Where Our Gaze Lands

We gathered around a glass enclosure at PetCo. My kids pressed their fingers and noses against the glass, trying to get a look at the entangled pile of ferrets napping in the corner. Some of the animals curled in upon themselves, while others were practically upside down—their mouths sleepily hanging open to show tiny, pointed teeth. I shuddered a bit.

“Oh, Mommy! Can we have one? Please?” my family begged in chorus. “They’re so cute.” 

Cute? Ferrets are too “rodent” for my taste. They make me think of a rat that got stretched like dough in a pasta maker. Sure, a ferret’s face resembles the more appealing sea otter, but the teeth, the little feet, and the beady eyes all bring me to emphatically decline my children’s requests.

“Mom, the sign says $39.99,” my first-born reasoned as he pulled out his wallet. “I almost have that much. If you could just…”

“No,” I interrupted.

My husband stepped in with a grin on his face.

“Give Mommy some time, guys,” he said. He turned to me with mischief in his eyes. “Do a little research. You’ll come around.”

I playfully punched him in the shoulder. This is an on-going joke between us. For as long as I can remember, I have loved research. When I dive into a subject, I become enthusiastic and nearly obsessed about my subject matter. I can become sympathetic to a cause after I’ve examined the complexity of the issues. I believe this is a good character trait—leading me to be well-informed and a person of compassion and empathy. However, it can also get a little silly with long, one-sided conversations at the dinner table about anything from urban chicken farming, to cellos, to childbirth. I admit that I dive in and try to drag my family with me.

When I allocate time to an idea, I am altering my perception of the world simply by placing my attention in a specific way.  You probably do it, too. We want to lose weight, so we dig around on the internet for solutions. We desire to change something in our relationships with our kids, so we pick up a parenting book. We’re hoping for a promotion at work, so we listen to the latest leadership podcast. Most of us have realized that when we learn more about something, we sharpen our attention toward that issue or object. We might not grab another doughnut because we just read about the downfall of simple carbs, for example. Most of us have also experienced the fading interest that comes shortly after a New Year’s resolution loses its sparkle. It’s easy to lose focus and hop to the next obsession. 

As a Christian, I know that my attention needs to be on the Lord, and my growth in faith is dependent on a steady diet of truth from God’s word and an influx of the Holy Spirit. Not unlike the weight-loss books and last year’s resolution, the knowledge and richness I gain from Scripture can fade if I am not deliberate about making time for study and prayer. I will drift back to the world and the sinful thoughts of my own heart if I do not return to the Bible with regularity and lean into the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Consider Matthew 6:21. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Aren’t time and attention two of the gifts (the treasures) God has given to us? We allocate these finite things in many ways through a lifetime. The world clamors for our attention. We are bombarded daily with messages that insist that we must focus on our bank account, our BMI, our wardrobe, our kids’ report cards, our grocery list, and our calendars. And on and on. 

Any Christian knows that the emotional high of being saved or coming to a new understanding of Christ does not last forever. Our hunger for God waxes and wanes over the years of our discipleship. This is common. Few of us will stay on the soaring cloud of first love. God knows the fickleness in our humanity, and he will, through his Holy Spirit, sustain us when new love fades and we are enticed by things, people, and ideas that he does not intend for us. He welcomes us back after we have strayed, even pursues us when we would rather flit from one worldly interest to another. (See the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7.) But we can be wise in fixing our gaze upon our Savior.

God offers us instruction on how to avoid the temptations of the world. In Philippians 4:8, we read, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” God gives us discernment and his Spirit so that we can choose purity over vulgarity, beauty over ugliness, and honor over corruption. Without his intervention, we would not see the world for what it is, but with Scripture in our minds, we will see the world through a different lens. Again, God knows this. In Deuteronomy 8:10, God tells his children, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.” This is an instruction to keep God’s word ever present. 

When I am researching an issue, I have trouble thinking about anything else. I have lain in my bed long after I should have been asleep, unable to turn off thoughts about landfills, industrial farming, math curricula, and whether or not I could actually run a marathon. (Yes, my interests are varied.)

Imagine if my days included more time lingering over the Bible, resting in its promises and being stretched by its commands. Where, then, would my thoughts drift when I am troubled by an obligation or a looming deadline? How, then, would I react during a strained conversation with a colleague? Where would I turn when I face disappointment or pressure? How would I respond to a homeless person on the street, my spouse after a disagreement, or maybe even my neighbor’s question about the reality of God? A shift toward a heavenly focus can be as subtle as closing internet clickbait in favor of time in the Bible or redirecting a conversation with a friend in order to steer away from the potential of gossip. I can place my focus with intention and follow it.

