Scott Hubbard

Slow to Anger: The Beauty of God’s Perfect Patience

Many of the most common troubles in the Christian life come from relating to God as if he were like us — as if his kindness were as slight as our kindness, his forgiveness as reluctant as our forgiveness, his patience as fleeting as our patience. Under impressions such as these, we walk uneasily through the Christian life, insecurity rumbling like distant thunder.

John Owen (1616–1683) goes so far as to say,

Want of a due consideration of him with whom we have to do, measuring him by that line of our own imaginations, bringing him down unto our thoughts and our ways, is the cause of all our disquietments. (Works of John Owen, 6:500)

If we were God in heaven, we would have grown impatient with people like us long ago. Our anger rises quickly in the face of personal offense. Our frustration boils over. Our judgments readily fire. And apart from the daily renewal of our minds, we can easily measure God “by that line of our own imaginations,” as if his thoughts matched our thoughts, and his ways our ways.

Thank God, they do not. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Our human nature has no ruler to measure God’s goodness; our natural imaginations cannot grasp his heights. His kindness is not like our kindness, his forgiveness not like our forgiveness — and his patience not like our patience.

‘Slow to Anger’

The God we meet in Scripture is a relentlessly patient God. He usually accomplishes his plans along the winding path. He fulfills his promises without haste. He compares his kingdom to a mustard seed.

The greatest displays of God’s patience, however, appear in response to our sin. “God is patient” means not mainly that God waits a long time, but that God shows longsuffering kindness to sinners (Romans 2:4). As God declares to Moses on Mount Sinai, he is not just “slow,” but “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6).

Consider the context of that famous declaration. Israel has just left slavery, redeemed by God’s mighty hand. They have watched the Red Sea swallow Egypt’s army. They have stood before a mountain wrapped in smoke and lightning, the entourage of the Almighty. They have been covered by the blood of the covenant. And then, in some of their first moments of freedom, they exchange the glory of the living God for a cow (Exodus 32:1–6).

Judgment follows (Exodus 32:25–29, 35) — striking yet restrained, tempered by a mysterious mercy. God does not destroy them; he does not forsake them. Instead, he reveals his glorious, incomparable name, like an unexpected dawn in an all-black sky:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)

Why does full judgment tarry and mercy beckon? Because, unlike us, God is “slow to anger.” His wrath visits the unrepentant (Exodus 34:7), but only after taking the slow path. Meanwhile, his mercy stands ready to run.

Here on the slopes of Mount Sinai began a song that would be sung by Israel’s prophets and psalmists, sages and kings, even under the nation’s darkest nights (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Joel 2:13). The living God is a patient God. And in the shadow of his patience we find hope.

Patience Toward His Enemies

God’s patience, like his love, has special significance for his chosen people — the slow-to-anger God of Exodus 34:6 is none other than “the Lord,” Yahweh, the God Israel knows by covenant (Exodus 3:13–15). And yet, amazingly, the record of God’s dealings in Scripture reveals a marked slowness to anger not only toward his covenant people, but toward those who hate and oppose him.

The most forceful examples of God’s wrath, for instance, begin as examples of his patience. The flood waters swallowed the earth only after “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (1 Peter 3:20). God lingered for four generations before cleansing Canaan of its idolatry, for, he told Abraham, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). And nine warning plagues fell on Egypt before the devastating blow to the firstborn (Exodus 11:4–8).

God’s wrath may be “quickly kindled” when the time for judgment comes (Psalm 2:12), but until then, he warns and invites (Psalm 2:10–11). God’s patience toward his enemies extends so far, Owen observes, that his people sometimes cry out, perplexed, “How long before you will judge?” (Revelation 6:10; Psalm 94:3). And still he patiently waits.

God, the patient potter, bears with the rebellious clay of his creation. He endures vessels of wrath with “much patience” (Romans 9:22), Paul tells us. How much more, then, does he deal patiently with vessels of mercy?

Patience Toward His People

When Paul rehearsed his testimony to Timothy, he framed it as a story of God’s patience:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)

God saved this “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:13) so that no humble, broken sinner would think he’s out-sinned the patience of God. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus is patient toward his people — perfectly patient. As patient as the prodigal’s father, waiting on the porch (Luke 15:20).

Nor does his patience end when former rebels like us heed his summons and become his sons. As Israel’s faithful celebrated again and again, God not only “was” slow to anger; he “is” slow to anger (Psalm 103:8). His patience, like his love, endures forever (Psalm 136). To what else can we ascribe his ongoing kindness, his every-morning mercies, his present help, and his ready forgiveness, through all the fluctuations of our souls? Today and every day, “He does not deal with us according to our sins” (Psalm 103:10), but according to his great patience.

“In Christ, your life tells a story of divine patience.”

In Christ, your life, like Paul’s, tells a story of divine patience. God was patient with you as you wandered from him — scorning his Son, treasuring sin, scarcely giving him or his gospel a thought. He is patient with you now, as you daily find need for forgiveness. And he will be patient with you tomorrow, and the next day, and until the day of Jesus Christ, when he finally finishes the good work he’s begun (Philippians 1:6).

And why? Because, some several centuries after Moses, God once again revealed his slow-to-anger name. This time in flesh and blood.

Patience Supreme

In Jesus, the God-man, the song of God’s slowness to anger swells to its crescendo.

Jesus’s ministry was one of patience, for to be with us was to bear with us (Luke 9:41). He lived here as light among darkness, sinlessness among sin, the straight among the crooked — as the unrivaled prince of patience. We occasionally see the pain of his patience, as when he says, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17). But he mostly kept the cost hidden, pouring out his soul to his Father (Luke 5:16), and receiving from his Father the patience needed as his enemies slandered him, his neighbors rejected him, his disciples misunderstood him, and the crowds tried to use him.

And thus he also died. Though twelve legions of angels stood ready for his summons (Matthew 26:53), he never called. Instead, Patience incarnate took the lashes, the thorns, the nails, allowing his creatures to mock him with the breath he gave, all while pleading for their forgiveness (Luke 23:34).

In the cross of Jesus, we see not only that God is patient, but how God can be so patient. How could he, “in his divine forbearance,” pass over former sins (Romans 3:25) — and how can he, in his divine forbearance, continue to show us mercy? Because the patience of God, in the person of Christ, purchased our forgiveness (Romans 3:23–24). God’s patience rests on the passion of his Son. And therefore, his patience will last as long as our resurrected Christ pleads the merits of his blood (Hebrews 7:25) — which is to say, forever.

Let Us Return

English pastor Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) once prayed, “Teach me . . . to read my duty in the lines of your mercy.” And what duty do we read in the lines of God’s merciful patience? In the words of Isaiah, “Return to the Lord” (Isaiah 55:7).

“Whoever and wherever we are, God’s patience invites our repentance.”

The patience of God is a beckoning hand, an open door, a pathway home. It comes to us as Jesus came to Matthew at the tax booth: not to condemn us, and not to comfort us in our sins either, but rather to turn us again to “seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6), whether after a miserable lapse or simply a regrettable moment. Whoever and wherever we are, God’s patience invites our repentance.

And what do we find when we return to him, confessing and forsaking our sins? We find a Father running to meet us (Luke 15:20). We find a Savior who has already been knocking (Revelation 3:20). We find a God who abundantly pardons and plentifully redeems (Isaiah 55:7; Psalm 130:7). We find a Lord whose patience is perfect (1 Timothy 1:16).

One day, we will stumble and sin no more; the good work begun at our conversion finally will be complete (Philippians 1:6). But until then, the patience of God is not bound to the measure of our weak imaginations. It is not the pinched, passing, shallow patience we so commonly find among men, and within ourselves. His patience, like his peace, surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Return to him, then, now and forever, and in returning find rest.

A Rest Sweeter Than Sleep: Nighttime Prayer for a Troubled Conscience

Occasionally, as I lie down to sleep, a restlessness bends over my bed. A vague uneasiness. A nagging sense of some tension unresolved. Some door in the soul swinging on its hinges. The stirring of an unquiet conscience.

As I relive the day, I see why. Prayers hurried or skipped. An evangelistic opportunity avoided. Grievances nourished. Self-promoting words snuck into conversations. The “prayer request” that was probably gossip. Precious time squandered. Encouragements unthought and unspoken. As the old prayer book says, “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; and I have done those things which I ought not to have done.”

