A few decades ago, Jim Collins wrote the book From Good to Great, a pathway for businesses and leaders to move from average to great. While Collins wrote to business owners, the phrase embodies the sentiments of our culture; why settle for good when you can be great?
While the pursuit of greatness is no new thing—history books are literally filled with stories depicting it, not to mention the Bible (Tower of Babel, anyone?)—what does seem new is the going out of style of goodness.
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor and writer teaches the classical virtues. Something she notes is how certain virtues have become very unpopular—prudence, temperance, and chastity, once prized and valued, are a waste of time in our modern culture.
But Prior also argues that for any virtue to be truly virtuous, it must be held in balance like a counterweight with the other virtues. For example, you cannot be truly just without also being temperate (restrained, using moderation, and self-controlled). Without temperance, justice would turn into tyranny.
Jesus teaches us the counterweight to greatness in Mark 9 when the disciples ask him who among them is the greatest. In response, he says, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
In the economy of God, greatness is not wrong to pursue—Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples for being interested in greatness—but it is only achieved through goodness. Greatness grows from goodness. To be great, you must consider yourself the least important person in the room; spend your time serving others; humble yourself, not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less often, as CS Lewis says.
When you look at the church, it is all too easy to see disciples of Jesus missing this completely. Megachurches and celebrity pastors chase greatness, but when we see them disintegrate into spiritual abuse, affairs, and greed, it is clear they were not good. Not pursuing good, not making more of others than of themselves, not as interested in growing the Kingdom of God as their own kingdom.
Though Jesus tells the disciples to humble themselves and value goodness over greatness, we also see Jesus doing exactly that, offering a template of what true greatness looks like. This is why Pauls says, “Though he was in the form of God, did notcount equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8-11).
The great one, God himself, chooses to serve, not lord his greatness over others, not consider himself more self-important than everyone else. No, the great one humbles himself unto the point of death, calls himself the Good Shepherd, and does good to those who persecuted him. This is greatness, and He calls us to the same greatness, achieved on the pathway of goodness.
To hunger for greatness is not wrong; we worship and are made in the image of a Great God. But the greatness we are made for is not the warped, greedy, broken greatness of our world, it is a greatness that comes by way of goodness, wielded with love, ever seeking to serve, and born of the Holy Spirit.
A king is not saved by his greatness (Ps 33:16), but we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph 2:10). May this be our greatest endeavor.
During my time leading Bible studies for college students, a phrase I heard more often than any other was, “What this verse means to me is…”
I’ve said it, you probably have, too, but when it comes to reading, studying, and understanding the Word of God, exploring what a verse “means to me” is a flimsy foundation on which to build our faith. We so want to read a verse or chapter, get a sense for the vibe of the passage, and allow it to mean exactly what we would like it to mean, but when we study God’s Word, our goal must always be to discover what the verse means in the context it is written.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart argue in How To Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.” We might want a verse to mean something to us, but if it does not align with the context in which it was written, it cannot and does not mean what we want it to mean. And because the Bible is not primarily a tool for self-discovery, we must be willing to spend time in it as such.
When we come to the Bible, we must begin with comprehension—understanding what is actually being said. We often jump to what a verse “means to me” because we have skipped this essential step. When we leave it out, what the Bible says becomes completely subjective and self-centered, meaning whatever we might want it to mean at that time. It’s easy to read a passage and get an impression or jump on one phrase, but it takes time to read a passage, follow the logic and argument, ask questions about a phrase, and study what the author is actually saying. But do this we must. One of the first things I learned in seminary was that “context is king;” you cannot escape, get around or avoid it—to read the Bible, you must go through the context in which it is written.
Context vs. expectation
Any time we read Scripture, we bring our whole selves—how our day is going, our experiences, our emotions, our hopes for this particular moment in God’s Word—and that’s good. It is good to be self-aware, knowing how we are doing, the expectations we have, and what we might be needing to hear on any given day. But without comprehension, we will likely read into the text what we want to see rather than studying God’s Word for what He wants us to see.
Here’s an example. Philippians 3:14 says, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I absolutely made this my verse for high school sports, whispering it to myself, and maybe a teammate, when we were losing by 10 in the fourth quarter, because, you know, Jesus will totally make me win this game. But if we read the chapter to understand what Paul is saying, he says he can do anything in Christ who strengthens him in the context of suffering, not always having what he needed, and depending on others to support him in his lack. I might want this verse to mean that I can do and accomplish anything in Christ, but Paul is saying that because of Jesus, he can face any circumstance, especially adverse ones, with joy, because Jesus is his life.
The good news is that God, through His Holy Spirit, illuminates His Word to us—the Spirit literally opens our minds and hearts to receive what He wants to teach us. Our God is so personal and loving that when we open His word, He promises to meet us, reveal Himself to us, and speak to us. God knows exactly what we need, and if we are willing to listen to what His Word actually says, we might discover that what he has for us is even better than what we were hoping to find.
Skipping comprehension diminishes who God is
Beyond reading ourselves into the text, when we skip comprehension, we never learn the heart of God for us, we opt out of hard words that might challenge us, and ultimately, we never grow in our confidence of what the Bible really says. When we elevate our situation, feelings, or an interpretation apart from the context, the Word of God becomes a story that is bent around what we want to hear, but it will never be able to stand up to the difficulties we will face.