Where our treasure is, our heart lies. Where our gaze lands, our thoughts follow. When we focus on Jesus and his good news, we are primed to walk nearer to him, speaking and behaving in ways that bring us ever closer to our Savior. 

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Faith that Lives, Works that Justify

In March I joined a handful of WPCA women at the Dwelling in Scripture women’s conference (You can learn more about the conference in Patty’s blog). The aim of the conference was to develop a statement about God from an assigned passage in James. The God-centric framework pushed me to engage a familiar passage in a fresh way, but a stronger theme dominated my passage.

The book was written by the apostle James in Jerusalem to Christians scattered by persecution with virtually no support network. It would have been easy for them to claim a private faith that didn’t affect their lives. We, even with the benefit of an established church and a relatively accommodating culture, have the same temptation. James exhorts his readers to live as those who genuinely believe that the man Jesus was the Son of God who lived, died, rose, ascended, and will return.

James is full of practical applications: endure trials, don’t show favoritism, control the tongue, pray in faith. My passage, the familiar “faith apart from works is dead” passage (James 2:14–26), shows that these works are not an optional add-on to Christianity. A faith that does not include works is not a faith that saves.

“Can that faith save him?”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14, emphasis added). James is introducing a question of eternal life-or-death consequences. Are you saved or not? The implications are twofold:

  1. One can claim “faith” and not be saved.
  2. There is a faith that saves!

The remainder of the passage presents some symptoms of false faith and then offers two case studies of true, saving faith.

Invisible Faith

Faith that does not save hides behind excuses, debates, and platitudes. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The hypothetical rebuttal here tries to logic its way out of works, but it creates a false dichotomy. It assumes that faith and works can exist independently. James counters with a slightly cheeky challenge to show faith without works—an impossibility. One’s actions are not just evidence of faith but faith itself made visible. An invisible faith is no faith at all.

Striking uncomfortably close to my own heart, James also points out that reciting doctrinal statements is not the same thing as works, and certainly not the same thing as faith. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Demons—the literal forces of evil—can recite truths about God, but without acts of repentance and obedience, their knowledge only condemns them. God values our actions, not solely our doctrine.

Faith that saves

James treats faith and works as more tightly intertwined than we are used to talking about. He uses them almost interchangeably, so much so that he says:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

All the Reformed people are suddenly sweating.

Faith and works are two sides of a coin and just as inseparable. James says both Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works,” but he unites their works inextricably with their faith (James 2:21, 25).

When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22). His faith was incomplete without his works, and his works were hollow without faith active in them. As it stands, Abraham’s worked-out faith was credited to him as righteousness, justifying him before God (James 2:23).

Rahab the Gentile prostitute may seem like an unlikely candidate for the Hall of Faith, but nevertheless Hebrews 11:31 states: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Rahab did not perish (i.e., she was saved) because she welcomed the spies, by faith. Faith, works, and salvation are all tied up together.  

But, Sola Fide, right?

Our church, as part of the Reformed tradition, leans heavily on the rich biblical truth of Ephesians 2:8–9, that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith that saves is a gift of God! But it is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to assume that works have no part in it.

Consider the very next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Faith for salvation is a gift of God—and so are the works that accompany it!

We are powerless to enliven dead faith through works; this is just salvation by works by another name. As recipients of the gift of true, living faith that leads to salvation, we are to gratefully accept the works that accompany it.

There is a warning in James to examine your faith for signs of life, but primarily his heart is to encourage his readers to do good works—such as those found in the rest of his letter—joyfully as those who have been saved and await the return of our King!

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Obeying God’s Commands as the Body of Christ

This part of the Bible wasn’t written for me.

I’m not an older woman, so why should I pay attention to Titus 2:3–5? I’m not a preacher, so what relevance does 2 Timothy 4:1–5 have for me? It almost feels like opening my neighbor’s mail.

The Effect of Individualism

We have a great temptation toward this thinking in the United States, as we breathe the air of individualism from an early age. Our sinful hearts hardly need any help, but our culture insists at every turn: be true to yourself, take care of yourself, believe in yourself. It isn’t long before our lungs are full of that toxic cloud and we lack the oxygen to think about others.

But God has called Christians to a different reality. We are the body of Christ, a people vitally connected to each other and to Jesus.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

The books of the Bible were composed for all the people of God. Even when a letter was written to a church or an individual, the intention was public reading and instruction for the whole church.