Was this a fitting response to your God? I ask myself. Was this “walking in a manner worthy” of him? Sometimes I drift off with such questions unresolved, fitful and self-reproaching yet tired enough to succumb to sleep.

But not always. Some years ago, I found unexpected help in the poem of a long-dead pastor, who asked the same questions, felt the same guilt, yet found in Jesus a rest far sweeter than sleep.

‘Even-Song’

George Herbert’s (1593–1633) “Even-Song” closes a series of three poems in his collection The Temple, beginning with “Mattens” and continuing with “Sinne (II).” The titles “Mattens” and “Even-Song” refer to morning and evening prayers in the Anglican church. And “Sinne” — well, that captures what often happens between those morning and evening prayers.

“Even-Song” is not a prayer for every evening. Herbert does not assume we only ever end the day self-reproachful, with sin having wrecked the day’s resolves. But he does assume we sometimes do — and that, often, even the most faithful Christians kneel beside their beds deeply wishing they had walked in a manner more worthy of their God.

What do we say at the end of such days, when we feel the gulf between God’s kindness and our unworthy response? More than once, “Even-Song” has met me at my bedside, speaking clarity and comfort to my troubled conscience. It has become a faithful nighttime friend.

As Night Draws Near

    Blest be the God of love,Who gave us eyes, and light, and power this day,  Both to be busie, and to play.  But much more blest be God above,

    Who gave me sight alone,  Which to himself he did denie:  For when he sees my waies, I dy:But I have got his sonne, and he hath none.

As night draws near, Herbert looks back, remembering God’s morning gifts of “eyes, and light, and power this day, / Both to be busie and to play.” Our Father, “God of love” that he is, opens the storehouses of his heart from the day’s first moment. As Herbert celebrates in “Mattens,” “I cannot ope mine eyes, / But thou art ready to catch / My morning-soul and sacrifice.” “Yours is the day” (Psalm 74:16), the psalmist says. And Herbert, surrounded by God’s gifts, feels it.

For sinners like us, though, one gift rises above the rest. The God who gives us “eyes, and light” for daytime labors also gives us another kind of sight, “Which to himself he did denie: / For when he sees my waies, I dy.” Alluding to Psalm 130:3, Herbert remembers that God, in Christ, does not “mark” our iniquities, even when we do; in a sense, he does not see the sins we see.

And why? Because “I have got his sonne, and he hath none.” God gave up his Son at the cross — and at the same time, he gave up the sun that would otherwise shine upon our guilt. Jesus buried our sins in darkness on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday, they did not rise with him. And so, in the glory of the gospel, God no longer “remembers” the sins of his people (Hebrews 8:12); he no longer sees them. They are buried, hidden, unseen, kept forever in darkness.

But they do not always feel buried, hidden, unseen. And so, Herbert takes us back to his “troubled minde.”

Troubled Mind

    What have I brought thee homeFor this thy love? have I discharg’d the debt,  Which this dayes favour did beget?  I ranne; but all I brought, was fome.

    Thy diet, care, and cost  Do end in bubbles, balls of winde;  Of winde to thee whom I have crost,But balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.

Like a good father, God meets us with favor morning by morning; his “diet, care, and cost” send us into the day strengthened and renewed. But all too often, as we approach home in the evening, we dig in our pockets, wondering how we could have taken so much and brought back so little. “What have I brought thee home?” Herbert asks. “I ranne; but all I brought, was fome” — or, a few lines later, “bubbles, balls of winde.” Insubstantial nothings.

Approaching God with fists full of wind may not trouble the spiritually nominal, who care little whether they please God or not. But for those who have tasted the kindness of God, and have seen the cross as its cost, such wind can become “balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.” The sun has set on the day’s regrets, with no time now to remedy them, leaving us with a thorn-pricked soul. A pillow of self-reproach. A smoldering conscience.

On nights like these, some simply try to sleep their guilt away. Others search for some rationalization. Still others pray, but not in a way that douses the fire in their minds. What does Herbert do?

Closing Our Weary Eyes

    Yet still thou goest on,And now with darknesse closest wearie eyes,  Saying to man, It doth suffice:  Henceforth repose; your work is done.

    Thus in thy ebony box  Thou dost inclose us, till the day  Put our amendment in our way,And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.

Herbert, with wild fire burning his troubled mind, turns to God and says, “Yet still thou goest on.” The “God of love” has yet more love stored up, more favor to offer. He began the day by giving us “eyes,” and now, as night overtakes our burdened souls, he “with darknesse closest wearie eyes.” And not just with sleep: God, in mercy, closes our eyes to our sins, just as he, in Christ, has already “closed” his.

“In response to our weary, day-end regrets, God gives not more work, but rest.”

As God closes the soul’s eyelids, bidding them be blind to the day’s confessed sins, Herbert imagines him “saying to man, It doth suffice: / Henceforth repose; your work is done.” In response to our weary, day-end regrets, God gives not more work, but rest. Our work, however pitiful, can be done at day’s end because God’s perfect work of redemption is done (John 19:30; Hebrews 10:12–14). And we, by faith, “have got his sonne.”

Thus God “incloses” us in “thy ebony box” — surely a reference to a coffin. The biblical writers saw sleep as an image of Christian death (John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:14), and Herbert, tapping into the theme, treats nighttime as a daily rehearsal for the moment when our ebony box will be made of wood and not of night. On that last twilight, some of God’s true children, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, will look back and ask, pained, “What have I brought thee home / For this thy love?” Our troubled nights teach us how to answer that question, readying us to lie peacefully upon our final bed as we wait for God to close our eyes, put us to sleep, and keep us for the resurrection day, which will “put our amendment in our way” — which will raise us sinless and whole, children of the everlasting morning.

Until then, we live like old timepieces, “disorder’d clocks” whose hour and minute hands begin the day aligned with God yet often slowly get off track. And every morning, God rewinds us, no matter how disordered from yesterday, and once again strengthens us to run.

Rest Deeper Than Sleep

    I muse, which shows more love,The day or night: that is the gale, this th’ harbour;  That is the walk, and this the arbour;  Or that the garden, this the grove.

    My God, thou art all love.  Not one poore minute scapes thy breast,  But brings a favour from above;And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.

As God carries us from morning to evening, we move from favor to favor, mercy to mercy, kindness to kindness. By poem’s end, Herbert muses which of the two, day or night, “shows more love”: The gale that sends us through day’s waters, or the harbor that holds us at night’s shore? The walk that takes us through day’s labors, or the arbor that receives us into night’s rest? The garden of daytime strength, or the grove of nighttime forgiveness?

“In Jesus, we find a rest beneath our rest, a pillow under our pillow.”

The question cannot be answered. In Christ, God gives us power to work for him, and he gives us pardon to rest in him. Both have their peculiar favor; God’s children prize them both. And so, “not one poore minute scapes thy breast, / But brings a favor from above.” Not one minute of the day is unadorned by the love of God — whether daytime love or nighttime love, strengthening love or forgiving love.

Herbert closes, “And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.” In Jesus, we find a rest beneath our rest, a pillow under our pillow, comfort of soul surrounding the comfort of sleep. Such rest and comfort depend, ultimately, not on what we give to God (though we long to give him much and more), but on what he has given to us: “his sonne.” And so, even the frustration and futility we feel toward day’s end can become a mercy, delivering us into a deeper rest than sleep can give.

We Need More Holy Fools

The term holy fools drips with the same irony Paul used when he spoke of “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25) and said, “We are fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). In truth, holy fools are the world’s sanest people. They have felt the sting of sin and death. They have found deliverance in Jesus Christ. And now they are trying to tell the world.

