Knowing God as Father
Knowing that God is our Father is one thing; understanding how we should relate to him as such is another. In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper opens Malachi 1:6–14 to demonstrate how knowing God as Father should lead us to honor him.
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By Steven Lee — 1 month ago
Every believer desires spiritual intimacy with other believers. We may call it fellowship, community, or doing life together. God didn’t make us to be lone rangers. He saved us into the church. He called us out of the kingdom of darkness and into local expressions of the body of Christ.
And yet, spiritual community is still hard to come by. It doesn’t happen by accident. It comes as a gift from God, and he usually gives it as we intentionally cultivate Christian affection and mutual understanding. So, how might we begin cultivating this kind of life together?
One proven way to this kind of life together is that we pray together. What better way to be more united with fellow believers than to gather and bare our hearts before the throne of God together? What an opportunity and privilege! We get to go to him in prayer.
Shared Prayer Transforms Churches
Shared experiences — a concert, a vacation, an adventure — create a bond. Those memories often create deeper, more enduring affection. They can be a relational glue that holds people together. Dates and vacations with my wife have reinforced our marriage for times when life gets hard. These shared memories create tenderness, understanding, and love. In the church, similar kinds of shared life can lead to mutual appreciation, unity, and trust. I love my fellow elders more when we have endured trials together, fighting side by side in spiritual battle.
Gathered prayer can be that shared experience in a church. I’m not advocating for any particular program or event, but for prayer (formal and informal) to fill your church and bind you together. You might think of these prayer times as the furnace room of the church. Heat and warmth radiate out when God’s people gather together to pray. I’ve seen firsthand how this shared dependence on God transforms the ethos and culture of churches.
Each Sunday morning in our church, a small group gathers in the prayer room. Service will not start for another 45 minutes, but communion with the Lord has begun. We gather to call upon God to work for his glory and purposes. We sing together of his grace revealed in Christ. We lay hands on the preacher and ask for God’s word to run. We lift up our suffering saints, pleading that they would find comfort. We pray for our visitors and for our people, for our neighborhoods and for the nations. We cry out for mercy, and we confess our sins. It’s a holy moment. No fanfare, no fireworks, but again and again, we see God come, meet us, and answer our prayers.
These times of prayer together create Christlike affection for one another. What might happen if more churches devoted themselves to this kind of prayer?
Shared Prayer Unites Our Hearts
Praying together serves as connective tissue within the body. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, envisions the church as a physical body. Every believer functions as a vital part or organ in this body. Each is unique, but all are united under Christ. To be healthy, then, requires diversity within that unity. Each different part must work together. Otherwise, the body becomes dysfunctional and ceases to work.
Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). The body cannot function as it ought without each part: hands, head, feet, ears, or eyes. Each part is indispensable. Yet how do we get diverse parts working together? How do we cultivate this unusual unity, like-mindedness, and cooperation? We pray together.
When we pray together, God unites our hearts with one another. In prayer, the motives and desires of my fellow brothers and sisters are on display. I gain insight into the deep wells of their faith. I see their heart of compassion. I hear their love for the lost. I discern their affection for Christ. I perceive their steadfast faith. We gain understanding of one another, and that understanding is critical for genuine, durable love.
Prayer also sets this unity in motion. The praises of my brother spur me on to love and good works. My sister’s petitions challenge and encourage me. Others’ prayers convict me of my own shortcomings. The confessions of some cause thanksgiving to well up in my heart. In short, I receive grace while listening to the prayers of others. The diverse prayers of the body reveal the glory of God and his works as a wondrous kaleidoscope. We see and hear so much more than we could have otherwise, and this inspires us to live more fully for Christ.
Shared Prayer Multiplies Joy
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, comments on why a believer needs other believers. He says, “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure” (12). Have you had moments like that, when you need the stronger, fuller, more joyful heart of a friend? God very often brings the encouragement we need through someone else. We know the truth intellectually, but when we hear others believing it and rejoicing in it out loud, the truth can land with even greater power. Their joy often brings us joy.
This dynamic plays out, again and again, when we pray together. God calls a wandering heart back through the prayers of a fellow believer. When we lack the words to pray, we can still amen the prayers of someone else. When our compassion grows cold, we can join in on the heartfelt cries of a sister. Often, I find my heart warming next to the prayers of those around me. They spoke it, but my heart and spirit rise to agree. Drawing on an image from C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller writes,
By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived. . . . Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. That way “the more we share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.” (Prayer, 119)
We hear and see more of Christ through fellow believers, especially through their prayers. Praying with others is a gift God gives us for the benefit of our faith. It enlivens our minds, strengthens our hearts, and empowers our hands.
