Counseling with Psalm 19

Psalm 19 is all about divine revelation, which is to say that it is all about how God has communicated Himself to us. In terms of divine revelation there are two types: general/natural revelation and special revelation. General revelation is a “term used to declare that God reveals something about the divine nature through the created order.” (Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, p.54). Special revelation is “God’s manifestation of himself to particular persons at definite times and places, enabling those persons to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.” (Erickson, p.201).

The beauty of Psalm 19 is that it speaks to the benefit of general revelation (v.1-6), while showing the superiority of special revelation as encountered in the Word of God (v.7-11). As we think through Psalm 19 there are three applications I want to consider in regards to biblical counseling: (1) God desires to communicate Himself to us through both the created world and the Word; (2) What we learn about God from His Word takes priority over what we learn about God from the world He created; (3) God intends for the revealing of Himself in His Word to produce holiness in us.

  1. God desires to communicate Himself to us through the world He created (v.1-6). 

As we read the opening lines of Psalm 19 we begin to sense that perhaps David is gazing into the skies and breathing in the vastness of God. He sees the stars, Moon, Sun and he assesses that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (v.1). David recognizes that although these created things do not have a literal voice (v.3), there is a sense in which their voice is heard throughout all the Earth (v.4). Along with Paul, David takes notice that creation is designed to communicate God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20, ESV). 

What David teaches us as counselors about general revelation is that we need to recognize the spiritual benefit of God revealing Himself to us and our counselees through creation. This is not a call to take expensive trips to remote locations but it is a call to step outside and become a student of God’s creation and consider the lilies (Matthew 6:28). 

On my desktop computer there is an incredible picture of the towering granite walls of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. I would love to visit Yosemite but logistically this is difficult. However, God’s very good creation is all around me. Even as I walk down the cracking sidewalks of my Midwest neighborhood and hear the hum of cicadas (loud bugs), the power and beauty of God are being revealed to me. It’s not quite Yosemite, but it will have to suffice because I was designed as a human to learn about God in these moments. Psalm 19:1-6 teaches us that God’s creation is useful for teaching us and our counselees about God and therefore should be engaged. 

As biblical counselors we are right to uphold the Word of God (special revelation) as essential to spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical wellness. Without the Word of God there is no hope because there is no other way of being in relationship with God. As a result, our first instinct in assigning homework is often to get counselees into God’s Word. This is right and good. That being said, we should not be uncomfortable with assigning the kinds of homework which pushes the objective of revealing The spiritual benefits of engaging the created world. This could look like encouraging a counselee to take a daily walk and account for how God is good in creation. This type of assignment is certainly helpful in someone gaining a greater sense of God’s power and majesty. Perhaps, in glimpsing God’s glory in creation, our counselees will be more eager to hear and obey God’s revealed will.

  1. What we learn about God from His Word takes priority over what we learn about God from the world He created (v.7-11). 

As Psalm 19 unfolds David continues to speak of divine revelation but we notice a shift in subject starting in verse 7. As good and necessary as general revelation is, the focus of David’s attention becomes the Word of God (which is special revelation). David is not attempting to diminish the value of general revelation but is instead highlighting the superior value of God’s Word when both are considered. This value is articulated as David makes six bold statements concerning the benefits of God’s Word. These statements deserve careful attention but unfortunately the restraints of this blog post will not allow us the space to do so. That being said, there are a few broad observations about what David says which help us not to miss the big point:  

First, Allen Ross explains that David “uses all the major terms for the stipulations of the covenant [law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, rules] to call attention to the mercy and love of God.” (Ross, 469) What Ross is getting at here is the key difference between general revelation and special revelation. This difference is that the content of God’s Word is about the covenant faithful God and the salvation He provides. This is not the case with general revelation. Bavinck correctly points out that general revelation is “insufficient for human beings as sinners; it knows nothing of grace and forgiveness.” (313) We can look at the world around us and learn a lot about God but it can never bring us to the point of knowing God. 

Second, Ross goes on to say that “Because of these clear references to the covenant, the covenant name of Yahweh is used seven times.” (Ross, 469). In the first section of Psalm 19 (vv.1-6), David uses the name El for God (v.1). Whereas El is a more general name for God in the Hebrew, Yahweh is the more personal name for God (Exodus 34:6). It is no surprise that David chooses this more personal name for God when discussing the Word of God Again because it is the Word of God which makes it possible for us to be in relationship with God. 

Third, David’s statements about the spiritual benefits of God’s Word are exclusively true of God’s Word. There is nothing else in this world which can revive our souls, make us wise, cause true rejoicing in our hearts, or enlighten our eyes. The Psalmist views the Word of God as something uniquely precious and rightly so. The benefits of Scripture are unparalleled. 

The application that the Psalmist’s high regard of God’s Word has in the counseling room is straightforward. If we want to be people who feel and experience God as He is then we must be people who are engaging with the Word of God and people who are doers of the Word. Likewise, we cannot consider ourselves to be doing the work of biblical counseling until we busy ourselves with helping people engage God’s Word and the life giving hope of God’s Word. In the counseling room we want to be men and women who speak the Bible, demonstrate a life changed by the Bible, and call those who are hurting to be helped by the Bible. Again, this is not David calling us to abandon the value of general revelation but is rather an emphasis on the absolute necessity of God’s Word. 