So when we say that a part of the Bible wasn’t written for us, we’re actually wrong. If the Bible applies to anyone in the body, it has implications for all of us. We must not check out.

We Need Help From Others

Christians readily acknowledge that we need God’s help to obey his commands. (Though we always do well to remember!) It’s easier to forget how much help we need from other saints.

We need others praying for us, encouraging us, and giving us counsel. We need to talk with older saints who have stood in our shoes. We need the bold, clear-eyed enthusiasm of younger Christians to strengthen our wills to do what is right.

Finally, we also need correction from Christian friends when we sin. A gentle, loving rebuke is not often what we want, but we should seek and embrace this discipline. (See Proverbs 12:1.)

We must also view this truth—that we need others—from the other side. Others need us too. The experiences and wisdom God has given us are not just for our benefit; they’re also for the church.

An Example: Husbands

Let’s look at an example from 1 Peter. This command for husbands is found in 1 Peter 3:7.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Husbands need the prayers of the saints to obey this command. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, husbands will not love and sacrifice in the ways God requires.

Husbands should also talk to married men and women of all ages and experiences. Though understanding and honoring one’s wife will look different from one marriage to the next, husbands can learn of helpful habits to develop and dangerous pitfalls to avoid through the counsel and stories of others.

Each husband needs a few close friends who will ask him difficult questions. Are you honoring your wife? How are you living with her in an understanding way? Good friends will remember a prayer request or a confession of weakness and ask specific follow-up questions the next week. These friends will offer encouragement when they see fruit. A husband may also need a loving rebuke when neglect or selfishness continues without repentance.

And, of course, husbands need to listen to their wives. A wife will know if her husband is working to understand her and live with her accordingly. She will feel the presence or lack of honor.

None of this help is easy or natural to give, and none of it is possible without the work of the Spirit within us.

Called to Obey as a Body

The key to this obedience in community is love. It takes seeing and experiencing God’s love to lift our eyes off ourselves and recognize our corporate calling.

Rather, 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)

God didn’t call us just to each other, he called us to himself. Through the atoning work of Jesus, God has forgiven his people and the Spirit is working to change us. Though withdrawal may be our default mode—wanting neither help from others nor to give aid ourselves—we are no longer slaves to this sin.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:24–25)

The wounds of Jesus have set us free and given us a new identity. We’ve been healed of our sin so that we might live to righteousness.

By God’s power, let’s do just that. Together.

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A Picture of the Faith That Leads to Salvation

What is faith? One of the go-to biblical answers to this vital question comes from the book of Hebrews.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The chapter that follows this definition provides dozens of examples of this faith in action. But we are not limited to Hebrews 11 when looking for biblical teaching on faith.

Faith in 1 Peter

The apostle Peter has a lot to say about faith in his first letter. The first chapter of this letter alone is filled with descriptions of faith and its consequences.

Peter opens this letter with effusive praise to God (1 Peter 1:3–12). He reminds us of God’s mercy toward us in giving us new life (verse 3), an imperishable inheritance (verse 4), and his powerful protection (verse 5).

But faith is never far from Peter’s mind. Faith is the instrument through which we are being guarded (verse 5). Genuine faith will result in honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7). And the outcome of faith is salvation (verse 9).

A Working Definition of Faith

I take two verses in the middle of 1 Peter 1 as a working definition of faith that is memorable, encouraging, and motivating.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

For the purposes of a discussion on faith, there are at least four important parts of this statement.

You have not seen him; you do not see him. Like the definition from Hebrews, Peter reminds us that faith is not one of the five natural senses. We have not seen Jesus with our eyes, and he is not with us in the flesh. Faith is a spiritual, God-given sense.

You love him. Faith is not merely belief. We do not receive faith by merely ascribing to a list of propositions about God. Faith involves our hearts, and a true believer doesn’t just acknowledge or trust Jesus, they love him.

You believe in him. Faith is more than belief, but it is not less! These verses follow several beautiful statements about salvation (verses 3–5) in which God’s role and the centrality of the resurrection (verse 3) are clear. Faith always has an object, and Christians must know and believe what is true about Jesus in order to have faith in him.

