Pilgrim's Progress

Staying for the Best Things

I can’t shake the scene of that little room where Passion and Patience sit waiting. The boys’ sitter instructed them to stay still, to rest side by side, to hold out for what’s best. What we come to find is a quest for pleasure so intense we’re compelled to take note.

John Bunyan is telling that kind of story in The Pilgrim’s Progress. He brings us along with Christian every step of the way and at this particular point Interpreter is our guide.

Interpreter leads Christian into a small room to observe two kids seated in parallel chairs. Passion is the restless one. He is discontent, perhaps huffing and puffing, frowning and squirming. Beside him is Patience. He’s the one who keeps quiet. Bunyan implies his posture: feet straight in front of him, neatly squared up in the middle of the chair, hands folded in his lap (i.e., not the way my kids sit at the dinner table). The boys were plainly told they had to wait for the best things. The best things were coming to them, but wouldn’t get there until early the next year. Passion can’t stand this. We can tell by how he acts. He just wants it all now. Then someone walks in the room and dumps a bag of treasure at his feet. Aha! Passion jumps down from his chair and happily scoops up the goodies. Grinning, he looks over at Patience, still sitting quietly, and he laughs him to scorn.

But Christian continues to watch. He sees that Passion “quickly lavishe[s] all away” until he “had presently nothing left him but rags.” Interpreter explains:

These two lads are figures: Passion, of the men of this world; and Patience, of the men of that which is to come; for as here thou seest, Passion will have all now this year, that is to say, in this world; so are the men of this world, they must have all their good things now, they cannot stay till next year, that is until the next world, for their portion of good. . . . But as thou sawest that he had quickly lavished all away, and had presently left him nothing but rags; so will it be with all such men at the end of this world.

Christian replies,

Now I see that Patience has the best wisdom, and that upon many accounts. First, because he stays for the best things. Second, and also because he will have the glory of his, when the other has nothing but rags.

How’d He Do That?

Bunyan leaves us to wonder how Patience’s waiting actually looked. Sure, we understand the end. We get that he has the best wisdom. But how exactly did he wait? What did he think about while sitting in that chair? Watching Passion indulge in the treasure? Remembering the sitter’s words? How was Patience, well, patient?

Answer: he was a Christian hedonist.

Now to be sure, it doesn’t sound very hedonistic at first. Denying himself the bag of “treasure” tossed in front of him resembles more the tune of self-denial. But self-denial, for the Christian Hedonist, is not for the sake of self-denial.

Patience saw Passion dive into the mass of goodies, and he denied his impulse to do the same. He held back. And this is biblical, of course. The apostle Paul writes in Titus 2:11–12a, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” Paul says there are things in this world we’re supposed to renounce, that is, deny. And the “self” in self-denial is composed of these things. That self is the old self, the one that was crucified with Jesus (Romans 6:6), the one in whom we no longer exist (Galatians 2:20). That is the self Patience denied, the self of ungodliness, worldly passions, and inferior pleasures.

“For the Best Things”

You see, this doesn’t end up as a negative enterprise. Remember how Bunyan says it. Patience sat quietly in his chair “because he stays for the best things.” It appears that Patience realized he sat in that room with pleasures for which that bag of treasure could not satisfy. Denying the treasure didn’t shrivel up his appetite. It was that his appetite was so big it shriveled up the treasure. Patience didn’t bury his head in the sand either. He wasn’t frantically shouting “No!” over and over. He simply kept his eyes on next year. He trusted what he was told. Passion could have done the same had he not been far too easily pleased.

We learn that Patience’s self-denial came from a craving for the superior pleasure. This is the self-denial of the Christian Hedonist. Patience wasn’t merely holding back, he was looking forward. His resistance from that bag of transient treasure was actually his feasting in eternal joy. As Paul continues in Titus 2:12b–13, “training us. . . to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

What Bunyan means is that Patience halted the world’s empty promises because he had something better ahead (namely, our Savior Jesus Christ).

Different and the Same

So we’re different from Patience, and we’re the same. We’re different in that we’re in a much sweeter spot than he was. He sat in that chair with the promise of better things (convincing enough) while we sit here, in the room of this world, with not only a promise, but also God’s very Spirit living inside us. We have the active communication of himself through his word. We have the experience of being “in Christ” now, of being seated with him now in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Our lives are hidden in him now (Colossians 3:3). We are brought to God now and enjoy his fellowship (1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 1:3).

But there is still more to come. Like Patience, what’s better remains out in front. Learning again from Paul, we’ve not yet obtained the fullness of our portion. We’re not yet perfect (Philippians 3:12). We are waiting, too. We are waiting for the consummation of God’s great work, the revealing of our Lord Jesus and the final redemption of our bodies (1 Corinthians 1:7; Romans 8:23). So as wondrous at it is now, the “far better” is yet next year (Philippians 1:23).

And waiting like this is staying for the best things.


The Kind of Father He Is

The castle was mangled. With just a glance, you could tell it was bad.

