Today’s episode is a meditation on Christmas. Christmas is Sunday. And in 1980, Pastor John was preaching a Christmas sermon on Luke 1:67–79, focused specifically on the idea that in Christ God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (Luke 1:69). That may seem to be an odd and remote way of saying it. We don’t tend to think of Christmas as the celebration of a horn cut off a bull. But it is. And it makes for exactly the Christmas that we needed. Here’s Pastor John to explain. And as a little footnote here as we begin, he has just invited his small church over to his house for an open house. Here’s Pastor John.
If someone had given me, last Christmas, a super-duper mouse trap, I would not have been very impressed at all. I never saw a mouse in six years at our old house. If somebody gave me a guaranteed-to-catch-them, super-duper mouse trap this Christmas, I would be very glad, because we have many mice, and I can’t catch them. Come to the open house anyway. I tried three different kinds.
If you offered me — late some night, after the evening service — a quick ride to the emergency room at the Metropolitan Medical Center, I’d kind of look at you funny. I’d think you were strange — unless I saw the big gash in my arm or felt a severe pain in my abdomen. If the police screeched up beside me on my way home one night there on 15th Street and said, “Get in the back,” I’d think they were putting me on — unless I saw, up around the corner, the armed gang waiting, hiding.
Deadly Disease, Great Enemy
That’s the way it is in all of life. We will not appreciate a gift that we don’t think meets any needs or fulfills any desires. We do not value or long for any help unless we know we’re sick or in great danger of some enemy. Vast numbers of people think that Jesus Christ and the story of Christmas is a Mickey Mouse trap and of no use whatsoever to them, a crazy trip to the emergency room, a bothersome pickup by the ornery police, because they don’t believe they’re sick to death with the disease of unforgiven sin. And they don’t think they have a massive enemy in Satan, who is against all God’s people. They just don’t believe it. And so, the horn of salvation is a toy to be played with at best.
“The horn of salvation for me is my only hope of recovery from this disease of my soul called sin.”
But not for me. The horn of salvation for me is my only hope of recovery from this disease of my soul called sin. And he’s the only hope of victory over my greatest enemy, Satan. And there is a real disease. There is a real disease. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). And “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
And there is a real enemy, isn’t there? “Your adversary the devil,” Peter says, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8–9). He is “the god of this world,” Paul says, that “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing . . . the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6).
So, there is a deadly disease, and there is a dangerous enemy. And every one of us will die of that disease, and we will be destroyed and devoured by that enemy, if we do not have a horn of salvation.
Horn of Hope
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us [including the greatest enemy of all]. . . .
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:68–71, 76–77)
Those two things are what make Christmas good news and great joy to all the people who believe.
“Fear and guilt have been done away with by the coming of our horn of salvation.”
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Fear and guilt, the two great spoilers of Christmas, the two great spoilers of life all through the year, have been done away with by the coming of our horn of salvation.
Hebrews 2:14–15 says that Jesus Christ took on a human nature in order that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And through that same death, he paid the whole debt for sin so that we are freed from the evil one and we are freed from sin.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us . . .
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68–69, 74–75)
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By Darren Carlson — 8 months ago
It was Sunday morning, and as I got up to the pulpit and looked out, a flood of emotions hit me as I tried to begin preaching.
I was staring out at people I knew, who were waiting to hear what God had said. I had fired someone recently — a brother for whom Christ had died. That morning before the service, multiple children had come up to me to get a hug or high five, followed by a new widow who was just overwhelmed. To my left was a woman whose husband was in steady decline. Just behind her was a guy who had recently begun experiencing freedom from pornography. Behind him was a woman whose husband had suddenly abandoned her and her daughter. An abuse victim sat to my right. The couple near the back had just buried their daughter. Directly in front of me, there were thirty eager college students exuding energy, passion, and joy. And then, of course, there were my children, sitting with my wife, wondering what Dad would say. Some 650 souls, all with a unique story God was weaving. I know their names.
How should a pastor handle the waves of emotions that come from knowing about the souls of more people than most? With that knowledge come joys and burdens. Enough studies have shown that many pastors are not carrying those burdens well. So what can be done?
