Jon Bloom

How to Watch for Wolves

A wolflike leader might project a very confident image, he might rationalize domineering and manipulative behaviors as characteristics of a “strong leader,” and he might point to numerous strenuous performances that he asserts are “sacrifices.” But his confidence, his leadership, and his “sacrifices,” when examined carefully and honestly, tend to benefit him more than those he “serves.”

When a wolf looks at sheep, what does he see? Food. His motivation for getting close to sheep is not to care for their needs or protect them from danger; it’s to feed on them. But in order to get close to sheep, a wolf employs deceptive tactics to keep the sheep from discerning his dangerous presence before he can achieve his aims.
That’s why Paul called false teachers in the church “fierce wolves” who don’t spare the flock (Acts 20:29), a metaphor he likely adapted from Jesus, who described false prophets as leaders “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). What makes these leaders false is not merely that they teach false doctrines, but that they have false aims. Their aim is not “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5) but something else. It’s an aim they hide from the sheep, an aim that causes them to view the sheep as a means of satisfying some ungodly appetite.
Jesus, switching to a tree metaphor, said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). And Paul labored to help sheep spot the “fruits” of disguised “wolves” infiltrating the flock. Let’s look at three of these fruits as described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3, where Paul offers a description of the “opponents” Timothy can expect to meet in his ministry (2 Timothy 2:24–26).
Pious Disguise
The first characteristic of a wolfish leader Paul describes is someone who “[has] the appearance of godliness, but [denies] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s worth looking at his full description:
Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)
We can summarize such leaders this way:

Their Wolfish Aim: self-indulgence
Their Sheeplike Clothing: “the appearance of godliness”
Their Recognizable Fruit: a lack of personal holiness (“denying its power”)

Now, just by reading Paul’s list of these leaders’ selfish pursuits, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. But frequently they’re not, because wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep. They move into positions of leadership because their guise of “godliness” is convincing, at first. But then their influence begins to cause a decline in the spiritual health of a church.
One such leader I worked with a few decades ago was in a pastoral position for years before he was discovered. I remember feeling a growing intuitive uneasiness around him before I saw any clear evidence. It was hard to put a finger on what was wrong, but something seemed off, and not only to me. There was a deficit of spiritual authenticity. His teaching and example seemed to lack power. Then the disguise began to slip, and other discerning leaders pressed until his secret, selfish, immoral pursuits were exposed.
I’m not suggesting that our every uneasy intuition is accurate. Fruit becomes apparent over time, so watch for patterns. Watch for a permissive application of “grace” and an orientation toward worldliness and self-indulgence. Watch the way a leader handles money. Watch for subtle signs of laxness regarding sexual ethics. Note other spiritually discerning people’s uneasiness regarding the leader. Watch for a leader’s defensiveness, condescension, and lack of transparency when challenged. And if a culture of manipulation and fear develops around a Christian leader, that’s cause for concern, since a wolf tends to appear godly but loves badly.
Opposing Truth
Another characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who “oppose[s] the truth” (2 Timothy 3:8). This is what we expect from a wolf, since they’re false teachers. And again, we might assume they’d be easy to spot right away. But often they’re not. Their influence, at least at first, is usually more insidious and ambiguous than we expect. Paul describes them like this:
Among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.  (2 Timothy 3:6–9)
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Some Answered Prayers Hurt: The Hidden and Faithful Love of God

Scripture tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). But have you ever received a good gift from the Father that arrived in a package that appeared to be anything but good?

Jesus came into the world to make the Father known to all whom “he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, 18). He came to help us “see what kind of love the Father has given to us” (1 John 3:1), that “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). He wanted us to know that the Father abounds “in steadfast love and faithfulness” toward us (Exodus 34:6).

This is why, when Jesus promised us, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), he made sure we understood the Father’s heart toward us:

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 7:7–11)

It’s an astounding promise of astonishing goodness and faithfulness: “For everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:8). Why? Because our Father wants our “joy [to] be full” (John 16:24).

However, Jesus, of all people, also knew that some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers — some of his best gifts, in fact — arrive in painful packages we don’t expect. When we receive them, we can be tempted to think the Father gave us a serpent when we asked for a fish, not realizing till later the priceless goodness of the gift we received.

“Some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers arrive in painful packages we don’t expect.”

Why would the Father do this? As just one in the great cloud of God’s children across the ages, I can bear personal witness that he does it so that our joy may be full. And I’ll offer that witness here, with the help of one of history’s most beloved pastors and hymn writers. Because both he and I know how important it is to trust the Father’s heart when we’re dismayed by what we receive from his hand.

Near Despair an Answered Prayer?

John Newton was the godly eighteenth-century English pastor most famous for penning the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which describes the best gift Newton ever received from the Father: the forgiveness of his sins and eternal life through Christ.

But at times he also received, as I have, gracious gifts from God that amazed him in a different sense. He expressed this amazement in a lesser-known hymn, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow,” which begins,

I asked the Lord that I might growIn faith and love and every grace,Might more of his salvation know,And seek more earnestly his face.

’Twas he who taught me thus to pray;And he, I trust, has answered prayer;But it has been in such a wayAs almost drove me to despair.

I remember vividly the first time I experienced the reality Newton describes here, just after I turned 21. Following an extended season of asking God for the gifts Newton described in his first verse, I received an answer that had the same effect as that second verse. It devastated and disoriented me. I found myself reeling.

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Like Newton,

I hoped that, in some favored hour,At once he’d answer my request,And by his love’s constraining powerSubdue my sins, and give me rest.

Because my prayers reflected a sincere “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace. And I envisioned this occurring as God led me through “green pastures” and along “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).

However,

Instead of this, he made me feelThe hidden evils of my heart,And let the angry powers of hellAssault my soul in every part.

“I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace.”

As it turned out, the holiness and righteousness I (and Newton) hungered for — greater freedom from sin and greater capacities for faith and love and joy — were not available in a download. Such sanctification is available only if we’re willing to enter a “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And apparently the best training environment for us was a “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).

Lipstick on a Pig?

The season of disorientation and confusion usually lasts a while before we grasp what’s going on. And while it lasts, we feel dismayed. What’s happening? Did we do something wrong? Is God angry with us? Newton voices the confusion we feel:

Lord, why is this? I trembling cried;Wilt thou pursue this worm to death?

At this point, we can also be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Having sincerely asked him for a good gift, a gift Scripture says aligns with our Father’s desire for us, and having received in return a severe trial or affliction, we can wonder if our attempt to interpret God’s answer as a good gift is like trying to put lipstick on a pig. Perhaps God simply gave us a serpent instead of a fish after all.

