Recent reports of studies from the world of psychology have heaped doubts upon the efficacy of meditation as a therapy and have undermined the widespread idea that Eastern-style meditation can be good for whatever ails you. One news article reports:
For scientists have revealed the trendy Buddhist practice does not make you more compassionate, less aggressive or prejudiced. Meditation, incorporating a range of spiritual and religious beliefs, has been touted for decades as being able to make the world a better place. However, researchers from the U.K., New Zealand and The Netherlands have found meditation doesn’t change how adults behave toward others.
A popular meditation therapy that is being questioned is mindfulness therapy. According to the website of Psychology Today:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.
Now, this blog is neither sufficient to review the evidence nor to come to any conclusion regarding the science behind meditation therapy, but we shall attempt to make helpful comments from Scripture about it all. People of the West are not meditating people. We are in a big hurry most of the time, and we are more interested in searching for practical solutions on the internet than in searching our souls or in “just sittin’ there thinkin’.” But the hurry of life has left many cold, and no small few of those have turned to the East for help.
From the East has come meditation, a way to slow down and to focus. It sounds good. It looks peaceful. But now scientists tell us, perhaps, not so much.
It is strange that we in the West do not meditate, since our culture in no small degree springs from a meditating religion. The Old Testament often speaks of meditation and reveals it to be a normal part of life among God’s people. Yet we, within whom the Holy Spirit of God dwells, have little time for what seems to be “doing nothing.”
But biblical meditation is not “doing nothing.” Yes, “nothing” is the end result of mindfulness meditation, as we see it explained above. You become merely an observer, focused upon yourself. You live “in the moment,” observing “your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad” and ignoring both the past and the future. And if all I can see is me, then really all I can see is nothing.
Biblical meditation is far different from what is proposed in Eastern meditation, especially as it is portrayed in mindfulness. Listen to the Word of God:
This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Joshua 1:8a)
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2)
- First, the key Hebrew words for “meditate” are hagah, a low groan or mutter, and siach, to be concerned with. Biblical meditation is not observing myself, but rather it is engaging deeply, making judgments, thinking and repeating.
- Second, this repeating is about remembering. We understand that the Lord is with us now by remembering where we have been with Him before.
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7, NKJV)
When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches. (Psalm 63:6)
- Third, the primary object of biblical meditation is the Law of God, the standard and guide of our daily living.
- Fourth, biblical meditation is to be done while we are living life, day and night. Meditation is not reserved for times of aloneness and aloofness and introspection. Meditation must invade every part of our lives. This is part of what it means to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
- Fifth, biblical meditation has a purpose—“that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” It leads us to holiness.
- Sixth, biblical meditation has an external standard of success. Our meditation succeeds when it pleases our Lord.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
- Seventh, biblical meditation ultimately is focused upon our Lord God Himself.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
When God Himself, His Word, and His commands become our every moment, a continuous deep groan within, and our never-ceasing concern, that is biblical meditation. And such meditation is strong medicine, good for whatever ails you … and so much more.
The account in Acts 8:26-40 of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch through the witness of Philip fascinates me every time I read it. There are so many surprise factors in the story.
- I’m surprised by an angel commanding Philip to go to the desert road that led from Jerusalem to Gaza.
- I’m surprised by Philip running up to the eunuch’s chariot and overhearing the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah 53, a passage so clearly about the suffering of the Messiah.
- I’m surprised by the eunuch’s question, “Is the prophet talking about himself, or someone else?” That simple question gave Philip an opportunity to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus.
- I’m surprised that, on a desert road, at just the right time, there was enough water for the eunuch to be baptized on the spot.
The passage overflows with surprising providences of God. Perhaps I’m only surprised because, like many people, I underestimate God’s supernatural ability to order the daily details of our lives.
However, the biggest surprise by far is what happens at the end of the story:
“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:39)
Instantly, Philip found himself whisked away, and the eunuch traveled on, celebrating his newfound salvation, never to see Philip again. It’s a reminder: God can bring us momentarily into the life of someone just for the sake of bringing that person to Christ.
