Life’s pressures have a way of exposing hidden sins and introducing new temptations. So how do we know if pressure is making us more holy or more sinful?
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.
I recently attended a megaconference for Christians in media. And among the hundreds of booths, there was a huge display of costumes and props from a current TV show based on the life of Christ. It was quite fascinating. All the costumes and props and set pieces were scattered through an open walk-through display. It really pulled you into first-century Jerusalem, giving a little tangible taste of what life in the time of Christ looked like. And after walking through it, it made me wonder, and I think it makes a lot of people wonder, Wouldn’t it have been better to have lived in a generation that could have seen Christ with our own eyes — to know him face to face?
I think this is one reason why we’re attracted to television shows and movies about his life. Because for us, we’re stuck many years after his earthly ministry with just a written account of his life in the Gospels. So is that to our disadvantage? With a definitive no, Pastor John explains why believers today are not at a disadvantage, and he does it by preaching from a great text on this very topic, 1 Peter 1:8–9. Here he is, in 1993, first talking about the nature of joy. Here’s Pastor John.
You rejoice in this faith and love. You rejoice with a joy that is unable to be expressed, and which is, literally, “glorified” — or “full of glory,” as the NASB has it (1 Peter 1:8).
We Become What We Crave
Now, I think the way we have defined joy goes a long way to helping us understand why it’s inexpressible and why it is glorified. I’ll ask this question to make the connection for you: Where does joy get its moral quality — not just its intensity? We’re talking about quality here: inexpressible and glorified — not just big, not just strong. There can be a lot of strong emotions without Jesus, but we’re talking here about a joy that is not only very great, but it has a glory dimension to it. It’s got glory on it and in it somehow. So let’s just ask the general question: Where does joy, your joy, get its moral dimension? And the answer to that question, I believe, is this: your joy gets its moral quality from what you are enjoying.
So if you enjoy dirty jokes, you’ve got dirty joy and a dirty heart. If you enjoy bathroom language (that really makes you laugh) or lewd pictures (that really makes you happy), you have a dirty heart and dirty joy. Joy gets its moral quality from what you enjoy. Or if you enjoy cruelty and arrogance and revenge, that’s dirty too. And there are a lot of movies and TV programs that cultivate that kind of joy, to get you to be really happy in revenge. That’s the kind of heart you get. Your heart will be shaped that way. You become what you crave. Where you get your joy, you get your moral dimension to joy.
Or if you just love things — if you find your life, your joy, increasingly happy in more and more material things — do you know what happens inside? You die. Your heart was made for God and love and faith and joy. And if you find that this computer just so satisfies you — I have tasted that too. Wow, computers are incredible. Dan Lane got me into this new America Online thing, which connects you up with ten million billboards and stuff. It is absolutely addicting — at least for a week or two. It is.
There’s great danger from — I mean, you just name it. There are ten thousand material things in the world that can so enamor you and capture you, and you come to the end of a day, having looked at the screen of this computer, and say, “I’m dead. I’m dead — deader than I was when I started this day. I’m smaller. I’m drier. What have I done?” And some people spend their whole lives like that, and they will say that on their deathbed — unless they’re so dead that they can’t feel it.
We’re made for joy and Christ and relationship and love and the big unseen realities. So my answer to the question “Where does joy get its moral component?” is that it gets its moral component from the thing enjoyed.
Joy and Glory Streaming Back
Now Christian joy, I would argue, then, is inexpressible and glorified because the Christ who is precious to us is inexpressibly precious. And the Christ who is reliable to us is inexpressibly reliable. And even though we never attain to the maximum joy in this life that we will have someday, nevertheless our joy is hooked in, tied in, to an inexpressible treasure: Jesus. He is inexpressibly glorious. He is inexpressibly beautiful and reliable and precious. And if your joy is in him, that preciousness, that inexpressibility, comes from the thing enjoyed into you, and your joy leaps up from time to time with inexpressibility.
