Desiring God

How Can I Have a Good Conscience?

Good Monday morning, and thank you for listening today. We begin the week with a really sharp and robust question from a listener named Arnaldo. Here it is: “Hello, Tony and Pastor John. Thank you for your labors on this podcast! My question is one that I have struggled with for over two decades now. It’s this: How can I live with a good conscience? The apostle Paul often talks about the conscience, and how specifically a ‘good conscience’ is something he always lived with, apparently even before he became a Christian (Acts 23:1; 24:16). We also see that a ‘good conscience’ is a qualification for Christian leaders (1 Timothy 3:9). And having a ‘good conscience’ is an important goal of the Christian life for all believers (1 Timothy 1:5, 19).

“When I read the way Paul uses the word conscience in these contexts, it seems like he’s saying it means to be ‘presently walking in obedience to everything God has revealed to him.’ He does not seem to mean that he’s trusting in Christ’s blood to cover over his indwelling sin. I believe in both the doctrine of indwelling sin and of progressive sanctification (according to texts like Proverbs 4:18 and Romans 7:21–23). God is always revealing to me new areas, and sometimes old areas, where I need to grow in holiness. These are very real sin issues that I can’t simply stop doing, like turning off a light switch. These are ones in which I am engaged in a long-term, ongoing struggle and fight. So I pray daily for forgiveness (according to 1 John 1:8–10 and Matthew 6:12).

“All this means that I literally never have a good conscience — I am always aware of important ways in which I presently need to repent and become more holy. So if a good conscience is a basic Christian issue, and Paul always had one, yet I will always know of sin areas in my life — and if I have to pray daily for forgiveness — how could I, or any Christian for that matter, ever attain to a good conscience?”

Well, Arnaldo has done his homework. He laid out texts in that question, as I hear it, that contain all the pieces. I’ve got a few to add that might take a little turn. Wow, he’s not winging it here in asking that question. If there’s a solution, and I do believe there is, it’s probably found inside those texts that he was just commenting on, but maybe drawing some inferences from them that were not necessarily accurate.

Sin That Dwells Within

I feel the force of the question. Experientially, walking in a good conscience is not easy for me since I share Arnaldo’s deep awareness of my ongoing, indwelling sin. That’s Paul’s term in Romans 7:17, 20, 23. We all have remaining corruption and indwelling sin. The more keenly you are aware of that, the more you will feel embattled at the level of needing a good conscience.

“The whole New Testament does assume that in this life, nobody attains sinless perfection.”

I get it. I mean, I think that’s a serious question. The whole New Testament does assume that in this life, nobody attains sinless perfection. We need to just settle that. That’s one of the premises. Nobody attains sinless perfection in this life.

Jesus said that we would pray, “Forgive us our debts” right after, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11–12). They go together. Every day, say both of those. Paul said, “Not that I have already attained [perfection], but I press on to make it my own” (Philippians 3:12). He referred to the sin that dwells in him and cried out in dismay, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Jesus pointed to the publican who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” over against the Pharisee who was thanking God that he had such a clear conscience — and he said that the one who cried out for mercy about his sin went down to his house justified (Luke 18:10–14). It was good for him to own his sinfulness, not to say, “Oh, it doesn’t exist. I’ve got a clear conscience. I don’t have any sin to repent of.” We feel the force.

Now, I think 1 John 1 is not only especially illuminating but gives us a category alongside good conscience that may provide the solution.

Walking in the Light

Here’s my reading of 1 John 1, starting with verses 6 and 7.

If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Now, that is staggeringly amazing. “If we walk in the light . . . the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us.” Wow. Here’s 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Now he’s reeling it back in and saying, “Don’t assume that when I say, ‘Walk in the light,’ I mean sinlessness.” First John 1:9–10 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Now, what’s amazing about this passage is that it says we must be walking in the light for the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from our sins. Then he says that this walking in the light doesn’t mean sinlessness. We are liars if we say it does. Then he explains that when we walk in the light, we see clearly enough — we have light — to know sin, to see sin as what it is and hate it and confess it. Then we enjoy ongoing cleansing and forgiveness.

“A good conscience is virtually the same as walking in the light.”

Here’s what I would draw from this if I use the category of conscience to explain this passage: a good conscience is virtually the same as walking in the light. Christians should be able to say, “I’m walking in the light,” and mean it, and mean by that, “I’m walking in a good conscience.” Which means I don’t think we should equate having a bad conscience with having indwelling sin. Now, that may be the most important thing I say, Tony. Let me say it again. I’m inferring, from what I’ve said from 1 John 1, that having a bad conscience is not the same as having indwelling sin. They’re not the same.

Our Clear Conscience

That’s my basic answer to Arnaldo’s question. He feels that as long as he is aware of the reality of indwelling sin, as in Romans 7, he cannot have a good conscience. Now, if that were true, I don’t think Paul could ever have a good conscience, but he clearly says he does have a good conscience.

“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience” (2 Timothy 1:3). He expects the elders of the church to do the same: “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). That’s the goal for all Christians. According to 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” I don’t think we should equate a good conscience with sinless perfection in this life, nor equate a bad conscience with the presence of indwelling sin or remaining corruption. Rather, a clear or a good conscience is like walking in the light.

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin [in other words, if we interpret “walking in the light” as “sinless perfection”], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7–9)

David’s Example

I think both Paul and John inherited this concept of ongoing, indwelling sin that nevertheless coexists with a good conscience from the Psalms in the Old Testament.

For example, in Psalm 25, David confesses three times that he’s a sinner. “[God] instructs sinners in the way” (verse 8); “Pardon my guilt, for it is great” (verse 11); “Forgive all my sins” (verse 18). The psalm comes to an end in verse 21 like this: “May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”

In David’s mind — now, he’s writing under God’s inspiration, and this is not the only place in the Psalms; there are a lot of psalms that distinguish the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are really righteous: they’re walking in the light; they have a good conscience. In David’s mind, there is an integrity and an uprightness that is aware of indwelling corruption that breaks out at times in sins. It does. And that ongoing reality of indwelling sin does not nullify what David calls his integrity and his uprightness.

I think Paul and John saw that. They were immersed in the Old Testament and used language that way. John used the language of walking in the light though we are imperfect. Paul used the language of walking in a good conscience though we are imperfect. I think for all of them (David, Paul, John), the key that enabled them to think this way is that they all knew God had made a way for all their sins to be passed over — namely, the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. David knew this was coming, and Paul and John knew it had come.

I do think Arnaldo is right to say that justification by faith is not the same as walking in a good conscience, or walking in the light, or having integrity. Those are real character traits, not imputed righteousness. Nevertheless, it’s the covering of all their sins by the blood of Jesus that enables them to look upon their conscience and walking and integrity with thankfulness and confidence that it really will be accepted by God as good, though imperfect.