Not long ago, my wife Michele and I were standing near a bus stop in Nicaragua, witnessing to people as they passed by. As we spoke to them through our translator, Anna, the people were amazingly receptive. Nearly all of them took time to listen, and, within an hour or so, around a dozen people had prayed with us to be saved.
We were thrilled. Then, in a moment when the foot traffic had slowed down, I asked Anna, “Do you really think their decisions are real? And how can we know when we’ll never see them again?”
Anna smiled and said, “We don’t have to see them again. God will work.”
Then Anna told us her story. During her last year of dental school, one of her requirements was to go to public schools and teach dental hygiene. She and her boyfriend, Cokie, had traveled by bus across the city for Anna to make a presentation at a high school.
After she finished, Anna found Cokie in the principal’s office. The principal, a middle-aged woman, had been sharing the Gospel with Cokie while he was waiting. Cokie had just prayed to receive Christ. Now, he wanted Anna to hear the same message.
Anna was in a hurry. They had a long bus ride home, and it was getting late. But, the principal seemed like a nice lady, so Anna listened.
After sharing, the principal asked Anna, “Would you like to ask Jesus to save you?” Anna had understood the Gospel, but she mainly wanted to catch her bus, so she said, “Yes, yes, I’d like to pray.” She only agreed because she needed to get out of the principal’s office.
Just as they were bowing their heads, the principal looked at Anna and said, “You have to mean it with all your heart.” Anna sighed in resignation and said, “Okay, I will mean it with all my heart.”
As Anna told her story, she said, “Somehow, in that moment, I went from doing something just to appease that principal to really asking Jesus to save me. And He did!”
Within ten minutes of Anna meeting the principal, hearing the Gospel for the first time, and praying to receive Christ, she and Cokie caught their bus home. They never saw the principal again. Cokie and Anna wound up getting married and finding a church that helped them grow in their faith. They have spent the rest of their lives serving Jesus.
When we seize moments to share the Gospel, God can use us just as He used Philip with the Ethiopian and that principal with Cokie and Anna.
Is there value in sharing Jesus with people you already know and can disciple? Yes, without a doubt. But God can also supernaturally bring you into the paths of people you’ve never seen before and may never see again to make an eternal difference in their lives.
Here are a few things we can do to seize moments for sharing the Gospel:
- Pray for moments. Ask God to bring lost people across your path. The truth is, He’s already doing that every day. So ask for courage and willingness to share with lost people when the moments arise.
- Make moments. Consider how you might open up a conversation with someone that can lead to sharing the Gospel. I have found that questions like, “Are you going home or leaving home?” on an airplane, “Are you having a good day?” in a shopping center, or “Can I pray for you?” at a restaurant can create opportunities to talk about spiritual things.
- Be prepared for the moments. When people ask, “What’s the best Gospel presentation?” I answer, “The one you will actually use!” One simple way to be prepared is to memorize verses that will help you share the Gospel. Romans 3:23; 6:23; and 10:13 are a great place to start. Carrying a Gospel tract in your pocket or handbag will help prepare you and also remind you to share the Gospel consistently.
- Trust God beyond the moments. Sometimes, the moment God gives you to share with someone will result in them trusting Christ as Savior. At other times, your moment may be a time for planting or watering seeds of faith that will come to harvest later. Sadly, some people will reject Christ not only for a moment, but for a lifetime. Even so, you can trust God to keep working beyond the initial moment when you share the Gospel.
In a previous post, I explored the nature of beauty as understood in the Christian tradition. I contrasted this traditional Christian story regarding the nature of beauty with philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism, two sides of a now standard story that aims to account for beauty purely in the eye of the beholder, exclusively within the walls of the physical cosmos, a world without transcendence and devoid of windows or skylights.
This shift in the nature and grounding of beauty and aesthetic judgments has crucial implications for human flourishing. To render the ground of aesthetic judgments as nothing more than the expressions of one’s subjective feelings or preferences is ultimately to fail to recognize that certain aspects of objective reality are more worthy of admiration and regard than others. When we strip the world of objective beauty, we no longer have objective grounds for identifying certain objects, ends, and pursuits as more intrinsically worthy of our love and devotion than others; we thereby fail to venerate what is truly worthy of veneration in its own right. Consequently, we cut ourselves off from the knowledge necessary to properly order our lives around what is truly fulfilling, both individually and collectively as a society.