God wants us to know him. So when we skip comprehension we don’t allow God to actually speak to us. He wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us, to meet us in our circumstances and struggles. But if we ignore how he has revealed himself to his people before us, we will never know who he is for us today. We need a Bible that that says “You are not your own but have been bought with a price” because I want to be my own master every day. We need a Bible that speaks words that don’t always align with our culture. We need a Bible that tells us what our sin is. We need a Bible that tells us about the holiness of God. We need a Bible that confronts our own agenda for our lives.
As we approach God’s word today, remember that our experience, emotions, and desires are not the center of the universe, God is. And as we read His Word with expectation, we will find ourselves hearing what we need to hear, being challenged in the ways we need to be challenged, and receiving comfort from a God who loves us so much that He makes Himself known to us.
The Christian life is full of tension. But no concept must be held in tension more tightly than grace and works. The conversation I have more often than any other with other believers is, “YOU NEED TO SPEND TIME IN GOD’S WORD! But remember that you are saved by grace and having quiet time does not earn your salvation. But because God loves you so much, spend time in your Bible and get to know him!” There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, but there is much we can do to get to know him better, to walk in His ways, and be transformed into his likeness. One of these ways is reading the Bible.
I’ve heard many reasons for not reading scripture—I don’t get much from reading the Bible, I don’t have time to read scripture, it’s boring. While these sentiments are common, we cannot let them go unchecked. The Bible is the primary way we get to know God, so if we are going to follow him well, knowing God’s word is critical for our spiritual growth and health. Though everyone has different reasons and difficulties with reading scripture, here are five reasons that I have personally found spending time in God’s word can be challenging, and how to work through them.
The Bible about God, not you. I always trend towards self-centeredness, so it is no surprise that when I open my Bible, I often want it to be about me. But the Bible is primarily about God, not a tool for my own self-discovery. Something that campus ministry taught me was the importance of other-centeredness. Though I could happily talk about myself in one-on-one meetings with students, I was there for them and to get to know their story. The same goes for our relationship with God. We are his creation and he has made us to know him.
The way forward: humility. When you open God’s word, focus on learning more about him, his character, what delights and angers him, and the way he has made us. Ask the Spirit to teach you about who you are in the context of your relationship with the one who made you and knows you.
Misplaced expectations. What do you expect when you open your Bible? An emotional experience? To hear an audible voice from heaven? That scripture will always speak perfectly to your circumstances? The most important thing I learned from pre-marital counseling was that expectations dictate relationships. We must identify our expectations of reading scripture and then determine if they are biblical expectations. It is not wrong to expect God to show up when you read the Bible, in fact, God promises that he will—that his spirit will give us understanding and insight into his word as we read it. But in order to remove disappointment or frustration from time in the word, we must identify what exactly we expect.
The way forward: expecting the Spirit to do what he promises. The Holy Spirit’s job is to bear witness to who Jesus is by teaching us his words, reminding us of what he did (Jn 14:26), and expanding our hearts to love him more (1 Jn 3:20). He also helps us see our sin, leads us to repentance (Jn 16:7-8), and sanctifies us to make us look more like Jesus (2 Cor 3:8). But what this looks like day to day is really simple things: a verse that comforts us, a story that challenges us, seeing something beautiful in the person of Jesus, a heart that repents of sin. These are the everyday works of God; we need to sharpen our vision to see them.
I haven’t addressed my psychology. If I’m honest, I often operate as if God is a little bit annoyed with me. He wishes I was less sinful, holier, more prayerful—he wants me to get my act together. I know that this is not what God thinks about me, but this lie seeps into how I approach God in my quiet time and changes my posture. I find myself edgy, trying to do more or be better, and quickly walking away from the gospel of grace that the Bible sings over me. If we allow our emotions to tell us what God thinks about us, we will hate spending time with him.
The way forward: believing the truth. Answer this question: what does God think about you? Does he like you? Our emotions are important and powerful, but we cannot give them the privilege of telling us who God is. We must rely on God’s own words for that, and he says that he delights in us (Ps 70:4), adopted us as his children (Gal 4:5), forgiven us (1 Jn 1:19), promises to show us grace every single day (Lam 3:22-23), and does not hold a grudge against us (Ps 103:12). We must choose to measure our emotions against the truth, and believe what God says about us.
I don’t feel like reading scripture. The question of authenticity is primary for our generation. If I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be authentic. But this is a short-sighted way of living life. If I only ever did what I felt like doing, I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to comfort a screaming child, I would probably lose my job because I don’t feel like working very often, and my wallet would be hurting because I don’t always feel like cooking dinner and would rather eat out. The reality is that much of life is comprised of doing things that we don’t always feel like doing, but we do them anyway because they are valuable, good for us, or make us better. If you are a Christian, your life belongs to God and we must do what he asks of us, whether we feel like it or not.
The way forward: showing up. Showing up before the Lord, reading his word, spending time in prayer even when we don’t feel like it sows the seeds of a big harvest. The biggest lesson I have learned about spending time with God is consistency. I won’t always have an amazing quiet time, but I have come to love my 30 minutes of time before Jesus. Showing up when it’s hard paves the way for enjoyment and delight in God’s word.