And the same thing is true for glory. I think Peter is saying that in the process of loving and believing and rejoicing, the goal of that — namely, salvation — is happening in part, in measure, now. The glory of the one we love is precious and reliable, and it is streaming back through our joy into our hearts. And our joy is in measure, right now, glorious. It partakes in glory because you always participate in what you enjoy. You become what you crave in large measure.
Eyes of the Heart
Final question: How can all of this happen when we don’t see him? Twice Peter says that: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Why does he stress that twice? Evidently, some people were saying something like, “But we’ve never seen him. You saw him, Peter. Sure, you can have that kind of joy. But we’ve never seen him.”
“More important than seeing with the eyes is seeing with the heart.”
Now, how? Surely the answer is that there is a seeing with the heart that is not a seeing with the eyes. And I want to argue this morning that seeing with the heart is more important than seeing with the eyes. More important than seeing with the eyes is seeing with the heart. I will try to persuade you of that in these last few minutes.
Paul said that his mission to unreached peoples, in Romans 15:20, was this. These are people out there in the Roman empire who, like us, have never seen Jesus.
Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:20–21)
The preaching of the gospel is the means by which those who have never seen Christ see Christ in the gospel. Here’s another way of saying it, which Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
In your heart, the light of God goes on, and you see his glory in Christ’s face. What in the world is that? There were hundreds and hundreds of people who saw Jesus during his lifetime on the earth who did not see him. They didn’t see him. They were blanked out; they were totally confused; they were totally adrift. They didn’t know who this Jewish carpenter rabbi was; he made no sense to them whatsoever. And they saw him hour after hour after hour. Is that valuable? That sends to hell. Don’t exalt seeing with the eyes. Don’t begrudge that you live in the twentieth century with only a Bible.
Listen carefully now. We were at a Michael Card concert on Friday night, and he sings this song about childlikeness that captures this paradox of seeing and not seeing.
To hear with my heart, to see with my soul
To be guided by a hand I cannot hold
To trust in a way that I cannot see
That’s what faith must be.
There is a seeing with the soul, or the heart, that is not a seeing with the eyes. And it happens through the word of God in the gospel. And it happens through the reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I commend the Gospels to you: read the Gospels day in and day out. They are the living Christ to you. Read them with an openness to Christ, and you will see him better than Nicodemus saw him, better than the Syrophoenician woman saw him, better than the centurion saw him, better than the widow of Nain saw him, better than the thief on the cross saw him, better than the thronging crowds who got snatches and pieces saw him.
Better Than Being There
Think about this in closing now: the Gospels are better than being there. Why? In the Gospels, you are welcomed into the inner circle with the apostles, where you never could have gone had you been there.
In the Gospels, you can go with him to Gethsemane, where you couldn’t have gone.
In the Gospels, you go to him with the trial, where you couldn’t have gone.
In the Gospels, you go all the way through the crucifixion.
In the Gospels, you go in and out of the tomb with him.
In the Gospels, you are with him, with every meeting after the resurrection.
In the Gospels, you hear whole sermons, not just little snatches and pieces because you were way back there in the back of the crowd, and there’s a baby crying beside you, and you couldn’t figure out what was going on up there, and you only heard, “Blessed are the . . .” — what was that? And you couldn’t hear it.
“The Gospels are better than being there.”
You’ve got the whole thing, and not only do you have the whole big sermons and big discourses, you’ve got them with God-inspired contexts to give them interpretations, which those poor peasants didn’t have a clue about. They didn’t know what was going on.
You see him in his freedom from anxiety, as he has no place to lay his head.
You see his courage in the face of opposition.
You see his unanswerable wisdom when he’s peppered with questions.
You see him honoring women.
And his tenderness with children.
And his compassion toward lepers.
And his meekness in suffering.
And his patience with Peter.
And his tears over Jerusalem.
And his blessing on those who cursed him.
And his heart for the nations.
And his love for the glory of God.