Emotional Toll of Pastoring
I’m not going to tell you not to let your emotions get the better of you. I want to remind pastors, myself included, that emotions are a gift of God meant to serve us, not undo us — that our feelings are part of our humanity that God once declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31). They are vital and necessary, helping us know and navigate reality.
Sin, of course, has corrupted our feelings. Our love is not what it should be. Neither is our joy. Our compassion meter is broken. Articles on emotions often highlight this brokenness, and then tell us how to put up guardrails to protect ourselves from burnout — weekly rhythms, days off, friendships outside of the church, sabbaticals. We are only human, after all. And so, we are often told not to rely on emotions, or listen to emotions, or be led by emotions. But what if some of us are avoiding emotions God has given us because we’ve been taught, whether subtly or explicitly, that these kinds of emotions are unhealthy in leadership?
The emotions that arise in ministry come involuntarily and can feel overwhelming. I’m often deeply grieved, not just over trials in my own life, but over the trials of our people, whom I love (1 Peter 1:6). I can be perplexed, sometimes to despair. Hard pressed, and sometimes crushed. Outwardly getting older and wasting away, and not always feeling renewed inwardly (2 Corinthians 4:8, 16). The emotional toll of pastoral ministry is undeniable and unavoidable.
Suppression Is Not a Cure
I have noticed something of a relationship between growing theological rigor and skepticism about emotions. An emotional blindness can slowly emerge, which leads to an emotional deficit, so that when the overwhelming nature of pastoral ministry hits, we are crushed by it. Or we might try to shield ourselves from the blow by hiring others to do the interpersonal work of discipleship so that we can just teach in front of groups. In the latter, the church becomes an audience, instead of the flock God has put under our care.
“Suppressing God-given emotions is one way we quench the Spirit in life and ministry.”
Suppressing God-given emotions is one way we quench the Spirit in life and ministry. We often suffer because we are fighting his work within us. We end up suppressing emotions that the sinless Jesus experienced and expressed. As a result, the congregation often suffers because they’re being led by a one-dimensional pastor.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis reflects on suppressing love and its odious results:
If you want to make sure of keeping it [your heart] intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. (155–56)
A cold, dead pastor.
How might we then deepen our emotional maturity and avoid one-dimensional shepherding? By training our emotions.
Imitate the Emotions of Jesus
First, we ought to allow ourselves to imitate the emotional life of Jesus. Yes, he was without sin, and we are not, so we cannot trust our sorrow or anger like we can trust his. But because he was without sin, and can sympathize with our weaknesses and temptations, he models the kind of Spirit-filled emotional life we should pursue.
Our personalities seem to dictate what we believe about the emotional range of Jesus. For example, when you read Jesus saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” what emotion do you project on the Lord? Is he stern at that moment? Is he yelling? Or is it a lament? When Jesus weeps over unbelief (John 11:35), is it driven by anger or frustration or sadness?
The emotional range of the most perfect human being was complex. Jesus was moved to act when people were in distress (Matthew 20:34). He could be indignant and merciful in the same moment (Mark 1:41 NIV). He wasn’t sentimental. He wept, but not with everyone or in every circumstance. Even as he headed to the cross, he told the women not to weep (Luke 23:28). We see Jesus annoyed, frustrated, angry, distraught, compassionate, loving, merciful, and tender.
As we study him in the Gospels, though, we tend to fill his words and emotions with meaning based on our inclinations and experiences. We push some emotions down that we (or our culture) are naturally uncomfortable with, while expressing other emotions more freely. That’s why you’ll find harsh pastors, in the name of holiness, imitating a stern, severe “Jesus,” while more cowardly pastors, in the name of holiness, imitate a “Jesus” who cries with you and affirms you no matter the circumstance.
Healthy pastors experience the fullness and complexity of their emotions, and then hold them up against the sinlessness of Christ. How might Jesus respond to the pain and loss and victory and neediness in front of me? We grow emotionally as leaders by studying the heart of Jesus as he walks among sinners and sufferers.
Submit Your Emotions to Others
Perhaps the first way to train emotions is what you would have expected (and even counseled others to do). And maybe that has not produced as much fruit as you expected. If that’s so, it may be because we have done so alone and not allowed the body of Christ to minister to us.