People of Integrity

Here’s one last implication. People might think, “Well, how does this matter?” Here’s a concrete illustration of how it matters. Suppose a pastor is accused falsely of being unfaithful to his wife. The reason he’s accused is because someone in the congregation hates him and wants him to be dismissed. When he comes before the church or the elders to state the truth, with his children present and his wife looking on, that is not the time for him to say to the church, “Well, yes, I am a sinner like everybody else. I’m no better than adulterers. Everyone has indwelling sin that crops out from time to time. I shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. I’m no better than anyone else.”

No, no, no. That is not the time to say that with your kids listening, and your wife listening, and the whole church wondering. What you need to say at that moment is this: “My conscience is clear. I am a man of integrity. I have walked in the light. I have never touched that woman or any woman sexually besides my wife. This accusation is not true.”

I think that is one of the implications of what Paul is saying when he says to the elders and to the rest of us that we should walk in a good conscience — or as John would say, walk in the light.

The Other Lord’s Prayer

The KJV translation of the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most well-known portions of Scripture in the West. But we find the Lord’s Prayer twice in the Gospels — once in Matthew (6:9–13) and once in Luke (11:1–4). Doubtless Jesus delivered this prayer on multiple occasions. While the Matthew and Luke versions are remarkably similar, there are a handful of important differences. The most obvious difference is Luke’s omission of “Your will be done” and “Deliver us from evil.” In this article, however, we will briefly sketch two of the subtler differences and apply these insights to our personal lives.

Before we comment on a handful of unique features of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke, we will first examine one common, salient denominator between the two presentations of the Lord’s Prayer (a point I expand upon further in my Handbook on the Gospels). Both evangelists underscore the name “Father” at the beginning of the prayer (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2).

Our Father

This appellation is odd, as Jews typically do not address God as their “Father.” The Old Testament primarily casts God as Israel’s covenant-keeping King who rules over the cosmos and graciously commits himself to preserving his people. This explains why the typical names are, for example, “Lord,” “Yahweh,” and “God.” While the Old Testament presents Israel’s God as Father on a few occasions (Exodus 4:22–23; Deuteronomy 1:29–31; 32:6; Psalm 103:13–14; Proverbs 3:11–12; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Malachi 2:10), the title appears relatively rarely.

In the four Gospels, on the other hand, Jesus’s favorite term for addressing God is “Father” (for example, Matthew 10:32; Mark 8:38; Luke 2:49; John 5:17). Furthermore, Jesus, on a number of occasions, claims that God is also the “Father” of the disciples (Matthew 5:16, 48; 6:1; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:36; 11:13; 12:32; John 14:7, 21). What accounts for the shift of language from the Old Testament to the New? Richard Bauckham argues that “Jesus may have understood Abba to be the new name of God that corresponded to the new beginning, the new exodus, the new covenant with his people that God was initiating” (Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, 67). Just as God gives Israel a distinct name for himself in the exodus (Exodus 3:14–15), so now God receives another name in the second exodus.

The term “Father,” then, would include not only a new dimension of intimacy but also a new revelatory description of Israel’s Lord. God, the Father, will now be known by his work of redemption in his Son. The Lord’s Prayer, then, is primarily marked by pleading to God to continue working out the new eschatological phase in his program — the long-awaited second exodus.

Teach Us to Pray

Now that we can appreciate the trajectory of the Lord’s Prayer more fully, let us consider how Luke frames the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew (6:9–13) occurs within the famed Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29), whereas Luke places the account in Jesus’s journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–19:27).

All three Synoptic Gospels record Jesus’s journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, but Luke reserves more than one-third of his narrative for the journey. This portion of Luke’s Gospel is largely filled with parables and difficult sayings. The crowds (and Luke’s audience) must be willing to suffer for the sake of the kingdom and embrace a Messiah who suffers and bears God’s curse. The Lord’s Prayer, then, serves as a guide for communing with God, asking him to achieve his redemptive purposes in the life of believers, and solidifying one’s commitment to him.

“The Lord’s Prayer serves as a guide for communing with God.”

Luke dedicates more space to Jesus’s prayer life than any other evangelist (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 29; 22:41, 44). Jesus prays at critical moments in his ministry. Indeed, prayer bookends his ministry: we find Jesus praying at his baptism in the Jordan River (3:21) as well as on the cross (23:46). We should assume that the disciples, like many first-century Jews, would have sought a robust prayer life. They would have recited the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5–9) in the morning and evening and often prayed in their local synagogues.

The second half of Luke 11:1 reads, “When [Jesus] finished [praying], one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” This verse gives us the impression that the disciples noticed something peculiar about Jesus’s prayer life. Was it when Jesus prayed, how he prayed, or what he prayed? Was it all three?

Each Day’s Bread

Five imperatives are found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s depictions of the Lord’s Prayer — “hallowed,” “come,” “give,” “forgive,” and “lead . . . not.” The first two commands are somewhat synonymous since they entail the expansion of God’s presence throughout the cosmos (Luke 11:2). The remaining three petitions constitute the manner in which the first two are carried out. That is, the requests for provision (11:3), forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation (11:4) entail the responsibilities of the disciples in the ever-expanding kingdom.

Matthew’s Gospel reads, “Give us today our daily bread” (6:11), whereas Luke adds, “Give us each day our daily bread” (11:3). The addition of “each day” (to kath’ hēmeran) accents the disciples’ radical dependence upon God’s provision in their lives. This precise idea of relying upon God providing “bread” for his people recalls Jesus’s first wilderness temptation, where the devil entices Jesus to transform a stone into bread (Luke 4:3). Jesus refuses and then quotes Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’” (Luke 4:4). In Deuteronomy 8, the general point is that Israel must be wholly dependent upon God’s life-giving promises and presence. If Israel trusts God, then the nation will enter the promised land, “a land where bread will not be scarce and you [Israel] will lack nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:9).

The Lord’s Prayer likely has in mind Jesus’s wilderness temptation and Deuteronomy 8 — a passage that, in turn, looks back to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness and God’s feeding them daily with manna. Because Jesus succeeded in clinging to the promises of God by not transforming the stone into bread, he gained the victory over the devil. Jesus’s success in the wilderness empowers the disciples to conquer sin and thereby receive the “daily bread” of the Lord.

In a word, the daily provision of bread the Father delivers to his people concretely demonstrates that they have spiritually entered the promised land of the new creation. Perhaps, then, Luke’s addition of “each day” functions as a continual reminder of God’s end-time blessing in one’s life.

