Desiring God

Conceited Motherhood: Three Temptations Moms Face

A pyrophobic firefighter. A book-averse librarian. A doctor who is grossed out by germs. We shake our heads at the thought of these living, breathing oxymorons. If such workers exist (and they just well might), we would think them comical at best and hypocritical at worst.

Conceited mothers are no different.

By its very nature, motherhood is humbling work. From the moment of her child’s conception, a woman willingly opens her womb for the ministry of hospitality. She welcomes new life by giving her body as a sacrifice, laying down her comfort and pre-baby body on the maternal altar of love.

After intense pains bring forth her child, a mother’s labor has only just begun. Moment by moment, day by day, over many years, she assumes the role of a servant leader, laying herself down for the good of her kids.

Yes, motherhood is humbling work. And that makes conceited motherhood a sad contradiction.

War Against Conceit

We moms know this, and yet we still wage war against selfishness. Most mornings, I have to verbally remind myself before my two little kids come downstairs, “They are not here to help you. You are here to help them.” For those of us who love Christ and long to be more like him, our struggle with sin remains — but thank God there is a struggle! Our fight against it offers good evidence that we are truly alive in Christ. He has changed our hearts and given us the desire to be humble as he is humble:

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.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3–8)

“To be a humble mom is to look increasingly like Jesus as we look increasingly to Jesus.”

Jesus Christ is the most humble human who has ever lived. So, to be a humble mom — a mom who fights against “selfish ambition or conceit,” and therefore a mom in the truest, God-given sense of the word — is to look increasingly like Jesus as we look increasingly to Jesus. Only as we realize that he lives to serve his people (us!) will we fight the temptation toward selfishness and long for a heart that looks like his.

Because knowing and loving him is more satisfying than anything we could gain by sin.

Three Temptations We Face

Let’s identify now three ways that selfish ambition and conceit tempt mothers like you and me, following Paul’s flow of thought in the passage above. Then we will counter each of these temptations with a lingering look at Jesus, the holy and humble Son of God, who alone can deliver us from self and clothe us in his humility.

Temptation 1: Count Yourself More Significant Than Your Kids

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

You know the thought: This work — whether diaper changing, mess cleaning, snack making, or repeating myself a hundred times — is below me. I am too good for this. We may not say these words, but many of us think or feel them. Motherhood involves repetitive, simple, lowly work toward little ones, and so it’s easy to think we are too important for it.

Eve’s original temptation from the garden is ours: we want to be like God. And yet, in our pride, we don’t realize how low our God has stooped to serve sinners like us.

We may think we have good reasons for struggling to serve, but if anyone actually does, it would be the Son of God. And yet, nothing kept him from stooping to help us:

Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)

This is astounding. The Son of God left his high position in heaven and made his home in the dust of earth. He left his unseen form as God of the universe and confined himself to a human body and soul. He left the glory he had known for all eternity to walk among sinful and murderous people.

“In our motherly pride, we may want to be like God — but the truth is, our God has become like us.”

In our motherly pride, we may want to be like God — but the truth is, our God has become like us. He wrapped himself in human flesh to deliver us from our sinful flesh, from the selfishness and conceit that would keep us from being faithful mothers who willingly lower ourselves to serve our kids, counting it our joy and privilege to do so. Only as we gaze upon the incarnate humility of Jesus will our definition of significance be altered, for his stooping posture of service is the perfect picture of greatness (Matthew 23:11). With all our hearts, we confess our pride and ask him to empty us of our former selves, filling us instead with Spirit-given joy in taking the posture of a servant (John 13:14).

Temptation 2: Look Only to Your Own Interests

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

Every mom knows how often plans change. And this is humbling. As we realize that we are not God, that our future is not in our control, and that only he knows what’s next, we are confronted with how tightly we hold to our own interests. We’re made aware of our vice grip on our circumstances. We think, This wasn’t my plan. We need to spend precious naptime minutes disciplining our child instead of resting; we must cancel our long-awaited vacation because everyone has the flu; our dream of motherhood is thwarted by a life-altering diagnosis in one of our children.

The question for us is, How will we respond to God when plans change? In pride, or in humility?

During his earthly ministry, Jesus’s posture was to joyfully humble himself to the will of his Father. Even as he sought rest, solitude, and prayer after a busy season of ministering, he found himself confronted by needy crowds (sound familiar?). And what was his response? He was not annoyed or angry, but “he had compassion on them,” for he knew that these people were sent to him straight from his Father (Matthew 14:13–21).

He looked not only to his own interests, but to the interests of others, and ultimately to the interests of his Father.

The ultimate display of his obedience to the Father was the cross: “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The sinless one took on our sin, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath in our place. What matchless obedience! And this, so we also would joyfully humble ourselves before God and obey his will, looking to his interests and the interests of others above our own.

This is freedom, momma. To be released from the tyranny and fallenness of self into the perfect ways and infinitely wise agenda of God as we serve our kids — this is the truest life, and true, humble motherhood.

Temptation 3: Forget Who You Are in Christ

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5)

What mind does Paul call us to have? A humble one. A Christlike one. But lest we get discouraged by our remaining selfishness, by how far we still feel from Jesus’s humility, Paul reminds us of a vital reality: our union with Christ. “Which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

Mom, you no longer belong to yourself. If you have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, then you have been united to him in saving faith. This means that you have an unshakable security in Christ that no bad day of motherhood can undo. It means you are not left to your own resources as you fight selfishness, but have his Spirit of humility dwelling within you. It means that sin is no longer your master; Jesus is.

So when you are tempted to forget who you are in Christ — when the pull toward lofty pride or your own interests feels too strong; when you would rather scoff at your kid’s mess than clean it up (again); when you “just want to be done,” but the needs keep rolling in — remember that the living Savior lives in you. The exalted one, seated at the Father’s right hand, has made his home within you by his Spirit. You are Christ’s, he is yours, and he joyfully gives himself, without restraint, to you.

You are united to the God of all creation, who emptied himself to serve you to the point of death, and all the way through it to resurrection life. And if this perfectly humble God is on your side, momma, what conceit or selfishness can stand against you?

Are Silvanus and Timothy Apostles? 1 Thessalonians 2:5–8, Part 3

A Wife No Man Would Want: Lessons from the Hardest Marriage

If there was a wedding, it had to be one of the most awkward ones in history.

Plenty of marriages begin blissfully and then crash into misery years in (maybe even months), but this was different. This marriage wasn’t destined for disaster; it was a tragedy before the dress touched the aisle. The whole town knew what kind of girl she was. Many of the men knew firsthand. As the groom said his vows, “I take you for better or worse . . .” the idea of worse, even at the altar, seemed like some dreadful understatement. And the idea of better, like some naive fantasy.

As he stood there, he knew exactly what he was getting into. He knew tears were waiting to be shed. He knew how many long nights he might sleep alone, wondering where she could be, whether she was safe, what man might be holding her in his arms. He knew the excruciating conversations he might have to have with their children. He knew — and yet he married her anyway. He took her to be his. Why?

The Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. (Hosea 1:2–3)

Bitter Paradox

We don’t know whether Hosea and Gomer had a typical Hebrew ceremony, but their marriage would have received lots of attention. It was meant to. As the two became one, God was seizing the wandering eyes of his unfaithful people.

