Desiring God

The Wonderful, Dangerous World of Sports

I grew up on grass and turf. What did kindergarten-me want to be? A professional soccer player. Where did I spend most evenings as a teen? My club’s soccer complex. How did I choose a college? Division I soccer or bust.

Eventually, my left knee would be the one to bust (twice), but not until I’d devoted nearly twenty years to the game. Looking back on the cotton-tee rec leagues, the pricey club seasons, the long-awaited college career, the coveted national team camps — I see, sharp as a whistle, how God used soccer to increase my wonder of him. But what I also recognize (more painfully than two ACL tears) is how little I guarded myself against sins common to sport.

For every chance to worship God through exercise and competition, there is just as great a risk that we will “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). Surely, sports can inspire worship. But often even more so, they can divert our hearts from heaven, casting them instead onto the fleeting rewards of fitness or fame.

Whether you’re young and yet to blow out a knee, a backward-looking athlete like me, or the person who simply loves sports, let’s wonder together at the God enthroned above every beautiful game. And let’s beware together the dangers lurking behind all the practices and tournaments, the social media feeds and TV screens.

Embracing Frailty

We live in an era of “easy everywhere,” as Andy Crouch puts it in The Tech-Wise Family. At the flex of a foot, we can travel from Connecticut to California by car. Our thumbs wiggle, and a friend in the Netherlands instantly knows how we are. Press a button, turn a knob, and lights flicker, water spouts, food warms, pictures snap, books play, music stops, presidents speak, gifts and ambulances and flowers and repairmen arrive. Everywhere we look, life is easy.

Because we can accomplish much while moving little, we tend to see ourselves as masters over matter, rather than creatures under a Creator. The ease with which so many exist can obscure our need to receive “life and breath and everything” from the God who first made and now upholds us (Acts 17:25).

But there is something about dripping sweat and feeling faint, leg muscles refusing to move much faster than a brisk jog, that pushes us to acknowledge our dependence on something outside ourselves. Whether it’s water or electrolytes, a quick banana or half a pizza, fifteen minutes of ice or ten hours of sleep, a teammate or a surgeon, sports make us feel the kind of needy we always are.

Mindful Christians can turn the likes of wind sprints and long recoveries into opportunities for spiritual humility, as we remember that we are weak because we are creaturely — and created to submit our bodies, hearts, and lives to our Creator.

Searching for Fool’s Gold

Unfortunately, sports often rush us headlong in the opposite direction, tempting us to worship “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). When we watch LeBron James dunk, we may be more likely to exclaim, “He’s a basketball god!” than “How awesome is the God who made such an athlete!”

“Christian athletes fight an uphill battle to satisfy themselves in God alone, to pursue his glory alone.”

And that’s just the way the sports world would have it. College programs, ESPN, betting apps — what is “the glory of the immortal God” to them (Romans 1:23)? Usually, nothing more than a detour from the track on which they run: the worship of “mortal man.” As we engage with sports, we would be naive to think that they won’t make unending grabs for our gaze, our hearts, even our very persons, as “followers of [select one of a million players, teams, or leagues].”

The danger isn’t confined to leagues we stream on TV. Sports tempt us to worship ourselves alongside the games and elite athletes who play them. Because of the fall, anywhere we set foot, our sinful flesh starts digging for the fool’s gold of human glory. The rec center’s basketball court is no exception. Sports, whatever the scale, can stoke our millennia-old longing to sparkle in others’ eyes.

In my experience, athletes crave all kinds of self-exalting glitter. There’s physical dominance, which men tend toward, and then there’s physical perfection, more of a female problem. As we mold our bodies into one ideal appearance or another, we simultaneously wield them for other worldly ends, like winning for winning’s sake and success for man’s approval.

Immersed in an arena that not only values but requires physical fitness, Christians can be tempted to care more for the body than the heart — a mistake so common that God would issue a warning as early as three thousand years ago (1 Samuel 16:7). Centuries later, he would remind us again through Paul, “While bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Along with the body, sports culture obsesses over here-and-now victory and applause. Christian athletes fight an uphill battle to satisfy themselves in God alone, to pursue his glory alone, to seek his kingdom alone, and to believe his word above every other: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26–27).

Grasping the Unseen

While sports can distract us from spiritual realities, they can also expose them. Throughout his letters, Paul uses athletic imagery to illuminate unseen, eternal truths (2 Corinthians 4:18).

For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:24 Paul asks, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it [that is, eternal life].” When I read passages like this, I thank God for athletic competition. In the golden age of participation certificates and star-shaped stickers, we hear time and again that there’s no such thing as not reaching our potential. There are no losers, only people doing their best to be themselves (which, of course, they’ll succeed at being, what with no external standard to reach).

But as Paul reminds us, the Christian life is not the free 5k we like to know about but never run. No, the Christian life is the Pikes Peak Ascent, the Boston Marathon, the Summer Olympics. Meaning: to finish, we must run. And not only run but train, disciplining ourselves “that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:11). As J.C. Ryle puts it,

It would not be difficult to point out at least twenty-five or thirty distinct passages in the epistles where believers are plainly taught to use active personal exertion, and are addressed as responsible for doing energetically what Christ would have them do, and are not told to “yield themselves” up as passive agents and sit still, but to arise and work. A holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of as characteristic of the true Christian. (Holiness, xxiii–xxiv)

To say with Paul, “I press on to make [eternal life] my own” (Philippians 3:12) doesn’t mean that eternal life is earned. This life is graciously given. Even still, that does not make it a given. Like the most serious of runners, Christians race heavenward — Bibles in our hands, prayer on our lips, church by our side — because we know that fervent, frequent Godward movement confirms that he has already obtained us: “I press on to make [eternal life] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

How remarkable that we might perceive grace and faith more clearly, simply because Paul reminds us “that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Some unseen things shimmer better when we sweat.

Competing Ends

Yes, we do well to look and move heavenward through our beloved tracks and fields. But as we do, we should again remember that athletics may actively hinder our ability to live like Christians. The players we watch aren’t pastors. Many coaches we play for don’t pray. By and large, sports culture is thoroughly, proudly, and profitably secular.

Which means it operates under its own moral code: win, usually at any cost. As believers who play or follow sports, we can struggle to resist the pressure to prioritize first place above honoring God and his word.

Imagine it’s the last five minutes of a tie game. Whether playing or watching, most unbelieving coaches, teammates, and fans want you to do or say whatever you can to get the win — even if it means disobeying God. We know he not only commands slowness to anger and self-control, but he also commends them as more rewarding than strength and success (Proverbs 16:32). Still, there’s a game on the line. So, from overly aggressive fouls to jeering at refs, as long as the behavior helps to take the win by might, your team and fans will likely applaud. After all, you’re just being competitive.

Oh, what Christians might communicate instead. What if we walked away without retaliating, faced defeat with calm and even contentment, and experienced sports as a gift meant to reveal the Giver? In doing so, we would express how incomparably pleasing it is to belong to God, not the game.

