulls at her onesie and doesn’t want to be rocked. Now she hates the pacifier, or maybe she wants one pacifier for each hand. You go crazy wishing she could communicate her desires, but she doesn’t yet have the words. Just when you think you’ve figured out the secret sauce of feedings and naps, something changes.

Such is the exasperating life of a parent, and also of a pastor. In ministry life, it’s just when you think you’ve figured out how to run your membership classes, lead your elder board, or put on vacation Bible school that something changes. The methods that worked last year don’t bear fruit this year. To say these thorns and thistles annoy pastors doesn’t do the experience justice. Pastoral ministry requires continually level-setting our expectations to the way of the cross and trusting this is best.

Pastoral ministry requires continually level-setting our expectations to the way of the cross and trusting this is best.

Grains of Wheat Must Fall and Die

Even when ministry seems to go well, I’m often surprised at how much death comes with living for Jesus—death to our pride, death to our flesh, death to our human ingenuity, death to our rosy expectations.

In John 12, people came to the disciples and said, “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). Jesus responds in a way that must have felt somewhat cryptic at the time: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he said. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone” (John 12:23–24). Jesus then adds words more familiar to us from their repetition across the Gospels: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).

As much as I’d prefer the Christian life to be easy and perpetually life-giving, I often feel more like a grain of wheat who knows he needs to die but doesn’t love the experience of getting poked deep into the soil and buried alive.

Before I became a lead pastor, I served as a connections pastor at another church, a role focused on hospitality and getting members involved. You’d think the experience would give me an advantage as I advise the connections pastor at our church. In some ways, it does. I can relate to feeling like a Christian dating app as I attempt to assemble the varied personalities in a church into harmonious small groups. I can relate to the struggle of always having more willing participants than willing leaders; the harvest of signups is plentiful and group leaders are few.

But I find that the longer the pastor works in his role and I in mine, the fewer practical steps I can give him. I don’t know the secret sauce of getting people involved in a church—maybe because it doesn’t exist or maybe because once you learn the secret, it will change in the next season. And I don’t know how to make newcomers feel welcomed except to actually welcome them in my heart.

A large part of me wants to be able to give life hacks, or connection hacks, as it were. Instead, I must give my presence and affection, and these are harder to give; they require death. I can easily share an organizational leadership nugget, but to share presence and affection means sharing my whole self. And to do that, I must fall to the ground and die.

When Grains of Wheat Die, They Live

We often romanticize the early church, yet upon close examination, their experience of ministry involved a lot of death. The apostles preached glorious revivals where several thousand were saved, only to discover that widows were starving because they had no system in place or personnel commissioned to distribute food (Acts 6:1–6). How humbling, even humiliating.

But Jesus’s call involves humiliation. It involves honestly owning our limits and weakness. And when we do, his words also contain promises: Those who continually lose their version of the supposed “good life” find the true and greater good life (John 12:24–25). The grains of wheat that die bear much fruit. Those who humbly serve the Son receive the Father’s honor (v. 26).

Jesus’s call involves humiliation. It involves honestly owning our limits and weakness.

In other words, death before life is the way of Christ’s kingdom. As the gospel expanded across the Roman Empire, it spread through Christians with thorns in their sides and with power made perfect through weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Churches were planted, as they always are, by pastors dying daily, considered as sheep to be slaughtered (Rom. 8:36). And any pastor or Christian who continues to die today, trusting Christ for tomorrow’s needs, will live another day and another year, bearing much fruit.

2 Overlooked Topics in Premarital Care Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Our stories (and the themes that surface in the ways we tell them) shape our perspectives and ways of responding to life circumstances.]]> Steve and Carly are excited to start their premarital care (PMC) with their pastor and his wife. The young couple has a great relationship, but they recognize they don’t know all the ins and outs of marriage. Given his marriage and ministry experience, the pastor wants to cover more than the basics. He’s mapped out a six-session plan where he and his wife will cover God’s design for marriage, the roles and responsibilities of a husband and wife in marriage, and how to deal with personality and family background differences. They’ve dedicated two sessions to communication and conflict resolution skills, and one to the marriage bed.

Pastors know six PMC sessions aren’t sufficient to cover all a couple could possibly need for marriage. The plan Steve and Carly’s pastor mapped out does cover some essential marriage elements, but here are two commonly overlooked goals everyone providing premarital care should adopt.

1. Understand the future husband’s and wife’s stories.

Marriage may be a fresh start, but relationships never start from a blank slate. Everyone brings issues into their new relationship. Whether couples realize it or not, their stories—the events and experiences in their lives—shape how they see and understand the world around them, their relationship, and even themselves.

Steve grew up in what seemed like an ideal family. Both his father and mother had careers outside the home, and their family was well-off. But though they enjoyed nice meals out and vacations to the coast, Steve doesn’t remember having fun with his family. Their conversations rarely strayed from grades, sports, schedules, and chores. When Steve considers his childhood, he remembers feeling disconnected and alone.

Carly’s mom died giving birth to her, and she grew up in a multigenerational home. Her father and his parents raised both Carly and her siblings. Carly’s dad worked from sunrise to sunset on the family farm. Her grandmother was the primary caregiver, but this didn’t keep her dad from nurturing her. Each evening during dinner, Carly’s dad took time to catch up with each of his children by asking about her day. Not only did he listen, but he’d ask questions in a way that made Carly and her sisters feel understood. Yet somehow, the love of Carly’s father and grandparents didn’t erase the lingering guilt and shame she felt nor the thought that her life caused her mother’s death.

Our stories (and the themes that surface in the ways we tell them) shape our perspectives and our ways of responding to life circumstances.

Does Steve know about the guilt Carly sometimes feels? Does Carly know how isolated Steve feels during family times? When you give the men and women who come for premarital care an opportunity to tell their stories, you can help them see how our stories (and the themes that surface in the ways we tell them) shape our perspectives and our ways of responding to life circumstances.

2. Help the couple understand the heart of conflict.

If you’ve done premarital care, you know that most plans and curriculum include a section on communication skills and tips for conflict resolution. These can be helpful. But if you merely emphasize skills and tools when addressing conflict, you’ll overlook the deeper and more significant matters of the heart.

Pastors must help couples like Steve and Carly understand two realities about conflict:

First, at the heart of conflict are the desires that wage war within. Because of indwelling sin, there’s a war in our souls (James 4:1–3). We desire, but we don’t have, so we kill. We want something we don’t have and can’t get, so we quarrel and fight. Why do we square off and step into the ring of conflict? Because we want what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. Conflict arises from our desires for pleasure, comfort, and control.

Even during their engagement, Steve and Carly had some intense disagreements. They said hurtful things and acted in ways they regretted. They confessed their failures to one another and made up, but it was easy for both to harbor resentment and continue blaming the other person in their heart. Their pastor helped them to see that when we live according to the flesh, we begin to think everything and everyone around us exists to satisfy our every desire.

Second, conflict occurs in the context of a broken and fallen world. Steve and Carly each need to recognize and repent from their sinful desires. They also need to see how life’s hardships complicate their conflict. Steve’s father recently died of a heart attack, and Carly was just diagnosed with lupus. Such unexpected and unwanted life circumstances often expose our brokenness.

God uses suffering to help believing couples grow in humility and dependence upon him, and in compassion and patience with one another.

Steve and Carly’s pastor helped them see that the most sobering realities of life are a result of the fall. He also encouraged them that the fall is not the end of God’s story. This is important. God knows about the most difficult realities of Christians’ lives and sovereignly uses these times for good. Moreover, God uses suffering to help believing couples grow in humility and dependence upon him, and in compassion and patience with one another.

Because Steve and Carly’s pastor and his wife took time to understand their stories and explore the heart of conflict (not just communication skills), they were better prepared to move toward one another with gospel compassion and understanding. They still had plenty of learning to do, but they were better equipped to grow in love for God and one another through a lifetime of marriage. Pastors, when you incorporate these commonly overlooked areas into your premarital care, you’ll better equip couples like them.

Scrolling Alone: How Instagram Is Making a Generation of Girls Lonely, Anxious, and Sad Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra shares the stories of young women who are being shaped by social media and explores what Gen Z thinks, feels, and believes.]]> In 2009, about a quarter of American high school students said they had “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” By last year it was up to 44 percent, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.

For girls, the rate rose to 57 percent. That means more than half of teenage girls feel persistently sad or hopeless. If you stood a teen from 2009 next to a teen from 2022, what would be the most noticeable difference between them? One of them would be on her phone.

In this episode of Recorded, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra shares the stories of young women who are being shaped by social media and explores what Gen Z thinks, feels, and believes.

J. I. Packer and Our Search for the Stationmaster Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:01:00 +0000 Happiness and security don’t come from knowing everything but from knowing the One who does.]]> In chapter 10 of the modern theological classic Knowing God, J. I. Packer invites us to stand at the end of the York station platform to watch trains with him. When we first watch them come and go, it’s hard to discern a set pattern in their movements. “[We] will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan,” says Packer.

Nevertheless, the plan is there. There is a “magnificent electrical signal box that lies athwart platforms 7 and 8 . . . with little glow-worm lights moving or stationary on different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine and train is.” In Packer’s analogy, God has that sweeping York-signal-box view of the universe.

We do not. We’re down on the platform where life comes at us in unpredictable, often head-spinning succession. And yet people assess the meaning of life in various ways. Packer’s analogy helps us consider three.

Platform Pessimism and Signal-Box Seeking

First, there are platform pessimists. They think, “Since I can see no elegant master plan from where I sit, there must be no plan . . . and no Master to plan it. Life, therefore, is meaningless.” The platform pessimist has made a rookie philosophical blunder. He’s confused his epistemology with metaphysics. He’s reasoned falsely from the premise, “I see no grand meaning to it all,” to the conclusion, “There is no grand meaning to it all.”

Second, there are signal-box seekers who say, “If I read enough philosophy and physics, collide enough quantum particles, sit with my fist on my chin long enough, fill enough blackboards with enough chalky symbols, then I can find my ‘theory of everything.’ I can explain everything from train routes to how to become irresistible to the opposite sex.”

In Packer’s analogy, God has that sweeping York-signal-box view of the universe. We do not.

Packer comments on the absurdity of this thought: “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.”

The most zealous signal-box seeker will often, after much mental exhaustion, join the platform pessimists. He may have an initial breakthrough and declare, “I made it! I made it to the signal box!” But before long, it dawns on him with horrifying clarity that a grand unified theory still eludes him. Life throws too many anomalies his way. He remains on the platform watching cars roll by with his head hung low and a bottle in a paper bag.

Trusting the Stationmaster

There is a third way—what I believe is the only way to lasting and joyous sanity. It is to trust the One who sees and orchestrates the whole glowing signal-box ensemble. A stationmaster knows the interweaving routes and destinations of every glowworm on the signal box. In trusting our Stationmaster, we’re freed from neurotically trying to see the entire signal box ourselves. We can take God at his word. We can trust our itineraries will be posted precisely when they should with precisely what we need to know when we need to know it.

Happiness and security don’t come from knowing everything but from knowing the One who does. If we don’t believe in an omniscient God, we’ll overestimate our own wisdom and try to become omniscient ourselves. That’s a recipe for foolishness and despair.

Happiness and security don’t come from knowing everything but from knowing the One who does.

This is a crucial plot point throughout the Bible. God promised Abraham and Sarah, “Your offspring will outnumber the stars!” But Abraham and Sarah weren’t newlyweds! Abraham was a year shy of triple digits and Sarah had recently celebrated her 90th birthday. A sensible doctor would’ve written the geriatric couple a referral to a psychiatrist, not an ob-gyn. Human-calculated probability of successful pregnancy? Zero.

God promised Moses, “You will liberate Israel from her Egyptian oppressors.” Then, the whitewash of the Red Sea foamed at Moses’s toes while Pharaoh’s troops approached from the horizon. It was death by drowning or death by Pharaoh’s swords. Human-calculated chance of survival? Zero.

Jesus claimed to be the living, breathing fulfillment of the Old Testament’s messianic hopes. The disciples watched in horror as the Promise let out an earth-shaking moan and breathed his last. Reason to hope on a scale of 1 to 10? Zero.

This is the trouble with a human mind left to itself. In each scenario, our minds draw perfectly reasonable conclusions— infertility, annihilation, and despair. Yet, each conclusion turns out to be hilariously false.

If you catch me on a bad day, I can lay out a watertight case for cynicism. You would have a hard time poking a logical hole in my case. There’s an ironclad logic to despair. Often a person can’t reason or logic his way out of his straitjacket; he can only be loved out.

Trust and Rejoice

The psalmist said, “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (Ps. 33:21). This is the kind of trust that says, “I know the One who understands every plot twist, who comprehends what I can’t know, and whose IQ can process the whole sum of existence, so I don’t have to.” God, the only wise God, knows me, cares for me, and works all things for my good and his glory.

So, don’t despair on the platform. Don’t make a mad scramble for the signal box. Trust the Stationmaster and enjoy the ride. As Packer concludes, “We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world-order . . . knows what He is doing and ‘doeth all things well,’ even if for the moment He hides His hand. We can trust and rejoice in Him, even when we cannot discern His path.”

Scrolling Alone Wed, 20 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 If we’re going to disciple a younger generation into a deeper love and knowledge of Jesus, then we have to know how social media is shaping them. ]]> I started following somehow a whole bunch of people that go to my school that I’m not even personally friends with. So I would start getting FOMO. And I’d be like, ‘Am I wasting my freshman year? Because everyone else is having a better freshman year and making more use of their COVID freshman year than I am?’ And then another red flag was I started getting FOMO or jealous of some friends that go to different schools having more fun than me.”


“I was just realizing that the things I was doing with my day weren’t things that I wanted to do. They were things that I thought would look cool when I posted. And so there were multiple times where I was like, ‘Okay, this is the hike I’m going to do because it has a great view—not because I want to enjoy the grandeur in creation, but because I want it to look really cool on my Instagram and I want to look really outdoorsy and awesome, and like I’m healthy.’ I was deciding where I wanted to eat based off what food would look good. Or I wanted to go to the beach, not because I wanted to enjoy the beach but because I wanted to post about it.”


“I loved the attention of it. I mean, I did love connecting with my friends on it. But it also felt like this weird outlet emotionally. . . . It [wasn’t] like my diary in its fullest form, where I was expressing everything I was feeling. But there were definitely some attention grabs. It’s like ‘Morgan Kendrick is feeling sad’ or [that kind of] emotional pull to interact with other people. I would say it was a way to form your personality.”


For the past year, Ive been working on a book about social media and women. I’ve listened to some serious concerns and researched some worrisome statistics; Ive thought about how troubling social media has been in my own life. 

But it wasn’t until I started working on this podcast and talking to these girls that I realized something is seriously wrong here.

Here’s the deal. These three young women are all really bright. They attended, or still attend, the University of California, Berkeley, where the acceptance rate is less than 15 percent. They all truly love the Lord, and they’ve been walking with him since they were small. Their parents are all Christians who had serious concerns about social media and set all kinds of restrictions—having the girls wait till they were older to get their accounts, only allowing the use of social media from a desktop computer in a shared living space, restricting the use of a phone camera, checking in on text messages and Instagram posts. Honestly, if you were making a list of all the ways to help teens handle social media, these parents checked every single box.

And yet, despite all that, you can hear how these girls are tangled up in social media expectations and comparisons. Their lives are being shaped—and misshaped—by how they live online.

Here’s why that matters: In April of this year, the Atlantic reported that “the United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental health crisis.” In 2009, about a quarter of American high school students said they had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. By last year, it was up to 44 percent, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. 

For girls, that rate rose to 57 percent. And that means that almost six out of 10 teenage girls feel persistently sad or hopeless. During the pandemic, more than one out of four girls seriously contemplated suicide. 

The article’s author pointed to the most obvious culprit: If you stood a teen from 2009 next to a teen from 2022, what would be the most noticeable difference between them? One of them would be on her phone. 

Those are scary things to think about, especially if you are—or if you know and love—a teenage girl. 

But here’s the thing: We trust in God’s sovereignty over every social media platform. And we also know that if we’re going to reach young women with the gospel, or if we’re going to disciple them into a deeper love and knowledge of Jesus, then we have to know how social media is shaping them. 

Honestly, we need to know how social media is shaping all of us.




The Early Years

It was 2005, and I remember Facebook had opened up just then to college addresses,” Risen Motherhood cofounder Laura Wifler told me. “So it was a huge deal. It was something that we had all sort of been anticipating. Before that, we were on email or AOL Messenger or MSN Messenger. But this felt like a totally different world, where you were able to add photos and where you went to school or information about yourself. Everyone was really excited about being on Facebook, and it was sort of like you weren’t official friends until you were Facebook friends. That was definitely a thing.”

When Laura first logged onto Facebook as a freshman in college, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media, mostly on platforms like Friendster and MySpace. By the time she graduated three and a half years later, almost 80 percent of young people were on social media, nearly all of them on Facebook.

Laura used it to check out the boy she liked.

“I just remember loving his pictures, and getting to see all of his photos and who he was hanging out with,” she said. “I found out his major—that’s what you did. You hopped on Facebook and saw your mutual friends. You wanted to see if they were maybe involved in the same Christian clubs as you because then, you know, if they were in a Christian club, you could marry them.”

Since the iPhone wasn’t invented yet, Laura did this on a personal laptop in her dorm room at her school. She still spent most of her free time hanging out with her friends, watching movies at a theater, or working in a coffee shop. She went shopping in a mall, drove around for fun, and played sports. She went to church and parties and football games. While she did those things, she rarely took photos and she never stared at her non-smartphone. 

Laura’s Facebook friends were people she knew on her campus in real life. Back then there was no news feed, so if you wanted to know what your friends were up to, you had to click over to their page. When you ran out of people to check on, you got bored and logged off. 

Social media was supplementary to Laura’s life, and to everyone’s. The time people spent on it was so small that researchers didn’t even bother to track it.

“It was naive, but it did feel really safe and almost innocent and warm,” Laura said. “And we all just thought, What could go wrong?

The News Feed

You know, in the history of Facebook, the launch of the news feed was one of my favorite stories,” Mark Zuckerberg said. “I mean, how we kind of invented it and launched it. And, of course, the pretty crazy time right after that.”

“The idea was to update the homepage—to make it easier for people to see what was going on with their friends,” Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox said. “We were very excited about it. And we got ready to roll it out. And we hit go. And we waited for the feedback to roll in. This is in September of 2006.”

At midnight, the Facebook staff released a new feature that pulled together information about a user’s friends—who posted a photo, who changed their relationship status, who was at a party—and prioritized it into a constantly updating list. Facebook employees congratulated themselves on making their platform so much more interesting. And then they went to bed.

“The feedback was really negative,” Cox said. “We eventually got an alert from the security team that there was a protest gathering in front of our office and that we would need to be escorted out the back.”

Showing everyone your photos or relationship status felt like a violation of privacy. Looking at someone else’s felt like you were being forced to stalk them. Someone started a Facebook group opposing the feed and a million people joined it. 

But while Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for rolling out the news feed without explanation, he didn’t pull it back.

“The next morning, we spent a bunch of time changing the product to communicate better exactly how everything worked,” Cox said. “People learned how to use it, and they used it a lot. And they liked it.”

The same people who were protesting were also using Facebook twice as much as before. Even if the news feed made them feel voyeuristic, they couldn’t look away.

The news feed was a turning point—it has shown up on social media platforms ever since. And it changed the experience in two important ways. First, it reduced the amount of effort it took to be entertained. Instead of clicking over to different pages, you only need to scroll or refresh. It became a lot easier to spend a lot more time browsing content. 

And second, it changed the nature of the updates. Before, you were just posting for the few friends who would bother to come look for you. Now, you were posting for everyone you ever friended. You had to be a lot more careful with what you said, what pictures you chose, how you portrayed yourself. 

This wasn’t all bad.

“One of the upsides of social media was if someone was speaking and sharing their story or their testimony at a gathering, they would be able to announce it on social media,” said Malisa Ellis, who is on staff with Cru in Boston. “Then all their sorority sisters or everyone from their athletic team would come and watch them. And then they would get all this positive feedback. There was great benefit to that, because something that had easily been private—their faith—all of a sudden, there was an opportunity for them to announce it, and then get some kudos afterwards.”

Expanding Trouble

Malisa watched the influence of the news feed expand exponentially around 2007, when the iPhone came out.

“Social media was less tethered to your laptop,” she said. “It began to accelerate because all of a sudden you were connected all the time, always, no matter where you were. And there was free Wi-Fi everywhere. And it started to really escalate the amount of time that people were online. And then I started seeing, especially in the women, that comparison started to ramp up. Not that the comparison wasn’t there in other ways, but now it was compounded with not being able to get away from it—in their bedrooms or in their apartments or even in class, it was always there. They always had access to it.”

In 2010, one in five American adults had a smartphone; today, more than four out of five own one. Correspondingly, the amount of time spent on social media rose. These days the average global user is on for well over two hours a day. The average teen is on for more than five hours

I bet you’ve seen people doing it—at bus stops or restaurants or movie theaters, shopping in stores, pumping gas, or walking down the street. Our posture has literally changed from shoulders back and eyes up to curled over, hunched over our devices. My friend’s Pilates instructor even has her class work on their lateral muscles to combat the hours they spend slouched over their screens. 

It’s impossible to detect or measure all the ways this has changed our society. But it correlates pretty well with our rising rates of depression and anxiety.

Scratch that. 

Actually, it corresponds with the rising rate of depression and suicidal thoughts of those under 25. 

Scratch that. 

Actually, it matches exactly with the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm in females under 25.

Growing Up Inside Limits

“My first social media was Instagram,” Kaylee Morgan told me. “I got it the end of my junior year of high school. So I was 17.”

Kaylee grew up in California, about an hour from Berkeley, where she now attends college. Her dad was an executive pastor at New Life Church, where Kaylee came to saving faith and was baptized when she was around nine years old. 

Kaylee’s mom and dad were intentional about parenting. Her mom stayed home with Kaylee and her younger brother until Kaylee was in junior high, when her mom went back to work as a physical therapist. Her parents were careful with technology. Kaylee didn’t have a phone until she was commuting to another town for junior high, and even then, she wasn’t allowed to use the phone’s camera. Her parents made it clear they had access to her texts. And she wasn’t allowed to have any social media accounts until she was a junior in high school.

“I felt kind of left out, maybe behind the curve a little bit,” she said. “Whenever I was in the car with friends that did have an Instagram, I’d be like, ‘Oh, you have to let me scroll through your feed with you so I can see what everyone else is up to.’ It did drive me crazy a little bit. Towards my later high school years, I kind of came to peace with it.”

It probably helped that toward the end of high school she could sign up for social media accounts—and she did. Her first choice was Instagram, which was the most popular—and, unfortunately also the most dangerous—choice she could have made. 

Beautiful, Dangerous Instagram

I have to tell you—when I started researching social media, I did not expect Instagram to be the bad guy. A lot of my friends have actually retreated there from Facebook and Twitter, especially after the political fracturing of the last few years. Insta seems like the kinder, prettier sister of Facebook and Twitter.

And my goodness, is it pretty—mainly because it was designed around images. Launched in 2010, after the release of the iPhone, Insta was the first place you could quickly and easily upload photos taken with your phone. Then you could edit and add filters to make your images even better, and then share them with your followers. 

Which leads to the second reason for Instagram’s incredible beauty—money. 

For ages, advertisers have known that human brains process images far faster than text—you can identify the half-bitten Apple logo or the Nike swoosh in one-tenth of a second. Photos also work to target our emotions—you’d rather play with a puppy I showed you than one I just told you about. And they hang around in our memories a lot longer than words. When you add them to a post or a blog, they get 40 percent more shares than posts without images. 

If you were an advertiser looking for a way to sell Billie Eilish T-shirts, Instagram offered a brand new, far more effective way to reach potential customers. Just pay a cute college girl to wear your shirt, say something about how comfy it is, and link to your store. 

These days, being on Instagram can feel like a mash-up of keeping up with your friends and reading ads in a magazine. Every selfie or group shot is carefully chosen and edited. The work that used to go into airbrushing the cover photos of Seventeen magazine can now be done by everybody in your school.

From Aspiration to Comparison

“[Last week] I downloaded a new social media app, which if I had to guess it’s going to get pretty big,” Kaylee said. “It’s this app called Be Real. It gives you a notification once a day, at a random time. And within two minutes, you’re supposed to take a selfie, and it takes a picture facing you and the other way around. And you post it, and then once you’ve posted, you can see what all your friends posted. What’s nice about it is it’s very candid—you get the notification and you’re walking to class. So you just take the picture while you’re walking to class. It feels a lot more real.”

I understand why Kaylee likes this app, but I’m not as optimistic as she is about its future. Mainly because, unfortunately, real life is dull. If I took pictures of what I was doing on a daily basis—sleeping, eating, working, driving around—you would be bored silly. 

One of Instagram’s draws is that it’s aspirational. It shows life as we imagine it could be—the best possible version of ourselves doing the most interesting, fun things we could be doing. 

And of course, that’s also the danger.

“People get these one-second snapshots,” Kaylee said. “And it’s this perfect picture of, like, how much fun they were having in Disneyland. And you see that, and you come up with this storyline in your head that they had this perfect trip, they got this super cute picture because they looked so good with all their friends, they’re smiling, they’ve got the Mickey Mouse ears. 

“[Then] if you end up going to Disneyland the next month, you maybe get some cute pictures. But you also realize, Wait, I waited in line for six hours out of the day, and my feet hurt the whole time, and it was so hot. I was sweaty. And [you think], Oh, their trip must have been so much better than my trip.” 

Kaylee put her finger exactly on what Malisa Ellis was seeing in her college girls—comparison. 

Their trip must have been so much better than my trip. Their family must be so much closer than mine. Their friends must be so much more fun. Their classes must be so much more interesting. Their internships must be so much more meaningful. 

Their body, their hair, their clothes, their boyfriend, their summer plans—everything on Instagram looks so good. It’s meant to—that’s how Instagram was designed, and that’s what we like about it. 

It plays exactly into how God designed us—especially women—to influence each other. 

Here’s the truth: our ability to see excellence and desire to change—to be better, to do better—is not a bad thing. It’s the way God made us, Jen Wilkin wrote in TGC’s newest book, Social Sanity in an Insta World. We’re meant to be reshaped by the Bible and the Holy Spirit and the local body of believers to look more and more like Christ. Older women are meant to mentor younger ones. Friends are supposed to spur one another on toward goodness. It isn’t wrong to look around, to line ourselves up with an outside standard, and to keep checking to see if we’re where we’re supposed to be. 

What matters, of course, is which standard we’re using. If we’re looking at Jesus, we have both a perfect example and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. If we’re looking at someone else’s curated photos, we’re seeing an imagined perfection and we have no possible way to ever measure up. 

Of all the platforms, research shows Instagram is the worst at this. It’s those images that grab our emotions and stick in our minds.

“My body is something that God created intentionally for a reason,” Kaylee told me. “And he looks at that and says, ‘I love this.’ And for me, with social media, it was really hard to be able to say, ‘I’m going to choose to believe that.’ [Especially] when you’re looking at all these other people that are the societal norm of perfect.”

No wonder Instagram is associated with eating disorders and appearance anxiety, especially among girls who are going through puberty or who are supposed to be at their most physically attractive age. No wonder that one in three girls who feel bad about their bodies feel worse after logging into Instagram. And no wonder teens who use social media more than five hours a day are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users—that depression rate, by the way, starts climbing after just a single hour of use.

Building a Brand

On some level, we’re doing this to ourselves. At the same time you’re consuming the casually gorgeous content of other women, you’re also creating your own.

“It’s not even necessarily insecurity about looks every time,” said recent Berkeley grad Morgan Kendrick. “It could be insecurity about whether you’re interesting. Going into college, I was traveling a lot . . . and I felt pressure to capture those things, and then present them in a way that made it seem like I was like this global traveler that was experiencing all these different things.”

Morgan now works at Berkeley as a Reformed University Fellowship staffer. She’s 25, and her brand is the interesting international traveler. But she ran into trouble between trips, because what was she going to post?

“The normal rhythms of life set in, and then I was like, nothing’s up to par—nothing’s worthy enough for me post,” she said. “So I have to do something interesting in order to feed this . . . something interesting or fun, like going to a museum. . . . And if I’m not going anywhere, at least I’m reading the right things. And then having the right opinions based on things that I’m consuming.”

Like Morgan, a lot of girls can articulate their brands—the granola sustainable girl who goes apple picking, the smart girl with sarcastic one-liners who goes to math camp or graduate school, the healthy outdoorsy girl who goes running and rollerblading, the Christian girl who does mission trips and posts Bible verses.

None of those things are wrong, but they are limiting. The identity we create for ourselves is never as wide-ranging or complex as the one that God created for us. 

That means, as Morgan explained, it can be hard to keep thinking of posts that are on-brand. 

But if you get your brand right—if you create a personality that people like and you gather followers—that could catapult you into being an influencer.

Who’s Influencing Who?

“That sounds great, right?” Morgan said. “You get free things. You get to try new experiences, and then you just have to document them. That sounds amazing. There is this almost Nashville singer-songwriter [vibe], like I want to make it. Just being recognized that way would feel like a lot of power. And also affirmation of the things that you’ve wanted affirmation about: Am I interesting? Am I funny? Am I cool?”

Basically, do people like me? Do they want to be like me? Do they want to be me? 

There’s a line here, between wanting to influence people for good and wanting to be the goddess everyone tries to emulate. If you can keep your eyes on Jesus, your identity rooted in him, and your goal only his glory, then you can post freely, completely non-anxiously regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t. 

But if you’re trying to win the approval of other people, you will get all tangled up. 

“My perception of what other people think of me is the elephant in the room,” Morgan said. “Who does everyone else think I am? And who do I think I am based on who everyone else thinks I am? And then I’m going to post based on that. So yeah, I would say it’s hard.”

Wait, who is influencing who here? Isn’t the influencer supposed to be the one with the power? 

Friends, she’s not. The power is all in the likes and the follows and the reshares. If you lose those, you lose everything, then you aren’t interesting or funny or cool. You’re just a girl with a post that fell flat and dishes on the counter and homework that still needs to be done.

Pushing Back

“My best friend in college would get frustrated with the whole machine of it,” Morgan said. “And so she started doing posts that she [wanted] to be honest [and] forthright, and not just sunshine and roses, or having everything be curated and perfect. And then she got to the point where she [felt like she had] a vulnerability hangover. . . . [She felt] this ickiness of I just exposed this really vulnerable thing to my friend from middle school that I haven’t talked to in 10 years.

At this point, I’m thinking, What happened to social media being a fun way to connect with your teammates or your church friends or your sorority sisters? This doesn’t sound fun. In fact, this doesn’t even have the satisfaction of a deep talk with a close friend, where you both end up crying but more connected than before. What’s happening here?

I think that isolation is happening because people are not as often forced to be face-to-face,” Malisa said. “They can be connected with people without really being known because they’ve never asked those harder questions, or they’ve never been into a deeper conversation. And so I’m seeing more and more college students are experiencing loneliness. And that’s not new. That’s been something that’s been on the horizon for a few years. But the rate of loneliness and anxiety and panic is through the roof.”

This is an anxiety that can follow you everywhere—to class, to work, to your car, to your bedroom. 

“It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday morning, and you’re laying in bed scrolling through Instagram,” Kaylee said. “And you see people put on their story, ‘Oh, girls’ brunch!’ and they have a little picnic brunch. And immediately you’re like, Well, they’re out having brunch, and I’m laying in bed scrolling on my phone

“Maybe I needed that rest day. But now all of a sudden, I’m saying, Hey, am I wasting my Saturday? Am I wasting my time? Do I even have any friends that would go out and do a brunch with me? . . . I would say that’s a big thing that I struggle with. And I imagine a lot of other people do, too. . . . I just don’t think we as humans are wired to need to know what everyone else is doing every second of the day. And social media almost feels counter to the way that we should be, or the way we are wired as humans.”

It makes sense to me. I’ve heard the same discussion around the news—we don’t have the capacity to absorb and process and react to all the drama that’s happening all over the world, all the time. We aren’t God. We’re limited. 

The advice I’ve heard—maybe you have too—is to limit your news consumption. Stop overloading yourself. Quit checking the news sites all the time. Live inside your limits.

You can apply the same logic to social media—couldn’t we just limit the time we spend there?

Fighting the Addiction

“I don’t know if I’ve talked to anyone in my age group [whose] phone is not the first thing that they look at in the morning and [the last thing they look at] before they go to bed,” Morgan told me.

There are reasons for that. One is the blue light of the screen, which makes it harder for our brains—especially teen brains—to feel sleepy. 

Another is that social media platforms make money through advertising, which means the longer you’re on there, the more money they can make. That’s why everyone uses a news feed–type scroll or a “like” or “reshare” button. Those random hits of information or affirmation send a surge of pleasure into a human brain. We like that, so we go back for more. When the surges are random—we’re not sure how many people have liked our post—the urge to check is even stronger. 

After a while, our brain gets accustomed to one level of pleasure, say an average of 30 likes for each post. And then 30 likes seems normal and boring, and we’d like, say, 40 or 50 to make us happy.

We’re searching for hits of pleasure and needing more and more to be satisfied. It sounds like addiction, doesn’t it? So how do you curb this addiction?

There are timer apps,” Kaylee said. “So you can set [that] every day I only want to spend 20 minutes on Instagram. And it keeps track of how much time you spent on Instagram that day. And when your time limit is up, it’ll give you a notification. But then there’s always an option to ignore it. So all my friends that have that notification—I’ve never really seen any of them follow it. You can usually see them ignoring it.”

The trouble is, you can ignore every well-intentioned suggestion to help limit your time online. If you put your phone in another room before bedtime, you can head there first thing in the morning to retrieve it. If you move all your social media apps to a folder on the last page of your phone, you can swipe over to get them. If you turn off notifications, you can pop into your app all the time to see if you missed something.

Even deciding the right amount of time to try to spend on social media is problematic, partly because we’re always underestimating how much time we spend scrolling. And partly because there is no right answer.

“There’s real wisdom issues there that can’t be formulaic,” said Julie Lowe, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. “So the moment you say, ‘Well, here’s about a healthy amount of time,’ somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it should be much less than that,’ and somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it should be much more.’ It’s like [trying to prescribe] a good bedtime.”

When girls come to Julie struggling with anxiety and depression, one of the first questions she asks is how they interact with social media.

“It’s a question that has to come up,” she said. “And kids aren’t the best gauge because they’re not connecting the dots. An example: We have parental controls on our devices. And we’ll let our kids on Amazon to go shopping. It will kick them off after it hits their time limit. And they’ll say repeatedly, ‘No way! It hasn’t been a half an hour already!’ And if my husband and I did the same thing, I’m sure we’d be like, ‘What? I just got on this.’ And that is almost like gambling in a casino, where you lose track of time and space, you lose track of things around you.”

Julie’s husband is also a counselor, and they have four teenagers themselves—two boys and two girls. I asked her how she and her husband handled their kids’ social media use.

“We do try to keep all of our teens off of social media, for the most part,” she said.

Wait, what? Her kids don’t have any social media?

“You know, there’s been occasions where one of our boys got the Oculus Quest, and it requires you to be on Facebook,” she said. “But we talked about [the fact that] you’re not going to be friends with people on Facebook.”

Julie told me she wants to give her kids a fighting chance—that when they become adults, she wants them to be able to make a decision about joining social media on their own without already being addicted to it. 

“The research is arguing not [to] allow teens on social media,” she said. “It’s not saying, ‘Here’s the amount of limited time they should be on.’ It’s actually arguing not to let them on. Why? Because even half an hour can be damaging [if] they’re on some of the worst sites, or they’re struggling with identity and comparing themselves [to others], or people are cyberbullying them, or they’re sexting them. The type of things that happen on social media are equally, if not far more, grievous than the amount of time my child is spending on social media. So limiting time, of course, is important. But there are so many other factors before you even get to limiting the time. What is the argument for why they should even be on this very specific site?”

Why Are We On Here?

Why should they even be on this site? The girls themselves are asking this question.

“Most girls that I’ve talked to go through phases of like, ‘I’m deleting it, I’m done,’” Morgan said. “Everyone goes through a phase of, ‘This is too much for me, or this is hurting me, or it’s annoying.’ Everyone gets to the point with social media where they get exhausted.”

Even so, it usually takes a stressful event—such as a breakup with a boyfriend or a falling out with a friend—for someone to actually delete their social media.

I was on it during winter break, and I saw three engagement posts in a row,” said Berkeley junior Avery Fong. “And I deleted the app. I don’t need to be comparing my stage of life. I don’t need to be comparing my relationship status. That was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Okay, we’re done.’”

Avery has had accounts on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, but never really got into Facebook and got rid of Snapchat when she realized it was basically the same thing as texting. Instagram was harder. She has two accounts there—one personal and one for sharing the work she’s doing for her architecture major. 

After a while, she noticed she was choosing her offline activities based on what would photograph well. And she noticed she wasn’t consuming well either.

Every time I saw a post—every single time—I’d compare myself to something in the post,” she said. “Whether it was my friends, or influencers, or even good Christian women—[I’d] still feel bad about myself, because I’m like, Oh, my faith doesn’t look like that right now or I want to be in the season of life that they’re in and I’m not. And they look like such great people in general. I couldn’t get on the app and not think something negative about myself or another person.”

Taking Breaks

Avery’s younger sister mentioned that she and her friends were taking Instagram breaks. Avery decided to try that too. She took a few small ones—for a week or so—but didn’t really notice a difference. 

However, those smaller breaks probably paved the way for her bigger break. She’s been off now for several months.

Initially, it was easier for me to get off—just do the deed [and] disable my account,” she said. “The harder part came after, when I wanted to redownload it. I felt lonely because of the lack of instant gratification and affirmation that comes from likes and comments. [I wanted] to get back on the app to reaffirm that I have friends.”

Avery does have friends. When she wants to redownload the app, she tells herself to text someone to say hello, or see if anybody wants to go for a quick walk.

“I have felt way less lonely,” she said. “Because the kind of love that comes from someone taking time out of their day to be with you physically is definitely a million times more valuable than someone taking five seconds to comment on your posts. . . . So I think relationally it’s been good.”

It’s also been good for her mind.

“Not having Instagram has given me the space to think in a more unfiltered way,” she said. “And so rather than tailoring the things I want to say to a post—which is good, and I can share that with people and that can be encouraging—but for my own processing and thoughts, being able to journal and get out everything and not feel like I have to have things worded perfectly or I have to be totally clean, happy, joyful when I’m writing things. That’s been super cool to do.”

I just want to underline that. Getting off Instagram helped Avery think better.

“I usually hop on voice memos and just start talking,” she said. “Which is another good way of practicing how to be relational or conversational. Rather than holding a conversation on text—where you can map out what you’re going to say or what other people are going to say—knowing how to put words together is something I’m still learning in this digital era.”

Kaylee noticed something similar in her brain when she took some social media breaks.

“There’s almost less of a buzz going on in your head,” she said. “I feel like my head or my soul calms down a little bit because I don’t need to keep track of what Suzy from ninth grade is doing in Louisiana this week. All I know is what I’m doing. And what my friends are doing that I’ve chosen to hang out with.”

Why Are We on Here Again?

It sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? What if young women could go back to shopping together in malls, going out to dinner with boys, and eating popcorn in movie theaters? What if they could take road trips instead of selfies and have complex conversations instead of photo shoots?

“I finally came to the realization that having Instagram and being able to see what everyone else is doing does not bring any sort of positivity to my life at all,” Kaylee said.

If that’s true, why does she keep it around?

“One, there’s a practical reason,” she said. “Any clubs I’m involved in on campus generally have to do some advertising. So it’s helpful to have an Instagram account and post things on my story. Another big thing for me—and honestly, this is a really superficial thing—but if you look at my Instagram account, I curate my pictures to have a vibe to them. I really like all the pictures of me on that account. When I look at it, I’m seeing all my favorite aspects of my life. So when I look at my personal page, it gives me a serotonin boost or something. . . . It makes me feel better about myself. 

“Another superficial thing is because I’ve had my Instagram account for a while, I have a certain amount of followers. And if I fully deleted this account, I would lose all of that. I could fully delete my account. But if one day I wanted to redownload it, I’m starting from square one and have to find all these people again. . . . Some of those are superficial reasons.”

Superficial reasons? For sure. But they were also my reasons. I didn’t even recognize them in myself until Kaylee said them out loud. And they scared me so much I deleted the Facebook account I didn’t like but hadn’t been able to get rid of. Actually, that isn’t true—since I was afraid I’d end up scrolling, I asked my husband to go in and delete it for me, which he was happy to do.

Because these young women don’t stay young women. And you won’t be surprised to learn, we don’t naturally get better at social media as we get older.

In marriages, far more men talk about this than women,” Julie said. “They come in and [say] their wives are playing Candy Crush for hours at a time and not talking to them. Or they’re on their phones, surfing Facebook or Pinterest all the time. And that cuts down on relationships. So think [about] how many marriages are impacted by some of those decisions as well.”

A Time to Take Away, a Time to Add 

So what can we tell young women, our daughters and sisters and nieces and friends? 

“The water that you’re swimming in is going to affect you,” Morgan tells her Berkeley students. “And it’s OK that you’re not strong enough to control how much this affects you. It’s not a weakness issue. It’s not a stability issue. It’s not whether or not you’re secure enough in the Lord that [determines whether] you are not affected by social media.”

She’s right. We’re humans, created to influence each other. Morgan encourages her girls to take breaks, which is great advice. We can even go a little further: instead of just removing social media from your life—or encouraging someone else to remove it from theirs—let’s figure out what’s going to take its place. 

Let’s add in relationships. Add in making cookies, having coffee with a friend, and reading your Bible in the quiet. Add in worship music while you’re driving, hikes with the dog, or a creative project. Add in journaling and voice memos to help you think. Add in serving at your local church. Add in soccer games, musical instruments, and sandcastles on the beach.

Sent Out

I was reading in Acts today and looking at the beginning of the church,” Malisa said. “They belonged so that they could be sent out. If we are anchored in who Jesus has made us to be, and we know where we belong—to him and to his family, his community—then we really should be being sent out. And why would that not include social media?”

I love this. If young girls are looking to Instagram as a place to achieve the perfect identity, to find community, and to learn how to live a good life, it will continue to eat them alive. 

But if they can come to Instagram with identities rooted in Jesus, tied tightly to real-life friendships and mentors in their local church, patterning their lives after actual saints, then couldn’t some of them enter the mission field of Instagram or Facebook?

Because social media truly can help you belong before you believe. It can make entering a campus ministry or a new church or a women’s Bible study easier. It can be a platform on which you can share Scripture and your testimony. It can be a great way to raise awareness or to learn about all kinds of things, from mission opportunities to ways to care for an apartment to figuring out your new community.

I want to believe that the Lord can use this for good,” Malisa said. “But we still have to do the work as disciples and followers of Jesus to be anchored—and also to help the women who are younger than us be anchored in Jesus.”

To do the work. That’s not just a mandate for the girls. It’s hard to pull your own self out of quicksand. So it’s also a challenge for the rest of us, to help our young women be so anchored in Jesus that the pull of social media would grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. 

Laura has been thinking about how a church could do that.

“Having real conversations about social media is really important, and not pretending like it doesn’t exist or isn’t a part of women’s lives,” she said. “[We should provide] spaces for women to get together in real life—having Bible studies, having book clubs, having get-togethers and socials, planning meal trains for one another. Doing the hard work of everyday, in-and-out, real-life living together should never be neglected. And [we should have] a focus on teaching women what discernment looks like—how do you know if someone is telling you something that aligns with God’s Word?”

A lot of this could fit under the instruction of Titus 2—for older women to teach younger women what is good. And isn’t that what young women are searching for on Instagram? How to look good, how to be good, how to have a good life.

But we don’t have to reach for that ourselves. Christ has already paid for our sins on the cross and declared us good in the eyes of a holy God. There’s no picture we could take, no caption we could write, no amount of followers we could gather that could add anything to the finished work of Christ.

Younger sisters, you are good, made that way by Jesus. Your life is good, full of meaning and direction, created that way by God. You don’t have to shape or create an identity that is already yours. 

You might choose to get off social media—along with Kaylee and Avery, I can tell you what a relief it is to walk away. Or you might choose to use it as a platform from which to speak gospel truth. Either way, if you are rooted in Jesus, you are living a good life. 

How to Bring Hymns into Your Home Tue, 19 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Before long, hymn singing will be as normal as praying before meals.]]> Many parents and educators want to give children a lifelong love for great hymns. Maybe you attend a hymn-singing church—or perhaps you miss this experience and wish to reintroduce the richness and beauty of the church’s classic songs. But you aren’t a professional musician or a music teacher. Now what?

Just like any education, learning hymns starts by making purposeful choices. If you make these eight choices, we believe the children in your care will learn to appreciate hymns.

1. Add hymns to your passive-listening playlist.

Passive listening occurs as you listen to music in the background while doing something else. Learn to recapture the moments spent doing chores or homework. Some of us still use CDs (and our retro friends use records), but most stream music. Try this hymn playlist on Spotify or search YouTube for “traditional hymns.”

2. Make active listening a regular part of family activities.

From time to time, bring hymns from the background to the foreground. In other words, stop doing other things and concentrate on the songs—enjoy active listening.

From time to time, bring hymns from the background to the foreground.

Try this on family trips where you have a captive audience for long stretches of time, or on the way to church. Listen to hymns as part of your family devotional time. Ask everyone to vote for their favorite version. Ask them to discuss which rendition best communicates the text to them and why. Name the instruments being played. Keep a basket of goodies from the dollar store to reward answers and discussion.

3. Play an ‘alphabet game’ of hymns while traveling.

We loved this game when our kids were younger. Work through the alphabet and sing hymns that begin with each letter. Starting is easy (everyone remembers “Amazing Grace” for A), but you’ll be challenged by later letters. Be flexible enough to start with the second or third word of the title and, if the game stalls toward the end, don’t forget about “O Zion Haste.”

4. Make hymns a vital part of family worship.

In his helpful book Family Worship, Don Whitney suggests a simple formula for family worship: “Only three syllables to remember—read, pray, sing! You won’t need to prepare anything beforehand. Just read, pray, and sing.” Try to have a hymnal for each member of the family. Like a personal Bible, a hymnal will be something each child treasures through the years. You may start slowly, but keep at it! Before long, hymn singing will become as normal as praying before each meal.

5. Discuss the history of the hymn.

In the hymnal we compiled, Our Hymns, Our Heritage: A Student Guide to Songs of the Church (Moody, 2022), we included background details about each hymn. Note the dates and countries of the author and composer. Do any of your family birthdays or milestones fall on those dates? If possible, relate the hymn story to your family’s knowledge of that period in world history. Sometimes the beauty of a hymn is unlocked by knowing who wrote it and why.

6. Explain any words that might confuse.

Don’t be alarmed when you encounter lyrical expressions like “Ebenezer,” “unction,” or “wretch.” Instead of modernizing classic texts, explain obscure words and increase your child’s vocabulary. When singing “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come” (from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”), explain the reference in 1 Samuel 7:12. Never underestimate the power of connecting songs with particular Scripture passages. Your kids may not understand the connections immediately, but they will before long.

7. Sing familiar hymns without accompaniment (a cappella).

If no one in your family plays piano or guitar, sing anyway, and sing fearlessly—without accompaniment! If you’re feeling a cold sweat running down your spine, consider other options, like the piano accompaniments we’ve recorded as MP3 files, available on a USB flash drive. We have also created hymn resources for download at Hosanna Hymnals.

8. Choose a “hymn of the month.”

If you’re part of a Christian school or homeschool co-op, feature a hymn in chapel gatherings or classroom devotions. Repetition is often the best teacher—sing the chosen hymn several times a week. At the end of the school year, review the nine monthly hymns by singing them all through.

Martin Luther remarked that “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.” So buy your children a hymnal. Join them in learning and singing great hymns. Give them the gift of placing these truths deep in their hearts. As they learn to love the hymns, they will pass them on to the next generation too.

What Working Women Need to Hear from Their Pastors Tue, 19 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Many working women battle insecurity and guilt. Pastors, you can proclaim truths from God’s Word with love and authority.]]> We live in a largely dual-income world, which means many of the women in our churches work at least part-time. Although these women may feel called to work or have a financial need to work, many still battle insecurity and guilt in Christian circles. They may fear that others think they lack a biblical view of womanhood or will label them “bad moms” because they work outside the home.

Even if no one else verbalizes these concerns, working women often battle them in their own hearts and minds. Because of her job, a working woman probably can’t attend the midweek morning Bible study at church. She may not be able to host afternoon playdates or serve as the room mom at her kid’s school. And while those may seem like small pieces of her life, the Enemy can use them to create guilt and doubt about the season she’s in and the places God has called her to serve.

Many working women battle insecurity and guilt in Christian circles.

Pastors, you can proclaim truths from God’s Word with love and authority. Here are a few things working women need to hear from you that will help drown out our culture’s counterfeit offers and shortcuts.

1. You have limits.

Our culture claims women can be it all, do it all, and have it all—be a better mom, make a higher salary, cook healthier meals, have a more fit body, and create a perfectly decorated home. Although it sounds good, these claims are not only capable of producing a highlight reel at best but they also contradict the foundational truth that God is limitless (Luke 1:37; Isa. 40:28)—and we’re not.

Because we’re limited, we have to set priorities. Matthew 6:33 tells us where to start: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Working women need to be reminded to seek God first and trust him to put “all these things” in their proper places. If she tries to seek God while also seeking everything else, he will become just one more thing in her life instead of being her Source of life.

Encourage women in your church to boast in their dependence on God rather than striving to depend on themselves. Remind them that as believers, self-sufficiency is a deficiency. Recognizing and honoring limits instead of ignoring them will draw working women closer to Christ.

2. Your work at home matters.

A woman’s boss probably doesn’t praise her efforts at home for her family. And the number of married women who come to church without their husbands serves as a subtle reminder that women in your church may not have their efforts acknowledged at home either. Remind women that God sees everything. None of her work goes unnoticed by him. And what God knows about her matters more than what anyone else may think or say about her.

Encourage the women of your church to put Titus 2 into practice by pouring into the next generation. Highlight the instruction in Titus 2:4 that older women are to “train the young women to love their husbands and children.” Training implies that not everything about being a wife and mom will come naturally. It’s OK to need teaching. It’s OK to need reminders. It’s OK that sometimes it’s hard. God has provided support and help in the body of Christ. A woman’s family is worth her effort, and her effort matters. That’s radically different language from cultural extremes of Pinterest-worthy motherhood and the “hot mess” mom.

3. Your job matters too.

Remind working women that the reason they work is bigger than completing certain tasks or having a particular title. Though there’s great value in the work she performs, she’s also in her workplace to be a witness for Christ. Proximity, common ground, and regular interaction make work one of the easiest places for us to build relationships with those who don’t know the Lord.

Encourage working women to pray for their coworkers and for God to open doors for gospel conversations. Challenge her to go against the climb-the-ladder mentality and instead be known as the person in the office who serves everyone around her. Cast a kingdom-minded vision for work that will encourage her about the value of her labors.

4. Your identity is based on what Jesus has done, not on what you do.

It’s easy to stumble into performance mode, especially when a woman’s performance is evaluated and potentially praised for 40 or more hours of her week.

More than anything else, what working women need to hear from their pastors is the refreshing truth of the gospel in every sermon.

More than anything else, what working women need to hear from their pastors is the refreshing truth of the gospel in every sermon. A working woman needs to be reminded that there’s nothing she can do that will make God love her more, and there’s nothing she can do that will make him love her less. He initiated love for her while she was still a sinner (Rom. 5:8). The same gospel that saved her is the gospel that will sustain her.

From working women everywhere: thank you, pastors, for caring for us.

8 Tips for Pastoring in a Small Town Tue, 19 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Megachurch principles won’t apply around here. ]]> How do you pastor a small-town church? I’ve read books about ministering in the city or among the poor. But what about the middle-class rural communities where many pastors serve? Where’s the wisdom for pastoring those churches?

I’ve pastored a small village church in England for almost seven years. I still have so much to learn. But by God’s grace and the example of faithful members in our church, I’ve learned much about pastoring in communities like ours.

Here are eight bits of wisdom I’d like to pass along to others in a similar context.

1. Live there.

When we first arrived, we didn’t live in the village. But moving into town made building relationships natural. We talked to neighbors over the fence. We chatted with locals on our family walks. We met parents when we dropped off our kids at school. These relationships were vital to us being part of the community.

2. Host events.

Books about ministry tell you to go to where the people are. But in urban places, the people are scattered across locations and events. Some city pastors may ask, “Why start a playgroup when there are 10 other playgroups to meet people?”

But in our small community, if anything happens, it’s at our church. Our playgroup is the only one. Our seniors’ lunch is the only one. As a British church, when we celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, our event was the only one. People will come to things we host because we’re the only ones doing so.

3. Relational beats professional.

City centers value professionalism. We don’t aim to be unprofessional, but we must be realistic about what we can achieve.