The main gate was completely exposed. The chains that once lowered the intimidating drawbridge were now severed. The drum tower, which had weathered the most obvious destruction, had its battlements crushed — so crushed that you could almost recreate in your head the sound it must have made the moment the blow came.

This thing must have been thrown down the stairs, I thought to myself. It was too obvious. Aside from its appearance, the wooden castle I held in my hands had been lying just a few feet from the last step leading down to the basement — the basement which functions as the kids’ main play area.

Yeah, for sure, this thing was tossed down these steps, I said to myself again, not wanting to believe it was true. So I called for the kids and asked them.

“Did you throw the castle down the stairs?”

“Yes, we did,” volunteered the five-year-old spokesman.

“What? You threw the castle down the stairs?” I stammered back, examining the toy closer now, noticing the bent piano hinge. “You threw it down? How many times?”

“Four or five,” the spokesman answered, more sheepishly this time.

I still couldn’t believe it. These kids are savages. Animals.

Too angry to say much, I expressed my displeasure and sent them away for an impending judgment. I sat there on the bottom step, still looking at this castle and wondering if wood glue could help at all, feeling right sad about the whole thing.

Something Again

See, this castle was the first substantial gift my wife and I got our kids. There are, of course, cheap toys and trinkets kids get from the start, but then there are the legit toys — the ones that parents shop around for, that you feel especially good about your kids having. Investments. This was the first toy of that kind. And on top of that, we had given it to them only a few Christmases ago, purchased back then on the meager family budget of a full-time seminarian. So it wasn’t really anger I was feeling at the bottom of those steps. It was hurt.

Thanklessness can do that to you. It is painful. And to make it worse, I sat on that bottom step with an unsettling premonition. My children will do this again. It may not be toys, or ingratitude, or bratty recklessness, but something. It will be something.

Once, a wise experienced mother told my wife that children break your hearts. She didn’t mean to be Debbie Downer, just honest. That, after all, is part of love, at least in human terms. C.S. Lewis writes that “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” Sure, we hope that our kids will never make a mistake. We hope that their lives will turn out as perfect as the bumper stickers and stick-figured decals seem to promise. But even if it does, parenting is never a safe investment. Read the Bible. Children can cause parents pain. Joy, yes, lots of joy. But pain, too. And in most cases, it’s a combination of the two.

Better Than New

Sitting at the bottom of those steps, I can’t say what pain there might be down the road. I pray for God to lead our kids on the path of wisdom and truth and life. I pray and point and posture my family in that direction as much as I can. But I don’t know what they will do. The only question I can answer is what I will do. What kind of father will I be? And as for me and my house, I’ll rebuild the castle. There will be discipline, no doubt. There’s nothing okay about what they did. But before long, I’ll get the wood glue, and the screws for that hinge, and I’ll put that thing back together.

Because I once took gifts and didn’t say thanks. I took all that God gave me and didn’t honor him as God. I trashed my life down a flight of stairs, four or five times, or more. And he took my broken pieces, darkened as they were, foolish as they were, and he held them in his hands. He took me, obstinate as I was, in his sovereign hands, his merciful hands, and he spoke over me, “Let light shine” (2 Corinthians 4:6). He put me back together. Like brand-new, and even better. Redeemed and made whole. Because that is the kind of Father he is.


The Main Ingredient in Effective Prayer

It’s tragic how easily we can miss the main ingredient in effective prayer.

In our sin, we’ve been rewired to focus on us — on the steps we should take for our prayers to be heard. We have this bent toward believing that every result is born from method. If something works for somebody we want to know what that somebody isdoing.

We’ve developed the assumption that if we can just strip it all down to a reproducible process to put into action, then the results will multiply. While this applies to certain things, it doesn’t apply to prayer — or at least that’s not the vision the apostle James gives us. The main ingredient in effective prayer is emphatically not us.

Often Misunderstood

Many of us find James 5:16 to be a familiar verse: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” — which is also translated, as an ESV footnote spells out, “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.”

This is one of those coffee-mug verses. It’s commonly understood like this: Be righteous and your prayers will work. It’s what I used to think. But that’s the skim-milk meaning. It’s what happens when we fly by the text without questions. Our broken bent is to make the burden of this passage something to do with us. We simply settle to think that if we want our prayers to be effective then we need to be righteous.

But this reading doesn’t hold up.

Reading in Context

First, look at the context surrounding verse 16. James’s whole point is that prayer iseffective. He asks in verse 13, “Is anyone among you suffering?” Then he replies, “Let him pray.” What about cheerfulness? Or sickness? Or sin? In each case, James encourages his readers to pray. Why? Because prayer is effective, which means, God hears his people and acts on their behalf.

Then in the beginning of verse 16, because prayer is effective (verses 13–15), he says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). To make it even clearer, he follows this with, “The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power.” That line is the second portion in a double dose of support for our praying. James’s point is to repeat his theme to pray because prayer is effective. His concern is not how prayer is made effective, but that prayer is effective. And then verse 17 comes to ground that point.

What About Elijah?

Verse 17 then brings in Elijah. “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours and he prayed fervently . . .” (James 5:17).