At their best, sports are an exercise in worship and witness. We have only to believe that Jesus is worthy in every loss and worth more than every victory (Philippians 3:8), and then train and play and watch and cheer like it.

Why Did God Stigmatize the Disabled?

Audio Transcript

Welcome back! In the next two episodes, we’re talking about personal suffering. Suffering so often feels meaningless; suffering feels pointless — “feels” being the key word. But no matter how our suffering feels to us, it’s not meaningless. Not for the Christian. That’s our topic next time, on Monday.

But today, if you’re reading your Bible along with us using the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, for the second half of February we’re in the thick of it, reading through Leviticus. It’s a hard book — a notorious book that ends a lot of well-meaning Bible readers at this point in the year. But stick with it. It’s worth it. And as you stick with it, in our reading tomorrow, we read Leviticus 21:16–24, a difficult text that makes any Bible reader scratch his head and wonder, Why did God shun the disabled in the Old Testament? One such Bible reader is a listener named Gina.

“Hello, Pastor John. I’m reading through Leviticus in my Bible reading plan. One thing that has confused me is why God would not allow people with physical defects to approach the altar in Leviticus 21:16–21. The tone changes drastically in the Gospels. There Jesus, the true Temple, welcomes the blind, the lame, and the diseased right into his very presence. So, why would God in the Old Testament not allow them near the altar? It seems sad to me, and it compounds their suffering. Those people would have felt worse for it, and likely experienced heightened social alienation, too. I’m thankful for the New Testament because there are so many of us with physical defects. But why this discontinuity? To what purpose?”

Good, good, good, good question. Leviticus 21:16–24 deals with whether priests — it’s about priests, but her question is still really valid — who have physical disabilities or deformities can enter the Holy Place to do the work of a priest. I think Gina is probably right that, in reality, when priests with facial defects or crushed genitals or injured feet or a hunched back or scabby skin were forbidden from parts of the priestly service — not all of them, but some of them — probably they would have felt sad and discouraged at times, and maybe even resentful. That would be a normal human response, at least in our culture. We sure feel that. And my guess is that’s pretty basic to human nature.

“God has provided a way, by Jesus Christ, to have the very perfection that we must have to approach him.”

Gina asks, “Why does God in the Old Testament apply such external restrictions for the priesthood, and in the New Testament we don’t have that same kind of restriction? They don’t assume the same excluding effect.” Let me try to give an answer that I think honors the intention of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, because I think both are the inspired word of God, and what God did when he did it was right to do when he did it, and he had reasons for doing it, and it may not be right for us to do it today because such profound things have changed. But let’s look at the key passage. There’s a ground clause that helps us crystallize the issues.

Perfect God, Unblemished Sanctuary

Here’s Leviticus 21:16–24 with just a few verses left out. I’ll collapse it down so you can see the clause.

No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. . . . He shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because [and our ears should perk up] he has a blemish, [in order] that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am [Yahweh] the Lord who sanctifies them.

In other words, God says, “I am the one who sets priests apart for my service; I sanctify them. I have ordained — I have decreed or instituted or decided — that a blemished priest will not blemish or profane my sanctuary.” In other words, God wants to make the perfections of the sanctuary so symbolically and visibly clear that he establishes a correlation between the deforming of the physical body and the deforming of the sanctuary. Or, to say it another way, he insists that there be a correlation between the perfections of those who approach the sanctuary and the perfection of the sanctuary itself, which is a reflection of his own perfection.

It’s entirely possible that the most godly and the most humble, deformed priests would not be offended by this divine order of things, but would gladly acknowledge that it is fitting for those who approach a perfect God to be free from outward and inward imperfections. So, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with God’s Old Testament ordinances in this regard.

Utter Holiness, Overflowing Grace

The question is, What’s the ultimate meaning of it, especially in relation to New Testament changes? My answer goes like this.

In the Bible as a whole, there are two dimensions to God’s nature that shape the way he deals with mankind. One is unapproachable holiness. That’s one massive truth throughout the Bible. God is holy. Sinners can’t approach him. Nothing imperfect can approach him. Nothing evil can approach God without being destroyed. And so, it’s fitting that, in the presence of God, there can only be perfection — both moral and spiritual and physical — which of course means no one qualifies. It’s not like some of these priests were perfect. The other dimension of his nature is his overflowing mercy and grace.

So, those are the two: unapproachable holiness and overflowing mercy and grace, which reaches out to the physically, morally, spiritually imperfect, and finds a way in Jesus Christ to declare them to be perfect. But the resolution of these two dimensions of God’s nature is not that the first one is replaced by the second one, like holiness is kind of blunted and decreased in its importance because mercy is going to be the main thing now. That’s not what happens — as though the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be sufficient to create the new heavens and the new earth, where God is present among justified sinners without his holiness being compromised. That’s not going to happen.

No, God also undertakes, by sanctification and then by the re-creation of everything that’s broken — physical dimensions of the world and moral dimensions of the world — to make everything in his presence perfect forever. Not just justified sinners are going to be in God’s presence, but no sin is going to be in God’s presence. There won’t be any people who sin in God’s presence. There will be no defects morally, there will be no defects physically in the presence of God in the age to come.

Made Perfect Forever

So, I think God highlighted the demands for perfection in the Old Testament in an outward way so as to make really clear that no form of imperfection would ever stand in God’s presence permanently. That’s how holy he is.

He would one day not only justify the ungodly and be willing to touch lepers — reach out and actually touch lepers, God himself touching lepers in the flesh — but he would also utterly transform the ungodly into sinless, godly people, and take away every leprosy and every disease and every disability and every deformity. So, the Old Testament and the New Testament make both of these dimensions of God’s character plain (it seems to me) by putting the emphasis in different places.

“We need the Old Testament to sober us about how holy God is, and we need the New Testament lest we despair.”

The Old Testament is, as it were, standing on tiptoes, looking over the horizon of the future, waiting and wondering how God could ever create a people, all of whom could come boldly into his presence. And God had put such amazing limits in the Old Testament. So, the Old Testament rightly makes this seem extremely difficult. I think that was the point. He wanted it to look like this can never happen. You can never have anybody with an imperfection walking in here. It’s just not going to happen. God has put such amazing restrictions on it.

And then, in the New Testament, the glorious reality dawns that God has provided a way, by Jesus Christ, to have the very perfection that we must have to approach him now. And he has provided by his Spirit the sanctification and resurrection and perfection of bodily and spiritual newness in the age to come so that we can be in his presence forever.

So, my bottom-line conclusion is this: we need the Old Testament to sober us about how holy God is, and we need the New Testament lest we despair of any hope that we could survive in the presence of such a holy God, let alone enjoy him forever.

Undying Worm, Undying Men: The Eternal Horrors of Hell

Today, some Christians seem embarrassed by the doctrine of hell. As such, they either omit discussing it, or they reinvent the doctrine and rob it of any real horror. Our Lord, however, was not afraid to talk about hell. Jesus speaks of “the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22); the danger of the “whole body” being “thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29); “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43); the place where the impenitent are “thrown” (Mark 9:45), “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).

