Desiring God

Who Can Understand Sin? Deep Mercy for Our Dark Insanity

At various points in my Christian life, I’ve felt my cheeks burn with shame as I’ve faced my sin. I’ve felt humiliated, disappointed, and sometimes disgusted with what I’ve done.

Perhaps you’ve felt a similar anguish. You can’t believe those ugly words just came out of your mouth. You look back with a sense of embarrassment over how you acted so foolishly toward your parents. You’ve all but despaired over some ongoing sin that you cannot seem to confess.

As Christians, we have all looked at ourselves and felt sorrow over sin. But have we ever deeply considered why we do it in the first place? Why do we sin?

Searching Our Past Sins

In Confessions book 2, Augustine (354–430) probes for an answer to why we sin by considering moments in his own life. But he does so cautiously, clarifying that he looks back on his past sin “not for love of them but that I may love You, O my God” (2.1.1). He does not peruse past sins like we muse over old photos on our phone, but rather, like a doctor dissecting tissue to locate a cancerous tumor, Augustine remembers sin in order to discover its root cause. With Augustine, we should gaze at the darkness of past sin only to better understand our own hearts and, most importantly, to see the brightness of Christ’s mercy more clearly.

Augustine takes us back to his teenage years when his “delight was to love and to be loved.” Yet he “could not distinguish the white light of love from the fog of lust” (2.2.2). As he recounts how his “youthful immaturity” swept him away into “the madness of lust,” we expect him to stop and analyze the sinful motives behind his lusts. But he doesn’t. He turns instead, almost abruptly, to a very different kind of teenage sin: stealing pears with his pals as a prank (2.4.9).

“Behind every sin — from pride to greed to anger — is a perverse desire to imitate God.”

Augustine labors to understand this seemingly trivial sin to such an extent that some have worried he veers into scrupulosity. Yet he is not troubled with doubts about whether he sinned, as the overly scrupulous are. Rather, he struggles with understanding why he committed the sin at all. What motivated his teenage self to steal with such senseless disregard for God’s law against theft (Exodus 20:15)?

Why Steal Pears?

Augustine makes clear right away that the problem with his theft of the pears was that the pears themselves were not the problem. He had no desire for the pears. The pears were not lovely, and he had even better ones back at home. Nor did he steal because he was hungry: he and his buddies just threw them to the pigs after they had stolen them. So, why did he do it? Why steal something you don’t even want and won’t even use?

Before Augustine describes two motives for why he stole the pears, he considers what usually entices us to sin: disordered desire for otherwise good things. Our attraction to beauty, our delight in physical pleasures, and our satisfaction in success all become distorted when we love them apart from God. Like the prodigal son demanding his inheritance so he could run from his father (Luke 15:11–32), we sin when we spurn the Giver and selfishly love his gifts.

We can discern in disordered desires a certain logic to sin, even to a heinous sin like murder. Augustine points to Cataline, the archetypal Roman villain, to underscore that even in committing murder “he loved some other thing which was his reason for committing [his crimes]” (2.5.11). In our selfish pursuits, we may even commit murder to get what we want or protect what we’re afraid to lose.

But in Augustine’s case, he wasn’t motivated by a nefarious goal beyond the robbery or by distorted love for the sweetness of the pears. Rather, he says, he desired the sweetness of sin itself.

For the Thrill

When he considers why he stole the pears, he first says his “only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden” (2.4.9). The reward of the theft was not the pears but the stealing itself — “the thrill of acting against [God’s] law” (2.6.14). Augustine discerns something deeper in the thrill, though, than the racing heartbeat and giddy delight of getting away with a prank. Behind the thrill is the same desire to “be like God” that drove Adam and Eve to sin (Genesis 3:5). Even in rebellion, Augustine says, man is “perversely imitating [God]” (2.6.14).

Behind every sin — from pride to greed to sinful anger — is a perverse desire to imitate God. Pride, for instance, “wears the mask of loftiness of spirit,” even though God alone is high over everything (2.6.13). Greed hungers to possess more than it should, yet God possesses everything. Sinful anger seeks vengeance, but God alone can justly avenge. Therefore, we find a certain thrill in the forbidden precisely because, in pretending to be omnipotent, we perversely imitate God.

Such a perverse desire to be godlike, though, is not satisfied with sinning solo.

For the Fellowship

Our perverse imitation of God wants an audience. Augustine insists (three different times) that “I am altogether certain that I would not have done it alone” (2.8.16). “Perhaps,” he pauses to consider, “what I really loved was the companionship.” But no, he finally concludes, “since the pleasure I got was not in the pears, it must have been in the crime itself, and put there by the companionship of others sinning with me” (2.8.16). Augustine suggests that the good desire for fellowship with others, which symbolizes the ultimate fellowship enjoyed by God in his Trinitarian relations, becomes a perverse desire when it leads us into sin.

“Discovering the insanity of sin turns us back to the immeasurable mercy of Christ.”

These two motives — the thrill of transgression and friendship with fellow sinners — intertwine to move him to steal the pears. They go together because the feeling of a pretended omnipotence is consummated by the praise of others. The thrill of stealing, then, was not enough to motivate Augustine’s sin. Companionship adds the pleasure of praise to the thrill of the theft and becomes, in Augustine’s words, “friendship unfriendly” (2.9.17).

Yet, in naming these two motives, Augustine does not believe he has explained fully why he stole the pears.

Our ‘Complex Twisted Knottedness’

Even as Augustine lays out the two reasons for his theft, he asks himself, “What was my feeling in all this?” He wonders along with the psalmist, “Who can understand his errors?” (Psalm 19:12 KJV). Augustine recognizes that, at bottom, sin is persistently perplexing. Even a relatively trivial sin like a prank leaves Augustine uncertain about the root motive. Augustine’s analysis simultaneously reveals man’s desire for God even in our sinning and acknowledges man’s inability to explain why we pursue that desire for God by turning away from him.

What is finally inexplicable, then, about our sin is not that we sin without reasons but that those reasons do not ultimately make sense. Any attempt to peel back the layers of sinful motives ends in futility because identifying an original motive for evil is like trying to “hear silence” or “see darkness” (City of God, 12.7). We cannot see what is not there or hear what does not sound. Augustine points to a perverse imitation of God as the driving motive behind all vices, but why we desire to perversely imitate God in the first place is ultimately inexplicable.

Augustine feels the anguish of his inexplicable root motive when he exclaims, “Who can unravel that complex twisted knottedness?” (2.10.18). His anguish echoes Paul’s exclamation, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Like Paul, Augustine looks to Christ’s mercy (Romans 7:25).

Discovering the insanity of sin turns us back to the immeasurable mercy of Christ. Just as a child who has made a mess of his problem runs to his parent for help, so too we must run to God for mercy from the mess we’ve made. We will not do that, though, if we don’t feel the desperation of our situation. The whole of Confessions, says biographer Peter Brown, is “the story of Augustine’s ‘heart,’ or of his ‘feelings’ — his affectus” (Augustine of Hippo, 163). In the story of stealing the pears, Augustine feels — and helps us feel — the anguish of our inexplicable decision to turn away from God. He shows the depths out of which we cry to God for help.

Prodigal’s Return

In our sin, we need the desperation of the prodigal son who, after he squandered all his inheritance, recognizes his only hope is to return to his father (Luke 15:17–19). Or like the psalmist who calls to the Lord for mercy from the abyss of his sin (Psalm 130:1–2), we too must turn to God with hope-filled pleas for mercy. “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption” (Psalm 130:7). We have been led by the insanity of sin to run from our Father, but he is ready and eager to run to us, brimming with forgiveness.

Augustine’s final paragraph draws us away from the darkness of our sin to gaze, by the mercy of Christ, on the beauty of God’s holiness:

Who can unravel this most snarled, knotty tangle? It is disgusting, and I do not want to look at it or see it. O justice and innocence, fair and lovely, it is on you that I want to gaze with eyes that see purely and find satiety in never being sated. With you is rest and tranquil life. Whoever enters into you enters the joy of his Lord; there he will fear nothing and find his own supreme good in God who is supreme goodness. (2.10.18; trans. Boulding)

God’s full forgiveness restores us to rest with him forever. So, as you search your past or present sins, find hope in your Father’s “plentiful redemption.”

Examine Yourself, Forget Yourself: Help for the Overly Introspective

To many, the idea of self-examination sounds about as enjoyable as standing before the mirror and slowly surveying your bodily imperfections. Who has heard, “Let’s spend some time examining ourselves,” and smiled?

For some, self-examination may even recall memories we have tried hard to forget. Maybe, in some miserable past, we spent untold hours digging inwardly, desperately trying to root out hidden sins. In the process, we discovered just how dark and hopeless — how Christless — life underground can be.

I can sympathize. I remember times when I felt locked in my own soul like Christian in the castle of Giant Despair. I’ve lived through long seasons without spiritual sunshine. Morbid introspection still tempts me today.

“In Scripture, healthy saints look outward mainly, but they don’t look outward only.”

But alongside that dismal past and present danger, I’ve also discovered something unexpected: the cure for unhealthy introspection is not simply to think about yourself less, but to think about yourself better. Yes, self-examination can become a prison cell of introspective gloom — but it need not. Done rightly, self-examination can become a pathway to spiritual health, a friend who leads us inward only to lead us further outward, who shows us self so we might see more of Christ.

Search Me, O God

But why, some may ask, do we need to examine ourselves at all? If God transforms us as we behold Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), why would we spend any time beholding self? We change by the outward look, not the inward, don’t we?