What does Elijah have to do with our praying? Does it mean that Elijah was righteous and his prayers worked so we should be like Elijah for our prayers to work too? Is that what he is saying?

No way.

Look at the Book. James says that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours. He was just a man. He was like us. He had a nature like ours. And being just a man, being like us, having a nature likes ours, he prayed fervently and God heard. The point is not that we should be righteous at the extraordinary level of an Elijah, but that he was normal like you and me. James doesn’t say for us to be like Elijah for our prayers to be answered but that Elijah was like us and his prayers were answered — therefore pray.

Don’t Miss What’s Main

This means that the locus of effective prayer is not us, but God. Prayer has less to do with the specifics of how we say what we say, and more to do with the one to whom we are saying it.

We pray as ordinary people who have an extraordinary God. We’re just normal, you and I. We’re just normal like Elijah. Prayer is effective, not because of great men who pray, but because of a great God who in Christ graciously hears his people.

He’s the main ingredient. So pray.


Live Bold

To live Christianly in a culture of confusion is to live boldly.

There is some explaining to do here. On one hand, the above sentence is simple and agreeable at face-value. On the other hand, there’s a sense in which it will resonate with certain personalities while alienating others. Does our culture really need Christians to live bold? What does that even mean?

The answer hangs on our understanding of “bold.” And if we’d learn from the Book of Acts, the answer is yes — the call of Christian living is to live bold the way Luke shows us. It’s not so much because our culture needs it, but because “boldness” is an identity-shaping element of the church.

How’d They Do That?

It started when Peter and John said some annoying things in the Jerusalem of AD 30.

After Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, after healing a man at the temple, Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders were fed up with Peter and John “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). The leaders didn’t like this for more than one reason. In one case, the Sadducees (who were part of the leadership) disputed the resurrection in general. But at the same time, and more significantly, the issue is what the “resurrection of the dead” signified for the history of the world. This was the real deal. This was what really disturbed the leaders, Sadducees and Pharisees alike. In essence, when Peter and John proclaimed “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead,” they were saying that the end-time blessings of the resurrection age had intruded the present age for the sake of everyone who believed in Jesus (Alan Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 79–81).

This is important to wrap our heads around. These end-time blessings of the resurrection age were the hope of Israel, as Paul calls them in Acts 28:20. These Jewish leaders knew all about them — about the pouring out of the Spirit and the triumph of God’s salvation and the defeat of his enemies. They had read Joel 2:28–32 and Isaiah 12:3–6 and Jeremiah 51:24. They understood what the resurrection age meant. And now these fishermen-turned-preachers were walking around “their” temple saying that this age had arrived in Jesus, the guy they killed. Peter and John were telling the Jewish people that Jesus had launched a new and long-awaited epoch in the history of humanity. This didn’t sit too well with “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” in Acts 4:1, nor with the whole Sanhedrin gathered in Acts 4:5–6.

But it gets worse.

Peter and John were arrested and escorted to stand trial before the same court that condemned Jesus. These were the “rulers and elders and scribes,” or we might say, the professionals of Old Testament interpretation in that day. So they asked Peter and John how they did what they did (Acts 4:7). How did Peter heal the man at the temple? Where did they get this teaching on the arrival of the resurrection age?

Astonishing Boldness

The profound answer to their questions is Jesus, which is precisely what Peter says. “Hear me loud and clear,” he explains, “Jesus is behind this work.” He speaks with meticulous care, Galilean accent and all, as he continues, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11–12).

The response of the leaders reveals something crucial. Luke tells us that they took note of Peter and John’s “boldness” (Acts 4:13). The leaders saw their “boldness” and “perceived that they were uneducated, common men.” That last bit means that Peter and John weren’t trained in the rabbinical schools of their scribal accusers (David Peterson,Acts of the Apostles, 194). Peter and John were not skilled interpreters of Scripture. They didn’t travel down the long educational path to be groomed for Jewish leadership, and yet they had this “boldness.” How could they be both unschooled and so bold? This was absolutely astonishing to the leaders.

But why was it astonishing? It has everything to do with what “boldness” means. It’s more than a general confidence. It doesn’t mean zeal enough to holler. Peter and John’s “boldness” was in what they said about Jesus. Or more specifically, their boldness was in how they were so outspoken about the identity of Jesus in their use of the Old Testament. That is what is happening in Acts 4:11. Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 to tell the Jewish leaders about the world-transforming significance of Jesus. He says thatJesus is the “stone” rejected by the leaders who has now become the “cornerstone.” Indeed, a new day had dawned — a day that the Lᴏʀᴅ had made (Psalm 118:24) — all because of this Jesus who was crucified, dead, buried, who is now raised and ascended.

And this blew the minds of the Jewish leaders. How in the world do these untrained fisherman know how to read the Scriptures like this? How can they be so frank and open about who this Jesus is? So the Jewish leaders were astonished. Astonished, that is, until they recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).

Because Jesus Taught Them

So that explains it. Jesus had taught them how to read the Bible. Peter and John had been around Jesus, who, as we saw in Luke 24, said the whole thing was about him (Luke 24:44–48). Boldness, then, at least in this instance, is not red-faced passion or impenetrable extroversion. Rather, it has to do with speaking — which is not so much about how we speak, but in what we say about Jesus, even when we presume our hearers won’t be happy with it.