Small towns are about relationships. Most folks won’t judge a church based on its music or sharp website. Instead, they ask,

  • “Are you kind to my kids?”
  • “Do you care for retired women?”
  • “Will you do the funeral for my dad?”
  • “Are you willing to answer questions I have about Jesus?”

In tight-knit communities, relational capital carries more weight than production value.

4. Live like people are watching (because they are).

It’s easy to be anonymous in a city. Transient populations provide a cover for scandal—many people in the know will be gone in a few years anyway. Village populations, meanwhile, are more static. I once met an elderly woman at a nearby fair who attended our church as a child. The reputation of a church lasts. Pastors are observed and remembered; church members too. Christians need to live like people are watching, because they are.

In his book Small Town Jesus, Donnie Griggs gives the example of speeding. Local people shake their heads every time an outsider goes 40 in a 30 zone. What a bad witness if that car then turns into the church parking lot! Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16). Static populations with long-term memories make Jesus’s words even more pertinent for the small-town church.

5. Talk to strangers.

In big cities, talking to strangers can be awkward. In our community, it would be awkward not to say hello to someone passing by on the street. Over time, your friendliness will have an effect. Imagine a thought process:

  • “My neighbor is friendly to me.”
  • “I wonder what makes him so nice?”
  • “He’s just invited me to a church event. Is that because he’s a Christian?”

The simple act of being friendly may remove one barrier to Jesus.

6. Be realistic.

No village church has a huge congregation; megachurch principles will not apply. It’s important to be realistic about what you can do. Use the gifts your members have, not ones you wish they had.

Use the gifts your members have, not ones you wish they had.

Here’s an example. Our church has a few budding artists who created calendars with their artwork and gave them as gifts to people in our neighborhood, with an invitation to a carol service. We had many positive comments and some joined us at Christmastime.

7. Network.

Pastors of large churches seem to publish all the books, which means much of the advice won’t help you. What’s the best resource for pastors in small churches in rural communities? Networking!

Get to know good pastors in similar areas. Share struggles and successes. Find out where they’re getting traction. Co-laboring with like-minded brothers in similar contexts provides vital support and a sounding board for what biblical strategies might work in your own church.

8. Persevere.

Our church has been here since 1704. This is a blessing. Again, some locals have known the church since childhood. Realize the work you do now may take a couple of years to bear fruit. Don’t miss the joy of the harvest by leaving too soon!

Of course, the most important things for a small-town church are important for any church. Persevere in evangelism, biblical preaching, prayer, and genuine love. There’s no reason to envy the church in the big city. Instead, learn to communicate the unchanging gospel in the community into which God, with infinite wisdom and love, has placed you.

Why Our Attention Needs Stewardship Tue, 19 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Our attention is indeed a resource—an increasingly limited one, with hardly enough to go around. Stewardship in this area is vital.]]> Decades ago, Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert A. Simon famously observed that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Now, more than ever, we’re experiencing the poverty of such wealth.

We live in a highly distracting world where our attention is an acutely targeted commodity, and the temptation for diversion lurks closer than ever before—in our back pockets, in our hands, strapped to our wrists. In addition, we have an ever-increasing buffet of media outlets, commentators of every kind, and social networks with finely tuned algorithms poised to serve up both a timely and an endless feed for any appetite.

At the same time, there’s a common undercurrent of discomfort about the pull we feel toward all that our technology-laden culture offers and the minutes and moments it eagerly consumes. According to a recent study, as many as 47 percent of Americans consider themselves addicted to their phones. Even if we’re not addicted, most of us can admit to cognitive dissonance in reconciling the benefits technology provides with the resources, such as time and attention, it consumes.

So how can we navigate this tension wisely? Though the struggle may feel new, the solution is not. We are called to stewardship.

Attention Is a Resource

When we consider stewardship as followers of Christ, we think of stewarding our resources like time, talents, and money. But we don’t tend to think of our attention as a resource.

Most of us can admit to cognitive dissonance in reconciling the benefits technology provides with the resources, such as time and attention, it consumes.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Michael Goldhaber wrote about the economics of attention and the impending shift from a material-based to an attention-based economy. In response, economists and marketers began to home in on the immense value of limited attention in the marketplace. These scholars anticipated the very tension we now experience. Our attention is indeed a resource—an increasingly limited one, with hardly enough to go around. Stewardship in this area is vital.

Using screen-time-tracking apps, turning off notifications, and disconnecting streaming services may be helpful tools of stewardship, but we aren’t limited to solely reactive measures. We should also consider how to proactively steward our attention.

Setting Our Focus

Margie Warrell, a board member for the Forbes School of Business and Technology, suggests a unique solution in her article on combating distraction: “More often our productivity levels . . . are impacted less by the distractions themselves, and more by the fact that we have simply not been clear about what we really want to focus our attention on.” Her insights may explain why our attempts at defeating distraction often fail. We spin our wheels in a tug-of-war with our distractions rather than being clear about what we should focus our attention on instead.

We spin our wheels in a tug-of-war with our distractions rather than being clear about what we should focus our attention on instead.

Perhaps Warrell’s words ring true because they’re reminiscent of Paul’s words in Colossians 3:1–2. Set your mind. Seek the things above. Paul tells the Colossians (and us) exactly what to focus on.

David models this setting and seeking in Psalm 119. He asks the Lord to teach him and help him understand God’s precepts that he might learn them, meditate on them, fix his eyes on them, store them, and keep them. His affection for God’s Word is his anchor of faithfulness in the past and present, and his inheritance for the future. David is very clear about what he wants to pay attention to—and he rightly understands who can help him.

Help for Struggling Stewards

We all know that wanting to steward our attention and doing it are different things. Thankfully, in John 14, Jesus promises us a Helper, the Holy Spirit. His presence and power are life-changing help for believers desperate to become faithful stewards, paying attention in a distracting world. We read in Galatians that some of the fruit of the Spirit’s active work in us is peace and self-control. And as Peter explains, God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). God promises to provide everything we need to faithfully engage this struggle.

We can navigate a noisy world with peace rather than guilt. We can understand the limited nature of our attention and choose to focus it, set it, and steward it wisely. We can cling to God’s Word as David did, and we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us employ the beauty of our very design to faithfully choose obedience. Do our minutes scrolling online and waiting in line bring glory to you, God? How can we honor you with our attention? Setting our minds and seeking the help of the Spirit is a wise place to begin.

Parents, Let’s Pastor Our Children Mon, 18 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Children are leaving the faith of their parents. Can we blame them?]]> Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”(this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:1–4)

This divinely inspired reflection on the commandment to honor father and mother used to attract more attention in churches, it seems. Most believers saw Christian nurture in the home as the most important preparation for congregational life—and as an essential foundation for the pursuit of the common good in the secular world.

To cite just one example, Martin Luther contended in his Large Catechism (1529)—written to help parents and other teachers ready children for the challenge of discipleship—that Moses’s commandment and Paul’s reflection suggest that “it is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children . . . to ascertain what they know of [the Catechism and Christian faith], or are learning, and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.”

So this commandment pertained not to children alone, but to parents as well. As Luther urged in his Catechism section on the fourth commandment, 

It would be well to preach to the parents also . . . as to how they should deport themselves toward those who are committed to them for their government. . . . [Parents] should earnestly and faithfully discharge their office, not only to support and provide for the bodily necessities of their children . . . but, most of all, to train them to the honor and praise of God. . . . For if we wish to have excellent and apt persons both for civil and ecclesiastical government, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, that they may serve God and the world, and we must not think only how we may amass money and possessions for them. . . . Let everyone know, therefore, that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children above all things in the fear and knowledge of God.

For Luther and many of the Protestant reformers, the family was a pillar of God’s providential care for the church and all creation.

For Luther and many of the Protestant reformers, the family was a pillar of God’s providential care for the church and all creation. It was one of the “three estates” by which God ruled the world: the household (oeconomia), the church (ecclesia), and the government or state (politia). God chose to order human life in and through all three estates, or “orders of creation.” When one estate falters, his design for creation is impaired.

No Wonder Kids Are Leaving the Church

To apply this teaching to our purposes today, the family altar was made to be the most important training ground for walking the way of the cross. Family worship is crucial to meeting the challenges of everyday discipleship.

Yet several recent polls (not to mention the many anecdotes known to readers) suggest fewer families are raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Millions of our young people walk away from the faith shortly after leaving home. This should come as no surprise. According to a Barna survey in 2021, only 42 percent of all “Christian parents”—and only 51 percent of “practicing Christian parents”—are “very” concerned about their kids’ spiritual growth.

These numbers help us understand another recent survey, in which 68 percent of Protestant youth pastors agreed that their “biggest struggle in ministry” is “parents not prioritizing their teen’s spiritual growth.”

I suspect these trends have much to do with the slow, steady death of family devotions. Too few churches help families learn to have them, and too few families make this practice a regular priority. In fact, several months ago LifeWay published “What the Church Must Do to Keep Kids—and Their Parents—Spiritually Engaged,” a study that rightly emphasized regular Bible reading but didn’t even mention family devotions. 

I suspect these trends have much to do with the slow, steady death of family devotions.

It’s as if this discipline has simply disappeared. Do we assume it just won’t work—we’re too busy and, even if we did give it a go, our families are too fractured, our kids too independent, our faith too private and subjective for parent-led devotions to succeed?

Most parents I know are often frustrated by their kids’ overloaded schedules. Most pastors are concerned about the ways in which coaches, music teachers, and others have crowded out the church. But is this dissatisfaction yielding change in our families’ commitments? Or are we inured to the status quo, content to blame others for our failure to center our kids’ lives on the Lord?

We Can Begin Again

Let’s do something about this. Let’s recommit ourselves to cultivating an atmosphere at home in which family devotions make good sense again. Then let’s stand up and make the practice a priority. Let’s pray with our kids, read the Bible with them, and center our homes on the things that matter most. There are lots of good teaching tools to use: children’s Bibles, devotional books, old and new catechisms. Parents don’t have to become theologians. They simply have to show a heart for discipleship.

As Tim Keller, quoting Gary Parrett and J. I. Packer in the introduction to The New City Catechism, says: “Because we have lost the practice of catechesis today, ‘superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—career-wise, community-wise, family-wise, and church-wise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today.’”  

What a sadness. The good news, though, is that the Lord reaches out to welcome little children when their parents persist in bringing them to him. The Spirit loves to enliven his Word in our hearts when we open it in faith. Let’s move forward, then, with fresh resolve and humble joy.

Poem for the Pastor: 400-Year-Old Advice for Your Weary Soul Mon, 18 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 400 year-old advice for weary pastors. ]]> Pastoral ministry is the joyful labor of promoting others’ joy (Heb. 13:17; 2 Cor. 1:24). You can’t share with others what you don’t have. Therefore, faithful pastors must delight in God in order to do their joy-promoting work (Phil. 1:25). But there are many potential joy-killers in pastoral ministry. Envy, impatience, worry, busyness, fear, insecurity, pride, and selfishness (to name a few) diminish and deplete our gladness, grinding us into dull duty or the pursuit of lesser pleasures. 

Pastors sometimes experience an oppressive awareness of our own inadequacy. We’re sobered by the flaws in the work we’ve done and suffocated by work yet to be done. I’ve felt this despair, and I know I’m not alone. Satan comes after me hard on Sunday mornings, reminding me of straying members, critical comments, incomplete tasks, and personal failures. He tries to bury me in a pit of discouragement so deep that I can’t climb out by the time I preach. My joy is all but gone before I have the chance to help others.

How can we pastors fight for joy? I’ve found help from my favorite poet, George Herbert, who pastored a small English church in the 17th century. In his poem “Aaron,” Herbert uses Israel’s first high priest as an image of a pastor in his local parish. I imagine Herbert crossing the street from his home to the church early on a Sunday, well before his parishioners have arrived. The building is empty; Herbert is troubled. He sits in the silence, fighting for joy in God. This poem expresses his pondering and praying. We’ll take a stanza at a time.

The Ideal

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Israel’s high priest wore beautiful vestments—bells attached to his robe—when he entered the holy of holies. Herbert suggests all pastors (“true Aarons”) should be characterized by beauty and holiness. But watch what Herbert does next, contrasting this gorgeous vision with the grim realities of his heart.

The Actual

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Herbert considers himself a “poor priest”—profane in thought, defective and darkened in heart. His sinful passions don’t just diminish his ministry; they threaten to pull him from Christ entirely. Herbert knew his heart, and it gave him little reason to rejoice. What pastor hasn’t felt this way?

But thanks be to God, despair needn’t be the final word for sinful, overwhelmed pastors.

The Hope

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Herbert’s deliverance begins with a long look away from himself to “another” (the word appears three times in this stanza), who offers his clothing of righteousness. Of whom is Herbert speaking? The next stanza tells us.

The Head

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

Importantly, Christ is not merely Herbert’s head, heart, breast, and music but his only head and only music, his “alone-only” heart and breast. In his need and despair, Herbert doesn’t look to Christ plus his own remarkable ability with words, Christ plus his impressive pastoral gifts, Christ plus the promise of strong Sunday morning attendance. He looks to Christ alone. 

Herbert’s deepest need is not pastoral but personal—he needs strong hope for his soul. Jesus doesn’t appear to him as a life coach, ready to make him a more effective minister. Herbert’s Jesus reminds him he’s been made new, clothed in Christ’s own righteous robes. In other words, Jesus hasn’t just made him a better pastor; he’s made him a new person. It’s from that position Herbert ministers:

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

In some respects, nothing has changed for Herbert at the end of his prayer. He’s still sinful and inadequate, still sitting in an empty sanctuary. Each line in all five stanzas of the poem ends with the same word (head, breast, dead, rest, drest). But Herbert’s meditation over five stanzas has changed his perspective.

Herbert sees that his holiness is not his own, but Christ’s. Because of this, he can rest (Christ “lives in me while I do rest”) even as he preaches and serves. Despair is conquered! As Herbert waits in the empty sanctuary, he’s suddenly confident. He eagerly calls his congregation to worship because he’s now ready for them: “Come people; Aaron’s drest.”

Herbert blazed a path from despair to delight. It’s a path every pastor (and every Christian) may follow. Our insufficiency can lead us to freshly embrace Christ’s sufficiency. In him, we are holy, perfect, light, alive, and restful. When our souls are satisfied in God, we’re ready to minister.

How to Battle Theological Confirmation Bias Mon, 18 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Confirmation bias can affect every area of human thought, including our approach to the Bible.]]> When visiting a golf pro shop, my dad spotted a large, expensive-looking telescope sitting in the corner. He asked the shop owner why such a nice telescope was collecting dust in a golf shop.

“Some buddies gave it to me as a joke,” the owner said. “They know I’m part of the Flat Earth Society. They tried to convince me to look through it so I’d see the earth’s curvature.”

“Well,” my dad asked, “did you?”

“No!” The man grew gravely serious: “I know what I believe. No fancy telescope will convince me to change my view that the earth is flat!”

This man’s unwavering commitment to his belief despite conflicting evidence is an example of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the basic human tendency to search for evidence that supports personal beliefs and to overlook contradictory claims.

Confirmation bias can affect every area of human thought, including our approach to the Bible. Well-meaning Christians sometimes go to God’s Word looking to confirm what they already think. They’ll cherry-pick biblical texts which support their position instead of doing the hard work of exegesis and theological reflection.

Confirmation bias can affect every area of human thought, including our approach to the Bible.

Why do otherwise like-minded evangelicals (who share a common commitment to biblical authority and the gospel) come to heated disagreements over secondary doctrinal matters? It’s often because of our own confirmation bias—because we hold the faith traditions that nurtured us and their distinctive theological positions dearly.

So, what does confirmation bias look like, and how do we combat it?

How Confirmation Bias Works

Let’s consider a few signs we’ve succumbed to confirmation bias.

1. We only look for evidence that supports our case.

The aim of all biblical interpretation is to understand what God is trying to communicate through the text, not to prop up our differing positions. But confirmation bias manifests when we only look for biblical support for our convictions and won’t consider evidence to the contrary. Ask yourself, Am I finding patterns in the biblical text that seem speculative? Am I filtering out texts that pose challenges?

2. We double down on the beliefs that first compel us.

The earlier we form a belief, the harder it is to shake. Research psychologists call this belief persistence. While we don’t always maintain the religious beliefs we were taught in childhood, we do tend to cling to the first compelling arguments we encounter.

The earlier we form a belief, the harder it is to shake.

A child who only hears about infant baptism may have difficulty weighing the arguments for believer’s baptism when he hears them later in life. A disciple growing in her faith may take up a theological position from her favorite preacher and later have difficulty weighing the strengths of counterarguments objectively. What early beliefs are you clinging to?

3. We rationalize beliefs we want to be true.

We’ll often hold to doctrines even if we have little or no rational support because we find those beliefs more attractive. It can be tempting to overlook the abundant biblical teaching on hell because we want universalism to be true, or to reject the Bible’s teaching on sexuality because we find it objectionable. We may be tempted to reinvent Jesus in a way that suits our political sensibilities. Or perhaps to adopt a particular eschatological perspective because the idea of being “raptured” seems more pleasant than enduring the tribulation.

Our rationalizations stem from our desire for comfort, and even from our sinful desires. Are you tempted to make biblical facts fit the preconceived narrative with which you’re most comfortable?

Strategies for Minimizing Confirmation Bias

Researchers have developed several strategies to aid in combating confirmation bias in scientific research and criminal investigations. Many of these strategies can help Christian interpreters too.

1. Carefully consider the views you disagree with.

If you’re concerned with truth, you must give other perspectives reasonable consideration. The principle of charity means attempting to understand an argument on its own terms. As the late James Leo Garrett said, “Only when you can state your opponent’s position so well that they themselves say, ‘Yes, that’s what I believe,’ can you then begin to debate.”

Listen to the best arguments for the positions you disagree with, not just those that are easily defeated. And ask honest questions like, “What biblical support would we expect to find if the opposing point of view were true?” Also, read widely in the Christian tradition, not just your own tribe. Reformed Christians should read Arminius. Arminian believers should read Calvin. Baptists should read the best arguments for paedobaptism, and vice versa.

2. Ask tough questions about your own position.

First, consider the coherency of your theological perspective. Does your theological claim align with what Scripture says about God’s nature, Christ’s person and work, and salvation? Which position—your own or the opposing view—better coheres with the framework of Christian orthodoxy?

Second, is your position the simplest reading of the biblical text in its context? Or does it require hermeneutical gymnastics or a theological workaround?

Third, is your view fruitful for understanding other mysteries in Scripture? Does your doctrine of providence, for example, provide more insight when used to approach the problem of evil and human sinfulness? Would another theory provide more help?

3. Be accountable to other believers.

Heresies develop in isolation when theologians neglect accountability from the broader Christian tradition and local faith communities. To guard against it, we should study theology in the context of a community of believers who will together submit to God’s Word.

Theologians need present community and a historic community as well. While the creeds and confessions don’t carry the same authority as Scripture, they represent what the historic church has believed. Giving your church’s confession undue authority can create opportunities for confirmation bias, but in general, confessions provide helpful accountability, guarding us against novel doctrines and ideas.

Grant Osborne once explained that often when we read the Bible, “we wish to harmonize it with our belief system and see its meaning in light of our preconceived theological system.” How often is that true about us? Do we want to know truth, or do we merely want to be right? Does our interpretation method place truth and God’s glory over a desire to be esteemed by those in our theological camp? If not, we must heed Jeremiah’s words: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lam. 3:40).

Purity Means Seeing More, Not Less Mon, 18 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 For young men, the purity message was ‘Look away!’ without the equally important emphasis on what God has called us to see.]]> I grew up in the 80s and 90s when the war on drugs was in full swing. The federal government poured a lot of money into ad campaigns to combat drug use among young people. The “Just Say No” campaign was pervasive. It was on T-shirts, billboards, school flyers, television, and radio ads. It was everywhere.

At the same time, another “Just Say No” movement gained momentum in evangelicalism. A plethora of books, Bible studies, and other resources reminded teens that “true love waits,” encouraged them to reclaim purity, and promoted courtship over dating.

It’s important to remember the context within which this purity movement grew. Samuel James reminds us how the 90s pushed new boundaries by mass-marketing sexual content through movies and television. The teen pregnancy rate also peaked and remained high for most of the decade, and the advent of the internet made access to pornography easier than ever.

In that cultural moment, the purity movement was an understandable call to turn away from the culture’s sexual immorality. This call was well intended, and it bore some real fruit. But sadly, there wasn’t enough emphasis on what we were to turn toward. For young men, who were characterized as uniquely visual creatures, the message was “Look away!” without the equally important emphasis on what God has called us to see.

For young men, the purity message was “Look away!” without the equally important emphasis on what God has called us to see.

Open Your Eyes

Those who battle sexual sin must create boundaries. We should emulate Job’s vow: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1, NIV). But we shouldn’t approach our battle against lust as if it’s only about learning to look away and just say no. With this approach, women are too often viewed as two-dimensional objects of temptation rather than whole persons.

Instead, we must see that the pursuit of purity means opening our eyes and seeing more of ourselves, more of others, and more of the Savior.

1. We need to see more of ourselves.

Men who struggle with sexual sin can develop a diminished view of self, one that’s entirely bound up with their progress (or lack thereof) in fighting lust. On days when they’re giving in to temptation, they may be blind to other ways God is at work. On days when they’re experiencing victory over lust, they may miss the other areas of their lives that need to change. They lack a wider, holistic lens for growing toward Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29).

2. We need to see more of others.

The “Just Say No” approach of the purity movement has often fostered a truncated view of the sexes. Men are seen as Pavlovian dogs who are stimulated by visual imagery and can’t control their urges. Women are often treated as sexual objects, not as whole persons. It’s easy to see how this can lead to blame-shifting or avoidance in both directions. But God calls us to regard members of the opposite sex as people who bear his image—who should be known, respected, and appreciated—and as people who add value to our lives.

Jesus saw women who were often overlooked, marginalized, scorned, or regarded as “dangerous” (Luke 7:36–50; John 4:7–30; 8:2–11). He saw far more of their character than the men who objectified them. In a safe, nonsexual way, Jesus respected and paid attention to the women around him. He treated them with compassion, respect, and dignity. Our own pursuit of purity must not just be about looking away; it must be about learning to see as Jesus sees.

3. We need to see more of God.

We are changed when we open our eyes to the glory and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, we’re taught that beholding God is the way we’re changed: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

We are changed when we open our eyes to the glory and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Seeing more of God is the instrument of growing in purity. It’s also the fruit of growing in purity. As Jesus declares in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We behold God to pursue purity, and we pursue purity to behold more of God. More than anything, our eyes must be opened to him.

If we become what we behold, then our pursuit of purity needs more than repeated reminders to look away. We need the Spirit’s help to open our eyes to true glory. We need the eyes of our hearts activated (Eph. 1:18) to behold God in such a way that we become more like him. And as we become more like him, we will always see more, not less.

Sing Your Way to Sabbath Joy Sun, 17 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 The first duty of a hymn is to teach sound doctrine and thus to save souls.]]> English hymnody arose with the Protestant Reformation, when it consisted solely of paraphrases of the Old Testament psalms. Under the example and influence of Isaac Watts in the first half of the 18th century, this tradition gradually gave way to non-psalmic hymns.

Christopher Wordsworth (1807–1885), nephew of famed poet William Wordsworth, was a towering figure in Victorian-era England who contributed greatly to this movement in English hymnody. The scholar and theologian wrote a commentary on the whole Bible while serving as a minister in the Church of England. He also wrote over a hundred hymns and a treatise on hymn writing. In it, he theorized that “the first duty” of a hymn is “to teach sound doctrine and thus to save souls.”

One of Wordsworth’s beautiful hymns is “O Day of Rest and Gladness,” which he wrote to encourage Christian observance of the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day:

O day of rest and gladness,
O day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness,
Most beautiful, most bright;
On thee the high and lowly
Through ages joined in tune, Sing, “Holy, holy, holy,”
To the great God triune.

The hymn celebrates the history of the Christian Sabbath and its great benefits for God’s people. Giving devotional attention to a great doctrinal poem can stir our souls even today.

Honored and Superior Day

We classify Wordsworth’s hymn as an “encomium,” a poem or oration that’s designed to elevate the stature of its subject as an object of praise. Ordinarily, the subject of an encomium is a general character type like the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 or a virtue such as love in 1 Corinthians 13. Wordsworth extends his praise to an institution: Sunday observance.

The first duty of a hymn is to teach sound doctrine and thus to save souls.

In exalted style, an encomium lists the praiseworthy attributes and acts of its subject, but it can also include the subject’s ancient and distinguished ancestry, the effects the subject confers on people, and how the subject engenders a desire for emulation and praise. The stanzas of Wordsworth’s hymn exalt the Lord’s Day by following this topical order.

The first stanza (above) is introductory. It begins with four lines of exalted epithets that address the Christian Sabbath directly as though it were a person (a figure of speech called “apostrophe”). Here Sunday is shown to be superior to all other days of the week.

Glorious History, Glorious Future

The second stanza adheres to the convention for encomiums by tracing the ancient and biblical history of Sunday observance. Four parallel “On thee” clauses trace the lineage of Sunday back to creation, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost:

On thee, at the creation,
The light first had its birth;
On thee, for our salvation,
Christ rose from depths of earth;
On thee, our Lord victorious,
The Spirit sent from heaven;
And thus on thee, most glorious,
A triple light was given.

The third stanza brings Sunday to its status today. Using exalted metaphors, the hymn again elevates Sunday to a place of earthly glory:

Today on weary nations
The heavenly manna falls;
To holy convocations
The silver trumpet calls,
Where gospel light is glowing
With pure and radiant beams,
And living water flowing
With soul-refreshing streams.

The final stanza takes the eschatological turn usual for Christian hymns, as earthly Sundays morph into the eternal rest of heaven:

New graces ever gaining
From this our day of rest,
We reach the rest remaining
To spirits of the blest.
To Holy Ghost be praises,
To Father, and to Son;
The church her voice upraises
To thee, blest Three in One.

Right from the opening line, the hymnic poem is a model of formal discourse. So we’re not surprised when it ends with a liturgical-sounding praise of the Trinity.

Verbal Beauty, Eternal Delight

The verbal beauty and elevated diction of Wordsworth’s poem are magical. Epithets are a major ingredient of the hymn’s poetic texture: “day of rest and gladness,” “the great God triune,” “our Lord victorious,” “the heavenly manna,” and such. The language of every line dazzles, and it invites us to lift our hearts in Godward devotion. The poem also points us back to the Word.

The verbal beauty and elevated diction of Wordsworth’s poem are magical.

The institution of a weekly day of rest began, as the hymn states, “at the creation.” When the Sabbath is first mentioned in Genesis 2:3, we see how God set apart the day as sacred: “So, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

When is the last time you picked up an old hymnal and worked through its poetry line by line? Take time this Lord’s Day to slow down and savor the well-turned phrases and evocative language of a great hymn like Wordsworth’s. You’ll find it to be an experience of rest and gladness, of joy and delight. God may even use the sound doctrine you encounter to save your soul.

Don’t Put Your Faith in the Wrong Person Sat, 16 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 No one abandons faith. They just replace it. ]]> In the late 1980s, George Michael sang the classic words, “I gotta have faith, faith, faith.” But there’s something deeper in the lyric than perhaps the former Wham! singer intended.

After a decade of teaching atheists and three times as long listening to people who have lost their grasp on Christianity, one thing is clear: people don’t so much lose faith as relocate it to another object.

Those who see the invitation to trust Jesus as a threat to their self-determination aren’t operating from pure reason; they have simply placed their trust elsewhere—whether in a political ideology, a romance, or the “voice within.” And such new objects of trust are rarely scrutinized like Jesus is. If they were, many who thought they’d left a rocking boat for solid ground would find they’ve stepped into a raging sea. (It’s worth noting that many who walk away eventually do scrutinize their subsequent faith and circle back only to encounter the real Jesus. In fact, I was raised by two such people.)

Faith When the Faithful Fail You

Many of my friends who’ve walked away from the Christian faith blame the example of other so-called Christians. One friend was sexually abused by a trusted youth leader during an overnight event. Another found out a trusted leader and Christian media personality had been siphoning millions of dollars from the ministry she worked for. Others departed when their church leaders met honest questions with threats of eternal damnation and exorcisms to expel the demons of doubt.

It’s no small matter when people who claim to represent Christ break trust and perpetrate injustice in his name.

It’s no small matter when people who claim to represent Christ break trust and perpetrate injustice in his name. For many, that broken trust feels devastating beyond recovery. I’ve certainly experienced several ministries that made me think, If those in charge were accurate representatives of Jesus, I’d want nothing to do with him. But we’re experienced in separating babies from bathwater in other areas. Would it be reasonable to never watch a movie again because Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator? Smash your copy of the Beatles’s Let It Be album because Phil Spector was convicted of murder? Yet when it comes to matters of faith, we understandably have a hard time not rejecting God because of the hypocrites acting in his name.

To anyone who has been burned by Christians, I gently offer a simple insight: those representing (or misrepresenting) Christ are not Christ. You probably know that, but it bears repeating. The Jesus who willfully entered a pain-ridden world—who successfully endured the heat of temptation, the sting of public humiliation, the ire of the religious elite, anxiety to the point of crying blood, screaming nerve endings as thorns pierced his temples, a splintered crossbar hoisted on his already lashed back, railroad spikes through his wrists and ankles, a spear under his ribcage, asphyxiation on a Roman cross—that Jesus is not the one who hurt you. That Jesus is the one who loves you beyond your comprehension. That Jesus, the real one, would never con, abuse, swindle, deceive, or dehumanize you.

No One Else

Faith in Jesus is miles different than putting your faith in those who hurt you in his name. Every worldview has wolves. That’s why Christianity is most fundamentally a call to yield personally to Jesus Christ, not to intellectually assent to a man-made worldview. You can scour the earth, sit at the feet of gurus, read the best philosophers, and tune in for the most enlightening podcasts—but you will find no one as challenging, enthralling, unpredictable, substantial, and insightful as him.

You’re going to put your faith somewhere. Why not put it in someone—the only one—who will never let you down?

Sanctification Is Good News for the Christian Fri, 15 Jul 2022 04:04:12 +0000 God’s purpose will always be to conform us into the image of Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit.]]> At TGCW21, Ligon Duncan taught from the book of Romans on the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the Christian life to conform us into the image of Jesus. 

Duncan encourages Christians to endure the work of sanctification through God’s Spirit, even when it’s discouraging. He gives five truths about sanctification that help anchor the soul: 

1. Justification and sanctification both ground our sense of freedom in the Christian life, providing a way to obey.

2. God’s grace always produces heart change in the believer, which leads to seeing God’s delight in us.

3. Worldliness doesn’t subject itself to the law of God, and when we pursue worldliness, the Spirit’s work in us can feel like death.

4. Worldliness is unable to subject itself to God’s law. We are actually in bondage when we follow our own way, but when we submit, we are free.

5. It is impossible to please God in worldliness. But the Christian walking in the Spirit is at peace, subject to the law, and able to obey because of the Spirit’s work within.

Duncan closes with the reminder that God’s purpose from the beginning has always been and will always be to conform us into the image of his Son, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Bullseye of an Effective Sermon Fri, 15 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 The usefulness of your preaching might boil down to one question: Whom do you fear most?]]> Before he died, a friend asked a local pastor to preach at his funeral. Many unbelievers would be present, so he asked him to preach an evangelistic sermon. The pastor read John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and described God’s love for the lost. Eventually, he encouraged the non-Christians to ask Jesus into their hearts.

Long before he asked for a decision, though, the crowd was yawning and looking around. The problem wasn’t the preacher’s ability; he was an excellent speaker. The problem wasn’t the length of the sermon, or the text used. The problem was the preacher’s goal. He didn’t aim for his listeners’ consciences. Here’s how Paul describes the goal of his communication: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

Preaching to the conscience means something concrete. It means explaining the listeners’ obligations to God, their failure to meet those obligations, their impotence to make up for that failure, the eternal consequences of that failure, and God’s astounding grace offered to all who will humble themselves, repent, and believe the good news.

In other words, preaching to the conscience is provocative. It seeks to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.

Two Assumptions

Every preacher who pursues this goal will assume two crucial truths.

First, God has inscribed his law on every heart. As Paul observes, unbelievers “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15). The preacher assumes he can revive his listeners’ consciences by Spirit-empowered, conscience-focused preaching.

Hope can turn the possibility of condemnation into the life-giving convictionevidence of a sensitized conscience.

Second, he assumes he shouldn’t provoke his listeners’ consciences without bathing them in hope. This is the problem with some forms of hellfire-and-damnation preaching. It can lack the appropriate hope that comes through awareness of God’s gospel solution. Hope can turn the possibility of condemnation into life-giving convictionevidence of a sensitized conscience.

Paul’s Example

The apostle took his own advice when he preached at the Areopagus in Athens. Instead of starting with God’s love, he aimed his argument at his listeners’ consciences: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).

Notice that he first explains their duty—God’s command to repent—and then aims for their consciences. There will be an accounting, for God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”

Or consider Paul’s approach in his letter to the Romans. After briefly announcing the good news (1:16–17), he spends considerable time targeting the conscience (1:18–3:20). Only after thoroughly exposing his readers’ obligations to God’s law and their inability to keep it—thereby stimulating their consciences—does he return to the theme of gospel hope (3:21–26). Remarkably, three chapters record nearly 1,300 words aimed at the hearers’ consciences, and about 80 describing the gospel solution.

A few years later, Paul courageously preaches to the conscience of Governor Felix (Acts 24:24). John the Baptist (Matt. 3), Peter (Acts 2), and Jesus (Matt. 5–7) did the same.

Fear of Man

The great obstacle to this kind of preaching is the fear of man. When the conscience is awakened, people react. The humble repent, rejoice, and enter God’s kingdom. The proud become angry: “Who are you to tell me I am a sinner?” or “This is not the God I learned about in Sunday school.”

Men dominated by the fear of man will not preach to the conscience. If you’re seeking a reward from men as you preach the gospel, you may get it, but that’s all—you won’t get anything from God.

Leaders We Need

The world needs pastors who fear God, love sinners, and understand the need to preach to consciences. This will only happen to the degree that God’s Spirit liberates God’s leaders from the fear of man as he humbles them with a deep sense of their own need.

May God give us this kind of striking humility, coupled with bold passion, to preach to consciences for the glory of God.

A Doctor Shares the Secret to Dying Well Fri, 15 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 The gospel provides far better resources than any man-made way of coping with the existential angst of death.]]> For almost 20 years, I’ve been working as a hospital doctor. While being a doctor isn’t nearly as glamorous as what you see on TV, it can still be intense. I care for people in the best and worst moments of their lives. Of all the different situations I’ve faced, the most memorable professional encounters have been caring for terminally ill patients.

I have been at many bedsides with patients near the end of life—a few times even as they took their last breath. I’ve lost track of the number of death certificates I’ve filled over the years. But my experience isn’t unique among those in my profession, except perhaps for the fact that I’m a Christian working in a major hospital in the heart of San Francisco, a city known as the “least Christian metropolis” in America. Most people who have died on my watch weren’t believers. With very few exceptions, I’ve been the only Christian doctor in my group for most of my career. This vantage point has put me in a unique position to see how the gospel provides far better resources than any man-made way of coping with the existential angst of death.

The gospel provides far better resources than any man-made way of coping with the existential angst of death.

Bewildered by Death

When I care for terminally ill patients, I ask if they’d like to see a chaplain or if they attend a church. That’s my go-to line to gauge whether they have spiritual interests. At this point in my career, I must’ve asked that question several hundred times. Only a handful of patients have said “yes.”

“Death” is initially a confusing concept for most terminally ill patients. I haven’t seen too many tears as I break the unfortunate news that a patient has a fatal disease. Instead, what’s much more common is a look of bewilderment. Though everyone knows death is inevitable, most don’t know what to do with the news of a terminal diagnosis. They do not see impending death as a call to evaluate their lives and change. After the initial shock, most patients keep on living the remainder of their days as they always had; I’ve never seen a patient reverse their philosophy of life because the end is finally here.

I’ve heard some people say, “I’ll live however I want when I’m young, and when I have room in my life, I may take my spiritual life seriously.” I’m sure this must happen—but I’ve never seen it with my patients. Solomon said, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” (Eccles. 12:1). Solomon’s words have proven true with nearly all the patients to whom I’ve broken the sad news of a terminal diagnosis. Unless they’d sought their Creator before the diagnosis came, they were unlikely to seek him after it came.

Marked by Faithfulness

The opposite is true for those who know intimacy with and obedience to God; if a person’s life is characterized by faithfulness, his death is as well. On occasion, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a life marked by what Eugene Peterson described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Such a life pays its dividends when the end comes.

One morning I came to work and, as usual, was assigned a new list of hospitalized patients to take care of that week, which included a middle-aged man with incurable cancer. My job was to make sure his pain was under reasonable control and then discharge him from the hospital so that he could fly to his hometown and spend his last days there.

If a person’s life is characterized by faithfulness, his death is as well.

When I walked into this man’s dimly lit room, I saw him—quiet, cachectic, and with no hair. Yet he was surprisingly calm and pleasant. I could tell he was in quite a bit of pain, but there was an ambience of peace that filled the room.

After discussing his pain regimen and related medical issues, I asked my usual question, “Would you like to see a chaplain?” I got the usual “no.” But this time for a different reason. With a big smile on his face he answered, “Dr. Cho, I’m a Christian. I know God is with me. I am okay.”

Ah, no wonder.

What followed was a short, delightful conversation with a brother about the joy and hope we have in Christ. The man told me he’d been walking faithfully with God for quite some time: “And I’m not about to change because I’m dying!” Though his physical body was failing rapidly, and everything he’d known in this life was being taken from him, the hope of resurrection remained (2 Cor. 4:16). In fact, this man’s Christian hope was now more real to him than ever before.

With his permission, I laid my hands on the man and prayed for him. Then I discharged him from the hospital with enough pain medication to control his symptoms on his way back home. That was many years ago. When I see him the next time, I’m glad he won’t need a doctor.

There may be no way to be completely ready for death when it comes. I have also seen believers gripped by fear, despair, doubt, and anger at the end; the enemy is not passive even in our fading hours. But though the manner in which Christians face death varies, I’m so thankful that Christ’s grip on his people’s souls never changes (John 10:28–29).

The best way you can prepare for death is by walking faithfully with Christ one day at a time. Trust him today as you want to trust him at the end. Then, someday—just like my patient—you’ll walk into eternity with the faithful God who has led you all your life.

Language Learning Requires Death but Gives Life Fri, 15 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 For missionaries, language study can be incredibly discouraging. But it’s the normal means God uses for us to love others and reach them with the gospel.]]> If we’re honest, most missionaries aren’t excited about language learning. We come to the field to win the lost and plant churches. We don’t move halfway around the world to conjugate verbs or diagram sentences.

For many missionaries, language learning can seem like a wet blanket on their evangelistic zeal. Some have even argued it isn’t necessary. English is now a global language. Instead of investing hours, weeks, months, and years to acquire a local language, missionaries can find some local English speakers, invest in them, and hope they reach their own people.

It sounds tempting, doesn’t it? And of course, there are places in the world where this can work. But I believe that language learning, while incredibly difficult and often deflating, is the normal means God uses for missionaries to love others and reach them with the gospel.

Daily Dying

I once gave a talk in my host country to a group of young people. As I spoke, a national interpreted my words in the local language to make sure I was understood. I would speak. Then he would speak. This went on for the better part of an hour. While I appreciated his efforts, it was extremely humiliating because I was already attempting to speak in their language!

I had spent hours preparing my talk. Alongside a language helper, I labored over every word, making sure I got the meaning right, remaining faithful to Scripture, and making it as engaging as I could. There I was, speaking in their language, pouring out my heart, and I still needed an interpreter!

During language learning, your ego takes a beating. Missionaries are forced to die to themselves daily—in almost every conversation. I live in an Asian country, and I’ve been here five years. Yet I’m still in the throes of language learning. My inner thoughts during conversations go something like this: I understood the verb at the end, but what about the first half of the sentence? I can’t ask him to repeat himself again. I think he said Jesus is a prophet, but how do I say Jesus is more than a prophet? I just studied this yesterday!

During language learning, your ego takes a beating.

The journey to learning a language isn’t just about discipline to review vocab and practice sentence structure. It’s about humbling myself, choosing daily to risk humiliation by attempting to speak.

Labor of Love

Yet for all its excruciating moments, language learning is one practical way for missionaries to love the people we’re seeking to reach. If we’re willing to spend hours in a classroom and hours practicing in the community, it shows them we care. They see our patient efforts, and it communicates something even when our words fail.

As we grow in our language ability, it eventually allows us to share the best news in the world in someone’s heart language. In many countries and contexts, it’s possible to find English speakers who will understand us. If we spend our energies investing in them, they can reach some. But apart from mastery of the local language, there’s simply no shortcut for us to share the gospel with a majority of the people in a way that reaches their hearts—not to mention disciple them deeply.

You can’t understand a culture apart from its language, including its idioms, proverbs, and parables.

When you start learning another language, you realize you’re learning more than a language. You’re learning a culture. Ask any anthropologist, and he or she will explain you can’t understand a culture apart from its language, including its idioms, proverbs, and parables. Missionaries who want to honor God by teaching the Word faithfully will also want to honor the local people by learning their language and culture.

Practical Suggestions

From my experience, here are some practical suggestions to help missionaries stay the course in the difficult but rewarding task of language learning.

 1. Manage your expectations.

Having unrealistic expectations is the quickest way to burnout. I’m in year five, and it’s downright embarrassing to need to repeat “Say again?” for the billionth time. My comprehension still falls woefully short of where I thought it would be at this point.

My previous experience on the mission field was as a single man with nothing but time. Now, I’m married with three kids, wondering why language mastery is so slow. I’ve realized I need to readjust my expectations while still carving out time for study.

2. Remember your identity and purpose.

In this process, I’ve had to learn that I’m not the sum of my language ability. It’s so easy to compare myself to others and measure my progress by theirs. I know one worker with a PhD who was quickly outpaced in language acquisition by his less-educated coworker. This wasn’t easy for him. But the Lord has distributed gifts according to his wisdom and for his purposes.

As we study language, missionaries must remember the One who created us with our abilities and capacities. We must remember that the One who gave his life for us knows our weaknesses and shortcomings. We must remember the One who dwells in us to empower us. And we must remember why we pursue language learning—for the glory of God and the joy of all peoples.

3. Know its value.

More than a half century ago, my host country literally went to war over language. They loved their language enough to take up arms against those forcing them to speak a different one. If they shed blood for the language they love, imagine how they feel when they see a bumbling foreigner laboring to speak it? Often, upon hearing the simplest phrase, they’ll simply say, “Thank you!” Their impulse is gratitude.

One of the simplest ways to love people is to learn their language. While it requires almost daily death to self, when we’re finally able to share the gospel fluidly, using language, references, and analogies that people understand, it’s all worth it. What we once dreaded becomes the means through which the gospel is preached and the dead are raised.

God Is Beyond and Behind the Enormous Universe Thu, 14 Jul 2022 04:05:00 +0000 The James Webb Telescope images are jaw-dropping and mind-boggling, and they should lead us to worship the Creator. Whatever it is we’re seeing, God made it.]]> I fell in love with astronomy and the mysteries of the night sky when my parents enrolled me in a science magnet elementary school. The school was equipped with a basic planetarium, and I remember as a kindergartner wondering, Is that all really up in the sky?

My heart’s curiosity was further sparked by Star Wars, Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and especially by my high school astronomy teacher, James Rousseau, whose love of the stars—and the God who shaped them—helped me connect my fascination with space to the One who spoke it into being. So when NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope this past Christmas, I couldn’t help but be excited at what it would return in a matter of months.

I’m no astronomer. I’m not an expert on the night sky. To my shame, I don’t even own a telescope. But you don’t have to be an astronomer or own a telescope to look at the recent pictures provided by the James Webb Space Telescope and gasp in wonder at the sheer magnitude of all that has been created by the God we worship. Take a look at the SMACS 0723 image, which NASA says is “the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date.”

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

When I saw the first James Webb images a few days ago, two thoughts entered my head, almost simultaneously: Nothing matters. Everything matters.

When I look at the images and try to comprehend just how massive our universe is, it feels like my difficult day at work, my upcoming vacation, and my wonderful family simply do not matter. But then, when I consider that by God’s grace we exist and have the ability to taste and see God’s goodness—and witness his glory—here on our speck-of-dust-sized planet in the vastness of the universe, I can’t help but think everything matters.

Is God Really Beyond All This?

The enormity of the universe is virtually impossible to grasp. NASA explains that the SMACS 0723 image is “approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.” So find a grain of sand, hold it up to the night sky, and imagine that in it are thousands of galaxies we can see with the most powerful telescope we’ve ever constructed—and certainly countless more galaxies we cannot yet see.

As I gazed into the distant past of deepest space, I wondered, “Is God really beyond all of this?” God, unbound by time and space, isn’t just hanging out on a distant planet in a galaxy on the other side of the universe, waiting to bring his kingdom to earth. God is beyond the deepest depths of space and the distant past into which we look back through space-time. But when I first laid eyes on the SMACS 0723 image, I confess my wonder was mixed with doubt: Could he really be beyond all of this?

Yes. Our God, who spoke trillions of stars into existence, is somehow and in some way not only beyond the most distant galaxies but around them, and through them, in a hands-on way. As difficult as it is to comprehend the enormity of the universe, it’s even more difficult to understand that God is bigger than it and beyond it. Difficult to understand, yes. But maybe not difficult to believe.

Only God Could Be Behind All This!

The SMACS 0723 image, containing thousands of galaxies in the deepest reaches of space, was the first image many saw from the James Webb Space Telescope. When I saw it I wondered if God truly is beyond such an image. But when I saw the image of the Carina Nebula (see below), my answer came in the form of a realization: Only God could be behind all of this.

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Not only is God beyond all of this, and around it, and present in it (Ps. 121; Isa. 40:28), but God is its Maker (Jer. 32:17).

Only God could craft such beauty! Only an infinitely mighty God could create such an unfathomably big, beautiful world.

Some Christians might be a bit nervous when an image is said to be looking back “13 billion years” in time to the universe’s distant past. Debates about creationism and evolution—as well as the age of the universe—will continue within the church. But hopefully we can all be awed and appreciative that the Carina Nebula exists and was created by God. What beauty! What splendor!

Food doesn’t have to be delicious. Flowers don’t have to smell good. And the Carina Nebula—with its light-years high Cosmic Cliffs—doesn’t have to be as beautiful and mysterious as it is. But it is. You can almost see the breath of God (Ps. 33:6) in the Carina Nebula. God crafted this star-birthing supermassive scene to be beautiful—and no humans have seen it until now.

God crafted this star-birthing supermassive scene to be beautiful—and no humans have seen it until now.

What other matchless wonders has God tucked away in corners of the universe we have yet to discover, and which maybe we never will? What other glories did he handcraft for his good pleasure, which our senses as yet have not perceived? Only he knows. And his explosive creativity is so boundless that we’ll never find its end—at least as long as we’re on the speck of space rock called Earth, on this side of eternity.

God Is Near

God knows your name and my name. And he knows the names of the stars being born in the Carina Nebula right now (Ps. 139:13–14; Ps. 147:4). The God who is far beyond the far reaches of whatever the James Webb Space Telescope reveals is also the God who is in you and in me, the God who became a tiny, fragile human who lived and died as we do so that through him we might join him in eternity.

God knows your name and my name. And he knows the names of the stars being born in the Carina Nebula right now.

Maybe you, as I do, look at these mind-boggling images and wonder, Is my God really this big? Know that God answers, “Only I am this big, and you haven’t seen anything yet.”

He’s the God, after all, who “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20); the One by whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16).

Praise God for caring about you, and me, and the galaxies we’ll never see. All creation shouts the name of our glorious, creative God (Rom. 1:20).

Let’s join in the chorus (Ps. 95:6; Rev. 5:13).

Doing Missions When Nationalism Is the Local Religion Thu, 14 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Missionaries who want to understand and address the religious commitments of those they’re trying to reach will need to take nationalism into account.]]> “What does your husband do?” our school principal asked. My friend kindly responded she was married to a Christian pastor. “But I thought you said he’s Turkish?” the principal queried. “He is,” my friend confirmed. “Ah, okay. So, he used to be Turkish.”

Living in Turkey for nearly a decade, our family found this principal’s assumptions weren’t unique. Once, my wife spent hours proclaiming the gospel to her Turkish friend. “I believe what you’re telling me about Jesus is true,” the friend explained. “And if I wasn’t a Turk, I think I’d become a Christian.” Similarly, a young man I discipled walked away from his faith after deciding he couldn’t reconcile being both Christian and Turkish.

For most Turkish Muslims—as for many people groups—religious identity is inseparable from ethnic and national identity. Historical encounters with Western Christians stretching back a thousand years shape this assumption. Media, public education, and other national institutions catechize the Turkish people to remember these events as part of their ongoing struggle with Christendom.

Because Turkish nationalism makes opposition to Christianity a central feature of its ideology, it exemplifies an especially strident challenge to the church’s mission. But the same is true for nearly every form of nationalism. Therefore, missionaries who want to understand and address the religious commitments of those they’re trying to reach will need to take nationalism into account.

Rival Religion

Nationalism isn’t a neutral ideology, a benign cultural stump around which the missionaries must plow. Nationalism is an idolatrous ideology presenting itself as a religious surrogate and a competitor to the Christian gospel. This competition may manifest overtly, as in the case of Turkish nationalism. Or it can reside subtly, almost invisibly, within a culture—or even within an American missionary.

Nationalism isn’t a neutral ideology.

In 1926, American historian and diplomat Carlton J. H. Hayes penned an essay titled “Nationalism as a Religion.” As a secular ideology, nationalism is inherently this-worldly. But Hayes observed how the secular “religion” of nationalism mimics the forms of traditional religion through its texts, ceremonies, anthems, symbols, and rituals.

Beyond these forms, Hayes noted how nationalism aspires to transcendence by appealing to humans’ “religious sense,” their desire to worship something beyond themselves. This aspiration shows up in nationalism’s call to forsake this world in willingness to die for the glory of the nation.

Gospel of Nationalism

In Nazi Germany, nationalism not only mimicked but even co-opted traditional religion as the “German Christian” movement sought to fuse Christianity with blood-and-soil Aryan ethnic identity. Analyzing the German example as well as post-WWII Soviet Communism, theologians and political philosophers began to speak of “Political Religion.” They noted how modern secular political ideologies function as “religious surrogates” (Ersatzreligion), replacing the role of traditional religion in peoples lives and inviting them into a rival metanarrative.

The story of nationalism imagines an innocent past where the people are free from oppression. The fall occurs as they’re oppressed by an alien power. Salvation entails rising to overthrow that power, usually through a messianic figure who leads the nation into its glorious future. The parallels with the contours of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration are not incidental, according to Lesslie Newbigin, but arise from the residue of an encounter with the Christian gospel. Nationalism becomes, then, a competing offer of salvation.

In addition to providing rival narratives, political ideologies, as David T. Koyzis argues, become idolatrous by elevating one aspect of creation above all else, including the Creator. In the case of nationalism, the nation becomes the all-consuming end of the citizen’s devotion. Where we lived in Turkey, elementary school children were taught to pledge their “existence as a gift to the existence of the Turkish nation.” In school programs on national holidays, children weep as they recite original poetry venerating the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

When I visited the school principal with my friend, a large portrait of Atatürk hung prominently behind her desk. Several similar pieces of decor signaled this educated, professional woman’s deep commitment to the nationalist narrative. She didn’t conform to our expectations of the typical Sunni Muslim we prepared to encounter when we moved to Turkey. What we needed to consider was how we might proclaim the gospel faithfully to someone like her, whose allegiance is as much to the nation as it is to Islam.

Missionary Encounters

It’s common for missionaries to study world religions to prepare for ministry. Volumes considering how to engage with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus could fill libraries. But missionaries rarely consider how to dialogue with people who are deeply—even religiously—committed to political ideologies.

Missionaries rarely consider how to dialogue with people who are deeply—even religiously—committed to political ideologies.

In highly nationalistic contexts, devotion to nation can be far more culturally important than traditional religion—and far more complicated. When a Hindu repents and believes the gospel, she may burn her idols and relinquish her religious identity. Yet when a Russian nationalist believes the gospel, he usually retains his Russian identity. The task then is to disciple him—or any new follower of Jesus—to count his national identity as loss because of the surpassing worth of Christ (Phil. 3:8). For new disciples of Christ, idolatrous devotion to the nation must be transformed into a modest love of country and an appropriate gratitude for national kin.

But the problem of nationalism doesn’t only touch those from other nations. American Christians and missionaries must also recognize we’re not immune to creeping syncretism. Sadly, I recall instances where God revealed my own attitude of superiority toward nationals, judgment of neutral cultural differences, and anger toward criticism of my country. I once walked out of a school play because it was critical of one of the policies of my country—even though I agreed with the criticism!

Missionaries making disciples in nationalistic contexts must first model rooting out these impulses from our own hearts. Only then will we be able to clearly understand the extent to which nationalism amounts to the local religion and help disciples expose and forsake the idol of the nation.