When God told Hosea to take this loose woman as his lawfully wedded wife, he was making a statement — a loud and offensive statement. “Why her, Lord?” Hosea might have rightly asked. “Because the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Their love toward me has grown cold and complacent, they take my grain and wine and protection for granted, and they’ve crawled into bed, again and again, with the gods of this world. Not just whoredom, but great whoredom. They worship passionately at the altars of carnal pleasure, of plenty, of comfort, of pride, and then dare to come home and offer me whatever little they have left.

And God had warned them. But they would not listen, so he painted them a picture instead — a dark, shameful, and painful picture. He planned a wedding no one would want to attend. He held up a mirror and made them want to look away. He sent Hosea to love and cherish Gomer, “a wife of whoredom.” A bride who could not be trusted. A bitter paradox.

The Kind of Whore He Loved

What made Gomer such a whore? We’re not told much, but we meet her through the adultery of God’s people.

Wayward Israel shows us that Gomer was the kind of woman who says, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink” (Hosea 2:5). In other words, I’m not getting what I want at home, so I’ll look for a man who will give me what I want. She was the kind of woman who took what her husband provided and used it to attract and please other men (Hosea 2:8; see James 4:3). She was the kind of woman who gave other men credit for all her husband had done for her (Hosea 2:12). She was the kind of woman unworthy of a good man.

And yet he loved her. Hosea chose her, sought her, bought her, and loved her. “So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, ‘You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you’” (Hosea 3:2–3). Can you hear the sermon God had prepared? Israel, let me show you who you really are — and let me show you who I really am. If it were not for the devotion of Hosea, their marriage, like so many marriages, would have only preached worldliness, selfishness, and alienation. It may have painted sinful Israel well, but it would have been graffiti across the love of God.

The relentless love of a faithful husband, though, made the whore into an emblem of mercy, and their marriage into a miracle of grace.

Heaven’s Wedding Homily

Their wedding would have been jarring not mainly because of Gomer’s bruised and tattered history, but because of the strange and unexpected brightness in his eyes, eyes that were shadows of the loving eyes of heaven. Feel the sudden contrast halfway through these verses:

I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals     when she burned offerings to themand adorned herself with her ring and jewelry,     and went after her lovers     and forgot me, declares the Lord.

Therefore, behold, I will allure her,     and bring her into the wilderness,     and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:13–14)

She dressed up for another man. She slid off the ring I bought for her. When she left, she walked right past our kids. And even when the other man would not have her, she chased him. She spent it all to have him. And she forgot me. Therefore . . . what? How would you finish that sentence in the wake of such betrayal?

“God wants the wife no man would want. He woos the woman most men would have deserted.”

Therefore, I will allure her. That’s the climax of this sermon called marriage: God wants the wife no man would want. After all she’s done to make him leave, his love burns warm. He woos the woman most men would have deserted. And he will have her, even though it will cost him in the worst way possible. One day soon, his Son would come and bear the name No Mercy (Hosea 1:6), so that we, the wife of whoredom, might be called beloved.

Scandal of Betrothal

As God watches the bride he saved out of slavery plunge herself into adultery, he knows full well he will one day bring her home. He promises to find her, rescue her, and woo her.

I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)

He repeats himself three times because he knows how inconceivable, even scandalous this love would be: “I will betroth you. . . . I will betroth you. . . . I will betroth you. . . .” The repetition drives a stake of hope into all our fears that God might not forgive us. “I can forgive. . . . I will forgive. . . . I will love you as if you had never left.”

Notice he says, “I will betroth you,” not just, “I will take you back.” Ray Ortlund presses on the wonder of this love:

The mystery of grace revealed here is a promise of covenant renewal — although even the word renewal is weak, for this oracle promises not merely the reinvigoration of the old marriage but the creation of a new one. . . . The ugly past will be forgotten and they will start over again, as if nothing had ever gone wrong. (God’s Unfaithful Wife, 70)

The wife of whoredom was received like the epitome of purity — like the most desirable bride. The night of forgiveness and reconciliation was as a wedding night. No matter what she saw in the mirror, his eyes now told her she was new and irresistible, his “lily among brambles” (Song of Solomon 2:2). When Hosea went to the altar and resolved to delight in his adulterous wife, he preached a text that had not yet been written:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27)

Premarital Counseling of a Prophet

What might Hosea’s love for Gomer mean for marriages today? While we are not prophets commissioned to marry prostitutes, our marriages are prophetic in their own way.

Like Hosea’s countercultural love, every faithful Christian marriage resists and confronts a world in love with sin. Every loyal spouse is a foil for the ugliness and destructiveness of our mutiny against God — and a lighthouse alluring more sinners into his mercy. Every vow that holds, despite all the reasons to leave, tells someone that real Love exists, that forgiveness is possible, that there’s more to life than Satan can offer.

“Who might see your marriage and be shaken free from worldly and empty ways of living?”

We don’t know how many in Israel saw Hosea, realized the pitiful thinness of their earthly lives, and went deep with God again. Who might see your marriage and be shaken free from worldly and empty ways of living? Who might finally meet God because you stayed, loved, forgave, and pursued your spouse?

If Hosea and Gomer teach us anything about marriage, though, it’s that the love of God shines brightest through us when marriage is hardest. Can you bear to believe that? Happy, flourishing marriages may sing the gospel in big, bright major chords, but the minor chords of difficult and devoted marriages are often all the more arresting. Their beauty is haunting for being so much harder to explain.

The uniquely challenging aspects of our marriages really can become the greatest stages for true love — for displaying what it means to be chosen, forgiven, and treasured by God through Christ. This is the glory of the marriage covenant, and its beams are strongest when they shine through our marital weaknesses and struggles.

Is God Present or Absent in Hell?

Audio Transcript

Serious Bible students ask sober questions about hard texts. That’s what I love about this podcast and our listeners. Sober questions about hard texts get asked and answered here. That will be especially true for the next two weeks as we narrow our attention to three hard Bible questions from you related to eschatology, questions on the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians. We have three of them.

Namely, is God present or is he absent in his eternal judgment? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say he’s absent. That’s today. Then many of you have asked about the man of lawlessness in chapter 2. Who is it? That’s on Friday in APJ 1803. And then a question about God sending strong delusions into the world. Does he do that today? How so? That’s a question on 2 Thessalonians 2:11. And that will be on the table two Fridays from now in APJ 1806.

So today, we have sober questions on the nature of God’s judgment. A listener named David writes us, “Pastor John, thank you for taking my question. It’s a serious one. Namely, is the presence of God in hell? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say no. Is that right?” And Josiah writes us this: “Pastor John, hello. I read that hell includes the presence of God, per Revelation 14:10. Or is it away from the presence of God, per 2 Thessalonians 1:9? Can you help me understand which is right?”

Whenever I am asked a question about hell, I always feel the need to take a deep breath, so to speak, and step back and make sure that we are not handling this reality in a breezy, easy, superficial, cavalier way. So, let me say a few things by way of preface so that we can feel the appropriate weight of the question.

Thinking About Hell Too Little

It’s possible, I think, to think about hell too little and too much. To think about hell too little would mean that it rarely comes into your mind and therefore has little effect upon your life. But the Bible’s teaching on hell is not just for the sake of random, occasional curiosity. It’s for the sake of sober-mindedness, to keep us from thinking that distrusting God and disobeying God are matters of little consequence.

“The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.”

The knowledge of hell is intended to help us feel the moral outrage of preferring God’s creation over God, which is, I think, the essence of sin. The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.

