David Mathis

The Happiest Family of All: How Father and Son Glorify Each Other

The happiest families can be surprisingly competitive. And not just in moments of play and recreation when we compete against each other, in love and good humor. But all the more in the everyday “contest” to honor and bless one another.

“Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), Paul writes for the whole church, and such a vision begins at home. And yet the glory and joy of such a “competition” is far, far larger, and more fundamental, than even our homes and churches. We might view all of history as the divine Father and his Son seeking to “outdo one another in showing honor.”

“Service is greatness,” writes Donald Macleod, “and one may even ask . . . whether the persons of the godhead do not seem to vie with one another for the privilege of serving” (Person of Christ, 88). It is an astounding and holy contest to trace through the pages of Scripture, and the story of the world — a story of their glory that delights all those who have been welcomed into the greatest of families.

One Great Design — and Medium

To marvel at the pronounced other-orientation of the Father and the Son is not to minimize the God-centeredness of God but, rather, to go deeper into it. God made the world to glorify himself. This, in short, is God’s “one great design,” as Jonathan Edwards preached in December 1744, in a sermon called “Approaching the End of God’s Grand Design.” And yet how much more can we say than simply this? Edwards says more.

He also speaks of God’s “one grand medium,” saying, “The one grand medium by which he glorifies himself in all is Jesus Christ, God-man.” Another way, then, in fuller detail, to capture God’s one great design, says Edwards, is this:

[God made the world] to present to his Son a spouse in perfect glory from amongst sinful, miserable mankind, blessing all that comply with his will in this matter and destroying all his enemies that oppose it, and so to communicate and glorify himself through Jesus Christ, God-man.

God’s God-centeredness is not at odds with the centrality of Christ. In fact, we cannot have one without the other. One is the great design; the other, the grand medium. God glorifies himself through his Son.

Prompted by Edwards, then, it is amazing to return to God’s own word, see if the dynamic is there, and watch with delight as our Father and our Lord Jesus “vie with one another,” as it were, seeking to “outdo one another in showing honor.”

Father to Glorify Son

Consider first that unexpected attribute of the Son’s glory in the magnificent opening lines of Hebrews. In these last days, God has spoken to us in his Son, “whom he appointed the heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Only after noting this appointment does Hebrews add “through whom also he created the world.” Before creation, the Father appointed his Son to be heir of it all; then the Father made all through him and for him. Paul backs it up in Colossians 1:16: “All things were created through [the Son] and for him.”

“The Father made the universe, and ordained all of history to unfold as it has, to glorify his Son.”

In other words, the Father made the world to give it to his Son. The Father loves his Son (John 3:35; 5:20) — with a love so full, so thick, so deep, so abounding that he overflowed to make a world to make much of his Son. The Father made the universe, and ordained all of history to unfold as it has, to glorify his Son, and demonstrate his infinite delight in and love for his Son. And that does not subtract, so to speak, from the Father’s glory, but only increases it in the increase of his Son. As the Father rightly pursues his glory in creation, he does so in and through the honor and praise of his Son.

So, in the fullness of time, the Father sent his Son, in human soul and body, visibly and audibly — as fully man, without ceasing to be God — to come, in stages, into this great appointed inheritance.

Son Glorified Father

Jesus, the God-man, lived his human life in utter dedication to his Father. Rightly did the angels proclaim “Glory to God!” at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:14), as the glory of the Father came to the fore in the life and ministry of the Son. In his “state of humiliation,” from manger to cross, the man Christ Jesus did not “glorify himself” (John 8:54; Hebrews 5:5), but his words and deeds, and the effect and intent of his human life, were in full and glad submission to the will, and glory, of his Father. As he says without slant in John 8:49, “I honor my Father.”

“Jesus, the God-man, lived his human life in utter dedication to his Father.”

The Son loves his Father (John 14:31). And he lived as man, and strode toward the cross, propelled by his great delight in and love for his Father. He instructed his disciples to so live, and bear fruit, that his Father would be glorified (Matthew 5:16; John 15:8), and he taught them to pray for the hallowing of his Father’s name (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2). The night before he died, Jesus summarized, in prayer, his life’s work as “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). When he sees that at last his “hour” has come, Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name” (John 12:28).

As the Son draws near to the cross, we marvel to see both glories — of Father and of Son — coming to the fore, not in competition, yet vying to accent the other. And strikingly, the Son’s lifting up, his coming into his glory as God-man, begins not only with his resurrection, but even in the shame and horror of being “lifted up” to the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). Seeing that his hour has come, and that he will now move beyond his “state of humiliation,” and enter into glory (Luke 24:26) with his great final act of self-humbling (Philippians 2:8), Jesus says,

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (John 13:31)

Not only will the incarnate Son continue to glorify his Father, as he has since Bethlehem, but now he will do so in some new measure — and the Father too will glorify his Son. “So intertwined are the operations of the Father and the Son,” comments D.A. Carson, “that the entire mission can be looked at another way. . . . One may reverse the order” (John, 482). They glorify each other.

Father Glorified Son

In history’s greatest twist, the cross, in all its unspeakable odium and shame, begins the incarnate Son’s uplifting. Here, at Golgotha, the Father’s anticipated glorifying of the Son, as the Son spoke of, and prayed for, begins to be realized. The Father had glorified his Son, in measure, in his anointed life and ministry (John 8:54; 11:4), but now his glory comes decisively and fully at the cross, and in his rising again (John 7:39; 12:16, 23). Peter’s Pentecost sermon will recognize that God “glorified his servant Jesus . . . whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:13, 15). Or, as Peter later wrote, tying together the Son’s resurrection and glorification, “God . . . raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21).

Christ’s resurrection, then — and with it, his ascension and enthronement in heaven — ushers in a new era, the age in which we live, of the church and the Spirit. If the Father seemed to outdo the Son in showing honor before creation, and the Son tried to outdo the Father in his earthly life, and the Father thrust the glory of his Son to the fore, in history, in the terrible cross and triumphant resurrection, we now — as happy sons of God and brothers of Christ — thrill as our Father and his Son strive all the more for the privilege of exalting each other.

Glories Together Now

The New Testament teems with the glory of God, and the glory of Christ, as the saints see what Edwards called “the great design” and “the great medium” play out before our eyes. The glory we see in Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, does not exclude the Father, but is “glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). All God’s centuries of promises, says 2 Corinthians 1:20, find their “Yes” in Jesus — “that is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” The fruit of righteousness we bear in life “comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). To the Father, through the Son.

We serve, says 1 Peter 4:11, “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” In our sufferings in the present time, we look to the God of all grace, who called us to “his eternal glory in Christ” (1 Peter 5:10). And in the great doxology of Hebrews, we look to the Father, “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus” to work in us what is pleasing in his sight “through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:10–21).

Perhaps best of all is Philippians 2:9–11. God the Father has “highly exalted” his Son and given him, without envy or reservation, “the name that is above every name.” This is a stunning grant — one of the great realities the Father must have dreamed up when appointing his Son “heir of all things,” and is now delighted to fulfill. And lest we worry that the holy contest has gone too far when we learn that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Paul has one last phrase to enchant us all in this happy family: “to the glory of God the Father.”

Glories at the End

Even now, as Christ sits enthroned in heaven, the Father is putting all things under his feet, and when that great work of redemption is done (Revelation 21:6), then “the Son himself will also be subjected to him” (1 Corinthians 15:27–28). Does the Father then, in the end, become the last recipient of glory, while the Son finally outdoes him in showing honor? Macleod encourages us “not to overlook the complexities of the situation” (88).

It is here, precisely with the end in view, that he observes how Father and Son seem to “vie with one another for the privilege of serving.” As we strain to look into the future, we find depths and dimensions to the divine glory we should be careful not to reduce. On the one hand, Jude 24–25 tells us the Father will present us before himself, while in Ephesians 5:27, Christ presents the church to himself in splendor. So too, not only will the Son present the kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15), but the Father will present the bride to his Son (Revelation 21:2, 9). Macleod observes, “The idea of the Father handing over the bride to Christ is as definitive as that of the Son handing over the kingdom to the Father” (88).

Such twin emphases have for two millennia led the church to confess with Christ, and with awe, the blessed mystery, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Glory Enough to Go Around

What a thrill it is to see that our Father, and our elder Brother, are not miserly with divine glory. There is no scarcity of glory in the Godhead to be hoarded and rationed. Divine persons do not compete for glory, even as they vie to show each other honor. As Dane Ortlund observes, “The New Testament oscillates so frequently between the Son and the Father as the more immediate object of glorification that it becomes unthinkable to envision one person of the Trinity being glorified and not the other persons.”

Our God does indeed, as God, righteously and lovingly seek his own glory, but we should not think of his glory as scarce, or his fingers as tight. He does not give his glory to another, even as “the Father of glory” (Ephesians 1:17) and Jesus “the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8; James 2:1) — and so too “the Spirit of glory” (1 Peter 4:14) — vie with each other, outdoing one another in showing honor.

Such “competition” makes for the happiest family of all.

What Is ‘Freedom in Christ’?

In New York Harbor stands a giant copper statue, 150 feet high — mounted on a base that’s another 150 feet high, putting the torch of “Lady Liberty,” as some call her, more than 300 feet above the ground. This “Statue of Liberty” was a gift to the United States, from France, in 1876, marking 100 years since the Declaration of Independence. The statue was dedicated ten years later, in 1886, and has become a worldwide symbol of freedom — of liberty — for more than 130 years.

But we might ask, Freedom from what? The idea of liberty, of freedom, has taken on a life of its own in the modern world, and it can be easy to lose track of the context of freedom. Freedom from what, and for what?

The founding fathers of the United States had a particular oppressor in mind when they cried for liberty: English rule. And more specifically for the U.S. founders, freedom meant government on the consent of the governed, rather than the authority of kings. Yet, in the struggle for independence from Britain, the founders were not afraid to speak of Liberty in grandiose terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The sound of liberty in human ears is a powerful tonic, sometimes healing genuine ills, and other times acting as a poison. The cry for freedom can produce both peaceful elections and mob violence. What began with national freedom from foreign rule can quickly devolve into a cry of freedom against our own chosen government when it turns out we don’t like something. The cry for freedom, unchecked, soon pines for individual “liberty” from any outside “authority,” however human, or divine.

In 1992, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a sweeping, expansive claim, which might have stunned even the most liberal of the founders. And that was thirty years ago.

Declaration of Freedom

Yet as modern as the emphasis on personal liberty may seem, the cry for liberty is far more ancient than modern liberalism, or the mobs of the French Revolution, or the principled documents of the U.S. founders. More than 1700 years earlier, the apostle Paul, at the climax of his letter to the Galatians, made his great declaration for freedom. Which means that the Christian cry for liberty — for Christian freedom — far predates the cries that inform and distort the popular sense of liberty today.

