Jon Bloom

Parable of an Unhealthy Soul: Why ‘Faith’ Dies Without Action

How do works of obedience relate to the free, unmerited gift of God’s grace in the life of a Christian? This has been a recurring controversial and confusing issue since the earliest days of the church.

If we are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s sufficient substitutionary work alone, and not by any work of ours (Romans 3:8), then why are we warned and instructed to “strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)? If our works don’t save us, then how can our not working (like not striving for holiness) prevent us from being saved?

Before we turn to the apostle Peter for help, hear a parable of an unhealthy soul.

Diligence Reveals Real Faith

There was a man who was forty pounds overweight. Despite knowing it was dangerous to his health, for years he had indulged in too much of the wrong kinds of foods and neglected the right kinds of exercise.

One day, his doctor told him he was in the early stages of developing type-2 diabetes. Not only that, but his vital signs also pointed to high risks of heart attack, stroke, and various cancers. If he didn’t make specific changes, his doctor warned, the man would surely die prematurely.

So, the man heeded his doctor’s warnings. He made every effort to put new systems into place that encouraged healthy habits of eating and activity and discouraged his harmful old habits, preferences, and cravings. After twelve months, the man’s health was beginning to be transformed. He had lost most of his excess weight, felt better, had more energy, and no longer lived under the chronic, depressing cloud of knowing he was living in harmful self-indulgence. When his doctor next saw him, he was very pleased and said to the man, “Well done! You are no longer at heightened risk of premature death.” The man continued in his new ways and lived well into old age.

Question: Was the man’s health restored through his faith in the gracious knowledge provided to him pertaining to life and healthiness, or was it restored through his diligent efforts to put this knowledge into practice?

How Faith Works

Do you see the problem with the question? It poses a false dichotomy. The man’s faith and his works were organically inseparable. If he didn’t have faith in what the doctor told him, he wouldn’t have heeded the doctor’s warning — there would have been no health-restoring works. If he didn’t obey the doctor’s instructions, whatever “faith” he may have claimed to have in his doctor would have been “dead faith” (James 2:26) — that faith would not have saved him from his health-destroying ways.

This parable, imperfect as it is, is a picture of the biblical teaching on sanctification. In a nutshell, the New Testament teaches that the faith that justifies us is the same faith that sanctifies us. This faith is “the gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8–9). It’s just that this saving faith, by its nature, perseveres, and works to make us holy.

We passively receive this gift of faith freely given to us by God. But faith, once received, does not leave a soul passive. It becomes the driving force behind our actions, the way we live. By its nature, faith believes the “precious and very great promises” of God (2 Peter 1:4), and the evidence that real faith is present in us manifests, over time, through the ways we act on those promises. The New Testament calls these actions “works of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) or the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). True works of faith don’t “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21); they are evidence that we have truly received the grace of God, and are themselves further expressions of grace.

Now, let me show you one place where Scripture clearly teaches this. And as I do, imagine yourself as the unhealthy soul in my parable sitting in your doctor’s office — and your doctor is the apostle Peter. Dr. Peter has just examined your spiritual health and has some serious concerns. So, as a good physician, he gives you a firm exhortation.

Escaping Through Promises

[God’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)

Dr. Peter begins by telling you that God has granted to you all things. He agrees with his colleague, Dr. Paul, that God has granted you life, breath, and everything, including the day you were born, the places you’ll live, and how long (Acts 17:25–26). God has granted you regeneration (Ephesians 2:4–5), the measure of your faith (Romans 12:3), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7–11), and capacity to work hard (1 Corinthians 15:10). And God has given you his “precious and very great promises so that through them” you may escape the power of sin and be transformed into his nature.

Everything, from beginning to end, is God’s grace, since “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27).

Make Every Effort

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5–7)

Notice Dr. Peter’s words: For this reason (because God has granted you everything), make every effort (act with faith in all God has promised you).

In other words, prove the reality of your profession of faith, by doing whatever it takes to actively cultivate habits of grace, that nurture the character qualities necessary to live out the “obedience of faith” through doing tangible acts of good to bless others.

What Negligence Reveals

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. (2 Peter 1:8–9)

“Diligence will reveal genuine faith because that is how faith works.”

Dr. Peter’s prescription is clear and simple: if you cultivate these holy qualities, they will foster spiritual health and fruitfulness; if you don’t, you will experience spiritual decline and demise. Diligence will reveal genuine faith because that is how faith works: it leads to action. Negligence will reveal your lack of faith because “dead faith” doesn’t work.

Now, this is a warning, not a condemnation. Peter knows well that all disciples have seasons of setbacks and failure. But he also knows, with Paul, that some disciples “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16) — their profession of faith is not supported by the “obedience of faith.” Peter doesn’t want you to be one of those statistics, so he ends his firm exhortation to you on a hopeful note.

Pursue Diligence by Faith

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10–11)

Just so you’re clear, Dr. Peter emphasizes the organic, inseparable relationship between God’s grace and your “works of faith.” He says, “Be diligent to confirm your calling and election.”

You don’t call yourself to Christ; Christ calls you by his grace (John 15:16). You don’t elect yourself to salvation; God elects you by his grace (Ephesians 1:4–6). But you do have an essential contribution to make to your eternal spiritual health. You confirm the reality of God’s saving grace in your life through diligently obeying by faith all that Jesus commands you (Matthew 28:20) — or not.

“You can confirm the reality of God’s saving grace in your life — or not.”

This is Dr. Peter’s prescription for your assurance of salvation: your diligent obedience through faith, your making every effort to pursue holiness, is evidence that your faith is real and that the Holy Spirit is at work in you to make you a partaker in the divine nature.

This is why Scripture commands us, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). It’s not that our striving, our “making every effort” to obey God, somehow merits us salvation. Rather, our striving is God’s gracious, ordained means — fed by his promises and supplied by his Spirit — to make us holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16) and to provide us “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

God’s grace is no less gracious because he chooses to grant it not only apart from our works (in justification) but also through our diligent “works of faith” (in sanctification) — especially since these works are evidence that our faith is real.

A Father’s Good Pleasure

A recent experience stirred in me a desire to share a word for fathers. I have fathers of younger children particularly in mind, those on the front end of their fathering days, when a man is seeking to establish godly habits so that, by his example, his children might see the shadow of their heavenly Father. This word, however, is also relevant to fathers of teens and young adults, like me, as well as for elderly fathers whose children are well into adulthood. I hope even those in situations where a father is absent will be able to draw out applications for themselves.

But before I unpack this threefold word of biblical counsel, allow me to share my recent experience with you, since it both inspired and illustrates what I have to say.

Because I Love You

One Friday morning a few months back, I sent a text to my sixteen-year-old daughter, Moriah. Before sharing the text, let me share a bit of context.

I began giving each of my five children a weekly allowance when they were around the age of seven. Then, at different points as they grew older, I sought to help them put age-appropriate budget structures in place to equip them to handle money well. When each approached age sixteen, I let them know that their allowance would end when they were old enough to be employed.

A few days before I sent my text, Moriah began her first job, which meant it was her last allowance week. So, early that Friday morning, I transferred the funds into her account. I wasn’t at all prepared for the tears. Why was I crying? I tried to capture why in this (slightly edited) text I sent to her shortly after:

I just transferred your allowance into your account. In the little memo window, I typed “Mo’s final allowance payment,” and suddenly a wave of emotion hit me, catching me by surprise. I’m standing here at my desk, alone in the office, my eyes full of tears, swallowing down sobs. Another chapter closed, another little step in letting you go. A decade of slipping you these small provisions each week to, yes, try and teach you how to handle money (not sure how well I’ve done in that department), but also, and far more so (when it comes to this father’s heart), out of the joy of just making you happy in some small way. At bottom, that’s what it’s been for me: a weekly joy of having this small way of saying, “I love you.” I’ll miss it. Because I love you.

