Many Protestants do not know what happens in a typical Catholic Mass.
As the Catholic faithful enter the building, they cross the threshold, symbolizing leaving the world and entering God’s house. They immediately encounter the baptistry, symbolizing that entrance into Christ and his Church is through the sacrament of baptism; indeed, they believe that is necessary for salvation. They take a quantity of holy water and make the sign of the cross by which they remember their baptism into the name of the triune God; the motion is with their right hand from their forehead (for the Father), to their lower chest (for the Son), to their left shoulder then their right shoulder (for the Holy Spirit).
As they approach a pew, they kneel as an indication of reverence. At the front of the building is the altar on which the sacrifice of Christ will be re-presented during the sacrament of the Eucharist. At the left of the sanctuary stands the tabernacle, a sacred receptacle in which the leftover communion elements are stored so the faithful can worship the Lord who is present in those elements.
On the walls of the building are the fourteen stations of the cross, paintings or sculptures depicting the key events of Jesus’s crucifixion. The building also houses paintings, mosaics, and sculptures of Jesus, Mary, saints, and angels. Church leaders wear garments symbolizing their office — the diaconate, the priesthood, or the bishopric — as well as the season in which the Mass is being celebrated (for example, violet for Advent, white for Easter).The Mass Begins
As the Mass begins, its key leaders process from the back of the sanctuary to the front, carrying a sizeable crucifix (Christ on the cross), a large Bible, a censer (to burn incense), and other elements. In the introduction, the leader — the priest or bishop — greets the congregation, then leads in a penitential act in which the faithful recall their sins and cry out to God for mercy (the Kyrie Eleison). They praise the triune God for his majesty, singing the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest” from Luke 2:14). The leader offers the collect, an opening prayer that collects the intentions of the faithful and prepares them to hear the word of God.
This introduction leads into the Liturgy of the Word — “liturgy” refers to a structured or ordered service of worship. This aspect focuses on three readings of Scripture — the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel (a passage from one of the four Gospels). Interspersed with the first two readings is the singing of a psalm; the third reading is preceded by singing “Alleluia.” The reading of the word leads to a homily, a short sermon ideally explaining the three readings. The congregation then confesses the faith by reciting one of the Creeds (the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed), and prays the Prayer of the Faithful, interceding for themselves, the Church, and the world.Bread and Wine
The next part of the Mass is the Eucharist. It begins with representatives of the congregation bringing bread and wine from the back of the sanctuary to the altar; these elements will be consecrated for the sacrament. Another representative brings the financial gifts for the support of the Church and care for the poor. As these members are processing forward, the priest or bishop prepares the altar for the celebration.
In the anaphora (the most solemn part of the liturgy, when the bread and wine are consecrated), the leader gives thanks to God, calls upon the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and recites the institution narrative (the words of Jesus when he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26–29). By these actions and the power of the Spirit, Catholics believe, the bread is transubstantiated, or changed, into the body of Christ, and the wine into the blood of Christ.
The anaphora is followed by the anamnesis in which the Church remembers Christ’s death, resurrection, and second coming. Next is the offering by which the Church offers to the Father the pure, holy, and spotless victim, Jesus Christ. This is not a bloody sacrifice, but an unbloody one, a re-presentation of the sacrificial Lamb of God who was slain for sinful people.
The congregation acknowledges its unworthiness through reciting the Lord’s Prayer, exchanging the sign of peace, and praying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (based on Matthew 8:8). The faithful then stream forward to consume the consecrated bread, which they believe is literally “the Body of Christ,” and drink the consecrated wine, “the Blood of Christ.”
The Mass concludes with the leader announcing, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” In Latin, the phrase is “Ite, missa est,” with the word missa implying “mission.” This is the reason the Roman Catholic liturgy is called the Mass.How Protestants Approach God in Worship
Generally speaking, Protestant church buildings are simpler than Catholic Church buildings. The reason for this absence of adornment is to avoid objects and decorations, even if they are intended to be symbolic, to detract from singular devotion to the Lord. Protestant buildings are known for their pulpit in place of the Catholic altar. This displacement underscores the Reformation movement away from the sacrament of the Eucharist as the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, which takes place on the altar, to the elevation of God’s word in Scripture in terms of preaching the gospel, which takes place from the pulpit. Without detracting from this central feature, Protestant buildings also place the baptistry and the table for the Lord’s Supper in prominent locations.
Protestant worship services are quite varied. Some services (for example, in Anglican churches) may resemble the Mass described above. Other services (for example, in some baptist churches) have little to nothing in common with so-called highly liturgical varieties. Still, most Protestant churches feature certain common elements.Elements of Protestant Worship
A call to worship is a common opening element that reminds worshipers that God takes the initiative to reach out to and save us, so it is he who invites us into his presence. Songs and prayers of praise and thanksgiving ascend to the Lord in recognition of who he is and what he has done through creation, providence, and redemption. Acknowledging God’s holy nature and gracious work reminds worshipers of their fallenness.
Accordingly, confession of sin is another element. This aspect may be done by giving space for individuals to confess their sins and/or for corporate confession. In both cases, the worship leader assures the congregation of God’s forgiveness. Prayers of intercession — for individuals, the church itself, its missionaries, its city, the government, the marginalized, unbelievers — are offered, as are the members’ financial gifts. The apex of the service is the word of God read, preached, and applied.
Sermons may be expositions of a biblical text (for example, Galatians 3:10–14), topical messages (for example, marriage or justification by faith alone), seasonal addresses (for example, the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the birth narratives during Advent), or evangelistic appeals. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered as means by which the gospel is portrayed, remembered, and promised. The service concludes with a final song, prayer, benediction, or blessing for the road.Mass-ive Mistake
At the heart of these differences in worship services are important core divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Though these divergences are numerous, I’ll focus on one of the most important Protestant disagreements with the Catholic Mass: the Lord’s Supper.
The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the only Church of Christ in virtue of its common faith, apostolic succession (the hierarchy possesses the authority of Christ), and Eucharist. Because Protestants lack these essential elements, the Catholic Church considers its Mass to be the only true celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly, when Protestant churches administer this ordinance, it is considered invalid.
Because Protestant leaders are not priests or bishops consecrated by the Catholic Church, they cannot act in the person of Christ to truly celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Thus, a second reason why the Protestant administration of the Lord’s Supper is invalid (again, according to the Roman Catholic Church) is that the leaders who celebrate it do not have the proper authority to do so.
But why does the Lord’s Supper have to be administered by a Catholic priest or bishop? Because, third, the Roman Catholic Church believes in transubstantiation: when a priest or bishop consecrates the bread and wine — and only Catholic priests and bishops can rightly sanctify these elements — the substance of the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus Christ, and the substance of the wine, his blood. Specifically, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is re-presented at the Mass as a bloodless sacrifice, in which the Catholic faithful take part by eating the bread (Christ’s body) and drinking the wine (Christ’s blood). Because Protestants strongly disagree with transubstantiation, the Lord’s Supper that we celebrate is invalid according to the Roman Catholic Church.