That’s how Peter and John disturbed the peace in Acts 4. Now, as modern readers, we could simply observe what’s happening here and move on. But I think there’s more.

Later in Acts 4, after Peter and John are released from Jewish custody, they gather with their friends for a prayer meeting (Acts 4:23). Luke actually gives us the insider glimpse of what they pray. It is more Old Testament interpretation centered on Jesus (Acts 4:24–27). And then, well, we see “boldness” again. These believers ask the Father “to grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). Then Luke shows us that God answers their prayer: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Notice again that boldness has to do with speaking, and this time the whole church is getting in on it.

The Greek word behind “boldness” (parresia) shows up throughout the New Testament. It’s range of meaning includes courage or fearlessness, which is in mind in places likeHebrews 4:16. It also can mean outspokenness or frankness — “a use of speech that conceals nothing.” And interestingly, right along with the several verb-uses, each of the five occurrences of parresia in Acts is connected to speaking (Acts 2:294:132931;28:31). F. F. Bruce actually translates it “freedom of speech” in Acts 4:13 (The Book of Acts, 94–95). The two uses outside of chapter 4 are in Peter’s first sermon when he explains that Psalm 16 is about Jesus (Acts 2:29–30); and then in the very last verse of the Book of Acts that describes Paul’s ministry: “[He] welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31). So the two bookends to apostolic proclamation in Acts include “boldness,” which, if I might be so bold, means to be outspoken about the identity and significance of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And this is the “boldness” to which we’re called.

Christian in a Confusing Culture

Luke, the theologian-historian, is writing for us. He intends to answer big questions in the minds of his Christian audience, in part to assure us of the “continued outworking of God’s saving purposes” (Thompson, 19); and to form a “coherent theological perspective” that tells us who we are (Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Dynamics,” 13). While the book is historical, and therefore, mainly descriptive, it can take on a prescriptive function when Luke emphasizes things through repetition or key placements throughout the storyline — which is the case in how the apostles spoke so openly about Jesus.

Luke wants the church-for-all-time to imbibe this kind of boldness — to know Jesus and what his gospel work means for the world. To know Jesus and speak clearly about who he is. This is being Christian in a confusing culture. This is how we’re called to live.


Hedonism to the Extreme: On the Lamborghini Egoista and Our Souls

“What does a tractor manufacturer know about sports cars?” said Enzo Ferrari to an Italian mechanic from humble roots.1

This mechanic, Ferruccio Lamborghini, did manufacture tractors, and he did well. But he also liked fast automobiles and building things, and in the decade following World War II he decided to try his hand at supercars. Frustrated with the Ferrari’s handling on the road, and Ferrari’s dismissal at some suggested improvements, Ferruccio blazed his own trail by creating Automobili Lamborghini. By the fall of 1963, at the Turin Motor Show, he released the Lamborghini 350 GTV and launched the beginning of an iconic supercar brand — a brand at which most men have only marveled from afar.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that original design.

To commemorate the anniversary, Lamborghini has unveiled a new car that many say is aptly named “Egoista” — that is, “selfish.” Yes, that’s right. The car is named “Selfish.” It is a single-seat concept engineered for those who want to treat “me, myself, and I.” One commentator writes that the Egoista, along with its 5.2-litre V10, 600 horsepower engine, has aesthetically more in common with a fighter jet than with a vehicle meant for the ground. And there’s no secret about the marketing. Walter DeSilva, the head of design, explains, “[This car] is designed purely for hyper-sophisticated people who want only the most extreme and special things in the world. It represents hedonism taken to the extreme” (David Undercoffler, LA Times).

“Hedonism taken to the extreme.” So there you have it. This car is about pleasure to the max. That deep craving in our souls for ultimate happiness — the craving we all have — that’s what is behind this automobile. That is the bait held out for the few who can afford it. You are not really seeking pleasure until you sit behind this wheel.

But we know that’s an empty promise, on at least two levels.

What Only God Can Do

First, and most fundamental, no car can satisfy a God-shaped void. The quest for pleasure is really a quest for God. He created us to be happy in him. Now, grant the Lamborghini Egoista this: it would be a fun drive. It’s a beautiful machine. But while it’s a fruit of human ingenuity to be enjoyed, it’s not the place to search for the joy we need. While it offers a good experience, even if just to a thin slice of the human population, it’s not the destination of anyone’s deepest longings. That craving is satisfied in God alone. The real pursuit of pleasure must connect the most profound appetites of our being to the One by whom, in whom, and for whom we exist. God is our joy. God. Every other search is a dead-end road, no matter how fast we can drive it.

And we can attest to some experience of this dead-end road. Sinners can’t help but make black holes of the heart. We grab this one thing and give it its own space within the deep places of our souls. A gravitational pull begins. Eventually our whole lives orbit around its force and our resources get vacuumed into it with galactic abandon. What should be a gift — a glorious gift from God — ends up combusting into its own world.

