Marshall Segal

The Psalms Know What You Feel

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

The first and last psalms tell us a great deal about what God wants us to see and hear in all the psalms. The first is quoted far more often than the last:

Blessed is the man     who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,nor stands in the way of sinners,     nor sits in the seat of scoffers;but his delight is in the law of the Lord,     and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)

Psalm 1 tells us that the happiest and most fruitful people, anywhere on earth and at any point in history, will be those who delight most in the words of God. The words of this book — and every other book in the Bible — are meant to be read slowly, wrestled with, and savored. And not just for a few minutes each day, but throughout the day. The psalm is an invitation into the rich and rewarding life of meditation.

If the first psalm tells us how to hear from God, though, the last psalm tells us how to respond. Humble, wise, happy souls let God have the first word, but encountering him eventually draws words out of them. Like the disciples, we “cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). How does God bring 150 psalms to an end? With a clear charge and refrain: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

The Closing Psalm

Anyone can discern what the last psalm wants us to do in response to what God has said. All thirteen lines make the same point: “Praise the Lord!”

“God doesn’t minimize or neglect our suffering, but his goodness to us always outshines the trials he hands us.”

No matter where we are, and how bleak or difficult our life becomes, we always have reason to praise our God — to stop and worship him for who he is and what he is done. “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (Psalm 150:2). Our reasons for praising him — his mighty deeds and his glory over all — always eclipse and outweigh what we suffer, and all the more so now that Christ has come, died, and risen. God doesn’t minimize or neglect our suffering, but his goodness to us always outshines the trials he hands us. And so the psalmist can say to every one of us, at every moment of our lives, “Praise the Lord!”

The psalms, however, are not a simple chorus repeated over and over again, but a symphony, filled with as many experiences and emotions as humans endure and feel. The five books that make up Psalms really are a master class in human adversity.

Praise Through Heartache

When we think of the psalms, we might be tempted to think they’re simple, positive, and repetitive, but they give voice to the entire spectrum of sorrow and suffering.

Do you feel abandoned by God? The psalms know what you feel: “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14).

Is some fear threatening to consume you? The psalms know what you feel: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Psalm 56:3–4).

Has someone tried to make your life miserable? The psalms know what you feel: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (Psalm 69:4).

Do you need wisdom about a hard situation or decision? The psalms know what you feel: “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:33–34).

Have you ever been betrayed by someone you love? The psalms know what you feel: “It is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend” (Psalm 55:12–13).

And through mountains and valleys, through trials and triumphs, through ecstasy and agony, we hear one common, beautiful thread: praise. In the throes of fear, praise. In the vulnerability of uncertainty, praise. In the darkness of doubt, praise. Even in the heartache of betrayal, praise. The praise doesn’t always sound the same, but we still hear it, in each and every circumstance. And so the book ends, after every high and every low, with a call: “Praise him. . . . Praise him. . . . Praise him.” Can you praise him where you are right now?

With Whatever You Have

We might be tempted to overlook the verses in Psalm 150:3–5:

Praise him with trumpet sound;     praise him with lute and harp!Praise him with tambourine and dance;     praise him with strings and pipe!Praise him with sounding cymbals;     praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

There aren’t as many lutes and harps and tambourines in most modern worship. The specific instruments are not the point, however. The point is that God deserves more than our words.

“The purpose of breathing is praise.”

He does deserve our words: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” God made lungs and vocal cords and oxygen, ultimately, so that we could use them to worship him. The purpose of breathing is praise. But words fall short of his greatness. We feel this when we pray and sing, don’t we? It feels true, and yet so inadequate. We should feel that way. The inadequacy of our worship reminds us God is always better than we can grasp or express, and it drives us to find more creative ways to tell him so.

We might pick up a trumpet or lute or harp. We might shake a tambourine or break into dancing. We might slam a couple of cymbals together. Even more than instruments, though, we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). We make praise with our lives — with our decisions, our conversations, our spending, our time.

So, in whatever circumstances God has given you, and with whatever energy and resources he has given you, praise the Lord for who he is and for all he’s done for you.

The Pillar in the Pews: How the Church Upholds the Truth

Nearly every time I drive over the I-35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis, I think about the day it collapsed. If I happen to forget, there are thirty-foot memorials at each end to remind me of what happened.

At 6:05 in the evening on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, in the heat of rush hour, the heavily trafficked four-lane steel bridge gave way and fell eighty feet into the Mississippi River. In all, 111 vehicles were damaged or worse, 98 people were treated at local hospitals, and 13 died. After months of investigation, it was determined that the gusset plates (small sheets of steel applied to joints or beams for reinforcement) had been a half-inch too thin.

The support beams under bridges are life-sustaining, death-defying realities that we almost never think about unless they fail. Just imagine how many people drove over the I-35 bridge that Tuesday, the day before it fell — on average, some 140,000 cars — and casually looked left or right to enjoy the view. Knowing, afterward, just how easily it might have been their car among the rubble, I’m sure they all felt (and continue to feel) the preciousness of good bridges and the pillars that support them.

In that way, my drives over the new I-35W bridge (likely one of the strongest, most-inspected bridges in the world) also help me feel the preciousness of the church. As the apostle Paul tells Timothy,

I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14–15)

Unlikely Pillar

Again, we probably don’t think enough about pillars (much less buttresses, for that matter) to see and feel the beauty of what God has said about the church when he calls her “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Just one chapter earlier, Paul highlights the significance of the truth:

[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all. (1 Timothy 2:4–6)

God wants men and women everywhere to hear, believe, and enjoy the truth — the truth about God, about grace, about the cross. And under that truth, he has placed a chosen pillar, a buttress he himself designed and constructed for this global and eternal purpose: the church.

“God intended, from the beginning, to make the weak and wandering church the stage for his divine homily.”

Could any pillar have been more precarious? Could God have made the gusset plates any thinner? When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, the church was only decades old, and it was embattled on nearly every front. Fragile. Sinful. Divided. Persecuted. Afflicted. Far from the picture of a weight-bearing beam. And yet God saw a reliable, even unshakable pillar in her — because he had promised to establish and reinforce her. He intended, from the beginning, to make the weak and wandering church the stage for his divine homily.

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8–10)

“Through the church.” God could have revealed his unsearchable wisdom, the riches of Christ, the mystery of the ages in any number of ways, but he chose to unveil the truth through the church. Throughout all generations, God has made the church — the wobbly, stumbling, spreading, and prevailing church — the keeper and messenger of the truth.

Straying Pillar

How strange and tragic is it, then, when the truth we’re meant to hold up and draw attention to begins to take a backseat in the church — when we start coming to church for reasons other than the truth? Even then, Paul knew this would happen, and so he warned Timothy in his next letter:

The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)

The ears were already itching in his day, and they certainly haven’t stopped in ours. Our society has only given us more ways than ever to have our itches scratched — books, podcasts, social media, YouTube, and more, all constantly vying for our attention and devotion. Has it ever been easier to accumulate teachers to suit our unique passions, lusts, and fears? Has it ever been easier to wander after whatever’s trending (and away from the truth)?

