John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.
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By John Piper — 6 months ago
We end the week with a question from Isaac, who listens to us in his hometown of Nairobi, Kenya: “Pastor John, thank you for your encouragements in APJ 1611, “How Does Chronic Pain Glorify God?” I resonate with this episode deeply, and I carry those promises for myself.
“I have a question concerning the story, or parable, of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 — specifically about Lazarus. Please help me make at least some sense of his life. He lived all of it poor. He died poor. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. I carry neurological, physical, and mental disabilities, and have for many years as an invalid, unable to create any life for myself. I’m now thirty. I feel I should have become a productive, self-reliant man by now. I’m not, and may never be. But we also don’t see a definite purpose or self-will or self-drive in Lazarus’s life either. I also lack those very same things. How would you motivate a disabled man — disabled nearly to the degree of Lazarus — to not waste his life as his physical life wastes away?”
Well, of course, this is a dangerous thing for me to do — to venture to give counsel to someone whose condition I know so little about, especially when he says, “I carry neurological, physical, and mental disabilities.” So, please understand, Isaac, that what I say here is tentative as far as its specific applications to you go, even though I do want to stand by the biblical things I’m going to say. So, a warning, and I want to defer to you to know yourself.
Accountable According to Capacity
First, I would remind you of the parable of the talents, in Matthew 25:14–15. “It will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants” — and he represents Christ. “To one he gave five talents” — now you know that a talent is an amount of money in those days, not an ability to do something, but I think it does represent any kind of resource that we have as a gift from God that he expects us to use for his honor. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one” (Matthew 25:15). And when came back, he called them to account to see whether they had wasted their lives and his resources.
“God will call you to account in accord with what he’s made you capable of.”
Now, two things seem relevant from this parable for your situation, Isaac. One is that God clearly recognizes that different disciples have different capacities. Five, two, one — that’s a great difference. He doesn’t expect that the person with fewer resources will produce the same amount as the one with the greater resources. He says, “Well done” to the man who turns five into ten, and he says the same “Well done” to the man who turns two into four. So, you should infer from this that God will call you to account, not to be as productive as someone with a different set of gifts and limitations, but simply in accord with what he’s made you capable of.
Hard to Satisfy, Easy to Please
The second thing that this parable says to your situation is that the third man who basically did nothing with his single talent was not scolded because he didn’t turn one into two. He was scolded because he didn’t even put it in the bank. In other words, it sounds like the master is saying, “Look, you say I’m a hard man — hard to please. I’m not the hard taskmaster you think. All you had to do was put it in the bank and get interest for it, and then tell me that I had it with my interest and why you put it in the bank.”
He would’ve been commended, I think, for that. I think C.S. Lewis is right when he said that God is hard to satisfy but easy to please. So don’t feel helpless that you are going to be judged by a standard beyond what God has equipped you to do.
Grace in Weakness
The next thing I would point out in Scripture is that Paul was given a thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. And the point of giving him a thorn in the flesh was to weaken him. You might say that he gave him a disability. He pleaded with Christ to take it away, and Christ said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“God is not mainly looking for powerful people who can lend him their strengths. God needs nobody’s strength.”
Now that is an amazing statement. God is not mainly looking for powerful people who can lend him their strengths. God needs nobody’s strength. He gives and he takes according to his will. All strength is from him, through him, and to him. What he’s looking for is trust and a deep contentment in his fellowship in the situation that he gives us, because that will make him look more precious in our lives than any health, or any wealth, or anything else.
That’s what he’s after: “Make my power, my sufficiency, look great. If I have to make you weak in order to make me look strong, I will.” So, don’t measure the usefulness of your life by productive capacities. God has given you what he has given you in order that in your weakness you might rely upon his strength, and in that way magnify his worth.
Strength for Every Good Work
Then I would mention, Isaac, 2 Corinthians 9:8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you [Isaac] may abound in every good work.” Now, what I take away from this verse is that every good work that God expects me or you to do, he will give us grace to do it. That’s what he says.
For some, that will be a lot of productive activity. For others it will be less — far less. And the older and the weaker we get, the less productive we are going to be. Some are assigned to be weak all their lives, but what this verse implies is that you and I should wake up in the morning and ask God to grant us the grace, the promised grace, to do just those good works that he calls us to do. Now that may be a smile directed to a passerby, or a quiet freedom from murmuring in the midst of misery, or a healthy performance of some technical task. God decides what good works we are assigned to do, and he promises to give grace to do them.
Learning from Lazarus?