I mean, what kind of loving father intentionally gives his child pain when he asks for joy?

The Father often lets us wrestle with that question for some time, allowing the pain to do its sanctifying work. But when the time is right, he will reveal his answer, which Newton concisely captures:

This is the way, the Lord replied,I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I now employFrom self and pride to set thee free,And break thy schemes of earthly joy,That thou may’st seek thy all in me.

See What Kind of Love

Like John Newton, I had asked the Father for what I wished and found him faithful to give me what I asked for, though I didn’t expect it to come in the package I received.

But Jesus, the Son, the Firstborn, came into the world to help us, through his teaching and example, to “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). And one manifestation of the Father’s love is to sometimes answer his child’s request for joy with a painful experience if it will result in his child ultimately experiencing more profound good and greater joy than if he withheld the pain. Because our Father wants our joy to be full.

And there’s a great cloud of God’s children bearing witness to the goodness of the Father’s painful gifts, each from his own experience. They would recite for us the famous proverb:

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline     or be weary of his reproof,for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,     as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)

They would quote the famous epistle:

[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)

And they would “Amen” the famous psalmist, whose painful discipline produced this prayer: “In faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

For when our training in righteousness has done its sanctifying work, one of the peaceful fruits is that we learn to joyfully trust the Father’s hand because we’ve learned to trust the Father’s heart.

Your Darkness Is Not Dark to Him

When my daughter Eliana was 6 years old, I wrote her a lullaby that included these words:

You, Eliana, remind me each dayThat God does answer the prayers that we pray.And though the night falls and we cannot see,He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me.

These four lines are packed with profound meaning for me. I rarely can sing them without tears. They refer to an extended season of what Christians call spiritual darkness, or a dark night of the soul, or a faith crisis, which I experienced the year before Eliana was born.

Since I told this story in some detail a number of years ago, I won’t recount it all here. I do, however, want to recount the moment God brought light into my night, because it was a transformational moment when I experienced the biblical truth David describes in Psalm 139:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,     and the light about me be night,”even the darkness is not dark to you;     the night is bright as the day,     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:11–12)

I say it was a transformational moment, not merely because light pierced my darkness, but because it drove home David’s poetic point: that just because “the light about [us] be night” and we, for various reasons, lose sight of God, it does not mean the Light is gone. In this moment, I experienced that God really is faithful to keep his promise to be with us when we walk through the valley of deep darkness (Psalm 23:4) — whether we perceive him or not.

Though the Night Falls

One spring day in 1997, for reasons too complex and distracting to describe now, God, who had been the Sun of my world since my youth, suddenly became eclipsed in the sky of my spiritual sight. I couldn’t perceive him at all. Existential darkness covered me; the light about me was night (Psalm 139:11). And my faith was in a full-fledged crisis.

This terrifying experience was foreign to me. But as I desperately ransacked the Bible and books searching for answers, it quickly became clear that this experience wasn’t foreign to saints in Scripture.

In one sense, this should have been clear to me prior to this crisis, given how often I had read the descriptions of dark nights like mine in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and so on. But in another sense, it’s understandable why it wasn’t. When we haven’t personally experienced such disorienting blackouts (and the disturbing doubts that typically accompany them), it’s almost impossible to imagine what “darkness without any light” is really like (Lamentations 3:2).

Now, I found myself walking through a “valley of deep darkness” (Psalm 23:4). I found myself praying with Heman the Ezrahite, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (Psalm 88:6). I found myself crying out with David in desperation,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)

And I found myself wondering what incomprehensible darkness covered Jesus when he made this desperate cry.

“God sometimes ordains dismayingly dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes.”

The Holy Spirit used my darkness to illuminate for me the Bible’s clear witness that, for various and deeply good reasons, God sometimes ordains dismaying dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes. And God had provided these scriptural witnesses to help people like me “not be surprised at the fiery trial . . . as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Their experiences gave me a frame of reference as I sought to navigate my way in the dark.

And We Cannot See

Navigation, in fact, became a helpful metaphor to me during this time. To explain what I mean, let’s look at David’s description of spiritual darkness with more context:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?     Or where shall I flee from your presence?If I ascend to heaven, you are there!     If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!If I take the wings of the morning     and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,even there your hand shall lead me,     and your right hand shall hold me.If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,     and the light about me be night,”even the darkness is not dark to you;     the night is bright as the day,     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7–12)

In beautiful poetry, David says that it doesn’t matter where he goes — whether to the dwelling of God or the dwelling of the dead, whether to the place where the sun rises or where it sets — God is there with him. And if we widen the lens to include Psalm 139:1–6, we’d hear David say God isn’t merely with him, but God fully knows him. God is acquainted with all of David’s ways, even his thoughts. When David is in such a dark place that God seems absent, God is fully present with him and fully cognizant of him. For there is no such thing as darkness to God.

‘Various Trials’ Theological Seminary

Why was David able to make such profound theological assertions? Because he received his theological education in the seminary of “various trials” (James 1:2), where his courses were “many dangers, toils, and snares” — and spiritual darkness. He practiced theology as if his life depended on it.

So, when David exulted in God’s continual knowing and guiding presence, even when deep darkness descended, he wasn’t waxing poetic over some romantic ideal; he was speaking of a reality he had experienced. Hard-won experience had taught him to navigate life by trusting God’s reliable promises, not his unreliable perceptions and emotions — especially in the darkness.

I remember when the thought “fly by the instruments” hit me while trying to figure out how to navigate my stormy darkness. When pilots fly planes into dense, dark clouds, they lose all points of perceptual reference. Their normally reliable perceptions suddenly can’t be trusted anymore, since they can feel like they’re flying horizontal and straight when they’re actually spiraling gradually toward the ground. Survival in this situation depends on trusting what the plane’s navigational instruments tell them over what their perceptions and emotions tell them. They must fly by the instruments.

That’s what David learned in the realm of faith — and so must we. One of the hardest and most valuable lessons we learn during our stormy, cloudy, spiritual nights is to trust what the instruments of God’s promises tell us over what our perceptions and emotions tell us. Such seasons force us to exercise faith. Which is why so many faithful biblical saints learned to “walk by faith and not by sight” during seasons of great desperation (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Why We Long for Light

As necessary and valuable as it is for us to learn to trust God in the dark — that he’s with us and fully knows us when we cannot see — we still deeply and rightly desire to experience that truth. We long for God to “lighten [our] darkness” (Psalm 18:28) because “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We long for light because we long for God.

“We long for light because we long for God.”

