Jon Bloom

Why We Long for Revival

It is this aching longing that fuels our recurring (we might say continual) desire to experience revival. But it’s not the mere experience of spiritual refreshment we desire; we long for the Place, the Person, where all the refreshment comes from. We long for what Jesus longs for: that we would be with him where he is, to see his glory.

Most earnest Christians have a deep longing to see and experience a spiritual revival. Many regularly pray for it. But ask a hundred such Christians to describe what they’re longing and praying for, and you’re likely to get dozens of different answers, depending on how their cultural backgrounds, church traditions, theological paradigms, and personal experiences have formed their concept of what a revival is.

Some think of revivals primarily as large-scale historical events that result in many people converting to the Christian faith, leaving notable effects on the wider society (like the early chapters of Acts or the “Great Awakenings”).
Some think of revivals primarily as what happens when Christians in a local church or school experience renewed spiritual vitality and earnestness together (like what took place at Asbury University in early 2023).
Some think of revivals primarily as strategically designed and scheduled events that aim to evangelize unbelievers and/or exhort believers to pursue a deeper life of personal holiness and Christian service (like Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades).
And some think of revivals primarily as what happens whenever an individual Christian experiences a transformative, renewing encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Now, apart from some debates over definitions (like what differentiates revival from renewal), most earnest Christians would agree that when the Holy Spirit moves in power to give new life to unregenerate people and renewed life to regenerate people, the results can look like all those descriptions — and certainly more.
But when earnest Christians long for revival, despite whatever concept and phenomena they associate with that term, they’re not really longing for that concept or those phenomena. If you were to ask those hypothetical hundred Christians to press deeper and describe what they most deeply long for when they long for revival, I believe the nature of their answers would be very similar.
“It’s You”
To illustrate what I mean, let me describe a touching scene that occurs at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book C.S. Lewis wrote in his seven-part Chronicles of Narnia series. After another wonderful Narnian adventure, just before Aslan sends Lucy and Edmund back to our world, Lucy says,
“Please, Aslan, . . . before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”
“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”
“Oh, Aslan!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.
“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” (247)
If you haven’t read the Narnia books, it’s important to understand that Lucy and Edmund hadn’t enjoyed merely a few childish, holiday-like adventures in Narnia. They, along with their two older siblings, had been Narnian kings and queens for decades. They had fought in fierce battles, and shed their blood and tears for its defense. They had loved and cared for its citizens. And their encounters with the great lion, Aslan, had transformed their lives. Narnia felt more like home to them than any place they’d ever been, and when they weren’t in Narnia, they longed to be there.
So, when Lucy says, “It isn’t Narnia, you know,” she’s saying something profound. There’s a deeper longing inside her than her longing for Narnia. It’s a longing that fuels her longing for Narnia. And she names it for Aslan in two words: “It’s you.”
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Related Posts:

Why We Long for Revival

Most earnest Christians have a deep longing to see and experience a spiritual revival. Many regularly pray for it. But ask a hundred such Christians to describe what they’re longing and praying for, and you’re likely to get dozens of different answers, depending on how their cultural backgrounds, church traditions, theological paradigms, and personal experiences have formed their concept of what a revival is.

Some think of revivals primarily as large-scale historical events that result in many people converting to the Christian faith, leaving notable effects on the wider society (like the early chapters of Acts or the “Great Awakenings”).
Some think of revivals primarily as what happens when Christians in a local church or school experience renewed spiritual vitality and earnestness together (like what took place at Asbury University in early 2023).
Some think of revivals primarily as strategically designed and scheduled events that aim to evangelize unbelievers and/or exhort believers to pursue a deeper life of personal holiness and Christian service (like Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades).
And some think of revivals primarily as what happens whenever an individual Christian experiences a transformative, renewing encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Now, apart from some debates over definitions (like what differentiates revival from renewal), most earnest Christians would agree that when the Holy Spirit moves in power to give new life to unregenerate people and renewed life to regenerate people, the results can look like all those descriptions — and certainly more.

But when earnest Christians long for revival, despite whatever concept and phenomena they associate with that term, they’re not really longing for that concept or those phenomena. If you were to ask those hypothetical hundred Christians to press deeper and describe what they most deeply long for when they long for revival, I believe the nature of their answers would be very similar.

‘It’s You’

To illustrate what I mean, let me describe a touching scene that occurs at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book C.S. Lewis wrote in his seven-part Chronicles of Narnia series. After another wonderful Narnian adventure, just before Aslan sends Lucy and Edmund back to our world, Lucy says,

“Please, Aslan, . . . before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are — are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” (247)

If you haven’t read the Narnia books, it’s important to understand that Lucy and Edmund hadn’t enjoyed merely a few childish, holiday-like adventures in Narnia. They, along with their two older siblings, had been Narnian kings and queens for decades. They had fought in fierce battles, and shed their blood and tears for its defense. They had loved and cared for its citizens. And their encounters with the great lion, Aslan, had transformed their lives. Narnia felt more like home to them than any place they’d ever been, and when they weren’t in Narnia, they longed to be there.