Paul writes in Galatians 5:1,

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This cry for freedom captures the heart of Paul’s burden in the letter. The first half of the verse, the declaration of freedom, anticipates the rest of the letter, from Galatians 5:13–6:10, and the freedom of the Christian life. And the second half of verse 1, the exhortation to stand firm, captures the key truth of Galatians 2:16–4:7: full acceptance with God is by faith in Jesus Christ.

The second half of verse 1, then, leads to verses Galatians 5:2–4; and the first half of verse 1 leads to Galatians 5:5–6, Paul comes back to the first part of verse 1. So, there are two distinct emphases in this text: we might call them “freedom from” (verses 1–4) and “freedom for” (verse 1 and 5–6).

The question for us this morning is this: What is Christian freedom? And this passage answers in two clear parts. And then we’ll find at the end a third aspect that is more subtle, and easy to miss, and so perhaps all the more important to draw out.

So, what is Christian freedom?

Freedom From

First, Paul is clear about what Christian freedom is freedom from. Look again at Galatians 5:2–4:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Remember, as we’ve seen throughout Galatians, the issue in this letter is justification, that is, how you get right, and stay right, with God. On what grounds, and by what means, might sinners like us be fully accepted by God, and have right-standing with him?

Paul’s answer, as we’ve seen, is that justification is by faith alone. Your full acceptance by God, your right-standing with God, is (1) based on the work of Christ alone and (2) accessed and received through faith alone. For justification before God, we cannot combine our doing with Christ’s as the basis, nor our doing with believing as the instrument. We both “get in” right relationship with God, and — this is important — “stay in,” by faith alone.

So in verses 2–4 Paul issues a succession of three warnings, because it takes vigilance to distinguish between justification and other realities in the Christian life.

Freedoms to Be Defended

Paul says, “stand firm” in verse 1. Freedom is a calling he will say in verse 13; Christian freedom, grounded in justification by faith, is a freedom to be defended. It is not enough to start by faith, and then add works-righteousness. And it also takes care to not presume and apply faith alone in improper ways.

For instance, when a parent says to a child, “Clean your room,” we should not assume that is not works-righteousness. The presenting issue is not right-standing before God. The issue is obedience to parents and a fruitful household. That is, unless the parent makes it an issue of works-righteousness by saying, “If you do not clean your room, then you’re going to hell.” If that were the case, the Christian child or teen would have every right to say, “Dear Dad, I cannot earn God’s full acceptance by cleaning my room. I can only get right and be right with God by faith alone in Christ alone. I will obey you, because you are my father, but this is not an issue of justification before God.”

So, as Christians who love and delight in the freedom we have in Christ through justification by faith, we will want to take care to be vigilant in what pressures we put on others, and what pressures we allow others to put on us, and on what terms. To stand firm, and defend justification before God, we want to keep it clear in our minds and words.

Freedom from Circumcision

Christian freedom, then, is freedom from what? We have seen in this letter that justification by faith frees us from sin (Galatians 3:22), and from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13; and from the elementary principles of the world, Galatians 4:3). Christ’s sacrifice covers our sins, and frees us from the guilt of our sins, and increasingly from the power of our sins.

The most immediate freedom from in these verses is freedom from circumcision. Galatians 5:2 is the first time in this letter that Paul has mentioned circumcision, but this is the flashpoint in Galatia. Because of the pressure from the false teachers, the Galatian Christians seem to have already added the Jewish festivals to their Christianity (Galatians 4:10), and are contemplating accepting circumcision as the decisive step of taking up old-covenant law. So, circumcision represents taking the yoke of old-covenant law, believing it to be a necessary step to belong to God’s people and be found “righteous” on the day of judgment.

So, in verse 2, Paul says, in essence, “If I could just say one thing to you . . .” He says, “Look: I, Paul . . .” In other words, Listen, it’s me. You know me. I brought the gospel to you. Listen up. I’ll shoot you straight: “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” It’s not because circumcision is wrong or damnable in itself. But, in this instance, accepting circumcision would mean that the Galatians now believe that Christ, and faith in him, is not enough to be right with God, and so, to be circumcised would be to rebel against God and Christ. That’s the first warning.

Freedom from the Law

Then a second warning in Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” When Paul says keep there, the word is literally do. In this situation, where the old-covenant law, through circumcision, has been made an issue (by the false teachers) of right-standing with God, to embrace it is to turn from Christ and his new covenant.

They cannot just add circumcision; to turn there is to turn to the whole law. And now that Christ has come, there is no longer a valid sacrificial system there that God accepts. If you “add the law,” you must do the law perfectly. And you cannot do the old-covenant law perfectly. For that matter, you cannot do all the new-covenant commands either, but in the new covenant we have Christ. In the new covenant, we have his provision for our sins. And so we do weekly confession every Sunday as a church. We fail every week. Every day. We cannot get or keep ourselves right with God by or through our doing.

Freedom from Earning Righteousness

Then, a third and final warning in Galatians 5:4: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” “Grace” here, as with doing in verse 3, gets at the underlying issue. We’ve talked in this series about “law” meaning the old covenant, and not law or commands in general. We’ve emphasized the shift in the epochs of history, from old covenant to new. But this letter is not only about old covenant versus new. A second problem lies behind that: doing versus believing, for right-standing with God. Or, earning versus grace.

To accept circumcision, Paul says, will be to fall from grace, because circumcision represents an adding to Christ for justification and unavoidably introduces law and doing into the grace and faith of being right with God through Christ.

“Living the Christian life by grace means that we get and stay in right relationship with God by faith alone.”

What does it mean, then, practically, to live the Christian life by this grace when there are commands in the new covenant? Every Sunday at our church, we rehearse Jesus’s Great Commission to teach all nations to observe all that he commanded. Living the Christian life by grace means that, at bottom, we get and stay in right relationship with God by faith alone, based on Christ alone.

And as we obey Christ’s commands (which we do, increasingly from the heart!), and as we access God’s voice daily in his word, and respond to him in prayer, and gather with this body on Sundays to worship and during the week for fellowship, we do not seek to secure or maintain our standing with God by our doing, but our efforts, our lives, our obedience from faith are channels of God’s ongoing grace to us. Not obligations for justification, but expressions of what we call sanctification. Which leads, then, to what our freedom is for.

Freedom For

Remember, the first half of verse 1 (“For freedom Christ has set us free”) is picked up in verses 5–6. Verse 2 was Paul’s one, direct word of exhortation, about freedom from — from sin, from law, from the curse and death, and from trying to earn God’s acceptance. Now verses 5–6 celebrate freedom for what and summarize the whole letter, from beginning to end — and note the emphasis on faith:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Our first question might be, What’s this “waiting for the hope of righteousness”? In Christ, don’t we already, by faith, have right-standing with God?

So far in Galatians the emphasis has been on the past (Christ’s completed work) and present (we are justified, now, by faith). What’s this future aspect?

Future Hope of Freedom

First, we should clarify that “hope” in English sounds far more uncertain in our ears than “hope” in Greek (elpis) did to the Galatians. And hope, as deep confidence, not a thin wish, fits here with a future aspect of justification, when it is indeed by faith.

Paul has the final judgment in view in verse 5, and he does not change his emphasis on faith. Faith in Christ is how we now enjoy full acceptance with God and how we will be found in the right at the end. We enter by faith, stay in by faith, and will be confirmed by faith. Same basis: Christ’s work, not ours. Same instrument: our faith, not our doing. What hope then remains for the future? God’s public declaration of our righteousness in Christ, by faith, for all to know, at the final judgment, confirmed by real evidence of change in our lives.

Freedom for Enjoying God

So, what, then, about freedom for? Paul says in Galatians 5:5 that this is “through the Spirit,” which is critical in understanding Christian freedom. The Holy Spirit changes us. He takes out the old, natural heart of stone, and puts in a heart of flesh. He gives us new desires. He begins his lifelong sanctifying work in us, and we become new. He frees us to be adopted as sons and daughters.

And he frees us for the inheritance of all things, which means that freedom in Christ — freedom for — includes “the things of earth” that God has given us to enjoy him. In Christ, through the Spirit, we are free to enjoy God’s good gifts to the full — which means receiving those gifts consciously from his hand, and tracing the gift to the Giver. And there’s more.

The great new-covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31 captures so well the “freedom from” and “freedom for” of the Christian life. In Christ, we have freedom from: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). And listen to how Jeremiah casts the freedom for:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts (new desires, by the Spirit!). And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)

“Christian freedom is for enjoying what we were made for — who we were made for: God in Christ.”

Christian freedom is freedom for knowing God. For being his, and having him as ours. Through the Spirit, we are freed for holiness, freed for true life, freed to be sons and daughters in the happiest family, freed to enjoy the inheritance of everything, and to enjoy Jesus now and forever. Christian freedom is for enjoying finally and forever what we were made for — who we were made for: God in Christ.

Freedom With

But there is one final reality in this text to understand Christian freedom. And this is Paul’s accent at the end of verse 6:

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Paul is not here saying love justifies us before God. He is saying that the faith that justifies us before God is the kind of faith that “works through love.” It is an active (not lazy) faith, a lively (not dead) faith, a Spirit-empowered (not self-mustered) faith. And this love (for others) is a freedom, not a burden. In Christ, we have been freed to love. Which means, third and finally, Christian freedom is not only freedom from , and not only freedom for, but also freedom with.

Jump down to Galatians 5:13:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Note the confirmations of our first two points: (1) we are called to freedom. Freedom from earning God’s acceptance through our doing, and freedom from sin, and law, and death is not optional, but essential. And (2) freedom is for joy, for holiness, for life, for knowing God — not “an opportunity for the flesh” but life in the Spirit. And then finally, (3) freedom with: “through love serve one another.”

Justification by faith frees us to love others. It frees us from the burden of earning our standing with God. It frees us from being fixated on our status and deeds. And it liberates us, then, to love others — to give attention to their needs, and take the initiative, and expend effort, to meet them.

And not only is Christian freedom for loving others, but it is a freedom with others. This is the subtle point in the text: we’re not alone. Verse 1, “us.” Verse 5, “we.” Verse 6, “love [others].” Verse 13, serve “one another.” And we’ll see in the coming weeks, verse 15, “one another” twice more. And then, verse 26, “one another” two more times. And Galatians 6:10, “especially the household of faith.”

