Desiring God

Does God Read Every Thought?

Audio Transcript

On Monday, we looked at how our heart’s desires precede — they come before — what overflows in our lives. Even our mouth simply voices what our hearts have already conceived. It’s a pretty haunting truth that opens up a lot of implications to carefully consider. But that’s a non-issue with God. Because before we do or speak anything, he already knows our thoughts. Or, that’s what one listener wants to find out, at least. Today’s question is brief, and it comes from a listener named Joan: “Pastor John, can God read our thoughts?”

The short answer is yes, but what’s really important, as I have thought about this, are the implications of that answer, and they are many and really significant. I doubt that Joan, in sending us this question, wanted me to give a one-word answer and move on to the next question. She probably would like to know, Why do you say that? What’s the basis of saying that he knows our thoughts? And what difference would it make in our lives if he does? So that’s what I want to do. Let’s do that: first the foundation, and then maybe half a dozen or so amazing (I think) implications of that truth.

Every Thought Laid Bare

Psalm 139:2, 4, 23: “You know [the psalmist is talking to God] when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. . . . Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts.” Or Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart” — that’s the phrase: “the meditation of my heart” — “be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

And then there are numerous texts about God testing and seeing the heart and the mind, like Psalm 7:9: “Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous — you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God!” Or Psalm 26:2: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.” Or Jeremiah 17:10: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind.” Or Jeremiah 20:12: “O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind . . .”

Then there’s the same thing in the New Testament. It speaks of God searching the heart. Revelation 2:23: “All the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart.” Then the idea of God’s discerning the intentions of the heart is picked up in Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.”

In the final judgment, God will take into account the secrets of the heart, Paul says in Romans 2:16: “. . . on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” Repeatedly, we read that God knows the heart and its thoughts. First Corinthians 3:20: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” He knows the hearts of all men. Acts 1:24–25: “The apostles prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to [be Judas’s replacement].’” God is the great heart-knower, the great mind-knower.

“God is the great heart-knower, the great mind-knower.”

Jesus, in his ministry, had a huge quarrel with the Pharisees and the scribes precisely because they pretended to be something on the outside that they were not on the inside. And Jesus knew that; he knew what was inside of them. Matthew 23:25–26: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Or the way John summed it up in John 2:25: “[Jesus] needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

Six Vast Implications

So, from numerous angles, the Bible teaches that God knows our thoughts. He knows our feelings. He knows our attitudes, our inclinations and decisions before they show themselves in outward action. Now for the really interesting part. Some of us may think, “Well, this is just so obvious. Good grief, he’s God. Yes, of course.” And then we just move on to the next question or issue instead of pondering the implications of what many of us just assume is a given because that’s what God does; he knows all things. But let me spell out a few of the implications so that this can rest on us with some sense of glory and significance.

1. God sanctifies us from the inside out.

God’s great work of sanctification — that is, making us holy — works mainly from the inside out. That’s the way God does it. It’s the work of the Spirit in our hearts. Paul prays, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

“The Great Physician does not do his heart surgery blindfolded; he sees what he’s working on.”

Now, if he’s going to change John Piper’s attitudes and inclinations so that they conform more closely to Christ, he needs to see what needs to be changed. He must know my heart if he’s going to do work on my heart. The Great Physician does not do his heart surgery blindfolded; he sees what he’s working on. He sees my pride, my greed, my fear, my lust, my anger, and all the inclinations and potential decisions that are welling up from them. He does his sanctifying surgery from the inside out. He would be a bad surgeon if he could not see the cancer he was working on.

2. God can set a guard over our mouths.

There’s another way that God limits the evil of our lives besides that internal transforming surgery. The psalmist prays in Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” Besides working on the heart directly to sanctify us, God also can put a guard at our lips, so that an internal thought or emotion does not get expressed and hurt more people. But God could not do this if he could not see the thought that was about to come out of my mouth and stop it. “I see that coming. I’m not going to let him say that. He’s my child.”

He could have changed that deep down in my heart, but for reasons of his own, he sanctifies me in various ways, and one of the ways is this: “I see that thought coming. No way. I’m going to save him a lot of trouble at this elder meeting or in this sermon to keep that from coming out of his mouth.”

3. God discerns good and evil motives.

If God could not see hidden motives, he could not distinguish good and evil. Many outwardly good acts are hypocrisy because there is so much evil intent on the inside. God would be no better off than we are in knowing people if he could not see the heart. He would be liable to call a Pharisee godly, when in fact the Pharisee is a whitewashed tomb. All behavior gets its true virtue from its motive. God could not know virtue. He couldn’t know right from wrong, good from bad, if he could not know the heart.

4. God receives silent worship.

God could not receive worship from the paralyzed — the totally paralyzed — if he could not see their hearts. I’m thinking of a person who has lost all outward capacities to communicate, but whose mind and heart are conscious and alert and full of faith and worship. If God does not know the thoughts, he could not receive the worship of such a saint, a paralyzed saint. But God will not be denied such worship. He sees the heart and rejoices over that amazing faith.

5. God hears silent prayer.

The same is true of prayer. If God cannot see thoughts and feelings of the mind and heart, then for those who cannot make a sound with their lips for whatever reason — chosen or unchosen — he wouldn’t be able to hear their prayers. When David prayed, “Let the . . . meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord” (Psalm 19:14), he was saying, “Let my prayers be acceptable.” The same thing would be true. “Let the prayers of my heart be acceptable, O Lord.”

6. God’s plans always stand.

This may be the most amazing. God could not rule the world if he did not know the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Picture it. If eight billion people surprised God every minute of every day by turning their unknown thoughts suddenly into action, and God says, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming,” taking God off guard because he could not see the thought or the emotion that was ready to come out of their mouths — because it was only in their heart, and he can’t know their heart — then God could not govern the world with any semblance of certainty. He would be endlessly — billions of times every day — playing catch-up ball, rearranging his plans.

If God were ignorant of what was about to happen from the mouths and hands and feet of eight billion people, he could not know what would be happening everywhere all the time, all over the world. But Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” God knows the plans of the mind, and in his sovereign wisdom, he sees to it that all goes according to his perfectly wise plan.

So, yes, Joan, God reads and knows our thoughts, and the implications are vast.

Still on the Throne: The Glories of a Seated Christ

He’s still on the throne.

In moments when rough waves rock the boat of our Christian lives, an otherwise near-platitude can be a welcomed reminder. Our God is sovereign. Whatever befalls his people has been lovingly sifted through his fingers. Our trials and troubles are no evidence of his abdication or defeat, but of his astounding patience and mysterious timing.

What it means that he’s still on the throne may remain vague and distant. Yet we might take some real solace in the general reminder of his reign.

However, the common saying may also signal something more particular, concrete, and specifically Christian. That is, the God-man, the eternal divine Son — who came to earth as man to live and die for us and rise — ascended to his Father in heaven and sat down, as mediatorial king on the throne of the universe, and he’s still on the throne. Jesus reigns, right now. More than a timeless attribution of universal divine sovereignty, we might hear a Christian ascription of the Messianic rule of Jesus — a rehearsing of Christ’s session, as Christian theology has called it, his sitting in power, as Lord, and human, at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).

What Is Jesus Doing?

