Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Joy Doesn’t Always Look Happy: Five Lessons for Spiritually Dry Seasons

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 8:03pm

“Though we have not always the joy of the Spirit, yet we always have the Spirit of joy.” —Richard Sibbes (Works, 4:136)

The presence of the Spirit is constant. The experience of the Spirit ebbs and flows. The Spirit cannot indwell a believer any more or any less on a given day. But our felt awareness of that indwelling is another matter entirely.

The one reality is objective. It cannot change. The other reality is subjective, and changes all the time. Picture a straight line, with a wavy line over it. The straight line is the presence of the Spirit; the wavy line is our experience of the Spirit.

My son may not always feel his sonship; when he is away at camp for a few weeks, for example, or when he is under the rod of discipline. But such experiences do not affect his actual belonging to our family in the least. He’s still an Ortlund. Likewise, when we find ourselves spiritually dull, when God seems distant, we still bear the family name of Christian.

And so, one way to understand the daily work of a Christian is simply as a continued remembering of the fact that it is the objective reality, not the subjective experience, that defines me.

Our experience of the Spirit’s joy does not define our assurance of the Spirit’s presence.

Why Does This Matter?

This is an important distinction for a number of reasons.

First, fallen human beings are complex. I often hardly understand why I act the way I do and why I feel the way I do. The jumbled mess of thoughts, longings, motives, fears, disappointments, memories, and hopes in me at any given moment can hardly be disentangled. We can sit with a counselor or psychologist for hours and only begin to scratch the surface of why we are the way we are. If left to my subjective experience in determining the reality of the Holy Spirit in my life, I will constantly be waffling and wondering.

Second, the affectional inner life of a Christian does not take the same form in every believer. Some believers are more temperamentally bubbly and buoyant than others. But all believers have the same Spirit indwelling them. And Paul spoke of “the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), which means that joy is a basic, and not an optional, element of what the indwelling Spirit gives believers. But the same joy and the same Holy Spirit will look somewhat different believer to believer.

Third, joy often does not look like what we expect it to look like. The most sublime joys involve more tears than smiles. Laughter is, at times, not an indicator of joy, but simply an overflow of misery. The Bible says, “Even in laughter the heart may ache” (Proverbs 14:13), indicating that we are often sad on the inside while happy on the outside; and the Bible also says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3), indicating that at other times we are happy on the inside while appearing sad on the outside. Things are often not what they seem.

Counsel from Richard Sibbes

What, then, does one do when the joy of the Spirit is gone?

The English Puritan pastor, Richard Sibbes (1577–1635), has five pieces of counsel for us.

First, ask if there are other graces of the Spirit evident in your life. Maybe you lack joy. But are you humbled and distressed at this lack of joy? That itself is reason for comfort and reassurance.

A Christian may have a gracious work of the Spirit in him, and yet [lack] the delight and joy of the Spirit. Therefore when that fails, look to your sanctification, and see what resemblance of Christ is formed in you. See if your heart be humble and broken. . . . When the joy of the Spirit ceases, go to the work of the Spirit.

Second, can you cry out to God? Ignore your waning levels of joy for the moment. Can you plead? Can you ask?

Can you cry to God with strong supplications? Or if you cannot pray with distinct words, can you mourn and groan? “The Spirit helps our infirmities, when we know not what to ask” (Romans 8:26). This sighing and groaning is the voice of God’s Spirit, which he will regard wheresoever he finds it.

Third, remember that the trial of joylessness is to be expected. We are to question our salvation not when we face hardship, but when we never do.

Satan uses the afflictions we are in as temptations to shake our faith, as thus: “Can you be a child of God, and be so exercised, so vilified, so persecuted? If you belonged to Christ, would ever these crosses and losses and miseries have befallen you?”

Fourth, look to Christ. Bank on him. Trust in him. By faith lift up all your hopes and plant them afresh squarely on Christ.

For a sinner in the midst of storms and clouds of darkness, then to cast anchor, and quiet his soul in Christ, argues great faith.

Fifth and finally, remember heaven. Your joy may be all over the place now, up and down and often elusive. But it will not always be so.

Whatsoever hardship we meet with in the world, yet there is hope in God still. Though we can find little comfort below, yet there are rivers of consolation above. It argues a gracious heart to quiet one’s self in God in the worst times.

Final Piece of Counsel

I would add a sixth word of counsel: read Richard Sibbes. Or John Bunyan. Or Thomas Goodwin. Or Jonathan Edwards. Or Spurgeon or Owen or Calvin or Whitefield or Charnock or Ryle or Packer or anyone whose heart was in heaven while his feet were on earth and who writes accordingly. When your soul is sullen, shock it to life with the defibrillator of old books.

God will restore to you, in his own good way and time, the joy of your salvation.

No One Steals from God

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 8:00am

No one can take what Jesus has purchased. No one will stop him from redeeming his people from across the globe.

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Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 8:02pm

Who is iGen?

Kids between the ages of 6 and 23 fall into a generation now getting labeled Post-Millennial or Gen Z or iGen. I want to introduce you to the research on this generation, then process the implications for pastors, leaders, and parents: How do we steward teens in the digital age?

To be honest, I don’t know which sin is worse: the arrogance of speaking in generalities about an entire generation, or the sin of ignoring data-trends. With God’s help, we can avoid both.

iGen is a recent label given to those born between 1995 and 2012. It is 74 million Americans, or 24% of the population, and the most diverse generation in American history. It is also the most digitally connected and smartphone-addicted generation. iGen’ers were born after the Internet was commercialized in 1995. They have no pre-Internet memories. Each entered (or will enter) adolescence in the age of the smartphone. As parents, we face many challenges in shepherding these teens in the digital age.

Trends Among Teens

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has written the most systematic study about iGen. She ran the datasets, conducted the interviews, and has now voiced her concerns — first published in a feature article for the Atlantic, under the bombshell title “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article was an excerpt from the book that soon followed, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

If Tom Hanks represented a generation in the movie Big — children impatient for adulthood — iGen is the exact opposite: children with the ability to postpone all transitions into adulthood.

Twenge’s extensive study summarizes the observations: iGen’ers are safe. They are the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills at school since kindergarten. They are the most protected generation by parents. By preference, they are the most self-cloistered generation of teens. Taking all the evidence together, iGen teens are more likely to be homebodies. Compared to previous generations, iGen teens are statistically less likely to go to parties, to go on dates, to get their driver’s licenses, to drink alcohol, to smoke tobacco, to ride in a car without a seat belt, or to experiment with sex.

Now many of these trends are good, and we should celebrate the turning away from foolish behavior. But as Twenge says, taken together, these trends offer a portrait of behaviors that mark a generation of delayed adulthood and prolonged adolescence.

Five Marks of iGen

Along with this delayed adulthood and prolonged adolescence, the iGen is marked by a few other things:

1. They are smartphone natives.

According to one study, the average age for children getting their first smartphone in the U.S. is now 10.3 years old. Many of these phones are hand-me-downs from mom or dad, but between 12- to 17-year-olds, nearly 80% identify as smartphone users.

2. They are always online.

iGen’ers are spending less time working jobs, volunteering, engaged in student activities, and doing homework. The result: they’re spending massive amounts of time at home and online. They’re virtually never offline — driven to their devices by social promise, by friendships, and by relationships.

3. They are secularizing.

Among iGen, about 1 in 4 do not attend religious services or practice any form of private spirituality. “iGen’ers are more likely than any generation before them to be raised by religiously unaffiliated parents” (Twenge, 121). Obviously there are many believers in this generation, but 1 of 4 is thoroughly secularized.