And his simplicity.
And his devotion.
And his power to still storms and heal sicknesses and drive out demons.
They didn’t have a clue compared to what you have. The Gospels are better than being there — if the Holy Spirit, who was needed just as much in that day as now, will simply open your eyes to see the glory on his face.
My aim in this article is to encourage Christians to be vaccinated, if they can do so with a good conscience and judicious medical warrant.
The people I have especially in view are those who are not vaccinated because of fear of being out of step with people they respect, and in step with people they don’t admire. My message to them is simple: You are free.
So, I am not talking directly to everybody. If the shoe fits, put it on, check your conscience, consult your doctor, and go get vaccinated. If it doesn’t, go tearfully and cheerfully on your way. Tearfully, because over 4.5 million people have died from COVID-19 worldwide (including over 700,000 Americans). And cheerfully, because Christ makes it miraculously possible to love people by being “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
What Fuels the Cooking Fire
Before I get to the biblical argument for radical freedom, consider a few statistics that fuel the fire over which this article was cooked.
“Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now in people who weren’t vaccinated. . . . From May  . . . infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 1.1%. And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%” (Associated Press).
Indiana “saw 3,801 coronavirus deaths between [Jan. 18, 2021,] and Sept. 16 — 94% of them unvaccinated. . . . 97.9% of Hoosiers younger than 65 who died were unvaccinated” (Evansville Courier and Press).
In Montana, “from February 2021 to September 2021, . . . 89.5% of the cases, 88.6% of hospitalizations, and 83.5% of the deaths were among people who were not fully vaccinated, including those not yet eligible for vaccination” (KRTV — Great Falls).
“More than 95% of the 443 people under age 60 who have died from COVID-19 in Kentucky since early July were unvaccinated” (Lexington Herald-Leader).
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that between January 1 and October 4, 2021, “93 percent of COVID-19-related deaths were in unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people” (FOX43).
When people respond to this increasingly clear reality by pointing to untrustworthy and disreputable government and medical leaders, I respond, “That’s a non sequitur.” The team called “vaccination” just made a first down, even if monkeys are holding the chains. For friends around the world who don’t know American football, that means a win is a win even if all the coaches and referees are incompetent.
So let’s think about Christian freedom.
Peter’s Summons to Freedom
The apostle Peter said,
This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as slaves of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:15–17)
“Live as people who are free.”
Peter had just said, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13). So how can you “be subject” and “be free” at the same time?
Peter’s answer is that Christians are “slaves of God.” In other words, when you submit to a “human institution” (1 Peter 2:13), you don’t do it as the slave of that institution. You do it in freedom, because you are slaves of God, not man. God owns his people — by creation and redemption.
“God alone owns us. And God alone rules us. We are not ruled by any man. We are free from all human ownership and rule.”
The apostle Paul makes the same point: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God bought you by the blood of Christ. He owns you. And if God owns you, no one else can: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).
Christians are owned by no man — no society, no company, no clan, no family, no school, no military, no government, no political interest group. God alone owns us. And God alone rules us. We are not ruled by any man. We are free from all human ownership and rule.
When we submit, we do so for the Lord’s sake. Because he said to. God’s ownership of his people strips every decisive entitlement from human authority. It turns every act of human compliance into worship. When we submit, we do so for the glory of our one Owner and Master. Life is radically Godward.
‘The Sons Are Free’
During his lifetime on earth, Jesus had taught Peter a lesson about freedom. Peter wondered about the two-drachma tax that Jewish men had to pay each year (Matthew 17:24). Jesus’s answer goes like this:
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:25–27)
“The sons are free.” That is, free from being controlled by any human authority. Sons obey their Father. He is their decisive authority. What they do, they do because of his will, not the will of man. The sons are free.
The King’s sons are not obliged to pay taxes to institutions created by their Father. They are obliged to obey their Father, not man. Therefore, when they pay the tax, they do so to honor their Father because he gave them the resources and the command: “Take that and give it to them” (Matthew 17:27).