Along with his ascension and intercession, the “doctrine of Christ’s session” may go underappreciated, and where that is the case, we might find fresh joy, and solid ground for our feet, in rediscovering it. While many do well in confessing the glorious past-tense verbs of Christ (like came, lived, died, and rose), and even his future verbs (like will come again and will judge), they might find themselves in the strange predicament of professing Jesus as Lord while not really knowing what to say he’s doing at present.

The doctrine of Christ’s session teaches us where Jesus is, and what he is doing — right now. Right now, as you read these words, and all day today, as you go about the rest of the day. And as you have lived till now, and as you will live your whole earthly life going forward, unless Jesus returns first, his session is what he has been, and is, and will be doing. It is what Jesus has been doing, beginning with his ascension and then coronation in heaven as King of kings, and what he will continue doing until he comes again. He is sitting right now on heaven’s throne as Lord of all. But what is he doing while he sits?

While He Sits

The Westminster Larger Catechism serves us with this brief but masterful answer to Question 54 about “his sitting at the right hand of God”:

Christ is exalted in his sitting at the right hand of God, in that as God-man he is advanced to the highest favor with God the Father, with all fulness of joy, glory, and power over all things in heaven and earth; and doth gather and defend his church, and subdue their enemies; furnisheth his ministers and people with gifts and graces, and maketh intercession for them.

Following the catechism’s lead, let’s consider, in three parts, what Jesus is doing right now as he sits, through the lens of what his sitting makes that seat.

1. Heaven’s Seat of Honor

First and foremost, Jesus sits in the universe’s highest seat of honor. That is, “as God-man he is advanced to the highest favor with God the Father, with all fulness of joy, glory, and power over all things in heaven and earth.” During his “state of humiliation” while on earth, leading up to his suffering and death, he looked forward to the reward of “highest favor” and “fullness of joy, glory, and power” that were to come. Even to the sitting high priest at the time, Jesus declared, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69).

“What Jesus is doing right now, as he sits, is he’s receiving our praise and worship.”

As anticipated by Psalm 45:7 (quoted in Hebrews 1:9), Jesus now has been anointed with the oil of (literally) extreme joy, having been super-exalted (Philippians 2:9) to the universe’s seat of honor, there to be served, praised, and worshiped, by men and angels. So, the first answer to what Jesus is doing right now, as he sits, is he’s receiving our praise and worship. Seated above, at God’s right hand, he is the one on whom we “set our minds” in weekly corporate worship, and in our daily habits of devotion:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1–2)

Far from ignoring, neglecting, or disdaining the things of earth, we set our minds above, on the seated Christ, who then enables us to attend to and enjoy the things of earth, for his sake, in their proper times and ways.

2. History’s Seat of Judgment

Second, Jesus now sits, in heaven, on what will be the judgment seat of all the world and its history. When he sat down at his coronation, he did so to rule over all, as sovereign and judge, with all authority already his (Matthew 28:18). From this throne, he speaks, sitting to teach his church, through his apostles and pastor-teachers, even as he sat to teach while on earth (Matthew 5:1; 13:2; 15:29; Luke 5:3; John 6:3; 8:2). And from his throne, he rules the nations as the great mediatorial king, with all divine sovereignty mediated through him (1 Corinthians 15:24–25), and with special interest and attention to his church.

Not only is Christ seated far above all others, with his name above every name, but he reigns with a particular view to the building and protecting of his church (Ephesians 1:20–23). The advance and defense of his church is the centerpiece of his work in the world, even as he rules exhaustively over all. It is “through the church,” Paul writes, that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10) — and that with the reigning, seated, sovereign Christ as her head (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23)

And from this throne, one day soon, he will sit to deliberate and judge (Luke 14:28, 31), making heaven’s throne the judgment seat on which he will right every wrong and reward every cup of cold water given in his name.

3. Repentant Sinners’ Seat of Mercy

Finally, and perhaps most amazingly, sitting in heaven, he “maketh intercession” for his people. Having finished his atoning work and made purification for sins, he made the very throne of God into a mercy seat.

“Having finished his atoning work, Jesus made the very throne of God into a mercy seat.”

Under the terms of the old covenant, the “mercy seat” was the top of the ark of the covenant, representing the place where the invisible God sat, to dispense mercy to his sinful people. Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place and approach the mercy seat, and only once a year, to make atonement, by God’s decree, for himself and for the sins of the people. Now, under the terms of Christ’s new covenant, our mercy seat is heaven’s “throne of God” to which we can draw near with confidence, in any time of need, to receive mercy and find grace (Hebrews 4:16) — because Jesus, sitting there, intercedes for us.

When we ourselves undertake to intercede on another’s behalf in prayer, we do so in Jesus’s name, not our own. But the specific kind of interceding Jesus does for his people, with the Father, is unique. Jesus intercedes in his own name. He himself is the one mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), and his intercession for us is not an asking on our behalf based on the mediatorial work and merits of another. Jesus himself is the intercession. And so Hebrews 7:25 says, “He always lives to make intercession [for us].”

How He Intercedes

With his every breath, with every beat of his indestructible new-creation heart, Jesus is our living, indissoluble link to God. We are not to picture Christ in heaven as our intercessor, on his knees, begging the Father, “Please, don’t destroy them, I beg of you.” No, he ever lives to make intercession for his people. How does he do it? He lives. If we are his, and he is alive, then his very life, his very breath, the very beating of his glorified human heart, intercedes for all those joined to him by faith, giving them access to his mercy seat in heaven. As Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn “Arise, My Soul, Arise,”

Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary;They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me:“Forgive him, oh, forgive!” they cry,“Nor let that ransomed sinner die.”

Seated in heaven, Jesus is not anxious or uncertain. He is not scurrying feverishly around heaven’s throne room, making last-minute rescues. He lives. He sits on heaven’s throne, secure and utterly stable, in perfect heavenly equanimity and composure, interceding for his people with, and as, God almighty by his very life and breath.

However familiar we have been with the term, his present session teems with glory and good news. Indeed, Jesus is still on the throne, seated in honor to receive our praises, seated with authority and power to rule the nations and build his church, and seated with mercy to welcome repentant sinners, cover their failures, and make intercession for them by his very ongoing life and breath as the God-man. Will you not approach his throne today?

John Piper’s Conversion Story

Audio Transcript

Well, John Piper is a Christian. That’s not a secret. But how was he converted? When was he converted? Where was he converted? All questions you want to know. I see them in the inbox with frequency. And they are questions I think I can help answer today in a clip from a 1998 sermon on the book of Romans. Here, Pastor John is sharing the story of his life as it has been woven into the book of Romans, and as the book of Romans has been woven into his life. It’s a very close relationship, obviously. Here’s what Pastor John said.

I don’t remember my conversion. I was 6, my daddy tells me, at my mother’s knee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a motel on vacation in 1952. All I remember is believing. I’ve always believed, as far as I can remember. I’m sure that’s not true since we come into the world bent out of shape by sin, but whatever God did in my life to make me a believer, he did so early that I don’t remember it happening.

Gospel in Four Steps

A lot of you in this room are in that position, and you sort of regret it because you don’t have any stunning testimonies to tell about how you were saved. However, I learned what happened to me from Romans. I’m going to tell you what happened to me. I don’t need to remember; I know from the Bible what happened to me. And as I say what happened to me, would those of you in this room right now who wonder if it’s happened to you listen carefully?