How Should We Apply Biblical Narratives? Thu, 14 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Narratives are not necessarily intended to prescribe a pattern for our actions. But they are written for our instruction, showing us truth and helping us live in response to it. ]]> You’ve probably heard the joke about a man who wanted direction from God, so he flipped open his Bible and randomly placed his finger in it. His hand rested over, “Judas went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5). Trying again, he landed on, “You, go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Needless to say, he didn’t find quite what he’d been hoping for.

Most of us aren’t that haphazard when it comes to reading Scripture, but in our desire for truth, our desperation for guidance, or our questions about why God does what he does, we may similarly mishandle God’s Word, leaving us to “go and do likewise” in ways Scripture doesn’t actually prescribe.

Applying Stories

This is particularly common when it comes to narrative passages. Constituting over two-thirds of the biblical text, stories make up a great deal of the Bible. On some level, we know that the people in them aren’t simply bad or good examples of how to live. I’m fairly certain Judas isn’t a model to follow when I’ve sinned against God, but what about Rahab when she lies on behalf of Israel’s spies (Joshua 2) or Peter when he steps out of the boat in the storm (Matt. 14)? How are we supposed to apply these stories to our lives?

Description is not the same as recommendation.

It’s here that an interpretive principle for narrative passages guides us. Sometimes stated as “description is not prescription,” this principle explains that a biblical narrative’s presence doesn’t necessarily imply approval of its contents. Description is not the same as recommendation. But in the absence of explicit commentary from the biblical author, how can we sort out what to apply from each story?

1. Respect the genre.

First, it helps to understand what a narrative is. Narratives are not morality tales, but real stories about real people making real decisions. As such, they’re not necessarily intended to prescribe a pattern for our actions. But they are written for our instruction, showing us truth and helping us live in response to it.

The entirety of Scripture was written to reveal our need for God and how he has given himself to us as Savior. Because of this, every passage—including every narrative—is either showing us something about God or something about our need for him. When we approach a narrative, we should consider what it says about these subjects rather than forcing our own questions on it or hoping for a script of actions to follow.

For example, the story of Gideon and his fleece in Judges 6 is often referenced as a paradigm for discerning God’s will. Gideon asks God to do miraculous signs with the fleece so he can feel confident about God’s leading. God grants these requests rather than condemning them, therefore, we conclude, “God approves! This is the biblical way to ask for guidance.” But is that what the passage actually intends to show us?

A closer look at Judges 6 does not reveal a Gideon who is desperately trying to figure out what God wants, but a Gideon who has already been told that God is with him (v. 12, 16) and that he should go and save Israel (v. 14). Moreover, Gideon has already been given a miraculous sign (vv. 20–23), which he acknowledges when he asks for the additional signs with a fleece sometime later (v. 36). The story of Gideon’s fleece has nothing to do with how to make a godly decision, and Gideon is not a poster child for good decision-making. Instead, we see a man full of doubt, worry, and anxiety in need of reassurance, and a God full of patience and gentleness. It shows us God’s willingness to bear with his people’s fear even in the face of direct promises.

Narratives are not necessarily intended to prescribe a pattern for our actions. But they are written for our instruction.

And is this not better than a set of actions to follow to ensure that our decisions are acceptable to God? How might it relieve our anxiety if we approach decision-making with this view of God? He is patient with our anxiety and gentle when we predictably doubt and question what to do. God will surely hear our indecision and worry with kindness and graciousness, working in our lives even when we’re scared.

2. Look to the rest of Scripture.

We’re also given the rest of Scripture to aid us in interpreting narrative passages. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture clarifies narratives in two ways.

First, there are many parts of Scripture that are intended to prescribe our actions. We can let these passages evaluate the actions within narratives. In the case of Gideon and the fleece, we might turn to Proverbs 3:5–6: “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.” These verses prescribe trust in the Lord instead of our own analysis of a situation. Since Gideon is not readily willing to trust God’s instruction, we can discern that his actions are not necessarily a model to follow.

Second, we can lean on Scripture’s own interpretation of a passage. Is the narrative spoken of elsewhere? Are the people’s actions within it referenced in praise or condemnation? For example, we find Gideon in the list of people commended for living by faith in Hebrews 11, and indeed, we do see him exhibit faith in God in Judges 6–7.

But we must also be careful here. Being mentioned in Hebrews 11 is not the same as blanket approval. Many of those who are referenced did morally questionable or even obviously sinful things. They are not being commended for all their life choices but for recognizing their need for God and his provision of himself as Savior—the very same things that each narrative is designed to show us.

It’s not a mistake that the majority of God’s revelation is in narrative form. Although not written as an instruction manual, these narratives do inform our actions and theology. They speak to our true needs and draw us into deeper knowledge of God himself. May we learn to read them well so that we can faithfully follow the loving God who gave them to us.

President Biden Issues Executive Order Attempting to Protect Abortion Wed, 13 Jul 2022 14:03:18 +0000 President Biden signed an executive order on abortion—and he’s discovering the limits of his power on the issue.]]> The Story: President Biden signed an executive order on abortion—and he’s discovering the limits of his power on the issue.

The Background: Last Friday morning, President Biden signed an executive order that the administration claims is for “Protecting Access to Reproductive Health Care Services.” Here’s what the executive order entails:

  • Directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take additional action to protect and expand access to abortion care, including access to FDA-approved abortifacient drugs.
  • Directs the HHS to take steps to ensure pregnant women and those experiencing pregnancy loss have access to the full rights and protections for emergency medical care afforded under the law, including by considering updates to current guidance that clarify physician responsibilities and protections under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).
  • Directs the HHS to take additional actions to expand access to the “full range of reproductive health services, including family planning services and providers, such as access to emergency contraception and long-acting reversible contraception like intrauterine devices (IUDs).” (Note: Some of these IUDs—such as the copper T IUD—may have an abortifacient effect.)
  • Directs the HHS to increase outreach and public education efforts regarding access to abortion.
  • Announces a plan to convene private pro bono attorneys, bar associations, and public interest organizations to “encourage robust legal representation of patients, providers, and third parties lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country.”
  • Asks the chair of the Federal Trade Commission to consider taking steps to protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of abortion-related services.
  • Directs HHS to consider additional actions to better protect sensitive information related to abortion-related services.
  • Charges the federal government with ensuring the “safety of patients, providers, and third parties,” and protecting the “security of other entities that are providing, dispensing, or delivering reproductive health care services.”
  • Directs HHS and the White House Gender Policy Council to establish and lead an interagency Task Force on Reproductive Health Care Access.
  • States that the Attorney General will provide technical assistance to states affording legal protection to out-of-state patients as well as to providers who offer legal reproductive health care.

What It Means: President Biden is learning what previous presidents have discovered: the executive branch doesn’t have much power to affect abortion. The executive order even notes that “President Biden has made clear that the only way to secure a woman’s right to choose is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe as federal law. Until then, he has committed to doing everything in his power to defend reproductive rights and protect access to safe and legal abortion.”

This is not what supporters of abortion wanted to hear. As an article in Politico notes, “Many activists and abortion providers voiced frustration with the [EO]’s scope, vagueness and timing and worried it would do little to influence the impact on the ground of mounting state bans.”

They are correct. Fortunately for the unborn, this order isn’t going to have much effect on the issue now that the Supreme Court has put it back in the hands of our elected representatives in Congress and state legislatures.

Most actions in the executive order are continuing current policies while others are designed merely to give the appearance of “doing something.” Take, for example, the section about the EMTALA and “access to the full rights and protections for emergency medical care.” As HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a news release on Monday, “Today, in no uncertain terms, we are reinforcing that we expect providers to continue offering these services, and that federal law preempts state abortion bans when needed for emergency care.”

The EMTALA protects providers’ clinical judgment and the actions they take to provide stabilizing treatment to pregnant patients who are under emergency medical conditions, regardless of restrictions in any given state. In other words, a state can’t prevent a doctor from performing an abortion to save the life of the mother. But as even the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute points out, there is no state that bans or restricts abortion that doesn’t already have an exception when the mother’s life is at stake.

U.S. presidents do have some influence on the issue of abortion, which is why it’s imperative that they be pro-life. But aside from nominating Supreme Court justices, most of what they can do is purely symbolic. For the past 50 years, Republican presidents have vied for the title of “Most Pro-Life President Ever” based on whether they spoke at the March for Life (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did so by phone, and Trump by satellite) or opposed abortion in a State of the Union Address (Reagan in 1988, George W. Bush in 2003, and Trump in 2019).

Thanks to the Dobbs ruling, to earn the moniker “Most Pro-Abortion President Ever” President Biden (and future Democratic presidents) will have to take steps that are more symbolic than substantive.

Your Questions Answered Wed, 13 Jul 2022 13:00:05 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry answer pressing questions from their listeners.]]> In the final episode of season two of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry answer pressing questions from you, the listeners.

• Introduction (0:00)
• Icebreaker: Where do you most love to be? (1:22)
• Why does small talk matter? (4:45)
• How do you encourage a culture of grace among team leaders across the church? (8:07)
• How do you deal with people in the church who are opposed to gospel culture? (11:17)
• How do you prioritize unhealthy areas to address? (15:25)
• Is there ever a right time to encourage someone to move to another church? (18:45)
• How can a church care for its pastor? (23:38)
• Recommended resource: What God Has to Say About Our Bodies by Sam Allberry (26:23)

Explore more episodes of You’re Not Crazy.

No Michelin Stars for Pastors Wed, 13 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Paul is careful to diminish the role of the gospel worker and elevate the God of the gospel.]]> The latest docuseries on Hillsong shows us our tendency to elevate pastors or preachers with charismatic personalities and good looks without giving due regard to character. As a pastor, watching was a helpful caution against the temptation to savor attention and my role in the spotlight.

Pastor-centered ministries are hardly new. This distorted view of shepherding leadership has been around since the early church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed a long list of issues, and the presence of factions in the church was at the top. There was “quarreling” (1 Cor. 1:11) among the Corinthians over their preferred leaders. Some looked to Paul. Others looked to Apollos. And yet others looked to Cephas. What did Paul say to correct the factions driven by pastor idolatry, and how might Paul’s words correct our own distorted vision of pastors?

Pastors and Deacons Both Serve

When writing to Corinth, Paul is careful to diminish the role of the gospel worker and elevate the God of the gospel. In chapter 3, he first draws from the agricultural world, identifying human gospel workers as those who plant and water gospel seed while identifying God as the One who brings growth from their labors (1 Cor. 3:6–9). He then illustrates the work of ministry as a construction project, one in which the church is God’s building set on the foundation of Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 3:9–15). These are divinely inspired illustrations that accomplish what they set out to do: elevate God’s role and temper our role.

Paul is careful to diminish the role of the gospel worker and elevate the God of the gospel.

Another helpful illustration from this passage comes from the culinary world. The word “servants” is of special importance in these verses. In verse 5 Paul states, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:5). In the Greek, the word for servants is diakonoi, the same word used in other places for “attendants” (Matt. 22:13), “minister” (2 Cor. 3:6; Eph. 3:7), and “deacons” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). Paul is not conflating the office of elder and deacon here. He’s highlighting that both offices are characterized by serving.

One way the word diakonos can be translated is “waiter.” In Acts 6:2, the term is used to describe “serving tables.” In that passage, there were needs that couldn’t be met by the Twelve alone. So they equipped and commissioned faithful servants to tend to the church’s physical needs. First Corinthians makes clear that serving—or waiting tables—is the role of deacons and pastors alike. Deacons serve the church a feast of tangible provisions; pastors serve the church with the feast of the Word.

Don’t Glorify the Waiter

In his book Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp cautions pastors against the ever-present danger of glory. He writes. “Perhaps there is no more powerful, seductive, and deceitful temptation in ministry than self-glory.” Should we begin to think of ourselves too highly, he warns, “You’ll constantly confuse being an ambassador with being a king” (167).

There are many Michelin-star chefs, but there are no Michelin-star waiters.

In the culinary world, earning a Michelin star is the greatest honor for both a restaurant and a chef. Michelin celebrates great achievements in the food industry on a scale of one to three stars. There are many Michelin-star chefs, but there are no Michelin-star waiters. Waiters are important, of course. A good wait staff is vital to making the dining experience enjoyable. They work hard, serve well, and deserve pay for their efforts. In the end, however, they aren’t the chef.

Pastors who recognize their calling to serve the church’s table by delivering the feast of the gospel ought to be careful not to take too much glory for themselves. Pastors should be honored and paid well (1 Tim. 5:17–18), but glory is reserved for God alone. To continue with our analogy—and Paul’s imagery—you’ll constantly confuse being a servant-waiter with being the celebrated chef.

So, pastors, let’s deliver the feast of the gospel to our people each week and let them savor Christ. Only he is the bread of life that can satisfy the confused cravings of our starving world. Let’s humbly seek to serve our people rather than seek to be served by accolades. Remember, there are no Michelin-star pastors.

Andrew Peterson on the God of the Garden Wed, 13 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Telling our stories testifies to the goodness of God, who brings beauty out of the darkest places.]]> Knowing a friend well for a long time provides some breathtaking opportunities to see God work. Closely watching someone made in God’s image walk with the Lord over years—tested, tempted, stumbling, reconciling, and rising to praise—can give us incredible glimpses into God’s grace and goodness.

In fact, as Tim Keller notes, if we don’t take opportunities to listen to others’ stories—and to share our own—we run the risk of misappropriating the glory:

Too often we stay silent about his saving actions in our own histories. We might think that keeping quiet about such things is modesty but its effect is the opposite. It allows others to believe that we have overcome our problems and lived our lives in our own strength.

Andrew Peterson’s new memoir, The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom, tells his story of longing for home and for Eden, and of how God has met him while he searched. It’s a testimony to God’s faithfulness in one man’s life over decades.

Peterson is an award-winning Christian singer-songwriter and the author of The Wingfeather Saga and Adorning the Dark. Like Peterson himself, The God of the Garden is difficult to categorize. Reading this book feels like sitting down with your brother over dinner while he tells you what he’s been thinking about lately and pulls back the curtain on old stories: Remember the time when Dad did that thing? We thought this was what was going on, but now I know it was actually something different. He shares about his own life and struggles and the stories behind several of his more personal songs—stories that provide an honest glimpse into one man’s exercise of giving his past and his future to God.


Throughout his career, one of the standout features of Peterson’s songs has been the way he writes so compellingly about both the loss of innocence and the goodness of grace. A significant part of The God of the Garden chronicles Peterson’s journey of letting God redeem his past.

An early move from small-town Illinois to small-town central Florida created a divide in his story between the innocence of an early childhood spent in golden wheat fields and the darkness of an adolescence spent in a swampland where the trees were full of roaches. “I had been plucked out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” he writes, “and plunged into the dark heart of a Flannery O’Connor novel” (85). He met darkness inside and around himself in Florida, and it haunted him (92).

God redeems that childhood darkness, not by covering or ignoring hard things but by revealing beauty in unexpected places.

God redeems that childhood darkness, not by covering or ignoring hard things but by revealing beauty in unexpected places. The Lord was working even in the gloom. Peterson’s book takes us through his search for redemption, which he admits was intimidating: “I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was terrified” (19). I won’t spoil the beauty of Peterson’s telling of the story about how he made his peace with Florida by way of a book written for children, but his discoveries led him to the conclusion that it’s worth taking the risk to hunt for the truth. He writes, “Going back may unearth bones, or it may unearth treasure. Don’t be afraid” (21), and later that “it is only in hindsight that we see the broad, upwelling green of springtime as an explosion of life. Look back! He was always coming, always already there” (187).

Falling Rain

For all its examples of seeing God’s faithfulness and goodness, one of the more remarkable features of The God of the Garden is its acknowledgment that there’s a lot of darkness in our stories where God’s presence is not discernable.

For me, the most compelling chapter of the book describes Peterson’s multiyear experience of depression. It culminated with him crying in a janitor’s closet at a church in North Carolina when he was supposed to be preparing for a show. He lay on the floor for hours, missing the sound check and numerous calls from his band who were looking for him, only to emerge five minutes before showtime and go through with the set.

While he was still working through the depression, Peterson started to write a song about the experience. “I’m so tired of this game, of these songs, of the road / I’m already ashamed of the line I just wrote / But it’s true and it feels like I can’t sing a note / And the rain keeps falling down” (114). At the time, he couldn’t make it any further than that. There just didn’t seem to be anything good to say about where he was or any hope things would improve.

Later, Peterson and his daughter went out to plant some seeds in their garden. “Gardening,” Peterson notes, “is, fundamentally, an act of hope” (118). Seeing the seeds go into the ground—buried under the earth, drenched in rain, and risen again—helped him to finish the song. “My daughter and I put the seeds in the dirt / And every day now we’ve been watching the earth / For a sign that this death will give way to a birth / And the rain keeps falling / Down on the soil where the sorrow is laid / And the secret of life is igniting the grave / And I’m dying to live, but I’m learning to wait / And the rain keeps falling down” (116). I love this story for the way it shows one example of walking faithfully when there isn’t a happy ending in sight. As Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).

Bear Witness

Ultimately, Peterson’s story is not about him: “And I will bear witness,” he writes, “I will tell of his deeds” (189).

Andrew Peterson says writing is like putting on scuba gear and diving down to find the source of the trouble. But the whole point is to drag it back to the surface so you can look at it, do a forensic test, and then publish an article. “Here’s what I found, folks. Maybe it’ll help you in your own deep dive.” (105)

For many readers, this book could provide exactly that kind of help. Hearing the testimony of someone who has seen God’s faithfulness over time can give us the courage to walk through our own searches for home.

Hearing the testimony of someone who has seen God’s faithfulness over time can give us the courage to walk through our own searches for home.

Another reason I love Andrew Peterson’s story about that day in the closet in North Carolina is that, even though it ends without Peterson seeing the fruit, life and joy bloomed from the seeds he planted in the dirt. I have a dear friend whom I have known for decades. She’s pretty sure that show in North Carolina was the one she attended with her family in their very darkest season, and she’ll remember it with profound joy for the rest of her life.

I’m thankful that Andrew walked out on that stage and was willing to tell a hard but hopeful story without a tidy ending. It’s fascinating to follow the vine back to the dirt and to see God working all along the way. The seeds sprouted in my friend’s life, and now I enjoy the aroma of that fruit too.

We can all bear witness, even when we can’t see the fruit yet.

The Great Commission We Overlook Wed, 13 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Luke’s account of the Great Commission prioritizes the Spirit’s power in preaching a gospel message that’s rooted in the entire biblical story.]]> The well-known verses in Matthew 28:18–20 have become synonymous with the Great Commission. In them, the risen Lord calls his people to make disciples of all nations as an expression of his supreme authority in heaven and on earth. This mission entails baptizing disciples and teaching them to heed Christ’s commands. But Matthew 28 is hardly a missiological solo. Luke’s version, while often overlooked, highlights important aspects of the church’s mission.

In Luke 24, following his resurrection, Christ expounds the Law and the Prophets, explaining “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus interprets his violent suffering and victorious rising as following the script of God’s sovereign plan: “Everything written about me . . . must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

This scriptural fulfillment, according to Jesus, also requires “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Christ then identifies his disciples as “witnesses of these things,” directing them to wait until they’re “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:44–49). Thus, Luke’s Great Commission prioritizes the Spirit’s power in preaching a gospel message that’s rooted in the entire biblical story. As we understand the unique contribution of Luke’s commission, we will be better equipped to reach the nations for Christ.

Old Testament Roots

In the Old Testament, the portrayal of the nations is largely negative. At Babel, God confuses their languages and disperses the peoples (Gen. 11:8–9). He plans to judge the idolatrous and immoral enemies of Israel (Lev. 18:24; 20:23) who rage against the Lord (Ps. 2:1–2). Yet God also commits to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). He promises all peoples will stream to Zion as his Word goes out in the last days (Isa. 2:2–4).

Throughout his writings, Luke traces the fulfillment of these promises. In Luke 2, Simeon recognizes Jesus will bring light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32; quoting Isa. 49:6). Through Christ, “all flesh” will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4–6; quoting Isa. 40:3–5). In Acts—the sequel to Luke’s Gospel—this hope is realized as Christ’s witnesses proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). At Pentecost, devout people “from every nation” gather in Jerusalem, an event reversing Babel’s confusion and anticipating the gospel’s global spread (Isa. 2:3; cf. Acts 6:7), when “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21; quoting Joel 2:32). In Acts, Luke shows how God keeps his promises by sending the message of salvation to Israel and all families of the earth (Acts 3:25; 13:26).

The Messiah’s death and resurrection and our gospel proclamation fulfill the Scriptures.

What Luke clearly demonstrates is that God’s concern for the nations doesn’t begin with the Great Commission. According to Jesus, the church’s mission “is written” in the Old Testament (Luke 24:46–47). The Messiah’s death and resurrection and our gospel proclamation fulfill the Scriptures.

Gospel Proclamation

Luke’s Great Commission also helps answer the age-old question: What is the mission of the church? In Luke 24:47, Jesus summarizes his disciples’ mission as proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins in his name. He then identifies them as “witnesses” who speak truthfully about what they’ve seen and heard (cf. Acts 1:8; Isa. 44:8).

This focus on proclamation mirrors the Messiah’s own mission: “To proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19; quoting Isa. 61:1–2). The Greek word aphesis (translated “liberty”) means freeing from confinement, obligation, or punishment. Elsewhere in Luke, aphesis refers to “the forgiveness of sins” for those who repent and receive God’s salvation (Luke 1:77; 3:3; 24:47).

Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ example demonstrate that proclamation is central to the church’s mission.

The ultimate “liberty” Jesus comes to proclaim—and to achieve—is release from sin’s bondage and Satan’s power (cf. Acts 26:18). Through his atoning death, our Savior secures our freedom. As his witnesses, we proclaim “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and “salvation” only in Christ’s name (Luke 24:47; Acts 4:12; cf. 13:26–39). While Christians today should obey all that Christ commands (Matt. 28:19) and be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14), Christ’s teaching and the apostles’ example demonstrate that proclamation is central to the church’s mission.

Spirit Power

While Matthew’s Great Commission includes a clear command to make disciples, the only imperative in Luke 24:44–49 is “stay in the city.” At first glance, this seems like the opposite of “Go . . . make disciples.” Does Luke encourage a different, more passive approach?

Here again, Luke’s account looks back to the Old Testament and ahead to Acts. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the promise of my Father,” recalling earlier prophecies that God would pour out his Spirit “from on high” in the last days (cf. Isa. 32:15; Joel 2:28–32). In Acts 1:4–8, Christ instructs his followers to “wait for the promise of the Father.” Not many days later, the risen Lord sends his Spirit at Pentecost, empowering his people to proclaim the good news.

Throughout Acts, Luke highlights the boldness of Christ’s witnesses in the face of opposition. Jewish leaders who arrest Peter and John are astonished by their boldness (Acts 4:13). Paul also teaches “with all boldness and without hindrance” while under arrest (28:31). And such Spirit-produced boldness isn’t restricted to apostles; it characterizes believers who, in the face of threats, pray “to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31). Luke’s point isn’t that the apostles and early church were naturally courageous. Instead, he shows they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8).

We Need Luke’s Commission

In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ commands us to make disciples of all nations with the promise of his presence wherever we go. Luke’s account offers a fuller picture, demonstrating our need for the Spirit and tying our mission to the Old Testament hope for the nations.

According to Luke, if the church is to fulfill her calling, we must focus on preaching forgiveness in Christ, fueled by the Spirit’s power. And as we make disciples, teaching them to obey all Jesus’s commands, we must show how all the Scriptures point to Christ and remain beneficial for the church.

Is the Land of Israel Still Spiritually Significant? Wed, 13 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Nowhere other than Israel can claim with as much biblical backing to be a taste of the world to come.]]> We can all agree that the land known first as Canaan (Gen. 11:31) and later as Israel (1 Sam. 13:19) was spiritually significant in the time of the Old Testament. In Genesis 12:7, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s offspring, making it integral to God’s salvation plan. Once the Israelites had conquered the land, God himself dwelled there (1 Kings 8:10–13), and it became the venue for true worship (Deut. 12:4–6). What’s more, the land acted as a kind of spiritual litmus test indicating whether or not the Israelites had been faithful to God. If the Israelites lived rebelliously, the land itself would eject them (Lev. 20:22); if they were obedient, they would stay in the land (Deut. 28:11).

All this shows that the land of Israel was sacred during the Old Testament era. But what about today? Now that we live under the new covenant, God is worshiped “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . but . . . in spirit and truth” (John 4:21–23), which means God-approved worship is no longer tied to one particular place. Should we conclude the land of Israel has lost all spiritual significance?

There are three ways in which the land of Israel remains spiritually significant today.

1. The land of Israel helps us to understand and believe the Word.

Imagine a freak geological event at the end of the first century had caused all the land west of the Arabian Desert, south of Lebanon, and north of the Sinai Peninsula to fall into the Mediterranean Sea, thereby eliminating Israel. In this alternate reality, we would have lost the observable detail that often helps us understand the Bible. For example, we know from observation that to pray for God to restore your fortunes “like streams in the Negev” (Ps. 126:4) is to pray for a remarkably swift onrush of divine blessing to transform your circumstances.

Year by year, the land delivers up new and exciting discoveries. This makes the land itself something that feeds our faith in God’s Word.

In addition, the land of Israel—the very soil itself—has acted as a depository for Bible-related artifacts. Archeological discoveries can strengthen our confidence in God’s Word by verifying the Bible’s version of events. Ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have also been found in the land, confirming the trustworthiness of existing biblical texts and shedding light on the relatively few cases where there’s uncertainty about the original text. Year by year, the land delivers up new and exciting discoveries. This makes the land itself something that feeds our faith in God’s Word.

2. The land of Israel is God’s ‘sample’ for the new creation.

Abraham was told that he, along with his offspring, would inherit Canaan (Gen. 13:15). But he was also told that the land would still belong to the Amorites at the time of his death and for centuries afterward (Gen. 15:13–16; see also Acts 7:5). Abraham put two and two together. He understood that he would only receive the land after he had died (Heb. 11:13).

Since God invited Abraham to contemplate the land that would belong to him (Gen. 13:17), we must conclude that Bronze-Age Canaan was a meaningful likeness of Abraham’s eternal inheritance. God was presenting Canaan to Abraham as a kind of tasting sample of what would come to him, like a small spoonful of ice cream offered to customers in an ice cream parlor. There are two ways in which this is still relevant today.

First, it’s noteworthy that God uses land as the likeness of Abraham’s future inheritance. God wanted Abraham to look down at the earth, not up at the sky. It often comes as a surprise to new Christians (and some old ones) that we will live forever on the earth rather than in the heavens. Genesis 13:17 can be listed alongside other verses pointing to the earthiness of eternal life (eg., Matt. 5:5; Rom. 8:19–23; Rev. 21:1–3).

Second, it’s also noteworthy that God uses Canaan as the likeness of Abraham’s inheritance. God knew Abraham would inherit the whole world (Rom. 4:13), and yet he singled out Canaan for Abraham to inspect. This suggests that Canaan—out of all lands—was the best possible representation of Abraham’s future inheritance.

That conclusion is supported by the descriptions of Canaan/Israel found elsewhere in the Bible. It is said to be “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper” (Deut. 8:7–9); “a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of all the nations” (Jer. 3:19, CSB); and “the pleasant land” (Zech. 7:14).

Perhaps it’s overly romantic to think that the current land of Israel still serves as the best sample of our future dwelling place. The fallenness of the natural world seems to increase as time goes on (Gen. 47:9). And yet the fact remains that no other land is described in the Bible as “the most beautiful inheritance of all the nations.” Nowhere other than Israel can claim with as much biblical backing to be a taste of the world to come.

3. The land of Israel provides a home for God’s chosen people—the Jews.

In the New Testament, God’s chosen people are primarily all those, whether Jewish or Gentile, who have put their trust in Jesus. Peter writes with that understanding of chosenness when he says to the mainly Gentile Christians of Asia Minor, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). By using terminology previously reserved for Israel (see Ex. 19:5–6), Peter shows that chosenness is now offered to all people groups through faith in Jesus.

But that isn’t the New Testament’s last word on chosenness. In Romans 11:28, a verse about unbelieving ethnic Israelites, Paul says, “As regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” The word translated “election” comes from the same root as the word translated “chosen” elsewhere in the New Testament. So, unless we take scissors to Scripture, we must say that ethnic Israelites (in other words, the Jews) are still God’s chosen people—while recognizing that their chosenness does not save anyone without faith in Messiah Jesus.

Nowhere other than Israel can claim with as much biblical backing to be a taste of the world to come.

The Jewish people’s continuing chosenness gives ongoing spiritual significance to the land. If God had rejected the Jews, it would be theologically reasonable to expect him to take their land away from them forever, just as he did with Edom (Mal. 1:4). But since God hasn’t rejected them, it’s theologically reasonable—or even essential—to believe that the land given to them by God is still their inheritance. That’s the biblical logic that led Robert Murray M’Cheyne to anticipate in 1839, with astonishing foresight, that God would surely restore the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.

The argument of the preceding paragraph is not universally accepted among evangelicals. For example, O. Palmer Robertson teaches in his book The Israel of God that the land belongs in the same shadow category as animal sacrifices, and just as the sacrificial system has become redundant, the land similarly no longer functions as an inheritance. Yet whereas animal sacrifices are plainly annulled in Scripture (Heb. 10:18)—because it is Jesus’s atoning death that pays the penalty for sin—there’s no comparable annulment when it comes to the land. Its worship role has changed; its homeland role hasn’t.

Consider the following two statements made by the apostle Paul:

The God of this people Israel chose our fathers. . . . And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. (Acts 13:17, 19)

The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom. 11:29)

In the first statement, Paul the Jew identifies himself with his unbelieving Jewish audience (“our fathers”), and he speaks of Canaan as an inheritance given by God. In the second statement, which is explicitly about unbelieving Jews (see the preceding verse, Rom. 11:28), Paul says that God’s gifts are irrevocable. Taken together, these statements make it very difficult to argue that Canaan/Israel is no longer the inheritance of the Jewish people in God’s sight. Anyone making such a case would need to argue that a Jewish Christian is wrong to pray, “Thank you, Father, for restoring your people to our inheritance.” But where is the theological mistake in that prayer?

For most of the past 2,000 years, only a tiny proportion of the Jewish people remained in the land. The dispersal of the Jews from the land could be considered a second exile, resulting from their large-scale refusal to receive Jesus as Messiah (Luke 13:34–35; 19:41–44). But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large waves of Jewish immigration led to the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. For those who believe God gave the land irrevocably to ethnic Israel, such as most Jewish Christians, that date speaks of God’s chesed—his steadfast love for the Jewish people. But it’s important to recognize that many Palestinian Christians view the establishment of the State of Israel as their Nakba—their catastrophe. In the body of Christ, we can and should rejoice alongside those who rejoice while also weeping alongside those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

It shouldn’t surprise us that the land of Israel holds special significance in God’s sight, because it’s the place where he himself, in the person of his Son, was born, lived, died, and rose. His dealings with the land reveal his character and his power. We have a God who cares about borders, natural resources, topographical features, buried artifacts, human migration, geopolitical developments, and kept promises.

How to Keep Yourself from Loving Money Tue, 12 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 The gospel shifts our gaze from money to someone far better.]]> If only I had more money. We’ve all thought it. Perhaps your dream vacation is just out of reach. Maybe you wish you could save more for what the future holds. It’s tempting to think our problems would be largely solved if only we had a little more money. In 1 Timothy 6:6–10, the apostle Paul sounds an important warning: desiring to be rich leads to ruin.

Now, lest you think, I don’t want to be rich—I just want a little more, notice what Paul says is the opposite of the desire to be rich: “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8).

That’s a radical statement! It’s not necessarily wrong to enjoy expensive clothes or invest in your dream home, but the question is about contentment. What do you think will make you happy? Trying to find satisfaction in money has disastrous results.


There’s no shortage of stories that illustrate how the desire to be rich leads to ruin. Take, for example, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos. When she was just 9, she told her family she was determined to be a billionaire. And 21 years later, her dream became a reality. In 2014, she became the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire, worth $4.5 billion.

Just one year later, though, it all came crashing down. In an attempt to realize her dream, she had lied about the accuracy of her company’s technology. By 2018 the company had collapsed, and earlier this year she was convicted of four counts of fraud. According to Forbes, Holmes’s net worth is now $0. Her desire to be rich led to moral failure and financial ruin.

The desire to be rich is a slippery slope, progressing downward toward spiritual disaster. Desire sparks temptation; temptation sets a snare. I imagine this is how it worked out for Elizabeth Holmes.

The same thing can happen to us. We may not be famous, but our hearts are just as susceptible to this dangerous desire.


Again, the biblical antidote to the longing for wealth is contentment. But how do we become content? According to 1 Timothy 6:6–10, there are two keys.

Key #1: Reorient your perspective.

Paul writes, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim. 6:7). This life is not all there is. If we’re thinking only about the here and now, it makes sense to seek wealth. But there’s a life beyond this one, which reorients our perspective. Our focus shifts from temporal wealth to eternal wealth in Christ. Any money we could gain in this life—no matter how much—seems petty compared to what awaits those united to Christ.

And yet virtually everything we consume wants to drag us back to “possession obsession.” When I watch HGTV, do I leave feeling more content? Not usually. Sometimes the explicit goal of what we consume is to provoke discontent: “Buy this, and then you’ll be happy.”

How do we resist the pull? By pursuing the ordinary ways God has given to grow our faith. When we worship together each Sunday or pray and meditate on his Word, he reorients our perspective. The routine rhythms of the Christian life, almost imperceptibly, steel our spine against the allure of “more.”

Key #2: Redefine your goal.

After I started mowing neighbors’ lawns for money in middle school, I suddenly had disposable income. I loved to buy my brother and myself a fun Friday night. I would rent a video game and buy gummy worms to devour while we played. It was a blast! But it quickly became normal. It didn’t feel like a treat anymore. It just felt ordinary.

The routine rhythms of the Christian life, almost imperceptibly, steel our spine against the allure of ‘more.’

That’s the problem with money and what it buys us: the moment we start spending more on luxury and convenience, we get used to it. That meal we had or the vacation we went on felt like a luxury before; now it just feels normal. There’s a name for this phenomenon: “lifestyle creep.” Contentment, it turns out, is a moving target; when we reach the goal, we quickly grow discontent again.

Paul writes, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). Clearly we need a new, sanctified goal. It’s not about how much we make (or don’t make). It’s about redefining our goal. We must be content with food and clothing.


But we have a big problem. Contentment doesn’t come naturally to sinners. We’re easily captivated by the promise of riches. We place our functional trust for salvation and satisfaction in wealth. And for that, we deserve eternal, spiritual ruin.

The good news is that Jesus Christ, who was rich beyond measure, for our sake became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). Content to become a humble servant, he died on a bloody cross for our sins (Phil. 2:5–11). Christ’s death and resurrection mean we can experience forgiveness and receive the power, through the Holy Spirit, to deny the urge to pursue happiness in things. We need only turn away from selfish desire and throw ourselves on God’s abundant grace.

Set your eyes, friend, on Jesus Christ. True contentment is found only in him, as we anticipate our final reward.

Why Christian Teens Have an Identity Crisis Tue, 12 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Beginning a theology of identity with who we are leaves out the most important piece of the story—who God is.]]> Gen Z is facing an unprecedented identity crisis. Every time I ask youth pastors or Christian leaders what they think is the biggest struggle for teens today, the answer is the same: identity. Teens are struggling to know who they are and if they matter. I hear their questions and, as an early-20s Gen Z, I can relate.

Who am I? What determines my identity? What is the purpose of life?

Do a quick web search on “identity crisis” and it’s not hard to figure out the general consensus on how to fix one. We’re encouraged to “look inward and explore,” “go on a journey of self-discovery,” “do things that make you happy,” “ignore judgment” and, in short, turn our focus entirely toward ourselves. According to this thinking, our identity is something only we can define, and our emotions get the ruling vote on who we are. Any objective standard of identity has been torn away. Growing up amid such uncertainty, is it any wonder teens are questioning who they are?

Identity in Christ . . . or Identity Crisis?

Pastors and parents understand the importance of identity and have generally sought to help teens recognize their identity is in Christ. I’ve heard numerous sermons, read dozens of articles, and listened to countless songs that talk about “who God says we are” or encourage us that we’re loved or valuable or worthy.

This content comes from the right desire, but often, it starts at the wrong place. Understanding who we are in Christ is critically important, but beginning a theology of identity with who we are leaves out the most important piece of the story—who God is.

Beginning a theology of identity with who we are leaves out the most important piece of the story—who God is.

Lists of “who you are” statements are filled with deep truth but often little substance. You are loved . . . but those words hardly make a dent in love-hungry hearts if they don’t understand who loves them. You are chosen . . . but chosen by whom? Why were we chosen? You are redeemed . . . but those words mean nothing if we don’t deeply comprehend what we’re redeemed from and the greatness of our Redeemer’s heart. Far too often, we open with the “you are,” “we are,” “I am,” story instead of the “he is” story.

Identity in Christ Begins with the Gospel

Teens (and adults) do need to know who they are. If we disregard the important truths that we’re loved, chosen, redeemed, and forgiven, we have a truncated theology of identity. But when our default responses to important questions of identity focus more on us than on God, we settle for answers that mimic the world’s self-focused approach.

“Identity in Christ” cannot be separated from Christ and all that comes within the message of the gospel—God’s holiness, mankind’s rebellion, and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. If our teaching of identity glosses over these foundational truths, “identity in Christ” simply becomes a Christian catchphrase that leaves the hearers wondering how to find identity in God when all they’ve been told is more about themselves.

Identity in Christ Understands the Imago Dei

To have a solid understanding of biblical identity, we also need to comprehend the rich theology of the imago Dei—the image of God. Scripture tells us that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Humans are the only creatures with this incredible distinction.

When our default responses to important questions of identity focus more on us than on God, we settle for answers that mimic the world’s self-focused approach.

This may sound like we are back to focusing inward, but the imago Dei has radical implications for identity that go beyond ourselves. After all, it’s about his image, not our own. We’re simply bearers—reflections and shadows—of that image. The imago Dei imbues humanity with intrinsic value, reveals the depth of God’s character and creativity, gives guidelines on how we should live, work, and use our bodies, and defines the ultimate goal of our lives—to glorify and exalt our Creator.

Yet the greatest power and beauty of the imago Dei is found in the character of the God whose image we bear. Our understanding of identity is enriched and made secure as we plunge deeper into the immeasurable depths of God’s goodness, power, and wisdom. The more we know God, the more secure our identity will be. Created in the image of a perfect and holy God and shaped by his hand, we can rest securely knowing that the DNA in our bodies and all the days of our lives were written before our hearts began beating. And the One who wrote the script is sovereign over all.

We Need More God-Discovery

The true reason for today’s identity crisis is not that we have forgotten who we are, but that, as a society, we have rejected the God who created us. Cut off from the source of all life and truth, humanity naturally flounders. Hardened hearts sink into confusion and despair as they refuse to grasp hold of the lifeline of truth extended to them—the knowledge of God and the saving blood of Jesus. (I explore these themes further in Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call To Bold Faith in a Confused Culture.)

There is a greater and more lasting standard of identity than what can be found from an internet search. Look to God’s Word and explore his truth. Go on a journey of knowing the God who created you. Do things that glorify God and serve others. Ignore the lies that tell you identity is found within yourself. Turn your focus to Jesus Christ and let his truth and righteousness have the ruling vote on who you are.

We cannot find within ourselves what can only be found in the heart of God. But in his heart, we find all we need and more besides.

What I Learned About Faith at the British Museum Tue, 12 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Ur had skilled artisans, but Abraham looked to a greater Designer and Builder, our powerful and trustworthy God.]]> In 2019, I visited the British Museum, taking a tour of exhibits with a connection to biblical events. Viewing physical objects tied to events described in the Bible offered color to the Scripture’s black-and-white words. I marveled at the different items in the museum collection—items like a six-foot black obelisk depicting King Jehu and a large silver bowl possibly handled by Nehemiah. The artifacts and information were abundant, but I found myself mesmerized by an opulent piece called The Ram in the Thicket. It helped me reflect on the great sacrifice and faith required for Abraham to leave his homeland and follow God’s call.

I found myself mesmerized by an opulent piece called The Ram in the Thicket. It helped me reflect on the great sacrifice and faith required for Abraham to leave his homeland and follow God’s call.

Ram in the Thicket

The small statue is one of a pair of figures excavated from the Ur dig site in modern-day Iraq. Scholars estimate its date of origin to be 2500 BC, before the time of Abraham. Standing only 18 inches tall, the statue depicts a horned goat on its hind legs, peeking out over a bush. It was probably used as a support for a pedestal or a table.

The Ram in the Thicket. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Archaeologist Leonard Woolley named this pair of figures The Ram in the Thicket as a reference to the account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–19) by Abraham, a native of Ur. However, it’s unclear if this depiction of a horned animal has any connection with the patriarch or the ram described in Genesis 22:13.

Regardless, I was fascinated by the statue’s intricate detail and the diversity of its fine materials. Its tiny base features a mosaic of minuscule red limestone and shell. The bush is covered with fine gold leaf as are the goat’s face and legs. The goat’s fleece was fashioned from mounted shells on a wooden core, its ears from copper alloy, and its eyes, horns, and upper fleece from lapis lazuli, a blue precious stone.

I can only imagine the hours of painstaking work that went into this small piece that was likely built to support something even more opulent. The precious materials and meticulous elements reveal the affluence and craftsmanship available in the ancient civilization of Ur.

Transient Life, Permanent Faith

Abraham lived in Ur when the Lord called him to pick up and move. Setting out for a foreign land, he left everything familiar to him. Sometimes in my haste to read the Genesis account, I gloss over what Abraham gave up following God’s call: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).

The Ram in the Thicket reminds me that the father of God’s people and of our faith didn’t merely move to a new house. He made a significant sacrifice. Abraham’s original home was not a backward and primitive village. Ur was a prominent metropolis with skilled artisans and advanced infrastructure. Abraham left behind an advanced, educated, skilled, and privileged society. On the surface, his act of leaving for an unknown land appears utterly foolish.

Hebrews reminds us that when Abraham left Ur, he went to live in tents. The patriarch provided only transience for his son and grandson. But in going, Abraham kept his eyes on a greater stability:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb. 11:8–10)

Ur had skilled artisans, but Abraham looked to a greater Designer and Builder, our powerful and trustworthy God. Abraham trusted God, and he expressed his faith through obedience. He sacrificed the treasures of Ur because his eyes were set on an even more secure place. He saw something greater than luxury and education. He saw the promise of God.

Ur had skilled artisans, but Abraham looked to a greater Designer and Builder, our powerful and trustworthy God.

When we discuss faith in our churches, let’s remember that our faith is only as valuable as its object. Christians can be tempted to put our faith in riches, technology, education, and skill. And when we choose Christ over society’s values, our decisions, like Abraham’s, appear foolish. But Abraham’s faith was vindicated because God kept his promise. Our obedient faith will be as well. The object of Abraham’s faith made his faith valuable—and thus he was included among the model saints in Hebrews 11. The patriarch’s faith is the kind the author of Hebrews wants his hearers to have: an active conviction that stands on God’s promises, a faith that wisely values the security our trustworthy God offers over the fleeting values of this world.

Nietzsche vs. Dylan: Fight for the 21st-Century Soul Tue, 12 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 I had no idea the catch-22 of Nietzsche’s proposition would explain our culture’s most pressing contradictions today.]]> I was a mostly clueless 17-year-old, a senior in high school, when I had one of my first genuine philosophical insights.

Dr. Chris, my humanities teacher, had finished a unit on the thought of Fredrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche despised “cows”—those who mindlessly follow the herd rather than charting their own course. The heroic supermen of Nietzsche’s universe (Übermenschen) were those who brazenly defy moral expectations, who possess the courage to do their own thing, consequences be damned.

It hit me like a lightning bolt. If I were to commit myself to Nietzsche’s call to radical self-expression, wouldn’t I be abiding by this dead German’s dogmas, following his demands on my existence like a good little cow? I had no idea at the time that this catch-22 in Nietzsche’s thought would explain our culture’s most pressing contradictions today.

Gonna Have to Serve Someone

I shared the gospel in that same class with a friend we’ll call Mike. He replied with a line borrowed from the lips of Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven!” Mike, who had apparently taken Nietzsche to heart, would serve no one but Mike.

We think we’re our own masters when we’re really unwitting servants of a dark kingdom.

Years later, when I heard Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning single “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the problem with Mike’s self-rule credo became obvious. Dylan sings about big-shot politicians, heavyweight champions, rock stars, warlords, business moguls, network executives, and more. These are poster boys for the modern idea of freedom, with the power and fortune to fulfill their every personal desire. But in classic fashion, Dylan subverts the status quo and makes doubters of us all. He rips off the shiny veneer, exposing the contradictions of modern Western thought: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” In other words, the sultans may be the real slaves. We can think we’re our own masters when really we’re unwitting servants of a dark kingdom.

Think of Dylan’s insight this way. The whole world is like a superstore. There are 27 varieties of Crest toothpaste to choose from, 74 iterations of Campbell’s condensed soup, nine styles of Tropicana orange juice (each available in eight size options). We are inundated with options to express our personal preferences. And the same holds true for how we “shop” for meaning. We face what C. S. Lewis described in the early 1940s as “the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes.”

No worldview on the market is offering absolute, unfettered freedom by which you can invent your own identity out of thin air and be obedient to none but yourself.

Products often have hidden ingredients—aspartame, nitrates, monosodium glutamate, to name a few. It’s the same with worldviews and lifestyles. They contain ingredients few realize are baked into systems of meaning. To Dylan’s point, every code of living you could possibly choose has one ingredient rarely advertised on the front of the box: service. No worldview on the market is offering absolute, unfettered freedom by which you can invent an identity out of thin air and be obedient to none but yourself. The promise of autonomy is illusory.

Meet Your Masters

So let’s meet the masters of those convinced they have none.

  • If I believe my heart is basically good—a reliable guide to the good life—then I’m unwittingly paying service to the likes of Pelagius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Condorcet, and Joel Osteen.
  • Spurning all religious authority hardly makes me a rebel—I’m simply offering burning incense to the likes of Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud, and Voltaire.
  • If I believe I have a duty to shatter taboos and authentically express my sexual appetites, then I’m just a sheep herded by Marquis de Sade, Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, and Michel Foucault.
  • In attempting to define my gender by my feelings and willpower, I’m allowing the doctrines of Judith Butler and other ideological gender theorists to define me.

We’re hardly the captains of our souls. We’re more like crewmates scrubbing the decks on the SS Nietzsche, SS Sartre, or SS RuPaul.

You could call it the “punk rocker’s paradox.” Punk spit in the face of the establishment, a rebel yell for nonconformity. Attend a punk rock show (I’ve been to dozens both in the pit and onstage) and you’ll see a crowd so “nonconformist” that their black outfits, dyed hair, and metal accessories make them virtually interchangeable. A square with the courage to brandish a pressed collared shirt, khakis, and a crew cut would be the only true nonconformist in a sea of posers. “I’m so unique, just like everyone else!”

Nietzsche was wrong. The attempt to be self-defining supermen makes cows of us all. Dylan was right. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but serve you will.

Help! I Don’t Feel like My Work Is Meaningful Mon, 11 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 To feel what we know to be true, we have to constantly orient ourselves around God’s promises.]]> I know that work is meaningful, but I rarely feel that it is. Tips?

The goodness of God’s creation means that we can at times experience work as cultivating a fertile garden, like Adam and Eve must have felt in Genesis 2. But as humans living after Genesis 3, we more often feel as if work is toilsome, pointless, and fruitless, as if the ground is bearing thorns and thistles just for us.

We often believe Genesis 2 while feeling Genesis 3. So what should we do?

To feel what we know to be true, we have to constantly orient ourselves around God’s promises.

God’s Promise for Our Work

Work is meaningful because God promises that our labor is not in vain. Not because if we work hard, with sufficient skill, diligence, and effort, then our work will bear visible fruit; not because on our own we can undo the curse on the ground and get back into the garden. No, our hope rests on God’s promise for our work. And that promise is rooted in the resurrection.

In Isaiah 65, God promises to create new heavens and a new earth, and Isaiah tells us that at that time our labor will not be in vain. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes a magisterial chapter on the resurrection—essentially, the resurrection happened, and it’s going to happen to you—and he concludes by saying your labor is not in vain.

This is Paul’s claim: we have hope for our work because God brings fruit out of death.

We have hope for our work because God brings fruit out of death.

Waiting until the new creation to see any fruit doesn’t seem very motivating. But we don’t have to! Jesus has already conquered sin and death. Isaiah’s promise is true now, even as we eagerly await Jesus’s return. No matter how fruitless it feels, no matter how pointless and insignificant, we now work in a world where God brings life out of death and works all things together for the good of those who love them.

There are several ways you can internalize this reality.

Patterns of Resurrection

First, look for the patterns of resurrection in your work. Where can you see the possibility that God might be bearing fruit among the visible thorns and thistles? It may be easy to see the “death,” but remember, that’s the forerunner to life. Can you see hints of God’s activity at work? Can you envision God bringing life out of death?

There is no square inch of our company or workday that doesn’t belong to God. There is no chance he isn’t working in your workplace. Ask him to give you eyes to see what he’s doing and to show you how to join him there. The more we look for God, the more we see him moving.

Promises We Can Believe

If the fundamental hope of the resurrection warms our hearts, feeling hope for our work will follow. God’s promise for our work is downstream of much more significant promises, which are surely harder to feel or even to believe. Most of us feel our work is meaningless precisely when we fail to believe that God is good and truly loves us. After all, what’s harder to believe: that work can be meaningful, or that the perfectly just and righteous God of the universe loves us?

Most of us feel our work is meaningless precisely when we fail to believe that God is good and truly loves us.

And which is easier to say, “Your labor is not in vain,” or “Your sins are forgiven, pick up your mat and walk; in the new heavens and the new earth you will be presented to God as a perfect bride because Jesus defeated death and was raised to an indestructible life”? If you hear Jesus saying the latter, the former will be easier to receive.

If we’re going to feel the hope of God’s promise for our work, we couldn’t do better than meditating on the glorious truths of who we are in Christ. As we meditate on the risen Jesus and all the heavenly blessings he bought us, we’ll find it easier to feel hope for our work among the multifaceted hope Jesus promises.

Listen to Jesus’s Playlist Mon, 11 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Your playlist can make or break a road trip. The book of Psalms is similar. It gives God’s people songs for every kind of situation.]]> There are songs for every situation. Some for dancing. Some for studying. Some for road trips. Some take great movies to the next level. Some should only be played after Thanksgiving, not before (thank you very much).

The book of Psalms is similar. It gives God’s people songs for every kind of situation: celebration, mourning, and hope. And this hymnbook is even the playlist for Jesus’s life.

The book of Psalms gives God’s people songs for every kind of situation.

More than 40 of the 150 psalms are used in the New Testament, and they’re spread over 100 passages. In dozens of these passages, the NT authors apply a psalm to a facet of Jesus’s person and work. Some psalms (like Ps. 2 and Ps. 110) are used in this fashion on repeat and others (like Ps. 41:9 in John 13:18) are more like unexpected B-sides. Here are three ways the NT uses the Psalms to paint a portrait of Jesus.

1. Psalms as Prophecy

NT authors sometimes appeal to psalms as direct prophecies of something that took place in Jesus’s life. When most think of prophecies about Jesus, the prediction of his virgin conception (Isa. 7:14 referenced in Matt. 1:23), his title as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15 referenced in Acts 3:22), and the prediction of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Lord (Mal. 3:1 referenced in Mark 1:1–3) first come to mind.

We don’t typically think of songs as prophetic. But the NT authors do.

A key example of prophecy is Peter’s use of Psalm 16 in Acts 2. He says that David—when clinging to God in hope that “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Ps. 16:8–11)—was not mainly referring to himself. Rather, “being . . . a prophet,” he “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” through this psalm (Acts 2:25–31).

Elsewhere, John alludes to Psalm 2:9 in the book of Revelation to show how Jesus is the king predicted to “rule” the nations “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 2:27; 19:15).

Do all psalms work this way? No. But it’s notable that Peter and John see some psalms as direct prophecies about Jesus.

2. Psalms as Pattern

The apostolic authors also read the Psalms as describing patterns that first happened to the psalmist then were repeated in Jesus’s life. For instance, the “stone that the builders rejected” in Psalm 118:22 is not prophesying a future stone. Rather, the New Testament uses this phrase several times to show how the opposition Jesus experiences is like what the psalmist experienced centuries before (Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7).

Similarly, Psalm 22 becomes the soundtrack for Jesus’s suffering and death. The mocking and head-wagging of the crowds in Psalm 22:7 recurs with Jesus on the cross (Matt. 27:39–40). The parched mouth of the psalmist in Psalm 22:15 is what drives Jesus to thirst (John 19:28). The cynical way the psalmist’s clothes are divvied up as take-home prizes is reenacted by the Roman soldiers (Matt. 27:35). The tragedy of the psalmist, played like the blues, is the script for the tragedy of Jesus’s passion.