Forgive Our Sins

Luke’s prayer also contains another unique detail. Matthew’s Gospel reads, “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), but Luke’s Gospel states, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us” (Luke 11:4 NIV). The forgiveness of sins is exclusively bound up with Jesus’s atoning work on the cross.

Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, expected God to forgive the sins of his people at the end of history — a final, eschatological act of pardoning grounded in the servant’s faithful atoning ministry (Isaiah 43:25; 52:13–53:12; Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 7:19). Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as the long-awaited servant of Isaiah (Luke 2:32 [citing Isaiah 49:6]; 22:37 [citing Isaiah 53:12]). Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, then, rests upon Jesus’s sacrificial death.

Remarkably, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Prayer before his work on the cross, but we must remember that all of Jesus’s life is oriented toward securing forgiveness of sins on the cross (see Luke 3:3, 21; 5:20–24; 7:47–49; 24:47). In addition, because Jesus’s followers fully identify with Jesus, they are endowed with the authority to grant “forgiveness” to others. What is true of the “servant” is true of his followers — the little “servants.”

Pray Like This

How do we apply these truths to our daily lives?

“Those forgiven have firsthand knowledge of the need for forgiveness.”

First, by asking God to provide us “each day our daily bread,” we admit our radical dependence on him, pleading with him to finish what he began. God has initially and spiritually placed us in the promised land of the new creation, but we still await the full transformation of our hearts and bodies.

Second, Jesus calls us to always ask God to grant us forgiveness of sins. While Christ died for our sins once for all, we continually come before the throne and plead with him to forgive the sins that beset us. In addition, he commands us to extend forgiveness to those who have offended us. Those forgiven have firsthand knowledge of the need for forgiveness, so we should never be tightfisted in granting it to others.

It Will Be Worth It: Overcoming Obstacles to World Missions

Lord of the harvest, I pray earnestly that, as obstacles are removed, you would send laborers from this gathering into the harvest that you are preparing among the unreached peoples of the world. (Matthew 9:38)

This morning Andrew Scott sought to overcome four obstacles to involvement in God’s global purpose of putting his glory on display for the salvation of the nations. Those obstacles were:

“I’m not worthy.” Christ has made you worthy.
“I’m not called.” You were made for this.
“I’m not able.” You have Spiritual gifts, Heart passions, Abilities, Personalities, and Experiences.
“It’s not on my job description.” Yes, it is.

I have three more obstacles I want to help you overcome, through positive incentives.

Obstacle 1: Many emphasize civic reform over against soul-saving.

The present emphasis in America is for many on culture warfare and nation-building as the most urgent form of neighbor love. So, missions can lose its urgency before the political spectacle of fighting for the outward forms of American civic virtue.

In 2012 Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries . . . turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like an “atomic bomb” (38).

To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations. (39)

There is one important nuance (or bombshell) to all this: “The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked” (40). And “conversionary Protestant” missionaries are those who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.

Thus Woodberry points out that, even though missionaries have often opposed unjust and destructive practices like opium addiction, and slavery, and land confiscation, nevertheless “most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists . . . [but] came to colonial reform through the back door.” That is, “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended” (41).

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation through missions is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way: missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:6–9)

Incentive: This means that the missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time — for eternal salvation and temporal transformation — are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ, forming healthy, faith-maturing churches, and then from that root, teaching them to bear the fruit of all that Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20).

Obstacle 2: Missions seem hopeless as countless hearts grow cold.

The end of the age is near when the love of many will grow cold and lawlessness is multiplied and wars and natural disasters will increase, so there is little hope for missions to advance with any significant triumphs.

And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:4–14)

“It is not ‘cold’ Christians who will take the gospel to all the nations in the last and darkest days.”

It is not “cold” Christians who will take the gospel to all the nations in the last and darkest days. It will be white-hot lovers of Jesus who are ready to be killed for the name. Where will they come from? Your churches. Do not surrender to the notion that the love of many growing cold means your love or your church must grow cold.

Incentive: We have biblical assurances that in the darkest final hours, Christ will lead his faithful, martyr-like witnesses to triumph in finishing the Great Commission.

Obstacle 3: Leaving comfort for hardship appears foolish.

If I leave all that is familiar, giving my whole life to an unreached people, I will lose so many enjoyments of secure, healthy, comfortable life in America, and meet so many hardships, that I’m not sure it will be worth it.

“Whatever is lost for the sake of Christ and his gospel will come back to you a hundredfold.”

Incentive: That is not true. Consider these nine biblical responses.

First, whatever is lost for the sake of Christ and his gospel will come back to you a hundredfold. No matter what — or how much — you sacrifice, you cannot wind up with less.

Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:28–30)

Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

Second, this life of earthly enjoyments is as short as a mist breathed out on a winter morning, but pleasures at God’s right hand are forevermore.

What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:14)

Moses chose to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. (Hebrews 11:25)

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.” (James 1:9–10)

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. (1 Peter 1:24–25)

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

Night will be no more. [The servants of the Lamb] will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)

Third, though all forget you or even turn against you, if God is for you, what can man do to you? He who did not spare his Son will give you everything you need.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32)

Fourth, if you lose your audience, and there is no one to rejoice with you over small successes, know that millions of angels are rejoicing in the presence of God.

I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10)

Fifth, if you feel alone, with no one even aware of you (let alone praising all the good that you do), remember your Father sees and will reward you.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1–4)

Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:8)

Sixth, if you feel that what you accomplish is small and that you are wasting your life, remember that absolutely nothing done “in the Lord” is wasted.

My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

Seventh, if you feel that it is simply too hard to keep on giving and giving while you get so little return in this life, while people back home are recognized and blessed for the good that they do, remember: you will be repaid at the resurrection.

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:13–14)

Eighth, if you think, “Yes, I get rewards in the life to come, but the folks back home get rewards in the life to come and get pleasures in this life that I miss out on, and I’d like both,” remember: there is greater reward for greater sacrifice.

This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)

“A life devoted to rescuing people from the wrath of God through faith in Christ is precious in eternity.”

Ninth, when the thought of loneliness threatens to overwhelm you, go deep through the promise of Jesus and experience this reality: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:4–6)

Overcome Obstacles with Incentives

A life devoted to rescuing people from the wrath of God through faith in Christ, and building their faith through healthy churches, is precious in eternity and powerful in time.
In the darkest last days, Christ will have a white-hot people for himself and will lead them in triumph to finish the Great Commission, even at the cost of their lives.
Whatever you lose by leaving the familiarity and security and comforts of your own people for the sake of Christ, it will be worth it, and in the eternal day you will never regret it.

A Prophetic Distortion of the Second Coming: 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2, Part 1

What is Look at the Book?