  1. God intends for the revealing of Himself in His Word to produce holiness in us (v.10-14). 

The psalmist concludes by teaching that God’s Word is to be more desired “than gold” and is “sweeter also than honey” (v.10). This bold claim flows from the truth that God’s Word guides the believer into holiness for the glory of God, which is God’s goal in revealing Himself. God reveals Himself uniquely and exclusively in the Word because He desires for struggling sinners to be “blameless” (v.13) and “acceptable” (v.14) in His sight. There is nothing more satisfying than being transformed into the people that god has designed us to be. 

The question which Psalm 19 leads us to reasonably ask ourselves as counselors is: what do I hope to see accomplished in the life of my counselee? If the answer is something other than holiness we have veered from the straight-forward teaching of Psalm 19 and we should reassess our goals in counseling. What makes biblical counseling ‘biblical’ is not only that we use the Bible as our source for instruction but that the God of the Bible sets the agenda for counseling. 

Works Cited & Credit

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 19 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F. . In Pocket dictionary of theological terms (p. 54). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Erickson Millard J. Christian Theology; 2nd Edition (p.201) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

Ross, Allen. A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1 (1-41) (p.469) Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 1, Prolegomena (p. 313) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

Counseling Psalm 88

Psalm 88 records some of the darkest and most depressing words in all of Scripture. Not only does the word “darkness” appear three times in the psalm, it is also the last word in the Hebrew. Also, unlike other cries of lament there is never a point where the author changes his tune and remembers God’s goodness and faithfulness. 

This Psalm is written by a man named Heman whom very little is known about. It seems that Heman’s problem is something external, such as a disease, and that this burden is something he has carried since his “youth” (v.15). Also, we notice that the weight of this burden over the course of time has become a crushing emotional and spiritual weight for Heman to carry. It is as if Heman is dying by being slowly crushed.

This psalm is a helpful place to turn when you, or a counselee, are experienced suffering that has gone on for a long time. What Psalm 88 reveals to us is how to relate to and minister to those living under this unique kind of pressure.  

1) You can be a Christian and still experience long seasons of darkness.

I owe this observation to Tim Keller who preached a very helpful sermon on Psalm 88 (you can listen to here). Keller states that what this psalm teaches us is that, “[…] you can be trusting God for your salvation. You can be praying and doing what you think you should be doing and yet it doesn’t get any better for a long time.” We know that Heman has been suffering since his “youth” (v.15) and we know that Heman is a believer (v.1).

In seasons of endless suffering we tend to entertain a couple of unhelpful thoughts. Either we begin to conclude that our suffering is the result of some undiscovered sin in our life or we begin to consider that our suffering is proof that we have never been saved in the first place. Both of these lines of thinking result from the idea that suffering is always evidence that God is displeased or distant. This is not true. 

One of the blessings of Psalm 88 is that it demonstrates for us that a believer, like Heman, can experience long seasons of suffering. This suffering is not a hidden message from God. Believers do not have to call into question the status of their relationship with God as a result of suffering. Psalm 88 breathes spiritual reassurance to the one who is suffering.

2) In seasons of darkness pray persistently to God (v.1-2; 13).

Heman doesn’t get everything right but he gets the most important thing right. Heman says, “I cry out to you day and night. Let my prayer come before you” (v.1-2) and then again, “in the morning my prayer comes before you” (v.13). Heman should be commended for the fact that he does not cut off communication with God.

Another one of the temptations we face in the midst of extended suffering is that when we initially cry out to God and He does not immediately answer we change our approach. Often we grow bitter towards God or indifferent and our prayers become non-existent. 

God delights in persistent prayers because it reveals a heart that is continually dependent on Him. Persistent prayer also reveals that a believer understands that God has a good plan and that He delights in answering prayers. 

3) Your prayers to God should be honest about how you feel (v.3-5; 8-9).

There is a thought that has crept into modern American Christianity and it is that in order to be spiritually mature one must hold back the tears before God and be strong before God. This is not biblical Christianity. This is a false sense of strength. In fact, this is spiritual immaturity. Biblical Christianity knows what it is to fully disclose to God what it feels like to suffer. We are not talking about venting to God, we are talking about raw and unrestrained disclosure to God what is going on inside of your head and life.

If you track what Heman is saying in 88:3-5 you see Heman recounting to God the downward spiral of his thoughts. He starts off rather innocent as he expresses that his “soul is full of trouble” (v.3) but then we read that Heman felt as though his life was “near” (v.3) to the grave and that he eventually felt as though he was “counted” (v.4) among the dead. Finally, we read Heman express that he feels God no longer even remembered him (v.5).

What we see in Psalm 88 is the practice of lament. These honest cries out to God reveal that part of God’s restoring work in Heman’s life involved Heman disclosing to God the depths of his pain. Psalm 88 teaches us how to speak to God in the midst of our pain in a way that is honest.

4) Your prayers to God should be driven by what you know to be true about God (v.6-12).