4. They perceive one another through fractured bits.

Using a skill Clive Thompson calls “ambient awareness,” it turns out that teens are good at taking little fractured fragments of social media — discrete images, texts, tweets — and fitting those bits into a better understanding of one another (Smarter Than You Think, 209–244). For me, it feels weird to connect someone’s online life to their real life when I meet them in person. Teens are more natural at this. Though separated, through screens they connect through this ambient awareness. They learn about one another, digitally, in fragments.

5. They are woke.

Twenge argues that Millennials are, at heart, optimists. iGen’ers, who grew up during The Great Recession, are more pessimistic, more sensitive to social tension, and more compelled to protect anyone they believe to be vulnerable. As we’ve seen, they can act on this woke-ness, too, evidenced in the Parkland rally, the March for Our Lives, the National School Walkout Day, and the #NeverAgain movement. iGen’ers may be homebodies, but they can rally. (Of course, this is not without layers of problems, as teens can get used to push the political agendas of adults, as pointed out in Alan Jacobs’s recent piece, “Contemporary Children’s Crusades”). Nevertheless, iGen’ers are socially woke, and this will play a major role in the 2020 election, as it shapes how pastors and parents interact with this generation.

What Challenges Does iGen Face?

By far, the most concerning takeaway from Twenge’s research, and confirmed by others, is the spike in teen depression. Between 2012 and 2015 — in just three years — depression among boys rose 21%, and depression among girls rose 50%. These upticks are reflected in suicide rates. “After declining during the 1990s and stabilizing in the 2000s, the suicide rate for teens has risen again. Forty-six percent more 15- to 19-year-olds committed suicide in 2015 than in 2007, and two and a half times more 12- to 14-year-olds killed themselves” (Twenge, 110).

It is “the paradox of iGen: an optimism and self-confidence online that covers a deep vulnerability, even depression, in real life,” writes Twenge (102), going so far as to say, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones” (source).

Who is iGen? They are woke. They have ambient awareness. They appear confident online. They are never offline. Technology conveniently buffers and brokers their relationships. And technology feeds their loneliness and the toxic comparison that hollows meaning from their lives. Parents know most of this. They saw these problems long before we had books about iGen.

Twelve Tips for iGen Parents

When talking about teens and screens — or “screenagers” — we need to get concrete. So let me offer twelve practical suggestions to stir into the discussions you’re already having in your churches and homes.

1. Delay social media as long as possible.

Social media poses a dilemma. Journalist Nancy Jo Sales wrote a fascinating (and frightening) book titled: American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. There she recounts a conversation when one teen girl said to her, “Social media is destroying our lives.” Then Sales asked her, “So why don’t you go offline?” The teen responded, “Because then we would have no life” (Sales, 18). Social media is where teens look for life, and it’s what costs them their lives. We must help our kids see this paradox. Social media, unwisely abused, will cost them something precious.

2. Delay smartphones as long as possible.

Once you introduce your child to a mobile-connected smartphone, with texting and apps like Instagram and Snapchat, parental controls are virtually futile. I’ll offer one example of how this plays out.

Your kids can be exposed to sexualized conversations and nude selfies and you may never know it. Again, in her book, Sales investigates the troubling phenomenon of girls receiving unsolicited nude selfies from boys in texts, often as a first step of showing interest in them. And boys often ask the girls for nudes in return. Obviously, we must warn our kids of this phenomenon before it happens. But there are virtually no parental filters to prevent a nude selfie from arriving on your child’s smartphone via text or Snapchat, even if your child does not ask for them. And 47% of teens use Snapchat, a premiere app to send and receive expiring images and “throwaway selfies.” In the smartphone age, sexting has become “normative” to the teen years. These are potent devices. Resist the pressure to give your kid one. And don’t leave old phones around.

3. Inside the home, take control of the wifi.

In our home the default is to keep wifi off until needed. Many routers allow you to pause service in a home. I’ve been impressed with a device called “The Circle,” which sits beside our router at home, and gives me the power to cut off the wifi entirely, or to a specific device, based on content filters, ratings, time limits, and bedtimes. It breaks a wifi connection between the router and the device or computer. Instead of setting up parental controls on each device, you can control the flow of data to every device. It’s brilliant. In fact, I can pause the wifi at home with my phone — our 2 smartTVs, 3 computers, iPods, iPads — all disconnected from wifi with one button, from here. When a child in our home wants to use the computer, they make a request and explain why they need it. More can be said here, but it’s a small way to help them to bring clear purpose to tech use, all made possible because the wifi is not always on.

4. Outside the home, connect without smartphones.

For ages 6–12, consider something like the Verizon Gizmo watch. The Gizmo is a smartwatch, with speakerphone, that receives and makes calls to a limited number of phone numbers set by the parent. It has a GPS locator built in for the parent to see via an app on the parent’s phone.

Parents want phone technology to deliver three things: (1) to call their kids whenever, (2) to be called by their kid whenever, and (3) to know where their kid is via GPS. You don’t need a smartphone. The Gizmo offers each of these things, and not much more — which is a good thing. Ask your mobile carrier for the latest options to meet these three criteria. And for ages 13+, consider a flip phone. They are inexpensive, and in many cases you lose GPS, but ask around for a phone with only the features you want. And be prepared for cellular salespeople to look at you like you’re an alien. As my wife says, go into the store of your mobile provider and ask the salesman for the “dumbest phone they have.”

5. Stairstep technology over the years.

I think the most common mistake parents make is in assuming that the smartphone is an isolated gadget. It’s not. The smartphone is the culmination of all the communications technology a child has been introduced to from birth. To be given a smartphone is a sort of graduation from several steps of technology mapped out beforehand.

Here’s how my wife and I outline those steps: Once you take control over the home wifi — that’s crucial — then you can begin to introduce technology that your kids can only use inside your home. On paper draw a big box. On the top-left side, write age 0, and on the top-right side, write age 18. Left to right, this is your child’s first 18 years with technology. Now, draw stairs diagonally from the bottom-left to the top-right. At some early point, you might introduce a tablet with coloring and educational games. Age 3 maybe. Or 5. Or 8. Whenever. One stair up. Then you introduce a tablet with educational videos, maybe age 6. Next step up. Then at some point you introduce a family computer in the living room for writing projects. Maybe age 10. Step up. Then you will introduce a phone like the Gizmo, or a flip phone. Step up. Then you allow Google searches on the computer, for research. Maybe age 12. Step up. Then perhaps at some point you introduce Facebook or messenger apps to connect with a few select friends, from the computer. Step up. And then comes the capstone, the smartphone — the final step up. Age 15 or 16 or 17 or I would suggest, 18. But you decide.

The advantages to this are twofold:

(1) You can accordion out the steps as needed while also showing your child where the smartphone fits into a digital trajectory you’ve set for him. As he proves reliable and wise on wifi in the home, he is stepping toward mobile outside the home. It shows him that being faithful in small things leads to faithfulness in big things.

(2) It also reminds parents that once you give a child a smartphone with a mobile data plan, you move from having strong parental control over your child’s Internet experience to virtually having none. You can draw a bold black line between all the steps on the left (wifi at home) and the smartphone on the right (mobile web everywhere). That’s a graduation — a major transition.