Pastors need to read our Bibles with others, not just alone. We need to pray with others, not just alone. The pursuit of personal piety through spiritual disciplines is often presented as something we do only by ourselves. Time alone with God is essential to the Christian life, much less to ministry, but we all need the body of Christ to train our emotions.
“A lack of friendship in a pastor’s life will lead to a stunted emotional life.”
Friendships for pastors are notoriously challenging, especially within the church. I remember sitting in the back of a pastor’s conference and hearing my friend wonder aloud if anyone attending had a friend. A lack of friendship in a pastor’s life will lead to a stunted emotional life. My life has been enriched and challenged by friends who are so different from me in how they read their Bibles, experience the Holy Spirit’s work, and obey Christ’s commands. How they experience Jesus (and his emotions) in Scripture forces me to think beyond my own limited perspective.
These relationships require the kind of vulnerability from pastors that we typically ask others to show us. For these friendships to refine us, we have to be willing to lay down the mantle of teaching and learn from those whom God has given us to teach. Who are the people who live in close enough proximity to you that they can help train your emotions?
Emotionally Healthy Shepherds
God has given pastors a wide range of emotions to help us relate to himself and others: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
As I looked out that Sunday morning on 650 stories and situations, it was clear to me that our church needed an emotionally healthy shepherd — one feeling and expressing, in measured and appropriate ways, a sanctified and maturing range of emotion. They’ll learn to steward their emotions, in part, by imitating what they see and hear in their pastor. Ignoring or suppressing my emotions would not only stunt my growth, but theirs as well.
We don’t have to limit our emotional output in the name of holiness. We can’t assume emotions are unhealthy because we’re experiencing them in new or deeper ways. Acknowledging pain, showing compassion, being grieved, feeling stress, and more, are not necessarily signs of emotional immaturity. They may be the opposite: signs of increasing maturity in Christ. Even feeling a sense of helplessness can be a healthy way God reminds us of how much we need him.
Emotions are gifts to pastors, and the healthy emotions of pastors can be a great gift to a church. So are you an emotionally healthy pastor?
By David Mathis — 3 months ago
In this breakout session, I’m excited to speak to you about what I think is one of the most important practical life and ministry topics we could discuss.
For one, the “secret liturgies” of spiritual leaders is a timeless topic: these truths remain the same across generations. For another, this topic is crucial. You cannot minister well to others for long without yourself being relatively spiritually healthy. So Paul says to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16); and to the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).
Also, this topic of “secret liturgies” is perhaps especially important in our age — “the age of accelerations,” according Thomas Friedman, when many of us need “permission to just slow down.” Today, he says, “the pace of technology and scientific change outstrips the speed with which human beings and societies can usually adapt” (Thank You for Being Late, 39).
According to Friedman, “We are living through one of the greatest inflection points in history, perhaps unequaled since . . . Gutenberg, a German blacksmith and printer, launched the printing revolution in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation” (3). And the late Dallas Willard, who died in 2013, said near the end of his life that “hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.”
So for those reasons, and more, I’m eager to address the topic of the leader’s “secret liturgies” and focus, very practically, on what we might call “the private worship behind a public Christian leader.”
Needy for Repeat
I’m especially eager to address this topic with those of you who are music people because of one little word you know well from hymnbooks and the sheets of worship music: repeat. Of all people, you know the power of repetition in corporate singing, however much you might be able to explain it or not.
Now, to be sure, many modern church-goers are miffed by repetition in corporate worship. The Information Age is conditioning us for new content, fresh ideas, new data. Why re-read what we’ve already read, why rehearse what we’ve already heard, why re-sing lines we’ve already sung, when new information is available like never before?
But do we know what our unprecedented access to novelty is doing to us? Indications so far seem to be that it’s making us shallower, not wiser and more mature. Running our eyes across the page and mouthing words to a song are not the same as experiencing the reality in our hearts. Our hearts simply don’t move as quickly as our eyes and our mouths.
Which makes worship of the living God — both in public and “in secret” — such an important remedy for what is increasingly ailing us today. God made us to worship him. And we are shriveling without it.
Consider the Psalms
Take Psalm 136 as just one example of the power of repetition. The psalm is twenty-six verses, and each verse ends with “for his steadfast love endures forever.” It rehearses God’s goodness and supremacy, his wonder-working and world-creating, his delivery of his people from slavery and provision for them in a rich land.