So, when Lucy says, “It isn’t Narnia, you know,” she’s saying something profound. There’s a deeper longing inside her than her longing for Narnia. It’s a longing that fuels her longing for Narnia. And she names it for Aslan in two words: “It’s you.”

Those two words reveal what makes everything about Narnia so wonderful to Lucy — in fact, makes Narnia Narnia for her: Aslan. Take Aslan out of Narnia, and would she still want to return? We can hear her answer when she says, “How can we live, never meeting you?” For Lucy, an Aslan-less Narnia is a lifeless Narnia.

It’s Him

The real reason earnest Christians long for revival is similar to the real reason Lucy longed to return to Narnia. Lucy longed to experience being close to Aslan; Christians long to experience being close to Jesus. It isn’t the manifestations of revival we most deeply long for, as wonderful as those manifestations might be. It’s the Source of revival we really want. We long for the Life that gives us life, sustains our life, and renews our life — that in Christ, by his Spirit, we might “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). If Jesus were to ask us what it is about revival that we want, we might paraphrase Lucy in our reply: “It isn’t revival, you know. It’s you.”

In saying it’s Jesus we most deeply long for in revival, we mean that we desire a more profound experiential knowledge (Philippians 3:8) of his refreshing presence (Act 3:20), his incomprehensible love (Ephesians 3:19), his all-surpassing peace (Philippians 4:7), and his immeasurable power (Ephesians 1:19). We desire all that the triune God, “the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9), promises to be for us in Jesus. For Jesus is our great Fountainhead. For us “to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), because Christ himself is our life (John 1:4; 14:6).

And in saying it’s Jesus we most deeply long for in revival, we mean that we desire his kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10) and for all who are appointed to eternal life to believe (Acts 13:48) — all those whom Jesus had in mind when he said, “I must bring them also” (John 10:16).

That’s why our longings for revival are not focused on our personal experience. In Christ, we are members of a larger body (1 Corinthians 12:27) of whom Christ is the life-giving head (Ephesians 1:22). Our life is bound up with our fellow members of Christ’s body, and we will not experience the fullness of Christ apart from the other members (Ephesians 4:11–13). So, we can’t help but desire revival both in the conversions of others whom Jesus must bring and in the renewal of all believers (including us) whose spiritual strength has weakened and whose spiritual senses have dulled.

It isn’t our imagined revival that we desire most. It’s Jesus and all God promises to be for us in him. Take Christ out of the event of revival, even if it had all the amazing, adrenaline-inducing phenomena we might associate with it, and would we still want it? No, because a Christless revival is lifeless revival. And would we be content if we were the only revived Christian in our church or community? No, because “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Echo of Jesus’s Desire

As Lucy and Edmund speak with Aslan, they realize they are near the border of Aslan’s country — a land they’ve only heard about, never seen, yet the one place in all the worlds, including Narnia, they most deeply long to be. But Aslan tells them that they can enter his country only from their own world (our world).

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into [your] country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said [Aslan]. . . .

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.” (246–47)

Reading this fictional conversation now, in my late fifties, stirs up the aching longing it did when I read it in my late childhood, nearly half a century ago. It was this painfully pleasurable longing that drew me back again and again to the Narnian chronicles as a boy (I don’t know how many times I read those books). I learned whom Aslan represented, and I wanted to meet him face to face. I shared Lucy and Edmund’s desire to actually be in his promised land and finally, as Lewis puts it in another book, to “find the place where all the beauty came from” (86). I still do.

So does everyone who encounters the real “Aslan” and comes to love and trust him. How can we not? For that deep longing is an echo in our souls of the deep longing Jesus has, which he expressed to his Father when he prayed,

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)

It is this aching longing that fuels our recurring (we might say continual) desire to experience revival. But it’s not the mere experience of spiritual refreshment we desire; we long for the Place, the Person, where all the refreshment comes from. We long for what Jesus longs for: that we would be with him where he is, to see his glory.

To know that this is the core of our revival longings can help sustain our prayers for it. It can also protect us from disillusionment should we experience revival and all the confusing messiness that tends to accompany it. Because at the end of the day, it isn’t revival, you know. It’s Jesus.

Hand Back the Fruit

When the realities of good and evil exceed our limited perceptions, overwhelm our limited comprehension, and threaten to override our psychological and emotional circuitry, there is a reason for this. We may be fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), but we are also fearfully finite. There are things too wonderful for us to know. The peace that surpasses our understanding (Philippians 4:7), which we need so much, is available to us if we are willing to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).