You look at a Bible text on the screen. You listen to John Piper. You watch his pen “draw out” meaning. You see for yourself whether the meaning is really there. And (we pray!) all that God is for you in Christ explodes with faith, and joy, and love.

Single but Not Lonely: Living Well While Unmarried

Singleness can feel like the participation trophy in the game of life. The default for the relationally dismayed. The “gift” no one asked for.

That assessment, however, couldn’t be further from reality. And I say that as a still-single man who aspires to marry. All of us experience singleness. And even for those who do marry, more than half will be single again. God cares about our unmarried years. He desires all of us to make the most of them. So what steps can we take to steward these years well?

1. Define Your Gift

The apostle Paul makes an audacious claim. Whereas in Genesis 2 God observes, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), Paul tells the unmarried and the widows that “it is good for them to remain single, as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Paul, when looking at the new-covenant community, doesn’t see marriage-lessness as a curse, but as a gift. He says, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Corinthians 7:7).

I’ve spoken to dear saints who desire marriage and do not have the life they expected. If that describes you, God has not abandoned you. You’re not stuck in a waiting room between celibacy and marriage. God desires his good, perfect, delightful will for you right now. James reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) — and Paul could certainly add, “even your singleness.”

2. Discern the Advantages

What about singleness makes it a gift? What does singleness offer that marriage doesn’t? If we cannot name the advantages that come with singleness, then despite our insistence that singleness is a gift, we don’t have much to offer to those who are living a single life.

Paul puts the advantages of singleness under the phrase “undivided devotion”:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32–35)

When I read those verses and reflect on the advantages of singleness, I see at least three.


In a world full of distraction, singleness enables us to focus on Jesus “without distraction.” This isn’t to say that we cannot honor Christ if we’re married — God desires married couples to love and serve each other for his glory (Ephesians 5:22–33). But singles can devote themselves to him with fewer disruptions from good but competing desires.

As singles, we’re able to be single-minded. We can focus on honoring our Lord without the complexities of a spouse and children. Quiet mornings with Bible reading and prayer. Ministering to others without being interrupted by naps and diaper-changes. Fellowship without a curfew. Decisions about the future oriented toward gospel good without weighing familial costs. Singleness allows for undivided focus.


“Let me check with my spouse” is probably the most frequent response to an invitation extended to a married member at my church. Singles are advantaged in not carrying the weight of accounting for another person. We can say yes more often.

“Singles can say yes more often.”

When a church member texts me at 11:30 p.m. asking to meet to read the Bible, I can say yes. When a family at the church needs emergency babysitting, I can say yes. When life presents risky, God-glorifying opportunities, I can say yes. Singles’ capacity allows us to flex for the sake of the kingdom.


Paul states his desire for singles by saying, “I want you to be free from anxieties” (1 Corinthians 7:32). Freedom from the obligations of marriage enables singles to do what married people cannot. Whereas marriage is helped by stable routine and clear obligations, singleness provides mobility.

Valuing singleness doesn’t diminish the value or dignity of marriage. Paul wrote both 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5. He can exalt the value of marriage and express his preference for singleness. Singleness provides good opportunities that marriage does not.

3. Desire and Be Content

What about singles who deeply desire marriage? How can we endure seasons of discontentment? We need to clarify what we mean when we talk about contentment. Paul writes to the Philippians,

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. (Philippians 4:10–14)

First, you can be content in singleness while desiring to be married. Paul thanks the Philippians for assisting him while in prison. I don’t think Paul is telling the Philippians that he desires to stay in prison because he is content in all circumstances. Between being hungry or well fed, he prefers being fed (“It was kind of you to share my trouble”).

“You can desire marriage while still being content in seasons of singleness.”

Desire and contentment are two different realities. You can desire marriage while still being content in seasons of singleness. If you are single and desire to be married, then, don’t feel guilty about that desire. Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” Enjoy your singleness and look for a spouse!

Second, contentment sees the goodness of God in one’s circumstances, not detached from them. Do not try to find your ultimate satisfaction in the future fulfillment of a spouse. Find your satisfaction in Christ in your season of singleness. Our focus in singleness should not be primarily oriented toward the hope of future marriage. Our faithfulness in singleness is valuable because it honors Christ. As Sam Allberry says, “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency” (7 Myths About Singleness, 120).

Third, you can be content in singleness and still struggle with the difficulties that come with singleness. We intuitively understand this about marriage. Difficulties in marriage don’t necessarily mean discontentment in marriage (though it can certainly lead there). Christ can handle our delights and our disappointments. You can be honest about the difficulties of singleness while trusting Christ in “in any and every circumstance” (Philippians 4:12).

4. Devote Yourself to a Church Family

In Mark 10:29–31, Jesus says,

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Jesus promises us a family worth a hundred times more than anything we may leave — now in this time. The family that Jesus promises is his church.

Here’s an excerpt from our church’s covenant:

We . . . promise to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to rejoice at each other’s happiness; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and Christian courtesy in speech; to restore one another through discipline; to be slow to take offense, but always ready to reconcile immediately in obedience to Jesus, the head of our church.

What does that sound like? It sounds like a marriage vow. Commitment to a church provides an explicit, mutual responsibility in a spiritual, familial relationship. For a Christian, then, a single life need not be a lonely life. The most practical ways you can practice undivided devotion to Christ will come through a love for his church (John 13:34–35).

Single, Not Lonely

Life in the local church enables me to serve in ways I can’t alone. I get to babysit children while their parents go on dates. I get to go out of my way to spend time with a shut-in that lives further away. I get to use my time to serve in ways that would be difficult for other members in the church. There is no selfish singleness in the kingdom of God. While married Christians expend most of their energy for their physical family, I get to expend most of my energy for my spiritual family.

Living with the local church also lets me depend on other Christians in times of need. A warm, homecooked meal is a phone call away. Church members who know me cry with me, challenge me, and encourage me as I pursue Christlikeness. It doesn’t mean they love me perfectly (I don’t love them perfectly either), but in this life, my church has been as precious to me as brothers, sisters, mother, father, or children.

Singleness has its fair share of joys, difficulties, and opportunities. But our faithfulness now displays our hope in future glory, when people will “neither marry nor [be] given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30), because we’ll see our Bridegroom face to face. And when we see him, we’ll know that the investment we made in this season was worth it.

Did Paul Oppose Fiction?

Last time we were together, we looked at a warning text in the Bible that applies to our media diets. Hebrews 2:1 was the text. It encourages us to focus our attention and not get distracted from the cross. It’s an incredibly important text for our lives inside the “attention economy,” as it’s been called.