This puts significant pressure on church leaders to scratch the same itches — to build churches and plan services and develop programs that compete with what people love and follow online. For our part, we may start choosing (or leaving) churches based on the Sunday morning “experience,” rather than whether they preach, live, and love what God says. The demand for entertainment subtly slides from the screen to the pew, and truth moves from the center of our life together to the margins.

Remember, these pressures and temptations are not new. The apostle was already warning the church in the first century, nineteen centuries before the first iPhone. Satan has always warred to make the truth seem boring, inconvenient, secondary. He knows how much earthly and eternal good a truth-loving church can do — and how much damage one can do that neglects or compromises the truth.

Unshakable Pillar

So if the church wavers on or fades from the truth, will the truth fall? Certainly not. Social media and online entertainment habits may have distracted many of us from the church and the truth, but they are no serious threat to either.

Remember, God chose and constructed this pillar (not the poor engineers responsible for the I-35W bridge). And Jesus promises that nothing and no one will fell her, not even the unfaithfulness within her: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). So how do we join him in guarding and uplifting her? How do we, in our individual local churches, act like the pillar that we are? We feast on what bores itching ears.

God gave Timothy the remedy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–2). What makes the church a pillar and buttress of the truth? She holds up and lives out what God has said — whatever God has said, however he has said it, whatever it means for us. J.I. Packer writes,

Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers — in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats. (A Quest for Godliness, 285)

Faithful churches seek the words of God like silver (Proverbs 2:4). We meditate on them day and night — not because we have to, but because his words are a river of nourishment, contentment, security, and joy (Psalm 1:2–3). Whatever happens around us, we stare through the truth — his truth — like a window, until we see our realities as he sees them.

Pillars in the Pews

God has made the church the pillar of truth. So does it serve that purpose in your life and in the life of your church?

“The pillar doesn’t rise or fall just with preachers, but with ordinary people in ordinary pews.”

If you’re not sure, you might begin by asking what drew you to your current church, and what keeps you there. Has your time in this church deepened your understanding and enjoyment of the word of God? Is it a church that loves to hear from God in the Bible, even when what he says is confusing, uncomfortable, or convicting? Do the gatherings gladly lead with the truth — or with music, humor, and an atmosphere that softens the harder edges of the truth? Does your church consistently shy away from beliefs and verses that the world hates — on sin and hell, on sexuality, marriage, and abortion, on race and justice, on the sovereignty of God and election, on the cross? Or does your church have a manifest and growing love for the truth?

And then, even more personally, how are you contributing to your church’s pillar-ness — or not? Are you a thin and unreliable gusset plate waiting to break, or do you intentionally devote yourself week in and week out to the truth? How are you currently seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18)?

God strengthens the pillar of the Church by building and fortifying individual churches, and he strengthens individual churches by building and fortifying individual souls — souls like yours. He steeps each of us in truth — through his word and in fellowship with other truth-lovers — so that the church stands firm in every age and circumstance. The pillar doesn’t rise or fall just with preachers, but with ordinary people in ordinary pews filled and overflowing with the truth.

Me, Myself, and Lies

God means for us to know him, serve him, enjoy him, and become like him as a part of Christ’s body. The more isolated we become, the more we cut ourselves off from the fountains of his grace, mercy, and guidance.

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
In March of 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first-ever phone call, which, in time, came to dramatically transform how we relate to one another. On the surface, the communication revolution has seemed to render isolation something of an endangered species — we’re more connected than ever, right? And yet one wonders if isolation eventually mutated into something more subtle and yet equally dangerous (perhaps even more dangerous for being subtle). At least one prominent sociologist fears that’s the case:
We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 1)
Or, as the subtitle of her book says, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.” And whenever we expect less of each other, we inevitably drift further and further from each other, leaving us as isolated (or more) as the lonely man before the advent of the telephone.
What Kind of Isolation?
Some may read the last few paragraphs and quietly envy a time when no one called, emailed, texted, or (worst of all?) left a voicemail. A life with less people actually might sound kind of appealing. You may struggle to relate to the possible dangers of isolation. Wisdom, however, knows the hazards hiding in the shadows of our seclusion: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).
What kind of isolation did the wise man have in mind? The next verse gives us a clearer picture:
A fool takes no pleasure in understandingbut only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)
He doesn’t want to hear what others think; he only wants someone to hear what he thinks. This strikes a major nerve in the book of Proverbs. As this wise father prepares his son for the realities of life in this wild and menacing world, he wants him to see that some of the greatest threats are stowaways, striking from within. He warns him, in particular, about the ruinous power of unchecked pride.
Be not wise in your own eyes;fear the Lord, and turn away from evil (Proverbs 3:7).
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?There is more hope for a fool than for him (Proverbs 26:12).
There is a way that seems right to a man,but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12).
The proud man, we learn, breaks out against all judgment because he invites destruction on himself. Arrogance makes his isolation dangerous: I don’t spend more time with other people because I don’t need other people — because I know better than other people. This pride distinguishes isolation from the virtues of solitude, which God encourages again and again (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 6:6; Mark 1:35).
The ways that lead to death are the ways we choose for ourselves while refusing meaningful community — relationships marked by consistent honesty, counsel, correction, and encouragement.
Alone with Our Desires
What draws us into the spiritual shadows of isolation? Our own selfish desires. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire.” Whenever someone leaves or avoids the community he needs, he has been lured away by sinful desires — desires for privacy or autonomy, for comfort or ease, for money or sex, even for vindication or vengeance. At root, it’s our desires that divide and isolate us:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (James 4:1–2).
The desires that keep us from one another are varied, but they’re all rooted in selfish discontentment: We want and do not have, so we excuse ourselves from love — either by attacking one another or by abandoning one another. Our desires, Scripture says, are what isolate and undo us (Jude 1:18–19). Consider, for instance, the lazy man:
The desire of the sluggard kills him,for his hands refuse to labor.All day long he craves and craves,but the righteous gives and does not hold back (Proverbs 21:25–26).
Read More
Related Posts:

You Have Put More Joy in My Heart

Some of the most life-changing verses in the Bible are those that come alive years after we first read them. We read them and pass over them, read them and pass over them, read them again, and then suddenly reality breaks through, and their meaning explodes in our imagination. I wonder if any verses like that come to mind for you.