No Christian runs well alone. No believer stands alone. No child of God fights alone and lives. So, devote yourselves to prayer. Get on your knees together, and pursue a supernatural unity and like-mindedness. Let Jesus knit your heart together with others through adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Praying together fans the flames of joy. So, what might God do in your church if you committed to praying more together?
By Andrew Wilson — 3 months ago
The West is not as post-Christian as many imagine. No doubt there are places on earth, including Middle America, where it might feel like the wider culture is currently rejecting Christianity at an unprecedented rate. But the milieu that characterizes post-Christendom is still (despite itself) irreducibly Christian.
Imagine a cryogenically frozen Viking waking up in twenty-first-century Scandinavia, or a Mayan exploring contemporary Mexico, or Asterix and Obelix encountering German social democracy, or French laïcité. As “secular” as those places might feel to many of us, their values would seem deeply Christian to anyone who had not experienced them before.
Nevertheless, living in the world of late modernity obviously presents plenty of challenges for orthodox believers.
Is Christianity Losing?
Whatever we call the religious outlook of our societies — secularism, post-secularism, post-Christianity, or something else entirely — people are still skeptical toward Christianity and in some cases downright hostile.
The pagan gods of Mammon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Gaia, and Dionysus still trouble modernity in varying levels of disguise. Renouncing them to follow Christ is still costly. It is still harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23–24). The church still bears many flaws, and the cultural influence of Christianity has often served to magnify those flaws to those outside her doors.
An internal, psychological challenge compounds those external, cultural ones: some Christians feel like they are losing. In some countries, this is a question of sheer numbers. For a variety of reasons, including prosperity, fertility, and the privatization of postwar life, the percentage of people in church on Sundays has steadily fallen in many Western nations since the Second World War (while rising substantially in parts of the Majority World over the same period). Even in America (often seen as an outlier), over two-thirds of churches are in numerical decline. At the same time, there is a widely held perception that Christian convictions have become increasingly marginal in public life, which in many cases is clearly true.
Five Responses of Faith
That decline in numbers and of perceived relevance has met with varied responses from the Western church. Some of those responses (repentance, prayer, a renewed commitment to discipleship) are certainly positive. Others (fear, hostility, and the pursuit of influence or power by compromising morally or theologically) are plainly negative.
Some observers remain optimistic and argue that things are not as bad as they seem; others think they are a good deal worse. Some argue the church needs a radical change in strategy; others claim the challenge is not really a methodological one at all, and the church should essentially hunker down, get used to life on the margins, prepare to suffer for what she believes, pray, and trust that the God who brings life to the dead will do something new.
“The milieu that characterizes post-Christendom is still (despite itself) irreducibly Christian.”
So, how do we live by faith in a culture losing its faith? In my book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, I consider how the church responded to a similar crisis nearly 250 years ago — in particular the celebration of grace, the pursuit of freedom, and an articulation of Christian truth — and I suggest the last two centuries have only served to elevate the importance of these three responses. In this piece, I’ll mention five additional responses which, though perhaps obvious, are nevertheless vital for believers in an age like ours.
1. We Suffer Well
It’s hard to overstate the role that suffering has played in the expansion of Christianity. Unfortunately, a naïve version of this claim persists, which attributes to suffering almost magical powers to grow the church automatically (a view which will not survive contact with the history of Japan, say, or the Arabian peninsula). But from the Acts of the Apostles onwards, when Christians are marginalized, robbed, imprisoned, and even martyred, the gospel grows because nothing validates the confident hope of resurrection like suffering.
For Christians in the West, this has long been a challenge because believers have rarely been persecuted in ways that most unbelievers would recognize. But society is changing. Followers of Jesus here now increasingly do suffer, in various ways, for the sake of the name. And preparing for that potential mistreatment — in ways that neither overstate nor understate the current challenges, and equip the saints to respond without resentment, to turn the other cheek, to suffer joyfully — is vital to living by faith in a post-Christian culture.
2. We Counter-Catechize
Counter-catechesis is Alan Jacobs’s term for what the church has always had to do: train disciples what to believe and how to live in response to (and in dialogue with) the specific ways that their wider culture shapes their beliefs and practices. Ever since Jesus said, “You have heard . . . but I say . . .” Christian formation has taken into account the most pressing distortions and deceptions of the age, and applied the gospel to them.
When new distortions and deceptions spring up quickly, though, as they do in a media-saturated and highly fragmented world, the church aims at a moving target, shifting our focus continually to ensure that we are answering the questions our culture and our people are asking now. The number of pastors who admit they do not regularly and publicly teach on sex, gender, and sexuality testifies to the difficulty of this task.