The reason hell is eternal is not because the sin that sends us there was eternal, but because the offense against an infinitely worthy God is an infinite offense. So when we think of hell too little, we probably don’t tremble at the majesty and justice of God the way we should. Hell has a way of making life more serious, and thinking of hell too little will probably result in a moral and emotional life that is not in sync with the greatness, and the beauty, and the worth, and the justice, and the wisdom, and the grace of God.

Thinking About Hell Too Much

But it is also possible to think of hell, I think, too much. Hell really is a horrible reality. Consider the descriptions of it in the mouth of Jesus: “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51), a place “where their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48), a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30), a place of “anguish” (Luke 16:24), a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).

Or as Paul calls it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a place of “eternal destruction,” with “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8). Or as John describes it in Revelation 14:11, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”

These descriptions are terrible beyond words. But some people try to soften the horror by saying, “Well, words like fire and darkness are symbols.” And I want to say that the problem with that is, if they are symbols, they’re symbols of something, and it’s not less. I mean, symbols are an effort to put into words the unspeakable. That’s what symbols are for. To call something a symbol of fire means it’s worse, not better. Realities correspond to symbols.

It is possible, however, to think about this reality too much. I don’t think the human mind and heart are equipped in this fallen world to think for long periods of time on the reality of hell. God has a mind and a heart that can keep this reality in focus and in proportion to other realities so that it has no ill effect on him. I don’t think our minds and our hearts, in this age, can properly ponder such horrors for very long. We need glimpses — yes, we do. We need reminders, yes, but we don’t need continual consciousness of sufferings too great to endure.

Is God Present or Absent?

Now, David and Josiah in their questions both asked, more or less, about the presence of God in hell. And they point to two very relevant texts. Revelation 14:10, which gives the impression that the Lamb of God may be present in hell, says that those who worship the beast “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” And the other text is 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

So, first, a word about Revelation 14:10. When it refers to the torments of hell in the presence of the Lamb, the term “in the presence of” means “in the sight of,” not “in the same space as.” The Greek word used literally is “before the Lamb”; they will be tormented “before the Lamb.” The same word is used in Revelation 3:2 like this: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” That’s the same exact construction: “in the sight of my God,” “in the presence of my God.” He can see. It’s before him in that sense.

So when we say that something happens “in the sight of God” or “in the sight of the Lamb,” we don’t necessarily mean that God or the Lamb is in the same space of what they are seeing. So, I think Revelation 14:10 does not say that God or Jesus or the Lamb has some kind of ongoing residence in hell. But they can and do see hell.

Now, when 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the punishments of hell will be “away from the presence of the Lord,” the word for presence there is face, “away from the face of the Lord.” In other words, hell is a fulfillment of the threat in Ezekiel 7:22, for example, where God says, “I will turn my face from them.” It’s the exact opposite of the blessing in Numbers 6:24–26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you;the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

“There is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.”

That’s the exact opposite of what happens in hell. That does not happen in hell. The gracious countenance of God does not shine upon them. And there is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.

Righteous Judgment Forever

So what shall we say, then, about the question whether God’s presence is in hell? I suppose you could say there are two senses in which God is “present.” First, he upholds everything by the word of his power through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3). So, hell would have no existence if God were not keeping it in existence. And second, hell is described as punishment and judgment — as not just consequence, but punishment. And so there will be an awareness of those in hell of God’s righteous disapproval present. His disapproval, his judgment, his punishment — that will be present to their minds forever.

But neither of those two ways of thinking about God’s presence suggests his personal presence. So, we can say that God is not present in this sense: His beauty will not be seen or known. His fellowship will not be enjoyed. His relief and his mercy will not be experienced. If there’s any sense in which God’s presence is felt as an upholding force, it will be the presence of his righteous judgment and wrath.

Hell is a reality to be avoided at all costs. And Jesus Christ, God’s Son, himself bore the greatest cost by becoming a curse for us on the cross (Galatians 3:13) — for everyone who would believe (John 3:16). Jesus became our deserved hell, and I urge everyone in the sound of my voice to fly to Jesus as your only hope of escaping these torments.

Harry Potter Turns 25: What I Saw While Reading to My Sons

I almost missed Harry Potter.

When the first book released on June 26, 1997 — now a quarter century ago — I was sixteen years old and consumed with American Legion baseball. That summer revolved around nine-inning games, at least three times each week, in full catcher’s gear, in the South Carolina heat and humidity. At the time, I had very little interest in reading anything, much less made-up stories about wizards and magic. Besides, I was about to be a junior in high school, and I fancied myself far too old for a book about 11-year-olds.

In the coming years, as enthusiasm for the series spread like wildfire around me, I observed with reluctance the increasing length of each volume. I’m a slow reader. Perhaps I could make time for the first book, but not thousands of pages after that. Honestly, my growing aversion to the series wasn’t the well-meaning Christian cautions about magic and wizards — but it was easy to join that chorus.

The final book appeared in 2007, at almost 800 pages. It took me fifteen years to finally take up and read the whole (1-million-word) series, which I did, aloud, to my twin boys during lockdowns and quarantines. I’m glad I did. And especially the final book.

Spiritually-Aware Stories

Something else happened along the way, after 1997, to open my mind beyond the simplistic criticism (and convenient excuse) of magical fiction: I read The Lord of the Rings. In Middle-earth, I discovered how an intentional, spiritually-aware visit to a fantasy world can have real-world value. Too many trusted and deeply Christian friends who shared my love for Gandalf and Frodo also appreciated Dumbledore and Harry. Eventually I wanted to see Hogwarts for myself, and with my sons inching closer to age appropriateness, I thought it might be a good journey to take together.

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the roughly 100 hours it took to read the whole series aloud. I have grown to love reading aloud to our kids, and think it’s an especially good investment for dads to make in fostering life and growth apart from screens. But here, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first book, I’d like to share some of what I saw in Harry Potter, with Christian eyes, as a father, that made the long trek worthwhile.

I could recount many simple (and useful) moral takeaways — lessons, for instance, about humility, self-control, and childlikeness (not childishness) which I often paused over to drive home with my boys. But here I’ll mention just three related expressions of one great, deeper, and markedly Christian theme. (Surely, these few simple lessons will not be enough for some readers. For those who want more, I’d recommend Alan Jacob’s 2007 review of the final book, as well as Kyle Strobel’s 50-minute lecture from 2017.)

As for Christian voices still disapproving of Harry Potter on the basis of it advocating witchcraft, I’ll say this: that criticism seemed to fade after the final volume appeared in 2007. In hindsight, the lesson we might learn is that wisdom often holds judgment till the end. Be careful judging a book without its conclusion. Alan Jacobs has observed that once the series finished, the (premature) Christian concerns about magic were soon eclipsed by “another and different set of critics . . . for whom the evident traditionalism of the books is their greatest flaw” — that is, the progressives that found the conclusion “defaced by ‘heteronormativity.’”

In contrast to the final movie, the final volume contains deeply Christian themes (along with two references to Scripture) that, for many of us, demonstrates the value of the whole series.

Weakness That Shames the Powerful

However deliberate J.K. Rowling was in simply writing a great story versus a Christian one (it is often hard to separate the two), we Christians might see a fresh expression of an ancient truth, ever in need of reminders: that Jesus’s counterintuitive way triumphs over the way of the world.

“Harry comes to see the power of self-sacrificial love over the love of power.”