A man is trapped in a car, rushing down a hill toward a cliff. The doors are locked. The brakes are out. The steering barely works. Far ahead, he can see other cars hurtling into the abyss. How far they fall, he does not know. What they find at the bottom, he cannot imagine.
But he does not seek to know; he does not try to imagine. Instead, he paints the windshield, climbs into the back seat, and puts in his headphones.
This image, adapted from Peter Kreeft, captures my life in January 2008, as I walked down a college sidewalk in Colorado. The car was my body; the hill, time; the cliff, death. I was, as we all are, rushing toward the moment when my pulse would stop. And though unsure of what would come afterward, I found a thousand ways to look away.
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God” (Psalm 14:2). Like so many other children of men, I neither understood nor sought, I neither asked nor knocked, but let myself tumble through time without a thought of eternity. I was a “fool,” to put it bluntly (Psalm 14:1). And I desperately needed another kind of fool to wake me up.
Puncturing the Daydream
Few people, perhaps, would look at a normal Western life like mine — busy, successful, spiritually indifferent — and say, “folly.” But could it be because the folly is socially acceptable? Might we modern Western men and women have made a silent pact to ignore eternity?
Blaise Pascal, seventeenth-century Christian polymath, thought so. When Pascal looked round at his modern country, neighbors, and self, he saw a collective pathology, a shared insanity: “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder,” he said (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 203).
We cultivate hobbies, and follow celebrities, and read the news without knowing why we exist. We stumble through an unthinkably vast cosmos, circled round by unthinkably intricate wonders, too distracted to ask, “Who made this?” We develop firm opinions about politics, and care not whether souls live forever, and where. We look often into our mirrors and seldom into our deep and fallen hearts. A strange disorder indeed.
And so, Pascal walked around with needles in hand, seeking to puncture the daydream of secular or religiously nominal apathy to eternity. His unfinished book Pensées (abridged and explained in Kreeft’s masterful Christianity for Modern Pagans) may have been his sharpest needle.
What Is a Life ‘Well-Lived’?
Our lives here are hemmed in by mystery and uncertainty. We live on a small rock in an immense universe. We know little about where we came from or where we’re going. We struggle even to understand ourselves. But a few matters remain clear and unmistakable, including the great fact that, one day, we will die. Our car hurtles down the hill, lower today than yesterday. The abyss awaits.
And what then? For secular or nominally religious countrymen like Pascal’s, and ours, the options are two: “the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched throughout eternity” (191). Either Christianity is false, and our flickering candle goes out forever — or Christianity is true, and, awakening to life’s meaning too late, we fall “into the hands of a wrathful God” (193).
A society like ours would lead us to believe that eighty years “well lived” (whatever that means) filled with “personal meaning” (whatever that means) makes for a good life; we need seek no more. To Pascal, those were the words of one who had painted the windshield black.
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We Need More Holy Fools: How God Awakened Me to Eternity

A man is trapped in a car, rushing down a hill toward a cliff. The doors are locked. The brakes are out. The steering barely works. Far ahead, he can see other cars hurtling into the abyss. How far they fall, he does not know. What they find at the bottom, he cannot imagine.

But he does not seek to know; he does not try to imagine. Instead, he paints the windshield, climbs into the back seat, and puts in his headphones.

This image, adapted from Peter Kreeft, captures my life in January 2008, as I walked down a college sidewalk in Colorado. The car was my body; the hill, time; the cliff, death. I was, as we all are, rushing toward the moment when my pulse would stop. And though unsure of what would come afterward, I found a thousand ways to look away.

“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God” (Psalm 14:2). Like so many other children of men, I neither understood nor sought, I neither asked nor knocked, but let myself tumble through time without a thought of eternity. I was a “fool,” to put it bluntly (Psalm 14:1). And I desperately needed another kind of fool to wake me up.

Puncturing the Daydream

Few people, perhaps, would look at a normal Western life like mine — busy, successful, spiritually indifferent — and say, “folly.” But could it be because the folly is socially acceptable? Might we modern Western men and women have made a silent pact to ignore eternity?

“Might we modern Western men and women have made a silent pact to ignore eternity?”

Blaise Pascal, seventeenth-century Christian polymath, thought so. When Pascal looked round at his modern country, neighbors, and self, he saw a collective pathology, a shared insanity: “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder,” he said (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 203).

We cultivate hobbies, and follow celebrities, and read the news without knowing why we exist. We stumble through an unthinkably vast cosmos, circled round by unthinkably intricate wonders, too distracted to ask, “Who made this?” We develop firm opinions about politics, and care not whether souls live forever, and where. We look often into our mirrors and seldom into our deep and fallen hearts. A strange disorder indeed.

And so, Pascal walked around with needles in hand, seeking to puncture the daydream of secular or religiously nominal apathy to eternity. His unfinished book Pensées (abridged and explained in Kreeft’s masterful Christianity for Modern Pagans) may have been his sharpest needle.

What Is a Life ‘Well-Lived’?

Our lives here are hemmed in by mystery and uncertainty. We live on a small rock in an immense universe. We know little about where we came from or where we’re going. We struggle even to understand ourselves. But a few matters remain clear and unmistakable, including the great fact that, one day, we will die. Our car hurtles down the hill, lower today than yesterday. The abyss awaits.

And what then? For secular or nominally religious countrymen like Pascal’s, and ours, the options are two: “the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched throughout eternity” (191). Either Christianity is false, and our flickering candle goes out forever — or Christianity is true, and, awakening to life’s meaning too late, we fall “into the hands of a wrathful God” (193).

A society like ours would lead us to believe that eighty years “well lived” (whatever that means) filled with “personal meaning” (whatever that means) makes for a good life; we need seek no more. To Pascal, those were the words of one who had painted the windshield black. Death, rightly reckoned with, functions like the final scene of a tragic play: it reaches its fingers back into all of life, disfiguring every moment, darkly witnessing that all is not well.

“The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play,” Pascal writes. “They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever” (144). Stand above the hole in the ground, the dust from which we came and to which we’ll return (Genesis 3:19), and consider: “That is the end of the world’s most illustrious life” (191).

“We ourselves are an enigma, wrapped in a world of mystery, headed inevitably for the grave.”

We ourselves are an enigma, wrapped in a world of mystery, headed inevitably for the grave. Such a dire plight might send us searching for wisdom, if it weren’t for our insane “solution.”

Insanity of Our ‘Solutions’

How do we — mortal men and women, nearing the cliff’s edge — typically respond to our plight? “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it” (145). We deny. We divert. We distract. Until one day we die.

Of course, no one ever says, “I will distract myself because I don’t want to consider my death and what may come afterward.” We suppress the truth more subconsciously than that (Romans 1:18). Instinctively, we avoid the “house of mourning,” or else dress it with euphemisms, for fear of facing, terribly and unmistakably, that “this is the end of all mankind” — that this is our end (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Summarizing Pascal, Kreeft writes,

If you are typically modern, your life is like a rich mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiply diversions. (169)

Eighty years may seem like a long time to distract yourself from the most fundamental questions of life and death. But with hearts like ours, in a world like ours, it is not too long. Make a career. Raise a family. Build wealth. Plan vacations. Get promoted. Watch movies. Collect sports cards. Read the news. Play golf. Resist uncomfortable questions.

We hang a curtain over the cliff’s edge that keeps us from seeing the abyss. But not from rushing into it.

Sanest People in the World

Our chosen “solution,” then, only aggravates our dire plight. Our distractions sedate us on the way to death rather than sending us searching for some escape. Which means the world has a desperate need for people like Pascal, men and women whom we might call (to use a phrase from church history) holy fools.

The term holy fools drips with the same irony Paul used when he spoke of “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:25) and said, “We are fools for Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). In truth, holy fools are the world’s sanest people. They have felt the sting of sin and death. They have found deliverance in Jesus Christ. And now they are trying to tell the world.

With Pascal, they see that “there are only two classes of people who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him” (195). And so, holy fools call people into the “folly” that is our only sanity.

They come to those caught in distraction, lost in diversion, and they serve, love, persuade, and prod. They risk reputation and comfort, willing to look foolish in the eyes of a wayward world. They bring eternity into everyday conversations with cashiers, neighbors, and other parents at the park. Boldly and patiently, courageously and graciously, they say, “See your death. See your sin. And seek him with all your heart.”

To those bent on diversion, holy fools may seem imbalanced, extreme, awkward, pushy. But not to everyone. Some, as they hear of the Christ these fools preach, will catch a glimmer of “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). And they will become another fool for him.

Give Us More Fools for Christ

Pascal (and the apostle Paul) make me feel that I am not yet the fool I ought to be. Too often, I prefer social decorum to holy discomfort, this-worldly niceness to next-worldly boldness. But they also make me feel a keen gratitude for the holy fools among us, and a longing to be more like them. For I owe my life to one.