And so, on Saturday, August 23, 1997, while alone in the house, I threw myself on the living-room floor and pleaded with God (again) for light and deliverance. I prayed something very specific: “Lord, if you just somehow whisper to me that you’re still there, and I’m your son, and this whole dark season is something you’re allowing for your good purposes, I think I can endure anything. All I need is for you to whisper to me that I’m your son!”

And God answered. He answered in such way that all the attempts my inner skeptic has made to explain it as something other than an answered prayer seem so improbable as to be incredible. (If you’d like to know specifically how, I describe it here; in short, God spoke not through an audible whisper but through a friend directing me, unaware, to a specific passage of Scripture.) And when God answered, he brought light into my night. In his light I again saw light (Psalm 36:9).

Then, quite unexpectedly, one more aspect to this story occurred, which only made it harder to explain away.

When the Time Is Right

Several months after these events, my wife and I joyfully discovered we were expecting our second child. When we found out we were expecting a girl, we began searching for the right name. We ended up choosing Eliana, which in Hebrew means my God answers. We chose it as a memorial to that moment of answered prayer.

Eliana was born on Saturday, August 22, 1998. The day after her birth, I got to thinking, “It was somewhere around this time last year that God answered my prayer.” So, I got out my journal and realized Eliana had been born exactly 365 days after that answered prayer, on the corresponding Saturday one year later. A shiver of awe passed through me, and grateful praise filled my mouth.

God had been faithful, not only to his promise to cause “light [to] dawn in [my] darkness” (Psalm 112:4), but also to his promise to be fully and attentively present in my darkness, even when I couldn’t perceive him. And that’s why, even 25 years later, it brings me to tears almost every time I sing,

You, Eliana, remind me each dayThat God does answer the prayers that we pray.And though the night falls and we cannot see,He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me.

How to Watch for Wolves: Three Signs of False Teachers

When a wolf looks at sheep, what does he see? Food. His motivation for getting close to sheep is not to care for their needs or protect them from danger; it’s to feed on them. But in order to get close to sheep, a wolf employs deceptive tactics to keep the sheep from discerning his dangerous presence before he can achieve his aims.

That’s why Paul called false teachers in the church “fierce wolves” who don’t spare the flock (Acts 20:29), a metaphor he likely adapted from Jesus, who described false prophets as leaders “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). What makes these leaders false is not merely that they teach false doctrines, but that they have false aims. Their aim is not “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5) but something else. It’s an aim they hide from the sheep, an aim that causes them to view the sheep as a means of satisfying some ungodly appetite.

Jesus, switching to a tree metaphor, said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). And Paul labored to help sheep spot the “fruits” of disguised “wolves” infiltrating the flock. Let’s look at three of these fruits as described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3, where Paul offers a description of the “opponents” Timothy can expect to meet in his ministry (2 Timothy 2:24–26).

Pious Disguise

The first characteristic of a wolfish leader Paul describes is someone who “[has] the appearance of godliness, but [denies] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s worth looking at his full description:

Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)

We can summarize such leaders this way:

Their Wolfish Aim: self-indulgence
Their Sheeplike Clothing: “the appearance of godliness”
Their Recognizable Fruit: a lack of personal holiness (“denying its power”)

“Wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep.”

Now, just by reading Paul’s list of these leaders’ selfish pursuits, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. But frequently they’re not, because wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep. They move into positions of leadership because their guise of “godliness” is convincing, at first. But then their influence begins to cause a decline in the spiritual health of a church.

One such leader I worked with a few decades ago was in a pastoral position for years before he was discovered. I remember feeling a growing intuitive uneasiness around him before I saw any clear evidence. It was hard to put a finger on what was wrong, but something seemed off, and not only to me. There was a deficit of spiritual authenticity. His teaching and example seemed to lack power. Then the disguise began to slip, and other discerning leaders pressed until his secret, selfish, immoral pursuits were exposed.

I’m not suggesting that our every uneasy intuition is accurate. Fruit becomes apparent over time, so watch for patterns. Watch for a permissive application of “grace” and an orientation toward worldliness and self-indulgence. Watch the way a leader handles money. Watch for subtle signs of laxness regarding sexual ethics. Note other spiritually discerning people’s uneasiness regarding the leader. Watch for a leader’s defensiveness, condescension, and lack of transparency when challenged. And if a culture of manipulation and fear develops around a Christian leader, that’s cause for concern, since a wolf tends to appear godly but loves badly.

Opposing Truth

Another characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who “oppose[s] the truth” (2 Timothy 3:8). This is what we expect from a wolf, since they’re false teachers. And again, we might assume they’d be easy to spot right away. But often they’re not. Their influence, at least at first, is usually more insidious and ambiguous than we expect. Paul describes them like this:

Among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. (2 Timothy 3:6–9)

One way to summarize such leaders is this:

Their Wolfish Aim: self-promotion (selfish ambition)
Their Sheeplike Clothing: an image of spiritual power and/or theological erudition
Their Recognizable Fruit: manipulation of susceptible people, impressive appearance of spiritual power accompanied by advocacy for doctrines that undermine the gospel, opposition to godly leaders

Though Paul isn’t necessarily describing wolfish leaders’ strategic progression in these verses, it’s often the case that such leaders are sneaky to begin with, and only later become more openly oppositional, when they’ve consolidated a critical mass of influence.

‘Creepy’ Leaders

False teachers tend to creep in. When Paul says they “capture weak women,” we might be tempted to interpret this through a #MeToo grid, but he’s not referring to their preying on women sexually (though some, no doubt, did). He means these wolves single out those who, for various reasons, are particularly susceptible to deception, and convince them that they can be part of something new God is doing, something more powerful and spiritually important than whatever the church’s faithful, humble, godly leaders are teaching.

What makes these false teachers compelling is that they are able to demonstrate an appearance of whatever spiritual power impresses the Christian community they’ve crept into. In a continuationist context, they may appear to possess impressive gifts of the Holy Spirit, while in a cessationist context, they may appear to possess impressive theological and spiritual knowledge. These gifts or knowledge can confuse even godly leaders at first, since the sheeplike clothing can appear legitimate even if something seems off.

Showing Their Teeth

But eventually, wolves begin to show their teeth. That’s why Paul says such teachers in the church are like “Jannes and Jambres,” the names Hebrew tradition gave to the Egyptian sorcerers who wielded impressive magical power in their opposition to Moses (Exodus 7:10–12). Paul calls them “corrupt,” because their wrong teaching isn’t coming from a mere and sincere misunderstanding of the Scriptures, but from an intent to use the Scriptures to advance or protect their personal image of power and importance. When true gospel doctrine, either publicly taught or personally applied, threatens or thwarts the social (and usually financial) capital they covet, they aggressively and ruthlessly “oppose the truth,” and their folly becomes plain.