I’ve recently had some conversations with younger Christian friends who have been reeling from experiences and observations of confounding evil. And as a man more than double the age of the friends I have in mind, I can vouch that comprehending what appears to be senseless evil doesn’t get easier the longer you live.
Perhaps that sounds discouraging, especially since I remember as a younger Christian hoping that I’d have greater wisdom in my golden years. After all, isn’t sagacity part of “the splendor of . . . gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29)?
I hope this is true of me to some extent. But as I grow older, I’m discovering that the greater part of wisdom isn’t accumulating a greater knowledge of good and evil so much as learning how to deal more faithfully with my deficit of such knowledge. So, if I have any wisdom worth imparting to Christians struggling with incomprehensible evil, it lies in cultivating the spiritual discipline of handing back the fruit.
Problem of Evil
Theologians and philosophers call it “the problem of evil” — how horrific evil and suffering can exist in a world created and providentially governed by an almighty, all-good, all-knowing God. But calling evil a “problem” hardly begins to describe our existential experiences of it in this fallen world.
An apparently buoyant friend unexpectedly takes his life. Every member of a missionary family on home assignment is killed in a car accident. A beloved young child dies of cancer. A trusted pastor’s adultery is suddenly exposed. A spouse who vowed lifelong faithfulness demands a divorce. Sexual abuse leaves a young girl soiled with shame and psychological damage for decades. Palestinian terrorists rape and murder more than 1,500 unsuspecting noncombatant Israeli citizens. The Israeli military then wipes out more than 15,000 noncombatant Palestinians. An oceanic earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia, produces tsunamis that sweep away over two hundred thousand souls. Such traumatic suffering, tragedies, and sins almost never make sense to us. And the closer we are to the destruction, the more chaotic and senseless it often appears.
In such experiences and observations, we glimpse the real nature of evil. And it’s almost always worse than we could have imagined. The evil events themselves, and God’s good providence in choosing not to prevent them (especially when we know he has chosen to prevent others), exceed the bounds of our rational capacities, leaving us with anguished, perplexing questions only God can answer. And most of the time, he doesn’t — not specifically. God rarely reveals his specific purposes for allowing specific tragedies and their resulting wreckage.
We find that we simply aren’t able to bear the weight of the knowledge of good and evil. It exceeds our strength to comprehend on both sides: we cannot comprehend the full breadth and length and height and depth of the goodness of what is good (though we rarely perceive this a “problem”) or of the evilness of what is evil. And mercifully, God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.
Whence This Unbearable Weight?
Some mysteries are great mercies for finite creatures not to know. Great, great mercies.
The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil contained a secret — one that God said should remain a mystery. God warned the man and woman that it would be better for them not to eat it. It would be the death of them if they did.
Read More
Related Posts:

Hand Back the Fruit: Trusting God with the Mysteries of Evil

I’ve recently had some conversations with younger Christian friends who have been reeling from experiences and observations of confounding evil. And as a man more than double the age of the friends I have in mind, I can vouch that comprehending what appears to be senseless evil doesn’t get easier the longer you live.

Perhaps that sounds discouraging, especially since I remember as a younger Christian hoping that I’d have greater wisdom in my golden years. After all, isn’t sagacity part of “the splendor of . . . gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29)?

I hope this is true of me to some extent. But as I grow older, I’m discovering that the greater part of wisdom isn’t accumulating a greater knowledge of good and evil so much as learning how to deal more faithfully with my deficit of such knowledge. So, if I have any wisdom worth imparting to Christians struggling with incomprehensible evil, it lies in cultivating the spiritual discipline of handing back the fruit.

Problem of Evil

Theologians and philosophers call it “the problem of evil” — how horrific evil and suffering can exist in a world created and providentially governed by an almighty, all-good, all-knowing God. But calling evil a “problem” hardly begins to describe our existential experiences of it in this fallen world.

An apparently buoyant friend unexpectedly takes his life. Every member of a missionary family on home assignment is killed in a car accident. A beloved young child dies of cancer. A trusted pastor’s adultery is suddenly exposed. A spouse who vowed lifelong faithfulness demands a divorce. Sexual abuse leaves a young girl soiled with shame and psychological damage for decades. Palestinian terrorists rape and murder more than 1,500 unsuspecting noncombatant Israeli citizens. The Israeli military then wipes out more than 15,000 noncombatant Palestinians. An oceanic earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia, produces tsunamis that sweep away over two hundred thousand souls. Such traumatic suffering, tragedies, and sins almost never make sense to us. And the closer we are to the destruction, the more chaotic and senseless it often appears.

In such experiences and observations, we glimpse the real nature of evil. And it’s almost always worse than we could have imagined. The evil events themselves, and God’s good providence in choosing not to prevent them (especially when we know he has chosen to prevent others), exceed the bounds of our rational capacities, leaving us with anguished, perplexing questions only God can answer. And most of the time, he doesn’t — not specifically. God rarely reveals his specific purposes for allowing specific tragedies and their resulting wreckage.

We find that we simply aren’t able to bear the weight of the knowledge of good and evil. It exceeds our strength to comprehend on both sides: we cannot comprehend the full breadth and length and height and depth of the goodness of what is good (though we rarely perceive this a “problem”) or of the evilness of what is evil. And mercifully, God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.

Whence This Unbearable Weight?

Some mysteries are great mercies for finite creatures not to know. Great, great mercies.

The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil contained a secret — one that God said should remain a mystery. God warned the man and woman that it would be better for them not to eat it. It would be the death of them if they did. He wanted them to trust him with the mystery of this knowledge and his administration of it (Genesis 2:17).

However, the ancient serpent told them this fruit would not kill them but would open their eyes to the heights and depths and lengths and breadths of God’s knowledge, making them wise like God (Genesis 3:4–5). Our ancestral parents believed him, and so they ate. Then the eyes of both were indeed opened to good and evil in ways they had not yet known — ways they were not at all equipped to deal with. And we, their descendants, have been languishing under this knowledge ever since.