The last thing I would say is a comment on Lazarus and the rich man. This is not a parable about the character of Lazarus. We know virtually nothing about his state of mind or heart. He’s not held up as a person of faith, though we can infer that he was a person of faith in God, in Jesus, because he goes to heaven while the rich man goes to Hades.
But Jesus never mentions his faith. We do not know how resourceful Lazarus was. Be careful. You say he didn’t have any resourcefulness. Well, I don’t know that. It says in Luke 16:20 that he was laid at the rich man’s gate. So someone is carrying him from where he lives, maybe out in shantytown. Someone’s carrying him and putting him down at a spot where there might be some hope of crumbs.
Now, did Lazarus arrange for that? Did he use the little tiny bit of resourcefulness that he had to arrange each day to be put in the place where there might be some little bit of food for him from the rich man’s table? We don’t know. It’s all speculation. So don’t use Lazarus as a model either way. He may have been a great model of resourcefulness.
I have seen great resourcefulness in mentally ill people in my neighborhood who make a living and live in their car. No matter how I try to help them, they want to live in their car because they have proved their resourcefulness to make it by a certain kind of panhandling, a certain check from the government, and a certain use of a dinged-up old truck. I’ve sent them to every conceivable manner of helping institution, and they just want to prove their own resourcefulness. In other words, it’s just not simple to know when you look at a poor person what measure of resourcefulness they may be exercising.
Limitations are No Mistake
So, Isaac, the sum of the matter is that God knows your neurological, physical, and mental limitations. You are not a mistake. There is a reason for your existence as you are. Join the Christians around you by seeking God’s wisdom for what that reason is — your reason for being. Then, as much as lies within you, by grace give yourself to that.
And I wonder, Isaac, if you are aware of the great poet from the 1600s named John Milton. He wrote the most famous poem in the English language, probably: Paradise Lost. And in the midst of his amazing, productive life, he went blind, and he felt that God had taken away from him the one gift that he had to be useful. But eventually he wrote a sonnet about his loss, and he called it “On His Blindness.” I want to close by just reading it to you because of how encouraging it’s been to me over the years and to others who feel their limits and their fading powers.
When I consider how my light is spent,Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,And that one talent which is death to hideLodged with me useless, though my soul more bentTo serve therewith my Maker, and presentMy true account, lest he returning chide;“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”I fondly ask. But Patience, to preventThat murmur, soon replies, “God doth not needEither man’s work or his own gifts; who bestBear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His stateIs kingly: thousands at his bidding speedAnd post o’er land and ocean without rest;They also serve who only stand and wait.”
By John Piper — 4 months ago
The church is fractured. Over the past couple years, we have experienced a lot of division among Christians at the levels of networks and denominations, but also inside local churches and among friends, too. So is all this division a good thing? Is it only a bad thing? Will division work for the church’s greater purity and final good? Or will division work to the church’s final detriment and the lessening of her testimony in the world today?
It’s a relevant question, and it comes from a listener named Connor. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this encouraging podcast! I have heard a lot from fellow Christians recently about the sadness of the church being so divided with all its disagreements splitting local churches and denominations and even old friends. Division is everywhere. While there is much to be sad about in much of this, especially given Jesus’s emphasis on his desire that his disciples be unified in love, I have been wondering whether some of the divisions in the church today are good, even necessary as a means to distinguish the sheep from the wolves, something Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11:19. But can we distinguish healthy from unhealthy divisions in the church? Some ‘big-issue’ divisions seem obvious and good. But other divisions seem petty and insignificant. What do you think of the disagreements in the church today?”
Well, there are so many ways to come at this, let me come at it like this. The point that I would like to emphasize about the divisions in the church is this: Don’t make light of it, and don’t make death of it. It is tragic, but it is ordained.
Don’t Make Light of Divisions
It is possible to speak about disunity and division as though they were a small thing, which would be a mistake. Making light of it is a mistake. Just listen to John 13:34–35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That’s a very convicting text. Lovelessness among Christians is not a light thing.
In John 17:21, Jesus prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Ephesians 4:1–3: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
“Lovelessness among Christians is not a light thing.”
So, just a few texts — and there are so many more. We simply must not make light of our divisions, especially those that are unnecessary for the sake of truth or that are maintained with unloving attitudes and actions. Three things stand out from those passages of Scripture.
The deepest unity among God’s elect is a given. It’s a given. We don’t create unity. Man doesn’t make it happen. When we come to Christ, we are grafted in by the Spirit to one body, Jesus Christ, and members one of another, so that the command in Ephesians 4 is to “maintain the unity.” Don’t create it — show it to the world.
