Dan Hult

Men Need Biblical Counseling

We must acknowledge that men throughout our culture and churches are in need of much soul care.  The answer is not therapy that in addition to being atheistic in origin is contrary to the nature of men.  Instead, the answer is Scripture, which was given by God through the pens of men to speak to the hearts of men.  Scripture is uniquely suited to help all people address their problems, including helping men approach problems in a masculine way.  Therefore, when men cannot find sufficient help in male discipleship relationships, men need biblical counseling.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
-Isaiah 35:3-4, ESV
Recently, I discussed how to approach depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety biblically.  These along with anger, trauma, substance abuse, and a myriad of other issues are commonly seen in biblical counseling.  I discussed the need for biblical counseling in general here, but many of these issues disproportionately affect men, and men often avoid counseling.  So while all Christians can benefit from biblical counseling, this post focuses on men.  We will see that the Bible (and therefore biblical counseling) is uniquely suited to help men.
The Problem
Are men really affected disproportionately?  Recent statistics show that more women than men are affected by them, anxiety and depression, though men have higher rates of substance abuse.  However, one fact in particular suggests that the problem may be much worse than reported.  Of nearly 100,000 suicides in 2021 and 2022, almost 80,000 were men.[1]  This shows that women seek help much more often than men do, thus making it appear that less men struggle with these issues.  Many professionals have observed this, calling it a men’s mental health crisis.  In this, they are not wrong.  Our society gives men ample reasons to be depressed and anxious—enough to turn to substances and suicide.  It demonizes men and glorifies women in the name of “equality”, making every woman out to be a queen and ever man a monster such that one can unironically ask questions like “are men worthy of compassion?” and “do we even need men anymore?”.  It presumes guilt whenever a man is accused by a woman, urging everyone to “believe all women” regardless of evidence.  It encourages women to set impossible expectations for men then leave or commit adultery when “their needs are not being met”, destroying their husbands’ lives through no-fault divorce.  A family court system stacked in women’s favor then makes marriage an all-risk-no-reward proposition for men—at least from a secular perspective.  This is not to disparage the institution of marriage itself.  After all, I recently commented on the beauty of biblical marriage.  However, no-fault divorce has eliminated any societal accountability for husband and wife to uphold their marriage vows.  Without that, men have everything to lose and nothing to gain from divorce and therefore marriage.  Finally, this perverted society works tirelessly from childhood to squeeze males into a feminine mold, demonizing their masculine distinctives as “toxic” such that they become effeminate, assume they are defective, or rebel and become abusive.  All of this men’s sense of removes purpose, which is a very important anecdote to depression.  So yes, there is a men’s mental health crisis, which should surprise no one.
If it is so bad, why aren’t men getting help?  Scholars point to stigma regarding men and mental health, a general hesitation for men to talk about their emotions, and even “toxic masculinity”.[2]  There is like some truth in that (except for the toxic masculinity part), but I propose a simpler explanation.  Perhaps men who suffer from depression and anxiety refrain from seeking treatment because of their perception of the treatment itself.  Unlike medical treatment—which men are notorious for avoiding as well—mental health treatment often involves therapy, which is the last thing most men want to do.  The prospect of lying on a couch talking about your childhood with a stranger and then talking endlessly about feelings is somewhat less preferrable than undergoing a root canal.  Furthermore, it is obvious enough to be cliché that men are solution-oriented.  Men want to troubleshoot the problem, identify the root cause, and solve it.  But due to the complexity of the issues in question, psychology and psychiatry often cannot offer such solutions.  Therefore, therapy—at least in men’s minds—is reduced to “talking it out”, which seems futile. It all seems very feminine, and in a culture that is working hard to strip men of every last vestige of masculinity, can we really fault men for not wanting to go to therapy that could threaten to emasculate them even further?[3] I have no idea whether that image bears any resemblance to actual therapy, but this is a case in which perception is more important than reality.  The perception alone is enough to scare most men away from therapy.  If only help for men could be found coming from wise and masculine men.  If only manly men from “the good old days” wrote a book to men that addressed these problems in a way that acknowledges their masculinity.
The Bible’s Masculinity
Such a book exists: the Bible.  This may come as a surprise since the broader American church has largely feminized Christianity.  The worship songs, sermons, and ministries of many churches cater so much to women that men can feel very out-of-place, leading them to believe that the Bible is not for them.  Every word of Scripture is infinitely profitable for all Christians, whether male or female, but to counter the error of feminization in our churches, we need to stress the masculinity of Scripture.  First, every word of Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who like the Father and Son is repeatedly portrayed in Scripture as male.  He inspired men to then write those words down—not people in general, but men in particular.  Moses, David, Solomon, Israelite historians, and the prophets were all men, as were the apostles, Mark, Luke, James, and Jude.  And of course the Gospels record the words of Jesus, the perfect man.  Even passages spoken by women, such as the songs of Miriam and Deborah, the prayer of Hannah, and the Magnificat, were recorded by men.  The only passage of Scripture attributed to a woman is Proverbs 31, which was an oracle from the mother of King Lemuel.  But like the others, it was relayed by a man to male writers, so it too is the words of a man recorded by men.