Peter learned the lesson, and now he says to Christians, “Live as people who are free.” You are sons of God. You are slaves of God. Sonship implies privilege and love. Slavery implies God’s ownership and rule. And both imply freedom from man.
Liberation from Man Is Not Exaltation of Self
But woe to us Christians if this radical freedom makes us cocky. “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16). And the greatest evil is the pride of self-exaltation. Peter is clear about how God’s ownership and Fatherhood should affect his slave-like, son-like people.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:5–7)
Christians are lowly because we are “under [God’s] mighty hand.” And we are joyful because “he cares for [us].” Our freedom does not make us brash. Bold, yes. Brash, no. There is a peculiarly Christian boldness — a brokenhearted boldness. Our freedom does not make us cocky. Courageous, yes. Cocky, no. There is a peculiarly Christian courage — a contrite courage.
Why contrite? Because our clothing is still singed with the fire of almost being condemned. We deserve condemnation. And grace alone saved us. We are utterly dependent on undeserved, unentitled mercy. And the promise of God to his children is so staggeringly great that we are, as they say, floored by it — floored. Made low by the promised heights.
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
All things are yours! So no boasting! That is the paradox of Christian freedom. Our Father owns everything. We are his heirs. We inherit everything. We are sons. And the sons are free. Therefore, no bragging, no swagger. Just joyful tears. Because we don’t deserve any of it. And we want all others to join us in it. But so many refuse. This is the freedom of love. A freedom that makes us debtors to everyone (Romans 1:14). A freedom with radical heaven-sent obligations.
Freed from the Fear of Man — Left or Right
Now, we might think that the point of this biblical reality of bold, brokenhearted Christian freedom would be this: You don’t have to be vaccinated when the government tells you to. You are free. Live as people who are free.
“Don’t be enslaved by the fear of breaking ranks with ideological allies. You are free.”
That’s true, of course. If your Father in heaven makes it clear to you, by his word and wisdom, that his glory and your neighbor’s good will be better served by not being vaccinated, you are free to risk COVID for love’s sake. No Christian is obliged to bow to unwarranted mandates.
But that’s not my main point.
My point is this: Don’t be enslaved by fear of man. Don’t be enslaved by the fear of breaking ranks with ideological allies. The old name for this is peer pressure. You are free.
You have considered the risk of COVID as you watch hundreds of thousands of people die.
You have considered the short- and long-term risks of the vaccines as you watch millions get the shots.
You have compared the frequency of hospitalizations and deaths of those with and without vaccines.
You have thought hard about the implications of fetal cell lines in the production and testing of the vaccines.
You have rejoiced at the increasing evidence that natural immunity, developed after recovering from COVID, is as effective as vaccination immunity.
You have pondered the likelihood and unlikelihood of conspiratorial conjectures.
Your conscience is increasingly clear. It says, “Get vaccinated.” But there is this niggling fear of looking left wing, or progressive, or Democratic, or compromised, or woke!
So, my message to such folks is this: “The children are free!”
Each of us stands or falls before his own Master (Romans 14:4). “Live as people who are free.” Free from the fear of man. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being called a compromiser. Fear of being doubted as not really part of the courageous resisters — especially when you know that thousands of those resisters really are courageous, wise, and thoughtful.
But fear is not freedom. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25). The fear of man lays a freedom-snatching snare. Why? Because the fearing soul is already snared. Already caught. Already bound, enslaved.
I call you to something better. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Not a government yoke, not an anti-government yoke. Not a left-wing yoke, not a right-wing yoke.
You are free to say with integrity, “My decision to be vaccinated is not a political decision. It is not right wing, or left wing. It is a biblically informed act of love.”
The sons are free. Tearfully, cheerfully free. Therefore, “live as people who are free.”
Today we have an incredibly thoughtful and detailed question from a concerned dad. It’s anonymous. Here’s the question.
