Scott Hubbard

Life Beneath a Sovereign Lord: How His Power Unleashes Us

Some truths about God we receive into our minds as we might receive a houseguest, expecting them to behave nicely and generally keep the furniture in place. But then, sooner or later, we hear the sounds of drills and saws. We feel the rumble of a sofa being dragged across the floor. And we discover that we have welcomed not a houseguest but a construction worker.

One such truth, for many of us, is the sovereignty of God. That God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11) struck me, at first, as both biblically plain and experientially sweet. I became a Calvinist almost without realizing it. But then, in time, no truth caused me more mental angst, and even anguish, than this doctrine of God’s total, unstoppable sovereignty. I had imagined myself the calm host of this truth, until my mind became a construction zone.

“Over creation, over history, and over hearts, God reigns.”

Many could testify to a similar experience of mental renovation. Open the door to God’s sovereignty, and walls of supposed rationality may collapse. Stairways of instinct may be turned right around. A whole new floor of possibility may be added. You will emerge “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23), but the process may sometimes feel like a hammer blow.

How Sovereign Is He?

Whatever place God’s sovereignty has in our present mental framework, we may find help from Acts 4:23–31, a passage that has renovated many minds. Perhaps nowhere else in Scripture do we get such a sweeping sense of God’s sovereignty in so small a space.

The early church prays, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . .” (Acts 4:24). Their “sovereign Lord” is none other than the sovereign Creator of Genesis 1: star-speaker, mountain-maker, ocean-carver, creature-crafter. And as the rest of Scripture celebrates, the same God who spoke the world into being goes on speaking, upholding “the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). His sovereignty over creation continues every second. Not a blade of grass grows without him saying so.

But his sovereignty doesn’t end with creation. “Sovereign Lord . . . who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?’” (Acts 4:24–25). The events of Good Friday may have seemed to some like a chaotic tragedy, like innocence caught in the death gears of political corruption, but the believers say, “No, the death of Christ fulfilled the story of David’s ancient psalm. For a thousand years, the threads of history have been running toward the cross.” History, to them, was prophesied, predestined, planned (Acts 2:23; 4:28).

And not just the events of history, but even the desires and impulses of human hearts. “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28). Why did Judas betray his Lord? Why did Herod mock the King of kings? Why did Pilate, knowing his duty, let justice be trampled by the raging mob? On one level, because Judas wanted money, because Herod “was hoping to see some sign” (Luke 23:8), because Pilate feared man. These were “lawless men” (Acts 2:23), fully responsible for their sins. But on another level, on the ultimate level, they acted as they did because this is what God had predestined to take place.

Here, then, is the sweep of God’s sovereignty in the space of a few verses. Over creation, over history, and over hearts, God reigns. And such a reign cannot help but renovate our minds.

Renovation of the Mind

One of the marvelous features of Acts 4:23–31 is that these believers not only affirm God’s exhaustive sovereignty, but they also teach us how to apply it. And oh, how we need such teaching. Countless errors creep into minds and churches when we take true doctrine from Scripture without also allowing Scripture to guide our applications. And few doctrines are more prone to misapplication than the sovereignty of God.

The prayer of Acts 4, repeated, internalized, embraced, would guard us from a dozen dangers and keep us on God’s level path, even if the process brings pain. For truth can indeed seem “painful rather than pleasant” for a time. But like God’s fatherly discipline, “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Here, then, are three new rooms (among others) God’s sovereignty builds into the minds of those who welcome it.

1. God is sovereign — so pray boldly.

Remarkably, the high sovereignty we encounter in Acts 4 comes to us not in a treatise, a confession, a debate, or even a sermon, but a prayer. While some hear of sovereignty and wonder what difference their prayers could make, the early church received sovereignty as a reason to pray. Here, they kneel before a “sovereign Lord” (Acts 4:24); they plead beneath his providence.

God’s sovereignty rightly communicates something of his transcendence, his highness and holiness. But the believers in Acts 4 know something else about God: in his transcendence, he remains deeply personal with his people. He speaks and listens, invites us to pray and responds to our prayers — all while somehow weaving everything into his “definite plan” (Acts 2:23).

Rightly understood, faithful prayer depends on both God’s transcendence and his nearness. If God were only transcendent, he wouldn’t bend to hear our prayers; if he were only personal and near, he wouldn’t be able to answer our prayers. But if God is both transcendent and personal, mighty and near, then he can both hear our petitions and act. We don’t need to know exactly how he sovereignly folds our prayers into his plans. It’s enough for us to know that he does.

2. God is sovereign — so take action.

The early believers were heirs, as we are, to Jesus’s promise to build his church (Matthew 16:18). As the kingdom spreads throughout the book of Acts, they know they are not the ones spreading it, not ultimately. Such expansion was the work of the risen Jesus, who had poured his Spirit upon his people (Acts 1:1, 8). Seated upon his throne, he was sovereignly fulfilling his promise to build the church against the gates of hell.

But the church did not for that reason grow passive or complacent. They did not merely wait and watch the Holy Spirit act. At Pentecost, Peter gets up and actually preaches (Acts 2:14). Before the council, Peter and John take a breath and actually obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19–20). And when persecuted, the church prays for boldness and actually continues “to speak the word of God” (Acts 4:31). They trusted God would sovereignly fulfill his promises — and then they acted as if he just might do so through their efforts.

For these believers, a seemingly closed door (“Speak no more to anyone in this name,” Acts 4:17) was no reason to stand back and watch; it was reason to pray for boldness, stand up, and turn a handle. They trusted that the same “hand” that governed history was with them still, ready to “stretch out” not before, but precisely “while” they went forth and spoke (Acts 4:28, 30). So, as you stand before some opportunity for the gospel, even if many obstacles stand in the way, take courage from God’s sovereignty and act.

3. God is sovereign — so draw near.

Amid their affliction, we might have expected the believers to address God as something other than “sovereign Lord” — perhaps “sympathetic Lord” or “merciful Lord” or “loving Lord.” These titles are certainly appropriate, and Scripture proposes them to the suffering elsewhere (Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 1:3). But this time, in their pain, these Christians drew near to the sovereign Lord. They did so for at least two reasons.

First, they knew that only a sovereign God could take the wrongs done against us and turn them for our good. Sympathy, mercy, and love are precious qualities in our God, but their preciousness runs thin if he cannot actually do something about our pain. But oh, how he can.

“In his sovereignty, he became a Lord with scars.”

The God we serve was able to take the worst moment in the history of the world and turn it into a moment of eternal remembrance (Acts 4:27–28). And the early church knew that if God could do that at the cross, then he could do it anywhere and everywhere for anyone, no matter how black the sorrow or deep the loss. As on the world’s worst Friday, he can take our most shattered days, rearrange the pieces, and make them spell good.

Then, second, who is this “sovereign Lord”? He is not only the God who turned such a Friday good; he is the God who felt this Friday’s sharpest grief. In his sovereignty, God could have stayed aloof from us, working out his plan from his high throne. But he didn’t. Instead, in his sovereignty, he put on flesh and bone. He took the dark prophecies of the Messiah’s sufferings and laid them on his own human shoulders. He received the whips and the nails and the thorns. In his sovereignty, he became a Lord with scars. And therefore he is, and ever remains, the strongest refuge for suffering saints.

Receive, then, this renovating doctrine of God’s unstoppable sovereignty. Watch how it inspires your prayers, emboldens your witness, and then, in the pit of your deepest pain, leads you to the one who once died under sorrow, and now lives forever as Lord over it all.

Risen to Love His Own: The Surprising Mercies of Easter

Our tired, sinful world has never seen a surprise so momentous as the one that spread from the tomb on Easter Sunday. “The dead stayed dead in the first century with the same monotonous regularity as they do [today],” Donald Macleod writes (The Person of Christ, 111). No one, in any age, has been accustomed to resurrection.

To the disciples, it mattered little that their Lord had already given away the ending (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). The resurrection of Jesus Christ — heart beating, lungs pumping, brain firing, legs walking — could be nothing less than a surprise. The greatest surprise our world has ever seen.

Pay attention to the resurrection narratives, however, and you may find yourself surprised at how Jesus surprises his people. He does not run from the tomb shouting, “I’m risen!” (as we may have expected). In three separate stories, in fact — with Mary, with Peter, and with the two disciples on the Emmaus road — he does not reveal himself immediately. He waits. He lingers. He hides, even. And then, in profoundly personal ways, he surprises.