Watch for a pattern of pursuing church leadership positions that seems unhealthy. Watch for a charming charismatic personality that in the past has left a disproportionate number of disillusioned and wounded people in its wake. Watch for claims to and apparent demonstrations of the kinds of spiritual power valued in the church, but which encourage a troubling dependency on and loyalty to the leader(s). Watch for a group forming around a leader, noticeably comprised of susceptible, spiritually weak members, that begins to manifest distrust in godly church leaders. Watch for a pattern of conflicts with godly leaders and resistance to submit to leaders in general.

Adversity Avoidance

The third characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who avoids “persecutions and sufferings” for the sake of Christ and his gospel (2 Timothy 3:11). This characteristic is implicit when Paul writes to Timothy,

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra — which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:10–13)

Here’s how I would summarize such leaders:

Their Wolfish Aim: self-preservation
Their Sheeplike Clothing: “confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7) and controlling leadership that give the appearance of courage
Their Recognizable Fruit: avoidance of personal sacrifice and public persecution for the sake of preserving reputation, status, wealth, and comfort

A wolflike leader might project a very confident image, he might rationalize domineering and manipulative behaviors as characteristics of a “strong leader,” and he might point to numerous strenuous performances that he asserts are “sacrifices.” But his confidence, his leadership, and his “sacrifices,” when examined carefully and honestly, tend to benefit him more than those he “serves.”

That’s why here, as elsewhere, Paul refers to his persecutions and sufferings as a fruit of a true Christlike leader. Paul isn’t pointing out his personal greatness when he speaks of enduring “far greater labors, far more imprisonments [than the false teachers], with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Corinthians 11:23). He’s contrasting the fruits.

“True Christlike leaders bear fruits that evidence a willingness to sacrifice for Christ and his people.”

In the United States in particular, Christians suffer few of the kinds of persecutions and sufferings that Paul and the Christians of his day endured. So a wolflike leader can meld in much easier. But still, true Christlike leaders bear fruits that evidence a willingness to sacrifice reputation, status, wealth, and comfort for Christ and his people that stands in contrast to the self-promoting, self-enriching, self-indulgent aims of wolflike leaders. Pay careful attention, and you’ll see them.

Pay Careful Attention

That’s exactly what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in his parting words to them before heading to certain imprisonment and probable death for the sake of Jesus:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:28–30)

Careful attention would have to be paid because those “fierce wolves” would be wearing sheeplike clothing. Their emergence would be subtle — they would even infiltrate the team of elders (like Judas among the disciples). They’d have an appearance of godliness, seem to possess impressive spiritual power, and exude an image of confidence and courage. Many of the sheep would find themselves swayed. The elders would need to remind themselves and their flock of what Jesus had said: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”

And if they paid careful attention, the fruits would point to this: a wolflike leader preying on the sheep to satisfy his own ungodly appetites.

When My Mother Became Annie’s Mom: A Tribute to a Woman’s Great Love

It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother, Marilyn. She’s standing on the platform in the sanctuary of Wayzata Evangelical Free Church, where she’s been a member for over six decades. She’s a vibrant eighty-something (who you’d assume was a decade younger) surrounded by an exuberant, dancing throng of developmentally disabled adults as they all sing praises to Jesus together, some at the top of their lungs. Perhaps it’s not musically beautiful, but it’s all beautiful, nonetheless.

A half-century of loving labor has led up to this wonderful, mildly wild platform moment. And as I sit in the audience that evening, I think to myself, “That is a great woman.” She, of course, isn’t thinking about her greatness; she’s just enjoying the beautiful chaos enveloping her. Besides that, she doesn’t think she’s great and would dismiss such praise with a wave and an “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” But she’s great, nonetheless.

And it should be said, since the Bible tells us, “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). So, I trust you’ll indulge me for a few minutes as I unapologetically obey this text.

Humble Beginnings

Mom grew up in a quiet, modest, depression-era Minnesota home, the only child of her Swedish father and Pennsylvania Dutch mother. Her mother was a devout evangelical Christian who made sure Mom attended a solid church, where her own devout evangelical faith was born.

She and my dad, Marlin, were high-school sweethearts, voted “cutest couple” by their senior class (I mean, “Marilyn and Marlin” — how cute is that?). After graduation, Dad joined the Navy and Mom went off to teacher’s college, where she studied elementary education. A few years later, they married and started having children.

Having children was what really began to draw out greatness in my mother. Though this was due not only, or even mainly, to the biological children she had (of which I am the youngest of four), but to the additional children she had. And one in particular uniquely altered the course of Mom’s life. This child is the reason she found herself on the platform that evening.

Annie

My folks began fostering children from troubled homes years before I was born (in 1965) and did so for decades. Which is how Mom came to “have” Annie in 1963.

Annie was only a year old when her parents’ severe alcoholism forced the State of Minnesota to intervene. My mother got a call asking if they’d take in a little girl in great need of a safe, stable home. Mom said yes. It’s amazing how consequential a phone call can be.

But it soon became clear that something wasn’t right with Annie. She was rapidly falling behind the timeline of typical child development. Mom immediately became her advocate, having her evaluated by doctors and psychologists, and working with her to try to improve her cognitive and physical capacities. In 1963, the term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) didn’t exist (and wouldn’t for another decade), so no one could diagnose exactly what was wrong. But as the extent of her disabilities became clear, so did the sad reality that no one in Annie’s birth family network would be able to care for her. And Mom could not imagine sending this vulnerable, disabled little girl to an almost certain future of institutionalization. So, Annie became a permanent member of the Bloom family.

And my mother became Annie’s lifelong advocate. She educated herself, informally and formally, on early childhood development and disabilities in order to meet Annie’s needs, later becoming a self-taught expert on FAS. She made sure Annie received good medical care and the best special educational and recreational opportunities she could find and afford.

World of Annies

The more Mom learned, the more aware she became that there existed a world of Annies in need. And in those days, the world most developmentally disabled people lived in largely neglected them — and their parents. Very few therapeutic, educational, occupational, and caregiving support options existed. So, Mom joined a growing movement of people who advocated for these precious, defenseless lives. And their collective labors over time resulted in significant changes at almost every level of society that drastically improved the lives of millions.

“In those days, most developmentally disabled people lived in a world that largely neglected them — and their parents.”

For Mom, this began in 1967, when she saw a local newspaper ad calling for a volunteer to work with a handful of disabled children at a church’s nursery school. She answered the call. It’s amazing how consequential an ad can be.