In January 2008, as my little car rushed down the hill, and as I did what I could to cover my eyes, someone stopped me on the sidewalk. I would later learn that he belonged to a campus ministry widely known for sharing Jesus with students — widely known, but not widely loved. Their message was, to most, foolishness — and their way of stopping others on the sidewalk, a stumbling block. But to me that day, by grace, it looked like the wisdom of God.

In time, I would realize that my various diversions could not deliver me from death. Nor could a life “well lived” forgive my sins or undig my grave. Only Jesus could. It took a holy fool to make me sane, and oh how the world needs more.

Of Mountains and Molehills: How Much Should Doctrine Divide Us?

On the night before he died, as Jesus looked at his twelve men and, beyond them, the billions who one day would follow him, he prayed for a oneness that would make the world take notice: “[I ask] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21). Father, take Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, and make them one. Heaven-sent unity was his great prayer for us.

And yet, just moments earlier, he voiced another request that gives Christian unity a tension and a tang: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Father, take these disciples, and bind them by your word. Spirit-given truth was also his great prayer for us.

Jesus wants his church to be one, and to be wise. He wants us to love all his people, and to treasure all his word. He wants us to offer an earthly illustration of Trinitarian unity, and an earthly witness to Trinitarian truth.

Few Christians and churches naturally maintain a balanced grasp on both prayers; on our own, we tend to drift toward a “unity” that erodes truth, or a “truth” that destroys unity. And so, we often need recalibrating: our inner ecumenist needs more backbone; our inner watchdog needs less bite.

To that end, one ancient tool, rearticulated and clarified in recent decades, may help: theological triage.

What Is Theological Triage?

Theological triage — a term coined by Albert Mohler in 2005 — seeks to organize Christian truth on different tiers, ranging from essential doctrines to more peripheral teachings. In a helpful recent book, for example, Gavin Ortlund offers the following fourfold model:

First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration. (Finding the Right Hills to Die On, 19)

Rightly handled, theological triage does not justify indifference to doctrines below the first tier. All Scripture carries God’s breath (2 Timothy 3:16), and so, when Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified “in the truth,” he meant all of it — every iota (Matthew 5:18).

Nevertheless, Scripture itself treats some doctrines as more foundational than others, and theological triage seeks to follow suit. As Jesus spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), and as Paul spoke of the gospel as “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), so theological triage seeks to differentiate the weightiest, most important doctrines from those with less urgency. (Hence Mohler’s triage image: ER doctors treat gunshot wounds differently from sprained ankles.)

The main benefit, as we’ll see, is balance and wisdom in our pursuit of unity. We don’t minimize mountains, and we don’t magnify molehills.

Science and Art

As in a medical context, the process of triage is often complex. We will not always discern immediately whether a doctrine fits on the first tier (dividing Christians from non-Christians), the second tier (dividing local churches, denominations, or ministries), or the third tier (dividing nothing). Triage is both science and art; it requires both intellectual perception and spiritual wisdom; it runs on both careful judgment and godly instinct.

“Triage is both science and art; it runs on both careful judgment and godly instinct.”

The same doctrine, for example, may fit into a different category depending on the situation. As Ortlund observes, the issue of spiritual gifts sometimes fits on the second tier — but not always. Currently, a convinced cessationist gladly worships in the continuationist church where I serve.

Cultural or missiological contexts also influence the practice of triage. New churches on unreached frontiers, along with some missionary teams, may lower some typical second-tier doctrines to the third tier. In America, a church’s elders might limit membership to those who have been baptized as believers; in Afghanistan, the elders might not, or might not yet (and wisely so).

At times, even evaluating first-tier disagreements calls for wisdom. One person may reject justification by faith because he doesn’t understand it; another may reject the doctrine because he understands and hates it. The first situation calls for careful teaching and further evaluation, while the second does not.

More complexities could be mentioned (see Joe Rigney’s article “How to Weigh Doctrines for Christian Unity”), but these suffice to show the need for humility, patience, and collective wisdom rather than individual reflex. We read of a plurality of local-church elders in the New Testament, and for good reason. Theological triage happens best in a group of spiritually discerning pastors, men who have their eyes on the flock and are wise to the needs, dangers, and opportunities of their local context.

Just as ER doctors need more than medical knowledge to practice triage well, a church’s elders need more than scriptural knowledge to do the same. They need to know not only the canon of Scripture, but also the case before them and the context around them. They need to ask, “All things considered, is this doctrine worth dividing over now?”

Three Triage Tests

In his book When Doctrine Divides the People of God, Rhyne Putman offers three tests to aid the discernment process (220–39):

The hermeneutical test: the clearer the Bible teaches a doctrine, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.
The gospel test: the more central a doctrine is to the gospel, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.
The praxis test: the more a doctrine affects the practice of a church, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.

These three tests won’t answer every question, but they do offer a start. Consider where some common doctrines fall after running them through hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis:

Doctrines like the deity of Christ and the Trinity (clear hermeneutically and central to the gospel) belong on the first tier.
Doctrines related to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the callings of men and women (less clear hermeneutically, but still near the gospel and shaping a church’s praxis) typically belong on the second tier.
Doctrines like the age of the earth or the nature and timing of Christ’s millennial reign (less clear hermeneutically, less connected to the gospel, and less important for a church’s praxis) typically belong on the third tier.

Again, however, each category admits of complexity, requiring churches to practice triage in light of individual cases and their broader context.

Why Practice Theological Triage?

If theological triage involves such complexity, why practice it? Because, in all likelihood, only a habit like this one will keep our heartbeats in rhythm with Jesus’s John 17 prayer. Only as we distinguish doctrines will we learn to avoid the dangers of theological maximalism, theological minimalism, and what we might call unconscious triage.

Theological Maximalism

Theological maximalists, or theological sectarians, may differentiate doctrine to a degree — they may not equate Christ’s deity and a church’s form of government, for example. But they tend to raise third-tier doctrines to the second tier, and second-tier doctrines to the first tier. And in so doing, they often separate when they should tolerate, divide when they should bear with. Afraid of wolves, they attack other sheep.

Maximalists rightly sense that protecting sound doctrine sometimes calls for strong words; like Jude, they “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” But as Ortlund points out, they do not necessarily share Jude’s eagerness to celebrate “our common salvation” (Jude 3). And so, failing to distinguish the weightiest from the less weighty, they can end up cutting at the limbs of Christ’s body.

Theological Minimalism

Theological minimalists also struggle to speak of “weightier matters” — not, however, because they raise so many doctrines to the higher tiers, but because they raise so few there. If pressed, they may agree that an anti-Trinitarian cannot be a Christian, but only if pressed. On their own, minimalists tend to lower first-tier doctrines to the second tier, and second-tier doctrines to the third tier. And in so doing, they often say, “Unity! Unity!” when there is no unity (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11).

“True unity requires an immovable core of conviction; otherwise, what are we even uniting around?”

Minimalists seek to embody the seventh beatitude — “Blessed are the peacemakers” — but they rarely or never take stands strong enough to embody the eighth: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10–11). They struggle to see that true peace, true unity, requires an immovable (and sometimes offensive) core of conviction; otherwise, what are we even uniting around?

Unconscious Triage

Perhaps the best reason to practice theological triage, however, is because we already functionally do. We can’t help but treat some doctrines as weightier than others. And unless we have carefully considered which doctrines really are weightier, our approach to triage likely will be shaped less by Scripture and more by a mixture of personality, background, and whim.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:24), and many of us, though less hypocritical, need to hear the same warning. Naturally, we are peculiarly attuned to some gnats and strangely dense to some camels: some vehemently contend for a young or old earth but breeze past justification; some attack complementarians or egalitarians as Athanasius attacked Arius, but dismiss Trinitarian controversies with a wave. We cannot abide the gnat in our stew, but we can stomach the camel in our meatloaf.

Theological triage, then, helps us weigh not only doctrines, but ourselves. It exposes our own besetting tendencies, and it invites us to recalibrate our unconscious models according to Scripture’s own example.

Loving Unity, Treasuring Truth

How will we know if we are growing to weigh doctrines as God himself does?