Some of us woke up this Easter in desperate need of this same Jesus to offer a similar surprise. We declare today that he is risen, that he is risen indeed. But for one reason or another, we may find ourselves stuck in the shadows of Saturday. Perhaps some sorrow runs deep. Or some old guilt gnaws. Or some confusion has invaded the soul. Perhaps our Lord, though risen, seems hidden.

Sit for a moment in these three stories, and consider how the Lord of the empty tomb still loves to surprise his people. As on the first Easter, he still delights to trade our sorrow for joy, our guilt for forgiveness, our confusion for clarity.

Sorrow Surprised by Joy

Maybe, this Sunday, some long sadness seems unmoved by the empty tomb. Maybe the Easter sun seems to have stopped just below the horizon of some darkened part of life — some love lost, some long and aching wait. Maybe you remember Jesus’s words, “Your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20), but you still feel the sorrow, still look for the joy.

Stand at the tomb with Mary Magdalene. Others have come and gone, but she waits, weeping (John 20:11). She has seen the stone rolled away, the absent grave, and the angelic entourage of her risen Lord — and now, Jesus himself stands near her. But though she sees him, she doesn’t see him. “She did not know that it was Jesus” (John 20:14). She mourns before the Lord of holy joy, not knowing how soon her sorrow will flee. And for a few moments more, Jesus waits.

He draws her out with a question: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). She offers her reply, supposing she speaks to a gardener. And then, in a moment, with a word, the mask comes off. Shadows break, sun rises, sorrow makes its sudden happy turn. How? “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’” (John 20:16). One word, one name, and this Gardener blooms flowers from her fallen tears. “Rabboni!” she cries — and cries no more (John 20:16).

Unlike Mary, you know your Lord is risen. Even still, for now, you may feel bent and broken. Seeing Jesus, but not seeing him. Knowing he lives, but not knowing where he is. Maybe even hearing his voice, but supposing you hear another’s. Dear saint, the risen Christ does not stand idly by while his loved ones grieve. He may linger for the moment, but he lingers near enough to see your tears and hear your cries — near enough to speak your name and surprise your sorrow with joy.

Keep waiting, and he will speak — sooner or later, here or in heaven. And until then, he is not far. Even if hidden, he is risen, and the deepest sorrow waits to hear his word.

Guilt Surprised by Forgiveness

Or maybe, for you, sorrow is only a note in a different, darker song. You have sinned — and not in a small way. The words of your mouth have shocked you; the work of your hands has undone you. You feel as if you had carried the soldiers’ nails. And now it seems that not even Easter can heal you.

Sit in the boat with Peter. He knows his Lord is risen — and indeed, he has even heard hope from Jesus himself. “Peace be with you,” the Master had told his disciples (John 20:19). But that “you” was plural. Peter needed something more, something personal, to wash away Good Friday’s stains.

“Jesus still delights to trade our sorrow for joy, our guilt for forgiveness, our confusion for clarity.”

And so Jesus stands on the shore — risen, hidden, and again with a question: “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:5). These are words to awaken memory (Luke 5:1–4), “yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (John 21:4). No, not yet. He will allow Peter to feel the night’s empty nets a few moments longer, and then the surprise will come. And so he reveals himself, this time not with a name but with fish — many fish, actually (John 21:6). Then, after feeding his men, he leads Peter in personal repentance and, as if all is forgotten, calls him afresh: “Follow me” (John 21:19).

That Jesus should turn our sorrow into joy is one of Easter’s greatest wonders. But perhaps greater still is that he should turn our guilt into innocence — that he should address our most sinful, shameful moments so personally, that he should wash our souls as humbly and tenderly as he washed his disciples’ feet. Yet so he does.

The process can take some time, however. We may not feel his forgiveness immediately, and he does not always mean us to. He sometimes hides for some moments or some days. Yet as he does, he prepares the scene for a surprise so good we too may feel like leaping into the sea (John 21:7). Our Lord is here, bringing grace and mercy; we must go to him.

Confusion Surprised by Clarity

Or maybe you find neither sorrow nor sin afflicting you this Easter, but rather another kind of thorn, a pain that can pierce deep enough to drive you mad: confusion. Life doesn’t make sense. Logic fails. God’s ways seem not just mysterious but labyrinth-like. Who can untangle these knots or find a way through this maze?

Walk with the two disciples toward Emmaus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” you hear them say (Luke 24:21). Yes, had hoped. No more. Three nails and a spear stole the breath from that dream. Now all that’s left is confusion, a body and blood and a burial of all that seemed good and right and true. If not Jesus, then who? Then how? We had thought he was the one.

But then “the one” himself “drew near and went with them” (Luke 24:15). Again he asks a question: “What is this conversation that you are holding?” (Luke 24:17). And again he conceals himself: “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). So they walk; so they talk; so they spill their confusion all along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Yes, they have heard his body was gone, have heard even a report of his rising (Luke 24:23–24). But still, they just can’t make sense of it all.

But oh, how Jesus can. So, with a swift and tender rebuke, a lesson in the Scriptures, and a face revealed over broken bread, he picks up their shattered thoughts and arranges them in a vision of startling, stunning clarity. Then “he vanished” (Luke 24:31), taking all their confusion with him. “Did not our hearts burn within us?” they ask each other (Luke 24:32). Christ had risen, and the clarity they could not imagine had walked with them, talked with them, and loved them into the light.

Our hearts today may brim with questions, some that seem unanswerable. But the resurrected Jesus knows no unanswerable questions. He can solve every riddle in every corner of every human heart — even if, for the moment, he walks beside us incognito.

Our Final Surprise

We live today in an in-between land. Jesus is risen, but we don’t yet see him. Jesus lives, but we haven’t yet touched the mark of the nails in his hands. If we are his, however, then one day we will. And these stories give us reason to expect on that day a final, climactic surprise.

If hearing Jesus’s word by faith can lift the heaviest heart, what sorrow can withstand his audible voice and the new name he will give to us (Revelation 2:17)? If even now we taste the relief of sins forgiven and condemnation gone, what will happen when he puts a white robe around our shoulders and renders sin impossible? And if we have moments here of bright clarity, then what will come when the mists lift altogether, when Truth himself stands before us, and when all deception disappears like a bad dream?

Then we will see what a risen Christ can do. His dealings with Mary, with Peter, with the Emmaus disciples — these are but the fringes of his power, the outskirts of his ways. So keep waiting, dear Christian. At the right time, he will speak your name. He will appear on the shoreline of your long-repeated prayers. He will walk with you on the road of confusion and loss until you reach a better table, and in the breaking of the bread you will see his face.

Restore My Soul: In Pursuit of Personal Revival

It all happened so slowly, so silently. Each step seemed so small, and even so reasonable in the moment. You didn’t pack up and run like the prodigal son. But somehow, when you look back, you find yourself farther from God than you thought you were.

Maybe you overheard someone praying with simple, childlike love for Jesus, and you can’t even remember the last time you prayed like that. Maybe months have passed since you have woken up and wanted, really wanted, to read your Bible. Maybe corporate worship has become a mere habit, a hollow sound, a form of words without wonder. Maybe you just committed some sin, or entertained some thought, you couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

Maybe you know exactly how you got here: a subtle worldly compromise, a Christless relationship, a slow but deep neglect, a secret sin unconfessed. Or maybe you struggle to trace the path you walked from there to here. You just know that you are not where you once were.

And now, perhaps, like that son in the far country, you think of your Father. You remember home. You wonder if you could find your way back.

‘He Restores My Soul’

At one time or another, all of us in Christ find ourselves in need of returning to Christ. Maybe we’ve wandered from him only for a few days or a week, or maybe we’ve allowed months or more to pass. Either way, our feet have strayed; our love has waned; our zeal has cooled; our eyes have dimmed. We love Jesus less today than we did yesterday. We need renewal.

Yes, but how? What road will lead us back to our Father’s house, back to the land of our first love? We might begin by remembering a line from David’s most famous psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.     He makes me lie down in green pastures.He leads me beside still waters.     He restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1–3)

Our Lord Jesus specializes not only in saving the lost, but in restoring the saved. He calls himself shepherd, the good shepherd, and as such he does not rest easy while one of his dear sheep wanders from his fold. And therefore, however far we feel from Jesus, and however unable to see the paths back to him, he knows how to restore our souls. He can bear us on his shoulders and bring us home.

And when he does, he often carries us along four restoring paths.