3. Psalms as Prosōpon

Lastly, the NT treats the Psalms as songs sung by Jesus himself. I’m using the Greek word prosōpon to describe this phenomenon, because the word denotes “face” or, better, “persona.” In a handful of marvelous places, the Psalms are interpreted as if Jesus is a persona in the psalm.

At least twice, Jesus opens this door himself.

In Luke 20:42–43 Jesus describes how David refers to two different “Lords” in Psalm 110:1: The LORD says to my Lord.” David as the poet is the “my.” So, who are the “Lords”? Jesus, shockingly, identifies himself as the second one, David’s Lord. This means the psalm is a conversation between the eternal Father and preexistent Son. Centuries before his birth, the Son is already in the psalm, receiving promises from the Father.

In a handful of marvelous places, the Psalms are interpreted as if Jesus is a persona in the psalm.

Also, in Psalm 22, Jesus takes the words of the psalmist on his lips as he breathes his last, calling out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1 in Matt. 27:46). He owns the psalm. The anguish is his.

Other NT authors follow Jesus’s lead. John notes that the disciples realize that Jesus is the “me” in Psalm 69:9 who calls to God, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Referencing the same psalm, Paul writes that Jesus, with the psalmist, declares, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (Rom. 15:3). The song is his personal lament of suffering.

Hebrews uses the prosōpon maneuver in spades as well. Hebrews 10:5–9 boldly declares that Jesus himself, when coming into the world, addresses the words of Psalm 40:6–8 to the Father: “A body have you prepared for me. . . . I have come to do your will.” And in Hebrews 1:5, 8 the Father addresses psalms to the Son. Psalm 2:7 records the Father saying to Jesus, “You are my Son. . . . Today I have begotten you.” And Psalm 45:6–7 is the Father’s declaration to the Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever.”

Across these examples, Jesus is placed as the prosōpon or persona—either “I” or “you”—in various psalms. These passages relate earth-shattering truths about the godhead; they’re the autobiographical playlist of Jesus’s eternal sonship, divine lordship, bodily incarnation, and suffering.

These three categories for approaching the Psalms christologically help us read our Bibles more richly. We can meditate on how the Psalms prophetically anticipate Jesus as Davidic king and covenant-keeper. We can read the Psalms as patterns of Christ’s obedience to God’s law. And we can see the prosōpon of Jesus in the Psalms, reading them as a strong testimony about his person and work.

In these ways, the Psalms are not only the playlist of Jesus’s life, but as we sing together with him in the congregation (Heb. 2:12), they become the playlist of our lives as well.

6 Ways Christians Can Respond to Our Strange New World Mon, 11 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 The revolution in selfhood has ushered in a strange new world. How should Christians respond?]]> The world has shifted under our feet. New notions about selfhood challenge Christians’ views, and we’ve found ourselves in a hostile place where it’s dangerous to challenge the new status quo.

To object to same-sex marriage, for example, is in the moral register of the day not substantially different from being a racist. The era when Christians could disagree with the broader convictions of the secular world and yet still find themselves respected as decent members of society is coming to an end, if indeed it hasn’t ended already. The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in a strange new world.

The revolution in selfhood, particularly as it manifests itself in the various facets of the sexual revolution, is set to exert pressure on the lives of all of us, from kindergarten education to workplace policies on pronouns. Christians might still be able to run, so to speak, and avoid some of these things for a period of time, but they cannot hide forever. Sooner or later every single one of us is likely to be faced with a challenging situation generated by the modern notion of selfhood. And this means that for all of us the questions of how we should live and what we should do when facing pressure to conform are gaining in urgency. Here are six ways Christians should respond to this new world.

1. Recognize Our Complicity

The first thing we need to do is understand our complicity in the expressive individualism of our day. This statement needs a little nuance, however, because expressive individualism is not all bad. We do have feelings; we do have an inner psychological space that deeply shapes who we are.

Historically, while Rousseau is developing his notion of the self as rooted in inner sentiments, Jonathan Edwards is writing The Religious Affections and exploring that inner space from an explicitly Christian perspective. Expressive individualism is correct in affirming the importance of psychology for who we are and in stressing the universal dignity of all human beings. We might also add that this accenting of the individual is consonant with the existential urgency of the New Testament in the way it stresses the importance of personal faith as a response to the gospel. Only I can believe for me. And that places the “I” in a most important place.

But there are also problems here. Think, for example, of freedom of religion. This is a social virtue. What Christian wants to live in a country where the church is persecuted and where worshiping God is considered a crime? Yet countries where there’s freedom are also typically countries where there are many churches, even religions, to which one can choose to belong.

Within 10 miles of where I’m writing this book in my study at home in Pennsylvania, there are dozens of churches—Presbyterian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Roman Catholic. And even the terms “Presbyterian,” “Lutheran,” and “Baptist” cover a variety of different denominations. This is the result of religious freedom—a good thing—but it also has the effect of making religion a marketplace where the congregant is the customer and the church the vendor. This means the authority in religion tilts toward the congregant, the customer, in a way that panders to the felt needs of the psychological self.

To make the point more sharply, it’s worth noting a comment once made by Philip Rieff: “Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church, so as to find the rationale of their misery; they did not expect to be happy, this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.”

Such a notion is incomprehensible today: we as Christians intuitively go to church to feel good—perhaps to meet friends or to sing uplifting songs (whether traditional or contemporary) or to have our minds stimulated by a good sermon or our ears edified by beautiful music. Prayers, personal and corporate, tend to focus on the alleviation of misery, not on being enabled to understand it. We tend to go to—to choose!—the church that fits with what makes us personally feel good. This is true whether we are, say, emotional types to whom a Pentecostal service might appeal; lovers of artistic beauty, who might be naturally drawn to high Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy; or (like me) a bookish type, for whom the cerebral sermons of Reformed churches are appealing.

Perhaps I’ve overstated things here. But most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, would have to admit that our choice of church is not entirely driven by theological conviction. Personal taste plays a role, and that is shaped by the expectations of the psychologized, therapeutic society in which we live, move, and have our being.

This also connects to another way in which the church has become more akin to the world than she often realizes: the cult of personal happiness. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being happy, of course. But the nature of happiness has changed over the years to being akin to an inner sense of psychological well-being. Once we start thinking of happiness in those terms, the vision of the Christian life laid out in Paul’s letters, particularly 2 Corinthians, becomes incomprehensible. We may not all be explicitly committed to the prosperity gospel, but many of us think of divine blessing in terms of our individual happiness. That is a result of the psychological, therapeutic culture seeping into our Christianity.

There are other areas of Christian complicity as well. How many churches have taken a firm stand on no-fault divorce, a concept predicated on a view of marriage that sees it as being of no significance once the personal happiness of one or both parties is not being met? How many Christians allow their emotions to govern their ethics when a beloved relative or friend comes out as gay or transgender? We’re all complicit at some level in this strange new world.

We’re all complicit at some level in this strange new world.

It’s not easy to see how we can address this, but a few thoughts suggest themselves.

First, we need to examine ourselves, individually and corporately, to see in what ways we’ve compromised the gospel with the spirit of this age. Then we need to repent, call out to the Lord for grace, and seek to reform our beliefs, attitudes, intuitions, and practices accordingly. Nothing less is required for a true reformation at this point.

Second, an awareness of our complicity should cultivate a level of humility in how we engage with those with whom we disagree on these matters. There can be no place for the pharisaic prayer whereby we thank the Lord that we’re not like other men.

Third, being aware of our complicity at least allows us to engage in the future in appropriate self-criticism and self-policing. We cannot help but choose the church in which we worship. Even the cradle Catholic today chooses to continue to attend church because there are many other available options, including not attending church at all. But having chosen the church, we can discipline ourselves to be committed to that church, stick with it, and refuse to allow ourselves to move on simply because of some trivial issue or matter of personal taste. This will be far from perfect and far from easy, but I see no other option than self-awareness and self-discipline in this matter.

2. Learn from the Ancient Church

Traditional Christians are typically those who take history seriously. We have a faith rooted in historical claims (supremely the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the events and actions of his life) and see our religious communities as standing in a line extending back through time to Pentecost and beyond. Thus, when faced with peculiar challenges, Christians often look to the past to find hope for their experience in the present. Typically, Protestants look to the Reformation and Catholics look to the High Middle Ages. If only we might be able to return to that world, we tell ourselves, all might be well.

Anyone with a realistic sense of history knows that such returns are at best virtually impossible. First, neither the Reformation nor the High Middle Ages were the golden eras that later religious nostalgia would have us believe. The societies in which the church operated in those periods are gone forever, thanks in large part to the ways technology has reshaped the world in which we now live.

If we’re to find a precedent for our times, I believe we must go further back, to the second century and the immediately post-apostolic church. There, Christianity was a little-understood, despised, marginal sect. It was suspected of being immoral and seditious. Eating the body and blood of their god and calling each other “brother” and “sister” even when married made Christians and Christianity sound highly dubious to outsiders. And the claim that “Jesus is Lord!” was on the surface a pledge of loyalty that derogated from that owed to Caesar. That’s much like the situation of the church today.

For example, we’re considered irrational bigots for our stance on gay marriage. In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, it has become routine to hear religious conservatives in general, and evangelical Christians in particular, decried as representing a threat to civil society. Like our spiritual ancestors in the second century, we too are deemed immoral and seditious.

Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. The church in the second century faced a pagan world that had never known Christianity. We live in a world that is de-Christianizing, often self-consciously and intentionally. That means the opposition is likely better informed and more proactive than in the ancient church. Yet a glance at the church’s strategy in the second century is still instructive.

First, it’s clear from the New Testament and from early non-canonical texts like the Didache that community was central to church life. The Acts of the Apostles presents a picture of a church where Christians cared for and served each other. The Didache sets forth a set of moral prescriptions, including a ban on abortion and infanticide, that served to distinguish the church from the surrounding world. Christian identity was clearly a very practical, down-to-earth, and day-to-day thing.

This makes perfect sense. Underlying the notion of the social imaginary is that identity is shaped by the communities to which we belong. And we all have various identities—I’m a husband, a father, a teacher, an Englishman, an immigrant, a writer, and a rugby fan, in addition to being a Christian. The strongest identities I have, forming my strongest intuitions, derive from the strongest communities to which I belong. And that means the church needs to be the strongest community to which we each belong.

Ironically, the LGBT+ community is proof of this point: the reason they’ve moved from the margins to center stage is intimately connected to the strong communities they formed while on the margins. This is why lamentation for Christianity’s cultural marginalization, while legitimate, cannot be the sole response of the church to the current social convulsions she is experiencing. Lament, for sure—we should lament that the world isn’t as it should be, as many of the psalms teach us—but also organize. Become a community. By this, the Lord says, shall all men know that you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other (John 13:35). And that means community.

This brings me to the second lesson we can learn from the early church. Community in terms of its day-to-day details might look different in a city than in a rural village, or in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. But there are certain elements the church in every place will share: worship and fellowship. Gathering together on the Lord’s Day, praying, singing God’s praise, hearing the Word read and preached, celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper, giving materially to the church’s work—these are things all Christians should do when gathered together.

It might sound trite, but a large part of the church’s witness to the world is simply being the church in worship. Paul himself comments that when an unbeliever accidentally turns up at a church service, he should be struck by the otherworldly holiness of what is going on. The most powerful witness to the gospel is the church herself, simply going about the business of worship.

Many Christians talk of engaging the culture. In fact, the culture is most dramatically engaged when the church presents it with another culture, another form of community, rooted in her liturgical worship practices and manifested in the loving community that exists both in and beyond the worship service. Many talk of the culture war between Christians and secularism, and certainly the Bible itself uses martial language to describe the spiritual conflict of this present age. But perhaps “cultural protest” is a way of better translating that idea into modern idiom, given the reality and history of physical warfare in our world. The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.

The church protests the wider culture by offering a true vision of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God.

This approach is certainly hinted at in second-century Christian literature. The so-called Greek Apologists, such as Justin Martyr, addressed the Roman Empire from a Christian perspective. What’s so interesting when compared to some of the ways many Christians, right and left, do so today is how respectful these ancient apologists were. They didn’t spend their time denouncing the evils of the emperor and his court. Rather, they argued positively that Christians made the best citizens, the best parents, the best servants, the best neighbors, the best employees, and that they should thus be left alone and allowed to carry on with their day-to-day lives without being harassed by the authorities. Of course, there were limits to what they could do to participate in civic life: if asked to sacrifice to the emperor as to a god, they would have to refuse. But beyond such demands, they could be good members of the Roman community.

In the fifth century, Augustine in Book XIX of his masterpiece The City of God offered a similar argument. Christians, he said, were citizens of both the earthly city and the city of God. Their pagan neighbors might only be citizens of the earthly city, but this still meant that the two groups shared common interests or loves, above all the peace and prosperity of the earthly city. Both pagans and Christians wanted these things and could work together to achieve them. And that meant Christians could and should be good citizens to the extent that their higher commitment to God allowed them to do so.

The Apologists and Augustine both offer a vision of the church in a hostile culture that calls on the church to be the church and on Christians to be constructive members of the wider society in which they’re placed. Some might respond that failing to engage in aggressive and direct confrontation looks rather like defeatism or withdrawal. But is it?

On key issues such as abortion, Christians in the West are still at liberty to use their rights as members of the earthly city to campaign for the good. I’m not calling for passive quietism whereby Christians abdicate their civic responsibilities or make no connection between how to pursue those civic responsibilities and their religious beliefs. I’m suggesting rather that engaging in cultural warfare using the world’s tools, rhetoric, and weapons is not the way for God’s people.

If the Apologists and Augustine were passive quietists, it’s hard to explain how Christianity came to be so dominant in the West for so many centuries. The historical evidence suggests rather that their approach proved remarkably effective over time. And so it may again—perhaps not in my lifetime or even in that of my children. But God is sovereign, God plays the long game, and God’s will shall be done, on earth as it is heaven.

3. Teach the Whole Counsel of God

One of the temptations at a time of tremendous flux and change is to fixate upon the immediate challenges to the Christian faith. Now, it’s surely not a bad thing to prioritize the most pressing problems the church faces and to address them with a degree of urgency. The sale of indulgences, for example, was a major problem in 1517, and it was right for Luther to focus on that rather than spend his time writing on the issue of same-sex marriage, a matter of no import whatsoever in the early 16th century. Yet there’s a danger here: we can become so preoccupied with specific threats that we neglect the important fact that Christian truth is not a set of isolated and unconnected claims but rather stands as a coherent whole.

The church’s teaching on gender, marriage, and sex is a function of her teaching on what it means to be human. The doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are important foundations for addressing the specific challenges of our time. If, as I contend, modern sexual and identity politics are functions of deeper notions of selfhood, then we need first to know what the Christian view of the self is in order to address them. And as the Bible teaches that the human self is made in the image of God, we need a good grasp of the doctrine of God. In short, we can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.

This means the chaotic nature of our times is no excuse for abandoning the church’s task of teaching her people the whole counsel of God. If anything, she should see such a moment as a time to examine whether that’s what she’s doing and make any necessary changes in her pedagogical strategy. She needs to make sure Christians are being intentionally grounded in the truth.

As with community, the strategy for doing this might look different in different places and congregations, but I’d suggest the use of a good historical confession or catechism is a helpful place to start. Time is a great solvent of irrelevance. If a creed or confession or catechism has been in existence and proved useful for centuries, then one can be reasonably confident it doesn’t contain a lot of irrelevant or peripheral fluff but rather things that are of perennial importance to Christians.

We can stand strong at this cultural moment and address the specific challenges we face only if our foundations in God’s truth are broad and deep.

In my own tradition (Presbyterianism), the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms were composed in the 1640s as sweeping statements of the essentials of the Christian faith. They have in the years since been subject to some revisions. For example, the American version has been revised to eliminate the positive link between state and church, known as the Establishment Principle, in order to bring the documents into line with the American view of the matter. But the vast majority of the text of the Westminster Standards remains unchanged. Any church using them as a guide to the whole counsel of God will find a very helpful resource for seeing what is of key importance.

Some might respond and say that such historic documents are of limited usefulness today, when wider society presses matters such as gay marriage or transgenderism upon us. There’s truth in this: the Westminster Confession doesn’t address such issues directly in the way that pastors might have to, but it does contain positive teaching about what it means to be human and what are the nature and purposes of marriage. These provide solid, general conceptual foundations by which the church can approach contemporary challenges, and they do so in a way that sets the immediate problems of our day in the context of the broader framework of perennial Christian truth.

In short, such confessions help us not only to see that certain things are wrong but also to see why they are so in terms of God’s truth as a whole. A pedagogical strategy based on these as guides would seem to be a highly desirable part of any church’s life in our present circumstances.

4. Shape Intuitions Through Biblical Worship

Expressive individualism in the form in which we find it in contemporary society is problematic for how it places individuals and their own desires—we might even say their own egos—at the center of the moral universe. Yet we must be careful not to miss the important truths it contains, such as its underlying commitment to the notion of universal human dignity regardless of where we’re placed in the earthly hierarchy.

Furthermore, its emphasis upon our inner psychological space and upon our emotions and desires is not in itself wrong. It’s wrong only when it makes such things effectively ends in themselves. God has created us as beings with emotions and desires. We are intentional creatures, not simply animals of instinct, and our inner thought processes are vital to who we are. And that means we need to acknowledge that inner psychological space and shape its intuitions in the right way.

Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, is one of the classics of Christian literature. The book is preoccupied with Augustine’s inner life, and he recalls key incidents from his earlier life. What’s interesting, however, is that Augustine’s inward move of reflection doesn’t terminate there but always ends up moving outward toward God. Ultimately, his feelings are set in the context of, and corrected by, the larger truth that is God and his revelation in Christ.

We might say a similar dynamic applies in the Psalms. The various psalmists speak with honesty, often brutal and painful, about their feelings toward friends, enemies, and even God himself. But this is never for the purpose of self-validation or, worse still, wallowing in self-indulgent self-pity. Rather, it’s for the purpose of setting the recounted experiences and feelings within the context of God’s great truths.

For the church to grasp this truth and shape our psychological intuitions in the biblical way, she needs to think long and hard about one of the central and formative acts of worship: singing. It’s no coincidence that the Psalter is a book of corporate praise. Singing such poetry as a community shaped the social imaginary of the Jews. And the church needs to do the same today.

Yes, we’ve been complicit in expressive individualism; no, we don’t want to go down the road that leads from Rousseau to Oprah Winfrey and make sentiments the foundation for how we live our lives. But that doesn’t mean we should eliminate sentiment and emotion from our church lives. Far from it. We need to reform our corporate church lives in a way that forms our inner lives appropriately. And that means choosing worship songs that don’t indulge in emotion for the sake of emotion or press upon me that my needs and my desires are the reason God exists. We need songs that allow us to understand and express our feelings honestly but in a way that always leads outward to God and to his truth. And while I don’t think, as some do, that the church should sing only psalms, I’m inclined to say that singing more psalms—or any psalms if you don’t sing them already—would be an excellent place to start.

Think about it: the psalms present a view of the Christian life that’s marked by joy but that also knows sorrow and loss. They set the struggles of the present in the context of God’s great actions in times past and his promises for the future. They help us to understand our status as strangers in a strange land. By setting forth a grand picture of God and the promise of future rest, they help us to keep perspective—theological and emotional—on the events of the present, whether personal, such as illness, or social, such as the disturbing transformations of society. We are creatures of emotions and sentiments, and we are fallen. Therefore, we need songs of redemption to help restore our emotions to their proper context.

5. Retrieve Natural Law and the Theology of the Body

The church also needs to recover natural law and a theology of the body. Roman Catholics have a long tradition with regard to the former and, in the person of Pope John Paul II, a brilliant teacher of the latter. While Protestantism at the time of the Reformation had a rich appreciation for natural law, it has died away in the last two centuries.

So what is natural law? Put simply, it’s the idea that the world in which we live is not simply morally indifferent “stuff” but possesses in itself a moral structure. Our bodies in particular have a profound significance. We connect to others through our bodies. We are dependent on others because of our bodies. Our bodies are not containers that we happen to inhabit and animate. They are in a deep and significant way integral to our identity, to ourselves. Bodies have strengths and weaknesses, some specific to the individual, for sure, but many shared by us all. This means that human beings—human bodies—are made to flourish in some ways and not in others.

All of us understand this in what we might call a technical, morally neutral way. I cannot climb up the Empire State Building and jump off the top expecting to flourish. I am not made to fly by my own strength. My bodily constitution places restrictions on what I can and cannot do.

Natural law is the extension of this idea into the realm of morals. Thus, for example, the dependency of a newborn child upon her mother is natural, as is the obligation of the mother to protect and nurture the child to the best of her ability. It would, therefore, be immoral for the mother to abandon the child in the woods to be eaten by wild animals. Or if we assume that life is a natural good, then the termination of that life by another is wrong, a move against nature, and therefore murder is wrong.

When it comes to sex and identity, the idea of natural law is of obvious help. Without wishing to be too explicit, male and female bodies are made to fit together sexually in certain ways and not in others. Men’s bodies are simply not made to fit sexually with other men’s bodies. Almost everyone is born with a body that types them at birth as male or female, and for good reason: those bodies have different capacities and perform different functions. In each case, we can say that nature—or the natural law—points to the boundaries of what behavior will and will not lead to flourishing.

One response to this might be that human sin means such arguments will have no force with the wider world. Does gay sex raise the risk of AIDS or cancer? Well, the world will respond by putting money into relevant medical research and seeking to develop drugs and treatments that eliminate or mitigate the problem. Do some people think they were born in the wrong bodies? Surgery and hormones can be applied to make the psychological conviction a physical reality. In each case, the assumption is that nature is just “stuff,” something to be overcome as and when it obstructs us from doing or being whatever we want.

This objection has weight. Yes, the world is in rebellion against God and in thrall to the idea that we can be anything we wish; thus, every appeal to any kind of external authority is likely to be met with derision or denial. But that isn’t why I’m recommending reflection on natural law and the theology of the body. These are not so much apologetic tools for addressing the world (though they may have more usefulness there than many will admit). They are important parts of a persuasive pedagogical strategy within the church herself.

Take, for example, a young Christian wrestling with whether homosexuality is right or wrong. A pastor might point him to certain biblical texts that indicate it’s wrong because it contradicts God’s will for the purpose of sex. That may well be enough to convince the young Christian, but I suspect he might still wrestle with further questions: Does God forbid homosexuality simply because he’s a mean tyrant? Is it just that he doesn’t want my gay friends to be happy? Why has he prohibited such behavior?

Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in.

Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different to the one many of us grew up in. And that means we need to work harder at explaining not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality.

Now, in this scenario above, it’s therefore helpful not simply to point to what the Bible teaches in a few texts but also to show that those texts make sense within the larger picture. And this larger picture has both a broad biblical side, where sex is a function of what the Bible teaches about human personhood, and also a “natural law” side, where, for example, the sexual complementarity of male and female bodies is relevant, as is the evidence of damage done to the physical body by certain sexual practices. It’s not that nature here offers the decisive argument, yet it does help to show that biblical teaching is not an arbitrary imposition on nature but instead correlates with it. In other words, it assists us in showing that God’s commands make sense given the way the world actually is.

6. Live in Realistic Hope

Finally, the church needs to respond to this present age by avoiding the temptations of despair and optimism. To fall into the former would be to fail to take seriously the promise that the church will win in the end because the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. To engage in the latter is simply to prepare the stage for deeper despair later. And both will feed inaction, one out of a sense of impotence, the other out of naivete.

There is an alternative. Last year, in a conversation with my friend Rod Dreher, a journalist and Orthodox Christian, I commented on the bleak outlook of much of his writing and alluded to him as pessimistic. He laughingly rejected the adjective. “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic,” he said, “but I am hopeful.” And hope, of course, is not optimism. Pollyanna was an optimist, as was Mr. Micawber. Optimism is the belief that everything will be fine if everyone just sits tight and waits.

Christian hope, however, is realistic. It understands that this world is a vale of tears, that things here are not as they should be, and that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, all life death does end. This world is not the Christian’s home, and so we shouldn’t expect it to provide us with home comforts. That is not to say we shouldn’t be grateful for the good things we do have here and now. I thank God that I still live in a country with greater freedoms than, say, China. I thank God that I live in a time and a place where I have access to good healthcare, that I have a job I enjoy, and that I have a loving family. I pray that such things will continue for me and also be the same for others.

But I’m also aware that the world is fallen, that the gospel doesn’t promise me the life of ease and comfort I currently have, and that my calling (and the calling of all Christians) is to live faithfully in the time and place I’ve been set. When things in this world go awry, or when I’m faced with changes that bring suffering to me or to my loved ones or to society at large, I must not despair, I must work to the best of my ability to right such wrongs, and I must also remember that the real meaning of my life (and others’ lives) is not found in the here and now but in the hereafter. Suffering here and now may at times be terrible, even unbearable, but it’s never meaningless. No, it finds its meaning in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The world in which we live seems set to be entering a new, chaotic, uncharted, and dark era. But we should not despair. We need to prepare ourselves; be informed; know what we believe and why we believe it; worship God in a manner that forms us as true disciples and pilgrims, intellectually and intuitively; and keep before our eyes the unbreakable promises that the Lord has made and confirmed in Jesus Christ.

This is not a time for hopeless despair or naive optimism. Yes, let us lament the ravages of the fall as they play out in the distinctive ways that our generation has chosen. But let that lamentation be the context for sharpening our identity as the people of God and our hunger for the great consummation that awaits at the marriage feast of the Lamb.

How to Find, Develop, and Keep Real Community Mon, 11 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Jennie Allen wants you to have a 15-person village and two to five intimate friends. ]]> About six years ago, my wife and I were sitting with our spiritual director, talking about the demands of life in ministry, when he asked a simple question. “Remind me, where is home for you?”

I was a bit confused. “You mean what part of town do we live in?” My wife asked, “You mean where we are originally from?” I wondered if he might be gospel juking us into a lesson about living for eternity. But our old friend didn’t budge, he just asked again, “Where is home for you?”

When we couldn’t give a clear answer, he gently told us that we needed to answer this question before moving much further in our development and our practice of life, family, and work. He had picked up on something: Our friends were spread across a large city, our family and closest friends were six hours away, and my pastoral role led me to serve across four campuses of a fast-growing church. We were stretched thin relationally, and as a result, we were also feeling pulled apart at the seams.

Jennie Allen’s new book, Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World, would have given us a roadmap for our predicament. It explores the important and timely topic of finding, developing, and keeping true friends in a hyper-individualistic society.

Nature of Community

Although I’d never read one of her books, I have appreciated Allen’s ministry for years; she’s the founder of the IF:Gathering, a best-selling author, and a popular podcast host. But Allen is not a spiritual influencer disconnected from tradition and community. She is a seminary graduate, and her wisdom from years of local church ministry shows as she writes on the nuanced and emotionally charged topics of friendship and community.

In Find Your People, Allen challenges the loneliness epidemic of our generation. “We aren’t supposed to be this lonely,” she writes. “I want us to trade lonely and isolated lives that experience brief bursts of connectedness for intimately connected lives that know only brief intervals of feeling alone” (xix).

Loneliness is a problem, of course, because we’re relational beings made in the image of a triune God. Since God has eternally existed in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be made in his image means we are irreducibly social beings. We were created from relationship and for relationship. As a result, Allen reminds us, we’re hardwired with an insatiable desire for community.

We were created from relationship and for relationship. As a result, we’re hardwired with an insatiable desire for community.

However, our social lives are marked by God-given limitations of energy, time, and place. Thus, as Allen shows, we can only maintain basic relationships with about 150 people, and within that, we can only handle about 50 people as real acquaintances. Further, Allen suggests two inner circles: we can maintain a “village” of about 15 people and our most intimate relationships with two to five friends.

Few of us have thought carefully (even strategically) about these relational circles, and even fewer practice them well. So, if we all were made for community and long for deep friends, why are we so lonely?

Barriers to Deep Community

Throughout the book, Allen identifies numerous barriers to the type of community we crave.

First, sin. Our relationships are exceptionally difficult because they involve two (or more) sinful people trying to get along. As it’s been said, the problem with Paris is that your problems follow you to Paris.

Second, our Western sense of independence undermines our ability to make and find friends. “I’m not good at being needy,” Allen admits. “I’m needy, just not good at admitting it. And that has consistently damaged my relationships” (11). (Throughout the book, Allen is quick to share her failures and shortcomings as a friend, sister, and community member.)

Third, the design of our lives means our friends can easily become spread across an entire region. Allen remembers living in Austin, Texas, and needing a 45-minute drive to visit a friend—more on this in a moment.

Fourth, we have a real enemy. As Allen notes, “If deep, loving, intimate connection is God’s goal, then the enemy might hate nothing more than for you and me to enjoy deep, loving, intimate connection!” (28).

But of all the barriers to deep community, our own history of hurt might be the biggest one. Allen gently invites the reader to consider our past relationships and where and how we’ve experienced mistreatment. Some books are idealistic about friendships and community—as if they couldn’t be simpler to find, build, and keep. But Allen knows better, and Find Your People is both realistic and hopeful in considering how we might find healing in relationships.

So, if those are the barriers to true community, what are the marks of great, inner-circle friends?

5 Ingredients for True Friendship

Allen suggests five ingredients for the healthiest, strongest friendships: transparency, shared purpose, accountability, consistency, and proximity. Or, put in simpler language, we need relationships that are safe, deep, protected, committed, and close.

  • Safe (transparency): True belonging requires being fully known and fully loved, and we can only achieve this with safe, caring friends.
  • Deep (shared purpose): If we can focus on Christ and others instead of our own needs and desires, we can truly love and serve each other.
  • Protected (accountability): Friends need to be willing to submit to and serve each other.
  • Committed (consistency): To develop deep friendships, we need to make regular time for one another and protect relationships in our schedules.
  • Close (proximity): Allen suggests we should prioritize friends who live within a walk or short drive from us.

It’s this last ingredient that drew my mind back to the conversation with our spiritual director more than six years ago. My wife and I were geographically and emotionally spread thin. At that moment, we knew we needed a reorientation in life. That reorientation would require clearing things off our schedule, prioritizing certain relationships, and recommitting to vulnerability and consistency with our closest friends. But for us, it also meant moving back home.

Although we could have chosen to live anywhere, we felt drawn back to the small college town where we’d met, got married, and started our life together. I had always assumed our life path (even my role in ministry) would follow a trajectory of bigger cities and more influential positions. But after a decade on that path, we became convinced that smaller, slower, and closer is better.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with moving to a larger city, and many of us will be called—for a season or a lifetime—to leave behind many comforts for greater missional needs. But I would suggest, and I believe Allen would affirm, that as relational beings, most of us will have the greatest influence by investing in a few people, not a few thousand, and by living in a place that enables us to be fully alive, fully connected human beings.

One Another

Poet and author Wendell Berry has written that none of us can bear the demands that an individualistic society has set on us. The title of one of his books asks an important question: What Are People For? Allen gives her answer in Find Your People. We were made for this: to be known and loved by God and to be known and loved by others.

Most of us will have the greatest influence by investing in a few people, not a few thousand.

Allen makes a clear and compelling case for reordering our lives around close relationships. The book is well-researched, nuanced, and winsomely written. It’s designed to connect with a young, social media–using audience, so I’m even willing to overlook the use of an emoji in published text. (I know, imagine how much fun I’ll be as an old man.)

My only real critique is that this seems like a book written by an extrovert for extroverts. Indeed, she admits her extrovertedness in the book, and I certainly cannot hold it against her.

But as an introvert, several of her examples and suggestions for true community sound eerily similar to what I consider my personal nightmare. Friends popping over with a pizza at dinnertime? Showing up unannounced on an evening when I finally have free time to recharge? I’m sweating just thinking about it. Now, I’m exaggerating a bit perhaps, but we introverts would like to gently petition that “pop-in culture” not become the standard for true community. Occasionally we need to eat alone. (OK, that’s all, and we’re sorry for making such a fuss.)

Having got that out of my system, I cannot say this strongly enough: Get Allen’s book and read it with a pen in hand. Write down the names of people who come to mind. Write out the names of your 50 acquaintances, your 15-person village, and your two to five most intimate friends.

And continue to write: What are the barriers to going deeper with these people? Who can be drawn into your inner circle? Who, if he or she lacks the capacity for vulnerability and accountability, may need to be transitioned into an outer circle? What are a few things you can do—right now—to find, build, and keep your most treasured relationships?

We are living in lonely, isolated times, and as Jesus said, the world will know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35). As I’ve often told our church, if you make space for others, you’ll always have a place yourself. Pursuing a life of hospitality and mission together strengthens friendships and community. How can we demonstrate true, life-giving love if we don’t even truly know and spend time with one another?

How to Give (and Receive) Repentance Sun, 10 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Try this ‘1-2-3 model’ of repentance: one statement, two things to avoid, three questions.]]> Imagine you’re on Family Feud and Steve Harvey gives the following prompt: “We asked 100 sinners, ‘Name one reason why you do not repent of your sin to one another.’ The top seven answers are on the board.”

What do you think the most common responses would be? I’d offer these seven.

We don’t repent because . . .

  • We’re completely blind to our sin, or we don’t think our sin is bad enough to warrant repentance.
  • We don’t think the other person deserves our repentance. Maybe we think he sinned first, or he sinned more, or his sin caused our sin, so we refuse to repent until he does.
  • We don’t think repenting will help anything. Sometimes we fear our repentance will fuel the other person’s pride, appear to ignore her faults, or lead to further conflict. So we stay silent.
  • We are too proud. Repentance means admitting we were wrong—and that we need mercy—which requires Christlike humility. Sometimes we don’t want to stoop that low.
  • We are too ashamed of our sin or too afraid of the consequences. Repentance also means giving up (the feeling of) control over our own reputation and putting ourselves at the mercy of others. This takes vulnerability—something many people run from.
  • We don’t want to change. Biblical repentance requires turning—changing our behavior—which can feel a bit like heart surgery. Many resist confessing their sin because they love it too much to give it up.
  • We don’t know how to repent. Many people never had repentance clearly modeled in the home or taught in the church, leaving them unequipped to put it into action.

Why Should We Confess Our Sins to One Another?

James 5:16 gives us a helpful starting point: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This verse gives us at least two motivations to confess our sins to one another:

1. Because God commands us to.

2. Because God commands us to for our healing.

Repentance is not a punishment God makes us pay after we sin; it’s medicine God uses to heal us from our sins ravaging effects. God uses our repentance to enliven us (Acts 11:18), refresh us (Acts 3:19–20), restore us (Luke 15:11–24), cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and enrich our fellowship with him and with one another (1 John 1:6–7). Repentance is not a curse to fear, but a gift to cherish.

How Do I Repent of My Sin to Someone?

Repentance can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Below is a simple “1-2-3 model” of repentance: one statement, two things to avoid, three questions.

1 Statement:

“I am sorry that I [insert sin].”

We can call this naming the sin. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.” Both the words “your” and “sins” are key here.

First, confess your sins. Repentance is not saying,

  • I’m sorry you were hurt.
  • I’m sorry you were offended.
  • I’m sorry you interpreted that the way you did.

Rather, repentance is saying,

  • I’m sorry I spoke harshly with you.
  • I’m sorry I was dishonest with you.
  • I’m sorry I was selfish in demanding my way.

Second, confess your sins. This means taking the offense out of the abstract (“I’m sorry I hurt you”) and getting specific about how you sinned against the other person. Specificity honors the other person, legitimizes her pain, helps both parties come to an agreement, and gives you something specific to work on in the future.

2 Things to Avoid:

1. Finger-pointing: “I am sorry I [insert sin], but you . . .”

2. Self-justification: “I am sorry I [insert sin], but I wouldn’t have had to if . . .”

Finger-pointing and self-justification are two of the biggest roadblocks to healing and reconciliation. I once heard a pastor say, “In conflict, always own 100 percent of your 2 percent.” In other words, even if you were only 2 percent of the problem, own it. Not only does this honor God (our ultimate motivation), but often when we take full ownership of our sin, the other person will reciprocate and confess her sin too.

3 Questions:

1. “Will you forgive me?” Trying to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness is like trying to climb a mountain with a bag of rocks strapped to your back. It’s possible but much harder, more painful, more tiring, and less enjoyable. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t remove the mountain the other person must climb to forgive you, but it can immediately remove a significant amount of weight off his back, which can be immensely freeing. This might be the one question your loved one has been longing to hear from you for days, months, or years.

2. “Was there any other way that I hurt you in this situation?” One of the most important aspects of confession is coming to an agreement about the sin committed, the pain caused, and the plan of action going forward. (The Greek word for “confess” in James 5:16 literally means “to agree.”) Without coming to an agreement, bitterness and distance will continue to thrive.

3. “How can I love you better in the future?” Beneath this question is a humble acknowledgment: “Maybe I don’t know what you need. You tell me how I can love you better.” This question conveys love, facilitates needful communication, and provides a healthy foundation for healing and reconciliation.

How Do I Receive Repentance?

Because repentance is so rare, it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone actually does confess his sin to us. Consider three simple tips. (In cases of abuse, seek help from others to determine the best way forward.)

1. Thank him for repenting and grant him forgiveness.

2. Confess any way that you sinned in this matter. (It’s possible that you have not sinned, in which case you shouldn’t make something up.)

3. Communicate exactly how you were hurt and how you would feel loved in the future so that he can work on changing.

We have a responsibility to communicate our needs to those closest to us. It’s not loving to sweep their sins under the rug or to tolerate their annoying habits without saying anything. This will only enable their behavior and feed bitterness in our hearts.

Repentance is a gift of God that leads to life and healing (Acts 11:18; James 5:16). Let’s cherish it, cultivate it, and live in gratitude and dependence on God as we seek to model it in our lives.

Time Goes By: ‘Elvis’ and Eternity Sat, 09 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Condensing Presley’s 42 intense years into a 159-minute movie, ‘Elvis’ captures the tension of living in time and longing for eternity.]]> In the final, heartbreaking moments of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic, we watch a bloated, sweaty, drug-addled Elvis (Austin Butler) perform “Unchained Melody” while accompanying himself on piano. The scene is based on—and includes actual footage of—Elvis’s performance of the song at a June 21, 1977, concert in Rapid City, South Dakota, just two months before his death at 42. The scene packs an emotional punch.

The song itself is part of what makes the scene powerful. “Unchained Melody” is essentially a hymn-like liturgy that seeks secular transcendence in a ballad about lost love, loneliness, and impermanence. But the context in which Elvis sings it makes the song even more poignant. Visually he looks halfway between life and death: still an immense talent, yet worn down by the excesses of fame. As he sings the iconic lyrics, “Lonely rivers sigh, ‘Wait for me, wait for me,’ I’ll be coming home, wait for me,” Elvis could be talking about Graceland or heaven. His “sigh” is one of resignation and exhaustion akin to Psalm 90:9 (“We bring our years to an end like a sigh”), signaling an awareness of finitude and readiness for the end—like the yawns we can’t fight when we desperately need sleep.

As a moment of liminality between this life and the next, it’s a fitting end for a movie that—in style and substance—positions Elvis as an icon whose groundbreaking musical fusion arose from the alchemy (friction?) of opposites colliding: heaven and earth, virtue and vice, worship and idolatry, spirit and flesh. Perhaps the biggest war within Elvis, however, is the tension captured in the film’s final scene: between the “all flesh is grass” fragility of time-bound life (Isa. 40:6) and the eternity-in-my-heart (Eccles. 3:11) ache for immortality and unfailing love.

Man and Myth

Elvis (rated PG-13) captures life’s ephemeral nature in its structure and pacing. Though largely chronological, Luhrmann’s film is less about “this leads to that” storytelling as it is about iconic moments—defining phases and turning points in the artist’s life and career. Though not a musical, the film shines most in its engrossing performance scenes, from Elvis’s 1968 Comeback Special to his Vegas debut to the aforementioned final performance of “Unchained Melody.” Butler nails Presley’s voice, moves, and intensity—made all the more kinetic through Luhrmann’s trademark hyperactive editing and aesthetic maximalism (see also: Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby).

Sure, by condensing Presley’s 42 years into 159 minutes, factual liberties are taken in service of the spectacle’s overall effect. In some ways, Elvis the actual man plays second fiddle to Elvis the myth. But that’s part of the point. For most people, Elvis was never a man to be known in reality as much as a myth to behold via media. He “lives on” not in physical reality as much as mediated spectacle: Spotify songs, YouTube videos, Warhol art, wax museum statues, posters in 1950s-style diners, and Vegas kitsch.

No life lost can ever be rendered in factually perfect relief. Once we die, our story is necessarily relegated to the realm of half-true memories and partial reconstruction. Whether in the hands of a diligent historian, beloved family member, or whimsical filmmaker, the story told about us after we die is always part fiction. It’s true for Elvis and it will be true for us, at least this side of being “fully known” in heaven (1 Cor. 13:12).

Reaching for Eternity

Elvis is haunted by life’s finitude, but so is everyone else—even if they don’t express it with the same leather-clad, hip-swiveling fury. Luhrmann highlights this universality of time-bound angst by making a surprising choice. He tells Elvis’s story through the narration of the artist’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), whose own ambitions of immortality are bound up with Elvis’s.

Though Elvis’s motives are perhaps purer than Parker’s (Elvis is about the music; Parker is about the money), they’re both driven by a sense that time is running out. What can they do, in this mist that is life (James 4:14), to make a mark? As Parker tells Presley late in the film, “We are the same. . . We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.”

Few people today remember Parker, who died a lonely and sickly man, putting his fortune into slot machines. By contrast, we all remember Elvis. But is his fate really that much more encouraging? He also died lonely and sickly—mortally wounded by unhealthy habits and a broken heart. He “lives on” in cultural memory and historical impact, at least for now. But with enough time, that will fade.

Does Elvis live on in the eternal, heavenly, true sense? We can’t know for sure, though Christian faith is part of his story and shows up especially—sometimes explicitly—in his music. Luhrmann only tangentially references it, however, mostly in terms of Elvis’s fondness for black gospel music and pioneering artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola). An early scene, showing a young Elvis (Chaydon Jay) filled with the Holy Spirit in a black Pentecostal church, situates him firmly within the intertwined narrative of church music and pop music.

Elvis ‘lives on’ in cultural memory and historical impact, at least for now. With enough time, that will fade.

Yet Luhrmann never explores Elvis’s Christian faith as a reality of spiritual significance in his life (or death), only a reality of musical influence. Perhaps that’s why his death is framed wholly in terms of pop culture legacy rather than spiritual destiny. If his “soul” lives on, it’s in the soul of music—nothing more. But where’s the consolation in that, especially for Elvis himself?

Imagine telling a young Elvis, Tom Parker, or any young person today burdened by the quest for meaning, “Don’t worry, your only consolation in life and death is that you might do something spectacular with your brief life and be remembered for a brief time thereafter, even if you yourself cease to exist and won’t be around to enjoy that renown.”

Greater Consolation

Infinitely more consoling is the answer of the Christian catechisms: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Our hope is not in what we own or how we are remembered, but in who owns us and remembers our sins no more (Heb. 8:12). Thank God.

Our hope is not in what we own or how we are remembered, but in who owns us and remembers our sins no more.

Luhrmann’s film seems to conclude that the “eternity” Elvis reached for exists in his ongoing relationship with fans and enduring influence on pop culture. The still image from the film at the top of this article, which feels vaguely reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” hints in this direction: Elvis as hallowed creator, still “reaching out” to inspire us today.

But that relationship will one day end. For Elvis and all of us, what will finally matter most is not who we reached out to, influenced, or inspired by our brief blaze of glory, but rather Who reached out to us, saved us, and drew us into a glory that will never fade.

Soul Care in the Rhythms of Ministry Fri, 08 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Christian leader, you can’t pour anything out if there’s nothing being poured in.]]> In pastoral ministry, our calendars fill up fast. We have people to care for, Bible studies to prepare, visits to make, lunches to set up, meetings to plan, and volunteers to coordinate.

When time is tight, one of the first things we drop off our to-do lists is caring for our own souls. What edifies us feels less important than the pouring out we need to be doing. This sets us on a road to being spiritually depressed, physically drained, and burned out.

But this doesn’t align with the Bible’s vision for pastoral ministry. Writing to a young pastor, Paul outlines the need to serve the church in both conduct and public teaching (1 Tim. 4:11–15). But all of Timothy’s effort is in vain if he fails to obey this exhortation: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

Here are three areas in which we must care for our souls in the daily rhythms of ministry.

1. Scheduling

Build soul care into your schedule. In today’s society, constant productivity and relentless busyness are not the exception; they are expected of every successful employee, including pastors. The tasks our schedule continue to expand until no room remains for us to turn our gaze inward and upward.

To minister as the Bible calls us to, however, we must build into our schedule regular rhythms of prayer, Scripture meditation, and rest. If it’s not built in—actually scheduled on your calendar—you’ll never get to it, and your soul will remain thirsty.

If soul care is not built in—actually scheduled on your calendar—you’ll never get to it, and your soul will remain thirsty.

Soul care in scheduling may require you to get organized like never before. It may require explaining to people that you’re not available at a certain time since it’s blocked off for prayer or reading. It may require discipline to sit and pray when you feel you really need to get to planning. Submit your schedule to your Shepherd as an act of trust—and then follow the schedule so that he may lead you beside still waters (Ps. 23:2).

2. Meetings

In planning times with your team, build in care, encouragement, and time to mutually build up. I remember the first time this hit me. As part of a weekend conference at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I attended an elders’ meeting. It was palpably different than others I’d gone to over the years. Instead of jumping straight to the first item on the agenda, they sang hymns together, shared personal struggles and encouragements, and prayed for one another. Before these men made important decisions, they cared for one another’s souls.

Meetings are inevitable. I’m simply suggesting that you reframe your approach to them.

In ministry, meetings are inevitable. I’m simply suggesting you reframe your approach to them, since the work of ministry is first and foremost spiritual. Reframe your planning and organization sessions into the spiritual exercises they are, and you will be “encouraging one another . . . as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25).

So when you meet to plan the worship service or the summer youth camp or the building renovation, hear from God’s Word. Take time to share encouragements and discouragements. And cloak your time in prayer, that God might give you wisdom (James 1:5).

3. Worship

Every week you set a schedule, conduct meetings, and gather with God’s people for worship. But for ministers and many volunteer leaders, Sundays are workdays! In the past, I confess I’ve sat down after the sermon has started, checked my phone constantly, waited for a message to pop up requesting help, and then left before the final song to start breaking down. That is inexcusable; it neglects the grace God offers in the gathered worship of his people.

Although setting up, breaking down, leading prayer, and teaching may be part of your Sunday rhythm, make sure to sing praises, offer up prayers, sit under God’s Word, enjoy the sacraments, receive the benediction, and fellowship with other believers. God has called us to a special responsibility in leading worship, but he has not called us to stop participating in worship ourselves.

Care for Others by Caring for Yourself

Paul’s command to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16 cuts against much of the way we do pastoral ministry today. We must watch ourselves every bit as closely as we watch our teaching.

Personal soul care, then, must be preeminent. For only as we are edified, challenged, and reminded of Christ’s grace will we be equipped to edify, challenge, and offer that grace to others.

It’s Not Just You and Jesus Fri, 08 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 We are the people of God, not just a person of God. The Christian life is a family affair.]]> No doubt you’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, God has given us pictures of a sort in his Word. These portraits drawn with words assist our understanding of the church and how we’re to relate to her. They are pictures with a purpose. A family, a body, living stones, a flock of sheep, a vine and branches, a field of crops, and a harvest are just a few examples.

It’s important for us to allow each of these images to interpret the other. Every illustration, even a great one, breaks down in some way if pushed too far and too literally. But looking at them collectively can help us see commonalities and repeated themes. Notice, for example, that all of the images I listed have something in common: plurality! They involve more than one. That’s because as Christians we’re the people of God, not just a person of God. The Bible teaches church membership through these metaphors because the gospel creates a community of believers.

We are the people of God, not just a person of God.

Family Affair

When God’s mercy is extended to us we become one of his people. We become a part of his family and he becomes our Father (Rom. 8:15). We are graciously adopted by God (Eph. 1:5) and become members of his household, his covenant community (Gal. 3:27–4:7). But don’t forget this crucial bit of information: our reconciliation with God means reconciliation with his people. Paul discusses this very thing in Ephesians 2:19–20 when he writes,

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.

Yes, we are individually reconciled to God, but we’re also brought into relationship with a host of other professing believers. The Christian life is a family affair. It’s not just you and Jesus. It isn’t just a random group of people either. We become the body of Christ together.

In 1 Timothy, Paul calls Timothy “my true child in the faith” (1:2) and instructs him to care for other members of the church like family: fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters (5:1–2). At the end of Romans, Paul sends greetings to individual local churches in Rome, actually calling them families (16:10, 11). God designed local churches to be families.

No Spiritual Orphans

Let’s rotate this familial image just a little and consider what it means to be adopted into a family. When an orphan is adopted, she is brought into an immediate family: a father and mother, possibly brothers and sisters. These people will care for her, know her, watch out for her, and provide for her. She also may gain grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. At conversion, God’s Word tells us that we are likewise brought into God’s family, a family who will care for us, know us, watch out for us, and provide for us. This is exactly how the local church should work. When we commit ourselves to a local body we’re identifying ourselves with a particular family of believers.

The Old Testament people of God looked more like a biological, monochromatic family, whereas the New Testament people of God are from every tribe, tongue, and nation, looking more like a true blended family. Ryan Lister illustrates this well in his book Emblems of the Infinite King: “This is a ragtag family made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of pasts and all kinds of circumstances. When we see the church as a whole, it looks like a patchwork quilt, with different shapes, patterns, colors, and designs all sewn together by the thread of faith and the King’s steady hand.”

Sure, we’re individually reconciled to God, but we’re also brought into relationship with a host of other professing believers.

This privilege of adoption into God’s chosen family allows us to work together for the common good of loving God and loving our neighbor in order to bring God the glory and praise due his name. We shouldn’t live as spiritual orphans. We should commit ourselves to a people striving together to make that glory known to the watching world.

For one day, sooner than we all expect, Jesus will return to be with his people forever. It will be the perfect family reunion, without weird comments, veiled insults, disappointing absences, or awkward moments. We will perfectly and wonderfully praise and glorify our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, together (Rev. 5:10–13; 21:1–4). There will be perfect unity. When we gather as a family in local churches we proclaim that future hope by being united to local expressions of that spiritual family.

Why We Need Social Sanity Fri, 08 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Amy Gannett, Blair Linne, and Laura Wifler explore ways of using social media to the glory of God.]]> A lot of the advice we hear about how to use social media—don’t be mean, don’t humblebrag, share Bible verses—is good. But it also doesn’t feel like enough. Social media is a huge beast, and we need more than “set a timer” (as helpful as that can be) to help us navigate the world of social media in a gospel-centered way.

Pulling from TGC’s book Social Sanity in an Insta World, panelists Amy Gannett, Blair Linne, and Laura Wifler explore ways of using social media to the glory of God. They cover a wide range of ideas, from the big picture (figure out why you’re logging on) to the daily details (to re-ground yourself after scrolling, try concentrating on your five senses), all while offering encouragement to those who might be burned out on social media.

Should I Let My Kids Watch This? 10 Tips for Discerning Parents Fri, 08 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Kids are inundated with media options today. How can parents help them navigate the options with wisdom? Here are 10 tips.]]> When I was growing up, there were only so many avenues of entertainment my parents had to monitor: a few channels on TV (we didn’t have cable), radio, CDs, and VHS movie rentals.

Not so today. With the advent of the internet, streaming, and personal devices, the media options have grown exponentially. It can be daunting for Christian parents to discern what they should watch, let alone what their kids should watch.

How do parents navigate the tension of wanting to protect their kids from harmful content while also avoiding legalism that can backfire? As you disciple your kids through the mind-boggling amount of options they have at their fingertips, what considerations can guide your approach? Though certainly not exhaustive, here are 10 things that might help.

1. Vet the values, not just the rating.

The MPAA rating and the amount of profanity, sex, and violence in media is something parents should certainly research, with the help of resources like the IMDB parental guides, Common Sense Media, and MovieGuide. But when vetting a potential series or movie for your child, it’s important to go beyond “curse counting” and also consider the subtler messages and values at play. No matter how many times someone says, “It’s just an entertaining movie! Don’t overthink it!” the fact remains: every movie or series has a message or at least an implicit worldview driving its narrative. Even movies about puppy policemen, Legos, and talking cars. The best way to assess the values? Watch it yourself first. But if you don’t have time for that, practice the next point.

2. Listen to parents, leaders, and critics you trust.

Busy parents rarely have time to watch the things we want to watch, let alone do a preview of something our kids want to watch. That’s OK. Chances are, someone in your network has seen it and can speak to its content. Consider joining or starting a Facebook group (or some other online forum) where like-minded Christian parents can pool knowledge and recommendations regarding children’s media. Listen to pastors and trusted leaders when they warn of something in pop culture or recommend something beneficial. And find conservative Christian film and television critics (we exist!) and read our reviews.