Twenty-six times the psalm repeats this refrain — and not one of them is wasted. With each new verse, another attribute or rescue of God is celebrated, and then our souls are ushered deeper into his steadfast, ever-enduring love with each glorious repetition.
The goal of the song is not to make God’s steadfast love old and boring, but exactly the opposite: to help us feel it afresh and at new depth. The dance of each new verse, with each return to the refrain, is designed to bore the central truth about God’s resilient love deeper and deeper into our inner person.
The psalm is not a treatise on the unwavering, persistent love of God, but what we call a meditation — less linear and more circular, or spiral — crafted to help auger the reality of his love from information on our mental surface down to an experience and taste in our hearts.
Heart of Leadership
Our task in this session is to focus very practically on the private worship behind the public leader. So let me take you to Deuteronomy 17 as we consider the “secret liturgies” of those who would lead the public liturgies of corporate worship.
Long before Israel had a king, the nation’s first and greatest prophet left specific instructions for him, including where and how he would find his bearings each day as the leader of God’s people. In Deuteronomy 17:14–20, Moses describes a concession God would make one day, setting a human king over his people. As he does, he warns such kings about the dangers of “excessive silver and gold,” “many wives,” and “many horses” — that is, money, sex, and power (Deuteronomy 17:16–17).
Moses gives a specific reason for these cautions: “lest his heart turn away.” This is where the point of departure will be, humanly speaking, for regimes and generations to come: the heart of the leader. Look at verses 14–17:
“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.”
“As goes the leader’s heart, so goes the leader, and so goes the people.”
So, we might say, as goes the leader’s heart, so goes the leader, and so goes the people. Will he heed the siren calls around him, the subtle temptations to the compromises of acclaim and special privilege? Will he take advantage of his willing and submissive followers who are eager to give him benefit of the doubt? Will he slowly construct his own reality around him that serves his own private comforts rather than the holy interests of the people?
Keys to the Leader’s Heart
The battle lines will first be drawn in the leader’s own heart — which explains why Moses’s next instructions turn where they do, unexpected and perhaps peripheral as they may seem to some. And what Moses writes next is all the more striking because it’s issued generations before the nation would have its first king.
When a new king ascends to the throne in Israel — with all the pomp and circumstance that will doubtless accompany such a coronation — as his first act, he is to take out a quill and write word for word, with in his own hand, his own copy of God’s law, and “read in it all the days of his life.”
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18–20)
Note again the emphasis on his heart. God’s plan for his leaders so that their hearts not turn away, is that their hearts be formed and fed daily by God’s word. Consider, then, three aspects of this simple yet profound plan, which is just as relevant for Christian leaders and churches today.
1. The Book Shapes the Leader
This book, copied longhand by the king himself, is not a journal. The new king is not recording his own feelings or preferences or decrees — not in this book. Rather, he is copying the book of God’s law — an objective, fixed text, not open to edits and adjustments. This hand-copied book, then, is to be reviewed and approved by the priests, to confirm that no changes have been introduced or anything omitted.
In other words, the leader doesn’t shape this book; this book shapes the leader. However great he may be in the sight of his people, the king fundamentally does not shape the world (or even his own kingdom) through his words, but he is being shaped by God through God’s words.
2. The Book Keeps the Leader
God also designs that this book will keep the king, as he is bombarded by the world of privileges and temptations leadership can bring. As the king keeps the words of God in the book, the book will keep the king — that is, keep him from turning aside to the right or left, turning from the fear of God to fear of man, from faithfulness to God to the pursuit of his own private, sinful pleasures.
In shaping the king’s heart, the book keeps him from subtle daily migrations away from God, which is why Moses twice mentions the inner man, “the heart.” The unseen heart of the king will come, in time, into expression in his life and the nation’s. Self-humbling before God and his word will give rise to a whole trajectory of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions; pride, to another. And the greater the leader, the greater the effects, for good or ill.
3. The Book Calls Each Morning
Finally, the king’s hand-copied, priest-approved book, Moses says, “shall be with him . . . all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:19). With him — that is, nearby, constantly within reach. Having completed this great hand-copying project, he is not to store the book away for future reference, but make it functional, accessible, active in his reign — increasingly in him through countless hours lingering over it.