1. Remember

Remember . . . from where you have fallen. (Revelation 2:5)

Personal revival often begins when we remember how far we have fallen, just how far we have wandered. And by remember, I mean really remember. Ponder the past. Relive former, more spiritually alive times in your life. Feel the sorrow of first love lost.

Do you remember the way you once treasured God’s word in your heart like so much gold and silver? Do you remember how prayer felt sweet as honey on your tongue? Do you remember how you hurried to arrive at corporate worship lest you should miss some song, some part of the sermon? Do you remember telling others about Jesus not from guilt but from the natural overflow of your joy? Do you remember how you once fasted with freedom; gave your time and money with a happy, open hand; killed your sin with radical resolve; and heard the name of Jesus as the most wonderful sound in all the world?

“Our Lord Jesus specializes not only in saving the lost, but in restoring the saved.”

We may feel tempted to run from such remembrance, to pretend all is well for fear of facing how much we’ve lost. But don’t run, and don’t pretend. If there is sorrow here, Jesus has promised to sweeten it. Painful remembrance is often our first step toward home. And if we humble ourselves under the comparison of us then and us now, God pledges to make us the special objects of his reviving love:

Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)

The only spirits God revives are lowly spirits; the only hearts he restores are contrite hearts. And so often, the fruits of lowliness and contrition grow from the soil of honest, unflinching memory.

2. Return

Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful. (Jeremiah 3:12)

There is, no doubt, a sick kind of remembrance, a kind that leaves us more lost than we were before. Some, forgetting God’s mercy, remember themselves right into a pit of despair. They recall home from the far country, but they don’t dare to hope that their Father is waiting for them, ready for them, scanning the horizon with ring and robe in hand. And indeed, we would have no reason to hope unless God himself told us not only to remember, but to return — unless he said, again and again to his lost children, “Come home.” But he does.

Note how God speaks to his wandering people in Jeremiah 3:12. They have not yet done anything to reform themselves. They are, in his eyes, “faithless Israel,” their faithlessness having driven them far from him. But he will not allow their faithlessness to become a reason for staying far from him. “I will not look on you in anger,” he says, wooing, “for I am merciful.” However far we’ve wandered, we find in God a mercy far deeper than our faithlessness.

He gives only one condition for his welcome: “Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God” (Jeremiah 3:13). Only confess. Only repent. Only own your sins without excuse and receive the blood of Jesus. And then believe that whatever faithlessness has led you far from God, he still says gladly through Jesus, “Return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master; I will take you” (Jeremiah 3:14).

3. Remove

Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes. (Isaiah 1:16)

True remembrance plus faithful return does something deep in a soul. As with the godly grief the apostle Paul describes, we feel a renewed “indignation . . . fear . . . longing . . . zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11). Freshly forgiven in Christ, and now no longer wandering, we rise like men and women newly alive, ready to remove whatever we have allowed to take us from God.

Revival brings a kind of holy violence to those it touches. In the Old Testament, we read of revived kings like Josiah taking hammer and torch to the idols throughout Israel (2 Kings 23:4–20). In the New Testament, we read of a more spiritual, but no less real, violence. The saints of Christ still know how to handle hammer and torch, toppling and burning idols of heart and life that have stood all too long.

We should beware at this point of a common danger that threatens the Spirit’s restoring work. Even as we labor to remove idols — habits and hobbies, entertainments and relationships, websites and apps — we can nevertheless fall short of removing all. Like the Israelites who left some enemies in the land, or like the kings who allowed the high places to stand, we can rest satisfied with half-reformations, quasi-revivals, near-renewals.

In all likelihood, such partial measures will only leave us in need of revival again, and probably sooner than we think. Don’t hesitate, then, to smash and burn your once-loved foes. Every swing of the hammer clears more space for Christ. Every piece of scorched ground becomes a garden where the Spirit’s fruit can grow.

4. Restore

Do the works you did at first. (Revelation 2:5)

Ultimately, the work of soul restoration belongs to God. “He restores my soul,” not I. But as he restores us, he also grants us to play a part in the restoration process. Just as King Josiah not only cleared the land of idols but also reinstated the Passover, so we not only remove sins but also restore those holy habits we have long neglected. We “do the works [we] did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

Such restoration has been God’s purpose from the beginnings of his dealings with us. Every painful removal was meant to make way for something better. When God brings personal revival, he inevitably brings with it a closer, holier walk with him, a fellowship with him on his “paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3). And oh, how great is our joy!

Then the Bible becomes hallowed ground again. Then the door of our prayer closet becomes a doorway to heaven again. Then sermons become feasts again, and evangelism becomes a privilege again, and offenses become overlookable again, and God’s people become again “the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psalm 16:3). Then we see that our God is not only the God who saves, but the God who restores — who delights to restore, who restores beyond all that we could ask or imagine.

Start Small, Step Up, and Fail Well: How to Pursue Pastoral Ministry

The road to the pastorate is filled with men who had hoped to arrive a long time ago. Many years have passed since they first felt the seed of a desire to shepherd Christ’s church. But for any number of reasons — life circumstances, personal immaturity, the need for training — no church has called them as shepherd. Not yet.

I think of one friend whose aspiration has quietly burned for over a decade. I think of another man, barely out of his teens, who recently started pursuing the pastorate and likely has years ahead of him. I think of my former self, traveling that road through my entire twenties. Such men may feel ambitions as big as Paul’s — but then remember, with a sigh, that they are not even a Timothy yet.

What can a man do on that road, especially when he can’t see the end of it? Well, quite a lot. Bobby Jamieson offers a couple of dozen ideas in his helpful book The Path to Being a Pastor. My colleague Marshall Segal boils those down to seven worthy ambitions. But lately my mind has been focused on a passage from Paul to Timothy. Timothy was already a pastor at the time of Paul’s writing, but he was a young pastor, not far removed from the road of aspiring men. And Paul’s counsel applies wonderfully to those preparing to join him.

“Do we enjoy Jesus before we preach him, and preach him because we enjoy him?”

We might capture the heart of Paul’s burden in 1 Timothy 4:6–16 with the words of verse 15: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” Let them see your progress, Timothy. Don’t grow discouraged. Don’t remain stuck. Instead, by God’s grace, gain ground. Hone your character. Develop your competency. Become more godly, more fruitful, more zealous, more skilled. Make progress — the kind of progress that others can see.

To that end, consider a two-part plan: Train privately. Practice publicly.

Train Privately

Most of Paul’s commands in 1 Timothy 4:6–16 focus on Timothy’s public ministry. “Command and teach” (verse 11); “set the believers an example” (verse 12); “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (verse 13); and so on. At the same time, Paul knew just how easily public ministry could outpace private piety. He knew how tempting it could be to “keep a close watch on . . . the teaching” without keeping a close watch “on yourself” (verse 16).

It is frightfully possible to preach in public what you disobey in private. It is sadly common for men, even pastors-in-training, to lose delight in God’s word, and neglect the prayer closet. So, behind, before, and alongside Timothy’s public ministry, Paul says, “Train yourself for godliness” (verse 7). Explain publicly what you have experienced privately. Let all your teaching be plucked from the orchard of your soul. Remember that all God-pleasing progress in public flows from God-centered progress in private.

Enjoy His Words

“Train yourself for godliness”: the command takes us into an athletic spirituality, a pursuit of Christ that doesn’t mind the uphill climb, that relishes some sweat, that is willing to beat disobedient feelings into submission. Give yourself, Timothy, to the long, gradual, difficult, joyful process of becoming more like Jesus — or what some Puritans called “the great business of godliness” (The Genius of Puritanism, 12).

Such training may take many forms, but Paul leaves no doubt about the central content of Timothy’s regimen: he would progress in godliness by “being trained in the words of the faith” (1 Timothy 4:6). Reject “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (verse 1); sidestep “irreverent, silly myths” (verse 7). Instead, give yourself to God’s word.

If there is a secret to public progress, surely it lies in private soul-dealings with the God who speaks. I for one have felt chastened lately by Andrew Bonar’s description of the young Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who would often ride outside town “to enjoy an hour’s perfect solitude; for he felt meditation and prayer to be the very sinews of his work” (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 56). Meditation and prayer are the sinews of ministry. Without them, we may have the muscle of charisma and the bones of orthodoxy, but the body hangs loose and weak; we stagger rather than run.

In one way or another, the depth of our private dealings with God will become evident in public. Our faces will shine like Moses’s — or they won’t. Our spontaneous speech and conduct will “set . . . an example” (verse 12) — or it won’t. We will hand others the ripe fruit of our own meditations — or we will deal in plastic apples and pears.

