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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.