I still can’t read that without tearing up. I so enjoy every chance I get to give my children joy. As I stood there, trying to pull myself together, a Scripture text quickly came to mind:

Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9–11)

And as I pondered this passage, I thought of some friends who are fathers of young children and jotted down three lessons I wanted to share with them.

Pursue Your Pleasure for God’s Sake

God means for you to taste the great pleasure it gives him to make his children happy through how much pleasure it gives you to make your children happy.

“Fathers, become a student of what gives your children joy.”

So, pursue your pleasure in making your children happy! Give them good things — things they value as good and really want. And really, authentically enjoy doing it. It has God’s endorsement, since he too takes great pleasure in giving good gifts to his children.

What’s wonderful about this pleasurable experience is that, for a Christian father, it is multidimensional: we get the joy of blessing our children and the joy of tasting our heavenly Father’s joy in blessing us. This becomes an opportunity to exercise what C.S. Lewis called “transposition” (in his essay by that name in The Weight of Glory) — we see and savor the higher, richer pleasure of God in the natural pleasure of giving pleasure to our children.

Pursue Your Children’s Pleasure

God means for your children to taste how much pleasure it gives him to make his children happy through how much pleasure it gives you to make them happy.

So, pursue your children’s pleasure in making your children happy! Become, through your joyful, affectionate generosity, an opportunity for your children to experience transposition too — to see and savor the higher, richer pleasure of God in the natural pleasure of their father giving good gifts to them.

Become a student of what gives them joy. Watch for those few opportunities during their childhood to bless them with a lifetime memory (think Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB rifle in A Christmas Story). But know that often it’s the simple, smaller good gifts in regular doses that make the biggest, longest impact. Because the most lasting impression of any of the good things you give your children will be how much you enjoyed giving it to them.

This is important, because when, out of love for them, you must discipline them or make a decision that displeases them, or some significant disagreement arises between you, and they’re tempted to doubt that you care about their happiness, your history of consistent, simple, memorable good gifts, given because you love to do them good, can remind them that even now you are pursuing their joy. It can become an echo of Jesus’s words: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And it will model for them that God too really does take joy in their joy, even when his discipline is “painful rather than pleasant,” since later it will yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

“Often it’s the simple, smaller good gifts in regular doses that make the biggest, longest impact.”

If your children experience their father’s good pleasure in giving them joy, what is likely to stay with them, long after the good gifts are gone, is this: the gift you were to them. The real treasure wasn’t their father’s good things; it was their father. And in this is an invaluable parable, if our children have eyes to see.

Let Your Pleasure Speak for Itself

God means for your pleasure in giving your children pleasure to first speak for itself.

One last brief word of practical counsel. For the most part, avoid immediately turning the moments you give gifts to your kids into a teaching moment. Don’t explain right then that what you’re doing is an illustration of Matthew 7:9–11. Let your pleasure in giving them pleasure speak for itself, and allow them the magic moment when the Holy Spirit helps them make the connection.

In fact, don’t talk too much to them about your experience as such. Wait for meaningful moments, and then take them when they come. Like an early Friday morning text message to your sentimental sixteen-year-old while she’s sitting in a crowded high school classroom, forcing her to text back, “Stop! ur gonna make me cry!”

He Is, He Was, He Will Be: Adoring the Alpha and Omega

“Who is this Son of Man?” From the moment he first appeared in the world, on a desperate night in a crowded town, Jesus has provoked this question.

The shepherds must have asked it in awe when gazing upon this swaddled newborn “lying in a manger,” whom the holy herald angel said was “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8–20).
The magi must have asked it in wonder when the star led them to the Child who was “born king of the Jews,” living in the humble dwelling of a peasant family (Matthew 2:1–12).
The disciples asked it in fear when they witnessed a storm obey Jesus’s command (Luke 8:22–25).
The Jewish leaders asked it in outrage when Jesus claimed authority belonging only to God (John 8:53).
The crowd asked it in confusion when Jesus and his teaching did not match their messianic expectations (John 12:34).

“Who is this Son of Man?” It has become the great question of history regarding the One whose birth became the dividing point of all history.

But this question hasn’t gone unanswered. And of all the Bible’s answers to that question, one of the most glorious and mind-bending comes in the book of Revelation. Here the Father and the Son answer together, in Revelation’s first chapter and last:

First, the Father’s answer: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Revelation 1:8).
Then the Son’s answer: “Behold, I am coming soon. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:12–13).

Taken together, the Lord God and the Lord Christ provide an awesome single, twofold answer:

Like eternal Father, like eternal Son;Spanning endless ages, two divinely one.Alpha and Omega, both the first and last;Eternally existing, present, future, past.

He Who Is

Like God the Father, God the Son is also one “who is and who was and who is to come.” This is to us a strange chronology — first present, then past, then future. We might wish to correct the divine self-description to say he “who was and who is and who is to come.” But this would be a mistake.

“The greatest, most fundamental reality in existence is that God is.”

The greatest, most fundamental reality in existence is that God is. In fact, the most sacred name God revealed to his first-covenant people, his most holy self-disclosure, is the one he spoke to Moses: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14; also 33:19; 34:6). That’s why in the divine chronology, the fact that God is comes first.

Time is a mystery to us, so it is no surprise that how God interacts with time is a mystery to us. But we can safely assume that when God speaks of time in ways we at least partly comprehend, he is graciously condescending. So, when he tells us that he “was” and he “is to come,” it is to help us time-bound creatures understand that “from everlasting to everlasting” he is God (Psalm 90:2). And it is to help us understand that Jesus, like his Father, “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He always is.

And yet, mystery of mysteries, the eternal Word of the Father entered the world in space and time, the world he himself had made (John 1:10) “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In appearing among us, God the Son revealed marvelously who he is:

“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
“I am from above” (John 8:23).
“I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
“I am in the Father” (John 10:38).
“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

An even more wonderful and simultaneously damning self-revelation occurred during Jesus’s trial. When asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus’s glorious, lethal answer was, simply, “I am” (Mark 14:61–62).

Who is this Son of Man? Like eternal Father, like eternal Son. He is the “I am.” He is the Son of the Blessed Father. He is the Lord Christ, who, like the Lord God, always is.

He Who Was

That the Son always is implies the Son always was. For some, this is the most difficult concept of God’s existence to comprehend.

“God is not wholly understandable to us because he is holy.”

The difficulty is wholly understandable. We are created beings trying to comprehend an uncreated Being, not to mention a triune uncreated Being. God is not wholly understandable to us because he is holy — nothing else in existence shares his uncreated existence.

But Jesus takes our struggle to a whole new level, when in the incarnation, the Creator becomes creature:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh. (John 1:1–3, 14)

Mercifully, much like the way God revealed himself in the Old Testament, Jesus revealed this aspect of his glory progressively.

One of the first to see Jesus’s preexistent glory was John the Baptist, Jesus’s older cousin who nevertheless said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me” (John 1:15).

But as the time drew near for Jesus to fulfill the redemptive purpose for which he came, he revealed more of his preexistent, always-existent nature, as he did in this famous discussion with the Jewish leaders:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56–58)

So unique, so holy is God the Son, that his nature breaks the conventions of human grammar. He uses a present-tense verb in a past-tense context to communicate his Christological point. Later, the apostle Paul would do the same thing when he declared that Jesus “is before all things” (Colossians 1:17).