You rejoice with great joy. A faith that does not lead to rejoicing may not be true faith. Peter wrote to people who were suffering, and yet there was a deep, bubbling spring of joy within them because of their new life in Christ. Faith is always future-looking, and Peter points ahead several times in this first chapter. Suffering and trials are not reasons to rejoice; but when we understand the effect of our trials (verse 7) and we rest in the inheritance that is kept in heaven for us (verse 4), we can be joyful people. This joy doesn’t mean we are delusional or fake-happy. But our abiding trust in God’s goodness, his control, and his fatherly love will give us a satisfaction in him that looks strange to a watching world. And that may give us a chance to discuss the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).

Cultivating This Faith

Faith is a gift of God, but it is also something we can tend and water so that it will grow (by God’s grace). This discussion of faith from 1 Peter prompts a few ideas about cultivating faith.

  1. Get to know and love Jesus. – If faith involves belief, then we need to know what God is like and what he’s done for us in Jesus. This means that the Bible is essential to our faith! We might be naturally drawn to the New Testament to learn about Jesus, which is good and right. But the Old Testament also feeds our faith. Hebrews 11 (quoted above) points to dozens of imperfect, Old Testament saints as having great faith. As you learn about Jesus, train your heart to respond in adoration and worship. Keep the Psalms handy.
  2. See beyond your sight. – Peter twice mentions that we cannot rely on our eyes to see Jesus. Many of the most important things about us are invisible. Illnesses, injuries, loneliness, grief, and despair—they can crash upon us like a tidal wave. They are so tangible! But we must remind ourselves (and each other) that our circumstances are not the only true things about us. Crucially, they are not the final true thing about us. Instead, we are “born again to a living hope,” we have an inheritance in heaven that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” and we are being guarded “by God’s power…for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” By Jesus’s work we are loved, adopted, and secured by God as his children.
  3. Grow in joy. – Faith should produce joy, so if our efforts to cultivate faith are not leading to greater joy, we’re doing something wrong. There are many ways to grow in joy in Christ, but here is one suggestion: Find joyful Christians and learn from them. Listen to their music; read their poems, stories, essays, and biographies; watch their films and videos; take walks with them; call, text, or email with them. God gives his children faith, and he also brings his children into his church where we can learn from each other what it means to have such a loving and powerful father.

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Overcoming Yourself: Why You Should Step out of Your Comfort Zone

I first saw it on Facebook: “Dwelling in Scripture – Biblical Training for Women.” Sounds good.

I read their purpose statement:

  • To help women to independently study the Bible within the context of redemptive history.
  • To encourage women to receive the inspiration and power of God’s Word.
  • To help women to grow in their relationship with and knowledge of God.

Even better. Where do I sign up? The page stated that they would send you a passage to study before you arrived. That seemed different, but interesting. I was sure it would enhance whatever the speaker would be teaching us.

As promised, about two weeks before the conference, I received an email to inform me of my passage to study: James 1:2-18. I read through it and decided that, though familiar, it would be beneficial to work through it carefully. Then I noticed the fine print:

“Prior to the training you will be given a scripture passage to meditate on and to use to prepare a 5-minute presentation during the group time at the event.  You will also be given preparation materials to assist you in working on your assigned passage.”

WHAT? I thought I was attending to learn HOW to do this, not to actually get up in front of people and do it myself.

It wasn’t really fine print–I just hadn’t read the whole page carefully. I panicked somewhat, but not enough to keep me from putting it off until the following week, which is typical for me.

The following week I was sick. All week. Which is not typical for me. I was sick enough that I didn’t do much of anything that week. However, from time to time I’d glance at the passage and write down a few words. James 1:2: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…” Ha. Ha. The irony of my assignment was not lost on me.

As the week progressed, I was doubting I would even make it to the conference because of my illness, but I continued reading and jotting.

The day of the conference I woke up feeling slightly better, maybe even well enough to attend. I arrived that evening, located my table (we were seated with our small group), and cautiously ate a few bites of my dinner while chatting with my table mates. We sang a few songs, then went right to our assigned rooms for our small groups. All fairly typical conference stuff, right?

After the leader gave a brief introduction of how the small group format would work, the first presenter read her passage, then wrote her central idea on the board. Writing a central idea was part of our assignment. It was defined as a biblical truth about God, a simple sentence, and God-centered. It should not be a summary. The group then spent time dissecting her central idea, making sure each phrase was God-centered and not man-centered.

I glanced down at what I had written as the central idea for my own passage. Even though the sentence began with the word “God,” it was very man-centered. But I felt justified! This passage is full of directives: “consider,” “ask,” “ask in faith,” “let no one say,” “do not be deceived.” How could I write a central idea that is not even a little bit man-centered? I was starting to get annoyed.