As aspiring leaders, we know God’s word forms the soul and substance of our public ministry. But over time, has our private life come to betray that conviction? Do we still read God’s word with anything like athletic obsession? Do we enjoy Jesus before we preach him, and preach him because we enjoy him? Do we treat meditation and prayer as the indispensable sinews of ministry?

Examine Your Soul

As Timothy devotes himself to “the words of the faith,” Paul calls him to turn his attention inward as well. “Keep a close watch on yourself,” he writes (1 Timothy 4:16). Timothy was an overseer of souls, but the first soul he needed to oversee was his own.

“The gifts of God are not only given, but cultivated; not only bestowed, but honed.”

Paul had spoken such words to pastors before. “Pay careful attention to yourselves,” he told the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). And he had good reason to warn: “From among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things” (Acts 20:30). Pastor or not, if a man does not keep a close watch on himself, he will lose himself. He will not only fail to progress; he will regress, sometimes beyond hope. And Timothy was no exception.

So, Paul says, keep a close watch. Regularly tour the city of your heart to see if any enemies have breached the gate and now threaten the throne. Stand sentinel in your soul; know the weak spots on the walls, and study the enemies you are likely to face. Pray and then patiently review in God’s presence your speech, conduct, love, faith, purity (1 Timothy 4:12). As you read God’s word, ask him to search you and save you, to reveal you and rescue you (Psalm 139:23–24). “Lord, discipline me, correct me, expose me, confront me — and whatever it takes, keep me from destroying myself.”

True, we do not make much progress in godliness by looking inward. But we may notice the enemies that keep us from progress — enemies that, unmortified, would ruin all our progress up till now.

Practice Publicly

If private progress relates mostly to our character, public progress relates mostly to our competence. And in our passage, Paul cares about Timothy’s competence a lot. When he writes, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15), “these things” refers mainly to “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (verse 13). Timothy was already “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), but Paul wanted him to become more able, to increasingly look like “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Paul recognized in Timothy a pastoral gift (1 Timothy 4:14). But Timothy’s gift was not a static endowment: he could “neglect the gift” he had, or he could “practice” and improve it (verses 14–15). For the gifts of God are not only given, but cultivated; not only bestowed, but honed. And here men like us find hope. However gifted we may feel (or not), we are not at the mercy of our present attainments. We can handle God’s word with more care. We can apply it with more power. We can develop a greater readiness “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). That is, as long as we practice.

Embrace Unspectacular Opportunities

Few men receive a ready-made gift of teaching, a gift with no assembly required. God’s kingdom has its occasional Spurgeons, of course, who preached better as a teenager than I ever will as an adult. But most of us become proficient only through repeated practice over years, and then most of us progress further only through more practice still. And if we’re going to practice as much as we ought — as much as Paul’s “immerse yourself” suggests (1 Timothy 4:15) — then we likely will need to embrace opportunities that seem pretty unspectacular.

We might, for example, lead a group of guys in middle-school ministry. We might pour more thought into family devotions. We might find a lonely, suffering saint, listen to his heart woes, and practice the complex art of pastoral counseling. We might gather a few men committed to exhorting and encouraging each other. We might spend time with the sermon passage before we hear it preached, developing our own ideas and applications, drafting our own outline. We might snatch up every realistic opportunity to open the Bible and say something about it.

Perhaps we feel tempted to despise these small, unspectacular opportunities. But small, unspectacular opportunities form, for most of us, the indispensable path toward progress. There is no progress without practice — and practice sometimes feels utterly ordinary.

Fail Well

Those who practice enough, of course, eventually discover an uncomfortable truth: with practice comes not only progress, but failure. Open your mouth often enough, and you’ll say something foolish. Exhort others enough, and you’ll damage a bruised reed. Counsel enough, and you’ll speak too soon or too late. Preach enough, and you’ll leave the pulpit disheartened.

In the aftermath of such moments, we may feel like practicing a little less; rather than immersing ourselves in ministry or devoting ourselves to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13, 15), we may feel like retreating to a safer place. We may want to dig a hole and bury our talents in the dirt of our failures.

Yet precisely in such moments, we need to hear Paul’s word to Timothy in verse 14: “Do not neglect the gift you have.” Yes, your effort ended in embarrassment, but do not neglect the gift you have. Yes, taking another public risk feels daunting, but do not neglect the gift you have. Yes, to fail again like that would feel shameful, but do not neglect the gift you have. In some cases, of course, repeated failure may suggest that we don’t actually have the gift we thought we did. In so many cases, however, the failure was just part of the practice.

So, hold your failures in open hands, and learn all you can from them. Remember “the words of the faith” that have been your private strength, your secret delight. Take courage that if “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), he can certainly restore and use failures. And then get back in the pulpit, back before the small group, back on the streets, back wherever your ministry lies, and use the gift that God has given you.

And in time, all will see your progress.

Even Believers Need to Be Warned

Why, ultimately, did Paul warn of hell? Because Jesus was too wonderful, too marvelous not to use every righteous means available to “present everyone mature in Christ,” to win people to him and keep people near him. Others needed to know the danger of hell because they needed to know the danger of missing eternal life with him. Warnings were his way of casting us into the arms of Christ, the safest place in all the world.

I stood at a friend’s kitchen sink, surprised and somewhat disturbed. My friend’s wife had taped a notecard on the wall behind the sink with some spiritual reminders. That in itself was nothing new: though still a young believer, I had seen such cards posted to desks, doors, bathroom mirrors, and the like. No, what surprised me was one particular reminder this young woman had chosen to write.
The exact words escape me, but the sense still burns in my memory: “You deserve hell.”
You deserve hell? On the one hand, I had no intellectual objection to the statement. I myself had recently come to see the darkness of my native heart. I had realized that I was not just mistaken or in need of occasional forgiveness, but actually hell-deserving — and hell-destined apart from the grace of Jesus.
But the notecard still disturbed me. Yes, we deserve hell, but should we recall the fact as often as we wash our hands? Should the reality of hell, and the remembrance that we once were headed there, stay warm in our minds?
I can certainly imagine someone thinking too much about hell. The unspeakable sorrow of eternal punishment, dwelt on overmuch, could overwhelm the sense of joy pulsing through the New Testament. But a recent survey of Paul’s letters leads me to think my friend’s wife was closer to his apostolic heart than my instinct to recoil.
We may not post reminders above our sinks, but somehow the thought needs to become more than passing and occasional. We deserve hell, and only one thing stands between us and that outer darkness: Jesus.
Remember Hell
When we turn to Paul’s letters, we actually notice something even more startling than the notecard over my friend’s sink. Regularly throughout his writings, the apostle not only reminds the churches of their formerly hopeless state; he also warns them of their ongoing danger should they drift from Christ. He says not only, “You deserve hell,” but also, “Make sure you don’t end up there.”
Consider just a few of Paul’s bracing warnings to the churches:

“If you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13).
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
“Put to death . . . what is earthly in you. . . . On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
“The Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).

The situation becomes even more surprising when we consider Paul’s overall posture toward the believers in these churches. Paul was “satisfied” that the Romans were “full of goodness” (Romans 15:14). He was confident the Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). He saw the Ephesians as already seated with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6); he rejoiced in the firmness of the Colossians’ faith (Colossians 2:5); he knew God had chosen the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
And yet he warned. In fact, Paul places his warnings near the heart of his apostolic calling: “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). So, amid his encouragements, and throughout his doctrinal instruction, and even as he exulted in the hope of glory, he would sometimes grow solemn and still, lower his tone, and turn his ink black.
“Dear brothers,” he would write in effect, “Christ is gloriously yours. But until you see him face to face, don’t imagine yourselves out of danger. Hell still awaits any who forsake him.”
Why Did Paul Warn?
Why did Paul warn his beloved churches, sometimes with unsettling sternness? A closer look at his warnings sheds some light. Among several purposes Paul had, we might consider three in particular that rise to the surface.
These three purposes are not limited to Paul’s apostolic calling, or even to the pastoral calling today. Pastors, as God’s watchmen, may have a special responsibility to blow eternity’s trumpet, but Paul and the other apostles expected all Christians to play their part in admonishing, exhorting, warning (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 3:13).
So, as we consider when and why Paul warned of hell, we (pastors especially, but also all of us) learn when and why we should too.
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Even Believers Need to Be Warned: How Hell Motivates Holiness

I stood at a friend’s kitchen sink, surprised and somewhat disturbed. My friend’s wife had taped a notecard on the wall behind the sink with some spiritual reminders. That in itself was nothing new: though still a young believer, I had seen such cards posted to desks, doors, bathroom mirrors, and the like. No, what surprised me was one particular reminder this young woman had chosen to write.