Years ago, a line in Psalm 4 leapt out of the fog of familiarity and arrested my attention. At first, it exhilarated me, awakening me to spiritual wells I had walked by (and looked past) again and again. Then it humbled me, confronting me with how weak and fickle my heart can be. And then, finally, it has strengthened me, stirring my desire and ambition for Christ and building my courage in him. King David writes,

You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. (Psalm 4:7)

Surprised by Joy

The verse slid under my radar for years, I think, because it rang like a cliché to my immature and naive ears — like a sentence beautiful enough for Pinterest, but just out of touch with the heavier realities of real life. I would read verses like this, feel vaguely inspired for a moment, and then move on and forget them minutes later. The vagueness evaporated, however, when I slowed down enough to finally see through the window this verse opens for us.

David does not say, “You have given me great joy,” or even, “You have given me as much joy as those in the world have in their finest meals and fullest pleasures.” No, he says, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” If it was a word that seized me, it was the word more. As David weighs his joy in God against the greatest pleasures on earth — the most expensive experiences, in the most exotic places, with the most famous people — he finds the world’s offer wanting. He prefers what he has tasted through faith over anything else he might see or do or buy.

Do you think about your faith in God that way? When you think about Jesus, do you ever think in terms of joy, delight, fulfillment, pleasure? Have you actually been taught, subtly or explicitly, to pit him against your happiness? The discovery for me, at that time, was that I did not have to walk away from joy to follow Jesus. In fact, I could only find the richest, most intense happiness in him.

Stubborn Longings for Less

The more you sit with a verse like this, however, the heavier it can become. The promise of experiencing a joy like David’s can give way to the troubling realization that we do not yet experience it. Can I really say, with him, “God, you have given me more joy than the world has in its greatest joys?” Am I as happy in Jesus as they are in their food, and friends, and careers, and vacations, and possessions? We know we should be able to say what David says, and yet we also know our own hearts well enough to wonder whether we can.

I feel how slow my heart can be to enjoy God. Sin never prefers God over grain or wine or television or self. And sin still lives in me. As John Piper says, we humans, in our sin, “have a deep, unshakable, compelling preference for other things rather than God” (“What Is Sin?”). This sin isn’t just a lingering tendency to do the wrong thing, but a stubborn longing for the wrong thing. So, Bible reading can sometimes feel burdensome. Prayer can sometimes feel stale. Fellowship can feel forced. Joy in God can feel distant and theoretical.

“Sin isn’t just a lingering tendency to do the wrong thing, but a stubborn longing for the wrong thing.”

To be clear, appreciating grain and wine is not sin. The psalmists celebrate and worship God for both (see Psalm 65:9; 104:19). Our joy in grain and wine and every other good gift from God is meant to kindle our joy in him, not compete with him (James 1:17). Preferring grain or wine or anything else to God is sin. And according to 1 John 1:8, we all, at times, prefer wrongly. We crave lesser, thinner joys over all we have in Christ.

How Long, O Lord?

Even if we overcome our inner resistance to this joy, though, the harsher realities of life also become hurdles to joy. The book of Psalms, after all, is not one long chorus of joy. It holds out a life of worship that is not comfortable or predictable, but difficult and demanding, even agonizing, at times.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. (Psalm 6:2–3)

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? (Psalm 13:1–2)

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 18:4–5)

Again and again, the brighter moments of gladness punctuate song after song of hardship. David’s life, in particular, was terribly painful. After he was chosen to be the next king, he was hunted by Saul. After he committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed, he lost his infant son. Later, another son, Amnon, died at the hands of his own brother, Absalom, who then fled. And when the estranged son eventually returned, he betrayed his father, organized a mutiny, and stole the kingdom.

The agony David experienced (some because of his own sin, and much because of sins against him) makes his words in Psalm 4:7 even sweeter and more compelling. His pain doesn’t gut what he says about joy, but proves it, revealing that this joy is unusually potent and resilient.

Even as I Lose All

When David writes, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound,” he is not writing from the comfort of a palace in peacetime; he is writing from hiding, while Absalom has seized his throne. Psalms 3 and 4 are the morning and evening psalms of a man betrayed. David suffered much throughout his life and reign, but did anything sting like the stab in the back from his own son?

“No amount of darkness and loss could take the depth and fullness of his joy in God.”

And yet he was not utterly miserable, even while he watched the boy he once held and fed and played with plunder his life’s work. No, “You have put more joy in my heart” — even now — “than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Even while my son indulges himself on my grain and my wine and my wealth, even as I lose nearly all that I love, even while I fear for my life, God, you have made me glad in you — more glad than sinners have in their happiest moments. No amount of darkness and loss could take the depth and fullness of his joy in God.

This joy isn’t merely for the lighter, more comfortable, more cheerful moments of the Christian life, but it’s also strong enough for the trenches, the valleys, the storms. What God did for a wounded and despairing king in the throes of betrayal, he now promises to do for us in the throes of whatever we face or carry. And what greater, more practical gift could he give us than to say, in any circumstance, however bleak or painful, I will not only keep your life, but make you glad?

Me, Myself, and Lies: The Spiritual Dangers of Isolation

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

In March of 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first-ever phone call, which, in time, came to dramatically transform how we relate to one another. On the surface, the communication revolution has seemed to render isolation something of an endangered species — we’re more connected than ever, right? And yet one wonders if isolation eventually mutated into something more subtle and yet equally dangerous (perhaps even more dangerous for being subtle). At least one prominent sociologist fears that’s the case:

We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, 1)

Or, as the subtitle of her book says, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.” And whenever we expect less of each other, we inevitably drift further and further from each other, leaving us as isolated (or more) as the lonely man before the advent of the telephone.

What Kind of Isolation?

Some may read the last few paragraphs and quietly envy a time when no one called, emailed, texted, or (worst of all?) left a voicemail. A life with less people actually might sound kind of appealing. You may struggle to relate to the possible dangers of isolation. Wisdom, however, knows the hazards hiding in the shadows of our seclusion: “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Proverbs 18:1).

What kind of isolation did the wise man have in mind? The next verse gives us a clearer picture:

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,     but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)

He doesn’t want to hear what others think; he only wants someone to hear what he thinks. This strikes a major nerve in the book of Proverbs. As this wise father prepares his son for the realities of life in this wild and menacing world, he wants him to see that some of the greatest threats are stowaways, striking from within. He warns him, in particular, about the ruinous power of unchecked pride.

Be not wise in your own eyes;     fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (Proverbs 3:7)

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?     There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 26:12)

There is a way that seems right to a man,     but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The proud man, we learn, breaks out against all judgment because he invites destruction on himself. Arrogance makes his isolation dangerous: I don’t spend more time with other people because I don’t need other people — because I know better than other people. This pride distinguishes isolation from the virtues of solitude, which God encourages again and again (Psalm 46:10; Matthew 6:6; Mark 1:35).

The ways that lead to death are the ways we choose for ourselves while refusing meaningful community — relationships marked by consistent honesty, counsel, correction, and encouragement.