Much of Scripture was written to, for, and about men.  Job and his friends were all men.  Many of the psalms were written as battle songs for the Israelite army.  Much of Proverbs is written from father to son.  Many of Christ’s teachings were directed at specific men, and several of the epistles were written to specific men.  It should be unsurprising then that the Bible is written in a way that appeals to masculine strength.  Even in the songs of Miriam, Deborah, and Mary, one cannot help but notice the themes of conquest and strength.  From Abraham to Hezekiah, the narrative of Scripture is full of the exploits of the men in war.  Abraham defeated five kings to rescue Lot (Genesis 14).  Joshua led the Israelites to defeat the Amalekites during the exodus (Exodus 17).  Caleb claimed Hebron mainly because he would have to fight giants there (Joshua 14:6-15).  Then there’s most of Judges followed by Saul and his armor bearer defeating an entire Philistine garrison by themselves (1 Samuel 14), David’s entire life and Mighty Men, and many others.
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The Truly Successful Pastor

The successful pastor preaches and teaches the entire Word of God without compromise (2 Timothy 4:1-2), so He calls people to repentance just as to faith.  He does not water down the Gospel or let any contemporary issue usurp the Gospel in priority.  He does so winsomely and does not set out to offend people, but he understands that the Gospel is inherently offensive. 

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
-Matthew 25:21, ESV
Last time, we concluded our look at the pastoral office and its relation to church conflict by looking at the downfall of three high-profile Christians: Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, and Ravi Zacharias.  We talked of lessons learned from these situations, like the importance of accountability, the danger of valuing numbers and giftedness above character, and the need for safeguards to prevent misuse of authority.  But we did not talk at all about the root cause.  We will now examine this and then provide the remedy: a definition of pastoral success that comes from Scripture not society.
Bad Apples?
Were Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, and others like them just a few bad apples, or was there something more going on?  When unethical behavior is unearthed in any organization, people often say that the perpetrates were just a few bad apples who do not represent the values or culture of the organization.  But I am reminded of a lesson on ethics from a leadership course I took years ago.  The instructor first pointed out that apples can go bad because they are in a bad barrel: their behavior was facilitated or even encouraged by the culture of the organization.  As I observed in my leadership paper, W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and Myron Tribus all noted that the vast majority of quality problems in organizations come from the system and not the individual.  The instructor was suggesting that this can apply to ethical failures as well.  This should come as no surprise to Christians, since we know that all people are sinful, so organizations are made up of people who are sinful.  Therefore, every organization has the potential to be a bad barrel, so it takes extreme leadership vigilance to keep the barrel from turning the apples rotten.  But the instructor took the analogy a step further by saying that the barrels may be bad because of a bad barrel maker.  This means that the organization creates or facilitates bad behavior because it was created and shaped by a bad culture in a broader sense.  In that case, a few bad apples may be indicative of a much larger societal problem.
Are people like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias bad apples because their organizations enabled their bad behavior?  If so, did their organizations enable their bad behavior because of our culture?  I would answer “yes” on both counts.  Both ministries were built on the men rather than the Gospel, so they were tempted to tolerate behaviors in those men that they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else.  These bad apples were facilitated by bad barrels.  But I would argue those bad barrels were the product of a bad barrel maker: a Christian culture that overemphasizes fame, massive churches, and emotional experiences.  This is the result of a consumerist view of the church, so they are merely responding to the market.  This is not to say that Mars Hill or other such churches abandoned the Gospel to cater to consumerism, but they did understand that a large proportion of the people who attended, listened online, and donated did so primarily because of Mark Driscoll or those like him.  So when such pastors disqualify themselves by their behavior, they are often not confronted because it is seen as preferrable to silently endure their errors rather than risk the downfall of the ministry by exposing them.  But God promised that the truth will come out in the end (Luke 8:17), bringing about the downfall they fear.  The foundation of such churches may still be the Gospel, but the way they build on those foundations cannot stand the test of hard truth:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
-1 Corinthians 3:10-15, ESV
Mars Hill and similar churches build upon the foundation of the Gospel with the wood, hay, and straw of personality, skilled delivery, catchy and emotionally engaging music, and various other things that either intentionally or unintentionally cater to the consumerist Christian.  This model may produce short-term growth, but it is not the way that God builds His Church, so it will ultimately fail.  Therefore, this model that is viewed by so many as the pinnacle of successful ministry is actually the opposite.  To truly evaluate successful ministry, we need to view it the way God does—and He has a very different definition of success than we do.