Many Christians struggle to believe that Jesus plays an active role in the destruction of the godless. However, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt about the reality: Our Lord will, with his angels, gather all “law-breakers” and “throw them into the fiery furnace,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41–42). Christ calls this a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). If people doubt that Christ spoke of the judgment to come, often using vivid language, they have not read the Gospels carefully (see, for example, Matthew 3:12; 7:22–23; 10:28; 11:23; 13:30, 41–42, 49–50; 23:16, 33; 25:10, 31–33; 26:24; Mark 8:36; 9:43–48; 16:16; Luke 9:25; 12:9–10, 46; John 5:28–29).

At the same time, the doctrine of hell is not merely a New Testament doctrine. Indeed, some of the language used for hell in the New Testament comes from the Old. For example, Isaiah warns the godless of “the consuming fire” and the “everlasting burnings” (Isaiah 33:14). In the last chapter, he speaks of God coming in fire “to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (Isaiah 66:15–16). Isaiah prophesies that the righteous “shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against [God]. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24; see Christ’s use of these words in Mark 9:48).

Daniel, along with others, also refers to the final judgment: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

Endless Punishment

There is no shortage of professing Christians who affirm a coming judgment of the wicked. Some, however, tend to think that this judgment will not be everlasting. As finite beings, we struggle to wrap our minds around the concept of eternity. But if God intended to either annihilate the wicked at death, with no future judgment, or put an end to suffering after an indefinite period of time, then he did a poor job of communicating that to us.

Scripture shows us that hell is a place of “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46 KJV). Hell is an “everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8 KJV) that can never be quenched (Mark 9:45), where their worm never dies (Mark 9:48). Sodom and Gomorrah were punished for their sins by “undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). False teachers have a place reserved in hell where the “gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13). We read of the suffering of the wicked, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11; see also Revelation 19:3, Revelation 20:10, “forever and ever”). William Shedd rightly notes, “Had Christ intended to teach that future punishment is remedial and temporary, he would have compared it to a dying worm, and not to an undying worm; to a fire that is quenched, and not to an unquenchable fire.”

Shedd adds that other words and metaphors could have been used to describe a long, but not endless, punishment. Indeed, if hell is not endless, the New Testament writers “were morally bound to have avoided conveying the impression they actually have conveyed by the kind of figures they have selected” (Dogmatic Theology, 892). The word used to describe “everlasting life” is also used to describe “everlasting punishment.” For example, in Revelation 22:14–15, the existence of the righteous in heaven is coterminous with the existence of the wicked “outside” of heaven (that is, in hell).

Separation from God?

Another way people try to make the doctrine of hell more palatable is to say that hell is merely separation from God. But while hell does separate the wicked from the blessed life of God in Christ, hell is still punishment. Those who hate God in this life will continue to hate him in eternity, and they will continue to face God’s wrath.

Hell is a location, a place; it is not simply a metaphor that describes inner thought processes. Acts 1:25 tells us Judas went “to his own place.” Just as there is a place for the righteous after death, so there is a place for the wicked after death. The word Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. The horrible history of this place involved, at one time, the Israelites and kings of Israel burning their children as sacrifices to the false god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). Gehenna may not be a reference to a burning trash dump (as some have claimed), but it is far worse: a place where the greatest horrors take place, such as the willful sacrifice of children. Hell is a place of pure evil, destitute of all hope.

Rather than being mere “separation from God,” hell is, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin said, a place where “God himself, by his own hands, that is, the power of his wrath, is the immediate inflicter of that punishment of men’s souls” (Works of Thomas Goodwin, 10:491). God’s power will be “exercised” as his wrath toward those who are cast away from the presence of God’s blessedness. Those in hell will receive the opposite of those in glory, but they will still be in God’s presence. Those in heaven have a mediator, but those in hell have nothing between them and an avenging God.

If the foregoing is true, we should be careful not to say (as some have) that hell is giving people what they want. In a highly limited sense, this is true. They do not want to enjoy God in this life, so they will not enjoy him in the life to come. However, given the torments of hell, no one can possibly desire to suffer at the hands of the omnipotent God, especially for all eternity. Who could possibly desire for their despair to increase as well? As the creatures in hell realize more and more that they are suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair.

Escape Through the Cross

Goodwin makes the solemn point that the “wretched soul in hell . . . finds that it shall not outlive that misery, nor yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having forever to do with him who is the living God” (Works, 10:548). The wicked will despair because there is no end to the righteous wrath of the living God. Thus, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade sinners to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross.

Our Lord shrieked with cries so that we might sing with praise; he was parched with thirst that we might drink freely from the fountain; he was abandoned in the darkness that we might have fellowship in the light; he was crushed that we might be restored; he was publicly shamed that we might be publicly exalted; he was mocked by evildoers that we might be praised by angels; he gave up his spirit that we might have our spirits saved. As real as his sufferings were, our joys will be no less real. The hellish experience of the cross is the greatest testimony to the unspeakable joys of eternal life with God.

Are You Sailing or Sinking? A Tool for Diagnosing Spiritual Health

I have one, and only one, experience with sailing.

In my senior of college, one of my friends invited a number of us to his family’s lake house near the coast of North Carolina for one last weekend together before graduation. The house sat on a cove tucked just off the ocean shore. Down by the water sat the family’s beautiful (and expensive) two-person sailboat, tied firmly to a post.

The more experienced went out first. Several of my classmates had grown up close to the ocean, and knew how to handle a sail. They raced up and down the cove, making it look easy. When they were done, another first-timer and I stepped up to take the ropes. Once we pushed ourselves away from shore, we swung and tugged, leaned and lunged, stood and sat — and barely moved. The others, of course, took even more joy in our floundering than they had in their sailing. After a while, our titanic struggle left us tired and hungry, so we pulled the boat ashore and went in for dinner.

Early the next morning, a couple of aspiring sailors woke us, asking where we left the boat. “Down by the shore, of course. Where else would we leave it?” “Did you pull it into the grass?” “Umm, no.” “Did you tie it up?” “Umm, no.” “Well, the boat is gone.” Any experienced sailor (or just a man of common sense) knows what I learned that day: the tide rises at night, so you have to anchor your boat or it will drift away. I immediately started counting every dollar I owned. (It didn’t take long.)

A couple of us went out in the motorboat, driving up and down the shore, desperately looking for any sign of the sailboat. Surely it had been damaged, maybe even destroyed, after all these hours. After another hour or two, we’d come up empty. We saw nothing. And no one we saw had seen anything. I still remember the long ride back. I was sick to my stomach.

That boat came to mind again recently when I read Tim Keller describe a tool he used over the years to help him discern the health of a soul (and particularly the health of a person’s prayer life).

Which Boat Describes You?

Keller paints the nautical picture this way: “Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail” (Prayer, 258). Into that scene, he asks four pointed questions: Are you sailing? Are you rowing? Are you drifting? Or are you sinking? In terms of my story, does your spiritual life resemble my master-sailor friends gliding up and down the cove, or the two first-timers working hard and going nowhere, or the empty sailboat drifting aimlessly away?