A second thing that stands out from those passages I just read is that the public effectiveness of our unity is not at the level of institutional oneness or collaboration, as though the absence of denominations would be a compelling witness to the world. Rather, the public effectiveness of our unity is when unbelievers see on the ground attitudes and acts of love among believers.
This is where the energy for unity should be mainly expended, I think. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32). That’s the level at which the miracle happens. That’s the level at which the unbeliever sees and says, “I’d like to be part of that kind of community.”
The third thing that all these texts either say or assume is that the only kind of unity that glorifies God is unity in the truth. He’s a God of truth. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, “speaking the truth in love.” For Christ and his apostles, it was inconceivable that one could love another person by throwing away truth for the sake of peace.
“The only kind of unity that glorifies God is unity in the truth.”
Listen to Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). The only peace that matters is truth-based peace. So, when I pray for unity in the church, which I do regularly — little church, big church — I pray, “O God, grant us unity in the truth.” So Francis Schaeffer, at the end of his life, said that what the world needs to see is not the Christian church tearing down every fence that was built for the sake of truth — protecting truth, declaring truth. Rather, what we should do is stop throwing hate bombs over the fences, and instead love each other across genuine disagreements, genuine fences.
I don’t think the world stumbles mainly over doctrinal disagreement among Christians. It stumbles mainly over the way we treat each other in the light of those disagreements. So, all of that to say that we should not make light of the contentions and divisions in the church. But now let me say that we should not make death of these divisions either.
Don’t Make Death of Divisions
Don’t make light of them, don’t make death of them. That is, we should not have an unbiblical, Pollyanna view of what Jesus and his apostles said would actually come to pass as time goes by in the church. It’s not a rosy picture. Now, to be sure, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). There will be a completion of the Great Commission, and God will gather his elect from the peoples of the world. That is the triumph of this age before Christ comes.
But the conditions of the church, and of the world in which the church finds itself, while that mission is happening successfully, is not a pretty picture. One of the texts that Connor mentioned when he asked his question is 1 Corinthians 11:18–19: “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
Now, that is a startling statement. It assumes that there is underlying disunity in the church that needs to be exposed. He just seems to assume it. Why would Paul assume such a thing? I think that assumption goes back to Jesus.
Weeds Among the Wheat
Jesus did not paint a rosy picture of the climax of history. In God’s strange providence, Jesus stated a principle like this: “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation [the stumbling, the traps, the deceptions] comes” (Matthew 18:7). That’s amazing. This is divine necessity. When he says, “It is necessary,” he’s talking about the way God has ordained for the world to come to its climax. God has willed these kinds of troubles.
Jesus pictured this kind of inevitable trouble in the parables of the fishing net and the parable of the wheat and the weeds:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate evil from the righteous. (Matthew 13:47–49)
So, the kingdom, the visible church, draws into itself unconverted people that the angels will separate out in the day of Christ’s second coming. Same thing in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The workers, they wonder if they should go out and pull up the weeds that are growing among the wheat — false brothers. And Jesus says, “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30).
In other words, Jesus predicted that disunity and conflict would be built into the church from the beginning. It is necessary that such temptations come. These weeds are not going to keep their mouths shut. They’re not going to keep their opinions and attitudes to themselves as time goes by.
Love Grown Cold
Then, in Matthew 24, when the disciples ask Jesus about the signs of the end, Jesus says over and over in that chapter how torn the church is going to be with betrayals and apostasy. Listen to these words (I’ll start reading at verse 4 of Matthew 24):
Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name [these are people in the church, in the name of Jesus], saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. . . . Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death [these are ‘Christians’ putting Christians to death], and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another [this is not just trouble from outside the church]. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:4–5, 9–13)
So, we’re talking about Christians’ love growing cold and not enduring to the end. Now that’s a horrible description of the condition of the church. This is what the church will do to each other. Incredible. And the apostle Paul joined this bleak description of the condition of the church in the last days — and remember the last days began in the first century. First Timothy 4:1: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits.”
So, it’s part of prophetic wisdom in the first century that things are not going to end well on the earth. It’s going to be bleak. The mission will be done. There will be white-hot Christians to the end, risking their lives and laying down their lives to get the gospel to the ends.
Tragic and Predicted
So, I conclude, don’t make light of divisions, and don’t make death — that is, the death of the church — of divisions. They are tragic. We should give our lives for the sake of the unity of the church. They are tragic, and they are predicted. It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to those by whom they come.
By Jessica B. — 3 weeks 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.