Part 8 Episode 190
When the apostle Paul says that Christians “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness,” what specifically are we waiting for? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper opens Galatians 5:1–12 to unfold what’s to come for those who believe.
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By John Piper — 2 years ago
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By Mindy Belz — 2 years ago
In 1994, I became the first appointed international editor at World Magazine, an enterprising Christian news outlet with admirable ambitions to cover global events, but without a travel budget.
To blaze the trail, I asked several denominations to send me missionary letters. They arrived in large manila envelopes. There was little overseas email traffic to my AOL account until the late 1990s. But studying the photocopied letters, I began to learn ground-level life in hard-to-reach places. I found contacts I could reach at odd hours through static phone calls or exchanges sent by fax machine.
Church in Ancient Homelands
A year later, I received an invitation to an excursion through Turkey with other journalists billed as a tour of “the other Holy Land.” Turkey wanted to become a member of the European Union, it wanted acceptance in the West, and promoting church tourism apparently was a way to do it.
The organizers hoped we journalists would highlight religious sites lost to the Ottoman Turks’ conquest of Christian Constantinople in 1453. It was all eye-opening for me as our group toured from Istanbul to Bursa, then east across to Cappadocia and as far as the border with Syria.
The group was emblematic of new frontiers opening in the 1990s. A newspaper editor from South Africa was traveling abroad for the first time since apartheid ended. A reporter from East Germany was making her first foray since the Berlin Wall fell. Learning I was an American, she said, “You have so many brands of laundry detergent. My whole life I could buy only one.”
Turkey’s bid for Western clout mirrored other changes in the Middle East. Israel that year signed onto the Oslo agreements and was normalizing relations with neighbors after decades of war. For me it was a busman’s holiday, learning just how much I had yet to learn about the church in its ancient homelands.
I learned also that it was easy to confuse the new openness with genuine liberty. After the trip, I discovered that Turkey continued to jail Christians, especially converts from Islam. It refused to license new churches even as it campaigned for Western cachet.
In similar ways and at the same time, as new mission efforts spread across the former Soviet Union, Communist holdovers would meet them with authoritarian restrictions under the banner of democratic reforms.
Early the next year, I traveled to areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear site, covering the tenth anniversary of its explosion. I discovered how little had changed in the orange and yellow contamination zones of Belarus and Ukraine, and how desperately they needed Christian revival.
Nothing, Yet Everything
It was not in the Middle East, but in Africa, where I first glimpsed a rising threat to Christians. Sudan’s long-running civil war pitted Khartoum’s Islamic regime in the north against the south’s mostly Christian population. Government campaigns featured wholesale brutality little understood by the outside world. I witnessed forced displacement, starvation, and death.
One day with local aid workers and armed Sudanese escorts, I hiked to a burned-out mission compound destroyed years ago by government forces and only recently liberated by rebels. We walked single file under a fierce sun behind our escorts to avoid landmines.
The missionaries who opened the church and school in the 1930s had been gone for decades. Locals in those days had been slow to come to Christ, but surrounding tribes were now overwhelmingly Christian, with tens of thousands of believers. As we walked, children came out of huts to stare at me. They had never seen a white woman.
At the site, signs of battle and destruction remained. When government forces attacked, they locked some congregants inside the church and set it on fire, they raped and beat others, and they either killed or forced to flee everyone else. They laid the landmines so no one could rebuild the church, and left it a roofless, twisted maze of destruction. They tore pages from church Bibles, using them to roll cigarettes. Bible pages also turned up as food wrappers in the nearby market.
I have kept to this day a clasp from the church’s metal roof that I found on the ground, a daily reminder at my desk of the unbearable suffering and inexplicable resilience I witnessed in south Sudan.
As we left the mission compound, we discovered a gathering of Christian believers under a nearby tree. With the area in friendlier hands, they walked back from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. They were building a new church, using saplings to support a thatched roof. Under a tree, they sang as we approached, and then asked to pray with us.
“Our brothers and sisters,” the little group explained to us, “had been carried to Jesus while we were carried to exile and back again.” “This is our Jerusalem,” their pastor said, spreading his arms wide to encompass a desolate scene of rubble and weeds. “We have nothing, but we have everything.”
Overseas reporting allowed me to go deeper into unspeakable horrors Christians suffered at the hands of their enemies, and there I discovered a resilience and joy that were nearly unexplainable. In the heat of Sudan, surveying the destruction with enemy lines less than ten miles away, comprehending the impoverishment, losses, and dislocation that come with deep persecution, I also found my reporter’s feet.
It didn’t arise from a rush of adrenaline as I skirted landmines. I would return again and again to Sudan, then to other places of conflict, because of the joy that might be found, the light overcoming the darkness, the singing under the trees in the shadow of fiery furnaces.
“Stripped of earthly comfort, they found a priceless joy, the joy of being more like Christ. And with it, radical hope.”