The tool’s helpful in two directions. First, it helps us assess and maintain our own boats. How often have we assumed that we’re rowing when we’re actually drifting, or that we’re drifting when we’re actually sinking? Second, the tool gives us a window into the boats of others. It’s a simple, vivid question that cuts through shallow places (where we often prefer to swim in our relationships) to the heart of a person, to how he is really doing.

Keller doesn’t attach particular texts to the four different boats, but the Psalms came to mind as potential examples because they model, with unusual vulnerability and emotion, the highs and lows of the human soul. So I’ve attempted to identify at least a few lines that give voice to each of these four spiritual conditions.

1. Are You Sailing?

When you think about your spiritual life right now, do you feel the wind at your back? Does prayer feel easier and more enjoyable than normal? Does daily Bible reading sparkle like a treasure in the field? Do you find yourself on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday actually looking forward to Sunday morning and the opportunity to sing and serve with your local church? Do you find spiritual conversation natural and gratifying?

If you’re currently in the sweet thrill of sailing, you might pray like King David does in Psalm 16:6–9:

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;     indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;     in the night also my heart instructs me.I have set the Lord always before me;     because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;     my flesh also dwells secure.

As we’ll see, David didn’t always feel this kind of spiritual high. He often struggled and had to fight hard for faith. At times, he fell into valleys of despair. In these verses, however, we can almost feel the wind lifting and driving his sails. Anyone who’s riding a spiritual breeze can identify with what he’s describing, and anyone who isn’t would want what he’s experiencing.

2. Are You Rowing?

If you’re rowing, you’re still making progress, but it’s a slower, hard-fought progress. You’re moving forward, but you’re really earning each passing wave. “Rowing,” Keller writes, “means you are finding prayer and Bible reading to be more a duty than a delight” (259). They’re chores you keep doing, but they honestly feel like chores. You keep attending worship, and discipline yourself to listen, engage, and even sing, but you often walk out distracted and tired. You want your heart to be in a different place, and you put effort into feeling differently, but you haven’t felt a strong wind in a while.

If you’re currently in the wearying work of rowing, you might pray like David does in Psalm 63:1:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;     my soul thirsts for you;my flesh faints for you,     as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

“The vast majority of drifters and sinkers drift and sink alone.”

In these verses, he’s not praying from the pleasant places of Psalm 16. Now he’s kneeling in the wilderness — “in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” But as the spiritual winds died down and the ground under him dried up, he didn’t give up and lie down in the boat. No, he kept his eyes on God and started rowing: “Earnestly I seek you.”

3. Are You Drifting?

From a distance, drifting may look and feel like rowing, but swim up closer to the two boats and you’ll notice one massive difference: effort. The drifter stops trying. You stop praying earnestly. You stop reading the Bible regularly. You stop paying attention during church gatherings (or stop attending altogether). Tired and discouraged and maybe even disillusioned, you set your oar aside and passively wait for some gust of wind to come along to save you.

This condition is probably the hardest to pair with a psalm, mostly because the psalms themselves are prayers. So even at their darkest, they model what it looks like to row in the dark — to keep praying, keep gathering, keep seeking. But in Psalm 42, dangerous circumstances have prevented the psalmist from attending the temple (“When shall I come and appear before God?” verse 2), so though he’s still able to pray, he’s cut off from other vital means of grace.

When shall I come and appear before God? . . .These things I remember,     as I pour out my soul:how I would go with the throng     and lead them in procession to the house of Godwith glad shouts and songs of praise,     a multitude keeping festival.Why are you cast down, O my soul,     and why are you in turmoil within me? (Psalm 42:2, 4–5)

The drifter has desires for more, and he can remember times when he experienced spiritual health and community, but he’s lost the will to keep fighting. His soul is cast down, and so his boat wanders aimlessly, from app to app, from show to show, from task to task, from meal to meal, from week to week. He wakes up farther and farther from where he wants to be spiritually, and yet with less and less resolve to change course.

4. Are You Sinking?

Is the boat within you quietly taking on water? You drifted for a time, but then you hit something hard — a job loss, a breakup, an illness, a death — and water started trickling in. Now, weeks or months later, your faith is gasping for air. You’re not longing for former days of stronger, more satisfying faith. You’re questioning whether it was ever real. You’re not thinking about restarting your prayer life, or looking for a Bible-reading plan, or joining a small group. You’re looking elsewhere for answers (or you’re avoiding the questions altogether).

Again, even psalmists dealt with sinking moments in the soul. Listen to the heartache and despair in Asaph’s voice when he thinks back on a dark night in his own soul:

All in vain have I kept my heart clean     and washed my hands in innocence. . . .But when I thought how to understand this,     it seemed to me a wearisome task. . . .When my soul was embittered,     when I was pricked in heart,I was brutish and ignorant;     I was like a beast toward you. (Psalm 73:13, 16, 21–22)

He remembers a time when he was living in spiritual peril. Do you feel your heart slowly growing embittered to God? Has your pain crystallized into self-pity? Has confusion mutated into bitterness and resentment? Have your doubts ripened into apathy? Is your boat filling with water?

Obviously, any boat that’s sinking needs some serious attention. One of the blessings of a tool like this is simply putting a sinking boat on someone else’s radar. How many souls sink without anyone ever knowing, at least until it’s too late?

Drifting and Sinking Alone

Later that long day, when we had nearly given up hope finding my friend’s sailboat, a neighbor from down the cove phoned. It had landed on their shore. Amazingly, no damage. The boat had drifted more than a mile.

For all our failures aboard that extraordinarily expensive piece of fiberglass, my first-timer friend and I did one thing right that day: we went out together. When it comes to our spiritual health and joy, the vast majority of drifters and sinkers drift and sink alone. And the vast majority of rowers and sailors row and sail with others.

Keller ends his book on this note:

Those who enjoy sailing might find these nautical images helpful. However, a metaphor used more often in the Bible to describe fellowship with God is that of a feast. . . . Eating together is one of the most common metaphors for friendship and fellowship in the Bible, and so this vision is a powerful prediction of unimaginably close and intimate fellowship with the living God. It evokes the sensory joys of exquisite food in the presence of loving friends. The “wine” of full communion with God and our loved ones will be endless and infinite delight. (260–61)

The image of the feast gets at the satisfying fullness of sailing. It also gets at the togetherness, though. Somebody might eat alone, but nobody ever feasts alone. And, spiritually speaking, nobody sails alone either. Richer communion with God requires richer communion with other souls, in the church.

So, if we feel ourselves drifting or worse in our walk with God, our first step to righting the ship will be to steer our boat into more crowded waters, where the sailors and rowers live.

Our High Priest

Part 6 Episode 226 Why must we understand who Jesus is and what he’s done for us on the Bible’s terms? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper looks to Hebrews 4:14–5:3 for the categories Scripture provides for knowing Christ.

Even Japan Has Seen Revival: Hope for Hard Places Like Mine

The Japanese, the beloved people among whom I live and serve, are the world’s second-largest unreached people group.