6. As a blanket rule, for all ages and all devices: Keep screens out of bedrooms.

Or, at the very least for 12 hours, like from between 8pm to 8am. Make a set rule here. No TVs, gaming devices, tablets, laptops, or phones. Break off the endless social demands. Break gaming addictions. Preserve sleep patterns. Make sure all devices are charged overnight in one place, not in a child’s room. A simple charging station in mom and dad’s room is a good solution.

7. Write a smartphone contract.

When you move to the smartphone, write a contract of expected behaviors, curfews, and family expectations that come along with the phone. Have your child share their login info. And get familiar with the steps necessary to temporarily pause or deactivate the phone. Most carriers make this easy. For parents who made the mistake of introducing a smartphone too soon, as well, it’s never too late to set in place a phone contract.

8. Watch how each child responds to the digital age.

This has been so fascinating for me. My wife and I have three iGen’ers, including two teens, and each of them uses digital media completely differently. I have one kid who will endlessly watch every Dude Perfect video 40 times and waste hours. I have another child who will buy a new music instrument, watch 30 minutes of YouTube, and master the basic chords without any paid lessons. She’s done this with the ukulele, then the keyboard, and then the clarinet, and those introductions led to formal training classes. I’m fascinated by YouTube’s power to unlock new tactile skills in my kids — and quite frankly, I want my kids to learn from YouTube tutorials as soon as possible, but not until they are ready.

Each child responds differently. Some teens will want social media so that they can follow 5,000 people. Other kids will want social media so that they can follow 5 close friends. Those are radically different uses. Parent each child uniquely based on what you see in them. And when your kids claim unfairness, refer back to the stairsteps, and explain why each child in the home is on different steps in the same progression.

9. Re-center parenting on the affections.

Smartphones do not invent new sins; they simply amplify every extant temptation of life, and manifest those temptations in pixels on HiDef surfaces. Old temptations are given new levels of attraction and addiction and accessibility. Which means that the tension and anxiety parents feel in the pit of their stomachs in the digital age comes from the realization that we are waging an all-out war for the affections of our teenagers. This is what’s so frightening. Parenting has always been a war for our kids’ affections, but the digital age exposes our parental laziness more quickly.

If our teens cannot find their highest satisfaction in Christ, they are going to look for it in something else. That message has always been relevant — it just comes like a hammer today because the “something else” is manifested in smartphone addictions. We are not just playing word games, or just saying that Christ is superior on Sunday. We are daily pleading with the Holy Spirit to open the hearts of our teens. They must treasure Christ above every trifle of the digital age or those trifles will overtake them. That’s why parenting seems so urgent today.

10. Take up digital discipleship.

It is not enough to isolate a handful of Proverbs and scatter them like general seeds of wise counsel. Discipling teens in the digital age requires all of Scripture planted and cultivated in all of the heart. And this is because we are dealing with all the facets of what the heart wants. This war for the affections in the digital age holds unprecedented new opportunities for discipling teens, if we can move from temptation to biblical text to Christ. This is our challenge.

Our parental passivity has been exposed in the digital age. I will not belabor this point, because that’s what my book does in taking 12 ways that our phones change us (and de-form us) and then showing us how to be re-formed from Scripture. Once we as parents (and pastors) are humble to self-criticize our own smartphone abuse, then we can turn and help our kids, too. The digital age is scary and exhausting, but it opens up phenomenal new opportunities to disciple teens.

11. As a family, redeem dinners, car rides, and vacations.

Make the dinner table and car rides together and family vacations phone-free zones. I am regularly amazed how the pressures of life get voiced at the dinner table. Unhurried time together, decompressing from the day, is very fruitful. What happened at school? Getting to know my kids happens so often at dinner. This fellowship carries over in more intense ways on family vacations.

12. Keep building the church.

The stats are in: iGen is now the loneliest generation in America — lonelier than the 72+ demographic. Twenge believes smartphones cause iGen loneliness. But perhaps it’s wiser to look at larger phenomena predating the iPhone.

Surround yourself with enough technology, enough machines, and you’ll need nobody else. Get the right gadget, and you can do anything. Dozens of sci-fi novels have already walked out a robot-saturated planet to its furthest consequences and it is pure social isolation (e.g. Asimov’s The Naked Sun). But once the tech age has rendered everyone else unnecessary to you, you soon discover that you have been rendered unnecessary to everyone else.

When no one needs you, we see catastrophic spikes in social loneliness. iGen teens feel this. The elderly feel this. Midlife men feel this. And into this age of increasing isolation and loneliness, social media “offers a rootless remedy for diseases incident to rootless times” (Kass, 95). The smartphone becomes a “painkiller” — promising to solve our loneliness problem, but only cloaking the pain for another moment.

The greatest need of our teens today is not new restrictions and new dumb phones and contracts and limits. Their greatest need is a community of faith where they can thrive in Christ, serve, and be served. They need to find a necessary place as a legitimate part of a healthy church. Keep building faithful families and churches. Listen to teens. Don’t mock them. Don’t laugh at them. Envision them for risk-taking mission — online and offline.

Reflections on the Seashells Sermon, 18 Years Later

Sun, 05/20/2018 - 8:00pm

Eighteen years after OneDay 2000, Pastor John reflects on a sermon that roused thousands of young people to not waste their lives.

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God, I Want to See More

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 8:02pm

Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, I do not cease [praying for you, that God] may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened. (Ephesians 1:15–18)

If I heard someone pray for God to open the eyes of my heart, I might think they doubted if I was really a Christian.

Paul’s prayer for these believers seems kind of unusual, even inconsistent at first. “Because I have heard of your faith,” Paul writes, he prays that God “may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” If Paul believes these people are already believers, why does he ask God to open the eyes of their hearts? Don’t we just pray like that for unbelievers?

So Much More to See

He prays this way — and we ought to, as well — because God is not done showing us himself and his work when we first believe the gospel. Even though we have known Christ — really known him — and surrendered ourselves to him, we have not even scratched the surface of who he is and what he accomplished for us with his death on the cross.

It’s like any other relationship in our lives. We don’t stop trying to get to know someone after we’ve loved them, as if that’s the end of our relationship with them. No, our love drives us to know more of them, and more deeply. In the same way, there will always be new aspects to know and love about our Savior, if we have eyes to see them.

Paul prays specifically that believers would see three realities and know them more and more as we walk with Jesus: our hope in God, our wealth from God, and our safety with God.

1. Our Hope in God

Paul asked God that these loved ones know “the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18). They needed help from God to hold onto the hope they already had. Like the disciples in the boat during the storm, we’re far too easily frightened by the circumstances of this life. The darkness surrounds us, the winds blow violently, the waves come crashing into our lives. It often feels helpless, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten we’re with Jesus now.

Nothing can ultimately harm or destroy us because we’ve been saved and secured by God himself in his Son. And this God — whose wrath once burned against our sin and promised to punish us forever — this God has become for us “the God of hope” (Romans 15:13). Now, by faith, “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

2. Our Wealth from God

Secondly, Paul prays that they would know “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). Paul loved his heavenly inheritance and relied on it daily to get through the poverty, persecution, and temptation he experienced in this life. Nothing that could be given to Paul, and nothing that could be taken from him, could compare with all that waited for him with God in glory.

Think about all we could suffer and lose if we had any idea of the true wealth and happiness we will have for millions of years after just a little while here on earth. The hope of an eternal inheritance will strengthen you to sing in the midst of loss, and it will help you deny the deceitful desires of this world. It’s a sure defense against the lesser, competing pleasures constantly warring against Christ for our heart and devotion.