Alone with Our Desires

What draws us into the spiritual shadows of isolation? Our own selfish desires. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire.” Whenever someone leaves or avoids the community he needs, he has been lured away by sinful desires — desires for privacy or autonomy, for comfort or ease, for money or sex, even for vindication or vengeance. At root, it’s our desires that divide and isolate us:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)

“Whenever someone leaves or avoids the community he needs, he has been lured away by sinful desires.”

The desires that keep us from one another are varied, but they’re all rooted in selfish discontentment: We want and do not have, so we excuse ourselves from love — either by attacking one another or by abandoning one another. Our desires, Scripture says, are what isolate and undo us (Jude 1:18–19). Consider, for instance, the lazy man:

The desire of the sluggard kills him,     for his hands refuse to labor.All day long he craves and craves,     but the righteous gives and does not hold back. (Proverbs 21:25–26)

The sluggard dies in sin because he’s been hardened by its deceitfulness: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12–13). Whenever we isolate ourselves from the perspective, encouragement, and exhortations of others, we open ourselves wide to the deceitfulness of sin. And why is the deceitfulness of sin so compelling? Because Satan studies and preys on our desires. He’s a master gardener, carefully seeding selfishness, discontentment, and bitterness in just the right places.

Consistent, meaningful community, however, exposes and thwarts him. It reveals just how thin and shallow his lies are, and just how far our desires can sometimes wander.

Sweetness of a Friend

The opposite of soul-wrecking isolation, though, is a life deeply rooted in the hearts and counsel of good friends. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls,” Proverbs 11:14 warns, “but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” As is so often the case, wisdom, fruitfulness, and safety grow out of humility — out of a willingness to submit our thoughts and plans, dreams and desires, sins and weaknesses to someone else.

“The most effective and fruitful people are those who distrust themselves enough to diligently seek out guidance.”

The most effective and fruitful people are those who distrust themselves enough to diligently seek out guidance — not three or four times over a lifetime, but several times each month, maybe even each week. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22; see also 20:18) — notice, not just advisers, but many advisers. And not just many advisers, but the right advisers: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Online articles, sermons, and podcasts can be a great gift, but we all need flesh-and-blood, life-on-life perspective for our particular personalities, struggles, and circumstances. We need friends who can look us in the eye and see what no one online can.

So who are your advisors? Who knows you well enough to challenge your plans and decisions? When’s the last time someone pushed back on something in your life? If you can’t remember, you may be more isolated than you think, at least in the ways that really matter.

Wounds of Togetherness

One way Satan isolates us is by convincing us that the counsel and correction we need is burdensome, not life-giving. Both Scripture and experience, however, testify against him:

Better is open rebuke     than hidden love.Faithful are the wounds of a friend;     profuse are the kisses of an enemy. . . .

Oil and perfume make the heart glad,     and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (Proverbs 27:5–9)

Life in rigorous community is not a stifled life, but an enhanced one. Faithful counsel may wound us in the moment, but only so that it might heal and preserve us. As Ray Ortlund says,

When iron sharpens iron, it creates friction. When a friend wounds you, it hurts. So, do you see? There’s a difference between hurting someone and harming someone. There is a difference between someone being loved and someone feeling loved. Jesus loved everyone well, and some people felt hurt. So they crucified him. If we don’t understand this, then every time we feel hurt we will look for someone to blame and punish. We will make our emotional state someone else’s fault. (Proverbs, 168)

Don’t judge your church or small group or friendship by how much it hurts when hard words come. Ask what those hard words are producing in you over time. Is the friction you feel slowly drawing you closer to Christ and making you more like him? Has the pain you’ve felt in certain conversations led you deeper into repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10)? If so, then your wounds may be healing wounds from faithful friends — rare friends who are worth keeping at whatever cost.

Antidote for Isolation

What practical advice would I give to someone who realizes he is more isolated than he thought? My first piece of advice would be to find, join, and serve a local church.

Friendship is a great weapon against spiritual isolation, but one meaningful covenant with a church family is worth an army of friendships. When our desires begin to harden us to God, his word, and his will, friends may stay and fight with us, but our church has vowed to stay and fight — until death ushers us together, sinless, into the presence of Jesus.

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)

Isolation dies in church families that know they need, and want, to gather. For them, Sunday mornings aren’t a sweet addition to a full and happy life; they are the foundation of a full and happy life. God means for us to know him, serve him, enjoy him, and become like him as a part of Christ’s body. The more isolated we become, the more we cut ourselves off from the fountains of his grace, mercy, and guidance.

The Best Sermon for Marriage: Seven Lessons for Lasting Love

Today marks seven years of marriage for me and my wife, Faye. Since our wedding day, I’ve learned that year seven has become something of a milestone for marriages (largely, it seems, thanks to a 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch).

The “seven-year itch” refers to the time when one or both spouses grow tired of the marriage and begin to long for something new. While studies have never proven seven as the precise number, various studies have shown that divorce statistics do rise and peak somewhere between five and ten years. I’m not sure, however, that we really needed sophisticated studies to tell us what most marriages know by experience: marriage is harder than we expect. And if we’re looking for reasons to leave, we’ll have plenty to choose from.

Why else do we make vows? “Wedding vows,” Tim Keller reminds us, “are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love” (Meaning of Marriage, 79). “I take you, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” Being yours might cost me more than I ever thought I could give — more than I can now imagine — but I promise to never leave you. Vows tie the future fragility and difficulty of marriage into the very beauty of the ceremony.

In his introduction to Herman Bavinck’s The Christian Family, James Eglinton writes,

In this fallen world, there are no promises that marriage, for all its capacity to be beautiful and enriching, will be a lifelong series of increasing physical delights. In reality, a healthy marriage will probably lean more on the Sermon on the Mount than on the Song of Solomon. (xiii)

After seven years (and seventeen dreams), marriage has been far harder than either of us expected — and far sweeter. We still love and lean on the Song of Solomon — healthy marriages, however challenging, are captivating romances worthy of such poetry. But we also have learned, perhaps all the more, to climb the mountain and sit longer at the feet of Jesus.

Seven Words for Seven Years

Marriage is not the focus of the Sermon on the Mount — it’s only addressed explicitly in 2 of the 107 verses — but the three chapters do provide some profound counsel for marriages, young and old. After seven years with Faye, Jesus’s commands, warnings, and promises fall with fresh weight and relevance for the gospel drama we’ve been given to live out together. The following seven words, in particular, have stuck with me as we take our first steps into year eight.

1. Take care where you build your home.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24)

We’ll begin where Jesus ends. After teaching on anger, lust, anxiety, integrity, vengeance, forgiveness, giving, fasting, praying, and more, he closes with a vivid picture of two kinds of homes: one built upon sand and the other on rock. Lives (and marriages) built on sand will fall. Lives (and marriages) built on rock will stand: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health — in other words, whatever may come. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25).