The category of “unreached people group” describes peoples where less than 2 percent of the population is evangelical. Unreached peoples are those who need missionary ministry the most. However, while the category is helpful for diagnosing missional need, it never tells the full story of God’s redemptive work among a people. “Unreached” does not necessarily mean there is zero Christian presence, and unreached peoples may indeed have small but faithful churches with their own remarkable histories of God’s sovereign work of salvation. Japan provides an excellent example of an unsung history of redemption that deserves to be remembered.

Psalm 105:1–6 teaches us that making the greatness of God known among the peoples (verse 1) is deeply connected to remembering his wondrous works (verses 2, 5) and responding in thanksgiving (verse 1). As we recall how God has worked mightily in places known for having hard soil, we can be filled with worshipful thanksgiving, which then propels us forward in mission with fresh energy and insight for how to extend the gospel where it seems impossible.

Initial Stirrings

The first Protestant missionaries arrived in Japan in 1859. Japan’s borders had been closed to the West — especially to Christianity — since 1603, when an influential Roman Catholic mission was expelled through extreme persecution. A prohibition against Christianity remained in place when the missionaries arrived in 1859, and it was difficult to even gain a hearing for the gospel. Merely mentioning the name of Jesus could cause Japanese people to slide a finger across their throats to illustrate the danger of the topic. Missionaries nevertheless went to work learning the language and finding creative ways to serve, including through education and medicine.

At the beginning of 1872, missionaries and Christian expatriates hosted a week of prayer in Yokohama, which several non-Christian Japanese students decided to join. Each day, those gathered would read a passage from Acts and pray together. As they prayed, the Spirit began to move in power. The group decided to continue meeting after the week was over. By the end of the second week, the Japanese students, many of them from proud samurai families, were on their knees crying out to God in tears for the Holy Spirit to fall on Japan just as he had done for the early church.

Nine of the students soon professed faith in Christ and were baptized on March 10, 1872, as members of the first Protestant church in Japan. Though two of the nine turned out to be Buddhist spies who quickly fell away, the remaining seven were joined by another wave of newly converted students to form the Yokohama Band, the first of several small movements of Japanese Christians who would help extend the gospel throughout Japan.

Bands of Brothers

Similar stirrings occurred throughout the remainder of the 1870s, most notably in Kumamoto and Sapporo. In Kumamoto, Captain L.L. Janes, a Civil War veteran, was recruited to launch a school for Western learning. Janes did not go with strong missionary intentions. However, after a few years of instruction and bonding with the boys in his school, he began to lead a Bible study, which all the students felt compelled to join. Though Janes preached a gospel mixed with aspirations for Japan’s Westernization, his message still impacted the boys significantly. Several converted to Christianity, and Janes added weekly worship and prayer.

“God has worked in Japan powerfully in the past, and nothing can stop him from doing so again.”

Soon the believing Japanese students were evangelizing their non-Christian classmates, and on January 30, 1876, over thirty of the students gathered on Mount Hanaoka. Together they sang “Jesus Loves Me” — the first hymn translated into Japanese — and made a covenant to proclaim the Christian faith for the enlightenment of the Japanese Empire. They came down from the mountain as the Kumamoto Band, and many went on to become influential politicians, business leaders, and pastors.

Another Civil War veteran, Colonel William S. Clark, helped establish the Sapporo Agricultural College in Hokkaido in 1876. Like Janes, Clark also did not go as a missionary, but during his eight months in Japan, he led students in regular Bible study and experienced personal renewal in his own faith. Many of his students became Christians, and Clark crafted a covenant for all the students to sign that stated their intention to follow Jesus. The students all signed the covenant, some out of zeal for their new faith and others under pressure from fellow students. Unsurprisingly, half of these turned away soon after Clark left. However, the other half were baptized and formed the Sapporo Band, which included notable Japanese Christian thinkers Uchimura Kanzō and Nitobe Inazō.

The formation of these Christian bands was the firstfruits of a larger movement still to come.

‘A Marvelous Work in our Midst’

In 1883, missionaries from across Japan gathered in Osaka with some Japanese Christians for a large missionary conference. This conference emphasized the power of Christian unity and dependent prayer, which inspired some Japanese Christian leaders to host their own conference in Osaka — which then led to similar gatherings in Kyoto and Tokyo. Each of these conferences spawned numerous prayer meetings in their cities that often lasted for weeks at a time and initiated revival. Japanese Christians cried out like the first converts in Yokohama for the Holy Spirit to fall, and God answered their prayers. Numerous revivals began to spring up throughout Japan, leading to repentance and renewal among Japanese Christians and the mission community.

Charles F. Warren of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) described “showers of blessing which God has graciously granted this year in different parts of the country” and a revival leading to greater unity and love in the Japanese church (A History of Protestant Missions in Japan, 108). Robert Maclay, who oversaw the American Methodist Episcopal Mission, offered another account: “A spirit of religious revival, bringing seasons of refreshing through the presence of the Lord, is spreading in Japan, both in the community of foreigners and among Japanese Christians. . . . I am sure we are about to become witnesses of visible, divine manifestations of grace in the conversion of souls” (109).

C.S. Long of the CMS likewise described “a glorious work in Nagasaki” — where an atomic bomb would be dropped a little over sixty years later — in which “multitudes are genuinely converted and testify to the truthfulness and power of the new religion. . . . The Lord is certainly doing a marvelous work in our midst. The news is spreading throughout the city, and hundreds are flocking to the church. . . . It is indeed marvelous. I have never seen anything more striking at home” (109).

Japanese Harvest

Japanese pastors shared similar testimonies. Kozaki Hiromichi, who came from the Kumamoto Band and was a major leader in the Kumi-ai (Congregationalist) Church, shared how a great revival began in Yokohama following a week of prayer. Joseph Neesima, founder of Dōshisha University, described a revival that started in the small town of Annaka in Niigata. It began with a congregation in repentance and tears until they became overwhelmed by joy and love.

Reports of revival came from across Japan, including Sendai, Fukushima, Kobe, and Okayama. Missionaries and Japanese evangelists began renting out theatres to host preaching and teaching events for hundreds at a time. In May of 1883, preaching services were held in the Hisamatsu Theatre in Tokyo for several days, with a total attendance of four thousand. Revivals also sprang up in several Christian schools throughout Japan, including Dōshisha University, where two hundred students were baptized during a single prayer meeting in March 1884.

As a result of the revivals of the 1880s, the average church membership in Japan doubled, churches were planted in new regions, local funding for ministry increased, and Japanese Christians began to take the reins of leadership for the church. The season was so fruitful that some missionaries pronounced expectations for Japan to become a Christian nation within the century.

From Memory to Missions

It is sobering to realize that such expectations were never met, and while God has brought other seasons of growth, the number of Japanese Christians remains small. It is also amazing to see how God has worked in the past, and there are several lessons missionary senders and goers can learn from this history.

First, even though Japan may seem persistently cold to the gospel, God has worked here powerfully in the past, and nothing can stop him from doing so again.