We spin our wheels trying to recreate that superficial glee we felt the time before. We toil and toil for a diminishing return. Sure, entertainment may tarry for the night, but the wakeup call of emptiness comes in the morning. This is what it means to fall short of God’s glory: we exchange the hope of eternal joy for that which does not profit, we spend our money on moldy bread that cannot satisfy, we rebel to dumb ourselves down from the wonder for which we were made (Jeremiah 2:11–13Isaiah 55:2Romans 1:22–25).

There just aren’t substitutes for the “pleasures forevermore” of God’s fellowship (Psalm 16:11). The parched land of our lives needs more than a desperate splash from good things here and there. We need to be infused with the rivers that lead us to the One who is good. We need our land eroded by the ocean of God’s glory. And that gets into another level.

Deeper Than a Splurge

The Egoista ends empty not just because God alone can satisfy our souls, but also because this car’s offering isn’t how real pleasure works. This piece of Lamborghini commemoration tries to sell joy as a splurge. Happiness, they’d tell us, is a metric to meet, a high to hit, a rush to realize.

But this is too shallow to resonate with any soul responsibly aware of reality. The pleasure we crave can’t be contained in the excitement of 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, or the elitism of being a Lamborghini owner. The Egoista tells us to buy the car and burn the fuse while we have eternity in our hearts — eternity. We can’t manufacture anything to fill that gap.

The quest for real joy isn’t fulfilled in a moment. It isn’t a one-time event to experience, neither with a Lamborghini nor with God. The quest for real joy is a movement — the movement of God centered on himself as the author and perfecter of pleasure. God, because he is eternally glad in the Trinitarian fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit, launched a movement to show that gladness. He created everything that there is in order to show that gladness, including us. Out of his gladness he made us such that our gladness would be found in his own — not once or twice, but forever.

To The Extreme

So “hedonism taken to the extreme” isn’t found in a good supercar. And it’s not even in a good quiet time every now and then. Lasting joy is more than an existential buzz, whatever the source. Hedonism taken to the extreme is the day-in, day-out life of redeemed sinners who know they were created for another world.

Hedonism taken to the extreme is everyday forsaking the jewels of Egypt because our eyes are set on a better Treasure.

Hedonism taken to the extreme is the steady road of enjoying gifts as gifts from God in Christ, tributaries of joy that lead us to his fullness.

Hedonism taken to the extreme is what says, even when darkness veils his lovely face, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). GodForever.

1 Fifty Cars That Changed the World, (Kindle Locations 702–703).

This Is the Way to Live

Unsplash-trafficRomans 12:11–13,

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Because of God’s mercy, we are called to live totally transformed lives, which is summarized generally as to love others. This is the basic way to understand the string of characteristics that begin in verse 9. Love is the central theme into which every characteristic is united.

This transformational love is first and foremost to God, the one who loved us in Christ when were unlovable (Romans 5:8). And then it is extended out to those around us, thus fulfilling the law (Romans 13:10). It is this horizontal dimension that is illustrated in the several portraits listed in Romans 12:9–21. None of Paul’s points stand above the others in preeminence, but rather, united by the theme of love, they all form a wise, pithy code that helps us navigate life in Christ, in this world.

Verses 11 and 13

The straightforward nature of these lines propels us into meditating on their meaning and how they look in our lives. “Do not be slothful in zeal,” verse 11 begins. “Be fervent in the Spirit, serve the Lord.” There is nothing hidden here. It means precisely what it says. The Christian life of love is not a couch potato. “Be fervent” is reminiscent of Colossians 1:29. We are filled with the Sprit. God’s energy is powerfully at work within us.

Skip to verse 13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” This is the practical, nitty-gritty expression of love, both for fellow Christians and for unbelievers. The former reminds us of the Macedonian’s generosity in 2 Corinthians 8:1–5. The latter reminds us Hebrews 13:2 when we’re commanded not to neglect hospitality to strangers. Meeting needs in the church is the call for family concern for one another. Showing hospitality is the call not to become inward-focused about our needs.

A Closer Look at Verse 12

Now consider verse 12. I save it for last not because it is more important. There is nothing grammatical in this list that favors one line over the others. It’s just that verse 12 is a sequence of words that I’ve found personally helpful…

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 

This could be a paradigm for life. Rejoice in hope is the call to this future-oriented vantage on reality. “Hope” is a very rich word in the Book of Romans. Because we have been justified by faith in Christ and have been brought into fellowship with God, Paul says in Romans 5:2 that “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” This hope is filled out in Romans 8 to be the consummation of the new creation. This hope — the final redemption of our bodies — is the hope in which we were saved (Romans 8:23–24). This is the hope that we rejoice in. This is our destiny. Notice this doesn’t say to rejoice in our present circumstances. They may be great right now and we should rejoice in them when they are (Romans 12:15), but the call to rejoice in Romans 12:12 encompasses more. It sets our eyes on what is to come, on the reality for which we were made: life in the presence of God, forever.