3. Distinguish between ‘not safe, but good’ and ‘safe, but not good.’

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan is famously described as not being “safe,” but good. It’s an insight that can inform all aspects of discipleship—even our media habits. “Safe” doesn’t always equal “good.” Many Christian parents might assume anything G-rated or free of “objectionable content” is “safe” and appropriate for their children. But many “safe” shows and movies aren’t good. Their underlying values are shaky, or they’re just not good in the quality sense: cheaply produced, lacking in beauty or creativity. Likewise, some truly excellent, beautiful content—with solid themes that celebrate goodness and virtue—might contain some “unsafe” elements that give parents pause. Depending on your kid’s age and maturity, the latter content could end up being more beneficial than the former.

4. ‘Educational’ content is not automatically good for your kid.

We can sometimes assume anything “educational”—whether a Netflix show teaching ABCs, a PBS series teaching potty training, or even Christian educational content—is automatically good for our kids. Certainly much of it is! Insofar as educational entertainment sparks curiosity and learning in the real world (for example nature documentaries that stoke a child’s desire to go to the zoo or plant a garden), it can be great. But even educational content can be an addictive end unto itself for some kids. And some Christian educational content is moralistic, theologically iffy, or unhelpful in its application. Furthermore, some educational content is agenda-driven or politically motivated, so do a bit of research if you have any suspicions about who’s producing the content and why.

5. Steer your kid toward content that sparks curiosity.

Don’t downplay the value of wonder and imagination for your kid’s spiritual development. Just as fantasy novels like Narnia or Lord of the Rings are valuable because they transport us to fantastical worlds—not in spite of it—so too is there value in media that stretches your child’s imagination and stokes their curiosity. Entertainment and escapism are not bad things—especially for kids. It’s good for them to be wide-eyed and awestruck when they’re watching TV or in a movie theater, especially if it leads them to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the mysterious, majestic world God made.

6. Steer your kid toward content that cultivates love for God and people.

Intakes shape our loves. This is why the makeup of our media diet (not only for kids but for us adults too) matters. As you talk with your kids about what media they’re consuming, help them think about this. What are they loving more or loving less as a result of watching a particular movie or show? And for Christians, called to love the Lord our God and also our neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40), how are we choosing content that helps us obey these greatest commandments?

Many children’s movies or shows, for example, are primarily about the message of self-love: embrace your identity and love yourself. But Christian love is primarily directed upward and outward. What stories can help train our loves in those directions?

7. Don’t let the algorithm pick for your kid.

Streaming-media algorithms are disturbingly sophisticated. Leave your children alone on Netflix or YouTube, and the “watch next” recommendations will become ever more irresistible as they pinpoint exactly what your kid loves to watch. But as much as artificial intelligence can figure out your child’s consumption patterns, it can’t determine what is good for your child’s wisdom. Avoid letting their viewing journey go wherever the algorithm suggests, without parental supervision. Consider utilizing YouTube Kids or parental controls on Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, Apple TV+, and so forth. Be more involved than the algorithms are in curating content for your child.

8. Assess your child’s age and maturity.

The appropriateness of media content varies by your child’s age and maturity. More than relying on the TV-14 or PG-13 style ratings, go with what you know of your child’s readiness. What are their unique temptations and triggers? What gives them bad dreams? Consider also their spiritual maturity and biblical literacy. The more confident you are in your child’s grasp of what’s good and true—as revealed in God’s Word—the more latitude you might give in what they watch, knowing they’re able to summon biblical wisdom in evaluating the messages they encounter. Conversely, if your child has a weak grasp of biblical truth, be more cautious about what they can watch. Don’t send them into the fray without armor.

9. Find content you can enjoy together.

In this age of privatized media consumption (it’s called the iPhone/iPad for a reason), we put on headphones, disappear to our room, and away we go. This is bad for all of us, but it’s especially dangerous for kids. Set a precedent in your house for watching content together. Hold movie nights. Pick content that connects with the regular flow of your family’s life. Going on a family trip to a national park? Watch Ken Burns’s documentary series as preparation. Love cooking meals together with your kids? Watch shows about food, cooking, and baking. Instead of everyone in the family going their separate ways on their own devices, find things you can watch together.

10. Limit screen time.

Even if we’re consuming solid, nutritious content, it can still be bad for us in excess. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. We need breaks. Encourage rhythms of screen-free time in your household. But instead of focusing on the negative message (put away your phone!), help your child see the value in other activities: reading books, going outside, arts and crafts time, church, Bible reading, rest, silence, prayer. Sometimes the best answer to, Is it OK to watch this? is, Sure, but there are actually better things we could be doing with our time. Shepherd your child to know what those better things are and to eventually choose them first, on their own accord.

Ground-Level Gospel Culture Thu, 07 Jul 2022 04:04:33 +0000 Ray Ortlund and T. J. Tims discuss how pastors cultivate gospel culture in their churches so that it becomes an intergenerational reality.]]> “Romans 15:7 says, ‘Therefore welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.’ So, welcome one another. That’s gospel culture. That’s the horizontal dimension of grace.” – T. J. Tims

In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and special guest, T. J. Tims, discuss how pastors cultivate gospel culture in their churches at the ground level so that it becomes an intergenerational reality.

• Introductions (0:00)
• The horizontal dimension of grace (2:18)
• What’s at stake (5:14)
• Sensing what’s in the room (9:31)
• Everyone feels like an imposter (11:31)
• Intergenerational gospel culture (17:55)
• Recommended resource: Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane Ortlund (22:39)

3 Ways to Help Post-Christian Friends Understand the Gospel Thu, 07 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Only when our great need for salvation is exposed will we understand the necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the way to God.]]> Today, I’m drinking a South African drink called rooibos. How can I explain to you what rooibos is if you’ve never tasted it? I can say it’s like tea, but that doesn’t fully capture it. I can tell you it’s reddish-brown in color, but that won’t tell you its taste. Words and analogies only get us so far.

We have a similar problem when we tell post-Christian friends the gospel. We can use standard Christian concepts like sin, guilt, hell, reconciliation, and salvation—concepts that are essential to the gospel message. But there’s a better chance they’ll understand “rooibos.” After all, many biblical words now have different meanings. “Sin” is a giggly pleasure like chocolate or ice cream. “Redemption” is what happens to a sporting hero who makes a comeback.

How can we move from felt needs to the gospel?

At the same time, there are opportunities to tell post-Christian friends the gospel. They’ll come to church for a parenting course or to look for freedom from anxiety. But how can we move from felt needs to the gospel? How can we tell post-Christian friends about their ultimate need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation when the terms don’t make sense? Here are just a few ways.

1. Ask friends to read the Bible with you.

Friends and coworkers are surprisingly open to reading the Bible if you ask, “Do you want to read the Bible with me?” We may think no one wants to read God’s Word in our post-Christian world, but Word121 has found that 20 percent of people will say yes to an invitation to read the Bible. If a bank gave us that sort of return, we’d take it! And I’m sure this number increases when you have social capital with a friend.

Also, a “no” answer is not a “never” answer. If someone declines your invitation, that doesn’t mean he’ll never want to read the Bible. Receive that “no” as a “not right now.” Our ministry at City Bible Forum has stories of friends who’ve begun reading the Bible 18 years after they were first asked. Is there a friend you could ask to read the Bible with you today?

2. Don’t discount the power of a story.

I believe in the power of story to communicate complex ideas without precise words. Take the mythological story of Icarus: Icarus’s father gave him wings made from feathers and wax but warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus didn’t listen. He flew higher and higher until the sun melted his wings and Icarus fell to his death.

What is this story about? You’ll say it’s about pride. But notice I didn’t use the word “pride” as I told the story. The story implicitly teaches pride without using the word.

When post-Christian people read the Bible, they discover countless stories of people coming to Jesus with felt needs. The woman at the well needed water (John 4:1–29), the man born blind asked to see (John 9:1–7), and the paralyzed man longed to walk (Mark 2:1–12). Jesus showed them all their ultimate need for salvation.

When post-Christian friends read the Scripture, they also encounter countless stories where Jesus shows people their sin without using the word. He tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He helps a rich fool see that one who “lays up treasure for himself . . . is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). In another place, Jesus speaks a parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

It’s when our great need for salvation is exposed that we’ll understand the necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the only way back to God. The Bible’s narratives help to expose this need. They do so with language many believers first encountered as children, and they do so in a way that can help post-Christian people learn biblical concepts as well. What biblical narratives have had a lasting effect on your understanding of the gospel?

3. Use analogies.

Jesus used trees, birds, and flowers to illustrate spiritual truths. Not every story we use to explain truth to our non-Christian friends needs to come directly from the Bible. But by following Jesus’s storytelling model, we can use analogies to help them see biblical concepts as well. Here’s an example.

It’s when our great need for salvation is exposed that we’ll understand the necessity of Jesus’s death and resurrection as the only way back to God.

Imagine that one Saturday my wife and I are cleaning the house. I hate cleaning, so I tell her, “I’ve got a brilliant idea. How about I go surfing, and you keep cleaning. Then, tonight, we can go out for a meal. Does that work?” What will my wife say? She’ll give me a “you can go if you want to” answer. Now, that might sound like a “yes” on the surface, but it’s really a “no.” It’s actually, “Go if you dare.” And in this analogy, I don’t go surfing, because I don’t dare. I’d know that no matter how enjoyable the surf was, I would have a miserable time because I was at odds with my wife.

This analogy helps me explain to non-Christian friends why good things we enjoy—like wine, oil for beauty, and bread (Ps. 104:15)—don’t fully satisfy, because they’re unenjoyable if we’re not experiencing them with God. What analogies might you use when talking about the gospel with a believing friend?

I don’t know if I can find a story that will explain to you the joy I find in rooibos. But I’m convinced that reading and telling stories and analogies (both from the Bible and our own lives) can help post-Christian people see their ultimate need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation in Jesus.

40-Year-Old Moses vs. 80-Year-Old Moses Thu, 07 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Have you ever considered why God chose to use Moses 40 years past his prime?]]> “I rely on God” is an easy thing to claim. Doing it is a different story.

Each of us is tempted to control our circumstances and surroundings, and so we’re drawn to whatever will help us achieve such control—strength, competency, self-determination. It usually doesn’t take long, though, for our efforts at stability to falter, leaving us (yet again) with a maddening mix of uncertainty and anxiety.

What do we make of this? And what does God say to our self-defeating scrambles for control? I believe there’s a simple lesson embedded in the story of Moses.

40-Year-Old Moses: Powerful, but Weak

By the time Moses murders an Egyptian for striking a Hebrew slave (Ex. 2:11–12), he is 40 years old. Up to this point, he’s been raised in Pharaoh’s house as an adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Stephen later describes him this way: “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). He’s certainly skilled enough in combat to handle the Egyptian on his own. No wonder Moses thinks he’ll be the one to deliver God’s people from Egypt. Stephen seems to imply this as well: “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25).

Forty-year-old Moses is strong and educated and skilled. He has political clout, military knowledge, physical gifting, and deep sympathy for his people. Surely he is God’s man!

God does some of his best work in the wilderness.

But it all unravels. The people reject him. Pharaoh wants to kill him. He’s left with no other option but to flee to the wilderness, marry a priest’s daughter, have some kids, and shepherd flocks for his father-in-law. In a single attempt to take matters into his own hands, Moses’s dreams of grandeur come crashing down.

Moses then enters 40 years of insignificance, languishing in the wasteland. But as is so often the case, God does some of his best work in the wilderness.

80-Year-Old Moses: Weak, but Powerful

Four long decades later, God meets Moses at a burning bush. He’s been an ordinary shepherd in a forgotten area—surely any dreams of being used mightily have faded into oblivion. But God wants to use this Moses—not the earlier version. No wonder Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11). Octogenarian Moses is weak. He can’t even talk well. Why would God choose him—and why now?

Moses has gone from It makes sense that God would use me to Who am I that God would use me? And in that change, he demonstrates he’s now ready.

God deconstructs Moses’s strength so that he’ll learn who’s really in control. God doesn’t need Moses; Moses needs God. And Moses’s game plan reflects his new attitude. He doesn’t march into Egypt with an elaborate military strategy. He doesn’t waltz in with an arsenal of sophisticated weapons to arm an enslaved nation for rebellion. Moses limps in with a stutter and a stick—and through him, God will overthrow the world’s mightiest nation and redeem his people. The Lord chooses the 80-year-old, not the 40-year-old, because the older Moses knows his weakness is a platform for God’s strength.

The Lord chooses the 80-year-old, not the 40-year-old, because the older Moses knows his weakness is a platform for God’s strength.

God doesn’t need our impressiveness. He uses broken jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7), people who, like Moses, ask: “Who am I that you would use me?” And it’s there—in that confession of weakness—that his power is perfected, his glory revealed, his grace radiant (2 Cor. 12:9–10). Internalizing this frees us from trying to act like God. No longer do we need to white-knuckle our lives, taking matters into our own hands rather than resting in God’s sovereign schedule. Instead, we can wait.

Embrace Weakness, Experience True Power

God may have given you some remarkable gifts. But be careful: such gifting may be the very thing keeping you from a deeper relationship with him, and from being fruitful in your local church, your home, or your neighborhood.

On whom will you rely? Put your confidence for the present, and your hope for the future, in the capable hands of your promise-keeping God.

Does the NRSV Compromise on Homosexuality? Thu, 07 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 The newly published NRSVue doesn’t just punt at 1 Cor. 6:9; it lies on the field and forfeits the game. By translating ‘malakoi’ as something too specific and ‘arsenokoitai’ as something too general, the NRSVue removes one of Paul’s clear condemnations of homosexual acts.]]> I regularly roll my eyes at English Bible translation freak-outs. I have many times seen Christians hunt for the “errors” in contemporary translations such as the NIV or ESV. Often what they come up with can only be called errors if one views them through malicious eyes and ties them to some concocted narrative of doctrinal downgrade. Our major modern evangelical Bible translations are very good. Not perfect, but very good.

The truth is, our major modern mainline Bible translations are good, too. I think of the RSV from the 1950s, the NRSV of 1989, the CEB of 2011. Though I have less experience with these translations than with the evangelical ones, I feel confident saying they’re produced by serious people who aimed at faithful translation. When I check them, which I have done many times, I repeatedly encounter translation choices that are obviously responsible. I encounter God’s Word. The KJV translators tell us in their famous preface that even the “very meanest” translation of God’s Word is God’s Word. They also tell us to judge Bible translations by their predominant character. They say, “A man may be considered handsome, though he have some warts upon his hand” (my slightly updated translation of their archaic English). And if I make this kind of generous judgment, mainline English Bibles are good.

But sometimes warts can grow rather large. The Revised Standard Version had warts in several passages, especially Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold, a young woman shall conceive. . .”), that have caused most evangelicals to set it aside. Likewise, the freshly published “updated edition” of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSVue) will, I predict, be rejected by today’s evangelicals because of two warts: its renderings of 1 Timothy 1:10 and, especially, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10.

I work hard to make sober judgments about English Bibles, but I’m forced to conclude that the NRSVue has removed two Pauline condemnations of homosexuality—though it has kept other biblical prohibitions of the practice.

Translating 2 Key Greek Words

Here’s how that latter passage reads in the (usually literal and definitely evangelical) New American Standard Bible. I’ve bolded the key words to watch for:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9–10)

Those two English words translate two Greek words. The word “effeminate” translates the word malakoi; the word “homosexuals” translates the word arsenokoitai (which appears also in 1 Tim. 1:10).

These two words almost certainly refer to the passive and active partners in a male homosexual pairing. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to translate. Responsible translations go different ways.

The ESV, CSB, NIV, and NASB 2020 take the two Greek words and turn them into one thing expressed in one phrase: “men who have sex with men” (NIV; CSB has “males”) or “men who practice homosexuality” (ESV). Other translations are more like the NASB, assigning one-word equivalents to each of the two Greek words at issue.

I have studied these two Greek words carefully, and if I had to pick my favorite rendering, the award would go to the Berean Study Bible:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts . . .

This is a translation touchdown: accurate and readable.

But the NRSVue doesn’t just punt at 1 Corinthians 6:9; it lies on the field and forfeits the game. Here is its rendering of the passage:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex . . .

Paul says that active and passive partners in a homosexual pairing will not inherit the kingdom of God. The NRSVue does not say this. It first, in my judgment, obfuscates matters by including a footnote on malakoi and on arsenokoitai: “Meaning of Greek uncertain.” Then, despite their admitted uncertainty, the NRSVue translates malakoi as something too specific (“male prostitutes”) and arsenokoitai as something too general (“men who engage in illicit sex”). It does the same with arsenokoitai in the one other place it appears, 1 Timothy 1:10, where Paul lists among other sinners,

. . . the sexually immoral, men who engage in illicit sex, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching . . .

I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the NRSVue removes three of Paul’s clear condemnations of homosexual acts—two in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and one in 1 Timothy 1:10.

But don’t freak out yet.

Not the Whole Story

I’m a theological conservative. I believe the NRSVue is dangerously wrong on these two passages. But it’s not correct to say, “The NRSVue removes Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality!” That isn’t the whole story; it requires some caveats.

The first and most important is that the NRSVue translates all other major passages regarding homosexuality with notable clarity. It’s impossible to tie the NRSVue as a whole to a story of doctrinal downgrade when Romans 1 in this version reads,

God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Rom. 1:26–27)

In Leviticus, too, in both places where condemnations of homosexuality appear in the law of Moses, the NRSVue says what the Hebrew says:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. (Lev. 20:13)

Don’t miss this: the NRSVue clearly communicates Moses’s and Paul’s condemnations of homosexual acts in passages aside from 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.

And let’s not forget that the New Living Translation, a widely used evangelical version, does with malakoi just what the NRSVue does. It, too, goes with “male prostitutes.” The NIV 1984 and the International Standard Version (a less successful evangelical version) did likewise. Serious evangelical scholars have made this choice—though I do believe it to be wrong (“male prostitutes” wrongly includes men who sell sex to women, and it leaves out those who consent to homosexual activity with no money involved).

Reason for Concern

The standard Greek-English lexicon, Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich (BDAG), has a lot to say about malakoi and arsenokoitai. In one short paragraph for each word, BDAG packs all kinds of references—to Greek literature, to relevant articles, to prominent books. Interestingly, unless I’m mistaken, the most recent editor of BDAG, the late legendary lexicographer Frederick W. Danker, was something of a theological moderate. And yet he clearly rejects the arguments behind the renderings in the NRSVue.

According to Danker’s argument in BDAG, malakoi here means “pertaining to being passive in a same-sex relationship”; a good translation, he says, would be “effeminate.” Danker goes on to criticize the NRSV rendering as “too narrow,” as I just did, and to say that the word refers to “men and boys who are sodomized by other males in [a same-sex] relationship.” (I go through the argument in this video.)

Arsenokoitai, however, is a word Paul invented. This means we have to look to etymology (word history) and context to define it. The two etymological parts of the word arsenokoitai, arsen + koitai, amount to men + bedders (as in “bedding someone down”). These parts are used as two separate words in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the very passages in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality. Almost certainly, a Jew like Paul had these passages in mind when he coined this word.

There were other koitai compounds in the Greek of Paul’s day. There were “brother-bedders,” “sister-bedders,” and “mother-bedders.” Their meaning was established: the first part of each word named the object of the bedding, the penetrated partner. “Men-bedders,” then, is the name for the active partners: men who penetrate men.

In context, arsenokoitai is set in contrast with malakoi, making it incredibly likely Paul is naming both partners in a male homosexual pairing.

There is some uncertainty with regard to the meaning of nearly any word if you look hard enough. This is especially true of neologisms like arsenokoitai. But why would Paul need to condemn “men who engage in illicit sex” when he just condemned “immorality”? And given the Bible’sincluding Jesus’s—pervasive condemnation of any sexual activity aside from one-man-one-woman-till-death-do-they-part, why adopt a tiny minority interpretation?

You can always find loopholes in language. But I don’t believe there is enough uncertainty to justify the NRSVue’s choice. Out of love for my homosexual neighbors, I must call the NRSVue’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6 what it is: a removal of something Paul said by the inspiration of the Spirit.

Gospel Issue

I discovered the NRSVue’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9 several months ago, but I waited to talk about it publicly. I wanted to hear an official statement from the NRSVue leadership on their reasoning regarding this passage, and I wanted to be sure I was seeing the final text. I have now seen the final NRSVue text as submitted to Logos Bible Software, and it’s consistent with what’s been up on for months. I also reached out to an NRSVue editor who responded promptly and courteously. I encourage you to read this piece by Jennifer Knust; it makes arguments you will continue to see (and which I have interacted with in this piece).

It can’t be an accident that a translation associated with the Protestant mainline is the first major English Bible to suddenly find arsenokoitai impossible to translate.

But these arguments amount to a punt and a shrug as people walk past on the broad road to destruction. I don’t have to concoct a narrative of doctrinal downgrade. It can’t be an accident that a translation associated with the Protestant mainline is the first major English Bible to suddenly find arsenokoitai impossible to translate. It’s tempting for everyone when God says inconvenient things to act as if several interpretations are equally viable—and then to throw up one’s hermeneutical hands and conclude nothing.

But at the end of the day, our understanding of homosexuality is a gospel issue. Whatever (unrepentant) malakoi and arsenokoitai are, they are kept out of God’s kingdom. I cannot be merely academic when I discuss this passage, precisely because I want my neighbors to “inherit the kingdom of God” with me.

The moral status of homosexuality is, quite obviously, a significant battleground in Western culture. This sin is condemned explicitly in a small number of well-known biblical passages. Effectively removing three of them is worth a translation freak-out.

Don’t Run From Tension. Embrace It. Wed, 06 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 We instinctively avoid tension. But in the Christian life, we should embrace it. ]]> I currently lead a book discussion group at my church for men battling lust and pornography addiction. This week, someone in the group posed this vulnerable question: “Is it realistic to expect we’ll ever be fully free from lust?” 

His question resonated with a tension we all feel: the tension between God’s power to change us and our stubborn reluctance to change. Sanctification and temptation aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re twin truths that keep us hopeful and humble.

Christianity is fraught with tensions like this一truths that seem to push and pull on one another. For example, we’re called to:

  • Confront our own sin (Matt. 7:1–5; 1 John 1:8–9) and confront sin in others (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 2:11–14).
  • Mourn difficult trials (Rom. 12:15) and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18).
  • Plan wisely for our financial future (Prov. 30:25) and take financial risks in order to serve God (Acts 2:45; 1 John 3:16–18).
  • Serve our biological family (Matt. 15:1–9; Col. 3:18–21) and serve our church family (John 13:34; Gal. 5:13).
  • Enjoy material things as gifts from God (Eccles. 9:7) and halt spending to quell materialism (Matt. 13:22; 1 Tim. 6:10).

Tension Can Be Right, Even When It Feels Wrong

Living in tension is uncomfortable. It’s a negative word in our vocabulary: a tense conversation is one you’re eager to leave. To have tension with someone indicates there’s friction in the relationship.

But tension isn’t always a warning light to indicate something’s malfunctioning一it can be useful, even beautiful. Power lines utilize tension to stay safely hoisted above pedestrians. Cello strings appropriately tuned produce breathtaking music. Similarly, the more we’re stretched by God, the more he can use us.

Here are four reasons Christians should embrace tension:

1. Tension makes us resilient.

Equal tension creates strength一a maxim I discovered in middle school when learning how to tune a new drumhead. After tightening the tension rods in a star (or crisscross) pattern, you can put your full weight on the drum without doing any damage.

Similarly, when we’re willing to tune our lives to all of God’s truth, life’s blows don’t break our faith; they reveal it. Think of the wife who prays earnestly for her husband’s healing, yet still declares God good after his passing. Her belief in God’s power, held in tension with total surrender to God’s plan, is a holy fusion that makes her exceedingly strong.  

Tension enables us to turn life’s heavy hits into a catchy rhythm that makes even cynics tap their feet.  

2. Tension makes us thoughtful.

We’re all self-interested—prone to favor one aspect of obedience while neglecting another. It’s easier to be lopsided than well-rounded. Without tension to reel in our loose ends, we lean toward whatever suits our preferences, soothes our consciences, or secures approval in our circles. We end up shouting half-truths at each other, unaware that both sides are theologically anemic:

  • All poor people are lazy or they’re all victims who never work the system.
  • “Christian” media is always worth consuming, regardless of its content or quality or all such media is cheesy and preachy.
  • God wants you to buy nice things because you regularly tithe or buying nice things is always selfish materialism.

Tension frees us from reductionism, so we can treat every poor person as valuable (even when discernment precludes giving money), enjoy good Christian films while rejecting bad ones, and prayerfully make a big purchase this month but halt spending next month. Tension helps us think well so we can live well.

3. Tension increases our trust in God.

Tension often exposes the gap between our limitations as finite beings and God’s infinite knowledge. Critics of Christianity often highlight its alleged “intellectual inconsistency,” as if it’s a jigsaw puzzle with incompatible pieces, which Christians naively force together, pretending it all makes sense. What such critics overlook is that mystery is not a threat to Christianity; it’s part of our theology, as John Frame insightfully reflects:

Although I’ve enjoyed a 50-year career expounding reasons for faith, I’ve always had a deep sense of the “incomprehensibility of God.” No matter how clear our concepts and cogent our arguments, God is, in the end, a transcendent being, above and beyond us, one whom we cannot master either by physical strength or by mental skill. . . . So, no matter how much we know, there will always be something beyond us. We cannot know God as God knows himself. Nor can we know anything in creation as God knows it. We cannot even know ourselves as God knows us. Our knowledge is adequate to serve God as he intends, and our ignorance is never an excuse for disobedience. But our knowledge is never exhaustive.

Every time we struggle to balance biblical commands, or comprehend biblical concepts, it’s an opportunity to say: Lord, I don’t know how to navigate this situation. Help me, teach me, strengthen me.

It’s easier to be lopsided than well-rounded.

Parents know the tension of protecting their kids and releasing their kids. Theologians wrestle with how God’s sovereignty relates to human responsibility. Victims of abuse stumble through the tension of forgiving the perpetrator, while also maintaining healthy distance from them.

Tensions remind us of how much we don’t know, yet they’re also an invitation to trust the God we do know.

4. Tension makes us long for heaven.

Tension is tiring, and saints who embrace it ache from being perpetually stretched. From the battered trenches of this inaugurated kingdom, we ache for a better country一one without mourning, crying, death, and pain (Heb 11:16, Rev. 21:4). The glorious news is, it’s coming!

Tensions remind us of how much we don’t know, yet they’re also an invitation to trust the God we do know.

For now, we dangle between the already/not yet一a tension that sometimes feels like it’s ripping us apart. On days when obedience perplexes and exhausts us, it’s a reminder that this world (despite it’s counterclaims) can never relieve the tension inside us. As we eagerly await heaven and the final resolve it offers, let’s be taught to be taut一stretched across the full spectrum of biblical wisdom.

Jon Foreman voices this angst well: “I hate tension. But the only thing that’s going to solve the tension . . . is death. So let’s play music on the strings while we got them.”

When I Don’t Feel Forgiven Wed, 06 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.]]> I was 14 years old when I first watched pornography. I had no idea images could puncture the heart. I didn’t know the poison would linger after Jesus saved my soul. At age 24, by God’s mercy working through the gospel, community, and repentance—again and again—I finally experienced a freedom I never dreamed was possible.

That was 2007. Looking back now, I can see there was a decade when I struggled. I struggled not only to fight temptation but also to believe I was forgiven. Seasons of success made me feel like I stood on a mountaintop, but often I was on the precipice of failure. And when I fell, I earnestly prayed for forgiveness, and I believed God had forgiven me. So why did the pain still linger? Why didn’t I feel forgiven?

Some friends will tell you to “forgive yourself,” as if you’re the warden of your guilt, holding the key to your own freedom. Others correct this advice. They say no word of forgiveness is more decisive than God’s, encouraging you to trust his Word because feelings aren’t facts.

To be comforted by grace, we must locate our grief.

I’ve received both kinds of counsel. And while I agree with the latter, I didn’t know how to “believe more.” I wondered, Why am I so unaffected by this truth? Why can’t I find comfort? I’ve learned that to be comforted by grace, we must locate our grief.

Locating Our Grief

Here’s what I mean: Only when we recognize that we’re feeling grief and are honest about what we believe we’ve lost can we see how God’s grace applies to that sadness.

What are some common places grief is located?

1. Grief for offending God: a loss of intimacy.

Godly sorrow is appropriate when we sin. All our sins are primarily against God, and we ought to grieve when we grieve his Spirit (Eph. 4:29–32). When we cause God grief, we experience a loss of intimacy with him. And even after our communion with God has been restored, we can fear he’ll no longer show warmth toward us. But our comfort when we’ve grieved God is that if we love him, it’s because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We must remember that the Father moved toward us and the Son loved us unto death, not when we were at our best but at our worst (Rom. 5:8).

2. Grief for grace given: a perceived loss of justice.

Godly sorrow, which should be a doorway to his grace, can sometimes become a revolving door of depression. For those with a strong sense of justice, God’s grace can be difficult to receive, and reminders of it may plunge us deeper into despair. Why? It feels unfair to be loved by God when we’re guilty. We’d rather be punished and sit in our sorrow. Those who feel this way need not only the comfort of God’s grace but also the comfort of his justice. In Christ, all our sins have been punished. There was a just judgment of our sins upon the cross. So God is entirely just to forgive us (1 John 1:9). He is both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

3. Grief for grace needed: a loss of perceived strength.

If our grief still lingers after knowing the comfort of God’s grace and justice, it may be that we mourn the death of our self-perception. Our sin as well as God’s justice and grace toward it expose that we’re not as virtuous as we thought, not as strong as we imagined. We’re shell-shocked at what we’re capable of in the face of temptation. Could this be the source of our sorrow—the reality that God always knew our sin but we’ve struggled to admit it until now; the truth that we’re weak, that we need a Savior far more than we imagined?

There are times when what haunts us most is not our sin but our need for grace. But truly the death of our false perception is necessary. We must feel this loss to see ourselves as we really are—broken sinners in need of the Savior.

Locating His Gaze

We’re not the first to overestimate our strength and weep bitterly for it (Matt. 26:75). When Jesus told Peter that he’d deny him three times, Peter assured himself and said, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26:31–35). His relationship with Jesus had begun with an awareness of his need for mercy: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). But somewhere along the way, Peter started to view himself as one who wouldn’t succumb to temptations others would.

We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.

So, what comfort is there for us when our inflated sense of self leads us to be sifted like wheat (Luke 22:31)? We can accept the loss of our perceived strength and make peace with the fact that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. We may still feel the shock of our sins, but there’s freedom knowing God is not shocked. No, he gazes on us as Jesus looked at Peter. He sees through our pretenses and spiritual bravado. He’s not distracted by our inflated promises. He fixes his eyes on our limits, weaknesses, and sins (Luke 22:61), and then he mercifully determines to show us his grace, strength, and power.

We can rest in the truth that Jesus knows the ones he called. He knows the dimensions and limits of our love. He wants us to know there are no limits to his.

Why Overturning Roe Is Good for Women Wed, 06 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Overturning Roe is a good thing for women because it helps us to reject the lie that ending the life of a child in the womb is ever an empowering option.]]> I used to view abortion as something I hoped I would never need but wanted access to just in case. Then I became a Christian and my views on abortion quickly shifted. I knew my belief in a Creator God—who knows us intimately (Ps. 139:13–18) and makes us in his image (Gen. 1:27)—meant I’d never have an abortion.

But I still identified as pro-choice. Although my personal views had changed, I didn’t think it was right to push those views on other women. I’d make my choice. They’d make theirs.

Then my English professor assigned Frederick Douglass’s memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In it, Douglass shared that some of the most frustrating people to him were those living in the border states who personally thought slavery was wrong but refused to resist the institution of slavery to the South. They’d even return escaped slaves to their slaveowners because it was the law.

Their reasoning: I believe slaves are people, but my neighbor believes they’re his property. I would never own a slave, but who am I to push my beliefs on others?

It hit me: I was like the abolitionist who valued the slave owner’s legal right over the life of the enslaved.

In that moment, I moved from pro-choice to fervently pro-life.

Abortion Is Anti-Woman

I know many smart, compassionate women who are mourning the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade because they’re outraged by what they genuinely perceive as an attack on women.

But I’ve got to be honest—as a woman, I find the idea that abortion is a good thing for women deeply offensive. Here are three reasons why legalized abortion is harmful to women.

1. Supporting abortion assumes the best thing for women is to be like men.

Our society is shaped by men. Most of our institutions were established by men and therefore default to a male perspective. The fight for female empowerment in the U.S. has focused on women having all the same things that men have, which is a helpful standard when it comes to legal protection, enfranchisement, and access to the workforce. But focusing only on getting what men have perpetuates a society structured in reference to men, downplays the value of women embracing what they uniquely have, and undermines their ability to shape society.

When we as women use a man’s point of view to define what’s good, successful, and lovely, we end up overlooking and devaluing those things that are uniquely feminine.

When we as women use a man’s point of view to define what’s good, successful, and lovely, we end up overlooking and devaluing those things that are uniquely feminine.

In a world where women believe they must be like men in order to thrive, where the best option for an unplanned pregnancy is to cut and run, abortion can seem like a good thing. If men can easily “escape” the situation of unplanned parenthood, why can’t women? Abortion can also seem like a good thing in a world that makes us feel as though childbearing is not worth the social, professional, and economic sacrifices it might incur.

But I’m not content with this. I’m not content with a world where women are convinced that, to be as valuable, successful, or happy as men, they must fight for a man’s ability to abandon his child before—or after—he or she is born. I’m not content with a world where women see fertility and motherhood not as God-given gifts but as liabilities and challenges to overcome on the path to becoming more like men.

I hate that world. I mourn that world. And I want to fight to make it better.

2. Supporting abortion pits women against their children.

One common pro-choice argument is that abortion opponents are really “pro unborn life.” In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, you’re either on the mom’s side or the baby’s side. Not only does this either-or framing put a huge burden on the pregnant mother, essentially forcing her to choose herself or the unborn life, but it’s also a false dichotomy.

Mom vs. baby is an unnatural warping of a miraculous relationship. Far from an oppositional relationship, a mother and her child represent one of creation’s most beautiful bonds. Let’s get some perspective: for nine months (at most), these two beings are inseparable. After that, both have a lifetime to grow and struggle and thrive as individual lives.

Pregnancy isn’t a zero-sum game. Except in very rare, very sad situations, it’s not a choice between one life or the other. We can care about both a mom and her baby, but not if we kill the latter before he or she even has a chance to live outside the womb.

3. Supporting abortion permits the death of women.

Roughly half of all babies are female. This means at least half of the babies destroyed in abortions are little girls who would have grown up to be women. How is the killing of millions of girls each year an empowerment for women? And because of the disparity in how men and women are valued around the world—and the availability of sex-selective abortions—the global rate of girls killed in abortions is likely much greater than 50 percent.

How is the killing of millions of girls each year an empowerment for women?

Studies mapping Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB, the number of males born per every 100 females) demonstrate imbalances that have increased significantly since the 1970s, when prenatal diagnostic tools (such as ultrasounds) and legalized medical abortion became more widely available. The expected SRB falls around 105 males per 100 females. The highest SRBs are in countries in Asia and North Africa, many of which have a strong cultural preference for sons. Here, the ratios are as high as 121 boys per 100 girls, with some regions reaching over 130. Given the large populations of the regions in question—particularly in China and India—these imbalances represent millions of women killed as a result of sex-selective abortion.

Messaging Battle

We live in a broken world where sacrificing others—even your own child—might seem like the most expedient way out of a challenging situation. But I refuse to throw up my hands and say, “I guess abortion’s a necessity—how else will women flourish?”

Overturning Roe is a good thing for women because it helps us to reject the lie that ending the life of a child in the womb is ever an empowering option.

Overturning Roe is a good thing for women because it helps us to reject the lie that ending the life of a child in the womb is ever an empowering option.

Though now illegal in some states, abortion is still legal in others—and in many places around the world. The legal fights will continue, but Christians must also fight the messaging battles around abortion—communicating truer, longer-lasting answers to the question of how to promote flourishing for women and their children.

We must fight to shape a world that recognizes, celebrates, and honors women for what we can uniquely offer as women, not as people who are interchangeable with men. This includes rewriting the narrative around child-bearing and rethinking our ideas about what female empowerment means. With time, maybe we’ll get to a place in society where, even if a woman finds herself in an unwanted pregnancy, she’ll never consider the evil equation that says her life can go on only if her child’s life does not. Instead, by God’s grace, she’ll choose to carry the child even if the circumstances are incredibly hard, not seeing this as a compromise of her God-given power and calling as a woman, but as an embrace of it.

Transformation of a Transgender Teen Wed, 06 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 ‘Logic brought me to prayer, and prayer brought me back.’]]> Eva was in a church luncheon when she got an email from her 12-year-old daughter Grace. (Their names have been changed.)

“Mom and Dad, I need to tell you I’m not actually a girl,” she read. “My pronouns are they/them.”

Eva couldn’t breathe. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She hadn’t seen this coming—in fact, a few months before, Grace had shared on social media her belief that God created people male and female.

Back then, Eva was sure that statement was going to earn Grace—who attended a progressive public school—some social problems. Instead, it seemed to blow over right away.

“I would’ve gotten bullied,” said Grace, who is now 16. “Instead, they decided to reeducate me. I got invited to groups where all they wanted to talk about was the transgender stuff. Over the course of a few months, I decided I was going to be agender. And then I ended up deciding I was a boy.”

Grace was experiencing what is often called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” in which friendship groups begin to experience similar gender questions at the same time. One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).

One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).

A surprising number of them—40 percent of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.

“Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the long arc of justice,” said Falls Church Anglican rector Sam Ferguson, who has spent time with multiple transitioning young adults and their families. “The Bible also envisions the long arc of redemption, which aims at the resurrection of the body. There is continuity—the end reflects the beginning. Our Creator doesn’t need to start over. If your child has an XY chromosome, then he’ll be raised from the dead as a male. We need to work along the arc of redemption, not against it.”

That takes patience, Eva and her husband Seth found. (His name has also been changed.) For more than two years, they prayed for Grace. They searched the Scriptures. They built their relationships with her. They drew boundaries around how she could express herself. They took her to counseling and to church. They started homeschooling her. They asked her questions.

Basically, they played the long game. And when she was 15, Grace desisted—that is, recognized her body is female and switched her identity back.

These days, Eva and Grace often talk with other families whose children are transitioning.

“The church is the only place that has the freedom to address this, because the activism around this has been so powerful and well-funded,” Eva said. “When I think about where we were three years ago, and where we are now—God doesn’t waste anything.”

‘Ended Up Deciding I Was a Boy’

In many ways, it’s surprising that someone like Grace would struggle with gender identity. Her mom and dad love Jesus and each other. She’s got a couple of siblings, a strong church family, and a sharp mind. For as long as she can remember, she’s believed in God.

When Grace was 12, she logged onto a social networking site called DeviantArt. “At first, I was posting artwork with my friends, but eventually the ‘gay is good’ message became unavoidable,” she said.

She’d never heard of someone being transgender before. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, there are guys who are actually girls, and girls who are actually guys, and some people are actually neither.’”

Grace asked her mom about it, and Eva explained they didn’t agree with those categories of thinking. Grace, who is on the autism spectrum and thinks in black and white, told her online friends she didn’t agree with them.

They didn’t fight her or bully her. Instead, she was invited to the Gender & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club at her school. Eva thinks she was targeted, and that’s not a crazy idea. Teachers in California have shared recruiting tactics, including “stalking” students’ Google searches or conversations for any indication they might be open to joining the faculty-advised, student-led clubs.

Grace began going to the weekly unsupervised lunchtime meetings, listening to other kids from her middle school and high school talk about sex, gender, and how they felt uncomfortable in their bodies.

Being a 12-year-old girl, Grace felt uncomfortable in her body too. She also didn’t like the tights, short shorts, and crop tops that other middle school girls were wearing.

“I believe strongly in modesty,” she said. “I started to associate womanhood with being sexualized. I wasn’t even really thinking male vs. female, but non-sexual vs. sexual.”

She thought maybe she was agender, which means not identifying with either sex. But as time went on, Grace realized she’d prefer to be male. After all, she’d love to be as tall and strong as her brother. And it seemed like all she needed was some testosterone.

“Nobody in the GSA club had gotten prescription hormones yet because we were all fairly young,” she said. “Nobody knew about all the side effects of giving girls testosterone—the bone demineralization, increased rate of cancer, heart attacks, and vaginal atrophy.”

Instead, what everyone talked about was the drama of coming out.

Coming Out

National Coming Out Day is October 11, and it has expanded to include National Coming Out Week and even National Coming Out Month.

“All my friends on social media and I were going around with each other, dramatizing coming out,” Grace said. “I made it way more dramatic than it had to be. I emailed my parents with my announcement and my pronouns.”

She’d already asked to cut her hair short and quit wearing skirts, but that was all the warning Seth and Eva had.

“It was a nightmare,” Eva said. “I’ve never suffered from anxiety before, but the first two weeks [after Grace’s announcement] I didn’t eat or sleep.” She couldn’t believe this was happening—didn’t kids who identified as transgender come from broken families or abusive childhoods?

Eva took Grace to the school counselor, to the pediatrician, to the principal. “They all tell you you have to affirm or your child will commit suicide,” Eva said. “But my background is in education and psychology, and I knew that didn’t make sense. I could think of 15 reasons [other than being transgender] why a young girl might do this.”

It took two weeks before she found her first ray of hope. “It was a blog run by liberals, but it had all kinds of gender-critical resources,” she said. “I found it in the middle of the night, and I just started crying. I was like, I’m not crazy.”

Theology of Gender

That website was a confirmation of what Eva already knew.

“My husband and I talked it through,” she said. “What do we know about God? We know he created us male and female. Are there true transgender people? Well, if there are, they’d be in the Bible. What about eunuchs? Jesus is certainly aware of bodily brokenness—he acknowledges people born as eunuchs in Matthew 19:12—but two distinct sexes are his good design. . . . So if we believe God is sovereign and doesn’t make mistakes, what does this mean for us?”

She couldn’t find many Christian resources—and while there are some now, they’re still few and far between (and not always allowed on Amazon). Her pastors weren’t able to help much, either. “The church helped us find a therapist, which was huge,” Eva said. “But otherwise, we did not get much support. . . . No one at the church had any guidance for us at all. I understand that, because this was all out of left field for everyone. But instead of feeling like we were working together to figure this out, I felt mostly abandoned and ignored.”

Although many Christians know someone who is struggling with gender identity, few churches are well-equipped with policies, counseling, or a deep theology of identity. The transgender movement is both young—entering the mainstream around 2015 when Bruce Jenner announced his transition to Caitlyn—and constantly evolving. Even more confusing, the transgender questions and assumptions are different from the homosexual ones.

The question isn’t “Whom do I love?” but rather “What does it mean to be human?” said Mike McGarry, founder of Youth Pastor Theologian. “The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.”

The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.

If you can think right-side-up, then you know three things, Sam Ferguson said.

First, God is the Creator, and we are the creatures. That means we don’t make our own identity—we receive it. Second, God did not split our souls and our bodies but knit us together as whole people. He doesn’t mash together male minds and female bodies, or vice versa. And third, God sets our sex into our whole bodies—maleness and femaleness are written into biology from chromosomes to hormones to anatomy including our sex organs and brains. For this reason, our physical bodies are our guide for gender. Our gender expression—being a brother or sister, wife or husband, father or mother—coincides with and arises from our physical bodies.

These were things Seth and Eva could logically explain to Grace.

But if you’re a student of Jonathan Haidt—or just an astute observer of culture—you already know that logic isn’t winning the day.

Emotional Cult

With every step Grace took toward the transgender narrative, she was applauded and congratulated at school and online. When she went public with her transition, “it was like eating the Mario Kart ability mushroom,” she said. “You start to glow and become invincible.”

As a girl, Grace struggled with socialization. “It was like walking through a minefield, and everyone had a metal detector except for me,” she said. “I just had a few good friends.”

As a transgender-identified male, Grace was suddenly popular. “Everyone in the school was like, ‘You’re amazing! We love you!’” she said. “All these kids who I’d previously occasionally said hi to in the hallway were going out of their way to say hi to me. I was cool.”

She was also powerful, because now she was a victim. “People were so obsessed with victimhood,” she said. “We’d be in GSA club, listing all the ways we were minorities. . . . I started telling people about the tiny sliver of Jewish I have in me because I wanted to be anything other than white.”

God is the Creator, and we are the creatures. That means we don’t make our own identity—we receive it.

When you claim a transgender identity, “you’re untouchable,” Eva said. “Nobody can question you. You can get teachers fired. Adults have to kowtow to you.”

Even your parents.

“One of the biggest themes is, if your parent agrees with you, you need to be kind and loving,” Grace said. “But if your parents are opposed, hurt them as much as you like. They aren’t even human beings.”

It took a few months for Eva to recognize what this reminded her of. She watched as Grace finished seventh grade and spent the summer with her family.

“By the end of that summer, she had calmed down a lot and was less militant,” Eva said. “We thought we were on the way back to sanity.” Then, the first day of eighth grade, “she was right back into it up to her neck.”

A daughter whose feelings about transgender identity changed with her social environment? Who told her parents if they didn’t agree with her choices, they hated her? Who was able to hide what she was doing at school from her family?

Eva bought another book—this time on how to help a loved one leave a cult.

“Steven Hassan lays out a strategy for getting people out,” she said. “I marked his book up with comments, because it confirmed everything I’d been thinking.”

Getting Out: Physical Removal

“The second worst thing we did, besides giving Grace social media, was let her stay in public school another year,” Eva said.

That’s because the first rule of getting a family member out of a cult is to physically remove them from it. Even though Seth and Eva had pulled her internet access, by the end of eighth grade, Grace was firmly entrenched in her male identity. In the spring, Eva found out she was using the boys’ bathroom at school.

“I said to the principal that I didn’t want my 13-year-old autistic daughter in the bathroom with boys,” Eva said. “She said, ‘That’s our policy. Everyone can use the bathroom they want.’ And I thought, I cannot protect my child at school.”

Eva ordered homeschooling curriculum and signed up for a co-op. “I never thought I’d homeschool,” she said. “I was never a supporter of homeschooling. But that April I decided she wasn’t going back to public school.”

Changing schools—especially when your child is in junior high or high school, and especially when they’re receiving piles of affirmation—is not easy. Grace hated the idea so much she ran away for a night to a neighbor’s house.

“That was a nightmare,” Eva said. “And the first six weeks of high school were pretty miserable.”

But she stuck with it.

Getting Out: Building Relationships

Homeschooling also helped with another strategy in cult rescue, which is to build loyalty and healthy relationships inside the family.

“I remember going to Five Guys with Dad,” Grace said. “I was so furious with him. And we were sitting there, not even talking, eating our burgers. But I couldn’t stay mad at him, because I was eating a burger he bought me.”

Eva talked to Grace about things other than gender—her schoolwork, her artwork, their weekend plans. She asked Grace to help her with things or to go places with her.

This was tricky to navigate because, of course, there was always an elephant in the room.

“If it was just superficial and didn’t require us to lie or go against our conscience, we didn’t fight it,” Eva said. She and Seth wouldn’t buy Grace a man’s suit, but they did let her purge her feminine clothes and jewelry. They didn’t call her by her chosen male name but would let her introduce herself with “Hi. My name is Grace, but my friends call me Duke.” Grace didn’t have to wear a dress to church, but she did have to attend.

“Some Christian psychologists allow space for letting the kid try out another gender,” Ferguson said. “I encourage parents not to give a lot of ground, because there is a usurping of the parents’ authority that is deeply problematic.” And on a practical level, the less a child transitions—pronouns, clothing, hormones—the fewer barriers are erected to a transition back.

“If you loved me, you’d use my pronouns,” Grace told Eva.

“You are asking me to make a choice between offending God and offending you,” Eva said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to offend you.”

Getting Out: Asking Questions

In one study, parents of children with rapid onset gender dysphoria said their kids seemed like parrots of online trans-positive content. They described how that sounded—like the kids were “reading from a script,” “wooden,” “like a form letter,” “verbatim,” “word for word,” “practically copy and paste,” or “sounding scripted.”

Questions such as “What if some girls don’t want biological boys in their bathrooms or locker rooms?” or “How is it fair that a biological male competes as a female in women’s sports?” are met with slogans such as “Trans women are women” or “Trans rights are human rights.”

This makes it hard to engage in meaningful conversation—and so does the enmity between parents and children that’s built into the movement. Anything other than full acceptance means the older generation doesn’t get it, is transphobic, or doesn’t want their child to be happy.

For Grace, the first questions that got through didn’t come from her parents, but from the kids in her homeschool co-op.

“[The co-op] was so incredibly conservative,” she said. “For the first time, I had to defend my opinions or I would risk looking stupid.”

When her classmates started asking her questions about gender identity that she couldn’t answer she “doubled down.” Grace said, “I decided to come up with irrefutable arguments, so I researched and researched. But I couldn’t do it. I searched and searched for the logic behind it, but there was nothing to find, because there is no logic behind it.”

Mainly, she couldn’t figure out why transgender identity was so prevalent in the modern West, but nearly nonexistent in other cultures and times. She wondered, Have I been fighting on the wrong side this whole time?

Grace started to boomerang.

“One day she painted her nails pink, and I tried not to show any reaction,” said Eva, who was dancing inside. “But the very next day, she wrote ‘he/him’ on all her nails.”

That continued for six months—a step toward feminine expression, followed by a doubling down on her masculine identity.

“I always tell parents that’s a good sign,” Eva said, who knows of other children who did this before desisting. “They’re starting to come back to you.”

She’s Back

Through it all, Grace never lost her faith.

“Atheism is too illogical,” she said. “There are far too many fallacies in it to even think of it as a viable logical option. So I never walked away from God, but I led myself into believing God made me a male, but the brokenness of the world caused me to be in a girl’s body.”

She began thinking clearly again: “Logic brought me to prayer, and prayer brought me back.”

She remembers walking her neighbor’s dog, wrestling with God, near the end of her freshman year of high school. “I knew I couldn’t be a trans kid and a Christian at the same time,” she said. “I had to choose. Very begrudgingly, I told God, ‘Fine. If you made me to be a woman, whatever. Fine.’”

A week later, her gender dysphoria was gone. She felt uncomfortable but immensely relieved at the same time—“Like when you really have to go to the bathroom and you finally get to,” she said.

Eva wasn’t as relieved. “You’d think I’d have been jumping up and down screaming ‘Hallelujah!’ but I didn’t,” she said. “I was wondering if this was just another episode of boomeranging, and if tomorrow or the next day she’d fall back into it.”

As weeks passed and Grace began acting more like herself, Eva slowly let herself relax.

“I cried with relief,” she said. “I slowly began telling family and friends that we’d gotten her back.”

Grace is glad to be back: “I’m far happier now.”

The Long Game

Through online and in-person conversations, Eva’s been able to hear from other families battling transgender identity.

“It’s all the same story,” she said. “The child just came home and said they were transgender or nonbinary. They were on social media. They were invited to the GSA club. It’s almost like I can tell you the story before they even start talking.”

She can spot complications—children who come out after they leave home are harder to get back. So are those who stay in their schools, who have any type of medical intervention, or who have at least one parent who chooses to affirm.

But she can also see hope.

“When this first happened, I was crying and said to God, ‘What did I do wrong?’” she said. “I very kindly heard him say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ God is the perfect parent, and every single one of us has sinned.”

Perfect parenting is no guard against a child’s sin or mistakes. What they need—what we all need—is transformation, Ferguson said.
“In Latin, the prefix trans just means to move across or beyond,” he said. While gender transitioning starts on the outside, trying to align it with a person’s insides, Christian transformation starts on the inside and moves outward.

While gender transitioning starts on the outside, trying to align it with a person’s insides, Christian transformation starts on the inside and moves outward.

“Our outside body is wasting away,” Ferguson said. “The Christian hope is to entrust our physical bodies to the Maker, who will raise it from the dead, and in the meantime, we work for the transformation of the inner man. By contrast, the gender movement says, ‘I will arrest control of the body from the Maker and remake it in the image of my own inner self.’”

He tries to tell those struggling that Jesus offers a closer community, a deeper change, and a true and better transformation from dysphoria to joy.

“But I’m batting like zero,” he said. “I don’t have kids [I’ve counseled] calling me up, telling me, ‘You got me.’ We’re playing the long game here.”

About a year ago, a man in his 60s with gender dysphoria gave Ferguson a call out of the blue.

“He was real-deal gender dysphoria,” Ferguson said. “When he was a little boy, he was wearing his mom’s underwear and sneaking into TJ Maxx to go into the women’s dressing rooms.”

He’d gone through three marriages before getting surgery to help him present as a woman.

“When he was in high school, someone shared the gospel with him, but he’d rejected it,” Ferguson said. Then, several years ago, someone shared with him a talk Ferguson had done on transgender identity.