Those who tend toward theological maximalism will find themselves enduring disagreements when they would have broken fellowship beforehand; those who tend toward theological minimalism will find themselves ruffling more feathers than none. Maximalists will not treat second- and third-tier doctrines as unimportant, but they will learn to lower their voice when they talk about them; minimalists, meanwhile, will not roll their eyes when they see a brother or sister contending for precious truth. Minimalists will learn to fight more; maximalists will learn to fight themselves more.

And all of us, wherever we naturally tend, will hear ourselves praying more often, “Father, make us one” — then, in the next breath, “and bind us by your truth.”

Jesus Shall Reign

Two themes dominate the hymn the Tongans sang 160 Pentecosts ago: the universal reach of Jesus’s reign, and the unrivaled blessings of that reign. The risen Christ is on the move, undeterred until his blessed foot treads every coastland and continent, every inland and island, from Israel to England to Tonga. The Tongans sang because Christ’s reign had reached even them, and because his was the kind of reign to make one sing.

On Pentecost Sunday 1862, as Western eyes watched civil war rip through America, an event just as momentous unfolded half a world away, hidden from every headline. Some five thousand men and women, many of them former cannibals, gathered on a South Pacific island to worship Jesus Christ.
George Tupou I, the first Christian king of Tonga, had assembled his citizens as part of a ceremony commemorating a new code of laws. And there, “under the spreading branches of the banyan trees,” writes George John Stevenson, with the king surrounded by “old chiefs and warriors who had shared with him the dangers and fortunes of many a battle,” five thousand voices sang,
Jesus shall reign where e’re the sunDoes his successive journeys run;His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
For centuries, the sun had run from east to west, the moon had waxed and waned, over a Tonga without Christ. His gospel had not yet reached Tonga’s shores; his kingdom had not yet touched Tongan hearts. But now, a new nation rose to sing his reign.
First Missionary Hymn
Although the words were not in the Tongans’ mother tongue (the song having been taught to them by Methodist missionaries), few lyrics could have described the situation in Tonga more fittingly. For by 1862, the hymn told their history.
“Christ’s Kingdom Among the Gentiles” — or, more commonly today, “Jesus Shall Reign” — has been labeled by some “the first missionary hymn.” Almost a century before the modern missionary movement, before William Carey sailed to India, and Adoniram Judson to Burma, and Hudson Taylor to China, and Methodist missionaries to Tonga, the English minister Isaac Watts (1674–1748) penned a hymn of Christ’s coming reign: a reign that would reach islands far beyond Britain and gather tongues far different from English.
To look out over unreached lands and sing “Jesus shall reign” is always a cry of faith, but Watts needed far more faith than we do today. The mustard seed of the kingdom had grown large by 1719 (when Watts published the hymn), but its branches had not yet spread far beyond the Western world (Matthew 13:31–32). It was not the kind of tree we see today, sheltering multitudes of peoples far south and east of Europe and North America.
Nevertheless, Watts knew his Bible — and in particular, he knew Psalm 72, of which “Jesus Shall Reign” is a Christian paraphrase. And so, by faith he sang of the day when “the whole earth [would] be filled with his glory” (Psalm 72:19).
Song in the South Seas
Two themes dominate the hymn the Tongans sang 160 Pentecosts ago: the universal reach of Jesus’s reign, and the unrivaled blessings of that reign.
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God Makes War with Words: Why Teaching Will Win the World

The church of Jesus, near and far, at home and abroad, is on a global mission against the gates of hell.

Under God, and by the power of our all-authoritative Christ (Matthew 28:18), we raid the “domain of darkness” and carry captives to safety (Colossians 1:13). We go to spiritual sleepwalkers and say, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). We break into the house of the strong man, still bound by the Stronger One, and “plunder his goods” (Mark 3:27).

You might imagine, given such a mission, that God would arm his church with some spectacular weapons. But surprisingly enough, we join Jesus in destroying the devil’s works not mainly by casting out demons, or working miracles, or engaging in power encounters, but by teaching the truth.

Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20)

Missions as a Teaching War

Teaching may seem like a weak weapon to wield against the devil. Do knights slay dragons by persuasion? But in God’s hands, faithful teaching undoes one of the devil’s favorite schemes, as old as Eden and as subtle as that ancient snake: false teaching.

As Andy Naselli observes in The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer, the devil acts sometimes with obvious, spectacular opposition, and other times with hidden, unspectacular craft. Or, he acts sometimes like a dragon, and sometimes like a serpent (Revelation 12:9). As dragon, he devours; as serpent, he deceives. As dragon, he persecutes and oppresses; as serpent, he seduces and ensnares. As dragon, he breathes fire; as serpent, he whispers falsehood.

And between the two, the serpent may be the deadlier. In Eden, Satan could have terrified Eve with his fangs; instead, he lured and lied with his tongue — with his teaching (Genesis 3:4–5). And so he still does (John 8:44). False teaching felled the world, and false teaching keeps it in oppression.

“At every stage of the kingdom’s advance, the lie of the garden dies by the truth of the gospel.”

So, at every stage of the kingdom’s advance — from Jesus to his apostles to the church — the lie of the garden dies by the truth of the gospel. Teaching wins back the world.

Teaching Launches the Kingdom

Jesus did more than teach during his ministry — he healed, worked wonders, and cast out legions of demons. He attacked the devil’s domain with both the right hand and the left. But teaching was the central assault.

Following his baptism and wilderness temptations, his public ministry began when he “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God” (Mark 1:15). Indeed, the Spirit anointed him “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), a mission that ever rested on the front of his mind: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God . . . for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Preaching and teaching were “his custom” (Mark 10:1), what he did “throughout all the cities and villages” (Matthew 9:35). “You call me Teacher,” he told his disciples, “and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13).

The healings, the wonders, the spiritual authority — these were all fingers pointing to his kingdom-heralding, gospel-giving words. In fact, without embracing his teaching, the souls of former demoniacs were merely emptied and swept, inviting worse darkness to enter (Matthew 12:45). Only “the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32), Jesus told some would-be disciples. And so, he taught.

Teaching Spreads the Kingdom

The apostles were not confused about what it meant to carry on their risen Teacher’s mission. The book of Acts records many demons cast out, wonders worked, and diseases healed, but the emphasis again lands on teaching — or, in Luke’s broad vocabulary, proclaiming (Acts 4:2), preaching (Acts 8:4), disputing (Acts 9:29), speaking (Acts 16:13), reasoning (Acts 17:2), proving (Acts 17:3), persuading (Acts 18:4), explaining (Acts 18:26).

The apostles, like Jesus, demonstrated the kingdom in both word and deed, but they were clear that the deeds served the words (Acts 3:11–16). Ultimately, it was the apostles’ Spirit-empowered teaching that turned hearts, toppled idols, saved sinners, and founded churches. And so, it was to the devil’s shame, but the apostles’ glory, to hear the Jerusalem council complain, “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28).

And more than Jerusalem. By book’s end, the teaching had broken out of Judea, run through Samaria, and begun to reach “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), liberating captives all along the way. The last verse pictures Paul in Rome — doing what? “Teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).

Teaching Grows and Guards the Kingdom

As the age of the apostles ended, the mission against spiritual darkness did not. And unsurprisingly, the apostle Paul placed teaching at the center of the church’s ongoing advance. Not only did he charge Timothy, his spiritual son, to devote himself to teaching (1 Timothy 4:11, 13; 6:2; 2 Timothy 4:2), but he labored to create a legacy of teachers: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Whatever happens, Timothy, make sure the church keeps teaching.

“Through teaching, God will grow and guard his kingdom in lands once ruled by lies.”

By teaching the truth, the elders of the church — and, under them, every member (Colossians 3:16) — proclaim the gospel and gather new believers; they also protect the gospel and guard believers from the ever-present threat of serpentine deception, including what Paul calls “teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). Such teachings are sometimes permissive, scratching ears and suiting passions (2 Timothy 4:3), and sometimes restrictive, banning marriage and forbidding foods (1 Timothy 4:3), but they are always false and always deadly.

And so, the church teaches and teaches and teaches — trusting that through teaching, God will grow and guard his kingdom in lands once ruled by lies.