I’m in a hurry. The easiest reason to neglect time in scripture is because I am busy. But the reality is, I will always be busy, and if I wait to prioritize time in scripture for the day I am not busy, I will never start. In spite of busyness, everyone makes time for the things that they love. I love hiking and running and being outdoors and I will get up early, postpone lunch, and do anything I can to get that time outside. We prioritize and pursue the things we value. So the real question is, why don’t you value time in scripture? This is the much bigger question hiding underneath our claims of busyness and it is the question with which we must wrestle. If you find yourself not making space for God, his word, or prayer in your day, you need to ask yourself why.
The way forward: an honest look at your relationship with Jesus. Being honest with yourself and the Lord is essential and there are reasons for why you don’t make time for God in your day. We each need to identify what those reasons are. Maybe you find scripture confusing, or you are afraid that if you read the Bible you will hear things you don’t like. Whatever your reason might be, you need to identify it, bring it before the Lord, and ask him to help you work through it. We must learn to prioritize Christ in our lives because he is much better and more valuable than anything else we might put first.
Reading the news has become a torturous practice. I ride the fire tornado of the struggling economy and the presidential race, get swept into the hurricane of COVID numbers, and dragged through protests and police brutality all in a few flicks of a finger. These are anxious times. But undergirding the troubling events of this year is the challenge of questioning what I know and what I believe.
We find ourselves in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Each day brings new knowledge, understanding, and questions. But how are we supposed to sift and sort through the competing truths? Who am I supposed to believe? And what do I really know?
In Jesus’ day, people wrestled with the same questions of knowledge and belief. But the controversy was not over protests or the environment, it was over the identity and teaching of this man from Galilee, Jesus, the son of Joseph. One day he is a carpenter, the next he is performing miracles and claiming God as his Father. Who is he? And should I believe him?
Centuries later the question is still alive in the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike, but knowing facts about Jesus does not mean we believe. In a cosmic Venn diagram, Christians must find themselves in the overlapping edge of knowing and believing in Jesus. You may have heard about Jesus, but do you believe him? The answer to this question is the most important thing about us.
And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” -Mark 8:27-29
Who do you say that I am? Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ requires knowledge. Though knowledge and belief will always be connected– one rarely says they know something without putting some trust in that knowledge–Peter’s knowledge of Jesus’ identity is based on what he has seen. The disciples have seen Jesus casting out demons, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf– all actions that hearken back to the promised and prophesied Messiah (Isaiah 35:5, 42:7). Peter and the disciples knew these prophecies, held tightly to them with expectation, and now before their very eyes, they watch Jesus fulfilling them. Though opinions are tossed around, Peter knew something; he knew that Jesus was the Christ.
But knowledge and belief form a complicated relationship. I might say I know that God loves me, but do I believe it? For most Christians, there is a gap between what we know and what we believe. This distance between knowing and believing is the distance between abundant life in Christ and faithlessness. We are, after all, believers. So what are we if we claim to know Jesus but do not believe the things he says?
To know in Greek (ginōskō) means to gain knowledge of or to become acquainted with. To believe in Greek (pisteuō) means to think to be true, to be persuaded of, or to place confidence in. I may be acquainted with the person of Jesus, familiar with some of his sayings and the miracles he performed. But knowing the facts about him does not mean that I am persuaded that what he says is true. I often find myself living in ways that reveal my belief to be less than full confidence and trust. I know in my head the teachings of scripture– my sins are forgiven, I am reconciled to God, I am loved, and yet my heart fails to believe and internalize them. This is the place of discipleship. This is the place that God wants to work in my (and your) life to bring the truths I know about God into alignment with the truths I believe.
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:66-69
Knowing and believing. We have believed and have come to know. When Jesus starts saying some weird things about being the bread of life and that people will need to feast on his body and drink his blood, he starts to lose some of his followers. But Peter demonstrates his belief through his words (you are the Holy One of Israel- a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah), but also through his actions: he stays. He keeps following Jesus. He continues to walk by his side because he knows the character of Jesus and he believes that only Jesus can bring them into eternal life and true fellowship with God. When we believe Jesus is who he says he is, we start acting like it. James says that faith without works (action) is dead (Jas 2:17)–it is no faith at all. So if our faith does not lead us into actions that reflect what we believe, we need to ask ourselves why.
Closing the gap. What is it you need to know and believe about Jesus today? Peter’s life is a rollercoaster of knowing and confusion, doubt and belief, and this ought to encourage us. Life is not a linear line of continuous growth, but a rolling path with unexpected valleys and turns. But as we walk with Jesus, we accumulate experience with God and his promises. The longer we walk with him, the more experience and trust we build. This trust shapes what we expect from him in the future, and it is this faith that we must put into action.
Today, what is it you need to know and believe about Jesus? Where are you not believing in the work of Christ or the promised and ongoing work of his Spirit? Has your hope faded? Have your prayers stopped? Today, ask yourself how and why are you living like you don’t believe. Ask the Lord to “strengthen you with the power of his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:16-19
Yesterday was the day. We pulled out the metal folding chair, broom and dustpan, clippers, and comb, and I got to work cutting my husband’s hair. From our back deck, I have witnessed the neighbors on both sides of us nervously trimming, husbands walking away with slightly flat cuts, uneven sideburns. It is one of the new rhythms that many have adopted during the pandemic. A quiet marker that another six to eight weeks have passed. A sure sign that we are not living in groundhog day. A small reminder that we too have grown a little bit. But not all growth is simple and expected like my husband’s hair. The most important growth usually involves the uncomfortable but perfect pruning of a loving God.