Freedom Together

Christian freedom is freedom together. It is not the kind of liberty that moves us away from each other, to protect our rights, and guard our little packages of liberty. But it is a freedom together, a freedom with, a freedom that is greater and more enjoyable with others. In Christ, we are free to serve others, bless others, love each other; we are freed from self-justification, self-focus, selfishness. We are free to make the happy choice to not exercise some personal right, at times, for the sake of love, as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9–10: “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all.”

“Justification by faith frees us to love others.”

And the freedom of joy together through love is a greater freedom than self-focus. The sweetest, most enjoyable freedom is not alone but together — and often is enjoyed by denying ourselves some personal “rights,” or lesser freedoms, for the sake of others and enjoying the greater joys and greater freedom of love. Freedom with is far greater joy than freedom solo.

So, we come together to the Table. The Lord’s Supper is a table both of liberty and union. Liberty in that we have been set free from our sin and death and hell, and free from the burden of earning God’s acceptance. And we have been set free for life in the Spirit and the joy of holiness and love. And we have been set free together. There is unity in our liberty in Christ.

We call this Communion because in this Table we draw near to, not away from, both Christ and each other.

Midlife Clarity: Five Proverbs for Men in Crisis

I haven’t yet been through midlife, but now I seem to be at it. Or at least approaching it, depending on how you define midlife. Some get as specific, and early, as age 41.5; others define midlife as a broad range beginning around 45, and even dragging on as late as 65.

Standing here at age 41, and looking around, I can imagine — without even considering what physiological and neurological components might be involved — why this juncture in a man’s life can be difficult.

Swirl of Complex Factors

John Piper has written about the tumults he faced at midlife, a “season [that] lasted several years,” and was most acutely confusing and difficult in his forty-first year. Writing more than thirty years later, he says, “That was a very hard season of life, and the record of it in my journals is to this day painful to read.” (For those who would like to chase that trail, Piper published some excerpts in the article “Walk with Me Through a Midlife Crisis.”)

His journal entries include self-descriptions like irritable and unlikable, and phrases like “felt like lead,” “could hardly converse,” “wanted to cry again and again,” “my emotions were dead,” “on adrenaline all day Sunday,” “incredibly cranky and so discouraged,” “so blank,” “so blind to the future,” and again “so discouraged.” He says at one point that “it seems that yesterday’s near collapse is the outcry of my body for some relief.” And perhaps most striking of all to me as a pastor is this: “I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.”

In sum, Piper captures midlife as “a critical stage in life when physical changes, marital stresses, children’s challenges, vocational aspirations, and the burdens of success (or failure) create the conditions for meltdown. This perilous confluence of forces leads to a shuttering reassessment of life and the desire to be somewhere else.”

Facing Finitude and Failures

One definition of “midlife crisis” centers on a man’s growing awareness of his finitude and his failures: “a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly lack of accomplishments in life.” One dear friend of mine, who has made it far past 41.5, and is now closing in on 60, said to me recently about his journey through midlife,

The reality of your limitations (on most fronts) become clearer. We are often forced to face who we really are instead of who we imagine we’ll be someday. Midlife is a phase where one’s psychology (in terms of self-understanding) has an opportunity to grow into one’s theology. For it’s a phase when one’s functional theology is tested by the reality of mortality.

With the ring of wisdom, that presents midlife not only as a trial to be endured, but an opportunity for Christian maturity — “to grow into one’s theology.” With that in mind, I came across Proverbs 16:1–9 recently and found that this unit of ancient wisdom speaks to an aspect of the phenomenon that I’m hoping to steady myself for. Consider at least five layers it might offer to men approaching, or in, midlife trials.

1. Our actual life is ‘from the Lord.’

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:1)

I suspect one conscious reason midlife can be tough is the stubborn, immovable realities of life. As young men, two decades ago, so many doors seemed open; the possibilities seemed endless. It was easy to dream, and even expect we might live out some, if not all, of those dreams.

“Rarely, if ever, do our actual lives live up to the grandeur of the great hopes we’re prone to generate in our youth.”

But midlife brings a bracing reality check. Far fewer doors are now open. Many of our secret and spoken dreams and aspirations now seem unrealistic, or impossible. What might be has crashed on the rocks of what is. Somehow it got real in the last two decades, and perhaps it took us a while to realize it. Then it dawned on us almost all at once.

Rarely, if ever, do our actual lives live up to the grandeur of the great hopes we’re prone to generate in our youth. Our youthful plans are one thing. Then, in time, comes the “answer of the tongue.” That is, what really emerges and is manifest in our lives in the years that follow, to midlife and beyond, is “from the Lord.”

2. His plans include our ‘days of trouble.’

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. (Proverbs 16:4)

The midlife disappointments we may feel, with ourselves and others and our circumstances, are no sign that God is distant and has lost control. In fact, just the opposite. He has his purposes for his sons in precisely those failures and letdowns and pains. Our “days of trouble,” however external or internal the obstacles, and however past or present — and the ones sure to come in the future — are lovingly sifted through his fingers for the deeper joy and final good of his sons. He has planned all our days. Even the worst ones. Especially the worst ones. And the days beyond them.

3. God matures us through humbling.

Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. (Proverbs 16:5)

One purpose God accomplishes, among others, in our midlife disappointments is our humbling. He is, and has been, purging our hearts from the arrogance of youth and unholy ambition. How much of our youthful sky’s-the-limit wishes were not simply natural but proud? How much, in arrogance, did we presume health, wealth, and prosperity, on our terms? One of God’s great works in moving men from naive youth to mature manhood is the great humblings leading up to, and in, midlife. He moves, with severe mercy, against the arrogance of our youth.

We’ve had our dreams, and made our plans, as we should, but God’s plan is definitive, and humbling. “One can strategize about the future, to be sure,” comments Tremper Longman on Proverbs 16, “but this wise observation would lead one to acknowledge that the future can only be determined by God. Such recognition would engender a proper humility and open one up to changes” (Proverbs, 327). How often does the hard, painful midlife crash against the rocks of reality serve to “open us up to changes” of God’s leading that we’ve been long, subconsciously resisting?

4. Christ has atoned for sin.

By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. (Proverbs 16:6)

Midlife brings awareness not only of compounding frustrations, or how we’ve been hurt or deterred by other’s sins, but also of our own iniquity. We are sinners. Midlife “crisis,” however profound it might feel, has not yet plumbed the depths if there is no awareness of our own sin — sin that does not just disappear or go away with avoidance but needs to be addressed and forgiven.

Perhaps midlife brings new awareness of bad choices and wasted time. This “crisis” is an opportunity to acknowledge that and own it, in the full confidence that God, in Christ, has made full provision for our sin. And by his Spirit, change is possible. We can pivot. Even if none of the presenting complexities seems to involve our own sin, how liberating to know that in Christ our “iniquity is atoned for,” and can fearlessly be mined for, found, and confessed, leading to our turning away from evil.

5. Our ‘lesser’ can be his ‘better.’

Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice. The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:8–9)

To the degree we’re mourning something, or many things, that seem to be lesser in our life than we dreamed in our youth, it might be good to consider how lesser, in God’s economy, often amounts to better.

“Midlife confronts us with the limits, and errors, of our own all-too-human ways of reckoning.”

Midlife confronts us with the limits, and errors, of our own all-too-human ways of reckoning. What we have, at our seeming halfway point, may seem like so little compared to the “great revenues” we hoped. But what soul-destroying revenues might we have been spared? And how upside down might our instinctive evaluations be, without learning something of God’s vantage? And what might we, and others, discover to be true when our Father issues the last word?

Proverbs 16:9 not only echoes Proverbs 16:1, but also sums up Proverbs 16:1–8 under the banner that Derek Kidner captures as “God has not merely the last word but the soundest” (Proverbs, 119). Yes, look to him now, by faith and in patience, for his last word, and soundest word, that is coming as you endure.

Able and Faithful

Humbling ourselves, at midlife, under God’s mighty hand brings no promise of immediate relief. From beginning to end, the Scriptures promise real rescue — and exaltation — to the one who genuinely humbles himself. But when? Peter says “at the proper time” — that is, on God’s perfect timetable, not ours.

Some may see only a few discouraging days; others may struggle under debilitating weights for months, or longer. Yet all are invited, one day at a time, to roll those burdens onto the broad, omnipotent shoulders of our God, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

However long, however discouraging, however debilitating the season, in Christ our heavenly Father cares, and until the sun rises again, and the air is fresh again, and our burdens are light again, and beyond, he is able to keep us. Perhaps midlife will be the time when the power of Jude’s doxology really begins to hit home:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . . (Jude 24)

God is faithful — faithful to his Son, and to his sons. He will not let us be burdened beyond what we can bear but will help us endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). He is able to “make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times,” even in this season, you may not only endure, but “abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

We Stand for Truth Himself

The recent swell of concern for truth, at least as a word choice, is an interesting development. Even voices that recently declared with seeming delight the dawning of a “post-truth” age now find themselves reaching for this ancient word. Freshly sensitive to the lies of perceived foes on “the other side” of the political divide, amateur politicians, conservative and progressive, with smartphone in hand, represent themselves as bearers of the real truth.

Whether it’s social distancing and face coverings, crime rates and policing, big tech and big government, inflation rates and national debt, court cases and judicial appointments, it turns out we still want the truth. No, we demand the truth. That is, when it favors our personal interests and preferences.

Take It in Stride

New as the recent trend of shameless spin, and outright lies, may seem to some, Christians with Bibles in hand do not number ourselves among the surprised. Long has the devil trafficked in half-truths, subtle deception, and “disinformation” — from the beginning, in fact. This has been his strategy, and main trick, as “father of lies,” from the garden. Even if the social manifestations now appear plainer and, at times, more jarring, those informed by the truth of Christian Scripture take it in stride.

Two millennia ago, one of our apostles informed us that unbelievers “suppress the truth” and “exchanged the truth” for lies (Romans 1:18, 25). Even in the early church, former professors of the faith wandered away from truth (2 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:14; 3 John 12). Set over and against the 1950s, our (digital) world(s) may seem newly thick with slander, flattery, and self-promotion. But compared with the early church, well, we may now be living in more normal times.

Our Jesus as Truth

As Christians, our concern for truth, in times of shameless deception, is not just principled; it’s personal. We care about truth, and resolve to speak truth, despite its costs, not simply because we’re concerned with fact and fiction, true and false. Lowercase, impersonal truth is not our highest and deepest allegiance. Our concern “for truth” is derivative and secondary. We have come to know the higher Truth, the deeper Truth, the personal Truth who gives meaning and value to other truths, and makes some claims true, and others false. Apart from him, the seemingly dignified public plea for truth soon devolves into another language game and cunning power play.

“Jesus is not just true among other truths, but the Truth — the one way to the one who truly matters.”