As my work after 9/11 took me increasingly to the Middle East, I’d begin to think of these as journeys to find water in the desert. The enemies would change, the politics would tilt and shift, and the disappointment hover, everywhere. But the harder things got, the more resilient and determined became the people of God. Stripped of earthly comfort, they found a priceless joy, the joy of being more like Christ. And with it, radical hope.
As al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups gained ground in Syria and Iraq, churches were devastated. The Christian population of Iraq fell by 75 percent from the time I made my first trip there, in 2002, to the invasion of ISIS in 2014. The loss of whole communities and destruction of ancient landmarks was heartbreaking. From the new frontiers that had defined my first years of reporting, I now watched the world again fill with checkpoints and no-go zones.
Christians in Iraq formed its middle class. They were its shopkeepers, newspaper editors, schoolteachers, and symphony conductors. The devastation when terrorists targeted them with bombings and kidnappings not only leveled their communities, but also hurt the whole country. Churches that outlasted Mongol invasions now operated out of tents in sprawling camps.
Even this desert held water, the church becoming something new as it fought for survival. Members of the old ancient churches were attending evangelical Bible studies, reading Scripture on their own for the first time, and for hours, one mother explained. Muslims, shaken by atrocities done in Allah’s name, were coming to Christ.
One convert, who came from a completely Islamic area, told me he’d never thought about Christianity until terrorists forced him from his home. Then, “I was asking and asking for more information about Jesus,” he said, “because what I received from Islam is only trouble.”
It became common to see Muslim families, the mothers veiled, attending evangelical church services in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. At one, I dropped in on a meeting where Muslim women were invited. I expected maybe a dozen women to be there, but when I opened the door, I discovered more than four hundred, a sea of head-to-toe burkas common to the Shia community.
Researcher David Garrison more formally has documented the undeniable trend: an estimated two to seven million Muslims have converted to Christianity since the start of the twenty-first century. They occur in all parts of the Muslim world, including areas most hostile to Christianity, like Afghanistan and Iran. More than 80 percent of such movements began after 9/11. “They were content to see Islam as the answer for the world, and after 9/11 they no longer could believe that,” Garrison said.
In my 2016 book about Iraq, They Say We Are Infidels, I wrote,
Christianity at its truest stretched and recast harsh realities, turning them upside down, inside out. Its people took mustard seeds and with them moved mountains, which I learned as I watched [the Iraqi Christians]. Destruction brought comfort, in the words of the prophet Nahum; impossible hardships became possible to endure, and death became life-giving. Augustine said it well: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” (296)
Light in Dark Places
For journalists, “what bleeds, leads,” and evil remains the world’s constant. But the believers I encountered overseas had something American society seemed to be losing: community-mindedness. It resides in the DNA in parts of the world we often think of as poor and unsalvageable. And to think and believe well, writer Jeffrey Bilbro has said, we must belong well.
“The believers I encountered overseas had something American society seemed to be losing: community-mindedness.”
Dislocated and distraught, the Iraqis could form new communities, teach their children to change the diapers of the new widow’s baby, launch churches in muddy camps.
I also learned how Christianity could be contextualized the world over, much like Islam, looking very different from Africa to Asia. Yet Islam largely increased by conquest, while Christianity grew by the example of love. The Islamic State fighters, the Taliban, and others seek to impose a global jihad, not unlike the armies of Muhammad in the seventh century. Christianity thrives where the weakest and most dispossessed love their neighbors in word and deed, following the example of Jesus. They seldom make headline news but can teach us just the same.
My time at World Magazine came to an end as darker forces again rose, closing borders and threatening a generation’s worth of democratic progress. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Russia’s war on Ukraine will change world orders and threaten not only Christian believers.
The frontiers I traveled along may shut again. My check-ins with faraway contacts happen in real time through video chats and text messaging, even from bomb shelters or tent cities. But there in the dark places we may find light enough to say with the pastor in Sudan, “We have nothing, and we have everything.”
By Dane Ortlund — 2 years ago
Many of us will walk through a life-altering tragedy at some point in this short life. But for most of us, most of the time, the deepest challenge of life is not weathering some earth-shattering, once-in-a-lifetime disaster. The greatest challenge at any given moment is negotiating the garden-variety discouragements of life. A passive-aggressive email. A dear friend who moves away. An elusive promotion. Chronic back pain. And especially, our own ongoing yielding to temptation.
A flash flood may drown us, but eventually so will incessant dripping if it is not dealt with. Sudden disaster may overwhelm us, but eventually so will the drip of discouragement if it is allowed to pool.
There are two ways to do life as a believer. One, gradually grow cynical by allowing the discouragements of life to beat out of you the acute sense of eternal destiny and wonder that God gave you at conversion. Two, leverage the discouragements of life into deeper reality with God and the doctrines you confess.
How do we do the second of these?
Here are four reminders for my fellow saints as we all battle our way together through the discouragements of life, especially as regards our own failures and weaknesses.
Slow Growth Is Real Growth
Perhaps you feel as if your growth in Christ is too painfully slow. That’s good. What healthy Christian is smilingly content at his or her growth, floating breezily through this fallen world? Healthy Christians are confounded at their slow pace of growth. This is the blessed frustration of a heart alive to God and joy and beauty.