Today’s question also relates to our media diets. It comes from an anonymous listener asking about a Christian view of fiction. Here it is: “Pastor John, hello! I have been struggling to understand 1 Timothy 1:4 and Paul’s warning against ‘myths.’ What implications does this verse against ancient myths have for a culture like ours, which is full of contemporary myths and fictional storytelling? Jesus told stories. C.S. Lewis wrote great fictional stories. Harry Potter is a bestselling series of contemporary mythology. So how do we view our own cultural myths — our captivating novels and superhero movies and long-running TV series — considering Paul’s warning to believers to not be devoted to myths? Do we face a spiritual danger in our fiction today or not?”

That’s a good question, exegetically, for what Paul meant. We want to start there and then relate it to some things today. Let’s put the New Testament word “myth” — Greek mythos; it’s the very same word in Greek — in front of us. It’s used five times in the New Testament: four in Paul and once in 2 Peter. Here they are:

Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3–4)

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness. (1 Timothy 4:7)

The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded. (2 Timothy 4:3–5)

Rebuke [the Cretans] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. (Titus 1:13–14)

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

Those are all the uses of the word myth in the New Testament. The dictionary definition, if you look it up in a Greek dictionary of the first century, means a tale, a legend, a story that over time became fictional narrative over against a historical account of things.

Myths Among the Apostles

Now, the way Paul and Peter are using the term, it’s clearly negative. If you take those five texts that I just read, here are the associations with myths: Myths promote speculations. They are like endless genealogies — they don’t get anywhere; they don’t land anywhere solid (1 Timothy 1:4).

Paul calls them “old wives’ tales” in 1 Timothy 4:7 (NIV). Maybe that’s because there were vulnerable women that we meet at the church in Ephesus who were “always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). In other words, there was this endless, speculative approach toward things there that never got its feet on the ground of God’s reality, and myths were feeding into that.

Myths were irreverent and empty; they were the opposite of training oneself in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). They were a wandering away from truth (2 Timothy 4:4). They were cleverly devised and not based on eyewitness accounts (2 Peter 1:16).

If you step back and say, “What’s the big picture here?” Paul’s main problem with them is that they weren’t serving what he calls oikonomia, the household plan of God — namely, the upbuilding of faith (1 Timothy 1:4). I think that would be his summary criticism. These are not doing what God means to be done in his house: Build people up in faith. Give them a firm place to stand, and make their faith strong.

In summary, myths, as Paul and Peter dealt with them in their letters, were not just false, but they were destabilizing. That is, they didn’t result in helping people plant their feet anywhere in God’s reality. They promoted speculations, endless openness, never coming to a knowledge of anything.

G.K. Chesterton once said there’s a good reason to open your mouth (in other words, to be open-minded): you open your mouth in order to bite down on something. You don’t just stand around with your mouth endlessly open. That’s what Paul was concerned with. I see that today in a lot of places, just an endless opening to possibilities but never a closing of your mouth on anything enriching.

Types of Myths

Now, what about myth today? The word has ordinary meanings and technical literary meanings. It’s kind of complex. For example, the second meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a widely held misconception.” That’s like saying, “Oh, that’s a myth. It’s an erroneous belief.” In that sense, a myth is the opposite of reality. It’s false to what is.

Or it can refer to stories in general. They might be true and communicate truth and help truth advance, or they might be misleading.

Or thirdly, it can refer to something quite technical — say, in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as they develop the term and work on writing that kind of literature. A myth, they would say, is a structure of ultimate reality that can be pointed to, hinted at, or embodied in lots of different forms: fables, epic poetry, novels, dramas. In that technical sense, myth is the ultimate story within various literary forms and not reducible to any literary form.

The really important thing to grasp for Lewis is that he means to say that Christianity is true myth. He’s got this essay called “Myth Became Fact.” Here’s a quote: “The heart of Christianity is a myth” — if you stop there, that’d be heresy (I mean, given the ordinary meaning of the word).

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. (God in the Dock, 58–59)

That’s Lewis.

Truth-Denying Stories

Let’s step back now and ask whether myths, as Paul used the term and as many use it today, is a problem or a danger for Christians who love the truth, what really is. That’s what I mean by truth. Truth is God and all that God has revealed about his thoughts and his ways. It’s his view of things. It’s not just what human imagination can make up, but what God says is real.

Paul’s warning was that myths were leading people away from the truth and thus destroying people. They were, in fact, creating an indifference to the truth as anything fixed and stirring up endless speculations. They were fascinating. They were intriguing people, but not helping them land anywhere.

“The use of stories to lead away from truth is always going to be a problem.”

I get nervous when I’m around people who constantly use the words intriguing or fascinating. They don’t ever use categories of truth: right, wrong, good, bad, beautiful, ugly. It’s just intriguing. I think Paul was dealing with that all the time in Ephesus. They don’t get their feet on the ground of truth, and they’re not stable, with a clear sight of God and his ways and his will. That is what we should watch out for. That’s the way I would sum up the issue today.

The use of stories to lead away from truth, and the use of stories to destabilize people by replacing the very concept of firm, true, stable reality with open-endedness, is always going to be a problem. “Ever learning, never coming to a knowledge of the truth” (see 2 Timothy 3:7). That might happen through novels, or TV dramas, or movies, or theater. Do they serve the truth or lead away from it and diminish the importance of it?

Truth-Telling Stories

But here’s the reason we must not lump all fiction into the category of misleading myth or destabilizing myth. Fiction, as a way of leading to truth, is firmly embedded in the Bible. That’s why we can’t toss it out. God inspired it. God used it. For example, Jesus told parables. The point of these little, short fictional stories was to tell the truth in a peculiar way. The prophet Nathan convicted David of his sin by telling him a fictional story about a lamb. Isaiah developed parable-like stories throughout his prophecies, like the one in Isaiah 5:1–6, where Israel is compared to a vineyard. He goes on and on about Israel as his vineyard.

“Fiction, as a way of leading to truth, is firmly embedded in the Bible.”

The Bible rings — I mean, literally rings — on virtually every page with hundreds of similes and metaphors, which you could describe as tiny fictional pictures of things. Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). That’s a little tiny piece of fiction. Or in Revelation, Jesus says to his obedient people, “I will make [you] a pillar in the temple of my God” (Revelation 3:12). That’s a little piece of fiction that tells a glorious truth. I don’t expect to be like Lot’s wife, made out of marble in the kingdom to come. It’s a picture. It’s a fictional picture of something glorious and real. These are what you might call micro-fiction, clearly intended to lead us to the truth. Not all fictional storytelling is anti-truth.

Four Questions for Fiction

So how shall we be discerning? I would ask at least these four questions.

1. What kind of literature or drama are we reading or watching? Do we know it’s fiction or nonfiction?

2. Do we know how fiction can tell the truth or mislead? We need to be aware of both and not be sucked into a view of the world that distorts reality as God intended it to be known. Measure the fictional portrayal of nonfictional reality by the reality revealed in God’s word.

