The Glory of God and the Goal of Biblical Counseling

If you had to sum up the goal of biblical counseling in one word, which would you choose? You might say, “change,” or “Christlikeness,” or “transformation.” These answers are correct as far as they go, but I would like to suggest the word “glory.”

The glory of the Lord is a thread that runs through every genre of Scripture. From creation to consummation, this theme is front and center. As such, glory serves as a helpful category in defining the goal of biblical counseling. However, glory is one of those words we use often but may find ourselves at a loss when pressed for a definition. 

Some theological terms are difficult to define because a concise definition is not agreed upon by theologians—think union with Christ or impassibility. Others are difficult because the word is used in various ways, in different contexts, to convey numerous meanings. Glory would fall into that second category. In attempting to capture the different nuances of this loaded theological term, Christopher Morgan writes:

The God who is intrinsically glorious (glory possessed) graciously and joyfully displays his glory (glory displayed), largely through his creation, image-bearers, providence, and redemptive acts. God’s people respond by glorifying him (glory ascribed). God receives glory (glory received) and, through uniting them to the glorious Christ, shares his glory with them (glory shared)—all to his glory (glory purposed, displayed, ascribed, received, and graciously shared throughout eternity.)

In this post, I would like to trace the theme of glory in Scripture from eternity past to eternity future highlighting the idea of God’s shared glory and applying it to our counseling. In other words, I’d like to attempt an answer to the question: What does it mean for believers to be transformed from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18)? Or to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4)? Or to have glory “revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18)?

Glory Possessed in Eternity Past

Before anything was, God was, and God was glorious. He remains glorious as the eternal, unchanging Lord of all that is. The Lord alone possesses intrinsic glory. In other words, He is infinitely valuable in and of Himself. He is not dependent on anyone else for his position, power, or prestige. His character and nature place him in an entirely different category than creation. The Apostle Paul erupted in praise when considering the Lord’s wisdom and wealth of riches: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). David exclaimed, “He is the King of glory!” (Psalm 24:10). Stephen referred to the Lord as “the God of glory” (Acts 7:2). 

Glory Shared with Man

In his kindness, God created to display his glory and allowed his creation (specifically, man) to see and enjoy the public display of his wisdom, power, and nature (Ps. 19:1). However, God goes beyond displaying his glory by allowing his image-bearers, in some sense, to partake of his glory. 

At the climax of God’s creative work, He made a creature unlike any other—a being in his image. As persons made in His likeness, God bestowed upon Adam and Eve a sort of glory. We see this in Psalm 8 where David uses royal language in describing man’s unique position before God. Man is “crowned with glory and honor” (v. 5) as an image-bearer of God. God designed man to serve as his representatives by carrying out his will in creation. Therefore, Adam and Eve possessed a sort of derived glory. The glory of Adam and Eve was their capacity as image bearers to engage in the activity of displaying God’s glory by fulfilling His will in creation and thereby reflecting His nature and character. This link between glory and image becomes an important theme of redemption.

Though all creation testifies to the glory of God, mankind is uniquely equipped for the task. What a position! What a privilege! Yet, as we know, much of this glory was squandered for an empty promise from a sneaky serpent. 

Glory Lost in Sin

Though every person retains his or her status as an image-bearer, an essential aspect of this glory was lost at the fall. Paul sums up his teaching on sin by declaring, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The common assumption is that this oft-quoted verse means little more than we have failed to glorify God. Though true, this does not seem to be the Apostle’s direction of thought. To fall short means to lack something or to be in want. It seems Paul is arguing that in our sinful state, we lack the original glory that Adam and Eve possessed before the fall. Sin is so pervasive that it not only led to sinful actions, but the very ability and desire to reflect God’s character were destroyed at the fall. Thus, the glory Adam and Eve possessed—the capacity and willingness to fulfill God’s will by imaging him in creation—was lost. The image remains, yet the glory of actively reflecting God faded as sin ravaged creation. 

Sin is so pervasive that it distorted every aspect of our humanity. Our minds were darkened and became futile in their understanding (Eph. 4:17-18). Our wills were bound by sin and selfishness (Rom. 3:11-12). Our emotions were misdirected and wrongly expressed (Jer. 17:9). Our bodies delighted in sin (Rom. 7:24). Part of what makes sin so revolting is that we used many of the benefits of being an image-bearer (Our mind, will, emotion, and body) to rebel against the creator. Again, we see the emphasis and link between imaging God and glory. John Murray summarizes the effect of the fall as it pertains to glory, “We are destitute of that perfection which is the reflection of the divine perfection and therefore of the glory of God.” 