We prayed downstairs that at this point in the service — not just at the end, but at this moment right now, in the next sixty seconds — God would save people. That’s how it happens. God breaks through with the word; he makes plain the gospel and the need and the glory and the sufficiency, and he does it.

“Even though I don’t remember what happened to me, I know what happened to me from the book of Romans.”

There are four things. First, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Second, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Third, God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Therefore, if you will confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and in your heart believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Where’s that found? Romans 10:9. So even though I don’t remember what happened to me, I know what happened to me from the book of Romans. The book of Romans interprets life. Life that you don’t even know about, you read about in the book of Romans.

Calling and Confirmation

I went to college in 1964 thinking I’d be a doctor, maybe a veterinarian if my hand shook too much. (Doesn’t matter if you make a mistake on a dog. That’s really the way I thought.) In September of 1966, in a painful and precious providence, I was in the hospital for three weeks, and God changed my life’s direction — powerfully, irreversibly — I testify now these 32 years later. He moved me from that trajectory to the trajectory of the ministry of the word. I won’t go into detail about it, but you can read about it in Future Grace.

The point I want to make is this. That fall, I had planned to move into a dormitory suite with three other guys, and I did. But in January 1967, it was very plain to me, This is not the best circumstance for what God’s doing in my life. I want to study. I want to pray. I want to think. And this dynamic here is not ideal. So I made a special mid-year plea and was allowed to move to Elliot Hall, alone in a single room. And I lived in a single room for the next year and a half so that I could pursue God and read and pray.

“Romans became not only the interpretation of my conversion; it became the confirmation of my calling to the ministry.”

And I can almost smell it, and I can sure see it. It’s yellow, with big black print on the front — nothing very fancy in those days on paperbacks — written by John Stott called Men Made New: An Exposition of Romans 5–8. And I can remember reading those pages at my desk in that room like it was yesterday because of the powerful work that was going on in my life, confirming what happened in September of 1966, that this is my life. This is my life. This handling of the word of God is what I want to do more than anything. I want to know this book the way John Stott knows Romans 5–8. So Romans became not only the interpretation of my conversion; it became the confirmation of my calling to the ministry.

Worthy of Heralding

Then came seminary, 1968–1971 in Pasadena, and the cataclysmic effect of two great classes. There were more than two, but two great ones: Romans 1–8 with Daniel Fuller, where phrase by phrase for fourteen weeks my mind was blown. And then the climactic class called “Unity of the Bible,” in which Romans 9–11 became the substructure of reality, and all the pieces were put in place that have never changed to this day. The great discoveries of the sovereignty of God over all things, and the magnifying of his name, and the enjoying him and thus magnifying him — because that’s the end for which God created the world — everything fell into place, with Romans being the foundation on which it all stood.

Three years in Germany to study, six years at Bethel College, over and over again returning to this theme of the sovereignty of God, and over and over again watching Romans 9 move into center stage, with controversy back and forth about what this chapter is all about — these awesome, awesome pictures of the sovereign freedom of God as a Creator. In the fall of 1979, I was given a sabbatical, and I knew what I had to do with this sabbatical. I had to settle it. What is Romans 9 saying about this God? Because if it’s saying what it looks like it’s saying, then many people don’t know the true God.

So, for four months I labored, and out of that laboring came something totally unexpected — namely, the call to the pastorate. What God said in a sentence, over and over again, along about October or November, is this: “I, the God of Romans 9, will be heralded, and not just analyzed or explained. I, the God of Romans 9, John Piper, will be proclaimed and heralded, not just analyzed and explained.”

Midnight Fire

October 14, 1979. It was late at night, and God came. And it was one of those times — it was like the time that Blaise Pascal had. He wrote it down after it had happened, and he sewed it into his coat, and he wore it the rest of his life next to his heart. “Midnight fire” is the way Pascal said it. And I just went back yesterday and read my seven pages that I wrote for those several hours that night, and they begin like this: “I am closer tonight to actually deciding to resign at Bethel and take a pastorate than I have ever been. The urge is almost overwhelming.” And by 1:00 o’clock in the morning, it was overwhelming. “It takes this form: I am enthralled by the reality of God and the power of his word to create authentic people.” That was my call away from Bethel to the pastorate.

And then, in the providence of God, this church called — Marvin Anderson — and I answered the phone, and I didn’t know where this church was. And he explained they were in a search process, and I began to talk, and by February it was done. And in June 1980, I came.

So I date my conversion — or I understand my conversion, my theological foundations in seminary, my call to the ministry and its confirmation, and my turn from being a teacher to a preacher and a pastor all out of the milieu created by the book of Romans.

The Temple: A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once likened certain poets and poetry to fresh produce in a market stall — delightful, beautiful stuff that you enjoy looking at before moving on to the next display. Some poets and poetry, on the other hand, are like plants that grow inside you. “It’s not so much a case of inspecting the produce as of feeling a life coming into you and through you” (Stepping Stones, 50).

For many readers, George Herbert has been that second, transformative kind of poet: one who alters your perspective on the world and whose work remains inside you for a long time. The anguished William Cowper found solace in Herbert’s poems. C.S. Lewis included The Temple among the ten books that most influenced him. The philosopher Simone Weil said that during a recitation of Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” Christ himself came down and took possession of her. Other Herbert admirers include Richard Baxter, Charles Spurgeon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot.

Though Herbert wrote almost exclusively religious poems, his appeal extends well beyond the faithful. T.S. Eliot argued that Herbert’s poetry is valuable for those with no religious belief. And several years ago, when asked to choose a poem he wanted to discuss on a podcast, the British actor and self-professed lapsed Catholic Andrew Scott chose a Herbert poem.

Orator, Pastor, Poet

Who was George Herbert, and what did he write? He was born in 1593 into a wealthy aristocratic family. Throughout the early part of his life, he achieved significant academic and professional success, distinguishing himself as a scholar, becoming a fellow at the University of Cambridge, and finally being elected to the prestigious post of Orator of the University in 1620. Then, in the years following, his life took some unexpected turns. The court career it seemed he might enjoy didn’t materialize. Following some years of uncertain vocational direction, living with wealthy relatives and friends, he became an Anglican vicar in the village of Bemerton, near Salisbury. After serving there in relative obscurity for three years, he died of sickness in 1633, shortly before his fortieth birthday.

In his own day, Herbert was respected for his polished Latin orations. His only prose work, The Country Parson, a short manual for rural pastors, was published posthumously, became widely influential for hundreds of years, and is well worth reading today. But neither the orations, nor The Country Parson, nor his collection of proverbs (more than one thousand of them), nor his Latin poems account for his major impact on contemporary readers. That influence rests on a slender volume of about 160 English poems (depending on how you count them), unpublished at the time of his death. On his deathbed, he sent the poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar with instructions to either burn them or print them (as Ferrar saw fit). Ferrar read them, was deeply moved, and published the volume almost immediately, titling it The Temple. It was an instant success.

