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Posts Tagged ‘hope’


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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This weekend I read Zack Eswine’s short (140+ pages) book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression. I wasn’t depressed, but I was preaching on Psalm 42-3 on Sunday. I had been meaning to read this book earlier, but other volumes always seemed to jump to the front of the queue. So, with a long weekend, the time was now.

I had already done much of my preparation and even written the sermon when I started the book. I added a few things as a result of the reading I’d done by Saturday night. I also changed my introduction.

“I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” Charles Spurgeon

What I discovered is that many people have never heard a sermon on depression. That is depressing. Just about everyone struggles with depression at some point, but for some it is commonplace and debilitating. The Psalm in question is one of the places where we learn that godly people can be downcast. It is no sin, but a manifestation of living in a fallen world.

Eswine’s book is written, or seems to be, with the depressed in mind. The chapters are short since often their attention spans are short. This is no tome, but meant to encourage people and let them know they are not alone in suffering from this malady. He also points us to Jesus who knew such negative emotions as the Sin-Bearer.

“Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion.” Charles Spurgeon

There are three main sections of the book: Trying to Understand Depression, Learning to Help Those Who Suffer from Depression, and Learning Helps to Daily Cope with Depression.

Old SpurgeonThe first section helps some to name their experience. That may sound strange, but let me explain. For years I would get bad headaches and would want to sleep. These were different from what I was used to. One day someone told me they were migraines. I never would have imagined that I had migraines. Other people get those, not me. This is how many think of depression- that’s for other people. Eswine takes some of the mystery out of depression by reminding us how common it can be, and various ways depression is experienced (just as the Psalmist seems to do).

He brings us often to Spurgeon who struggled with depression all of his adult life. This is important for us to see that being depressed itself is not a sin and that real Christians can and do get depressed. There are also a variety of causes of depression: body chemistry, spiritual problems and circumstances. These interact with one another, and all are traced back to Adam’s sin in Eden. We are embodied spirits, so there is interaction between physical and spiritual realities. Not every depression is caused by spiritual problem, but every depression will have spiritual consequences. Because some have a genetic predisposition to depression means that they have a weakness, not that they are weak people. We all have weaknesses. But we don’t want to point a finger and condemn those who suffer as weak.

“Our misery has poisoned us with a tragic arrogance. Our pains have deluded our reasoning.”

In the second section he notes that diagnosis is not the same as a cure. There is no magic bullet for depression. It doesn’t take away the struggle, but helps us to understand some of the dynamics of depression. We can start to analyze ourselves and say “That’s the depression talking.” Depression obscures reality. It even lies to us (“It will never get better.”) and we struggle to sort out fact and fiction, like Peeta in The Mockingjay we have to ask “Real? Not real?”

He reminds us that not all who seek to help are helpful. Sincere people can do harm while they seek to help. We are also reminded of the Man of Sorrows who is able to help because He has experienced these cruel realities.

The third section is largely about coping with depression. He discusses feeding hope, one of the spiritual realities depression robs us of. Pouring out our soul, and filling it with truth is important. But it isn’t a cure-all. He mentions other ways we can care for ourselves in depression: rest, laughter, medication etc. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak or weird. You are not a 2nd class kind of Christian. It is the use of appropriate means, particularly when combined with other means like counseling. The medication helps you to function so you can talk, work and relate to others. I recommend keeping DVDs and books that make you laugh. They can serve as another life preserver when you feel like you are sinking down. These things are not substitutes for Jesus unless you use them to avoid Jesus.

“Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us.”

There is also the dark reality of suicidal thoughts. Many in deep depression consider ending the deep, unending pain they feel. It doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians. It just means their suffering is incredibly profound. Eswine handles this wisely.

There are benefits that come from such sorrow. These are not reasons to choose depression, but the good God works out of our depression which we might not experience any other way. We are able to exhibit more empathy with those who suffer. We are also better able to understand our weakness and profound need for Christ in all things.

“Perhaps, nothing in life reminds us that we are not God, and that this earth is not heaven, like an indescribable distress that sometimes defies cause and had no immediate cure, or no cure at all.”

I would recommend Zack Eswine’s book to pastors and counselors. It is not technical but is written quite simply so the former can understand depression if they haven’t experienced, and helps the latter to communicate about it simply. It is also a good book for those who suffer. They will remember they are not alone, but always upheld by One who was acquainted with sorrows. He draws much from the words of Spurgeon, as well as William Cowper and others.  It is not an academic treatment, but a very heart-felt one.

P.S. If you leave a comment about how depression is demonic, I will delete it.

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Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

(more…)

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Some people don’t need to enter anywhere to abandon hope. Some people can’t seem to abandon hope no matter how bad the circumstances.