Second, like the early church in Acts, the Japanese church was born more out of prayer than any evangelistic method or charismatic leadership. We have reason to hope that God would hear and respond to such fervent prayers again.

Third and finally, these movements all swept over the missionary community as well as the Japanese community. Missionaries cannot create revival in the Japanese church, but we can prayerfully seek it with Japanese brothers and sisters as we together remember how God has worked marvelously in the past.

Enjoying God in His Gifts

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. In our Bible reading this week, we hit Psalm 43. And within Psalm 43 we find one amazing little verse that unfolds into all sorts of implications, leading to a wonderful question from a pastor named Robert, who lives and ministers in Wisconsin. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the way you have served and encouraged pastors like me, from a distance, over the decades through your faithful labors. I love Psalm 43:4, a life verse for me, and one I want to better understand. I know you love this text as well. ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.’

“If I remember correctly, somewhere I heard you translate the Hebrew of this text like this: ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God the joy of my joys.’ God is the joy of our joys. I cannot find where you said this, but you’re not the only one, as I have come to see this in other interpretations of this verse from Puritan Thomas Goodwin in the seventeenth century (Works, 4:392), to William de Burgh in the nineteenth century (A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 380), to classic Hebrew scholars today (David J.A. Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 8:166).

“So, can you walk us through the Hebrew briefly, and then explain what this means that God is the joy of our joys? I’ve historically thought of this text as saying what the ESV here implies, that God is the most exceeding joy above all other joys — a comparison. But you seem to indicate that this text is speaking of source — God is the joy, that is, the giver of all other joys. That changes the text completely. If so, expand on this. This seems like a huge discovery!”

Well, that’s not quite what I mean. I totally love what he loves here and want to get at it, because there is something really quite right. I don’t mean source when I say, “joy of our joys.” What I mean is, God is the essence of our joys. God is the substance of all our joys. He’s the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly. So, he’s not only supreme joy — which is what the ESV brings out: our “exceeding joy” — but he is also the best part of all other joys. He is to be what makes all our joys most enjoyable. That’s what I mean.

‘Joy of My Gladness’

Let’s see if that’s so, and get the verse in front of us here. The psalmist is crying out to God, and he says,

Send out your light and your truth;     let them lead me;let them bring me to your holy hill     and to your dwelling!Then I will go to the altar of God,     to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:3–4)

So, the psalmist identifies God as his exceeding joy, which the ESV, the NASB, the King James Version all translate “exceeding joy.” The Hebrew (śim-ḥaṯ gî-lî) has two different words for joy or happiness or pleasure. Literally, then, the phrase could be translated, “the joy of my gladness,” which in fact is exactly what’s in the margin of the old King James: “the joy of my gladness.” So, the question is, What does that literal phrase — “the joy of my gladness” — mean?

The ESV and the other versions take it to mean that, at least, he’s my best gladness. “The joy of my gladness” means, of all my gladness, he’s the best. And surely that’s right. I mean, at least it means that. God is supreme. God never made anything more valuable or more enjoyable than himself. So yes, God is our exceeding joy. That’s what it means to be God, I think, and that’s what it means to love God. But the question remains, Is that all the phrase means? Is there more implied in the phrase “joy of my gladness”?

Avoiding Idolatry

So, way back — I’m guiding our friend to where I actually said that (he said he couldn’t find it). Well, on February 26, 2006, it’s on the DG website on this text. I preached on this, and I remember it so clearly because it was twelve days after my prostate-cancer surgery. I chose this text precisely for that. So, way back on February 26, 2006, I preached on this, and here’s what I argued. I’ll quote two sentences:

God, who in all my rejoicing over all the good things that he has made, is himself, in all my rejoicing, the heart of my joy, the gladness of my joy. Every joy that does not have God as the central gladness of the joy is a hollow joy and, in the end, will burst like a bubble.

Now, the reason that insight is so important is because, without it, all our enjoyment of God’s gifts — the things that he’s made — would not honor God the way that enjoyment should. Or to put it in the form of a question, What keeps our enjoyment of pizza or friendship from being idolatry? That’s the question. Now, you could answer, “Because we always enjoy God more than pizza, and we always enjoy God more than friendship, and that keeps it from being idolatry.” And that’s true and that’s crucial. God is our exceeding joy, supreme joy.

“God is the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly.”

But I think God intends to be glorified not only by being enjoyed more than pizza and more than friendship, but by being enjoyed in the very enjoyment of pizza and in the very enjoyment of friendship. I think God intends for us to enjoy his sweetness in the sweetness of chocolate, his saltiness in the saltiness of french fries, his juiciness in the juiciness of a sizzling steak, his friendship in the company of our friends, his brightness in the sunrise, and so on.

When Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17, “Set [your hope] . . . on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” I don’t think he meant only, “Make sure you enjoy God more than everything he made,” but rather, “Make sure you enjoy God in everything he made” — under everything as the source of joy, over everything as superior joy, and in everything as the best part of the enjoyment of everything.

Thankfulness Is Not Enough

Now, you could also say that — and this is true — thankfulness for God’s gifts is another key to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming god, to keep ourselves from becoming idolaters. To be consciously thankful that every legitimate pleasure in this life is a gift of God is a good thing. That’s a right thing. By all means, we should be thankful. It’s a sin to be ungrateful for every good thing God gives. Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:4, “Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

But here’s the issue. I want to push into this. Thankfulness is not enough to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming idolatrous. Think with me about this. Why is that? Why is thankfulness not enough to keep God’s good gifts from being idols to us? It’s because we all know that someone may give us a gift we enjoy more than we enjoy the person who gave it. We know this.

Being thankful to God or anyone does not mean we love the giver more than the gift. It doesn’t. A cranky, mean-spirited old man may give you the gift you’ve wanted all your life, and you’re thankful. Yes you are. But you don’t like him. He’s cranky. He’s a mean-spirited old man. You’re not sure why he gave it to you, but he gave it to you, and you’ve wanted it all your life, so you’re thankful for it. If we’re going to glorify God in the enjoyment of his gifts, we have to go beyond thankfulness.

Taste and See, Smell and Feel

So, back to Psalm 43:4. “God is the joy of my gladness” means not only that he is better than the gladness I have in other things — that is, “my exceeding joy” — but that he is the best part of the gladness I have in other things. He’s the joy of my gladness. He is what makes the enjoyment of those other things more enjoyable.

When the psalmist says in Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” — wow, what a statement — he might mean, “I desire nothing above God.” He might mean that. But it sounds like he means, “I don’t desire anything on earth of which God is not the chief part.” “I don’t want to enjoy anything,” he’s saying, “which is not also an enjoyment of God.” I want to enjoy God in friendship. I want to enjoy God in eating. I want to enjoy God in the pleasures of the marriage bed. I want to enjoy God in music and reading and rising early to see the dawn.