“God spoke to me and said, ‘I made you a man,’” the man told Ferguson. On fire for the Lord, he began passing out gospel tracts on street corners.

Ferguson asked him, “When you were in your 20s, what could I have said to you to get you on the right path?”

“Nothing,” the man told him. “But what I did need was somebody like you to tell me what was wrong and what was true. Keep telling people the truth.”

20 Quotes from Bryan Chapell on Working with Grace Tue, 05 Jul 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Looking for relief and rescue from the seemingly meaningless daily grind? Try rigorous theological thinking.]]> As TGC’s faith-and-work editor, I’ve read a lot of books on work. The latest from Bryan Chapell, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind and the Glory of Your Job, is one of the best. I highlighted my way through the whole thing—here are 20 of my favorite quotes.

The new contract without hidden clauses, the lunchtime conversation kept clean, the cleanup job that cuts no corners, the expense report that is true, the hate speech not entered, the rage not expressed, the architecture kept beautiful, the benefits plan made fair, the government policy that is just, the discipline procedure that is merciful—all bring glory to the one who shows his character and care through his people. (14)

God is mowing down the weeds of the world with our work. (28)

As racial inequities persist, as economic pressures increase, as layoffs occur, many never get jobs they desire, and many others have to leave jobs they love. Harsh realities put before us this basic question: Can I do what God wants if I can’t do what I want? And God is telling us in Colossians 3:22, “Yes, even if you cannot do what you want, you can still do what I want.” (48)

Serving God heartily is not based upon how many toys we can get or how easy our lives can be. Instead, we do what he requires because of our deep-down, soul-level love for him. (52)

Integrity means working such that the nature of our work is in harmony with the nature of our God. (60)

On the one hand, the church should not be burdened with providing for those who have other means of support. On the other hand, the church has a duty to show mercy to persons in need in order to reflect the gospel. Our decisions should not be based on others’ deserving (grace only for the deserving is not grace at all), but on the difference our expression of mercy can make for demonstrating, and helping others to embrace, the gospel. (82)

If we really believe that the God who created the universe cares for us and is working in our lives, then that removes the fear that makes us hoard our money and turn away everyone who might need the generosity that God asks of us. (89)

He gives us just the right balance between poverty and riches. If you knew for sure that God was providing—to the penny—what you needed to glorify him, you would be content. (91)

If faithfulness to God is not our measure of success, then the world’s expectations will become our standard. (102)

True humility is never forced on us by either people or circumstances. It is a matter of choice. (110)

What would it mean to put aside the bonus that we deserve so that someone else could keep their job? Or to give up a promotion requiring a move so that our family could be held together? Or to submit to a decision requiring personal sacrifice without sulking? (114–15)

The tasks we do are made glorious not primarily because of the glory in them but because of God’s purpose for us. (125)

It may seem foolish to expect believers in every profession to engage in “rigorous theological thinking,” but such reflection is actually the path of relief and rescue from the daily grind that can seem without meaning or significance. (138)

While deep hurt may make us appropriately wise and wary about human relationships, if we cannot love and trust again, then we cannot rediscover joy or reflect Jesus. (162)

We should be realistic enough about humanity’s flaws to refuse to base our happiness on others’ faithfulness. (163)

Biblical forgiveness seeks what is best for the eternity of the wrongdoer and the flourishing of our community. (168)

To forgive is to be for grace. (168)

Since the Lord is responsible for our livelihood and our family’s welfare, we have no more important task than uniting our hearts to him. (194)

When you really do turn your concerns over to the one who creates and controls all things—with trust in his love for you—there is a wonderful result in your life: you can sleep. (195)

God can do more good with our lives in six days than we can do in seven days of nonstop labor. (200)

]]> Where to Find the Real Proverbs 31 Woman Tue, 05 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Why would Solomon produce a whole book about pursuing wisdom and finish it by saying, ’Now, go marry Wonder Woman!’? That’s not his point.]]> In my early days of ministry, I worked with college students. Many wanted to know what the Bible says about the kind of spouse they should be looking for. I remember having a group of students in our home one evening to walk through Proverbs 31. I described the “P31 woman” and told them, “This passage sets the biblical standard for married women.”

As I taught, one woman in the group was visibly shocked, like a deer in headlights. Another woman hung her head low. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see now that I had misused the Bible to set an unrealistic bar. I’d put a painful burden on some women there. I wish now I could go back to tell that group, “This passage is about so much more than the ideal wife.”

Problems with My Interpretation

What’s wrong with the “ideal wife” interpretation of Proverbs 31? There are at least three things.

First, there’s an audience problem. Proverbs wasn’t originally written to women to instruct them on how they should live. Solomon’s original audience was young royal boys who would grow to rule as part of the Israelite nobility. If the passage isn’t written to women, it’s wrong for us to see it primarily as a tool to teach wives how to act.

Second, there’s a context problem. In the context of the book as a whole, the passage most likely describes Lady Wisdom. Throughout Proverbs, the sage has personified godly wisdom for young men as an attractive model woman. Chapter 31 provides the most desirable picture in the book: the perfect wife. But the purpose of this passage isn’t to put the spotlight on wifely perfection, but on Lady Wisdom, who is even better.

Third, there’s a problem with our assumption. Even if you didn’t know anything about the audience or the context, just look at all this woman does! She’s perfect in every way. She beats the sun out of bed in the morning to make food for her husband and all their servants. She stays up all night making merchandise to sell the next morning. She’s both a night owl and an early bird! She makes the food, makes the clothes, earns the money, and deals with the kids. It makes you wonder what in the world was left for the husband to do! The “ideal wife” interpretation of Proverbs 31 assumes it’s possible to find the perfect spouse in our fallen world. But it’s not. . . apart from Christ.

Why would Solomon produce a whole book about pursuing wisdom and finish it by saying, ‘Now, go marry Wonder Woman!’? That’s not his point.

Beautiful Wisdom

Why would Solomon produce a whole book about pursuing wisdom and finish it by saying, “Now, go marry Wonder Woman!”? That’s not his point. The main purpose of Proverbs 31 is to show how incredible godly wisdom is. Solomon pleads with young men to desire wisdom the way they desire the perfect wife.

Solomon’s metaphorical wife shows us just how amazing wisdom is. Wisdom is more precious than jewels (31:10). Treasure gives us purchasing power and security. Jewels can get us houses, vacations, fine food, and quality clothes. But wisdom can purchase what no jewel can.

Wisdom affords emotional and spiritual security (3:24), good decision-making skills (12:8), honor and esteem from those around us (31:23), the ability to be a good father or mother (22:6), trust from our spouse (31:11), and the ability to do good and bless those around us (31:12). Wisdom can purchase us the ability to get sober (23:20), to forgive (17:9), and to love more deeply (10:12). It can give us a clean conscience and a good night’s sleep (3:24).

Wisdom blesses the whole household. When wisdom abounds, work is carried out more diligently (31:15) and finances are handled more profitably (31:16). Wisdom dresses herself in strength, offering you protection (31:17). Then at night when you go to sleep, wisdom does not (31:18). She continues to watch over you because her lamp doesn’t go out. Even the best wife needs a break, but Lady Wisdom does not.

Lady Wisdom not only blesses her household but her community as well. She benefits the poor and needy (31:20) and offers those around her protection from the harsh winter weather (31:21). Lady Wisdom brings honor to those who embrace her. Just being in a relationship with her gains you esteem in your city (31:23). She’s kind and caring (31:26), lifting up and restoring those around her.

Where Is Wisdom Found?

Lady Wisdom doesn’t only show young men the value of being wise. Her perfection foreshadows our wisdom from God: Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30).

Lady Wisdom doesn’t only show young men the value of being wise. Her perfection foreshadows our wisdom from God: Jesus Christ.

Who else works for you around the clock, even as you sleep (Rom. 8:34)? Who else offers you something more valuable than jewels (John 14:6)? Who else denies himself that you may be blessed (Phil. 2:7)? Who else takes on burdens so you may be praised (1 Pet. 2:24)? Who else perfectly fears the Lord in a praiseworthy way (Matt. 3:17)? Who else brings us all these blessings, just from being in a relationship with him (John 3:16)? Who took the shame of God’s wrath on the cross so we might be praised by God at the eternal gates (2 Cor. 5:21)? Only Jesus!

Does this mean there’s nothing for a wife to learn in Proverbs 31? No, there’s much here for wives, husbands, children, and singles. All who embrace Lady Wisdom through Jesus Christ will be blessed in this life and the next. Hear Solomon’s pleas at the climactic ending of his book: Embrace wisdom. Don’t just take her for a time. Commit your life to her the way a man would the perfect wife.

Come and Feast on Jesus Christ: Reading with Richard Sibbes Tue, 05 Jul 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Puritan writer Richard Sibbes offers a remedy to malnourished saints: a hearty meal at the Lord’s table, enjoying his spiritual benefits and gracious presence.]]> One of my students recently asked me what books I turn to for devotional reading. My response was immediate: the Puritans.

Although the word “devotional” attaches itself to books that are sometimes theologically thin and spiritually vapid, I use it here to refer to resources characterized by a careful use of Scripture and penetrating insight into the human heart. I need books that not only present me with sound doctrine but that will also wield that doctrine to unearth my sin, humble my heart, and open my eyes to the beauty and goodness of Christ in the gospel. Puritan works have a strong track record in my own life for consistently providing deep spiritual conviction and spiritual comfort.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was an English Puritan preacher, lecturer, and author who is best known for his book The Bruised Reed [read TGC’s review]. Despite the wide and well-deserved attention that book received during Sibbes’s life and still receives today, there are other works within Sibbes’s oeuvre that merit consideration, including The Glorious Feast of the Gospel.

Mountaintop Banquet

First published 15 years after Sibbes’s death, The Glorious Feast is a collection of nine sermons in which Sibbes unfolds and applies Isaiah 25:6–9. The setting is a grand banquet hosted by the King, located on a mountain and open to all people. The menu consists of “fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined” (Isa. 25:6, KJV). The meal is luxurious and abundant. The meat is of the highest quality, and the wine is well aged.

I need books that wield doctrine to unearth my sin, humble my heart, and open my eyes to the beauty and goodness of Christ in the gospel.

While it’s possible to read these descriptions of a future feast in a literal sense, Sibbes takes them to refer to the spiritual “benefits, prerogatives, graces, and comforts” that Christ provides to his people. According to Sibbes, these blessings can rightly be compared to a feast of the finest food and drink: “The love of Christ is the best love, and he himself incomparably the best, and hath favours and blessings of the choicest” (9).

Some may dismiss Sibbes’s application of this passage because they reject his interpretation of it (i.e., they take the description of the feast as a reference to a future banquet with real food and drink), but I think such a dismissal is unnecessary. I believe Isaiah 25:6 refers to a future banquet involving some luscious cuisine, yet I find the subsequent exposition to be both sound and spiritually nourishing.

For example, Sibbes sees variety in the feast that God has provided for his people. From this observation, he draws a comforting application:

In Christ there is variety answerable to all our wants. . . . Are we defiled? He is sanctification. Are we in misery? He is our redemption. If there be a thousand kinds of evils in us, there is a thousand ways to remedy them by Jesus Christ.” (10)

What a glorious truth! Even if Sibbes’s application of Isaiah 25:5 isn’t rooted in our preferred hermeneutic, it still has clear biblical warrant (e.g., 1 Cor 1:30–31), as does his primary metaphor of eating and drinking (John 6:54–58). We lose much valuable insight if we shelve Sibbes over some interpretational differences.

Eat and Drink Christ

Eating and drinking is an apt metaphor for the enjoyment that the believer is to have in Christ, and Sibbes exploits this metaphor throughout the book, particularly in the first three chapters. If we’re to prepare our pallets for spiritual delicacies, we must “purge our souls from the corruptions of flesh and spirit” and resist the allurements of “carnal corruptions” that stifle the soul’s appetite (20).

There must be a “digesting” of spiritual truths lest they never make their way to our affections (25). Spiritual food that isn’t taken deep into the soul cannot nourish us or provide us with the strength necessary to walk near to God. But how can we ensure full absorption of the truth into our spiritual bloodstream? By dwelling on the forgiveness of God that is ours in Christ: “Therefore, feed especially upon the favours of God, and get forgiveness of sins, and then all the rest of the chain of grace and spiritual life will follow” (26).

Redeeming Death and Sin

The latter two-thirds of the book focuses on the remaining verses of Isaiah 25:7–9. In this section, still within the setting of a mountaintop feast, the prophet describes additional benefits afforded God’s people:

And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He shall swallow up death in victory, and all tears shall be wiped from all faces, for the Lord hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice.

We all know that a looming fear of death will sap happiness from festal gatherings, no matter how grand the celebration. Sibbes writes, “Suppose a man were set at a feast furnished with all delicates, royally attended, clothes suitable, and had a sword hung over his head ready to fall upon him, it would cast such a damp on his spirit, as would spoil the joy of his feast” (62).

It’s difficult to eat and drink with exuberance when your adversary is just outside the gate, ready to annihilate you and your compatriots. To secure his people’s joy, therefore, God promises to defeat death. “And then there is victory of [death], Christ overcomes him and overcomes him gloriously. It is not only a conquest, but a swallowing him up” (64).

Spiritual food that isn’t taken deep into the soul cannot nourish us or provide us with the strength necessary to walk near to God.

Now that death is overcome, both Satan and death serve our good. “And God being satisfied for sin,” Sibbes writes, “the devil hath nothing to do with us, but to exercise us, except it be for our good” (65). All we suffer under Satan’s hand, though temporarily painful, works for our ultimate spiritual blessing (see Rom. 8:28). Even death itself has become a friend: “It ends all our misery, and is the inlet into all happiness for eternity. And whatsoever it strips us of here, it giveth us advantage of better in another world” (74).

Amazingly, God even uses our sin for our spiritual advantage. Sibbes writes, “As Augustine saith, I dare be so bold, it is profitable for some to fall, to make them more careful and watchful, and to prize mercy more” (75). Sibbes is not offering his readers an excuse to sin under the delusion that “grace will abound” (see Rom. 6:1). He’s reminding us that in Christ, Christians ultimately succeed even when they fail, for God will use our sin to help us better feel our weakness and our need for Christ.

Finally, Sibbes encourages us as we wait upon God in the day of trial to “treasure up” stories of God’s past kindness so we have continued hope for future mercy. “Go along with God’s favours,” Sibbes warmly exhorts us, “and use them as arguments of future blessings. As former victories are helps to get the second victory, every former favour helpeth strengthen our faith” (155). Even providential kindnesses should serve to deepen our trust in our heavenly Father.

Take the Remedy

Sibbes was known in his time as the “heavenly doctor” for both his preaching and his holy life. He possessed a unique ability to expose the sinner’s disease while also providing the soothing remedy of Christ in the gospel. His writing humbles and refreshes readers in a deep and lasting way.

In this book, the remedy for malnourished saints is a hearty meal at the Lord’s table. Sibbes invites us to eat and drink upon Christ, enjoying his spiritual benefits and gracious presence. If you’ve been helped by Sibbes in the past and would like to taste more of such fare, A Glorious Feast pairs well with your daily prayer and Bible reading.

Debunk 8 Abortion Myths Tue, 05 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Pro-choice fears are more fiction than fact. ]]> Pro-choice Americans are reeling after the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. While Christians rejoice to see a step taken toward justice for unborn life, many of our neighbors are experiencing the decision as an existential threat. That angst gets channeled in attacks against religious groups, blaming them for what they understand to be a hypocritical and crippling national tragedy. Why are they so afraid? What can we do to help our friends, family, and coworkers understand why people of faith celebrate what they lament?

In love, we approach fiction with fact. Here are eight myths about abortion in America—and how to answer them with evidence.

Myth #1: Christians aren’t pro-life, just pro-birth.

Many challenge the notion that Christians are pro-life—insisting they’re simply pro-birth instead. Do believers in Jesus show any evidence of caring for the hurting and marginalized once they leave the womb?

The numbers tell us, “Absolutely they do.” Besides starting almost every crisis pregnancy center in your city, Christians adopt at more than twice the national average and are exponentially more generous to the poor than the average citizen.


Myth #2: Men are the ones opposing abortion.

Did the patriarchy overturn Roe? How can men, who don’t have a uterus, be allowed to make major decisions like this on the behalf of women? Let’s look at the numbers.

The graphic below shows women are more likely to identify as pro-life than men. This phenomenon has been documented for some time now (see, for example, the 2014 Guardian article “Why Are Women More Opposed to Abortion?”).


Myth #3: My body, my choice.

“My body, my choice” is the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement. It even made it’s way into a Pixar film. Abortion advocates would have us believe a fetus is akin to a woman’s toenails. Frankly, such a view runs against the grain of what science tells us about fetal development and identity.

An unborn child has its own distinct DNA, fingerprints, heartbeat, thoughts, emotions, and pain and pleasure points. Such a child, science confirms, is not part of another person’s body—the child maintains its own distinct body and personhood.

Myth #4: Most abortions happen for good reasons.

Well-meaning pro-choice advocates chalk up the majority of American abortions to terrible circumstances—rape, incest, poverty, serious physical or mental defects, and so on. A breakdown of abortion statistics, though, suggests otherwise. Consider Florida, the only state to systematically delineate a reason for every abortion. What do the numbers show? Nearly 75 percent of all abortions in 2020 were done for no particular reason. Anecdotally, there’s reason to believe Florida’s numbers are not an outlier but are paradigmatic for the country as a whole.


Myth #5: Overturning Roe puts millions of women in danger.

One of the major animating fears for pro-choice Americans in a post-Roe world is the supposed danger for women with complicated pregnancies. Many hypothesize that women who experience ectopic pregnancies, septic uteruses, and miscarriages won’t receive the care they require, thus putting their lives at risk.

Pro-life advocates want the same level of safety for mothers as pro-choice advocates do.

Here’s the reality: even in states with strong abortion restrictions, the law of the land is to authorize any procedure necessary to preserve the life of a mother. There is no reason to believe that will change after Dobbs. Pro-life advocates want the same level of safety for mothers as pro-choice advocates do.

Myth #6: Anti-abortion sentiment represents white supremacy.

Some suggest the overturning of Roe v. Wade is a symptom of a larger disease: white supremacy. After all, the economic burdens of unplanned pregnancy tend to have a disproportionate effect on minority communities. Isn’t it all too easy for white middle- and upper-class citizens to pontificate from a position of relative privilege?

Abortion opponents, however, come from every kind of ethnic and socioeconomic background. The sad truth is that since 1976, more minority children have been murdered than any other population segment. Also, keep in mind the pro-choice movement isn’t free from association with racist ideology. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, used rhetoric about people of color that should make your skin crawl.

Myth #7: Most Americans support abortion rights.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of overturning Roe, but would the decision have clear majority consent if put to a popular vote? The pro-choice stance is generally regarded as the majority opinion in the United States. Doesn’t the Dobbs decision upend a political system by the people, for the people?

In short, no. Roughly 71 percent of Americans favor some restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. The graphic below reveals the numeric gap between pro-life and pro-choice citizens is actually pretty close. A very small minority believe abortion should be legal in all cases with no exceptions; a very small minority believe abortions should always be illegal with no exceptions. The rest of the country is somewhere in the middle. We’re far from a consensus—other than that most are comfortable with some level of restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.


Myth #8: Banning abortion won’t decrease the abortion rate.

Does banning abortion work? Won’t lack of access to safe, legal abortions drive mothers to find other ways to terminate their pregnancies? The argument is pragmatic: banning abortions won’t reduce them. But the pro-life position isn’t simply pragmatic; fundamentally it’s a question of morality. The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t a bust because it didn’t effectively end slavery in all the states. Abortion is a moral evil like slavery is a moral evil. Any law reducing access to it should be welcomed.

Besides, evidence suggests that abortion rates have plummeted with the introduction of bans at the state level.

Honest Answers to Honest Questions

In a hyperpartisan age, not every question is an honest one. Nor can the spiritual warfare involved in these debates be overstated. But neighbor love necessitates exposing faulty assumptions and claims with truth.

With equal parts grace and truth, let’s commit to humbly correcting the myths our neighbors have bought—for the sake of their consciences and the lives of the unborn in our land.

On July 4, Care for Isolated Veterans Mon, 04 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Though we may honor veterans and military personnel on special days each year, how do our churches reach out to and care for them?]]> On the Fourth of July, United States citizens celebrate our nation’s independence and the freedoms won and defended by the men and women of the military community. But though we may honor veterans and military personnel on special days each year, how should our churches reach out to and care for them?

For more than 20 years, America has been engaged in the global War on Terror, and men and women have been deployed to combat zones across the world. According to the National Library of Medicine, over 1.9 million U.S. military personnel have been deployed in 3 million tours of duty to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.

Though we may honor veterans and military personnel on special days each year, how do our churches reach out to and care for them?

During a deployment, service members live as part of a tribe, a culture unique to those subjected to the horrors of combat. But when combat is done, many veterans struggle to adapt to the rhythms of civilian life. The Veteran’s Administration reports alarming rates of depression and anxiety among combat veterans, and more than 22 veterans take their own lives daily.

Military veterans need help from the church to combat these concerns. We are uniquely positioned to meet this need by stepping into the pain and helping veterans reestablish the kind of deep relational connections they left behind when they returned home from military service.

Unique Bonds Lost

In the military, individuals from different walks of life work together for a common mission. Service men and women live, work, breathe, and bleed alongside one another. They endure long hours, pain, and stress as they daily look death in the eye.

Though military personnel often live relatively simple lives during deployment, they make high-stakes decisions. A soldier may drive on the calm city streets of Baghdad one moment and be tasked with seeing the signs of an improvised explosive device the next.

When military personnel come back from a deployment, they encounter culture shock. Simple life choices such as navigating a grocery aisle to choose which type of bread to buy may have minimal stakes, but they can feel overwhelmingly complex. Moreover, the soldier no longer lives in proximity to his unit, so the deep bonds and support he developed through shared suffering are lost. These radical differences between civilian and active-duty life can make it difficult to reconnect mentally and emotionally. Many veterans feel empty and isolated.

This was my story. I separated from the U.S. Air Force in 2018 and moved into the private sector. The transition was exciting but challenging. Others I’d served alongside continued to serve, and I felt as though I was missing out. Adjusting back to everyday American life rhythms further complicated my thoughts. I felt unfulfilled, and I longed to return to combat. What made the difference for me?

Close-Knit Community Gained

The church’s mission to bring peace and righteousness in the world is far removed from the mission and objectives of the military, and the deep unity and common mission Christians share surpasses that of any worldly organization (Eph. 4:1–6). The Bible testifies to how first-century Christians shared all things in common (Acts 2:42–47). The early church first gathered in homes. Then, under persecution, the community was bolstered and spread the gospel quickly across the Roman Empire. The early Christians lived, worked, breathed, and bled alongside one another for the sake of the gospel.

In Acts 2:46, Luke uses a Greek adverb, homothumadon, which means “with one mind or purpose,” to describe the unity the first Christians shared when they met together at the temple. He uses the word 10 more times in the book to describe the uniqueness and depth of close-knit Christian community.

Today’s church must display this same close-knit unity. We must connect every member of the congregation—including those coming home from military deployments—to a community of care. How can a local church reach out and provide care for hurting veterans? Here are three suggestions.

1. Recruit military members and veterans to help.

Regardless of their varying branches, locations, or time in service, military veterans usually love to connect with one another. Their shared experiences create an instant bond. If you’re hoping to reach out to hurting veterans within your community, begin by recruiting those in your church who have served. The most effectual ministry to veterans begins here. You’ll discover that younger veterans and active-duty military members benefit greatly from the experience and encouragement of older veterans who have walked the path from service to civilian life before.

2. Host an outreach event.

According to the 2020 census, 18 million veterans live in the United States. So even if your church isn’t near a base, it’s likely that former or current military personnel live near you. Hosting a breakfast event or game night that’s tailored for the service men and women in your community is a great way to show your appreciation for them and invite them into your church.

3. Invite those with military experience to use their gifts.

The church provides a support system for veterans coming home, but it also gives them the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. Veterans often have more leadership training and experience than your average church member. Integrate them into your church body in ways that allow them to both serve and be served. Take the same approach with active-duty personnel who may be far from their families; welcome and include them even if their assignment in your location is short. This not only shows them Christian love but also gives them an opportunity to be an asset to the local body.

Active-duty military members benefit greatly from the experience and encouragement of older veterans who have walked the path from service to civilian life before.

Veterans want to replicate the deep bonds and shared mission they established while deployed. Sometimes they see events unfolding on the news and are tempted to ask, “Did I do enough?” When I have those thoughts, I consider the unique opportunity God has given me to serve other former military personnel. Instead of redeploying, I can help my fellow veterans by pointing them to the unity and common mission Christians share in Christ.

Just as deployed soldiers go into combat with one mind and purpose, so also church members move together into the trenches of ministry. And as veterans serve alongside their Christian brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit will knit them together in unity. By imitating the common life we see in Acts, I believe the church can launch one of the most extensive and effective homecoming campaigns veterans have ever experienced.

5 Ways to Pursue Holiness Sun, 03 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Holiness is becoming who you are made to be in Christ.]]> In the early 19th century, a group of evangelical ministers gathered regularly to discuss how to grow in holiness. Over the course of their meetings, the Eclectic Society included famous ministers such as John Newton and Charles Simeon. The group discussed a wide range of topics, including “What is the nature, evil, and remedy of schism?” and “What can be done at the present moment to counteract the designs of infidels against Christianity?”

On June 22, 1812, the group posed the question, “What is Scripture’s view of growth in grace?” Rev. C. R. Pritchett answered,

1. It is entirely of God. 2. It arises from an intimate and vital union with Christ. 3. It is produced and carried on by the constant and immediate agency of the Holy Spirit.

When was the last time we had a similar conversation about holiness? When was the last time our churches heard an exhortation to holiness akin to William Law’s Serious Call?

When was the last time our churches had a conversation about holiness?

We’ve tended in recent years, for understandable reasons given our secular age, to focus on engaging with culture. But I’m concerned that we’ve lacked focus on integrity of character. We need to talk about holiness again.

How can church leaders clearly call Christians to holiness? How do we cultivate maturity? Here are five ways.

1. Adopt a clear definition.

People’s wrong ideas about holiness come in several variations. Some think holiness is about Pharisaic legalism. Some think holiness is a one-and-done, shot-in-the-arm spiritual experience. Still others think holiness means being boring and narrow minded. The way to defeat this hydra-headed confusion about holiness is to get the right ideas about holiness into our minds. A clear, biblical definition can help. Holiness means being set apart for God.

2. Start with the gospel.

John Owen wrote that one of the most nefariously wrong ideas Christians have about holiness is related to where we start. We don’t start with doing; we start with the work Christ has done in our lives by his Spirit. Foundationally, the Bible teaches we cannot be holy apart from Christ. We must first be born again, made new, raised with Christ, and declared holy in him. Regeneration is the necessary starting point. And for this reason, if you’re a pastor or church leader, the most important step you can take to advance holiness in your church community is to preach and teach the gospel. Many people struggle with holiness because they aren’t really Christians. They need to be made alive before they’ll be able to live a set-apart life.

3. Focus on thinking.

When you teach on holiness, encourage Christians to think about their thinking, to focus on their focus. Our behavior follows the orientation of our affections, emotions, and reason. There’s a correlation between decreasing Christlikeness and decreasing time spent in God’s Word, study, and prayer. In other words, I can’t expect to grow in holiness if I spend most of my time focused on things that aren’t holy. Holiness declines when we move our attention away from the things of God. So, encourage the people you lead to spend time reflecting on the beauties of Christ, the wonders of the gospel, and the glories of heaven.

4. Surgically remove sin.

Sometimes even the best Bible teachers say no more than those first three points. But there’s more. The fourth way to cultivate holiness is what is called “mortification.” Sinful habits and set patterns of thought and behavior must be cut out. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used the image of digging down to the roots. To pull out a weed, you have two options. One is to mow over the weed, but it will grow back. The other is to dig the weed out by the roots. To dig our sin out by the roots, we must ask, “What makes this sin so attractive? Why is it so hard to give up?”

Holiness is becoming who you are made to be in Christ.

Often, for example, there is pain behind lust and addiction. People are self-medicating with porn, drugs, or alcohol. When you’re counseling a church member, listen to him or her. Dig down to discover what’s going on at the root. Don’t merely ask “why” questions, which can be seen as threatening. Share your observations as well: “You seem to be angry.” As a church leader, you can apply biblical and pastoral remedies at the root.

5. Be clothed with Christ’s character.

Paul uses this simple metaphor repeatedly because it’s helpful: Put on your new identity. Clothe yourself with character that fits who you really are. One basic misconception about holiness is that it’s pretending to be something you’re not, that it’s inauthentic. Really, holiness is becoming who you are made to be in Christ.

So, dress yourself with increasing Christlikeness. The work of the Spirit is to gradually make our character more like the Savior’s until we one day stand holy in his presence, wholly his.

States of the Union: Maintaining Momentum After Dobbs Sat, 02 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 The abortion ball is now in the states’ court. ]]> This week marks 30 years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which sought to entrench Roe v. Wade. Though Casey tragically postponed the day of reckoning for three decades, the Supreme Court has, at last, dealt with Roe v. Wade’s self-inflicted wound.

The cancer was metastasizing. Public attacks meant to intimidate justices have morphed into personalized threats. The court needed to be extricated from its self-appointed role as America’s abortion control board. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization sent the abortion issue back to the states and did so with clear language. More than once, the court insisted both Roe and Casey were overruled. Further, the court dismissed any other constitutional clause as grounds for abortion rights in future cases.

Justice Is Served

A legal right to elective abortion, the Dobbs decision demonstrated, had never been recognized in Anglo-American legal history before the 1960s. And, the court noted, the Casey decision didn’t reaffirm Roe on the merits, didn’t provide a new constitutional rationale, and failed to settle the issue of abortion. Again, the Supreme Court is no longer to be the national abortion control board.

The Supreme Court is to be the national abortion control board no longer.

But the 6-3 majority was not without dissent. Chief Justice John Roberts added his vote only to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week limit. Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Alito directly addressed Roberts’s attempt at compromise. Alito quoted Roberts back to himself, echoing Roberts’s words in Citizens United v. FEC (2010): “We cannot embrace a narrow ground of decision simply because it is narrow; it must also be right.”

Alito concluded his response to Roberts’s, “It is far better—for this Court and the country—to face up to the real issue without further delay.” Five justices joined that statement. For many, Dobbs represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that simply couldn’t be kicked down the road any further. It was now or never.

New Era of Abortion Politics

In the wake of the decision, 11 or 12 states have moved ahead to enforce abortion-restricting laws—either beginning to enforce them immediately or announcing enforcement within 30 days. Abortion is now a state issue for the first time in 50 years. It is imperative, then, for governors and state legislators to get to work. Perhaps the most urgent battlefront lies within America’s so-called purple states (neither Republican nor Democrat). It would seem a majority will support a prohibition after 12 weeks, but enforcing those laws will be critical.

We’re entering a new era of abortion legislation. The move from Capitol Hill to state capitols makes abortion a matter of public opinion and of crafting legislative majorities with real electoral responsibility to pass limits. Careful discernment will be necessary to navigate the road ahead. Think of Roe as a massive boulder in the road. What does the road look like after being crushed by a boulder for 50 years?

Think of Roe as a massive boulder in the road. What does the road look like after being crushed by a boulder for 50 years?

A one-size-fits-all approach won’t do; we’re talking about different states with very different populations and policies. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, for example, has posed a 15-week restriction bill that represents a realistic account of a state legislature controlled by Democrats. Before Roe, we knew by experience that law enforcement wasn’t possible without strong public support. Pro-life leaders should focus their energies on engendering public support in the months and years ahead.

Here’s where states should begin their focus in a post-Dobbs landscape:

  • Effectively enforce what’s on the books.
  • Pass the earliest gestational limit possible.
  • Fight the scourge of chemical abortion.
  • Enforce detailed abortion data laws.
  • Publish a Women’s Wellness Index which compiles health, educational, and economic data to show that women flourish in states with pro-life laws compared to states with pro-abortion laws.

Pro-Life Movement Ready

Pro-life legislators aren’t starting from scratch. They’ve had considerable experience in addressing the abortion issue, both producing Dobbs and preparing states for Dobbs. Besides, pro-life advocates have long been the strongest advocates for women and families dealing with unplanned pregnancies they’re ill-equipped to handle. There are more than 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers and child welfare agencies in the U.S. Untold billions of dollars have been spent on caring for vulnerable mothers and children. This trend should only increase.

Clearly, there’s much work ahead. But the work has been lightened by the removal of the Supreme Court’s (and federal courts’) declaration of abortion as a “fundamental right.” States have been handed a great opportunity to save lives and help women balance work and family in America—the desire of millions who celebrate the demise of unfettered abortion access.

In the coming months, will the states continue the momentum of justice catalyzed by Dobbs?

Rest in God’s Character Fri, 01 Jul 2022 04:04:12 +0000 In order to be transformed and find rest, we must first know and worship God.]]> Teaching from Romans chapters 11 and 12, Jen Wilkin expounds on Paul’s call to know and worship God in order to be transformed. We must ask “Who is God?” before we can know our own identity.

Wilkin outlines three truths about God that help us understand how to become living sacrifices for him:

  • God has all riches
  • God has all wisdom
  • God has all knowledge

Because God owns all things, we cannot extort or blackmail him. Because God holds all information (knowledge) perfectly and effortlessly, he can judge us perfectly (wisdom). If we want to feel deeply about God, we need to think deeply about him. Meditating on God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge will ultimately transform us into Christ’s image.

Sing to One Another Fri, 01 Jul 2022 04:03:00 +0000 As we sing to the family in front of us, the single behind us, and the couple on the other side of the room, we remind one another of the gospel and our shared hope in Christ.]]> Millennia before my children were diagnosed with a serious genetic condition or my friend’s marriage dissolved, before my grandmother developed dementia or my husband’s year of unemployment, our heavenly Father knew how the curse of sin would play out in my life and yours. He knew how it would infect, distort, confuse, and dismay us. And he showed compassion by sending Jesus to carry the curse to the cross on our behalf; to say, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

As Christians, we know of Jesus, our ransom; of our debt paid, hope restored, and future certain. Yet so often we forget. We disconnect God’s compassion as expressed in the gospel from our everyday experience. So how can we remember?

King David wrote Psalm 103 to be sung by a choir. When individual voices blended into one, they reminded one another of God’s story. They remembered how God had acted in Israel’s past, how he had shown compassion to his people; but they also looked ahead, encouraging one another to consider that “the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17).

The best thing we can say or do is remind someone in a trial of what God has done for us in the gospel.

Especially as people who live on the other side of Christ’s resurrection, we too ought to “sing” to one another, reminding one another of God’s faithfulness in the past and his present and future promises. And while there often are practical ways to show compassion to someone in a trial, the best thing we can say or do is remind someone (or be reminded) of what God has done for us in the gospel.

Compassion and the Gospel

There’s one couple who stands out as having done this for me. More than 20 years later, I still feel the transformative effects of a pivotal conversation around a table in a small office.

In 2000, I was an unmarried 20-something living 250 miles away from my family. My grandmother was dying from Alzheimer’s. I would travel home to visit for a few days at a time, then leave feeling distraught that there was nothing more I could do. Each tedious mile of my drive increased my physical separation from the grieving family I loved so much.

As I sat with this mature Christian couple, I paused only to wipe my nose between sobs. I was lamenting the gradual loss of my grandmother, for sure, but I was also coming to grips with a brokenness in my family and in the world that the immediate circumstance had surfaced. As I poured out my woes, these dear friends patiently listened.

Instead of offering platitudes as Band-Aids, they helped me connect the gospel to my experience. They acknowledged the truth of what was becoming so apparent to me: we do live in a fallen world filled with all manner of suffering. They encouraged me not to harden my heart but to remain “thin-hearted”—to continue to feel deeply and so mirror our compassionate heavenly Father. And not just that day, but throughout our friendship, they’ve repeatedly urged me to preach the gospel of God’s grace to my soul—all the time, but especially when I’m distressed.

For the gospel is God’s primary expression of compassion toward his people. God’s pity on fallen, sinful humankind in a fallen, sinful world led him to act decisively in history. When the weight of sorrow in this world is so heavy that it threatens to overwhelm us, we ought to remind one another, as my friends have frequently reminded me, that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Yes, we feel the weight of sorrow, but Jesus already paid our greatest debt and met our greatest need. One day, these tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).

Singing the Gospel

Friends who sit with us, listen, and metaphorically sing the gospel to our souls are true gifts. But similar to David’s choir, we’re meant to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” literally as well (Eph. 5:19). Corporate singing benefits those who live thin-hearted in a thick-skinned world.

Fast-forward a decade or so and, in the year following my children’s diagnoses, I certainly felt thin-hearted. Walking into church, all it would take was one person’s compassion—a simple “How are you doing, Katie?”—and I would crumple.

I’d join my family in the sanctuary, still wiping away tears. Then, after hugging my older children and settling the smaller ones, I’d glance around the room. I’d notice the couple who just lost a baby through miscarriage. The mom who I knew felt ill-equipped to parent her strong-willed child. The man who lost his job last week. The couple caring for elderly parents.

The music would start, and again, tears would flow. I’d stand with the congregation and think: Thin-hearted. Remain thin-hearted. Welcome godly lament. Don’t try to hide behind a facade or allow bitterness to callus your soul. Experience God’s compassion. Think about his great love and all he’s done for you. Pour out your heart to him. Sing!

When our voices blend together in corporate singing, we declare our dependence, gratitude, and praise to the Lord. We grieve and celebrate before him.

When our voices blend together in corporate singing, we declare our dependence, gratitude, and praise to the Lord.

But we also sing to the family in front of us, the single behind us, and the couple on the other side of the room. All of us—the bewildered parents, addicts, restless children, weary pastors, cancer patients, and teenagers fighting for sexual purity—sing to each other. We remind one another of the gospel and our shared hope in Christ. We exhort one another to believe and trust.

We sing, “Bless the LORD, O my soul,” and we remember “all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1–2). Death defeated. The forgiveness of our sins. The promise of heaven. The worth of Christ and the glory of God. As we do, our heavenly Father extends compassion to all of us.

How to Respond to a Colleague Mourning Roe Fri, 01 Jul 2022 04:02:29 +0000 Being prepared with clear information, refusing to be reactive, and cultivating attentiveness to the Spirit’s leading will help you navigate this cultural moment.]]> When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was thrilled. But I work in a liberal corporate setting, and I’m not sure how to address it at work. For example, there are times when my boss asks how everyone is doing, and a colleague or two bemoans the ruling. Do I just stay quiet and let them vent? Do I say I’m actually celebrating it? I don’t want to unnecessarily create a stir, but on the other hand, I do want to be faithful to the gospel.

Thank you for asking an important question that millions of believers will face for years to come. Few issues evoke passions like abortion. Being holy and hospitable, adhering to biblical convictions while aspiring for the common good—these are necessary tensions in our world.

Both the spirit and substance of your question are important. In fact, your multifaceted question actually contains biblical answers that offer wisdom.

Do I Let Them Vent?

“Do I just stay quiet and let them vent?” Most of the time, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Venting is rarely a good foundation for serious conversation or the presentation of an opposite view. Proverbs 10:19 (NIV) exhorts us, “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Proverbs 11:9 captures the evil around us: “With his mouth [and the internet!] the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.”

While you wait for the best moments to respond, preparing an articulate position is of paramount importance. I recommend an ascending scale of insight for those who are willing to listen:

  • The actual decision returns abortion laws to the states. It does not outlaw abortion nationwide.
  • In the original 1973 decision, there was deliberate ambiguity about the personhood and viability of the developing child. Instead, the ruling depended largely on a “right to privacy” the court created out of whole cloth. For the next 25 years, even liberal thinkers admitted there were legal and scientific problems with the ruling.
  • There are thousands of agencies and millions of people ready to help mothers and couples with unwanted pregnancies. It is not true that pro-life people don’t care about the expecting mother and her emotional and economic welfare. You might mention how you and your church express compassion.
  • Even after all this mediating wisdom, at some point you may have to say, “Abortion is the destruction of human life, and with rare exceptions, it’s morally unacceptable.” Such a declaration is best reserved for serious discussion, not off-hand remarks in the heat of the moment.

Do I Say I’m Celebrating?

“Do I say I’m actually celebrating it?” Again, in the right context or when directly confronted, be ready with conviction and nuance.

Your patience will be rewarded: “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult” (Prov. 12:16, NIV). Be ready with a thoughtful response such as, “I’m pleased that such issues are in the hands of the states. I’m in favor of protecting the vulnerable at every stage of their life, which begins at conception. So lessening the destruction of vulnerable life in the womb is a moral good.”

Being holy and hospitable, adhering to biblical convictions while aspiring for the common good—these are necessary tensions in our world.

Any moral affirmation you make will likely evoke emotional reactions, from “You’re imposing your religion!” to “You hate women (or pregnant people).” You must meet this subjective perspective directly and kindly: “We live in a pluralistic society and liberty of conscience is the first freedom. I am not imposing my beliefs, but I do have the right to bring them to all I do at work and in the public square.”

Do I Cause a Stir?

Your final phrase about not unnecessarily causing a stir is an opportunity to heed Scripture and to rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

After sharing about the beautiful fruit of the Spirit, Paul says to the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). The general experience of God’s presence and power is united with specific direction.

This is an echo of Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit’s presence (John 14:15–27) and particular guidance as we’re serving the kingdom:

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. . . . But when they arrest [or in our case, confront] you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matt. 10:16, 19–20, NIV)

Knowing the Word provides a treasure chest of material the Spirit can use. Personal preparation, united with maturing sensitivity to the Spirit in the moment, is the paradoxical power of God’s kingdom at work.

Being prepared with clear information and insights, refusing to be reactive, and cultivating attentiveness to the Spirit’s leading will help you winsomely present the gospel at work. You have already established a reputation as a kind and thoughtful colleague, and this social credit will help when you must be uncompromising in your moral position. May God’s peace be the arbiter of your spirit as you faithfully navigate these turbulent waters.

Social Media Should Come with a Warning Label Fri, 01 Jul 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Social media can be used for good or for bad, but it isn’t amoral.]]> Paul Poteat’s 13-year-old daughter is the only one in her class without a smartphone.

“They give the students 10 minutes at the end of the day when they can be on their phones, and she is sitting there looking around as every other person is on their phone,” said Poteat, who is the Midwest network director for Campus Outreach.

Poteat and his wife aren’t withholding a smartphone from their daughter because they want her to be lonely and bored at the end of the school day. They’re doing it because they’ve done their homework. They’ve thought and talked about how to handle their phones. And they think social media should come with a warning label.

TGC talked with Poteat about what social media is selling, why it seems like the Matrix, and how to get out.

How do you talk to college students about their use of social media?

Philip Morris, which is the largest producer of cigarettes, is worth about $165 billion. The brewing company Anheuser-Busch is worth about $110 billion. Retail giant Target is worth $75 billion.

Facebook platforms—which include Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus—are worth $538 billion.

I ask my students, “How much money have you given to social media?” And, of course, they haven’t. Then I tell them, “What is social media selling? They’re selling you. You are the product. And they’re selling you to companies that will solicit your interest and your consumption. That’s where Facebook makes its money.”

Social media can be used for good or for bad, but it isn’t amoral. It’s being controlled by someone, and that person—or corporation, or algorithm—is seeking to control you. What I’m trying to help students understand is that they’re in the Matrix. They have to be aware of what’s happening to them.

Social media can be used for good or for bad, but it isn’t amoral.

How do you know if you’re stuck in the Matrix—if you’re addicted to social media?

If you’re a recovering alcoholic, then you’d work hard not to go to a bar. If you were trying to kick nicotine, you’d pay at the pump rather than going inside the gas station. But it’s harder when you’re addicted to your phone, because it’s always on you, and you use it as a phone, clock, calendar, calculator, and more. And every notification is tapping you on the shoulder.

I ask students to go into their phones to check their screen time. These are Christian students who are looking to pursue God in their lives. And they’re on their phones five to six hours a day. They’re getting 300 notifications a day, picking it up 120 times a day. I don’t think people are aware of this. Even if you take away the time spent on phone calls or listening to an audiobook, they’re still on there, on social media, for two to three hours a day.

What I want for them is awareness. And once they’re aware, we can ask, “How do we walk forward?” It’s not just about what you’re doing on social media, but it’s what you could be doing with the time it’s taking up.

I try to help them understand how powerful the technology rule is in their life—in my life too. We can’t begin to take steps away until we realize it’s a problem.

But even after we realize it’s a problem, we’re still in trouble, aren’t we? There isn’t a Social Media Users Anonymous. What can we do?

The students will say about their time spent or pickups, “Oh, man, that’s embarrassing. But is it really harming my life? How bad is it?”

Occasionally, they’ll be up for the challenge of taking a week without social media. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch recommends going screen-free for an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year, which I’ve really appreciated and tried to implement.

After a week or so, the students go back, and it isn’t long before they’re back to their original habits. Unless you cut it off completely, it’s hard to do more than white-knuckle it for a season.

In Matthew, Jesus talks about a demon who is removed from a person and wanders around, but when he comes back, he brings seven more demons with him (Matt. 12:44–45). The way I take that is, if all you do is get the demon out of the house, and you don’t fill the house with something, it’ll come back worse than it was before. It’s not good enough just to get rid of social media addiction—what are you replacing it with?

It’s not good enough just to get rid of social media addiction—what are you replacing it with?

For example, while the other kids get their smartphone time at school, my daughter finishes her homework. After she gets home, when the other kids are working, she’s playing outside. We’re replacing screen time with outside play.

Paul also talks about putting on and putting off—putting off sin, vice, the old self; putting on Christ, the armor of God, the new self.

In Colossians 3, we’re told to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Honestly, those sound like the opposite of what social media creates—apathy, meanness, pride, self-promotion, and hurry. So the putting on that’s necessary is actually something that social media is somewhat antithetical to.

Could you use social media and the internet to put on virtue? If you could do that, you’d be using it well.

Finding Rest for Your Soul Thu, 30 Jun 2022 04:04:50 +0000 For pastors, rest is not an option; it’s an imperative for the soul.]]> “We’re like sprinters. We’re hurtling down the track at top speed, giving it our best, giving it our all. But, we’re not made of titanium, and we can’t live at full stretch all the time. We must pull back and be replenished, and experience rejuvenation for the next big push.” —Ray Ortlund

In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry address the need for pastors to rest. In a time fraught with fragmentation, with a heartbreaking number of pastors collapsing under the weight of leadership in these circumstances, rest is not an option—it’s an imperative for the soul.

• Introductions (0:00)
• Favorite foods (2:19)
• We’re like sprinters (3:49)
• Rest is not just a part of the fallen world (5:50)
• We don’t have to rest perfectly (7:19)
• We need regular renewal (10:51)
• “Go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” (14:17)
• Where we find refreshment (18:14)
• Recommended resource: The Death of Porn by Ray Ortlund (20:50)

Breaking Bread with Calvin and His ‘Institutes’ Thu, 30 Jun 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Reading great works from church history like Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ may seem daunting—but it’s worth the effort. Here are 10 things to know before you start.]]> In his recent book Breaking Bread with the Dead [read TGC’s review], Alan Jacobs offers advice for achieving a “more tranquil mind”—a thing devoutly to be wished. At the heart of the book is the following insight: the more substantially we’re in touch with the past, the more effectively we’ll avoid being “trapped” in the “social structure and life patterns” all around us (14).

Like C. S. Lewis, who famously urged us to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” by reading old books, Jacobs argues that “you can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion” unless you regularly step away from it (23). For Christians, this means attentively reading (and rereading) the great works of the church’s history.

But, let’s face it, reading Augustine’s City of God, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost can be hard work. Helpful resources exist for potential readers, of course. You’re more likely to hang in there with the great, big books if those who have gone before us can reduce the friction (as it were) by telling you what to expect.

In that spirit, I’d like to point out some landmarks from a recent reading of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), one of those great works of the Christian past and a daunting tome to encounter. Think of the following as lessons learned—things I wish someone had told me before I took the plunge.

1. Calvin had a vast knowledge of Scripture.

Calvin often used the Institutes to address issues that didn’t fit into his sermons or commentaries. Scholars suggest interacting with all three genres—Institutes, commentaries, and sermons—to get the full picture. No doubt they’re correct, but Calvin’s interaction with the Bible bleeds over from his exegetical labors into the Institutes. Watch for his wide and deep knowledge of Scripture. Seeing it operate in a work of this scale is marvelous to behold.

2. Calvin engaged church history deeply.

Calvin understood that being a Christian meant being connected to all Christians who had gone before. In addition to theologians of his own day, Calvin read (widely) among the church fathers and (not quite as widely) among the medievals.

Reading widely allowed Calvin to bring the debates of the past into conversation with the controversies of the present.

This allowed him to bring the debates of the past into conversation with the controversies of the present and, by considering how the church and her theologians had previously engaged those issues, to move his readers through confusion toward conclusions.

3. Calvin was formed as a Renaissance thinker (rather than an academic theologian).

This is important because the way we’re formed intellectually determines our approach to many topics; pedagogical methods aren’t neutral. Herman Selderhuis suggests that Calvin’s training freed him “to a certain extent, from the intrinsic and formal ballast that the average theologian received from the study of scholastic handbooks.” This is seen most strikingly in Calvin’s effort to read the Old and New Testaments in their original languages and to understand the words in their biblical context. This led him to read and reflect theologically upon Scripture in different (and sometimes superior) ways than those around him.

4. There’s not a lot of Calvin in the Institutes.

I don’t recall any personal anecdotes. Some of his contemporaries—Luther, for instance—rarely hesitated to insert themselves into their writing, but Calvin, who famously sought a life of reclusive scholarship before being called to public service in the church, stayed out of the limelight. In fact, he’s hardly even in the shadows. This is all the more notable given that, as an author, Calvin’s voice is quite distinct. Yet despite frequently addressing both his readers and his adversaries, Calvin operates ministerially, in service to God and his church.

5. The Institutes are not a systematic theology.

Calvin built upon the frame of the Apostles’ Creed. The entire work is divided into four “books” following the Creed, devoted to the God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and the church. So describing the Institutes as a systematic theology wouldn’t be the worst mistake ever, but we should keep in mind two of Calvin’s specific goals. First, this isn’t primarily an academic work for professional theologians but a handbook for pastors laboring in the trenches of parish ministry. Second, the Institutes have an edge to them; they’re an apologetic for biblical Christianity, a polemic against false teaching, and an argument to persuade the unconvinced.

6. The Institutes are big. Really big.

To be sure, that adjective applies to impact, influence, and importance, but for the moment I primarily want to emphasize that the Institutes are long. English translations of the “definitive” 1559 edition range from about 1,300 to over 1,600 pages. And Calvin doesn’t serve up fluff.

It’s difficult to imagine the acuity of the mind that thought all of these thoughts and presented them in this way. We live in a world of short attention spans and struggles to focus. That just won’t do for the Institutes.

7. Despite its size, the work is tightly organized.

Calvin clearly knows where he’s going and when he’ll address each issue. Anyone who has ever written a long article or essay—let alone tackled a book-length project—will know the challenge of keeping everything in its place, avoiding repetition, and introducing each concept at first appearance. Calvin does this majestically on a grand scale as well as anyone I’ve ever read.

8. You may be surprised at the lack of theological fireworks.

Much of what Calvin says has gained widespread acceptance. Yet he was the first Protestant author to produce an overview of Christian belief that was so exegetically grounded, so vast in scope, and so internally coherent. If you read the Institutes and find yourself thinking, “What’s the big deal? Isn’t this just what Christians believe?” then you’re not testifying to the fact that Calvin is derivative but rather he’s showing his deep influence. What wasn’t obvious or common in his own day has become so because of him.

9. The Institutes do not focus on predestination.

Those who have been reared to view “Calvinism” as equivalent to the so-called Five Points will find themselves sorely disappointed. It’s not that Calvin doesn’t teach predestination or even that the doctrines of grace aren’t important to his theological system. They are. But they constitute one small piece of a much larger project aiming at a much larger goal than convincing readers that divine election of sinners dead in their trespasses occurred before the world’s foundation and on the basis of God’s mere good pleasure.

10. Calvin intended the Institutes to promote piety and devotion.

That may seem an odd claim for a work that contains so much theological precision. But Calvin believed that the better God’s people understood Scripture, the more they would love the God whom Scripture revealed. In Calvin’s vision of the Christian life, doctrine and piety were not opposed to one another. In this, as in so much else, Calvin and his Institutes have shown themselves to be faithful guides for the church.

Belong to the Church

OK, I admit that not every Christian will or ought to read the Institutes. But reading books like this should be part of the life of every congregation. And the conversations that flow out of those readings ought to be applied to Christian life in the local context.

Works like Calvin’s masterpiece don’t belong to a small subset of trained pastors and theologians, much less to the secular academy. They belong to the church. And reading them ties the church of this century to all of those that have come before. Reading them weighs us down so that the winds of doctrine won’t push us off course quite so easily (Eph. 4:14).