Perhaps the pandemic has presented an opportunity for you to examine yourself in new ways. Once the enthusiasm for self-improvement wore off a few months into staying at home, it seems like a lot of people are on a path of self-discovery that is less than flattering. The pandemic has exposed unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and sins that were easy to ignore in the busyness of everyday life. But this exposing of our hearts is actually a work of God. As unpleasant as it is to realize that you are not as effective or kind or disciplined or patient as you thought you were, whatever is being uncovered holds the promise of sanctification–the quiet and guaranteed work of the Holy Spirit.
To be sanctified is to be set apart for holy service to God. It is a work that the Holy Spirit begins after one confesses faith in Jesus and is justified (made right) by his life, death, and resurrection (Heb 10:10, Rom 5:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Sanctification is a lifelong process of being changed to look like Christ. When we believe in Jesus we are not just affirming that he is good and holy and God (2 Cor 3:18). When we believe we are also adopted by God to be brothers and sisters with Christ, co-heirs to his kingdom and participants (co-laborers) in his work (Rom 8:17, Gal 3:29). God does not call Jesus to one mission and the church to another.The call and the life of Christ become the call and the work of the church (2 Pet 1:2-4). The Christian life is full participation with Christ in his work, his suffering, his ministry and mission, and ultimately, his glory.
But how is this sinful mess ever supposed to do the work of God? I still sin and I will sin for the rest of my life. Behold, the promise and work of sanctification; God indwelling his people with his spirit and promising to grow us in holiness. Promising to grow us into people who sound like Jesus, show grace like Jesus, forgive like Jesus. Promising to change us from one degree of glory to another.
When I think about the past six months, it is easy to think of the ways I have struggled. But perhaps these struggles are also the trail markers of God’s sanctifying work. When God exposes things in us, we can find hope in knowing we are on the right path. We don’t know how far we have to go, we’ve never walked this particular trail before, but the revealing of our sin is always a work of the Spirit–the first work of the spirit. The second is to redeem and sanctify–make holy–those lost parts of ourselves. And as the Spirit sanctifies us, we can be sure that we will grow in humility and grace empowered obedience.
Sanctification is the way of humility. JI Packer says, “Real spiritual growth is always growth downward, so to speak, into profounder humility, which in healthy souls will become more and more apparent as they age.” As we grow in our sanctification, we grow in humility. The more that God reveals my true nature to myself and his perfect splendor, the more humble I become. There is nothing more humbling than standing in the presence of a perfectly holy God. Paul in Philippians says that Jesus was the truly humble one–he was fully God and yet he humbled himself to the point of death (2:8). As God reveals unhealth and sin in your life, remember that the promise of sanctification is to make you more like Christ–to make you humble.
Sanctification leads us to grace-filled obedience. As the spirit grows us in humility, he also grows us in obedience (2 Cor 7:1). Obedience can be a weighty word that for many sounds like trying to prove your holiness through your actions. And yet this is not biblical obedience. Jesus was the obedient one. He perfectly obeyed the will of the Father at all times in his life, even when it meant denying himself. Being transformed into the likeness of Jesus means growing in obedience to the word and commands of God. As sanctification leads us first into a life of humility, knowing ourselves rightly before a perfect God, it also reveals greater depths of God’s perfect love and grace for us in spite of our sinfulness. Grace. He extends love, mercy, and compassion to us while we are still sinners (Rom 5:8). Grace is the fuel of obedience. As the Spirit sanctifies me, knowing that I don’t have to perform perfectly enables joy-filled obedience to Christ.
So the next time you cut your hair, take a moment to consider the slow, uneventful, quiet growth that has occurred and remember God’s promises to grow you. Today, if the Lord is revealing your weakness, trust that his Spirit is bringing to completion the good work he has started (Phil 1:6), transforming you into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18).
Have you ever heard the news about something good happening to a friend of yours– an engagement, a new job or promotion, an exciting vacation, a pregnancy–and rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you found yourself comparing successes, counting personal victories, saddened that you weren’t in the same position, or generally wanting what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Comparison, competition, envy, self-condemnation. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Ironically, this has been a verse that I have championed throughout my time in ministry and in my friendships. I love this verse because it captures the nature of true Christian community. Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life– climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that is not in what you have or accomplish or do.
The context of this command to weep and rejoice together in Romans 12 is worship, and Paul is arguing that worship is always a communal act. The place you present your body as a sacrifice is in relationships with real people in everyday life, this is the rational response to the gospel. Paul exhorts believers to celebrate their different giftings (12:3-8), to love one another genuinely and full with affection (12:9-10), to outdo one another in showing honor (12:10), to care for the needy, to show hospitality (12:13), and to live in harmony (12:16). Paul is nailing down that Christian worship happens in community, not just in personal time with God. So when you find yourself in my situation of not wanting to love your sister or brother genuinely and with affection (12:9-10) and celebrate their God-given gifts (12:4), you, and I, first and foremost have a worship problem.
Rejoicing with those who rejoice, worshipping the Lord together
When a good friend of mine got engaged, I was ecstatic. It was such an exciting time. But I remember after eating dinner together, talking through all the details of how he proposed and dreaming about a wedding, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for being excited with me.”
Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True rejoicing is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from him (James 1:17). Rejoicing is worship because even when it’s about an engagement, we can praise God that he brought the couple together, we can praise him for his gift of marriage, we can praise him for the joy that he is giving. When my friend got engaged I didn’t pat her on the back and tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing.