Not only do Protestants counter the first three points by disagreeing that (1) the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ, (2) only Catholic priests and bishops have the authority to administer the Lord’s Supper, and (3) the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Protestants also disagree with the Catholic view that justifying grace is communicated through this sacrament of the Eucharist. According to Catholic theology, such grace is infused into the Catholic faithful who participate in the celebration. This infused grace transforms their nature and enables them to engage in good works of love so as to merit eternal life.
Appealing to Scripture, Protestants insist instead that justification is not a matter of grace being infused to help good people work to obtain eternal life. Rather, by his mighty act of justification, God declares ungodly people “not guilty” but “righteous instead” as they believe in Christ as announced in the gospel: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Not good people, but ungodly people. Not infused grace, but the righteousness of another, Christ, credited to us through our faith-union with him. Not grace plus human cooperation. Not faith plus good works. Rather, grace alone (sola gratia). Faith alone (sola fide). Christ alone (solus Christus).
Being characterized by its solas, Protestants dissent from the Roman Catholic Mass and its claim to be the only true Eucharist because it is performed by the only true administrators (priests and bishops) who are the only ones who can affect the transubstantiation of the bread and wine.Are They Compatible?
The Roman Catholic Church, grounded on different principles and disagreeing with the Protestant principles of sola Sciptura and justification according to the solas, approaches the worship of God and the salvation he offers in a way not compatible with Protestant churches. The culminating expression of this incongruity is the sacrament of the Eucharist, with the Catholic view of transubstantiation, the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ and the infusion of grace.
For this reason, Protestants do not participate in the Catholic Eucharist. This negative decision is not only and even primarily their own; the Catholic Church officially excludes Protestants from such participation. Someone may counter, “But I know a Catholic priest who invites Protestants to take the Eucharist.” Without wanting to be polemical, it must be said that this priest is simply wrong in extending the invitation. Protestants are not to celebrate the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, whether on Catholic terms or Protestant.
If you, as a Protestant, attend a Catholic Mass for whatever reason (for example, when I teach my seminary course on Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, I take my students to a Mass), it is important to prepare yourself in advance for what is to come. Before leaving the Church, a respectful conversation with the priest who celebrated the Mass can make for a wonderful educational experience.
Protestants gain nothing by mischaracterizing the Catholic Mass, and seeking to understand its dynamic elements, and the theology undergirding them, should help Protestants appreciate and embrace more fully their own theology and the changes in worship Protestant theology has produced.
Much has happened over the five hundred years since the Reformation, but the Roman Catholic Mass is still every bit at odds with the worship the Reformers rediscovered in Scripture and fought to preserve for us.
Whenever you meet God in his word, keep your eyes open for Jesus. Don’t come away without learning more about who he is.
For fifty years, our culture has denied that men have any unique responsibility to care for and protect women. It was a myth, and it isn’t working.
What greatness do you really value? If you’ve been a Christian very long, you know the right answer — Jesus’s answer (Matthew 23:11). But if you’re ruthlessly honest, who would you list as “the greatest among you”? The greatness you value is not necessarily what you can articulate to others, or preach from your pulpit — or write in your article — but what you secretly wish you were or who you wish you were more like.
Throughout history, human greatness has almost always been measured within some framework of meritocracy. By meritocracy, I mean any social system — great or small, formal or informal — where people earn rewards or status based on achievements that their social system values highly. Alexander the Great merited greatness through his military and leadership achievements, Shakespeare through literary achievements, Steve Jobs through technological design achievements. They each lived in very different eras and socio-cultural-political environments. But they’re remembered for their merits — for what they each achieved.
Every human culture and subculture has its meritocracies. And that's not necessarily evil. In many cases they are the most just and beneficial systems, all things considered in this age. But since we tend to have an upside-down definition of greatness — the measure of our superiority to others rather than our love for them — our meritocracies have a powerful tendency to appeal to the sinful, selfish, self-exalting parts of us.A Strange Greatness
Which is why Jesus's definition of greatness can sound so foreign and disorienting to us:
“The greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
It’s very tempting to take Jesus’s statement as a sort of poetic flourish, a metaphor for remembering to be kind and somewhat generous as we pursue achieving some level of relative greatness compared with others (like everybody else does). The only problem is, Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He very literally meant we should aspire to be servants.
In every culture throughout history, servants have been those who, by virtue of birth or circumstances, have been forced to spend much of their lives pursuing the good of someone else above their own. The vast majority of servants have occupied the lower tiers of social status. And while a servant might aspire to a more socially recognized and rewarded level of servitude, it has been extremely rare that a free person would aspire to servanthood. In almost every human culture, servanthood is not the path to greatness. The best servants can hope for is to serve great people (Matthew 20:25).
But in the kingdom of God, as Jesus demonstrated, servanthood is the path to greatness (Philippians 2:5–11). “The last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). Those who humble themselves will be exalted, while those who exalt themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23:12). God incentivizes our freely and joyfully choosing to put others’ interests above our own (Philippians 2:3¬–4).
This is a strange greatness to fallen humans. It is an otherworldly meritocracy — not in terms of meriting salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9), but in terms of meriting God’s commendation and rewards (1 Peter 5:6; 1 Corinthians 3:14–15; 2 Corinthians 5:9–10). It is a greatness so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that it is impossible to pursue unless a person really believes the gospel is true.The Mark of Misplaced Greatness
When Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant,” the context was a scathing public rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders. Here’s some of what he said:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:2–7)
A key — and convicting — phrase is, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” This revealed the heart’s affections that were fueling leaders’ behaviors. They were operating in a fallen human-defined meritocracy. They were pursuing the rewards and commendation their culture valued. In all their pious-appearing achievements, they were aiming for this-worldly greatness — and probably mistaking it for next-worldly greatness too. The evidence was that they were too preoccupied with appearing righteous in order to win human approval than to attend to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
That is the mark of misplaced greatness: valuing one’s personal benefit and reputation more than the real good of other people.A Greatness Only Grace Produces
So, what greatness do we really value? The ambitions that govern our motives and actions will tell us. We will always desire the treasure we believe most valuable. We will always pursue what we believe is true.
It’s not sinful to desire to be great; it’s sinful to desire idolatrous, selfish greatness. Kingdom greatness reveals the character and genius of God: the greatest among us are those who love and serve others most — who love others most by serving others most. The truly greatest among us are those who by their actions demonstrate they trust God to exalt them at the proper time and to the appropriate degrees (1 Peter 5:6), and, like Jesus, don’t measure their greatness by the commendation and rewards they receive from their social systems (John 5:41).
This is an otherworldly greatness we only pursue when we truly understand the grace of God — that the Triune God has so utterly and completely served us in every facet of our experience that we wish to freely give what we have freely received (Matthew 10:8), and in love present our bodies as living sacrifices of worshipful service (Romans 12:1).
For fifty years, our culture has denied that men have any unique responsibility to care for and protect women. It was a myth, and it isn’t working.
The kids that used to drive her crazy were mostly grown. She now helped raise her granddaughter and attempted to share Jesus with ladies in Appalachian Ohio who did not know her Savior.