Glory Incarnated in Christ

In the incarnation, we see the glory of the image of God. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the radiance of the glory of God… the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). As the God-Man, Jesus uniquely demonstrates the glory of God as he impeccably lived in joyful submission to the will of the Father. 

Of course, Jesus’ mission goes far beyond being an example. Jesus passed where Adam and Eve failed. Jesus alone perfectly fulfilled the purpose of humanity. He is truly crowned with glory and honor. But the path to the crown went through the cross. The author of Hebrews makes explicit the connection between Christ and Psalm 8:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Hebrews 2:9-10

In his death and resurrection, Christ paved the way for us to be reconciled to God and subsequently be brought “to glory.”

Glory Renewed in Union with Christ

The glory lost at the fall is being renewed in those found in Christ. From justification onward, the Spirit begins in us the process of being conformed to Christ. Paul argues that as this happens we are moving into greater glory, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This movement towards glory is what we often call progressive sanctification. 

Notice again the link between glory and image—we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another as we are fashioned into the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God. Part of what makes salvation so incredible is that we are being renewed into the image of Christ. Our minds are renewed by his word (Rom. 12:2). Our wills are brought into alignment with God’s will (Phil. 2:13). Our emotions are progressively being properly expressed (Phil. 4:4, 6). Our bodies can be brought into submission by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 6:12-13). Beholding the Lord’s intrinsic glory, we are being conformed to the glorious image of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Glory Restored Forever

One day this original glory will be fully restored. Indeed, it will be greater than the glory Adam and Eve enjoyed because we shall be like Christ. The Apostle John wrote: “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). From heaven will come our “Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). We will not become God; we will not be little gods. We will remain embodied humans for all eternity. Both body and soul are eternally redeemed through the gospel of Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus ensures the future glorification of those given to him by the Father.

Implications for Counseling

What does this mean for biblical counselors? 

First, God sets the agenda for counseling and his agenda is glory. That is, his goal is to glorify himself as his people behold his glory and are conformed to the glorious image of Christ. Through the means of God’s Word, biblical counselors have the opportunity to help others behold the glory of the Lord. And this act of beholding is transformative. Lord willing, counselees move from one degree of glory to another. Life change and godly habits are necessary, but we must place them under the more important goal of glorifying God. 

Second, remember the hope of eternal glory as a motivation for growth today. In my experience, it is easier to point people back to the cross than it is to point them forward to eternity. However, both are means of motivating believers towards conformity to Christ. The glory that will be revealed in us ought to be held out clearly as we implore others to become like Christ because “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

We long for that day when we shall see God face to face. Until then, may we “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” (Psalm 29:2).

Sources

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

John Murray. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960.

When You Are Overcome With Guilt

“Guilty!”

So cries our consciences, our hearts, and most importantly, God’s Law. We have all felt the painful reminder of our guilt. Thoughts of regrettable words and actions can keep us awake at night as we recall the past. Despair grows with each painful replay. How do we respond? How do we think biblically about guilt so that we might honor the Lord?

We might be tempted to settle for surface-level answers that distract us from feeling guilty. We might assume the answer is to convince ourselves that we are not quite as guilty as we thought. Not surprisingly, God’s Word has a fuller and, ultimately, a more satisfying answer. 

Before we look at guilt as a feeling, we need to first consider it as an objective reality. If you sat on the jury of a murder trial, you would not concern yourself primarily with the feelings, guilty or otherwise, of the defendant. You would examine the evidence and discern whether he had committed the crime of which he has been accused. Likewise, we should first concern ourselves with the forensic aspect of guilt before considering feelings of guilt.

The Objective Reality of Guilt

Guilt is a state of being before it is a state of feeling. Our understanding of guilt should begin with recognizing the universality of sin: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The first man, Adam, served as the representative of every person. When he sinned, all of mankind was cast into iniquity. Consequently, every person is condemned and deserves to bear the just penalty for sin.

In our sin, we stand guilty before a holy God. This is our greatest problem. The only solution is the good news of Jesus’ coming to rescue sinners from their condemnation. Christ dealt decisively with guilt on the cross by taking the judgment for sin in himself. Now, those who turn from sin and rely on Christ’s substitutionary work are united with him and credited with his righteousness. In other words, if you are in Christ you receive something better than a “not guilty” verdict. You even receive a greater verdict than “Innocent of all charges.” In Christ, you are declared “positively righteous.” This is made clear in 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Feelings of Guilt

Feelings arise from our thinking, so, our feelings, like our minds, can be deceptive. Feelings of guilt are no exception. For instance, it is possible to be guilty of breaking God’s commands yet experience no feelings of guilt (See Leviticus 5:17 as an example of being guilty of sin while having no knowledge, and therefore, no feelings of guilt). It is also possible, through a weak or misinformed conscience, to feel guilty for some act that was not truly sinful. Therefore, feelings of guilt cannot be accepted without suspicion. We ought to consider, perhaps with the help of a wise friend, whether our feelings are a result of wrong thinking or a conscience gone awry. 