Heman’s prayer is theologically driven and this is a wonderful thing. There are a couple pieces of Heman’s theology which shine through the darkness of his prayer and guide us in our prayers to God. 

As Heman cries out to God, he is not ignorant or misinformed as to who is in control of his suffering. Heman says to God, “you have put me in the depths of the pit” (v.6) and “you overwhelm me with all your waves” (v.7). He understands that his suffering is by within God’s control. Heman understands that God is either causing or allowing his suffering. Much like Job, Heman sees God in the chaos of his suffering. 

Another aspect of Heman’s theology which shines through and guides us is his theology of God’s glory. Heman reasons with God in 88:10-12 as to why God should answer his prayer. His rationale is that if he were to die then he would no longer be able to praise God’s name. Heman, knowing that God desires to be glorified, appeals to God on behalf of this glory. 

Like Heman our prayers should reflect that we understand God is in control over the details of our suffering and that God does all that He does for the sake of His glory.

5) Because darkness disorients, not everything you feel is true (v.7, 15, 16, 18).

While it is true that Heman’s prayer is theologically driven it should also be observed that Heman’s prayer is not always theologically accurate. In verse 7, 15, 16 he speaks of God’s wrath and terror being against him. These words show that Heman has made the assumption that God’s purpose in his suffering is to pour out wrath and to terrorize him. Theologically, we know that Heman is not experiencing God’s wrath. This is not how God treats His children. Wrath is reserved for the wicked.

One of the dangers we face in dealing with long seasons of darkness is that our thoughts begin to misfire and a false narrative can begin to corrode our thinking. When we counsel ourselves or others we have to be aware of this tendency and be willing to confront the lies we tell ourselves.

6) Yes, the dead do actually rise up to praise God because of Jesus’ resurrection (v.10). 

Again, I owe this insight to Tim Keller (sermon found here). He accurately points out that Heman assumes the wrong answer to the question, “do the departed rise up to praise you?” (v.10) Heman thinks the answer to this question is ‘no’ and he is using this line of thinking to reason with God as to why God should protect his life. 

The reality is that the dead actually do rise up to praise God if they are united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Keller points out that Matthew 27:45-52 beautifully shows us that Jesus has defeated both darkness and death and neither is final for the believer. Regardless of whether or not God causes our darkness to cease in this life we look forward to the hope of life with Christ for eternity. 

In Conclusion

This beautiful Psalm was written 3,000 years ago by a man named Heman who was in a very dark place and didn’t know if he would ever experience joy again. Some of the most beautiful words I’ve read about Psalm 88 came from W.S. Plumer, who made this hope-filled observation, “for nearly three thousand years [Heman] has been singing a very different song before the throne of the Eternal; and his eternity is but just begun.” 

The one you are counseling may feel like your darkness will never end but the day is coming when he/she will also have been singing a very different song for 3,000 years because of what Jesus did on the cross. We cling to and wait for eternity!

Credits

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. How to deal with dark times (a sermon on Psalm 88). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulmaUtbayGY

W.S. Plumer. Geneva Series of Commentaries: Psalms (2016) Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 823.

When Your Sin Plays Dead

Your Sin Deceives You

Sin is like a master but in Christ we have died to sin (Romans 6:11). However, sin’s presence has not yet been eradicated and its desire is still to rule over you (Genesis 4:7; Galatians 5:17). Deceit is one of its go-to tactics used to gain a stronghold in your heart. Obadiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all attest to the deceitful nature of sin:

Obadiah 3 – The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” (ESV; see below).

Ephesians 4:22 – to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,

Hebrews 3:13 – But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

How Does Your Sin Deceive You?

In order to fight sin we must understand the intricacies concerning exactly how sin deceives. Sin’s toolbox is fully outfitted and ready to wreak havoc on any Christ-follower at any stage of his journey. Sin knows the contours of every weak and vulnerable spot in your heart and it has a carefully devised plan to revisit and expand its footprint. Its deceitful ways are custom built and person specific.

This being said, we know that sin is said to be deceitful because it plays to our pride (Obadiah 3), entices and lures us (James 1:14), and because it attempts to convince us that the source of our temptation is God (James 1:17). Another way in which sin is deceitful is evident when we consider Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12). We must ‘take heed’ because one of the deceits of sin is that it pretends to be weak or dead. When a sin pretends to be dead it often has the look and feel of a sin which has lost all of its allure and grip. The believer considers the sin and it appears as if the sin has retreated and is no longer plaguing him as it once did.

Every believer experiences this particularly deceitful tactic of sin and its devastating toll. Theologian, John Owen (1616-1683), captures the danger we face when our sin is playing dead, “When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still”. (Overcoming Sin and Temptation, pg. 51; see below).

Why Does Your Sin Play Dead and How Do You Fight Back?

Sin plays dead for two reasons. First, your sin pretends to be weak or dead as a defensive survival tactic. If a particular sin is weak or dead it does not need to be challenged or attacked. It looks harmless and not worth confronting. It has been declawed, so to speak. Second, your sin pretends to be weak or dead for an offensive advantage. Sin floats, slithers, and creeps so as to go unnoticed but all the while it’s plan is to suddenly spring into action at an opportune time much like a Venus flytrap. When you perceive sin to be weak or dead it goes unchallenged and it is able to grow in an imperceptible way, gaining strength and further extending its tentacles around more chambers of your heart. 