I remember when I used to find her in the living room, before the sun rose, on her knees, her Bible open, and her head bowed. I knew I was witnessing the secret to how she loved and lived when she got up off her knees. In the pages of that book, her God convinced her that he was still in the business of life-changing work. He proved it with how he changed her life.First Missionary I Knew
So, she made it her business to take his message to everyone she knew. She started by helping the hurting by writing them cards of encouragement and making calls and visits to check on them. She wrote lesson plans and graded papers, working without pay as the kindergarten teacher at their church-run school. She wanted the teenage girls in her church to know God’s way was the most satisfying way, so she studied diligently and taught a weekly discipleship class.
In the summers, she and I would load into the car and drive beside those beckoning creeks, following the twists and turns, to visit ladies in the hills who chewed tobacco and didn’t have any teeth — or a relationship with Jesus. If she knew you, she loved you — and wanted you to know of an even greater love than hers.
My grandma was the first missionary I knew, although she never moved out of southeastern Ohio. She was the first person to tell me about Jesus, living his mission right where she was. God helped her turn sorrowful regrets she had from not raising her own kids in a Christian home into faithfulness to teach me about him. She lived and breathed the word of God and packed his truth in my heart from the time I could barely speak. I was the 3-year-old memory verse champion at their church because of her.
I, like young Timothy, saw faith first in my grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). And soon, her faith became my faith too. This gracious Father, who had compassion on this fatherless little girl, accepted me as his very own daughter. And my precious Grandma was kneeling there beside me as I first acknowledged by need and asked Jesus to save me from my sins.Bible in the Creek
A few years later, I called their house to see if she made it home safely in the snow storm. I knew something was horribly wrong. My grandpa couldn’t answer me but asked to talk to my uncle instead.
The car had to be removed with the jaws of life from the creek where it sunk after spinning out of control on the snow-covered roads. Her possessions were found down the creek after it thawed.
I remember someone handing me her Bible. The pages, now dry, were crinkled and brittle from being wet. I held it in my hands and opened it to see her markings covering the pages. The ink was blotchy and her handwriting faded. I may have been the only one who knew that before its pages were wet with creek water, they were wet with her tears. Filled with tears of a kneeling mother praying urgently for her grown children to come to faith. Tears of a friend burdened for her neighbors to trust Jesus. Tears of a weeping grandmother asking God to protect and grow her young granddaughter to become a godly lady.Cling to Grace
Grandmothers, do not underestimate your influence over your grandkids. What they see you value and the priorities that shape your day are teaching them. What you talk about, and who you talk to, communicates as well.
You may not love their home life or the way their parents do things, but for the sake of their souls and their future, love them enough to give them something more than toys, sweets, clothes, and trips. Give them something that thirty years later, when you’re dead and gone, still will be bearing fruit in their lives and in others’ lives because of your intentionality, selflessness, sacrifice, and grace-driven persistence.
Few could empathize with regret like my grandma. Tears surfaced quickly when she talked about her past before coming to Christ. And so, to you, dear ones haunted by the guilt of wasted years and missed opportunities, she would meet your tear-filled eyes with hers, hand you a tissue and say, “Cling to grace! Nothing will motivate you to serve and love like realizing how much Jesus has served and loved you! The tenderness of his dealings with you, pursuing you and bringing you to himself, will be your example of moving toward others, in your living room, beside the creek, or down the city block. You don’t know how long you have, but you know you have right now. So, with grace behind you and before you, don’t waste your grandmothering.”
Few events have changed me like having a daughter. We first had twin boys, and then our first daughter came along more than four years later, with a strange and wonderful effect on this father’s heart — and perhaps it feels all the more significant because I did not expect it.
When God made two sexes, he put into place four distinct kinds of parent-child relationships: father-son, mother-daughter, mother-son, and father-daughter. Because men and women are not the same (but complementary), and boys and girls are different, we find distinct, often subtle, always powerful aspects to the love shared in these four kinds of relationships.
Strangely enough, Jesus honors all four in his healing ministry.
A father’s love for his son (Mark 9:14–29; Matthew 17:14–20; Luke 9:37–43): A father brings his son who “has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” The disciples try their hand at the exorcism, but fail. Then Jesus steps in and casts out the demon and returns the son to his father.
A mother’s love for her son (Luke 7:11–17): A young man dies, “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” Jesus sees her weeping and feels compassion for her. He approaches the lifeless body and says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” The young man sits up and begins to speak, and “Jesus gave him to his mother.”
A mother’s love for her daughter (Mark 7:24–30; Matthew 15:21–28): A Gentile (Syrophoenician) mother begs Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter. When Jesus says to let the children (Jews) be fed first, before the dogs (Gentiles), she responds in beautiful, humble boldness: “Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “For this statement,” Jesus says, “you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
When a synagogue official named Jairus approaches Jesus (Mark 5:21–24) and falls to his knees to plead for help, he says, “My little daughter . . .” (Mark 5:23). He doesn’t just say daughter, but “my little daughter.” It’s a term of endearment and particular care, a glimpse into a father’s heart for his daughter — which is not the same as a father’s heart for a son.
There is a special kind of love and affection that exists between a godly father and his daughter, whatever her age, whether three or twelve or thirty. We would be foolish to rank a father’s love for son against his love for daughter, but we’d be naïve not to see the distinctions.
A father loves a son as someone who, with respect to masculinity, is just like me. God has entrusted me to raise up this child to be like me in learning self-sacrifice and humble initiative, to cultivate a heart to lead, provide for, and protect women and children. And a good father loves a daughter as someone who is not just like me. God has entrusted me to raise up this child to be like the most important person on earth to me, my wife. I not only want to model self-sacrificial masculinity for her, but I want her to learn what it’s like to receive and be cared for by a worthy, Christlike man.‘Little Girl’
It’s tricky to draw the emotional lines too starkly, but there are typical distinctions between a mother’s care and a father’s care. Paul gives us a glimpse in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). And, on the complementary other hand, “Like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12). And these general orientations of gentleness and encouragement have their distinct expressions with sons and with daughters. Men name, and women nurse, or nurture. Men build, and women beautify. Or, to take our cues from the six days of creation, men form (days 1–3) and women fill (days 4–6).
Jesus picks up on Jairus’s term of endearment for his daughter, and when Jesus arrives at the house — after she has already died — and takes her by the hand, he says, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41). Not just girl, but “little girl” — an expression of compassion and holy condescension. We learn she’s twelve years old, which isn’t “little” today, and especially not in the first century when some 12-year-olds were on the brink of marriage. “My little daughter” and then “Little girl” are expressions of a tender, affectionate, and protective fatherly heart.Who Then Is This?
As Jesus raises this young girl from the dead, he provides a stunning sneak-peek into who he is. He allows only Peter, James, and John to come with him to raise the girl because, like his coming Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–9), this is a shocking glimpse into who Jesus is, not only as a great teacher but as God himself.
Perhaps we’re not as astounded today by Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter, because we’ve heard this story before and, on top of that, we know how his own story will go — that he himself will rise from the dead. It takes some effort to put ourselves into the original story and feel the power of this delicate moment. Mark piles on language to describe how astounded are the girl’s parents and the three disciples. Literally, “they were astonished with great amazement” (Mark 5:42). They knew he could heal, but reclaim someone from death? This is an astounding display of his power, and his identity.