What does it mean to build a marriage on the rock? It means to build our marriages on obedience to Jesus. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” It means actively putting Jesus and his words at the center of our rhythms, our romance, and even our conflict. Are we still looking for creative ways to draw him further into our marriages — reading together, praying together, singing together, thanking him together, enjoying him together? Every marriage learns quickly that it takes special, Spirit-filled intentionality to keep from drifting off of the rock.

Regarding conflict, what if, when tension arises in our marriage, the decisive factor was more often what Jesus wants most? To be sure, we won’t always know precisely what Jesus wants, but a commitment to trust and obey him above all else, and in every situation, would resolve many tensions in many marriages, wouldn’t it?

When the forecast darkens, and the clouds crawl in, and the winds begin to howl, and the showers start to fall, we feel whether our love is built on solid ground (or not). Are we more committed to obeying Jesus than getting our own way? Do his words or our feelings consistently win the day? Are we ready to take the hard, costly steps he calls us to take — again? Is our house built on rock — or on sand?

2. Guard your fidelity with vigilance.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

Perhaps the clearest word for marriage in the Sermon on the Mount comes in Matthew 5:27–32. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28). In other words, don’t just avoid the forbidden woman’s bed; avoid even imagining yourself in her bed. Go to whatever lengths necessary to guard the garden of your purity and intimacy.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)

Does that kind of Spirit-filled zeal and vigilance surround our marriage bed? Do we ever talk about how we’re each battling sexual temptation? Are there men and women in our lives who know how to hold us each accountable? The deepest marital happiness comes to those who fight together for purity, because we get to see more of God together: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

This faithful pursuit of purity also comes with a commitment to never leave — not in year five, or seven, or fifty-seven. “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32). To be sure, marriages wrecked by infidelity will require special care and counsel and grace, but his word remains clear: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). He says that precisely because of how much easier separation will feel at times.

3. Correct each other with humility.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

Marriage, we all know, is sanctifying — perhaps more sanctifying than any other human relationship (although parents may sometimes wonder). Marriage sanctifies us for at least two great reasons: (1) a husband and wife see more of each other’s sin than anyone else could, and (2) the covenant ties us uncomfortably close for a lifetime, sins and all. We see the worst in each other and yet have nowhere to go.

How my wife responds to my sins has a disproportionate effect on how I see myself and my sin (and vice versa). As spouses, we sit at a critical, sensitive, and sometimes painful window into each other’s souls. The question is how we will handle that burden and privilege. Jesus tells us how:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)

How different might our marriages be if we simply and consistently implemented these three verses? The longer we stare at any given speck — months, years, even decades — the harder it can become to see our own logs. In the vulnerability of marriage, it is all the more important to confront and correct each other with humility — with a patient awareness of our own failures and sins and a resilient hopefulness for change and growth.

4. Don’t murder each other.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)

We may assume that sexual immorality has ended more marriages than any other threat — and it surely has crushed and devoured many. I wonder, however, if unchecked anger has ended more.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21–22)

“By all means, guard your marriage bed from adultery and pornography, but also guard it from your own anger.”

Jesus makes no room for unrighteous anger; he elevates it alongside murder. And yet how often have we made room for it in our homes? How often have we felt justified while our hurt feelings burned hot within us? And how often have we responded to unrighteous anger with more unrighteous anger? By all means, guard your marriage bed from adultery and pornography, but also guard it from your own anger.

Guard against anger, and when a fire breaks out, don’t leave it unaddressed. Jesus continues,

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)

Different marriages will have different rhythms for reconciliation; the important point is to have one. Do offenses consistently get addressed in your relationship — or not? Do you lovingly correct each other? Are you quick to admit when you’re wrong or to confess when you have failed? Do you still gladly forgive each other? Couples who avoid hard conversations forfeit some of the sweetest moments in marriage.

5. Delight to forgive each other.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

Because every marriage is a union between sinners, forgiveness will be our constant guest. Children may come and go, jobs may come and go, houses may come and go, but the need for forgiveness will remain. So will forgiveness be a welcome and celebrated guest in your home — or an unwelcome and resented one?

Jesus warns us, including husbands and wives, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14–15). Does any relationship test our willingness to forgive — and to persevere in forgiveness — like marriage? Jesus says an unwillingness to forgive is spiritually lethal. Mercy, on the other hand, breeds security and joy: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Forgiveness is costly, and in some ways, all the more so in marriage. Marriage reveals more of us than we want to show, and it opens us to more pain than most relationships. And we inevitably must forgive the same sins again and again and again (seventy times seven feels about right). It’s good to remember that this love, as much as any on earth, is meant to look like the cross (Ephesians 5:25) — so we shouldn’t be surprised that it sometimes feels like a cross. In fact, that feeling may be proof we’re doing something right.

6. Cover your marriage with prayer.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)

Prayer is as powerful and important outside of marriage as it is in marriage. But if we are married, nothing will shape our marriages more. Of the dreams we had going into our first seven years of marriage, this is the one we feel most desperate to cultivate in our next seven. I long for the words, “Let’s stop and pray about that,” to become as common as any in our home.

How many marriages (my own included) suffer unnecessarily because we refuse to take advantage of the all-powerful ear of heaven? Is our marriage really too hard for him? “Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8).

Has marriage begun to feel unsustainable? Have you lost hope that things will get better? Have you quietly stopped praying for your husband or wife? Then take Jesus at his word: keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Your Father won’t give you a stone. He won’t give you a scorpion. “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 7:11).

7. Seek God before each other.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)

Many spouses who leave a marriage wouldn’t have trouble staying for another day or two, but they can’t imagine staying for thirty or forty more years. This is precisely the kind of thinking Jesus confronts in his teaching on anxiety:

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” [or “How shall we stayed married?”] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:31–32, 34)

“Fix your eyes on God today, and leave the next ten, or twenty, or fifty years to him.”

Do you feel like you’ve exhausted everything you could possibly give, sacrifice, and endure in marriage? Does being married tomorrow feel impossible? Don’t worry about tomorrow. Fix your eyes on God today — on his righteousness, his kingdom, his promises, his resources — and leave the next ten, or twenty, or fifty years to him.

This doesn’t mean good marriages ignore the future. Husbands, in particular, bear a responsibility to look ahead and anticipate opportunities, needs, and dangers, like any good shepherd would. Good marriages require regular forethought and planning. How else could preserve and nurture meaningful, fruitful oneness? Faithful marriages do not ignore the future, but they’re also not anxious about the future. They know they don’t need a lifetime of marital strength and love today; they just need enough for another Sunday, and then another Monday, and then another Tuesday.

God doesn’t call us to predict or bear our future troubles. He calls us to bear today’s troubles in the grace and strength that he provides for today. Look at the birds of the air. Look at the lilies of the field. He will keep your marriage, and strengthen your marriage, and even beautify your marriage — as you each focus most on seeking him. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus says, “and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Do you want the real key to a healthy and happy marriage? The real key, whether at year seven or year seventy, is to pursue something before and above marriage — to pursue someone before and above your spouse. Blessed are the husbands and wives who hunger and thirst most for righteousness, for they shall be faithful, hopeful, and satisfied.