John’s Gospel is particularly insistent on Christ, as divine Son, not only being true, but the Truth. Jesus himself, of course, says famously to his disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He is not just true among other truths, but the Truth — the one way to the one who truly matters.

When John, in his dramatic prologue, introduces this personal, incarnate Truth, he presents the person of Christ as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17), echoing the great, defining Old Testament refrain about God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness.” In Christ, we will never be done marveling that “God chose to make himself known, finally and ultimately, in a real, historical man,” as D.A. Carson comments (John, 127). He continues,

Jesus is the truth, because he embodies the supreme revelation of God — he himself “narrates” God, says and does exclusively what the Father gives him to say and do, indeed he is properly called “God.” He is God’s gracious self-disclosure, his “Word,” made flesh. (491)

Our Gospel as Truth

First, we recognize Jesus as the Truth. Then, as we page our way through his apostles, we find that not only is Christ himself “the Truth,” but the message about him and how he saves — what we call “the gospel” — is “the truth.”

Thanks to Paul’s epistles, this definitive message of the Christian faith is the most common referent of “the truth” in the New Testament. Paul refers to our hearing “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13; also James 1:18) and “the word of the truth, the gospel,” that is, “the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:5–6). And so, Christians are those “who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). We have come “to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25) — meaning not truth in general, whether mathematics or physics or chemistry, but specifically the truth, the good news from God that Jesus saves sinners.

In perhaps Paul’s most significant statement about the new-covenant people of God, he refers to us as “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The call of Christ on his church, which he himself builds (Matthew 16:18), in the best of times and worst, is not fundamentally to stand for all that’s right and true and good in the world. Churches are not societies for the preservation of fact and general truths. Churches are to be pillars and buttresses — for the advance and defense — of the gospel, the truth, the defining message about the one who is the Truth.

Why Truth Matters

The pursuit and telling and upholding of truth is, then, no mere pragmatic concern, nor some secondary religious conviction. It is a worship concern, stemming from our ultimate allegiance. We worship the one who is Truth himself. And we receive the gift of right standing with God, in him, by faith, through the truth of the gospel.

As we stand for truth in times teeming with lies, we may find some common cause with unbelievers in the various spheres where God has placed us — in our families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. In days when dividing lines are being newly redrawn, new fault lines emerging, and once secondary concerns becoming primary, we will find non-Christian cobelligerents, old and new. As we do, we would do well to remember that the deepest allegiances beneath this cooperation are not the same, but, in fact, fundamentally different (and even set against one another).

“We care about truth not because truth is our God, but because Jesus is our God, and he is the Truth.”

We care about truth not because truth is our God, nor because “truth” now seems to serve our own interests, but because Jesus is our God, and he is the Truth. He’s the Truth who makes all truth to be true. In Christ, we will not be content with dedicating our lives to truth but not the Truth. And so we beware letting unbelievers in common cause turn our pursuit of truth upside down by rallying us to their focus as long as we keep quiet about ours.

Three True Allies

In times like ours — disillusioned and divided by lies, and freshly desperate for truth — we can find strength in rehearsing three ancient allies we have in the Christian call for truth, true friends that help us not stay silent about what matters most.

Truth Behind Us

First, we recall that not only is Truth himself personal, but we too have had a personal encounter with him. We are not just professors of truth, but witnesses, personal witnesses, to him and his work in us.

Witnesses speak of “what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) — we speak of more than our experience, but not less. This puts importance on our personal testimonies in a way we might be prone to neglect in the cause of truth. Our professing of truth is not speculative or secondhanded, but like the formerly blind man healed by Jesus, we can say, in a world of complexity, confusion, and spin, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). Which at once inspires both a courage and contrition in our contending for the faith — and may help us discern which causes to take up and which ones to let pass.

Truth Within Us

So too, secondly, we care for truth as those who have an almighty Ally for the Truth, the Holy Spirit. In a world long embattled in a contest for the truth, Jesus promised, and has given us, an all-powerful Helper who is “the Spirit of Truth” (John 4:23–24; John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Spirit loves the Truth. The Truth himself has sent him, and the Spirit is dedicated utterly to the Truth, with omnipotent energy. The pursuit of truth is not our work to start, shoulder, and carry out with his help. Rather, it is his great work for us to join and enjoy, without panic or frenzy.

Truth Around Us

Finally, however alone we might feel in a moment of personal attack or impersonal doom-scrolling, or however small our circle of believing friends or local church may feel, we have a people — and far, far more than seven thousand who have not bowed the knee. None of us stand alone contra mundum as lovers, and testifiers, of the Truth.

The church, pillar and buttress of the truth, is also our soul-steadying fellowship in the Truth. In a world of half-truths and shameless lies, we tell the truth, and love the truth, and pursue the truth, because we love and cherish and worship together the one who is Truth.

Brother Ass: Stewarding the Body as Christian Hedonists

“Man has held three views of his body,” writes C.S. Lewis in the “Eros” chapter of his 1960 book The Four Loves.

First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and [others] to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans, the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.”

Lewis then says, “All three may be . . . defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.” He continues,

Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. (93)

And so we now move to address the topic of body stewardship, which may seem like a surprising turn in our spring chapel series on the virtues. And, as Lewis saw 60 years ago in his day (and as he summarized three main enduring views of the human body throughout history), so we see them too today. We have our ascetic Pagans, or digital Pagans, who feel their body to be a prison. The body holds them back; screens and virtual reality create new possibilities. Life, for many, has become shockingly sedentary.

On the other hand, those same screens show image after image of meticulously sculpted and enhanced bodies — Lewis’s Neo-Pagans, half-nudists, at least, for whom the body is glorious, or must be glorious no matter how much dieting and exercise and surgery it takes.

And third, we have the road perhaps least traveled. Saint Francis’s road. Lewis’s road. Our road — the road of Christian Hedonists — Christian Hedonists. Today’s non-Christian hedonists may divide themselves up pretty well between sedentary, digital Paganism and semi-exhibitionist Neo-paganism, while we Christian Hedonists are gladly left with “Brother Ass.”

Now, I know the word Ass is arresting and hard to ignore. It accents our natural, sinful laziness and obstinance — the “infuriating beast” deserving the stick, as Lewis says. But I don’t want you to miss the affection and warmth in the word Brother. I don’t think Lewis says “Brother” lightly. Just as Jesus doesn’t say “brother” lightly. I don’t say it lightly. Brother accents the usefulness, sturdiness, patience, and lovability of these bodies, which are, Lewis says, “absurdly beautiful.” And he steers a careful course between reverence and beauty — they are not to be revered, but acknowledged and appreciated as “absurdly beautiful” — or as the psalm says, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

As Christian Hedonists

Let me just say, I’m a pastor (and adjunct professor). I’m not a personal trainer. I am not a dietician. In fact, I don’t know if I have anything to say here about diet — except a general plug for moderation, and a general warning about drinking sugar — but as a Christian Hedonist, I do have an interest in how the body serves not just natural joy but supernatural joy. And because this is a college and seminary chapel, it might be good to say something about the mind as well. And I hope, as Christian Hedonists, that the flavor of these next few moments would feel far more like the carrot than the stick.

“Working and pushing these bodies, as God designed them, serves Christian learning, joy, and love.”

Question One of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, as many of you know, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is this: “That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” We could talk about how the soul affects the body. But in these moments together, I’d like to focus on stewarding the body — and in particular moving the body, exercising the body, even training the body — in service of the soul.

So let me take you to one of many important texts in the Bible on the body, make some observations, and then consider how working and pushing these bodies, as God designed them, serves Christian learning, and Christian joy, and Christian love.

First Corinthians 6, start in the middle of verse 13:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. . . . Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13–14, 19–20)

Four observations:

1. Your Body Is for Jesus

“For the Lord” means for drawing attention to Jesus, for making Jesus look good. Verse 13: “your body is for the Lord.” Verse 20: “So glorify God in your body.” We are made, Genesis 1 tells us, in the image of God. Images are irreducibly visible. We were made to image the invisible God in his visible world — to draw attention to him, not have it terminate on ourselves.

As Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Speak in such a way, and live in such a way in these bodies that others see what you do in your body — they see your good deeds — and they give glory, not to you, not to your body, but to your Father in heaven, and his Son, Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus Is for Your Body

He designed it. He gave it. He took a human body himself — and still has it. He is for your body’s good. Which means he is for us stewarding our bodies well. He is not against some modest efforts at upkeep. He is for that — wind in our sails.

3. God Will Raise Your Body

He raised Jesus’s body. Jesus is the firstfruits; we are the harvest. If you are in Christ, God will raise your body, and glorify your body. It will be changed, and far better, when he raises it. But it will be your body and modest upkeep now, especially in the service of learning and joy and love, is not a waste.

4. God Dwells Now in Your Body

If you are in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit. He is “within you.” Your body is a temple, a dwelling place, for God. So your body is yours but not “your own.” You didn’t make it. God did. You didn’t buy it back from sin and Satan; Jesus did. And you don’t dwell alone in it; God the Spirit dwells “within you.”

Consider, then, how working and pushing these bodies, as God designed them, serves Christian learning, and Christian joy, and Christian love.

For Christian Learning

As I have aged, I’ve sensed more and more tangibly how much better I feel after I’ve exercised. And in particular, I feel like I can think clearer, and more effortlessly, and more creatively. I feel like I have more energy, not only to move but to think and work hard with my mind. But is this just in my head, or is it real? I’ve heard other people talk about it too, but I want more clarity about my perceived mental clarity.

A few years ago, I found a book by a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, John Ratey. He had spent most of his career on ADHD and co-written some of the key texts on ADHD. He was a former amateur athlete and took notice over the years of what amazing medicine exercise proved to be for his patients. So eventually, he put his findings together in the 2008 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Now, if any of this sounds too good to be true, remember what his prescription is: exercise. Apparently, many want to just take a pill. Few want to exercise. Here’s how he opens the book,

We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why. We assume it’s because we’re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, and we leave it at that. But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important — and fascinating — than what it does for the body. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects. I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain. (3, emphasis added)

He continues, “To keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard” (4). “The brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity” (5) — and movement activates the brain. And Ratey explains how it is that exercise improves learning — which matters to us as Christians. We call ourselves disciples, which means learners. Christianity is a teaching movement, and a learning movement — in Christ, we are no less than lifelong learners. Learning matters to me as a pastor and editor and adjunct professor. And I hope it matters to you as a student, and as a Christian. So, here’s “how exercise improves learning on three levels”:

first, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells. . . . (53)

Active bodies improve learning. I’ll say more in a minute about how. But there’s the first reason: for Christian learning. Second, then, for Christian joy — that is, natural joy leading to supernatural joy.