But imagine my friend hadn’t told me about her engagement (which would be weird). She would actually be preventing her friend from worshipping with her. She would be withholding the joy that God has given her and withholding an opportunity for her friend to see what God was doing. Sometimes we withhold because we think that another person won’t be able to see beyond themselves and rejoice on behalf of what God is doing. Sometimes we withhold because we feel like it is selfish to ask people to celebrate with us. But perhaps what is selfish is thinking that our successes are our own, and forgetting that God wants to bring himself glory through the good things he gives us. In gospel communities, we are able to rejoice with one another because our accomplishments, our good news, our victories are never really about us. They are always about what God is doing.
Suffering with those who suffer, being Christ to them
Just like rejoicing bears witness to what God is doing, sharing our suffering and weeping together is also a critical element of community and worship. My default for difficult things is to not talk about them. I would much rather walk around smiling like everything is fine than share about my pains and struggles. Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite, and he is slowly breaking me of my bad habit. When something hard happens he reaches out to family, friends, and co-workers asking for prayer, asking for meals, asking for people to be in this with us. He understands gospel community better than I do.
Several years ago I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. My husband at the time was leading a mission trip in Ethiopia, so I found out the news alone with no way to contact him and it forced me to depend on my community. A friend drove me to the ER, sat with me while I decided on emergency surgery, or another method of terminating my non-viable pregnancy, stayed up all night while I got injections. Another drove me to follow-up appointments, another brought me food, another sat with me while I was sick in the aftermath of medications, another checked in every single day. I was weeping and my community showed up to weep with me.
When we don’t share our hardships we prevent the body from serving us, from being able to be Christ to us, and from being able to worship by cooking meals and being present. Furthermore, not letting community into the deep furrows of sorrow and despair prevents them from ever rejoicing with you when the Lord uses your pain in ways only he can. It refuses the chance for others to see how God has provided for you, grown you, healed you, and even blessed you. God wants all his work and his glory to be on full display. Eugene Peterson says that all prayers end in praise. All prayers, all weeping, all sorrow, will one day be turned into praise. So when we don’t let other people join us in our sorrow, we will keep them from ever praising God for the work he has chosen to do through it.
Those months of recovery after my ectopic were painful and dark, but they were the months I have felt the most loved and cared for by my church community. And more than that, they taught me how to suffer with others. I know most of us fear that we will burden people with our problems or pain. The reality is, we are also called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It is part of our practical worship of God. Jesus bore our burdens for us, and bearing others burdens is one way we grow in imitating Him. The beautiful thing is that when we love someone in their pain and suffering, they get a taste of gospel community and will want to extend it to others. When we weep with those who weep, we participate in the work of Christ, our suffering King who wept with his friends.
Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the suffering of the cross. It was the joy of knowing that his people would be freed to love others more deeply than themselves that led Jesus to suffer. It was the joy of knowing that his Spirit would empower his people to worship him rightly that led Jesus to the cross. And it was the joy of knowing that one day He would wipe every tear and rejoice with his people in perfect worship at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 21:4). But until then, it is for the joy set before us, that we might be conformed into his image, that we might weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice for the glory and worship of our good king.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. -Psalm 91:1-6
My parents’ neighbors have chickens. Over Christmas, my dad, my twin daughters and I would walk up the street, past the ditch, and into their yard to watch the spectacle of hens chasing one another, a rooster crowing out of turn, and my daughters gasping with delight. Like most animals, chickens have a way of protecting their young, and as a mother of two-year old twins, I can relate.
Have you ever watched someone trying to chase two children who are not quite old enough to listen and obey? It’s a frantic shuttle sprint. Grabbing one ungracefully under the armpits, I take off in the opposite direction to collect the other staggering toddler from face planting on a hill. I have heard, more often than I like, the words, “Well, you have your hands full!” Indeed. I am aware. I also need a more effective method of gathering my chicks.
Mother hens know what they’re doing. They don’t run around, desperately trying to gather their seven babies. They stop, spread their wings, and, if their chicks want to survive, they better run to their mama and take shelter in the shadow of her wings.
Psalm 91 is an invitation to come in close, to run to your Father’s side and hide under his wings. Come, take refuge in the mighty fortress. At His side we will not fear. His faithfulness will be our protection.
Standing in the middle of God’s redemptive plan, this Psalm holds together the metaphor of God as a mother hen that we see first in the Song of Moses, and later in Jesus’ own words as he weeps over Jerusalem. More broadly, the image of God carrying his people on his wings is seen throughout scripture as a portrait of deliverance. We find such language in Exodus 19, and, although God has delivered Israel from Egypt, they quickly wander away from his outstretched wings. This seems to be woven under the invitation that Psalm 91 offers us. We have to choose to abide, to stay put in God’s presence. Other things will tempt us to take refuge in them. In the face of a pandemic, Information or preparation might seem to promise security, but they often only lead to fear and anxiety as we wonder if our plans will endure. We must choose, daily, to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, to abide in the shadow (Presence) of the Almighty.
Yet still, we don’t. I wake up, have time in the Word, pray, and by lunchtime I am consumed by the news and wondering if I need more toilet paper. This is our reality. None of us abides perfectly and permanently even when we know we need to. Jesus experienced this in Matthew 23, when he weeps because his people have not come to him. They have not put their trust in him. They have sought their safety elsewhere. And he weeps.