Who is this Son of Man? Like eternal Father, like eternal Son. He is the Alpha. He is the beginning. He is the one who always was.

He Who Is to Come

That Jesus always is also implies that Jesus always will be — he is the one who is to come. This he revealed with unmistakable and glorious clarity.

In describing the end of this age to his disciples, he said,

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30–31)

He declared this same coming to the Jewish leaders during his trial, after proclaiming himself the “I am”: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).

These Jewish listeners knew exactly what Jesus meant. He was identifying himself as the “son of man” prophesied by the prophet Daniel, whom “all peoples, nations, and languages [would] serve,” and who would receive from Almighty God “an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and [a] kingdom . . . that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13–14).

But Jesus wasn’t merely issuing a warning. He was expressing his great longing, the purpose of his incarnation, the culmination of history, and the reward of his suffering.

The kingdom! The time when, at last, God himself will dwell with man; the time when our waiting will be over, and God will “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore”; the time when “the former things [will] have passed away”; the time when God will make “all things new” (Revelation 21:3–5).

The kingdom! The “blessed hope” of all who have loved “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13; 2 Timothy 4:8). And of the fulfillment of this blessed hope, our great God and Savior, the prophesied Son of Man, has promised, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:12).

Who is this Son of Man?

Like eternal Father, like eternal Son;Spanning endless ages, two divinely one.
Alpha and Omega, both the source and sum;
He who is, he who was, and he who is to come.

And so shall the great question of history receive its climactic answer when the Lord God sends the Lord Christ to bring to a close history as we’ve known it and inaugurates his everlasting kingdom. All we who wait for this blessed hope say, “Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.”

Our Tongues (and Fingers) of Fire: What Words Reveal About Us

In one very tense discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus uttered some of the most important words ever spoken about the importance of the words we speak:

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:34–37)

What an unnerving thought. The words we speak (and type!), whether we think so or not, are reliable revealers of what our hearts truly value. And someday, when we stand before the “judgment seat of Christ, [to] receive what is due for what [we have] done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10), our own words — even careless ones — will be brought forth as witnesses.

What Words Reveal

When Jesus said we speak out of the “abundance” of our hearts (Matthew 12:34), what did he mean? The best way to answer this question is to look at the context.

Jesus had just delivered a man from demonic oppression. And the crowd who witnessed this wonder couldn’t help but ask if Jesus were the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David. The Pharisees, doing everything they could to stamp this idea out, had a ready answer: “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24).

Jesus responded with one of his most forceful rebukes, exposing the blatant hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ accusation, warning them of the terrible danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31–32). And then he made his point about what words reveal.

Jesus turned the Pharisees’ words back on them to expose the evil power that was fueling them — the evil in their own hearts. They had chosen their words carefully and deliberately to achieve a desired end: to sway public opinion against Jesus by sowing seeds of suspicion in people’s minds through this unsubstantiated accusation. In doing so, they intentionally called evil the “good fruit” Jesus was bearing by releasing a man from demonic oppression, while not recognizing the “bad fruit” they were bearing by using dishonest means to discredit Jesus (Matthew 12:33).

The Pharisees were so blinded by their own evil pursuits that they didn’t recognize the spiritual danger they were in; they didn’t discern the demonic influence moving them to call the Holy Spirit’s power demonic. They were speaking words out of the abundance of evil treasure in their hearts.

Even Careless Words

At this point, everyone listening might have felt like taking a few steps back from the Pharisees, just in case lightning struck. But then Jesus’s warning about words suddenly broadens out to include everyone:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36–37)

The Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus doesn’t seem to be an example of careless words; they crafted their accusation carefully. But Jesus wanted them — and us — to know the abundance of our hearts is revealed not only in our careful, deliberate words, but in our careless ones as well. This takes matters to a wholly different level.

“Careless” is a good translation of the Greek word argon. Careless words can be flippant, idle, off-the-cuff words. They can be words we spout off when we lose our patience or words we use to pontificate on matters we haven’t thought about much. They can be angry, crude, insulting words we say over issues we feel strongly about — whether publicly or privately. And, while far rarer for human beings, careless words can also be patient, kind, honoring, peaceable, and humble.

“All our words matter. All will be called to witness for or against us.”

Jesus’s point is that all our words matter. All will be called to witness for or against us. What we say is so connected to our hearts that even our careless words are telling. And what often makes careless words revealing is that we speak them when our guard is down.

Painful Parable

A parable of the revealing power of careless words recently played out in the popular media when Jon Gruden’s remarkable and lucrative career in the National Football League suddenly ran off the rails.

In October 2021, two high-profile newspapers published exposés regarding numerous emails Gruden wrote between 2010 and 2018, prior to his becoming head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. These were words he clearly (and mistakenly) assumed would remain private. As one news site summarized, the emails revealed a “pattern of homophobic, misogynistic and sexist insults, as well as pictures of topless Washington Football Team cheerleaders.”

October 11 in particular became a day of judgment for Gruden in the court of public opinion, when he was roundly condemned by his own, as one sportswriter put it, “stupid and careless” words. And as a result, he resigned as the Raiders head coach.

This gives us a little picture of what Jesus meant when he said,

Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12:3)

Anyone facing prosecution in the U.S. court system is warned, “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Jesus is warning us that everything we say can and will be used for or against us when we stand before his judgment seat.

Given all we’ve said in the dark and whispered in private rooms, all the stupid and careless words we’ve spoken that could be damning witnesses against us, the wisest step we can take is to “come to terms quickly with [our] accuser” before we reach the court (Matthew 5:25), and pray with the psalmist,

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,     O Lord, who could stand?But with you there is forgiveness,     that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3–4)

For our Judge is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Bridle Your Tongue (and Fingers)

But part of repentance — in fact, evidence that repentance is real — is actively pursuing transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when it comes to all our words, and perhaps especially our careless ones, repentance looks like putting a bridle on our tongues, which obviously today includes our fingers and thumbs.

“Repentance looks like putting a bridle on our tongues, which obviously today includes our fingers.”

I’m drawing this metaphor from the apostle James who, in his strong warning about the tongue, uses three helpful analogies: (1) a horse’s bridle, (2) a ship’s rudder, and (3) a flame (James 3:1–6). Each of these, like the tongue and fingers, is a small object with great power. The first two illustrate controls that produce great good: a small bridle controls a powerful horse, and a small rudder steers a powerful ship. But the third illustrates how the lack of control — let’s call it carelessness — can wreak great destruction: a small flame sets a whole forest ablaze.

The point is clear: words under control can do great good. They can be for others “a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4) and “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). But uncontrolled, foolish words can burn friendships, families, churches, and careers to the ground (James 3:9–10). The question is, What bridles are we putting on our words to control them for good?

24-Hour Rule

Let me share just one personal bridle I’ve been using: the 24-hour rule. Before responding to someone whose words stir up anger, frustration, or defensiveness in me, I wait at least a day. I’ve found most situations do not require an immediate response, even if someone wants one. And almost always, after 24 hours, the emotions most likely to ignite my heated reply have dissipated, and I’m able to respond with more measured, loving words. Not only that, I often see the person’s perspective more clearly than I initially did. This rule is very helpful for finger speech, but it works with tongues too. I know when I use this bridle as a husband and father, it invariably produces a more constructive result.

We each must find the bridles that most effectively work for us, and it’s crucial that we do. Those who are willing to do the hard work of bridling the wild horse of our words, for Jesus’s sake, demonstrate their love for him (John 14:15) and their desire to love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:39). For those who don’t bridle their tongues and fingers, their words can and will be used against them on the day of judgment.