As the evening progressed, I found myself getting more irritated as what I thought were perfectly good central ideas were taken apart, analyzed, and re-written.

Back at the hotel room, I decided I wasn’t going to obsess over it or change anything – I would just present it as is. I called Don and subjected him to an in-depth rant. He politely listened, but offered no counsel.

After a fitful night of sleep (I’d been struggling with insomnia for weeks), I woke up at 4 a.m., wide awake. I couldn’t stop thinking about the concept of making my central idea God-centered. I looked again at what I had written: “God uses trials and testing of our faith to strengthen us; we are blessed when we look intently into His Word.” It was all wrong. I considered when it was my turn to present, going up to the board, writing my central idea, then immediately drawing a red line through the whole thing. Except the word “God”—that’s good. That can stay. I got out my Bible and read through the passage again. Then I went back to the beginning of the passage and tried to focus particularly on any characteristics of God. I was still in denial, thinking my central idea was very good and convinced that any changes would leave out important concepts.

I prayed, and as I wrestled through the verses, God’s character shone through: “God, who gives to all generously,” “the Lord has promised,” “He Himself does not tempt anyone,” “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” I was seeing a familiar passage with fresh eyes – eyes that had previously predetermined what they saw, but were now slowly being opened to a different way of thinking. I was astounded. My irritation was fading and being replaced by thankfulness.

I completely changed my central idea: “God generously gives His wisdom and goodness through trials.” The leader said she was excited that I had “wrestled” through the passage. I found I enjoyed sharing what I had learned and appreciated the group’s addition of two words to the beginning of my central idea: “Our unchanging God…” We had all started as kindred spirits in our anxiety about presenting to strangers, but ended up enjoying each other as sisters in Christ and in our study of God’s Word.

Do you hesitate at the thought of going to a conference? Or maybe there’s something else that makes you think, “I can’t do that.” Ask God to show Himself and His character to you. Don’t forget that Jesus has already done the heavy lifting for you. Ask Him to change you. You may still feel intimidated, but go forward anyway.

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5)

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King David on the Resurrection

There’s a moment at the end of the Gospel of Luke that surprises me every time I read it.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44–47)

The resurrected Jesus speaks with his disciples and tells them that he fulfilled all that was written about him in the entire Old Testament. He says it is written that the Messiah should die and be raised, and that the gospel would be preached to the whole world.

Did you catch that? Jesus said his resurrection was predicted in the Old Testament. So…where was that again?

Peter’s Sermon

Many people rightly point to Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 as places to turn for Old Testament teaching on resurrection. But today we’ll examine how the apostle Peter answered this question.

Peter began his Pentecost sermon by explaining that the early Christians had received the Holy Spirit. He then talks about Jesus—his arrest, death, and resurrection. In explaining that “it was not possible for [Jesus] to be held by [death],” Peter does a strange thing. He quotes David in Psalm 16:8–11.

For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ (Acts 2:25–28)

Then Peter interprets for us.

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:29–31)

Whoa.

Peter says that David, believing God’s long-term promise, knew that the Messiah could not be abandoned in death. He would not decay in the tomb.

As with Jesus, so with Us

Knowing that David was speaking about the Messiah in Psalm 16, what can we now learn from that text?

Because Psalm 16 is written in the first person, we should read David’s words—at least in part—as speaking prophetically not just about Christ but for Christ. After expressing confidence in the resurrection from the dead (v.10), we read this.

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

Though we may be eager to apply these verses to ourselves, let’s slow down.

Jesus had enormous, painful, tortuous work to accomplish. He bore a weight of sin we cannot imagine, and in his death on the cross he suffered an agony of soul far beyond the bodily pain he endured. His eternal Father turned away, and the Son felt the wrath of God against sin. On the cross there was no presence of the Father, no joy, no pleasures.

But the resurrection (and ascension) turned this story around. Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection and was welcomed back into perfect communion with his Father. In place of the wrath, loneliness, and fury he felt in his crucifixion, Jesus would now have “pleasures forevermore.”

These delights await us too. We can gain nothing greater in the new heavens and earth than God himself and the full joy that comes from his presence. But that fellowship was bought for us at a great cost. The promise is first for Jesus—who died for us but over whom death could never be a victor. And then it’s for us, because we follow our elder brother in his resurrection.


This article originally appeared here.

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How Fast Does a Christian Grow?

Confession time: In graduate school, my therapist was a vacuum cleaner.

I should explain. While pursuing a degree in mathematics, I spent many days working out theories, formulas, and proofs with pen and paper. I spent hours chasing ideas that turned out to be worthless. I recycled a lot.