Yet our awareness of objective beauty—beauty that is not purely in the eye of the beholder—remains stronger than ever. This awareness can serve as a signpost or signal of transcendence, pointing us beyond the many inlets of beauty in our world to their ever-flowing wellspring, the eternal dance of the triune God.
A deep irony strikes at the heart of the two-sided narrative of philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism and its account of the nature of beauty as purely in the eye of the beholder. The irony is that the beauty that is perhaps the most alluring in the cosmos is found among the deliverances of the empirical science aimed to explore the most fundamental physical domain and the formal language used to discover that domain: physics and mathematics.
In his work Dreams of a Final Theory, renowned physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg notes the following:
It is when we study truly fundamental problems that we expect to find beautiful answers. We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty. We think this in part because our historical experience teaches us that as we look beneath the surface of things, we find more and more beauty.
According to Weinberg, it is reasonable to expect that when we peel back the layers of physical reality and reach explanatory bedrock, we should find a reality that radiates with “compelling beauty.” Physicists tend to favor theories that are elegant and beautiful in that “The physicist’s sense of beauty is … supposed to serve a purpose—it is supposed to help the physicist select ideas that help us explain nature … we demand a simplicity and rigidity in our principles before we are willing to take them seriously.” But note that the alluring beauty woven throughout fundamental physical theories and their mathematical formalisms is objective not subjective; it is found woven into the very fabric of physical reality, not projected onto it as the narrative of exclusive humanism holds. And not only is objective beauty discovered in the domain of physics and mathematics; such beauty is often found in excess and abundance. “Sometimes,” says Weinberg, “nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.”
But if the story of philosophical naturalism is in fact the true story of the world, then it seems rather odd that the most fundamental layer of physical reality is graced by an alluring beauty that is in no way the mere product of human sentiment or taste. The presence of deep, objective beauty in physics and mathematics creates a crucial explanatory gap for philosophical naturalism. Contrary to the claim of Weinberg, it is not at all reasonable in philosophical naturalism to expect to find objective beauty woven throughout fundamental physics and mathematics. And it is difficult to see how philosophical naturalism might close this explanatory gap with respect to objective beauty in physics and mathematics. As atheist philosopher Paul Draper states: “A beautiful universe, especially one containing beings that can appreciate that beauty, is clearly more likely on theism than on naturalism and so is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.”
Yet in the Christian story, this kind of deep, alluring beauty (as well as the existence of creatures who can appreciate that beauty) is precisely what one would expect if the physical universe were the creative overflow of the radiance and beauty of its Creator. There is no similar explanatory gap in the Christian story. The deep beauty found in physics and mathematics is as consonant with the Christian story as a performed symphony is within a great concert hall. The physical universe was created by God to reflect the rhythm and harmony of the eternal divine dance. Creaturely beauty is but a looking glass, beams of sunlight that beckon us to trace them back up to the sun, its source. Indeed, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.”
You and I were created in the image of this beautiful God (Genesis 1:27) to experience and to enjoy deep and alluring beauty (Psalm 27:4). We were made to behold and to manifest divine beauty, ultimately the beauty of God revealed in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is precisely by becoming like the triune God that we glorify God to the full, by living lives that reflect the proper order and beauty of the triune dance, the supreme harmony of all.
Reflection on the nature of beauty has a rich precedent in the Christian tradition, and for good reason. The Scriptures are replete with judgements about the beauty of objects as diverse as landscapes (Jeremiah 3:19), cities (Psalm 48:2; 50:2), priestly robes and clothing (Exodus 28:2), virtuous character (1 Peter 3:3-4), and persons—whether human (Genesis 29:17; Esther 1:11; 16x in Song of Solomon), angelic (Ezekiel 28:12-17), or divine (Psalm 27:4; 96:6; Zechariah 9:17). In general, then, Scripture attributes beauty to both physical and spiritual realities, whether the high heavens or the hidden person of the heart (1 Peter 3:3-4).