God’s Definition of Successful Ministry
What is the definition of successful ministry from God’s point of view?  It is to labor to build the Kingdom of God in the way that He has ordained that it be built, which Jesus described in His teachings on the Kingdom:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
-Matthew 13:31-33, ESV (cf. Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19)
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
-Mark 4:26-29, ESV
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
-Luke 17:20-21, ESV
The point is clear: Jesus will build His Kingdom slowly and gradually.  Like a mustard seed, it starts small but steadily grows until it cannot be ignored.  Like leaven, it appears insignificant at first, but through small and often unnoticed acts of faithfulness it will permeate and ultimately take over the entire world.  Like seed in general, it grows in ways that we cannot understand.  It is the tiny stone of heavenly origin that toppled the statue then grows to be a mountain filling the whole earth in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2).  Its growth is often imperceptible, but that does not mean it isn’t there.  As we discussed here, the Kingdom is built over many generations.
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The High Calling of the Pastor

While the public ministry of preaching is vital, most salvation and spiritual growth happens in the context of private ministry.  Baxter noted that it is this private ministry that lends credence and trustworthiness to preaching.[2]  This private ministry is so important that Baxter spends more than a third of the book discussing it.  It is no less important today.  In numerous parables, Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as starting small then growing slowly and gradually.  If that is the way Christ will built His Church, then that is what all Christians—especially pastors—must focus on.

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
-1 Peter 5:1-4, ESV
Recently, we have addressed the subject of church conflict.  First, we saw that stirring up division in the church demonstrates a lack of love for the church and therefore a lack of love for Jesus Christ.  Then, we looked at ways to approach conflict in the church, including circumstances in which church leaders are either straying from sound doctrine or committing sins that make them no longer qualified biblically to hold their office.  Therein, I repeatedly referred to our obligation to honor our pastors, even when we must rebuke them for serious sins or doctrinal errors.  I believe a major reason that we struggle with this is that we do not understand what the job of a pastor actually entails.  If we truly understood this, we would have no trouble honoring our pastors as Scripture commands. A better understanding of their calling would also help us to discern when they are straying from that calling to the point where rebuke becomes necessary. My aim here is to help us all understand both the duty and high calling of the pastoral ministry so that we know how to strengthen and encourage them in this work as well as how to spot significant deviations from it. 
The Job of the Pastor
What is the job of the pastor?  Many people see the pastor’s role as little more than preaching on Sunday morning.  This is very important, but it is only one small part of the pastor’s job.  In simplest terms, the pastor’s job is to lead and care for the church.  As I noted in my leadership paper, Scripture often uses the metaphor of the shepherd to describe what leadership should look like.  Jesus then uses this metaphor by calling Himself the Good Shepherd in John 10 and then charging Peter to feed His sheep in John 21.  Peter then extends this charge to all pastors: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2a).  He goes on to describe the manner in which pastors must do this.  They must be willing and eager to serve in this capacity rather than being compelled to it.  They must not do it out of greed for personal gain or in a domineering way, setting an example for everyone around them.  We will discuss these more later, but it is important to note that all of this is prefaced by “exercising oversight”.  In other words, the pastor must exercise oversight in the church.  That oversight must be willing, eager, and neither greedy nor domineering, but it must be present. 
What does it mean for pastors to be shepherds exercising oversight?  In rebuking the Jewish leaders for their failure in this area, God lays out what a good shepherd looks like in Ezekiel 34.  Based on this passage, second-generation reformer Martin Bucer divided the responsibilities of the pastor into five categories: lead lost souls to Christ, restore those who are straying, assist saints who are in sin, strengthen the spiritually weak, and protect all saints from sin and error—all of which generally fall into the category of soul care.[1]  In other words, to properly shepherd the flock is to care for each individual soul in the church in a way that ministers to each person in his or her particular context.  This means that in addition to preaching and public evangelism, the responsibilities of the pastor include counseling and private evangelism, meeting with people in their homes, visiting the sick, and church discipline.  This requires really knowing people and meeting them where they are in their lives, which cannot happen without pastors descending from the pulpit and entering into the messy lives of those in the congregation…all of them.  Puritan Richard Baxter says this:
“To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed of them, if we do not know them?  We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.”
-Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust: 2020 (orig. 1656): 65.