And as we rejoice in hope, in what is to come, we must be patient in tribulation. Oftentimes we will find that our destiny feels a lot different from our current location. Here we suffer. But Paul tells us that our present suffering is not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). Because we rejoice in hope, we can be patient in tribulation. It is momentary affliction. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

And as we rejoice in hope and be patient in tribulation, Paul tells us to be constant in prayer. That is, walk in fellowship with God. Draw near to him. How else can we really rejoice in hope? How else can we be patient in tribulation? Let us be swallowed up into our relationship with God. Let us know him and love him and tell him all our heart.

Because of God’s mercy to us in Jesus, because he has welcomed us into his fellowship, let us walk in glad communion with him, constant in prayer, patient in tribulation, rejoicing in hope.

This is the way to live.


How to Run with Endurance

Hebrews 12:1,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

The writer to the Hebrews wants us to run well. He is writing this epistle to encourage the church to endure in faith, to hold fast to our hope, to look to our God who will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 2:1; 10:23; 13:5).

Chapter 12 reaches a crescendo. The previous chapter has given a thundering list of Old Testament saints who persevered in faith. Over and over we have seen this “by faith… by faith… by faith…” formula of people just like you and me. They are people who had their eyes set on a new city, a future homeland, a better country (Hebrews 11:10,14, 16).

And then in verse 39 the writer explains that these saints, as epic as their faith was, did not receive what was promised (cf. Hebrews 11:13). He means that the reality they hoped in hasn’t yet been realized. They hoped in a new Jerusalem that even up to our present day they have not yet seen.

But why? Why haven’t they seen it yet?

They’ve not experienced consummated fulfillment of what was promised because we’ve not yet experienced it. The age of anticipation, before Jesus came, is joined with our age of inaugurated fulfillment, after Jesus has come. The writer to the Hebrews encourages our faith by telling us that we are one people with the Old Testament saints. Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses — they are our brothers. Sarah is our sister. Their hope is our hope.

We Have Something Better

And in fact, God has provided something better for us. We have seen fulfillment. We have seen the kingdom come already, though not yet completely. We have seen the cross and the empty tomb. We have received the apostles’ teaching. And the final day of fulfillment — the moment when all the promises will be complete — that is a moment we will experience together with the Old Testament saints (Hebrews 11:40).

So then we can understand their vested interest in our perseverance. We are one people of God with them. They will arrive at the new Jerusalem when we do and they want us to run well unto that day. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that they are a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. They are a stadium of spectators cheering us on.

And therefore, because this is the case, because we are one people with the Old Testament saints and have their hopes bound up in our own, including their rallying support, we should lay aside everything that holds us back and we should run the life of faith with endurance.

Get Rid of Your Sin

There are numerous incentives to get rid of our sin. First, we know that though we all do sin, if we continue in an unrepentant lifestyle of sin it proves that we are not truly believers (1 John 1:8, 5:18). Paul tells us to kill our sin in order to live (Romans 8:13), to cleanse ourselves for holiness’ sake (2 Corinthians 7:1). But the important point about sin in Hebrews 12 is that it messes up our run. It slows us down. It makes us drag. It impedes our endurance and would ultimately sabotage it completely. And therefore we should hurl it aside out of the way.

We can’t persevere in faith if we don’t keep knocking sin down. This means, at least, that there is no endurance without growing in grace. There is no running well in the race of faith without realizing holiness.

Whatever it is that is holding us back, whatever besetting sin seldom looses its fangs, we are encouraged to break free. Indeed, we are cheered on to break free by a stadium of Old Testaments saints who hope together with us. Today as we enter into the nitty-gritty of our lives and temptations come, know that the Father delights to give you the kingdom, the Lord Jesus intercedes for you, the Spirit fills you with power.

And add this extra layer of incentive: Moses and the saints of old are watching you, pumping their fists with enthusiasm, chanting together for your victory, your endurance.


Embracing Weakness Will Change Your Life

Achilles was a vicious warrior with a complicated history. In Homer’s Iliad we see him rise to the top as the preeminent player at the end of the Trojan War. His full backstory is melodramatic enough to make Downton Abbey blush, but suffice it to say that no one was quite like him. Achilles was simultaneously drunk in rage and meticulous in skill as he led the Greeks in battle. But most of us probably only know him because of his heel.

Achilles doesn’t die in Homer’s story but Greek legend says that he later suffered a mortal wound to the back of his foot. The “Achilles’ heel,” as it’s called today, has become one of the most popular idioms in Western culture. It refers to a person’s point of weakness leading to their downfall.

But that idea comes from Greek mythology, not Christian reality.

God’s wisdom gives us another picture. Believers in Jesus don’t have an Achilles’ heel — we are an Achilles’ heel.

Here’s what I mean: Greek mythology shows us an invincible warrior with one weakness that when exploited leads to defeat; Christian reality shows us a dependent servant with thorough weakness that when exploited leads to triumph.

That’s our story. That’s the trail that Jesus blazes (1 Peter 2:21). A hero died for villains. Victory came through loss. Life was born out of death. Conquest was accomplished by suffering. The darkest night in history gave way to the brightest morning. In God’s economy, our weakness is one of our greatest assets.