Mercy Forfeited

As a result of that first sin, God subjected the world to futility (Romans 8:20), and the evil one was granted governing power (1 John 5:19). Sin infected us profoundly. Not only were our eyes opened to more knowledge than we have the capacity to comprehend, but we also became very susceptible to evil deception.

Our indwelling sin nature has also distorted our ability to comprehend and appreciate good. That’s one reason we need “strength to comprehend . . . the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18–19). And it’s why we must pursue through intentional prayer “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). It’s why we need “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation” to enlighten “the eyes of [our] hearts . . . that [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us]” (Ephesians 1:17–18). The goodness of God would stretch far beyond our imagination even if we were sinless, but it does so all the more in our fallenness (1 Corinthians 2:9).

We forfeited a great mercy when we believed we could be wise like God — when we opened the Pandora’s box of the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil.

Case Study in Inexplicable Evil

Mystery refers to what exists beyond the edges of our perception (things we can’t see) or comprehension (things we can’t grasp). Some things are mysteries because we are unaware of them until God chooses to reveal them to us. Other mysteries we might be aware of, but they exceed our ability to comprehend, at least in this age.

This is one of the great revelations contained in the book of Job. God inspired this great piece of ancient literature to illustrate how we experience these mysteries and how the restoring of our souls begins as we hand God back the fruit. The purposes behind Job’s tragedies were mysterious to him and his friends because of what they could not see and could not know.

Job’s friends thought they had sufficient grasp on the knowledge of good and evil to diagnose Job’s suffering. They were wrong (Job 42:7). And in the end, God does not explain his providential purposes to Job, but challenges Job’s assumption that he could comprehend the wisdom of God. When Job understands this, he responds by putting his hand over his mouth and saying,

I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:3, 6)

Job handed the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil back to God — things too wonderful for him to comprehend.

Mercy Regained

The point of Job’s story is not that God hates when his people cry out with anguished bewilderment over their incomprehensible suffering and tragedies. Indeed, God the Son, when he became flesh and dwelt among us, cried out in the depth of his agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Rather, God’s message in Job — a message woven throughout the Bible — is “trust me.” God has merciful reasons for whatever he does not grant his children to see or know. Our freedom — not from the pain evil causes us, but from the unbearable weight of our inability to comprehend it — comes not from God giving us the ability to comprehend evil, but from our giving back to God our demand for the wisdom he alone can bear.

That’s the crucial dimension of the gospel we glimpse in the book of Job. In fact, it’s one helpful way to understand what the gospel is about. God has designed the gospel and the Christian life to require us to hand back, and keep handing back, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Approaching the throne of grace, regaining the mercy that leads to life, requires us to surrender back to God the desire for God’s wisdom — wisdom that was never meant to be ours.

Hand Back the Fruit

When the realities of good and evil exceed our limited perceptions, overwhelm our limited comprehension, and threaten to override our psychological and emotional circuitry, there is a reason for this. We may be fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), but we are also fearfully finite. There are things too wonderful for us to know. The peace that surpasses our understanding (Philippians 4:7), which we need so much, is available to us if we are willing to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).

In the face of devastating tragedy, we find that we simply aren’t suited to bear the weight of the knowledge of good and evil. And mercifully, God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.

The Joy of Being Left Behind

Releasing our children to follow Jesus’s kingdom call is part of how we, as parents, hate our own lives and bear our own cross for Jesus’s sake. And part of what makes his call paradoxical is that this “hating” is not affectional hatred at all. In fact, it’s what love looks like. For as John Piper says, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. The overflow is experienced consciously as the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another.” (Desiring God, 141)

A late middle-aged father is standing next to his boat and a pile of partly mended fishing nets, watching his two sons. He has always assumed that his sons would someday take over his fishing business and help provide for him and his wife when they grew too old to work. But now he watches them do something he never expected: they walk down the shoreline with a young rabbi who has called them to leave their fishing vocation — and their father — in order to follow him.
Suddenly, his envisioned future for him and his sons has become a swirl of uncertainty. What is he feeling? What are his sons feeling?
You may recognize this scene. It comes from Matthew 4:21–22:
Going on from there [Jesus] saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
When I read this story as a younger man, I didn’t give much thought to Zebedee. I tended to put myself in the place of James and John, following Jesus into a future of fishing for men. The uncertainty of it all felt adventurous and exciting. But now, as a late middle-aged father of adult children, I can’t help but put myself in Zebedee’s place.
Recently, I was discussing with my twentysomething son and daughter-in-law the possible call they’re discerning to follow Jesus to another country for the sake of the gospel. I do feel excited for them, but it’s significantly different when the cost is not leaving to follow Jesus, but being left as my son follows Jesus. I find myself wanting to talk to Zebedee about his experience and get his counsel.
Unless You Hate Your Father
Zebedee’s experience casts these words of Jesus in a whole different light:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)
As a younger man, I mainly heard these words pertaining to my father and mother and siblings and friends. Now, I hear them significantly pertaining to me as a father. In order to follow Jesus faithfully, my children must “hate” me for his sake.
Of course, when Jesus says “hate” here, he’s not talking about the kind of affectional hatred we usually mean when we use that word. He’s talking about treasuring, as he does in this text:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
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Related Posts:

The Joy of Being Left Behind: Releasing Children to Follow Jesus

A late middle-aged father is standing next to his boat and a pile of partly mended fishing nets, watching his two sons. He has always assumed that his sons would someday take over his fishing business and help provide for him and his wife when they grew too old to work. But now he watches them do something he never expected: they walk down the shoreline with a young rabbi who has called them to leave their fishing vocation — and their father — in order to follow him.