Is Baxter really saying that pastors need to know every person in the church?  Yes.  In our day, this may seem impossible, but perhaps that is because our view of the pastorate has deviated substantially from Scripture.  We often think of a church having as single lead pastor, but if that pastor should know everyone in the congregation, that will severely limit the size of the church.  Certainly it is impossible for megachurch pastors to know every person in the church, but it is just as difficult for a pastor to do this in medium sized churches.  This drives home the point that with the exception of very small churches, a single pastor cannot adequately shepherd the flock God has entrusted to him.  The biblical model instead calls for a plurality of pastors who can share this load between them.  Whether this takes the form of a lead pastor with associate pastors or a combination of full-time and bi-vocational elders, it is absolutely essential.  Just as Moses was unable to lead the nation of Israel alone (Exodus 18), so pastors should not expect (nor be expected) to lead their churches alone.  When discussing tithing, I suggested that an adequately tithing church should be able to support a full-time staff member for every fifteen households or so.  Coincidentally—or rather providentially—this is similar to most conventional secular wisdom on the appropriate scope of oversight that any one leader is capable of.  Such a high pastor-to-household ratio may seem like a pipe dream, but the closer we get to it, the healthier our churches will be.
Even in churches that understand this, there can be a split between preaching and other responsibilities such that there is one main pastor who preaches while all of the other pastors or elders are charged with everything else.  This is not the biblical model.  It is true that Peter, Paul, and the other apostles focused on preaching the Gospel, but they also visited the sick and ministered to families in their homes.  Furthermore, the personal references in of Paul’s letters indicates that he had a close relationship with various people in those churches.  So while some pastors may focus on preaching while others focus on the other aspects of ministry, all pastors are charged to labor in all aspects of ministry.
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Love and Respect: Rediscovering the Beauty of Biblical Marriage and Gender

In a culture that has lost its way on marriage and gender, one of the best ways we can display the Gospel is by embracing what Scripture teaches about them and living lives that display their beauty to the world.  Christians need to take their cues from Scripture and perform the marriage and gender dance that God designed and prescribes so that the world will see the beauty of God’s design. 

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
-Ephesians 5:31-33, ESV
Recently, I observed how the American Church like the Jews of Malachi’s day has lost the fear of God and therefore has a cheapened view of Scripture that has led many American churches to deny what Scripture teaches about who God is, who we are, and how that impacts cultural issues.  One area where this is especially evident is with marriage and gender.  This obviously includes topics like homosexuality and transgenderism, but it also includes a cheapening of marriage in general through an acceptance of our culture’s understanding of no-fault divorce and casual approach to relationships.  But even many churches that do not compromise in these areas struggle with how to interpret the Bible’s teachings on marriage and gender roles.  Generations of feminism have made any view of distinct gender roles ugly to many American Christians, causing them to reject any interpretation of Scripture that would perpetuate what they see as negative historical norms.  If these roles are a result of the Fall, we should seek to leave them behind as we labor to build the Kingdom of God.  But if these roles are part of God’s good Creation before the Fall, we must not abandon them as ugly remnants of sinful patriarchal oppression but instead embrace them as part of God’s beautiful design of who we are that reflects who He is.
But first, I need to address the objection that I as a single man am in no position to write about the topic of marriage. It is true that I lack any experiential qualifications, but that matters little. Saying that only members of a certain demographic are qualified to speak about issues unique to that demographic is a form of ad hominem attack that has no place in healthy debate. In actuality, demographics have little to do with qualifications, and qualifications do not determine the validity of an argument. More importantly, I am writing about what Scripture clearly teaches, not my own opinions. It doesn’t matter what I say but what God says. With that, lets see what God has to say about marriage and gender, starting from the beginning.
Begin at the Beginning
Since the crucial question is whether or not the distinction between genders predated the Fall, we need to go back to the beginning.  We know that all God made was very good (Genesis 1:31), so if we find evidence of the distinction between male and female there, then those distinctions must be very good too.  Here is what we find in Genesis 1:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. ”
-Genesis 1:26-27, ESV
From this passage, we see that God created mankind as male and female in His own image (verses 26 and 27).  This means that the unity yet distinctness of the persons of the Trinity is reflected by the unity yet distinctness of men and women (more on that here).  Reflecting the ontological equality within the Trinity, men and women are equal in dignity and value.[1]  This is the basis for the high value of women in Christian cultures, and conversely the reason why non-Christian cultures often devalue and mistreat women.[2]  But men and women are also fundamentally different reflecting the economic distinction with the Trinity.  This passage also teaches us that God created mankind as male and female to accomplish a purpose: to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over it (verse 28), which is known as the Cultural Mandate.    Just as the persons of the Trinity fulfill different roles, men and women image (reflect and represent) God by fulfilling their distinct roles in the Cultural Mandate.  These differences do not change the equality of men and women in value and dignity.[3]  But this equality is not substitutionary: you cannot substitute one for the other and get the same result.  As I already covered when refuting transgenderism, since there are only three persons in the Trinity and they cannot become one another, there are only two genders: men and women, who cannot become one another.  After the Fall, the distinctions between male and female are sometimes less obvious, but they are still there.  So both the equality in value and distinction in roles of men and women are part of what God made as very good.