God Empowers the Teaching

On the surface, Christian teaching may look unremarkable — as unremarkable as Jesus telling parables beside the sea, or Paul reasoning with some Thessalonian Jews, or Timothy unrolling the scroll to preach again. But through the ordinary words and phrases of faithful Christian teaching, God works wonders.

When the risen Lord Jesus told Paul to go teach, he also told him the effect his teaching would have:

I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:17–18)

Through teaching, God works miracles greater than the multiplication of loaves, or the deliverance of demoniacs, or even the raising of Lazarus. He shatters our delusive darkness. He forgives our innumerable sins. And he frees his people from the power of Satan, that serpent of false teaching and forked tongue, and wins us back to himself.

So, in the church’s global mission against the gate of hell, words are our greatest weapons.

Jesus Shall Reign: The Remarkable Story of the First Missionary Hymn

On Pentecost Sunday 1862, as Western eyes watched civil war rip through America, an event just as momentous unfolded half a world away, hidden from every headline. Some five thousand men and women, many of them former cannibals, gathered on a South Pacific island to worship Jesus Christ.

George Tupou I, the first Christian king of Tonga, had assembled his citizens as part of a ceremony commemorating a new code of laws. And there, “under the spreading branches of the banyan trees,” writes George John Stevenson, with the king surrounded by “old chiefs and warriors who had shared with him the dangers and fortunes of many a battle,” five thousand voices sang,

Jesus shall reign where e’re the sunDoes his successive journeys run;His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

For centuries, the sun had run from east to west, the moon had waxed and waned, over a Tonga without Christ. His gospel had not yet reached Tonga’s shores; his kingdom had not yet touched Tongan hearts. But now, a new nation rose to sing his reign.

First Missionary Hymn

Although the words were not in the Tongans’ mother tongue (the song having been taught to them by Methodist missionaries), few lyrics could have described the situation in Tonga more fittingly. For by 1862, the hymn told their history.

“Christ’s Kingdom Among the Gentiles” — or, more commonly today, “Jesus Shall Reign” — has been labeled by some “the first missionary hymn.” Almost a century before the modern missionary movement, before William Carey sailed to India, and Adoniram Judson to Burma, and Hudson Taylor to China, and Methodist missionaries to Tonga, the English minister Isaac Watts (1674–1748) penned a hymn of Christ’s coming reign: a reign that would reach islands far beyond Britain and gather tongues far different from English.

To look out over unreached lands and sing “Jesus shall reign” is always a cry of faith, but Watts needed far more faith than we do today. The mustard seed of the kingdom had grown large by 1719 (when Watts published the hymn), but its branches had not yet spread far beyond the Western world (Matthew 13:31–32). It was not the kind of tree we see today, sheltering multitudes of peoples far south and east of Europe and North America.

Nevertheless, Watts knew his Bible — and in particular, he knew Psalm 72, of which “Jesus Shall Reign” is a Christian paraphrase. And so, by faith he sang of the day when “the whole earth [would] be filled with his glory” (Psalm 72:19).

Song in the South Seas

Two themes dominate the hymn the Tongans sang 160 Pentecosts ago: the universal reach of Jesus’s reign, and the unrivaled blessings of that reign. The risen Christ is on the move, undeterred until his blessed foot treads every coastland and continent, every inland and island, from Israel to England to Tonga. The Tongans sang because Christ’s reign had reached even them, and because his was the kind of reign to make one sing.

Universal Reach

The first stanza of Watts’s hymn, quoted above, finds its inspiration from words like these:

May he have dominion from sea to sea,     and from the River to the ends of the earth! . . .May his name endure forever,     his fame continue as long as the sun! (Psalm 72:8, 17)

“A boundaryless, timeless kingdom calls for an omnipotent, eternal King.”

Psalm 72 comes from Solomon’s hand, written in the first place as a tribute to “the royal son” (Psalm 72:1). Clearly, however, the psalm speaks of a king greater than Solomon, even at the height of his strength: this royal Son’s kingdom is boundaryless (“to the ends of the earth”) and timeless (“endure forever”). And a boundaryless, timeless kingdom calls for an omnipotent, eternal King.

Far before 1862, then, God had planned to give Tonga to his Son. And so, Solomon, inspired by the Spirit, sang of the day when “the kings . . . of the coastlands [would] render him tribute” (Psalm 72:10), captured in the second verse of Watts’s hymn:

Behold the islands with their kings,And Europe her best tribute brings;From North to South the Princes meetTo pay their homage at his feet.

On Tonga, one more island and one more king rendered tribute to Jesus. One more southern coastland paid homage at his feet. One more prince found his place in ancient prophecy, and bowed before the God who had pursued him.

Unrivaled Blessings

Conquered peoples seldom sing the reign of their new king — at least not willingly and gladly. Yet here is where Christ’s kingship differs so markedly from “the kings of the Gentiles” (Luke 22:25), for he conquers in order to bless. As Watts puts it,

Blessings abound where e’re he reigns,The prisoner leaps to lose his chains,The weary find eternal rest,And all the sons of want are blest.

Wherever King Jesus plants his scepter, flowers bloom in fields of thorns, prisoners run for release, and the weariest of all finally rest. He is, Solomon says, “like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth!” (Psalm 72:6). And therefore, “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (Psalm 72:17). In 1862, the Tongans were, and did.

Some today may cringe at the claim that a nation like Tonga needs Jesus — indeed, is lost without him. The idea may sound like it belongs to the Age of Imperialism. But those who have felt sin’s bone-bruising chains, and the black cell of guilt, and the impossibility of escape — and have heard, at last, the King’s “come forth!” — cannot cringe. Rather, we sing.

Some of the Tongans, remember, had eaten humans. But now, those very mouths were praising the risen Christ. We may be more civilized sinners, but we have similar stories to tell, don’t we? The hands that once flew in rage now gently rise in praise. The feet that once fled to the far country now carry us to worship. The minds that once invented evil now weave good works. The eyes that once feasted on all that’s forbidden now gladly gaze at Christ.

“Whatever the culture or background, Jesus reigns to bless.”

Whatever the culture or background, Jesus reigns to bless — to redeem all the good, remove all the bad, and scatter gifts with open hands.

He Shall Reign

On Pentecost 1862, while the newspapers reported the progress of war, God was quietly advancing his kingdom among the coastlands. The tree from the mustard seed sprouted a new branch; the leaven of the kingdom rose a little higher. And so, on Pentecost 2022, we might reasonably wonder what marvels God is working outside the day’s headlines. Perhaps this morning, a nation on some far distant island began to sing his reign.

Regardless, we can join Watts, King George, and the five thousand Tongans to say it shall be. “Jesus Shall Reign” is not a prayer, but a declaration, and rightly so. For the day is coming soon when the psalm and the hymn will find their fulfillment, when the flag of the slain Lamb will wave on every hill, and every tongue will hail the reign of Christ the blessed Lord.

Do Not Despise the Day of Small Groups: Four Marks of Daring Community

Some three hundred years ago, an unusual kind of church gathering spread throughout the English-speaking world like fire in the brush. When describing these groups, church historians reach for the language of newness: one refers to the gatherings as “innovations,” another as “a fresh ecclesiological proposal,” and still another as “decidedly novel.”

To some, the groups seemed dangerous, a threat to existing church order. But to countless normal Christians, the groups held immense attraction. They were a new wineskin of sorts, and new wineskins have a way of offending and appealing in equal measure.

Revealing the name of these gatherings risks anticlimax, however, because today they seem to many Christians as somewhat ho-hum, a churchly inheritance as traditional as pulpits and pews. For these innovative groups, these fresh and novel gatherings, were none other than the first modern small groups.

Daring Idea of Small Groups

Small groups, of course, were not all new three hundred years ago. In fact, when the German Lutheran Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) proposed the idea in 1675, he likened the groups to “the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings” (Pia Desideria, 89). Bruce Hindmarsh, in his article “The Daring Idea of Small Groups,” suggests Spener had in mind passages like Colossians 4:15 and 1 Corinthians 14:26–40, where the early Christians met in houses and exercised the gifts of the Spirit. To these we might also add Acts 2:42–47, where the newly Spirit-filled church met not only at the temple but also “in their homes.”