This book is designed to be read daily. And not the sort of reading to which the pace and pixels of our modern lives have accustomed us: fast-break, hurried, distracted reading, with words coming out of the head almost as quickly as they went in.
Different Kind of Reading
Rather, the kind of reading God intends for his servant is meditative — slow, unhurried, enjoyable feeding on the text, at the pace of the text, rather than the pace of the world. Pondering God’s words. Rolling them around in the mind long enough to get a sense of them on the heart. Such daily meditation on the words of God is what God so memorably expects of Joshua as he becomes Israel’s new leader in Moses’s place:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Joshua 1:8)
So too, generations later, when Israel finally had its king, the first psalm celebrated where the godly king would find his sense and wisdom to rule: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). And not only the king, but every man of God: “Blessed is the man . . .” (Psalm 1:1).
So too, when the ultimate man, David’s great heir, came among us, his shaping and keeping and wisdom to live and lead grew out of regular feeding on the words of his Father: “Man shall not live by bread alone,” he said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come [magically from heaven] during the period of his public ministry; it was grounded no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation” (The Holy Spirit, 44).
His Father appointed means for his stability in his truly human life. And it was not some extraordinary means or special trick. It was the same great and modest, amazing and ordinary daily means heralded by Moses, tested by Joshua, embraced by David, and imitable by the godly today: daily meditation on the very words of God.
Let’s say more about meditation, which is increasingly a lost art in our age.
What Makes Meditation Christian?
Non-Christian forms of meditation seek to empty the mind and transcend concrete specifics into the ethereal, and experience some form of meaningless enlightenment. But Christian meditation fills the mind with biblical truth and chews on it, seeking to savor it appropriately.
Unlike mere reading, even slow reading, where our minds and eyes keep moving at some pace, meditation slows us down, way down. We pause and ponder. Reading keeps us marching in linear fashion, while meditation moves us into a more spiral pattern by limiting the information set and seeking to press and apply the truth to our hearts, to actually experience the truth and not just let it run on through our minds on our way to the next thing.
One remarkable aspect of corporate worship is that it gives us the opportunity to meditate together. The pinnacle of a good sermon is typically a form of corporate meditation, led by the preacher, as he circles around his main point and verbally kneads its goodness into our hearts.
And the summits of our best praises together in song are essentially meditative. It’s not the discovery and delivery of an obscure stanza that binds our hearts and draws us highest together toward heaven, but returning to the refrain, which has been enriched with each additional verse.
The verses provide fresh content, but the refrain bores the truth even deeper into our souls. The verses and refrain together help us to know the reality even better, as we collectively digest the truth from our heads into our hearts. They help us actually experience and be affected by the truth in our inner person, not just rehearse the data on the surface.
But we need to say more about “secret meditation,” or private meditation. Meditation involves a process. It’s not a switch to flip on. You don’t just meditate. Meditation is the goal and apex of Bible intake, and as a middle (often forgotten) habit, it involves lead-up and follow-up. You move into it, and move out of it.
Biblically, we find two kinds of meditation. One is spontaneous. It’s the kind of meditation that happens as we live and go about the day. Psalm 19:14 prays, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (also Psalm 49:3). That could be during the day (“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” Psalm 119:97), or Psalm 63:6 speaks of remembering God and “meditat[ing] on [him] in the watches of the night” (also Psalm 77:3; 119:148).
Another kind of meditation, we might say, is more focused, or intentional, or guided by God’s words. Genesis 24:63 tells of Isaac going “out to meditate in the field toward evening.” Joshua 1:8, as we’ve already seen, says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night . . .”
So too say many psalms. Psalm 1:2: the wise man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 119:48: “I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.” Psalm 119:15: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” This is word-guided meditation.
And while the New Testament may not use the same precise language of meditation, it does speak of setting the mind or fixing the mind (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33; Romans 8:5–7; Philippians 3:19). Perhaps most significant is Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
“What we choose to meditate on, we will gravitate toward meditating on in our spare moments.”