Whether or not we take Jesus’s words about our words to heart says something very important about our hearts.

Labor to Give (or Take) No Offense

Since we live in a complex, highly charged, contentious historical moment, when cultural and political issues stretch and tear not only the social fabric of a nation, but also the unity between Christians in many of our churches, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this two-sentence statement by Jesus:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)

It’s an important statement to meditate upon because Jesus spoke it in a complex, highly charged, contentious historical moment. Moreover, he spoke it to his small band of closest disciples the night before he died, knowing his death and resurrection would only increase the complexity and contention of their world.

Along with these disciples, nearly every new disciple after them would live in a wide variety of complex, highly charged, contentious historical moments. In fact, it would be a rare exception when a disciple wouldn’t live in such a moment. Therefore, all disciples who would hear or read Jesus’s two-sentence statement would need to ask themselves these two questions:

What does it mean to love one another as Jesus has loved us?
Do outside observers actually recognize us as Jesus’s disciples because of the distinctly Jesus-like ways we love one another?

And so, these are the questions for us to ask ourselves.

Serious About Obeying Jesus

As soon as we ask these questions, however, we realize that, though they are generally the right questions, they aren’t quite sufficient.

Asking, How do we love one another in ways that are recognizably Jesus-like? is like asking, How do we love our neighbor as ourselves? The answer is, “It depends.” There are endless possible answers. A specific answer to the question requires a specific context for the question. That’s why when a lawyer queried Jesus on neighbor-love, he answered with the Good Samaritan story to illustrate what it looks like in a specific situation (Luke 10:25–37).

This is the genius of Jesus’s two-sentence love command: it’s endlessly applicable. But it requires us to be serious enough about obeying it to press these two questions into our specific contexts.

So, what is our context? What’s causing the fabric of Christian unity in some places to stretch and tear much like the social fabric of the wider culture? Here, each disciple or local-church family of disciples must do the hard work of pressing these questions into their unique contexts, since each will have unique differences.

But still, like Jesus, who provided the lawyer an example in the Good Samaritan, it’s helpful to look at an example. One good example is Richard Sibbes.

Another Contentious Age

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was a prominent Puritan pastor who ministered during a time when, in England (as in all of Europe), the ecclesiastical and political ramifications of the Protestant Reformation were being worked out in tragically bloody ways. There was no separation of church and state. For reasons of mutual conviction or convenience, monarchs allied themselves with powerful Christian institutions.

This meant Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Nonconformist Protestants were, willingly or not, entangled in high-stakes struggles for political and religious power. Especially toward the end of Sibbes’s life, how one spoke of the Lord’s Supper, the Book of Common Prayer, or apostolic succession could get one imprisoned or killed. Suffice it to say, it was a complex, culturally contentious, frequently brutal historical moment. Strife was rife. Professing Christians said and did horribly offensive things to each other.

Yet in this environment, Richard Sibbes became renowned for his compassionate care of anguishing souls and his ability to help his hearers (and readers) encounter in Scripture the tender love of Jesus, the beloved Servant who would not break “a bruised reed” (Isaiah 42:1–4; Matthew 12:18–21). Not surprisingly, that phrase became the title of his best-known book: The Bruised Reed.

And in that book, Sibbes proposed one specific way Christians living in contentious times could love one another in a recognizably Jesus-like way.

The Christian’s ‘Good Strife’

Sibbes wrote,

It were a good strife amongst Christians, one to labor to give no offense, and the other to labor to take none. The best men are severe to themselves, tender over others. (The Bruised Reed, 47)

Having witnessed much evil strife between Christians, Sibbes proposed that, if Christians are going to strive with one another, then let them strive, let them labor, let them exert great effort, let them do everything in their power to not give or take offense. Let them strive to cultivate the spiritual discipline of being hard on themselves and tender toward others — or as Jesus put it, let them address the logs in their own eyes before addressing the specks in others’ (Matthew 7:3–5).

Now, even though we live in a different day, doesn’t Sibbes’s pastoral counsel sound remarkably relevant? What sanctifying, joy-producing good would it work in our souls, what would it do for the health of our local churches, what would it say to a watching world about Jesus, if we Christians today engaged in this good strife of doing everything in our power to not give or take offense?

Put It to the Test

Sibbes’s “good strife” proposal is an example of just one specific way Christians in conflict can obey Jesus’s love command in John 13:34–35. But it is a good one. We can test it out with our two application questions from Jesus’s love command, each of us filling in the blanks with our contextual specifics.

Question 1

What does it mean for us to love one another as Jesus has loved us given our context?

Sibbes’s (and the apostle Paul’s) answer: it means we labor to give no offense and take none by doing everything in our power

to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3),
to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10),
to never be wise in our own sight (Romans 12:16),
to give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all (Romans 12:17),
to never repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17),
to bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other, as the Lord has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13), and
to let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).

Is this the expression of Jesus-like love most called for in our specific situation? If so, we have a roadmap for what obedience looks like. If not, we need to keep prayerfully pressing the question until we get a specific answer.

Question 2

Do outside observers recognize us as Jesus’s disciples because of the distinctly Jesus-like ways we love one another?

Since this second question is really an evaluation of how well we’re obeying the first, we can’t answer it until we’ve been walking in obedience for a while. But using Sibbes’s “good strife” example, there’s no question that if we as individuals and as churches become characterized by the conduct described in the bullet statements listed above, most outside observers will recognize that we really do follow Jesus’s teaching.

Which means, regardless of whether the “good strife” is the best application of Jesus’s love command in our complex, culturally contentious historical moment, it is a strife we are nonetheless called to engage in as Christians. It is part of our call to follow in the footsteps of our great Servant-Lord, the Son of God, who also lived in brutally contentious times and knew when to hold his peace that he might not break bruised reeds.

How “good and pleasant” it would be for brothers and sisters to pursue this dimension of unity (Psalm 133:1) and share together in the blessing given to the sons of God, who learn how to make peace (Matthew 5:9) by counting it a glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11).

When Darkness Veils His Lovely Face

In 587 BC, after an agonizing two-and-half-year siege, the great pagan king Nebuchadnezzar finally breached the walls of Jerusalem. Babylon’s chokehold on Jerusalem for those couple of years had devastated the city, driving its starvation-crazed inhabitants to the unimaginable point of cannibalism.

But now, the foreign military unleashed its full fury, reducing to ruins much of the holy city, “the perfection of beauty” and “the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 50:2; 48:2). And it thrust a spear into its spiritual heart by destroying the great temple Solomon had built nearly four centuries earlier (Jeremiah 52:4–14). The conquest is still felt among observant Jews, who commemorate it annually with fasting and laments on the ninth of Av, the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar (Jeremiah, Lamentations, 441).

The Bible preserves the inspired record of one saint who managed to survive the carnage. We know it in our English Bibles as Lamentations, a collection of five beautifully composed, honest, raw poems, in which the anonymous poet gives an inspired collective voice to the grieving nation of Israel.

He captures in verse the devastating and disorienting psychological, emotional, and spiritual distress suffered by those who lived and died during the darkest, most tragic chapter in Israel’s old-covenant history, when the Lord, in judgment, had “become like an enemy” to his own people (Lamentations 2:5). It is the saddest book in all of Scripture.