By raising Jairus’s daughter, Jesus shows, ahead of time, that his Father has power over the final enemy, treating death as if it were only sleep: “Sweetie, it’s time to wake up.”Women Young and Old
But Mark 5:21–43 isn’t just about the little girl. There’s also an old woman — another daughter.
On the way to heal Jairus’s daughter, with the crowd pressing in on Jesus, a woman with a chronic disease, reaches out and touches his garment from behind. Jesus feels “that power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30), and the woman “felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (Mark 5:29). Jesus stops and turns around to ask who touched him. Bewildered and impatient, his disciples ask, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31). Besides, Jairus’s daughter is on her deathbed!
A woman steps forward, and far from rebuking her, Jesus shows her a father’s heart for a daughter. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34). He wants her to know it’s not her superstitious reach that has healed her, but her faith. And he calls her Daughter. Just as Jairus has shown the unique tenderness and compassion of a father’s heart for his little daughter, now Jesus shows us his heart — God’s heart — for one of his daughters.
Mark doesn’t want us to miss the connection, and so he puts these daughters side by side in verses 34–35. In verse 34, Jesus calls the woman “Daughter.” In verse 35, a messenger comes from Jairus’s house to inform him, “Your daughter is dead.”Loved Like a Daughter
It’s not just 12-year-old girls who ache to know the love and delight of their father; even grown women need God’s special Fatherly care. Women young and old can be encouraged by this double story — of Jesus healing an old woman after years of pain, and of him rescuing a young woman from the jaws of death. Sisters in Christ, Jesus cares about you. He calls you “Daughter.” No matter how much your earthly father failed you. No matter how you’ve been hurt or mistreated. Your condition — however unashamedly or shamefully you own it — does not disqualify you from his concern. He looks on you with compassion, with the special love that a good daddy has for his daughter and says, Trust me. I’ll make you well. I’ll heal your chronic condition called sin. I’ll save you from the final enemy called death. If you will just take my hand, death itself cannot even capture you, and one day I will wake you up, as from sleep, to no more tears, no more sorrows, no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).
But it’s not just women who need to know themselves loved by God as a daughter.
All who are in Christ receive not only the Father’s care as beloved sons, but also as cherished daughters. The peculiar kind of loving condescension and deep compassion and personal delight, and fierceness to protect, that a good father has for his daughter is what God made us all to receive from our heavenly Father.
In Jairus’s heart for his daughter, and Jesus’s heart for his, we catch a glimpse of God’s father-daughter love for his people, alongside the other distinct aspects of his love. He looks on us with the compassion, delight, and protective affection that a daddy has for his little girl. It is good, for women and men alike, to know themselves loved by God like a father loves a son, and like a daddy loves his little girl.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”
So goes the ancient pagan proverb in a flash of what could almost be Solomonic wisdom.
Think of the destructive insanity of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9. He is writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and perpetually throwing himself into the fire. Everyone in that story, from the father to the apostles to the crowds, knew that something was fundamentally wrong with the situation. It’s not a tricky diagnosis — ordinary, healthy people don’t behave in that way.
Ephesians tells us that “no man ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29). The insanity and brutality of the demon manifests by subverting all natural categories and causing the “self” to be attacked as if it’s an enemy. And of course, while in the grip of this demon, the boy actually is his own worst enemy.
Any sane person would instinctively fight to keep himself out of the fire or to save himself from drowning. This isn’t an indication of virtue. It’s simply the behavior of a normal human. But on the other side, the unnatural state that boy was in could only be caused by a massive spiritual problem — in this case, a demon so ferocious that not even the disciples could cast it out. Christ tells them later, “that kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”How Will Teachers Explain Us?
This sort of madness which demands self-destruction can happen not just to individuals but to societies as well. And we are right in the midst of watching it happen. The frenzy of self-annihilation that our nation is currently undergoing holds all the same inexplicable confusion of basic categories as the boy throwing himself into the fire.
Imagine what perspective a future generation might have as they look back at us. What possible explanation could we offer for our actions? Think of a history professor trying to explain to the students, “I know this seems unbelievable, but women in the twenty-first century demanded that they should be allowed to murder their own babies and sell the body parts — and if anyone tried to get in the way of this they were accused of being tyrannical abusers.”
What? Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.Applauding Madness
In any ordinary and natural society, a woman who had her baby murdered would actually be the one we would feel sorry for. Right? Even in the animal kingdom, we know this to be fundamentally true. If we were watching a nature documentary and a mother panda lost her baby in some violent attack, we would all understand that we had just witnessed a tragedy. We’d even feel sorry for a mother snail who had her baby snail eaten by a bird.
But meanwhile, in another corner of the animal kingdom . . . a man tears apart a woman’s child, inside her womb, and all the other women applaud. In any normal world — not even a virtuous world, just a normal world — how would the other women respond to that situation? Obviously, we would weep for her. Grieve for her. Demand justice for her.
Instead, the women of America band together, wear pink hats, and demand that they be allowed to pay the man to do it again to someone else. Further, they insist that everyone be required to chip in and pay for him to do it to millions of other women.Who Are the Villains?
Imagine a zoo in which all the mother bears inexplicably began killing all their own offspring. Just think of the publicity crisis. Imagine the anxious zoo-keepers frantically working to figure out what had gone wrong, searching for the cause of the insanity, and desperately trying to shield the traumatized onlookers from the situation.
What has happened to us? How can we, modern, enlightened Americans, contemplate a child being violently torn from his mother’s womb, and rather than seeing a shocking and unspeakable horror, we see it as empowerment for the mother?
This is an industry that takes the violence and the butchery of the battlefield and brings it into women’s bodies. But who are the villains who are responsible? The women themselves. It’s the women who are demanding that they be allowed to be violated in this way, women who are running the ad campaigns, women who are the CEOs, women who are marching in the streets, women who are lobbying Washington, and women who are operating the vile trade in infant body parts. It is women who are tearing at themselves and throwing themselves into the fire.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.Help Our Unbelief
Christ’s words when confronted with the demon-possessed boy are especially poignant when applied to us, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). But when the boy’s father begs for Christ to have compassion, he is told, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). The man famously cries out with tears, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And Christ casts the demon out and the boy is healed.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad — and those gods always wish to destroy. But Christ came to this sorry, self-destructive planet, this planet hell-bent on throwing itself into the fire, and cast out the demon. “And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, the spirit came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (Mark 9:26–27).
We can’t debate our way out of this madness because self-destructive frenzy can only be dealt with by prayer and fasting. Rational arguments and reasoned discourse don’t work on insanity. But we can look to Christ who is certainly capable of taking us by the hand and lifting us up.
Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.
You won’t find a better deal than what you can in following Jesus. Don’t trade temporary pleasures for imperishable joy.
Walk through any bookstore in America, and you might think we have the corner on happiness.
Cover after cover promises some secret to new or deeper contentment, each selling tens of thousands of copies. Habits, relationships, food, forgiveness, work, exercise, minimalism — you can choose from a thousand different recipes for happiness. Whether people are actually reading the books or not anymore, all the pages suggest we are wealthy in happiness.