Though feelings of guilt can certainly be amiss, they can also serve as the first step in genuine repentance. If we correctly discern that we have sinned and acknowledge our sin in light of God’s holiness, we will experience guilty feelings.

Even when we perceive our guilty feelings to accurately reflect our actions, we often do not know what to do with these feelings. We regularly deceive ourselves into thinking that God would have us wallow in the misery of our guilt—after all, this is what we deserve. Nevertheless, feelings of guilt are not God’s mechanism of punishing his children for sin. We can be confident of this truth since Christ took on himself the full punishment for every sin. Instead, these feelings are meant to drive us back to his kind embrace.

Repentance

After discerning our feelings of guilt are according to the truth, we are left with one appropriate response: repentance. Charles Wesley summarized well what repentance looks like:

Now incline me to repent
Let me now my sins lament
Now my foul revolt deplore
Weep, believe, and sin no more

Charles Wesley, Depth of Mercy

Weep. Consider Paul’s teaching on godly sorrow over our sin: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to a salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Both Judas and Peter wept upon betraying their Lord. Only one truly repented. There is worldly sorrow, exemplified in Judas, that is self-centered and focuses only on what is lost or denied as a result of being caught in sin. It results in despair, bitterness, and self-pity. However, there is godly sorrow, seen in Peter, that leads to genuine repentance. This is brokenness before God over sin. Peter’s tears proved to be genuine as he turned again to the Lord and served him faithfully.

Believe. Specifically, we believe in the truth of the gospel. We call to mind the work of Christ on the cross and are assured that his love for us is unassailable. He truly delights in our running to him because he died for that very purpose. Dane Ortlund reminds us that Christ “does not get frustrated when we come to him for fresh forgiveness, for renewed pardon, with distress and need and emptiness. That’s the whole point. It’s what he came to heal.” (Ortlund, 34). The Good Shepherd delights in bringing back the wayward, in binding up the wounded, and in strengthening the weak (See Ezekiel 34:15-16). 

Sin No More. True repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of action. By the power of the Spirit, we put to death the desires of the flesh and are conformed to the image of Christ. This is the end goal of acknowledging the reality of guilt and feeling its weight. When feelings of guilt arise from a proper acknowledgment of our objective guilt, they are a divine mercy that leads us to repentance and change.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund.

You Can Please God

Often in counseling, when asked specifically about how a counselee pleased God in a given week, he or she will say something like, “Well, I read my Bible every day, but I’m sure I just did it to be smart and impress my friends.” Or, “I shared the gospel with my neighbor, but after reflecting on it, I think I just did it out of duty, not out of a delight in God.” As a pastor and biblical counselor I appreciate the emphasis on the heart, and certainly don’t want to encourage outward obedience from a heart not directed towards God’s glory. My concern, however, with these types of responses is that they are often coming from an overemphasis on depravity and a corresponding underemphasis on our union with Christ. 

As believers, we want to hold biblical truths together and not allow one to trump the other. If we overemphasize depravity to the neglect of what Christ has accomplished for us, it results in a false humility that presents Christ as a weak savior. In our carelessness, we can begin to think of Christ only as the one who justified us legally (Rom 3:21-26) but not as the one who has overthrown the ruling power of indwelling sin (Romans 6:1-14).

In Christ, it is possible to please God

It is far better to hold to the totality of Scripture and affirm that, sinful though we are, we can please God in Christ. This is exactly what we’ve been commanded to do. Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].” In context, the mention of “home or away” by Paul is a reference to his being in heaven with Christ or remaining on this earth. Paul asserts then that whether he is on earth or dies and enters the presence of the Lord, he exists for the good pleasure of God. Like the Apostle Paul, even as we await our future glorification, we can please Christ. 

We do readily admit, however, that we cannot do this in our strength, but only in the power which God supplies. The author of Hebrews takes up this theme in his benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20-21 emphasis mine). It is not hard to spot the active work of “the God of peace” in our works pleasing unto him. It is God who “equip(s) you with everything good” to do his will. It is God “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” Further, our doing of God’s will is “through Jesus Christ” to his glory. In Christ, we can live, think, and act in ways that accord with God’s will and therefore please him. So what about the sinful desires of the flesh? 

Beware the Flesh

We don’t want to get out of balance in the other direction and disregard the maze of desires that is a sinful heart. We are warned in Scripture about the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) as well as our inability to decipher the intentions of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Even the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7 that he does the very sinful acts he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the righteous acts he wants to do. We should certainly heed these warnings and be suspicious of our motives. However, the Bible does not assume that we can never please God even if we can usually point to a hidden motive lurking in our hearts.