Which distinctions predated the Fall?  For this, Genesis 2, gives more detail about how mankind was created on Day 6.  This starts with God forming the man from the dust and breathing life into him (Genesis 2:7) before placing him in the Garden of Eden “to work and keep it” (verse 15), commanding him not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (verse 16).  It is at that point that God declares (before sin) that something is not good: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).  The man cannot keep the Garden or fulfill the Cultural Mandate without help, so God begins the process of creating a helper suitable for the man.  As a quick but important side note, the term “helper” is often used of God (e.g. Exodus 18:4, Deuteronomy 33:26,29, Psalm 33:20, 115:9-10, Hosea 13:9), so it is not denigrating in the slightest.[4]  God brings the animals to the man to name (Genesis 2:19-20a), both to show his authority over them and to prove to him that no animal existed that could provide the help he needed (Genesis 2:20b).[5]  God then created the woman from the man’s rib (verses 21 and 22) and brought her to the man, thus instituting marriage as the lifelong union between one man and one woman (verse 24). Upon seeing the woman for the first time, the man immediately recognizes her as the perfect partner for him and joyously declares: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23).  From this, we can see that the man was created first and given both a mission and the authority to accomplish that mission.  The woman was then created to help him in that mission, so gender roles are not some distortion of God’s very good creation but part of it.
The Distortion of the Fall
God’s very good design was greatly tarnished by the Fall in Genesis 3.  I cover the Fall more generally elsewhere, but for now recall that the first sin goes far beyond a poor diet choice.  Satan usurped the created order by addressing Eve rather than Adam (Genesis 3:1).  As head of his family, Adam then failed to both reinforce right doctrine to Eve and protect her from spiritual assault, instead standing by passively as Eve was tempted (verse 6b).  As far as we can tell, she engaged with Satan and then ate the fruit without looking to him for spiritual leadership (verses 2 to 6a).  But Adam’s passivity indicates that he too was rebelling against God in his heart and waiting to see if any harm came to her before he ate.  Therefore, he abandoned his calling to protect and provide for his wife, instead risking her well-being for his own pleasure.  As a result, they both sinned and then both immediately realized that their ideal world had been shattered (verse 7).[6]  God then calls out to Adam, showing that He still holds him responsible as head of his family.  Adam tries to blame Eve (even blaming God in the process), and Eve then tries to blame Satan (verses 9 to 13).
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Open Hands: How to Appropriately Respond to God’s Blessings

If we think we deserve God’s blessings, we will be disappointed when He does not provide them, thereby causing us to question His sovereignty and goodness.  However, when we realize that we sin incessantly and immediately deserve God’s eternal condemnation, we will understand that every breath is an undeserved gift of God.  

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
-Matthew 6:31-33, ESV
In Christian circles, we often talk extensively about trials and how to walk through them by faith.  This is the right emphasis, as our lives are filled with various trials.  There are numerous books, seminars, and other media to prepare people for suffering in various ways and teach them how to endure any number of trials.  But that emphasis can come at the expense of adequately preparing us for blessings.  At first we may think such preparation would be unnecessary.  After all, who really needs to know how to prepare for good times?  But blessings bring temptations that trials do not, so we are wise to prepare for them just as we prepare for trials.  In good times, we are tempted to rely on ourselves and neglect God (Proverbs 30:8-9), give into thinking that we deserve these blessings and therefore receive them without thankfulness (1 Corinthians 4:7), and let our guard down and thus leave ourselves susceptible to temptation to sin (2 Samuel 11).  I talk more about that last one my leadership paper when describing how successful people are more prone to compromise ethically in good times than hard times.  That alone should be enough to cause us to approach good times with caution.  Indeed blessings are often a test just like trials—and I would venture to say that more people fail tests of blessing than trials (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25).  When facing times of blessing, I want to focus on two opposite but serious temptations we face: claiming for ourselves what God has not given us and stiff-arming them out of fear of disappointment.