Which is why it is remarkable that smack-dab in the middle of this book of tears is, arguably, the Bible’s most well-known, most beloved declaration of God’s love, mercy, and faithfulness:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;     his mercies never come to an end;they are new every morning;     great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22–23)

Driven into Darkness

To truly appreciate this beautiful, beloved declaration, we need to keep in mind the kinds of shock this author and his people had experienced.

They had seen Jerusalem’s beloved walls, strongholds, and palaces — the structures that for centuries had been symbols of God’s strength and protection for the Jewish people (Psalm 48:12–14) — turned to rubble (Lamentations 2:5, 8–9). They had seen priests massacred in the temple and the sacred building burned to the ground (Lamentations 2:6–7, 20). They had seen infants die of starvation in the arms of their mothers (Lamentations 2:11–12), parents eat the remains of their children (Lamentations 4:10), young women brutally raped, and once-free men enslaved and humiliated (Lamentations 5:11–13). They had seen bodies of young and old, common and noble, lying in the streets where they had been slaughtered, left to become shriveled horrors (Lamentations 2:21, 4:7–8).

And they knew this was God’s doing: “The Lord has done what he has purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago” (Lamentations 2:17). After centuries of prophetic warnings issued to his stiff-necked, disobedient people (Isaiah 1:7–9; Amos 2:4–5), God at last brought upon Israel the dreadful covenant curses Moses described in Deuteronomy 28:47–57.

The sovereignty of God over this human anguish pours out through the poet’s pen as he writes,

[The Lord] has driven and brought me     into darkness without any light;surely against me he turns his hand     again and again the whole day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;     he has broken my bones;he has besieged and enveloped me     with bitterness and tribulation;he has made me dwell in darkness     like the dead of long ago.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;     he has made my chains heavy;though I call and cry for help,     he shuts out my prayer;he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;     he has made my paths crooked. (Lamentations 3:2–9)

Therefore,

my soul is bereft of peace;     I have forgotten what happiness is;so I say, “My endurance has perished;     so has my hope from the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:17–18)

We can barely fathom such multilayered darkness and suffering: afflicted by God, decimated by man, alone, with no light, no peace, no happiness, no hope.

And then.

Light in Deep Despair

Suddenly, we come to one of the most unexpected, jarring literary pivots in all of Scripture — one might even call it a resurrection of one who had been “like the dead” (Lamentations 3:6).

“Into this darkness of destruction, death, and despair comes light, and in this light hope revives.”

Nothing about the horrific circumstances of the city, the nation, or the author gives any reason for hope. By all appearances, all has been lost. God, in his righteous wrath, administered through a foreign superpower, has slain his “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). The tomb has effectively been sealed. All one can do now is weep beside the grave — or hide from those who had done the killing.

Then into this darkness of destruction, death, and despair comes light, and in this light hope revives. For suddenly, unexpectedly, the lamenting author breaks into this beautiful, and now beloved, declaration:

But this I call to mind,     and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;     his mercies never come to an end;they are new every morning;     great is your faithfulness.“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,     “therefore I will hope in him.” . . .

For the Lord will not     cast off forever,but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion     according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Lamentations 3:21–24, 31–32)

What revives the author’s dead hope? Answer: not what, but who. The very sovereign God who had brought the darkness and anguish.

‘This I Call to Mind’

Specifically, his hope revives by the word of this sovereign God that the author has stored in his heart (Psalm 119:11). And he has stored a lot of it in his heart. Read Lamentations carefully and you’ll notice many allusions to passages found throughout the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms — especially the Psalms. For example, read these excerpts from Psalm 103 and listen for their echoes in that beloved Lamentations text:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,     and forget not all his benefits,who forgives all your iniquity,     who heals all your diseases,who redeems your life from the pit,     who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. . . .

The Lord is merciful and gracious,     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.He will not always chide,     nor will he keep his anger forever.He does not deal with us according to our sins,     nor repay us according to our iniquities.For as high as the heavens are above the earth,     so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;as far as the east is from the west,     so far does he remove our transgressions from us.As a father shows compassion to his children,     so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. . . .

The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,     and his righteousness to children’s children (Psalm 103:2–4, 8–13, 17)

God’s word revives this grieving author’s hope. He calls Scripture to mind in this dark, desperate moment. He recalls the Lord’s promises that his steadfast love will never cease toward those who fear him, and neither will his mercies. And he remembers that God’s great faithfulness is inextricably connected to his unceasing steadfast love (Psalm 57:10).

For the author (and the saints he speaks for), passages like this become “a lamp to [his] feet and a light to [his] path” (Psalm 119:105). Even here in the darkest pit, even now when all seems lost, as he and his nation suffer the terrible consequences of sin, in God’s light, he sees light (Psalm 36:9). And this light resurrects his hope.

Darkness Will Not Overcome the Light

The anguished poet of Lamentations, recording his hope amidst grief, reminds us of God’s power to unexpectedly resurrect dead hope. And the horrific nature of his circumstances, as an expression of God’s righteous judgment on Israel, remains a potent reminder that we are never in a pit so deep, and we never endure tragedies so severe, that God cannot, with a word, bring light to our path that overcomes our darkness with hope.

“Jesus knows tragic carnage and destruction, and all the darkness we experience, from the inside.”

I doubt this poet realized that these words — the words of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) — would so powerfully foreshadow Christ. Jesus knows tragic carnage and destruction, and all the darkness we experience, from the inside. That’s why he is for us the “light that shines in the darkness” (John 1:5).

It’s also why, when we are in our most hopeless pits, when our “soul is bereft of peace,” when we “have forgotten what happiness is,” when it feels like our “endurance has perished” and “so has [our] hope from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:17–18), Jesus, through his Spirit, loves to resurrect our hope by helping us call to mind God’s “living and active” word (Hebrews 4:12). And when his light shines in our darkness, “the darkness [will] not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The Hardest Word to Obey

The most morally beautiful, winsomely attractive command Jesus ever uttered also happens to be the most difficult to obey:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)

It’s a breathtaking statement. All that God requires of us, everything Scripture contains regarding “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), summed up in two simple commands.

“In their simplicity, these two commands encompass everything. Obeying them, however, is anything but simple.”

In that simplicity, these two commands encompass everything. Obeying them, however, is anything but simple. And there’s the rub. Because these commands are so sweeping, they can feel overwhelming — in fact, impossible. As a result, we can assume that we’re not required to take them all that seriously. This is a serious mistake.

Is Love Even Possible?

We might wrongly assume that while obeying these commands was once humanly possible in Eden, and will once again be humanly possible in our glorified state, they are humanly impossible now in our fallen state. And so they’re really more like lofty ideals, ones we don’t need to think hard about. We might even assume their purpose is to merely reveal our inability to fulfill them and our need for Christ (Romans 7:22–25), and that as part of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, Jesus obeyed these commands perfectly on our behalf (Romans 8:3–4). Therefore, Jesus doesn’t really expect us to obey them now.

While it’s true that Jesus purchased our justification through his perfect obedience, what Paul wrote in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14, and what James wrote in James 2:8, make it clear that the apostles believed Jesus expects us to seriously seek to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves — now, in this age, even today.

Who Models Discipleship for You?

The community around us either confirms or confronts our faulty assumptions about love. We often allow our peers to inordinately determine for us what discipleship looks like. If many Christians around us assent to but don’t rigorously apply these two great commands, their example can influence us to implicitly assume Jesus wants us to affirm his commands’ ideal rightness, but doesn’t really expect us to work hard in consistently living them out.

But as Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2 illustrates, peer influence can lead us into serious disobedience. The whole New Testament witness bears out that it’s precisely the radical way we live out Jesus’s love commands, all of which are essentially expositions of these Great Commandments, that demonstrate we are his disciples (John 13:35).