Now, if we’re onto something here, let’s see what some other significant Christian thinkers have said about this. Here’s the way Thomas Traherne put it: “You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul” (Centuries, 13–14). That’s not mere thankfulness. This is enjoying God in our enjoyment of what he has made. Every part of creation is designed by God to communicate something of God. And when we enjoy that part of creation, we are to savor God in it.

Here’s the way Augustine put it in his prayer: “He loves thee too little” — speaking to God — “who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake” (Confessions 10.29.40). Now, “for Thy sake” I take to mean this: we love what is not God properly by loving it for what we taste of God in it — not just out of thankfulness, but what we taste and see, smell and feel of God in it.

So, let us go with the psalmist to the altar of God — that is, to the cross of Jesus Christ — and enjoy the forgiveness of sins that he purchased there. And through that gift, let us know and enjoy God as our exceeding joy — yes, and as the gladness of all our joys.

Devotion in an Age of Distraction: How Beauty Breaks the Spell

Mary Oliver once said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion” (Upstream, 8). Yet we struggle, don’t we, to set our minds on “the things of the Spirit” and “the things that are above, where Christ is” (Romans 8:5–6, Colossians 3:1–2)?

We know the mind attentive to the Spirit is “life and peace,” yet we’d blush to admit how often we reach for the empty stimuli of social media and news feeds. And it’s easy to wring our hands and declare that we’re uniquely handicapped by our Age of Distraction and the relentless competition for our attention. Are we really defenseless, though, doomed to distracted, ever-scrolling minds?

In my own war against distractions, I find hope and help in saints who lived centuries before our digital age. Read slowly these words of Augustine, describing “the bridegroom who is beautiful wherever he is”:

He was beautiful in heaven, then, and beautiful on earth: beautiful in the womb, and beautiful in his parents’ arms. He was beautiful in his miracles but just as beautiful under the scourges, beautiful as he invited us to life, but beautiful too in not shrinking from death, beautiful in laying down his life and beautiful in taking it up again, beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb, and beautiful in heaven. (Essential Exposition of the Psalms, 131)

If we had a time machine and could pull this man taken by the beauty of his Beloved into our digital age, would the wild horses of iPhones and earbuds drag his attention from God? By no means. The way Augustine talks about Christ convinces me that he could not not be captive to God’s beauty. He’s held firm and undistracted by the same one-thing passion that captivated David:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,     that will I seek after:that I may dwell in the house of the Lord     all the days of my life,to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. (Psalm 27:4)

Jonathan Edwards, another undistractable saint, found God not only beautiful but “the foundation and fountain of . . . all beauty” (Works, 8:551). In his sermon on “God’s Excellencies,” he told the congregation,

God is every way transcendently more amiable, than the most perfect and lovely of all our fellow creatures. If men take great delight and pleasure in beholding and enjoying the perfections and beauties of their fellow mortals, with what ecstasies, with what sweet rapture, will the sweet glories and beauties of the blessed God be beheld and enjoyed! (Works, 10:429)

Like Augustine, Edwards was enthralled by God’s beauty in Christ and would surely never trade those “sweet glories and beauties of the blessed God” for the empty cisterns of clickbait. The question is, would we? Can we ordinary saints living in the Age of Distraction be so captured by God’s beauty that we grow increasingly undistractable?

Beauty of All Things Beautiful

Before we answer, we should clarify what we mean by God’s “beauty.” Philosophers love to ponder the idea of beauty. When they meditate on what is truly beautiful, they are (perhaps without knowing it) granted glimpses of the God who is beautiful.

Beauty is the good, and God is most good (Psalm 119:68). Beauty delights and arouses desire, and God is our delight and the desire of our hearts (Psalm 37:4). Beauty displays perfection, and our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Beauty shines with radiance and splendor, and Christ is the radiance of our God who is clothed with splendor (Psalm 104:1; Hebrews 1:3).

Beauty resounds in harmony and unity, and the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit is the eternal perfection of harmony. Beauty is gratuitous, the way the dazzling colors of the sunset aren’t needed to mark the transition from day to night; and nothing is more gratuitous than the love of God in sending his Son to die for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). In short, beauty reminds us of God, “the Beauty of all things beautiful” (Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.10).

God’s beauty is a quality of his glory, and when we experience that quality, we are filled with delight and desire. We find him irresistibly lovely in our eyes, beyond compare (Psalm 89:6), and so we faint to be with him (Psalm 63). His beauty is what, when we have him, fills us “with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

Who Can See Such Beauty?

Not everyone sees God’s beauty. Some are “haters of God” that have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Romans 1:23, 30). That’s why Samuel Parkison says there is an aesthetic component to salvation: when the Spirit regenerates us, he enables us “to behold the beauty of the Trinity mediated in Christ.” This new ability to see God’s beauty isn’t mere intellectual perception; it “includes the affections,” so we are stirred and drawn by his beauty (Irresistible Beauty, 15).

John Piper clarifies, based on Ephesians 1:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:4, that this new capacity to behold God’s beauty is with the eyes of our hearts, our “spiritual eyes” (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 9–10). And as with other gifts and capacities we receive from the Spirit, we are “to fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6). Our spiritual eyes must be sanctified, must mature and develop, must be tuned and calibrated, until we find Christ irresistibly beautiful wherever we see him. Therefore, cultivating our ability to “see and savor” the beauty of God in Christ is a means of grace in the war for our attention.

How to Cultivate Eyes for God

Because this power of the new heart is aesthetic, we could learn some things about attending to God’s beauty from those who teach art appreciation. Museum docents and artists could train us in “slow looking” and “immersive attention,” and those skills, reapplied to our meditations on God’s word, could help hone our gaze on the beauty of the Lord.

But God is not a painting or a statue. He is both beautiful and personal; his beauty leads us through and beyond appreciation and admiration to affection and devotion. We must unite the aesthetic and the personal, the way Georgia O’Keeffe did when she said, “To see takes time like to have a friend takes time.”

So, when I suggest that one of the best ways to grow in our appreciation of God’s beauty is to read theology, you might immediately do a double take. But after you stop scratching your head (and before you stop reading), listen to C.S. Lewis:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. (Introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, 10)

“The heart sings unbidden” when we work our way through the best theology because theology lays before us the goodness and perfections of God so that we see them — see him, our Beloved — more clearly.

Recommendations in Beauty

At its best, theology opens our eyes to the beauty of God in the Scriptures, elevating our Bible reading into an act of communion and love with our Lord as he pulls back the veil so that the eyes of our hearts behold the beautiful glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But, of course, not all books of theology make our hearts sing. Some are written by Dr. Dryasdust, with a specialized vocabulary and attention to subtle controversies that can keep the veil over our eyes. But there are theological writers, the heirs of Augustine and Edwards, who see the beauty of God and show it beautifully. J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God filled my heart with music when I first read them. John Piper intentionally and faithfully follows in the footsteps of undistractable saints like Augustine and Edwards.

And then there are the English Puritans. Their seventeenth-century prose sometimes tests us, but they are expert guides to God’s beauty. John Owen summarized the goal of all their counsel and practice: “To encourage our hearts to give themselves up more fully to the Lord Jesus Christ, consider his glories and excellencies” (Communion with God, 59).