For Christian Joy

Hippocrates, the father of medicine (four centuries before Christ), said, “Eating alone will not keep a man well; he also must take exercise.” Hippocrates also learned to treat depression with a long walk. And if that didn’t seem to help, he advised taking another: “Walking is the best medicine,” he said — in the pursuit of joy, a happy soul.

One of the key truths for which we stand at Bethlehem College & Seminary and Desiring God — and perhaps the most distinctive one — is that we believe enjoying God is essential to glorifying God as we ought. To be bored or uninterested in him is to dishonor him, whatever motions we go through with our bodies. And so, vital for our fulfilling the very purpose and calling of our lives is our enjoying, delighting in, being satisfied, in our souls, with who God is for us in Christ.

In terms of the carrot, the angle that has proved most helpful for me over the years in motivating and sustaining body stewardship through regular exercise is reckoning with how it supports the pursuit of joy in God. The little bit of intense exercise that I do is, in its highest and best form, about enjoying God, which glorifies him.

Getting Energy from Expending Energy

I am not mainly motivated by living longer. “To depart and be with Christ . . . is far better” (Philippians 1:23). And I am not motivated much by looking fit and healthy. For me, those motivations are inadequate. For me, the driving motivation under the banner of enjoying more of God is the energy I get from expending energy. And that’s first emotional energy (we’ll talk about the other in a minute). When I exercise regularly, I feel better. Not only do I feel like I think clearer, but I seem to sleep better, and I’m generally happier.

“Regular exercise puts my body and soul into a better position to clearly see and deeply savor who God is in Christ.”

Regular exercise puts my body and soul — and their complicated and mysterious relationship — into a better position to clearly see and deeply savor who God is in Christ. And so I want to put natural joy (and alertness and attention and energy and resilience) to use to serve spiritual, Christian, supernatural joy.

I said I’d say more about how this works — how bodily movement and exertion serve our natural joy. Back to the Harvard psychiatrist, who says,

Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. It’s a handy metaphor to get the point across, but the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters — along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain. (38)

Miracle Grow for the Brain

But let’s go one step deeper, and stop here. Knowing a little bit of the mechanism helps me:

“BDNF [Brain Deprived Neurotrophic Factor, “Miracle Grow” for the brain] gathers in reserve pools near the synapses and is unleashed when we get our blood pumping. In the process, a number of hormones from the body are called into action to help. . . . During exercise, these factors push through the blood-brain barrier, a web of capillaries with tightly packed cells that screen out bulky intruders such as bacteria. . . . [O]nce inside the brain, these factors work with BDNF to crank up the molecular machinery of learning. They are also produced within the brain and promote stem-cell division, especially during exercise. . . . The body was designed [!] to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too. (51–53)

We know that “bodily training is of some value,” and godliness all the more (1 Timothy 4:8) — but one of the reasons I take “bodily training” with such seriousness, rather than ignoring it, is precisely because of how it serves the joy and strength and stability of my soul.

So, there’s the Harvard psychiatrist. What about Christian voices? Well, I haven’t been aware of many, at least in our circles, over the years. But I did edit a chapter one time on exercise in a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The chapter was called “Brothers, Bodily Training Is of Some Value.”

John talks there about “the correlation between the condition of the body and the condition of the soul” (183); he says that “consistent exercise has refining effects on our mental and emotional stability” (185). And one of the motivations he points to, and now other Christian voices are chiming in, is energy — in the service of doing good for others. So not just Christian learning, and Christian joy, but finally Christian love.

For Christian Love

Not only does regular exercise make me feel like I think clearer, and I feel happier, and more ready to pursue spiritual joy, but I also feel stronger and more ready to exert bodily effort, whether mental or physical, for the sake of others. I’ve also found that pummeling or disciplining (Greek hupōpiazō) my body, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, strengthens my will, and chases away laziness, in all of life. Regular exercise makes me more active, rather than passive or lazy, in every sphere and every relationship — not the least of which is relating to God through his word and prayer. But also for others.

Too Tired to Love

Here are the other voices. In 2019, we published a short article at Desiring God, called “Remember the Body,” by pastor Mark Jones in Vancouver, speaking, like Piper, to fellow pastors, with clearly broader applications:

Physical exertion is an important part of normal human life. . . . [I’m] persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life. . . . Exercise is a friend [Brother?] of the Christian, and one that, unless prohibited by health reasons, should be part of the ordinary Christian life.

About the same time, I came across the 2017 Crossway book Reset by David Murray, pastor and professor. He says, “Exercise and proper rest patterns generate about a 20 percent energy increase in an average day, while exercising three to five times a week is about as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression” (79).

Finally, in his late 2020 book on church leadership, Paul Tripp writes about his newfound appreciation for stewarding well the bodies God gave us. He realized, beginning with himself, that “widespread church and ministry leadership gluttony is robbing us of both gospel consistency and physical energy.” He continues,

Regular exercise boosts and builds energy. Perhaps many of us are tired all the time not because of the rigorous demands of ministry but because of the lack of rigorous physical exercise in our normal routine. . . . [T]hese are not ancillary issues. (Lead, 82)

Modest Path

Now, before we get going down any Neo-Pagan paths, let’s bring it back to “Brother Ass” — beloved, obstinate, useful, not revered and not hated, pathetically and absurdly beautiful, Brother Ass.

Mark Jones uses the word modest which I appreciate. He says, “build some modest muscle” — which I think will serve most of us well in our age of extremes related to our bodies. On the one hand, we feel the pull of our world’s sedentary patterns: riding in cars, mesmerized by screens. We have indulged ancient instincts, designed for days when food was scarce, to intuit how to move as little as possible. But thank God, we’re not living in times of famine. Just deadly excess.

On the other hand, we find the fitness junkies, pushing back against sedentary assumptions, but for what reason? “Well-being” as enjoying life more today, not just someday far off, is doubtless more honorable than a brazen pursuit of self-glory. But as Christians we have more to say, critically more, about fitness as stewarding these remarkable creations of our Lord we call bodies.

Fit for What?

I do think “fitness” is a word we can work with as Christians. We just need to ask, Fit for what? Fit to draw attention on Instagram? Fit to draw eyes on a stage, or half-clad? Or fit to do others good? Fit to live up to the modest and important calling we have as Christians to love others and use these bodies to serve and bless and help others?

Paul twice uses a phrase — in 2 Timothy 2:21 and Titus 3:1 — that might be a good rallying cry for the modest upkeep of these physical bodies: “ready for every good work.”

We not only want to learn well, which is critical for disciples. And we not only want to have spiritual joy, which is critical in glorifying Jesus as we ought. We also want to fulfill our calling to use these bodies to do others good — and in such a way that others see our good works, in these bodies, and do not give glory to us but to our Father in heaven, and to Jesus.

“We tend to overestimate what can be done in the short run, and underestimate what can be done in the long run.”

And for most of us, we will be well served by modest upkeep. Subtle changes in our default mindset about minimizing movement, or learning to enjoy it. Walking counts; it gets the blood pumping. Small steps over the long haul. Walking for 30 minutes, five times week, would fulfill the recommendation of many of the experts. And if over time, your body was in enough shape to enjoy regular 30-minute walks, you might find exercise to be an acquired pleasure and enjoy some weights or jogging as well. But we tend to overestimate what can be done in the short run, and underestimate what can be done in the long run.

Brothers and sisters, your body, as a priceless gift from God, is “both pathetically and absurdly beautiful.” It is “a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot.” As Christian Hedonists, let’s pursue the carrots of Christian learning, Christian joy, and Christian love.

The Son Must Rise: What Made Easter Inevitable

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb . . . ” These words from a breathless Mary Magdalene were the first breaking of the news that Sunday morning. “. . . and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Just as Mary herself had run to inform Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” they then ran together to check for themselves. That Jesus’s body was gone, they now believed. But somehow, even with Jesus’s words to them, on multiple occasions, about his coming death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34), they, like Mary, “did not understand” (Mark 9:32).

On this world-changing Sunday morning, Jesus’s closest disciples first assumed his body had been taken and laid elsewhere. “As yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Must rise. In Jesus’s mind, and in the courts of heaven, and in the pages of holy Scripture, the suffering and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah were not just possibilities or likelihoods. These were not options. They were musts. Jesus had said it before, and later that day he would explain it again — that it was necessary, that it must have happened this way.

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:25–26)

Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. . . . that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. (Luke 24:44–25)

But when Peter and John first looked into the empty tomb, that necessity had not yet struck them. Fresh off the devastating grief of the previous two days — doubtless the two worst days of their lives — they still were coming to terms with his death, and assumed with Mary that he was still dead and “they” — some undefined group — had moved the body. Having seen the empty tomb, John reports, “the disciples went back to their homes” (John 20:10).

Only Mary stayed behind, and soon found Jesus alive. Then, with his commission, she “went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (John 20:18).

Christ Must Rise

However slow his disciples had been to understand the necessity of his suffering and rising, they soon became convinced — not just that he did rise (that was indisputable) but that he had to rise. It was necessary. It must have happened this way.

“Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.”

Just fifty days later, when Pentecost came, Peter would preach this in public — not just the resurrection but its necessity. At the height of his sermon, Peter declares about his Lord — “this Jesus,” who was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” — “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23–24). Death could not hold him, restrain him, keep him. It was not possible. Christ, the Son, had to rise.

Why, we might ask on this Resurrection Sunday, was it necessary? Why did Jesus have to rise? Acts 2, together with other New Testament texts, give us at least five reasons why the Son had to rise again.

1. To Make Good on God’s Word

First, the word of the living God was at stake. Through his prophets, God had long promised to send his people a climactically Anointed One, the Messiah, heir to David’s throne and rallying hope of Israel. And essential to that Messianic promise was an eternal reign (2 Samuel 7:13, 16). Not only would David’s line continue one generation after another, but one great heir was coming who would reign without end (Psalm 45:6–7; 102; 25–27; 110:1–4).

Even in his own lifetime, David himself had spoken of God not abandoning his soul to Sheol — and not letting his “holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10), which Christians, including Peter, came to see as one of many old-covenant anticipations of the coming Messiah’s resurrection. Which is how Peter argues in that first Spirit-anointed sermon (Acts 2:29–32).

God’s anointed king would fulfill the promise of God’s word. Jesus was, and is, that Christ. Therefore, it was impossible for him to be kept from that eternal reign. Not even the last enemy could keep him from it. Strong as the power of death may seem, it was, and is, no match for the omnipotent God working for his Messiah.