Her volunteer position grew into a part-time paid position, which grew into a full-time paid position, which grew into a professional vocation as St. David’s nursery school, inhabiting a few rooms in a small church’s basement, grew into the multi-campus St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development. All because my mother and others like her put their love for developmentally disabled children and parents into strategic action.

So, what started as a volunteer gig became a career spanning thirty years. And Mom became known not merely as an expert in her field, but as a woman whose love for disabled children and their parents was simply remarkable. Literally, remarkable. Mom retired 25 years ago, and veteran St. David’s staff still talk about her impact.

But as important and fruitful as all this was, there’s another dimension to the story. For Mom’s concern for the developmentally disabled extended further than their physical and educational well-being. She also cared deeply for their spiritual well-being.

Reaching the Overlooked Unreached

Annie’s responsible for this too. It started when Mom, a longtime Sunday school teacher, realized as Annie grew older that she had no Sunday school option. And our church wasn’t unique; no church she knew of offered biblical instruction for people with Annie’s limitations.

My mother’s realization quickly broadened in scope. There existed almost no evangelical outreach to the developmentally disabled anywhere. Annie was part of a people group largely unreached with the gospel.

So, in the mid-70s, Mom decided to start a Sunday school class for Annie and a few others. It turned out to be one of the first of its kind in the nation. Word spread and the class grew. A major Twin Cities newspaper ran a story about it, and so did our denomination’s magazine. Mom found herself consulting and training others on how to start similar programs in their churches. And this led to the birth of something else.

In 1979, after teaching a workshop at a church, Mom was approached by a young man with a desire to help developmentally disabled people know Christ, and they started sharing ideas. Out of that conversation emerged an outreach ministry now called Christ For People (with Developmental Disabilities), which for four decades has provided these precious, long-overlooked unreached people opportunities for weekly worship events, fellowship, Bible studies, and evangelism — all designed especially for them. Mom was a core volunteer with Christ For People for many years.

True Greatness

This leads us to that moment on the platform, with Mom surrounded by that beautiful singing throng. Because that took place at a special Christ For People celebration a few years ago.

As I watched Mom enjoy that moment of worship, it hit me: I was looking at a priceless sample of the fruit of my mother’s life. It had happened. She had faithfully, lovingly labored for fifty years, and God had “established the work of [her] hands” (Psalm 90:17). Mom had truly loved her neighbor as herself (Luke 10:27), she had received many children in Jesus’s name (Luke 9:48), and she had given herself to serve the least of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40). Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). As I watched her, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s a great woman.”

“She had faithfully, lovingly labored for fifty years, and God had ‘established the work of [her] hands.’”

And this great story is just a part of a greater story. If I only had time and space, I’d tell you how well she loved a husband who struggled with mental illness, and how well she loved her children — all the children she “had” — and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, despite our collective sinfulness, foolishness, prodigality, addictions, and mental illnesses. I marvel that we didn’t break her heart.

My mother is a great woman, though she’ll deny it. She’ll likely wish I hadn’t said it so publicly. But “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). I’m just obeying the Bible, Mom. And I’m a big fan.

Mom’s Biggest Fan

But Mom’s biggest fan is undisputedly Annie.

Annie just turned 60. She lives in a beautiful home, lovingly designed to serve the needs of all its developmentally disabled residents. She lives with friends she’s known for years and has wonderful, attentive caregivers around the clock. She has a job and earns money. She goes on vacations and dines out at restaurants. She goes to parks, sporting events, and movies. She is provided transportation to church or to Christ For People anytime she wishes to go. And she owes her amazing quality of life in no small part to her remarkable mother, though she’s blissfully unaware of this.

What Annie is aware of is how much her mom loves her and how much she loves her mom. The highlight of Annie’s life is still to spend the night at Mom’s place. And Mom, who’s about to turn 90, still loves to drive across town, pick her up, and bring Annie home.

Some Kindness Stings

Nathan risked offending King David (2 Samuel 12); it’s why Paul risked offending Peter (Galatians 2:11–14); it’s why Jesus risked offending the scribes and Pharisees; and it’s why we are sometimes called to risk offending someone with a painful rebuke. In these cases, if our motive is love and our goal is to remove a stumbling block from someone’s path of faith, our hard words are not truly offensive. They are acts of love, the “faithful . . . wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). If our hearers find them to be “a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8), it may be due to the hard knots of unbelief in their hearts, rather than the sharp wedge of our words.

A few months back, considering the heightened level of contention among some American Christians in recent years, I stumbled upon this golden nugget of pastoral wisdom from Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan pastor from four hundred years ago:
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)
Sibbes was exhorting his Christian brothers and sisters during a terribly contentious historical moment, when professing Christians in England were saying and doing appalling things to one another. And it seems to me that we would be wise to heed Sibbes’s counsel, and do our part to contribute to the collective public reputation Jesus desires for us: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
We all know from Scripture, however, that there are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words (Proverbs 27:6). And we all know that those on the receiving end of our hard, wounding words may, and often do, find them offensive. So, if we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle should guide us for the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with our words?
Well, not surprisingly, Sibbes has something very helpful to say about this as well. But first, I need to provide the biblical context from which Sibbes draws his principle.
Jesus on the Offensive
It was during the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, just days before his crucifixion. There had been numerous tense verbal exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders, as the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all tried to get Jesus to incriminate himself with his words — and all failed. So, they gave up that strategy (Matthew 22:46).
And then Jesus laid into them, delivering seven prophetic, scathing “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, requiring 36 of 39 verses in Matthew 23 to record. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matthew 23:13)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)
You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
This is Jesus at his most offensive — at least we would have thought so, had we been scribes or Pharisees back then.
But this raises an important question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive? The distinction may seem small, but answering the question illuminates when our own love requires hard words — and what our aim in those hard words should be.
To answer, we need to briefly look at how the New Testament defines an offense. (Then I promise I’ll share that other gold nugget from Sibbes.)
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Behold the Man Upon the Cross

A man is hanging on a wooden cross from stakes driven through his hands and feet.

This is the most widely recognized and revered image in human history. Billions of people over twenty centuries have venerated it. Countless thousands of artists have depicted it. Countless millions have mounted these depictions in their homes, carried them in their pockets, hung them from their necks and ears, even tattooed them into their skin. This image of a dying man.

And he is not merely dying; he is being executed. By crucifixion, no less. Does that strike you as odd? That the most famous image of all time is of a man in the horrific throes of death by one of the most barbarous, hideous forms of capital punishment depraved minds ever devised? It’s typically not a sign of good mental or moral health when people fixate on gruesome torture and death — not to mention wearing depictions of it as jewelry. It’s a strange phenomenon.