What Do We Make of Mixed Motives?

How then are we to reconcile the truth that we are empowered to please God and that our motives are often amiss when we do the very things God is calling us to do? Not surprisingly, the answer is found in the work of Christ as our perfect representative and substitute. Our good works are acceptable and pleasing to God not because they are without mixed motive, but because Christ obeyed as our representative with nothing less than perfect motives. The Apostle Peter makes this point: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices that Peter mentions are good works offered up to God. Notice that these spiritual sacrifices, or good works, are a delight to God because they come through Christ. It is Christ that makes our God-pleasing efforts acceptable, not the fact they are without any admixture of weakness, frailty, or impure motive. The English Puritan John Owen states it well:

“Believers obey Christ as the one whom our obedience is accepted by God. Believers know all their duties are weak, imperfect, and unable to abide in God’s presence. Therefore they look to Christ as the one who bears the iniquity of their holy things, who adds incense to their prayers, gathers out all the weeds from their duties and makes them acceptable to God.” 

Ultimately, we can please God because Christ takes our imperfect efforts and makes them acceptable to God. Holding these truths in tension we are free to exercise real humility. We will neither denigrate the Savior by being so introspective that we deny his sanctifying work in us, nor will we take credit for our good works or be afraid to admit that our striving after godliness is often mixed with weakness and imperfection. Instead, we make it our aim to please Christ and insofar as we do that, we recognize that it is only due to God’s grace, the work of Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13).

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 5:9 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991).

Humility in Suffering

Jacob’s favorite son was dead. Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob did, and now his son was no more. He was killed by a wild animal while searching for his brothers. All that remained was a tattered, blood-stained coat. Jacob would never see his son again, he was sure of it. However, in an odd turn of events, his son’s “death” was actually a cover up by his brothers. They wanted to kill him out of jealous rage, but in the end they decided to sell him into slavery. Years later when all this would come to light, Jacob would be reunited with his son Joseph, saying, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (Genesis 48:11).

In the midst of his grief, Jacob was unaware of so much of God’s activity. He didn’t know his son was alive. He didn’t know his son had children. He didn’t know that he would get to see his grandchildren. Beyond the immediate circumstances, Jacob didn’t know that God was going to use Joseph to bring Israel, a nation in its infancy, into the powerful Egyptian empire. He didn’t know that God would demonstrate his glory to the nations by freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of Egypt. He didn’t know that a prostitute living in a distant land would hear about this glorious God and submit herself to the sovereign Lord. Indeed, Rahab would proclaim, “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt… for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:10-11). He didn’t know that this exodus of Israel would point forward to a greater deliverance found in Jesus Christ. He didn’t know. 

Jacob was right to marvel that God was good in ways he could have never anticipated. He was also right to grieve deeply at the apparent loss of his child. That is the point, that in the middle of suffering we are called to simultaneously grieve and exercise humility in the way we view God. A stoic response to suffering denies the honest outpouring of grief and complaint that we find in the Psalms. There is nothing spiritual about pretending like suffering doesn’t shake us to the core. On the other hand, we are not then justified in our anger towards God or free to attack his goodness. We are commanded to suffer in humility. 

The book of Job illustrates the necessity of humility in suffering. Job had the worst day anyone has ever experienced. He lost nearly everything precious to him in a few minutes’ time. All but his wife and his own life perished in a moment (Job 1). Initially, Job responded quite well, even rebuffing his wife’s counsel to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). However, as the story unfolds Job demanded an audience with God. He summoned God to trial where Job will serve as the prosecutor and God as the defendant. The Lord arrived and quickly took over the court proceedings. God quickly offered his opening defense, a shotgun blast of questions for Job that drove home the point that God is God and Job is not. His defense was loud and clear, even if it wasn’t what Job was expecting: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:3). And, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). Job had no rebuttal and would eventually forfeit his case. Job received the message: when life doesn’t make sense, trust God’s nature and character. Or, as I heard a sister in Christ put it recently, “God answers our ‘why’ questions with ‘who’ answers.”

Whether it is our personal suffering or we are observing the suffering of someone we love, we should resolve to walk in humility before God and others–acknowledging life doesn’t always make sense, while relentlessly clinging to the character of God. After all, he is up to good that we may not be privy to on this side of eternity. 