But the real secret is that while we’re swimming in money, comfort, and entertainment — and countless books on happiness — we’re still starving for happiness. All the new titles published each year do not prove we’ve figured out what will make us happy. They’re evidence of famine. Thousands of pages of cake pictures piled in front of crowds fainting for lack of food.Starving in Paradise
Almost three thousand years ago, the prophet Isaiah Instagrammed a picture of our twenty-first-century spiritual and emotional hunger. He warns anyone who might oppose the Lord,
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. (Isaiah 29:8)
The starving man has to take a nap — or watch Netflix for a few hours — just to get any relief. The thirsty woman, in her unconscious moments, imagines herself drowning in gallons of purified water. Pain rips her from paradise, as her organs are slowly drying out and failing. Have we experimented with the American Dream long enough to see it for what it is? We think we’re living the life, but are we really just waiting for the alarm clock to go off? American Dream is right, and if we want to be happy, we’ll have to wake up.Miserable Millionaires
If you want the secret to true happiness — to a full and satisfied heart — start asking why you have a heart in the first place. Why did God make you? You are not alive simply to enjoy as much pleasure or comfort as you can in seventy or more years. That’s why millionaires commit suicide.
No, whether you live seventy years or seventeen, God has filled your life with more potential than the highest-paid celebrities, the wealthiest businessmen, and the most successful athletes — if you will trust him. All their movies, their inventions, their highlights, their championships will fade and be forgotten, probably even before you die.
But if you embrace what God wants you to do while you live here on earth, the stories will be told forever — even if you’re overlooked and ignored for a few decades here. And you will find the kind of happiness that happiest people in Hollywood would sell everything to have.He Knows How to Make You Happy
Your happiness is not about you — not if you want it to last for more than a few minutes. Happiness will always hide from us when we shrink our world down to what we want in the moment, rather than seeing ourselves as part of what God is doing around the world and throughout history.
God says, “[Bring] everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:7). If you want to be happy, give your life to the reason God gave you life: his glory. He knit you together in your mother’s womb — every fiber of every muscle, including your heart (Psalm 139:13). He knew every single one of your days before there was one (Psalm 139:16). Thousands of years ago, he knew every detail of your day today. He hears every thought you think — every question, every temptation, every desire.
Don’t you think he might know what will make you happy? If so, he has his own book on happiness. You probably won’t find it in the window display at Barnes & Noble, but it has sold more copies than any other in the history of the world.Fractions of Joy
King David asked the same question all those books at Barnes & Noble are asking: “Who will show us some good?” (Psalm 4:6). Who will show us something that will make us happy? David answers his own question,
“Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:6–7)
More joy. Once you know someone has found happiness that food and alcohol (and sex, sports, shopping, and social media) cannot produce, don’t settle for just food and alcohol anymore. Again David writes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11). Don’t trade fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore for fractions of joy and moments of pleasure.
Do you really want to be happy if you hear about that kind of happiness and keep scrolling on to something else?Are You Happy?
What you will never read in this week’s best-seller on happiness is that you will find happiness when you start living for someone else — for the glory of your God. And you will begin to fulfill the purpose for which you were made — to glorify the God who made you — when you are your happiest in him. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” You fulfill the purpose for which you were made, find the happiness you couldn’t find anywhere else, and you may just forget yourself in the process.
How do you know when you’ve found the happiness for which you were made? Look at the next verse in Psalm 4:
“Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:6–7)
You sleep differently. Instead of escaping reality in American dreams, you know the greatest joy is found in the deepest realities. When your life is about God’s glory and your treasure is in heaven — when you have more joy than the rest of the world has in their happiest moments — your soul also finds the sweetest and deepest rest.
When God feels distant, he may be calling us away from a soft, flimsy faith into a tough, unshakable allegiance to Jesus.
Jesus is not a fanatic CEO that needs you to render him anxious toil. He is a King that loves to give his beloved sleep.
The dove is a nearly universal symbol of peace. And a very appropriate one. Doves are beautiful, gentle, faithful creatures. They’re also, well, flighty creatures. It doesn’t take much to send a dove fluttering away. A harsh word, a rash gesture, and off she goes. If you want a dove to stay around, you have to be very careful how you speak and act. Which is a lot like what it takes to be at peace with other people.
The author of Hebrews tells us to “strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). His implication: peace — real, honest peace, not dysfunctional conflict avoidance — is hard to keep. How hard? Well, pursuing peace fits into the list of hard things he groups around this statement:
- It’s hard like lifting drooping hands and strengthening weak knees when you’re tired and discouraged (Hebrews 12:12).
- It’s hard like continuing to walk when your leg is injured (Hebrews 12:13).
- It’s hard like living in a holiness that evidences the reality of your faith even though your indwelling sin continually tries to derail you into unholy passions (Hebrews 12:14).
- It’s hard like not allowing the constant barrage of deceitful sin to harden our hearts and lead us away from God into apostasy (Hebrews 3:12–13), which is what the writer means by being defiled by a “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15, quoting Deuteronomy 29:18).
- It’s hard like the constant vigilance required to remain sexually pure (Hebrews 12:16).
Striving for peace with everyone is hard, like all aspects of the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12). It’s spiritual warfare. Peace will always be attacked, and we have to do everything we can to stand firm (Ephesians 6:13) and live peaceably with all (Romans 12:18). It’s a great kingdom irony that we must fight hard for peace.“Persecute” Conflict
The Greek word translated as “strive for” in Hebrews 12:14 is diōkō. It’s a strong word — stronger than modern English speakers typically mean when say “strive.” Versions of diōkō are used many times in the New Testament. Here are a few familiar examples (in italics):
- Jesus: “Blessed are you when others . . . persecute you” (Matthew 5:11).
- Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
- Paul: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14) — and Paul meant “by any means possible” (Philippians 3:11).
- John: “And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child” (Revelation 12:13).
These examples give us some sense of what the author of Hebrews had in mind when exhorting us to diōkō (strive) for peace. We are to press on toward peace by any appropriate means possible. We are to pursue peace with relentless determination. We might even think about it as persecuting conflict — by which I mean vigorously working to prevent or end sinful conflict and putting sin to death, not persecuting people in conflict!Patient Discernment
Obviously, not all conflict can or should be avoided. The Bible clearly warns us that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:17). Jude instructs us to “contend for the faith” against false teachers (Jude 3). Jesus rebuked sinful religious leaders (Matthew 23:13–39), Paul rebuked Peter (Galatians 2:11–14), Peter rebuked Simon the Magician (Acts 8:20–23), and John had to confront Diotrephes (3 John 9–10).
But most of the conflicts we experience are not as clear-cut as these. Most of them are difficult to navigate because they are a mixture of valid concerns, misunderstandings, fears, and what James calls sinful warring passions, like jealously, selfish ambition, and a prideful unwillingness to admit error (James 4:1; 3:16).
And trying to discern the chemistry of a conflict, how much of which ingredient is in the mix, requires discernment and patience and endurance and forbearance and wisdom and charity (agapē love) — often just to get to the place where we can determine if a conflict really is, at root, unavoidable. It requires a rigorous, disciplined commitment to being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). It requires pressing on, doggedly pursuing; it requires diōkō — striving for peace. Because most of our conflicts are unnecessary, or unnecessarily acrimonious.Pursue Peace to the Death
Just how far are we to “strive for peace”? Further than most of us want to go; further than we frequently feel we should go when our passions are engaged in conflict with someone.