2. To Vindicate His Sinless Life

Jesus’s life was without sin. He was utterly innocent, and rising again vindicated his perfect human life. Death and Satan had no claim on him because Jesus had no “record of debt that stood against [him] with its legal demands” (Colossians 2:14). With respect to Jesus, Satan and his minions never had been armed; they had no hooks in him because he had no sin or guilt. Rather, in dying, Jesus gave himself, nailing to the cross our record of debt, because of our trespasses, and disarming the demons against us (Colossians 2:13, 15).

Luke sounds the note of Christ’s innocence again and again — three times in the mouth of Pilate, then again by the thief crucified next to him, and finally by the centurion who saw him breathe his last (Luke 23:4; 14–15; 22; 41, 47). Jesus’s innocence — that he did “nothing deserving death,” before man and before God — would be, as Paul celebrates, “vindicated by the Spirit” in Christ’s resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16).

3. To Confirm the Work of His Death

The resurrection also confirmed that Jesus’s death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective. His dying declaration, “It is finished” (John 19:30), was shown to be true by his resurrection. Had he stayed dead, what confidence would we have that his sacrifice worked, that it was sufficient for us and all who believe? What firm hope would we have that he indeed was not only innocent of his own sin but that his death could count for us, in our place?

“The resurrection confirms that his death on the cross worked. It counted. It was effective.”

Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up” to death “for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The resurrection shows that his work was effective — not only in covering our sins with his death, but in rising to be our righteousness — our justification — before the holy God. Which leads to another distinct but inseparable reason.

4. To Give Us Access to His Work

Not only did our sins require a reckoning — by Christ, outside of us — but we also needed to have access to his work, to have it applied to us. Potential salvation is not enough. We need actual rescue, which comes through the instrument called faith which unites us to a resurrected, living Lord.

However sufficient his self-sacrifice might have been to cover our sins, we have no access to that rescue if he is not alive that we might be united to him. But he is alive. As he says, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18). There is no great salvation for us if we are not united by faith to a living Lord to have the benefits of his work applied to us.

5. To Be Our Living Lord and Treasure

One final must or necessity is the final necessity: Jesus is alive to know and enjoy forever.

There is no final good news if our Treasure and Pearl of Great Price is dead. Even if our sins could be paid for, righteousness provided and applied to us, and heaven secured, but Jesus were still dead, there would be no great salvation in the end — not if our Savior and Groom is dead. At the very center of the Easter triumph is not what he saves us from, but what he saves us to — better, who he saves us to: himself.

Our restless souls will not find eternal, and ever-increasing, rest and joy in a Christ-less new earth, no matter how stunning. Streets of gold, reunions with loved ones, and sinless living may thrill us at first — but they will not ultimately satisfy, not for eternity, not on their own. We were made for Jesus. He is at the center of true life now, and he will be forever. If there is no living Christ, there is no final satisfying eternity. But he is alive indeed — to know and enjoy forever.

Did Jesus Need the Spirit? Pondering the Power of the God-Man

How did Jesus walk on water? How did he feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish? How did he raise Lazarus from the dead?

Unless we have been carefully taught, many Christians would be quick to say simply, Because he is God! And he truly is. But is that how the New Testament answers these questions? If we follow the emphasis of the Gospels, we might say that what Jesus’s miracles show is that he is God, but how he, as man, performs these wonders, is not quite as simple as we may assume.

In particular, what are we to say about the many texts that testify to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the human life of Christ? Did Christ, in his humanity, actually need the Holy Spirit if he performed such signs simply by virtue of his divinity?

When we recognize the surprisingly recurrent theme of the divine Spirit’s relationship to the divine Son in his humanity, we might understand Jesus (and the Gospels) better, and freshly marvel at what grace Christ offers us in the gift of his Spirit.

Jesus and the Spirit

First, let’s rehearse the string of biblical texts that lead us to what is often called a “Spirit Christology” — which is simply a term for recognizing the critical part played by the person and work of the Spirit in the person and work of Christ.

Sinclair Ferguson observes three distinct “stages” in the life of Christ, through which we might acknowledge the Spirit’s relationship to the Son (The Holy Spirit, 38–56). Those stages are as follows, with key texts.

1. Conception, Birth, and Growth

As we know from some of our favorite Advent readings, the Holy Spirit is present and pronounced in the angelic announcements to both Mary and Joseph. How will it be, asks Mary, that I, a virgin, will conceive and bear a son? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). So too in Matthew’s account about Joseph, the Spirit both frames the report and is explicit in the angelic announcement (Matthew 1:18, 20).

Yet the Spirit is not only present, and explicit, at the conception and birth of Christ, but also specifically prophesied by Isaiah, seven centuries prior, as “resting upon” the coming Anointed One: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).

“God’s word notes again and again the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion.”

Now in Jesus of Nazareth, the long-promised shoot from the stump of Jesse has come (Isaiah 11:1), and “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” upon him is seen even as early as age 12 as Jesus listens in the temple to the teachers and asks them questions. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished” (Luke 2:47–48).

Even in childhood, as Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), he was not on his own but had the Spirit as his “inseparable companion,” as the great Cappadocian theologian Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) captured it so memorably.

2. Baptism, Temptations, and Ministry

Isaiah’s prophesied anointing with the Spirit comes to the fore again at the outset of Jesus’s public ministry, beginning with his baptism. The forerunner, John the Baptist, tells of a coming Spirit-baptism that John’s water-baptism anticipated (Luke 3:16). But first, before baptizing others in the Spirit, Jesus himself will be the preeminent Man of the Spirit. When Jesus “had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21–22; also Matthew 3:16).

Here at the outset of his public ministry, the Spirit descends on him with new fullness for his unique calling, and the voice from heaven first connects the Anointed of Psalm 2 with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42. The Servant — and Son — not only enjoys God’s full favor, but he is also the one of whom it is said, “I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1).

Freshly endowed with (“full of”) the Spirit, Jesus then goes to the wilderness. Not only is he “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1; Matthew 4:1) into the wilderness, but as Mark reports, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12), not as a retreat but as an advance in war, to encounter the enemy and beginning taking back territory.

Once Christ has returned, victorious in his wilderness test — in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14) — he comes to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth. In the synagogue, they hand him in the scroll of Isaiah, and what does he read, as the first public act after his baptism? He begins with Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus’s ministry then unfolds in the subsequent pages as by the Spirit he proclaims good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19; Isaiah 61:1–2). Jesus will testify that it is “by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons” (Matthew 12:28). By the Spirit, he teaches with unusual authority. Fully man, he is fully dependent on his Father — having come not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him (John 6:38). And as Peter one day will summarize his life, in telling his story to Gentiles, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

In the words of John 3:34, and Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664), Jesus “received the Spirit out of measure; there was in him as much as possibly could be in a creature, and more than in all other creatures whatsoever” (Looking unto Jesus, 280).

3. Death, Resurrection, and Ascension

Significant as the testimony is about the Spirit’s work in Jesus’s childhood and ministry, we might expect that when he comes to die, and rise, and ascend, we would hear about the Spirit here too. Indeed we do. According to Hebrews 9:14, Jesus offered himself for sins at the cross “through the eternal Spirit.” As he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, mounted the donkey on Palm Sunday, confronted scribes and Pharisees, and prayed with “loud cries and tears” in Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7), Jesus was anointed, sustained, and strengthened by the Spirit to the end. And beyond.

In his resurrection, Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). As Paul writes in Romans 1:4, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” And promising a coming of, and baptizing with, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8), Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), to be glorified at God’s right hand, where he then would pour out the Spirit on those who believe (John 7:37–39; Acts 2:2–4, 17, 33). Amazingly, then, Peter would preach, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Now, to receive Christ is to receive the Spirit, and vice versa.

In fact, the Holy Spirit has become such an “inseparable companion” for Christ that we find a striking identification of Jesus and the Spirit in the letters of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18). Not only is the Holy Spirit now “the Spirit of Jesus” (Philippians 1:19; also Acts 16:7), but the glorified Christ and the poured-out Spirit can be spoken of interchangeably, as in Romans 8:9–11: Christians “have the Spirit of Christ,” and in the Spirit, “Christ is in you.”

Jesus Did Not Cheat

Now back to our original question: How did Jesus walk on water, multiply loaves, and raise the dead? The New Testament witness to the Spirit as Christ’s “inseparable companion” and source of divine power is too pronounced to ignore. Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit. The terms of the incarnation, in honoring the fullness of humanity, were that the second person of the Trinity did not immediately provide divine power and help to the human Christ. Rather, he did so mediately through the Spirit. It was the great Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683) who perhaps first ventured the formulation that now has stood for almost four centuries: “The only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself” (The Works of John Owen, 3:160).

“Jesus, the God-man, apparently needed the Spirit.”

In other words, the eternal Son’s only direct act on his human nature was uniting that humanity to himself in the incarnation. “Every other act upon Christ’s human nature,” writes Mark Jones, “was from the Holy Spirit. Christ performed miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit, not immediately by his own divine power” (The Prayers of Jesus, 23). As Jones comments elsewhere, “Christ’s obedience in our place had to be real obedience. He did not cheat by relying on his own divine nature while he acted as the second Adam” (Puritan Theology, 343). The Holy Spirit has accompanied, supplied, and carried the Son in his human nature from conception to childhood to ministry, to the cross and resurrection, and now in his glory, fully endowed as the Man of the Spirit at God’s right hand.

Spirit of Christ in Us

Why make a point of what some might perceive as a technicality? Why note, as Kyle Claunch does, this “marked contrast” between the New Testament emphasis and “the tendency of post-biblical authors, who appeal to the deity of Jesus as the explanation for the extraordinary features of his life and ministry”?

For one, a Spirit Christology demonstrates the genuine humanness of Christ, which is vital not only for our imitation of his life, but even more for his perfect human life to count savingly and uniquely in the place of us sinners. Also, observing the critical place of the Holy Spirit with respect to the humanity of Christ helps us understand the Bible. From Isaiah, to the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles, God’s word notes again and again, as we’ve seen, the power of the Spirit as Christ’s inseparable companion. If we want to know and understand God’s word, we will not want to read a phrase like “by the Spirit” as white noise but with meaning.

Finally, a Spirit Christology shows us, in a secondary sense, what is possible in us by the same Spirit who dwells in us — not mainly in terms of being the Spirit’s channel for displays of extraordinary power (though we might grow to be expectant of more than we have), but most significantly in terms of holiness and spiritual joy. Jesus was and is unique. The power of the Spirit in his human life pointed to his uniqueness as God. Still, the same Spirit who empowered Jesus’s earthly life, and sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection, has been given to us today as “the Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7). He not only works on us, and through us, but dwells in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Timothy 1:14). He has been given to us (Luke 11:13; John 7:38–39; Acts 5:32; 15:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8). We have received him (John 20:22; Acts 2:38; 8:15, 17, 19; 10:47; 19:2; Romans 5:5; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24), to glorify the Son (John 16:14).

