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By Jessica B. — 6 months ago
Our family serves in the Himalayan mountains, with the desire to see the church spread and flourish far into the unengaged villages confettied on these snowy peaks. The people here, as you might imagine, have a grit that I haven’t inherited from my suburban childhood. Wrinkled shepherds lead their goats to menacing heights with learned ease. If you peek inside a brightly painted cement home, you might see a woman browning onions over a fire, her daughter wringing out clothes, and her toddler sleeping to the buzz of cartoons.
I’ve always dreamed of this sort of a place. As a middle-schooler, I read Jesus Freaks aloud to the kids at my art table, and when playing Would You Rather on the topic of death, I would argue that martyrdom is the best way to go out. If I could have seen the place where I would raise my children, I would have thought all of my dreams had come true.
What I didn’t expect was that life here would feel like a meat-tenderizer to the heart. I didn’t see the grief coming in like a tidal wave. I’m learning a language that puts me in situations where I’m exposed and embarrassed. We are always the ones asking questions and bending our preferences to better serve those around us. Homeschooling five kids and cooking food from scratch doesn’t make me feel like Wonder Woman, but just very, very tired. How was I to know how sharp the sting of this calling would be, the pain of dying daily?
I have formed a bad habit when I’m hurting. When too many guests come for chai and my character is as robust as the brown apple core in my toddler’s sticky grip, I exit mentally. I cherry-pick a golden memory and think how those were the days.
Imagined Land of Yesteryear
The past is a commonplace to run for escape. Isn’t the entire world wishing for life to go back to normal, before COVID reared its ugly head? How often do we pine after the freedoms of life before kids, only to ache for that noisy house a decade later? Don’t we wish relationships could morph back to what they had been before the argument? If only time could rewind the consuming cancer, the regretted affair, and the old age from surprising us.
When the call to live in the present feels like cruelty, dealt out by God’s own hand, we can drown in self-pity and enter an ugly world. A world based on our memories of the past, but altered. Everything was right back then. Such good old days are often talked about in passing, and most people agree how much better it would be if only we could return. We don’t realize the damage at stake in allowing our brains and hearts to live in this imagined land of yesteryear.
“We don’t realize the damage at stake in allowing our brains and hearts to live in this imagined land of yesteryear.”
The worst part in exchanging the present for the past is that we can make ourselves gods. We become interpreters of what’s good and what’s not. We don’t lean on the Lord’s providence, but think we know what we need. We remember ourselves ten pounds thinner and everyone a lot happier than they truly were. We are most deceived about ourselves, the memories usually a highlight reel of us at our prime.
Maybe you aren’t tempted to live in the past like me. But Luke 15 makes a good case that all of us are running somewhere when the present feels difficult to swallow. Here are two sons discontent at home. When life isn’t what they want, the younger son runs to another country to feed his appetite for pleasure (Luke 15:11–13). Meanwhile, the older brother stays physically near his dad, but his heart is far from home (Luke 15:28–32).
Where are we running when life is not what we want it to be? Perhaps we seek success, to create a comfortable home, or to be thought well of in our workplace and church. If we seek escape in these places, as I have in memories of the past, we won’t like where we end up. Life away from the Father is empty. Like a popped balloon, joy whooshes out and we are left limp, deflated. The sons’ attempts of finding life elsewhere leave them homeless and toiling like slaves (Luke 15:14–16, 29).
Even if we have a lifetime of sermons in our head, do we live what we claim to know? If we did, how could we ever run from someone so ready to love us, who waits with unparalleled patience and pursues us wherever we are, however painful the present moment? God wants us home with him. So much so that he left perfection for a world writhing in pain. He took on the violence of hell so that his children wouldn’t have to.
Home Among the Thistles
Maybe we are at a crossroads. Perhaps, like myself, your shoes are well-traveled. You’ve also formed bad habits in order to escape the places where life hurts the most. You’ve called God names and aren’t certain you can live with the one who ordained life’s present pain.
Look again at Luke 15 and dare to believe this is your story, too. The house is alive with music, and the table is set. You smell meat roasting in herbs and touch the silk of the slippers placed on your feet. See your Father run to embrace you. Hear his laughter that fills your heart with a happiness you were born to enjoy.
“We can make our home among the thistles because God promises to be there too.”
Or hear the father’s words to his older child: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). These words are for us, right now. Do we believe it? If so, we can make our home among the thistles because he promises to be there too. He will never, ever leave us. And because we have his promised nearness, all that is his is now laid before us as a feast. Every spiritual blessing is at our fingertips when we live at home in our Father (Ephesians 1:3). Especially when our circumstances are January gray, he’s waiting for us to see the rainbow of his love.