Indeed we do. We are plants who grow by the rain of self-forgetful worship, the sun of Christward praise. Nevertheless, even well-watered, well-lit plants need to watch for thorns. Similarly, self-examination doesn’t grow us by itself, but it may clear the ground for growth — and keep us from getting choked.

In Scripture, healthy saints look outward mainly, but they don’t look outward only. Like Timothy, they keep a close watch not only on the gospel but on themselves (1 Timothy 4:16). Like David, they love to consider God’s glory in sky and Scripture, but they also allow that glory to illuminate self (Psalm 19:11–14). As the author of Hebrews exhorts, they devote their best attention to “looking to Jesus,” but from time to time they also consider the weights and sins that slow their pace (Hebrews 12:1–2).

The wise know that spiritual progress yesterday does not guarantee spiritual progress today. Judases become traitors and Demases become worldlings one small, self-deceived step at a time. And as both history and experience testify, it is all too possible to live a half-life as a Christian, bearing tenfold fruit when one hundredfold could be ours — if only we would stop to pull the thorns that block our way.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. And we justly add that the unexamined soul will not go on living — or will limp instead of run.

How to Examine Yourself

How then might we examine ourselves without becoming imprisoned by introspection? How might we draw water from the soul’s well without falling in?

Healthy self-examination can take many forms, and what helps one soul may help another less. As with prayer and Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines, Scripture gives us principles but leaves plenty of room for personal application. Consider, then, some basic guidelines for self-examination and how you might make them your own.

1. Plan to examine yourself.

Often, self-examination becomes morbid when it turns from a spiritual practice to a spiritual atmosphere: a vague cloud of condemnation that follows you around, a crippling sense of self-consciousness.

Scripture never counsels such a constant inner gaze. The life of a saint is a self-forgetful, Godward, others-oriented life. “Love God” and “love neighbor” are the twin priorities of our days (Matthew 22:37–39); “examine yourself” is a practice meant to serve those greater loves. And strangely enough, one way we might reclaim healthy self-examination is by giving it a thoughtful, well-defined spot in our schedule. Instead of perpetually examining yourself, plan to examine yourself.

“Only the Searcher of hearts can expose our hearts; only God can make us known to us.”

Such a plan will include a specific when. Many saints across church history have benefited from a brief time of self-examination every evening, a few minutes when we can remember the day’s mercies and confess the day’s sins. But for growing in the practice of self-examination, especially for those prone to morbidity, I might suggest something a little longer but less frequent — say once a week (perhaps in place of a normal devotional time).

As important as the when is the what. Where will you focus your attention? For most of us, “examine yourself” offers too broad a charge. But “examine your prayer life,” “examine your friendships,” “examine your parenting,” “examine your relationship with money” — these we can get our hands around.

I find it helpful to think in two broad categories for self-examination: callings and concerns. By callings, I mean the areas of responsibility God has given you: disciple of Jesus, husband or wife, mother or father, church member, friend, neighbor, employee, and so on.

And by concerns, I mean those areas of your soul that call for careful attention. Say, for example, you feel a pang of envy on a Tuesday afternoon at work. You confess the pang but don’t have time in the moment, or perhaps even in the day, to plumb its depths, even though you sense it would be helpful to do so. Why did I feel that? Where did that come from? Having a plan for self-examination allows you to say, “I’m not sure, but I don’t need to figure that out now. I’ll return to it on Friday” — or whenever you have planned.

2. Let God’s word guide you.

So there you are on Friday morning (or whenever), with time set aside for self-examination. What might that time look like? We might take some cues from David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23–24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!     Try me and know my thoughts!And see if there be any grievous way in me,     and lead me in the way everlasting!

David knows that only the Searcher of hearts can expose our hearts; only God can make us known to us. So, instead of diving into his own soul unaided, he asks God himself to search him.

Notice, however, that David doesn’t simply ask God to search him; he also places himself in the presence of this searching God. Most of Psalm 139 travels the depths of God, not self. David stands in awe of God’s all-knowing thoughts, God’s all-seeing eyes, God’s all-encompassing presence, God’s all-consuming righteousness. And then, in the context of this profound Godwardness, David says, “Search me.”

Psalm 139 (and the rest of Scripture) gives self-examination a decidedly asymmetrical focus: we see ourselves rightly only in relation to God. So, if you want to examine yourself well, follow David and place yourself in God’s presence. Practically, as you examine yourself, allow adoration to play just as significant a role as confession. And all along the way, treat God’s word as your best guide — the word given for our reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16), the only word that can discern the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

To that end, consider choosing a passage relevant to your present focus and using it like a pathway into the soul. If you want to examine your prayer life, linger over the Lord’s Prayer. If you want to examine your husbanding, look into the mirror of Ephesians 5:22–33. If you want to get beneath some persistent tug toward bitterness, walk slowly through Psalm 37 or 73. And as you do, ask God himself to search you.

3. Query your soul and confess your sins.

To sharpen our self-examination, we might look again to David’s prayer. As he asks God to search him, he doesn’t ask God to reveal everything about him. But he does ask to see “any grievous way in me” — any unknown or half-known sin, any deepening unbelief, any developing pattern that could keep him from following “the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24).

Similarly, we don’t need to treat self-examination as an exhaustive enterprise. We cannot know everything about ourselves, or even everything about one part of ourselves. No matter how self-aware we become, we will die knowing ourselves, just as we know God, only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But we do want to see anything that needs our present attention — any poisonous bud that could open into grievous sin.

As we meditate on a passage, we may find help from asking questions like the following (drawn from page 148 of Tim Keller’s book Prayer):

Am I living in light of this?
What difference does this make?
If I believed and held to this, how would that change things?
When I forget this, how does that affect me and all my relationships?

If such questions reveal sins we have tolerated, habits we need to stop, subtle compromises that have grown over time, good — our self-examination is bearing fruit. An hour ago, something troubling lay hidden in the soul; now no longer. Now we can take it, place it before the Lord who knows us exhaustively yet loves us eternally, and say with David,

I acknowledged my sin to you,     and I did not cover my iniquity;I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”     and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

4. Forget about yourself.

Self-examination, like deep-sea diving, is a good but occasional exercise. God has not given us enough light or oxygen to swim always in the deeps; sun and air and land await us above. So, once you have queried your soul and confessed whatever sins you’ve seen, return to the surface.

“The end of self-examination is not self-consciousness, but Christ-consciousness.”

The prayer acronym A.C.T.S. puts thanksgiving after confession for good reason: in Christ, confession of sin is not a room but a doorway, not a wall but a path. God would not have us sit forever in some gloomy cellar of guilt; he would have us sing under the blue sky of his kindness and walk in the broad fields of his grace, his steadfast love our atmosphere (Psalm 32:10). So, if self-examination does not regularly lead us to a fuller, deeper, sweeter taste of God’s grace in Jesus, then somewhere self-examination has gone wrong.

The end of self-examination is not self-consciousness, but Christ-consciousness. Yes, we have scrutinized our souls for a time, but only so we might bring our sins to Christ and receive his strength to walk a better way. The last step of self-examination, then, is simply this: forget about yourself. Go love your God. Go love the people he has placed before you. Go walk in “the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24).

Head of Every Head: How to Lead Like Jesus

We’ve now heard plenty about bad heads. In a world of depravity, where even churches are led by recovering sinners, humans have long circulated reports of poor leaders, and some terrible ones. Now we can amplify the stories with our new technologies.

Power can indeed corrupt, but not because power itself is poison. Rather, the poison is in us already. We are sinners to the core and across all our faculties. Christians have long called this “total depravity.” Leadership is not the problem; sin is.

In fact, good leadership, and healthy headship, is part of the solution to what ails us today. Many don’t even know to ask and pray for such leadership because they haven’t experienced it. But for Christians, even if we haven’t personally enjoyed healthy headship, we have a clear Good Head to look to — one we confess as Lord. We have Jesus.

“One of the first truths to rehearse about mere human heads is that they all have a Head.”

Our great need is for more heads like him, leaders who are not just kinder, gentler, and more patient, but men who actually lead — in taking godly initiative, in opening God’s word and explaining it, in prayer, in envisioning good deeds, in shaping the moral vision of our families and churches. We need heads who don’t melt into a puddle of self-pity when they don’t get the strokes they’d like, but who are ready, like Jesus, to endure personal discomforts for the good of their household, and the joy set before them.

Head of All Heads

This month at Desiring God, as we take up a focus on the “marks of healthy headship,” we begin with the one who is Head of all heads. One of the first truths to rehearse about mere human heads is that they all have a Head. Before the apostle writes, “The head of a wife is her husband,” he says, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Before reflecting long on headship in our marriages and homes, and other spheres, we first take our bearings from the divine-human Head over all human heads.

Those with an aversion to all human headship might consider the chastening and comforting effects of grasping that “the head of every man is Christ.” On the one hand, every human head is a man under authority. None is autonomous. No husband or father or leader is unaccountable to his Maker. All will stand before the judgment seat of their Head (2 Corinthians 5:10). To have Christ as Head will be terrifying to self-serving men. On the other hand, this truth is precious and strengthening for heads who know themselves weak and in need of his help.

For Christians, healthy headship takes its cues from Christ himself. He is Head of his bride (Ephesians 5:23), Head of his church (Colossians 2:19), and Head of every head (1 Corinthians 11:3). Learning from him, then, what might it mean for us mere human heads to rule like Jesus does? What imitable forms does his headship take?

1. Covenant Fidelity

First, Christian headship is covenantal. It’s not random, free-floating, and simply spontaneous but operates in specific, given terms. Jesus is Head of his church, his bride, in a different way from how he is Head over all as sovereign. He has covenanted himself to his bride in a way that he has not to all people. So too with Christian husbands.