Admittedly, this article is preparatory in nature. By that I mean that this may not be the place to send someone in the middle of heart-wrenching grief. Begin by weeping with them. Michael Horton helps us here: “Even comforting truths can be an irritation when our nerves are raw. Understanding who God is, who we are, and God’s ways in creation, providence, and redemption–at least as much as Scripture reveals to us–is to the trials of life what preparing for the LSAT is to the practice of law.” Like a lawyer who prepares for his or her practice by intense study and training, so we study theology, at least in part, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable day when suffering arrives. We are wise to consider the goodness, sovereignty, wisdom, and plan of God before suffering beats down our door and overwhelms us. Only then will we be prepared to walk through suffering with a humble trust in God.

Credits

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

Michael Horton,  A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (Gran Rapids, Zondervan, 2006) P. 19.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Genesis 48:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Church: Imperfect, but Beautiful

Last week my wife returned to teaching as her summer break came to an end. The day before school started a friend from church called to let us know that she had dropped off a cooler with pre-made breakfast meals for the whole week. The next day there was another meal from another church member waiting for me at my office. These acts of kindness are simply two recent instances in which I’ve seen God’s grace through the thoughtfulness and sacrifice of others. 

I could go on and on about ways I’ve been immeasurably blessed by people in the church. From the day I first walked into a church at the age of 16, I’ve been around the most generous, gracious, and loving people I’ve ever met. None of this is to imply that the church is perfect, but it is to say that she is beautiful (by “church” I mean all those who have united to Christ by faith who then gather into local congregations all over the world).

The Church is Imperfect

The church has its flaws. God’s Word even anticipates and makes provision for the imperfections of the church. Commands like “bear with one another” and “forgive one another” clue us in to the fact that we will both be sinned against and sin against others in the church (Eph. 4:32). Further, Jesus instituted a process by which unrepentant church members should be removed from the congregation (Matt. 18:15-20). The New Testament contains a realism about the church. It doesn’t deny that the church will be filled with imperfect people, even at times wicked people. 

Thus, my intention in writing is not to deny anyone’s pain or suffering at the hands of church people. It is undeniable that some churches, whole denominations, or even eras of church history have been responsible for terrible sins. I’m not writing to defend any abuse or hypocrisy or hurt. Instead, my goal is to balance out the narrative a bit. As it is too easy to point out all the flaws in another person and deny their good qualities, in the same way, it is too easy to criticize the church without praising her virtues.

The Church is Beautiful

In the New Testament, the church is described as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), the family of God (2 Cor. 6:18), the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and a people purchased by Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 20:28). What is absent from the Scriptures is the sort of attitude that is prevalent today, that the church is a burden, full of hypocrites, or inconsequential in the life of the Christian. Despite this common narrative, the church has been an undeniable force for good in history as well as the present day.

Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times and an avowed agnostic, has become an unlikely defender of the evangelical church. He writes, “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly…Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”

Kristof’s defense of Christians stems from something he has noticed in them, a self-sacrificial service to others as well as a generosity of time and resources. He goes on, “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests… Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”

I appreciate Kristof’s observation and kind words about the church. His opinion matters. However, there is one whose judgment means infinitely more. Let’s not forget God’s verdict of the church. Christ purchased her with his blood, he loves her, and will one day return to gather her up as his bride. Let’s make sure that our words about the church are consistent with God’s. If the church is the bride of Christ, we should tread carefully in attacking her. As Ed Stetzer has said , “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.”

Credits

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Nicholas Kristof, “A Little Respect for Dr. Foster,” New York Times, March 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

Stetzer, Ed, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife,” Twitter, 10 Aug 2019, https://twitter.com/edstetzer/status/1160378867955187713

Jesus Our Shepherd

“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

G. A. Smith

Shepherding imagery abounds in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds (Moses and David). Israel’s spiritual leaders were criticized as poor shepherds for serving themselves instead of providing for the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In light of this failure, God himself promises to take up the shepherd staff and rescue the scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-24). In the New Testament, those who lead the church are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:4). 

Most importantly, the shepherd of ancient Israel provides the perfect metaphor for God’s involvement in the lives of his people. Like a shepherd leading his flock, God demonstrates care, provision, concern, protection, and guidance for his sheep (Psalm 23). As God in the flesh, Jesus willingly adopted and applied the title of “shepherd” to himself. We see this teased out several ways in the New Testament.

Jesus is the compassionate shepherd who longs to rescue his sheep

As Jesus traveled from city to city preaching and healing the afflicted, he drew quite a crowd. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the mass of people, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The problem with a crowd being characterized as “sheep without a shepherd” is that sheep do not fare well without their shepherd. They are defenseless animals, vulnerable to attack unless the shepherd provides protection. Even in the absence of predators, sheep are still in danger as they need to be shown where to eat and drink. They are completely dependent on a shepherd for their care and safety. 