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the worth of what we have in and with him, and the emptiness and futility of the other things and people we’re prone to worship.

3. Our Safety with God

God has saved you, and he has secured an infinite, eternal inheritance for you. Thirdly, Paul prayed that we would know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19). Do you feel weak? We all do — some much more often than others. But we are all weak people.

You might be falling again in the same old patterns of sin, or struggling to believe that God could forgive your past, or seeing your inadequacies as a spouse, parent, or child, or feeling physical, emotional, or psychological burdens you can’t even explain, or experiencing any number of a thousand other weaknesses.

God wants you to know that the power to heal, the power to press on, the power to love and minister, the power to obey — any power you need — does not come from within you, but from within him. And if God’s power is in you, then you have an infinite, merciful, and invincible strength that will keep you and grow you in every circumstance. His divine power is for you, and not against you.

Remember, the Lord himself said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

We Want More

We can spend the rest of our lives asking God to give us new glimpses of himself. Even in heaven — free from sin — we will never exhaust all there is to know and love about him. That’s the main thing that will make heaven so satisfying. We will constantly be meeting more of the infinite God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Father — and never getting to the end of him, never seeing everything there is to see.

God, open the eyes of our heart again.

Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than one hundred popular worship songs and hymns.

Philippians 2:9–11: Worthy Is the Lamb Who Was Slain!

Sat, 05/19/2018 - 8:00am

You may not bow to him now. You may not bow to him next year. But a day draws near when every knee will bow before Jesus Christ.

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Do You Fear a Day of Rest?

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 8:02pm

It’s one o’clock in the morning, and I’m painting my hallway baseboards.

These hyper self-aware words repeat in my head as my hands cut a clean line of white paint at far too late an hour. You probably don’t paint that late at night. Normally, neither do I. But it was a relentlessly busy season, and I was convinced that this was the best and only time to do it.

I wasn’t happy to be that busy, of course — to have just bought a home which was built only a decade or two after the Civil War ended, to be remodeling it, to have a baby that refused to sleep, and to have a demanding job. In fact, I was angry.

I’d fallen into the busy trap. I’m an achiever. Some might say an overachiever. In my immature bent toward achieving, I didn’t stop. Ever. Stopping was a missed opportunity for accomplishment. “Rest is for the weak or the dead,” I would say to myself. Not surprisingly, when your heart is saying things like that, your hands won’t stop finding things to do — things like painting your baseboards after midnight.

The busy trap is the self-defeating spiral of nonstop action that feeds on the belief that restfulness is weakness. But rest is not weakness. Rest is an irreducible ingredient for the life that enjoys God.

What Restlessness Forgets

Have you ever stopped to wonder why, exactly, God would get so upset when Israel forgot to practice the Sabbath? In Ezekiel 20, the prophet is going after Israel for this very thing. There, God says, “I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 20:12). Yet, Israel refused to rest.

By forgetting to stop, we forget God. Restlessness — the refusal to lay down our work so we can open our arms to God — means that our busy hands are always full. This robs God of glory — his weighty significance in our lives. Holy time given to a holy God makes us more wholly aware that we are not gods — we neither create nor save ourselves. God does. If we won’t stop to experience the glory of God in rest, we won’t be able to glorify him in work either.

What Restlessness Worships

Forgetting God has deadly side effects. If we won’t worship God in rest, then our work will soon metastasize into the worship of some idol — self-importance, control, money, or recognition.

That’s exactly what Israel had done. By working without Sabbath rest, the work of their hands became the idols of their hearts. Ezekiel continues, “. . . because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols” (Ezekiel 20:16). Our hearts are not neutral. Chances are, if we’re not finding our rest in God, we’re wrongly finding it somewhere else.

Tell me, if you imagine a regular day of actual rest, does it make you feel anxious? Your fear of stopping might reveal what you’re really worshiping. Because anxiety is very often the evidence of unbelief.

What Restlessness Reaps

One doesn’t actually need the Bible to see the effects of ceaseless labor. You may achieve some good goals. You may acquire money and career success. Your course may chart steadily upward, for a while. But at what cost: sleeplessness, anxiety, overwork, dissolved relationships, a damaged marriage, distant children, and a neglected God?

We work without rest to arrive at some future rest without work. But that’s a bad deal on both sides. Humans weren’t made to work without rest. But even if you burn the midnight oil, scorching the candle on both ends, then what? You arrive at your retirement — a rest with no work. And slowly you begin to realize that too is a nightmare. Humans weren’t made for that either. Jeremiah shows us what such a life looks like when the Lord says, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

A restless life is like trying to fill a bucket that is constantly leaking. No matter how much we save, spend, exert, or fret, the dripping away of our lives will eventually lead to ruin. Rest returns us to the true fountain and mends the vessels of our lives to carry the water we find there.

Repenting of Restlessness

If it is true that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — and it is true — then it is a sad irony that so many of us Christians refuse to pause long enough to enjoy him. Sure, you can love God in your work (and you should!). But the God and Father of Jesus Christ is not the false god of Pharaoh who demands ceaseless work to gain entry into their paltry heavens. The true God has actually done all the work necessary to invite us to rest in him. You can learn the art of rest, but only if you’ll repent of your restlessness.

The end of Ezekiel’s prophecy promises that one day God’s people will no longer forsake their rest. And when they learn to stop, they’ll walk in more health and provision than they had ever known (Ezekiel 44:23–31). This is why Jesus was able to look at his weary people and say,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

The restless will only find their rest in him. You will only find your rest in him.

I’d love to tell you that I had a eureka moment that night — that I put down my paintbrush, rushed downstairs, shook off my silliness, and went to bed. But my story had a darker few chapters still to go. Pages filled with more work, more church, more doing — and less and less of God. Then, I hit a hard depression. I achieved and achieved, and it almost killed me. So believe me when I say, for the glory of God, rest.

Follow Wisdom, Find Life

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 8:00am

Money can buy almost anything we need, but it can’t provide a path to everlasting happiness and joy. Only God’s wisdom leads to life.

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The Cost of His Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 8:02pm

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwalde, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.” To be in Christ means, we are not only united to him in his death; we are united to him in his life. Bonhoeffer once preached a sermon on Colossians 3:1–4, where Paul reminds us that we are dead, that we are alive in Christ, and that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Bonhoeffer notes, “Our true life is hidden — but it is grounded firmly in eternity.”

While he was in prison, Bonhoeffer worked on what would be his magnum opus, Ethics. He was unable to finish it, though he wrote most of it. It was published posthumously. In this book, Bonhoeffer spoke of the Christian life as the Christusleben, the life-in-Christ. This is truly living, truly being what God intended us to be. Sending us into the stratosphere, Bonhoeffer writes, “So heaven is torn open above us humans, and the joyful message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ rings out from heaven to earth as a cry of joy. I believe, and in believing I receive Christ. I have everything. I live before God.”

Whether Bonhoeffer was justified in his actions of conspiring to assassinate Hitler or not, or whether his death is an execution or a martyrdom, one thing emerges. Bonhoeffer’s contentment, even joy, while being in a Nazi prison cell was rooted in the reality that he was dead and that he was raised to new life in Christ. He could live in the world and for the world, because he lived from the cross. He lived from his identity in Christ.