Charles Spurgeon once testified,
The worst days I have ever had have turned out to be my best days, and when God has seemed most cruel to me, he has then been most kind. If there is anything in this world for which I would bless him more than for anything else, it is for pain and affliction. I am sure that in these things the richest, tenderest love has been manifested to me. Our Father’s wagons rumble most heavily when they are bringing us the richest freight of the bullion of his grace. Love letters from heaven are often sent in black-edged envelopes. The cloud that is black with horror is big with mercy. . . . Fear not the storm, it brings healing in its wings, and when Jesus is with you in the vessel the tempest only hastens the ship to its desired haven.
I am receiving more black-edged envelopes right now than I would care for. Dying daily has been less like Perpetua facing the beasts, and more like getting out of bed every morning to face the responsibilities of a calling that requires an unsavory dose of humility. This painful present, this everyday death is unnoticed by most, and as with the objects in a room when the lights are off, I can’t seem to find the outline of my old identity.
And yet, the storm of today will not end in shipwreck. I’m not at the random mercy of the winds. The current rolling of thunder and high waves only assist me in getting home safe and sound. The presence of my Father and his continual invitation has repeatedly snapped me back from the past, allowing me to see the wonders in front of my face, like my children, the food on my plate, and the way the goats follow the voice of their shepherd down the valley with the sun dripping into the horizon.
By Marshall Segal — 4 months ago
Sinners rescued from the road to hell love to rehearse and celebrate the mercy of God. Where would we be today without mercy? Where would we be for eternity without mercy?
Without mercy, we would be dead in our sin, a death worse than death. Mercy called us from the tomb. Mercy lifted us out of the pit. Mercy opened our blind eyes. Mercy gifted us with faith, repentance, and joy. We deserved every possible ounce of rejection, punishment, wrath, but God gave forgiveness, love, and life instead. All that we have, we have by the mercy of God. Is there any other god, in all the religious imaginations on earth, who deals so gently and compassionately with sinners?
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Knowing how we’ve treated him, all the endless ways we’ve each ignored and insulted him, he has every righteous reason to be severe and merciless, but he’s gentle with us. He stoops low to receive and restore us. Jesus recites these precious lines from Isaiah about himself: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Who could know himself a redeemed sinner and not love the kindness and tenderness of such mercy?
And yet mercy doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s another side of this king — a holy, majestic, jealous, even vengeful side, a side sinners like you and me are often far less likely to rehearse and celebrate.
Bruised on the Battlefield
When Jesus drew near to bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, he did not coddle or compromise with sin. His mercy mingled with justice:
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. . . .a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory. (Matthew 12:18–20)
He came to establish justice, and he wouldn’t stop until he saw it to the finish. We might imagine these bruised and vulnerable reeds hiding safely in backyards and community gardens, but here they’re crouching on the battlefield of a cursed world.
Why else is the reed bruised and the wick smoldering, if not because they’re caught in the awful, ordinary crossfire of sin? We all relate to that thin, fragile blade of grass because we’ve felt like that at times, if not often. We’ve all felt the sting of sins against us, and we’ve all watched, with sorrow-filled anger, as sin has torn apart marriages, families, friendships, communities, even whole nations. With our hearts aching with confusion and grief, we’ve cried out for justice. We’ve groaned, with creation, for a better world than the one we have.
Until Justice Is Done
Jesus came to bring that better world, to pour out justice like Niagara in spring, to declare war on all who opposed him, to put a certain end to centuries of rebellion. And yet, as he wages his holy war, he kneels down, with infinite strength, taking fire from every direction, to lift and support the weak, humble, trusting souls in his path. Toward his enemies, he’s severe, unyielding, terrifying. Toward his own, however, he’s gentle and lowly.
On that battlefield, his justice is not some dark cloud casting a shadow over his mercy; it’s the sunless, moonless night which makes his mercy shine. His justice and mercy are two parts in one holy symphony. Isaiah 30:18, for instance, plays the harmonies, mingling the tenderness of God’s mercy with the promise of his justice:
The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
Mercy and justice are not at odds here, but beautifully joined together. Because he is just, God will be merciful to you, in his perfect timing. His grace to you, in Christ, is justice. The purest enforcement of justice ever conceived or executed delights to show mercy.
God of Against
This mercy does not blunt the force of his justice. The justice of God is a soul-shaking, pride-shattering justice. Right before Isaiah 30:18, the Lord confronts Israel for desperately turning to the armies of Egypt for rescue:
Because you despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them, therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern. (Isaiah 30:12–14)
Notice, the mercy of God doesn’t keep him from severity. Is the God you worship one who ever smashes rebellion against him? When you close your eyes to pray, is there ever a sense that he could, right now, righteously decimate billions of people for refusing and insulting him — that sin really is that repulsive and insidious? Some regular awareness of his holy furor against injustice, especially all our injustices against him, is vital to a healthy life of worship. The God of all comfort, after all, is also a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low. . . . And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. (Isaiah 2:12, 19)
“The God who stoops, in Christ, to gently lift you out of your sin will one day terrify the nations again.”