The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:23, 25)

Christ has pledged his special allegiance to his church, and he is a man of his word who fulfills it. He makes solemn promises to his bride that he will keep her, love her, and be faithful to her, come what may. Amazingly, Jesus “hold[s] fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31). And so his church responds in reciprocal fidelity, “holding fast to the Head” (Colossians 2:19).

As Head, Jesus loves not only in word but in deed. From this covenant allegiance arises costly action — even to the point of death on a cross. There he bore the cost, sacrificially giving his own body and blood, to rescue his bride. He didn’t just give her attention and energy when it was convenient, or when she seemed deserving, but “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He showed his covenant love by persevering for his bride, to die in the worst of ways, to secure life for her.

2. Affectionate Care

The headship of Ephesians 5 is striking not only for the depths of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice but also for the ongoing, everyday affectionate care with which he tends to his wife. Husbands, take note:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church. (Ephesians 5:29)

Far from inaugurating a new covenant and then turning his attention and energy to other interests, Jesus daily cherishes his church. His heart expands and grows for her. She knows herself to be resourced by his great singular sacrifice in the past and also treasured daily by an endless stream of care and concern.

Elsewhere, Paul applies this language of cherishing to people who, through faith, “had become very dear to us”:

We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves. (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)

So it is with our Head toward his bride. He longs for her, cherishes her, is affectionately desirous of her. And from such an active heart stems the holy jealousy of protection from threats to the ultimate good of his bride.

If the apostle could “feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband” (2 Corinthians 11:2), how much more the Groom himself for the protection of his bride? From love for his bride flows wrath toward her foes. The promise of his final protection — and the infinite power to back it up — is a function of his great, ongoing cherishing of his church. He loves his bride, and so will protect her, with fitting firmness and grace, from the many dangers to her good — obvious and inconspicuous, physical and especially spiritual, immediate and especially eternal.

So too with human heads. In the happy confines of the marriage covenant, daily affection and attentive care can grow and flourish. Christlike heads are allegiant to the covenant through ongoing affection toward their bride.

3. Steady Provision

Jesus both cherishes his bride and nourishes her. Colossians 2:19 connects his nourishing to her growth:

Holding fast to the Head . . . the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

Our Head makes provision and supply for the growth of his wife. As Head, he not only loved her at the cross with covenant-making allegiance, and loves her daily with ongoing concern, but he even loves her enough to take action for her growth, her improvement, her advance.

Now we add a fresh kind of encouragement to Christlike headship. Such heads not only keep covenant promises and show affection, but they find the right balance and proportions for challenging their bride to grow in holiness, to become more free from the miseries of sin. To finish the thought of Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” not just to leave her as is, in the decay and despair of sin, but to

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 5:26–27)

Jesus supports and provides for the holy growth of his bride (Colossians 2:19). He washes her with the word (Ephesians 5:26) that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Fidelity and affection do not mean catering to her indwelling sin. In fact, fidelity and affection mean exposing her sin to the light of grace and investing time, energy, and resources into the path of her healing and growth.

“Our Head brings us with him into his own hard-earned rewards and well-deserved privileges.”

Good human heads provide not only materially but spiritually, and spiritual provision not only begins with teaching and aims at training, but inevitably walks through the challenges of reproof and correction. Because the husband’s head is Christ, and not his wife, his labors to bless her may not always feel like blessings, at least in the moment. But to lead her well, he must be faithful first to his Head. He will need to be ready to disagree with her at times, and confront her in sin, with fitting firmness and grace.

4. Selfless Generosity

Finally, gathering up these previous marks, and extending them yet further, and into the future, is Christ’s lavish generosity as our Head. Ephesians 1:23 calls “his body” — the church — “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” One implication, among others, is that our Head brings us with him into his own hard-earned rewards and well-deserved privileges. He is a lavishly generous Head. Not only has God made us alive together with our Head, but he

raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:5–7)

Even as the God-man, our Head doesn’t leave his bride behind when he benefits — not even with respect to the throne of heaven. How much more, then, with merely human heads.

Learning from Jesus, we enjoy every privilege and reward with our covenant partner. We keep no transferable privilege from her, but with covenant fidelity, affectionate care, steady provision, and selfless generosity, we enjoy being “heirs [together] of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7), even as we husbands humble ourselves to actually lead, as commissioned by our Head.

Why Does God Allow Satan to Block the Gospel?

Audio Transcript

Today we find our way back to a familiar theme on the podcast, popular in emails that you send to us. It’s a topic that’s generated probably more questions to us than any other topic that I can think of — questions about Satan. You have sent in over three thousand emails now asking about him. Is he real? How and why did he first sin? Why is he not snuffed out but instead allowed to roam around? There are questions about his chief strategies for killing our joy and making us want to give up on life. And can a Christian get handed over to Satan? Can the devil devour us? And there are questions about why Satan has so much authority in this world. Questions like these have been addressed in the past in several different episodes that I’ve attempted to draw together in one place so that you can see the ground we’ve covered. I did that in the new APJ book on pages 331–353.

Today, a listener named Taylor writes in with a specific question for you, Pastor John. He asks this: “Hello, Pastor John! Thank you for your ministry! I know that Satan and demons have tremendous physical power and influence over the world, the material world. My question is about his power over the spiritual world. Why did God give Satan such immense power to blind people to the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4) and to snatch from hearts the very saving gospel so that people are left without any hope of salvation (Luke 8:12)? Why was he given such immense spiritual power to abort the gospel in the lives of sinners?”

When the Bible opens, it doesn’t even pause for a moment to give an account for why Satan is there. Later on, there are hints that he’s a fallen angel and that there was rebellion in heaven. But that’s not a full explanation for where he comes from, because it’s very difficult to explain why a personal, rational being — an angel — who is created perfect, would ever find a motive to rebel in a perfect universe. That’s not easy to explain. I don’t think we have a sufficient explanation for that. That’s one of those things that’s cloaked in mystery for now, I think.

Why the Long Leash?

Nevertheless, even though we may not be able to fully explain why Satan came into being, we know he does exist, and he was there from the beginning of mankind, because he tempts Adam and Eve in the third chapter of Genesis. We also know that Jesus commanded “the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). That’s an amazing statement. He said to Satan in the wilderness, “Be gone!” and he was gone (Matthew 4:10). And we know at the end of history, God will throw Satan into the lake of fire so that he can’t influence God’s people anymore or harm us anymore (Revelation 20:10).

So, from all this, we know God could have bound Satan completely the moment he fell or at any point in history in between. We know he doesn’t, because in the end the whole New Testament is telling the story of Satan’s activity in this world and how he deceives, how he tempts, how we need to do warfare against the principalities and powers.

“Seeing and savoring the superior beauty of Christ is the way we defeat the evil one.”

And Taylor, who’s asking us this question, points out that he’s blinding people. He’s blinding people. And he wants to know what is God’s reason — for God does all things in wisdom and for reasons; he doesn’t act whimsically — for not destroying Satan until the end and giving him such a long leash, especially, Taylor says, with regard to his free hand in blinding people, it seems, to the glory of Christ, and stealing the word, snatching it like a bird taking seed off a path.

So, he’s referring to 2 Corinthians 4:4: “In their case [the case of unbelievers] the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And he’s referring to Luke 8:12, the parable of the four soils, where that first soil is the seed along the path, representing those to whom Satan comes along and snatches the word right out of their hearts so that they don’t believe and are saved.

Taylor wants to know, Why does God allow that blinding, that word-stealing power?

Double Blindness

I think the key lies in the fact that if God had eliminated Satan so that the only enemy to be defeated is our own human depravity, part of the glory of the triumph of salvation would be missing. I’m going to deal with only one aspect of that glory. We could make three or four episodes on this, one with each aspect of glory. I’m only going to deal with one. I’m not going to talk about the glory of the cross in this (Colossians 2:15), or the glory of our ongoing warfare with the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:11–12). I’m only going to focus for the next couple of minutes on the glory of God’s victory in the moment of conversion itself. What happens at that moment of unblinding?

If there were no Satan to deceive us, we would still be blind to the glory of God in Christ. We would not see Christ as more beautiful, more desirable than anything else. We wouldn’t. Why? Because we are deeply depraved people. Paul describes us like this in Ephesians 4:17–18: “The Gentiles,” which is us before Christ, live “in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

So, not a word about Satan — not a word. He’s not our main problem; we are our main problem. At root, the blindness is our hardness of heart against God, producing ignorance, producing alienation, producing darkness of understanding. We don’t need Satan to be blind. We are blind by our own depraved nature.

Then the question is this: Why speak of Satan as blinding unbelievers the way 2 Corinthians 4:4 does? Because God is showing us the double prison we are in. We are doubly dark: the darkness of our own shackles around our wrists and ankles, and the darkness of Satan’s locked doors — like Peter in prison, who had to have the hands freed, then he had to have the gates freed and the doors freed. There are layers of bondage: the darkness of our own delusions about God — that’s one level of bondage and blindness — and then the added darkness of Satan’s lies and deceptions all around us.

Double Glory

Therefore, when Christ converts us by the power of the Spirit, he gets double glory because of this double blindness. He conquers Satan’s deceptions, and he conquers human depravity. And here’s the key that I believe is so crucial for why he saves us like this rather than obliterating Satan earlier. If he obliterated Satan earlier, his power would be glorified. But if Satan remains, and we are able to defeat his deceptions by seeing the superior beauties of Christ, then not only is the superior power of Christ glorified, but also the superior beauty of Christ is glorified.

“Let’s take up arms and be glad in the Son of God. Gladness in Christ over sin, over Satan, is the victory.”