The Bible calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). And the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). How far did the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, go to make peace with us? To the death. Jesus made peace between us and God “by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). When we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
How far should the sons of God go to make peace? To the death. What does that mean? It depends on the nature of the conflict. But at the very least it means, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). It means, “Love one another with brotherly affection” and “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). It means, “Bless those who persecute you,” “live in harmony with one another,” “never be wise in your own sight,” never “repay . . . evil for evil,” and “do what is honorable in the sight of all,” never seeking revenge when wronged, treating our enemies with graciousness and compassion, and, so far as it depends on us, living “peaceably with all” (Romans 12:14–21).
This is what it looks like to “strive for peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14). Most of the time, when a conflict is brewing, we should assume it is avoidable and do everything to pursue peace. We should assume the best of the other(s) and assume we are misunderstanding something or being tempted by warring passions. We should not enter into conflict as such until we have clear confirmation that it is unavoidable in the biblical sense. And even then, we speak the appropriate truth in the appropriate form of love, whether it be tough or tender (Ephesians 4:15).
This is hard. Like all forms spiritual endurance and warfare, we must strive. We must die. But this kind of dying to make peace is blessed. It’s what sons of God do. And God’s reward to his peace-making sons will be out-of-this-world wonderful.
God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours. His aim is not to provide the most direct route, but to sanctify the traveler.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, located between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The government graciously allows Christians from other countries to establish churches there, and to worship freely. And God has led us to plant an English-speaking international church in this strategic city.
This started with a dream — literally, while I was sleeping. I saw myself being sent out from our existing church to some other undisclosed ministry. The idea of being led by a dream might sound strange in the West today, but in Scripture we often see God speaking through dreams — to Abimelech (Genesis 20:3), Jacob (Genesis 28:12; 31:10–13; 46:2), Laban (Genesis 31:24), Joseph (Genesis 31:5–11), Pharaoh (Genesis 41:25), Solomon (1 Kings 3:5–15), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:28,45; 4:23–24), Daniel (Daniel 2:19; 7:1), Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19, 22), the wise men (Matthew 2:12), and the apostle Paul (Acts 16:9–10; 18:9–11).
Of course, the Bible shows that not all dreams are from God, and that they must be tested by the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 13:1–5). But it also shows that dreams can be from God, and bring great benefit (Job 33:13–18; Acts 2:17–18).
So, I started praying about this dream, and shared it with my wife and the other leaders of our church, so that they could pray as well.Confirming Moments
A few weeks later, I was walking by a creek, crying out to God for wisdom. I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s nearness. I believe he impressed on my heart that day that this dream was from him. That he was, in fact, calling us to be sent out from our church. I felt both joy in God’s guidance, and sadness at the thought of leaving our church. But I still did not know where God might be calling us to go.
A friend suggested that my wife and I look at ministry employment websites, to see if anything stirred us. We did, and saw dozens of pastoral positions — but none of them interested us.
Then one Sunday afternoon, during a membership class at our church, someone asked, “If it’s true that lost people will not be saved without hearing the gospel, shouldn’t that change our priorities?” I knew the answer was yes. But this time, as I answered the familiar question, my heart was gripped with a stronger-than-usual burden for the unreached.
That evening, as I looked at the ministry employment website, a new job opening popped up. An international English-speaking church in a difficult part of Southeast Asia needed a pastor. Could this be what God is calling us to do?What About Abu Dhabi?
I could not shake that thought. So, I emailed missions leaders, to ask about international churches, and to get feedback as to whether my wife and I would be a good fit. The feedback was positive, so I sent out resumes and started interviewing with international churches in the Middle East who needed pastors.
Then I heard about the possibility of planting a church in Abu Dhabi. My wife and I were not thrilled at the idea of a church plant, since we knew it would be a lot of work. But we went ahead and contacted them.
One of the Abu Dhabi leaders responded and said he would be vacationing near us in California. He asked if we could have dinner. We enjoyed hearing his story, and learning about Abu Dhabi. Then a few weeks later, I had a video-call with that leader and three others on the ground there.
I was encouraged by their love for Jesus, and their excitement about what God was doing. But I was still not sure we wanted to pursue it.Surprising Change
Then the Abu Dhabi leaders emailed. They said that after much prayer they believed God wanted them to call me to lead their church. They wanted us to pray about this, and if we agreed, to come and visit.
So my wife and I started praying. To think through the options, I made a chart listing each potential location down the left side of the page, and the various factors across the top. When I came to “kingdom impact” in Abu Dhabi, and typed “planting a church in the Middle East,” my heart changed. I was overwhelmed with the glory that could come to Christ through such a church plant. My hesitation about church planting left. I knew this was God’s call.
At the same time, in other ways, God did the same for my wife. And as we talked with our church leaders, and other trusted counselors, everyone agreed.
The Sunday before we visited Abu Dhabi, I shared with our church how God was leading us. At the end of the service, everyone gathered to pray for us. But before anyone prayed, a woman said that God had given her a dream the night before. Through tears, she said she did not want to share this dream, because she knew what it meant. But she said that in the dream, my wife and I were planting a seedling in the desert, which was growing and flourishing.
This encouraged us, but also the whole church, that God was, in fact, calling us to Abu Dhabi.Grace, Mercy, and Help
We visited Abu Dhabi. We interviewed with church leaders, preached at the two churches sponsoring the church plant, and both churches confirmed our call. So, three years ago, we moved to Abu Dhabi. God gave us unusual grace for the move. And he poured out his mercy in quickly raising up Grace Church Abu Dhabi.
But it has not been easy. It was hard leaving our church. It is painful to be far from our children and parents. And church planting in this part of the world comes with unique challenges (on top of all of the typical challenges in planting a church).
And yet God has met us in every difficulty. He has guided and helped us. He has given us outpourings of joy in him. He has strengthened believers, saved the lost, raised up a church, and brought glory to his name.Dreams, Really?
We are not all called to the Middle East. But we are all called to ask God for guidance, and to be open to whatever guidance he chooses to give — including when he guides through dreams. If the thought of dreams like these seems strange to you, let me suggest a few steps.
First, read the stories in the Bible that I referenced at the beginning of this article in which God did give people dreams. Keep in mind that our Enlightenment-shaped Western societies teach us to be far more suspicious of dreams than Scripture does.
Second, pray and ask God to give you guidance, and ask him to use dreams if that would bring him the most glory.
Third, if you have a dream that seems significant, ask God to confirm that it was from him. Share it with close friends and church leaders, so they can pray about it with you. With regard to major directional decisions, like mine, dreams can be one merciful element in a process of discerning God’s guidance, but we should not take them as the only element.
Fourth, respond to the dream according to the wisdom God gives you.
All through the Bible we see God using dreams to lead his people:
- Assuring Jacob of God’s presence (Genesis 28:12–16)
- Revealing himself in a dream to Daniel (Daniel 2:19)
- Comforting Joseph that Mary’s baby was from God (Matthew 1:20)
- Protecting the wise men from Herod (Matthew 2:12)
- Sending Paul to Macedonia (Acts 16:9)
- Encouraging Paul to keep preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:9–11)
God still communicates to his people through dreams, and he very well might want to use dreams, in part, to lead you.