But what exactly is beauty? In the Christian tradition, beauty has been integrally connected with the concepts of harmony, proportion, symmetry, and integrity. An object is beautiful to the degree to which it displays an appropriate interrelationship between these concepts. But let me back up a bit since the beautiful is traditionally thought to flow from the true and the good.
In the most general sense, something is true when it properly conforms to the nature of some particular aspect of reality; a true word spoken is a word that accurately represents the way the world is, and a true friend is someone who embodies all that a friend is and ought to be. Something is good to the degree to which it properly realizes the ends or goals it has by nature. The pen is good to the degree to which it writes well, and the human being is good to the degree to which it fulfills its chief end, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
“Beauty,” as Peter Kreeft puts it, “is the bloom on the rose of goodness and truth, the child conceived by their union.” Beauty is the true and the good on display; the manifestation of what is and what ought to be. Beauty is like the melodic sound of the multi-part orchestra of truth and goodness acting in seamless harmony. This is precisely why beauty is so alluring and draws us in. It is also, I believe, why Scripture speaks of holiness—whether human (1 Peter 3:3-4; 2 Peter 3:11) or divine (Psalm 96:6,9)—as beautiful, radiant, and full of splendor; it is the resonance of a kind of life that is both true and fulfilling in the deepest sense.
According to the Christian story, God Himself is the supreme locus and source of all that exists, including all that is true, good, and beautiful. As is always the case in thinking about fundamental philosophical questions, Trinitarian doctrine lies close at hand. The interrelations of the divine persons are the ever-flowing fount of all that is true, good, and beautiful. As C.S. Lewis put it, “In Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”
The great 18th-century puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) referred to the triune God, this glorious and eternal divine dance, as the supreme harmony of all. And as the supreme locus and wellspring of all that is beautiful, God naturally delights in creating a world that reflects the glory and radiance of His own triune being (Genesis 1:27; Proverbs 8:22-31). In Edwards’ sacramental view of creation, every creaturely beauty (what he called “secondary beauty”) images or reflects the spiritual beauty of the triune God (what he called “primary beauty”); the world is truly enchanted, with each created thing being a signpost pointing to the radiance and beauty of God. As Edwards puts it, “All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” The beauty and integrity of creation images the glory of God (Psalm 19:1) and invites each of those who attend to it to join in the triune dance, the supreme harmony of all.
In our current cultural moment, there are many rival stories about the true, the good, and the beautiful that compete for our hearts, minds, and imaginations. One such story is what philosophers call philosophical naturalism, the view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever will be (to quote Carl Sagan); all of reality is confined within the walls of the physical cosmos, a world of disenchantment devoid of windows or skylights. Philosophical naturalism yields an alternative story—or what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary”—regarding the nature of beauty, meaning, and purpose that makes no appeal to God or transcendence. Taylor refers to this rival story as “exclusive humanism” and argues that such a view has captured the imaginations of many who inhabit our current age of disenchantment.
As a way of constructing meaning and purpose apart from divine transcendence, exclusive humanism arguably entails the view that all aesthetic judgments are grounded solely in individual preference or sentiment, purely in the eye of the beholder; creaturely beauty no longer finds its ultimate anchor in the reality of the divine dance. With the loss of any transcendence to anchor creaturely beauty, what was once a secondary image has become the primary substance; in a world devoid of windows and skylights, radiance and light must come exclusively from the inside.
In a subsequent post, I’ll explore how, in spite of the baseline cultural narratives of philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism, we continue to be allured by beauty that is not purely in the eye of the beholder, beauty that is intricately woven throughout the created order (in particular fundamental physics and the language of mathematics). And just as we might trace a stream of water or a sunbeam back to its physical wellspring, we can arguably trace such deep, alluring beauty in the world back up to its spiritual wellspring, the divine dance.
Augustine, Confessions 4.13.20; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 39, Article 8; Jonathan Edwards, Works 6:332.
Parenting in times of family crisis and suffering can make the already challenging work even more difficult. My wife and I have been learning for several years the challenge of parenting in these seasons. We have faced moments of intense trial in our family, but none more straining than the health journey of our son Micah.