We can see this more clearly — if that doesn’t make full sense, let me try to say it again — if we realize that the nature of the blindness of our depravity is that we find other things besides Christ more desirable than Christ, more attractive than Christ, more to be preferred than Christ himself. That’s the essence of our blindness. We are so corrupt, we cannot see that Christ is a superior beauty, a superior worth, a superior greatness, and therefore a superior satisfaction over everything else. In our depravity, we are blind to all of that.

But that’s exactly the same way that Satan blinds us with his deceptions. He’s a liar, and the essence of his lie is that the pleasures of sin that he offers are more to be desired than Christ. Therefore, to be saved, to be converted, to experience the victory, the glorious victory of Christ and the Spirit in our lives, is to have both these blindnesses removed. And that’s described in 2 Corinthians 4:6.

And the way they are removed is that we are granted to see, in one great miracle, both the delusions of depravity and the deceptions of Satan, because they’re the same. We are granted to see Christ, the glory of Christ, as superior to everything that our rebellious hearts ever dreamed of and superior to everything Satan ever offered. That double glorification of Christ triumphing over both of those blindnesses would not have happened if Satan had been snuffed out at the beginning.

So, one huge implication — I close with this — of this for us right now, today, is that seeing and savoring, desiring, preferring the superior beauty of Christ is the way we defeat the evil one. So, I’ve said more than once, let’s take up arms and be glad. Let’s take up arms and be glad in the Son of God. Gladness in Christ over sin, over Satan, is the victory.

The State of Global Missions in 2024

Jesus gave his church the Great Commission almost two thousand years ago. Today, the task of making disciples of all nations remains the same. However, the world in which we live is in a constant state of change, so the issues affecting how we obey that commission change from decade to decade (and even from year to year). The last decade has been no exception. Based on conversations with missionary leaders stationed around the globe, several critical issues and trends are evident in 2024.

Before looking at the trends, let me clarify that this article is based on the conviction that the missionary task consists of effective entry, evangelism, disciple-making, healthy church formation, leadership development, and exit to partnership (Foundations, 13). Those disciples and churches are taught to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20), so all other biblical dimensions of Christian discipleship are included. This task is to be carried out among all peoples and in all places of the earth until Jesus returns. This understanding of the missionary task lies behind the issues and trends listed below.

Trend 1: Christianity’s Shifting Center of Gravity

Christianity’s center of gravity is now in the Global South and in East Asia. The largest missionary-sending country in the world remains the United States, but South Korea comes in second. This trend is poised to continue in the years ahead, as the population of Africa continues to grow exponentially. In light of the growing secularization of Europe and North America, with declining church membership and loosening theological convictions, the Global South and East Asia will likely play an increasingly prominent role in global missions and in the theological climate of the global church.

Prosperity ‘Gospel’

This trend leads to the most pressing issue in missions today. The churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia are increasingly permeated by the prosperity gospel. In fact, it would be safe to say that prosperity teaching is the most common form of “Christian” thought and practice in many of these areas. Prosperity teaching may prove to be the greatest threat to biblical Christianity in the twenty-first century, on a level with Gnosticism in the early church.

This form of teaching easily syncretizes the animistic worldview that lies behind most expressions of formal religion in the Two-Thirds World. Religious practice is used to manipulate the spiritual world to obtain earthly blessings. In “Christian” prosperity teaching, both the true gospel and serious discipleship are lost. Partly because of weak discipleship and inadequate theological education by missionary-sending groups, this destructive movement threatens two centuries of fruitful missionary service in the Global South and East Asia.

The last few decades of Western evangelical missionary effort have been focused on unengaged and unreached people groups. This emphasis should certainly continue. The urgent need of the present hour, however, is to combine this attention to the unreached with the delivery of rigorous theological education and church-based discipleship in already-evangelized areas.

Mission Fields to Mission Forces

There is a positive side to the demographic shift of evangelical Christianity to the South and East. As already mentioned, South Korea is now a major contributor to the missionary enterprise. Other East Asian missionaries are also making their efforts felt around the globe. Some places that were recently mission fields are becoming mission forces. For example, missionaries from Latin America have proven to be highly effective in the Islamic world. Perhaps God is redeeming the seven-hundred-year Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by giving Hispanic Christians unusual insight into Islamic cultures. The African church is also beginning to awaken to its strength and its global responsibilities.

An ongoing trend in global mission will be its increasing internationalization. As the formerly Christian West slides increasingly into spiritual weakness, missionaries from the Two-Thirds World will play an increasingly greater role in the task. This shift raises two issues. One is that the West needs to be re-evangelized, and missionaries from the South and East need to join in that task. The second is that Western missionaries need to invest time and resources into mobilizing and equipping the missionary-sending capacity of the newer churches in the South and East.

Trend 2: Technological Advances

The rapid development of technology continues to influence mission efforts around the world. The global shutdown that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that the Internet is a powerful medium for evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training when direct personal contact is limited. Artificial intelligence (AI) holds amazing promise for translating the Bible and other Christian materials.

On the other hand, hostile governments have shown the power of technology to monitor evangelistic activities, expel gospel workers, and persecute local believers. The years following the outbreak of COVID have shown that forces antagonistic to the spread of the gospel have both an increased willingness and an enhanced ability to disrupt Christian missionary efforts, both in their own countries and beyond. AI in particular is a two-edged sword, and mission practitioners cannot ignore it. The rapid (and ongoing) development of AI is one of the most significant trends of the last few years, and the issues it raises will demand careful thought and attention in the years ahead.

Trend 3: Increased Access and Support

Due to technological advances, churches in the developed world have unprecedented access to mission fields around the world, in terms of both communication and travel. Local churches are currently invested in the task of missions like never before in church history. This is a good development. Research has shown that Christians who go on short-term mission trips give substantially more to missionary support and are much more likely to become long-term missionaries themselves.

There is a negative side to this trend, however. Christians, by and large, are generous people. Western Christians, on average, are wealthy by global standards. When they see needs, they like to give their resources to meet those needs. But that generosity can have unintended consequences. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evangelical missionaries learned about those consequences the hard way, and principles of indigenization were forged to preserve the health of the new churches. Those principles became standard practice for evangelical missionaries around the world. (See, for example, Roland Allen’s 1912 book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?)

“Some places that were recently mission fields are becoming mission forces.”

However, many Western churches directly involved in the mission field often know neither the lessons learned nor the principles derived from those lessons. The result is that many new churches in the Two-Thirds World are awash in foreign money, and the results have been destructive for church health. The trend is unhelpful foreign financial involvement in church life on the mission field. The issue is how to channel this well-meant generosity in ways that do not create unhealthy dependency.

Trend 4: International Churches

Another trend is the increased interest in planting international churches globally. The last few decades have seen a welcome increase in attention given to ecclesiology in the West, with enhanced concern for biblical church structures and overall church health. A recent feature of this movement has been increased engagement in planting international churches in global cities around the world.

These churches have real value. In an increasingly mobile age, global cities house people from every country under the sun. These expatriates (“expats”) usually return to their home countries at some point. Churches that actively evangelize these expats perform a valuable service. In addition, healthy international churches provide a context for expat Christians to grow in their faith and to be nurtured in their outreach to the educational, business, or diplomatic contexts in which they work.

Danger comes, however, when these international churches come to be regarded as a primary means of fulfilling the Great Commission. Uncontextualized churches ministering in a foreign language (like English) have limited impact on most unreached peoples. Even in global cities, fewer people can have deep conversations in English than most expats realize, and international churches look and feel far more foreign than is evident to anyone who has not gone deep in the local language and culture. Most of those with no access to the gospel will be reached only in their heart language by workers willing to go deep in the local community and culture. They will be reached through planting healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches that are self-supported, self-governed, and self-propagating.

Planting international churches is a good thing. However, heart-language work aimed at planting indigenous churches remains the central component of the missionary task. This focus should be primary in global missions, with international churches serving as another tool in the toolbox.

Trend 5: Decreasing Missionary Resilience

Not too long ago, missionaries left for the field without much hope of ever seeing their homes and families again. Sometimes packing belongings in their own coffins, they would sail for months, expecting hardship and even death for the sake of the gospel. Their perseverance in the face of suffering laid the foundation for the global expansion of the church. Today, it is not uncommon for missionaries to return to their home country after a few years or even months. Many missionary candidates seem ill-equipped for the stress of culture shock or the rigors of life overseas. This points to a troubling trend: missionary resilience is a growing issue on the mission field.

The current cultural climate in the West encourages entitlement, resentment, and fragility rather than grit, perseverance, and sacrifice. This cultural trend inevitably infiltrates the church and affects those whom the church sends as missionaries. The need for member care, both during the application process for missionary service and after arriving on the field, continues to go up.

Churches aiming to send their people into missionary service will need to address these issues at every level of the discipleship process. Mission agencies will find themselves dealing with subconscious entitlement and emotional fragility more and more in the years to come, and thus have opportunities now to begin building structures for ongoing training, evaluation, and care.

Trend 6: Rising Global Population

One final trend needs to be mentioned. Seventy years ago, there were fewer than three billion people on the planet. Today, there are more than eight billion. Some of the highest rates of growth are among peoples and in places where the gospel is known the least.

At present, global evangelization is not keeping pace with global population growth. Of the eight billion people alive today, around four billion are in unreached people groups, and many more have never heard the gospel even if they technically have access to it. Meanwhile, evangelicals are well under 10 percent of the world’s total population.

That means we have a great opportunity before us. Most people in the world have yet to hear and believe the only message that can save them. The missionary task is urgent. The greatest issue in global missions today is obedience. Who will go?