The God-pleasing response to the seemingly harmless sin(s) which used to master you is to never turn your back on it/them. It is in the moment that you think yourself strongest that you are often actually the weakest. Even when reason tells you to move on to fight some other sin because victory is apparent or at least imminent you must continue to put your sin to death. Again, remember Paul’s call to ‘take heed.’ You must recognize that the sins which used to rule you are still active and crouching at the door waiting to destroy. You must not let down your defense and you do not stop attacking. You must ‘take heed’ and consider carefully your sin by observing its patterns and methods. John Owen called this the work of “[tracing the] serpent in all its turnings and windings.” (Overcoming Sin and Temptation, pg. 77). Then, once the sin has been carefully considered, you fight back. By God’s grace as made available through His Word, His Spirit, His Church, and your prayers, you “consider yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11) and you fight your sin until Christ returns.

Credits

Photo by NO NAME on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Owen, John, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. (2006). ed. Kelly M. Kapic & Justin Taylor Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

When Our Evangelism Fails

Below the Table Rock dam in the Ozark Mountains lies some of the best trout fishing in Missouri. Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for this first-hand because I am a total novice at fly fishing. I have however seen many pictures of beautiful rainbow and brown trout caught there which leads me to conclude that my fishing woes are due to a lack of my skill and knowledge. 

Fishing is difficult and fish are elusive which is likely one of the reasons why Jesus chose fishing as a metaphor for the work of evangelism and disciple-making (“I will make you fishers of men,” Matthew 4:19). In addition to the Matthew passage there is also an odd little scene in John 21:1-14 in which Jesus uses a failed fishing expedition to teach us much about the work of evangelism and making disciples.

A failed fishing expedition

In John 21 the disciples decide to go fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. After a long night their net and boat remain empty but then Jesus makes an appearance and calls to the disciples from the shore. He instructs the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and to the disciples delight the net is filled with 153 large fish. This scene ends with the disciples joining Jesus on the shore as Jesus feeds them a meal of fish and bread which He has prepared. 

What makes this scene odd is that it follows what could be considered a clear cut conclusion to John’s Gospel and as a result it can be difficult to see how it fits. In John 20 Jesus is resurrected, appears to the disciples, and then John ends by stating that his writing exists so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing we may have life in Jesus. So, how does a story about Jesus’ disciples failing at fishing fit together with a letter aimed at bringing people to faith in Jesus?

Making sense of the disciple’s failure

John 21 serves as an epilogue to the Gospel of John. The most memorable words spoken by Jesus in John 21 are “feed my sheep” (v.17). With these three words Jesus connects the disciples to His mission of seeing lost sinners put their faith in Christ and follow Him in close proximity. The problem with this mission is that it is too big and too difficult for the disciples to accomplish in their own power. They do not have the ability to do the real work of heart transformation needed for sheep to follow the Shepherd. 

What Jesus accomplished on this fishing encounter is that He illustrates for the disciples that He is in control of the results that He has called them to produce and that He is providing the nourishment necessary for the task at hand. In other words this account of the failed fishing expedition helps the disciples better understand failure in evangelism and making disciples. 

The disciples net was empty when Jesus wanted it empty and it was full when Jesus wanted it full. This was so because Jesus wanted to show that He is in control. The work of making disciples is an impossible task for us to complete in and of ourselves. We cast our net wide as we spread the message of the Gospel but that net remains empty unless and until Jesus drives and draws the fish into it. Jesus is the God of increase and results. He alone possesses the ability to steer a heart to His arms. 

Also, as the disciples eat with Jesus the fish and bread which he had prepared it is a reminder that Jesus is the living water (John 4) and the bread of life (John 6). He is their nourishment and He is providing these disciples with everything necessary to feed His sheep.

In Conclusion

For those of us in Christ we are likewise called to feed Jesus’ sheep. When we strive to this end we inevitably feel as though we are in over our head – because we are. This feeling can cause us to be idle and disillusioned in our walk with Christ but this does not have to be the case. What Jesus wants us to learn from John 21 and the failed fishing expedition is that He will do the work that only He can do. We rest and move in light of this truth. 

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

When a Friend Wanders or Walks Away From Christ

One of the most painful experiences a believer can endure is watching believing friends wander (Psalm 119:10) in their theological convictions or obedience to Christ. Even more painful is watching those who once professed Christ walk away (“went out from us,” 1 John 2:19) from the faith altogether because they were never truly believers. How do we, who identify as being in Christ, respond and pray for those who have seemingly drifted away from where they once were spiritually? Whether it be a friend altering their views on sexuality and marriage or a friend outright denying the faith, we all respond in some way but not all of our responses are equally helpful and God-pleasing.