This is not a cruel God left behind in the Old Testament. This is the God of infinite mercy. The God who stoops, in Christ, to gently lift you out of your sin will one day terrify the nations again. His justice may be hidden, for a time, beneath his staggering patience, but its devouring fire will soon consume his enemies.
Justice Fueling Mercy
All of that makes his mercy all the more stunning. The terrifying flames of justice don’t undermine his mercy, but illuminate and enflame it. “The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice.” But they were despising his word and trusting in oppression and perverseness — how could he be both just and gracious to them? How could he bless the ones who cursed and despised him?
By becoming the curse they deserved. Revel, again, in the familiar and shocking story of how justice and mercy meet:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23–26)
“The wooden beams outside Jerusalem frame the wondrous marriage between justice and mercy.”
The wooden beams outside Jerusalem frame the wondrous marriage between justice and mercy. Through the cross, God is both just and justifier, both just and merciful. On that dark and bloody hill, the terrifying justice of God became a servant of mercy for all who would believe. In Christ, justice is no longer a threat, but a refuge. All the sovereign power that would have ruined us now promises to protect us. “‘In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you,’” Isaiah 54:8 says, “‘but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
How could we feel the full weight of his mercy toward us if we tend to ignore or marginalize the fury of his justice?
Justice and Mercy for Me?
We know all of this about our God, and yet some reading this still struggle to believe that God will be so merciful. The guilt and shame they carry make everyday life feel heavy. They hate their sin, and have made efforts to be done with it, but are back on their knees, again and again, bearing the same painfully familiar confessions. The mercy they thought they’d found feels further and further from reality. Could God really forgive and love someone like me?
Others reading this, however, struggle to believe justice really will be done. Some days, it feels like their whole lives have been one long heart-rending headline. They watch the godless enjoy comfort, success, and prosperity, while they suffer for their faithfulness. They cling to the promise that everything will eventually be made right, but they search the corners and crevices of their lives in vain for evidence it might be so. And if they muster the courage to raise their eyes above their own plight, they see many more suffering in horrible, unjust ways. Could God possibly make anything good of all this pain and injustice?
We struggle to embrace the justice of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins against us. We struggle to embrace the mercy of God because we don’t trust him to fully deal with sins done by us. To both groups, the bloody cross and the empty tomb stubbornly say, he can, he has, and he will. He will surely bring justice to completion. No stone in your life will go unturned. Every sin against you will be brought into the light and made right. Justice himself will call wickedness to account until he finds none (Psalm 10:15).
And in the meantime, he will not break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoldering wick. His mercy is as wide and deep as you are sinful. Our God is far more just than we realize, and far more merciful than we can now imagine.
By Jon Bloom — 1 year ago
The soul is measured by its flights,Some low and others high,The heart is known by its delights,And pleasures never lie.
I was 25 years old when John Piper’s book The Pleasures of God was first released in 1991. My wife and I had been attending Bethlehem Baptist for two years and had read John’s book Desiring God, which unpacked what he called Christian Hedonism. His fresh emphasis on the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him was working its way into our spiritual bones.
But as I read the introduction to The Pleasures of God, the one-sentence poem above crystalized the truth of Christian Hedonism for me, opening my mind to the role delight plays in the Christian life.
One Sentence Begets Another
John wrote that life-changing sentence as a kind of exposition of another life-changing sentence he had read four years earlier. In fact, the whole sermon series that birthed the book was born of his meditation on that sentence written in the seventeenth century by a young Professor of Divinity in Scotland named Henry Scougal.
Scougal had actually penned the sentence in a personal letter of spiritual counsel to a friend, but it was so profound that others copied and passed it around. Eventually Scougal gave permission for it to be published in 1677 as The Life of God in the Soul of Man. A year later, Scougal died of tuberculosis before he had reached his twenty-eighth birthday.
John Piper describes what gripped him so powerfully:
One sentence riveted my attention. It took hold of my thought life in early 1987 and became the center of my meditation for about three months. What Scougal said in this sentence was the key that opened for me the treasure house of the pleasures of God. He said, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” (18)
John realized that this statement is as true of God as it was of man. The worth and excellency of God’s soul is measured by the object of its love. This object must, then, be God himself, since nothing of greater value exists than God.