In Christ, you have access to a joy that will never fade and will never expire. Your search for enduring happiness ends with him.
They wander from mountain to mountain, website to website, article to article, contributing their unsolicited thoughts on pieces that their comments betray they have hardly read. They “criticize much, and meditate little.” Seated on their homemade bench, they adorn themselves in silver wigs and dark robes as they usher out humorless stares. They are the self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner.
Whereas in olden days their warmongerings would have had to penetrate an editor and a publisher to reach the general public, they can now bludgeon their victims mercilessly at the touch of a button. And they do. They can club them from behind without the added bother of ever looking them in the eye, skulking back to binging on Netflix afterwards. They can be vulgar, they can be rude, they can be unappeasable. Saul has slain his thousands, David his ten thousands, the internet troll his hundred thousands.Do We Comment Like Nonbelievers?
Now, Christians should not gasp every time the trolls, who pick fights and sow discord online, speak and type maliciously from their miserable hearts. We are not surprised when toads and mosquitoes proceed from swamps. But we should be surprised when rats proceed from the palace of the Spirit of God; when pollution continually proceeds from the river of life coming from the believer’s heart.
Some of us, like Saul before Damascus, have been persecutors of the church of God online. Instead of using our comments to sharpen our brothers and sisters, we sharpen our axes to do away with their heads. Our insults and hasty speech refuse to heed our Master’s earnest call: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). He who laid his life down for us calls us to model the drama. But too often, we do not lay down our insults — let alone our lives — for our brothers.
I am not speaking against evaluation in general, nor critique specifically. We must watch our doctrine carefully (1 Timothy 4:16); we must speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15) — a truth that presumably is hard to hear, thus it should be spoken with love. But the spirit of fault-finding and nitpicking is not the spirit of Christ.
The regenerate heart has more encouragement than it has censure. Charles Spurgeon describes the unappeased believer as able to fault-find with the apostles themselves,
Nothing can please them, their cavils are dealt out with heedless universality. Cephas is too blunt, Apollos is too flowery, Paul is too argumentative, Timothy is too young, James is too severe, John is too gentle. . . Well then, let each servant of God tell his message in his own way. To his own Master he shall stand or fall.
And we must remember that if a man will stand before his Master, he should not be cut down by his fellow servant. We shouldn’t twitter about and grumble as if God has not intended for us to offer some solutions to the problems instead of just contributing to them. It does not befit us to incessantly moan with Solomon, “Oh, this post is vanity! This article, vanity! There is no new message under the sun*!” Instead, let’s show the world a different way.Come Out of Your Caves
When the world sees our comments, they should see respect and love that creates distinctions between the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:10). This is not a call to free hugs, but it is a call to sober judgments, charity, and cultivating a heart satisfied enough in God to issue profuse encouragements online that prove we have been taught by God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:9).
In Christ, our calling is to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom [we will] shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14–15). Who will there be to hold out the light of joy if we are known for online grumbling and vainly disputing?
Some of the wisest observations you can read today may be buried in the manure of comment sections. So, if you are a spiritual savant throwing real spiritual insights mixed with the mud, I invite you to put aside your childishness and steward your analytical giftings. I do not declare war against you; I aim to win you. We need your sharp wit, careful eye, and boldness to speak.
If you are the hand, do not poke the eye. If you are the left heel, do not smash the right toe. May your speech be seasoned with salt, not cyanide, so that when you do hit the proper note, the world might not hear a clanging gong. Even if you can understand all mysteries and all knowledge but have not love, you — not just your speech — are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Truth is not antithetical to love, but they are sisters, and must be so in our discourse; the very stature of the Church depends on it:
Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16)Questions to Consider Before Commenting
How now shall we comment? Consider some examples of the kind of questions we can ask ourselves before posting.
Am I speaking from a soul satisfied in God or from my discontent?
Have I prayed for this person to whom I’m about to respond?
Have I labored to understand what he is saying?
Do I love this person (1 Peter 2:15–17) — even if they feel like an enemy (Matthew 5:43)?
Am I merely trying to one-up him?
How would I phrase this critique if I had to speak it to him face to face?
Can I raise my critique in private instead of in public?
How can I say this in a way that aims to build him up as well as the hearers?
Is this particular critique needful at this point in time?
Could I be wrong?
Am I sowing discord or delight?
Again, loving speech does not mean never saying anything that could offend. It does not lead to a watered-down eclecticism or silence on important doctrinal and exegetical distinctions. Jesus confronted, offended, challenged, and rebuked his disciples. But he also went to the cross for them. And we are to love — online and off — like him.
God’s priorities for efficiency in this life are not ours. His aim is not to provide the most direct route, but to sanctify the traveler.
It’s an old dilemma: a church music ministry has a need, and a local unbelieving musician is available. But is this a match made in heaven, or a manifestation of . . . somewhere else?
At first, the biblical answer seems obvious. Growing up in church, I was startled by the stories of God killing people — Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), and of course Uzzah (2 Samuel 6). It startled me to discover that many of the individuals whom the Lord put to death were executed for improper worship. While parts of the story confused me, one thing seemed clear: God’s love was a holy love. He would not allow his presence to be violated.
At some point, things obviously became less obvious. I read church leadership books that argued that churches should allow non-believers to participate in worship services. Non-Christians, they argued, who begin by belonging to a Christian community often move to believing in the Christian faith. From this perspective, allowing unbelieving musicians to lead worship is a powerful form of evangelism.
This argument once convinced me, but now I’ve changed my mind. And it has become much clearer to me as I’ve considered the issue from three different perspectives.Perspective 1: The Church Leader
First, when we approve a non-Christian leading worship, church leaders confuse evangelism and excellence. At first, it seems noble that church leaders want to evangelize unbelievers, but evangelism ought not to be the central goal of a church’s gathering. And while it is assumed that only believers ought to represent the church by leading its gathering, it is especially true of corporate worship.
Consider just how confusing this situation could become. These scenarios usually involve excellent musicians who play an instrument rather than a marginal musician who does something many others could. It’s easy to imagine a church’s enthusiasm to welcome the unbelieving hotshot drummer who works in a recording studio. But why? Would the leadership of a church feel the same burden to evangelize if the unbeliever was a mediocre female vocalist who could not harmonize? If not, we ought to admit that the actual highest value on display is here is not evangelism, but musical excellence.
Excellence in music can be a fine value for worship, but it ought not to be a church’s highest value. And it certainly ought not to be smuggled into the church’s practice under the guise of evangelism.
Of course, some people have come to faith after participating in a church’s worship ministry. Praise the Lord! Every conversion deserves celebration. But stories about musicians coming to faith while leading worship are like stories of people surviving a car crash while not wearing seat belts — we are glad they are alive, but we ought not to build a policy around that experience.
Because church membership is “a covenant between believers whereby they affirm one another’s professions of faith,” (Leeman, 34) church leaders have a serious responsibility. Church leaders affirm the profession of another person’s faith when they allow that person to have a public, leading role during the church gathering.
And that affirmation is easily misunderstood, especially by unbelievers.Perspective 2: The Unbeliever
Second, having non-Christians lead worship confuses unbelievers about the nature of salvation. In general, non-Christians rely on their good works to impress God and earn them his favor. This, however, is the opposite of the gospel.