“The most morally beautiful, winsomely attractive command Jesus ever uttered also happens to be the most difficult to obey.”

No, we must not allow these facts — that these commands are difficult to obey, that we aren’t ultimately justified by our obedience, or that others around us fail to obey them — to form our assumption that Jesus doesn’t expect us to seriously obey them. Because he does. In fact, he expects us to structure our lives around obeying them.

How in the World?

This brings us back to how overwhelming these commandments can feel. If we take them seriously, they force us to ask, How in the world am I supposed to obey them? That’s exactly the right question to ask ourselves.

Have you ever spent serious time meditating on these commands to love?

I don’t mean merely listening to sermons, lectures, and podcasts about them, or reading numerous books and articles about them, and forming the right theological answers. For Christian teachers who produce such resources (I’m preaching to myself as I write this), I don’t mean merely putting in the arduous work of historical-grammatical and hermeneutical research and developing effective homiletical or literary communication skills in order to accurately understand and teach this text within your systematic theological framework. Don’t misunderstand me: these are important. But they don’t necessarily result in rigorous real-life obedience.

I mean, have you ever spent hours seriously pondering and working out specifically what it means for you to intentionally pursue loving God with your whole being in the tiny part of the world where God has placed you, and loving your neighbor as yourself among the eternally significant souls whom God has placed there too — especially needy ones, perhaps even an “enemy” (Matthew 5:44), maybe one you come upon along the road, so to speak (Luke 10:25–37)? Jesus doesn’t mean for us to be paralyzed by these all-encompassing commandments; he means for them to form our fundamental approach to life. He means for each of us to seriously ask how in the world we are to obey them and put in the rigorous effort of prayerfully discerning what obedience might specifically mean for us.

And he has by no means left us without help. He has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us (John 16:13), the gift of the New Testament to provide plenty of examples of breaking down these sweeping commands into specific applications, and the gift of one another in the church to assist us in pursuing this “more excellent way” of life (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Count the Cost

It isn’t until we have pondered what these commandments truly demand of us that we can determine if we’re truly willing to pay what it costs. Jesus says as much:

Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28)

Jesus said this after declaring what his commandments cost his disciples: they must renounce everything. It’s a high cost.

But the cost itself is an expression of love. Our renunciation isn’t primarily about how much asceticism we’re willing to endure for Jesus’s sake; it’s about where our treasure is and how much we love it (Matthew 6:21). Which is why Paul wrote, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Jesus’s call, to paraphrase Jim Elliott, is for us to give up what we cannot keep, to gain what we cannot lose.

If You Love Me

Jesus’s commands to love — these most morally beautiful, winsome imperatives — are the most difficult, most costly words to obey.

That’s why at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, after giving specific examples of what a life of love looks like, Jesus says, “The way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). And it’s why one of the last things Jesus said to his disciples before his crucifixion was John 15:12–13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

When we read that statement, especially in the light of something he said just minutes before — “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) — we can hear both the echo of Jesus’s two great commandments and his expectation that we take them with the utmost, life-shaping seriousness.

For those of us aspiring to pursue “radical discipleship,” it really doesn’t get more radical than Christlike love.

Laziness Ruins Happiness: What Makes Diligence a Virtue

Most people do not want to be thought of as lazy — as a person averse to hard work. We all know laziness is a vice — a corrupting and addicting use of a good gift: rest. Leisure in proper doses is a wonderful, refreshing gift of God. But habitual indulgence in leisure to the neglect of God-given responsibilities brings destruction, both to ourselves and to others.

But it’s destructive for a deeper reason than the obvious detrimental impact of work done negligently, or not done at all. At the deeper levels, laziness robs us of happiness by decreasing our capacity to enjoy the deepest delights. And on top of this, it leaves us failing to love as we ought.

“Laziness robs us of happiness by decreasing our capacity to enjoy the deepest delights.”

Since all of us are tempted in different ways to the sin of laziness, it’s helpful to keep in mind all that’s at stake — and why, over and over throughout the Bible, God commands us to pursue the virtue of diligence.

Virtues and Vices

For Christians, a virtue is moral excellence that, if cultivated into a habit, becomes a morally excellent character trait. We become more conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) and experience an increased capacity to delight in what God has made good, true, and beautiful. We see scriptural examples in 2 Peter 1:5–8:

Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue [aretē in Greek, referring to all the virtues] and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Conversely, a vice is moral corruption that, if cultivated into a habit, becomes a morally corrupt character trait. We become more conformed to the pattern of this fallen world (Romans 12:2) and experience a decreased capacity to delight in what God has made good, true, and beautiful. We see scriptural examples in Galatians 5:19–21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do [prassontes in Greek, meaning “make a practice of doing”] such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Why Diligence Is a ‘Heavenly Virtue’

In the fifth or sixth century, many in the church included diligence on the list of the seven heavenly virtues to counter sloth (the old English word for laziness), which it had on its list of seven deadly sins. But saints throughout redemptive history have always considered diligence a necessary virtue. Both the Old and New Testaments consistently command saints to be diligent, and warn against the dangers of being slothful.

Here’s a sampling:

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. (Deuteronomy 4:9)

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,     while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)

You have commanded your precepts     to be kept diligently. (Psalm 119:4)

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Romans 12:11)

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (2 Thessalonians 3:10–11)

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Peter 1:10)

As these passages show, diligence is a “heavenly virtue” because it is a means of cultivating godliness — increased capacities to deeply delight in God and his gifts. Cultivating the “deadly sin” (or vice) of sloth, on the other hand, is a means of cultivating ungodliness — decreased capacities to deeply delight in God and his gifts.

Wearing Our Love on Our Sleeve

But when we speak of pursuing diligence as a way of cultivating godliness, there’s an additional dimension besides developing a strong work ethic for the sake of experiencing greater joys. Since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and since love fulfills his law (Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14), growing in godliness means we grow in some aspect of what it means to love. What makes the virtue of diligence distinctly Christian is that it is one of the ways we love God supremely and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–39).

“How we behave reflects what we believe; what we do reflects what we desire; our labors reflect our loves.”

God designed us such that our actions bring into view the real affections of our inner being. To put it very simply (and admittedly simplistically): how we behave, over time, reflects what we believe; what we do reflects what we desire; our labors reflect our loves.

Now, I realize I’m touching on a complex issue. Our motivating beliefs, desires, and loves are not simple, nor are the contexts in which we behave, do, and labor. Nor are the neurological disorders and diseases that sometimes throw wrenches into these already complex gears.

That said, it remains true that our consistent behaviors over time reveal what we really believe, desire, and love. This is what Jesus meant by saying we can distinguish between a healthy (virtuous) tree and a diseased (corrupt) tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:17–20).

And of course, the “fruit” is seen not only in what we do, but in how we do it. And here is where our diligence or laziness often reveals what or whom we truly love. Since we seek to take care of what we value greatly, it’s usually apparent when others put their heart into what they’re doing and when they don’t. Or as Paul said of some who were “lazy gluttons” in Crete, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:12, 16).

In what we do and how we do it, in our diligence or laziness, we come to wear our loves on our sleeves — whether we love God (John 14:15) and our neighbor (1 John 3:18), or selfishly love ourselves (2 Timothy 3:2).

Be All the More Diligent

So, there’s more at stake in our diligence or laziness than we might have previously thought.

Yes, diligence is important for the sake of doing high-quality work, which is beneficial in many ways. But hard work, by itself, does not equal the virtue of diligence. As Tony Reinke points out, “Workaholism is slothful because it uses labor in a self-centered way to focus on personal advancement or accumulated accolades” (Killjoys, 50).