But the covenant faithfulness of God is not dependent upon us. In Exodus, Israel has already broken the covenant, but God is faithful and gives the law again. In Psalm 91, the author remembers that the same God, who delivered Israel and invites sinful people to be in the presence of the holy God, longs for us to be near him. And Jesus, though he wept over Jerusalem for rejecting him, spread his wings on the cross in order that his people might dwell in his presence forever by the upholding and renewing power of his Spirit. In the shadow of the cross, we find our place of refuge.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death,and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. — Matthew 10:16-23
Persecution is frightening. Jesus warns his followers that they will be flogged, sent out like animals to be hunted, and experience division and betrayal from those closest to them over the gospel. Even more, Jesus promises that we will face persecution, forcing believers to ask themselves when that time comes, not if, how will I respond? Will I respond in fear of man rather than God and, like Peter before the crucifixion, try to evade confrontation? Or will I entrust myself to a sufficient savior who in love prepares us to face the persecution he promises? Here are three things that Jesus teaches us about persecution in Matthew 10.
I am sending you. Believers must remember that they are sent in the same manner that Jesus was sent. When we are in Christ, we are called to follow him in all of his life, to walk the same paths that Jesus walked, teach the same gospel that he taught, heal the sick, care for the poor–the mission and work of Christ become ours. Jesus warns and prepares his disciples that their ministry will look a lot like his, full of betrayal and persecution. But these troubles will happen so that they can bear witness to the gentiles. Persecution is a place of evangelism, and Christians are sent out to bear witness to Christ. When you experience persecution, remember your sent-ness. Remember that Jesus is inviting you to walk in the same ways that he did on his road to glory.
Do not be anxious. In the midst of persecution, do not be anxious. The last time I experienced persecution I was very anxious. Our ministry was being publicly shamed, my name was in the newspaper attached to a lot of half-truths. I was anxious. But here we are reminded that in persecution God’s Spirit is with us, proceeding from the Father, empowering our speech and actions, and enabling us to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel. God promises his providing presence that will give us exactly what we need in our moments of need so that we can bring glory to Christ.
The one who endures to the end will be saved. You will be hated by all for the name of Christ, but the one who endures to the end will be saved (10:23). When you are persecuted, hold fast to the promises of God. Hold fast to your fear of the one who can destroy both the body and the soul (Matt 10:28). Endure persecution knowing that your inheritance is in heaven (1 Pet 1:4), your labors are not in vain (1 Cor 15:58), and one day you will give account for your actions (Rom 14:12). These words of Jesus remind us that we really do have a goal worth striving towards–salvation–and this is where we must keep our eyes fixed. Our savior has gone before us in a persecuting world. Our savior has endured to the end. And our savior reminds us to take heart because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).
Lord, I repent of my fear of persecution. I repent of my fear of man that can be greater than my fear of God. Empower me today to walk in obedience into the places you are calling me to bear witness to your name. Thank you for your empowering Spirit that enables me to walk in faith and provides for my every need. Remind me today that you alone are worthy of my worship and you alone ought to be revered. Give me the endurance to follow you in the midst of a persecuting world keeping my eyes fixed on Christ. Amen.
What have you been looking at lately? Where have your eyes been? For me, my eyes have been fixed on screens more than ever before. This is in part because I left a campus ministry job that involved mostly people time to start a writing and editing job that is mostly done on a laptop. But my eyes have also been on Pinterest and Instagram a lot. On real estate websites browsing homes I cannot afford. Doomscrolling on my phone as my eyes take in bad news, frightening news, anxious news. Maybe the opposite question is just as important. Where have my eyes not been? My children? My husband? The Lord?
What we look at tells us a lot about our hearts. It shows us what matters to us, what has our attention, and what we think is important. But more than just being revealing, what we look at actually shapes us. The things we consume visually narrate the stories we live in, the things we believe, and the desires of our hearts. When you start to look at scripture through the theme of vision–what you are looking at, where your gaze is fixed, sight vs. blindness, seeing vs believing–the theme appears everywhere. Our eyes can lead us into sin, they reveal the spiritual health of a person, they can be fixed on God, and they can be brought from blindness to sight.
But scripture portrays a dual layer to sight. It can represent a literal dimension– Jesus literally gives sight to the blind, our eyes can literally lead us into sin– but it also represents a spiritual or heart dimension–the eyes of our heart can be opened to see God. When the eyes of our hearts are open, we have eyes to see his kingdom coming today. We see the gospel at work in the world, God’s renewing Spirit sanctifying his saints, his ongoing lordship as the head of the church. When the eyes of our hearts are opened, we see the world through the lens of faith, but what we look at with our physical eyes directly influences how we see the world around us. Both physical and spiritual sight matter, and we must choose with wisdom where we fix our gaze and what we allow to shape our hearts.
Looking at scripture
Spending time in scripture is essential for shaping the Christian’s heart. When I consider how much time I spend on social media, on work, or watching movies, it can be embarrassing to think about how little time I spend with my eyes on the word of God. Humans are narratival beings who are moved, led, taught, and encouraged by stories we hear and believe. Our world is made of stories. Not just books and movies, but also stories about what beauty is, stories about how we are supposed to use our bodies, stories about what dating relationships should look like and how we should eat. Stories construct far more of our daily lives and our meaning than we realize and they also dictate how we respond to the world around us. If I believe the story that money will make me happy, then I will act in ways that align with that narrative. will work and hustle so that I can have a nice home, fancy vacations, beautiful clothing, and ultimately, happiness. As Christians, the story we exist in is God’s story, and if our eyes are not fixed on scripture, where God’s story is revealed to us, they will be fixed on other stories.