In other words, the key themes of the final book in particular draw together threads of the whole series, to echo how the divine ways of God are so often unexpected in the present age. The world around us, our society, has its standards and expectations for wisdom, strength, and nobility — on natural terms. But Harry, with Dumbledore’s guidance and well-timed help from his friends, comes to see the power of self-sacrificial love over the love of power.

So too is the counterintuitive way of Christ, as captured in 1 Corinthians 1:27–28:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

In Christ, we have come to know what it means to glory in what the world sees as folly, weakness, and shame.

“Hogwarts at its best resembles how Christ builds his church, not with the world’s best and brightest.”

A first expression of this is Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s leadership. Rather than a club for the wise, strong, and pure-blooded (as some would have it), it is a refuge for all kinds, and particularly for misfits who are not welcomed and appreciated elsewhere. Outcasts like Hagrid are received, and even contribute, at Hogwarts. Jake Meador has pointed out how in this respect Hogwarts at its best resembles how Christ builds his church, not with the world’s best and brightest — the wise, strong, and noble. Outcasts and untouchables find welcome at Hogwarts, and usefulness, that they find nowhere else.

Last Enemy to Be Destroyed

A second expression comes in the theme of death, one of the series’s main emphases. In the contrast between Voldemort and Harry, we’re confronted with the question, Will you dedicate your life to avoiding death at all costs, or look to life beyond it and embrace it when your time comes?

When the time came, Christ did not avoid death, but embraced it, and conquered it on the other side. He went through death, not around it — and until his return, so do we (Hebrews 2:14–15). Remarkably, Rowling quotes 1 Corinthians 15:26, etched into the gravestone of Harry’s parents: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” At first, this confuses Harry. Noting death as the last enemy to be destroyed sounded like the dark lord and his minions. Or perhaps there’s another meaning. For us, we know Christ as risen, but death still lingers in this age. Death will be the last enemy to fall, but it will fall. Death is not only an enemy, but one that will be destroyed.

Dumbledore comments as early as the first book, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” There is a profoundly Christian way to read in that statement what Jacobs calls “Dumbledore’s governing principle,” which is “repeatedly opposed to Voldemort’s belief that death is the worst thing imaginable and that it must therefore be mastered, ‘eaten.’”

Christ’s Way Proves Greater

Finally is the theme of power, which resonates deeply with the way the Christian gospel turns our wielding of power upside down.

First come the warnings against worldly power — from Harry’s Godfather, Sirius (“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals,” Book 4, Chapter 27), to Dumbledore’s unmasking of the insecurity of tyrants (“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” Book 6, Chapter 23).

In the end, it is not the natural perspective and use of power (the way of the world) that wins the war. It is the unexpected, subversive power of humility and self-sacrificial love. Of all people, are not Christians the least caught off guard by this? Our Lord “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He is the one, then, that God highly exalted and gave all authority in heaven and on earth (Philippians 2:9; Matthew 28:18). And while we may not be surprised to find this theme, it is still glorious to see it afresh in a new portrayal, and love what we have in Christ. Oh, how important to remember the surprising glory of the gospel of the God whose ways and thoughts are not ours, but his, and far superior.

I don’t have any regrets waiting 25 years to get these reminders — and just enjoy a fantastic story besides. I’m sure I was able to see (and apply) more at age 40 than I would have in my teens, or twenties. I also think I saw and enjoyed more seeing it through my boys’ 11-year-old eyes. Maybe this is the best way to navigate the darkness and light of the Potter series, with young and old journeying together.

The Uncommon Virtue of Humility

Before I try to define what I mean by “the uncommon virtue of humility,” let me give three clarifications that limit and direct my effort.

Clarification 1: Only uncommon humility is virtuous.

First, I want to get in step with the direction that President Rigney set for us on January 19 when he began this series of messages. During his talk, he explained to us what he meant by “the uncommon virtues.”

First he defined virtue as the habitual exercises and inclinations of the heart for good things. He said that virtue consists in the beauty of those heart-exercises and of the actions that flow from them. Then he described what he meant by uncommon virtues. First, and least importantly, he said that these virtues are uncommon because they are in short supply both in our culture and in the church. But mainly, and most importantly, what he meant is that uncommon virtues are those habitual exercises of the heart rooted in what makes us Christian. In other words, the uncommon virtues flow from our union with Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, by definition, no unbeliever exercises any uncommon virtue. They exercise common virtues, which have external similarities to the uncommon virtues, but they are radically different because they have no roots in a person’s relation to Christ. They are like a shell of the virtue, with the virtue’s soul removed.

Common Virtue

Most of us have learned to distinguish God’s “common” grace from his “special” or “saving” grace. God’s common grace enables unbelieving people to perform common virtues. At times the New Testament calls these common virtues “good” — that is, good with respect to the temporal, horizontal benefits that they are intended to achieve.

For example, in 1 Peter 2:14 it says that the emperor has sent governors “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Well, “good” in the mind of the pagan emperor is not what we mean by uncommon virtues, which are truly good, in every sense. The Bible is very radical in saying, for example, that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

In other words, even though from a human standpoint there are common virtues, from the ultimate standpoint of what is truly virtuous in the eyes of God, all common virtues are sin. They do not flow from union with Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit. They are not done in reliance on Christ. Christ’s word is not their guide. And they are not done for his glory. They are sin.

‘Good Sin’

Therefore, in all our ethical thinking about and all our moral assessments of culture and daily life in this world, we must have a category for “good sin,” or “sinful good.”

If you think carefully and biblically, that’s not double talk. It is a “good” thing that my Muslim neighbor does not burn my house down. I am thankful for that “good.” But a Muslim does nothing out of reliance upon Jesus Christ and his work, nor is a Muslim guided by his word, acting for his glory. And so Paul says it is sin. It brings about a temporal good, but it dishonors the most glorious Person in existence — Jesus Christ.

So, in accord with President Rigney’s direction, I am riveting my focus on the uncommon virtue of humility, not the common virtue of humility. I am seeking to define humility in a distinctly Christian way — namely, in relation to Jesus. That’s my first clarification.

Clarification 2: Humility flourishes when we do not fixate on it.

Here’s my second clarification. In an article for Christianity Today in 2008, Tim Keller said, “Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves.” If you took that literally, it would mean it is impossible to talk humbly about humility. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think Tim Keller thinks that’s true. Jesus and Paul and Peter and James — indeed, virtually every biblical writer — talks about humility in one way or another, and we would not want to impute to them arrogance in their effort to say true things to us about humility.

“Christian humility flourishes in the human soul when we stand before the Himalayas of Christ’s grandeur.”

What I think Tim Keller is trying to communicate instead is this: Christian humility flourishes in the human soul when we are standing in front of a window that looks onto the Himalayas of Christ’s grandeur. And Christian humility vanishes when we close the window and stand in front of a mirror, trying to see the authenticity of our humility. It flourishes when we are looking away from it, to Christ, and it hides when we are looking directly at it.

So my goal is not primarily to focus your attention, in a mirror-like way, on your humility, but to provide you with an understanding of humility that will drive you to the windows of God’s word, which reveal the greatness of Christ. That’s my second clarification.

Clarification 3: Context determines meaning.

Here’s my third clarification. Words are dumb things. They communicate nothing clear or distinct until they are used in a context. When I say, “. . . until they are used,” I am implying a user. Therefore, when I prepare to talk about humility, I have to ask first: “Who’s the user of the words about humility, and what is the context?” Because there is no clear, distinct meaning of the word humility — or in any words about humility — apart from the user and the context.