The exact words escape me, but the sense still burns in my memory: “You deserve hell.”

You deserve hell? On the one hand, I had no intellectual objection to the statement. I myself had recently come to see the darkness of my native heart. I had realized that I was not just mistaken or in need of occasional forgiveness, but actually hell-deserving — and hell-destined apart from the grace of Jesus.

But the notecard still disturbed me. Yes, we deserve hell, but should we recall the fact as often as we wash our hands? Should the reality of hell, and the remembrance that we once were headed there, stay warm in our minds?

I can certainly imagine someone thinking too much about hell. The unspeakable sorrow of eternal punishment, dwelt on overmuch, could overwhelm the sense of joy pulsing through the New Testament. But a recent survey of Paul’s letters leads me to think my friend’s wife was closer to his apostolic heart than my instinct to recoil.

We may not post reminders above our sinks, but somehow the thought needs to become more than passing and occasional. We deserve hell, and only one thing stands between us and that outer darkness: Jesus.

Remember Hell

When we turn to Paul’s letters, we actually notice something even more startling than the notecard over my friend’s sink. Regularly throughout his writings, the apostle not only reminds the churches of their formerly hopeless state; he also warns them of their ongoing danger should they drift from Christ. He says not only, “You deserve hell,” but also, “Make sure you don’t end up there.”

Consider just a few of Paul’s bracing warnings to the churches:

“If you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13).
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
“Put to death . . . what is earthly in you. . . . On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
“The Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).

The situation becomes even more surprising when we consider Paul’s overall posture toward the believers in these churches. Paul was “satisfied” that the Romans were “full of goodness” (Romans 15:14). He was confident the Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). He saw the Ephesians as already seated with Christ (Ephesians 2:4–6); he rejoiced in the firmness of the Colossians’ faith (Colossians 2:5); he knew God had chosen the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:4).

And yet he warned. In fact, Paul places his warnings near the heart of his apostolic calling: “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). So, amid his encouragements, and throughout his doctrinal instruction, and even as he exulted in the hope of glory, he would sometimes grow solemn and still, lower his tone, and turn his ink black.

“Dear brothers,” he would write in effect, “Christ is gloriously yours. But until you see him face to face, don’t imagine yourselves out of danger. Hell still awaits any who forsake him.”

Why Did Paul Warn?

Why did Paul warn his beloved churches, sometimes with unsettling sternness? A closer look at his warnings sheds some light. Among several purposes Paul had, we might consider three in particular that rise to the surface.

These three purposes are not limited to Paul’s apostolic calling, or even to the pastoral calling today. Pastors, as God’s watchmen, may have a special responsibility to blow eternity’s trumpet, but Paul and the other apostles expected all Christians to play their part in admonishing, exhorting, warning (Colossians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Hebrews 3:13).

So, as we consider when and why Paul warned of hell, we (pastors especially, but also all of us) learn when and why we should too.

1. To Alarm the Presumptuous

First, Paul warned of hell to alarm the presumptuous. Hell was a siren to awake spiritual sleepers, a large “Danger” sign for those drifting off the narrow way, a merciful thorn for feet too comfortable near the cliff of sin.

“We are never more in danger than when we think we are not.”

Despite Paul’s overall positive posture toward the churches, he knew that some in these communities were in danger of spiritual presumption. In Corinth, for example, some acted arrogantly when they should have felt fear and trembling (1 Corinthians 5:2). Some treated sexual immorality with frightful indifference (1 Corinthians 6:12–20). Some did not hesitate to haul their brothers to court (1 Corinthians 6:1–8).

They were growing numb and didn’t know it. So Paul sounded the warning:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)

If a brother seems spiritually presumptuous; if exhortation and entreaty seem to land lightly; if his sin has become habitual, and his hand seems lifted higher and higher — he may need to hear a word about hell. At first, such a word may sound as unwelcome as an alarm awaking him from a deep and comfortable slumber. But if he is in Christ, then such a warning will have its God-intended effect in time. His initial offense or displeasure will give way to the dreadful realization that the house is on fire; he must escape.

By all means speak wisely, carefully, with the kind of trembling that fits so fearful a topic. But take courage from Paul, and believe that sometimes, love alarms.

2. To Protect the Vulnerable

Often when Paul warns of hell, however, he does not have presumptuous people in mind. Usually, these stern words come to beloved brothers and sisters whose faith seems firm, to churches like the Romans, the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians. Why does he warn such saints? He does so, in part, because as long as we are in this world, we are vulnerable to becoming deceived with what Paul calls “empty words” (Ephesians 5:6).

First-century societies, just like ours, had their broadly acceptable sins, their celebrated evils. They also had scoffers and false teachers who shrugged off the judgment to come. And Paul knew that, over time, such a society could subtly dull the Christian conscience. God’s people could slowly become swayed by “plausible arguments” (Colossians 2:4): “You really think God cares about what we do in our bedroom?” “How could so many people be wrong?” “You seriously expect God to judge something that so many do?”

Such questions, spoken or merely suggested by a pervasive societal mood, can create an atmosphere where hell sits uncertainly on the soul — where eternity becomes a vague, weightless idea, a peripheral thought that holds little power against the most popular sins of the day. That is, unless we regularly hear Paul (or a pastor or friend) say, “Let no one deceive you” (Ephesians 5:6). No matter how common, no matter how lauded, “The Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:6).

We need such warnings today, perhaps especially from our pulpits. What sins are so normal throughout our cities, so typical in entertainment, so characteristic of our own pasts that we are in danger of becoming numb to their hell-deserving guilt? Pornography and fornication? Casual drunkenness? Love of money and luxuries? Internet reviling?

If the vulnerable among us (and to some degree, we’re all vulnerable) are going to see the deep pit at the end of such well-traveled paths, then someone needs to point it out — and not only once.

3. To Humble the Mature

Finally, and maybe most surprising of all, Paul warned of hell not only to alarm the presumptuous and protect the vulnerable, but also to humble the mature. No matter how strong others seemed, Paul did not think they were too strong for danger, too firm to fall. He knew the most established believer stands just a few yards away from spiritual peril, and just a few more yards from spiritual ruin. So, he writes, “Do not become proud, but fear” (Romans 11:20).

Remarkably, Paul counted himself among those in need of such warnings. Hear the great apostle admonish his own soul: “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26–27). Can you imagine Paul disqualified? Can you fathom the mighty missionary, the bold church planter, the zealous apostle barred from heaven? He could.

I recently encountered this rare apostolic spirit in a letter from Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–1843), who wrote to a friend and fellow minister,

I charge you, be clothed with humility, or you will yet be a wandering star, for which is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever. . . . If you lead sinners to yourself, and not to Christ, Immanuel will cast the star out of His right hand into utter darkness. (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 130)

Why speak so to a fruitful, faithful, mature minister of Christ? Because M’Cheyne (and Paul before him) knew the paradoxical nature of Christian perseverance: We are never more in danger than when we think we are not. And we are never safer than when we feel our weakness, distrust our strength, and lean hard upon the arm of our Lord Jesus. “He that walketh humbly walketh safely,” John Owen writes (Works, 6:217). And he who remembers hell walks humbly.

Him We Proclaim

Consider again Paul’s description of his apostolic calling in Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” We have focused here on Paul’s warnings, but we dare not miss the context in which they come.

Hell was not the main theme of Paul’s ministry. Unlike some fire-and-brimstone preachers, he did not thunder forth the judgment to the neglect of other doctrines or in ways that sunk others into all-consuming fear. He did not write, “Hell we proclaim,” but “Him we proclaim” — Christ.

Why, ultimately, did Paul warn of hell? Because Jesus was too wonderful, too marvelous not to use every righteous means available to “present everyone mature in Christ,” to win people to him and keep people near him. Others needed to know the danger of hell because they needed to know the danger of missing eternal life with him. Warnings were his way of casting us into the arms of Christ, the safest place in all the world.

And so he warned. And so the wise remember, in one way or another, that we deserve hell, and that we are not (for now) beyond the danger of hell. Read it in Scripture; say it to your soul; write it over your kitchen sink if you must. Think of hell long enough and often enough to keep you close to Jesus, humble and happy and hoping in him.