When I hear the news of a friend repositioning within, or even away from, the faith my response is typically one of frustration. Even when it is a person whom I do not personally know I tend to feel betrayed along the lines of, “How could they do this? I thought we were in this together!?” To some degree I think these feelings are legitimate and appropriate. At the same time though I want to move beyond this response of feeling betrayed to a response that is redemptive and inwardly honest. 

Led by Psalm 123

The Scripture which weighs on my mind through this process is Psalm 123. There are two parts which make up Psalm 123 and these parts revolve around the words “eyes” (vv.1-2) and “mercy” (vv.3-4). First, the anonymous Psalmist states that just as the eyes of servants are fixed on their master and the eyes of a maidservant are fixed on her mistress, so are his own eyes fixed on the LORD who is enthroned in the heavens. Second, in a world filled with scorn and contempt the Psalmist prays that he would instead experience and feel God’s mercy. These four verses guide us both in how we think about and pray for others and also how we think about and pray for ourselves. 

For Them

The primary obstacle between those who have wandered or walked away from the LORD and the LORD Himself is spiritual before it is intellectual. Often those who alter their moral or theological commitments voice these changes as stemming from struggling with inadequate answers to lingering questions or a deeper and more enlightened exposition of the Scriptures. While honest questions and searching of the Scriptures may be at play there is always another component at play: the heart. When we talk about our ‘hearts’ we are talking about what we feel, desire, and love. Our hearts are relevant to the issue at hand because we are incapable of thinking thoughts which are uninfluenced by our hearts. 

So, when we pray for those who are in some way far from the LORD our prayer is that the eyes of their hearts would be turned by the LORD to the LORD Himself through faith in Christ. Regardless of whether we are praying for the one who is having a momentary lapse in their faith and is wandering or the one who has walked away due to the fact that they were never truly saved we pray the same – “LORD, turn their eyes to you and you alone.

We also pray that the LORD on high would be merciful to them. The world is a hard place to live especially for those who choose to live in this world far from Christ or without Christ. Even more pressing though is the reality of the possibility of someone spending eternity separated from God. As a result we plead for the mercy of God for our friends. We pray that God would not leave them alone in their distance or isolation from Him. We pray that God in His mercy would either keep them close if they already are His or that He would draw them to Himself if they are not yet His.

For Us

Those of us who are truly in Christ will remain in Christ, safe and secure (1 John 2:19). This truth does not negate the present and continual need for God’s grace and mercy to keep us safe and secure. In Psalm 119:10 we read, “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” The Psalmist simultaneously recognizes that he is currently in a good place spiritually speaking and that he needs God to keep him from wandering. Sin is deceitful and is in the business of hardening Christians hearts (Hebrews 3:13). If I (we) are being inwardly honest then we have to humbly take serious the danger before us. We journey as pilgrims with humility recognizing our continual need for God’s grace and mercy to keep us from wandering. 

In Closing

One last word of encouragement is that when a friend wanders or walks away from Christ we must not grow weary in prayer. Our prayers are patient because we are not privy to God’s timetable. His ways are mysterious and our understanding of God-sized things is infinitely ill-equipped. By God’s grace may we be found faithful in our pursuit of those whom God has put in our lives.

Credits

Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Lord Will Not Cast Off Forever

God desires that His mercy be felt by those who are enduring seasons of uninterrupted suffering. Unfortunately it is difficult for us to see this mercy when we are the ones who are in the valley. In seasons of suffering there are particular Scriptures that rise to the surface and keep us afloat.

Perhaps the most common Scripture we turn to is Lamentations 3:22-24 where God declares His mercies are “new every morning.” Suffering can become especially difficult when the encouraging phone calls, texts, and check-ups dwindle and it feels as though all that remains is ourselves and our anguish. In these moments we need to know that God’s mercies are new every morning. Although our family and friends may grow fatigue in their compassion, God’s compassion never grows weary. How could we ever grow tired of hearing such merciful words?

While Lamentations 3:22-24 gets a lot of our attention it should be no surprise that the entirety of Lamentations 3 is well-supplied with other truths to anchor our souls during times of suffering. Time and space will not allow us to fully expose all of the truth which can be found in Lamentations 3 but we do well to at least consider three truths from Lamentations 3:25-33.  

It is Good to Wait Quietly on the LORD

Lamentations is a series of laments before God. To lament is to cry out to God in honesty with what you are thinking and feeling. Because lamenting is often something we do in our hearts it isn’t necessarily audible to others but it is always vocal before the LORD. In fact, Jeremiah urges Jerusalem to “cry out in the night” and to “pour out your heart like water” (2:19). But how do we reconcile these statements and the nature of a lament with God telling us that it is good for us “wait quietly” (v.26) and to “sit alone in silence” (v.28)?

Commentator Robin A. Parry suggests that one way to understand this confusing message is by understanding that “it is not a literal silence that the man is recommending but an attitude of expectant trust.” Lamenting to God is not literally silent but it is grounded by a certain confidence in God’s character. When we hurt we must we cry out to God. We pour out our hearts and we tell Him what is on our mind but all the while those emotions and thoughts are governed by who Scripture reveals God to be. We see this happening in Jeremiah’s lament when he calls to mind particular theological truths starting in v.21(“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”) after speaking rather freely in 3:1-18. This is not an easy balance but it is what God calls us to.