Don’t “Name it and Claim it”
On the one hand, it is tempting to think we deserve blessings from God, claiming any pleasant promise in Scripture for ourselves.  We read these passages and assume that God is promising to provide us with wealth, family, health, and a myriad of other blessings just because a verse refers to them.  In reality, many of these verses are not specific promises to everyone.  In some cases, they are not promises at all but general principles.  This is true of most of Proverbs and many blessings in the psalms.  Here are a few examples:
“He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers”
-Psalm 1:3, ESV
“Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”
-Psalm 37:4, ESV
“For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but whoever listens to me [wisdom] will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”
-Proverbs 1:32-33, ESV
“Long life is in her [wisdom’s] right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.  Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”
-Proverbs 3:16-18, ESV
Other examples include Psalm 91:10 and Proverbs 12:21. All of these link righteousness and wisdom with blessings like wealth and long life, but we can all think of numerous examples where upright people suffer from poverty, disease, and early death.  These verses are general statements and thus are not promises for every person.  Additionally, there are promises that are for specific people, even if their subject is not immediately evident.  For example, Hillsong’s “You Said” includes a line about asking God to give us the nations, but that is from Psalm 2:8, which is a promise to Jesus not us.  Therefore, we cannot claim that promise since we are not Jesus.  God is not some cosmic vending machine where we insert our coins of faith or good works and thus compel Him to bless us.  This means that we must not view God’s blessings as somehow owed to us.  If we think we deserve God’s blessings, we will be disappointed when He does not provide them, thereby causing us to question His sovereignty and goodness.  However, when we realize that we sin incessantly and immediately deserve God’s eternal condemnation, we will understand that every breath is an undeserved gift of God.  Then, when God takes away blessings or withholds them from us, we will not question Him but say with Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
While we often avoid the temptation to openly claim God’s blessings as if we deserve them, the greater temptation lies in secret.  When we lack a certain blessing or when that blessing seems imminent, we can be given to fantasizing about that blessing.  In that sense, we are mentally claiming that blessing for ourselves and therefore displaying a lack of contentment with our current situation.  It is certainly true that God can give us earnest desires for these blessings.  It is also true that some level of imagination is often required in the godly process of discernment.  But if we allow those desires to take center stage and fail to rein in our imaginations, we can easily cross into the sin of covetousness.  Years ago when a friend was struggling with such thoughts about whether to pursue a romantic relationship, he came to a realization through study of Scripture that there are only two biblical was to think of women in the church: wife or sister.  There is no third category of “future wife”. She was not his wife, so the only biblical way he could view her was as his sister in Christ.  Later, he met and eventually married a different woman.  Looking back now, he can be thankful that God withheld the blessing of the relationship in that moment and helped him be content in his situation until God eventually did give him that blessing.
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Lift Up Your Eyes: Catching God’s Vision to Build His Kingdom Through Families

God has chosen to build His Kingdom slowly and gradually through families, so we need to lift our eyes above our current circumstances to perceive both the global and multigenerational scope of God’s work.  This will not only redirect our focus to the Gospel and its application to our families but also greatly encourage us as we look past our own dire circumstances to what God has been working on since giving Adam and Eve the Cultural Mandate.  God is building His Church, and He will be successful, so let’s throw ourselves into that work that He has invites us into.

The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”
-Genesis 13:14-17, ESV
When I visited Prague years ago, I was struck by the abundance of beautiful old churches throughout the city—beautiful and empty.  At the time I visited, 80% of Czechs were atheist or agnostic.  It was sadly ironic that a place so central to the pre-Reformation would now be so devoid of the truth of the Gospel, that the church flanking a large statue of Jan Hus and the cathedral entombing the devout King Wenceslas had essentially been reduced to museums.  I couldn’t help but think of a line from Nietzsche’s “The Parable of the Madman”: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”.[1]  That problem is not exclusive to Europe.  During my commute, I drive by some lovely old New England churches, each marked as a tomb by such headstones as a Pride flag, Black Lives Matter banner, or some other indicator if inclusivity.  Churches in America and Europe are dying, particularly the mainline denominations.  Despite this (and in some ways because of it), we should not lose hope but should follow God’s direction to Abram in Genesis 13 and lift up our eyes.  In doing so, we can avoid discouragement by looking above our own circumstances to see how God works both globally and generationally as well as how that applies to our lives today.