Why The Temple Endures

The Temple has three sections. The first, “The Church-porch,” consists of 77 stanzas of rather didactic, moralizing verse. It’s sometimes ingenious, amusing, and helpfully memorable, and it forms an approach to what follows in the center section, but it isn’t the main attraction. Neither is the final section, “The Church Militant,” a longish poem that deals with the history of the church and a vision of future judgment upon it. It’s the center section, “The Church,” that accounts for Herbert’s massive and enduring influence. It’s these poems that endear him to readers (Christian and non-Christian alike) and account for his reputation as arguably the greatest religious poet ever. Here are five reasons why.

1. Herbert speaks directly to God.

Augustine was Herbert’s favorite theologian (he owned Augustine’s works, bequeathing them to his curate at his death). Herbert’s biographer John Drury suggests that the autobiographical nature of Augustine’s Confessions helped to inspire Herbert’s own autobiographical poetry. Also like the Confessions, many of Herbert’s poems are directly addressed to God. This gives an attractive earnestness and urgency to the poems. They’re fresh, lively, and endlessly interesting. And they’re never trifling or silly, because they’re prayers. Richard Baxter said that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God. . . . Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books”The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). Many readers have agreed.

2. Herbert is deeply honest.

Contrary to mistaken notions of Herbert as a pious poet who wrote safe, sentimental verse, his poems are deeply honest and even raw. “The Collar” shows his Jonah-like rebellion. “Denial” begins, “When my devotions could not pierce / Thy silent ears; / Then was my heart broken, as was my verse: / My breast was full of fears / And disorder.”

According to his early biographer Izaak Walton, Herbert described the poems that form The Temple as “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have past betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master” George Herbert: The Complete English Works, 380). He writes out of weakness, spiritual struggle, physical illness, and disappointment. This vulnerability allows readers to engage deeply with him.

3. Herbert is accessible and clear.

The poems are not simplistic or shallow. But Herbert often uses everyday images (a window, a flower, a storm, a pulley, a wreath) and simple words. One Herbert scholar refers to his “aesthetic of plainness” and another to the “extraordinary clarity” of his poems. This clarity allows ordinary readers to read and ponder fruitfully, discovering new depths rather than feeling frustratedly confused.

4. Herbert is a master craftsman.

Herbert is endlessly inventive, producing shape poems (which have the physical shape of their subject, as in “The Altar” and “Easter Wings”), a poem that hides a Bible verse within it (“Colossians 3:3”), as well as prayers, allegories, sonnets, and hymns. Within the many poems of “The Church,” the same stanza form is hardly repeated. This freshness of form is combined with a startling aptness and beauty of word and phrase. To offer just a few examples of Herbert’s evocative and memorable language:

“All day long my heart was in my knee.”
“The hand, which as it riseth, raiseth thee”
“Praise thee brimful”
“My joys to weep, and now my griefs to sing”
“Such a heart, whose pulse may be thy praise”
“Thy full-eyed love”
“Thou shalt look us out of pain.”

These words and phrases inspire, intrigue, and ignite on the tongue and in the heart.

5. Herbert believes in a big God.

Herbert was captivated by the greatness of God. Helen Wilcox writes, “The subject of every single poem in The Temple is, in one way or another, God” (The English Poems of George Herbert, xxi). More than that, it’s clear that Herbert saw the poems themselves as gifts for and from God. In his dedicatory poem, he writes, “Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee; / Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came, / And must return.”

Herbert’s God was sovereign. Gene Edward Veith has shown that Herbert was a Calvinist whose theology and poetry were radically God-centered. He celebrated God’s power and presence as deeply good news. Here’s one stanza from the poem “Providence”:

We all acknowledge both thy power and love     To be exact, transcendent, and divine;Who dost so strongly and so sweetly move,     While all things have their will, yet none but thine.

“God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news.”

Notice that God moves both strongly and sweetly. His will is supreme, and that’s good news. Importantly, Herbert’s embrace of the doctrines of unconditional election and effectual calling don’t undermine the universal nature of his appeal. Rather, as Veith argues, Herbert’s poems, rooted in the Reformation tradition, convey “from the inside” the positive vision of a sovereign God and thus connect with readers of all sorts.

Engaging with The Temple

How can new readers of Herbert engage with The Temple? Here are three suggestions.

First, find the poems you enjoy, whether for their content, form, language, or any other reason. Linger with them. T.S. Eliot said, “With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end. We must enjoy the poetry before we attempt to penetrate the poet’s mind; we must enjoy it before we understand it, if the attempt to understand it is to be worth the trouble” (George Herbert, 28–29). Read enough Herbert to find some poems you love.

Second, read those poems within their immediate context and the larger context of The Temple. The order of Herbert’s poems matters. It’s significant, for instance, that “Grief” and “The Crosse,” both of which deal with Herbert’s sufferings and struggles, come just before “The Flower,” which speaks of God’s goodness in bringing him through “many deaths” to “once more smell the dew and rain.” The Temple includes clusters of related poems — for instance, one sequence includes poems on various parts of a church building (“Church-lock and key,” “The Church-floore,” “The Windows”). Reading individual poems within their context shows new resonances and sheds fresh light.

“Herbert loved the Bible, and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture.”

In addition, read the poems within the context of Herbert’s larger corpus (there are significant connections between The Temple and The Country Parson), within the context of his life (John Drury’s biography Music at Midnight is especially helpful here), and within the context of the Holy Scriptures. Herbert loved the Bible (“O Book! Infinite sweetness!”), and his poems are laced with quotations and allusions to Scripture. Reading the poems within these broader contexts is fruitful.

Third, allow Herbert to deepen your understanding of God and yourself. His earnestness, insight, passion, honesty, and godliness will challenge and inspire you. The freshness and beauty of his language will lodge within your mind and heart. His poems will change the way you think and feel. Allow them, in the words of Seamus Heaney, to grow inside you.

How to Glorify God in Business Success

Audio Transcript

We talk often about glorifying God when things are hard, glorifying God in suffering and loss and even in death. Philippians 1:20 is a key text for us, one we’ve addressed now over thirty times on the podcast, for good reason.

But what about glorifying God when things in life are good — and especially when your business is flourishing? That’s our question today from a listener named Matt. “Hello, Pastor John. Thank you for this podcast! How should a Christian Hedonist who is successful in business and a prominent leader speak in front of others about their story? It seems like many ‘Christian business leaders’ make their success story all about themselves and then mask it all in a thin Christian wrapper. So what is the best way to authentically and humbly recognize a position of leadership and success, but to speak of it in a way that makes God look great?”

I really appreciate this question, especially the way it’s phrased there at the end, because I think that is the goal of everything in life: to make God, Christ, look great. But I am going to push it back one step. Matt asks about how a successful person in a leadership position may speak so as to make God look great. I’m going to push it back and say that almost everything hangs on how a successful person in a leadership position thinks and feels about his success and leadership. I really do believe that if a person’s thinking and feeling about his success and his work and his relationships and his leadership are deeply biblical and spiritual, then the speaking and all the more or less subtle forms of communication will take care of themselves.

Let me try to explain what I mean by right thinking and right feeling when it comes to one’s success and leadership. There are five ways to think and, I think, five ways to feel about our life’s achievements, if God has given us success and given us (therefore) leadership.