John previously devoted a whole chapter in Desiring God to God’s happiness in himself — the God-centeredness of God. Scougal’s sentence, however, opened glorious new dimensions of this truth for John as he contemplated how the excellency of God’s soul is measured. And John’s sentence opened glorious new dimensions for me as I began to contemplate that a heart, whether human or divine, is known by its delights.
Pleasures Never Lie
It was the last line of John’s poem that hit me hardest:
The heart is known by its delights,And pleasures never lie.
Pleasures never lie. This phrase cut through a lot of my confusion and self-deceit to the very heart of the matter: what really matters to my heart.
“Our lips can lie about what we love, but our pleasures never lie.”
“Pleasures never lie” doesn’t mean things we find pleasurable are never deceitful. We all know, from personal experience as well as the testimony of Scripture, that many worldly pleasures lie to us (Hebrews 11:25). Rather, it means that pleasure is the whistle-blower of the heart. Pleasure is our heart’s way of telling us what we treasure (Matthew 6:21).
When we take pleasure in something evil, we don’t have a pleasure problem; we have a treasure problem. Our heart’s pleasure gauge is working just like it’s supposed to. What’s wrong is what our heart loves. Our lips can lie about what we love, but our pleasures never lie. And we can’t keep our pleasure-giving treasures hidden, whether good or evil, at least not for long. What we truly love always ends up working its way out of the unseen heart into the plain view of what we say and don’t say, and what we do and don’t do.
My heart, like God’s heart, is known by its delights. I found this wonderfully clarifying. It resonated deeply; all my experience bore out its truth. And I saw it woven throughout the Bible. The more I contemplated it, however, the more devastating this truth became.
Devastated by Delight
It’s devastating because if the worth and excellency of my soul is measured by the heights of its flights of delights in God, I find myself “naked and exposed” before God, without embellishment or disguise (Hebrews 4:13). No professed theology, however robust and historically orthodox, no amount of giftedness I possess, no “reputation of being alive” (Revelation 3:1) can compensate if I have a deficit of delight in God. And to make sure I understand what is and isn’t allowed on the affectional scale, John says,
You don’t judge the glory of a soul by what it wills to do with lukewarm interest, or with mere teeth-gritting determination. To know a soul’s proportions you need to know its passions. The true dimensions of a soul are seen in its delights. Not what we dutifully will but what we passionately want reveals our excellence or evil. (18)
As I place my passions on God’s soul-scale, my deficits become clear. I’m a mixed bag when it comes to my passion for God. I can savor God like Psalm 63 and yet still sin against him like Psalm 51. I have treasured God like Psalm 73:25–26, and questioned him like Psalm 73:2–3. Sometimes I sweetly sing Psalm 23:1–3, and sometimes I bitterly cry Psalm 10:1. At times I keenly feel the wretchedness of Romans 7:24, and at times the wonder of Romans 8:1. I have known the light of Psalm 119:105 and the darkness of Psalm 88:1–3. I’ve known the fervency of Romans 12:11 and the lukewarmness of Revelation 3:15. Many times I need Jesus’s exhortation in Matthew 26:41.
“We must know our spiritual poverty before we will earnestly seek true spiritual wealth.”
It is devastating to stand before God with only what we passionately want revealing the state of our hearts, measuring the worth of our souls. But it is a merciful devastation we desperately need. For we must know our spiritual poverty before we will earnestly seek true spiritual wealth. We must see our miserable idolatries before we will repent and forsake them. We must feel our spiritual deadness before we will cry out, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6)
That’s all true. However, the longer I contemplated John’s sentence over time, the more I realized the devastating exposure of my spiritual poverty is meant to be a door into an eternal world of delight-filled love.
I made this discovery in the story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17–22). When Jesus helped this man see his heart’s true passions (when he exposed his spiritual poverty), the exposure wasn’t Jesus’s primary purpose. Jesus wanted the man to have “treasure in heaven,” to give this man eternal joy (Mark 10:21).
And Jesus knew the man would never joyfully sell everything he had to obtain the treasure that is God unless he saw God as his supreme treasure (Matthew 13:44). So he tried to show him by calling the man to the devastating door of exposure and knocking on it. And he grieved when the man wouldn’t open it, because the door led to a far greater treasure than the one he would leave behind.
God created pleasure because he is a happy God and wants his joy to be in us and our joy to be full (John 15:11). When he designed pleasure as the measure of our treasure, his ultimate purpose was that we would experience maximal joy in the Treasure. And that the Treasure would receive maximal glory from the joy we experience in him. It is a marvelous, merciful, absolutely genius design: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
If God has to expose our poverty to pursue our eternal joy, he will. But what he really wants for us is to experience “fullness of joy” in his presence and “pleasures forevermore” at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). And so it is a great mercy, even if at times devastating, that our pleasures never lie.