Suddenly, his envisioned future for him and his sons has become a swirl of uncertainty. What is he feeling? What are his sons feeling?

You may recognize this scene. It comes from Matthew 4:21–22:

Going on from there [Jesus] saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

When I read this story as a younger man, I didn’t give much thought to Zebedee. I tended to put myself in the place of James and John, following Jesus into a future of fishing for men. The uncertainty of it all felt adventurous and exciting. But now, as a late middle-aged father of adult children, I can’t help but put myself in Zebedee’s place.

Recently, I was discussing with my twentysomething son and daughter-in-law the possible call they’re discerning to follow Jesus to another country for the sake of the gospel. I do feel excited for them, but it’s significantly different when the cost is not leaving to follow Jesus, but being left as my son follows Jesus. I find myself wanting to talk to Zebedee about his experience and get his counsel.

Unless You Hate Your Father

Zebedee’s experience casts these words of Jesus in a whole different light:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)

As a younger man, I mainly heard these words pertaining to my father and mother and siblings and friends. Now, I hear them significantly pertaining to me as a father. In order to follow Jesus faithfully, my children must “hate” me for his sake.

Of course, when Jesus says “hate” here, he’s not talking about the kind of affectional hatred we usually mean when we use that word. He’s talking about treasuring, as he does in this text:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

Jesus doesn’t mean here that we should feel revulsive animosity toward money. He’s saying we can’t treasure God and treasure money, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The hatred Jesus is talking about looks like this:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)

The man in this parable doesn’t feel revulsive animosity toward “all that he has.” He just values the treasure he’s found more than all that he has. So, he “hates” his former possessions by selling them. He knows what’s most valuable and important.

To be a Christian father or mother means not only that we must treasure Jesus more than we treasure our earthly loved ones; it means we must joyfully accept being the object of our Christian child’s “hatred” in this sense. We are part of the “all” that our child is willing to “sell” for the joy of discovering the treasure that is Jesus.

Willing to Be ‘Hated’

As you probably know, we at Desiring God want you (and everyone) to be a Christian Hedonist. We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. But there’s another side to Christian Hedonism. As we pursue our highest joy in God, we also help others pursue their highest joy in God. Which naturally means we want them to treasure God far above the way they treasure us.

The rubber meets the road most when it comes to fathers and mothers and other dear loved ones. There’s a real felt cost when we actively make difficult, even painful choices to treasure Jesus and his call on our lives more than those precious relationships.

But there’s also a real felt cost when we are on the passive side of such an equation — when we are the father or mother or loved one whom a Christian must “hate” (in the treasuring sense) in order to follow Jesus’s call on their lives. It’s a different experience to count ourselves among the earthly treasures someone must “sell” in order to pursue the joy of the supreme Treasure. It’s a different experience to be sacrificed than it is to sacrifice.

But it’s not any less Christian Hedonistic — not when we truly treasure our children’s pursuit of the greatest Treasure. As Jesus’s disciples, we too must “hate” lesser treasures we truly love (like our children’s nearness) in order to have him. Our willingness to be sacrificed is what this paradoxical hatred looks like from the passive side of the call, when we are not the ones leaving, but the ones who are left. At such a moment, we must keep in mind the whole nature of Jesus’s call:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate . . . even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)

Fellowship of the Left Behind

Releasing our children to follow Jesus’s kingdom call is part of how we, as parents, hate our own lives and bear our own cross for Jesus’s sake. And part of what makes his call paradoxical is that this “hating” is not affectional hatred at all. In fact, it’s what love looks like. For as my friend John Piper says,

Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. The overflow is experienced consciously as the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another. (Desiring God, 141)

So, in being left by our children as they pursue their highest joy in the greatest Treasure, we pursue the same prize by hating our own lives in this earthly age. It’s one way we join Jesus on the Calvary road of self-sacrifice for the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:2).

The Calvary road is not an easy road. Jesus told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). And one of the hard moments on this road is when we’re called to join Zebedee in the fellowship of the left behind, the lesser treasures who release loved ones to pursue their highest joy in the greatest Treasure.

But as it turns out, being left behind isn’t merely, or even mainly, passive — not when we turn this painful experience into an active pursuit of our own highest joy in our greatest Treasure.

Heart of My Own Heart: Why I Love ‘Be Thou My Vision’

If you were to ask me to name my favorite hymn, I’d probably hem and haw, then list a bunch of favorites, and end up saying, “It depends.” I mean, how do you choose a single favorite hymn? But if you were to ask me what hymn I sing most often when I’m alone with God, that would be easy: “Be Thou My Vision.” If that makes it my favorite, so be it.