When Scripture commands us to “be all the more diligent” (2 Peter 1:10), God is calling us to work hard toward the right ends (growing in godliness), in the right ways (what God commands), for the right reasons (love). The more this kind of diligence becomes characteristic of us, the more we become like Jesus: we increasingly delight in what gives him delight, and increasingly love as he loves — which is true virtue.

Bible Memory Brings Reality to Life

For many Christians, the term Scripture memory means rote memorization of Bible verses. And this conjures up feelings of past failure (over how often they’ve tried and given up), or futility (over how little they recall of what they once memorized), or fear (over memories of having to publicly recite verses).

Who wants to pursue Bible memory if it means more failure, futility, or fear?

No one, if that’s what Bible memory means. But that’s not what it means. It means so much more than rote memorization. And it’s crucial that we see the bigger picture of Bible memory so we understand why it’s so important to the Christian life — why God repeatedly commands us to remember.

Here’s how I describe it:

Bible memory means stockpiling your God-given memory with God-breathed truth (2 Timothy 3:16) so that your God-given imagination can draw from it to construct a more accurate understanding of God-created reality, enabling you to live in “a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).

Let me try to briefly unpack this.

Your Amazing Memory

Your memory is amazing. If you’re thinking, “No, it’s not,” you’re probably overly aware of your memory weaknesses. And you probably measure yourself against people with extraordinary memories, like Charles Spurgeon, who, as J.I. Packer described, had “a photographic memory, virtually total recall, and as he put it ‘a shelf in my mind’ for storing every fact with a view to its future use” (Psalms, 4).

“Bible memory means so much more than rote memorization.”

But don’t let phenomenal memories blind you to the marvelous gift of God that is your own memory. Your ability to recall information to your conscious mind is just one function your memory performs. But it does far more than that.

Your memory is a vast library, far more sophisticated than the Library of Congress, where you’ve been collecting information since before your birth. In that three-pound lump of wet grey tissue inside your skull, in ways that remain largely mysterious despite wonderful recent advances in neuroscience, you have stored enormous amounts of information in the form of impressions, sensations, sights, sounds, smells, cause-and-effect observations, propositional statements, stories, and dreams, as well as real, unreal, or anticipated experiences that produce joy, sorrow, pleasure, anger, delight, horror, desire, fear, and on and on. And you draw from this mental library all the time, every day, consciously and unconsciously, to do everything you do.

And more marvelous still is how your memory works with all levels of your consciousness to allow you to imagine.

Why You Understand Anything

By imagination, I’m not talking about our ability to create fantasy worlds in our minds. I’m talking about our ability to draw from our vast store of information and construct an image (or model) of reality, and then draw implications for what it means. That is the primary function of our imagination. It allows us to conceptualize things we learn are true, but cannot see. Which is crucial for those of us called to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18), to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

And what empowers our ability to imagine is our memory.

Augustine, in his jaw-dropping meditations on the human memory in book 10 of his Confessions, explained it this way:

From [my memory] I can picture to myself all kinds of different images based either upon my own experience or upon what I find credible because it tallies with my own experience. I can fit them into the general picture of the past; from them I can make a surmise of actions and events and hopes for the future; and I can contemplate them all over again as if they were actually present. If I say to myself in the vast cache of my mind, where all those images of great things are stored, “I shall do this or that,” the picture of this or that particular thing comes into my mind at once. Or I may say to myself “If only this or that would happen!” or “God forbid that this or that should be!” No sooner do I say this than the images of all the things of which I speak spring forward from the same great treasure-house of the memory. And, in fact, I could not even mention them at all if the images were lacking. (215–16)

It’s our immense memory that provides our creative imagination the information from which to make sense of reality and draw the correct implications. And we can’t imagine anything that isn’t meaningfully present in our memory.

This is why Bible memory so important.

‘You Shall Remember’

Have you ever noticed how often the Holy Spirit inspired biblical authors to stress the importance of memory? Over and over God commands us to remember his word (for example, Numbers 15:40; Psalm 103:17–18; Isaiah 48:8–11; Luke 22:19; 2 Timothy 2:8). In fact, it would be worth a week of your devotional Bible reading to look up all the texts that mention these words as they relate to what God has revealed to us: memory, memorial, remember, remembrance, remind, call to mind, recall, forget, forgot, and forgotten.

To re-member is to call to mind something we’ve previously learned, something that exists in our memory. We can see such remembering in Lamentations 3:21–23, written while the author was experiencing terrible distress and suffering:

But this I call to mind,     and therefore I have hope:The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;     his mercies never come to an end;they are new every morning;     great is your faithfulness.

The truth that the author called up from his memory, which sustained him in great need, was something he learned prior to his need. And it was something he was learning in more profound ways at that very moment.

That’s Bible memory: calling to mind and keeping in mind biblical truth we’ve learned, so that it expands and deepens our understanding over time, and continues to shape the way we live.

Meditation’s Servant

That’s perhaps why the Bible doesn’t say much about rote memorization, but it says a lot about meditation, because meditation is the way we both learn and remember. If you take that week of devotional exploration, it will add to your understanding of how meditation relates to remembering if you look up all the texts that mention these words: meditate, meditation, understand, understanding, know, knowledge, wise, and wisdom.

Biblical meditation (or reflection, rumination, contemplation) takes place when our God-given imagination processes the God-breathed information we store in our God-given memory in an effort to understand, or further understand, God-revealed reality, so that we might live wisely. We can see this process at work in Psalm 119:97–99:

Oh how I love your law!     It is my meditation all the day.Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,     for it is ever with me.I have more understanding than all my teachers,     for your testimonies are my meditation.

Implicit in this text on meditation (and most others in Scripture) is repetition. We all know from experience that repetition is what drives most information into our long-term memory. And this is the great value of memorization — it is a servant of meditation.

That’s certainly been my experience. Few practices have helped me meditate on Scripture more than memorization. The method I’ve found most effective has me repeating the same section of text over many days. This repetition not only has driven these texts into my long-term memory, but it has given my imagination the opportunity to ruminate on them.

As a result, I’ve gained a deeper, richer understanding of these texts and how they relate to other Scriptures and the world. That’s been the greatest benefit for me. Even though I don’t retain perfect conscious recall of many Scriptures I’ve memorized, meditating on them has woven their meaning and application into the fabric of my understanding. And they do come to mind much more readily, especially in times of need.

Keep the Goal in Mind

If Scripture memory has negative connotations for you, don’t think of it as memorizing Bible verses. Rather, think of it as

stockpiling your God-given memory with God-breathed truth (2 Timothy 3:16) so that your God-given imagination can draw from it to construct a more accurate understanding of God-created reality, enabling you to live in “a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).

“You won’t regret employing this very effective servant of meditation.”

It is a gift of God, a means of grace, to help you meditate on God’s word and bring reality to life.

As someone who struggles with memory weaknesses and who used to believe that Bible memorization wasn’t for me, I strongly recommend memorizing Scripture, especially larger sections. This is something you can do — you really can. You won’t regret employing this very effective servant of meditation.

For accurate understanding comes from careful meditation on true information. And accurate understanding results in our discerning right implications for what true information means. And when we live according to this understanding, the Bible calls it wisdom (Psalm 111:10).

This is the goal of Bible memory.

Can Anything Mend Our Conflict? How Cynicism Dies in a Divided Church

Right now, the example of a small band of twentysomething Christian women is helping me resist the many temptations I feel toward cynicism. Let me explain why.