Jesus remains King. His mission will be fulfilled. Just as the task of mission does not change, neither does the bedrock certainty of his sovereignty. Christians today can embark on global mission with joyful confidence, knowing that our God reigns and his plan for the ages will be completed. We need to be wise in our dealings with the world, so we need to act on the trends and issues we see develop. However, we can do so with boldness, knowing that his royal rule can never fail.

Eager Compassion in Practice: Five Ways We Help the Poor

The last of the apostles, Paul, noted in Galatians 2:9–10 how happy he was that the earlier apostles assigned him two tasks: missions and mercy ministry.

When [they] perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles. . . . Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

That’s a different reaction from what pastors often get when they ask congregants to remember the poor. A few are eager. Others ignore the call altogether. Many respond reluctantly, like all of us do at some point when growing up: Do I have to? I can understand the reluctance. Some people insist that they first have to remember their own families. They are struggling to make ends meet. Some are working two jobs. I sympathize with them.

I’m more critical of some others.

Less Compassionate Conservatism

For two years during the nineties, I went on more than a hundred flights per year to promote community-level projects to help the materially poor. As a “platinum medallion” Delta customer, I frequently had free upgrades to first class that left me sitting next to skilled and wealthy doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. I would ask what they thought about their tax bills. “Too high.” I would then ask, “What if you could lower your tax bill by committing ten percent of your work time to direct help for those living on the other side of the tracks?” Oh. They typically responded with words like these: “Hmm, paying up isn’t that bad after all.” Few were eager to remember the poor.

“In our middle-class and wealthy churches, we may talk about remembering the poor, but do we mean it?”

Remember, that was during the nineties, a blessed decade in American life. From 1991 (when the Soviet Union disintegrated) to September 11, 2001, we believed we had no enemies in the world that could trouble us. The economy was generally good. By the end of the decade, the federal government had a balanced budget. (We should repeat the words “balanced budget” three times while clicking our ruby slippers because now that seems like a fairy tale.)

If many people of means did not want to remember the poor then, how likely is enthusiasm now, when callous conservatism seems to have driven out compassionate conservatism?

That’s only one of our problems.

Do We Really Mean It?

A new book by David Bahnsen, Full-Time: Work and the Meaning of Life, notes that in the past two decades suicide and drug overdoses are both up thirty percent. One out of six American adults regularly takes antidepression medication, and (coincidentally?) one out of six prime working-age men (ages 25 to 54) is not in the workforce. And “volunteering is on the decline,” according to an NPR report just before Christmas.

Again, I’m not criticizing those who are working two jobs or are overwhelmed with family needs. Our lives have different seasons. Besides, all of us are spiritually poor. We all need help. But for anyone who has a couple of hours a week available to help the materially poor, including many widows and orphans, including women facing a crisis pregnancy and not knowing how they will survive, including others who are heavy laden — it’s worth remembering that Paul did not just talk about helping those poor: he was eager to help them.

In 1948, when Harry S. Truman was president, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond vehemently attacked Truman’s call for ending racial discrimination by the federal government. A reporter noted that Thurmond had faithfully supported President Franklin Roosevelt, who had said pretty much what Truman was saying. The reporter asked Thurmond, “Why are you being so critical?” Thurmond replied, “Truman really means it.”

Today, in our middle-class and wealthy churches, we may talk about remembering the poor, but do we mean it?

Five Ways to Encourage Eagerness

Some people see preaching the gospel and helping the poor as competitors for time and treasure: choose one or the other. That’s not true. If we are truly grateful for the grace given us, we will eagerly tell others of that grace, not only in word but also in deed, not only with words but also with dollars, and not only with dollars but also with our time.

When gratitude for the gospel awakens eagerness, church leaders need to have practical programs for remembering and helping the poor. Here then are five practical steps that we can take to encourage eagerness.

1. Start really small.

First, when congregation members don’t know how to swim, start them in the shallow end of the pool. Do not proudly proclaim, “We will work with the long-term homeless.” No, many of those are the hardest to help, and the frustrations of trying will leave many people uneager to try again. Instead, start with children in grades one through four who are falling behind in reading. That puts them in danger of dropping out of high school and becoming ineligible for most jobs. Listening to little children read demands patience and the ability to say, “Good job.” They’re not threatening, and success there leaves helpers eager to move on to harder tasks.

2. Distinguish unable from unwilling.

Second, remember the poor by not treating them in a one-size-fits-all way. Two centuries ago, the mayor of Boston, Josiah Quincy, made a good tripartite distinction. Some among the poor are “able” (ready and willing to work, and thus needing a job, not alms). Some are “unable” (and thus worthy of alms). Some are able but “unwilling.” Church volunteers are likely to find pleasure in working with the able and the unable, and frustration with the unwilling. Quincy also recognized the need to know the poor individually and not make assumptions based on appearance. He gave the poor opportunities and let them show in which category they belonged.

3. Begin with talents, not needs.

Third, we can increase eagerness and avoid making premature distinctions by practicing ABCD, “asset-based community development,” an approach based on John McKnight’s teaching about starting with the talents of those seeking help rather than their needs, and building on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. Michael Mather, in Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, describes a church that put ABCD into practice: instead of passing out dollars, it helped a seamstress, a shoe repairer, a musician, and many others to monetize their skills.

4. Recover the goodness of work.

Fourth, Bahnsen’s Full-Time points out that American culture generally (including church culture) undervalues work. Many see work as a means to the end of not working. Many miss the way God created both physical and intellectual work before that tragic day in Eden: Adam was a gardener and a namer. After the fall, work is harder but still a means to discover our meaning and purpose, and to glorify God by cultivating the world he created. When some of the wealthy among us stop working as soon as they can, it’s hard to insist upon its importance for everyone. High schools and colleges earn their funding only when graduates wake up eager to work each weekday.

5. Learn from the experienced.

Fifth, we can learn not only from Bahnsen and Mather but from other books past and present. I learned a lot during the 1990s while writing on these issues. The deacons in my church read Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. Note the practical subtitles on three more twenty-first-century books: Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help — And How to Reverse It, Lawrence Mead’s From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor, and Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town — and Why We Need It.

“The unjust, rich or poor, live by making demands. The just, poor or rich, live by faith.”

While writing a preface to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Tragedy of American Compassion, I read Gene Dattel’s good history book, Reckoning with Race — and saw that my reckoning was inadequate. Books by John McWhorter (including Losing the Race) and Thomas Sowell (including The Thomas Sowell Reader) can also help. Books from the right and left such as Jason Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us and Elizabeth Wilkerson’s Caste provoke thinking about the consequences of slavery, segregation, and hating our neighbors.

None of those five steps will work, of course, unless we desire God. The unjust, rich or poor, live by making demands. The just, poor or rich, live by faith.

Are Parents to Blame for Prodigals?

Audio Transcript

Welcome to a new week on the podcast. This week in our Navigators Bible Reading Plan, we start our May readings. Month number five is upon us. And that means we begin the new month in the first four chapters of 1 Samuel, reading the story of a dad named Eli and his worthless sons. That’s the Bible’s language — 1 Samuel 2:12 says it: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men.” That’s a brutal assessment right from the start of their story, one that continues in 1 Samuel 2:12–36 and then picks up in 1 Samuel 4:12–22.

With such a heavy story on the docket, we start this week talking about parenting — because clearly there’s a link between our parenting and our children, right? Failed child, failed parent. Well, such a link never tells the whole story of parenting, as we are going to hear today as we look at the parenting assurances that we read about in the book of Proverbs.

All this came up in an APJ from 2015 that I want to reshare with you today. The question was from a new mom named Brenda. She asks, “Pastor John, I have a 22-month-old daughter, and I’m already teaching her about Jesus and sharing my faith with her. However, recently I’ve heard about many adult children who grew up in a strong Christian home — some who even had parents who were leaders in the church — who eventually left the faith as adults. This has become my biggest fear for my own daughter. Can you explain Proverbs 22:6 and give me some practical ways I can help my daughter have a true, authentic relationship with Jesus — one that she will not abandon later on?”

Well, I wish I knew more about this question than I do, even after 43 years of parenting five children, but I want to base everything I say, as much as possible, on the Bible and not just on my personal limitations. So, I will try to say something. Let’s talk about Proverbs 22:6 first, and then we will get to what you can do to maximize the likelihood that your child will follow the Lord.

“Rest in the sovereignty of God over your children. We cannot bear the weight of their eternity.”

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” And the problem we all feel is that the promise half of that verse — “he will not depart from it” — seems so absolute that every time a grown-up child of a Christian family departs from the way of wisdom, or the way of faith in Jesus, we must conclude that it is owing to a failure of the parents to obey the first half of the verse — namely, to train him properly. That is a pretty heavy burden to bear for most parents. But if that is what the text means, then we should be willing to bear it.

Before I say what I think that promise actually means, there are passages in the Bible where the disobedience of children as adults — departing from the faith and making a shipwreck of their lives — is traced back to the failures of fathers.

Parental Failures

For example, Adonijah, David’s son — David, the man after God’s own heart — “exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king.’ And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:5–6). Now, that is a very intentional criticism of David. His father had never taken the time to say, “Don’t do that,” because he didn’t want to displease Adonijah. And clearly, this biblical writer is chalking up the rebelliousness of Adonijah against his own dad to the failure of his father to rebuke him. So there it is. We do err, and our errors have terrible consequences.

Here is another example: the sons of Eli the priest. A prophet came to Eli and said, “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (1 Samuel 2:29). Wow. When Eli heard his sons had been killed by God for their disobedience, he fell over backward, broke his neck, and died because he was old and fat (1 Samuel 4:18). And it says he got fat because he honored his sons above God, because his sons were pulling out the choicest parts of the sacrifices to eat, and their dad loved the food so much he wouldn’t criticize his kids.