Patterns of Right Thinking

First, you will think rightly about the nature of what success is. You will not assume the world’s definition of success, though there will be overlaps. Essential to your definition of success will be your goals in life. These will not be identical with the world’s goals. Success is reaching goals; that’s what success is. And so, choosing life goals is prior to seeking success. Yours will include pleasing your Creator and the Lord of your life, getting in sync with his goals in the world. This will involve doing good for people in the hope of showing Christ’s supreme worth. This will imply pervasive integrity, honesty, justice, generosity, the true good of clients and customers and employees and community.

“Absolutely everything that makes this business flourish is a free and undeserved gift of God.”

Second, you will think rightly about the fact that absolutely everything that makes this business flourish is a free and undeserved gift of God, including the raw materials, the skill of employees, the social conditions, the weather, the managerial successes and processes, and your own life abilities, disciplines. Acts 17:25 says, “[God is not] served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Life and breath and everything are a gift of God. You will think rightly about that.

Third, you will think rightly about the relationship between hard work and divine blessing. You will know God is decisive in all blessing, but you will not make the mistake of thinking that he does not use human means and human giftedness. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). Both. Your preparations are essential, but God is decisive. Or 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So yes, you worked. Yes, you are gifted. Yes, that’s crucial. But all of it — all of it — is owing to grace.

Fourth, you will remember that God is sovereign and governs the world for his wise purposes. The smallest turn of affairs is ordered by God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). Every sparrow dies, and it dies by God’s will. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). This conviction is essential to right thinking about success.

Fifth, you will think rightly about the fact that as an undeserving sinner, not only is every good thing that comes to you a gift of God, but it comes to you, as his child, undeserved, and owing to the purchase he made by the blood of Christ. Most Christians don’t make this connection between the death of Christ and the blessings they receive in this life. They think only in terms of forgiveness. But consider Romans 8:32: “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?” In other words, everything that comes to God’s undeserving children is owing to God’s not sparing his Son but giving him up for us. Every gift that we have from God in our business life, in our leadership, comes with a price tag: the blood of Jesus. We need to think rightly about that.

Patterns of Right Feeling

Now, what about feeling? If you’re going to speak about your successful business and your leadership in a way that makes Christ look great, you will need to be transformed into the kind of person, from the inside out, who actually feels the greatness of Christ — not just knows it, but thinks it and feels it, and all the things that go with it.

First, you will feel thankful for everything. Ephesians 5:20: “[Give] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” If you take those two texts together, it says “for all things” and “in all things.” Few feelings are more winsome, humbling, others-oriented than thankfulness. This cannot be pretended; it is a feeling. It is a feeling before it is words. Do you really feel thankful? That will make a huge difference in how you talk.

“Do you really feel thankful? That will make a huge difference in how you talk.”

Second, you will feel not just thankful for all good things; you will feel undeserving — really undeserving. This is huge. Do you? Your understanding of sin will be existential in your business life. You will know that every morning that you wake up, and you don’t wake up in hell, is a good morning, an undeserved morning. If your doctrine of sin does not bring you to this point, you need to return to thinking rightly about the issue of sin and go deeper into Scripture. We must pray. This doesn’t come naturally. We must plead with God that the truth of our own fall and nature as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) will cause us to feel undeserving of every single good that comes to us.

Third, you will feel amazed. This is the upside of undeserving when grace rises to meet every degree of guilt we feel. The feelings of thankfulness and being undeserving now overflow with amazement, as if a million-dollar check landed in your mailbox every single morning — only better. The grace of God is amazing.

Fourth, you will not feel proud but humble — not just think it but feel it. This makes all the difference. First Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Or here’s James 4:13–16. This is spoken directly to businessmen and women:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.” . . . Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

In other words, it’s arrogant to say, “I’m going downtown today to do some business.” You don’t know if you’re going to make it downtown. The sovereignty of God and the grace of God over every detail of our lives, James says, cancels boasting and causes us to feel humble.

Fifth, you will feel an overflowing joy that inclines you to love other people and be generous with them. Second Corinthians 8:2: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy . . . overflowed in a wealth of generosity.”

If you have these five aspects of right thinking and these five aspects of right feeling about your success and leadership, there will be an overflow of right speaking to make Christ look great.

What God Can Make from a Shattered Life

Some sorrows run so deep, and last so long, that those who bear them may despair of ever finding solace, at least in this life. No matter how large a frame they put around their pain, the darkness seems to bleed all the way to the edges.

Perhaps you are among those saints whose lot seems to lie in the land of sorrow. You have not taken the bitter counsel of Job’s wife — “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9) — and by God’s grace, you will not. Yours is not a fair-weather faith. You know that God has treated you with everlasting kindness in Christ. You cannot curse him.

But still, with Job, you stare at the fallen house of your life, where so many dear desires lie dead. And even with faith larger than a mustard seed, the brokenness seems unfixable in this world. The wound incurable. The grief inconsolable. The darkness defies the largest frames we could build.

Which is why, when God speaks to such saints in Romans 8, he does not bid them to merely look harder here below, squinting for a silver lining. Instead, he gives them a frame far larger than this life.

Groaning Bodies, Groaning Earth

When we think of Romans 8, we may remember only the series of triumphant trumpet blasts sounding through the chapter: “No condemnation.” “Abba! Father!” “All things work together for good.” “Who can be against us?” “More than conquerors.” But even as Paul takes us to the heights of Christian joy, he also leads us through the depths of Christian sorrow. For the mountaintop glory of Romans 8 rises from the valley of deep and desperate groaning.

“The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now,” Paul writes. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23). This earth, for all its beauty, lies like a mother on her back, miserable and aching for the cry of new life. And God’s people, for all our blessings in Christ, stumble through this world like children far from home, waiting for our Father. And as we wait, “we . . . groan.”

We groan because we, sons of the Second Adam, still suffer and die like sons of the first — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We groan because legs and lungs fail, because eyes grow dim, because paralysis lames and Alzheimer’s erases the face of dearest loves. We groan because the tribulation and distress of this age sometimes feel like nightmares brought to life (Romans 8:35), like burdens beyond the strength of our frail shoulders. We groan because hope deferred makes the heart sick, and the sickness sometimes feels terminal (Romans 8:24–25). We groan because “the sufferings of this present time” can veil the Christ we love (Romans 8:18).

We should beware of papering over such groanings with platitudes (however well-intended). The saints may find themselves, at times, so perplexed, so oppressed, so utterly weak that our mouth, opened for prayer, forms no words. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26). And so we gaze speechlessly ahead, the horizon of this life shrouded in one incoherent groan.

At the same time, however, we should beware of allowing “this present time,” these seventy or eighty years, to set the boundaries of our hope, our joy. “For,” Paul tells us, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Into this world of deep groaning, glory is coming.

Glory Will Come

We do not groan, then, as those who have no hope. For these pains, though they last all our life long, are “the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22), not the pains of death. “The sufferings of this present time” end in glory, not a grave. And the glory to come will be big enough, incomparable enough to answer the double groaning of this age: the groaning of these broken bodies, and the groaning of this broken earth.

Renewed Bodies

For now, your identity as God’s beloved child lies veiled beneath a weak body and a pain-ridden life. Your body breaks like every other body. Your life trips and bleeds on this world’s thorns like every other life. In fact, just as onlookers esteemed Jesus “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4), so may you seem: like a sheep led to slaughter (Romans 8:36), you may appear, to the natural eye, Godforsaken. You may, at times, even appear so to yourself.