For Spener, then, small groups were a retrieval project, an attempt to restore an ancient gathering somehow lost through the centuries. He wanted passive laypeople to act like the “royal priesthood” they really were in Christ (1 Peter 2:9). He wanted to see the Spirit working mightily through not only pastors and teachers but all members of the body, as in the days after Pentecost. Spener couldn’t help but trace a connection between the new-covenant ministry of the Spirit and the New Testament pattern of small groups.

He was right to trace a connection. A few decades after Spener proposed his daring idea, a massive spiritual awakening spread throughout Western Europe and America. And just as in the days of Acts 2, the newly Spirit-filled church began to gather in small groups. Sunday morning couldn’t contain the Spirit’s flame.

Fostering and Facilitating Revival

Richard Lovelace, in his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, notes “the persistent reappearance of small intentional communities in the history of church renewal” (78). And so it was in the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and beyond. In the decades surrounding the awakening, small groups were instrumental in both fostering and facilitating revival.

In the first place, small groups had a way of fostering revival. Fascinatingly, we can draw a providential line between Spener’s small-group advocacy and the awakening of the 1730s. Spener’s godson, Nicolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), led a group called the Renewed Moravian Brethren, who themselves had experienced the Spirit’s power in small-group community life. Then, in 1738, Moravians in London helped start the Fetter Lane Society, one of whose members was named John Wesley (1703–1791). And that society, writes Colin Podmore, would become “the main seed-bed from which the English Evangelical Revival would spring” (The Moravian Church in England, 1728–1760, 39). Spener’s idea — taken, tried, and tweaked from the 1670s to the 1730s — became one of the greatest means God used in the awakening.

From then on, small groups also had a way of facilitating revival. As awakening spread through England, Wesley and his colaborers gathered earnest believers into small groups or “bands.” As awakening spread through America, writes Mark Noll, Jonathan Edwards created small groups “as part of his effort to fan this spiritual blaze” (Rise of Evangelicalism, 77). Really wherever you look, Hindmarsh writes, “As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too.”

Small groups may have looked, at first, a little like the disciples in Acts 2:1, huddled “all together in one place,” waiting for the fire to fall. And then the fire did fall, creating communities that resembled Acts 2:42–47 in various degrees. Those awakened wanted to gather — indeed, felt compelled to gather — just like those early Christians in Jerusalem. And one gathering a week simply was not enough.

Small groups fostered revival, and small groups facilitated revival, in both the first century and the eighteenth. And so they may again today.

Four Marks of the First Small Groups

Three hundred years after the First Great Awakening, small groups no longer raise eyebrows. The new wineskin has grown familiar, becoming one of the most common features of evangelical church life. Nevertheless, a closer look at these groups reveals a gap between the first modern small groups and many of our own. Often, we have settled for something less daring.

Recovering the features of the first groups would not guarantee revival, of course. Awakening is the Spirit’s sovereign work. But in God’s hands, small groups like those of old may become a means of revival — or, short of that, a means of greater growth in Christ.

Consider, then, four features of the first small groups, and how we might work to recover them.

Experiential Bible Study

When many of us think of small groups today, we imagine a Bible study: several people in a circle, Bibles open, discussing some passage and praying afterward. The Bible held a similarly central place in many early small groups; Spener couched his whole proposal, in fact, within the larger aim to introduce “a more extensive use of the word of God among us” (Pia Desideria, 87). Even still, the phrase Bible study may not capture the practical, experiential spirit of these groups.

Listen to Spener’s hope for “a more extensive” use of Scripture: “If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people” (91). Altogether different people — that was the goal of Bible study in these first groups. And so, they took an immensely practical bent to the Scriptures, studying them not only with their minds but with their lives.

I can remember, as a young college student freshly awakened to Christ, how eager a group of us were to open Scripture together, often spontaneously. The Bible seemed always near, its wisdom ever relevant for “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Importantly, we were as eager for application as we were for knowledge. Yet I can also recall Bible studies that must have seemed, to any impartial observer, like a mere matter of words. We were studying a map without any clear intention of visiting the country.

The first groups, needless to say, resembled the former far more than the latter. “These were not book clubs, lifestyle enclaves, or discussion groups,” Hindmarsh writes. “These were places for those who were serious about the life application of the teaching of Scripture.” We cannot manufacture a spirit of biblical earnestness, of course; we can, however, refuse to treat Scripture as a mere collection of thoughts to be studied.

Frank Confession

Zeal for life application, for becoming “altogether different people,” naturally gave rise to another feature: utterly honest confession. In fact, Podmore writes that, for many of the groups associated with Wesley and the Moravians, “mutual confession, followed by forgiveness and the healing of the soul, was not just a feature of the society, but its raison d’être” — its very reason for being (Moravian Church, 41).

The word band, sometimes used for these groups, referred to “conversations or conferences where straight talking had taken place” (129). Hence, “these small groups were marked by total frankness.” For biblical warrant, the group leaders often looked to James 5:16: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The rules of the Fetter Lane Society even stated that “the design of our meeting is to obey that command of God” (Pursuing Social Holiness, 78).

The groups exercised wisdom, to be sure: they often shared only with those of the same sex, and they agreed to keep others’ confessions confidential. But there was no way to escape exposure in these groups. Honesty was the cost of admission.

Some of our small groups already have a ready-made structure for mutual confession in what we may call accountability groups. Yet even here, I suspect much of our accountability has room to grow toward the kind of utter honesty Wesley and others had in mind, as reflected in one of the rules for Fetter Lane: “That each person in order speak freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.”

How can our groups grow toward such free, plain honesty? Partly by believing, as they did, that greater healing lies on the other side.

Common Priesthood

The Reformation, as has often been said, did not get rid of the priesthood; it gave the priesthood back to all believers. Or at least in theory. In Spener’s Germany, a century and a half after Luther heralded the priesthood of all believers, the laity once again had become largely passive. And not only passive, but fractured by class, creating an unbiblical hierarchy not only between clergy and laity but between rich and poor laity: “Elevated and upholstered places were reserved for the upper classes and only the common people sat on hard seats in the nave,” Theodore Tappert writes (introduction to Pia Desideria, 4–5).

The small groups of Spener and those who followed him dealt a devastating blow to that state of affairs. All of a sudden, normal Christians — mothers and fathers, bakers and cobblers, lawyers and doctors, farmers and clerks — sat in the same room, none of them elevated above the others. And more than that, they believed that they, though untrained in theology, could edify their brothers and sisters by virtue of the Spirit within them. Small groups made the people priests again.

“Small groups made the people priests again.”

The groups, rightly, did not aim to erase all distinction: pastors often led or oversaw the gatherings, aware that small groups could sometimes splinter from the larger body and seek to overturn godly authority. That danger will always be present to some extent when the people are empowered to be priests. But far better to deal with that danger than to render laypeople passive.

Are we as persuaded as they were that the body of Christ grows only when it is “joined and held together by every joint with which is it equipped, when each part is working properly” (Ephesians 4:16)? If so, we’ll seek to unleash the gifts of every believer, including those “that seem to be weaker” (1 Corinthians 12:22). Though weak in the world’s eyes, they have been given crucial gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Outward Mission

We have small groups today, in part, because some of the first small-group members refused to keep the groups to themselves. Hindmarsh notes that, among the Moravians, revival drove them “in two directions: inward, in an intensity of community life together; and outward, in missionary enterprise to places like Georgia and the American frontier.”

How easily the Moravians might have prized their rich community life at the expense of outward mission, as we so often do. Instead, they lifted their glorious banner — “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering” — and sought to spread that same community life elsewhere. And because they did, they encountered John Wesley, helped begin the Fetter Lane Society, and thus gave shape to the small groups that would explode throughout the North Atlantic.

“From the beginning, small groups, like cells in a body, were meant to multiply.”

From the beginning, small groups, like cells in a body, were meant to multiply. Sometimes multiplication happened as Christians like the Moravians traveled to far-flung places as missionaries; other times, it happened as small groups remained porous enough for outsiders to look in and, like the unconverted John Bunyan, hear serious believers speak “as if they had found a new world” (Grace Abounding, 20).

One of our great challenges, then and now, is how to move our groups outward in mission while maintaining the kind of trusting relationships that allow for mutual confession and life together. That challenge likely will feel perennial. But believers with an inward bent — perhaps most of us — can probably risk erring in the outward direction, whether by finding some common mission, inviting outsiders into the group, or praying together earnestly for the nonbelievers in our lives. We may even find that mission binds us together like never before.