Remember, however, that slow growth is still real growth. Consider the agricultural metaphors used all over the New Testament for our life in Christ (for example, Matthew 13:1–9; John 15:1–9; Hebrews 6:7). Flowers don’t blossom overnight — they blossom at the end of several months of varying conditions: day and night, sunny and cloudy, dry and wet, warmer and cooler. They’re growing, but it’s almost imperceptible day to day.
“The great danger is not that you grow slowly. The great danger is that you stop fighting to grow.”
The great danger is not that you grow slowly. The great danger is that you stop fighting to grow. In the economy of the gospel, fighting is winning. Don’t give up. Your frustration at your rate of growth itself reflects the Spirit’s presence in your life.
Slow growth is real growth.
You Have Everything You Need
Second, don’t let your friends or the Christian publishing industry or your own frantic heart have the effect of spiritual infomercials, sending the message that if you just get that particular resource or book or habit or doctrine or job, then discouragement will go poof. If you are in Christ — and every Christian is — then you have everything you need.
Discouragement about the state of your Christian life is the result not of lacking spiritual resources, but of losing reality with spiritual resources. A billionaire beggar’s problem is not lack of funds but lack of accessing those funds. “His divine power has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him” (Colossians 1:9–10). Discouragement is so deadly because it can feel as if this is our new normal. We tend to think that now we are seeing clearly, and it will never pass. It feels like the only joy we’ll know from now on is fake joy. So we embrace cynicism as an emotional defense mechanism.
The way out of discouragement, however, is not to put up defenses, but to ask God to give us back reality with him. Often in discouragement, the Lord himself goes from reality to theory. We remain theists, but in our heart, we quietly demote him from actual Savior to abstract Savior. Silence your discouraging thoughts by doggedly putting your full weight on all that is yours already in Christ: adoption, forgiveness, reconciliation, liberation, returned dignity, and all the rest.
I’m not saying you won’t be helped by ordering and reading an excellent Christian book, or by joining that small group. Yes, there may be resources and practices you need to “add” to your life. But in terms of the deep structures of how we overcome discouragement, we are equipped with everything we need at the moment of conversion for the rest of life’s battle. We are united to Christ. The Spirit dwells within us. We have been plucked up out of the old age and placed in the dawning new age. We are justified, and the logic of the New Testament is that we are not able to get “de-justified” any more than Jesus is able to get kicked out of heaven and put back in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
You have everything you need.
Christ Is Bigger Than You Imagine
Third, “consider Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1). When Lucy sees Aslan on her second journey into Narnia in Prince Caspian, she is surprised at what she sees:
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.“Not because you are?”“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” (380)
Spiritual growth does not lessen how much is left to explore in Christ. Spiritual growth takes us unendingly into new discoveries of Christ. Our growth is a growth in apprehension of Christ. Paul speaks of his “unsearchable riches” (Ephesians 3:8). The Jesus you’re bored with isn’t the real Jesus. The problem is you, not him. The real Jesus is unsearchable and irresistible.
“The Jesus you’re bored with isn’t the real Jesus.”
In your discouragement, plunge deeper in Jesus Christ than ever before. Collapse onto him with greater abandon than ever before. Pour out your heart to him. Wrestle with him. Freshly surrender to him. Whatever you do, don’t look elsewhere other than Jesus as you seek to outgrow your discouragement, like a toddler looking everywhere except to his or her own mother when tired and hungry.
Consider the possibility that you have unwittingly domesticated the real Christ. Perhaps, like Columbus hitting the Caribbean and thinking he was in Asia, without realizing there was a vast unexplored continent that would later be called North America, there are vast regions in the real Christ you have yet to discover.
That journey of exploration will not make the discouragements go away. But it will buoy your heart above them. Armed with a fountain of fresh discoveries of Christ, you can dance your way through the Normandy Beach of this life.
He’s an endless Christ. Let him loom above your discouragements, fortifying you afresh. You don’t need an easier life. You need a bigger Christ.
Heaven Is Coming
Fourth and finally, remember: final rest is just around the next bend. Heaven is near. Nearer now than when you began this article (Romans 13:11–12). Paradise and peace are creeping toward you, and none in Christ can evade their blessed capture.
And here’s the astonishing promise of the New Testament, clinched in Christ’s own resurrection, to which your own fate has been inevitably bound: every earthly discouragement will one day fold back on itself and become part of your final resplendence (Romans 8:28).
You’re almost home. Nothing can derail you. Not even you. When you fall, take his hand and get up. Jesus Christ is walking you to heaven with his arm around you. When you fail, look up into his eyes and let him freshly dignify and calm you. You belong to him. Be at peace, and keep trudging forward, repenting and rejoicing your way toward your life’s sunset.
In a 1942 letter to a woman discouraged with her sinful habits, C.S. Lewis wrote,
I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience etc doesn’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are airing in the cupboard. (Collected Letters, 2:507)
See you there.