Micah was born on Valentine’s Day 2007. We learned eight weeks later that he had a rare liver disease. His first surgery occurred when he was 10 weeks old, and his first liver transplant when he was nearly 7 months old. The first year following transplant, we spent over 38 weeks in the hospital. Micah underwent additional testing, procedures, and surgeries, big and small, to address complications, including treatment for a form of cancer common in transplant patients. At home, we had two older boys, ages 3 and 2.
We enjoyed relative calm for a couple of years, beginning when Micah was 3. However, due to a complication after the first transplant that doctors were unable to correct, a second transplant was necessary when he was 7. By then, our family had grown by two more boys, who at the time of that transplant were 10 and 4 months old.
There remains much for Sarah and me to learn about parenting in times of calm and chaos, stillness and storm. But having walked through deep waters (Isaiah 43:2) and dark valleys (Psalm 23:4), I want to offer a few encouragements as you face your own seasons of parenting in turmoil and trial.
1. Trials are inevitable.
We live in a world that is utterly broken by humanity’s flagrant rebellion against God. Death exists where once there was only life. Disease comes where once there was only health. Relationships fracture between individuals now where once humanity thrived in perfect community with God and one another. Everyone will face hardships and trials because we live in a world broken by sin. Jesus’ followers will face further trials as they seek to live godly lives in this world that opposes Jesus. Paul writes that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
As a result, we will parent our families during hard times; times of crisis. We should expect such. James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…” (James 1:2; emphasis mine). The question is not a matter of if but rather when we encounter trials. Job, a man who himself was well acquainted with the hardships of life, said, “Man is born to trouble, as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
Difficult days will come for our families simply because we live in a sin-sick world and because we seek to live out and lead them to live righteously for Jesus Christ.
2. Hold onto joy.
Hardships do not bring happiness. Robert Smith writes, “One can be happy as long as happy things are happening.” When families are weathering the storms of life, happiness may not exist, but joy can be ever-present. We may not be able to choose our circumstances, but we can choose our attitude in the midst of them (James 1:2). Joy is rooted in the unchanging nature, work, and promise of God. No matter how bad life gets, our present situation does not alter His eternal nature, undermine His completed work, or nullify His eternal promises. God uses the darkest nights of our soul to grow us (James 1:3), to accomplish His will (Romans 8:28), and to display His glory through our lives (2 Corinthians 12:9). We can choose joy as parents and demonstrate that joy for our children.
3. Face trials with hope in Jesus Christ.
Earthly problems remind us this world is not as God intended. God promised one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth where “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4a). This world, with all its pain and suffering, is not our permanent home. We have hope through our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that one day all the storms and sorrow of this world will be left behind. Parents must keep their hearts and minds firmly fixed on this glorious truth and lead their children to know and embrace this hope.
4. Fight amnesia.
Humanity has a forgetting problem. We can be guilty of facing today’s crises forgetting that God is good and faithful, sovereign and strong. We forget how God worked in times past and the countless ways He provided for our needs and carried us through hard times. We need not to forget His character and deeds. Our children need to hear and know of God’s work in previous days in our lives and in history among His people.
5. Tend the marriage covenant.
Trials can create strain on the marriage covenant, even leading to the fracturing of the marriage. God chose marriage as a living picture of His relationship to the church. At all times, especially in crisis, parents must give attention to protecting and strengthening their marriage. For if the marriage fails as a result of the crisis, a new crisis descends upon the family as it is fractured through divorce.
6. Live in biblical community.
All people were made to live in community with God and one another. Through Jesus, God redeems men and women to join them together in His church, intending for His children to love and serve Him and one another. In times of crisis, we need the community of the local church to walk alongside us, praying for and with us, serving and giving to meet tangible needs, weeping and rejoicing with us, and ministering to us as hurting members of the body of Jesus Christ.
Robert Smith, Doctrine That Dances (Wheaton, Ill.: B&H Publishing, 2008), 109.