And these two kinds of meditation are related. Focused or intentional meditation — that is, meditation that we choose — leads to spontaneous meditation, the meditation that seems to happen to us as we go about our lives. What we choose to meditate on, we will gravitate toward meditating on in our spare moments.
Learning a Lost Art
Our focus here is on intentional, focused meditation. Having made time for such meditation, and found an undistracting place for such meditation, how might we go about pursuing it?
First is pace. By that, I mean read at the pace of the text and of understanding, and enjoyment. For most of us, this is a slower pace (perhaps a far slower pace) than we default to when reading other texts in our lives. In our age of accelerations, technology and society condition us to read faster and faster. But the Bible, as an ancient book, was written slowly and carefully to be read slowly and carefully. So we begin with an unhurried reading (and re-reading) of God’s word.
Second, then, is pause — or meditation proper. Having read the biblical text, we now pause over it to meditate on it. Without moving on, we want to go deep in this phrase or verse or idea, letting the words themselves lead us. That we not only have words in us, but we are in the words. Now what? Consider three encouragements about meditation.
1. God made us to meditate.
Meditation is a distinctively human trait; you know how to do this more than you think, like walking. And our souls were made for new mercies daily — to turn toward God. In meditation, we are fulfilling a vital aspect of how God made us: not just to do, but to think, ponder, reflect, to glorify him.
As Creator, he is glorified by his creatures doing what they do (tigers, cheetahs, eagles, whales). But he’s more glorified when his creatures acknowledge him. And he’s most glorified when they appreciate and adore him. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” So meditate in pursuit of satisfaction in God.
2. Meditation forms and shapes us.
Meditation changes us. We will meditate (that is, spontaneous meditation). Our minds will run somewhere. The question is not if, but on what. Sports? Image and physique? Job and money? Your children? Politics? Anxiety about society? News?
“We will meditate. Our minds will run somewhere. The question is not if, but on what.”
Ask yourself, What continually captures my attention? That will shape you. In fact, it is already shaping you. And especially so with what we choose to give our attention to: what we click. What you meditate on, in time, reformulates your desires. Christian meditation requires setting and resetting our minds, and in particular our hearts, on the greatest focuses possible.
3. Biblical meditation seeks joy in God today.
“Today” means right now (not just long-term formation). It aims to warm the heart, stir the affections, satisfy our souls right now in the one they were made for — as in these four statements about meditation from four seventeenth-century voices, back before meditation was a lost art:
*Thomas Watson (1620–1686): “Study is the finding out of a truth, meditation is the spiritual improvement of a truth.”
*Samuel Ward (1577–1640): “Stir up thy soul in [meditation] to converse with Christ. Look what promises and privileges thou dost habitually believe, now actually think of them, roll them under thy tongue, chew on them till thou feel some sweetness in the palate of thy soul.”
*Edmund Calamy (1600–1666): In meditation, be like “the Bee that dwells and abides upon the flower, to suck out all the sweetness.”
*William Bates (1625–1699): Since meditation often requires persistence, especially when you’re first learning the lost art, meditate “till thou dost find some sensible benefit conveyed to thy soul.” Many of us give up far too quickly and easily. Don’t let him go till he blesses you! Keep at it “till the flame doth so ascend.”
Practically, what kind of time might you set aside? I would say perhaps half an hour for beginners. And as you become familiar with reading the biblical text more slowly, and pausing to meditate on phrases and concepts that arrest your attention — and learn to find some sweetness, some sensible benefit to your soul — you’ll soon find yourself wanting more time and space, and perhaps grow it toward an hour.
We Pray to a Person
Moving toward meditation involves a certain pace — an unhurried reading of the text. Then meditation means pausing and going deep in, asking questions of, taking time to make connections and find insights. And finally, meditating leads to a third P: prayer. Prayer to God is “the proper issue,” the fitting completion of the process of meditating on him through his word. We hear from him in Scripture. We take it deep into ourselves in meditation. We speak back to him in prayer.
The way I like to say it is: begin with Bible, move to meditation, and polish with prayer. My encouragement is that once you have meditated on a verse or phrase or biblical concept for several minutes, turn it to prayer. Rather than pivoting to lists, pray through the text you’ve meditated on. Turn its concepts and promises and warnings into prayers for yourself, your spouse, your family, your church, your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors. Take God’s leading in meditation as his word to you that day, and invitation to prayer.