“Pastor John, my 14-year-old daughter read through the book of Job for the first time this year, and she is really struggling with how God is portrayed in that book. She has heard all of her life that God is loving and just, and cannot understand why God would allow Job and his children, wife, and servants to suffer such devastation. She’s deeply disturbed by the fact that God pointed Job out to Satan intentionally, thus drawing his attention to this righteous man, allowing Satan to take away nearly everything Job had. And for what purpose? Merely to prove a point to Satan and the host of heaven that Job’s reverence for God was unshakable.
“How would you explain this to a girl who understands the gospel intellectually, but who may not have had it applied to her heart? To her it seems that God was arbitrary and almost cruel to allow Job and everyone around him to suffer to ‘prove a point,’ or to perfect a man who was already more righteous than most of us. She wonders about the collateral damage to Job’s wife — including her faith, who suffered the loss of everything Job did, with the exception of her personal health. It does not bring her much comfort to think that following God could result in such devastation.
“I’ve talked with her about the fact that death and suffering is part of our human existence since the fall, and is a direct and indirect result of sin. We’ve talked about the fact that it was Satan’s cruelty that was the actual instrument of suffering, although within the sovereign will of God. And that this life and its suffering here on this earth is nothing compared to glory in eternity. We’ve also talked about how God himself has suffered on our behalf and bore our sins on the cross, and that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, although our sins grieve him. Pastor John, what else would you say?”
Well, I certainly want to commend this dad for the kinds of things he has patiently shown his daughter. That’s an amazing list of insights that he has shared with her. If he hadn’t asked me, “What else would you say?” I would have said what he said. Those are all solid biblical truths that he highlighted there at the end of his question. So what else — that’s what he’s asking — what else would I say? And keep in mind that if I knew her, I would try to take into account how to say them. But I don’t, and so I’ll do the best I can.
1. Recognize God’s superior value.
First, I would try to help her see what only a divine miracle can make her see — namely, that the value of God and his glory is infinitely greater than the value of all human beings who have or ever will exist. Until a person believes this and feels this — the superior value of God himself — much of the Bible will make no sense, including Job.
I’m thinking, for example, when I talk about this principle of the ultimate value of God, of words like Isaiah 40:15, 17. God says,
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; . . .All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
Now stressing this infinite difference between the worth of God and the worth of all other reality is not contrary to the love of God. It is what makes the love of God amazing. If you try to enhance the love of God by reducing the distance between his value and ours, you wind up replacing reality with imagination and destroying grace.
2. Begin with God’s priorities.
Second, this means that when we make judgments in this world about good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, we should never — this is what I would try to help her see — we should never start with our own sense of the good and right and beautiful and just, and then use them to judge the acts of God. Rather, we should start with the acts of God revealed in the Bible, and think our way out from there to what is truly good and right and beautiful and just.
I remember during the years 1979 and 1980, I wrestled for months with the logic of Romans 9:14–15, which goes like this:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
And I just sat staring at that for months, saying, “How does that work? How does that logic work?” I wrestled month after month with biblical logic, saying, “I’ve got to get my head fixed. I’m not going to fix this text; this text is God’s word. My head is the problem, not this text.” And the second book I ever wrote, called The Justification Of God, was my answer to that one question — two hundred pages to answer that question. And it was driven home to me, “You will never grasp the truth of God, you will never understand the Bible, John Piper, if you start with yourself and judge God, instead of starting with God and judging yourself.”
3. Realize what we really deserve.
Third, hand in hand with this biblical, God-centered approach to reality goes the heartfelt conviction that human sinfulness — my sinfulness in particular — makes us all liable to God’s just judgment, or as Paul says, makes us all “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). In other words, every breath that every human takes is undeserved. It is another moment, another gift, of grace, and no suffering that any human receives from God in this life is more than what we deserve —ever.
“Until we feel the depth and horror of sin, much of the Bible will simply make no sense to us at all.”