Oh, he criticized their fornication in the temple, but they kept their jobs, and they kept misusing the sacrifices. What this shows is that a dad can be very selective in his discipline and his criticism of his children, and clearly the prophet here wants to criticize Eli for honoring his sons above God by failing to reprimand them in the way they were handling the sacrifice.

“The only perfect Father who ever was had a son who went astray.”

So, the point there is simply not to blow off Proverbs 22:6, as though there were no correlation between the way you bring up your children and what becomes of them. I mean, I am a dad, for goodness’ sake. I know this is a huge weight to bear for all of us — when our kids don’t do things we think they should do or do things we think they shouldn’t do, to look back and say, “Could I have done better?” And the answer is almost always yes.

No Foolproof Process

But having said all of that, I doubt that the second half of Proverbs 22:6 — “even when he is old he will not depart from it” — I doubt that the writer of Proverbs intends for us to take that as an absolute promise with no exceptions. And I’ve got three reasons why I don’t think that means it is a foolproof process — that if you bring up your child in a godly way, he will never depart from the faith.

1. Bad sons follow good kings (and vice versa).

When you read the history of the kings of Israel, a good and faithful king is sometimes followed by a bad son. A bad king is sometimes followed by a good son. There doesn’t seem to be any effort on the part of the inspired writer to say that faithful fathers have faithful sons and unfaithful fathers have unfaithful sons. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to do that. The writer seems to be okay pointing out that this godly king is going to have an ungodly son (and vice versa).

2. The only perfect Father had a rebellious son.

The only perfect Father who ever was had a son who went astray. Israel is God’s son and was rebellious almost its entire existence, in spite of all God’s fatherly ways with his child. Here is an example: in Hosea 11:1–2, God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away.” This is God, the perfect Father, pleading with his son. And what does he get for it? A lifetime — I mean, a history time, the whole history of Israel, the whole history of the Old Testament — shows that this son is rebellious.

3. A proverb is rarely an absolute statement.

I think this is the most important point contextually. Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb — and proverbs, by their very nature, are generalizations about the way life usually is rather than promises about the way it will have to be all the time. You could just read through Proverbs, and you will see this.

For example, in Proverbs 22:29 it says, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings.” Well, really, are we going to force the writer to mean that every carpenter or every stonecutter in Israel who does his job well is going to get a chance to go to the palace and stand before the king? That is surely not the way we should take the proverb, and many others. The point of the proverb is to make the generalization that excellence in our work generally gets recognized by discerning people and leads to great benefits — something like that.

The clearest example of how proverbs work is, of course (everybody who has studied Proverbs knows this), Proverbs 26:4–5. Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Verse 5, the next verse, says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

Now, what that does is reveal the nature of proverbs. “Haste makes waste”; “a stitch in time saves nine.” Those are opposites, right? “Haste makes waste.” Is that a true proverb? Yes. “A stitch in time saves nine.” Is that a true proverb? Yes. Well, they command opposite things. Yes, which is why Proverbs 26:9 says this: “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools.”

“Kids need to see how precious Jesus is to Mom and Dad.”

In other words, you can use proverbs to put thorns through people. You have to be wise to even know what to do with a proverb. You can’t just take proverbs and assume that they are self-explanatory. It takes wisdom to know how to wield a proverb. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Yet you have got to know the time and the place to use a proverb.

So, for those three reasons, I don’t think that Brenda should bear the horrific weight of thinking that if she could just do it exactly right, it guarantees that her 22-month-old daughter will be a solid believer when she is 22 years old. She cannot bear that burden.

Counsel for Godly Parenting

So, here is what I want to say to her — just a few things.

1. In general, bringing up children God’s way will lead them to eternal life. In general, I think that is true.

2. This would include putting our hope in God and praying earnestly for wisdom and for their salvation all the way to the grave. Don’t just pray until they get converted at age six. That is not very smart. Pray all the way to the grave for your children’s conversions and for the perseverance of their apparent conversions.

3. Saturate them with the word of God. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

4. Be radically consistent and authentic in your own faith — not just in behavior, but in affections. Kids need to see how precious Jesus is to Mom and Dad, not just how he is obeyed, or how they get to church, or how they read devotions, or how they do duty. They need to see the joy and the satisfaction in Mom’s and Dad’s heart that Jesus is the greatest friend in the world.

5. Model the preciousness of the gospel. As we parents confess our own sins and depend on grace, our kids will see, “Oh, you don’t have to be perfect. Mom and Dad aren’t perfect. They love grace. They love the gospel because Jesus forgives their sins. And I know, then, that he can forgive my sins.”

6. Be part of a Bible-saturated, loving church. Kids need to be surrounded by other believers and not just Mom and Dad.

7. Require obedience. Do not be lazy. There are so many young parents today that just strike me as being so lazy. They are not willing to get up and do what needs to be done to bring this kid into line. So, we should follow through on our punishments and follow through especially on all of our promises of good things that we say we are going to do for them.

8. God saves children out of failed and unbelieving parenting. God is sovereign. We aren’t the ones, finally, who save our kids.

9. Rest in the sovereignty of God over your children. We cannot bear the weight of their eternity. That is God’s business. We must roll all of that onto him.

Through Hell to Hope: Feeling Reality in Dante’s ‘Inferno’

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” This warning stands etched for eternity over the gates of Dante’s hell. It is one of the most famous lines in literature, and rightly so. It marks the beginning of Dante’s descent, following the footsteps of Christ, into the heart of the earth — a sobering journey that puts both the fear and fitness of divine justice on full display.

Many are tempted to “abandon all hope” at just the prospect of reading Dante. Perhaps you were forced to slog through Inferno in high school or read a few excerpts about Beatrice in college. Yet few realize that Dante wrote his epic poem, including his descent into hell, precisely to offer hope to Christians in their pilgrimage through this life. He offers himself as a guide for all who would follow in his footsteps, a shepherd of the Christian imagination.

C.S. Lewis once observed, “Certain things, if not seen as lovely or detestable, are not being correctly seen at all” (A Preface to Paradise Lost, 67). In other words, you don’t really see reality if you don’t feel rightly about it. If you don’t see God as beautiful, you don’t actually see God. If you don’t see sin as utterly ugly, you don’t actually see sin. Like trying to see a rainbow in black-and-white, you don’t really see it without the color. And here Dante shines as such a valuable guide for us because he leveraged all of his poetic prowess to help his readers see and feel rightly about God and everything else in relation to him.

In short, Dante wrote for you. By shaping our imaginations, Dante aims to pull back the veil of appearances and show us what’s really real. Therefore, if we will journey with him, Dante proves himself wonderfully relevant to Christians today. To motivate you to embark on this pilgrimage, I want to examine one image Dante gives us in Inferno that helps us envision just how detestable our sin is.

Showing the Invisible

Before turning to Inferno, however, a word on the imagination and how Dante appeals to it. Dante holds that a disciplined imagination is essential for Christian maturity because it serves an indispensable role in tracing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful to their fountainhead in the triune God. He celebrates the fact that all things find their meaning and purpose in relation to God, who is

The ever-living One and Two and Three     that ever reigns as Three and Two and One     uncircumscribed and circumscribing all. (Paradise, 14.28–30)

Furthermore, Dante sees the incarnation of Jesus as the key to understanding everything. Just as the Word became flesh and revealed the invisible God, man can imitate the incarnation through the imagination. Our words form images that make invisible realities visible. Good stories help us really see.

“Dante offers himself as a guide for all who would follow in his footsteps, a shepherd of the Christian imagination.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dante has shaped and ordered the Christian imagination as much as any man besides Jesus. His labyrinthine fourteen-thousand-line poem, The Divine Comedy, is for the imagination a playground and a schoolhouse, a cathedral and an observatory, a courtroom and an art gallery. It is a story that springs up from the leaf mold of a mind saturated in Scripture and awed by “the love that moves the sun and other stars” (Paradise, 33.145). Thus, Dante can help guide us on the path of godliness and maturity.

Now, how does Dante employ the imagination to unmask the true nature of sin?

Sin Incarnate

In Inferno, Dante leads his readers into the depths of hell in order to illustrate what sin does to the soul. By presenting a host of sinners and their punishments, Dante paints soul-pictures to help us envision how sin leaves people bent and broken. In Dante’s vision, sinners embody the sins they cling to. To use the category we mentioned earlier, the sinner incarnates the sin. As Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce, the grumbler becomes a grumble. Fittingly, then, the punishments in hell are not tacked on after the fact. They are a picture of God giving sinners up to the intrinsic effects of their sin (Romans 1:24–32). Sin goes against the grain of God’s design, and Dante shows us what it looks like when you get splinters.

For instance, in canto 5 of Inferno, Dante presents those people who were dominated by lust in life as souls endlessly tossed to and fro by “a hellish cyclone that can never rest” (Inferno, 5.31). Like little birds in a blizzard, these souls are carried wherever the winds take them. This image perfectly depicts the sin of lust, which puts desire in the driver’s seat so that we are “led astray, slaves to various passions” (Titus 3:3). With this image, and a host of others, Dante helps us see the final destination of disordered loves.

The Soul-Picture of Ulysses

To look at a more involved example, Dante presents one of his most poignant and convicting soul-pictures in canto 26. In this eighth circle of hell, Dante meets the mythic character Ulysses, the mastermind of the Trojan horse and main character of Homer’s Odyssey. In Ulysses, Dante presents the embodiment of a sin that haunts the lips and keyboards of our own age — the misuse of words.