So: pace, pause, prayer — and if I could give you one more P, it would be Person. That is, Jesus. Bible reading is not just reading. It is God’s appointed medium, for now, by his Spirit, for our knowing and enjoying him through his Son. Remember in meditation: seek to enjoy the risen, living Christ, by his Spirit, through his word. Seek soul satisfaction in him.
Many of us expect too little when we come to the Bible and prayer. Christ is alive, seated on heaven’s throne. We have his word and his Spirit to make it alive to us. We are not just reading a book, but meeting with a living, divine Person. Jesus is real, and there, as we meet with him in meditation on his word.
Eat Like a King — and Sing!
Let me close by encouraging you to wake up each morning and eat like a king. That is, take the prescription of Deuteronomy 17 to heart, and take your cues from the commission to Joshua, and the celebration of Psalm 1, and the life of king David and king Jesus and linger in the words of God.
Steep in some specific text of Scripture. Feed your soul on the word of your Father. Come to the Bible not only to read and study, but to pause and ponder. Come to meditate on God’s word, in an unhurried, even leisurely, lingering and enjoying of God’s grace and truth in Christ.
And one last word for you as music leaders and choir members and soloists and accompanists, is this: sing. Sing! You know this better than most of us. This is what music and song are for — for slowing us down, for auguring soul-feeding and soul-sustaining truth down deep into the heart. For engaging our hearts, and shaping us, changing us, inspiring us, guiding us. Take your love of music, and your gifting in music, and put it to use in private, in secret, for the life and health of your soul.
By John Piper — 7 months ago
Welcome back to the podcast. This week we’ve been looking at what it means to follow God’s will. On Monday, we looked at the key to following God’s will. Without this in place, following his will will prove impossible. That was APJ 1807. And then on Wednesday we put that principle into practice, looking at one example of how to proceed with confidence in a real-life decision, knowing you are, in fact, following God’s will. That was in APJ 1808 on Wednesday. Today we end the week with an email from a listener and a super busy Christian man. How should this man prioritize his life when there isn’t time to do everything?
That busy man is Steve, and Steve lives in Sacramento, California. “Dear Pastor John, I work as a physician, and I feel that my work demands too much of my time, much more than most other full-time jobs. Because of this, I never seem to have enough time to pray or study God’s word. I also feel that because of my work, I do not have much time to devote to my family or to church. I know that the Bible has numerous passages about the importance of working hard for the Lord, such as Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.’ And Proverbs 22:29: ‘Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.’
“However, I also know that there are numerous passages about the importance of spending time in prayer and studying the word. How do I balance the importance of working hard for the Lord, while still having enough time for God, spiritual growth, and my family, when my job won’t allow it? Should I accept that I will have to sacrifice much for my work, consider a career change, or do something in between?”
Besides the three possibilities that Steve holds out, there might be another way to think about the challenge he faces. And I’m going to get there in just a minute to suggest that he consider a fourth way. I do start with the assumption that, except for rare seasons, he really should prioritize daily communion with God in the word and prayer, as well as leading his family in daily focused attention to God’s word and in family prayer, and in seeing to it that they are serious participants in their local church. And now Steve may listen to me say that and say, “Did you even hear my question?” Well, yes, I did. So let me clarify one thing, because I was listening carefully.
Working for the Lord
One thing that Steve said twice — and I just want to make sure that before I make my proposal to him, we get this clear, because it really does affect everything we do. He referred to “working hard for the Lord.” That’s his exact phrase, “working hard for the Lord.” And when he says that, he is referring to his medical work, not to any particularly focused Christian activity, like personal evangelism or something like that. He’s talking about doing a good job in his medical work, which in fact he should do. He’s basing it on Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do [like being a doctor], work [hard or] heartily, as for the Lord.” That’s where he gets the phrase.
So, I’m not criticizing the phrase, I’m just waving a flag that it could easily be misunderstood. I just want to make sure that when Steve or any of us speaks of “working for the Lord,” we realize that any true biblical conception of human beings working for the living God, or the Lord Jesus, means something fundamentally different than working for a human being. In three ways at least, it’s different — radically different.