What is it about Jesus’s agony that has captivated so many? Why has it captivated us? Why are we engrossed in the very moment of his utter humiliation, when he’d been betrayed and deserted by those closest to him, accused and condemned by those in power over him, mocked and taunted by those who gathered to watch the grisly spectacle of his death?

This is what we want most to remember about him? This is the most memorialized moment in history? What kind of people are we?

Morbid Memorial

It’s an important question. This is not the typical way people have historically honored their greatest martyred heroes.

Think about it. How many of the most iconic memorials to our most honored and beloved martyred heroes are graphic depictions of their violent deaths? Why don’t we hang framed prints in our homes and schools of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. with fatal head wounds? Why didn’t ancient Greek sculptors create busts of Socrates in the throes of suffocation from hemlock poisoning? Why aren’t the most inspiring portraits of William Wallace of his disembowelment? Why not Mahatma Gandhi being shot in the chest? Why don’t our memorials to fallen soldiers feature images of mangled bodies?

And wasn’t Jesus’s death penultimate? Isn’t the climax of his story and the Christian hope his resurrection? Wasn’t his death on the cross a prelude of apparent defeat that was swallowed up by the victory of his emergence from grave? Why don’t we feature depictions of an empty tomb at the front of our church sanctuaries? Why don’t we hang that in our houses and around our necks? Why have we chosen to remember and memorialize his terrible crucifixion, an event so horrid to witness that it would have made most of us nauseous and some of us faint?

Either we are a very strange people or there is something very strange about Jesus’s death.

How Jesus Wanted to Be Remembered

If we are a strange people for making Jesus’s torturous death a central focus of our private and public remembering of him, Jesus himself made us so. It’s how he wanted to be remembered.

“Either we are a very strange people or there is something very strange about Jesus’s death.”

Before the dreadful event, he repeatedly told his disciples that he must “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). His death was necessary.

More than that, he told them, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And to make sure we understand what he meant, John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). His crucifixion would be the great draw.

More than that, on the night Jesus was betrayed and deserted, accused and condemned, during his Last Supper, he instituted a tradition to help his followers remember what was about to take place. He broke bread to symbolize the intentional sacrifice of his body, which, he said, “is given for you.” And he poured out wine to symbolize, as he said, “the new covenant in my blood.” Then he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19–20). His death is what he wanted memorialized.

And more than that, after his resurrection, Jesus captured in one sentence why his death was necessary and why it would draw all people to him:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46–47)

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be the final Passover Lamb of God, whose willing, necessary, sacrificial death would take away the sin of the world — necessary, because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. And henceforth, whoever would believe in the Son would not perish but have eternal life (John 1:29; 3:16; Hebrews 9:22).

The apostle Paul captured in one sentence the connection between the memorial meal Jesus instituted and the gospel proclamation to the nations: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

The Kind of People We Are

What kind of people are we who are so captivated by the image of a crucified man? The kind of people who have good reason to be so. A supremely good reason. A reason we glimpse in words this man uttered in his moment of utter desolation, words of life he used his dying breath to say on behalf of people like us: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).

“Our only hope before a holy God is that, in love, he will mercifully provide a way to righteously forgive our sins.”

The kind of people who need forgiveness are sinful people, and that’s the kind of people we are (Romans 3:23). We are the kind of people whose only hope before a holy God is that, in love, he will mercifully provide a way to righteously forgive our sins. And “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

This is what makes Jesus unlike any other martyred hero in history. All other martyrs laid their lives down for a cause they believed worth dying for, but their deaths weren’t inherently necessary to their cause. Given different circumstances, their aims conceivably could have been achieved through other means. But Jesus’s death was inherently necessary to achieve his aim: “to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It was a strange death, for it was a moral, judicial, merciful necessity at the very core of ultimate and eternal reality.

We do not remember Jesus’s death at the expense of his resurrection, for the cross would have been in vain without the empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). The two are inextricably connected. But this is why Jesus’s death is so central in what we remember about him. This is why it’s the most memorialized moment in history. Because of the kind of people we are.

Behold the Man

Behold this man hanging on a wooden cross from stakes driven through his hands and feet.

It’s a horrid image. And it’s beautiful. It’s tragic. And it’s hopeful. This man is the tortured Paradox. His execution was simultaneously history’s most despicable act of injustice and most noble act of justice, an utterly merciless death and an utterly merciful death, the supreme display of hatred and the supreme display of love.

This is why people like us paradoxically call the day Jesus horribly died Good Friday. This is why we find the cross so wondrous, so captivating. This is why it moves us to sing,

Behold the man upon a cross,My sin upon his shoulders.Ashamed, I hear my mocking voiceCall out among the scoffers.It was my sin that held him thereUntil it was accomplished;His dying breath has brought me life,I know that it is finished. (“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”)

The Joy of God in Us

When we experience the joy of the Holy Spirit, we taste the joy that is at the core of ultimate reality. For when we are born again by the Spirit (John 3:6–7), we receive the astounding, incredible, empowering, priceless gift of the Holy Spirit who resides in us, just as Jesus promised.

As we read through the New Testament, we encounter a unique connection between the Holy Spirit and joy. I’ll give you a few examples. Luke tells us how at one point Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21) and Paul tells us how the Thessalonian Christians had “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6–7). In Romans, Paul instructs us that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
I call this connection unique (and worthy of further reflection) because the New Testament pairs joy with the Holy Spirit in a way it doesn’t with other affections. For instance, we don’t read of people experiencing the “sorrow of (or in) the Holy Spirit” or the “anger of (or in) the Holy Spirit,” even though it’s clear the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30) and angered (Romans 1:18).
So, why does the New Testament uniquely tie joy to the Holy Spirit? To explore this question, we’ll briefly look at who (and what) the Holy Spirit is, what it means for us to experience this Spirit-empowered joy, and what difference it makes in the Christian life.
Spirit of Joy
Two qualifications before I delve in further. First, the few words I’m about to share on the nature of the Holy Spirit are, I believe, foundationally helpful to understanding the joy that the Holy Spirit produces in us. I don’t have space here, however, to offer a full treatment of that complex reality, so if you’d like to explore this further, this sermon by John Piper and this article by Scott Swain are good places to start.
Second, it’s helpful to keep in mind that while Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son (John 15:26), it also describes him as the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20) and the Spirit of the Son (1 Peter 1:11). In one place, Paul refers to the Spirit in all three Trinitarian ways in the space of three verses (Romans 8:9–11). As we talk about the joy of the Holy Spirit, we need to remember the oneness of God.
Now, let’s probe deeper into the nature of the Trinity as it relates to joy. Citing New Testament texts such as 1 John 4:16 — “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” — theologians at least as far back as Augustine have understood the Holy Spirit to be the living, personified love flowing between the Father and the Son (John 17:26). John Piper says it this way — and note the connection between the love of God and the joy of God:
God the Holy Spirit is the divine person who “originates” (eternally!) from the Father and the Son in their loving each other. And this love is not a “merciful” love as if they needed pity. It is an admiring, delighting, exulting love. It is Joy. The Holy Spirit is God’s Joy in God. To be sure, he is so full of all that the Father and Son are, that he is a divine person in his own right. But that means he is more, not less, than the Joy of God. (“Can We Explain the Trinity?”)
Piper goes on to say, “This means that Joy is at the heart of reality. God is Love, means most deeply, God is Joy in God.” If an essential dimension of the Spirit’s nature is that he is “God’s Joy in God” personified, that helps us understand what makes the joy he produces in us a distinctive joy.
God’s Joy in Us
When we experience the joy of the Holy Spirit, we taste the joy that is at the core of ultimate reality.
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The Joy of God in Us: Why the Spirit Produces Happiness