How Social Media Use Can Rival God Thu, 30 Jun 2022 04:02:00 +0000 There’s a way to use social media that reflects God. And there’s a way to use it that rivals him. Wisdom seeks the first way.]]> We might attempt to build a framework for how to use social media by making a study of negative patterns to avoid. But the Bible reminds us that wisdom begins in a very specific place: with the fear of the Lord (Ps. 111:10).

It was the fear of the Lord that Adam and Eve lost sight of in the garden. When the serpent suggested to Eve that she eat the forbidden fruit, he promised her a benefit that was exceedingly strange: “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Be like God? She already was! God had formed humankind in his image, after his likeness. If they were already God’s reflectors, what did the fruit stand to gain them?

What the serpent offered was knowledge that would cause the humans not to reflect God, but to rival him. He offered them a kind of knowing that was not meant to be known by limited creatures, but only by God himself. They weren’t built for it. It would certainly crush them. Yet the draw to surpass their God-given limits overcame the desire to bear his image as they were made to do. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s a way to use social media that reflects God. And there’s a way to use it that rivals him. Wisdom seeks the first way. But how, specifically, does social media draw us into rivalry instead of reflection? Let me suggest three truths we deny when we use it unwisely.

1. We are changeable; God is not.

Consider how unlike us God is when it comes to mutability. God is unchanging. He is un-influenceable. He never reads a social media post and alters what he thinks or how he acts. He has never once redecorated or changed his fashion sense. The Rock of Ages is eternally the same. He transcends our changing times, governing them with the steady hand of his immutable rule.

We, on the other hand, are open to influence, able to be swayed. Think about your daily life for a minute. How has social media affected it? What did you see there that shaped what’s in your pantry, your medicine cabinet, your workout routine, your wardrobe, or your home decor? Now think about your thought life. What current events or faith discussions have been shaped by what you’ve seen on social media? We cannot help but be shaped by what we look at.

We cannot help but be shaped by what we look at.

Social media forms malleable humans into an image. How Christians use it determines whether it yields us well-formed or malformed. Where we cast our gaze, and for how long, influences not just how we live but who we are. We dare not tell ourselves that we are unaffected by what we fix our eyes upon. Instead, we must steward the fact of our imitative design to yield the fruit of righteousness.

2. We are time-bound; God is not.

Time-wasting has always been a temptation for humans, and an addictive one at that. A desire to lose our sense of the passage of time is evidence that we want to be like God in an unhealthy way. We subconsciously covet his eternality. We tell ourselves that there’s plenty of time and we can spend it without thought.

But only God is capable of existing outside the bounds of time. Only God can dispense of his duties without the tyranny of the clock. He sets no reminders or alarms, and he acts at just the right time all the time, with no forgetfulness or sloth. He created us to live according to a timeline and to number our days with accuracy so that we would use them wisely (Ps. 90:12).

For time-bound humans, all time spent on social media is time that will not be spent elsewhere. We dare not tell ourselves that we can afford an unlimited or unbudgeted use of social media, even if we use it in profitable ways. And we dare not ignore its addictive nature. As with all things that promise us we can be like God, its pull will be strong. Those who think soberly about social media use will lash themselves to the masthead of godly wisdom so that their limited time is spent well.

3. We have bodies; God does not.

God is spirit, and because this is true, he’s able to be present everywhere. The implications of this are many, but for the purpose of our present discussion, consider the relational significance of God’s omnipresence. He’s able to create and sustain an unlimited number of personal relationships with others. But what is relationally possible for God is relationally impossible for his image-bearers.

When God made us, he joined our spirits to physical bodies. A body is a set of limits. It’s the reason we can only be in one place at one time. Because we’re not omnipresent, we can only create and sustain a limited number of relationships. We know this intuitively. It’s why we prioritize time with some people over time with others. We categorize people according to depth of relationship: family, friend, acquaintance. We speak of work-life balance as a means to ensure we’re physically present with those we hold closest, recognizing that we can either be present at work or present at home, but not both.

Social media offers us a sense that we’re not limited to one place at a time.

Social media offers us a sense that we’re not limited to one place at a time. It suggests that we, like God, can create and sustain a virtually unlimited number of relationships. If we fail to recognize that a friend on Facebook is not the same as a friend face-to-face, we’ll allocate precious proximity to screens instead of to actual, embodied humans.

Reshaping Our Habits

If we want to be wise about social media use, and if the fear of the Lord truly is the beginning of wisdom, we’ll begin to reshape our habits by reminding ourselves that only God is immutable, eternal, and omnipresent—and by reminding ourselves that we are not.

Thus is resolved our first and most vital social dilemma: that God is ours to reflect but not to rival. With our identity as image-bearers firmly in view, we’re free to partake of social media in ways that don’t define who we are or why we’re here. We are made in God’s image for his glory.

Gospel Light in the Red Light District Thu, 30 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 The COVID shutdown allowed women to rest and to dream about life outside the sex industry.]]> In March 2019, God began stirring my husband’s heart and mine about possibly relocating from Memphis, Tennessee, to Amsterdam, Netherlands, through my husband’s job. His employer has an office here, and at the time, it was just a wild idea that quickly became a wide-open door from the Lord.

After a few short months of deliberation, we sold our home and most of our belongings and moved our family of six to the Netherlands. While my husband’s job was our means of getting here, we knew that God had a plan for our family, and we wanted to be faithful. We began praying for opportunities to be involved in what God was already doing in the Netherlands.

We began praying for opportunities to be involved in what God was already doing.

After settling into our new surroundings, God opened the door for ministry in the Red Light District. God had been burdening my heart for victims of sex trafficking, but I honestly wasn’t sure where to start. One Sunday morning at our church, I was providentially connected to a woman visiting from the U.S. who runs Countervail Group, a nonprofit organization serving victims of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

For several years, she regularly traveled to the Netherlands to build relationships with women, meet their physical needs, and connect them to resources that would empower them to find freedom outside of the district, with the ultimate hope of finding true freedom in Christ. Later that Sunday evening, I walked with her in the Red Light District, learning more about reaching these women.

COVID in the Red Light District

Shortly after she returned to the U.S., the world shut down due to COVID-19. While this meant my friend was unable to return, I was able to go in her place.

Through the connections I made in the Red Light District two weeks prior, I was able to meet real needs for groceries as these women found themselves suddenly without income due to the national lockdown. It started with a couple of women and then began to grow, and with support from my church, I delivered groceries weekly to several women.

This was a massive opportunity to build relationships and establish trust with these precious women outside their work environment. Every encounter was covered in prayer as all of this was very new to me, and I was learning as I went. The women were very grateful for the food, and several graciously opened their homes and invited me inside each week for tea and good conversation.

These women can be guarded, and trust can take a long time to build, but it was sweet to see God doing just that as I arrived each week with a bag of groceries. Each delivery was unique to each girl, considering her requests and preferences, and included a handwritten note of encouragement to remind her of hope.

Spiritual Conversations

The more I got to know these women and heard their stories, the more God began growing in me a heart of love and compassion for them. Most women working in the Amsterdam sex industry come from Eastern Europe. Typically, these countries practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity or Catholicism, so most women would identify with these religions.

I’ve found they are open to spiritual conversations and have often asked me to pray for them. It became my practice to pray with them each time we visited. One particular friend commented that my prayers were so personal. I think they’ve only ever seen religion as a list of rules and merely a formality, so a genuine relationship with God is very foreign to them.

God gave many women an opportunity to dream of life outside the Red Light—and several were able to make that dream a reality.

I have seen God bring several of these friends out of prostitution. I’m still praying for their ultimate salvation, but I’m thankful for what God is doing in their lives and have seen how he is drawing them to himself. COVID provided much-needed rest for these women, and God used it for their good, as it gave them an opportunity to dream of life outside the Red Light—and several were able to make that dream a reality.

Light in the Darkness

Since COVID regulations ended earlier this year in the Netherlands, the Red Light District is again open for business. Today, my primary way of connecting with more women is through weekly walks through the district. Sometimes it involves gifts that friends and I distribute. Other times we just do a prayer walk, asking God to allow fruitful conversations with the girls that can lead to further opportunities to connect outside of their workplace. Each time we visit the Red Light District, my prayer is that God would use us to bring light into the darkness.

During the past two years, God has been faithful to equip me as I walk by faith. I still battle feelings of inadequacy for this work, but I’m often reminded that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Along the way, God has been gracious enough to raise others to walk this road with me, and I’m genuinely thankful not to do it alone.

Results can sometimes feel slow, but I’m learning and reminding myself often that God is responsible for the outcome—I’m just called to be obedient. I’m genuinely grateful for the opportunity to be part of what God is doing in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.

When the Mob Shows Up the Monday After Roe Wed, 29 Jun 2022 12:00:53 +0000 Three days after Roe was overturned, a crowd of protesters attacked the office buildings of a church and pregnancy center in Portland, Oregon.]]> About 7:00 p.m. on Monday, three days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, between 75 and 100 people assembled at a park near the church I pastor in Portland, Oregon. In broad daylight, they marched to our office building two blocks away.

Half of that block is occupied by our building, which in addition to our church offices contains a nonprofit community-oriented coffee shop, an art studio, and offices rented to a variety of Christian ministries. Our largest tenant is First Image, the local crisis pregnancy and post-abortion care ministry. There is no crisis pregnancy center on-site, merely their administrative and executive offices. The other half of the city block comprises church-owned housing, occupied by church members and staff.

The Hinson Baptist Church office building in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Mark Whitcomb

The crowd marched around the entire city block, chanting the sort of slogans you’ve heard on the news since Roe was overturned. There was a heavy police presence in the neighborhood, as this had been openly organized with calls for violence and “direct action.” The authorities had warned us a couple of hours earlier, so most of our ground floor tenants had already removed sensitive or personal belongings.

As the crowd approached, the people contracted to board up the ground floor windows understandably and wisely withdrew, the job only half-finished. After circling the block, a group of well-prepared and fully masked individuals broke off. Using umbrellas and masks to shield their identities from security cameras, they smashed almost every ground-floor window on the side of the building that hadn’t yet been boarded up and covered the building in vile graffiti aimed specifically at Christians.

The damage was done in just moments. With the rest of the marchers, whose mass largely shielded the vandals from view, they then marched back to the park, shedding their black Antifa-style clothing on the way. They got in their cars and left, but not before some drove around the block, taunting the police, calling them “pigs,” and telling them to solve “real” crimes.

The level of organization and coordination was striking, including sending a “scout” 30 minutes before the rally to photograph the security cameras and note how to avoid being identified.

The Aftermath

One reporter covering the event was assaulted by several in the crowd with umbrellas and mace, but thankfully was not seriously hurt. A few window A/C units were damaged, and there’s a lot of glass to replace and graffiti to remove. But in answer to the prayers of many, there was no fire, no serious injuries, and no further attempts to damage the building. We don’t take this for granted. A little more than two weeks ago, one of the centers operated by First Image in a nearby suburb was firebombed and declared a total loss.

By 8:00 p.m., police tape cordoned off the entire building, and security guards remained present throughout the night.

The community coffee shop run by Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Mark Whitcomb

As I stood on the other side of the tape that night, one of my associate pastors who lives on the block walked out of his backyard. It was filled with non-Christian neighbors who were shaken up by the event. He and his wife were comforting them and using the opportunity to explain our hope in Christ.

Then the manager of our coffee shop walked up to me. She told me of all the regulars who would arrive in the morning. Many of them, she said, would express sympathy and concern. We thought together of what she and her staff could say in response that would make clear that while we’re not surprised—Jesus warned us of the world’s hatred—we’re not filled with hatred in return.

We love our city and our neighborhood because Jesus loved us and loves them too. Our neighbors sense this, even if they don’t understand it. Why else would several of them show up late that night to offer help, wood, and tools as we boarded up the broken windows? Their distress at our trouble and readiness to help us wasn’t because they agree with us. But it could be because they’ve seen our “good works” and so “give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16; see also 1 Pet. 2:12).

Gospel Opportunities

This morning, clean-up continues. Thankfully, the offices of the crisis pregnancy ministry were the ones boarded up in time, so their work can continue without interruption. Our community coffee shop was able to open. Just as we expected, many of our non-Christian neighbors and regulars have expressed real sympathy.

Our staff is praying for gospel conversations and gospel opportunities to come out of what can only be described as persecution—especially with our neighbors who do not share our politics, our ethics, or our faith, but who share our sadness at the violation of a shared neighborhood space and the unjust treatment of people they know.

The Hinson Baptist Church office building in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Mark Whitcomb

We’ve been told that this may not be the end; the authorities are unsure how long actions like this will persist. We know we need to stay alert to the possibility of further violence and harassment in the coming weeks and months. As we do, we also pray:

  • That our staff and members would seize every opportunity for the gospel. Many people are asking us this morning how we’re doing, and every one of those conversations is an opportunity to explain our hope in Christ.
  • For the physical safety of our staff and members, as well as the staff of First Image, who were the primary target of the violence.
  • That we’d have wisdom as we cooperate with the police in their investigation. The desire for temporal justice and the desire for gospel mercy for the guilty are not incompatible.
  • That our members and staff, especially our coffee shop workers, would continue to have an open, welcoming, hospitable attitude toward our neighborhood. As persecution goes, this was mild, and we’re not surprised because Jesus warned us of it (John 15:20). But we don’t want this to be an opportunity for the enemy to sow seeds of fear, bitterness, or suspicion that would cause us to pull back. We want to be those who demonstrate the truth and power of the gospel as we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44).

As relevant as those prayers are this morning, let’s remember that they’re relevant every morning in a world that is hostile to the hope of the gospel, whether or not the mob shows up.

Help! Should I Enforce Nonsensical Rules at Work? Wed, 29 Jun 2022 04:03:00 +0000 As Christians, we can embrace the need for discretion.]]> My job requires me to oversee and enforce the implementation of various regulations. Some of those regulations are good, some are impractical, and some are so poorly thought out they actually contradict one another. My boss has basically told us which regulations to follow and which to ignore. His choices make sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being dishonest by not following the letter of the laweven when the law seems wrongheaded. What should I do?

It’s right for you to wrestle with these questions. Wisdom in life means encountering situations where there is no single right answer (Prov. 26:4–5) and may even mean choosing between two bad options—like whether or not to enforce impractical or poorly-thought-out policies.

To begin, we need to back up a step and strive to understand why the rules were made in the first place. That way we won’t inadvertently introduce more problems, or miss whatever benefit the rules were meant to accomplish.

In a perfect world, policies and regulations would be flawlessly designed to maximize flourishing for those “on the ground.” The people and organizations determining policies, rules, norms, and laws would be perfectly informed and would have the same perfect objectives and incentives as those affected by the policies. There would never be a question of how to enforce these perfect policies.

Until Jesus returns, that’s not the world we live in. Policies, norms, and laws will be imperfect for many reasons.

Until Jesus returns, policies, norms, and laws will be imperfect for many reasons.

To start, the people at the top of any organization might be imperfectly informed, with misaligned incentives and organizational inertia that keep them from making the best policies. We shouldn’t be surprised if certain regulations just don’t make sense. Worse, as Ecclesiastes says, we should not be surprised if “in the place of justice—wickedness [is] there” (Eccles. 3:16, NIV) and laws and regulations reflect that.

But even in the best of cases, when policies are set by well-intentioned and well-informed people, we should expect occasional disconnects between the letter of the law—as it’s written or would be enforced—and the intentions behind it. That’s because it’s impossible to plan for every contingency or event. Any policy is necessarily “incomplete” in the sense that you cannot specify what should be done in every scenario. That leaves gaps and requires discretion. For example, how many churches had contingency plans in 2019 for a year filled with a global pandemic, social unrest, and political upheaval?

Layers of Authority

Your manager is granted the authority to determine how to manage you, and that might mean determining which laws or regulations to enforce and how. I’ve heard it said that some jobs are “responsible for running interference between the employees and the people setting policy.” That might sound absurd, but it starts to make sense if, for example, the state-wide policy doesn’t match the needs of a particular locality—because it’s more urban or more rural, or more diverse or less diverse, or for any number of other reasons—even if it might make sense for the state.

Think of it this way: In football, the coach calls the plays, but every so often the quarterback can call an audible, changing the play if he sees something on the field that the coach didn’t—perhaps he reads the defense and sees a blitz coming. The quarterback is granted the authority to occasionally override the coach’s decision if the situation warrants it. But a quarterback who calls an audible every play doesn’t understand his job or how the system worksthere is something that the coach has planned or that the coach knows and the quarterback doesn’t. But a quarterback that never calls an audible probably doesn’t understand his job either.

Situations change. Policies that once made sense might not make sense when the world changes. Your manager might wisely and responsibly be doing the best he or she can to adapt. In an imperfect world, we should expect that employees and managers will be required to exercise discretion at times.

Policies that once made sense might not make sense when the world changes. Your manager might wisely and responsibly be doing the best he or she can to adapt.

The good news for you is that your manager is the one responsible for those decisions, not you—just like the quarterback, not just any player, is the one that can call an audible. He or she might make a bad decision, but you’re not necessarily responsible for that. You should still exercise discretion—perhaps you have your own ability to call audibles—but you should also submit to your manager’s authority. (Of course, if your boss’s decisions didn’t make sense, then this would be a different discussion.)

Christian View of Law

As Christians, we can embrace this need for discretion. Jesus did. In fact, Jesus enhanced the implementation of the law, going beyond the way it was commonly observed and enforced. He told the Pharisees, “Tithe your mint and cumin but also do justice” (Matt. 23:23) and he intensified the meaning of murder and adultery in ways that the current regulation completely missed (Matt. 5:17–48).

In other cases, without doing away with a jot or tittle of the law, Jesus clarified people’s understanding of the law. The Pharisees forbade healing or picking grain on the Sabbath, but Jesus pointed out that the way they implemented the law actually kept them from following the spirit of the Sabbath. By obeying man-made traditions, the Pharisees were actually disobeying God. There was a higher authority that overrode how laws were observed, and Jesus did not hesitate to intervene.

Your manager is not Jesus. But to the extent that your boss’s choices make sense, you can celebrate those decisions as God’s common grace, and you can have a clear conscience in doing your job.

The FAQs: SCOTUS Upholds Religious Freedom in Praying Coach Case Wed, 29 Jun 2022 04:02:57 +0000 The Supreme Court has once again reaffirmed that American believers do not need to leave their faith aside when they enter the public square.]]> What just happened?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, a religious liberty case involving a Washington State high school football coach who lost his job because he prayed silently on the 50-yard line after a football game. The decision states, “The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”

What was the case about?

In 2015, the school district of Bremerton, Washington, sent assistant coach Joseph Kennedy a letter saying that praying on the field after a recent football game was unacceptable. In their letter to him, the school district gave two reasons.

First, that during the time he was praying on the field after the game, Kennedy was neglecting his responsibility to supervise what his players were doing. Second, that his conduct would lead a reasonable observer to think the district was endorsing religion because he’d prayed while “on the field, under the game lights, in BHS-logoed attire, in front of an audience of event attendees.”

After two subsequent games, Kennedy again kneeled on the field and prayed, and the superintendent then wrote to inform him that he was being placed on leave and was forbidden to participate in any capacity in the school football program. The superintendent’s letter reiterated the two reasons given in the previous letter.

A federal court found the firing to be justified, as did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in 2019, but the justices said it was unclear whether Kennedy had been fired for neglect of duties or because he was praying. The school district later agreed that the coach had lost his job solely because of his religious expression, but the Ninth Circuit still upheld the termination.

The Ninth Circuit ruling deemed that virtually all speech by public school employees was government speech and thus lacked any First Amendment protection. The determination implied that even if Kennedy’s prayer was private expression protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, the Establishment Clause nevertheless required its suppression. This determination was what Justice Alito had clearly said was a misreading of legal precedent, which is why the Supreme Court agreed in 2021 to hear the case.

What legal questions were considered in this case?

The questions the court was asked to consider are

1. whether a public school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and

2. whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, the Establishment Clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.

Who wrote the opinion for the court and how did the justices vote?

The vote in the ruling was 6–3. Justice Gorsuch wrote the opinion of the court and was joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Barrett. Justice Kavanaugh also joined the majority opinion except for Part III–B. Justices Thomas and Alito wrote concurring opinions. Justice Sotomayor authored the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan.

What was the court’s reasoning?

In the majority decision, Justice Gorsuch said, “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.”

Based on Supreme Court precedents, Coach Kennedy merely had to show that his free exercise of religion had been violated by a policy of a government entity that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable.”

“In this case, the District’s challenged policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable,” says Gorsuch. “Prohibiting a religious practice was thus the District’s unquestioned ‘object.’ The District candidly acknowledged as much below, conceding that its policies were ‘not neutral’ toward religion.”

Gorsuch noted that the speech rights of public school employees are not “so boundless that they may deliver any message to anyone anytime they wish.” Public employees are not shielded when their speech is part of their official duties since “that kind of speech is—for constitutional purposes at least—the government’s own speech.”

But as Gorsuch added, “It seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy has demonstrated that his speech was private speech, not government speech.”

What is the significance of this ruling for Christians and believers of other religious faiths?

In a broad sense, this ruling adds another brick in the Supreme Court’s foundational support for religious freedom. In the past decade, almost 20 rulings have been issued that protect the expression of faith by religious believers. While it can be tempting to look at the current trend and see this case as having been a foregone conclusion, we should not take this outcome for granted. We should give thanks to God for this ruling since “every good gift and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).

In a narrower sense, this ruling helps to reinforce a commonsense view of the Establishment Clause. No one truly believed that in praying after a football game Coach Kennedy was “establishing a religion” in Washington State. But such absurd claims were made in trying to find a legal rationale for preventing a public school employee from engaging in religious activity—praying in public—which the school district appears to have found embarrassing or unbecoming. Legal scholar Ed Whelan points out,

The district suggests that any visible religious conduct by a teacher or coach should be deemed—without more and as a matter of law— impermissibly coercive on students. Such a rule would be a sure sign that our Establishment Clause jurisprudence had gone off the rails. In the name of protecting religious liberty, the district would have us suppress it. Rather than respect the First Amendment’s double protection for religious expression, it would have us preference secular activity.

By explaining that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses work in conjunction, rather than in opposition, the court has reaffirmed that American believers do not need to leave their faith aside when they enter the public square.

People I’m Proud of This Month Wed, 29 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Rebecca McLaughlin’s Pride Month message: If you’re choosing Jesus over same-sex sexuality, I’m so proud of you.]]> I glanced to my right at church and saw a dear friend worshiping. I felt a jolt of joy. Three years ago, she was engaged to her college girlfriend. She’d grown up in the church but said she’d honestly learned more about the patterns on the ceiling of the building than she’d learned about the Bible. The day she told her parents she was definitely staying with her girlfriend, she got a tattoo of Romans 8:28 on her ankle: “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” She was sure God couldn’t be against her following her heart.

But two weeks after getting engaged, she woke up feeling sure she couldn’t go through with their plan. Since ending things with her fiancée, she’d started coming to our church and eating up the things she heard. I’ve watched her grow in her discipleship more like a bamboo shoot than a weed.

I’m so proud of her.

In the same quick glance, I saw another friend. He’s been a Christian all his life, and he’s been attracted to other guys since early adolescence. When I first started talking about my own lifelong experience of same-sex attraction, he was surprised. He’d met other Christians in the same boat, but they’d all come from different churches. “I thought each church had one of us,” he laughed, “and that I was the one!”

As a single man who loves the Lord but would almost certainly be married to another man if he did not, Pride Month is always hard for my friend, and I’m so proud of him.

This afternoon, I’ll take my kids for an informal Bible class with my closest Christian friend. Rachel came to Christ when she was an undergrad at Yale after her high school girlfriend dumped her. She’d previously identified as an atheist. But Jesus had other plans for her life. Now she’s leading theological development on LGBT+ questions for the largest campus ministry in the world, writing and speaking on sexuality and Scripture, and pursuing a PhD in public theology so she can serve the church even better long-term. She’s one of the most Bible-soaked people I know, and the more she’s learned about the Scriptures since her conversion, the more she’s been sure they’re clear that same-sex marriage is off-limits for believers—not because God is stingy, but because he is so rich in love that he gives us glimpses of his love in different kinds of relationship.

Her ministry is a blessing to thousands, her friendship is a blessing to me, and I’m so proud of her.

Earlier this month, I had the joy of speaking at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference. After a session that touched on both race and sexuality, a woman came up to me to talk. As a black woman who had (as she put it) lived for many years in the LGBT+ community, she was eager for people to recognize that race and sexuality are very different things that cannot be tangled up together, and for more Christians to grasp what the Bible says about each with both conviction and compassion. After we chatted, she said, “I’m a hugger, can I hug you?” “Yes please,” I replied.

This sister has put her whole life into Jesus’s hands, and I’m so proud of her.

Later, after a panel on sex, a white woman with tattoos all up her arms came to talk to me. “I lived in the LGBT community for a decade, and I’ve only recently come to Christ,” she said. “Welcome, sister!” I replied. “I’d love to hear more of your story.” She shared that she’d nearly died in a car crash, and that she had been in love with a Christian woman, who had told her, “I can’t give you romantic love, but I can give you sisterhood. You need to choose.” “I chose sisterhood,” she said.

This woman has trusted Jesus with her heart, and I’m so proud of her.

I looked up and recognized another sister toward the back of the line of people who wanted to talk. I’d spoken for the church where this woman serves on staff. I smiled at her and waved. Like me, she has a lifelong experience of same-sex attraction, but she knows that Jesus’s love is better than anyone else’s. When she got to the front of the line, she told me her name, in case I’d forgotten. I hugged her and said, “Of course I remember you!”

She’s serving Jesus with her whole heart and trusting he’s for real when he says that anyone who wants to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses her life for his sake will find it, and I’m so proud of her.

She has a lifelong experience of same-sex attraction, but she knows that Jesus’s love is better than anyone else’s.

I woke last Monday to an email from a brother who is serving Jesus as a single man. He’s writing and speaking on a host of issues, not least on sexuality, as he’s always been attracted to men and not women. He’s faithful and funny and humble and smart—the kind of pastor we’d all want.

I love him as a brother, and I’m so proud of him.

As friends and siblings like these dear men and women walk through Pride Month, they don’t feel a lack of comprehension about why so many in our culture who identify as LGBT+ want to celebrate their sexuality. They get it. Many who are celebrating this month will have grown up in communities where they felt like they couldn’t be both known and loved. Many have hidden their desires for years, hearing slurs against gay and lesbian people and fearing people knowing how they felt. Many have grown up in churches where same-sex attraction was mocked and vilified as something a good Christian girl or boy could not possibly experience. Being able to speak out feels like freedom, gasping for air, being seen and known and loved at last.

Many in our culture who are celebrating this month have grown up in communities where they felt like they couldn’t be both known and loved.

If you, like me, are a Christian who deeply believes that the Bible is clear on sex only belonging in male-female marriage, our response to this cannot be to compromise on what the Bible says—as if we think we know better than the God who made us, or that we’re somehow more loving than the God who is love (1 John 4:16). But it also cannot be to propagate the patterns that lead many in the church who experience same-sex attraction to feel like they can only be both known and loved after they leave.

The Bible doesn’t call us to less love than the world. It calls us to more. And love means carrying each other’s burdens, hearing each other’s struggles, witnessing each other’s hurt, and believing together that Jesus loves us more than any other man or woman ever could (Gal. 6:2; James 5:16; John 15:12). It means denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following our Lord—including sacrificing romantic dreams and sexual desires when they are calling us away from him (Matt. 16:24).

But it doesn’t mean being alone. Whatever our patterns of attraction and temptation, we’re meant to need each other and to shoulder up, like fellow soldiers (Phil. 2:25 and Philem. 2).

Last week at our community group, my friend with Romans 8:28 tattooed on her ankle showed it to a seeker in our group. My friend said, “When I first got this, I didn’t understand the verse. I thought it was about God getting on board with my agenda. Now I understand it means the opposite.”

If you, like her, like me, and like so many of my friends—male and female, married and single—are choosing Jesus over same-sex sexuality this month, this week, this year, this life, I may not get to meet you. But I’m so proud of you.

Join Us for a ‘Social Sanity’ Book Club Tue, 28 Jun 2022 04:04:00 +0000 If Christ cries ‘Mine!’ over every square inch of creation, that doesn’t exclude Instagram and Facebook. We hope you join us to think through a gospel-centered approach to social media.]]> Yesterday, instead of checking social media, I did a load of laundry. I cleared the dishes off the counter. I made a jug of lemonade. I touched up some paint on the walls where it had gotten scuffed. And I went for a walk with my husband.

I was able to do those things because I’ve deleted my social media accounts—and I’m still in the cage stage, so if we were sitting together over a cup of coffee, I’d try to convince you to quit too. 😂☕

The truth is, you don’t need to quit social media just because I did. But it is wise to think intentionally about the time you spend there, just as you’d be wise to weigh any other activity in your life. How do you feel when you log on? When you log off? Does it help you love your neighbor? Do the people you’re following turn your heart toward the Lord?

There’s much that is good about social media. Women can discover good Bible studies, find kinship in rare life circumstances, and spur one another on toward Christ there. Used well, social media can serve neighbors and glorify God.

Used well, social media can serve neighbors and glorify God.

But there’s also much to watch out for. We can waste our time. We can feel anxious and overwhelmed by burdens we aren’t meant to carry. We can judge others quickly and harshly, envy other people for the lives they’re showcasing, or feel defeated and depressed about the body or home or circumstances God has given us.

Maybe you’re not sure what to think or how to competently evaluate your own social media use. That’s where I was a few months ago. Social media is a mixed bag, and it’s hard to know if the joy in connecting with friends or laughing at memes is worth the guilt over time wasted or the regret for not giving people in your real life your full attention.

Join Us?

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know a great place to start digging into this conversation. Over the past year, a team of eight women—all with different levels of social media engagement, all wise, all following Jesus—wrote a book with me. They each took a chapter, exploring issues such as identity, influence, relationships, and time management. They prayed and thought about the good social media offers, the problems it introduces, and the ways we can align our engagement there with God’s Word.

While writing the book, we discovered two things. First, because we generally use social media on our own, it’s profitable to talk about our experience there with others. A spouse or friend or daughter or mom or sister can verify that we’re not crazy (or gently tell us that yeah, we are a little crazy!) and can see our strengths and weaknesses better than we can.

Second, we realized there was far more to say than could ever fit into a book. As we went along, we kept uncovering new ideas and analogies and insights.

So after we crammed as much as we could into the pages, I sat down with each author to talk more about the ideas in her chapter and how they played out in her real-life Instagram stories or Facebook posts.

I’m thrilled to invite you to join us for these conversations. Here are the details:

👩‍💻 As the videos release, you can find them here:

⏰ Each video is about 45 minutes long.

☝We’ll release one each Thursday, beginning July 14.

📆 We’ll end after nine weeks. (One week for each chapter and the afterword.)

You’re welcome to listen on your own, or you could watch with a group of friends, neighborhood moms, or church ladies. You certainly don’t need to have the book to reap some benefits, but it might be helpful, because nearly everything here is new content, stepping off where the book ends.

Either way, we hope this sparks good ideas, robust discussions, and more healthy habits in your own life.

Why Female Eyewitnesses Authenticate the Resurrection Tue, 28 Jun 2022 04:02:00 +0000 The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s resurrection fail to fit the script of what first-century authors would have made up.]]> The last film my husband and I watched together was called Red Notice. It’s a silly, funny action movie about art thieves trying to steal three bejeweled eggs that the Roman general Mark Antony supposedly gave to Cleopatra 2,000 years ago.

Early in the film, one of the main characters (played by Dwayne Johnson) alerts an art museum in Rome that the egg on display there may have just been stolen. The museum director doesn’t believe him. So, Johnson takes a Coke from a small boy and pours it on the supposedly invaluable metalwork from antiquity. The egg disintegrates.

Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Christian faith lies as dead and entombed as Jesus’s corpse on that first Saturday. The wild claim first heard by his mother Mary, that Jesus is God’s everlasting King, falls flat on its face. There is no truth or hope or life in Christianity if Jesus was not raised.

All four Gospels invite us to see Jesus’s death and resurrection through the eyes of women.

Some scholars, like Bart Ehrman, argue that when we examine the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection, the resurrection claim disintegrates before our eyes, like the Coke-baptized egg. But if we look more closely at the Gospel passages, we find the opposite: not evidence of a fake, but signs of authenticity. One of these signs is that all four Gospels invite us to see Jesus’s death and resurrection through the eyes of women.

Seeing Is Believing

“I’ll believe it when I see it” is one of my husband’s favorite lines. He’s a born-again follower of Jesus, but in other respects, a natural skeptic. Like my husband, historians in Jesus’s day placed a high value on seeing: “I’ll believe it if you saw it” would have been a fitting motto for their guild. With this no doubt in mind, the Gospel authors repeatedly make the women in their final chapters the subjects of seeing verbs. As Richard Bauckham notes,

[The women] “saw” the events as Jesus died (Matt 27:55; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49), they “saw” where he was laid in the tomb (Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), they went on the first day of the week to “see” the tomb (Matt 28:1), they “saw” the stone rolled away (Mark 16:4), they “saw” the young man sitting on the right side (Mark 16:5), and the angel invited them to “see” the empty place where Jesus’ body had lain (Matt 28:6; Mark 16:6).

“It could hardly be clearer,” Bauckham concludes, “that the Gospels are appealing to their role as eyewitnesses.” In light of this, Mary Magdalene’s announcement, “I have seen the Lord,” is doubly significant. Like a modern-day journalist with photo footage to back up her story, she’s standing as an eyewitness of Jesus’s resurrection, not only to the apostles but also to the reader.

Unexpected Eyewitnesses

The fact that all four Gospels make the women central to their resurrection claim appeals to us as 21st-century readers. But it would have had the opposite effect on literate men in the Greco-Roman world. As Bauckham explains, “Women were thought by educated men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive religious practices.”

When he took aim at Mary Magdelene, the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus was voicing what many of his contemporaries would’ve thought:

After death [Jesus] rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery.

From Celsus’s perspective, Mary Magdalene and the other weeping women who witnessed Jesus’s so-called resurrection were a joke. If the Gospel authors had been making up their stories, they could have made Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the first resurrection witnesses: two well-respected men involved in Jesus’s burial. The only possible reason to emphasize the testimony of women—and weeping women at that—is if they really were the witnesses.

The only reason to emphasize the testimony of women—and weeping women at that—is if they really were the witnesses.

At first, even Jesus’s apostles were skeptical. Luke tells us, “It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). These women had traveled with Jesus throughout his ministry. They should have been trusted by his male disciples.

But as usual, the Gospel authors faithfully preserve the apostles’ most mortifying failures: from Peter’s denial that he even knew Jesus (John 18:17–27) to Thomas’s refusal to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw it with his own eyes (John 20:24–29). Again, if the Gospel authors had felt free to fabricate, they surely would not have dreamed up this embarrassing portrayal of key leaders in the early church. But the apostles seem to have embraced these humbling records of their great mistakes, as they threw light on the great triumph of their Savior.

Put to the Test

Like the film Red Notice, the story of the Gospels depends on a claim about something that happened 2,000 years ago. The premise of Red Notice is a fake. As far as anybody knows, Mark Antony didn’t give Cleopatra three bejeweled eggs. The movie is a fun-filled fiction from its beginning to its sequel-setup end.

But the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are the opposite of fake. Indeed, they fail to fit the script of what first-century authors would have made up in a host of ways. They offer us a crucified Messiah whose resurrection was first seen by weeping women, and the more we understand of how biographies were written in that time and place, the clearer it becomes that the Gospel authors are presenting us with life-changing, authentic, unexpected eyewitness testimony.

We may choose not to believe it. But unlike the fake egg in the museum scene, the women’s claim that they saw Jesus crucified, entombed, and raised to life on the third day does not disintegrate when tested. And if it’s true, it’s far more valuable than any ancient artifact. It is the very source of life itself.

Caregivers Suffer from Dementia Too Tue, 28 Jun 2022 04:01:00 +0000 God is caring for you while you are caring for others.]]> Picking up my stethoscope, I walked down the well-lit hallway to see my next patient. I stepped out of the noisy bustle of the emergency room and into the stillness of room C15. Mrs. Smith, who suffers from dementia, lay on the gurney dressed in a pastel-green gown. She slightly turned her head as I entered but otherwise didn’t respond to my questions. Tucked in the corner, her husband sat. He looked exhausted. It had been a long night, a long month, a long year. After finishing the exam, I left the room with a new understanding. I didn’t have one patient, but two. Mrs. Smith and Mr. Smith both needed care.

Dementia, a brain disease that impairs cognition with effects on memory, behavior, and decision-making, afflicts 16 million people in America. But it also affects their families and friends. The typical caregiver is a spouse (25 percent), daughter (39 percent), or son (17 percent). As dementia progresses, caregiving grows into a full-time job. It’s so easy to focus on the dementia sufferer who requires attention—and forget the caregiver who sits in the shadows.

Caregivers, I want to encourage you by recognizing your challenges, exploring biblical comfort, and suggesting practical tips to care well for your loved one.

It’s So Tough

Caregiving for a dementia sufferer is physically demanding. As dementia progresses, caregiving needs multiply. Daily activities like brushing teeth and combing hair take longer. As a caregiver, you might encounter physical limitations (like Mr. Smith being unable to lift Mrs. Smith in and out of the tub). When your sleep is interrupted, you suffer a greater physical toll. Many with dementia struggle at night with sleep from sundowning and increased confusion in the darkness. The constant needs compound in loneliness and isolation. It’s a huge challenge to maintain friendships and church involvement when you cannot leave the house.

Like many caregivers you may be spiritually drained, wondering if anyone else understands your life and feeling guilty for thoughts of anger and resentment. Here in the desert, you can find rest in the shade of God’s right hand and comfort at the cool springs of his Word.

Weary Servant, Hope in God

Doubt thrives in isolation, but God is your “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). God is not just a cheerleader on the sidelines; he’s an active participant with you. He’s caring for you while you’re caring for others. He is “with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). These promises apply not just to his presence but also to his power. As burdens become heavier, his grace abounds all the more as he supplies you with “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:19). The Lord provides both the promises and the power to serve him.

God is caring for you while you are caring for others.

One way to serve God is by caring for others who bear his image. Every human receives worth and value from the Creator (Gen. 1:26), who weaves together each of us in the womb (Ps. 139:13). Your service through caregiving is often done in secret—but God sees and rewards you (Matt. 10:42). He refines and realigns your motivations toward him and away from appreciation from men.

Practical Help for Caregivers

When your heart is centered on God, you can apply practical wisdom in caregiving.

First, consider ways to cultivate thankfulness. Yes, caregiving can be a challenge, but don’t miss the moments of blessing in a smile, a retold story, the grasp of a hand. Write these down to help you remember the little gifts of encouragement God supplies.

Second, display reminders of God’s Word all around to encourage you and your loved one. If the dementia sufferer is a Christian, select well-known verses he might have memorized in childhood. Such early memories stay well preserved.

Third, involve her in your devotions. Read Scripture together. Sing together. In dementia, musical memory remains intact and accessible. Leverage the gift of music to bring joy and recount gospel truths.

In caregiving, self-sufficiency and heroism can creep in so you think you’re the only one who can do it and do it right.

Fourth, involve others in caregiving. Reach out to your church community and pastors to share what’s going on. Do not remain in isolation. Give others an opportunity to serve alongside you. In caregiving, self-sufficiency and heroism can creep in so you think you’re the only one who can do it and do it right. Be humble enough to know your limits; be open to help from others. Ask if anyone else at your church has walked through the same with a loved one. Others can be a comfort and a resource. Learn about resources in your local community through respite programs. And remember the importance of finding spiritual rest for your soul in conjunction with physical respite.

In the hospital, Mrs. Smith checked in as a patient while Mr. Smith signed in as a visitor. One rested on a gurney while the other sat in a chair, but both needed care. God, the great Physician, knows the needs of both, the first patient and the second one.

After Roe, Choose Compassion over Culture War Tue, 28 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Now isn’t the time for the church to beat its chest in celebration of a victory in the culture war. This is a moment for us to step up in love. What might this look like? Here are three suggestions.]]> “I’m pregnant.” My girlfriend’s words left me in shock.

We sat in the grass at a park on a beautiful spring day, but my feelings didn’t match the setting. I understood her words, but I couldn’t wrap my heart or mind around them. This can’t be right. Surely there’s been some mistake.

In seconds, the shock gave way to fear. As teenagers, we didn’t understand a percentage of the implications we’d later live through, but we immediately knew life would never be the same. My thoughts and our conversation began to race. How could this have happened? Was she sure? What on earth should we do next?

Fearful questions soon led us to despair. We both lived with our parents. How could we be parents? We were both kids. How could we have a child? We knew we didn’t have the maturity to deal with this, and we certainly didn’t have the financial resources to make it work.

Unsure of what to do, our first step was an appointment with a doctor. Here our shock, fear, and despair were confirmed. Then, the doctor offered a way out, a deceptive word of hope: “You know, you could have an abortion.”

How I wish I could now write about our deep commitment to life, of how we rejected the suggestion immediately and boldly blazed a different path. But that’s not what hopeless teenagers do. When you have no options, abortion feels like a solution.

After the Ruling, What Now?

In last week’s 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court found there’s no constitutional right to an abortion. Access will now be determined by each state, with roughly half poised to eliminate or significantly restrict the number of abortions performed within their borders.

Christians on both sides of the aisle should welcome this ruling. Our views on abortion aren’t to be shaped by our politics but by the value God places on life. He made humanity in his image; every human soul possesses unspeakable value, dignity, and worth.

But as we welcome this ruling, we must be measured in our response. Now isn’t the time for the church to beat its chest in celebration of a victory in the culture war. This is a moment for us to step up in love. What might this look like? Here are three suggestions.

1. Disarm with compassion.

As access to abortion becomes more limited, an untold number of women—sometimes supported by partners but typically alone—will find themselves in crisis. In shock, fear, and despair. They’re now without the only option that seemed to offer hope. Let’s be clear: These women are not and have never been the enemy. Our heart toward them must be loving.

Now isn’t the time for the church to beat its chest in celebration of a victory in the culture war. This is a moment for us to step up in love.

The celebratory fanfare of a political culture warrior may make judgmental Christians feel better about themselves, but it does little to help these women. Worse, it may serve to make the church the last place a hurting woman would turn for help.

This is the time to be like Jesus, who is gentle and lowly in heart. Let’s show women in crisis the same compassion Christ has shown to us.

2. Act personally.

Millions of Christians, in America and across the world, work tirelessly and heroically to care for unwanted children, provide for single mothers, and love those in distress. The notion that evangelicals won’t lift a finger to help hurting people has been weaponized to dismiss Christians, but it’s a lie. The world’s poor, sick, vulnerable, marginalized, and displaced receive immeasurable help from believers.

Yet now is not a time for the church to pat itself on the back. Instead, it’s time for us to redouble our efforts.

Reach out to your local pregnancy center. Pray for and encourage those who’ve been on the front lines. Find out about their needs. Increase the amount of money you give, and volunteer to serve. Also, reach out to foster and adoption agencies, consider fostering or adopting yourself, and find ways to offer practical support for families in your church who’ve done so.

Support pro-life ministry like lives depend on it. An army of believers has already taken to the field. Now it’s time for each of us to act.

3. Organize corporately.

Is your church ready to help the hurting in your community? If not, this is the moment to get our houses of worship in order. Put structures for mercy ministry in place so those with needs receive prompt attention and care. Cover rent, buy groceries and diapers, and host events to pamper single moms. Build friendships so no one is left isolated or alone.

Broadcast your desire to help too. Advertise it. Help your community see that your church is the place people should come when they don’t know where else to turn.

The Church at Its Best

A church community that did all these things saved our pregnancy. They saved my daughter’s life. They helped fearful teens become delighted parents. The first time I held my little girl and she stared up into my face, I felt the weight. Though our small gift was only six pounds, her life is a lasting glory.

Though our small gift was only six pounds, her life is a lasting glory.

Years later, our wee girl has grown into a nurse who cares for others. How grateful I am we didn’t follow that doctor’s advice. I still feel shame over how much appeal the offer of an abortion found in my fearful heart. I’m grateful Jesus offered a better path through our families, pastors, and supportive church members. Love came to us through Christ’s body—his ever-so-beautiful church.

My prayer is that’s what we’ll be in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. The church at its very best. Christ’s compassion embodied for a hurting world.

3 Foundational Truths for Creation Care Mon, 27 Jun 2022 04:04:00 +0000 Francis Schaeffer described the goal of creation care as ‘substantial healing,’ which means that we treat creation now as it will be in the new heavens and new earth.]]> Travelers who came to see Francis and Edith Schaeffer in their mountain home would have feasted on the beauty of God’s creation. Some think the couple overly relied upon the opening stanza of Psalm 19 to point to God’s reality witnessed through nature. But it’s easy to forgive them. After all, here’s how Edith Schaeffer described the surroundings at L’Abri:

The peaks of the Dents du Midi cannot long hold one’s eye as the sparkling diamond white of the glacier demands attention. Peak after peak together form a panorama that is breathtaking, yet the green of the woods and the changing colours of the rocks draw one’s glance to details and away from the total sweep of the view.

The bus ride the Schaeffers visitors took up the mountain to the town of Huémoz put the splendor of the Swiss Alps on full display. Guests would have had creation’s beauty on their minds.

Although evangelism was at the forefront of Francis Schaeffer’s ministry, he refused to allow the wonder of creation to be reduced to a mere apologetic tool. His book Pollution and the Death of Man helps Christians and seekers recognize that proper stewardship of creation is part of living rightly as Christians in this world. For Schaeffer, creation was valuable on its own merits, and it should be stewarded for God’s glory. He’s right. Christian theology provides the best framework for knowing the creation’s value and humanity’s uniqueness. It also gives us the best hope for creation’s renewal.

Christian theology provides the best framework for knowing the creation’s value and humanity’s uniqueness. It also gives us the best hope for creation’s renewal.

Creation’s Value

In Genesis 1, when God spoke the universe into existence, we see the refrain “and it was good” six times. This declaration does not make creation good. It’s the Bible’s recognition that God’s character is reflected in his creation.

Though creation has been distorted because of human sin (Gen. 3:17–18), it’s still sufficient to reveal God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:18–23). And even its sin-twistedness testifies that we need a Savior.

As Jesus reminded the crowds, natural evil should lead us to repentance (Luke 13:1–5). In fact, creation’s disorder may be a gift from God designed to point our hope toward our coming redemption (Rom. 8:18–24). Humanity and creation, both marred by sin, groan together in anticipation of Christ’s return.

Humanity’s Uniqueness

The Bible maintains a distinction between humanity and the rest of creation. On the one hand, humans are clearly part of creation. Adam was formed from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7), and thus we share an unbreakable connection with the rest of creation. And yet, God created men and women in his own image (Gen. 1:26–27), a privilege the rest of creation doesn’t share.

After humanity was created, God looked over his creation and declared it was not only “good” but “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Some see humanity as the capstone of God’s creation. Without humanity, creation was lacking; the garden needed tending (Gen. 2:3–6). God placed Adam into Eden “to work it and keep it” (v. 15) and gave Adam the privilege of naming all the animals (vv. 19–20), a sign of his unique place within the creation order.

Because of our special place, humans are called to steward creation. Adam and Eve were commanded to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue and exercise dominion over creation (Gen. 1:28). Though sin had distorted every human relationship, these commands were reissued to Noah’s family (Gen. 9:1–2).

In Jesus, we find the one who exercises final dominion over creation, using his power to restore what has been broken by the fall (John 4:46–51; Mark 1:30–31; Luke 7:11–18). In Jesus, we get a picture of what dominion should look like and what it will one day be when creation is renewed.

Biblical Hope

Jesus’s resurrection is the hope of creation. It’s a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–4) and the security of his people (1 Cor. 15:23). Creation looks to the renewal of human flesh for its own hope of renewal (Rom. 8:19–22). The effects of the fall on the earth will be purged by fire (2 Pet. 3:10–13) and reversed so that even predator and prey are reconciled (Isa. 11:6–9). Indeed, Christ’s work on the cross reconciled all creation to himself (Col. 1:20). It announced God’s righteous judgment on sin and his renewal of all that is good.

The promise of Christ’s return should push us toward holy living (2 Cor. 5:1–21; 2 Pet. 3:11–14). This means preaching the gospel to everyone (Matt. 28:18–20) and imitating Christ by working toward the reconciliation of creation (Col. 1:20).

Francis Schaeffer described the goal of creation care as “substantial healing,” which means we treat creation now as it will be in the new heavens and new earth. We can expect real environmental improvement from our actions in this life, with full knowledge that final restoration comes through the supernatural, restorative work of God.

Francis Schaeffer described the goal of creation care as ‘substantial healing,’ which means we treat creation now as it will be in the new heavens and new earth.

What does this look like practically? We’re pursuing substantial healing when we choose to live close to work, keeping sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants out of the air. Substantial healing comes as we replace a portion of our lawn with pollinator gardens to provide habitat for bees and other insects. Substantial healing occurs as we participate in our city’s cleanup day, which also provides an opportunity to rub shoulders with our neighbors and share the good news—the message of hope for the renewal of all things.

When every tear is gone, death is a memory, and pain has been obliterated, peace will be made vertically (between God and humanity), horizontally (between people), and cosmically (between humanity and the creation order, Rev. 21:1–8). To be holy as God is holy is to live those realities in advance as much as we’re able today.

Pouring Yourself Out vs. Wearing Yourself Out Mon, 27 Jun 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Paul’s situation fails all three of my questions about a healthy work environment.]]> What’s the difference between pouring yourself out (Phil. 2:17) and wearing yourself out?

This question has gripped me for a while now. But as I considered the ways I should approach answering it, I realized that none of the issues on my mind were on Paul’s mind in Philippians 2.

Paul is describing the possibility of his death at the hands of the Romans as persecution for his faith. That means at least three things:

First, to state the obvious, Paul will have nothing left to give. This isn’t a question of whether his ministry or work is sustainable. After his death, Paul is completely poured out.

Second, Paul isn’t the one doing the pouring here. His fate is in the hands of the legal authorities and Paul has no say in the manner. This isn’t a question of how much agency Paul has in his work.

Third, Paul’s death would be completely unjust, to put it mildly.

If you had asked me in a vacuum for three issues to consider when evaluating a work environment, I would have asked, “Is it sustainable? Are you giving so much because you want to or because you’re being forced to? Is your environment healthy or toxic?” Paul’s situation in jail “fails” all three questions! And yet Paul can look at this situation—the possibility of being unjustly murdered by the state—and see it as an offering to God.

Paul’s Perspective

The secret is perspective. Paul can describe this situation as being “poured out as a drink offering” rather than any number of negative ways (like being “worn out”) because he trusts God. He can see his death as a pleasing offering to God. Why? Because ultimately God is the one in control. Paul can take comfort in God’s sovereignty, trusting that God would bring good fruit even out of his death.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Paul would view “being poured out” as a matter of perspective. In Philippians 4:11–13, Paul tells us that he has learned the secret to contentment in every situation, whether objectively good or objectively bad. Christ strengthens him in every situation he faces.

So, the first answer to the difference between pouring yourself out and wearing yourself out is your perspective. Who is ultimately doing the pouring? Who ultimately determines the fruit of what happens?

If Paul can describe his potential death as being poured out, and if Paul can say he’s learned contentment in every situation, then so can we.

If Paul can describe his potential death as being poured out, and if Paul can say he’s learned contentment in every situation, then so can we. Whatever uncomfortable, unsustainable, unjust situation we find ourselves in, we can have the same perspective as Paul—God is in control, God will bear fruit, and our “pouring out” is a gift that pleases God. As Paul exhorts us in Philippians 4:4, we can rejoice in the Lord always!

Pouring Out and Filling Up

Paul tells us the secret to bearing whatever situation we find ourselves in, but that doesn’t mean we should endeavor to remain in whatever situation we are in. After all, he advises bondservants to get their freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21). If we’re in a situation that is akin to being unjustly killed by the Romans, it might be wise to shift gears.

We see this dynamic in Paul’s reasoning in Philippians 1:19–26. Paul isn’t in control of whether or not he dies, but he is weighing the outcomes that would be gained by the two possibilities. He could die and be with Jesus, and that’s the best for Paul. But to remain alive would mean fruitful labor.

Like Paul, we don’t always get to choose. Sometimes the situations we’re in, whether that’s a demanding season at work or a new baby at home or a family emergency, mean we pour out and pour out and pour out.

But often we do get to choose. We may be able to take a vacation, a day off, or a nap. We may be able to adjust our schedules or hire more help. Use this as your litmus test: if you’re unable to find time to fill yourself up on God’s Word or with God’s people, something has to change. A person who is filled up can pour out. A person who is dry can only wear out.

Like Paul, let’s choose, if we can, to bear more fruit—not in our own strength, but with with help of the Spirit for the glory of God. Then we, like Paul, can be “glad and rejoice with you all” (Phil. 2:17).