“Glory will be the balm you longed for but never found here, the cure that felt a world beyond reach.”

But not forever. One day soon, your true self, hidden for now in Christ (Colossians 3:3), will be seen. Then will come “the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19), “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Your status as God’s child will become manifest not only to the eye of faith, but to the eye of sight, as you shed this death-bound body and, like a brilliant flower born from a dirty seed, rise up resplendent. Imperishable, powerful, glorious with Christ’s glory (1 Corinthians 15:42–43; Philippians 3:21), you finally will look like the child you are.

And finally you will see what glory can do with this life’s shattered pieces. Like the palm of our Lord Jesus upon the sick, glory will restore every part of you still broken and blind, still leprous and lame, healing all your unhealable places. Glory will be the balm you longed for but never found here, the cure that felt a world beyond reach. For Glory himself will touch you with his own hands, and his scars will banish ours forever (Revelation 21:4).

Renewed Earth

His scars will banish ours — and not only ours. The creation, too, waits for glory, its current brokenness a consequence and reminder of our own. “The creation was subjected to futility”; it lives “in bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20–21). But oh how it yearns for freedom, waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). The sea, even now, is ready to roar, the trees are poised to clap their hands, and the song of the hills hangs on inhaled breath (Psalm 98:7–8; Isaiah 55:12).

With us, creation too will descend into the grave, and rise again transfigured. It too, seed-like, will sprout into a beauty beyond imagining, its freedom and glory an echo of our own — and both an echo of Christ’s (Romans 8:21). Meanwhile, the creation groans for this transformation, aching to become the mirror of the children’s glory, the fitting frame for our own endless joy.

Creation looks to the day when its stones will run like streets of gold, when its trees will bear fruit for our healing, when every bird will sing the song and every flower waft the fragrance of God’s all-conquering love in Christ (Romans 8:37–39).

Glory Is Already Here

Glory, then, is rushing toward this world like a river from the throne of God, like light from the lamp of the Lamb, like the Spirit blown over Ezekiel’s valley, ready to come and dig a grave for all our griefs. And yet, even now, in this present age of groaning, the guarantee of that glory lives and dwells within us.

“Some wounds never heal fully in this world. Some hopes follow us, still deferred, into the grave. But glory is coming.”

If Christ is yours, then “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Romans 8:9). The same Spirit who raised and glorified Jesus has made your heart his home (Romans 8:11), his presence a promise that your groans will turn to glory (Romans 8:23, 30) — and a promise, too, that glory can even now enter your groans.

Whenever you walk “according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:5), you feel the beat of glory’s undying heart. Whenever you put to death some deed of the body (Romans 8:13), or respond to heartache by crying, “Abba!” (Romans 8:15), or love Christ in the midst of deep loss (Romans 8:35–39), you hold, like Noah, an olive leaf of the coming glory, a little piece of the land beyond sorrow.

Some pain fills the whole frame of this life. Some wounds never heal fully in this world. Some hopes follow us, still deferred, into the grave. But glory is coming — and the Spirit of glory lives, even now, as our inseparable friend. And the sufferings of this present time, however high and wide and deep and long, are not worth comparing with him.

What Will Make You Resilient? Learning from a Living Miracle

On a street not far from where I live, there’s a pottery studio with an attractive little storefront that displays beautiful clay works for sale by local artisans. Now, let’s imagine that you and I are in this little shop browsing and admiring the craftmanship, when suddenly in walks a grim-faced man wielding a baseball bat.

Before we can respond, he strides up to a beautiful, delicate-looking pot on the central display and takes a hard swing. Both of us wince, expecting the pot to explode into smithereens. Surprisingly, it takes the blow, slams against the back wall, and drops to the floor — intact. The man growls in frustration as he marches over, picks up the pot, and throws it against the entry wall. Again, it refuses to break. After shouting an expletive, the man stomps over and gives the pot a hard parting kick as he storms out. It skids and rolls across the floor, but comes to rest unbroken.

With the bat-man gone, you and I walk over and carefully examine the pot. It’s clearly made of clay, but there isn’t a crack or even a chip. I ask, “What kind of clay is this thing made of?” You shake your head in wonder and reply, “Who’s the potter?”

Indestructible Resilience

Why would you and I find this pot so perplexing? Because everyone knows this kind of pottery is not resilient. It’s fragile — it breaks easily. Fragility and resilience are antonyms. Something is either fragile or resilient, either brittle or bendable, not both.

And yet, resilient pottery is precisely the paradoxical metaphor the apostle Paul chooses when describing Christian resilience:

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7–10)

If you and I are Christians, we are such perplexing pots. We are fragile jars of clay that ought to shatter under the blows we receive from the various kinds of destructive afflictions we suffer. And yet we have the capacity to be indestructibly resilient, leaving observers wondering what kind of mysterious strength is baked into us. They’re left asking, “Who’s the potter?”

“Our resilience (or lack thereof) depends on where we look for hope.”

Now, if you’re like me, you don’t feel indestructibly resilient. But our capacity to be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” does not depend on our self-perception or self-determination. According to what Paul says just a few verses later, our resilience (or lack thereof) depends on where we look for hope.

Before digging into these verses some more, let’s look at a living example of indestructible Christian resilience.

Resilience in Real Life

When Joni Eareckson Tada was only 17, she discovered just how fragile her clay-jar body was when, on a warm summer day in 1967, she dove into Chesapeake Bay and became a quadriplegic. Every day since, her wheelchair, her dependence on others to help her with basic life tasks, her experience of nearly constant chronic pain, as well as additional afflictions like cancer and COVID, have been stark reminders of her bodily weakness.

Yet, more than fifty years later, millions around the world would describe Joni as among the most resilient, industrious, fruitful, contagiously joyful Christians they could name. She’s an influential author and speaker, she’s an accomplished artist, and she’s the founder of an international organization that ministers to disabled people and their loved ones all over the world.

When you read what Joni writes, however, or hear her speak, or listen to her sing, or even exchange informal emails with her (as I’ve been privileged to do), her quadriplegia and her impressive achievements become eclipsed by her unquenchable love for Jesus and her indomitable faith in Jesus. She exhibits an otherworldly strength of heart, enabling her to withstand blows that might send the fiercest soldier or MMA fighter fleeing for dear life. After each blow, she still sits in her wheelchair, radiating joyful hope.

Joni is a personification of that clay pot we imagined at the beginning. After all the blows she’s taken, how can she still be in one piece? Who is this Potter that she talks so much about?

Where Do We Find Resilience?

To answer that question, let’s first return to 2 Corinthians 4 and hear Paul describe where Christian resilience comes from:

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For 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 4:16–18)

Do you see it? What strengthens a Christian’s “inner self” and keeps him from losing heart even though his “outer self” is wasting away? Where he chooses to focus the gaze of his heart-eyes.

Paul knows that what Christians choose to look at has the power to either fill or drain the reservoir of hope in their “inner selves.” If we focus on the transient, visible realities of futility, sin, and suffering, we will lose hope (lose heart) and not be able to withstand the afflictions we suffer. But if we focus on the eternal, unseen reality, what Paul calls “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6), then the “God of hope [will] fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope,” even while enduring the worst kinds of afflictions (Romans 15:13).