3. Does it increase or clarify our knowledge of and enjoyment of the truth? Do we understand reality better? Do we feel about reality the way God intends for us to feel about the reality being spoken of?

4. Does it leave us with a greater love for truth — not just knowledge but love for truth? Or does it destabilize us and make us more uncertain about the very concept of truth, suspicious of truth, confused about truth?

The apostle Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 that people are perishing because they did not “welcome a love for the truth in order to be saved” (my translation). He didn’t just say people are perishing because they don’t know the truth; he said they’re perishing because they don’t love the truth. Our salvation hangs on loving the truth.

That was Paul’s great concern with myths in his day. They were leading people away from truth. They were undermining the very value of truth. They were knocking out the foundations from under faith and godliness. So they were destroying people. Yes, that can and does happen today.

The Beauty of Silver Hair: Why Churches Need Older Women

Sometime in late 2009, on a chilly winter morning in Dubai (still 90 degrees!), Mack and his wife, Leeann, came up to me in the back of our church’s worship center. They communicated their intention to join our church-planting team working to establish a new church on the north side of town. They were the first to do so. As the months unfolded, Mack, as a founding elder, certainly played a huge role in the new plant. His evangelistic zeal and joyful leadership proved contagious. However, Leeann was the unsung hero.

Over the years, through Leeann’s leadership and discipleship, a number of women matured and began to lead Bible studies with other women throughout the church. One of these leaders is named Happy (whose personality matches her name brilliantly). Happy has since returned to her home in South Africa and has continued her ministry there, but during the first decade of our church plant, Leeann led our women’s ministry and then handed the baton of leadership over to Happy. The spiritual fruit was tangible and beautiful.

“No matter the predominant generational demographic of a church, older women are always a blessing.”

I would never call either of these women “old,” but they are certainly older than me and older than most in our congregation. In an environment where virtually all expatriates leave our city to retire in their home country, older members are a special blessing to our demographically young congregation. Yet no matter the predominant generational demographic of a church, older women are always a blessing.

Older Women Teach Younger Women

Leeann, Happy, and many other women have modeled what the apostle Paul wrote to Pastor Titus:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3–5)

Neither male elders, male preachers, nor the word of God itself negate the need for older women to teach younger women in the church. Every church needs older women who will model godliness and teach younger women to follow their example.


First, faithful older women model godliness and Christlike humility. They are reverent in behavior. They walk with God, and out of their relationship with God they model Christ to the other women in the church. Along with these positive descriptions, Paul gives two examples of irreverent behavior they are to avoid. Both areas indicate a lack of self-control.

Older women are not to be slanderers. Older women model what it means to guard their mouths by not gossiping and harming the church. Our words carry great power, and a wise older woman reminds younger women of the truth of Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” An older woman glorifies her Savior and gives grace to those who hear her when she does not let any unwholesome words come out of her mouth, but only what builds up, as fits the occasion (Ephesians 4:29).

Older women are not to be slaves to much wine. In other words, older women are self-controlled. Alcohol does not enslave them, nor do the typical preoccupations of this world. They live moderate, commendable lives that other women in the church can emulate.


Second, older women are to teach younger women “what is good” (Titus 2:3). Instead of speaking slanderous words, they train younger women to care well for their family and home. Older women have a plethora of wisdom to share with younger women about singleness, marriage, parenting, and other aspects of life. Regardless of one’s situation, older women have likely walked the same paths younger women are now walking. This teaching includes a study of how to love their husbands and children and what true biblical submission looks like. Such topics cannot be relegated to a classroom; they involve life-on-life discipleship.

This teaching Paul has in mind also includes areas like self-control and living pure lives in kindness. And older women teach all of this “that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:5) — that the godliness of a church’s women will display the goodness of God.

Older women are needed to serve all over the local church. They are needed to meet with other women in their homes for Bible studies. They are needed to teach other women in public and private. They are needed to meet one on one (or in small groups) in intentional discipleship relationships. It’s one of my greatest joys of pastoring to hear when people in the church meet with one another simply to open the word and study together.

Older Women Bless the Whole Church

While God calls men to lead and preach in local churches, godly older women tutor the whole church through their faithful ministry, their commendable example, and their Scripture-shaped words. As all watch their godly example of teaching and training younger generations, the result is infectious. Others in the church see their ministry and are challenged to follow in their path as they follow Christ.

“Godly older women tutor the whole church through their faithful ministry.”

By their example, older women instruct the whole church. I still remember learning from Leeann and Happy about godly speech. They were always slow to speak, but at the same time, they were quick to compliment and encourage. Their example still challenges me to build up my fellow church members with God’s word. Alongside those two, I can’t count how many conversations or testimonies I’ve heard from older women in our church that have encouraged me personally as a pastor and as a Christian.

I’m so thankful for Leeann and Happy and the long legacy of sages with silver hair who have blessed our church. I am thankful for their ministry to the younger women, but I am especially thankful for the impact they’ve had on the entire church. They have taught me about living a godly life and equipping the next generation.

Pastors, church leaders, and church members, we would all do well to learn from the older women in our congregations. They have much to teach us about life, ministry, and godliness.

Christians Made Glorious for the Glory of Christ: 2 Thessalonians 1:12–12, Part 3

Does Technology Help or Hurt Dating?

“I haven’t met anyone in a while, and I haven’t been on a date in a couple of years. I’ve thought about trying a dating site — what do you think?”

Having ministered among college and post-college men and women for more than a decade, I’ve heard some version of this question again and again. Each time, it’s clearer to me that Christians today are increasingly dating in a different world from the one I did (and I’ve been married only since 2015). Many experts have already observed the obvious: dating (like so much of life) is changing rapidly because technology is regularly revolutionizing everyday life. And dating websites aren’t the only flashpoint.

“A guy from church started texting me. What should I do?”
“She hasn’t texted me back in a week. What does that mean?”
“He liked a couple of my old posts on Instagram. Does that mean he’s interested?”
“She started following me yesterday. Should I ask her out?”
“She still uses Facebook. Should I be worried?”
“My friend found someone on an app. Should I try that?”

You’ve likely heard other questions (or asked them yourself). If you had to ask all the questions in one, you might ask, Does technology help or hurt Christian dating?

Blessings of Technology

As we ask about the potential benefits and dangers of technology in dating, I need to say up front that technology was a massive blessing in my wife’s and my story. We met at a wedding and dated long-distance for two whole years. Some 95 percent or more of our interactions before our wedding were made possible by technology. Our honeymoon was the longest stretch we’d ever spent in the same city.