To catechize faithfully, churches will need to address questions of autonomy, identity, sexuality, race, and morality, among others, provide clear and coherent answers to them from Scripture, and then show why the cultural answers do not provide the same explanatory power as the word of God.
3. We Model Humble Courage
In a social context where Christian orthodoxy can seem bigoted, dehumanizing, and grotesque, and where people have no shortage of ways to make their criticisms heard, believers are tempted to mimic the response of animals faced with danger: fight or flight. The former feels like humility, but risks timidity and cowardice. The latter feels like courage, but risks slander and pride.
However, the faithful option is humble courage. If we mistakenly think in terms of a spectrum with humility and timidity at one end and pride and boldness at the other, then we will end up justifying vices as virtues. Abusive and arrogant leaders will be defended as “brave” or “robust.” Compromise with immorality and idolatry will be lauded as “gentle” or “gracious.” The way of Jesus, by contrast, combines exemplary humility with astonishing courage, most powerfully as Christ goes to the cross. We must not allow our culture’s false dichotomies to prevent us from following his lead.
4. We Keep Repenting
It is always easier to see the need for repentance in bygone eras. Antisemitism, crusades, inquisitions, wars, slavery, and racism appear grotesque to us now, and we struggle to understand how previous generations of our brothers and sisters failed to see those evils as we do. The log in our own eye is harder to spot (Matthew 7:3–5).
So, in what ways have we been complicit in baptizing greed and materialism in the church? Or the lust for power? Or expressive individualism? Or a celebrity-obsessed, entertainment-driven consumer culture? Or the sexual revolution with all its tools for divorcing sex from marriage and children? Or obsession with technologies, embracing anything and everything out of convenience without regard for the consequences? Or demographic segregation, whether on grounds of race, class, wealth, education, or something else? Or political hypocrisy?
A repentant church is a faithful church — not to mention a church that stands a better chance of being heard when it calls the world to repent along with her.
5. We Keep Praying
The need for prayer goes without question in theory, but maybe not always in practice. The kinds of people who read articles like this — let alone the kinds of people who write them! — are often, I suspect, drawn more towards working out what we can do (devise strategies, write books, start initiatives, flood people with content) than asking God to do what only he can do (overthrow kingdoms, move mountains, crush gods, fill deserts with flowers). But even a cursory glance at the contemporary landscape reveals that our plans and programs are hopelessly inadequate for the task before us.
The West does not need to be roused from sleep but raised from the dead. Only a mighty work of the Holy Spirit will bring the renewal and revival we need. And prayer is our God-given means of seeking it. So, the church needs to pray for God to do something unprecedented: bring a post-Christian society to repentance and faith on a massive scale. Happily, as Tim Keller pointed out in How to Reach the West Again, every great new move of God was unprecedented until it happened. Come, Lord Jesus!
By Ed Welch — 2 years ago
Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) believed the cannonball that broke his leg was essential to his spiritual awakening. For Martin Luther, it was the threat of lightning. What unites them is that they are part of a common Christian tradition that teaches an uncomfortable lesson: suffering sanctifies.
The stories can be found throughout Scripture and in every church on almost any day. We might wish that faith grew especially during prosperity, but the voice of faith says, “Jesus, help!” And those words come most naturally when we are weak and unable to manage on our own. Growth can be judged, in part, by the number of words we speak to our Lord, and we tend to speak more words when we are at the end of ourselves.
Suffering sanctifies. God tests us in order to refine us. This is true, and knowing this might help us face the inconveniences and challenges of everyday life. But this knowledge feels less satisfying in the face of the death of a child, betrayal by a loved one, or victimization that leaves you undone. Then the nexus between trouble and God’s sanctifying goodness can gradually give way to a relationship in which you and God seem to live in the same house, but you rarely acknowledge him.
We expect some types of sanctifying suffering, but not those sufferings that border on the unspeakable. When these come, the idea that they sanctify us may feel unhelpful. Though we might say to a friend who had a flat tire, “How is God growing you through that?” we know that we should never ask such a question to someone when “the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). The basic principle is true — God sanctifies us through suffering — but there are more elegant and personal ways to talk about it.
Sanctification Is Closeness
A more helpful approach first refreshes our understanding of sanctification.
Let’s begin with a common definition: sanctification is growth in obedience. The problem is when this definition drifts from its intensely personal moorings. As it does, suffering becomes God’s plan to make us better people — stronger, seasoned soldiers who don’t retreat after a mere flesh wound. All of this, of course, sounds suspiciously like a father who is preparing his children to move out and become independent, which is the exact opposite of what God desires for us. Left in this form, the principle that “suffering sanctifies” will erode faith.