Editor’s Note: This article is written to correspond with the Southern Baptist Convnetion’s Sanctity of Life Sunday (January 21)
Some 20 years ago, Dudley Clendinen wrote an opinion for The New York Times entitled “When Death is a Blessing and Life is Not.” It is a heartbreaking essay about the tragic suffering—illness, loneliness, dementia—experienced by his elderly cousin and aunts before their deaths. Sadly, we could multiply such stories again and again.
Too many of our loved ones bear similar griefs. And many under these clouds of suffering end up feeling that death is a blessing for the relief it brings. At times, these feelings are whispered at funerals; sometimes they are stated plainly. Life, then, ends up being perceived as the curse or, in the word of Clendinen’s poor cousin, “hell.”
I ache for those who are tormented, young or old, emotionally broken or physically shattered. I anguish for those who, in their own darkness, yearn for death. But, death itself brings no peace. Death is no friend of humanity. It is no benefactor, no ally, no comrade. As God says through the apostle Paul, death is the enemy of Christ, a rebel, an insurgent, and a subversive rival to His sovereignty. Thankfully, one day Christ will abolish this tyrant (1 Corinthians 15:25-27a).
But death is not merely the enemy of Christ and His people. It is judgment for sin, a curse, the sentence Adam and Eve must bear for disobeying His command (Genesis 2:16-17; Romans 6:23). God created humanity by His artful crafting of soil and by the breath of His mouth (Genesis 2:7). The prepositions in Genesis 2:7 are important for our understanding of life and death. Adam was configured OF dust FROM the earth. To put it another way: God gave Adam shape by taking soil OUT OF the ground and forming it. However, when God decrees the penalties for disobedience, He portrays death as the utter reversal of His creation of Adam (Genesis 3:19). Death, the dreadful consequence of sin, means decay and burial. Whereas life is God forming humanity OUT OF the dust, death places us back INTO the earth, so that we decay back into dust. Genesis 3:19 erases Genesis 2:7. There is no blessing in death, for it is a curse and a reversal of that which is always the true blessing: life (Deuteronomy 30:19a).
In resurrection, however, the tables are turned, and death itself is reversed. First, God the Father raised Christ bodily so that His body did not succumb to decay (Acts 13:37; cf. Acts 2:31; Psalm 16:10). Then, at His coming, He will deliver the bodies of believers from their graves and decay in the dust. Joyfully, their corpses will rise from dust to inherit eternal life (Daniel 12:2; Isaiah 26:19; John 5:28). Because the Spirit of God the Father who raised His own Son dwells in us, we will be raised to be “like Him” (1 John 3:2), experiencing the redemption (Romans 8:23) and glorification of our bodies at Christ’s second advent. All things, death included, will then be subject to Him (1 Corinthians 15:20-23; Philippians 3:20-21). Subdued, death will die.
God so highly prizes the lives of His children that He staves off their deaths. Delivered from death by God’s gracious hand, the psalmist sings that God so greatly valued his life that He held his death back. For God, death comes at such a high cost, He esteems the death of the godly to be so precious, that He does not permit the end of life, the spilling of blood, as if it were a cheap thing (Ps 116:1-11; 15). He does not throw life away. He grants the deaths of the godly to their enemies only as He wills. Until that point, He resolutely preserves the poor and needy: “He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight” (Psalm 72:14).
Although death is our enemy, Christ is our friend. In death, our immaterial aspect, our spirits (or souls), are torn from our bodies, and it is in this appalling, dismembered condition that we await our resurrection and the end of death’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). Yet, even in the clench of death, Christ supplies to us an immediate treasure. He provides to our spirits a conscious, blessed, yet disembodied, fellowship with Himself. Therefore, in death, we will be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Prior to the great day of resurrection, though we die, He partly overcomes the sting of death, imparting to us a “better” companionship with Christ. In this sense, Paul writes, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), although he eagerly longs to receive his glorious body at Christ’s second appearing and to have his disembodied, unclothed spirit, clothed anew (Philippians 3:20-21; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Death is not a blessing; it is a calamity. It collaborates with the other tyrants—sin and the devil—to bring us misery. Death is not good. Life is good. God, its Giver, is good. God in Christ, even though we are condemned to die, gives us consolation by gifting us again with life (John 10:10; Romans 6:23). Death provides no solace, no relief from our distress. In itself, it yields only a different type of torment. Only in life—our fellowship with Christ and our sharing in the benefits of His resurrection and return—do we find rest: “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (1 John 5:11).