Beginning of Life

Bonhoeffer was moved from Tegel prison to the dungeon prison beneath the Gestapo headquarters in September of 1944, just as the Allied Forces intensified their bombing of Berlin. Almost nightly Bonhoeffer heard the whistle of the bombs, felt the foundations shake, and wondered if this would be his last night on earth. In the trickle of letters, which he was able to get out, he repeatedly asked for prayer. In Life Together, published in 1938, he spoke of intercessory prayer as one of the sweet gifts that God gives us. God gives us the gift of praying for others. Bonhoeffer clung to those prayers as if his very life depended on them.

On February 7, 1945, the day after his thirty-ninth birthday, Bonhoeffer was transferred to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, then on to Regensburg. On April 8, he and other prisoners were transported to Flossenburg. Along the way, he preached a sermon. They were jostling around on crudely erected benches packed in the back of a transport truck. Large canvases were pulled over the steel frame. Bonhoeffer and the others were emaciated, mere shadows of their former selves. And Bonhoeffer preached a sermon to them. He led them in the Lord’s Prayer, and they sang a hymn.

The next day, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on the gallows on a concrete slab at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. His final words were these: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.”

How Do I Know If a Sermon Is Too Long or Too Short?

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 8:00pm

Is there an ideal sermon length? Pastor John gives five factors to consider when trying to decide how long to preach.

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The Best Church Leader Is a Team

Thu, 05/17/2018 - 11:00am

Plurality. It’s a weighty word that reminds us that ideas have consequences. By plurality, I’m talking about shared leadership. It’s a way of referencing the consequential idea that leadership in the New Testament was a team enterprise, not one man’s genius. Thus, when leaders acted, it was together as a ruling body (Acts 13:1–3; 15:22–23).

Leading. Together. As one. That’s plurality. Pretty simple stuff.

It is simple, but not inconsequential. In my recent book, I proposed that the quality of our plurality determines the health of our church. Nothing too radical. I just meant that an eldership is a microcosm of the church. When elders share their leadership and life together, the church thrives. As the plurality goes, so goes the church.

And as I’ve been pondering that proposition, another consequential idea has surfaced as a beautiful implication: Where pluralities are strong, joy in ministry runs deep. What’s the connection between a healthy leadership plurality and joy in ministry?

1. The Joy of Becoming a Team

Some men plant churches and slide into a plurality of elders through a slow and measured process. Not effortless, mind you, but these men have time on their side. The manuals by Strauch, Dever, or maybe Bannerman are companions to help guide their way. Others, like me, inherit a plurality almost overnight through a church crisis where my most attractive quality was that I was the only guy left to take the role.

Right away, I discovered that having a plurality of elders is not synonymous with having a team of elders. Our shared values, mutual respect, relational history, network affiliation, and constitutional responsibility did not magically make us into a band of brothers. For many, a plurality is nothing more than the names that appear in incorporating documents or under the “Elders” tab on the church website. But a team is different. It’s a leadership community that breeds the kind of culture where doing ministry together is joyful.

Recently, Christianity Today commemorated the passing of the remarkable Billy Graham. While Graham was more evangelist than elder, he understood the importance of leading as a team. One contributor cited it as a defining mark of Billy Graham’s ministry:

I learned from Graham to build your ministry on a team. He knew this, and he built a core team that was with him fifty years. Everybody on the team brought strengths to the table. When you build an effective team, you hire people who compensate for your weaknesses and who mobilize or reinforce your strengths, because nobody can be good at everything.

Here’s a statement you can trust in any church: Wherever two or more leaders are gathered, a culture will emerge. Sometimes that culture is marked by rivalry and self-protection and competing agendas; but when this culture fosters a healthy team and stronger church, ministry becomes a sweet experience.

2. The Joy of Unity

Some people call it ministry silos — roles where the workers are often disconnected and the work feels like you’re manning an outpost on Pluto. Cut off from meaningful unity, expectations plummet. Ministry becomes pragmatic — a means to use my gifts, a path to satisfy my call, or just a way to pay the bills.

The apostle Paul knew this. That’s what he was getting at when he asked the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Paul knew that the Philippians’ agreement was a crucial component to the completion (or satisfaction) of his joy. His words remind us of a principle often true of pluralities: The greater the unity among the workers, the deeper their joy in the work.

There is a beauty when strong and diversely gifted people unite to serve the church. It’s a faint glimmer, a dim reflection of the triune God — coequal persons, distinct roles in creation and salvation, but always united in their delight for one another and all they accomplish together.

Diverse persons finding joy in agreement. That’s a healthy plurality.

But here’s the tricky part: preserving joyful unity in the midst of disagreement is healthy plurality too. Some assume that disagreement or dissent undermines the team and will always clog the flow of joy. But that common fallacy confuses dissent with disrespect or disloyalty. Humble leaders have healthy debates that uphold the law of love. And when they are able to disagree agreeably, this actually works to improve the unity and depth of the team. A healthy plurality must understand that mindless uniformity among the elders weakens the church. Healthy leadership is to comprehend that a misguided deference to the loudest voice or a naïve admiration of the lead pastor makes agreement superficial, even dangerous.

One can wish for a robust plurality that inhabits the delicate space between agreement and dissent, but it doesn’t come by wishing. Real unity requires something from everyone. “Being of the same mind” and “having the same love” requires a lot of work, but it also delivers deep joy.

3. The Joy of Care

God loves elders, and he wants their souls to be nurtured and tended. So, he supplies sufficient grace to convert pluralities into teams. This happens when each man realizes they need the other men. They must experience and model Paul’s analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12–27), which assumes the principle: To grow, I need your help.

When a team identity begins to form, the care of each member becomes even more important. As care flows, delight grows.

In a world where almost anything can be professionalized and outsourced, it’s easy for pastors to farm out their care for one another by finding the primary help for their souls outside of the eldership — sometimes even outside of the church. This is not a subtle attack on professional counselors, coaching, or parachurch ministries. I serve on the board of a counseling ministry and have benefitted from both counseling and coaching from outside of my local eldership. But those services must always supplement the care from the local church, and never replace it.

According to Jesus, it’s our love for one another, not our productivity and performance, that marks us out as distinct from the world (John 13:34–35). An elder plurality only experiences this joyful distinction when the shepherds are caring for one another as they are caring for the sheep.

Oh, and I believe deeply in the need for lead pastors, provided it’s understood that his role derives its warrant from the authority of the elders. So plurality adds another brain-teasing twist by asking coequal leaders to submit to another coequal leader whom they have empowered to lead.

Indispensable Ingredient

Of all the ways God could organize local church leadership, why plurality? It is not about simplicity, ease, or efficiency. When one considers all of the polity options God could have chosen for governing churches, it’s easy to see that he gave the church a plural leadership with a different set of goals in mind. But I believe God chose plurality because he loves humility.

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)

If I’m right, God chose this method of church governance because, to work well, plurality requires what God values. Humility, contrition, word-trembling leadership — these are the kind of leaders to whom God looks. It’s no surprise to discover that these are also the values he requires for an effective plurality.

God values both the ends and the means. He not only wants the mission to be accomplished, but God wants to see churches that flourish and last. Because humility remains an indispensable ingredient towards securing that future, God created plurality. Then he blesses our feeble and faltering attempts to faithfully practice it.

How Satan Gets a Hold on You

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 8:02pm

We don’t know much about demons. The Bible speaks matter-of-factly of them, but provides little detail about them or their history. And God has good reasons for this, at least for now.

We do know a few truths about demons. We know demons oppose the kingdom of God (Luke 11:14–23), that they seek to deceitfully ensnare humans and manipulate them to do their will rather than God’s (2 Timothy 2:26), and that it’s possible for them to gain such an influence over a person that they essentially “possess” them (Luke 8:26–39). And we know that, unless people are born again and live in the authority of the risen Christ, demons have “the power of death” over them and therefore use people’s “fear of death” to maximum advantage (Hebrews 2:14–15).