Our God-Sized Ordinary: Six Ways to See the Holy Spirit

Life in the Spirit can feel ordinary at times. It really is one of Satan’s greatest feats.

If he cannot keep God from breaking in and reviving a once-dead soul, he will do what he can to downplay what has happened. He’ll seed thorns that disrupt our sense of safety and rest (2 Corinthians 12:7). He’ll try to veil the glory of God in us and around us (2 Corinthians 4:4). He’ll flood us with cares and riches and pleasures to distract us from spiritual reality (Luke 8:14). He’ll seize on any glimpse of sin: “See, you’re exactly who you were before” (Revelation 12:10).

Satan can convince us that a life invaded by the presence, help, and joy of God — by the Holy Spirit — isn’t really all that different from any other life. He convinces us to perceive and define our lives by what’s left of the curse, rather than by the inbreaking of the new creation.

Yes, life in the Spirit — for now — often feels ordinary. We eat and drink, work and sleep, toil and spin, and then do it all again tomorrow. But none of now is the same as it was, not even our morning coffee or our afternoon snack. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). This glory doesn’t skip meals; it invades them. And who empowers us to eat and drink and do everything for the glory of God? The Spirit.

Now, we eat with the Spirit. Now, we drink with the Spirit. Now, we work and play and sleep in the Spirit. Now, we walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). A normal day may feel ordinary, but below the surface of our perceptions, God is knitting together a new, miraculous, unfinished life in us — by his Spirit.

You Have the Spirit

Do you remember that, if you belong to Christ, the Spirit of God lives in you? He doesn’t hover above you waiting to help. He’s not waiting at a desk in heaven for you to call. He’s not patrolling neighborhoods looking for souls in need. No, when God delivered you from the prison of sin and death, he not only invited you into his presence and family, but he came to live in you. He made a home for himself in your weak, broken, and forgiven soul.

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple,” the apostle Paul asks, “and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Do you know? Has the ordinariness of life made you forget? God is living in the ordinary, in your ordinary.

Paul writes in Romans 8:8–9, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Even if many aspects of your life stayed the same after you came to Christ — your family, your job, your neighborhood, your car, your wardrobe, even what you have for breakfast — something fundamental changed. Someone fundamental. God flooded every familiar and unremarkable corner of your life with God — with himself, with his Spirit.

Feel the force of Paul’s wonder as he repeats himself three times in just a few verses:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. . . . If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9–11)

He’s captivated by a reality we often miss. God does not just love you, protect you, provide for you, and draw near to you; he dwells in you. He dwells in you. He dwells in you.

Making His Presence Felt

If we could see all that the Holy Spirit is working in us and through us, we would not yawn or groan over “ordinary” like we’re prone to. One day, we’ll have eyes and ears tuned to these miracles, but for now, we have to search for them — for him. But what do we look for?

We look for child-like dependence. Paul goes on to say in Romans 8, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15–16). Whenever we reach out in faith to God as our Father — as someone who sovereignly loves and cares for us as his children — we do so by the Spirit. Do you have an impulse to pray when you feel tempted or weak or confused or discouraged? That impulse is not ordinary or natural; it’s a work of God.

We look for an awareness of spiritual reality. Anything you truly understand about God, his word, and his will are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Anyone can read God’s words and perhaps even make sense of the vocabulary and grammar and logic, but no one grasps the realities unless the Spirit moves. “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). We will never fully comprehend all God has done for us in Christ, but what we do understand now, we understand because of what God has done for us in the Holy Spirit.

“Humans die in a thousand different ways, but sin dies in just one: by the Spirit.”

We look for rejected temptations and conquered sins. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Humans die in a thousand different ways, but sin dies in just one: by the Spirit. We may miss the power of these deaths because we assume, somewhere deep down, that we could overcome sin on our own — but we can’t and we don’t. If sin dies by our hand, it is only because our hand has become a mighty weapon in the hands of God himself.

We look for God-like love. The Holy Spirit doesn’t only weed out the remaining wickedness in us; he also plants and nurtures a garden of righteousness. The clearest evidence that he dwells in us is not the ugliness he removes, but the beauty he creates. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). In other words, he makes us more like Christ. We look for love like his, joy like his, faithfulness like his. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image” — his image — “from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

We look for specific giftings or insights that meet needs in the church. Everyone in whom the Spirit lives has been given abilities for the good of other believers. Paul says of the church, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4–7). To each — not just some or many. If the Spirit lives in you, then to you too. So how has God recently met a specific need through you? When he does, he’s reminding you that he lives in you, by his Spirit.

Most of all, though, we look for love for Jesus. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’” Paul says, “except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Of course, they can say it, but not with their heart — not with their faith, their joy, their hope, their love. Sustained love for Jesus only happens where the Spirit lives. Paul describes the same miracle in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “[God] has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we still love what we see when we look at Jesus, we see something only the Spirit could do in us.

“The clearest evidence that the Spirit dwells in us is not the ugliness he removes, but the beauty he creates.”

Do you see continued dependence on God in your life? Do you see any gifting from him, any victory over sin, any Christlike love or peace or joy? Do you still love what you see of Jesus? Then your ordinary isn’t as ordinary as you might think, because the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in you.

Prophecies of Paradise

As Christians, we have — yes, have — the Holy Spirit. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We have the Holy Spirit now, but what we experience now is only a taste of what’s to come. The Spirit, Paul says, “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14). Guarantee, meaning there’s more.

Whatever good the Spirit does in each of us now is merely an appetizer of what he will do in all of us forever. The Spirit living in us in this world is a taste of what it will be like for us to live in his coming world. And, at the center of it all, we’ll find him. The Christ whose Spirit lives in us will be the Christ who lives with us.

Life in the Spirit feels mundane when we grow dull to miracles. Yes, we live and work and love among thorns and thistles for now, but we do so by the strength and wisdom of God — until the day when he makes glory our ordinary.

The Prayer to End All Prayers

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

The last prayer in the Bible is also one of its shortest — and yet it’s layered with heartache and anticipation, with distress and hope, with agony and joy. Can you imagine the apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23), savoring those three words — “Come, Lord Jesus!” — while he was abandoned among criminals on the island of Patmos? Does the promise that Christ will come again ever feel sweeter than when life on earth feels harsh and unyielding?

It’s almost as if John tries to draw the risen Jesus out of heaven, praying with all his might. The barren, rocky ground beneath his knees was more than a prison; it was a model of the curse, twenty square miles overrun with the consequences of sin. Suffering does this. It opens our eyes wider to all that sin has ruined, just how much pain and havoc it has wrought in the world. And, in a strange way, suffering often awakens us to the promise of his coming.