When This Season Ends

The wise see the hand of God in their best seasons; they also see their best seasons in the hand of God. “My times are in your hand,” the psalmist says (Psalm 31:15). And if our times are in God’s hand — his good, wise, kind hand — then we don’t need to try to keep them in ours.

“You are living the best days of your life.”
The comment caught my wife off guard. She was carting our two young boys toward the grocery-store checkout when an older woman ventured the prophecy. The woman spoke from experience, as a mother whose own cart had once held little ones. Perhaps she saw in my wife a past version of herself. Perhaps our boys brought back dear memories. Either way, she felt stirred to speak from hindsight: “You are living the best days of your life.”
My wife and I feel the truth of her words. Even amid the chaos of these little years, we often catch glimpses of what life will be like when our home no longer hears the patter of little feet or the laughter of little voices. We won’t be surprised if we look back on these years — these wild, exhausting, wonderful years — as the sweetest of our lives. We also won’t be surprised if they leave sooner than we’d like.
Moments like this one in the grocery store have left me wondering how to live through precious days you know will pass away. How, as Christians, should we watch children grow, tables empty, friendships fade, faces wrinkle?
Every Good Season Will End
In a world of change and decay, good gifts are fleeting by nature. Kids get big and hair turns gray. Honeymoons pass and anniversaries add up. Good ministries end and new beginnings quickly become old. These facts are so obvious, so unavoidable, that you’d think we’d be more ready for them.
But something in us — something in me — tries to deny the obvious and outrun the unavoidable. We, of course, have developed a dozen ways and more we try to dam the River Time. Some take pictures: many pictures, beautiful pictures, pictures to freeze and frame our happiness. Some try to choreograph moments meant to be enjoyed, not arranged. Some become relationally clingy. Some treat their children as if they were several years younger than they are. I sometimes find myself attempting to extend moments longer than they should go, like a man who keeps shouting “Encore!” after the band has gone home.
Such impulses often come from a kind of anticipated nostalgia, an awareness of present gifts we can’t bear to imagine as past, as gone. So we hold a net over our brightest days, trying to catch the butterfly of lasting joy in the fields of time. But the holes are always too big. No matter how much we try, we cannot seize good seasons from the vanity of our Ecclesiastes world, where “there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 2:16).
No, we cannot stop the breezes that carry away our best moments. But we can learn to live more wisely in the wind.
The Hand That Holds Our Seasons
The brevity of beautiful seasons can seem like a kind of cruelty. And in some ways, of course, our losses do remind us of our fallen lot, that we dwell in a land where good things die. Our seasons, like our selves, go from dust to dust, the casualties of a sin-cursed world, subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). But for God’s people, Scripture would have us see our passing seasons differently. Ultimately, time does not take our best days from us; God does (Job 1:21). And therefore, wisdom comes from seeing the hand that holds our seasons.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” the Preacher tells us (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And God is the one who has made it so.
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When This Season Ends: How to Let Good Things Go

“You are living the best days of your life.”

The comment caught my wife off guard. She was carting our two young boys toward the grocery-store checkout when an older woman ventured the prophecy. The woman spoke from experience, as a mother whose own cart had once held little ones. Perhaps she saw in my wife a past version of herself. Perhaps our boys brought back dear memories. Either way, she felt stirred to speak from hindsight: “You are living the best days of your life.”

My wife and I feel the truth of her words. Even amid the chaos of these little years, we often catch glimpses of what life will be like when our home no longer hears the patter of little feet or the laughter of little voices. We won’t be surprised if we look back on these years — these wild, exhausting, wonderful years — as the sweetest of our lives. We also won’t be surprised if they leave sooner than we’d like.

Moments like this one in the grocery store have left me wondering how to live through precious days you know will pass away. How, as Christians, should we watch children grow, tables empty, friendships fade, faces wrinkle?

Every Good Season Will End

In a world of change and decay, good gifts are fleeting by nature. Kids get big and hair turns gray. Honeymoons pass and anniversaries add up. Good ministries end and new beginnings quickly become old. These facts are so obvious, so unavoidable, that you’d think we’d be more ready for them.

But something in us — something in me — tries to deny the obvious and outrun the unavoidable. We, of course, have developed a dozen ways and more we try to dam the River Time. Some take pictures: many pictures, beautiful pictures, pictures to freeze and frame our happiness. Some try to choreograph moments meant to be enjoyed, not arranged. Some become relationally clingy. Some treat their children as if they were several years younger than they are. I sometimes find myself attempting to extend moments longer than they should go, like a man who keeps shouting “Encore!” after the band has gone home.

Such impulses often come from a kind of anticipated nostalgia, an awareness of present gifts we can’t bear to imagine as past, as gone. So we hold a net over our brightest days, trying to catch the butterfly of lasting joy in the fields of time. But the holes are always too big. No matter how much we try, we cannot seize good seasons from the vanity of our Ecclesiastes world, where “there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 2:16).

No, we cannot stop the breezes that carry away our best moments. But we can learn to live more wisely in the wind.

The Hand That Holds Our Seasons

The brevity of beautiful seasons can seem like a kind of cruelty. And in some ways, of course, our losses do remind us of our fallen lot, that we dwell in a land where good things die. Our seasons, like our selves, go from dust to dust, the casualties of a sin-cursed world, subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). But for God’s people, Scripture would have us see our passing seasons differently. Ultimately, time does not take our best days from us; God does (Job 1:21). And therefore, wisdom comes from seeing the hand that holds our seasons.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” the Preacher tells us (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And God is the one who has made it so. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He gives seasons of joy and gladness, seasons for holding and laughing. But on this side of heaven, he gives none of these seasons forever. In his tender and merciful timing, the giver of “every good gift” takes back the treasures he lent, reminding us that they never truly belonged to us (James 1:17). Like beams from the sun, our seasons were not ours to own.

Those who receive their seasons from God’s hand, and remain ready to relinquish them at his bidding, find a counterintuitive kind of freedom. The more ready we are to part with good gifts, the less worried we are about losing them, and the more able we are to enjoy them. After imagining his best seasons long gone, the Preacher tells us, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Or as David Gibson writes, “Instead of using these gifts as a means to a greater end of securing ultimate gain in the world, we take the time to live inside the gifts themselves and see the hand of God in them” (Living Life Backward, 45). The wise see the hand of God in their best seasons; they also see their best seasons in the hand of God. “My times are in your hand,” the psalmist says (Psalm 31:15). And if our times are in God’s hand — his good, wise, kind hand — then we don’t need to try to keep them in ours.

Stamping Time with Eternity

But we can say more. And indeed, on this side of the cross and empty tomb, after Jesus has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10), we can’t help but say more. We may live in an Ecclesiastes world, but we are headed for a world without vanity, futility, or loss. And though we cannot keep our seasons from slipping away from us here, Scripture gives us hope that we can stamp them with eternity. “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last” — but what’s done for Christ will last.

The apostle Paul whispers of the wonder. “In the Lord,” he tells the Corinthians, “your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58) — not destined for vanity, not swept away by the wind. Or as he writes to the Ephesians, “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:8). Good works done for Christ, good seasons lived wholly to Christ, do not stay gone. Our hands cannot catch the passing moments, but Jesus’s can. Therefore, every moment given to him will become something more than passing.

Present gifts must die. But if they die in Christ, they will have a resurrection of sorts. The seasons will not return to us the same (as if we could parent toddlers again in glory), but “whatever good” we’ve done in these seasons will be remembered, rewarded, memorialized like a brick of gold on the streets of the New Jerusalem.

Gerrit Scott Dawson puts the matter poignantly in his book on Jesus’s ascension. If Jesus, the firstfruits from the dead, really reigns in deathless life, then for those united to him,

Nothing good in our humanity is lost. The memory of a body that works in health is more than recollection: it is now anticipation. The ache of true love once known but now sundered will be filled with glorious reunion. The feeling of the distant memory of Beauty, the ideal of Truth in a fallen world, the longing for Goodness that surfaces amidst the choking thorns of our wickedness, all these will find fulfillment when the firstfruits comes to harvest. (Jesus Ascended, 113)

Time may have driven our best days from us, but “God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). And he knows how to give back the best of our seasons — only now far better.

Aching for Heaven

Perhaps you find yourself in precious days you know will pass. You feel the sand slipping through your fingers. You see the moss beginning to grow over your happiest moments. A few days more, and you will sit beneath a leafless tree, the season past and gone. But then a few days after that, those in Christ will find themselves in a season that will never end.