For me, it’s become a love song, kind of like the familiar phrases I default to when telling my wife how much I love her, which over time have become infused with great depths of emotional meaning. The verses of this hymn give voice to my intimate delight in and longing for the Lover of my soul. When I sing it in private, just me and my piano, it’s rare when I can sing it without tears.

Typically, when a song touches me deeply, I’m curious to know more about who wrote it and why. I guess it’s easier to take hymns somewhat for granted. I’ve loved “Be Thou My Vision” for decades, but I never thought to look up its backstory until recently.

I discovered that this hymn’s origin is veiled in the misty past of ancient Ireland. We do know that the hymn’s progenitor is a poem that’s more than a millennium old, composed in Old Gaelic and consisting of sixteen couplets. Irish tradition claims its author was a beloved sixth-century Celtic poet named St. Dallán Forgaill, but scholars have linguistic reasons to doubt this claim. All we know is that the writer certainly was a poet and sure seems to have been a saint.

Thank God for Scholars and Editors

My search wasn’t in vain, because it revealed people God used to turn that ancient poem into the precious song we have today. Thank God for Mary Byrne (1880–1931), who dragged the poem out of academic obscurity by translating the ancient Gaelic into English. And thank God for Eleanor Hull (1860–1935), who chose twelve of the sixteen couplets from Byrne’s literal translation, and then skillfully crafted them into rhymes.

And thank God for the editors of the Irish Church Hymnal, who selected ten of Hull’s couplets, combined them into five four-line verses, and then, with a stroke of inspired genius, paired those deeply moving verses with an achingly beautiful Irish folk tune they named “Slane” (in honor of St. Patrick’s famous Easter festival fire on Slane Hill, which he burned in defiance of a pagan Irish king).

The hymn was first published in the 1919 edition of that Irish hymnal, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Be Thou My Vision” soon appeared in hymnals around the world, many of which trimmed it down to the four verses most of us know and love today.

Why do so many, like me, love this hymn so much? Because it gives poetic voice to our deep love and longing for the triune God, who is the Light of our lives (John 8:12), our ever-present, indwelling Word of life (1 John 1:1), the great Treasure of our hearts (Luke 12:34), and soon the Heaven of heaven for us forever (Psalm 73:25–26).

Thy Presence My Light

If the ancient author ever titled the poem, that too has been lost to the mists of time. For centuries it was known simply as “A Prayer.” But it’s hard to imagine a better title than the poem’s first four words, “Be thou my vision,” which in Old Gaelic read, “Rop tú mo bhoile.”

Verse 1, in my view, begins just where it should: a prayer for God to enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we may be filled with his hope (Ephesians 1:18). Listen to how beautifully the lyrics convey the biblical metaphor of light as understanding:

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;Thou my best thought, by day or by night;Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Implicitly woven into this verse are the New Testament references of Jesus as “the light of the world” and “the light of life” (John 8:12). But the words also carry an echo of one of my favorite verses from the Psalms:

With you is the fountain of life;     in your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:9)

Everyone who has known deep darkness of any kind — the darkness of sin or grief or pain or depression or loneliness or spiritual oppression — and has seen, however dimly, the Light of life shining in their darkness, understands how meaningful this verse can be. It resonates with the hope that this light will not ultimately be overcome by our darkness.

Be thou my vision, O Lord, for you are the light of my life.

Thou My True Word

The prayer of verse 2 builds on the prayer of verse 1, asking that God would fill us with the riches of his wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11:33):

Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true Word;I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;Thou my great Father; I Thy true son;Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Notice how simply this verse expresses the profound and mysterious New Testament teaching that requires pages to unpack in prose: that Christian wisdom comes from the Father and Son (our true Word) dwelling inside us through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23, 26), a gift we receive through our adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5). The wisdom we’re praying for here is clearly not “a wisdom of this age,” but a wisdom that can only be “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:6, 14).

Be thou my wisdom, O Lord, for you are the ultimate Truth.

My Treasure Thou Art

Now we come to my favorite verse of this great hymn, the one most likely to prompt tears:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;Thou mine inheritance, now and always;Thou and Thou only first in my heart;High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.

Verse 3 is my favorite — not because the other verses are less true or less hope-giving or less precious, but because Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). Our treasure is whatever we love and long for most — what most satisfies, enthralls, and therefore captivates our hearts. And in this fallen age, where even our best love for our great Treasure is defective and lacking, our love is almost always accompanied by a desire to love him more perfectly, more completely. Hence, my tears, a sweet, melancholic mixture of love and longing.

So, I love this verse, the heart of the hymn, the Love Song within the love song. Because God, as the next verse will say, is the Heart of our hearts — the Treasure that makes his light beautiful, his wisdom desirable, and his heaven so heavenly.

Be thou my Treasure, O Lord, first in my heart now and always.

O Bright Heaven’s Sun

Verse 4 ends the hymn just where it should: with the great “blessed hope” of the Christian life (Titus 2:13), when “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

High King of heaven, my victory won,May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun;Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

If our heart is always with our treasure, and if God is our Treasure, then the Heaven of heaven will be the Heart of our heart. And the Sun of heaven will enable us to see more light than we’ve ever seen, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). And so it will be, always and forever. To which we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

What a priceless gift, this hymn. Thank you, Lord, for that ancient Celtic poet whose God-entranced heart overflowed so eloquently through his quill. And thank you for those throughout history whose collective labors have made this great song of love and longing available to us. And thank you for the gifted Celtic folk musicians whose sweet, haunting melody makes it so wonderful to sing.