As Jesus peered at the crowd, he saw beyond the physical bodies that made up the assembly. He looked into the heart and saw a people that were in great spiritual danger. They were scattered, lost, and in need of rescue. To compound the matter, they lacked any resources in and of themselves to provide such a rescue. As a result, Jesus had compassion for them. This compassion moved him to act in ways that would characterize an ancient shepherd. He would act; he would act at great cost to himself; he would act on behalf of the sheep. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. He is contrasting himself with a “hired hand” who has no real attachment to the sheep. The primary difference? “… the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11) while the hired hand flees at the first sign of danger (see v. 12).

Shepherding can be a dangerous form of employment. Before David was king of Israel, he had to slay a bear in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36). However, this type of danger was probably quite rare and a shepherd would never intentionally die. Jesus goes beyond the metaphor and points to himself as the one who doesn’t simply put his life at risk, but intentionally lays it down. D.A. Carson summarizes this point well, “Far from being accidental, Jesus’ death is precisely what qualifies him to be the good shepherd.” 

In Jesus, we see that the good shepherd is also the lamb slain in our place. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we might be credited with his perfect obedience. We, who were once lost sheep, are rescued at the cost of the shepherd’s life. Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Jesus is the great shepherd who cares for his sheep

The fundamental issue in the book of Hebrews is whether readers will remain faithful to Christ or return to the Law in a futile attempt to earn their salvation. In other words, believers are called to persevere in their faith. However, this is not something that a person can do in his or her power. That is why the author of Hebrews prays and asks God to produce good works in the reader through Jesus Christ. The author prays, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).

Jesus is not only able to save us from our sins, but he will keep us. He provides for us by bringing about in us something we could not achieve on our own. God the Father, through the great shepherd Son, gives us everything we need to do his will by working in us a desire and ability to glorify him. 

Jesus is the chief shepherd who is coming again in glory

1 Peter 5:1-4 is a reminder to local church pastors that they are not their own authority. They are not their own standard. Instead, pastors are to be servants of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the motivations for pastors to shepherd well is the future reception of the “unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4). Peter pushes pastors towards faithfulness by pointing them forward to the coming of Christ. Soon, Jesus will appear in glory and faithful shepherds will receive their full reward from him. 

This hope is not limited to pastors. Peter gave a similar encouragement at the beginning of his epistle, telling all believers, “… set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). The same shepherd that had compassion on the crowds, that laid his life down for the sheep, is returning to rule and reign in full authority. 

We can have real hope today as we anticipate the coming of Christ where he will complete the good work he began in us. We long for that day, knowing that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Credits

G. A. Smith Quoted by Timothy Laniak in Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57.

Photo by joseph d’mello on Unsplash

D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 386.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Praying for Government Officials

Coverage for the 2020 presidential election is beginning to heat up. Candidates have declared their intention of running for president, debates are being hosted by national media, and Trump is tweeting. All of this coverage should serve as a reminder that God’s people are called to pray for their leaders. Paul wrote to Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). 

Whether we like our leaders or not, whether we voted for them or not, God’s command is that we pray for them. This begs the question, “what sorts of prayers ought we to be praying for our elected officials?” The following is not an exhaustive list. It is four suggestions to help structure some of your prayers for the leaders God has placed over us. 

Pray that our elected officials would have their eyes opened to see the beauty of the gospel.

Ultimately, we desire political leaders who genuinely fear God and reflect that in their personal and political lives. The first prayer for those in positions of leadership ought to be that they would see their need for Christ and turn to Him in repentance and faith. Our prayer is that God might move in such a way that He would grant to those officials “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Pray that our elected officials act in ways that accord with the justice of God.

God has given government as a common grace. One of the purposes of government is to protect righteousness and to punish wickedness. When done well, the government acts as an extension of God’s justice. Paul wrote, “For he [government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). All governments do this very imperfectly, but we ought to pray that our officials would lead in such a way that righteousness is protected and wickedness is punished. 

Pray that our elected officials would be humble, wise, and courageous.

Proverbs 3:7 warns, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” The fear of the Lord is a holy reverence for God flowing from a right understanding of God resulting in submission to God. Therefore, humility, wisdom, and courage are the fruit of a proper fear of God. Our elected officials are humble when they realize that God is creator and they are creation. Our elected officials are wise when they “lean not on their own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Our elected officials are courageous when they realize that there is more at stake than the praise of man. As God’s people, we should be praying to this end.

Pray that our elected officials would protect peace and religious liberty.

Paul’s intention in praying for “kings and all who are in high positions” is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Paul’s hope was that Christians would be free to live peaceful, quiet, God-glorifying lives. Notice, Paul isn’t lamenting the latest tax hike; he isn’t calling down fire on those who have differing economic ideals. His agenda is fairly simple: let me live at peace, preach, and serve Christ. 