Look Up Across the Land
We can draw parallels between our own context and Abraham’s.  In Genesis 12, God first made a promise to Abraham (Abram at the time) in the land of Haran.  From Genesis 11 and 12, we see that after his brother Haran died, Abraham looked after Haran’s son Lot, so when God first speaks to Abraham, Lot was essentially part of his family:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
-Genesis 12:1-3, ESV
Here, God promises to give Abraham a heritage, land, descendants, and immense blessing.  So Abraham and his nephew Lot journey from Haran to Canaan, but by Genesis 13, this promise seems further away.  The limited land they occupied could not support them both, so they separated.  Lot chose what was appealing by earthly wisdom but detrimental spiritually: the fertile yet evil land of Sodom.  Thus, Abram’s family was getting smaller not larger.  It was in this context that God essentially repeated His promise.  In Genesis 13:14-17, God tells Abram to look all around him because He would give him all of the land he could see.  As Christendom seems to be failing in the West, it is tempting for us to conclude that the Kingdom of God is in retreat rather than advancing.  But if we lift up our eyes and look past the West, we would see that nothing could be further from the truth.  Far from retreat, Christianity is not only advancing but exploding in Africa and Asia.  F. Lionel Young III recently observed how the increasingly global and ethnically diverse nature of the Church today is so profound that it is making us rethink our paradigm of the “global north” as the spiritual haves and the “global south” as the spiritual have nots.  In fact, Dr. Gina A. Zurlo observed that in 2020: “A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European”.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave His disciples a mission to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20).  In that time, Christianity has expanded from 120 people in Jerusalem to the largest religion in the world.  While there have been ups and downs, the Church has been growing and advancing steadily since then, so we have no reason to believe that trend that has lasted two millennia will reverse now.
But even in the West there is reason for hope.  When we look at the decline of many churches, particularly in mainline denominations, it is right to observe like Nietzsche that the empty churches are tombs and sepulchers, but we must disagree that God is entombed there.  Instead, these empty churches are tombs of a dead religion, a false god that bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible.  By replacing the Gospel with a watered-down version that elevated social change and the values of society above Christ, they lost their first love, so as He did with Ephesus, God has removed their lampstand (Revelation 2:4-5).  Many evangelical churches have also replaced the true Gospel with a false one, emphasizing emotional experiences and watering down the Gospel to make it relevant and palatable for the culture.  The result is a fake man-centered gospel that portrays God as weak and harmless, completely neglecting His sovereignty, justice, and righteousness.  In conforming the church to the culture, they have given up their distinction and thus competitive advantage.
Businesses do the same thing when they abandon their competitive edge to chase the latest fad, as Blackberry did when faced with competition from the iPhone.  As a result, the phone that at one time ruled the business world is no more, replaced by an app on business and government iPhones.[2]  Any business must persistently focus on what sets them apart from their competition, which Jim Collins referred to as “the hedgehog principle” in Good to Great.[3]  Business failure comes when that distinction is abandoned to chase after “shiny objects”.  For the Church, the Gospel is what sets us apart, so sacrificing the Gospel to chase after fads can only be detrimental.  The World will always outdo the Church in concerts, motivational speeches, political action, and everything else but the Gospel just Blackberry could never make a better iPhone than the iPhone.  Only the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), so the Church must focus on the Gospel.
Fortunately, while churches that have abandoned the Gospel to go after the fads of culture are predictably failing, there is steady growth in churches that have maintained their focus on the Gospel.  I have noticed in my lifetime a significant increase in Reformed theology, hunger for depth of Scriptural understanding, and a seriousness to obey Scripture that I did not see in childhood.  This is very positive, verifying that what lies entombed in dying churches is not the true Gospel, which is alive and well, even in the West.  So when we lift up our eyes and look at the growth of true Christianity in the world around us, we have ample reason to hope as Abraham did.
Look Up to Future Generations
Along with the promise of land in Genesis 13:14-17, God also told Abram that He would give him enumerable descendants.  Like the promise of land, this too seemed fleeting.  It was something like two decades between the promise of Genesis 13 and the birth of Isaac in Genesis 21.
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The Real Enemy of God’s People

Haman’s self-absorption led him to plot genocide and ultimately became his downfall…the real “enemy of the Jews” was not so much Haman himself, but what Haman represented: the one who puts himself or herself above anyone else.

Who is the worst enemy of God’s people?  Some American Christians may say “the Left”.  Others may point to unjust leaders who tried to prevent churches from meeting during the early days of the pandemic and imprisoned pastors for opposing them.  Some students could name their teachers or professors who have an intense determination to get them to deny their faith.  In other parts of the world, where Christians face real persecution, they could be tempted to name oppressive communist governments, Muslim or Hindu radicals, or others who vehemently oppose Christianity.  These could all be considered enemies.  I prefer to think of them as “opponents” rather than enemies.  It is not that we have enmity against them but by opposing Christ they are also opposing us.  But are they “the enemy”?  In the New Testament, “the enemy” is used referring to Satan (Matthew 13:39, Luke 10:19), but in the Old Testament it is much more generic.  However, there is one person in the entire Old Testament specifically given the title of “the enemy”.  By examining him, we learn who our worst enemy is.  Conversely, by studying his arch nemesis, we learn how to overcome our worst enemy.