Psalm 119 repeatedly refers to our eyes being on God’s commandments and word.
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (119:15). “Open my eyes that I may behold the wondrous things out of your law” (119:18). “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (119:148).
The psalmist’s eyes look at God’s ways, his wondrous laws, and stay awake looking at his promises. Christians must know the ways of God– his character, what he says, what he does. We must know his law– his commandments, what he says is good and lovely, and what he opposes. And we must know his promises–his covenantal promises of nearness, comfort, grace and provision. Though fixing our eyes on God’s word is not a guarantee that our hearts will be engaged, we must choose to actively meditate, behold and stay awake to God’s word his story of who we are.
Gazing at Jesus
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. But what does it mean to look to Jesus? These verses tell us that seeing Jesus requires looking back to the cross, looking around at the body of Christ today (our cloud of witnesses), and looking toward the reigning and ruling Jesus seated on the throne.
Though we do not see Jesus in the flesh today, we need to look to his cross, remember that he is seated on his throne and ruling today, and fix our eyes on Christ by participating in His body. The main place we will see God at work today is in other believers bearing God’s image and being conformed into his likeness. We see Jesus in a friend showing compassion to us, we see him in forgiveness being extended, we see him in lives being transformed by the good news of the gospel. The body of Christ is just that– the arms and hands and feet that are at work bringing God’s kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven. If you want to see God today, you must participate in his body. And as you do, others will see God in you.
What we look at shapes us. Today, consider your gaze. Fix your eyes on God’s word and look to Jesus, you just might see his kingdom on earth.
I recently read a New York Times article about how the economy of the pandemic does not allow for Americans to have both a job and kids and survive. My husband and I have twin 2-year-olds. He is a pastor and I work from home. My friend asked, “Why are people not screaming about this?”
We aren’t screaming because we don’t have the energy. Or the time. Or mental space to do anything else in our day. For almost 5 months my husband and I have gotten up early, broken work time into two-hour shifts where we work like there is no tomorrow. But there is tomorrow. And tomorrow starts at 6 am with two crying toddlers. And tomorrow holds what today held: maximized hours, exhaustion, and trying to do three full-time jobs between two people. We are screaming, but mostly on the inside.
As a seminarian, I used to be particularly interested in rest. Sabbath. What a wonderful God-ordained word. I read books, I practiced, I didn’t study on a single Saturday for 3 years. My church did two sermon series in two years on the concept of rest. My husband preached at least one sermon on rest in that time, and I remember him attempting to address rest for parents as someone who did not yet have children. I think his acknowledgment went something like, “For parents, I know this is different for you, but it is still important…” A few years and two kids later and all I can say is, yes, it’s different. Yes, it is more important than ever. But sweetheart, we had no idea the train that would hit us when we had twins, and then drag us through a pandemic and almost no childcare support.
We happened to move on March 1, 2020, to a new city. Two new jobs, a new church, leaving two ministries, and a decade of an established community. On March 16, we got the shelter in home orders. We had one Sunday at our new church. I met a handful of people. Our daughters attended children’s church for the first time which meant that I worshipped without kids for the first time in 1.75 years. And then it all happened. Shelter at home. Quarantine. Social distance.
I’m writing this because if you are a parent who feels like their insides are withering, there is no hope, no timeline, no rest, no difference between weekend and weekday because they are equally exhausting, you, and I, need to cling to someone as tightly as our children cling to us. We need a God who mothers us.
Lately, I find myself struggling with hopelessness as I trudge through never-ending dailiness. I know this is the place of God patiently molding me into His image but right now it feels more like a place of despair. I remember having my second of four knee surgeries and telling myself, at some point you will be done with surgery, off crutches, through the six months of physical therapy, and this will just be a memory. Because you know that, be kind to your mom, expect the pain, get through knowing it will get better soon. Hopefulness. I had something to hope towards, an object of hope. Having such a clear object as well as a clear timeline gave me the hope I needed to persevere in painful circumstances and the perspective to take the bumps that would inevitably come. But that is exactly why this season feels like a free-fall. How many months (years?) will this go on for? Who will I be when I come out on the inevitable other side? How do I stop the spinning to fix my eyes on an object, a direction to hope towards?
The concept of fixing your hope on an outcome or goal is actually deeply biblical. It is central to any understanding of discipleship– we live in a way that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, but we sacrifice because we have a goal fixed in our minds–salvation and God’s Kingdom coming today as it is in heaven. The Apostle Peter describes this very thing in the first chapter of his first letter when he drops the loaded therefore. Therefore, because you have a hope laid up for you in heaven, a treasure imperishable and undefiled, be holy as I am holy, walk in my ways, conduct yourself with fear and reverence knowing that you will one day stand before the Lord Almighty. If you have a goal worth living for, an object worth attaining, then, as Paul says, run the race in order to win the prize. What we anticipate on the other side of trials shapes how we live today. I know this to be true. It makes sense intellectually, but my heart still fails.
Appealing to eternity creates a few practical challenges in my heart. Eugene Peterson’s voice rings in my ears as he writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction that believers today want fast discipleship, they want formation now! Most do not want a daily obedience in the same direction for a lifetime. But that is exactly where disciples are made. In the long haul.