As we read through the New Testament, we encounter a unique connection between the Holy Spirit and joy. I’ll give you a few examples. Luke tells us how at one point Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21) and Paul tells us how the Thessalonian Christians had “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6–7). In Romans, Paul instructs us that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

I call this connection unique (and worthy of further reflection) because the New Testament pairs joy with the Holy Spirit in a way it doesn’t with other affections. For instance, we don’t read of people experiencing the “sorrow of (or in) the Holy Spirit” or the “anger of (or in) the Holy Spirit,” even though it’s clear the Spirit can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30) and angered (Romans 1:18).

So, why does the New Testament uniquely tie joy to the Holy Spirit? To explore this question, we’ll briefly look at who (and what) the Holy Spirit is, what it means for us to experience this Spirit-empowered joy, and what difference it makes in the Christian life.

Spirit of Joy

Two qualifications before I delve in further. First, the few words I’m about to share on the nature of the Holy Spirit are, I believe, foundationally helpful to understanding the joy that the Holy Spirit produces in us. I don’t have space here, however, to offer a full treatment of that complex reality, so if you’d like to explore this further, this sermon by John Piper and this article by Scott Swain are good places to start.

Second, it’s helpful to keep in mind that while Scripture describes the Holy Spirit as a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son (John 15:26), it also describes him as the Spirit of the Father (Matthew 10:20) and the Spirit of the Son (1 Peter 1:11). In one place, Paul refers to the Spirit in all three Trinitarian ways in the space of three verses (Romans 8:9–11). As we talk about the joy of the Holy Spirit, we need to remember the oneness of God.

Now, let’s probe deeper into the nature of the Trinity as it relates to joy. Citing New Testament texts such as 1 John 4:16 — “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” — theologians at least as far back as Augustine have understood the Holy Spirit to be the living, personified love flowing between the Father and the Son (John 17:26). John Piper says it this way — and note the connection between the love of God and the joy of God:

God the Holy Spirit is the divine person who “originates” (eternally!) from the Father and the Son in their loving each other. And this love is not a “merciful” love as if they needed pity. It is an admiring, delighting, exulting love. It is Joy. The Holy Spirit is God’s Joy in God. To be sure, he is so full of all that the Father and Son are, that he is a divine person in his own right. But that means he is more, not less, than the Joy of God. (“Can We Explain the Trinity?”)

Piper goes on to say, “This means that Joy is at the heart of reality. God is Love, means most deeply, God is Joy in God.” If an essential dimension of the Spirit’s nature is that he is “God’s Joy in God” personified, that helps us understand what makes the joy he produces in us a distinctive joy.

God’s Joy in Us

When we experience the joy of the Holy Spirit, we taste the joy that is at the core of ultimate reality. For when we are born again by the Spirit (John 3:6–7), we receive the astounding, incredible, empowering, priceless gift of the Holy Spirit who resides in us, just as Jesus promised:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17)

And when the Holy Spirit dwells in us, the Father and the Son dwell in us — and we in them (John 17:20–21):

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)

Given all that Jesus says about the Spirit in John 14–16, we know that the Spirit factored significantly in what he meant when he said,

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)

“When we experience the joy of the Holy Spirit, we taste the joy that is at the core of ultimate reality.”

For the only way we can abide in the Son (John 15:4–5), the only way the Son and the Father can abide in us (John 14:23), the only way the Son’s words can truly abide in us (John 15:7), and the only way the Son’s joy in the Father and the Father’s joy in the Son can abide in us is by the Helper, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us.

This is why Jesus said our experience of the Holy Spirit would be like having “rivers of living water” within us (John 7:38–39). The Spirit is the indwelling wellspring of joy in God that we experience as we “live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

Joy of Believing

This brings us to the unique experience of joy that a Christian experiences by the power of the Holy Spirit in this age. We see it all over the New Testament, but Paul captures it beautifully in Romans 15:13:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Paul describes the ground of this Spirit-empowered, joy-producing hope in Romans 5:

Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. . . . And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1–2, 5)

And Peter describes the ineffable joy produced by the love we experience for the now-unseen Jesus, in whom we believe because of his Spirit-revealed word:

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, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

This is how the New Testament typically describes the joy we receive from the Holy Spirit: hope in the glory of God’s grace, received by faith, fills us with deep joy in the Spirit.

He was watching the Father, by the power of his Spirit, reveal the gospel of the kingdom to “little children,” and fill them with hope in the glory of God’s grace toward them as they believed in it, that moved Jesus to “rejoice in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). It was hope in the glory of God’s grace toward them that filled Gentile disciples “with joy and with the Holy Spirit” as they believed the gospel (Acts 13:52). And it was hope in the glory of God’s grace toward them that filled the Thessalonians “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” as they believed the gospel message, even though they received it “in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6–7).

Joy to Pursue

We all know from personal experience and observation that Christians are not always filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. The fact that the New Testament repeatedly draws our attention to specific instances when believers experienced this joy shows that the early Christians didn’t always experience it either.

“This Joy of God is an eternal joy — it will outlast death and only increase in us forever.”

But Paul said that “joy in the Holy Spirit” is a crucial dimension of the kingdom of God (Romans 14:17). It is something we are to pursue. For Joy is at the heart of reality, and if the Spirit dwells in us, we have the one who is ultimate Joy dwelling within us. So, to experience the joy of the Holy Spirit is to experience the joy of “life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:19 NASB).