Therefore, no injustice from God is ever done to any human. On the earth, everyone is treated by God better than we deserve — everyone. On the horizontal plane, in relations between humans, there are horrific injustices, which God hates because God hates sin. But we have not yet fathomed the greatness of our offense against God if we think that any suffering from his hand is undeserved.
This is why God was perfectly right and just to drown every single human being on the planet, old and young, except for eight people, in the flood of Genesis 6. He did no one any wrong; he was perfectly just in that judgment. Until we feel the depth and horror of sin like this, much of the Bible will simply make no sense to us at all.
4. Trust your benevolent Father.
Fourth, Job is in the Bible, like all other descriptions of suffering of the righteous, to help us be ready for our own suffering with confidence that it is not ultimately owing to caprice or to nature or to sinful man or to Satan, but it is in the hands of our all-wise, all-powerful, all-good Father.
This dad says of his daughter, “It does not bring her much comfort to think that following God could result in such devastation.” And my response to that sentence is this: God doesn’t expect us to be comforted by the suffering that following him will bring. He expects us to be comforted that all the suffering he appoints for us will be for our ultimate good, for the advancement of his wise purposes, and that he will keep us for himself through them all.
But it sounds like this young lady has not made peace with the promise that if Jesus suffered, his followers are going to suffer. That’s a promise. I’ve been struck with this again recently as I’m working my way through 2 Thessalonians for Look at the Book. Paul is speaking to new Christians — baby believers, several weeks old as Christians — in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, and he says this: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.” Paul had said to these brand-new Christians in 1 Thessalonians 3:3 not to “be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” And now it has happened, and he calls it “the righteous judgment of God” to fit us for heaven.
“All the suffering God appoints for us will be for our ultimate good.”
Oh, how pastors and youth leaders need to teach the biblical doctrine of the necessity of Christian suffering in obedience to Jesus. They need to say to young people that Christ is not calling them to an easy life but to a life of serious joy, not silly joy, and that most of the things young people live for will vanish like mist in the face of real life — especially life in the service of a crucified Messiah.
5. Pray to see as God does.
So the last thing I would ask of our young friend is that she would pray with me, and with her father, the prayer that we all need to pray every day — namely, that the Lord would enlighten the eyes of our hearts to see God and to see the world and the way God does things in the world, in order that we might make wise judgments the way he does.
God is our refuge and our fortress. And in that great refuge psalm of Psalm 91, we are given this glorious promise: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1). Such a high promise prompted APJ listener Anna to write in. Anna lives in Atlanta. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for your faithful labors,” she writes. “My question comes from Psalm 91:1. What does it mean to ‘dwell in the shelter of the Most High’ and to ‘abide in the shadow of the Almighty?’ Is there a New Testament equivalent to this for believers in Christ? And is the practice of daily Scripture reading part of it?” Pastor John, what would you say to Anna?
Yes, there is a New Testament equivalent, and yes, Scripture reading is certainly part of the way you keep dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. But to get at the actual meaning, let’s quote the psalm, Psalm 91, and then look at an event from the life of a martyred missionary, Jim Elliot, whose biography is titled, by his wife, Shadow of the Almighty.
Safe in His Shelter
The phrase comes from Psalm 91, which begins like this:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
And then it continues in verse 7 with these amazing words:
A thousand [arrows] may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place . . .
So, it sounds like to dwell in the shadow of the Almighty and in the shelter of the Most High means that if someone throws a spear at you, it will not hit you.
For the Sake of Gain
So was Elizabeth Elliot naive, unbiblical, when she titled her husband’s biography Shadow of the Almighty, even though he and four others were speared to death by the Huaorani Indians on January 8, 1956, in Ecuador, while they were trying to evangelize them? She’s been asked that question. She’s with the Lord now, but she was asked that question, and I personally spoke to her many times. Most people considered her confidence in God’s sovereignty to be a little bit misplaced. Here was her answer at the end of the book. You can read it on the last pages of that biography:
The world did not recognize the truth of the second clause in Jim Elliot’s credo: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
“They trusted implicitly in the blood of the Lamb, that it had absolutely secured their future happiness forever.”