I was often discouraged on the ride home from campus. Did I make progress today? Did I do anything of value?

Around the same time, I took on the household chore of vacuuming, and I grew to love it. This task counterbalanced my mathematical research. In the apartment, I could see my progress. The stripes on the carpet couldn’t lie: clean carpet here, dirty carpet there. As I listened to the vacuum turn and click, I knew I was contributing.

Our Ideal of Growth

We’d like our Christian growth to be like vacuuming, wouldn’t we? Give me Five Easy Steps or Fifteen Minutes a Day with guaranteed progress on the other side!

It’s no surprise we want definite, quick results. In the West, we can get most goods and services in a flash. Microwave meals, drive-through car washes, next-day shipping, movies streamed to the living room. If you’re willing to pay, you can make it happen.

And we’d like our spiritual progress to be the same: fast, noticeable, predictable. We don’t like to wait, and we resent not being in control.

The Reality of Christian Growth

For most, growing as a Christian is slow and unpredictable.

If you come to Christ as a teenager or adult, some practices might be obvious (if painful) to change. But Christian maturity is more about the heart than it is about behavior. Our trust, hopes, and desires need to change, and good behavior follows.

But our hearts are complicated and mysterious. Imagine being hired to fix up an old house and prepare it for sale. The broken windows, missing siding, and crumbling sidewalk are easy to spot from the driveway. But you don’t see the water damage, the dangerous stairs, or the fire hazards until you walk around inside. Even then you won’t learn about the electrical, plumbing, or termite problems until you open up the walls. By nature, our hearts have many layers, each one focused on self. And every layer needs to be remade.

God transforms us as we walk with him. But it doesn’t come easily. We can’t simply plug a machine into the wall.

How to Measure Your Growth

The precise how of sanctification is a mystery, and people much smarter than I have written volumes on the topic. We know that our growth, like our conversion, is the gift and work of God. We also know that God works through our work to accomplish this (Phil. 2:12–13).

And though we might want to know the details, we don’t need to know them. God is sovereign and we are not. Because of God’s promise, we can have confidence that he will sanctify us and bring his good work in us to completion (Phil. 1:6).

Our growth is much more like a tree than a bubbling science experiment. If you take measurements of a tree over several days or weeks, you’ll be disappointed. When you don’t see growth, you might doubt the tree is alive.

But if you measure a healthy tree from one year to the next, you’ll see what God is doing. You’ll see more fullness, more height, more fruit. And true Christians are all healthy trees—God’s spirit within us guarantees that (Matt 7:15–20).


This article originally ran here.

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Your Kingdom Come: God’s Patience and Ours in Light of Eternity

We pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” We strive to live in the reality of Christ’s saving work, doing good works, loving our neighbors, and spreading the good news. And yet every day another news story: Abortion legalized up to delivery, racist behavior defended, people fleeing genocide, sexual abuse exposed even in the church. The kingdom feels no closer. I don’t know about you, but I feel weary. How long will God allow this to continue?

God is playing the long game, much longer than we can comprehend. He is doing a work forged before time—or rather, before time was a concept. Peter reveals this work: He writes to believers to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15a).

(Keep a tab open to 2 Peter 3:8-15. This post will refer to it frequently.)

Patience is a divine attribute. God does not rise to the standard of patience; rather, patience is virtuous because it is how God relates to time. The eternal God is neither constrained by time (2 Peter 3:8) nor fears its ticking minutes. But we are dust. The passage of time weighs heavily on us humans. Thirty seconds to microwave her lunch is agony to my toddler. As beings created within time and cursed at the Fall, the eternal perspective of God comes unnaturally to us. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us when we exercise patience, holding loosely to this life. We cannot be eternal as God is, but we trust that the eternal God is at work for our good (Romans 8:28).

God at work in Habakkuk

Habakkuk felt the strain of enduring while sin appeared to reign. He looked around at Judah and saw destruction, violence, perverted justice, and the wicked oppressing the righteous (Hab. 1:2-4). “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).

God responded that he was doing a work: first a work of repentance among his people through the judgment of Babylon’s invasion (Hab. 1:6); and then—much later—a work of damnation upon evil Babylon for their crimes. Habakkuk would not live to see Babylon’s demise, but God told him to be patient: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to its end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).

Slowness is a human perception of time. Slowness feels each second building into minutes, the minutes into years, and the years stretching into a lifetime. The Bible instructs us to replace this perception of slowness with patience: If it seems slow, wait for it.

