Jesus’ Blueprint for Biblical Counseling: A Look at John 15

Jesus’ words in John 15 are tucked away as part of His Farewell Discourse (John 13-17), which means that John 15 is part of what Jesus wants His disciples to know if they are going to live God-pleasing lives beyond His death, resurrection, and ascension. John 15:1-16 is of particular interest to biblical counselors because this is where Jesus weaves together three theological truths: (1) the call to follow Jesus; (2) the call to glorify God; and (3) the promise of joy. What I intend to show in this post is that Jesus’ weaving together of these theological truths provides a blueprint for the Christian life and more specifically biblical counseling. As a result of Jesus’ words, biblical counselors can define biblical counseling as the work of helping fellow sinners and sufferers follow Jesus for God’s glory, which results in their joy

Jesus calls sinners & sufferers to follow Him

While Jesus does not even utter the words ‘follow me’ in John 15, the concept of following Him is implied. This teaching unfolds as Jesus uses three different phrases: “abide in me” (v.4), “bear much fruit” (v.5, 8), and “keep my commandments” (v.10). As I understand Jesus’ teaching in John 15, there seems to be considerable overlap among these phrases to the point that these three phrases present nearly synonymous ideas. This overlap becomes apparent as we consider how the phrases relate to one another. 

For instance, we see in verse 5 that the one who “abides” is the one who “bears much fruit.” Then, we see in verse 10 that the one who keeps Jesus’ “commandment” is the one who is “abiding in Jesus’ love.” In effect, abiding in Jesus, bearing fruit (v.5), and keeping Jesus’ commandment (v.10) are conceptually very similar. 

As we move forward in Jesus’ teaching He fills in the specifics of His commandment. In verse 12 we learn Jesus’ Commandment is that His followers would love one another as He loves us. Jesus further defines love as self-sacrifice for the good of another (v.13). 

I find it helpful to draw attention to this overlap when teaching what it looks like to follow Jesus. Our counselees need the seemingly complex expectations of the Bible simplified and made tangible. Jesus’ call to follow is simple and straightforward: love others as Christ loves you (John 15:9).  

It is like Jesus is placing Christianity on the bottom-shelf for all who are willing to hear and experience His goodness. There is a beautiful simplicity to His teaching. Do you want to abide in Jesus? Then love others as Jesus loves you. Do you want to bear fruit? Then love others as Jesus loves you. Do you want to keep His commandment? Then love others as Jesus loves you. 

Is Jesus’ point clear? Crystal. Is Jesus’ expectation easy? Hardly. 

Jesus’ call for us to love is impossible without His abiding presence and power. Jesus illustrates this truth by utilizing the word picture of a life-giving vine at which point He identifies Himself as the Vine (v.1). Jesus illustrates that there cannot be fruit on the branches of a grapevine unless those branches are connected to the vine itself. Likewise, we cannot produce the fruit Jesus calls us to produce unless we connect to Jesus as our source of life through faith in His atonement. 

Why should we want to bear fruit? “Because Jesus said so” is all the answer we should need. However, in Jesus’ kindness, He goes further by giving us two incentives as to why we should be faithful in our following Him. It is at this point that we begin to see Jesus connect the theological dots and inform how we think about biblical counseling in terms of the big picture. 

When we follow Jesus we glorify God 

The first reason that your counselee should follow Jesus is to bring glory to God. In verse 8 Jesus teaches that believers glorify the Father when they “bear much fruit.” Remember, this “bearing of fruit” is synonymous with abiding in Jesus (v.4) and keeping Jesus’ commandment to love (v.12). So, when a counselee follows Jesus by bearing much fruit/abiding in Jesus/keeping His commandment to love, they are fulfilling the purpose for why God created them – His glory.  

This is HUGE for biblical counseling. The call for a counselee to love his wife with a sacrificial kind of love is a fulfillment of God’s call for him to glorify God. We don’t simply call our counselees to blind obedience just for the sake of obedience. We pursue obedience to Christ for the sake of God’s glory. 

When we glorify God through following Jesus we find joy

The second reason that your counselee should follow Jesus is to find Jesus’ joy. Jesus is undoubtedly concerned about the Father’s glory but this glory does not come at the expense of your counselee’s joy. Jesus tells us that He is teaching about how to follow Him so that His “joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (v.11). 

Biblical counselors cannot afford to miss the connection which Jesus makes concerning the believer’s obedience to Christ as it relates to God’s glory and the believer’s joy. When your counselees strive to obey Jesus, they are striving for both God’s glory and their joy. Your counselees cannot be serious about their joy unless they are serious about God’s glory through obeying Jesus. As a result, it is helpful to teach your counselees that Jesus is concerned about their joy.

In conclusion

How can we not be mesmerized by Jesus’ all-encompassing explanation for how following Him, God’s glory, and our joy all fit together? These three threads are the common emphasis in biblical counseling. The beauty of John 15 is that in it Jesus weaves all three threads into a unified strand of thought. Biblical counseling is difficult and counselees typically view the Bible as daunting. Our counselees need to see that their desire for joy and God’s desire for their God-glorifying obedience are not conflicting realities in the plan of God. What John 15 does for our counselees is that it shows them that the call to be a disciple, glorify God, and have joy in Jesus are all related and contingent upon one another. 

Works Cited & Credit

Photo by Orkhan Farmanli on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 15 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Glory of God and the Goal of Biblical Counseling

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Possessed in Eternity Past

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

Glory Shared with Man

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

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

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

Glory Lost in Sin

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

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

Glory Incarnated in Christ

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

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

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

Hebrews 2:9-10

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

Glory Renewed in Union with Christ

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

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

Glory Restored Forever

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

Implications for Counseling

What does this mean for biblical counselors? 

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

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

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

Sources

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

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

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

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.

When You Are Overcome With Guilt

“Guilty!”

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

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

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

The Objective Reality of Guilt

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

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

Feelings of Guilt

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

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

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

Repentance

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

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

Charles Wesley, Depth of Mercy

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

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

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

Credits

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

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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

You Can Please God

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

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

In Christ, it is possible to please God

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

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

Beware the Flesh

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

What Do We Make of Mixed Motives?

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

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

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

Works Cited

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


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

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