The Enemy of the Jews
In the Old Testament, the Jews were God’s people, so it naturally follows that someone given the title of “the enemy of the Jews” would be by extension the enemy of God’s people in general.  This phrase is only used four times in Scripture, and all of them refer to the same man.  That man was Haman the Agagite.  Anyone familiar with the story of Esther will likely remember Haman as the man who plotted a genocide to exterminate all of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire.  This certainly made him an enemy of the Jews, but the Jews faced similar threats of annihilation before, so why does Haman get the exclusive title of “the enemy of the Jews”?  Perhaps his enmity went beyond his plot such that he can be considered the prototypical enemy of God’s people.
To understand this, we need to look at who Haman was and what prompted him to plot a genocide.  We first meet him in Esther 3 when he is promoted to be second in command to King Ahasuerus.  Climbing to this rank would have been no small feat in such a massive empire, so he must have been a man of considerable knowledge, skill, and connections.  It would have also meant he was one of the men the king trusted most in the entire empire.  He seemed to live up to his name, which literally meant “magnificent”.  By any standard, he had it all, so what was the problem that led him to plot to annihilate an entire race of people?
The problem began when one man repeatedly refused to pay homage to him after his promotion.  This man too was a man of influence, since he was regularly in the king’s gate.  The fact that throughout the book he is regularly found there suggests he was a senior official, as many men of prominence throughout Scripture can be found sitting in the gate.  Thus, his refusal to bow is reminiscent of how Daniel’s three friends refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in Daniel 2.  Regardless, he was of a high enough position and reputation that Haman didn’t dare openly oppose him.  Still the refusal of this one man to pay homage to him disturbed him greatly—so greatly that when he found out the man was a Jew, he began plotting to exterminate all the Jews.  This plot was not the result of a fit of rage but of prolonged and calculated scheming (Esther 3:7).  He got the king to agree to the plot by falsely accusing the Jews of being enemies of the king and even bribing the king with a large sum of money.  He was thus able to sway the king to authorize the murder of every Jewish man, woman, and child throughout the entire empire and the plundering of their property.  It is therefore fitting that he alone is given the title of “the enemy of the Jews”.
The Little Man
But who was this nemesis of Haman whose refusal to bow was enough to prompt Haman to plot genocide?  He was basically Haman’s exact opposite: Mordecai, which can be translated “little man”.  Up until his promotion at the end of the book, we know little about his role other than the fact that he was regularly in the king’s gate as already discussed.  Thus while Haman was the second most powerful man in the world, Mordecai was just another royal official quietly and honorably doing his job.  He was also the older cousin of Esther, whom he raised after her parents’ death.  When he overheard a plot to assassinate the king, he used his relationship with Esther to get word of the plot to the king.  There is no indication that he sought credit for himself in this situation, but was merely doing his job diligently.
While we don’t know the measure of Mordecai’s faith in God since the book of Esther does not once mention God, we know that he did have faith that deliverance would come to the Jews (presumably from God).  This is evident in his response to Esther’s fear to go before the king on behalf of the Jews without being summoned: “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)  It is also quite possible that his reason for refusing to bow or pay homage to Haman came from his devotion to God—the same motivation as Daniel and his three friends.  Like them, his disobedience of sinful edicts was quiet and respectful.  There is no indication that in refusing to pay homage that Mordecai acted disrespectfully toward Haman, he merely continued to faithfully carry out his duties.  The reputation he developed as a result (and the unmentioned though obvious hand of God) eventually put Mordecai in Haman’s place as second in command.  The last verse of the book can be considered a summary of Mordecai’s career: “For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.” (Esther 10:3).  From this, it is clear that Mordecai sought the welfare of the people in general and the Jews in particular rather than his own gain.  This was the exact opposite of Haman, which is what caused Haman to despise Mordecai so much that he plotted not only to kill him but his entire race.
The Real Enemy of the Jews
But how could Mordecai’s refusal to pay homage to Haman spark such rage in Haman that he would plot to exterminate the Jews?  To use modern terminology, Haman was “triggered”—and it was clearly Mordecai’s refusal to pay homage to him that triggered him.   While there is no evidence of malice or disrespect from Mordecai to Haman, his failure to pay homage threatened Haman in a very real way.  How?  The answer becomes obvious as we continue to read the book of Esther.  After attending the first of Esther’s feasts, which only he and the king attended, we see this:
And Haman went out that day joyful and glad of heart. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was filled with wrath against Mordecai. Nevertheless, Haman restrained himself and went home, and he sent and brought his friends and his wife Zeresh. And Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the servants of the king. Then Haman said, “Even Queen Esther let no one but me come with the king to the feast she prepared. And tomorrow also I am invited by her together with the king. Yet all this is worth nothing to me, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.”—Esther 5:9-13, ESV
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