For example, the false teachers at Colossae use the typical Greek word for humility in the New Testament, tapeinophrosunē, to promote asceticism and harshness to the body. So Paul says in Colossians 2:18, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism [tapeinophrosunē] and worship of angels.” In other words, Paul is saying, “Don’t be tapenophrosunē — don’t be humble — according to that use of the word!”

Then in Colossians 3:12, Paul says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, tapeinophrosunē [humility].” Now Paul is saying, “Do be humble according to this use of the word — according to my use of the word, in my defining context.” So before I can give a talk on the uncommon virtue of humility, I have to ask: “According to who’s usage?”

Also, as an important aside, here’s another clarification about words. When I am trying to understand someone’s use of a word in a context — and I will talk about context in just a moment — I don’t care ultimately about the word. I care ultimately about the reality that the user of the word is trying to communicate by the way he uses his words. Not only are words dumb things, but they are penultimate things, not ultimate things. They are signs. They point away from themselves to realities.

What we want to know when trying to understand words is the realities they are pointing to. My wife is named with a word, Noël. I care very little about the word Noël. I care ultimately about the reality, the person, that the word is pointing to — my wife. I care very little about the word love, but I care ultimately about the reality.

Now the last thing I have to ask is, “In what context?” My aim in this talk is to communicate to you my understanding of the reality of the uncommon virtue of humility as communicated by God, through inspired writers, by the way they use words, in several biblical contexts. So I’m going to commend to you a composite definition or description of the uncommon virtue of humility. I believe it is a faithful portrayal of the reality of humility according to the inspired usage of words in several contexts.

This is risky, because I’m drawing on dozens of passages of Scripture for this composite definition, and I can only take you to a couple of these passages. So I invite you to test this definition whenever you read all the other texts relating to humility. As you read, ask: “Is this definition the essence of humility, and what makes it distinctively Christian? What makes it uncommon?”

Defining ‘Humility’

Let me give you my definition or description of this reality, and then I will take you to some biblical texts. The uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. And because we still have a fallen sin-nature in this world, that humility also includes the reflex of displeasure toward all the remnants of our old preference for self-exaltation, with all its insidious manifestations.

Notice carefully, I am not defining humility primarily in terms of our response to our self-exalting, sinful nature. I am defining humility primarily in terms of our response to the superiority of Christ over us in every way. The way we respond to our sinful love of self-exaltation is a reflex of our awakening to the beautiful superiority of Christ — or it’s not Christian. The greater our pleasure in the superiority of Christ over us, the more sorrowful our awareness that there remains in us the ugly craving for self-exaltation.

And the reason this is important to stress is that someday we will be completely delivered from every remnant of the love of self-exaltation. We will be finally purified to sin no more! And in that day, when there is no sin whatsoever to regret — to humble us — we will still be humble.

“Pleasure in Christ’s superiority will last forever.”

For our humility consists not essentially in brokenheartedness over preferring self-exaltation, but rather in being pleased that Christ is infinitely superior to us in every way. And that pleasure in his superiority will last forever.

Roots and Fruits

Notice also that I’m not locating the uncommon virtue of humility in the roots or in the fruits of humility. The roots of humility are (1) the infinite superiority of Christ and (2) the spiritual perception of that superiority by the eyes of the heart.

And the fruits of humility are the endless overflow of attitudes and words and actions that come from being glad that Christ is superior to us in every way. For example, Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “But in humility, count others more significant than yourselves.” He does not equate humility with its fruit. The fruit is counting others worthy of your lowly, sacrificial, self-denying service.

So between the roots and fruits of humility, I’m saying that the uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. It’s the heart’s gladness that Jesus is infinitely greater than we are in every way, mingled in this life with the groaning that self-exaltation still competes for our affections. For now in this life, the uncommon virtue of humility will always be a groaning gladness and a glad groaning.

Humility in Scripture

Now let’s turn to some passages of scripture to see if this description of humility represents the mind of God in those passages.

Isaiah 2: Gladness in God’s Exaltation

We will start with the prophet Isaiah, in the second chapter. I know this passage is not directly about Jesus Christ. But I’m going to argue that what the prophet says here about God and pride and humility are intentionally transferred over to the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, in the New Testament. Let’s begin in Isaiah 2:8, with the indictment of Judah.

Their land is filled with idols;     they bow down to the work of their hands,     to what their own fingers have made.So man is humbled,     and each one is brought low —     do not forgive them!Enter into the rock     and hide in the dustfrom before the terror of the Lord,     and from the splendor of his majesty.The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,     and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

For the Lord of hosts has a day     against all that is proud and lofty,     against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low;against all the cedars of Lebanon,     lofty and lifted up;     and against all the oaks of Bashan;against al the lofty mountains,     and against all the uplifted hills;against every high tower,     and against every fortified wall;against all the ships of Tarshish,     and against all the beautiful craft.And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,     and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,     and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.And the idols shall utterly pass away.And people shall enter the caves of the rocks     and the holes of the ground,from before the terror of the Lord,     and from the splendor of his majesty,     when he rises to terrify the earth.

In that day mankind will cast away     their idols of silver and their idols of gold,which they made for themselves to worship,     to the moles and to the bats,to enter the caverns of the rocks     and the clefts of the cliffs,from before the terror of the Lord,     and from the splendor of his majesty.     when he rises to terrify the earth.Stop regarding man     in whose nostrils is breath,     for of what account is he? (Isaiah 2:8–22)

I draw out two inferences from these words. First, God’s purpose in the world is that his splendor and majesty be exalted as superior over all human power and beauty and manufacture and craft, and over everything that man has made as a means of his own self-exaltation. Three times Isaiah refers to God’s thrusting forward “the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21). Twice he says, “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11, 18). This is the purpose of God in creation and history: to see that the splendor of his majesty is exalted above everyone and everything.

The second inference is the effect of that purpose, namely, as Isaiah says twice, “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled” (Isaiah 2:11, 17). And we can hear in Isaiah 2:22 the cry for this not to be the end of the story. The ultimate goal is not the punishment of pride, but a return to humility: “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” In other words, “Stop the insanity of being so pleased with what your fingers can make, and be pleased with the splendor and majesty of your God. The Lord alone is going to be exalted. Everything else is coming down.”

So when Isaiah writes, “The haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:11, 17), essentially he is saying, “Repent. Turn from your love affair with the work of your hands. Bemoan your arrogant idolatry. The Lord alone will be exalted. Be pleased with his exaltation! Be pleased with his infinite superiority! Let his exaltation be your gladness, your boast. ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 10:17).”

Philippians 2: Joy in Jesus’s Superiority

Now let’s go to Philippians 2:9–11, where this divine purpose to be exalted over all reality is transferred to Jesus for the glory of God the Father, with the aim that every knee will bow — in other words, with the aim of Christ-exalting humility.

Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

God exalted Christ “above every name.” That is shorthand for Isaiah 2:11: “The Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” That is, Christ alone — now God incarnate — will be exalted in that day. And the implications for man? “Every knee will bow.” Everybody is going down. Everybody humbled. But not everybody saved.

So who then will be saved? Which of the knee-benders will be saved? Answer: Those who go down gladly. Those who are pleased with the superiority of Christ — pleased with the universal Lordship of Jesus. Those who say with Paul in the next chapter: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” — of knowing Christ Jesus my infinite superior (Philippians 3:8). Paul’s treasure was to know Christ as superior to him in every way, his infinite superior.