When Dante meets Ulysses, he recounts the story of his downfall. After a decade of fighting the Homeric wars, Ulysses finally returns home to his wife, son, and father. Yet he shamelessly admits that none of these bonds of love

Could drive from me the burning to go forth     to gain experience of the world, and learn     of every human vice, and human worth. (Inferno, 26.97–99)

Like the lustful, Ulysses is blown about by his passions. Like our first parents, he harbors a sinful obsession to obtain the knowledge of good and evil. Burning with this ambition, Ulysses uses his eloquence to inflame his war-weary friends with a desire to sail to the ends of the earth and storm the gates of Eden. However, before they can ever set foot on that hallowed shore, a whirlwind “to please Another’s will” sinks their ship, killing the whole crew. God quelled Job’s curiosity from the whirlwind, and Dante envisions the same for Ulysses’s folly.

In this image of Ulysses, Dante shows the destructive power of the tongue. Ulysses is a master rhetorician, and his words are poison. With just nine lines of speech, Ulysses convinces those he calls brothers to join him in his sin. He boasts,

I made my comrades’ appetites so keen     to take the journey, by this little speech,     I hardly could have held them after that. (26.121–123)

With carefully wrought words, Ulysses enflames the desire of others, enticing them into sin that ends in death (James 1:14–15).

The Fiery Tongue

The story itself is a parable of warning, but it is the punishment that finally unmasks the sin. Ulysses’s penalty involves being eternally encased in a tongue of flame, a flame kindled by the blaze of his own tongue. Here Ulysses embodies the sin of misusing words. And the punishment fits the crime for at least three reasons.

First, it is a kind of anti-Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Spirit rested on men like tongues of fire, freeing the tongues of men to set the world ablaze with truth. Yet Ulysses is imprisoned by his tongue, locked in his own lies. Second, as James tells us, the tongue is a fire, a restless inferno of unrighteousness (James 3:1–12). The fiery tongue kindles the world. Third, in life, Ulysses’s tongue devoured the lives of his friends. Now the very flame that consumed others eternally consumes the soul that wielded it. He entrapped with words, and now he is entrapped. The arsonist burns on his own pyre.

This image rightly haunts the imagination. It is truly terrible because the sin it reveals is detestable to God! Even as I write these words, I behold Ulysses as a blazing beacon of warning. My tongue, just like yours, is powerful. I can use it to help others enjoy God and see Christ. Or I can twist it to my own ends, subtly kindling my own ego and reputation. I can use it to bring life or, like Ulysses, to bring death.

Dante himself felt this danger. Staring at Ulysses veiled in flame, Dante determined to “hold my genius under tighter rein / Lest without virtue’s guidance it run loose” (Inferno, 26.21–22). Dante, gifted with great linguistic ability, knew he could lead others to ruin if God did not tame his tongue.

“Our words form images that make invisible realities visible. Good stories help us really see.”

And the warning of Ulysses is not limited to professional wordsmiths. With the help of the Internet and social media, the reach and speed of our words today make the danger all the greater. Ulysses’s “little speech” is no longer than an average text message or social media post, and they can be just as deadly. Like sparks in a forest, a few lines of misused words can set society ablaze. Therefore, we would do well to heed Dante’s image of Ulysses.

Imagining Reality

More broadly, we would do well to heed all of Dante’s images. I have given just one snapshot of how Dante — a man saturated in Scripture and enchanted by myth — can guide us on the Christian pilgrimage by shaping our imaginations. He can help us love much when we realize we have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47). He can guide us up toward holiness by revealing the ugliness of sin. He can help us bask in the light of God.

In short, Dante — and others like him who wield the imagination faithfully — can pull back the veil and show us a glimpse of the way the world really is.

Better Than Our Bitter Thoughts: The God of Surprising Goodness

What is the difference between those welcomed into heaven and those thrown into hell? Can we imagine a more relevant or urgent question? While depicting the final judgment in parable form, Jesus gives us a surprising answer: their thoughts.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” wrote A.W. Tozer (Knowledge of the Holy, 1). Jesus shows this true for the evil servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30). In the parable, Jesus gives us a glimpse into one difference between those welcomed into heaven and those thrown into judgment: their beliefs about God’s goodness. We get beneath actions into the psychology of the lost man, a window showing what squirmed beneath his disobedient life.

As we consider him, be asking yourself questions such as: What comes to mind when I think about God? Who do I assume he is? What does he love? What does he hate? What kind of Person governs the world? Is he good? Is he happy, blessed, disposed to give freely, or not? Beliefs about his goodness can lead to a useful life with heaven to follow or a worthless life with hell close behind.

At Journey’s End

The master finally returns from his long journey to meet with his three servants “and [settle] accounts with them” (Matthew 25:19). Before he left, he had entrusted them with his property, each according to his ability. He gave the ablest man five talents; the next, two talents; and to the last, he gave one. Jesus focuses the parable on their report of their stewardship in his absence. Had they been watchful for his return and about their master’s business (verse 13)?

“Beliefs about God’s goodness can lead to a useful life with heaven to follow or a worthless life with hell close behind.”

The first two report, rejoicing with their lord that, by their trading, they had each doubled what their master left them. Eyes then turn to the third servant. “He also who had received the one talent came forward” (verse 24).

Had he set off to the happy work like the first two servants? No. He buried the treasure in the backyard. But why? For the same reason as many today: he did not know the goodness of his master.

The God He Thought He Knew

Note the first words out of the servant’s mouth: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man.” What a different assessment from the first two, and what a strange conclusion given the facts we know. Do many masters entrust such valuable property to their servants’ keeping? Pharaoh withholds straw to make bricks, but this master hands over precious jewels from the vault. A talent is not a single coin; it is a treasure chest of precious wealth, twenty years of wages. The master hands him up to one million dollars in today’s wages — and simply leaves. Who is the servant to steward such wealth?

To account for this unbelievable opportunity, the servant twists the interpretation to excuse his thanklessness. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed” (Matthew 25:24). He thought he knew an exacting master, a groping master, a severe man about the bottom line.

His lord — seemingly generous beyond any master earth has ever seen — was really grasping, not giving; extracting, not investing; extorting, not enriching. We even hear an accusation of laziness against the master — he was one who didn’t get his own hands dirty. Don’t we sometimes project our own sins upon God, as this “slothful” servant did (verse 26)?

So, he saw his master as a giant fly, rubbing his greedy hands in anticipation of profit. Faceless were the slaves who built his house. Should this servant stoop to be ridden as a donkey? Was he an ox to tread grain? This master’s yoke was not easy, nor his burden light.

Finally, his wickedness curls up in the fetal position. “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (verse 25). Thus, he knew a God to be feared, but not obeyed. This man knew his master’s will and thought to lazily hide from the failure of trying in the failure of disobedience. He committed his talent to nature’s vault. Better for his master to lose benefit than go bankrupt. “Here, you have what is yours” (verse 25).

The God He Did Not Know

That was the God he thought he knew: a hard and severe master whose generosity was pretense for profit, a master who fed his cattle well. He did not know the master that animated the service of the other two servants.

1. He did not know the master eager to commend.

The passage stresses that the two faithful servants left “at once” to do their master’s work (verses 16–17). I imagine them going forward with excitement. Really, me? I get to serve my Lord in this way? And that same excitement brought them to show their master the fruit of faith-filled trading, as children with a Father: “Here are your five talents, master, and five more!”

And how does the master respond? With that fatherly twinkle of satisfaction in his eyes, he will not let them do one thing more without warming them with his pleasure: “Well done, my good and faithful servants!” (verses 21, 23).

2. He did not know the God who gives for keeps.

In the end, how false and foolish this servant’s meditations of the miserly God. Wonder with me: the master didn’t give the talents for his own profit, but for theirs. He gave for keeps. This Lord designed for loyal stewards to keep their talents and the increase.

The worthless servant learned this lesson the hard way: “Take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents” (Matthew 25:28). He doesn’t say, “Give to the servant who made me five talents.” The talents now belong to the servant, as confirmed in the next line: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance” (verse 29). From before the journey, this master gave intending to make them rich. His joy — “Well done, good and faithful servant!” — was not in what he gained, but in what they gained. Is this your hard and stingy God?

3. He did not know the master who gives in order to give more.

“You have been faithful over a little,” he tells the good servants. “I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:21, 23). Do not let that humble word little pass by unnoticed. The five-talent servant gained another lifetime of value by his trading. Jesus calls this stewardship little compared to the much on its way.

Have you placed your life and all that you own upon the altar before God? Have you left family or fortune for the gospel? Have you despised your life in this world, looking to that country to come? Little your trading, great your promotion. Remain constant, as Joseph governing in prison: soon, you shall stand second-in-command in the new heavens and new earth; he will set you over much. Our greatest labor for Christ in this world is but the small beginnings to our real labor for Christ in the next.

4. He did not know the God of spacious joy.

What did the wicked servant think as he overheard the master’s final remark to the truehearted? “Enter into the joy of your Master” (verses 21, 23). The evil servant did not know that this Master’s joy was a country of happiness. He thought him a hard man, an unhappy man, but he is the happiest of all men. “Leave your joys behind and enter mine!” Or, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Here is a God to labor under. Here is a God to trust. Here is a God who can happify his servants forever.

He Hides a Smiling Face

If he only believed in the blessedness of this master’s heart, that the master really meant to reward and welcome him into his own joy upon his return, how things might have changed. The problem was not his master; the problem was his heart. The problem was not his abilities; the problem was his sloth. The master’s assessment proved him an evil, lazy, unreasonable servant (Matthew 25:26–27). In the end, he is cast into outer darkness. Sinners who spin lies get caught in webs.