Read, Pray, Encounter

As exhilarating as theology at its best can be, it isn’t an end in itself. It is never meant to replace a direct encounter with God, the very subject of theology. To admire triune beauty in Christ is personal experience — it is to commune with him. So, when we read theology, let our reading be immersed in prayer, as the writing of it most surely was.

Let us learn to love our beautiful God in his personal revelation, for “love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness” (Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 82). And in that communion with God, we will be satisfied and find the undistracted “life and peace” that Paul calls us to (Romans 8:6), a daily foretaste of our eternal happiness, basking in the beauty of Christ:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

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.

How Jesus Met with God: The Pace and Patterns of a Perfect Life

One of the more controversial issues in missions today is speed. How quickly do we expect the lost to be saved? How soon will new churches plant new churches? How fast should a new believer move into a leadership role? How long should cross-cultural missionaries work on learning a language?

In our times, we will do well to carefully interrogate our assumptions about speed and pace. Our internal speedometers are being conditioned to the quickening pace of modern life with its rapid flow of technological innovations. So, in our “age of accelerations,” pressing questions relate to speed — not only for effective Christian mission but simply for healthy Christian lives. Will we be driven by the hurried pace of our world? Or, with the help of God’s word and his Spirit and his church, will we find a more timeless (and human) pace for life and mission — a pace that has produced health and fruit across the ages?

In his book Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, Andy Johnson says this: “The work of missions is urgent, but it’s not frantic” (67). That’s good, and the same is true of the Christian life and of the health and growth of our own souls.

Unhurried Habits of Jesus

So, let’s sit together at the feet of Jesus, and consider the pace and patterns of his life and ministry. He was not idle. Nor was he frenzied. From all we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus’s days were full. I think it would be fair to say he was busy, but he was not frantic. He lived to the full, and yet he did not seem to be in a hurry.

In Jesus, we observe a human life with holy habits and patterns: rhythms of retreating from society and then reentering to do the work of ministry. Even as God himself in human flesh, Jesus prioritized time away with his Father. He chose again and again, in his perfect wisdom and love, to give his first and best moments to seeking his Father’s face. And if Jesus, even Jesus, carved out such space in the demands and pressures of his human life, what might we learn from him, and how might we do likewise?

Now, we have only glimpses of Jesus’s habits and personal spiritual practices, but what we do have is by no accident, and it is not scant. We know exactly what God means for us to know, in just the right detail — and we have far more about Jesus’s personal spiritual rhythms than we do about anyone else’s in Scripture.

And the picture we have of Christ’s habits is not one that is foreign to our world and lives and experience. Rather, we find timeless and transcultural postures that can be imitated and applied by any follower of Jesus, anywhere in the world, at any time in history.

So, what might those be? Let’s look at three.

1. Jesus retreated and reentered.

Jesus made a habit of withdrawing from the world (and the engagements of fruitful ministry), and then reentering later to do more good.

So too, the healthy Christian life is neither solely solitary nor constantly communal. We learn to withdraw, like Jesus, “to a desolate place” to commune with God (Mark 1:35), and then we return to the bustle of daily tasks and seek to meet the needs of others. We carve out a season for spiritual respite — in some momentarily sacred space — to feed our souls, enjoying God there in the stillness. Then refilled, we enter back in to be light and bread to a hungry, harassed, and helpless world (Matthew 9:36).

For Christ, “the wilderness” or “desolate place” often became his momentarily sacred space. He got away from people. He regularly escaped the noise and frenzy of society to be alone with his Father, where he could give him his full attention and undivided heart.

There is, of course, that especially memorable instance in Mark 1. After “his fame spread everywhere” (Mark 1:28) the day before, and “the whole city was gathered together at the door” (Mark 1:33), Jesus took a remarkable step the next morning. He was up before the sun and slipped away from town to restore his soul in secret communion with his Father. “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

Given the fruitfulness of the previous day, some of us might scratch our heads. What a ministry opportunity Jesus seemed to leave behind when he left town! Surely some of us would have skipped or shortened our private spiritual habits to rush to the demands of the swelling masses. How many of us, in such a situation, would have the presence of mind and heart to discern and prioritize prayer as Jesus did?

The Gospel of Luke also makes it unmistakable that this pattern of retreat and reentry was part of the ongoing dynamic of Christ’s human life. Luke 4:42 tells us that Jesus “departed and went into a desolate place” — not just once but regularly. Luke 5:16: “He would withdraw [as a pattern] to desolate places and pray.”

So also Matthew 14:13. After the death of John the Baptist, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” But even then, the crowds pursued him. And he didn’t despise them, but here he puts his desire to retreat on hold and has compassion on them and heals their sick (Matthew 14:14). Then after feeding them, five thousand strong, he withdraws again to a quiet place. “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23).

This leads to a second principle — and not just that he withdrew but why. What did Jesus do when he withdrew?

2. Jesus withdrew to commune with his Father.

He got away from the distractions and demands of daily life to focus on, and hear from, and pray to his Father. At times, he went away by himself to be alone (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46–47; John 6:15). His disciples would see him leave to pray and later return. He went by himself.

But he also drew others into his life of prayer. The disciples had seen him model prayer at his baptism (Luke 3:21), as he laid his hands on the children (Matthew 19:13), and when he drove out demons (Mark 9:29). And Jesus brought his men into his communion with his Father. Even when he prayed alone, his men might be nearby. “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him” (Luke 9:18; also Luke 11:1).

3. Jesus taught his disciples to do the same.

Jesus didn’t only retreat to be alone with God. He also taught his disciples to bring this dynamic of retreat and return, communion and compassion, into their own lives (Mark 3:7; Luke 9:10).

In Mark 6:31–32, Jesus invites his men to join him, saying, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Mark explains, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”

So too, in the Gospel of John, as his fame spreads, Jesus retreats from more populated settings to invest in his men in more desolate, less distracting places (John 11:54). And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches all his hearers, including us today, not only to give without show (Matthew 6:3–4) and fast without publicity (Matthew 6:17–18), but also to find our private place to seek our Father’s face: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). The reward is not material stuff later but the joy of communion with God there, in that moment, in the secret place.

Your Pace and Patterns

Jesus made a habit of retreating from the demands and pressures of everyday life and ministry, and he did so to commune with his Father, to hear his voice, and respond in prayer. And then Jesus reentered society to bless and teach and show compassion and love and do good. And he also invited his disciples into this pattern and taught them to do the same.

So, let’s close by asking about your pace and your patterns. First about pace, ask yourself, How deeply do the world’s assumptions and expectations about speed and productivity affect my life and ministry? How hurried is my life?

And your patterns. How about rhythms of retreat and reentry? Do you get away daily to commune with God in his word and prayer, in an unhurried, even leisurely way — resting, restoring your joy, feeding your soul in the grace of his presence? And what are your patterns or rhythms of life for retreating from the noise of the world to focus on and hear from the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, and then come back to meet the needs of others?

Scroll to top