Defining Weakness

Now what do we mean by weakness? The word has such a general meaning that we must sketch some type of definition before we go any further. First, let’s be clear about what weakness is not. The biblical concept of weakness does not mean the things we’re not good at. We’re tempted to think this way. It would be easier if weakness were contained to the things we stink at doing. But it’s much more pervasive than that. We can’t simply tip-toe around it.

Weakness is everywhere in the New Testament. Jesus told his disciples that, in contrast to the spirit, the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38). Luke, in Paul’s voice, refers to the weak as those who are economically disadvantaged (Acts 20:35). The Corinthian believers were weak in the social sense (1 Corinthians 1:26–27). The Book of Romans tells us that Jesus died for us while we were still weak, that is, while we were ungodly and lacked any possibility of deserving the slightest good (Romans 5:8). But we are also weak when we pray, when we lack the words or know-how (Romans 8:26). And then there are fellow Christians who are weak if they can’t get past judging others on matters of conscience (Romans 14:1–4). Also throw in this pile the physical infirmities that Paul seems to cite in 2 Corinthians 10:10, the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7, and the litany of unpleasantness in 2 Corinthians 12:10. One way or another, we have felt the way the Bible speaks about weakness.

The context, of course, determines the specific meaning of weakness, but every use is connected back to the general idea of deficiency. If there were one broad explanation for weakness, it would be to lack. Weakness means we don’t have what it takes. It means we are neither sovereign nor omniscient, nor invincible. We are not in control, we don’t know everything, and we can be stopped. Weakness means that we desperately need God. And the plea for my own soul, and for yours, is that we would embrace weakness, not despise it.

The Impact of Embracing Weakness

When we embrace weakness, it means we’ve looked at ourselves long enough to know we can’t make it without looking to Another. Embracing weakness means we know we need God very badly. This discovery, as unenthusiastic as we may be about it, refuses to leave us alone until we’ve been changed, affecting our church, our communion, and our commission. Getting more specific, here are three ways that embracing our weakness impacts our lives.

1. Embracing weakness means that spiritual gifts are a big deal.

The church is a supernatural community, and we don’t do supernatural — God does. We’re too weak to fabricate the faith-building work we’re called to, no matter how unique our particular personalities may be. It comes from somewhere else, namely, asEphesians 4:7–13 tells, the resurrected Christ.

In that passage, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and pictures Jesus as a victorious king dispensing the spoils of his triumph. The ascension of Christ was his monarchial procession to the throne of Zion after defeating sin and death. This procession was more than bright lights and a hallelujah chorus. This king is a conqueror. He has scars. And one fruit of those scars is your pastor’s teaching gift. Or your small group leader’s relational wisdom. Or Mrs. Betty’s encouraging words.

When we see the victory of Christ in the gifts of others, our eyes become more grateful than critical. We celebrate instead of nit-pick. We are more moved by God’s awesome power than off-put by our arbitrary preferences. Jesus died for that gift. He died for your brother or sister to have that gift and for you to be built up by it. It’s a big deal.

2. Embracing weakness gives more vigor and peace in our relationship with God.

Vigor and peace is what John Owen says is at stake if we don’t mortify our sin. Vigor is the idea of our outward-facing activity. It is our labor in the Lord. Peace is the thing in the deep recesses of our souls. It’s the character of our silent prayers.

Embracing weakness brings a surge of vigor because we realize that our work must be in God’s power, not ours. It’s like trading in a bicycle for a Ferrari — there’s more horsepower.

Embracing weakness brings more peace because we realize afresh that God loves us by his grace, not because we’re strong. Our joy doesn’t rest in our ability, but in the approval God gives us in Christ, the one in whom he chose us before the ages began according to his own purpose and grace (2 Timothy 1:9).

3. Embracing weakness maximizes our fruitfulness.

When we are stuck on ourselves, we create a ceiling for God’s potential. We define possibilities by our capabilities, not his. And if you stare at yourself long enough, your capacity to dream will dwindle down to nothing. That is a safe and sad way to live, refusing to let your dreams extend beyond what you know for certain you can do on your own. It’s also a sign that you mistake yourself to be stronger than you are.

Knowing we are weak ruins self-sufficiency. We confess that we are severely flawed individuals who have no hope of doing any lasting good in this world unless a God who can raise the dead works through us. And that’s just it — a God who raises the dead does work through us. In fact, the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us is according to the power he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:19–20).

When we embrace our weakness, we know that God’s work must be done in God’s power. And if it’s on God, we can dream big. He is strong enough to do whatever he wants (Psalm 135:6). He is good enough to not spare his own Son but give him up for us all (Romans 8:32). And with a God that strong and that good, the question we must ask ourselves is what we are asking him. In the new heavens and new earth, when our faith becomes sight and we behold the glory of Christ, we will not think back to our time now and say, “You know, my dreams for God’s glory were way too big.”

We won’t ever say that. Because this is Christian reality, not Greek mythology.

unsplash-city road

What We Need More Than Anything

Our fundamental problem is that we’re sinners. But our fundamental problem doesn’t mean it is our most severe.