I was listening to an interview with a former career Navy Seal. Part of the unspoken agenda of “Hell Week” is to bring the candidates to the point of despair, the point of giving up or thinking they are going to die. For him it was the pool. When you face death and lose your fear of death you build a wise soldier (not a reckless soldier). This builds the attitude of hope, so to speak, the idea that any problem or situation can be solved when we work together. Even if it means you or your team mate may die in the process.

There is something there to help us understand what is should mean to be a Christian. We have faced death & condemnation and been delivered by Christ. We should no longer fear death and live in hope thru the living Christ who has overcome the world.

But … just as not everyone is wired to be a Seal, not every Christian is wired to, or called to be, a martyr.

Augustine hits on this. Sort of.

In Homily 33 on the Gospel of John he said this:

“The Lord is gentle, the Lord is longsuffering, the Lord is tender-hearted; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. You are being granted time for correction; you, though, love putting it off more than putting it right.”

We all tend to fixate on one or two attributes of God, the ones that fit our general temperment. This puts us at risk. Augustine posits this in the fact that God is more than the attributes we fixate on. He is longsuffering AND just; tender-hearted AND just. The true God shocks us at times. He’s not what we want Him to be. He isn’t less, but more than we want Him to be (to steal a Kellerism).  When God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 33-34) He revealed both His abundant mercy and His persistent justice.

“Because God is tender-hearted, God is good, God is gentle. These people are endangered by hope.”

Those fixated on God’s gentleness are often endangered by hope. They forget God’s justice and holiness and think they have forever and a day to repent.

“Endangered by despair, however, are those who have fallen into grave sins, thinking that they can no longer be forgiven, even if they repent, and see themselves as certainly destined for damnation. They thus say to themselves,’We are already going to be damned; why not do whatever we want?'”

They are fixated on the justice and holiness of God and do not see His mercy, goodness, compassion and patience. They veer into despair when they sin as if they have exhausted God’s mercy.

“Despair kills these, the others are killed by hope. The mind, the spirit, fluctuates between hope and despair. Be on the watch lest hope kill you and, while pinning your hopes on mercy, you come under judgment; be on the watch as well lest despair kill you, and, while assuming you cannot be forgiven for the grave sins you have committed, you refuse to repent and run into the judgment of Wisdom, who say, I too will laugh at you ruin (Prov. 1:26).”

While we must embrace hope, we should beware of of any hope that says I don’t need to repent. At times we must despair, but beware of any despair that says “there is no grace left for me.”

Each of us have a tendency toward hope or despair. This is not absolute. Hopeful people can experience despair and despairing people can experience hope. But you will have a tendency toward one that poses a danger to you as you face your sin. As a result you will have to spend more time meditating on the opposite attributes of God. Those who despair need to consciously fixate on God’s mercy and patience. Those who “indulge” in excessive hope (one that puts off repentance presuming on mercy) need to fixate on God’s justice (not to the exclusion of mercy).

Perhaps this is part of the current debate over law and gospel with regard to sanctification in Reformed circles. Perhaps some are fixating on mercy. Perhaps others, fixated on justice, emphasize the role of the Law. Some are abounding in hope, and others while not despairing, warn against a superficial view of grace that forgets God’s justice as also revealed in the Gospel.  Just a thought.

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In the first section of his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller takes care of some apologetics in what he calls Understanding the Furnace. It is a survey of how various religions and cultures have viewed suffering and deal with suffering. The bottom line is that Christianity has the best, full-orbed approach to suffering even if many Christians don’t.

The second section, Facing the Furnace, is designed to help us to understand more fully how Christianity views suffering, the types of suffering and the types of sufferers. Christianity does not have a one-size fits all approach to suffering.

It is to the third and final section, Walking with God in the Furnace, that we turn our attention. While there are many aspects to walking with God in the midst of suffering, Keller rightfully does not want people to treat this a a series of steps as if this was a self-help book. Just as we should prepare for suffering by storing up truth to be used in that day when it comes, we should prepare to walk with God before we actually have to do it in the middle of suffering. If you are walking with Him before you suffer you are more likely to continue walking with Him when suffering starts.

“We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.”

(more…)

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Weakness is not something we tend to spend much time thinking about. We usually spend time avoiding it or trying to get out of experiencing weakness. Thankfully there are men like J.I. Packer who don’t (or can’t) run from it. Recent health problems have provided him with the opportunity to consider his own weakness. More importantly it gave him the opportunity to consider 2 Corinthians and how Paul, when faced with his own weakness, found strength in Christ.

The fact that weakness is not option is found in the title of the book that resulted: Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength. This is a short book with only 4 chapters. Size should not be confused with significance. This is no Knowing God, but it is a balm for the soul plagued by weakness, which will eventually find all of us.

“The memory of having fallen short in the past can hang like a black cloud over one’s present purposes and in effect program one to fail.”