Speeding in Opposite Directions: ‘Lightyear’ and ‘Maverick’ Mon, 27 Jun 2022 04:02:53 +0000 While ‘Lightyear’ sees progress as constant social awakening, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ dares to assert that not all that is old should be discarded, and not all that is new should be embraced.]]> There are plenty of similarities between movie characters Buzz Lightyear and Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Both are talented test pilots with a penchant for going rogue and taking risks—even when bosses and protocols order them to play it safer. Both prefer analog know-how (human instincts) over machine intelligence (especially the dreaded autopilot). Both are brave, duty-bound men willing to risk their lives to accomplish the mission they’ve been given—even if the way they go about it makes their superiors mad.

Both feel the need for speed. Within the first few minutes of their respective movies—Lightyear and Top Gun: Maverick—the iconic pilots break speed records. Both Maverick and Buzz are a little bit cocky, and yet both value the importance of teamwork and pushing those they lead to be the best they can be. There’s a lot to like in both men. They’re not perfect, but they’re heroic and inspiring.

Yet for all these similarities, the two summer blockbusters that bear their names could not be more different. And the differences between Maverick and Lightyear reveal subtle but important cultural divisions in how we view the past, the future, and the nature of progress.

‘Lightyear’: Speeding Toward New Morals

Though a spinoff from the 1995 classic Toy Story, Lightyear is a far cry from that groundbreaking film—in almost every way. Where the original Toy Story was a wide-eyed marvel of artistry and enchanting storytelling, Lightyear is overstuffed and uninspired. And where Toy Story celebrated childhood as childhood, even leading adult viewers to feel like kids again, Lightyear does the opposite—pushing childhood into adulthood in inappropriate ways.

Within Lightyear’s first 20 minutes, we find out that Buzz’s space ranger partner, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), is a lesbian who gets engaged to and marries a woman. The ensuing lesbian kiss has rightly generated concern among parents and religious conservatives—leading to the film being banned in nations like Saudi Arabia, the UAE., Malaysia, and Kuwait. But the kiss is only one problematic part of a larger montage that shows the lesbian couple progressing through life stages—including marriage, pregnancy, child-rearing, and beyond—in a manner similar to the opening sequence of Up. Make no mistake: the decision to depict a same-sex couple in this Up-style “married life” montage is an intentional attempt to normalize LGBT+ relationships as just as wholesome and natural as the married couple in Up. “Love is love,” we’re told.

The decision to depict a same-sex couple in this Up-style ‘married life’ montage is an intentional attempt to normalize LGBT+ relationships as just as wholesome and natural as the married couple in Up.

In a film featuring robot cats and predatory alien plant life, it’s telling that the most outlandish plot point in Lightyear is the framing that opens the film and ties it to 1995’s Toy Story. We’re told Toy Story’s Andy received a Buzz Lightyear toy inspired by a film released in 1995. Lightyear is that film, supposedly. But let’s be real. A film like Lightyear could never have been made in 1995. The world has changed dramatically in 27 years, and while a same-sex kiss in a kid’s movie might seem justifiable in 2022 (in Disney’s mind at least), it would never have flown in 1995. This normalization of what was for most of human history considered abnormal has been swift and sweeping.

To be sure, the lesbian subplot is not the focal point of Lightyear; but neither is it an insignificant part. By casually weaving homosexuality into the arc of one of the film’s heroines (perhaps the most sympathetic character), the film suggests that “gay” is normal and good—simply a neutral attribute assigned to one of the characters, just as some characters are tall and others are short, and some sport Kiwi accents and others don’t. But this subtlety, framing it as demographic “representation” without any moral dimension, is what makes it so insidious.

Progressives act like it’s absurd and irrational for parents to be concerned about this queer “representation” in a Disney kids movie. Chris Evans, who takes over the voice of Lightyear from Tim Allen, has said that those who find the gay plot problematic are “idiots” who are “afraid and unaware” and will “die off like dinosaurs.” Essentially admitting that becoming “woke” is the primary value at play in Lightyear, Evans said in the same interview that “what makes us good” is “social advancement as we wake up . . . constant social awakening.”

Is this really what makes us good? Are parents and conservatives bigoted and delusional for wanting their kids to be morally formed in history, tradition, old Christian wisdom, and ideals that haven’t changed—as opposed to rapidly changing mores and “constant social awakening”? Is virtue reliable when it’s pitched as something so fluid, changing dramatically from decade to decade?

No. As a parent, you’re not off base to be concerned about how this “new world” of social awakening is forming your child’s moral imagination. And so if you opt not to take your child to see Lightyear, you’re not a dinosaur.

‘Maverick’: Speeding Back to Go Forward

If Lightyear favors woke over wonder, Maverick favors wonder over woke. If Lightyear plunges kids into adult issues, Maverick leads adults to feel like kids again—dreaming big dreams and embracing the “thrill ride” marvel of the movies as a good unto itself. If Lightyear complicates the “hero who saves the day” trope (Buzz: “I won’t be able to save you.” Izzy: “You don’t need to save us. You need to join us.”), Maverick embraces save-the-day heroism with old-school simplicity and thrilling derring-do. Is it at all surprising that Lightyear has underperformed at the box office while Maverick has become the year’s biggest hit?

If Lightyear favors woke over wonder, Maverick favors wonder over woke.

The only barrier Maverick is breaking is the speed of sound. It’s not a film attempting to break new representational ground or advance some vanguard moral agenda. Rather, Maverick’s boldest message is that it doesn’t have a bold message. Yet in an era when everything from military-issued bullets to the Burger King Whopper must become vehicles for Important Social Messages, Maverick’s refusal to preach is radical. More radical still is Maverick’s conviction that the best way forward involves backward-looking retrieval: honoring the past rather than discarding it; seeing value in some measure of traditionalism rather than constant iconoclasm.

Though certainly driven by a hefty dose of 80s nostalgia and the lucrative prospects of rebooting a treasured franchise, Maverick’s fidelity to the past goes deeper than dollar signs. This is a film where generational commitments matter and institutional continuity is valued. It dares to assert that not all that is old should be discarded, and not all that is new should be embraced. When Maverick (Tom Cruise) is told, “Your kind is heading to extinction,” his reply is defiant: “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”

Maverick dares to assert that not all that is old should be discarded, and not all that is new should be embraced.

Certainly not everything in Maverick is morally laudable—just as not all “traditional” values are morally valuable (if they’re not biblical). But whereas films like Lightyear view progress as “constant social awakening,” films like Maverick see progress as social remembering. This is not a posture that sanctifies the past or views it with rose-colored glasses, as if every antecedent is automatically virtuous. It’s not uncritical of the past, but it’s humbly appreciative of it—recognizing that the surer path to moral wisdom is a thoughtful excavation of the imperfect past more than a trailblazing path into the unproven future.

Good Pilots Can Be in Bad Planes

In Maverick, the titular character says at one point, “It’s not the plane; it’s the pilot.”

As pilots, Maverick Mitchell and Buzz Lightyear model similar values that are worth emulating. But their respective vehicles—the films in which they reside—are flying in vastly different directions.

Whereas films like Lightyear view progress as ‘constant social awakening,’ films like Maverick see progress as social remembering.

While one speeds confidently toward the past, in hopes of recovering virtues we’ll need for the future, the other heads at warp speed into uncharted territory. Ironically for the franchise that launched the catchphrase, “I feel the need—the need for speed,” Top Gun: Maverick suggests there’s wisdom in putting on the brakes, rather than careening recklessly forward without a plan or a map. Lightyear, on the other hand, sees its mission only in the forward sense: “To infinity and beyond.” Emphasis on beyond.

What’s the “beyond” endpoint where the “constant social awakening” will take us? I don’t want to be on that plane to find out where it lands—and I don’t want my kids to be either. I’d rather take them on a journey of recovery: remembering the days of old and the generations past (Deut. 32:7), discovering and learning to love the agelessness of God’s truth rather than delighting in reinventing it for every passing age.

Even Video Games Teach Us to Rest Mon, 27 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 God designed the Sabbath so we experience joy and renewal in communion with his people.]]> Have you ever been attacked by the Minecraft phantom?

In the video game Minecraft, each player must go back to his bed every so often to rest. Don’t get distracted by building high mountain bases and skyscrapers, or by digging deep into the game’s cavernous depths. If you do, and you forget to sleep, a mob of enemies will come after you at night!

Making your Minecraft avatar need sleep was a brilliant choice by the game’s designers. After all, we all need rest! If we never stop and put our weary bodies to bed, we stop functioning well, and we’ll eventually go crazy and die.

God doesn’t stop at telling his people to sleep at night. He tells them to set aside an entire day for Sabbath.

But rest isn’t only an essential for life. It’s God’s instruction to his people in the fourth commandment. God is more thorough than the Minecraft designers. He doesn’t stop at telling his people to sleep at night—he tells them to set aside an entire day for Sabbath. There are two big reasons why. God wanted Israel to stop each week to remember both his rest and their rescue.

Remember God’s Rest

One of the places God commands his people to keep the Sabbath is Exodus 20:8–11. This passage says,

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. . . . For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.

God created the world in six days, and then he stopped on the seventh. God doesn’t need to rest. He doesn’t get tired or wear out as we do. But God did rest on the seventh day. He stopped as an example for us to follow. God designed people so that we get tired and need sleep; he modeled how we’re to rest. Then, he even made a day for it.

Stopping to keep the Sabbath teaches us we’re not God. As Adele Calhoun explains,

When you get indignant over how seemingly incompatible Sabbath is with the tiring and relentless demands already facing you, consider what your tiredness means. Animals don’t think about how tired they are. And they don’t have a Sabbath they set aside for rest. It’s humans who recognize the difference between work and rest. The fact that we make distinctions . . . is an indication we need to do both.

God made us for Sabbath because he wants us to stop, follow his pattern, and remember we are creatures who depend on him (Ps. 127:2).

Remember Your Rescue

We find a second reason to keep the Sabbath in Deuteronomy 5:12–15. Here God emphasizes the need for the whole Israelite community to rest: “that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (v. 14). There’s no class distinction because everyone in the community was once a slave. On the Sabbath, the whole nation stopped to commemorate this truth. As verse 15 prescribed, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Here God tells all Israel to set aside a day to worship and remember how he’d rescued the nation. They did not save themselves. No, God brought the community out of Egypt through a great display of his might and power.

As Christians, we too set aside a day for corporate worship and renewal. From the earliest days of the Christian church, Jesus’s disciples met together on the first day of the week. Sunday was the day Jesus was raised from the dead. So, every Lord’s Day we remember and celebrate our salvation.

God designed the Sabbath so we experience joy and renewal in communion with his people.

We were slaves to sin, but Jesus rescued us through his obedient life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection. We celebrate these salvation realities with the whole Christian church because God designed the Sabbath so we experience joy and renewal in communion with his people.

Sure Paths to Renewal

Are you experiencing rest and joy?

If you’ve found yourself harried and persecuted by Minecraft enemies, there’s a sure way to find deliverance. Direct your avatar to its bed. Build one if you have to. Find your place to rest, and go to sleep!

If you’re waiting to rest until you’ve finished your project, zeroed your inbox, and checked every voicemail, if you’re weary and harried by deadlines and joyless burnout, there’s an equally sure way for you to find deliverance as well. Stop, rest, and remember. Don’t search for manna on the day God provided better (Ex. 16:27–30). When the workweek is over, turn off your computer, set down your tools, and gather with God’s people. Remember his rest and your rescue, and let the Lord of the Sabbath renew your body, mind, and heart (Mark 2:23–28).

Christ’s Threefold Ministry from Heaven’s Throne Sun, 26 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 The focus on what Jesus has done and what he will do leaves little room for what he is currently doing.]]> The Apostles Creed affirms the belief that Christ “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”

Though the ascension is affirmed in this ancient confession of core Christian doctrine, it doesn’t seem to find the same importance in modern discussion of Christ’s work. The focus on what Jesus has done in the past and will do in the future leaves little room for what he’s doing in the present.

This wasn’t always the case. The New Testament writers frequently made reference to the ascension and its present implications for the church (e.g., Eph. 1:20–23; 2:8; Heb. 1:3; 8:2; Phil. 2:9). The church fathers, Kelly Kapic writes, saw the “ascension as the climax of redemption.” Later, the Heidelberg Catechism described the ascension in terms of Christ remaining in heaven “on our behalf,” as a benefit to us.

How, then, can we recover a deeper sense of all that’s offered to us in the ascension? By taking a deeper look at how Christ continues to act on behalf of his church as our ascended king, priest, and prophet.

Ascended King

Perhaps the most familiar language when speaking of the ascension is that of kingship. The language of being raised up and seated at God’s right hand speaks of the enthronement of Jesus over all things (Eph. 1:19–23). He is the triumphant king, the Son of David whose throne is established forever (2 Sam. 7:13) and whose enemies have been made his footstool (Ps. 110:1).

The ascended Christ actively rules his church.

Christ’s heavenly reign as ascended king must not be viewed statically, as if he passively sits. The ascended Christ actively rules his church. Christ rules his church by protecting it and destroying its enemies (Matt. 16:18; 2 Thess. 3:3). Indeed, the book of Hebrews offers encouragement to a suffering church because Christ rules from God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 8:2; 10:12; 12:3). Christ provides for his church through the gifts he’s given for her nourishment (Eph. 4:7–12; 5:29). Indeed, he is the king of a thriving kingdom (Mic. 4:4–5). Herman Bavinck wonderfully summarizes Christ’s ascended kingly rule: “He demonstrates his kingship in gathering, protecting, and ruling his church, leading it to eternal blessedness.”

Ascended Priest

It’s easy for us to consider Christ’s work on the cross and his subsequent resurrection as the key components of his priestly work to reconcile sinners to God. But this picture is incomplete, since the ascension stands as God’s acceptance of this offering. Christ’s continual intercession (Heb. 7:25) and advocacy (1 John 2:1)—and the work of his Spirit to sanctify believers—marks the continued application of his priestly offering. As John Murray describes it, the Christian can know that Christ’s help flows from “omnipotent compassion.” Jesus knows the intimate terrors, tensions, and toils of life—and moves to heal them.

Ascended Prophet

A prophet is one who proclaims and confirms God’s words to God’s people. John begins his Gospel by speaking of Jesus as the Word (John 1:1–3). Moreover, Jesus points to himself as both the proclaimer and embodiment of truth (John 8:31–32; 14:6; 17:17–20). In the programmatic statement for his earthly ministry, Jesus casts himself as the prophetic proclaimer of the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4:16–30). The gospel portrait is clear: Jesus is both message and messenger.

This does not stop at his ascension, though; his priestly work amplifies after his ascension. At Pentecost, Jesus pours out his Spirit, whom he earlier said would lead them in truth (John 14:26; 16:13). The ascended prophet sends his Spirit on his people so that the Spirit will lead his people back to the Son. What’s more, his prophetic ministry continues in sending the Spirit to inspire the writing of Scripture (2 Cor. 13:3) and in working through this living Word to illuminate souls and draw people to himself (2 Cor. 4:6).

Ascended Church

Christ’s ascension shows him to be the head of the church. This reveals something beautiful: as his body, the church responds and participates in his ascended ministry. Surely this affects every aspect of the church’s life, worship, and mission.

The offices of Christ work in concert to glorify God and bring his people into the presence of the blessed Trinity.

The ascended king sends forth his church to prophetically share the word of his sacrificial atonement. The ascended priest intercedes on behalf of the church to see God’s kingdom expand in the hearts of believers through God’s Word. The ascended prophet proclaims the king’s reign, secured by his priestly work, through his church. The offices of Christ work in concert to glorify God and bring his people into the presence of the blessed Trinity.

Nevertheless, the ascended Christ does not execute these offices before earthly eyes. No wonder we can sometimes feel his absence. But we hold fast to the future hope of when his rule, his priestly blessing, and his prophetic word will be immediate, when a voice from the throne will declare, “The dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3).

3 Ways to Sympathize with Women Considering an Abortion Sun, 26 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Though the Supreme Court ruling will change how women access abortion, it won’t change the reality of unplanned pregnancies and women who need our help and sympathy.]]> My wife Leah and I serve as volunteers at a local pregnancy center. I serve on the board of directors, and Leah conducts intake counseling with women in crisis. In these roles, we’ve had a front-row seat to hear the stories of women who are considering abortion.

These seats have cultivated in us a new appreciation for Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This passage doesn’t say Jesus approves of our weakness, overlooks our weakness, or blames us for our weakness. Rather, he sympathizes with our weakness.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted to “fix” your circumstances through quick decisions. He endured emotional stress from a looming crisis. He knows what it’s like to be abandoned. Jesus sympathizes with our weakness, and it’s crucial to know his sympathy before making a decision that is sinful, destructive, and counter to his purposes.

Jesus sympathizes with our weakness, and it’s crucial to know his sympathy before making a decision that is sinful, destructive, and counter to his purposes.

Now that SCOTUS has struck down Roe, access to abortion clinics could require travel across state lines, and visits to local pregnancy centers may increase. Though the ruling will change how women access abortion, it won’t change the reality of unplanned pregnancies and women who need our help and sympathy. Like Christ, the church must be able to sympathize with the weakness of abortion-minded women if we’re going to walk with them toward life-giving decisions. What can Hebrews 4:15 teach us about sympathizing with women considering an abortion? Here are three encouragements.

1. We can sympathize with complicating circumstances.

As Christ died, he pleaded with his Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus prayed for the very people who drove nails into his hands. Amid horrific pain, he recognized that the Roman soldiers did not act in a vacuum. They were following commands from superiors, doing a job to provide for their families, under the influence of the crowds. These factors didn’t make the soldiers’ actions innocent, but they did draw forth the Savior’s sympathy.

When Christians support a mother through an unplanned pregnancy, we must also acknowledge that she’s not acting in a vacuum. A mother may not have money to support the child. Living in her car, the woman is unable to imagine the backseat of her sedan as a baby’s nursery. She may have endured physical abuse from the biological father and fear for the newborn’s safety. Or she may be a nervous teenager fearful of disapproval from her parents or the church.

Christians must sympathize with these factors and consider what tangible support a mother may need (housing, financial assistance, or help navigating the healthcare system) to make life-giving decisions.

2. We can sympathize with weakness despite the associated shame.

Jesus was a friend to people with shameful stories. He befriends a woman ashamed of her adultery (John 4:16–18), a woman plagued by perpetual bleeding (Luke 8:43–48), and a man whose appearance drove people away (Mark 1:40–45). Crucifixion was a humiliating form of execution, but Jesus disregarded the shame in doing God’s will (Heb. 12:2). Jesus broke vicious cycles of shame and isolation.

Telling friends and family about a pregnancy should be one of the most exciting and memorable moments in a woman’s life. But for many women, it’s isolating. They go to a pregnancy center because of the anonymity it offers. These women don’t want to tell people close to them because their pregnancy brings shame. They’re considering abortion as a way to ensure the story never gets out.

Shame never leads to good decisions. But by showing sympathy, Christians can help mothers express their sense of shame while also encountering the One who bore our shame (Heb. 13:13).

3. We can sympathize because Christ has shown us sympathy.

Jesus showed sympathy despite his disciples’ imperfections—Peter’s temper, Thomas’s skepticism, James’s and John’s unchecked ambition. He didn’t have to look far to find people driven by wrong motives or pursuing wrong goals.

Jesus met us in our regret, sorrow, and shame, and he’s given us forgiveness, healing, and hope.

Similarly, church leaders must see there are people in our pews who have had an abortion, are considering one, or will consider one in the future. We must speak and walk patiently with the sheep under our care, knowing our high priest Jesus has also shown us sympathy. Jesus met us in our regret, sorrow, and shame, and he’s given us forgiveness, healing, and hope.

There’s one correct way for churches to speak about the evil of abortion: with tears. We want people to know abortion is wrong in God’s sight, but we also want every woman considering an abortion to know that the church is the place where forgiveness and sympathy are found. As we identify with what women feel as they consider abortion, we’ll have the opportunity to introduce them to our sympathetic Savior who is also the Lord and giver of life.

Whole-Life Objectives Harm the Pro-Life Cause Sat, 25 Jun 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Slavery is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Neither statement requires further qualification.]]> Pro-life advocates just won a monumental victory. With Roe and Casey out of the way, pro-life legislation can move forward without being handcuffed by the federal courts. But the victory will be short-lived if pro-lifers let critics determine our operational objectives.

For years, pro-life organizations have routinely been told that saving children from abortion is not enough. To be truly pro-life, the argument goes, we must be “whole life,” meaning these organizations must show equal concern for all injustice and not single out abortion. After all, sex trafficking, poverty, the opioid crisis, and the unfair treatment of refugees are assaults on human dignity, and so they also qualify as pro-life issues. Anything less than a consistent whole-life witness is a betrayal of our fundamental principles and will fail to convert skeptics to the pro-life cause. This attempt to hijack the operational objectives of the pro-life movement is unfair and threatens to bankrupt organizations committed to saving unborn humans.

Suppose your church, eager to save young children from gang violence, opens an inner-city childcare ministry on the south side of Chicago. For three hours after classes on school days, you provide kids a safe place to go, taking them off the street and away from gang recruiters.

But instead of applauding your sacrificial efforts to save children, a television reporter slams your church with a hit piece.

If you truly cared about kids, you’d care about all kids, not just grade school ones. Middle school kids need help too, you know. Why are you only open for three hours on school days instead of 24-7? And what are you doing to address the underlying causes of gang violence such as gun sales and poor housing? Sorry, but if you’re going to call yourself a childcare ministry, you must care for all children K–12, not just cherry-pick the ones you like. After all, Jesus cared about all marginalized people, not just a few.

A reporter who said that about your childcare ministry would be sacked before the evening signoff. But if he conveys those same sentiments about a pro-life organization, he may win an Emmy. Pro-lifers should reject the unfair whole-life critique for at least five reasons.

1. Whole-life demands distort pro-life priorities.

It’s true that as defenders of human dignity, Christians should care about poverty, clean water, and the rights of people everywhere. A biblical Christian ethic is concerned with the whole life. But the organizational priorities of pro-life organizations must be narrow; we must stop letting our opponents dictate our operational objectives. After all, when governments set aside an entire class of human beings to be killed, it’s only fitting that pro-life organizations prioritize ending that evil.

Hijacking the operational objectives of the pro-life movement threatens to bankrupt organizations committed to saving unborn humans.

We won’t achieve pro-life victory by seeking to fix every wrong in society. That’s an impossible task. We’ll achieve it when our primary objectives are achieved, when each state no longer permits the intentional killing of pre-born human beings. Yes, our tasks in service of securing that objective vary. Pro-life work necessarily includes pregnancy centers, apologetics, political strategy, and educational campaigns. But the objective itself is singular. We exist to protect unborn human beings.

2. Whole-life demands exhaust battle-weary pro-lifers.

Some well-intentioned pro-life leaders are buying into the whole-life premise of our critics. They believe the pro-life movement as a whole—not just pregnancy centers—must shift from “pro-life” to “pro–abundant life.” That saving babies is not enough. Instead, pro-life organizations must devote operational resources to building strong families, securing religious liberty, promoting healthy marriages, encouraging responsible fatherhood, and helping families thrive spiritually.

How is this human-flourishing mandate possible operationally? This strategy saddles pro-life advocates with a backbreaking job description even Superman couldn’t pull off. It’s one thing for pregnancy centers to focus holistically on their clients. It’s quite another to tell the entire pro-life movement that saving children is not enough.

It doesn’t follow that pro-life advocates, who oppose the intentional killing of innocent human beings, must also take personal responsibility for solving other societal ills. In fact, improving the lives of living children presupposes their live births. We must save lives first—only then can we help those children with their quality of life.

3. Whole-life demands promote a false moral equivalency.

Biblically speaking, the shedding of innocent blood represents a preeminent moral crisis. It demands fearless intervention (Prov. 6:16–19; 24:11–12). It’s never one issue among equal concerns.

In terms of the evil done, what issue comes close to the state-sanctioned intentional killing of a million innocent human beings annually? During the five decades that Roe v. Wade was the law of the land, 62 million human beings were legally killed in the U.S. That is the Holocaust times 10. That is Yankee Stadium filled 1,143 times over. And that’s just the United States. There is plenty of injustice to go around, but none so egregious and violent as abortion. That’s reason enough for pro-life advocates to make protecting unborn humans their top priority.

True, abortion is not the only issue, any more than slavery was the only issue in 1860 or killing Jews the only issue in 1940. But both were the dominant issues of their day. Demanding pro-lifers do more is like telling abolitionists in 1860, “You can’t be against slavery unless you address all its underlying causes.”

Slavery is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Neither statement requires further qualification.

4. Shifting to a whole-life approach will not convert critics.

When a critic says that pro-lifers are “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life,” we should call his bluff: “Tell me, if the pro-life movement takes on every issue that you demand we take on, will you join us in opposing abortion?” We already know the answer: “No! Abortion is a fundamental right!” To which pro-life advocates should reply, “Then why did you bring up all these other issues in the first place?”

Slavery is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Neither statement requires further qualification.

Of course pro-life advocates are pro-birth! What’s wrong with that? The alternative is the intentional dismemberment of innocent human beings.

Our critics have it exactly backward. It’s not pro-lifers who care nothing for kids once they are born. It’s pro-abortionists who don’t care. Without exception, every abortion advocacy group in the country from Planned Parenthood to the Democratic Party opposes legislation that protects children who are born alive after botched abortion procedures.

5. Pro-life advocates owe no apologies.

Why is the whole-life argument never used against other groups who target specific forms of injustice? Critics never demand that other organizations broaden their humanitarian efforts; they only demand pro-lifers do so. How many of these other organizations reciprocate by diluting their personnel and funds to help pro-lifers save children?

Meanwhile, pro-life advocates do care for those outside the womb. Pro-life pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics by a wide margin nationally. These centers are funded entirely by pro-life donors who give sacrificially to assist women both before birth and after. This shouldn’t surprise us. As Thaddeus Williams points out,

Conservative households donate substantially more money to charity than liberal ones. A 2018 Barna study found that practicing Christians outpace all other demographics in providing food to the poor, donating clothing and furniture to the poor, praying for the poor, and giving personal time to serve the poor in their communities and beyond U.S. borders.

In short, whole-life demands often amount to little more than a lazy slander of the pro-life cause.

Opposing the intentional killing of innocent humans in the womb is the very essence of what it means to be pro-life. As my colleague Marc Newman points out, “Individuals and organizations that make it their exclusive mission to save these human beings from a culture hell-bent on butchering them have nothing to apologize for. They don’t need additional causes; they need additional support.”

After Roe, How Do We Stand for Life? Sat, 25 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 This is not a time to gloat over a victory, nor is it a time to lean back and think the issue is resolved.]]> This is a historic moment for America. The 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally, has been overturned. However, it’s not the end of abortion in this country. The court’s ruling means each state will now decide its own regulations.

At such a moment, the church will undoubtedly be asked, “What are you going to do?” In response, we must be ready to constructively apply the biblical teaching of the imago Dei in a way that extends beyond our theology to our everyday practice.

How We Treat Image-Bearers

Imago Dei, the beautiful truth that humanity is made in the image of God, gives all people inherent dignity and value. It means that dignity is not about what we do, but about who we are as image-bearers. This truth should shape not only the way the church engages with dignity issues in culture but also how we treat those we come in contact with along the way.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, there will be scores of women with unexpected pregnancies who don’t know where to turn in their moment of crisis. This is not a time to gloat over a victory, nor is it a time to lean back and think the issue is resolved. The church has an opportunity to humbly step in and provide loving, compassionate, holistic care.

Our ultimate goal should be to care for people in a way that leads them to know the One who can save their souls.

If the church wants to engage the current moment and stand for life, it must be a reflection of God’s love and truth for the sake of his glory. Our ultimate goal in pro-life work is not merely to save a physical life; rather, our ultimate goal should be to care for people in a way that leads them to know the One who can save their souls. In the process, physical lives will be saved as well.

Abortion and the Church

Many Christian leaders make the critical mistake of assuming abortion is an issue out in the culture, but not in our churches. In a survey of post-abortive women, 70 percent claimed a Christian religion, and 43 percent were attending church at least monthly at the time of their first abortion. Engaging abortion isn’t just about what we do in our states and communities. It’s also about how we care for women in our church pews.

As we consider how the church can effectively engage abortion, it’s also helpful to know why women tend to seek abortions. In a recent survey of 1,000 post-abortive women, 76 percent said they would have preferred to parent had their circumstances been different. The vast majority of women do not want to end the life of the child in their womb, but often feel they have no other realistic option based on their challenging circumstances. For those women, someone holding a sign condemning abortion would have, in most cases, done nothing to help them make a choice for life. I’m not implying it’s wrong to stand outside of clinics, but it’s not the only way believers can support life.

As the church applies a robust ethic of each person’s dignity, it requires us to care for individuals holistically. The church’s involvement in adoption and foster care are good examples. Contrary to the criticism that Christians only care about the issue of life up until the moment of birth, a recent study concluded believers are nearly three times more likely to adopt than the general public. Believers are more likely to be generous with their time and finances for those in poverty. And it’s almost exclusively people of faith who run the pregnancy care centers in our country. Still, more must be done.

Even with the Supreme Court’s decision, abortion bans will only go into effect in around half of our nation’s states. The other states will likely keep their access. Since the majority of abortions take place in the states that will maintain access, some estimates indicate only a 13 percent decrease in legal abortions as a result of Roe being overturned. Abortion tourism, which already takes place, will only grow as women travel to abortion sanctuary states to have abortions. Additionally, the abortion pill, which already accounts for more than 54 percent of all abortions in America, can be mailed to a woman after a telehealth call with her doctor. The FDA loosened its restrictions on the drug in December, making it increasingly difficult to regulate. Abortion is not gone, but the church does have a renewed opportunity to engage.

Practical Ways to Engage

There are myriad ways we can practically apply our theology to the pro-life issue. As individuals and churches consider how to engage at this monumental moment, these suggestions are meant to be a starting point, not all-encompassing.

Unexpected Pregnancy and Pro-Life Support

  • Start an Embrace Grace group or discipleship group at your church to walk alongside single moms in unexpected pregnancies.
  • Lead a Bible study or Sunday school series studying the imago Dei or similar content and seek to develop a holistically pro-life ethic among your church body.
  • Partner with a pregnancy center near your church.
  • Create a resource closet or list of resources available for mothers in unexpected pregnancies.
  • Pray for pro-life ministries that provide care to women and families facing an unexpected pregnancy, and support their work.
  • Attend a pro-life conference with members of your church.
  • Provide community and care for single mothers in your church.
  • Help post-abortive women and men connect with ministries like Support After Abortion that provide support in the healing process.

Adoption and Foster Care

  • Prepare your church to step in and support families in crisis who are at risk of having their children removed from the home.
  • Start an adoption fund from your church through Lifesong for Orphans, so that your church can provide grants to families in your community who want to adopt.
  • Share about ways the church can pursue adoption with gospel-centered agencies.
  • Educate church members about how to get involved in your local foster care system.
  • Start an adoption and foster care support group for families in your church.

As the church engages abortion in a way that demonstrates our belief that all people are created in God’s image, our culture will be radically changed—even more than it has been by this Supreme Court ruling. This is an opportunity for the church to love people to Christ and help them in their journey. Let us not waste it.

The FAQs: Supreme Court Overturns Roe, Sends Abortion Back to States Fri, 24 Jun 2022 15:15:13 +0000 The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, one of the most evil and repugnant decisions of jurisprudence in our nation’s history.]]> What just happened?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, one of the most important pro-life case in decades. The decision states, “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”

What is the Dobbs case about?

The state legislature of Mississippi passed a law in 2018 called the “Gestational Age Act,” which prohibits all abortions (with few exceptions) after 15 weeks’ gestational age. The law was challenged in federal court by the only remaining licensed abortion facility in Mississippi—Jackson Women’s Health Organization—and one of its doctors.

The court blocked Mississippi from enforcing the law, concluding that the state had not provided evidence that a fetus would be viable at 15 weeks. Current Supreme Court precedent—based primarily on the cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton—prohibits states from banning abortions prior to viability.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court decision, but Mississippi appealed to the Supreme Court.

What are Roe and Casey about?

For more background on these cases see: 9 Things You Should Know About Roe v. Wade and 9 (More) Things You Should Know About Roe v. Wade.

What was the Court’s reasoning in overturning Roe and Casey?

The Court outlined five key reasons for their decision:

• The Court was asked to consider three questions, but took up only one: whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.

• The Court reviewed the standard used to determine whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s reference to “liberty” protects a particular right. They found that the Constitution makes no express reference to a right to obtain an abortion, and since the State’s regulation of abortion is not a sex-based classification (and is thus not subject to the heightened scrutiny) regulations and prohibitions of abortion are governed by the same standard of review as other health and safety measures.

• The Court examined whether the right to obtain an abortion is rooted in the nation’s history and tradition and whether it is an essential component of “ordered liberty.” The Court finds that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.

• The Court considered whether a right to obtain an abortion is part of a broader entrenched right that is supported by other precedents. They conclude that the right to obtain an abortion cannot be justified as a component of such a right, attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy and to define one’s “concept of existence” prove too much. Those criteria, the Court says, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.

• The Court determined that the doctrine of stare decisis (i.e., following the rules of its prior decisions unless there is a “special justification” to overrule precedent) does not counsel continued acceptance of Roe and Casey.

Who wrote the opinion for the Court and how did the justices vote?

The overall ruling was 6-3 (5-3 for overturning Roe and Casey, 6-3 for upholding the Mississippi law).

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in the judgment (he agreed with the decision to uphold the Mississippi law but disagreed with overturning Roe and Casey). Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh filed concurring opinions, and Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan filed a dissenting opinion.

What’s the bottom line on the ruling?

This is one of the most significant acts of justice in modern history. While ruling brings only a change of direction, not an end, to the fight over abortion, it is an essential victory for the pro-life cause that should be celebrated by all Christians.

Roe was one of the most evil and repugnant decisions of jurisprudence in our nation’s history, on par with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Because of the Court’s complicity with injustice, millions of children were legally allowed to be killed in the womb with the consent of the federal government. Even if, in the short-term, the number of abortions does not significantly change, this ruling will likely save many lives in the future. For that reason, we can thank God for this decision, which restores the balance of justice and gives us greater opportunities to fight for our most vulnerable children.

Why We Should Celebrate the Dobbs Decision Fri, 24 Jun 2022 14:30:00 +0000 The Dobbs decision will save the lives of many of our preborn neighbors.]]> For decades, advocates have worked toward the day when Roe v. Wade is no longer the law of the land and United States law protects the most vulnerable among us. Today we have reason to celebrate. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has reversed the legal principles in Roe and will send the issue of abortion policy back to the states. The Dobbs decision is momentous for the pro-life movement and will save the lives of many of our preborn neighbors. It’s also deeply personal for me.

I was born to a single, teenage mother whose circumstances mirror that of many women who choose abortion. She was 19 years old with limited financial resources and no spouse to help shoulder parenting responsibilities. Around 85 percent of women who have abortions are in the same position as my birth mother. Her decision to make an adoption plan for me was hard. It’s rarely easy for a woman to willingly surrender her own flesh and blood.

Much work will continue, but we should rightly celebrate this historic Supreme Court decision.

But by God’s grace, my story is one of life. And I’ve worked on life issues for more than a decade, spending many of those years helping craft public policy that legally protects the preborn, cares for vulnerable children in the foster care system, ensures adoption remains a viable option, and promotes flourishing families. Much of that work will continue, but we should rightly celebrate this historic Supreme Court decision.

Why Is the Dobbs Decision Good News?

As I worked on Capitol Hill, the heartbeat of my efforts—alongside thousands of others’—was working toward a day when Roe would no longer reign supreme. Since Roe was handed down in 1973, more than 60 million preborn babies have been aborted. We deeply mourn the staggering number of innocent lives lost. But today, we are grateful for the Justices’ decision that will protect millions of our vulnerable neighbors going forward. With each passing day, more and more people recognize that preborn lives are worthy of protection.

As a result of the Dobbs decision, states will be allowed to decide their own policies concerning abortion. Although some states will protect abortion access, others will now be able to offer robust protections for the preborn. This case represents a meaningful shift in abortion jurisprudence, and the pro-life movement and strategy will look different moving forward. But what won’t change is the need for the church to be on the frontlines of serving vulnerable families.

Throughline of Faithfulness

While we rejoice over the Dobbs decision, we should also honor the countless men and women who helped us arrive at this historic moment. For decades, thousands of churches and individual Christians have been serving preborn babies, caring for women, mentoring men, and helping families flourish. The throughline of this movement is faithfulness.

Faithfulness in advocating for laws that protect our most vulnerable neighbors.

Faithfulness in caring for the preborn and their mothers and fathers.

Faithfulness in operating hundreds of pregnancy resource centers around the country.

Faithfulness in adopting and fostering and in ensuring that every child has a safe, permanent, and loving home.

Faithfulness in proclaiming the good news of the gospel to women who’ve had abortions.

Because the faithful have been quietly serving for years, many of us will never know their names. But eternity will know their influence. Christians’ dedication and commitment to the preborn and their families is firmly rooted in Scripture. All people are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and a person’s usefulness or ability to contribute to society shouldn’t determine their worth or their right to life. The pro-life movement is working toward a society in which the innate worth of every life—both preborn and born—is respected.

New Movement, Same Message

Because the faithful have been quietly serving for years, many of us will never know their names. But eternity will know their influence.

The Dobbs decision marks the dawning of a new pro-life movement, and we ought to rightly celebrate it for what it is: the opportunity for thousands of preborn babies to have the most fundamental human right—the right to live. We should pause and praise God for his sovereignty and mercy in this decision.

Then, we should redouble our efforts to care for preborn babies, their families, and vulnerable children, all while offering the love and hope of the gospel. May we be on the frontlines of proclaiming that all people are created in the image of God and are inherently worthy of care. And may we display with our lives that all people are precious in God’s sight.

Remember Who Overturned Roe Fri, 24 Jun 2022 14:17:00 +0000 Let’s not miss the truth that, ultimately, the story of Roe v. Wade being overturned is a story about God. ]]> Roe v. Wade has been overturned. We’ve waited decades to see those words in print. When something so monumental and so long sought after comes to fruition, it can be hard to make sense of. We know the facts—the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs case overturned Roe. But how are we to understand what brought us to this moment? And what should we do now?

As I’ve tried to begin answering those questions, the words of Psalm 126 come to mind. It’s a psalm of celebration, briefly reflecting on a time “when the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion” by delivering his people from captivity (v. 1), and it offers us a guide as we celebrate another deliverance of sorts.

Tell a Better Story

The psalmist writes that God’s people “were like those who dream” (v. 1). We, too, may find our situation surreal. We may have spent years hoping for Roe‘s reversal and yet find ourselves unable to grasp the fact that it has happened. We need to take time to let it sink in that the dream has become a reality. Then, let us be like the Israelites, our mouths “filled with laughter” and our tongues with “shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:2). This is a moment to celebrate! Remember the prayers you’ve prayed, the hours spent volunteering, the letters written to elected officials. Remember the brothers and sisters in Christ you’ve labored alongside. Pause and take time to experience the joy of what has happened today.

As you do, a story will likely begin to take shape in your mind. When we try to make sense of historic moments, our minds tend to arrange the facts we know into a narrative that helps us understand.

Let’s not miss the truth that ultimately, the story of Roe v. Wade being overturned is a story about God.

Some of us will tell the story of Roe being overturned as a story of nine justices and how they voted. Some will tell a story of giving a voice to the voiceless and defending the powerless. Some will tell a story of political strategy and the evangelical vote. Some will tell a story of good triumphing over evil, the righting of a wrong. Some will tell the story of a goal accomplished and the dawning of a new era. All of these stories help us understand aspects of what has happened. But let’s not miss the truth that, ultimately, the story of Roe v. Wade being overturned is a story about God.

Point of the Story

The psalmist in Psalm 126 tells the Israelites’ story of deliverance like this:

Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad. (v. 2–3)

The Lord has done great things for them. In the Israelites’ situation, other nations looked on their deliverance and proclaimed that it was the Lord’s doing. We may consider such a response unlikely in our time. But the Lord has already done an unlikely work in overturning Roe. Perhaps even the overturning of Roe won’t be the greatest thing the Lord does this year. Perhaps he’ll use this answer to prayer to cause people who are outside the kingdom to tell his story of deliverance. Perhaps—dare we hope?—the end of Roe will be the occasion of a spiritual awakening. If it was so in Israel, it might be today.

The Lord has done great things for us. The psalmist affirms the story told by other nations, but he doesn’t add the details of Israel’s deliverance. Perhaps more information would only distract us from the main point. Instead of explaining what has happened, the psalmist emphasizes who accomplished it by repeating what has already been said—God has done this.

The overturning of Roe, too, is a story about God. He has heard our prayers and used our efforts, and he has done a great work. That’s the main point of the story.

But that’s not to say that details don’t matter. Of course, we give thanks that God works through various means and rightly consider what we can learn from the circumstances of the Dobbs case. We’re right to analyze the nuances of the ruling and how the justices voted. We should consider how we got to this point and the implications for the future of the pro-life movement. We can explore what overturning Roe did and didn’t accomplish. These are all worthy pursuits as we continue to use all the means God has given us to advocate for life.

Turn the Story into Praise

But as we tell the story of how nine justices voted, let’s praise God that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1).

As we tell the story of giving a voice to the voiceless and defending the powerless, let’s praise God that “the LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6).

As we tell the story of political strategy and voters in the booth, let’s praise God that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).

As we tell the story of good triumphing over evil, let’s praise God that “the LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked” (Ps. 129:4).

As we tell the story of a goal accomplished and the dawning of a new day, let’s praise God that one day “he will wipe away every tear . . . and death shall be no more” and the Lord will say, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:4–5).

As we tell the story of how nine justices voted, let’s praise God.

Roe v. Wade has been overturned. The Lord has answered our prayers. He has established the work of our hands and brought forth fruit from our labors. And now we can declare with the psalmist that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Ps. 126:5).

Tomorrow there will still be work to do. But today let us proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us. And let us be glad.

4 Necessary Traits for Next-Generation Leaders Fri, 24 Jun 2022 04:03:00 +0000 Juan Sánchez helps pastors identify leaders who imitate Christ based on four necessary traits: character, conviction, competency, and credibility.]]> In his message at TGC21, Juan Sánchez speaks on God’s clear path for leadership in the church and how to find biblically qualified elders and leaders. He explains that God created a pattern of leadership that entails sonship, priesthood, and kingship. Throughout Scripture, this pattern repeats until Christ is revealed as the true Son, true Priest, and true King.

Drawing from Paul’s first and second letters to Timothy, Sánchez helps pastors identify leaders who imitate Christ based on four necessary traits: character, conviction, competency, and credibility. He encourages pastors, “We must identify faithful men who are able to teach others also, that we may leave a gospel legacy, so that this gospel will continue to be proclaimed until Christ returns.”

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Thaddeus Williams Fri, 24 Jun 2022 04:02:00 +0000 Thaddeus Williams talks about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite rereads, and more.]]> On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Thaddeus Williams—associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University and author of Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justiceabout what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite rereads, and much more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

My daily go-to lately has been Abraham Kuyper’s devotional Honey from the Rock. It’s a gem, especially for those who crave theologically rich devotional content. Kuyper reminds me daily how small I am and how big God is.

I’ve also been working through Tom Holland’s tome Dominion, which is illuminating about how the Christian vision of power as service and sacrifice has reshaped our world over the centuries.

Then there are books on my nightstand that I rotate through by the chapter, which currently includes William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity, Matthew Barrett’s None Greater, G. K. Chesterton’s In Defense of Sanity, Natasha Crain’s Faithfully Different, George Yancey’s One Faith No Longer, and Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Race.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I’m a huge fan of C. S. Lewis’s underrated space trilogy, especially the finale That Hideous Strength, which I have reread more than any other work of fiction, always finding a treasure trove of new theological and cultural insights. My favorite fiction list also includes Lewis’s Great Divorce, especially the “red lizard” chapter, The Silver Chair, especially the “Queen of Underland” chapter, and Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, especially “the Grand Inquisitor” chapter, which I think just may be the best chapter outside Scripture in the history of literature. Beyond that, given the reality of common grace, I find much truth in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as well as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (especially his great line, “The ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are always a delight.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

Confessions by Augustine and The Life and Narrative of Frederick Douglass top my list of autobiographies. As far as biographies, John Piper’s two books, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin and The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, are immensely helpful. I return again and again to anything Charles Spurgeon wrote about his personal experience of anxiety and depression, especially “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.”

What are some books you regularly reread and why?

My regular rereads include C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s World Split Apart, H. R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of Culture (which has a brilliant riposte, Modern Art and the Life of Culture by William Dyrness and Jonathan Anderson).   

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

From the time I first read Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There on a trans-Pacific flight to Nepal in 1998, I have never been the same. Schaeffer’s willingness to think deeply about literature, art, philosophy, politics, science, film, and anything and everything else under the sun, and under the lordship of Christ, made an indelible mark in how I communicate gospel truth. Schaffer’s student Jerram Barrs wrote Learning Evangelism from Jesus, which has also had a major influence, as has J. I. Packer’s classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.

The book on discipleship I have given out more than any other—the book that I have seen God use more than any other in my students lives to shatter pornography addictions and other besetting sins—is John Owen’s classic The Mortification of Sin.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

Knowing God by J. I. Packer and, when you’ve finished, Knowing God again and again. Throw in Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of God and Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God for good measure. The more often we remind ourselves of the size and splendor of the God we’re serving, the less seriously we take ourselves. And not taking ourselves seriously is an essential mark of good pastors.

If your congregation wants to think biblically through the social justice controversies of our age, which is likely, I recommend Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock. My publisher would be happy if I throw a nod to Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should ask about Social Justice.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I’ve been learning that a mark of a reverent life, esteeming God more and more as he deserves, has a beautiful side effect. It means that we don’t have to take ourselves all that seriously!

Value God’s reputation foremost and it becomes that much easier to tolerate a stranger’s online cheap shot or even a verbal knife in the back from someone we trusted. Care about his glory and fame, his cosmic-redemptive platform, and our own platforms and popularity begin to seem as cutesy and small as they truly are. I’m learning that we were designed to run on awe. We think, relate, function, and thrive better when we’re transfixed by something or Someone truly awesome, and it’s good news that God is infinitely more interesting and awe-inspiring than we are. For every thought or worry we have about ourselves, may we think a hundred thoughts about God, his glory, and his goodness. Holy Spirit, make it so in our hearts and minds.

Include Children in Worship: A Simple Plan Fri, 24 Jun 2022 04:00:00 +0000 Mature believers have the inestimable privilege of personalizing Jesus’s invitation: “Let the little children come to me.”]]> A few years ago, the church I pastor was working to accommodate children in worship while retaining an atmosphere conducive to learning and praising God. Some members were concerned about excessive kid-noise. But I was of little help. “I’m just not hearing it,” I reported to the other church leaders. I suppose my concentration while preaching was blocking out distractions.

Then I heard it.

My youngest child lost it during a Sunday service. My wife took her out of the worship hall into the foyer—a room that apparently works like the body of a guitar, mysteriously amplifying sound back into the worship hall though all the doors were closed. The screaming was so intense I had to sheepishly say from the pulpit, “Could someone please help that beautiful woman and child in the back find their way to a more comfortable part of the building?”

After the service, more than one leader asked me, in good humor, “Did you hear that?” OK, I got the point. We had some work to do.

Children of believers belong with their families among the congregation. But inclusive congregational worship isn’t all glory.

I’ve written before about how children of believers belong with their families among the congregation. But inclusive congregational worship isn’t all glory. Children squirm and talk. They’re more easily distracted and can lack the maturity to behave as the circumstances require. Sometimes they scream. Loudly. With no sign of retreat.

But all people are incurably religious. Children are learning to worship at church with God’s people, or somewhere else in some other way. So, including them in worship is a godly discipleship goal. How can we do that effectively? Here are a few places to start.

1. Train your children at home.

Expecting children to be still and quiet in church is asking a lot. But expecting children to do so only once per week without any practice at home is wishful thinking. Regular family worship—a simple routine of Bible reading, spiritual conversation, singing, and prayer—is the best primer for congregational worship and a crucial opportunity to nurture children toward spiritual maturity. Teaching children songs and hymns at home helps them learn to participate in corporate worship. It’s true that parents should distinguish family devotions from congregational worship. But age-appropriate reverence and focus can be cultivated at home as well.

2. Help your children participate.

To keep children from being mere observers in worship, we should explain what’s happening and prompt their involvement (Ex. 13:8, 14). Encourage their memorization and recitation of repeated worship elements like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the doxology. Teach them to pray, sing, and to listen to preaching. Spell out the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Have them help you give the offering. Churches can also give kids jobs like passing out bulletins—and they often make more exuberant greeters than adults! Active parenting in the pew can be exacting, but it’s also a rewarding part of our call to train children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

3. Be positive and patient.

Worship habits (and their consequences) are shared generationally (Ex. 20:5–6). And what we’re passing on involves much more—though not less—than liturgical motions. Our children will sense our heart for worship long before they understand the logic of our liturgy. Discipline may be necessary. But never lose sight of this goal: we want our children to sense that praising God in the congregation is the most joyful experience in the world (Acts 8:8, 39; 13:48, 52).

4. Get help from others with more experience.

The learning curve in training children to worship is steep, especially for first-time parents. We’ve never done this before! But others have. Talk to older parents; learn from their shortcomings and their successes. If need be, enlist the help of fellow church members. As a pastor, I’ve rarely sat with my wife at church. But when our children were small, we asked for and received a lot of help from other church members.

You can also read books that encourage and equip you. My wife and I benefited from the now-classic book by Robbie Castleman. Joel Beeke, Jason Helopolous, Daniel Hyde, and others have also written excellent little books for helping children acclimate to corporate worship, some beautifully addressed directly to children. Don’t expect to implement everything in every book you read. But you can’t go wrong learning from good guides.

Mature believers have the inestimable privilege of personalizing Jesus’s invitation: ‘Let the little children come to me.’

Mature believers have the inestimable privilege of personalizing Jesus’s invitation: “Let the little children come to me” (Mark 10:14). In him is life, for us and for our children (John 1:4). We should do all we can to bring our children to Jesus as he walks among his worshiping people (Rev. 1:9–20).

And, as an encouragement, my daughter is no longer screaming in church. She’s only a few years older, but now she’s devoting her energies to confessing her sin, hearing God’s promise of salvation to all who believe in Jesus, learning God’s will for her life by listening to sermons, and singing psalms and hymns as part of an offering of thanks for God’s grace. She has a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn too. And we’re both in the right place to learn it.

Supreme Court Upholds Freedom of Religious Families and Schools Thu, 23 Jun 2022 23:20:00 +0000 Rights of Christian parents were protected by the Supreme Court in yet another judicial victory for religious liberty.  ]]> The Story: Rights of Christian parents were protected by the Supreme Court in yet another judicial victory for religious liberty.

The Background: Maine is the most rural state in the nation, and many families do not have access to adequate public schooling. Maine therefore implemented a program of tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school of their own nor contract with a particular school in another district.

Because there was no secondary school in their area, David and Amy Carson chose to send their daughter to Bangor Christian School. They selected Bangor Christian “because the school’s worldview aligns with their sincerely held religious beliefs and because of the school’s high academic standards.” But the state law in Maine excluded schools that provide religious instruction from participating in the tuition assistance program.

The question the Supreme Court was asked to consider in Carson v. Makin was whether a state law can prohibit students participating in an otherwise generally available student aid program from choosing to use their aid to attend schools that provide religious, or “sectarian,” instruction. Also at stake was whether this prohibition violates the Religion Clauses or Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On Tuesday, the Court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s requirement violates the Free Exercise Clause.

“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions,’” the ruling stated. “The Court recently applied this principle in the context of two state efforts to withhold otherwise available public benefits from religious organizations.”

“Maine has chosen to offer tuition assistance that parents may direct to the public or private schools of their choice,” the ruling added. “Maine’s administration of that benefit is subject to the free exercise principles governing any public benefit program—including the prohibition on denying the benefit based on a recipient’s religious exercise” (emphasis original).

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kagan and Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a separate dissenting opinion.

Why It Matters: In the past five years, the Supreme Court has been asked three times, “What is fair play in a pluralistic society?” And three times the Court has responded: religious people must be treated the same as everyone else.

As the Supreme Court ruled in its 2017 decision on the Trinity Lutheran case, the government can’t discriminate against religious organizations and exclude them from receiving a generally available public benefit simply because they are religious.

Then in 2020, the Court issued a 5-4 ruling in the Espinoza case that states can’t discriminate against religious schools and families. “A State need not subsidize private education,” the Court ruled. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

This week the Court pointed out, once again, that they would not tolerate attempts to disqualify religious people or institutions from benefits that were widely available to other groups. In his majority opinion, Roberts wrote, “we have repeatedly held that a State violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits.”

The Carson case is the third straight win of this type, and it continues the decade-long streak of victories for religious freedom. “It reiterated the religious liberty afforded all citizens when exercising their faith in the course of their daily lives,” says the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Today’s holding is a substantial step forward in further enshrining the religious protections articulated in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza.”