The Lord Will Not Cast Off Forever

One reason we wait quietly on the LORD is because He “will not cast off forever” (v. 31). Although the LORD is the one who caused or allowed our suffering, He will eventually have mercy on us (v.32). In other words, our suffering has an expiration date. Even though it can feel as though the suffering looming over us will never relent, this is typically not the case. 

However, sometimes God doesn’t deliver us from our suffering. Sometimes the cancer is terminal and sometimes the hurt of losing a loved one persists. Is God still faithful to His promise to not cast us off forever? Certainly! Even when God allows our suffering to continue in this life God is faithful to His Word because when we enter into eternity with God He will deliver us from every hurt and heartache. Nevertheless, our hope is that God will deliver us from our suffering in this life but even if He doesn’t we know the day is coming when our suffering has a conclusion. 

The LORD Does Not Afflict From His Heart

While God is revealed to be sovereign over our grief (“though he cause grief” – v.32) Jeremiah is careful to point out that “he does not afflict from his heart” (v.33). This means that God does not delight in causing or allowing us to experience suffering. In a sense it is as if God brings suffering to our doorsteps reluctantly only because it is “necessary” for some divine purpose. God does not waste suffering. If we are enduring something painful God is up to something. We are not privy to what that something is but we know that God does not delight in our suffering and that only in eternity will we get our questions answered.

In Conclusion

These truths do not take away all of our suffering, but they do change the way that we endure suffering. Mark Vroegop wrote a wonderful book on the grace of lamenting called Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy and he makes the comment that we “live through suffering by what [we] believe, not by what [we] see or feel” (pg. 110). In the midst of suffering the one who is in Christ is never alone. God is always there in the midst of suffering and what we believe about God makes the difference.  

Credits

Photo by Igor Goryachev on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Parry, Robin. (2010). Lamentations (p. 104). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Vroegop, Mark. (2019). Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy (p. 110). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Fight for Joy: “No Condemnation”

I am not a fan of lengthy quotes from people who lived hundreds of years ago and talked in a way that is difficult to understand. With that said, please read this lengthy quote from Martin Luther (1483-1546) about how the devil’s reminders of our sin can actually be used against him as we fight for joy in Christ.

What Luther Said

“Let us therefore arm ourselves with these and like verses of the Holy Scriptures, that we may be able to answer the devil (accusing us, and saying: You are a sinner, and therefore you are damned) in this sort: ‘Christ has given Himself for my sins; therefore, Satan, you shall not prevail against me when you go about to terrify me in setting forth the greatness of my sins, and so to bring me into heaviness, distrust, despair, hatred, contempt and blaspheming of God. As often as you object that I am a sinner, you call me to remembrance of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer, upon whose shoulders, and not upon mine, lie all my sins; for ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘for the transgression of people was he stricken’ (Isaiah 53:6, 8). Wherefore, when you say I am a sinner, you do not terrify me, but comfort me above measure.’” (Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 38-39, as quoted by Bob Kelleman.

Here is the TL;DR (‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’): when Satan reminds us of our sin we can use that accusation to remind ourselves of what Christ did on the cross for us.

Luther’s point serves us well in our fight against sin and our fight for joy. When the Enemy is poisoning our thoughts, we’ve got to remind ourselves of specific Gospel truths.

Paul Said it First

Luther did not just pull this thought from thin air. His point is grounded in Scripture (Isaiah 53 and “like verses”). In Romans 8:1 Paul makes the statement, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Paul is speaking directly to those who feel the suffocating weight of Satan’s unhelpful reminder of their sins. The Deceiver’s goal in these reminders is to create a fog between us and the grace of God. His reminders of our sins are meant to disorient us in such a way that God appears far away because we begin to believe that God has moved himself away from us because of disapproval and disgust of our sins, whether past or present. This type of thinking is demonic in origin and in direct contradiction to the Gospel truths of Romans 8:1.

Two Truths to Consider from Romans 8:1

There are two truths we need to lean on in this Scripture. First, Paul says “there is therefore now no condemnation.” This means that God isn’t just promising the removal of condemnation for some future, more Jesus-like version of yourself (thank you to Ray Ortlund for pointing this out). The verdict of ‘no condemnation’ is a present reality. It isn’t tied to who you are or what you’ve done or not done. It’s tied to who Christ is and what Christ has done (see next point).

Second, the ones who are no longer condemned are those “who are in Christ Jesus.” This idea of being in Christ means that if you have placed your faith in Christ then you are spiritually united to Christ. It is as if who you are in your inner-man has been welded to who Jesus is. Your identity can no longer be defined without thinking and speaking of who Christ is and what Christ has done in you.

These truths never grow old or redundant because Satan is like a relentless prosecutor. However, Satan’s pieces of evidence and line of argument used to condemn us is not based on present facts or present realities. He dredges up past sins (and even present sins) to obscure our blood bought freedom. He has a PhD in all of our faults and is weaponizing them to compound their damage against us. The Enemy is not just interested in the one-time damage caused by sin when initially committed. He is playing the long game. Satan’s desire is for you to be hurt by your sin again, and again, and again, through timely reminders. He is in the dirty business of recollecting all of our sins despite the verdict of ‘not guilty.’