Largely, I feel like I have emerged from life challenges as some kind of victor. A phoenix rising from my own ashes, I view my story as a success story– as most millennials do. But as a working mother, what does “success” look like right now when all you have is pasta on the floor, everyone wanting mommy, and another day of working while your children cry outside your door while your husband tries to calm them down? Where is my commitment to Sabbath? Has my joy in God’s refinement evaporated? I feel as though I used to believe in something and now I am just surviving.
When the pandemic began, I reached for Isaiah. I figured, hey, might as well live in scripture that reflects our current reality. The prophets have become a strange comfort for me– both harsh and exacting, and yet offering the crystal clear view of restoration that only comes from suffering and being humbled. When I taught Bible studies at Harvard and we spent a summer in Isaiah, I signed up to teach chapters 23-26, and the image I remember is that of a woman giving birth to a gust of wind. I remember chuckling at the silliness of that phrase. Israel’s hopes becoming a gust of empty wind, not a new life, not a crying infant bringing salvation. The uttermost of disappointment. Their object of hope seemingly drifting away in a breeze. I read it as a metaphor, which it is, but I read it not as a mother.
As I finished the book in this season, it was the final chapter that caught me. I think about reading God’s word like winding a ball of yarn. The yarn remains the same, the same thickness and width. But it is the habitual, daily wrapping that creates something solid and of value. Growing every wrap. Gaining volume and mass quietly, invisibly. You wind and wind and all of a sudden it’s the size of a grapefruit. Slow and steady. That’s how it is reading God’s word regularly. So while the gust-of-air-birth is somewhere in the middle of my yarn-ball, another image was added this time around.
At the end of this massive prophecy spanning two centuries of the story of God’s chosen people, their daily struggles, the promises of how they will be turn out on the other side, all of it is wrapped up with the image of a mother. God as a mother. Consoling her beloved child. Holding it. Nursing it. Tenderness. Hope. Our Father, like a mother.
“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” (Isa 66:7-8). A mother does not give birth before labor. A mother does not give birth before finding out she is pregnant. No child comes before a mother is scared, before she waits, before she grows and expands, before she suffers, before she loses sleep, before she loses herself to another.
Motherhood, like God’s formation of his people, is a slow maturing, an uncomfortable forming, a losing, a preparing. A long obedience towards literally bearing new life. And God, like a mother to his people, is the refresher and nourisher, the one who delivers that which is promised. He gives birth to a nation, a royal priesthood as Peter calls us. He sustains and feeds and consoles his growing-pained people on his abundant chest (Isa 66:11). This is our God. A God who extends peace like a river when our bones our weary, who hold his children close and feeds them with tenderness, who carries His children on his hip when they need to be held and bounces them upon his knee out of sheer delight (Isa 66:12-13). This is our mothering God.
The thing that has struck me time and again in my brief two years as a mother is how slowly we grow. How slowly our children grow. People see me with my young girls and say, “Oh, enjoy every moment! They go so fast!” I think what they are really saying is pay attention. I will not enjoy every moment. But I do need to be present because someday they will be grown. But today, they are not. Today they are two and still in diapers and stringing some nonsense words together and smearing yogurt in their hair. Growing up takes time. Just like being pregnant, growth takes time–there is no way to speed it up and keep it real. Isaiah is getting at this in the final chapter. You can’t give birth before you have labor pains. And God actually planned it this way. He likes watching us grow. He made us to be slow movers. The long days are where we actually choose him. Our lives and our children testify to this. We are simply not designed for fast discipleship. We are designed for slow days of choosing the good.
Somewhere in the middle of my reading of Isaiah, a young woman I know was questioning this “comfort” God gives. The imagery of Isaiah is tender to be sure—“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (66:13), but what do we do when we don’t seem to be experiencing it? I comfort my daughters on my chest. I hold them close after they wake from a nap. I rock them when they cry. I comfort them. And this is true enough comfort, but it is not the whole biblical picture. Reading The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, my husband came to dinner one night astounded with the new knowledge that when God talks about comfort, he isn’t talking about a warm blanket for nap time. He is talking about spurring weary soldiers into battle. As our comforter, God calls us into battle to fight for His Kingdom to come in the daily work of being his saints. God calls us to action. Comfort is both the tender faithfulness of a mother holding a crying child and the battle cry to fight alongside our God.
Mothers lead into battle. Mothers summon courage and strength. Mothers speak wisdom, truth, and life into their children. And this is only a reflection of our God. Right now, I need that mother. I need that mother so badly to carry me on her chest. To tell me the tides can change quickly, but she will remain the same. As I mother my own daughters and bear this image to them, I need someone to bear it to me. I need my Father in Heaven to mother me. To bounce me on his knee and also summon the courage I need to keep fighting.
Today, if you find yourself weary of mothering, weary of fighting on behalf of others, weary of the slow dailiness of being a Christian, remind yourself that your God chooses to identify with you, your motherhood. He deems it infinitely valuable. He holds your unique burdens and pains in such esteem that He chooses to wear the spaghetti-sauce-stained clothes of motherhood so that we might understand him more. And he does not grow weary. When your arms and patience fail, His will not. He will not grumble as he holds you, he will not resent your neediness. Today, find rest leaning on the chest of your mothering God.