“Indestructible Christian resilience comes from looking to the right reality.”

In fact, this focus has the power to so transform our perspective that even severe afflictions become “light” and “momentary” compared to the glory we will experience. Indestructible Christian resilience comes from looking to the right reality.

Secret of Joni’s Strength

This exercise of faith is why Joni is still in one piece, so to speak. She’s not in some special class of superhero Christians who are simply blessed with extraordinary stamina or an extraordinarily joyful temperament. Read any of her books, listen to any of her talks, and you’ll hear her candidly describe just how dark life can feel for her — how similar she is to you and me. The secret to her resilience is where she chooses to focus the gaze of her heart-eyes.

Joni recently wrote a devotional book, Songs of Suffering: 25 Hymns and Devotions for Weary Souls. This is not your run-of-the-mill devotional; it is a manual for building Christian resilience. In one of the entries, she writes,

I have lived with quadriplegia for more than half a century and have wrestled with chronic pain for much of that time. I struggle with breathing problems and am in an ongoing battle against cancer. All this makes for a perfect storm of discouragement.

Yet when my hip and back are frozen in pain, or it’s simply another weary day of plain paralysis, I strengthen myself with Jesus’s example [of hymn singing] in the upper room [just before his crucifixion]. My suffering Savior has taught me to always choose a song — a song that fortifies my faith against discouragement and breathes hope into my heart. And so I daily take up my cross to the tune of hymn. (18)

So, Joni’s incredible resilience comes from . . . singing songs? No. Joni’s incredible resilience comes from seeing her affliction in the context of ultimate reality. But she uses substantive songs of faith to help her see.

Where Will You Look?

Anyone can admire Joni’s resilience, but what we might miss is that her resilience really can be ours, through whatever trials we face. If our afflictions are less severe than hers, that doesn’t mean we are less in need of daily spiritual renewal, and that renewal is possible — every day. We share with Joni the same faith and the same hope. The same power from the same Holy Spirit is available to us. Which means we can be as indestructibly resilient in our afflictions as Joni is in hers — and as Paul was in his.

Joni’s example of singing her way to gospel hope is a strategy that has been used by millions of saints over the centuries (and why we have a book of Psalms in our Bibles). But that’s just one strategy of many available to us. We each must learn ourselves well enough to know which strategies are most effective in helping us focus the gaze of our heart-eyes on the unseen, eternal reality revealed to us in Scripture. And then, like Joni, we must cultivate them into habits of grace so we can wield the armor of God in the fight of faith with resilience.

God Is Decisive in Obedience — So Why Pray? 2 Thessalonians 3:1–5, Part 2

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.

Your Callings Are Too Big for You: Where to Find Strength for Today

Few moments can feel quite so alarming as late at night and on unfamiliar roads, when you realize your car is almost out of fuel. Will there be somewhere to fill up nearby? Will the place be open? Your eyes are fixed on the fuel gauge. With heart thumping and palms sweating as the miles go by, you envision your car sucking up the last drops and fumes from the tank before sputtering to a halt, leaving you stranded.

For too many of us, our experience of the Christian life and ministry feels similarly precarious. The fuel light is flashing; very little seems to be left in the tank.

All too often, however, we’re running on empty because our view of God is empty. Amid life’s trials and exigencies, our view of God has slowly shrunk and become distorted and skewed, such that we do not set out filled with joy and satisfaction in him. We may feel that our ministries are vital and that God is relying on our courage, faithfulness, and brilliance: a burden we can’t really bear. We begin to imagine that God needs us and leans on us unfairly. We begin to imagine him as a demanding taskmaster and quietly resent his calling.

“All too often, we’re running on empty because our view of God is empty.”

In all our efforts to serve Christ dutifully, we may not truly enjoy our all-generous, giving God, but instead run on the fumes of our own devotion and spiritual energy. And if our God is not full, neither will we be. Only a renewed vision of God’s glorious fullness will help us. So where might we look for fresh vision?

How to Take Heart

Jesus knew his disciples would run out of gas. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). As he prepared to leave this world, he knew that they, as his holy people in a hostile world, would face trouble, hardships, discouragements, and persecutions. And he wanted them to know something when they did: he had already overpowered the fleeting darkness of this passing age. So, he tells them, take heart.

Yes, but how?

In every Christian’s life, we have tribulations that, of themselves, might easily cause us to lose heart. Family life eked out in the shadow of depression and anxiety. Local church ministry in what seems like a spiritual desert, painfully low on encouragements and visible fruit. A calling to overseas missions attended by loneliness, isolation, and homesickness. How can we, day by day, in the pressure and pain, find perspective, peace, and joy?

When Jesus said he had overcome the world, it was the conclusion to a longer discussion. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). When the world is trying, our spiritual energy is drying up, and we wonder if we can go on, we need to plug ourselves into the darkness-conquering words of Jesus. These things are the key to taking heart and persevering.

Sustained by His Fullness

In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that, after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the disciples will have the privilege of direct approach to God in heaven in his name when they pray (John 16:26). With the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the endless resources of heaven will be at their disposal to ask whatever they need (John 16:23). So, says Jesus, “no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22), and “your joy may be full” (John 16:24).

In Christ, the superabundant Father of glory is our own Father, lovingly attending to our needs and requests. And he has joy to spare for struggling saints. In the challenges and troubles of our lives today, this is the vital source of overcoming joy and peace: our God is full and loves to fill us.

God revealed himself to Moses as “I AM”: “the One Who Is.” Unlike us, who are born and named, God does not receive his name, identity, or existence from anyone or anything else: his life is self-contained and self-sustaining. As Paul tells the Athenians,

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything. (Acts 17:24–25)

Far from needing anything, our God is the very definition of fullness. God alone is gloriously, completely, independently himself.

Sustained by His Filling

Yet the life of God is not a fortress, shut up against the world. God’s satisfied self-existence does not mean grand isolation, vacuum-packed and hidden away. No, the very life of God — all that he is in himself — overflows and is the source of our happiness as well as his own.

Jonathan Edwards imagined God in this eternity and wrote, “God undoubtedly infinitely loves and delights in himself. . . . The infinite happiness of the Father consists in the enjoyment of his Son” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:117). In other words, God’s full and happy life is triune. The Father has eternally loved his Son (John 17:24). The “infinite delight” of God, Edwards says, is “in the Father and the Son loving and delighting in one another” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:118).

“Here is a God who, even before, beyond, and above all created things, exists in loving and delighted fellowship.”

Here is a God who, even before, beyond, and above all created things, exists in loving and delighted fellowship. Here is a God for whom a creation makes sense: an opportunity “to communicate and spread his goodness,” as Richard Sibbes put it (The Works of Richard Sibbes, 6:113). Here is a God who would not condemn rebels and sinners to perish without first giving his one and only Son in measureless love for the world (John 3:16). To this God, Jesus now assures his friends, they may go in all their need and weakness.

Sustained by His Sacrifice

Jesus spoke his promise that he has overcome the world just hours before he went to his death. His timing is perfect, because the cross at once exposes the sin and emptiness in us and reveals the fullness of God: the cross is the key to our overcoming.