Now, heaven’s eternal season will not be static. However much we discover of God, the shoreline of his perfections will ever bend over the horizon, always as “immeasurable” as before (Ephesians 2:7). But somehow, the stream of eternity will roll on without carrying away anything good, without ever reintroducing mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 21:4). We will enjoy change without parting, growth without loss, a season without sadness.

I have been wondering, then, if I might live more heavenly minded if I learned to read my aches rightly. For when I feel time running faster than I can follow, what I’m really yearning for is life with Jesus. And the question I should really ask is this: If even this fallen world holds moments as precious as these, what will eternity with him be like?

Every good season will come to an end, but only for now. So when the thought creeps in, “You are living some of the best days of your life,” we can respond, “Maybe of this life. But far better days will begin when this life ends.”

What Makes a Woman Beautiful? A Guide for Young Men

Some call it “the beauty bias.” Others prefer “lookism.” Either way, several studies over the last couple of decades establish the point apparently beyond dispute: It pays to be beautiful. Literally.

The more physically attractive you are, the more likely you will get interviews and job offers, receive raises, and obtain loan approvals, even if others alongside you are just as qualified. On some subconscious level (that hazy realm where bias lurks), we lean toward the beautiful. We favor the fair. We show partiality to the pretty and the handsome — financially, yes, and also in many other ways.

But we didn’t really need studies to tell us that, did we? From ancient times, the wise have warned against our proneness to get stuck on the surface, to prize skin over substance. The danger may be more acute for men, and particularly younger men, single or married. We are visual creatures, we younger men, with many of us still learning just how deceitful charm can be, and just how vain its beauty (Proverbs 31:30). Wisdom adds depth to a man’s vision, but wisdom also takes time.

To help speed the process, the book of Proverbs comes alongside young men and makes a daring move. Consider, it says, “a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). Fair outwardly, foolish inwardly, she has caught many a man’s eyes — and kept most eyes on the surface. She shines like silver, glitters like gold.

But now, Proverbs says, step back and take a better look. Notice that her golden beauty is part of something bigger: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.”

Gold Rings and Monstrous Pigs

If such an image startles you, good. It’s meant to. The pig’s nose ring is supposed to disturb us into a different way of seeing. Whereas we might typically call a foolish beauty “a little disappointing,” Derek Kidner goes so far as to say, “Scripture sees her as a monstrosity” (Proverbs, 88). As long as physical beauty masks inward folly, it amounts to a swinish jewel, a piggish pearl, a golden snout decoration.

The image startles, in part, because God really did wire us to see and appreciate outward loveliness. In itself, beauty is no evil. God created a world of splendor, after all, and human attractiveness often taps into created principles of harmony, symmetry, and balance we can’t help but notice.

Nor does Scripture hesitate to mention the beauty of the beautiful — to note that “Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Genesis 29:17), or that Abigail “was discerning and beautiful” (1 Samuel 25:3), or that David “was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Samuel 16:12). These beauties, and so many more, glimmer with the glory of their Maker, whom Augustine called the “Beauty of all things beautiful” (Confessions, 3.6.10; see Psalm 27:4; Isaiah 33:17).

In God’s ideal design, outward beauty illustrates inward dignity — and in many cases, beauty today still functions that way. And yet, in this fallen age, where “the lust of the eyes” often governs our vision (1 John 2:16 NASB), and where outward splendor often hides a heart opposed to God, Scripture warns against trusting our vision too quickly. Some of the brightest beauty tells a lie; some gold rings hang from pig snouts. And alternatively, some of the deepest beauty hides from men of superficial sight. As a wise mother tells us later in Proverbs,

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,     but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (Proverbs 31:30)

The verse holds a world of wisdom for young men. Here, single men learn to discern the kind of woman worth pursuing (and the kind of woman to hide their eyes from) — and married men learn to see their wives with a depth only wisdom can give.

Vain, Deceitful Beauty

On the surface, Proverbs 31:30 puzzles a little. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain” — the judgment against outward attractiveness seems sweeping. But Scripture appreciates outward beauty elsewhere (as we’ve seen), and even in Proverbs our young man is told to rejoice in his “graceful” wife (Proverbs 5:19), which translates the same word for “charm” in Proverbs 31:30. So, what kind of charm deceives, and what kind should we rejoice over? What kind of beauty is vain, and what kind should we admire?

First, Proverbs would have us beware of any supposed charm, and any vaunted beauty, that does not fear the Lord. If a woman’s charm doesn’t submit to Christ, and if her beauty doesn’t quietly boast in God, then her highest attractions become hollow. They draw eyes downward, not upward. They betray the God who gave them.

More specifically, charm becomes “deceitful” without godly fear. The word often refers to verbal lies. In this case, the deceit is visual rather than audible: men who chase mere charm, without caring whether it leads toward God or away, are in the grip of a lie. Likewise, beauty becomes “vain” without godly fear. The same word blows through Ecclesiastes like a swift wind, suggesting that beauty’s vanity lies largely in its brevity. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6): here today, gone tomorrow; smooth today, wrinkled tomorrow; blond today, gray tomorrow. Those who grasp for beauty, without loving beauty’s God, are trying to bottle the breeze.

Second, although Proverbs 31:30 contrasts charm and beauty with “a woman who fears the Lord,” such a woman will not be charmless, at least not to a godly man. Not only is a God-fearing young man meant to find his wife charming (Proverbs 5:19), but even the Proverbs 31 woman has a kind of radiance. “Strength and dignity are her clothing,” we read (Proverbs 31:25), with the word for “dignity” often rendered as “splendor” or “majesty” elsewhere (Psalm 21:5; Isaiah 2:10; 35:2).

The godly woman’s charm and beauty differ, however, from what worldly eyes expect. Whereas discretion-less beauty often dresses to be seen, godly beauty is often a secret splendor, a quiet glory. It may not immediately catch eyes. But the more our vision becomes like God’s, the more we will turn away from the flaunted beauty of this fallen age and prize the beauty that cannot wrinkle, shrivel, or gray.

Beauty Soul Deep

If foolish men fix their gaze only on the surface, the path to wisdom begins by looking deeper, past a woman’s skin to her soul. Here, in the soul, lies the true excellence of “an excellent” woman (Proverbs 31:10). Here is a jewel that age cannot tarnish, a crown that time cannot take, a splendor the grave cannot steal.

Of course, seeing soul beauty takes time and attention; it does not shine as obviously as fair skin. But shine it does for men patient enough to observe. The Proverbs 31 woman is beautiful, but her beauty shows best in what she does, not how she looks. While the gold-ring-pig-snout woman agonizes over her appearance, this woman works hard, even sacrificing perfect nails in the process (verses 13, 16). She applies godly skill to both her household and the marketplace (verses 18, 21, 24). She hands gifts to the poor and wisdom to her children (verses 20, 26). She fears the Lord (verse 30).

Perhaps, like Abigail, she both fears the Lord and attracts the eye (1 Samuel 25:3). Or perhaps her physical beauty is muted. Either way, the godly man who watches her sees a splendor slowly rising, beauty deep as a well and strong as an underground river. Fools pass by her quickly, chasing gold-ring glitter (and missing the pig). But to a man with eyes to see her, she will seem like “a lovely deer, a graceful doe” (Proverbs 5:19).

I don’t mean to imply that a godly man should find any and every godly woman romantically attractive. Holiness does not make us blind to physical beauty, and physical beauty plays a real (if complex) role in our attractions. But if we belong to Jesus, we know what it feels like to find beauty where others see none. “He had . . . no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2), but oh, how beautiful he was (Isaiah 52:7)! How sad, then, if we who have been captured by the unexpected glory of Christ should look no deeper than the surface.

Greater beauty lies beneath. And surprisingly, wonderfully, those who behold such beauty often find that it casts a glow on everything else.

Skin Transfigured

The more a godly husband knows his godly wife, the more he realizes that her outward appearance doesn’t remain fixed, nor does her inward beauty stay inward. Over time, the splendor of her soul spills through the cracks of her skin like the light of a lantern. And the two beauties, the inner and the outer, begin to merge and play.

Proverbs leads us to expect as much. How else can we understand the father’s command to “rejoice in the wife of your youth,” delighting in her body “at all times” and “always” (Proverbs 5:18–19)? When the wife of your youth is no longer youthful, her heart still holds its beauty, and her body still holds her heart. Decades past the marriage vows, her gray hair is no garland of ashes, the burnt remains of her former beauty. Rather, her gray hair sits upon her head as “a crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31), at least to the man who knows her as queen. Her soul transfigures her skin.