Not only that, but it is to experience indomitable joy. For this Spirit-empowered joy can’t be destroyed by persecution (Colossians 1:24), suffering (Romans 5:3–4), various trials (1 Peter 1:6–7), sorrow (2 Corinthians 6:10), or a sentence of death (Philippians 1:21). In fact, it is the hope of this joy set before us that helps us, like Jesus, endure all manner of adversity, suffering, and death (Hebrews 12:2). And that is because this Joy of God is an eternal joy — it will outlast death and only increase in us forever (Psalm 16:11; Mark 10:21). Indeed, it is the hope of this eternal joy set before us, which we lay hold of by faith, that makes us “more than conquerors” over any would-be obstacle to the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35–39).

And so, “May the God of hope fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope.”

Some Kindness Stings: Why Love Uses Hard Words

A few months back, considering the heightened level of contention among some American Christians in recent years, I stumbled upon this golden nugget of pastoral wisdom from Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan pastor from four hundred years ago:

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)

Sibbes was exhorting his Christian brothers and sisters during a terribly contentious historical moment, when professing Christians in England were saying and doing appalling things to one another. And it seems to me that we would be wise to heed Sibbes’s counsel, and do our part to contribute to the collective public reputation Jesus desires for us: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

We all know from Scripture, however, that there are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words (Proverbs 27:6). And we all know that those on the receiving end of our hard, wounding words may, and often do, find them offensive. So, if we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle should guide us for the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with our words?

“There are times when faithful love requires us to speak hard, even sharp, wounding words to someone.”

Well, not surprisingly, Sibbes has something very helpful to say about this as well. But first, I need to provide the biblical context from which Sibbes draws his principle.

Jesus on the Offensive

It was during the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, just days before his crucifixion. There had been numerous tense verbal exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders, as the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all tried to get Jesus to incriminate himself with his words — and all failed. So, they gave up that strategy (Matthew 22:46).

And then Jesus laid into them, delivering seven prophetic, scathing “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, requiring 36 of 39 verses in Matthew 23 to record. Here are a few choice excerpts:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matthew 23:13)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)

You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)

You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:33)

This is Jesus at his most offensive — at least we would have thought so, had we been scribes or Pharisees back then.

But this raises an important question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive? The distinction may seem small, but answering the question illuminates when our own love requires hard words — and what our aim in those hard words should be.

To answer, we need to briefly look at how the New Testament defines an offense. (Then I promise I’ll share that other gold nugget from Sibbes.)

No Offense?

Let’s start by tackling one of the most straightforward statements on offense in the New Testament: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Just on the face of this phrase, it looks like Jesus broke a Spirit-inspired command. But these few words don’t tell the whole story. We need to examine their context to understand what Paul specifically means when he says to “give no offense.”

He makes this statement after spending three chapters instructing the Corinthians to “take care” that they not exercise their Christian freedoms (like eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols) in a way that “somehow become[s] a stumbling block to the weak,” thereby destroying another’s faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). And then, as examples of forgoing personal freedoms for the sake of love, Paul describes three ways he and Barnabas had set aside their apostolic “rights”:

They were careful not to offend others by what they ate or drank (1 Corinthians 9:4).
They refrained from getting married so as to maintain undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35; 9:5).
They made no demands on the Corinthian church to provide them financial and material ministry support, even though they had brought the gospel to the Corinthians at great cost to themselves (1 Corinthians 9:6–12).

And why did they deny themselves in these ways? Because, Paul says, “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).

And right there we see what Paul means by an offense to Jews, Gentiles, and Christians: anything that is an obstacle to faith in Jesus. At one place, he even says, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). The Greek word Paul uses here for stumble (skandalizō) is the same word Jesus uses when he warns us not to cause “little ones who believe in [him] to sin,” and to cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye if it causes us to sin (Matthew 18:6–9).

These texts (and many more) capture what the New Testament considers a true offense: saying or doing anything that would prevent others from coming to faith in Christ or persevering in their faith.

Painful Application of a ‘Sweet Balm’

Now we can return to our question: Just because most of the scribes and Pharisees would have taken offense at Jesus’s words, does that mean he was truly being offensive — in the New Testament sense? Finally, it’s time to share that gold nugget from Richard Sibbes I promised:

We see that our Saviour multiplies woe upon woe when he has to deal with hard hearted hypocrites (Matthew 23:13), for hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad, and therefore usually their conversion is violent. A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls. A sharp reproof sometimes is a precious pearl and a sweet balm. (The Bruised Reed, 49)

I love Sibbes’s take on Jesus’s scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees. He didn’t lose his temper with them and unleash his pent-up frustration with offensive language. He was taking the sharp wedge of a hard rebuke to the hard knots of their hearts.

If, like me, you’re an inexperienced woodsman, you may wonder what a wedge has to do with a knot. Sibbes was quoting an old proverb everyone probably knew back when felling trees was a normal part of life and a sharp wedge was needed to break through a hard timber knot.

“Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. He applied a ‘sweet balm’ with painful reproof.”

The wedge wasn’t the real offense; the knots were the real offense. The scribes and Pharisees were putting obstacles in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12), obstacles that were preventing both them and others from entering the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13). It would have been a “cruel pity” for him to say nothing — or to say something soft. So Jesus took the sharp wedge of his words to the knot of their unbelief. Or to use another image from Sibbes, he applied a “sweet balm” with painful reproof. And we can see the heart behind this reproof in the tears of Jesus’s lament that appear in the last three verses of the chapter (Matthew 23:37–39).

Hard Kindness of Christian Love

If we embrace Sibbes’s biblical principle that, when possible, we all, for the sake of love, should labor to give and take no offense, what principle can we distill from Sibbes’s counsel above that can guide us when we encounter the (hopefully) rare exceptions when we must, for the sake of love, risk offending someone with some hard words?

Give no offense to anyone (1 Corinthians 10:32), unless it would be a greater kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4) to bring a hard word and an act of cruelty to withhold it.

This is why Nathan risked offending King David (2 Samuel 12); it’s why Paul risked offending Peter (Galatians 2:11–14); it’s why Jesus risked offending the scribes and Pharisees; and it’s why we are sometimes called to risk offending someone with a painful rebuke. In these cases, if our motive is love and our goal is to remove a stumbling block from someone’s path of faith, our hard words are not truly offensive. They are acts of love, the “faithful . . . wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). If our hearers find them to be “a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8), it may be due to the hard knots of unbelief in their hearts, rather than the sharp wedge of our words.

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