In John 4, Jesus and his disciples traveled through Samaria. They came to a town called Sychar and decided to stop for a break. It was around noon. The disciples went into the market to buy food, leaving Jesus sitting beside the well of a nearby field. Soon after a Samaritan woman arrived there to draw water.

She is a person like you and me, a person whose fundamental problem is sin.

“Give me a drink,” Jesus says to her. Now she is confused that he would ask this. He is Jewish and she is Samaritan and this type of request is uncommon, as John explains (John 4:9). “Why would you ask me that?” she basically replies. And then Jesus gets at the heart of the matter: “If you knew the gift of God,” he says, “and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).

We See What’s Worse

At this point something amazing has happened. It’s like the scene freezes. Jesus answers her with these extraordinary words and we learn that this woman’s fundamental problem of sin is eclipsed by a more severe problem of ignorance. That more severe problem is that she doesn’t know who Jesus is.

It is horrible that this woman has had five failed marriages, not to mention that she is presently living with her boyfriend. But more horrific is the fact that she is speaking to the only person in the universe who has the power to forgive her and she quips about his ethnicity. She has no clue who he is. She doesn’t understand that she is speaking with the one who, in a matter of time, would suffer on the cross in her place, absorbing all the wrath she incurred by her adultery and faithlessness, removing her sins from her as far as the east is from the west. She doesn’t know Jesus, not until he leads her out of darkness.

Notice her journey. She identifies Jesus as a Jewish man first (John 4:9). Then she perceives that he is a prophet (John 4:19). Then she suspects he’s the Messiah (John 4:25). And then, along with a crowd of others from her town, she believes him to be the Savior of the world (John 4:42). From an obscure, thirsty Jewish man in verse 9 to the promise-fulfilling, life-giving Savior of the world in verse 42, the Samaritan woman once was blind but now she sees.

What We Need the Most

What she needed more than anything — what we need more than anything — is to know Jesus. Our most severe problem would be hopelessness in solving our fundamental problem. Our most severe problem would be that we don’t recognize Jesus as the only rescue from our sins.

But you and I are like this woman. Jesus came to her and he has come to us. Sinners as we are, unable to recognize the Lamb of God, he has come to lead us out of darkness. He has come to make us see and meet the deepest needs of our souls. He can do that right now.

Right now as you read this, no matter the shame of your past or the plight of your situation, Jesus will forgive you if you trust him, if you turn from your sin and embrace him — his death and victory for you — as your only hope. For he came to call sinners (Luke 5:32), like the woman at the well, like you and me.

Photo by Nick Laparra

Suffering Means Knowing Jesus More

Philippians 3:10–11,

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

“God helps us prepare for suffering,” John Piper writes, “by teaching us and showing us that through suffering we are meant to go deeper in our relationship with Christ” (“Called to Suffer and Rejoice”). And that was the aim of Paul’s life—a deeper relationship with Jesus.

As we’ve seen in the previous verses, the apostle counted everything as loss, even his pristine religiousity, because of the surpassing worth of knowing his Savior. To gain Christ, to be found in him, to know him — these are all getting at the same reality. Simply put, Paul wanted more intimacy with Jesus. He wanted a closer walk, a deeper, more personal, more real relationship.

“Normal Christianity”

Therefore, he wanted to know Jesus and share in his sufferings. Suffering is, as the Bible shows us, part of the Christian life. Paul told Timothy that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). He wrote to the Romans, and in one of the mountain peaks of the New Testament, explained that being children of God and fellow heirs with Christ means we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17).

This is normal Christianity, as Piper explains.

What Paul is doing [in Philippians 3:7–11] is showing how the teaching of Jesus is to be lived out. For example, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Becoming a Christian means discovering that Christ (the King) is a Treasure Chest of holy joy and writing “Loss” over everything else in the world in order to gain him. “He sold all that he had to buy that field.”

So loss — suffering — is part of the Christian life because we discover the surpassing worth of Jesus over everything else. Everything else is loss. And when these things are taken away we gain more of Jesus.

The Example of John G. Paton

Today, January 28, marks the anniversary of John G. Paton’s death in 1907. The Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides, a chain of islands in the South Pacific, was well acqauinted with loss. In 1858, shortly after leaving the ease of Europe for the hardships of the Hebrides, his wife and newborn child died. Over the next several years his life was characterized by loss and sickness, criticism from respected friends, dangers from the cannibalistic natives, and deep communion with Jesus.

As Philippians 3:10–11 ring true, we should not be surprised about Paton’s fascinating fellowship with God. He experienced loss, yes. But oh the gain! Against the background of so much affliction, Paton walked closer and closer with Jesus. He “shared in his sufferings.” In one particular story, he hid high in a tree as a band of natives hunted him. Shots from their muskets rang out along with their yells, all the while he quietly stayed put.

He tells about it in his autobiography,

Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among those chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone! If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Savior’s spiritual presence, to enjoy his consoling fellowship. (Autobiography, 200)

To know Jesus! To know him more! Would that we, like Paton, and like Paul, experience the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.