So, my reader, what do you think of God? Does he give us serpents when we ask for bread? Is he watching with an eagle’s eye to strike you when you stumble? Is he stingy, heartless, selfish? Does he tax at high rates and offer mere rations to strengthen for tomorrow’s slavery? How does your life answer?

If we think high of him, he is higher. If we think well of him, he is better. If we think base of him, he shall not always correct us. Unjust beliefs that lead to unjust lives provoke his justice. “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous” (Psalm 18:25–26).

Some of you do not serve him because you do not know him. Others have let hard and bitter circumstances deceive you into thinking he is hard and embittering. Business is not going as planned. You just received news that you lost the baby, again. Life should have been so different by now.

And the perfectly aimed question comes: Is this your good Master? O saints, Satan is asking God about some of you just now — “Does this ‘faithful servant’ really keep his integrity? Does he fear God for no reason? Touch his health, touch her fertility, touch his money, and they will curse you to your face.”

“Our greatest labor for Christ in this world is but the small beginnings to our real labor for Christ in the next.”

O saints, the Master is so good — above our deserts or imaginings — and he proved it for all time. How? By handing us his property, taking the long, faraway journey to Golgotha, and dying on the cross to pay our debts that we might keep his blessings. The Master not only gives his property to us — he offers himself for us. On the cross, Jesus lifted God’s goodness high above any of our earthly circumstances. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).


Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;The clouds ye so much dreadAre big with mercy and shall breakIn blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,But trust him for his grace;Behind a frowning providenceHe hides a smiling face. (William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”)

A Modest Proposal About Modesty

Every year as summer approaches, the world hastens to embrace its warmth. Restaurant patios shake out their snowy dust, kids trickle back into parks, sunscreen appears in the checkout aisle, teenage lifeguards ready the pools, vacation ads become relentless — and the clothing departments transform overnight.

Oversized sweaters vanish; swimsuits now welcome shoppers. Spaghetti-strap dresses stand in place of trench coats, and short shorts overtake long pants. A flock of oddly named tops — crop tops, tank tops, halter tops, tube tops — sidelines the long-sleeve section. Weatherproof boots no longer necessary, strappy shoes (of questionable durability) line the shelves.

The first glimpses of summer often appear on in-store mannequins and online models. For Christian women, that glimpse often causes not only anticipation, but anxiety, as that nagging and perennial question emerges: How might we dress modestly?

Asking Questions Carefully

So, how might we dress modestly? Of course, true modesty springs from the heart’s disposition, not the closet’s contents, and extends well beyond the clothes we keep. As one author states, “The external signs of what we call ‘modest behavior’ — not bragging, not showing off your body too much — are ultimately signifiers of modesty, not modesty itself” (Shalit, A Return to Modesty, xxv).

At the same time, when the summer months roll around, a choice in clothing still stands between us and the sun. So, to answer the question, I often find myself asking another: Would it be wrong if I wore this? I imagine many women can relate. In the pursuit of modesty, we tend to censure our clothing for sin — which can be an immature approach. Though the Bible commands modest dress (1 Timothy 2:9–10), it doesn’t include a list of modesty dos and don’ts. Were we to hold up an outfit and ask Matthew or Peter to tell us yay or nay, godly or sinful, we may get little response. “Thou shalt not wear . . .” is, well, nowhere.

As a result of Scripture’s supposed silence, we can begin to define “modest” as “not too immodest” — not too much like the world. That’s when the tricky questions really start firing: Are these shorts too short? Is this shirt too revealing? Are these pants too tight? And so we sift through summer clothing racks, hunting for items that won’t look too much like the way the world dresses in warm weather.

As such, we place modesty’s meaning (and expression) at the mercy of the masses, whose sense of “too far” only seem to inch further away. The tendency is not unique to our age. As early as the second century, church father Tertullian addressed the issue, in a work suitably called On Modesty:

The modesty of which we are now beginning to treat is by this time grown so obsolete, that it is not the abjuration [the rejection] but the moderation [the restraint] of the appetites which modesty is believed to be; and he is held to be chaste enough who has not been too chaste. But let the world’s modesty see to itself. (2)

So long as society sets our standard of dress, “modesty” simply means being less immodest than others. But “let the world’s modesty see to itself,” advises Tertullian. How might we? Is there a way to leave the house knowing not just that we tried our best to avoid worldliness, but that we actively aspired to godliness? Don’t we long for more than looking good without feeling too bad?

Perhaps the apostle Paul can assist us. Though the Bible is quiet on wardrobe particulars, it is loud on wisdom principles. One in particular from 1 Corinthians may help us to wade into the summer with truth and grace, rather than imprudence or stress.

‘Is It Helpful?’

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul tackles a similarly sensitive topic for first-century Christians: food. What can they eat, and what can’t they eat? The Corinthian believers want to know. (Sounds familiar!)

“In what ways does the desire to wear what we want when we want rule over us?”

Though Paul responds to this tension multiple times, we’ll focus on what he says in chapters 6 and 10. In both places, he begins by quoting a maxim the Corinthians themselves held: “All things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). In other words: No food is unclean. Because in the new covenant, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11). So, what can they eat? In theory, anything.

Even so, that’s not the end of his response. Upon declaring all foods clean, he adds, “. . . but not all things are helpful.” Eating this or that food isn’t inherently sinful — but that doesn’t make it helpful. “Not wrong” doesn’t spell “automatically good.” Could the same be said of our clothing?

God’s word outlaws no outfits, but that doesn’t mean every outfit “helps” — benefits, profits, serves, encourages — ourselves and others. So, while the questions “Is it wrong?” and “Is it too [blank]?” tend to flounder around, maybe we can begin to anchor our dress in another direction: Is it helpful? Following Paul’s lead, let’s consider the helpfulness of our clothing choices in two areas.

1. Is it helpful for my soul?

Paul first mentions lawful-yet-unhelpful matters in 1 Corinthians 6. There, he equates helpfulness with what is personally profitable: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (verse 12). In other words, we “help” our faith along only so far as we flee anything that seeks to dominate us — govern us, control us, dictate us — apart from God. What our hangers hold is no exception.

Do we fidget over how to appear expensive, or fit, or even perfectly unkempt? How much hold does an approving or affectionate glance have on our heart? In what ways does the desire to wear what we want when we want rule over us? If someone we respect and admire were to question our swimsuit choices, would we mutter to ourselves about “legalism,” or would we walk away from the conversation open to the notion? “Inward examination,” writes Kristyn Getty,

should not make us fearful. It is necessary as we seek to fix our eyes on Christ. We don’t keep the course of steadfast faith accidentally. It’s a costly path that requires diligence, repentance, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work. (ESV Women’s Devotional Bible, 1551)

If we value Christ above everything, then we will gladly consider whether any one thing (even our favorite dress) is competing for our affection. And when we do, we’ll grow in godliness and increase in joy. Happy is the woman who has no reason to pass judgment on herself for the clothes she buys, for she knows that her purchases proceed from faith, not fashion (Romans 14:22–23).

2. Is it helpful for my neighbor?

But dressing “helpfully” reaches beyond what bolsters our own faith. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul expands the meaning to include what is loving toward others: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (verses 23–24).

When it comes to our clothes, we have the same freedom as Paul’s first-century readers. Neither dietary laws nor dress codes bind new-covenant Christians, no matter the era. But also like the early church, we have the same responsibility to use that freedom helpfully. “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). A proper response to our freedom in Christ, explains John Piper, is not simply to assert our freedoms.

No, that’s not the way a Christian talks. We ask, “Will it be helpful? Will it be profitable? Will other people benefit from my enjoyment of this?” . . . That’s the principle of love.

With great freedom comes great love toward God and neighbor.

But how does that love dress on Monday mornings and Saturday nights, in church and at the pool? We must answer for ourselves. What is helpful for me (as a Coloradan wife and mother of little ones, with long-standing battles against pride and envy) may differ from you. Only let both of us answer the question “How might we dress modestly?” in a way that lovingly, sincerely seeks others’ good (1 Timothy 1:5).

For pews and grocery stores alike brim with people God loves, people for whom Christ died (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 8:11). Given the astounding lengths to which the Godhead went to save them, might we be willing to adjust the length of our shorts?

“The principle of helpfulness enables us to be serious about our clothes without being legalistic about our clothes.”

Perhaps we have a friend sensitive to her size. More than likely we have sisters in Christ, whether teenage girls or peers, looking to us as models for modest apparel. Remember likewise our brothers, who may battle against lust. Though never responsible for others’ sin, we should seek not to provoke it unnecessarily (1 Corinthians 8:13). Maybe a new acquaintance, an unbeliever, learns that we’re Christian, and because we dress so differently, this person wonders aloud about the God we say we serve — not just with our lips, but with how we look too.

From Heart to Head to Toe

If we’ll let it, the principle of helpfulness enables us to be serious about our clothes without being legalistic about our clothes. Humbly we stand before the mirror, asking God to reveal to each of us, as women with different temptations and contexts, how to dress helpfully.

The more we prize God’s gaze above the world’s, the more we will take every outfit captive to obey him (2 Corinthians 10:5). The desire to honor him with our hearts can’t help but reach from head to toe.

Together, may we become so enthralled with pleasing and proclaiming God that we care more about “good works” than fitting into current fashion (1 Timothy 2:9–10). Sometimes, perhaps even often, the two can coexist. But when they cannot, may we happily decline to dress like the times for modesty’s sake — which is to say: for God’s glory, our joy, and others’ good. Seen this way, “How might we dress modestly?” sounds a lot less like a nagging question, and a lot more like an invitation.

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