God at work in redemptive history

Peter contrasts these divine and human perspectives on time: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you…that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What we perceive as slowness is a work in progress. God is calling all those he has predestined (Romans 8:30), and his patience will endure until the last lost sheep is brought into the fold.

But God’s patience does end.  

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief … and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Those who mistake God’s patience for permission are condemned by the very time offered to them in kindness. Each hour they do not repent, they are “storing up wrath for [themselves]” (Romans 2:5). Like he did in the days of Habakkuk, the Lord is doing a double work: First of repentance, then of damnation. Mercy, then justice.

God has endured the presence of sin in his once-perfect creation since the Fall in order to complete this foreordained work: To send a Savior to redeem from their sins a people for himself. Thousands of years stretched from the first promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15) to the advent of the Messiah; two thousand more years have passed since Jesus promised to return soon to enact his kingdom (Revelation 22:20); and a million more years may pass, or Jesus may return before you finish reading.

In any case, we are assured that God is at work, calling every one of his people to repentance; that he will not delay his justice against wickedness a moment longer than he has appointed; and that when he is done, the redeemed will live in “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

But we are human. It feels slow. In addition to praying for the Spirit’s fruit of patience, what can we do while we wait?

Our work in the present age

We may lament. The Christian life is not one of aggressive cheerfulness in the face of pain and sorrow. Creation groans at the brokenness of a world marred by sin, and so may we (Romans 8:22-23). One model for lament is the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11. As those who have died in Christ, these (literal or representative) souls have been sanctified, so their lament is pure.

They cry: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). This lament first recognizes God’s sovereignty and his character, then pleads for the Lord to act in a way consistent with his character.

We must also live by faith. The Lord told Habakkuk, “Behold, [the wicked’s] soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). This faith includes believing that God’s justice will prevail, as well as trusting in his promise to save his people and establish his kingdom.

Peter elaborates on how we should live as people of faith: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). Earlier he calls believers to “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (from 2 Peter 3:11-12). We pray, “Your kingdom come,” and we have the opportunity to hasten that work. We do so by enacting God’s will on earth, living holy and godly lives as well as seeking out the redeemed by calling others to repentance.

There’s a potential pitfall here: To be so reassured by God’s eternal justice that we forsake the pursuit of justice on earth. Just the opposite—because we know the kingdom is coming, our desire for holiness and godliness should motivate us to seek the will of God on earth, including pursuing justice and opposing oppression (Isaiah 1:16-17; 58:6-7; Obadiah 1:10-11; James 1:27; 2:14-16).

After reading this, you’ll likely see some new report of corrupt politics, violence, or abuse. Feel free to lament that sin taints everything we see, but also remember to rejoice that God is sovereignly working out his plan to overthrow evil and establish his kingdom, where righteousness dwells.

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You Are Not a Number

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It’s 2019, so we can track and measure almost anything. These numbers we generate are simple, stark, and memorable. They stick with us for days, relentlessly patting us on the back or poking us in the ribs. Numbers are brain worms.

And while we can use numbers to describe aspects of our life, they are snapshots. Numbers cannot capture the most important information about us.

Not a Number

When we fixate on measurements, we usually boil our efforts down to failure or success. This number is too low; that one is finally high enough.

We’re easily consumed, thinking that one good or bad datum paints a complete picture. But we must shake off that thinking like a dog after his mud-puddle bath. Enjoy this freedom: you are not a number.

You are not your salary. You are not the balance in your retirement account. You are not your credit card balance or your credit score. You are not your net worth.

You are not your IQ, your standardized test score, your GPA, or your class rank. You are not the number of degrees you’ve earned.

You are not the number of people that attended your most recent meeting, event, or party.

You are not the number of points on your driver’s license. You are not the number of felonies you’ve committed or warrants out for your arrest. You are not your number of parking or speeding tickets.

You are not the number of miles you’ve run, the weight you can lift, or the calories you’ve burned/consumed. You are not the number of steps you’ve taken, the number of hours you’ve slept, or your body fat percentage. You are not your height, waist size, or dress size. You are not your weight.

You are not your number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. You are not the size of your address book. You are not the number of emails you sent or received today. You are not the number of likes/shares your social media post received.

You are not the number of books you’ve read, awards you’ve won, or promotions you’ve received. You are not the number of books/articles you’ve published, the number of conference presentations you’ve given, or the number of times your work is cited. You are not the number of people you supervise.

You are not the number of your children, grandchildren, or divorces.