I have been disheartened by the amount of politically/ideologically/culturally driven acrimony, leadership failures, church divisions, ethnic tensions, and relational breakdowns among American evangelicals over the past few years. I wish I could say it’s all exaggerated by media algorithms and irresponsible Christian clickbaiting. But I’ve seen too much up close.

I see evidence of Christian disunity almost everywhere I turn. The three beloved churches where I’ve spent most of my life have in the past few years all experienced significant to devastating internal conflict. Christians who are remarkably aligned theologically, and who have worshiped together for years, no longer bear with each other. Relationships that took years to bond are torn. And the resulting wounds leave a scar tissue of distrust that doesn’t seem to relationally adhere as it did before.

What is going on? A lot. Complex historical, social, cultural, political, leadership, and spiritual-warfare issues factor into this epidemic of Christian disunity. We can’t ignore them. They’re real and seriously affect real people.

But we must be careful. In our analysis and discussions and debates of the problem, we can, ironically, miss or evade the fundamental issue. For when it comes to cultivating priceless Christian harmony, or wreaking destructive Christian dissonance, the greatest causal factor, the one the New Testament far and away addresses more than any other, is love.

Jesus’s Radically Simple Solution

Try not to roll your eyes. I know when there’s a strenuous debate among Christians over something complex, there’s always a guy in the room that says something like, “We just need to love each other!” And it’s usually not very helpful.

“New Testament love is not simplistic, as in reductionistic; it’s simple, as in fundamental.”

This kind of statement comes across as naive, simplistic idealism, because we don’t just need to love each other. We need to fundamentally love each other. We need to know what loving each other means and looks like when we’re faced with a complex issue, when we view matters from different perspectives, when we have no simple solutions, and when the only way forward requires bearing with one another during the extended tension of disagreement.

And in this way, New Testament love is not simplistic, as in reductionistic; it’s simple, as in fundamental. There’s a big difference.

Neighbor as Self

The Beatles’ song-slogan “all you need is love” is naive, simplistic idealism. It sounds right because we all intuitively know love is the supreme virtue. But the statement is conceptually hollow and incoherent. It doesn’t tell anyone what love means, what it looks like when practiced, or what it costs. Consequently, this sentence hasn’t transformed anything, much less conflicts over complex issues.

Contrast that with Jesus’s great command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Do you see the difference? Jesus’s command is fundamentally simple, but not at all simplistic. It’s simple in that everyone immediately grasps the fundamental principle: love ought to be our most core value, shaping all our motives in relation to others. It’s not simplistic, because it is a one-sentence summary of an all-encompassing orientation to all our relationships, and its applications are endless.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is functionally powerful because, in any specific situation, it helps us gain at least some clarity on what love ought to look like, as well as what it will cost. It doesn’t remove complexities from relationships, situations, and issues, but if earnestly pursued, it is effective at dousing the flame of sin that turns our conflicts into wildfires — fires surrounding us in American evangelicalism.

The power of Jesus’s love command (and the many examples and expositions of it in the New Testament) has been lived out by countless saints over the past two thousand years and has transformed the world in countless ways. Which brings me to that small band of twentysomething women I mentioned at the beginning. For me, they are a picture of Jesus’s love command in action.

Taking Love to the Streets

I know most of these young ladies. Through a wonderful story of God’s providential work in their lives, they developed a deep concern over the plight of the thousands of street children in a major city of a Latin American country.

A few years ago, having gained a modicum of experience and raised enough financial support to live simply, they moved to this city and just began walking the streets and ministering to the kids and young adults they came across. These are children who, due to abuse, abandonment, excessive poverty, addiction, or the death of their parents, are forced to fend for themselves.

They sleep in culverts, under bridges, and in doorways, and they do whatever they must to find food. The streets are brutal, ruthless places for vulnerable children. Terrible things happen to many of them. Tender hearts harden and become distrustful. Danger and desperation exacerbate depravity.

But these women just began loving these kids — each one as a precious soul. They sought to love them as they loved themselves (imperfectly, they’d want me to emphasize). And they’re down there loving them right now.

They feed them, clothe them, take them to doctors when they’re sick or injured, and help many of them dealing with chemical addiction get into (or return to) treatment centers. They walk with young pregnant girls through the frightening journey of childbirth and beyond. They play Uno with kids in the parks and celebrate their birthdays with cakes and parties — something many of these kids have never experienced before. And as the Lord gives them opportunity, they share Jesus with them, pray with them, study the Bible with them, and connect them with good churches. As a result, an increasing number are coming to faith in Christ and getting baptized.

‘Because They Love Us’

Having won the trust of these hardened street kids through loving them with the tenacious, steadfast, faithful, self-sacrificial love of Jesus, now hundreds of hardened street kids have grown tender, loving these women back and genuinely caring for them in various ways. And of course, word on the street spreads fast, so more and more kids are seeking these women out and the modest ministry center the Lord has provided them.

Government officials are also now seeking them out to discover what they’re doing that’s so effective. These officials are also asking the street kids why they go to these women first when the government centers have more resources and programs. The kids’ answer: “Because they love us.”

Let that sink in. These women aren’t recognized experts, and they don’t have long experience, abundant resources, or PhD-designed programs. Neither do they have formal theological training. And yet they are proving remarkably effective at reaching these kids and helping them transition toward a more hopeful, productive future. From a kingdom standpoint, they are bearing more fruit in transformed lives and making more disciples than just about anyone else I know — even among a very neglected and historically difficult-to-reach group. Why? Ask the kids. They know why: “Because they love us” — each one as a precious soul.

Living Sacrifices of Love

So, what do these women have to do with the epidemic of Christian disunity in America? Answer: they are examples of taking Christian love seriously. But isn’t it apples and oranges to compare them to us? Contextually, yes, but not fundamentally.

My report of these women’s story, due to brevity, sounds more ideal than it really is. It’s hard. At times heartbreakingly hard — literal blood-sweat-and-tears hard. And it’s messy. Kids turn away. Kids disappear. Kids relapse into addiction. Kids are raped. Kids are killed. And the women make mistakes. They are misunderstood, sometimes maligned, and sometimes in bodily danger. They regularly feel inadequate, lonely, confused, grieved, bewildered, homesick, and like failures. They wonder if they’re doing it wrong. And they’re all too aware of their own sin.

“Living out Jesus’s love command seriously and intentionally will be hard, and the cost in numerous ways will be high.”

No matter the context, living out Jesus’s love command seriously and intentionally will be hard, and the cost in numerous ways will be high. We will feel the same ways in our context as these women do in theirs. That’s part of what it means to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

But this kind of love is transformational in ways that nothing else is. In our divisive and conflicted times, we urgently need to examine whether we’re seriously seeking to obey Jesus’s love command in our complex context. Our rancor, bitterness, division, and relational breakdown does not look like Romans 12–15, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4, or 1 John 3. We also should examine whether we’re paying any meaningful attention to our contextual equivalent of our wounded neighbor in the street.

As He Has Loved Us

The stakes are high. A deficit of love creates relational wreckage and distorts people’s perception of Jesus. For he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And he raised the “love your neighbor” bar even higher than we would have thought when he said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Sometimes, when the muck is flying and the disunifying din is blaring, it helps to focus on saints who are simply (not simplistically) loving like Jesus in their difficult contexts. They can help us gain perspective on ours and remind us what, fundamentally, is most important. And they can be a blessed antidote to cynicism. That’s what these remarkable young women are for me right now.

And as I see them trying to love their broken neighbors as themselves, I hear Jesus say, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

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