Weakness and illness make us long all the more for new bodies. Prolonged relational conflict makes us long all the more for peace. Wars and hurricanes and earthquakes make us long all the more for safety. Our remaining sin makes us long all the more for sinlessness. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is the cry of someone who really expects a better world to come — and soon. Suffering only intensifies that longing and anticipation.

Many Prayers in One

The prayer “Come, Lord Jesus!” is really many prayers in one. What will happen when Christ finally returns? The opening verses of Revelation 21 tell us just how many of our prayers will be answered on that day.

Come, Lord Jesus, and dry our tears. Followers of Jesus are not spared sorrow in this life. In fact, following him often means more tears. Jesus himself warned us it would be so: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). But one day, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4). In that world, we will not have tribulation, or sorrow, or distress, or persecution, or danger. When he returns, we’ll never have another reason to cry.

Come, Lord Jesus, and put an end to our pain. Some long for the end of heartache; others feel the consequences of sin in their bodies. Pain has followed them like a shadow. Revelation 21:4 continues, “. . . neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” Can you imagine someone who has battled chronic pain for decades waking up one morning and feeling no more pain? It will be like a man who has never seen anything clearly finally putting on his first pair of glasses — except the sufferer will feel that sensation in every muscle and nerve. The absence of pain will free his senses to enjoy the world like never before.

Come, Lord Jesus, and put death to death. Jesus came to dethrone death. Hebrews 2:14–15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Every one reading this article was once enslaved to the fear of death. But death lost its sting when the Son of God died. And one day, death itself will die. When the Author of life comes, “death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4).

Come, Lord Jesus, and rid us of sin. This burden may be more subtle in these verses, but it would not have been subtle in John’s imagination. He writes in verse 3, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” And he knew that God cannot dwell with sin. For God to come and dwell with us, he will have to first eradicate the sin that remains in us — and that’s exactly what he promises to do. The sin that hides in every shadow and behind every corner will be suddenly extinct. He will throw every cause of sin into his fiery furnace (Matthew 13:41). “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

“In the world to come, we will have nothing to fear, nothing to mourn, nothing to endure, nothing to confess.”

Come, Lord Jesus, and make it all new. In other words, anything not included in the prayers above will be made right too. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). Nothing here will go untouched. Whatever aspect of life on earth afflicts you most, it will be different. Whatever fears have plagued you, whatever trials have surprised you, whatever clouds have followed you, they all will be transformed — in the twinkling of an eye — and stripped of their threats. In the world to come, we will have nothing to fear, nothing to mourn, nothing to endure, nothing to confess. Can you imagine?

More than a prayer for relief, or safety, or healing, or even sinlessness, though, “Come, Lord Jesus!” is a prayer for him.

His Presence Is Paradise

The burning heart of John’s three-word plea is not for what Jesus does, but for who he is. This is clear throughout the book of Revelation. The world to come is a world to want because Jesus lives there. John’s prayer, after all — “Come, Lord Jesus!” — is a response to Jesus promising three times in the previous verses, “Behold, I am coming soon. . . . Behold, I am coming soon. . . . Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7, 12, 20).

“The world to come is a world to want because Jesus lives there.”

While the apostle wasted away in prison, he could see the Bridegroom on the horizon (Revelation 1:12–16). His hair white, like snow. His eyes filled with fire. His feet, like burnished bronze. His face, like the sun shining in full strength. The man he had walked with, talked with, laughed with, and surely cried with, now fully glorified and ready to receive and rescue his bride, the church. The Treasure was no longer hidden in a field, but riding on the clouds.

Even the vision of the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21 makes God himself the greatest prize of the world to come: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Yes, we want a world without grief, without pain, without fear, without death. But better to have a world like ours with God, than to have any other world without him. His presence defines paradise.

Randy Alcorn writes,

Nothing is more often misdiagnosed than our homesickness for Heaven. We think that what we want is sex, drugs, alcohol, a new job, a raise, a doctorate, a spouse, a large-screen television, a new car, a cabin in the woods, a condo in Hawaii. What we really want is the person we were made for, Jesus, and the place we were made for, Heaven. Nothing less can satisfy us. . . . We may imagine we want a thousand different things, but God is the one we really long for. His presence brings satisfaction; his absence brings thirst and longing. Our longing for Heaven is a longing for God. (Heaven, 166, 171)

A Second Coming

While the apostle’s brief prayer may be the most memorable invitation in Revelation 22, it is not the only one. The Bible doesn’t end only with a desperate plea for Christ to return, but also with a warm invitation to the weary, the suffering, the spiritually thirsty.

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17)

As John anticipates Christ’s returning, gathering his people and wiping out all his enemies, his last thoughts are not of judgment, but of mercy. He ends not with smoke rising out of torment, but with a free and overflowing fountain held out to all who would come. His words ring with an old and glorious invitation, Isaiah 55:1–2:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

When Jesus comes, we will eat and drink and enjoy without end. Hunger and thirst will become distant memories. If sorrows have robbed you of sleep, if pain has made even normal days hard, if death has taken ones you love, if life has sometimes seemed stacked against you, if you can’t shake a restless ache for more, then come and eat with him. This world may be the only world you’ve known, but a better world is coming — and there’s still room at the table.

The Safest Man for Women

Of course, raising up godly men is about far more than sexual purity. A man of God is more than his self-control in dating relationships. He’s more than his last Internet accountability report — far more. When grace grips a man, it more than curbs his lust for porn; it lights fires for good under every area of his life. And so, young men need strong, dynamic, ambitious pictures of what they might become in Christ.