We also know there is a hierarchy of demonic power (Ephesians 6:12), and that there is a ruling evil being known since antiquity as “the devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9) who was manifested as a serpent in Eden (Genesis 3:1–5; Revelation 12:9), was present in the divine council in Job (Job 1:6–12), and tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13).

Why We Know So Little

Beyond these, we don’t know much about the demonic world, because God doesn’t tell us. Why doesn’t he tell us more? Demons seem rather dangerous and influential. Wouldn’t we benefit from knowing more about our insidious enemies?

No. Because when it comes to good and evil, God wants us “to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Our best protection against demons is less preoccupation with them and more preoccupation with God — less understanding of deception and more understanding of truth.

Let me illustrate the danger I’m talking about with a reference from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The story is about the evil lord Sauron’s attempt to gain world domination, and the effort of men, elves, and dwarves to resist him. Two characters, Saruman, a wizard lord, and Denethor, a man governing the city of Gondor, obtained powerful “seeing stones” called palantírs. These stones allowed them to mentally communicate with Sauron, the owner of a third palantír, and glimpse goings-on in Sauron’s kingdom of Mordor.

Both Saruman and Denethor, renowned for their wisdom, thought this would increase their advantage in the struggle against Sauron. But they underestimated Sauron’s power to deceive them and overestimated their ability to resist it. Both were corrupted and manipulated by Sauron to their destruction. When another wizard, Gandalf, found himself in possession of a palantír, he refused to look into it, proving his superior wisdom.

None of us is a match for Satan and his demonic underlings. Increasing our wisdom in evil would be the path Saruman and Denethor chose, and we would likely share a similar end. Remember, desiring knowledge of both good and evil is what got us in trouble in the first place (Genesis 3:4–7). We are far better off to “be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.”

Our Spiritual Armor

When the apostle Paul described our spiritual war against our supernatural foes, note how he described our armor and weapons in Ephesians 6:14–18:

  • The belt of truth: what holds our “uniform” together and keeps our “limbs” free is knowing God’s truth.
  • The breastplate of righteousness: understanding how we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness (Philippians 3:9) is what guards our vitals.
  • The shoes of the gospel: what enables us to traverse difficult ground during battle is knowledge of the gospel of peace.
  • The shield of faith: trusting God’s promises is what extinguishes darts of deception, not detailed knowledge of the darts or their shooters.
  • The helmet of salvation: our head (our brain) is protected by clearly knowing who saved us and how.
  • The sword of the Spirit: the word of God is our most powerful, effective offensive weapon against a powerful spiritual enemy.
  • Pray at all times in the Spirit: speaking to demons is not something the Bible commends. The only speaking to demons we see is rebuking them in Jesus’s name. Praying to God is what we are mainly commanded to do when confronting demonic powers.

Every aspect of the armor and weapons of our spiritual warfare has to do with being wise as to what is good (and innocent as to what is evil). God is our best protection from the ravages of our evil enemy — God’s truth, his righteousness, his gospel, his promises, his salvation, his word, and our prayerful orientation to him.

What Makes the Devil Flee

When the Bible instructs us how to send devils scurrying away in fear, it says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). This is powerful spiritual warfare.

Here’s the key: we grant authority to whomever we trust. The devil has no authority over any Christian, except the authority we grant him by believing him. The more we believe him, the more influence and control over us we give to him — the more he gets a hold on us. This is not some mysterious spiritual secret. This is the way influence or control works in any relationship we have.

When it comes to demons, we do not need to claim any authority over them. Words don’t act like spells with demons (Acts 19:15). Demons only recognize God’s authority and they tremble before it (James 2:19). When we submit ourselves to God — come under his authority by trusting, obeying, and enjoying him — demons get the hell away from us. This act of faith releases great spiritual power, and demons cannot withstand it.

Demons are real — powerfully real. They wreak more havoc in our lives and society than most post-Enlightenment Western Christians are aware of. We must take God’s words more seriously than our culture’s ridicule. But we do not need to know more details about demons or their strategies than God has told us. We do not need to be wiser in evil things.

We need to know God. The more we know God and his word, the more we trust him and live in obedience to him, the wiser we become as to what is good, the more dangerous we become to demons. Because our submission to God brings his kingdom to bear in the world and is how “the God of peace . . . crush[es] Satan under [our] feet” (Romans 16:20).

What Is the Place of Eloquence in Christian Preaching?

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 10:11am

From alliteration and assonance to metaphors, imagery, and illustrations — what role does creativity, imagination, and rhetoric have in preaching?

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Why God Showed Us His Glory

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 8:00am

God made the world to show and share his glory. He not only wants you to see his glory and know about it — he wants you to taste, enjoy, and shine with it.

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God Made You a Hedonist: Do You Suppress Your Desire for Happiness?

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 8:03pm

Early on, my Christianity was very duty-oriented. My grandfather lived duty at its best as a WWII vet, and my dad diligently taught me to do what life demanded, whether I wanted to or not. My heart and my happiness seemed second-best, at best, and in my latent unbelief, I assumed the same about Christianity. My ache to be happy, I suspected, was more a liability than an asset.

You too want to be happy, and you know it. Like me, you’re a hedonist at heart and can’t escape it. All your life you’ve been trying to satisfy some deep-down longing for real joy by finding that perfect spouse, enjoying good food and drink, knowing popular people, collecting reliable friends, traveling to scenic places, winning at athletic competitions (whether as a player or a fan), achieving success at school or work, and getting your hands on the latest gadgets. Our unsatisfied longings gnaw at us late at night as we scroll through social media and flip from channel to channel.

Most of us aren’t endlessly miserable. We find measures of satisfaction in the moment, but we don’t stay satisfied. We can’t. We still haven’t found what we’re looking for — at least not yet. Why did God hardwire us for joy? Why this universal search for satisfaction?

Surprised by Joy

I remember as a college freshman feeling a kind of fascination with joy. As a kid, we had sung, “I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” Joy, when mentioned in church, often came off so light and flippant. And yet that one fruit of the Spirit’s nine (Galatians 5:22–23) connected most with my deepest longings for happiness I was just beginning to realize as a college freshman, living away from home for the first time.

My parents and home church had taught me I could trust the Bible, and that made all the difference. As a college student, in search of stability and roots on a secular (even anti-Christian) campus, I learned to get my bearings from the Bible, and when I opened its pages, I was amazed by what I found about joy and delight. It was the Psalms in particular that awakened me to the possibility and promise of real joy — that joy is no icing on the cake of Christianity, but an essential ingredient in the batter.

Soul-Thirsts for God

“Delight yourself in the Lord,” says Psalm 37:4 — and not just this command, but then this promise — “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” You mean God isn’t suspicious or frustrated by my desires? He made my heart to desire, and means to satisfy, not smote, my deepest longings?

And where will that happen? In him. “In your presence,” says Psalm 16:11, “there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Real joy comes not only from God as a gift of his hand, but in seeking his face. He himself — knowing him, enjoying him — that’s what he made my desires for. He made my restless human heart for real satisfaction — in him. He made my soul to thirst, and he meant for me not to deny my thirst but slake it, in him. “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

Again and again, the Psalms tapped into the soul of God’s people, discouraged the motions of mere duty, and highlighted the central place of the heart — both in honesty about our many sorrows in this life, and in hopefully commanding us to “rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 40:16; 64:10; 97:12; 104:34; 105:3; 118:24).