But most of all, thank you, Lord, for being the Light of our lives, our ever-present, indwelling Word of life, the great Treasure of our hearts, and someday the Heaven of heaven.

Yes, O Lord, be thou our vision, now in this darkened age, and soon — may it be soon! — in unveiled, eternal glory with unclouded eyes.

Tangible Acts of Christmas

Christian love, as John Piper says, “is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 119). Often, we can’t foresee what people will need, but we can plan to reserve some time and money so that if needs arise, there are practical channels through which our love can flow to meet them.

I’ve been ruminating on a text of Scripture that has me rethinking how I’ve typically sought to share the gospel with others at Christmastime.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)
This is the phrase that has stuck in my mind: “God shows his love for us.” And the word in that phrase that has particularly gripped me is shows. God shows his love for us.
When it comes to love, it’s a matter of show and tell (and often in that order). We know love when we both see it and hear it. Words are an essential dimension of how we show our love, but it’s our actions that prove the truth of our words. Love, like wisdom, “is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). Love, like faith, “if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
And that’s what has me rethinking my approach to Christmas evangelism. I wonder if I have sought to love others with too much talk and not enough deeds.
By This We Know Love
You might recognize in my words the echo of another passage:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)
There it is again. We know God’s love for us by the way Jesus generously showed love toward us. And the way Jesus showed his love for us provides a profound model for how we as Christians are to show our love for one another.
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Tangible Acts of Christmas: A Missing Ingredient in Evangelism

I’ve been ruminating on a text of Scripture that has me rethinking how I’ve typically sought to share the gospel with others at Christmastime.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)

This is the phrase that has stuck in my mind: “God shows his love for us.” And the word in that phrase that has particularly gripped me is shows. God shows his love for us.

When it comes to love, it’s a matter of show and tell (and often in that order). We know love when we both see it and hear it. Words are an essential dimension of how we show our love, but it’s our actions that prove the truth of our words. Love, like wisdom, “is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19). Love, like faith, “if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

And that’s what has me rethinking my approach to Christmas evangelism. I wonder if I have sought to love others with too much talk and not enough deeds.

By This We Know Love

You might recognize in my words the echo of another passage:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)

There it is again. We know God’s love for us by the way Jesus generously showed love toward us. And the way Jesus showed his love for us provides a profound model for how we as Christians are to show our love for one another.

We know from Jesus’s holistic example, however, that we’re not merely to show love to other Christians. For we are to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). And Jesus tells us that even our loving deeds toward other Christians speak to unbelievers: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” — love they can see (John 13:35).

Haunted by Christmas Past

Now, the reason I’m pondering all this in the context of Christmas is because it’s an annual moment when our culture’s collective attention is drawn in some way toward Jesus. In the increasingly post-Christian West, people have the general notion that at the heart of Christmas is love. They have this notion because it’s an echo of the ancient story that still reverberates through Western civilization:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)

Even though many misunderstand or ignore or reject this echo, it often still leaves them with a sense that Christmas is about redeeming love.

We can hear strains of the echo in many of our culture’s favorite Christmas-themed stories, from A Christmas Carol to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, where deeply selfish souls experience some kind of redemption after an encounter with transcendent love — often, like Scrooge, merciful love. They are shown love. And as a result of this encounter, they are transformed into loving souls who discover a far greater joy than they’ve ever known in counting others more significant than themselves. These stories are haunted by the ghost of that ancient Christmas past, when “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

Show the Love

Putting this all together, it’s hitting me in a fresh way that Christmas is a particularly poignant time to show the love of Christ to those outside the household of faith.

So, what might that mean exactly? Well, at the time I’m writing this, which is just after Halloween, I’m not sure exactly. Because rather than planning a program, I’m planning to keep my eyes open and as the Lord’s leads, to follow the needs. Christian love, as John Piper says, “is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 119). Often, we can’t foresee what people will need, but we can plan to reserve some time and money so that if needs arise, there are practical channels through which our love can flow to meet them. And experience has taught me that, if I’m paying attention, rarely is there a lack of needs to meet.

Over the years, I have participated in, coordinated, and led countless Christmas events — worship services, musicals, parties, neighborhood and family gatherings — intentionally designed to present the message of the gospel to nonbelievers. And I don’t regret having told them about the love of God in Christ. It is a way to show them God’s love. But I do feel some regret that I haven’t given more time and energy to showing more people the love of God in Christ through tangible, personal deeds. And so I’m seeking to change that — to demonstrate the truth of my words with actions of love by intentionally and prayerfully looking for ways to show the love “in deed and in truth” this year.

Apologetic of the Heart: Why Costly Love Captures Us

Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was a Catholic mystic and military prodigy. At age seventeen, she was appointed commander in chief of the French army and led her forces to decisive victories over the English. Mark Twain — the pen name for Samuel Clemens (1835–1910) — was a world-famous writer who was also famous for being a grizzled skeptic, a religious agnostic, and an outspoken, scathing critic of the Christian faith.