You can begin to sense the practical implications of this if you simply name some of those superiorities that we love, that we are glad about: Infinitely superior in grace and mercy and love. Infinitely superior in knowledge and wisdom. Infinitely superior in power and governance. Infinitely superior in goodness and righteousness and holiness. Infinitely superior in authority and freedom. And penetrating through all of these is his infinitely superior greatness and beauty and worth. He is infinitely superior in glory.

2 Corinthians 4: Treasure in Jars of Clay

To have the uncommon virtue of humility is to see Christ’s glory and to be pleased that it is infinitely superior to our own. According to 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, this is how it happens: Our blindness is taken away, and we see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” We see the infinite superiority of Christ in greatness and beauty and worth.

“If you long for humility, beware of standing in front of the mirror to test your authenticity.”

And then in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul calls Christ’s glory our treasure. The glory of Christ is what we cherish. It is what pleases us. “We have this treasure [this glad sight of the glory of Christ] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God.”

So I am commending to you a definition of the uncommon virtue of humility for you to test. Take it to every text on humility and see if this is not the essence of what is being said and of what makes humility distinctively Christian, uncommon:

The uncommon virtue of humility is the disposition of the heart to be pleased with the infinite superiority of Christ over ourselves in every way. It’s the heart’s gladness that Jesus is infinitely greater than we are, mingled in this life with the groaning that self-exaltation still competes for our affections.

If you long for this uncommon virtue, beware of standing in front of the mirror to test your authenticity. Go to the windows of God’s word, fling them open with everything you are learning in this school, and gaze on the all-satisfying superiorities of Christ.

A Christ-Exalting Renunciation of Power: 1 Thessalonians 2:5–8, Part 2

Love the Church Like Christ Does

In an age when so many pastoral failures, missteps, and sins are posted for public exhibition, it’s easy to allow our warmth toward the church to grow cold. Through a scrutinizing lens, many scowl at the church with suspicion and sheer amazement that anyone would want to be part of such a seemingly dysfunctional family. Sometimes, the church can seem to be anything but beautiful.

Does Jesus look at the church with the same scowl?

‘You Are Beautiful’

John Gill, an eighteenth-century English Baptist pastor, helps us answer this question by drawing our attention away from our introspection to the words of the bridegroom in Song of Solomon 1:15: “You are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.” Interpreting Song of Solomon as an allegorical portrayal of an exchange between Christ and his bride, the church, Gill writes, “These are the words of Christ, commending the beauty of the church, expressing his great affection for her; of her fairness and beauty” (An Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song, 57). Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.

“Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.”

How can beautiful be the adjective Jesus uses to describe the church? After all, she’s composed of sinners — forgiven sinners, yet still sinners. She’s plagued by division, is besieged with scandal, and sometimes appears to have lost her first love. Even the apostle Paul reminds us that only at the end of the age will she be found “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27). What does Jesus see in his bride that would cause him to exclaim, “You are beautiful, my love”?

1. The Beauty of His Father

God’s beauty is most radiantly displayed through the biblical concept of glory. Moses experienced this glory when God passed by him, revealing only the afterglow of his splendor (Exodus 33:12–23). When God’s glory engulfed the temple, the priests were unable to perform their service of worship (2 Chronicles 5:14). The prophet Isaiah was prostrate in the dirt when he witnessed God’s glory radiating from his eternal throne (Isaiah 6:1–5). Jonathan Edwards, eighteenth-century pastor-theologian, identified God’s beauty as the differentiating feature of God himself: “God is God, and is distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above ’em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:298). God’s beauty isn’t derived from external sources but emanates directly from the perfection and holiness of his being.

The supreme expression of God’s beauty is his Son, Jesus Christ, who himself is the image and radiance of his Father (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). The incarnate Christ is how God most vividly expresses his beautiful love to sinful creatures. The culmination of that love is selecting a bride for Christ that she too might reflect the same beauty. Edwards believed that this bride, the church,

is the great end of all the great things that have been done from the beginning of the world; it was that the Son of God might obtain his chosen spouse that the world was created . . . and that he came into the world . . . and when this end shall be fully obtained, the world will come to an end. (Unpublished sermon on Revelation 22:16–17)

The church is a gift from God to his Son as a beautiful expression of divine love “so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of creation” (Works, 13:374). Therefore, as the Son reflects his Father, the church, as his eternal bride, reflects the Son.

When Christ regards his bride and exclaims that she is beautiful, he beholds the reflection of his Father’s everlasting beauty and infinite love, who chose and saves this bride and gives her as a gift to his Son. Since Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God, there is now no more brilliant exemplification of God’s perfect beauty in the world than his church.

2. The Sufficiency of His Cross

Jesus doesn’t see any intrinsic beauty emitted by the church, for she has no beauty apart from him. He looks at the church through blood, his blood. As if looking through the varied luminous colors of a stained-glass window, Jesus beholds the church through the multifaceted wonder of redemption — blood, election, righteousness, forgiveness, regeneration, justification, union, and grace. Only in union with his perfect substitutionary sacrifice on the cross and glorious triumphant resurrection are filthy sinners washed white as snow (Psalm 51:7). Because of our sin, what God requires of us is paid in full by our bridegroom on the cross.

“Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride.”

With all of its flowing blood, lacerated flesh, and stench of death, the cross becomes the epicenter of cleansing for sinners, where Christ looks lovingly upon his darling bride and declares, “My love, you are beautiful.” Reflecting on the sufficiency of the cross, Edwards writes, “Christ loves the elect with so great and strong a love, they are so near to him, that God looks upon them as it were as parts of him” (Works, 14:403). Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride. When Christ exclaims that his bride is beautiful, he does so through the lens of the sufficiency of his cross and makes the church the sole recipient of the love that ceaselessly flows between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

3. The Fulfillment of His Mission

The New Testament is unmistakably clear that God has commissioned his church as the principal agency for heralding the gospel of Christ. This commission in Matthew 28:18–20 stands as the summit of the church’s mission for all subsequent generations. Beginning in Jerusalem, the disciples understood this assignment with vital urgency and launched the beautiful good news of Christ into all the earth (Acts 1:8). No church has the freedom to tamper with, tweak, add to, or subtract from the good news of Jesus Christ — we are called to herald it to the nations, for there is nothing more beautiful and lovely in the sight of Christ than the Holy Spirit regenerating, calling, and transferring sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

All evangelistic and missionary endeavors are fueled by the assurance that Christ is enthroned as the head of his church and has promised to ransom men and women from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:8–9).

This assurance fueled the Genevan Reformer John Calvin to write to the king when evangelistic efforts were harshly suppressed in his homeland of France:

Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed to “rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth (Psalm 72:8).” (Prefatory address to Institutes of the Christian Religion)

Calvin reminds the church that the gospel “is not of us,” but originates from God. Entrusting his church with the task of heralding the gospel, God has chosen her to be an honored vessel to house and disseminate his glorious treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). When Christ beholds the church, he sees the voice, hands, feet, and heart of the gospel message in rescuing sinners.

The Bride Is Welcome

Jesus doesn’t lament the church he has rescued or look for another to capture his attention. Christ welcomes the church as his beautiful treasure and joy. The church isn’t just about organization, leadership, function, and vision. Jesus sees more. His gaze reveals the beauty of our Father, the sufficiency of his cross, and the fulfillment of his mission in the world. He sees sinners being rescued, redeemed, and renewed.