One, when we work for man, we really do add value to man’s business or project or ministry. He is the lesser if we do shoddy work or no work. He is dependent on us, or somebody doing what we do, to have something he would not otherwise have. Working for God is never like that. We don’t add anything to God. He is not dependent on us. He can raise up from stones anything or anybody he wants.
Second, when we work for man, we really do earn just payment. Our employer owes us wages. Our work for him puts him in our debt. He commits a crime if he doesn’t pay us. That’s never, never the case with God. We never put God in our debt. He never owes us anything.
Third, when we work for man, we rely upon ourselves, not on our boss, for the capacity to do what he hired us to do. That’s never the case with God. We always are dependent on God for life and breath and mind and heart and emotions and intellect and energy and willpower to do what we’re called to do.
From Him, Through Him, to Him
Now, the basis for those three distinctions between working for man and working for God is Romans 11:35–36: “Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” And the answer is nobody. Impossible, inconceivable. Who has given a gift to God that he might be repaid? Why? “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” You can’t give God anything in order to be repaid because he owns everything, including you. You are made by him, sustained by him. You exist for his glory.
And the other basis for this distinction between working for man and working for God is 1 Corinthians 15:10, where Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am. And his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them . . .” And I don’t doubt that Steve could say something like that, probably. “I worked harder than any of them.” And then Paul adds, and Steve should add, and we should all add, “. . . though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” We do work hard. It’s right to work hard as Christians. And when we work for God, we ought to realize that we are the receivers when we work for God; we are the ones being blessed.
“We are the receivers when we work for God; we are the ones being blessed.”
God is not being enriched by our work for him — we are. We are not earning anything — if we gain an inheritance through our work, which we do, it’s all of grace. And in the process, we rely on the supply of God’s sustaining grace at every moment. Working for God and working for man are fundamentally different. And Paul does call us to work for God in all our working for man, which really is a miraculous, amazing, profound transformation of all human life.
Praying for the Impossible
Now, against that backdrop, here’s my suggestion for Steve to consider. It comes mainly from the Bible and partly from my own experience. In my seventy years of being a Christian — this year I will mark being a believer for seventy years — one thing I have learned is that, from time to time, no matter how carefully we plan, we come to a point where we are expected to do something, and we look at the amount of energy that we have, and the amount of time we have, and the resources we have to do it, and we say, “That’s impossible, I can’t do it.”
Now sometimes, that’s true. And you simply have to call your supervisor or a friend and tell them, “Find somebody else.” But it’s not true as often as we think. And here’s why, and I’ve discovered this over and over: God can do more in us and through us in five seconds than we can do in five hours without his help. Five seconds. Yes, he can. Or, same principle: God can do more in us in five hours than we can do in five days.
“God can do more in us and through us in five seconds than we can do in five hours without his help.”
Here’s one way I’ve experienced this, for example. There have been a series of crises in the church, and I have spent so much time at the hospital and in the home of the bereaved that it is now Saturday evening, and I have no sermon prepared at all — not even an outline for tomorrow morning. I look at my energy, which is spent. I look at the time left to me, even if I stay up all night, which is physically not going to work, and I say to myself, “This is impossible. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And I get down on my knees, and I preach to myself some crazy, wonderful biblical reality.
God can feed five thousand people with five loves and two fish of my time and energy. God can make a one-hundred-year-old man and a barren woman have a baby, because the angel says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Jesus said to his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Paul assures himself, “God . . . calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17), like hours in the day to create a sermon that can’t be done unless something impossible happens. I preached that to myself. I’ve done this numerous times, and I ask God for a miracle. And time and again, God has done what looked to me to be impossible.
A sermon outline with true insight into biblical texts and ample application comes before my mind — not in five hours, as it might ordinarily take, but in five seconds. It is as if the entire thing was built and then given to me complete in my mind. I go to my desk at 7:00 p.m., I ask for the miracle of wakefulness and energy, and at 11:00 p.m., a full manuscript is written. Exhausted, I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., and at 2:00 p.m., Sunday afternoon, sitting in my chair, I look back on two services complete and wonder, how did that happen?
In other words, Steve, I’m suggesting that you might experiment with giving yourself to prayer and to your family in a way that you feel is biblically appropriate, and then asking for God to create out of nothing what you thought had to be given up at work.