So, who do you suppose was Twain’s historical hero? Yep, Joan of Arc. He even wrote a biographical novel about her astounding life, which I read with astonishment 25 years ago. Twain said the Maid of Orleans was “by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced” (452). To call this ironic is an understatement. What in the world did Twain see in Joan that inspired his supreme admiration?

Well, if you trust the historical records — and Twain did — there’s a lot to admire. Over a number of years, this anti-religious curmudgeon took his fine-toothed comb to the original court documents and the many firsthand witness statements that still exist in various European archives. And at the end of his research, he found it impossible to deny a few astounding claims:

This kind, humble, illiterate, teenage, peasant girl, with zero prior exposure to or training in the art of war, inexplicably possessed military genius.
With no prior leadership experience, she quickly became the most effective, courageous leader in the French military, and in a career that lasted barely a year, she achieved a series of unparalleled victories.
As someone given to frequent ecstatic spiritual experiences, she somehow exercised more levelheaded wisdom in decision-making than her sovereign or the high-ranking officials around her.

By all historically credible accounts, Joan was a phenom.

Sacrificial Love Conquers a Skeptic

But the Maid’s astonishing skill in warfare isn’t what most captured Twain’s heart. What captured his heart was Joan’s heart. In the “Translator’s Preface” at the beginning of his book, he wrote,

[Joan] was perhaps the only entirely unselfish person whose name has a place in profane history. No vestige or suggestion of self-seeking can be found in any word or deed of hers. (20)

What Twain calls unselfishness the Bible more accurately calls love. We can see this more clearly in a description of Joan that Twain later wrote in an essay (included as an appendix in my edition of the book):

She was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. (451)

Four centuries after her death, it seems Joan of Arc achieved another victory: she conquered a jaded skeptic. She made Mark Twain a believer, not in the existence of the true God, but in the existence of Christlike, sacrificial love. He saw in Joan a person who actually loved God supremely and followed what she believed was his will with pure, childlike faith, all while seeking to love her neighbor as herself — even when her neighbor was her enemy.

The Heart Has Its Reasons

Whether or not Joan of Arc was, in reality, as selfless and loving as Twain believed her to be is beside my point here. What’s remarkable is his admiration of the self-sacrificing love he saw in her. Why did it move him so deeply?

We can ask this another way. If Christianity isn’t real, and the world is governed merely by pitiless naturalistic forces, then it strikes me that Joan of Arc ought not to be glorified as a historical hero, but pitied as an example of what the real world does to those whose love ethic is informed by a delusion. Twain would have known this, but it appears he couldn’t help himself. Why?

I believe it’s because, as Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (Pensées, thought 423). Let’s let Pascal expound a little more on what he meant:

We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. (thought 282)

As Twain applied his reason to the claims of Christianity, he found numerous reasons to be skeptical. Having been raised in the Christian tradition, he knew the Bible well. He knew Jesus’s commandment that Christians were to sacrificially love one another as Christ had sacrificially loved them (John 13:34), and he took cynical delight in pointing out ways professing Christians had failed miserably to keep that commandment. For he knew that “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But in Joan, it seems to me, Twain’s heart discerned a truth, a first principle, his reason could not refute: “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). In this case, Twain’s heart was better than his head. Being an image-bearer of God, unbeliever though he was, he recognized the real thing when he saw it. Something deep inside, the part of him designed to admire and be drawn to sacrificial love, couldn’t help but find such love in a real person captivating.

By This All People Will Know

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Why? Because deep down, their hearts acknowledge a truth their reason may deny: God is love. And so, while “no one has ever seen God,” people intuitively recognize that, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). This is why years ago I wrote,

Christlike, sacrificial, forbearing, hopeful, enduring love is the greatest apologetic to the existence and nature of God. It is more compelling than brilliant, well-reasoned arguments (which can be brilliantly countered) and more powerful than signs and wonders (which can be counterfeited, Matthew 24:24). And any Spirit-filled Christian, man or woman, of any ethnicity, social class, age demographic, intellectual capacity, or spiritual gifting, can demonstrate love.

They will know we are Christians by our love. This is why Jesus made love his last and greatest commandment for Christians. And it’s why, when all is said and done, Paul tells us that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Because God is love.

‘Best of All My Books’

Near the end of his life, Twain said, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books, and it is the best; I know it perfectly well.” The irony of this has not been lost on many of his ardent fans. As one expert on Twain has observed,

By the time he’s writing [Joan of Arc] he’s not a believer. He is anti-Catholic, and he doesn’t like the French. So he writes a book about a French-Catholic martyr? Ostensibly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

No, but the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. In spite of Twain’s anti-Christian bias, in spite of his anti-French bias, in spite of his anti-mystical bias, who became his historical hero? The French mystic warrior, who was, in his view, “the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One.”

Save only One. That’s a notable qualification, given this grizzled skeptic’s religious views. I think it’s a haunting indicator that Twain perceived in Joan of Arc’s sacrificial love a type and shadow of the One who, like no other, laid his life down for his friends and enemies. And Twain couldn’t help but admire it. Because in his heart he knew there is no greater love than this (John 15:13).

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