To discover that my undeniable longing to be happy wasn’t just okay, but good, and that the God who made me actually wanted me to be as happy as humanly possible in him — it was almost too good to be true. Almost. To learn, and then begin to experience for myself, that God wasn’t the cosmic killjoy I had once assumed, but that he was committed, with all his sovereign energy and power, to do me good (Jeremiah 32:40–41) — it took weeks, even months, for such good news to land. And I’m still not over it today.

But better news was still to come.

All to the Glory of God

I knew from growing up that “the glory of God,” which often seemed like a throwaway Christianese phrase, was real — and important. Turning pages in my Bible, I found it everywhere, like 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

God made the world, and made us (Isaiah 43:7), that he might be glorified. It’s clear, and it creates a crisis for many Christians. Does God mean for us to pursue his glory or our joy? Are his honor and my happiness two tandem pursuits in the Christian life? If so, how do we pursue both?

Then came the most remarkable discovery, through reading John Piper’s Desiring God: our happiness in God glorifies God. God’s design to be glorified and my desires to be happy come together in one — not two — one amazing pursuit: the pursuit of joy in God. Because, as Piper champions, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

We cannot suppress our new-born hearts and hope to fully honor God. He’s only partially honored by duty.

God Wants You to Be Happy

God is not honored when we pay tribute to our own iron will by saying to him in prayer or in church, “I don’t even want to be here, but I’m here.” No. What honors him, what glorifies him, is our joy, our satisfaction in him. God is most glorified when we say with the psalmist, “You are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.” “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Nothing makes me happier than to know you, Father, through your Son, Jesus, and to be here with you over your word and in prayer and in corporate worship. You are my joy. You are my treasure. You are my delight. And in those words, and in the heart behind them, with my soul satisfied in him, my God is glorified.

Joy, then, in the Christian life is not optional but essential. God means for us to be happy in him — not perfectly yet, in this fallen, sinful age, but real tastes of the perfect joy to come — and in our happiness in him, he is honored. He is seen to be supreme when we enjoy him as supreme.

Some call it “Christian Hedonism.” Some just call it Christianity. This is how God designed it all along, and how the Bible taught it all along, and what you’ll see throughout church history if you have eyes to see it. And this is a pressing and powerful paradigm in our duty-driven day and increasingly post-Christian society.

Don’t try to escape it: God intentionally and lovingly hardwired you for joy. The powerful allure of pleasure, the search for satisfaction, your endless ache to be happy, the ceaseless factory of desires inside of you, is indeed leading you somewhere: to God himself.

What Is the Place of Eloquence in Christian Preaching?

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 8:00pm

From alliteration and assonance to metaphors, imagery, and illustrations — what role does creativity, imagination, and rhetoric have in preaching?

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Philippians 2:9–11: From Humiliation to Supremacy

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 8:01am

Jesus ascended from earth to heaven, from lowliness to a throne, from humiliation to exaltation, from a cross to a crown.

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For Now We Rejoice in Part: Happiness Here and Not Yet

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 8:02pm

God has promised his people supreme, unending, unshakeable happiness. Contrary to the claims of popular prosperity preachers, however, the supreme happiness God promises his people will not be realized in this life. Ours is a life characterized by sorrow in many ways. For now, we rejoice only in part.

There are two reasons for this. First, though the Father’s will to make us happy does not change, and though the Son’s work of securing our happiness is complete, the Spirit’s work of showing and bestowing happiness to us and upon us has only begun. By God’s triune mercy, we have been reconciled to the order of beatitude, what Augustine calls “the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.”1 However, as Augustine goes on to tell us, ours is a happiness “we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with him by sight.”2

Second, having been reconciled to God’s order of beatitude, we have been brought into a state of conflict with the order of sin and misery, which wars against the happy God and the people who find their happiness in him. As William Perkins observes, “True happiness with God is ever joined, yea covered many times, with the cross in this world.”3 Our happiness has not yet fully arrived. Our happiness is not yet without opposition. For these two reasons, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) characterizes the happiness of the people whose God is the Lord as they make their pilgrimage to the happy land of the Trinity.4

Happy Now and Not Yet

In his Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs pilgrims on the path to God’s eternal kingdom regarding the way of happiness.5 In contrast to “the error of all philosophers,” who locate happiness in “pleasure,” “wealth,” and “civil virtue,” God’s Wisdom incarnate sets out the “the nature and estate of true felicity.”6

Jesus addresses his “Beatitudes” to his disciples, to those who have heard his announcement of the good news and have responded in faith and repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus assures his disciples that, having been “justified by his grace” through faith apart from works, they have “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5, 7). The kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10).

Jesus also teaches his disciples that, although the kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right, they do not yet possess the kingdom of heaven in all its glorious fullness. Their possession of the kingdom is certain, but it lies ahead of them in the future: “they shall be comforted,” “they shall inherit the earth,” “they shall be satisfied,” “they shall receive mercy,” “they shall see God” (Matthew 5:4–8).

The disciples of Jesus are thus happy “now and not yet.” Their circumstances are truly happy. Therefore, they can “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12). But their happy circumstances, for the time being, are also mixed with sorrow and suffering. Therefore, they will mourn, they will hunger and thirst, they will be reviled and persecuted (Matthew 5:4, 6, 10–12). They are happy now by virtue of their right to the kingdom of heaven through faith; they are not yet happy by virtue of their possession of the kingdom through sight.7

Reversals and Fulfillments

As they await the consummation of the kingdom, Jesus pronounces blessings — “beatitudes” — that indicate either reversals or fulfillments of the disciples’ present circumstances. In their present circumstances, Jesus’s followers are characterized by poverty of spirit and meekness before the Lord. They hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness to be revealed. They have many occasions to mourn due to the verbal scorn and physical persecution they endure, even while the proud and insolent seem to flourish without consequence (Psalm 37:7; 73:3–13). To these, Jesus promises reversals of their present circumstances. The happiness that is theirs now in the midst of sorrow and suffering will one day replace and displace all sorrow and suffering. Those who mourn shall be comforted, the meek shall inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:4–6).

Despite their present circumstances, moreover, Jesus’s followers are merciful. They have compassion upon those in need and seek to restore them to a state of fullness and flourishing before God (Luke 10:29–37). Jesus’s followers are pure in heart. They do not lift up their souls to what is false, and they do not swear deceitfully (Psalm 24:4). Instead, they set the Lord alone before them as their heart’s holy appetite (Isaiah 8:13; 1 Peter 3:15). Jesus’s followers are peacemakers. Rather than extending the disorder of sin and misery, Jesus’s disciples extend the order of beatitude by seeking to reconcile sinners to God and neighbor and by seeking to preserve “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

To these, Jesus promises crowning fulfillments of their present practices and aspirations. The happiness that is theirs now in seed will one day reach its full fruition. The merciful shall receive mercy, the pure in heart shall behold the object of their holy desire, the peacemakers shall be called sons of God, the supreme peacemaker (Matthew 5:7–9).8

Sorrowful and Rejoicing

In all these circumstances, the disciples are disciples of their Lord, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Having found in him the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), Jesus’s followers are willing to suffer the loss of all things for his sake (Matthew 5:11; 11:6) in order to gain what is already theirs in him by the righteousness of faith: the happiness of the kingdom upon whose throne the King of happiness rests (Philippians 3:7–21).