Even when we try to explain the gospel’s distinction between faith and works, the confusion is hardwired into the unbelieving heart. Every sincere evangelistic effort ought to clarify this distinction rather than muddy it. But allowing a non-Christian to serve on a worship team ratifies and calcifies this misunderstanding of works-righteousness.
Imagine, in the spirit of Matthew 7:21–23, the tragedy of the unbelieving musician standing before the Lord on the last day. Imagine hearing him say, “But Lord, I played music for the church.” It may not feel pleasant to explain to a non-Christian musician why they cannot play their instrument for the worship service, but it is a pure kindness to help them avoid hearing those final words of condemnation.Perspective 3: The Church Attender
Third, having non-Christians lead worship confuses the congregation about the nature of worship. A wise worship leader serves their congregation by carefully distinguishing between music and worship. When a church attendee complains about a musical style or aesthetic preference, a loving worship pastor might turn the conversation to the goals of the worship service. “We are leading worship,” he might say, “not performing a concert.”
Worship is a believing heart’s response to the work of the Holy Spirit, not an emotional response to the quality of the music.
But this crucial distinction is muddied when one or more of the platform participants actually performs a concert rather than worships the living God. A congregation cannot be blamed for being confused when the church leadership and the platform participants are sending confusing signals.
Imagine the mother of a bass-playing teenager. Eager to find a mentor for her child, she approaches the church’s bassist after the service to talk to her son. The boy sheepishly follows his mother only to discover that the man, instead of loving the Lord, performs at the church only to earn some money. There’s the danger: placing unbelievers on the platform undermines an opportunity to give the congregation spiritual as well as musical leaders to emulate in their fight for faith.
So, let us consider the good of both unbelievers and believers alike. Let us warmly welcome all people, believers and unbelievers alike, in our church gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:22–25). But let us clarify that the church belongs to Christ and not the world (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1).
And let us use our church gatherings to show the world that the sanctuary is not a concert hall. It is the place where “the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Psalm 107:2).
When I was 30, the Joni book was an international bestseller, the Joni movie was enjoying a nationwide release, and I had moved to California to start Joni and Friends. Notice anything? A little Joni-heavy, don’t you think?
In 1979, when I moved to California from our farm in Maryland, I was in for a surprise. Nothing had prepared me for big city life in Los Angeles. The novelty of books and movies quickly wore off. I put a down payment on a single-story home and rented a small office to house my dream of reaching people with disabilities for Christ. Okay, Lord, I’m in California and ready to work. I had a lot to learn about administering a non-profit, leasing commercial square footage, managing a home and a budget, and building a ministry. And don’t forget my quadriplegia. Thirty years old? Where was my head?Running Too Hard — with Quadriplegia
I hunkered down with wiser, more godly men and women than me. I immersed myself in Christian special-needs programs, learning about new models of disability ministry. Soon, several specialists and I were touring the country, holding summits for churches that wanted to minister Christ to special-needs families. I was off and running.
And maybe — here’s what I would tell my 30-year-old self — I was running too hard. I knew I should balance the demands of ministry with personal spiritual disciplines, but looking back, I was far too actively engaged in the ministry God had called me to, and nowhere near as engaged in who God called me to be.
So, I would say to 30-year-old Joni,
“God is far more interested in reaching people with disabilities than you’ll ever be, and he can manage quite well with or without Joni and Friends. So slow down and love Jesus more. And prove that love by pursuing holiness.”
The thirtysomething girl would’ve shrugged, “Look, you’re pushing seventy. I’m doing fine with the Lord. Really.” I would’ve shaken the shoulders of that headstrong young woman and told her the same. What did she know about fully grasping the sobering weight of Christian leadership? Natural leaders tend to lean naturally on their giftedness, and so they fail to see the deceitfulness of sin. That was me.Housebreaking Pet Sins
Oh, that I had been more actively engaged in my own sanctification — that I had partnered more with the Holy Spirit to not only sniff out sin in my life, but to say “no” to “ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12).
I had become skilled in housebreaking small transgressions, taming them to look respectable. For instance, I had been a Joni Mitchell fan for years; a Beatles fan, too. Their albums were the musical score for my life when I first broke my neck and was in the hospital. The song “Blackbird” had been an anthem for my depression. More chillingly, for my submerged bitterness against God. After I got out of the hospital, the Spirit convicted me of that. Those albums were not good for my spiritual health.
But after my move to California, and often at the end of a busy week, I’d ignore my conscience and wear ruts in Ms. Mitchell’s songs, “Still, I sent up my prayer, wondering where it had to go. With heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord on death row.” Not the most edifying thought to have stuck in your head.Sweat the Small Sins
Why sweat the small stuff, you may ask? Because I was deceiving myself, thinking God was only concerned that I would trust him with a life of total paralysis. Yes, by his grace, I could trust God in my quadriplegia, and I couldn’t wait to tell other disabled people about him. With such a noble ambition, surely he’d ignore small infractions.
A slip of the tongue in gossip. Watching TV when the Spirit says, “Turn it off.” Running mental movies of past successes. Flirtatious remarks. A slight fudging of the truth. Cherishing inflated ideas of my own importance. Slacking off in prayer. Daydreams I shielded from the scrutiny of the Spirit. And a few worldly passions, now and then.
“Oh, young one, Joni,” I would say, “Don’t allow these things to sink their talons into your heart; don’t cling to the very things which impaled Jesus to the cross. The cosmic stakes are too high. The price, too great. Don’t jeopardize the sphere of influence God has given you, and don’t diminish your eternal estate!” I would insist with my younger twin, “Your flimsy attempts to whitewash minor offenses is heinous to God. Stop it!”Live from Godliness, Not Giftedness
Thankfully, in the mid-80s, I began to feel a rumbling in my spirit. I looked inward and could tell I lacked the power of godliness in my heart. My hopes weren’t as bright, and my sensitivity to sin was dulled. Then I read a book called Holiness by J.C. Ryle.
We are too apt to forget that temptation to sin will rarely present itself in its true colors. Never when we are tempted will we hear sin say to us, “I am your deadly enemy. . . . I want to ruin your life.” That’s not how it works. Sin, instead, comes to us like Judas with a kiss. . . . Sin, in its beginnings, seems harmless enough — like David walking idly on his palace roof which happened to overlook the bedroom of a woman. You and I may give wickedness smooth-sounding names, but we cannot alter its offensive nature and character in the sight of God.
That was the year I invited the Spirit to convict me about any itchiness to get my own way — I invited my new husband to call me out on it, too. When it came to offenses of any size, I wanted to be able to say to the Lord, “Cleanse me from all unrighteousness” (see 1 John 1:9). And I never looked back.
Recently while housecleaning, a friend found a dusty pile of old albums in the back of my living room closet. “Hey, these are really worth something,” she marveled. I almost told her to give them to the Goodwill, but then decided to dump them. Better that than they wear a rut in some unsuspecting 30-year-old soul.
There are far better anthems for our lives. Courageous, celestial anthems that carry us from strength to strength, from faith to faith, and from grace to grace. Anthems that remind us that Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare, and that it is worth anything to be his friend, whether we are thirty or seventy.