I can remember exactly where I was sitting, wrestling with guilt and shame and regret over failed relationships and sexual sin, wondering if I would ever overcome my broken history, when a friend recited Micah 7:8–9 from memory:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;when I fall, I shall rise;when I sit in darkness,the Lord will be a light to me.I will bear the indignation of the Lordbecause I have sinned against him,until he pleads my causeand executes judgment for me.He will bring me out to the light;I shall look upon his vindication.
God pleads my cause. The one I betrayed kneeled down to appeal for me. His gavel landed, not on me, but on his Son. Having lived and hidden in darkness, I found a home in the light. The purity I thought I had lost was now suddenly and undeservedly possible.
As we raise up younger men in the church, and encourage them toward becoming men of God, how can we call them into the kind of freedom and purity God gave me in Christ?
Set an Example in Purity
Of course, raising up godly men is about far more than sexual purity. A man of God is more than his self-control in dating relationships. He’s more than his last Internet accountability report — far more. When grace grips a man, it more than curbs his lust for porn; it lights fires for good under every area of his life. And so, young men need strong, dynamic, ambitious pictures of what they might become in Christ.
Fortunately, God gives us plenty of great lessons on manhood in his word. First Timothy 4:12 has become one especially concise and compelling picture for me:
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
The apostle Paul gives Timothy, his son in the faith, five cues for spiritual growth and development. The areas are not exclusive to men, but they are each critical for godly men. Each of those five words is a battlefield to be won, and each can become its own stronghold for holiness. Do this man’s conversations consistently say he belongs to God? Does his lifestyle set him apart from the unbelieving? Is he a man of surprising and sacrificial love? Does he fight for faith in the trenches of temptation and doubt? Is he pure?
In previous articles, we looked more closely at the first four — speech, conduct, love, and faith. Here we turn to purity, the area that may receive the most attention in young men’s discipleship (often for good reason), and yet often in ways that miss the heart of Christian purity.
In All Purity
First, what kind of purity did the apostle have in mind? The only other use of this Greek word in the New Testament — agneia — comes just one chapter later in the same letter:
Encourage [an older man] as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1–2)
This suggests the purity Paul had in mind was sexual purity — a broad and consistent holiness that marks all of Timothy’s relationships with his sisters in Christ. Purity is bigger and wider than personal sexual morality, but sex and sexuality (then and certainly now) play a major role in setting followers of Christ apart from the world. Man of God, as you encourage younger women in the church, do so with purity. Don’t talk, behave, or daydream in ways that make them vulnerable to serve your lusts. Put to death sexual immorality within you (Colossians 3:5). Flee from sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18). Treat young women with the respect and concern with which you would treat your own sisters — because they are (Matthew 12:50).
And not just purity, Timothy, but all purity. Don’t treat women just slightly better than men in the world do, but wholly differently. When other men flirt with ambiguous messages and signals, be surprisingly clear and honest. When other men secretly gratify their lusts, make moments alone a training ground for self-control. When other men dishonor themselves and others through sexual sin, be a man who loves to honor and protect women. Don’t look for the lowest bar to crawl over, but be ambitiously pure — love any women God has put in your life with all purity. Be the safest man on earth for a young woman to meet.
“Husband of One Wife”
Earlier in his letter to the younger Timothy, the apostle gives at least one other glimpse into how godly men relate to sex and sexuality.
When he names qualifications for pastor-elders, the majority of the list simply pictures a normal godly man, whether he ever serves in church office or not. He must be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, . . . not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2–3). These qualities mark every mature man who follows Jesus. And according to that same list, such a man is also “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Read More

Did We Kiss Purity Goodbye?

Where purity culture erred or was unclear, it wasn’t because Christian leaders called for sexual purity, but because sex and marriage threatened to become bigger than God. Wherever the messaging downplayed grace, or relied disproportionately on fear, or reduced purity to sexual ethics, it plundered the riveting and appealing beauty of purity in Christ — and, ironically, robbed purity of its power to overcome temptation. 

Not long ago, purity was something all Christians seemed to admire, and want, without qualification. Now, many professing believers associate the pursuit of personal purity with the scandal of “purity culture.” Christian pleas for purity, some claim, have spread fear, guilt, and shame instead. I encountered these concerns again as I researched and published a fresh plea for sexual purity.
Some reformation was warranted. In some circles, the concerted effort for sexual purity in the nineties was a desperate effort to stem the tide of teenage pregnancy, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion. In the eyes of many, sexual sin and temptation were the hordes outside the gate, and we needed extraordinary measures to hold them back. So they held rallies, published books, printed cards, and fashioned rings. And also (in the eyes of some, anyway) mass-produced shame, even as untold numbers made admirable resolves and were spared great miseries.
Some, it seems, came away thinking of purity mainly as a means to marriage, to health, to earthly happiness, even to salvation, and not mainly as fruit of knowing and enjoying Jesus. Purity was not the final solution to AIDS, pornography, or teenage pregnancy; worship was. Purity wasn’t the ultimate key to a better marriage or better sex; worship was. But teenagers weren’t angsty about worship; they were angsty about marriage, sex, pregnancy, and disease, so that’s where the messaging often went (or at least what many kids came away with). Therefore, while teenage pregnancy and STDs did decline over the next couple decades (truly amazing when you think about it), many testified to experiencing more shame than freedom, more disillusionment than worship, more self than Jesus.
And, in the process, some (certainly not all) missed the gift and peace of true purity. They may not have dated young or kissed someone before marriage, but they didn’t get to taste what God means by purity either.
Lies That Spread in Purity Culture
Calls for sexual purity were (and are) biblical and needed. Even in the midst of the good that was done through lots of preaching and discipleship during those years, several lies seemed to spread in the renewed emphasis on purity — each laced with enough truth to be taken seriously and yet with enough deceit to lead some astray.
Lie 1: Sexual purity guarantees a happy marriage.
Some heard, If you want to get married to a great guy (or girl), have a great marriage, and enjoy a great sex life, then abstain from any sexual sin. One commentator has called this “the sexual prosperity gospel.”
It is true that sexual purity before marriage does guard and bless our future marriage, and it may improve our chances of marrying well and enjoying a healthy and happy sex life. But it doesn’t guarantee a great marriage. Sexual purity does not guarantee we will marry, or that our spouse will be wonderful and faithful, or that sex will easy or satisfying.
Marriage is not a reward for purity in singleness, and prolonged singleness is not a curse for sexual sin. Sexual purity before marriage is a profound way to love your future spouse (if God brings you a spouse). More than that, though, it’s a profound way to honor God and experience more of his presence and power. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Lie 2: Virginity is what makes someone desirable.
Some heard, If I want a godly guy (or girl) to want to marry me, then I should abstain from sexual sin. They went away thinking that virginity was the greatest gift anyone could give a future spouse and that those who kept their virginity would, again, receive marriage as a reward for their waiting.
Virginity is a precious gift to give a spouse. Perhaps my greatest regret as a husband, a father, as a man, is that I did not practice the love and self-control of waiting for the marriage bed. Virginity, however, is not the greatest gift anyone can give a future spouse; a genuine faith in Jesus is. Make no mistake, your sexual history (or lack thereof) will affect your marriage for better or worse, if God gives you a spouse, but the effect will not compare to your lived-out love for Christ (or lack thereof). Virginity is not at the top of a godly man’s or woman’s priorities; Jesus is. Whatever the history, he or she is now most committed to marrying in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39).
That means sexual sinners are not ruined for happy marriages if we turn from our sin and commit to pursuing purity in Christ.
Lie 3: Girls are why men sin.
Some pushback against “purity culture” has come from women who felt the burden was unfairly laid on them to keep men from sinning. Lust is every young man’s battle, and they’re tempted and fall because women dress and act immodestly. As a result, some women may have carried shame and guilt over the sins of their brothers — and some men may have left thinking they experienced lust mainly because women dressed inappropriately.
Jesus did not diagnose lust this way. He pointed first to our own hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19–20).
Read More

Scroll to top
Refcast

FREE
VIEW