Many of us live with such black clouds. It could be moral failure. It could be vocational failure. I was the pastor of a church that closed. That black cloud hung about me for years. It still shows up  at times seeking to distract & deceive me. For Packer, his childhood accident and its consequences have hovered over him his entire life: weakness, alienation, left out…

(more…)

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In preparing for my sermon on Sunday I re-read Jonathan Edwards’ discourse “Men are Naturally God’s Enemy”. Nestled in there was the following:

“All the sin that men commit, is what they do in the service of their idols: there is no one act of sin, but what is an act of service to some false god. And therefore wherein soever God opposes sin in them, his is opposite to their worship of idols: on which account they are his enemies. God opposes them in their service of their idols.”

Idols are our functional saviors, what we use to supplement (or replace) the living and true God. We use them to “save” us from the realities of life in a fallen world. They offer pleasure, distraction, hope and other benefits. Not that they can deliver. But we rely on them, and their false promises, anyway.

As Tim Keller notes, these idols are often good things. We aren’t talking about little statues we bow down to each morning. But they function as gods in our lives. They have our allegiance. We rest our sense of security on them. This we do because, as John Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. Not that we create idols, but turn good things into idols. The problem is not “out there”, but “in here”.

As I lay in bed, wishing I was asleep, I was struck by the fact that our most common idols are found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Sure, there are modern ones like fancy sports cars (or luxury sedans or…), all things Apple, and other inventions. Or science, many bow down there accepting whatever science says (this week) without recognizing that scientists are finite, sinners with (often ungodly) presuppositions instead of purely objective thinkers and observers. But most of our idols have been there from the beginning. As a result, they go unnoticed by most people.

In one of the books I’ve read (it’s been a few years and my aging mind can’t remember which one and I don’t have the free time to chase it down), the author tells of a person from India coming to the States. Now, when people from the States go to India they are struck by the sheer number of little idols, statues to gods, that are seemingly everywhere. Yet, this person arrived on our shores aghast at all of our idols! It is always easier to see other people’s idols. Just like it is easier to see their splinter while not noticing the log in your eye.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1 (ESV)

We see here a number of idols, or functional saviors, that enslave people. I guess I could start with religion. I’m not talking faith in the God of the Bible, but that tendency toward ritual and legalism that provide us with a false sense of assurance. But I won’t.

Marriage is a frequent idol for people. They think it a refuge from loneliness, economic insecurity and hopelessness. Many single people think life would be tolerable if only they were married. Many married people live in fear of their marriage ending and don’t take the necessary steps to make that relationship healthier and godly. They so need the approval of their spouse they never say ‘no’ and live in misery because they fear a greater misery.

Connected to marriage by God, but disconnected by humanity, is sex. We live in a society of sex addicts, or idolators. Sex offers them, they think, enough pleasure to overcome the pain and boredom of life that they become enslaved. They think it offers intimacy, but forsake its intended intimacy through objectification of various kinds. It often destroys the relationships we so desperately want.

Also connect to marriage by God, and increasingly disconnected by people, is children. Many seek love from (rather than giving love to) children. They seek immortality through their children. They seek to fulfill their own failed goals through their children. Many people place intolerable burdens on their children, destroying them as a result.

We also find control. We are to subdue and rule creation- under God’s authority. But we try to play God and make everything bend to our authority. We crave control, fearing we are not sufficient to meet the challenges of unexpected events or circumstances. It destroys relationships like acid (then we wonder why the person left even as we try to manipulate them back into the relationship).

We also make a god of creation. Our idol factory hearts twist stewardship of creation into environmentalism so that the environment and/or animals become more important than people made in God’s image. People begin to sacrifice real and potential relationships on the altar of being green. They look to their pets to fill the black hole in their hearts that crave unconditional love. We should care for the environment and animals, including pets, but many give them ultimate status in their universe.

Work is another functional savior for people. (For others the avoidance of work is their idol). They seek to be utterly independent, secure and safe thru their work. It provides an ultimate meaning for them that only God is intended to have. They turn the image of God in on itself. God works, and calls us to work. It is the ordinary means of providing our needs. But in God’s providence, at times we endure hardship that we might be humble and experience grace and compassion so we will be ready to extend grace and compassion.

“A true hope looks forward to the obtaining of happiness in no other way but the way of the gospel, which is by a holy Savior, and in a way of cleaving to and following him.” Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits

All of these things, as God gave them to us, is good! But we ceaselessly give them more importance than intended. We use them in the place of God to provide us with satisfaction, security, pleasure and even salvation. All that we have turned into functional saviors can only be returned to their rightful place as we seek all our significance, meaning, security and satisfaction from Christ. This only happens as we see the the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as Creator and Redeemer. As Jonathan Edwards argues, only when we see Christ as sufficient to bestow all the happiness we need, will we forsake other means to secure earthly happiness.

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