But, because God is gracious there is no sin that can separate us from the love of God if we are in Christ (Romans 8:35). God’s closeness to us is static because He resides in us. The only thing that can change is our perception of that closeness.

In Closing

When I think of Luther’s words I’m oddly reminded of the weird dynamic which exists between salty and sweet foods. Have you ever noticed how certain salty foods, like popcorn, make you crave something sweet, like soda? Likewise, Satan’s reminders of our sin, although bitter, do not have to redefine our relationship with God or even obscure other spiritual blessings of being in Christ. These intentionally unhelpful reminders can become on-ramps for us to taste again the sweetness of Christ’s redemptive work. This was Luther’s point and it comes directly from Scriptures like Romans 8:1.

Credits

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Romans 8:1 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Ray Ortlund. Sermon: “GOD’S GRACE – BETTER THAN WE THINK – 1” – ROMANS 8:1-2. https://www.immanuelnashville.com/resources/multimedia/details?id=1622906.

The Exhaustion of Having Control

Having control of our lives feels good. We love and crave control because we hate surprises. The allure of control is that the details and quality of our future can be predicted and altered as need be.

The thing about control is that our appetite for it is insatiable especially when envy comes into play. Our tendency is to look out at the lives of others with envy in regards to control. It’s not that we believe everyone we know has more control of their lives than we do. It’s that there are many we know who seemingly have more control over some aspect of their lives and envy can begin to poison our attitude. Experiencing exhaustion as a result of pursuing more control of our lives is inevitable.

How much control do I (or any of us) actually have?

The thing about control is that it doesn’t exist (at least not the way we often think it does). The way God talks about the type of control we desire is that it is something He alone possesses.

In Proverbs 16:9 Solomon writes, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” We are volitional and cognitive beings who make “plans.” However, God presides over us in such a way that ultimately He is the one “establishing” and directing our steps.

Similarly, in Ecclesiastes 7:13 Solomon calls us to, “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” There are things in your life that are “crooked,” which you desire to change, and conversely there are things in your life which are “straight” (good) which you wish to never see change. The point is that we are incapable of truly altering the outcome of those things which God has made crooked or straight. Any change that comes as a result of our actions happens because God allows to happen according to His plan.

As finite beings it is impossible for us to fully-grasp how it is that we make plans, decisions, and choices but yet God is in control. Our grasp of cause and effect is simply insufficient in terms of accounting for God’s sovereignty.

The Danger of Control

Recently I heard a song called If You Want Love by Nathan Feuerstein (‘NF’) and a couple of lines stuck with me. Feuerstein sings, “I’ve always tried to control things; In the end that’s what controls me.” He is spot on. Control is like a drug which once tasted has the ability to take control over us. We never feel as though we have enough control because control is absurdly addictive and for good reason.

Our sinful hearts sell us the lie that control is necessary because God operates according to a rigid sense of retribution. Within this framework of a rigid retribution we wrongly believe that God immediately and proportionately rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness. Solomon goes on to confront this wrong way of viewing God in the next few verses of Ecclesiastes 7:14-16. Unfortunately, this way of thinking distorts the very nature of God’s grace and mercy. By definition grace is God giving us what we do not deserve and mercy is God NOT giving us what we deserve.

How do we respond to God’s control? Faith, not Apathy

Someone could argue that a high view of God’s control (sovereignty) results in people being given over to indifference/apathy. The rationale being that if we aren’t truly in control in the exact way that we want then why even bother trying and doing.

A balanced view of God’s sovereign control recognizes that God in His sovereignty utilizes and accounts for our decisions, plans, and choices. Yes, we are to yield to God and His control of all things meaning that we relinquish our grasp (or at least our perception of having a grasp) on our lives. But this surrendering does not lead to indifference or lack of effort on our part. Just the opposite is true. Our responsibility to live and move in faith is unchanged and we strive to make choices, decisions, and plans which are God-pleasing.

With Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10 we proclaim, “But 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, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

By grace we live by faith.

Credits

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Jesus was Thirsty so You Don’t Have to Be

I love lemonade. Sweet, cloudy, pulp-filled lemonade. I love it so much that sometimes I am (almost) motivated to mow my lawn just so I can feel like I deserve a glass. The more thirsty I am the more I enjoy this dew that descends from the mountains of Zion.

In God’s kindness He designed our bodies not only to feel thirst, but also to experience the sweet relief of having that thirst quenched by our favorite beverages. One of the interesting ways that our human experience tracks with Jesus’ words and ministry is in regards to this idea of thirst.

In John 19:28 we have this seemingly insignificant detail recorded that right before Jesus died He uttered the words, “I thirst.” Of interest to us is: (1) why did Jesus say this and (2) why did John see fit to record these words when arguably every word and action John records serves the purpose of making a larger theological point?

Why did Jesus say “I thirst”?