Sanctification, of course, is much more intimate. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus died to draw us near to God, and our obedience serves that closeness. From this perspective, sin and any form of uncleanness distance us from God. Holiness, or sanctification, brings us closer.
Think of the Old Testament tabernacle. The unclean, which included the foreign nations and those contaminated by the sins of others, were farthest from the place of God’s presence in the Most Holy Place. The clean were closer. They camped around God’s house and could freely come near to worship and offer sacrifices. The priests, however — the ones made holy — were closer still. They were invited daily, in turn, into the Holy Place, and, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest dared to enter the Most Holy Place. The high priest offers a picture of humanity as God intended — purified and close to him.
For us, we have been sanctified once for all by the obedience of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:10) and our faith in him. We now are holy ones. From that place, in the Most Holy Place, God invites us closer still, and our obedience and love for him are means by which we draw nearer. In his book on Leviticus, Michael Morales helpfully suggests progressive nearness as an alternative to progressive sanctification (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 18).
This heavenly pattern of nearness through obedience overflows into the very fabric of marriage: a married couple has been brought near in their declarations of commitment to each other, and then, for the rest of their lives, they draw nearer still through their growth in covenant love.
Sovereignty Has Mysteries
With sanctification understood more personally, we turn to our understanding of God’s sovereignty. “Suffering sanctifies” suggests that God purposely brings suffering into our lives. He ordains every detail. This is true, but some ways of talking about God’s sovereignty can be misleading and miss the emphasis of Scripture.
“God’s sovereignty invites us to trust in our Father who will make everything right, even in creation itself.”
God’s sovereignty is not an invitation to make perfect sense of how his power and love coexist with every detail of our suffering. Instead, his sovereignty reminds us to approach him as children who trust their Father and his love. A child understands love, and God’s love is, indeed, a fathomless expanse that he welcomes us to explore. He gives help and wisdom as we consider, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
The most shameful abuse will not separate us from God, which is certainly counterintuitive when we feel like an outcast who is among the unclean. When we see him face-to-face, we will rest in (and even rejoice in) his righteous judgement against oppressors, and we will be thoroughly cleansed from the wicked acts done against us. In other words, God’s sovereignty invites us to trust in our Father who will make everything right, even in creation itself.
How Suffering Draws Us
So, how does suffering sanctify? How does God sanctify us in the midst of suffering?
In this way: with boundless compassion, God rushes to us. He comes close and enters into our burdens. He hears the cries of his people, which means that he will take action (Psalm 10:14). This is all true. Satan would have you think otherwise, but this is true.
“I am the suffering servant. Talk to me.” The Spirit invites you to see and hear Jesus, the suffering servant. The misery of a mysterious servant in Isaiah 52–53 foretells his story. The last week of Jesus’s life in John 10–21 reveals him most fully. In Jesus, you find a kindred spirit who knows your experience through his own. He understands you without you explaining the details. As you watch him, you will notice how the list of abuses against him gathered momentum every day. Perhaps you will be stunned by his universal rejection and shame.
“In Jesus, you find a kindred spirit who knows your experience through his own.”
Next, there is an unexpected turn. “He was pierced for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), which is to say, for your transgressions. What does your sin have to do with your suffering? When Jesus took your sin, he assured you that nothing can separate you from the love of God, and he breached the wall of pain in which Satan, death, shame, sin, and misery dwelt. To this stronghold, Jesus announced their demise.
Then Jesus makes all this even more personal. He brings you closer. He invites you to speak to him. “Pour out your heart” (Psalm 62:8), he says. Prayer, of course, can be much more difficult than it sounds, so he gives you words to replace those unspeakable silences. When you read the Psalms, you can almost overhear Jesus ask you, “Is this how you feel?” His request that you speak to him is a sincere request, and he patiently waits for your words.
In response, you break your silence. Perhaps your words jar you, not because of their honesty but simply because your recent words to him have been so few.
“But how could evil have been given such liberty in my life? Why did you hide your face from me? How could you have allowed . . .” With these words, he has drawn you closer. They are expressions of your faith in God. You are being sanctified. You have listened to him. Unbelief turns away or simply rages; faith responds to God, presses in, and inquires, with words shaped by Scripture. Jesus himself has asked these very questions to his Father.
After more words back-and-forth, God invites you to grow as his child. “I am your God and Father. You can trust me.” He has given you evidence that he is trustworthy. He certainly will not forget you or the acts done against you (Isaiah 49:16). Do you believe? This is the truth.
He says, “Come closer, as my child, and trust me.” You respond, “Yes, I believe; help my unbelief. I trust you, but please give me more faith.”
This is one way suffering sanctifies: it brings us closer to God.