The bride is now waiting and watching for our bridegroom’s appearance, when he will bid us “Welcome” for all eternity to bask in the glory of his eternal presence (2 Timothy 4:8). Until then, Jesus bids us to join him in gazing upon his bride and exclaiming of her, “Behold, you are beautiful!” (Song of Solomon 1:15).

Is Discipleship More Challenging Today? Five Modern Hurdles to Ministry

A dear and discouraged friend lamented to me recently, “How do we minister in this climate?” He wasn’t talking about the humid subtropical weather pattern of the Carolinas (which is generally quite pleasant). He was referring to the ministry environment of the younger generation in the early 2020s.

A few conflicting responses arose within me.

Feeling the Pain

My first response was, essentially, I feel your pain.

The ministry I work with, Campus Outreach, focuses on life-on-life evangelism and discipleship. In my two-plus decades in campus ministry, I have not encountered a moment quite as challenging as this one. I believe that a conflation of cultural factors (COVID, technology, and modern philosophies, to name a few) has brought us to this place. While every individual and subculture is distinct, I have an educated hunch that most ministers in the Western world are experiencing many (if not all) of the following challenges on some level.

1. Fear of the Social Unknown

For the past two years, I haven’t witnessed much direct fear of COVID from young people. I have witnessed, however, their sheer terror in the face of new social situations. The trend was alarming in the years immediately preceding COVID (though I think it may have been more akin to FOMO in the 2010s), but it’s off the charts now.

The fear of being seen and known, of connecting with and building close relationships with others, while not remotely a new fear, has been given fresh license in the sanctioned isolation of the last two years. So, an invitation to any organic, communal platform for relationship — a retreat, a conference, even an ultimate frisbee game — is met with more reluctance than I have ever previously encountered.

2. Isolation in Public

To quote Tony Reinke, “The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in private” (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 124). There have been venues where this reversal was already coming to fruition, even as far back as twenty years ago: the gym and the airplane, for example. But the social acceptability of a screen in hand (and eyes on it) means that gaining access to a person’s eyes implies interruption. The screen (and headphones!) is a social stiff-arm, a means of saying, “Don’t talk to me!” without having to be rude.

The wide world, therefore, becomes an extension of the living room, where risks have been minimized and the channels of communication are tightly controlled. Few truly experience what Bilbo spoke to Frodo about in The Fellowship of the Ring: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” It’s a wonderful quote, but it may have been rendered moot. If we can find a way to bring our recliners with us, the transformation will be complete. And the living room has always felt too personal to invade.

3. Loss of the Moral High Ground

Historically, my evangelistic interactions, whether with strangers or friends, have elicited a “should” factor from the recipients of the gospel. Their resistance to Jesus was often met with a counterbalancing sense that Christianity was nevertheless the right way. The moral way. But the current zeitgeist associates Christianity with ignorance, bigotry, and oppression. So now, we aren’t simply trying to convince people that life surrendered to Jesus is better than whatever the world of sex and money and power offers; we are trying to convince them that Christians aren’t inherently racist, sexist, and abusive.

4. Loss of the ‘Villain’ Category

In recent years, you may have noticed the preponderance of films, especially in the Disney canon, that tell the backstory of a classical villain (Maleficent, Cruella, Joker, to name a few). In each of the stories, the villain is portrayed as misunderstood and deeply wounded. To be fair, generational sin in a broken world is complex. But the contrast between the portrayal of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and in the more recent film where she is the titular character is striking.

Therapeutic language, with all of its benefits and drawbacks, has won over our society in a comprehensive way (I heartily recommend Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self for a thorough treatment of this trend). Twenty years ago, some pastors and theologians were vigorously countering the gospel of self-esteem. Today, many are rightly acknowledging and resisting previously overlooked abuses, but I am afraid that, in the process, the old self-esteem has entered through the back door.

A pastor I admire once presented the alliteration “Villain, Victim, Victor” to capture the categories in which all followers of Christ simultaneously find themselves. We are perpetrators of sin against God and others (villains), recipients of the sins of others (victims), and overcomers of sin through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the daily work of the Holy Spirit within (victors).

“The only doorway to the kingdom of Christ is through acknowledgment of personal villainy.”

In my experience, the personal category of villain has been largely erased. The category of victim is assumed, and affirmation of victory, even in the context of failure, is a given (“We’re all winners!”). But the only doorway to the kingdom of Christ is through acknowledgment of personal villainy. When there are widely accepted philosophical defenses to keep us from darkening that doorway, ministry is significantly more challenging.

5. Endless Buffet of Distractions

Life-on-life discipleship takes hours, days, months, and even years of commitment. It requires sustained scriptural focus. It takes single-mindedness and intentional relationships — qualities more easily attained without a constant barrage of stimuli, whether for entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, TikTok), human connection (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook), or information (podcasts, TED talks, articles — yes, I see the irony). Those distractions have drastically diminished the felt need for true community, for the discipline of silence and solitude, and for a true Paul to one’s Timothy.

Spoiled to Inflated Expectations

So, my first response was, I feel your pain. But then my second response was this: we have been spoiled.

American gospel ministry in the last half-century, especially on the college campus, has been nearly unparalleled in its fruitfulness. I sat in a room of more than seven hundred Campus Outreach staff in 2013, and the meeting host asked all who had come to faith in college through the ministry to stand. Some three-fourths of the room left their seats.

These staff had mostly attended college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when ministry numbers were booming. As a student, I was part of a ministry that comprised nearly 10 percent of the entire enrollment of a “secular” college. The harvest of millennials was ripe on America’s campuses. Meanwhile, across the world, faithful missionaries were battling to translate the Scriptures, learn cultures, and hopefully see a convert or a few over years of ministry. They still are.

“We need to recapture the wonder of a single heart made new.”

With a background in such manifest fruitfulness, I have found, at least for myself, that I need to recapture a healthy theology of the cross, whereby we are poured out, sometimes agonizingly, for the formation of disciples (Galatians 4:19). We need to recapture the wonder of a single heart made new (Ezekiel 36:26). We need to recall the counterintuitive contentment that comes from seemingly fruitless ministry (1 Corinthians 15:58), and even the strange joy of suffering shame for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). Which leads to my third and final response.

Hasn’t It Always Been Tough?

From feeling the pain, to needing to recalibrate assumptions, I also asked, Hasn’t it always been this way in some form or another?

In other words, is it possible that hitting the panic button during any given cultural moment is a bit reactionary? Our commitment to biblical Christianity requires us to believe that the Scriptures are sufficient to equip us to address the challenges of modern life and ministry (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It can only follow that they are timeless, implying that both the human condition in the twenty-first century and the cultural challenges of our day have not strayed too far from those in biblical times. I find it incredibly helpful to recall timeless spiritual realities when ministry moments seem bleak.

All still have the hardwired inclination to exchange the truth of God for a lie in order to worship and serve the creature (or the self) rather than the Creator (Romans 1:24–25). Christ crucified is still the stench of death to those who don’t have the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). And the ministers themselves still flag at times, struggling to continue to speak the aromatic gospel of Christ, always needing renewed faith, hope, and love.

People back then had a God-shaped void in their hearts. They were made for intimacy with God and with their fellow man, even as they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. They longed to know and be known and were simultaneously terrified of that intimacy.