In Closing

Election coverage can get our blood boiling. It can make our nerves a wreck. It can dominate our Facebook feed. However, this year, make it a goal to pray more than criticize, to plead with God more than complain, and to intercede more than condemn.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Timothy 2:1-2 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

The Temptation of Christ: Better News Than You Think

If you were alive in the 90s you probably remember WWJD bracelets. They exploded onto the scene quickly becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The goal was to be reminded to live like Jesus by asking in every moment, “What Would Jesus Do?” What this fad revealed was man’s tendency to simplify Jesus to nothing more than a helpful example.

WWJD bracelets may have disappeared, but this inclination towards self-focused theology remains. For instance, most sermons on the temptation of Christ focus solely on Jesus’ response to temptation. The emphasis often falls on how we can resist temptation by following Jesus’ pattern. Though Jesus is certainly our example (1 Peter 2:21), a closer look at the temptation of Christ, specifically Luke’s account, demonstrates that this narrative is less about us than we like to admit. It is primarily answering the question, “what kind of Savior has come into the world?” There is great news concerning Christ in Luke 4, but we have to look past ourselves to see it.

Jesus is perfect where we are not

Just before the temptation of Christ, Luke includes a genealogy that begins with Jesus and stretches all the way back to Adam, the first man. The long list of names ends with, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” We often assume that genealogies are not important and skip over them. However, we can’t fully understand the temptation of Jesus without the genealogy of Luke 3. Luke is setting up a deliberate parallel between Adam and Christ by tracing Jesus’ line all the way to Adam and calling Adam the son of God. We are meant to read Luke 4 in light of Genesis 1-3 (there are also many parallels between Christ and Israel).

Adam was tempted in the garden and failed. As a result sin, death, and judgment was thrust upon all creation (Genesis 3). Conversely, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and resisted every temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In his perfect obedience, Jesus demonstrates that he is indeed the Savior who has come to rescue those under the curse of Adam’s sin. The Apostle Paul made the same point in Romans 5:18-19 writing, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (ESV).

The good news of Luke 4 is that Christ perfectly obeyed the will of the Father, thus, demonstrating himself to be the true Savior who alone can be our substitute. If you are in Christ, then you have received more than a clean slate. Your justification is more than God simply wiping away your past failures. You are credited with the perfection of Jesus himself. He became sin for you so that you might be found righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus sympathizes in our weakness

Many have scoffed at the temptation of Christ, wondering if Jesus really experienced temptation since he is God in the flesh and unable to sin. Hebrews 4:15 is instructive, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ inability to sin with his very real temptation to sin? Bruce Ware points out in his excellent book The Man Christ Jesus that the reason Jesus could not sin is entirely separate from the reason Jesus did not sin. Jesus could not sin because he is God and therefore unable to sin. Jesus did not sin because he fully resisted every temptation through reliance on the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. This is a necessary distinction if indeed Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. Luke also demonstrates this truth in highlighting Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit and his three-fold citation of the Scriptures (Luke 4:1, 4, 8, 12).

This is also good news. Unlike Christ, we can’t be described as without sin. We do, however, have the same resources at our disposal when it comes to resisting temptation today. Bruce Ware writes, “The resources God gives–particularly his Word, prayer, and the power of the Spirit–are there for us as they were for Jesus.” We have been given everything we need in Christ to resist every temptation. Though we will fight imperfectly, it is encouraging to know that we are not helpless victims of sin.

In closing, the point of Luke 4 is to magnify Christ. Only when we see him as the sinless Savior and sympathetic high priest are we in a position to follow his example and resist temptation.

Credits

Bruce Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 73ff.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Luke 4:1-13 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Jared Verdi on Unsplash

Guarding Your Heart from Anxious Worry

What makes your heart anxious? What do you tend to fret about? Sometimes we worry about major issues like a loved one with cancer. Other times, our worries are smaller than a life-threatening illness. Worry can be replaying a conversation over and over again in your head to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself. It can be the sinking feeling in your stomach as you consider an upcoming meeting. It might look like obsessing over what the boss is going to think when you are late to yet another appointment.

Opportunities abound for our hearts and minds to be consumed with anxious worry. However, God’s agenda for us is to experience the peace associated with prayer, not the turmoil that accompanies worry. In Philippians 4, Paul makes the connection between fervent prayer and a peaceful heart. He wrote, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

The Philippian Christians were confronted with many opportunities to worry. They faced threats and persecutions from their “opponents” (Philippians 1:29-30), and they were concerned about the welfare of Paul and Epaphroditus (Philippians 1:12; 2:26). Paul was imprisoned in Rome and Epaphroditus had fallen deathly ill. Instead of being pleased with their over-concern for his safety, Paul gives them the sweeping prohibition, “be anxious for nothing…”

The same verb translated “be anxious” in Philippians 4 is used positively earlier in the letter where Timothy is said to “show genuine concern” for the church in Philippi (Philippians 2:20). Apparently, the Philippian church had moved from genuine concern to a posture of worry or stress. Paul’s command for them is to cease what they have been continually doing. For Paul, there are areas in which we should express real concern for ourselves and others. However, there is no proper object of obsessive worry. Instead, we ought to bring all things before God in prayer.