The very power of God himself, in his Spirit, has come to make himself at home in some real degree, and to increasing effect, in us. We are his temple, both individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), and a day is coming when we, like Christ, will reign in glory, fully endowed with the Spirit, to enjoy life, and God in Christ, beyond what we’ve even imagined so far.

Roses Grow on Briers: Unsentimental Love in a Sentimental World

At present, I’m enjoying a slow walk through Middle-earth. We first toured some of this terrain together almost six years ago, as I read aloud The Hobbit to our twin boys. Now, they’re almost twelve. Harry Potter is behind us. The boys are almost teens, more grown-up, with maturing palates ready for richer fare — and the patience that Tolkien requires. At long last, we journey to Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings is striking for its contrasts. Suffocating darkness, then stunning bursts of light. Brooding evil, and resilient good. Yes, this tale has its greys — perhaps the most common color named in the trilogy. Yet beneath its cloaks is a marked world of stark contrasts. From the beginning, this is not a journey Frodo started from some deep urge for adventure. He doesn’t choose to go; he signs no contract. Pursued by Black Riders who have breached the Shire, he is forced to run, with life and death — and the whole world — in the balance.

When all the world is so quickly at stake, diverse races soon divide between Mordor and the West. Even Elves and Dwarves join together in the Fellowship. The horror of the White Wizard’s change in allegiance is that the chasm between Evil, and those who would resist it, is so stark. And in the meantime, one who is Grey is shown to be White.

This is one reason Lord of the Rings is a welcomed influence in many Christian homes. We teach our children first and foremost from Scripture that the real world is one of stark contrasts, with many voices vying to paint it all in shades of grey. Cloaked as it may be for now, ours is a world of darkness and light, of evil and good, of wrong and right. We need eyes for biblical reality — what God himself says about our world through the apostles and prophets and climactically in his Son — and we are happy to be helped along by some great stories, and wise voices, that echo the contrasts of Scripture.

God Put Roses on Briers

One such wise voice is Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). No, I am not yet reading him aloud to my children, but I dream of the day. At least I hope some of his spine will come to them through their father.

Edwards, says biographer George Marsden, “saw all created reality as bittersweet contrasts, dazzling beauty set against appalling horrors, ephemeral glories pointing to divine perfections” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 136). And what is at the center of that contrast-filled reality and beauty?

At the core of Edwards’ outlook is a rigorously unsentimental view of love. . . . Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless lesser entertainments. (137)

Star Wars may be a stretch, but the point is well-taken in terms of contrasts between light and dark. Often we need to go back — to Tolkien and Lewis seventy years ago, to Edwards in the early 1700s, and most of all to the Scriptures — to escape the gently disorienting breezes of our own day, feel the great directional gusts of reality, and remember that life and death are at stake. The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly. But the real world is one of briers and worms, of snakes and sharks, of death and hell.

“The atmosphere of secularism rests so heavy on us that we are prone to take eternity so lightly.”

In Scripture, God shows us the glory of his light against the backdrop of darkness. Slavery in Egypt accents the glory of his deliverance. His people regularly falling under foreign powers accents his rescues under the judges. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the horrors of exile, accent the glory of return and restoration. The death of his own Son precedes the glorious rush of resurrection life; and our own sin, the stark contrast of grace and the gift of new life. In it all, we learn our need for God, and learn to marvel in his light.

As Edwards wrote in one of his earliest entries in his journal,

Roses grow upon briers, which is to signify that all temporal sweets are mixed with bitter. But what seems more especially to be meant by it, is that true happiness, the crown of glory, is to be come at in no other way than by bearing Christ’s cross by a life of mortification, self-denial and labor, and bearing all things for Christ. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 11:52)

Our Trouble with ‘Love’

Another voice unafraid of God’s stark contrasts and God’s unsentimental love — and this one from our own day — is Don Carson.

In the opening chapter of his Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, Carson five times uses the words “sentimental” or “sentimentalized” to characterize the prevailing notions of love in our age — in contrast to the rich, multi-dimensional portrait of God’s love in the Scriptures. Which means that when biblically-shaped Christians speak about the love of God today, we “mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture” (10). What is more, writes Carson:

I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God — to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity. (11)

“When we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is simple or tame.”

Some today flinch at divine sovereignty — and divine wrath all the more. And set against these suspicions are shallow and sentimental notions of his love. Of course God will forgive me, it’s assumed, That’s his job. But when we listen to God’s own words, we do not find a portrait of his love that is so simple, one-dimensional, tame, or boring.

Unsentimental Love

How, then, is God’s love “rigorously unsentimental”?

God’s love toward sinners comes on quite different terms than his love for his Son. Carson points first to God’s intra-Trinitarian love with which he loves his worthy Son. But we are mere creatures, and fallen, and undeserving. God loves us not because of our worth, but despite it. Our sin deserves the justice of eternal separation. His love toward sinners shines out for what it is against the backdrop of our rebellion, and the hell we deserve. His love for us demonstrates, at bottom, his value and worth, against the common assumption that it preeminently echoes how valuable we are.

And divine justice and wrath are satisfied in the death of God’s Son. His is bloody, deadly, unsparing love — the kind that makes people squirm and some utter horrible phrases like “cosmic child abuse.” The hubris is staggering. Still, he tells us that he loved the world in this way: “he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). How does God show his love for us? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). How do we know that he is for us, and no one, Satan included, can be successfully against us? God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).

Carson also observes God’s providential love — he makes his sun rise on the just and unjust — and his yearning love, holding out open hands to any sinner who will bow and received Jesus as his treasured Lord. But sinners, on their own, do not repent without God’s elective love — his special love for his people, his sheep, his bride. And just as unnerving as election, if not more so for some, is God’s provisional love, which is conditioned on obedience.

Twenty-first-century, Christ-haunted Westerners have their sentimental slogans, that God’s love is unconditional, or that he loves everyone the same. It is true that his elective love is unconditional, but certainly not his provisional love. And he does love everyone, in some respect, with regard to his providential love and yearning love, but certainly not in his elective love. As Carson writes, “What the Bible says about the love of God is more complex and nuanced than what is allowed by mere sloganeering” (24).

News Worth Sharing

In such biblical tensions, we find the deep and complex love of our God — his unsentimental love — a love which is not weaker than the world’s version, but stronger. The edges and hard-to-stomach truths do not dilute divine love; they distill it.

God does not promise his people temporal comforts and ease. Nor did he promise, and give, such to his own Son in the days of his flesh. Divine love, in this age, is not simple, sentimental, or predictable. Owning this now, before the next time this world roughs us up, will help us be ready to suffer well, for the joy set before us.

So, we relish contemporary voices with backbone. And we go back a century for Tolkien and Lewis, or back three centuries for Edwards, and four for the Puritans. And best of all, by far, we build our lives daily in this modern world in the firm words and stark contrasts of the Scriptures, as faithful Christians have for two millennia. Then we watch with compassion as our world tries to satisfy itself with a cheap, thin, sentimental counterfeit.

And we stand ready with such good news to share about the love of our God.

Talking Back to God

Prayer, by human persons to the living and personal God, is far more than transactional. It is relational, and often incremental, with measured, humble boldness. God leads us, like Moses, into prayer. We make our requests. He answers in time. We learn more of him, which leads us to ask to see more of him.

It is one of the most audacious, and awe-inspiring, moments in all of Scripture.
In the wake of Israel’s shocking rebellion against God — blatantly violating the covenant God just made with them — Moses humbly dares to mediate between God and his people. At the climax of his intercession, and his careful yet determined dialogue with the living God, Moses makes what is perhaps the greatest, and most perceptive, petition a creature can of his Creator.
And it is, after all, a prayer — a modest yet bold request, made by man, to God Almighty: “Please show me your glory.”
That this is, in some sense, a special moment is plain. We do not stand in Moses’s sandals. We are not prophets called to mediate a covenant, nor do we live under that Sinai pact. Yet Moses’s prayer still functions as a model for the godly after him. It will not be the last prayer in Scripture for a sight of God’s glory, and rightly do the faithful echo it today. What might we who are in Christ learn about our own prayers from the amazing sequence of Moses’s pressing into God in Exodus 32–33?
Can and Will God Forgive?
Before wrestling with the prayer itself, we need to first acknowledge Moses’s haunting question: Could and would God forgive the people such a horrific breach of the covenant? Moses was not yet sure. He heard stories of his forefathers, encountered God at the bush, and witnessed the plagues in Egypt and the rescue in the Red Sea. Moses knew a powerful God who had delivered his people, but would he also forgive them?
At first, it looked like he wouldn’t. When God first informed Moses, on the mountain, that the people had “corrupted themselves,” by making and worshiping a golden calf (32:7–8), God had said, “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. . .” (32:10). As Moses began to plead that God withhold destruction, it was far from clear that any relationship of peace could be fully restored.
God did relent of immediately consuming the people (32:14), yet the covenant remained broken. Although Moses went down the mountain, confronted the people in their rebellion, burnt the calf, disciplined the people (32:15–20), and oversaw the purging of the three thousand who led in the rebellion (32:21–29), Moses knew this did not restore what lay shattered. The next day, he returned to meet God on the mountain.
What drives Moses’s sequence of prayer in Exodus 33 is the question he begins to ask in 32:32: Can and will Yahweh forgive? Will God restore the relationship, and dwell among them, after they had worshiped the golden calf? And as we will see, God draws prayer out of Moses, and then moves to answer Moses’s question, in a way far more powerful, and memorable, than if there had not been an unfolding, developing, deepening relationship with God.
Moses, Teach Us to Pray
Exodus 33 begins with God declaring to the people that even though he will give them the land promised to their forefathers, God himself will not go up among them (33:3). They mourn this “disastrous word.” They want him, not just the promised land. They humble themselves before God, taking off their ornaments “from Mount Horeb onward” (33:6).
Even though the people heard this disastrous word, however, Moses continues to enjoy remarkable favor with God. In a tent pitched far off from the camp, God speaks with Moses (33:9), and verse 11 comments: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This sets the scene for Moses’s remarkable intercessory prayer in 33:12–18.
Observe, then, at least three lessons Christians today might take from Moses’s otherwise inimitable prayer.
1. Prayer responds to God.
The living God takes the initiative. He first announced to Moses the people’s breach of the covenant (32:7–10). And he revealed his enduring favor on Moses, prompting the prophet to reply. So too for us. We don’t just “dial up” God in prayer when we so wish. First, he speaks, as he has revealed himself in his world, and in his word, and in his Son, the Word.
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How to Pray Like Jabez

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers; and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked. (1 Chronicles 4:9–10)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jabez. If not, maybe it’s time for his story.