You have a number associated with each measurement on this list. Perhaps this number is known only to you. Whether that number represents success, failure, or something in between, you are not that number.

What Defines Us?

The most important question of our lives is not numerical but categorical: Have you been reconciled with God?

Reconciliation with God only happens through Jesus Christ. You cannot score well enough on any scale to earn God’s approval.

If you don’t know God, perhaps you’ve never thought about reconciling with him. But your sin offends God, and you deserve his wrath. The defining measurement in your life is your distance from God, and it is infinite.

But there is time! Right now, God is calling you. Confess your sins, trust in Jesus, and come into his family. (Watch a video explanation of this good news here, and find a longer, written introduction to Christianity here.)

If you have been reconciled with God, this is your new identity: child of God, beloved in heaven, destined for paradise, protected by the Father, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, welcome before the King. No bad score or sub-par measurement can decrease God’s love for you.

An important number is attached to this new identity: zero. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38,39).

Many numbers can describe our obedience or encourage our perseverance. Let’s instead fix our minds on the truth of God’s faithfulness to his numerous people.


This is a lightly edited version of an article that originally ran here.

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God Is in the Fish

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Yesterday I cried at a kids’ song. We were in the car going to visit my parents, and somewhere along Route 519, this song that I’ve heard a dozen times overwhelmed me.

The song was “Nothing Much in Tarshish” from the album Why Not Sea Monsters?: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures by Justin Roberts, a collection of charming and inventive, if not always strictly accurate, musical retellings of Bible stories. This one recounts the story of Jonah, the Israelite prophet, who “on the way to Tarshish, got swallowed by a large fish.” Roberts sings that

God is in the fish
It all comes down to this
It’s so dark, dark, dark
It’s so cold, cold, cold
But there’s more love, love, love
Than you can hold, hold, hold, hold

There’s so much biblical truth compressed into these lines. Jonah was indeed in the dark and cold. When Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish, he described the waves closing over him like bars and (particularly revolting to me) seaweed wrapping around his head (Jonah 2:5). Beyond this literal darkness, Jonah was in the darkness of his own sin and outright rebellion against God. God had sent Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh, but Jonah instead took a ship to Tarshish. He intended to flee “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). For those like me without a strong grasp on ancient geography, here’s a useful map. Tarshish is in Spain, much further away from Jonah’s home than Nineveh, in the opposite direction, across the entire Mediterranean Sea. Had Jonah followed God’s command, he wouldn’t even have been on the sea, but now due to his sin he was trapped beneath it.

It is out of this drowning darkness that God rescued Jonah into the belly of the fish. Jonah prayed, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:7-8). Jonah recognized that he had not successfully fled God’s presence; God was at work in the storm, in the sea, and in the fish. God pursued Jonah through his rebellion. Jonah described this relentless pursuit as “steadfast love.” This is God’s covenant love at work!

Now, the fish, arguably, was still dark. We’re told Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights before he prayed (Jonah 1:17). Like Jonah, we can be stubborn, stiff-necked people. We may suffer under God’s discipline for a time, but as the song says, “God is in the fish!” His purpose is always to pursue his people with covenant love, to bring us to repentance, and to show us that he is our only salvation. It took three days in the dark, but Jonah learned: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).

Jonah was not the only one in the dark in this story. Roberts sings about “lonely Nineveh.” “Lonely” is not the word Jonah would have used to describe the thriving capital city of the brutal Assyrian empire. He might have used “wicked” or “godless” or “irredeemable.” God described them differently. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). The city was utterly ignorant of God—true darkness indeed. Jonah hated them for their wickedness, but God pitied them. God had no covenant relationship with Nineveh, no reason to offer them repentance. Sin doesn’t deserve a second chance; God could have rained brimstone on Nineveh and remained just. But in his infinite mercy, he sent Jonah, and, after the least inspiring sermon ever, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5), and God relented.

The book of Jonah foretells the vast scope of Christ’s work on the cross. It reaches the ignorant and pitiable, the backsliding and hypocritical, the rebellious and hateful. It reaches those that God has no business saving.

This is why I cried as the fence posts passed by on Route 519. God loved Jonah in his sin with relentless, pursuing covenant love. God loved Nineveh in their utterly lost state with mercy even for those who were not yet his people. If God can love Jonah, and God can love Nineveh, God can certainly love me and you.

What a beautiful truth to sing to our children and to our own hearts—that we will sin, and run away from God, and God will discipline us, but God is in the fish. His steadfast love pursues us through the dark.

Photo credit: Justin Roberts