How does prayer lead to a peaceful heart?

Hannah was worried. She wanted a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). She was so overcome by her emotional state, she had stopped eating. Those around her only compounded her suffering. Her husband had taken another wife, presumably because Hannah couldn’t bear him children. On top of this was the relentless bullying and mockery coming from her husband’s other wife.

Hannah had much to worry about. However, she models Philippians 4:6-7 by running to the Lord in prayer. She speaks to the Lord out of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:16). She is convinced that God hears, God cares, and God acts. You can read here for a more detailed explanation of Hannah’s theological commitments that led her to pray. This article deals more with the peace Hannah experiences following her prayer.

After pouring out her soul to the Lord, Hannah experiences a peaceful heart. The Scriptures record that following her prayer she “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel‬ ‭1:18‬). Hannah’s swift change is perplexing to us because nothing about her circumstances had changed (yet). When Hannah said “amen” she was still childless, still sharing her husband, still going to be mocked. Yet she had peace.

After bearing her heart to the God who knows all things, who cares for his people, and is powerful enough to act, she can rest. When we begin to believe God’s grace toward us, we can begin trusting him with the outcome of our circumstances or suffering. Peace is not the result of God giving us what we want in prayer, it is a gift he gives his people when they rely on his good plan. One commentator put it succinctly, “The condition for experiencing God’s peace is not that God grants all of our requests but that we have made known all our requests to God with thanksgiving. God’s peace is not the result of the power of our prayers or the effectiveness of our prayers… When we trust God in prayer, God gives to us his peace to guard our hearts and minds against anxious thoughts.”

In Closing

Bobby McFerrin released the hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the fall of 1988. Often wrongly credited to Bob Marley, who died in 1981, the song is catchy, fun, but overly simplistic in terms of its message. If only it were that easy. Just stop worrying, just be happy. Philippians 4 and Hannah’s example instruct us that peace is a gift from God that he gives his people when they run to the creator of the universe and pour out their hearts before him. This is not a simplistic, one-time occurrence, but a habit we form by continually taking everything to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is not some kind of a magic bullet, but it is one of the means God uses to move us from a posture of worry to one of peace.

G. Walter Hansen, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Philippians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2009) 293.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Philippians 4:6-7 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Sickness and Suffering: How to Pray

Prayer request time in any church can devolve into a long list of distant relatives (or relatives of relatives) with relatively (pun intended) minor ailments. Though it can make us laugh when we are asked to pray for Aunt Loraine’s cousin’s friend’s colonoscopy, we are often faced with far more serious, and close to home, requests.

My wife recently spent the better part of a week in the hospital with a severe infection. As I sought to pray for her, it got me thinking about how exactly I should pray for those who are sick. The following is not the only four things we can pray for a sick person but can serve as a guide to get us moving in the right direction.

How should we pray for those with some kind of physical illness or weakness?

Appeal to the Lord for healing

Most Bible scholars agree that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12 was some kind of physical ailment. Paul prayed to God multiple times, asking him to take away this thorn in the flesh. Likewise, the Apostle John prays for the health of the recipients of his 3rd letter, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2).

As part of our prayer for those who are sick, we ought to ask God to grant them healing.

Ask the Lord for sustaining grace so that the sick might suffer well

God, for his own purposes and will, chose not to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul asked for it to be removed. Jesus’ answer finally came, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul concluded thenTherefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus promised sufficient grace for Paul to endure his physical suffering for the glory of God.

God is faithful and will always grant his children one of the two things: 1) healing or 2) sufficient grace to walk through physical sickness to the glory of God.

Admit that God’s will is superior to ours

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus pleaded with the Father to spare him from the impending suffering of the cross, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me–nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It was the will of the Father for Christ to suffer and it brought about immeasurable good. Similarly, If God chooses not to heal, we must trust God’s good and sovereign will. God is so good, wise, and loving that even when we don’t understand, we trust that his plan is the better than ours. Tim Keller says it this way, “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.”

Anticipate the suffering-free glories of heaven

As we pray for others we can anticipate a day where we won’t hear words like “cancer” or “death.” Sickness and suffering are both temporary aspects of our broken world. Revelation 21:3-4 remind us, “… ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…” We long for that day. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 12:7ff and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Penguin: New York, 2014) 228.