Those who have been granted citizenship in the happy land of the Trinity thus walk on the path laid down by Jesus in the Beatitudes, suffering the hostility of sinners (Hebrews 12:3), struggling against sin (Hebrews 12:4), enduring God’s fatherly hand of discipline with patience (Hebrews 12:5–14; James 1:3–4), all the while assured that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10), that they will see his face (Matthew 5:8), and therefore all the while encouraged to “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12; Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2).9

This article continues the “theology of happiness” begun in Scott Swain’s “That Your Joy May Be Full.” In addition to the online version of that feature article, you can also download a PDF or listen to a recording. One forthcoming article remains in the series.


1  Augustine, A Select Library of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 2, St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), XIX.13.

2  Augustine, City of God, XIX.27.

3  William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, vol. 1, A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 179.

4  This happy turn of phrase comes from Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), chap. 2.

5  For a rich and extensive treatment of the Sermon on the Mount that is attentive to its eudaimonistic dimensions, see Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

6  Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.

7  Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.

8  William Perkins reminds us that the rewards promised by Jesus to his disciples are “given by promise, and of mere mercy” rather than merit (Sermon on the Mount, 220).

9  Helpful discussions of the place of suffering in Christian discipleship may be found in Oliver O’Donovan, Ethics as Theology, vol. 3, Entering into Rest (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 202–7; and J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015).

Forgiveness Is Not the Gospel

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 8:00am

Jesus died to forgive us, to rescue us from hell, and to give us eternal life — but most of all he died to bring us to God.

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You Are Totally (Not) Depraved: How to Recover Positive Self-Image

Sun, 05/13/2018 - 8:01pm

“Well, that seems depressing to believe about yourself,” he said with a slight wince. “Are you happy having such a negative perception of yourself?”

The comment was not what I expected him to say. While my wife and I shared the gospel with Ryan and Meg — strangers we met at the restaurant’s bar — we were discussing the bad news which made the good news good: that, by nature, all men and women were spiritually dead in their sin and found guilty before a holy God. Ryan did not protest against the indictment against him; he only questioned how one can go on with a healthy self-image while acknowledging it.

To him, being “reborn” didn’t solve the problem. To him, Christianity meant signing up for a perpetual guilt-trip and a negative self-image. It was not a freeing and joyful existence, but one of looking down, avoiding mirrors, and mumbling apologies under one’s breath. It was a groveling life haunted with “should-have-done-betters”; a bemoaning existence devoid of self-worth as one self-deprecatingly crawls into glory.

And sadly, I don’t think he is far off in some cases. Some hang their heads and talk about themselves as if they are essentially wretched. They carry around their “chief of sinner” card like a driver’s license. Their experience of struggling with sin defines how they view their identity and how they hear what God says about them.

In an effort to articulate man’s plight before a holy God, in an attempt to campaign for humanity’s sinfulness in a culture that no longer believes in sin, and, endeavoring to remain humble before God and serious about our own remaining corruption, we have forgotten what God says about us as Christians. We have been, as Anthony Hoekema says, “writing our continuing sinfulness in capital letters, and our newness in Christ in small letters.”

Healthiest Self-Image on the Planet

Simply put, Christians should have a positive view of themselves — in Christ. As the secular world lays in the sun of ignorance and licks itself with self-help gurus cheaply affirming their self-worth, the born-again Christian should have the most concrete, positive, confident self-image on the planet. Not because he is sinless. Not because he wakes up every morning and reads his Bible. Not because he is more selfless than his fellow man. But because God has made him alive, forgiven him all of his trespasses, adopted him into his family, and dwells in him. If any man desires true self-worth, he should see all he can hope for in the shining faces of the church of God.

As Christians, we are not to scrape the gutters of depravity for our identity. “Totally depraved, wretched, naked, pitiable, blind, beggars, orphans, sinners,” no longer describes the church nor the Christian at their core. Now we are not spiritually proud because, as C.S. Lewis states, “The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner cesspool.” But we must always remember that the smell of our sin does not out-perfume the aroma of Christ that is upon us (2 Corinthians 2:15). The Christian can look himself in the eye and not grimace.

Who You Are in Christ

If you are truly born again, your history and self-perception does not define you. What God says defines you. How God sees you is who you are. The eyes of faith look not only to Jesus, but also must look to ourselves and see what God does. Although Satan cannot snatch you from God’s hand (John 10:28), he can steal your identity, convincing you that you are still inherently wicked, orphaned, and merely tolerated by God.

But God says otherwise. God says:

1. You Are Light

At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Ephesians 5:7–10)

Who would be so bold as to look his brother in the eye and tell him that he is light? But the apostle Paul, writing by influence of the Spirit, says something shocking: “now you are light in the Lord.”

The church and the Christian are not partially light and partially darkness. In the Lord, they are light. And knowing this proceeds his call for them to walk as children of light. We do not walk as children of light to become light. We are light — and know it — and then live as children of light. Identity for Paul is crucial for how we fight the flesh. Identity first, then fight.

2. You Are His Child

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the authority to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)

Has being a child lost its warmth? Has it merely become a Christian cliché? The holy angels are not sons and daughters of God, but we are. We no longer are orphans clothed in rags, raising our cracked and dirty bowls up to God wondering if we could have just a little more stew. We are children graced with our Father’s name, to sit at his table, to laugh in his house, to feel his embrace. We now have authority to be called sons and daughters of the Most High.

We must not sell our birthright to return to our jail cells and write, “I am guilty,” repeatedly on the walls. We have not received the Spirit of slavery, but one of adoption (Romans 8:15–17). Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Our Warden who is upstairs”; he taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, NASB). And our Father, to whom we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” loves us with the warmth of a million suns (Matthew 6:12).

3. You Are Holy and Loved

To all those . . . who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7)

Paul wrote to saints, not scoundrels. God calls us beloved, not be-tolerated.

Although some segments of the church may try to steal “saints,” reserving it for miracle-working, super-Christians, the title literally means “holy ones,” and Paul addresses whole churches with the name (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). All born-again Christians are addressed as set-apart ones, righteous ones, sanctified ones. In Christ, you are holy.

Although you may feel like anything but a “holy one,” this is how God addresses you. Your muttering self-assessment is swallowed up by the voice of him who spoke the world into existence and later declared, “It is finished!”

Be Who You Are

It is sad when professing Christians, heirs of Christ and the universe, undersell their God-given identity in Christ because they are scared that if they get too comfortable, they will get careless about sin. But the exact opposite is true: the more you know who you are in Christ, the more you will hate all that does not conform to your identity.

When we think of ourselves as dirt, are we more likely to be alarmed when filth proceeds from our mouths or is enjoyed on our screens? When we consider ourselves unholy and unloved, are we more likely to punch back against the flesh, to stand in the victory of Christ, or to advance the cause of God in the world? When we are convinced that all our works are disgusting to our Father, are we zealous to bring him more? No. We mumble and moan in our sickbed instead of taking up our beds and walking forth in Christlikeness.

But when we know we are light, we walk by the Spirit as children of light. When we know we are beloved, we joyfully imitate our Savior. When we know ourselves as an adopted child, we live in a way that desires to please our Father. When we understand that we are truly new creatures at our core, we will walk increasingly as new creatures. “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

We must not take the robe off our backs, the rings from our fingers, and sandals from our feet and return to live in the pigsty. Our Father has brought us into the family, into an eternal celebration, into a new identity, from which we fight and defeat sin in the power of his Spirit.