While we are often tempted to pursue our callings in our own strength (and risk burnout and bitterness in the process), the cross exposes us as helpless sinners who can offer nothing to God. It shows us what we deserve as all our ways are condemned in the flesh of Christ (Romans 8:3). At the cross, we are relieved of the illusion that the purposes of God rely on us.

And the cross relieves us of the illusion that God is demanding and cruel. Our Father has not withheld from us his own Son and will not hold out on us for anything else (Romans 8:32). His death is the seed of our eternal life and the promise of our resurrection. At the foot of the cross, we are humbled again and again and shown our own natural emptiness, yet there we also fill our gaze afresh with the glorious self-giving of God in Christ.

Unexhausted Fullness

Nowhere is God’s heart on display in brighter colors than on the cross of Christ. God is so full of life that he lays his own down for his enemies. God is so full of love that he pours it out on the unlovely. God is so good that even the darkest night of death will turn to bright morning.

If we want to last — in life, in marriage, in parenting, in ministry — we need a vision of God that is not only big enough, but good enough. A grand and majestic God could intimidate or scare us; his hard callings might appear harsh and unkind to us. But the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is eternally good and giving. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. And if you draw strength from his fullness, you will, as John Howe writes in his treatise on delighting in God, “still find a continual spring, unexhausted fullness, a fountain never to be drawn dry” (83).

Faithfulness Is Improvised: Wisdom for Ever-Changing Challenges

The Christian life is a lot like improv night at the local coffee shop. Let me explain.

When I was in seminary, there was this strange and wonderful little coffee shop near campus called City Coffee. In my first semester, I probably studied there every night. And every once in a while, the shop would host an improv night. Local “artists” would show up and do their thing. I’m actually not entirely sure I ever stayed around for it, though I do have a vague recollection of some very bad poetry. I certainly never participated. After all, I had homework to do — plus something called inhibition.

The Christian life is like improv night at City Coffee, only it’s improv night every day of the week.

Constant Word, Changing World

We might wish the Christian life were like karaoke night — in that case, you would at least have the words — but it’s not. It’s improv: the curtain opens, you’re on stage without a script, and somebody yells “Action!” after stuffing a prompt into your hand:

“What’s the Christian approach to TikTok?”
“Post Malone” (Not to be confused with the “Mailman” Karl Malone, which would, of course, be a very different prompt.)

We know that we won’t find headings in our Bible like “Social Media” or “Paul & Public Schools” or “Jesus’s Sermon on MMA.” And we’ll search in vain for specific answers to questions like “Whom should I marry?” or “Where, how long, with whom, and in what specific ways should I engage in Jesus’s Great Commission?”

“God wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world.”

Does the Bible have everything we need for life and godliness? Absolutely. But it doesn’t give us a line-by-line script. Instead, it asks us to improvise, to develop what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls “improvisatory reasoning” (The Drama of Doctrine, 336). That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. He wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world. He simply calls it wisdom, and, in one place — Proverbs 2 — he tells us not only where to get it but also why.

Let’s begin with why.

Learning the Good Life

Why learn to improvise? According to Proverbs 2:9, if you get wisdom — if you learn to reason improvisationally — “then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” Find wisdom, God says, and you’ll be able to identify and walk down “every good path.” It’s so important for us to hear this that God through Solomon says it again at the end of the chapter. Find wisdom, Solomon says, and “you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20). In short: find wisdom, find the good life.

Now, of course, good doesn’t guarantee you’ll be healthy or wealthy or even trouble-free — at least not yet. (Remember Jesus and the suffering faithful in Hebrews 11?) But there is a correspondence between your idea of good and the Bible’s, which is why I feel perfectly comfortable defining good as “satisfying” or “joyful” or “fulfilling.”

That’s why we should get wisdom; what about where?

God’s Words of Wisdom

Solomon writes, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.

Proverbs, in fact, says that God gives it to us “from his mouth.” Certainly this includes the wisdom God embedded in the world he created (and sustains) with his mouth: “In the beginning, God . . . said,” and the world was (Genesis 1; see Hebrews 1:2–3). Proverbs is full of just this sort of wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11). But this wisdom isn’t Solomon’s focus here. Creation isn’t the only thing breathed out by God; so too is every word of Holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this wisdom is precisely what God has in mind here.

“The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.”

Solomon makes this connection in verses 1 and 5. He says, “If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments within you . . . then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1, 5). To receive Solomon’s words — to receive the Bible’s words — is, at the same time, to receive the understanding and knowledge — the wisdom — that comes from God.

Now, it’s one thing to know that Scripture teaches us wisdom; it’s still another to know where to look in the Bible to see it modeled. Here we move beyond Proverbs 2 and, as Vanhoozer reminds us, learn to “cultivate biblical wisdom by reading stories of how the prophets and apostles spoke and acted in concrete situations” (334). It’s from these stories, these canonical case studies, that we learn how to faithfully improvise.

Priceless Case Studies

Prompt: A church is struggling to believe the gospel. Presently, they’re being harassed by old friends questioning the Christian claim of a crucified messiah. (One report has it that these friends are calling that claim “foolish” and “scandalous” — another cynically wonders “how any moderately intelligent reader of the Scriptures could affirm something so implausible.”) And this is to say nothing of the bleak economic forecast facing the Christian community. Increased taxes, they suspect, might be only the front end of the bad news.

How’s that for a real and specific prompt? What if somebody gave it to you? What would you say?

In time, the prompt makes its way to the church’s pastor, who, with God’s help, traces the problem all the way to its roots — or, to borrow from Vanhoozer one more time, “sees and tastes everything about [the] situation that is theologically relevant” (334). And he responds with a brilliant and original piece of Christological reasoning drawn from the Old Testament, carefully and winsomely arguing his case using premises he knows his doubting friends can still very much affirm.

If you’re wondering, I’ve just summarized Hebrews. And it’s just one of dozens of case studies in our Bibles teaching us how to apply God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world. You may not have thought about the apostles (or the prophets) like this before, but they are master improvisers. And we can — we must — learn from their example. It’s one of the reasons they’re in our Bibles.

Improv Discipleship

How do we learn to improvise? We attend to God’s word, not least to the model improvisers God has so generously given us. Attend, though, is probably too weak or, at the very least, insufficient. After all, Solomon uses half a dozen or so verbs, pleading with his son and with us to get wisdom. If you want it, Solomon says, you’ve got to “receive” it (Proverbs 2:1), “treasure [it] up” (Proverbs 2:1), “mak[e] your ear attentive” and “inclin[e] your heart” (Proverbs 2:2) to it. You need to “call out” and “raise your voice” (Proverbs 2:3) for it. (Ask for it and really mean it; see James 1:5–7.). “Seek” and “search for it,” Solomon says, “as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).

Don’t you want this priceless treasure God offers you for your good? Don’t you want to get better at applying God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world? Friends, you have to improvise. That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. So don’t you want to get better at it? I know I do. It’s not too late, and it’s not beyond your reach. You don’t have to be super smart, creative, or outgoing to excel at it. You simply have to know where to look and go after it with all your heart.

I wouldn’t delay; I think the curtain’s about to open.

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