Now, what did he mean by that? What did she mean when she quoted it? Well, they both meant this: if God sees fit to let the arrow that flies by day or the spear of a Huaorani Indian to kill one of God’s children, God has done it for the sake of gain. Jim Elliot said “to gain what he cannot lose.” God has done it for gain, not loss. And I think she’s right. I think he was right. That’s a right interpretation of Psalm 91.
Here’s why I think that: Satan tried to use Psalm 91 in Matthew 4:6 to tempt Jesus to jump off the temple, because Psalm 91 promises that the angels are going to catch you. But Jesus won’t use Psalm 91 that way. Neither did Stephen when he was stoned to death. Neither did James when he was beheaded. Neither did Paul when he was beaten repeatedly with rods. Neither did Jesus as he bent down over the cross. None of them understood Psalm 91 to mean that God’s children will never suffer at the hands of their enemies.
Everything You Need
So what does it mean? I mean, Satan was trying to get them to think it meant that. What does it mean to abide in the shadow of the Almighty if you can be killed in the shadow of the Almighty? Well, let’s go to the New Testament counterpart of this text. So Anna asks, “Is there a New Testament counterpart?” There are several. For example,
Jude 21 says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” I think that is virtually the same as “Keep yourselves in the shadow of the Almighty.”
Or Jesus says in John 15:9, “Abide in my love,” which I think is the same as “Abide in the shelter of the Most High.”
In other words, dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty and abiding in the shelter of the Most High means trusting implicitly in the love of God, the power of God, to give you everything you need to do his will and glorify his name, whether you live or die. Or to say it another way: dwelling in the shadow of the Most High and keeping yourself in the love of God means trusting the love of God and the wisdom of God and the power of God to protect you from everything that could destroy you utterly.
Now, why do I say that? One of the clearest reasons for saying that is found in Romans 8:32–39, maybe the greatest paragraph in the Bible. Paul argues that God’s love for his elect, his adopted children, proven in the death of his Son Jesus, means that he will, with absolute certainty, “graciously give us all things.”
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
“If we are in the shadow of the Almighty, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.”
Answer: he will. But what does that mean — all things? And he goes on to explain, and he even uses the Psalms to explain it. He argues that if we are in the love of Christ, in the shadow of the Almighty, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Then he throws out a few possibilities of what might separate us, and it shows he’s really quite aware of Psalm 91. He says, “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35) — or he might have added, “or a Huaorani Indian spear?”
And then he quotes Psalm 44:22: “As it is written, ‘For your sake [not sin’s sake; your sake] we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Romans 8:36). So even the Psalms knew God’s people die while doing good. Then he shouts the answer: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
So Paul is saying Christians can keep themselves in the love of God and in the shadow of the Almighty and still be slaughtered like sheep, and yet be more than conquerors. So if the arrow that flies by day goes straight into your chest, and you drop dead in the cause of Christ, it does not defeat you. You are more than a conqueror.
Step into Everlasting Presence
How are you more than a conqueror? Because the very arrow that seemed to get the victory becomes your servant and accomplishes God’s sovereign purpose in the world. And God’s saving purpose for your life is everlasting presence. Here’s how the book of Revelation says it: “And they conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).
So they die in persecution, but they conquer Satan. How? This is the answer to Anna’s question. How do you dwell in the shelter of the Most High? They trusted implicitly in the blood of the Lamb, that it had absolutely secured for them their future happiness forever. And they opened their mouth and gave testimony. And the fear of death did not stop them. And in that moment, they were safe in the shadow of the Almighty, and they conquered the devil and they entered paradise. I think that’s the kind of triumphant safety that God is calling us to in Psalm 91.