This attentive, patient vision, this gaze that dives into a woman’s depths and brings treasures back to the surface, is nothing less than a participation in God’s own sight. “The Lord sees not as man sees” (1 Samuel 16:7). “The hidden person of the heart” is his pleasure; “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” his delight (1 Peter 3:4). And we men — husbands and fathers, brothers and sons — have the privilege of telling the true story of beauty in this age obsessed with skin.

The world tells women a lie about beauty. Our wives and daughters, sisters and mothers hear in a thousand ways that true beauty rests on the surface. They are told to become gold rings and not to care whether a pig wears them or not. And we men can either endorse that lie or renounce it. We can show partiality to the pretty among us. We can refuse to consider as a marriage partner any woman who doesn’t fit our precise type (assuming, along the way, that our desires are fixed rather than flexible). We can hint a subtle displeasure in a wife’s changing appearance. Or we can rise up with the Proverbs 31 man and praise not charm, not mere outward beauty, but the kind of “woman who fears the Lord” (Proverbs 31:30).

Such a man becomes a herald of the coming age, a forerunner who anticipates the day when every righteous woman “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of [her] Father” (Matthew 13:43) — and when her body will perfectly match the Christlike splendor of her heart.

Heart-Deep Prayers: Why We Prioritize Spiritual Needs

Imagine that the angel Gabriel has been recording your prayers for the last year. Every request for yourself or others has found its way into his heavenly ledger. What might such a record reveal?

How many petitions would fall under the heading of physical health? How long would be the column tracking requests about your relationships? How many tallies would you find next to “Work” or “School” or “Church”? How many vague prayers for “blessing” might you find?

I’ve been asking myself such questions lately, in part because of a striking observation from Tim Keller’s book Prayer. If you study the prayers of the apostle Paul recorded throughout his letters, Keller says, you may notice something striking: among the many requests Paul makes on behalf of the churches, he never once asks God to heal their bodies, fill their wombs, prosper their vocations, or lift their persecutions. In fact, Keller writes, “Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances” (20).

I fear that if I set my own prayer record next to Paul’s, some of my first prayers may appear last, and my last prayers first.

Heart-Deep Prayers

Now, we should beware of stating the case too strongly. Even though Paul’s prayers for others contain no appeals for circumstantial changes, the apostle clearly had a category for such prayers.

He invites the Philippians to “let [their] requests be made known to God,” without limiting the requests to a certain kind (Philippians 4:6). He calls Timothy to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). When asking for prayer himself, Paul sometimes mentions personal safety and success in travel (Romans 15:31–32; 2 Thessalonians 3:1–2). He also pleaded three times for God to take his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:8).

Yet such requests form the background, not the foreground, of Paul’s recorded prayers; they are q’s and z’s in the alphabet of his intercessions, present but not frequent. Instead, Paul displays a relentless focus on the inward life, the Christian soul, the hidden realm of the heart — or, to use a phrase from Ephesians 3:16, the “inner being.”

So, for example, Paul prays that the Romans might “abound in hope” and know the presence of “the God of peace” (Romans 15:13, 33). He wants the Ephesians to have “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him”; he wants Christ to “dwell in [their] hearts through faith” (Ephesians 1:17; 3:17). Paul yearns for the Philippians to abound in discerning love (Philippians 1:9) and for the Colossians to give thanks like heaven-bound saints (Colossians 3:12). He asks that the Thessalonians might be holy through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Even when Paul prays for outward matters like public obedience or visible unity, these always flow from somewhere deeper, somewhere inner. Paul’s prayers cut to the heart.

Why He Prayed What He Prayed

God gave us Paul’s prayers, in part, so that by rehearsing them our own requests might grow in biblical balance and substance. Like the Psalms, Paul’s prayers train our tongues in the language of heaven. They give us words before the throne of grace.

At the same time, growing in Pauline prayer means more than simply repeating his requests. As D.A. Carson notes, Paul’s prayers spring from a robust “biblical vision,” a vision that “embraces who God is, what he has done, who we are, where we are going, what we must value and cherish” (Praying with Paul, 43). If we abstract Paul’s prayers from the biblical vision that inspired them, they may feel unnatural (like a second language we can’t quite learn). But once we catch his vision, we find ourselves slowly becoming fluent in Paul’s heart-deep prayers.

What, then, was Paul’s vision? Among the several areas we could explore, consider how Paul’s prayers were shaped by past grace and future glory.

Prayer Furthers Faith and Love

The first part of Paul’s vision comes from the past. “He remembers the grace we have received in the past, and thinks through the direction of our lives,” Carson writes (42). In other words, Paul considers the “good work” God has already begun in the lives of his people, and in prayer, he aims to partner with God in “[bringing] it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). He sees the seeds of grace, and prays them into flowers.

And what is the good work God has begun? What grace does he intend to grow? Again and again, Paul thanks God for two signs of grace among the saved: faith and love. “Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you” (Ephesians 1:15–16). To Paul, faith in Jesus and love for God’s people were more precious than all the world’s silver and gold. Our body may be broken, our dreams undone, our relationships fraught — but if we have faith and love, God has lavished us with grace (Ephesians 1:7–8).

Paul’s prayers run like rivers from this fountain of past grace, flowing with faith and love. If God has begun the good work of faith, then Paul will pray (in a dozen creative ways) for faith to grow, for God to give “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17). And if God has begun the good work of love, then Paul will ask (again with wonderful creativity) for love to “abound more and more” (Philippians 1:9).

Paul’s prayers remind us of an easily forgotten truth: in this age, the character of our inner being is far more important than the circumstances of our outer being. As Paul writes elsewhere,

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

One day, God will raise and glorify our “outer self” and banish every bad circumstance. But in the meantime, his good work happens mostly in the “inner self.” He aims to deepen our faith, love, and every other grace until we see him face to face. So, while Paul sometimes prays for the outer self’s welfare, he fastens his attention on the inner self’s renewal.

When Earthly Requests End

If Paul’s prayers keep one eye on the past, they keep another eye on the future — and not just the future vaguely, but one future moment in particular. Repeatedly, Paul returns to one future day, when God’s good work will finally come to an end: “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Five times in Paul’s recorded prayers, he explicitly mentions the day of Christ’s return (Philippians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:9–12; 2 Timothy 1:18). He prayed, it seems, in the shadow of the second coming, with the returning Christ standing at the door of his prayer closet. And the power of that future promise governed what he asked of God.

When Jesus appears, the mists will rise, the fog will clear, and the true priorities of this age will stand forth in startling clarity. Our circumstances in this life, which are by no means insignificant, will bow before matters far weightier still. Healthy or sick, did we glorify God with our bodies? Arms empty or full, did we abound in thanksgiving to him? At peace or in conflict, did we display the patience of Christ? In success or failure, were we “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11)?

What if we prayed, for ourselves and our friends, under a sky ready to split before the glory of Christ? We might ask more often, and with greater fervor, that God would establish our hearts “blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13). We might pray less for circumstances to change, and more for a heart that loves Christ in all circumstances.

Our Hearts His Home

When we kneel with Paul between past and future, grace and glory, Christ’s cross and Christ’s second coming, we find ourselves saying new words, praying fresh prayers. At the bottom of our prayers, we ask for faith and love, inward strength and heart-level holiness. Or, Paul writes in Ephesians, we plead for Christ to make our hearts his home.

According to the riches of his glory [may he] grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16–17)

Paul asks that Christ would take up his residence within, filling every hallway and room with his brilliance. He asks that we would have what Keller calls a “powerful sense of God’s reality” — a sense that transcends our present situation and even survives the grave.

“Without this powerful sense of God’s reality,” Keller writes, “good circumstances can lead to overconfidence and spiritual indifference. Who needs God, our hearts would conclude, when matters seem to be so in hand?” (Prayer, 21). But when Christ makes his home in our hearts, then we can make our home in every circumstance: in “plenty and hunger,” in “abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).

So then, pray for healing, but pray also (and most) for holiness. Pray for relational peace, but pray also (and first) for relational patience. Pray for dreams still distant and hopes still deferred, but pray also (and chiefly) for Jesus to walk with you even among the ruins of the life you wish you had. Then, whether outward circumstances flourish or wither, all will be well within. For Christ will still dwell within.

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