Just over twenty years ago, few other than careful readers of Old Testament genealogies would have known his name. Then that changed almost overnight. Still today, the mere mention of Jabez among older Christians may elicit quite a range of responses.

The full story is longer than I know well or wish to tell, but author Bruce Wilkinson — who cofounded, with his mentor Howard Hendricks, the ministry Walk Thru the Bible in 1976 — published the 90-page The Prayer of Jabez in 2000. In it, he tells of hearing a moving message in the early 1970s, while a seminary student, from pastor Richard Seume (1915–1986). (Interestingly enough, John Piper sat under Seume’s preaching at Wheaton Bible Church in the late 1960s when Piper was a college student. He says, “I recall how Pastor Seume would take the most obscure texts and find in them diamonds to preach on.”)

That one sermon on Jabez, from 1 Chronicles 4:9–10 — the only two verses in the Bible that mention Jabez — left such an impression on Wilkinson that he began to pray Jabez’s own words for himself on a daily basis. When he published the book in 2000, he had been doing so every day for thirty years. Rehearsing the Jabez prayer daily seemed to Wilkinson to release (a word repeated in the book) the floodgates of God’s blessings on his life and ministry. The book quickly became a runaway bestseller, and is one of only a few Christian books of all time to have sold more than ten million copies.

I read Wilkinson’s short book as a college student when it came out in 2000 (about the same time I was first exposed to Piper and Desiring God). I don’t remember in detail how reading Jabez landed on me then. I do recall some enthusiasm, and remember echoing the prayer at times as my own. For whatever reasons, though, I didn’t form the habit of praying it daily. The flash soon faded. So, I have not prayed Jabez’s prayer every day for the last twenty years, though I expect the book (and that brief season) did have some lasting positive impact.

Gospel of Jabez?

Looking back now (and admitting that hindsight is far clearer), I would summarize the Jabez phenomenon like this: imbalances in the book led to greater imbalances in many readers, especially those less anchored in Scripture. Many readers assumed they had found some long-overlooked prayer to unlock God’s blessings. As I reread the book recently, I found that the book did leave this door open, and even subtly tipped in this direction, at times. (As an editor myself, I wonder what role the coauthor played in making Wilkinson’s message punchy, jettisoning nuance, and stretching it for a broad-as-possible audience. The coauthor’s name did not appear on the original cover, or in the book at all, but now appears in tiny letters on the new cover.)

From the first lines of the preface, seeds are sown with words like “always” and “the key” — words we would be wise to use sparingly in a generation of language inflation like ours:

I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers. It is brief — only one sentence with four parts — and tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of extraordinary favor with God. This petition has radically changed what I expect from God and what I experience every day by His power. (7, emphases added)

I could pick at similar overstatements and imbalances throughout the short book. I also could point to some gold (which would have been easier to celebrate in 2000 before seeing the widespread effects on readers). For one, Wilkinson qualifies the word bless as “goodness that only God has the power to know about or give us” (23). In Wilkinson’s own words, he is not teaching name-it-and-claim-it theology, and he clearly disclaims what we now call “the prosperity gospel” (24). He also admirably mentions living by God’s will and for God’s glory (32, 48, 57) and raises this question about “the American Dream”:

Do we really understand how far the American Dream is from God’s dream for us? We’re steeped in a culture that worships freedom, independence, personal rights, and the pursuit of pleasure. (70)

Such a challenge emerges on occasion, yet it’s clearly not the emphasis. And many readers seemed to capture the drift and skip the disclaimers. They followed the “always” and “the key” and the many examples of temporal blessings, and did not find in Jabez a call to new desires, a new heart, and new birth — to become a new person and so offer new prayers in new ways that turn many natural expectations upside down.

Pray on Repeat?

While I could say more about both the good and the bad, let me boil it down to what may have been the chief imbalance in the book: the final chapter and charge.

Perhaps the biggest problem practically is taking a potentially good sermon on Jabez that might otherwise inform a dynamic, authentic, engaging life of prayer and ending with the charge “to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life” (87). This may be all too predictable in the genre of self-help, but it’s hard not to see an obvious imbalance when it comes to Scripture. Should we raise any passage to the level of “pray this daily,” not to mention two verses “tucked away” in a genealogy? Wilkinson continues, “I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit” (87).

Here, at least, is a serious problem of proportion — first to this prayer (and what of Scripture’s far more prominent prayers?) and then to doing so daily, and then following this plan unwaveringly. And with it, the promise that “you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life” in just thirty days.

In the end, we might say a serious flaw in this Christian book is how easily it accommodates unregenerate palates, appealing to mainly natural desires, even among the born again. Also sorely and startingly lacking is a scriptural vision of life’s pains and suffering in this age. (For those interested, Tim Challies tells the story of Wilkinson’s Jabez-fueled “Dream for Africa” and its “abject failure” a few years after the book’s “success.”)

Can We Pray with Jabez?

What are we to do today, some twenty years later? The antidote to vain repetition of Scripture would not be to throw out Scripture! Rather, we want to have all the Bible, and all its prayers — not just one or two — inform and shape our lives of prayer for a lifetime. With regards to Jabez’s prayer, we might ask what we, as Christians, indeed can glean from an inspired genealogy not by way of a mantra to repeat but through timeless principles to guide and energize a dynamic life of prayer.

Jabez’s story does jump out at us from its surroundings. It’s easy for me to imagine taking these two verses as a sermon text, as Seume did, to celebrate biblical principles found here and elsewhere in Scripture and seek to inform the whole of a Christian’s prayer life. One important reality that Wilkinson does not draw attention to — but makes Jabez’s story, and his prayer, perhaps even more inspiring — is its context in Judah’s line. This is the line of the kings. Jabez is surrounded by regal ancestry and contemporaries, and yet he was born in pain, as the name Jabez (similar to the Hebrew for pain) commemorates. Noting this context might go a long way in helping us see the effect on the original readers; read the story in light of redemptive history, culminating in the Lion of Judah; and receive today and learn from the prayer in balance.

Consider, then, what lessons we might take from Jabez, alongside the full testimony of Scripture, for our own prayer lives.

1. God Rescues from Pain (in His Timing)

His mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.”

We are not told what the particular pain was. There’s beauty in that. Such unspecified pain invites us to identify with Jabez, and imitate him, whatever our pain might be. We all, after all, are born in pain (Genesis 3:16), born into a sin-sick, pain-wracked world, being sinners ourselves and “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).

Whatever the source, Jabez’s life started hard. But apparently he didn’t wallow in it, or resign himself to victim status. Nor did he seek to make up for it with his own muscle and determination. Rather, he turned to God. “Jabez called upon the God of Israel,” and in doing so, he directed his focus, and faith, in the right direction.

“Many of the most admirable saints have endured great pains the whole of their earthly lives.”

Our God is indeed a rescuer. He does not promise to keep his people pain-free, but he does delight to rescue us from pain once we’re in it. And that, importantly, not according to our timetable, but his. Some divine rescues come quickly; many do not. Many of the most admirable saints have endured great pains the whole of their earthly lives.

2. God (Often) Grows Faithful Influence

Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border . . .

It is good to seek God’s blessing, and, in particular, to do so on God’s terms. And seeking to enlarge one’s border, or expand space and influence, is deeply human by God’s design from the beginning: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). Christ himself commissioned his disciples to enlarge the borders of his kingdom, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Even one so exemplary, and humble, as the apostle Paul would testify to his holy ambition, under Christ, to enlarge the borders of his influence, going through Rome to Spain (Romans 15:23–24). Paul also writes candidly to the Corinthians about his team’s “area of influence among you” being “greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you” (2 Corinthians 10:15–16). God does mean for his people to pray for the enlarging of their influence, not for personal comforts, but for gospel advance, for the strengthening of churches, for the serving of Christ’s great mission and purposes in the world.

And these are prayers God often answers — but not always. Oh, what difference lies in such little words! And once we have prayed for the figurative enlarging of our borders, for Christ’s sake, we are wise to be ready for God to do very different reckoning and measuring than we might expect.

3. God (Often) Provides Strength When Asked

. . . and that your hand might be with me . . .

Yes and amen to asking God for his hand to be with us — his hand, meaning his power and strength and help. It is significant that Jabez didn’t just want a big, upfront donation from God to then turn and cultivate in his own strength. Rather, Jabez acknowledges that his own strength will not be sufficient. He needs God’s help every step along the way.

Perhaps his humbling and painful beginnings taught him this lesson earlier in life than most. Jabez was “honored” (more so than his brothers) not because of his noble birth, great wealth, and manifest ability, but because he owned his own weaknesses and limitations and asked for God to be his strength. That Jabez surpassed his brothers displays God’s strength. Jabez pleads that God’s hand be with him, and in doing so, Jabez admits (as every human should) that his own power and skill are not adequate.

4. God Keeps Us from (Some) Harm

. . . and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!

Finally, Jabez asked for God’s protection. It is good to pray to our God that he keep us from harm and pain — even as we know that he at times leads us, as he did his own Son, into the wilderness, and into the valley of the shadow of death.

“Who can fathom what temptations and harm countless saints have been spared because they humbly asked their Father?”

Jesus too taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4), and in the garden, the night before he died, he instructed his men twice, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46). God really does keep us from some temptations in response to our prayers. Prayer matters. The sovereign God chooses to rule the universe in such a way that, under his hand, some events transpire (or not) because his people prayed. Who can fathom what temptations, and what harm, countless saints have been spared because they humbly asked their Father?

And our God does not promise to keep us from all harm, or from all temptations. In fact, we are promised that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). So, we do not presume such protection, nor is it wasted breath to ask.

God Gave What He Asked

That God granted what Jabez asked doesn’t mean God did it in the way Jabez envisioned or in the timing Jabez hoped. So too for us. God does delight to answer the prayers of his children, but we do not presume that he does so when and how we prefer. He is “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). And he answers and exalts his faithful “at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6) — and on his terms, not ours.

When his children ask for bread or fish or an egg, our God does not give them a stone or a serpent or scorpion (Matthew 7:9–11; Luke 11:11–13). He does not give them, in the end, worse than what they asked. But better. He knows how to give good gifts to his children, and far more than we typically ask — and climactically, he gives us himself. But not on our cue. And not in response to parroting biblical words.

Jabez’s prayer is no promise that God will do what we ask and when. However, 1 Chronicles 4:9–10 is a rousing call to the prayerless, and to the pained, to draw near to Judah’s greatest descendant. Our God does redeem his people. He brings joy to the bitter. He brings honor to the pained. He exalts the humble. He gives the crown of glory to the shamed. He raises his crucified Son. In Christ, God turns us and our world upside down, including our prayers.

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