Three days after we met in Los Angeles, I flew 1,911 miles away to Minneapolis. Why didn’t the relationship end right there? Because she had acquiesced and given me a special nine-digit code (a much longer story), which I could then type into a small plastic box and immediately hear her voice anytime anywhere, even from faraway snow-covered hills. Fifty years ago, every phone was attached to a wall. One hundred fifty years ago, you couldn’t make a phone call. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunities of social media and instant messaging (or cars and planes, for that matter!). Imagine dating in a world where you could talk only face to face with people nearby or else write long letters (which might take weeks or months to be delivered).

Were it not for planes, phones, and Wi-Fi, my wife and I probably wouldn’t be married. And with technology, long-distance dating wasn’t only possible, but came with its own advantages and benefits. So I thank God for technology, and specifically for how technology can serve dating and marriage.

Hurdles of Technology

Now, someone might read about our story and conclude technology is all blessing and no curse when it comes to dating. The reality, however, is that the blessings (which are real) come with equally real dangers and consequences — and all the more so in the pursuit of marriage.

“We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space.”

While technology makes many aspects of relationships easier (or even possible!), it can make other aspects more challenging. Probably the highest hurdle of technology is achieving and maintaining meaningful levels of relationship. We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space, to experience the kind of love and joy that’s possible only through physical presence (2 John 12; Romans 1:11–12). Technology can effectively (and even beautifully) complement that kind of togetherness, but it can’t replace it. We’re learning this again and again and again (for evidence, revisit the heartaches and challenges of the last three years).

For sure, technology allows us to have and keep many more relationships (or, in this case, allows us to “meet” many more men or women whom we might date), but technology struggles to create meaningful relationships where there wasn’t one already. Even how we talk about technology confirms its less-than-ideal role in our relationships: “I’ve tried everything else and come up empty, so I’m thinking about trying a website.” Technology connects more dots over larger distances, but the dots are unavoidably fuzzier (no matter how high-definition our cameras become). We simply can’t get to know people virtually the way we can in person (I mean, we call them virtual interactions). I would argue, then, that technology is weakest in what dating relationships need most: clarity and depth.

People pursuing marriage want to get to know each other well enough to decide whether to make an exclusive, lifelong, for-better-or-worse vow. So how well is technology helping us make that decision? Well, it depends on how we use it.

Two Kinds of Technology

I recently stumbled onto a new way to see both the benefits and the hurdles of technology in the pursuit of marriage. In his book The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch helpfully differentiates between two kinds of technology: devices and instruments.

Devices, he says, are kinds of technology that discourage human effort and eventually replace human labor altogether (the furnace, the phonograph, the Roomba). Instruments, on the other hand, encourage and extend human effort and ingenuity (the bicycle, the piano, the telescope). Here’s how Crouch describes instruments:

There is a kind of technology that is easily distinguished from magic — a kind that involves us more and more deeply as persons rather than diminishing and sidelining us. This kind of technology elevates and dignifies human work, rather than reducing human beings to drones that do only the work the robots have not yet automated. It does not give us effortless power but instead gives us room to exert ourselves in deeper and more rewarding ways. (134)

As he goes on to observe (and this is where the distinction becomes hyper-relevant for dating), our phones can be devices or instruments, depending on how we use them. “With the right software it can become the ultimate instrument for any number of exercises of personal heart, soul, mind, and strength. Or, of course, it can serve as the ultimate device” (146). Our phones can encourage and extend our effort and ingenuity, or they can discourage and replace them. And perhaps never more so than in how we woo and date one another.

Two Kinds of Men

One question we could ask about technology and dating, then, would be, Is the way we’re using technology — phone calls, text messaging, social media, dating websites and apps — encouraging and extending the right kind of effort? Or is it rewarding (or at least compensating for) laziness? And while this question can go both directions, I have men particularly in mind, because I believe God wants men to bear a greater responsibility for leadership and initiative in marriage, beginning with dating. In the hands of the right kind of men, technology can strengthen and multiply blessings in a relationship. In the wrong hands, however, it can become a relational curse.

So when does technology help in Christian dating? When it helps us (again, men in particular) rise to meet the demands of love, rather than helping us avoid them. Technology helps when it draws the right kind of risk-taking initiative out of a man. And it helps when it serves what happens when we’re face to face (like we’re meant to be in relationships). Technology hurts when it replaces initiative and displaces presence.

The kind of man who uses technology well in dating wears the selflessness of Philippians 2:3–4, even when he’s online: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He wears the intentionality of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He wears the humility of 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” Above all, he puts on love (Colossians 3:14), even when shielded by a keyboard.

Dating Devices or Instruments?

Let’s try to apply these principles to some real technology today. For single women, how do the men pursuing you use their phones?

Take social media, for example. Do they use social media to flirt and signal interest in order to avoid the possibility of rejection (device)? Or are their interactions with you marked by honest and intentional initiative (instrument)? Is their general presence online the typical exhibition of impulsiveness, laziness, and self-gratification (what social media companies prey on)? Or is it refreshingly selfless, considerate, self-controlled, and valuable to others (instrument)? I’m not encouraging you to over-analyze every post or like, but on the whole, what patterns do you see?

Or what about dating apps or websites? Do their profiles exaggerate their better qualities and hide their weaknesses (device)? Or are their profiles refreshingly honest, modest, and Godward (instrument)? When they call, are most of your conversations meaningful and beneficial (instrument)? Or are they shallow, meandering, and self-indulgent (device)? Are their texts consistently thoughtful and caring (instrument) — or listless and cavalier (device)? Do they text in ways they wouldn’t speak to you face to face (device)?

We could ask dozens of more questions. In short, are phones drawing the right kind of effort and intentionality out of the men interested in you? Men, you can ask some of the same questions of women you’re interested in, but over time men will inevitably (and rightly) set the tone in relationships. Technology can help relationships, and technology can hurt them. Unfortunately, many naively assume the former, while living the latter.

What Do You Want from Dating?

Another good way to assess technology’s role in your dating might be to ask, What do you really want from dating? For what it’s worth, this question is a good one for how we use technology in every area of life. Far too often we assume technology is helping us achieve what’s important to us. Often technology promises to help us, and convinces us it’s helping, but only ends up distracting and undermining us.

“Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it.”

When it comes to dating, then, what do you want to accomplish? Have you even thought of dating in those terms? As I’ve said elsewhere, the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy; the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Technology can be a wonderful vehicle to that kind of clarity (I know, because airplanes and phones helped bring my wife and me together). Technology can also be an obscurer, hiding concerns and dangers we would easily spot face to face. Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it. So, are the ways you use technology in dating helping you see each other more clearly? Over time, are your calls and texts and posts and video chats helping you each decide whether you want to marry?