There are a few reasons why Jesus said these words. First, Jesus said “I thirst” because He was literally and legitimately thirsty. Jesus had been tortured and was under the hot Sun. The Son of God is not only 100 percent God but also 100 percent man. He experienced things like hunger and thirst no differently than the rest of us. It is actually safe to say that Jesus knew thirst in a way that we will never know thirst.

Second, Jesus said “I thirst” because He was intentionally fulfilling Scripture which is why John says “[Jesus] said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”” These words connect back to Psalm 69:21 (“for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink”) and offer another Scriptural evidence that Jesus of Nazareth really is the promised Messiah.

One more reason that Jesus utters the words “I thirst” is so that John could record these words and show us deep theological truths about Jesus.

Why did John record Jesus saying, “I thirst”?

There is a theme of our thirst and Jesus quenching that thirst that builds throughout the book of John.

In John 4 we find Jesus interacting with the woman at the well who is thirsty. This woman is thirsty in ways she doesn’t fully understand. Her thirst isn’t primarily physical but spiritual. This spiritual thirst is evidenced by the fact that she has had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not her husband. What Jesus saw in this woman was an emptiness and discontentment that only living water could fix. This thirst is thirst that speaks to the heart of every person born in a sin riddled world. As we begin to see ourselves depicted in this woman our ears become attentive to what Jesus is offering.


Then in John 6 Jesus teaches that His “flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” and that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (6:55-56). The connection between John 4 and John 6 is that the living water promised to the woman at the well is revealed to be the sacrificial work of Jesus made complete and sufficient through His death on the cross. It is only through consuming Christ (His completed work) through faith in Christ (6:40) that the woman’s spiritual thirst (and our thirst) can be quenched.

This necessary suffering is why Jesus in John 18 rebukes Peter for drawing his sword and attempting to use physical force to protect Him. What Jesus understands that Peter does not is that He must drink from “the cup” (18:11) of suffering. What drives all of Jesus’ suffering, including His thirst, is that He is willingly submitting to plan of the Father to suffer for our sins.

Jesus was thirsty so you don’t have to be

Standing back and looking at John as a whole it becomes clear that in order for Jesus to quench our thirst, He must thirst for us. His thirst is literal and legitimate but at the same time representative of His suffering.

Without Jesus being crushed by God’s wrath, we would inevitably be crushed instead of quenched. In the Father’s infinite wisdom He saw fit to pour out His wrath on His very Son so that we wouldn’t have to be.

Are you thirsty and leaning on someone or something else to quench that thirst? This thirst can only be quenched by Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Disciple-Being: A call to be discipled

In 1992 Gatorade released the “Be Like Mike” commercial in which viewers were called to be like Michael Jordan. He had become such a household name that his renown was felt nationally. Most people already wanted to be like Mike, the commercial just gave voice to this sentiment. Since then this commercial and its message have been scrutinized many times by pastors and Bible teachers as they call their listeners not to be like Mike but to be like Jesus Christ, and rightly so. But how do we reconcile this noble commitment to not mimic other people with passages like Philippians 3:17 where Paul says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us”? Are we to be followers of Christ or other people? Biblically speaking the answer is both.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

What Paul is getting at in Philippians 3:17 (and again in 4:9) seems counterintuitive to our modern Christian mindset but this does not need to be the case. Paul does not view his words as a challenge to following Christ because Paul is only calling his readers to follow him to the extent that he follows Christ. This is most clearly observed in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In Paul’s theology he considers it a grace to be in the presence of other brothers and sisters in Christ who are more mature and seasoned in the faith. This concept of imitating other believers as they imitate Christ is also found in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9; 2 Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3.

Disciple makers are being discipled

I’ve heard Mark Dever say, “If you say you are following Jesus but are not helping others to know and follow Jesus then I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘I follow Jesus.” Dever’s point is hard to accept but is certainly biblical (Matthew 28:19-20). It should be part of our normal Christian experience to help others follow Jesus. But making disciples is not the only ‘normal’ part of our Christian experience.

What Paul’s words remind us is that being discipled is also part of our normal Christian experience. God intends both being discipled and making disciples to be coexisting realities for the life of believers. We never graduate to the role of ‘disciple-maker’ in such a way that we can leave behind our need to be discipled. Maybe ask yourself the question, ‘who is currently helping me better follow Jesus?’

Clarifying comments


This commitment to be disciples doesn’t mean that there must be a person whom you have formally asked to disciple you or that there is a person who sees himself/herself as being your spiritual father/mother/counselor/advisor/mentor. Often these relationships are informal and organic in nature. The person you see fulfilling this role for you may even be surprised that you see him/her in this way. For others, this relationship may be may formal and structured and that is more than okay.

The core of what Paul is calling believers to is to identify individuals who are more mature in their following of Christ than you are and to imitate them. The person you have in mind may not be more mature in Christ than you in every way but he/she must necessarily be more mature at least in many ways and therefore a good source of imitation. Having someone(s) you look to as a point of reference for imitating Christ helps us see the commands of Scripture come to life in concrete and culturally ways.

Praise God that He saw fit to grow us into Christ-likeness along with others!

Credits

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Quote from Mark Dever obtained from The Gospel Coalition book review for Dever’s book Discipling.