So, to quote Ellis in No Country for Old Men, “What you got ain’t nothing new.” In a foundational sense, in the ways that matter most, the resistance was exactly the same in AD 50 as it is in 2022. Daunting indeed.

But if the resistance is fundamentally the same, so too is the Spirit who indwells us with divine power. The word of the cross has never ceased being folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it has never stopped being the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). He has never stopped using foolish things to shame the wise, jars of clay to carry treasure (1 Corinthians 1:27; 2 Corinthians 4:7). And if that is true, then there will be a multitude that no one can count from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation who surround the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). So, no matter the spiritual climate, we offer him to the world with hope.

What’s the Center of Our Holiness?

Audio Transcript

We end the week with episode 1800. It’s an incredible benchmark for us, and it’s only possible because of you. So thank you for a decade of support and for your encouragements, email questions, and 250 million episode plays — and for hundreds of thousands of subscribes over the years. This podcast happens because you invest time with us — precious time that we don’t take for granted. That’s why we don’t have ads or sponsors, and it’s one of the reasons we don’t dillydally around with windy introductions. So, moving on to the episode.

Today’s question is a great one, Pastor John. Scripture gives us a constellation of ways to think of the Christian life. And a listener to the podcast named Jason wants to know how they relate. Here’s what he asks: “Pastor John, hello! Can you help me figure something out? Is the key to personal sanctification more about ‘looking to Jesus,’ as Hebrews 12:2 says? Or is it more about being united ‘to him who has been raised from the dead,’ as Romans 7:4 puts it? Or is it mostly about ‘beholding’ Christ’s glory, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it? Or is it more about just obeying and doing the ‘work of faith,’ as 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says?

“I know the answer is likely going to be, ‘Yes, it’s all of those!’ But I am trying to connect them all in a way that is practical to teach and live. I find myself jumping from one to the other as though they are multiple things. Surely there are logical connections that make them all one and the same.” Pastor John, how would you put this puzzle together for Jason?

Wow, I just love this kind of a great question — not only this kind of question, but just this way of thinking. Taking different parts of Scripture — they use very different language — and asking, “Are there deep, common, unified, coherent realities here?” That is so helpful to do.

So let’s see if I can weave these four strands together into some kind of cord that the Lord might use to bring us along in our pursuit of sanctification. That’s what they’re designed for, and I think the Lord is very pleased when we try to put the different parts of his word together in order to see the common realities behind them, even when different words are used to describe those realities.

One Great Work of God

The realities in these four passages of Scripture would include these (I just made a list of them as I read these passages):

word of God
death of Christ
glory of Christ
law of God
faith in Christ
faith in his word
Christian freedom
the Holy Spirit
human resolve

All of those are realities, and they are all at work in these passages, and they are not doing contradictory things.

“There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy.”

There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy, making us sanctified, more Christlike. Different texts focus on different ones of these realities, but none of them leads us in a direction that would in any way contradict the other passages. We’ve misunderstood the text if one text is sending us off in a direction that flies in the face of the other passages. So, let me take them one at a time and just see if I can draw out some of the common connections.

Looking to Jesus

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

So in this text, “looking to Jesus” is given as the means by which we run our race with endurance. That race, of course, includes becoming holy, staying on the narrow racetrack to the end. And when we look to Jesus, we see three things that affect our running.

First, he’s called “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” which means he has done the decisive work in dying and rising and sitting down at the right hand of God. Because of Christ, our faith is well-founded and well-finished. It’s as good as done. In other words, because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.

“Because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.”

Second, we look to Christ as inspiring our endurance because of his endurance — enduring the cross. He ran his race successfully through suffering. This emboldens us to run our race through suffering.

And third, when we look to Jesus, he shows us how he ran his race. He says he ran it “for the joy that was set before him.” Therefore, the key to our endurance is to stand on that finished work of Christ and be confident that all-satisfying joy is just over the horizon. He’s going to finish it. He’s going to bring us great joy. That’s how we keep going, because that’s how he kept going.

So this confidence in the joy that is set before us is called, in Hebrews, faith. In the chapter just before, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the joy hoped for. Faith is the foretaste, the substance (Hebrews 11:1). Right now you can taste it — the foretaste of the joy of the promise of God, over and over. In Hebrews 11, the saints obey by faith — that is, this faith, this confident hope of a joyful future, is the key to their obedience, just like it was the key to Jesus’s obedience. So that’s the picture, and that’s the reality of how we are sanctified, in Hebrews 12.

New Way of the Spirit

Now here’s Romans 7:4, 6:

You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

Now, the new reality that Paul introduces here that wasn’t in Hebrews 12 is the fact that when Christ died, we died. Specifically, we died to the law. We were released from law-keeping as the way of getting right with God, as the way of ongoing fellowship with God.

That’s new, right? Nothing was said about the law in Hebrews 12:1–2. So Paul is coming at sanctification with a different problem in view: not the need for endurance through suffering — that’s the issue in Hebrews; that’s not the issue here — but the need for liberation from law-keeping. That’s the issue here. How do we relate to God? How do we become holy without law-keeping as the foundation for our lives (because that we died to)?

And the other new reality that Paul introduces in Romans 7:4 is the Holy Spirit. He says that we “have died to the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6) And that wasn’t in Hebrews.

And I would say that this new way of the Spirit is precisely the way of Hebrews 12, describing the Christian life — namely, the life of faith in the promises of God to fulfill us, to fill us with hope for future joy. That’s the new way of the Spirit in Romans 7. That’s the alternative to law-keeping as a way of walking with God. So, they are complementary texts, coming at sanctification from two very different angles.

Beholding the Glory of Christ

Third, Jason introduces, or he brings up, 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this text, Paul combines the reality of the Holy Spirit (mentioned in Romans 7) and the reality of looking to Jesus (mentioned in Hebrews 12). And he adds the realities of glory and freedom, neither of which had been mentioned explicitly in those other two texts, but are mentioned here. So he says,

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)

What this text adds to the “new way of the Spirit,” described in Hebrews 12 and Romans 7, is that looking to Jesus in Hebrews 12 means not only seeing him as enduring the cross, but seeing him as glorious in all that he’s done.

The focus is on how beautiful and glorious and magnificent he is — and finding that glory so riveting, so satisfying, that it has the effect of transforming us. We tend to take on the traits of those we most admire. This is freedom, because it happens by the Spirit as a natural process.

This is what Paul called “bearing fruit for God” in Romans 7. Faith and hope and joy are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, but I would say that they are implied in the phrase “beholding the glory of the Lord.” I think that transforming “beholding” is the sight of faith. That’s the way faith sees Christ. Faith beholds the beauty of Christ. Faith finds joy in him when it looks at him and all that God promises to be for us in him. And by beholding him that way, faith transforms. And that’s sanctification.

Work of Faith

One more. Jason refers us to 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where Paul says, “May [God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” So in the process of sanctification, we do make resolves. Yes, we do. We intend things. We will things. We exercise our will. But Paul says that all of these volitional actions are works of faith by God’s power. In other words, we are back in the realm of God’s empowering Spirit. We work by trusting God’s promise that he is at work in us.

So, Jason, good question. I think if you bore into the actual reality of these four descriptions of sanctification, you will find they are deeply unified and mutually illuminating. It’s a thrilling thing to meditate on the realities of Scripture until we see how beautifully they cohere.

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