Small Day of Small Groups

Perhaps, as we consider the vitality that marked the first evangelical small groups, our own group grows a bit grayer. If so, we may do well to remember the biblical passage cited, it seems, more often than Acts 2 or 1 Corinthians 14 — that is, James 5.

James 5:13–20 lays out a compelling program for small-group life. Yet we know from James’s letter that the community was not enjoying the kind of awakening we see in Acts 2. Class division, bitter tongues, fleshly wisdom, and worldly friendships were compromising the church’s holiness (James 2:1–13; 3:1–18; 4:1–10). Yet even still, James tells them to gather, to sing, to confess, to pray.

Spener, himself unimpressed with the state of his church community, reminds us,

The work of the Lord is accomplished in wondrous ways, even as he is himself wonderful. For this very reason his work is done in complete secrecy, yet all the more surely, provided we do not relax our efforts. . . . Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe. (Pia Desideria, 38)

Indeed, those seeds did bear fruit in time — far more fruit than Spener could have imagined. So don’t despise the small day of small groups. More may be happening than we can see.

The Beast I Become: How to Bring Bitterness to God

Sometimes, as you watch the hand of God’s providence draw some picture in your life, the pencil suddenly turns, and what you thought would be a flower turns into a thorn. The unanswered prayer seemed finally heard, the hope deferred seemed at last fulfilled — but no. You reach for the daisy and get pricked, instead, by a thistle.

C.S. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman strikes me in this regard. The couple married later in life, when Joy appeared to be dying of cancer. After a prayer for healing, however, Joy recovered unexpectedly and perhaps miraculously. The love they thought they were losing came back to them, a precious gift, it seemed, from the hand of a healing God.

But soon, the cancer returned with a fury, ending their brief marriage. In the rawness of his grief, Lewis wrote, “A noble hunger, long unsatisfied, met at last its proper food, and almost instantly the food was snatched away” (A Grief Observed, 17–18). Experiences like these can shake the soul. More than a few have lost faith over them. For many others, such moments become a doorway to a darker world, where God seems less good than we once thought. Perhaps, in our more desperate moments, we can even think him cruel.

Many who enter that world never find their way back. They walk under deepening shadows of disillusionment, far from the broad fields and bright sun of their former childlike faith. Some, however, do find their way back. We meet such a soul in Psalm 73.

Darkened Days

Much of Psalm 73 takes place in the dark world. Asaph, the psalmist, finds himself disillusioned with the spiritual life. He sees God-haters prancing over the earth — wealthy, comfortable, fat. No matter that they strut through Jerusalem like gods and defy the very heavens (Psalm 73:3–11). “Always at ease, they increase in riches” (Psalm 73:12).

Meanwhile, the godly Asaph suffers unseen and unrewarded. For his obedience, he gets affliction; for his devotion, rebuke (Psalm 73:14). Eventually, he looks round at his prayers, his songs, his years of faithfulness, and with a sweeping hand says, “All in vain” (Psalm 73:13). His hopes dead, he enters the shadow world.

When our own hopes are deferred (again), we can easily justify our bitterness and spiritual apathy. Without much effort, we can cast ourselves as innocent sufferers under the heavy hand of God’s providence, our frustration toward heaven understandable. Asaph, however, looking back at himself from the other side of the doorway, sees something different: “I was like a beast toward you” (Psalm 73:22).

For those who have returned from the dark world, Asaph’s words will not seem too blunt. I, for one, can still remember the soul gnawings and heart snarlings of my once-jaded soul. Our grief in painful providences can quickly turn jagged, and our laments become a growl, whether silent or spoken. Bitterness can make the soul turn beastly — and beastly it will remain until (to use some imagery from Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader) God undragons us.

Undragoned

By psalm’s end, Asaph has walked back to the bright world, where he once again sings like a hope-filled child:

Whom have I in heaven but you?     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.My flesh and my heart may fail,     But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)

Asaph reemerges in a world where God is good once again, where heaven and earth have nothing greater to give than him. Let affliction slay him, let rebukes strike him, let every hope remain deferred — God will be the strength of his heart and his abundant portion. The beast has become a man.

The undragoning happened, in part, as Asaph “went into the sanctuary of God” and “discerned [the] end” of “those who are far from you” (Psalm 73:17, 27). But he also discerned something better: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you” (Psalm 73:23). Here is the answer to his animal-like agitation, an answer so simple we may miss its power to tame. Consider, then, how Asaph unfolds the answer in three images, and how they might meet us in our own beastliness.

‘You hold my right hand.’

The real danger of a world gone dark is not the pain we feel there, nor even the perplexing dissonance those feelings bring, but the sense of God’s absence. The first half of Psalm 73 is a world without God — at least without a God who is near and good. But by verse 15, Asaph’s more or less godless ruminations give way to “you,” the God who “[holds] my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). In walking back through the doorway of disillusionment, he has entered his Father’s house.

Can you remember the sense of desolation when, as a child, you lost sight of your father in a sea of people? And can you recall the warm relief — almost worth crying over — when his familiar hand found yours? Something similar happens when, in the quiet of your own bedroom, or car, or backyard, your swirling thoughts calm, your embittered soul breathes, and you find grace to slowly say to God, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Nothing has changed in your circumstances; your troubles may still pain and perplex you. But somehow, your stumbling feet find their footing. Your afflictions fall into a broader perspective. Your bitterness shakes off like so many scales. And under the hand of God, your heart becomes undragoned.

‘You guide me with your counsel.’

We are not left alone in this world, however perplexed we feel. Nor are we left directionless. We have not only a God, but a guide; not only a Presence, but a path. He grips our hand to assure us of his nearness, and also to lead us home through this bewildering wilderness. “You guide me with your counsel” (Psalm 73:24).

The “counsel” of God, his written Scriptures, do not tell us all we would like to know — not by far. We don’t know why a seemingly miraculous recovery should dissolve into death. We don’t know why a relationship on the brink of restoration should crumble. We don’t know why the heart of a loved one, so close to repentance, should suddenly harden. But reaching home does not depend on knowing the mysteries God has hidden but on receiving the counsel he has revealed.

And he does not guide us as one who has never walked the path himself. Gethsemane pressed and perplexed our Lord Jesus to the point of sweating blood and praying for an exit. No one was faced with a more bitter providence; no one had more reason to grow bitter and forsake God’s counsel. Yet no one’s life showed more brilliantly that following God’s counsel will never put us to shame. For the dark tomb is now empty.

We are children here, and the why of our Father’s will often eludes us. But his counsel does not. So while the beastly follow their own instincts, God’s children say, “I will follow your counsel as long as night lasts — and even if the dawn never breaks in this life.”

‘Afterward you will receive me to glory.’

The day is coming when the holding hand will become a beholding face, and the winding path a stable home. There is an afterward to the unanswered questions and open loops of this life. And in that afterward, “you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24).

Knowing the afterward changed everything for Asaph. He no longer envied the prosperous wicked when he “discerned their end” (Psalm 73:17) — and he no longer pitied himself when he discerned his. Affliction may tarry for the night, but glory comes in the morning. So too with us. If we know that we are headed to the bright world, where no more questions gnaw and no more tears run down our cheeks (Revelation 21:4), then the sharpest edge of our suffering is blunted.

In the present, we often have need to say with Paul, “We are . . . perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). But in the coming afterward, the spiritual dissonance of this age will resolve into a harmony beyond imagination, as the hand that held us and led us all life long receives us into the door of his home, beyond all doubt and danger.

End of Darkened Roads

At one point in Lewis’s grief, he asks whether he has been treating God as his goal or as his road. Has he walked along every good gift like a path leading to God, or has he tried to walk along God as a path leading to some other place? Lewis goes on to say, “He can’t be used as a road. If you are approaching him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching him at all” (A Grief Observed, 68).

Often, our own undragoning happens when we, like Asaph, freshly embrace God as goal, not road — or perhaps better, as both goal and road. Our great need is not to unravel the apparent knots in God’s providence, as if mere answers could tame the beast within. What we need, now and forever, is a hand upon the mane, a whispered presence to calm us. For God himself is both way and end, path and home, presence here and portion forever.

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