If you want the short-lived, adrenaline-filled pleasure of thin, low-commitment romance, technology has very effectively reproduced those relationships by the millions. Billion-dollar companies are wholly devoted to this kind of “love.” You’re just a few quick swipes from your next fling. If, however, you’re looking for a deeper, safer, more durable, more satisfying, more Christ-exalting love — for the kind of holy intimacy and security only a covenant in Christ can provide — if you want to live out the mystery of the gospel in a lifelong union (Ephesians 5:32), if you want to see and enjoy more of God in the harrowing and thrilling trenches of marriage, then technology may still help you, but only when it complements and encourages what can happen face to face.

Turn Down the Noise and Listen to Jesus

Audio Transcript

After you write a book, and the book gets published, what follows is a season of travel. You get asked to speak at churches and conferences on the topic of your new book. That’s generally how it works. I wrote a little book on life inside our media culture. It’s called Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age. And once that book was out, I got asked to speak on the topic, to explain what it means to live out the Christian life inside this age of viral video, addictive gaming, blockbuster movies, and endless feeds of new social media.

And as I labored to summarize my main points into one message, I returned over and over again to what has now become for me the most important verse in the whole Bible on why we have attention. Why did God make us to focus on things? Why do we have an appetite for media? Why are we the only creatures who can be glued to a screen all day long?

The answer is in Hebrews 2:1, a verse that follows right after Hebrews 1, an entire chapter full of the supremacy of Christ. Following that chapter on Christ’s supremacy comes the first verse of chapter 2, which says, “Therefore” — in light of all that Christ is for us in chapter 1 — “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” It’s an incredibly relevant and important text for us inside the “attention economy,” as it’s now called.

Well, my friend Dan here at Desiring God was listening through the John Piper sermon archive, and he recently sent me Pastor John’s sermon on Hebrews 2:1 — a sermon I had not heard until recently. And lo and behold, in his sermon, he connects Hebrews 2:1 to our media diets. Here’s Pastor John.

It’s a remarkable thing to me that in chapter 1 of Hebrews, there’s no command to us; we are not told to do anything in chapter 1. Chapter 1 is all celebration, all declaration, to this effect: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

And then the rest of the chapter describes the Son. He’s the heir of all things (verse 2). He upholds the universe with the word of his power (verse 3). He created all things (verse 2). He’s the radiance of God’s glory (verse 3). He’s the exact representation of the Father’s nature (verse 3). He made purification for sin (verse 3). He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty (verse 3). He is over all angels, dispatching them to do his bidding among the saints (verses 4, 7, 14). He is worshiped by everything in the universe except his Father (verse 6). He is God (verses 8–12).

That’s chapter 1. No commandments, no duties — just truth. Just glorious, Christ-exalting revelation of God’s final, decisive word, Jesus Christ.

Final Word

You remember a couple of weeks ago when I called it the final, decisive word — because it says, “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2) — and that the reason it’s the last days is because there’s no third chapter of revelation. You’ve got an Old Testament period of revelation, then you’ve got Christ in the last days, and then eternity and glory. There’s no third era by which God does a new thing besides Jesus in speaking to the world. It does not mean that, subsequent to Jesus, God can’t communicate with us. It means that all of his communication flows from Jesus, points to Jesus, is measured and proved by Jesus, orients around Jesus. Jesus is God’s decisive word to the world. It’s the last word that he has to say.

“All of God’s communication flows from Jesus, points to Jesus, is measured and proved by Jesus, orients around Jesus.”

Do you see the logical connecting link between chapter 1, the revelation of God’s decisive final word in Jesus, and the first commandment of the book, “We must pay much closer attention to [or take heed to, or attend to] what we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1)? And the logical link is “therefore.” All of chapter 1 is designed to buttress the first commandment of chapter 2 — namely, “listen.” Everything he said about Jesus in chapter 1 was meant to say, “Wake up! Listen. Don’t drift — listen. Take heed. Look. Zero in.” That’s why that little connecting phrase is there. “Therefore” — that is, because of all that you’ve seen in chapter 1 — “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1).

So if you boil down all of chapter 1 and the first verse of chapter 2 into one simple sentence, it goes like this: “Since God has spoken in these last days by a Son, therefore we must give close heed to what we’ve heard.” The dignity, the majesty, the glory of the word spoken — namely, Jesus — increases the sense of seriousness of the command. Listen to him. Listen to what he has said.

What Are You Listening To?

Now, it may seem strange to you — I don’t know where you are in your listening to Jesus — that so much weight would be put on the simple command, “Give heed to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Pay close attention to what you’ve heard in this final, decisive word that God spoke in Jesus.” But it isn’t surprising to me because I know my bent not to listen.

Let me ask you this: What are you listening to? Everybody’s listening. Even deaf people listen to something. Everybody’s listening. If you want to listen to a music group, you make provisions: you have a tape deck in the car, and you have a tape. If you want to listen to the news, you make provisions: you have a radio in the kitchen, or you make sure the TV is on at the right time in the evening. You make provisions, you take steps so you can listen to what you want to listen to. If you want to listen to the latest tale told by John Grisham — I think of this because I walked into the Gatwick Airport in London, and in the London Airport bookstore, there were walls of John Grisham novels with a big sign that says, “The most popular author in the world.” So I saw every other person had Rainmaker on the plane (it looked like).

“Listen. Please listen to Jesus. Don’t drift away.”

If you want to listen, you buy, you move, you get, you position yourself, you take steps, you make provisions so that you can listen — if you want to listen. Everybody’s listening to something. And I’m asking you, What are you listening to? If you want to listen to a missionary who’s in a hard place like Liberia or Sierra Leone or Zaire or Congo, you buy a computer and get on email and you download a couple times a day to make sure you don’t miss more than a couple hours’ worth. You take steps. If you want to listen, you take steps and you listen. Everybody’s listening. And I’m asking, What are you listening to? What are you listening to?

Light and Easy Command

The first commandment in the book of Hebrews is “Listen.” Listen. Please listen to Jesus. Don’t drift away. Don’t turn the radio up so loud. Don’t turn the TV on so long. Don’t read the novel so consistently that you don’t tune in over and over and over to see and consider and hear Jesus. That’s what he’s pleading, and that’s what I’m pleading this morning. The whole first chapter is written without any command in order to make the command light and easy. This is not hard, folks. Listening is easy. That’s why we do it all day long. It’s easy. Having the radio off in the car is harder than having it on. Test yourself. Listening is easy.

God is not a meanie. God spent fourteen verses describing the spectacular superiority of his final word, Jesus Christ, over all angels and all television and all radio and all novels and all business and all commerce and all leisure and all education and everything in the universe so that when we get to this easy command, it would feel easy. Only one thing makes it hard: if you don’t want to listen.

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