February 5, 1996.
See, e.g., The Washington Post essay by Colby Itkowitz, “An Essay Calling A Mentally Ill Person’s Death A ‘Blessing’ Inspired A Powerful Response” (May 25, 2016); the related post “My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing” (May 19, 2016); and Uzma Khan, M.D., “Death Is A Blessing in Its Right Time and Place (March 24, 2017),” https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2017/03/death-blessing-right-time-place.html.
Cf. John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud,” in Selected Poetry, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University, 1996), 202.
It was the first day of my Bible Study Methods class … in prison. After passing through all the security checkpoints, I entered a musty room filled with 40 convicted felons in white jump suits, ready to study the Bible.
During my first few years at Southwestern, I was fortunate enough to teach in our prison degree program. It’s a four-year intensive program in Bible and Christian ministry that resides at the Darrington Unit, a maximum security state penitentiary south of Houston.
I began the first lecture with an introduction to the inductive method of Bible study, but I didn’t realize they were way ahead of me. From the first days of incarceration, the Bible is everywhere. I recall speaking with one student who described how, after sentencing, he was locked in a cell with only a Bible for three days. For the first couple of days, he just sulked in the consequences of his sin and questioned the justice of the system. Finally, by the third day, beleaguered by loneliness and too many nagging theological questions, he decided, like Augustine, to “take up and read.” And read, he did. For hours. Just the Bible.
This experience is not unique and, in many ways, captures the place of the Bible in the prison culture. Their seclusion affords them the opportunity to read the Bible alone—over and over and over again.
As I began teaching them the Bible, I was surprised to find that there was little need to rehearse the events or characters of Scripture. They knew most of them by heart. I can recall many proudly showing off their Bibles to me, pages tattered and note-scarred. Countless verses marked up with circles and lines crisscrossing in every direction, like the frantic white-board drawings of a football coach at half-time.
The inmates can certainly acquire other books, just not very easily. And even if they pick up the latest commentary or Bible study, they have little extra storage space to hold them. So they simply read the Bible.
In the free world, as the world outside of prison is often called, we love to read books about the Bible like commentaries, study guides, or Bible backgrounds. We devour Christian living books and read everything about “biblical” love, marriage, sex, parenting, preaching, teaching, small groups, and church growth models. All good things, but not the sacred words of divine revelation. If we are honest, I wonder how much time we spend reading and studying everything about the Bible, rather than the Bible itself.
Not only is Scripture cherished and valued by these prison students, but before the end of my first few lectures, I realized that their context had already prepared them for the first step of the inductive method: observation.
At a break in the class, one of the students approached the podium to introduce himself. He started the conversation, saying, “So, how long you been married?” Taken aback, I said “How did you know I was married?” He pointed sheepishly to the ring on my finger, and I laughed, “Of course.”
We talked a bit about my family and his family on the outside. Then I cautiously asked him what else he could tell about me just from observing. He described how, in a prison culture, careful observation is your best friend. When I walked into that classroom, every one of them was sizing me up, analyzing my clothes, shoes, the ring on my finger, and even the leather briefcase I carried. They knew more about me than I ever imagined. I will never forget the end of our conversation, when the student remarked that good observation skills keep an inmate alive and healthy. I shared this story with the whole class a few minutes later and implored them to take all the observation skills honed through their years of incarceration and apply them to the Bible.
With this habit of observation, these students were well on their way to good Bible interpretation. As Howard Hendricks was fond of saying, “The more time you spend in observation, the less time you will need to spend in interpretation.” They understood implicitly the importance of reading Scripture closely. Every word, every term, every syllable. This kind of close observation of Scripture has been described as intensive reading, where Christian readers explore “countless scripture details with an eye toward assembling a full and complete picture.”
This is not to say that the prison students understood everything in the Bible rightly. Far from it. Just like everyone else, they came to Scripture with unique presuppositions shaped by their context and experience. It would take years of listening to them, reading their papers, and hearing them interpret the Bible to understand the ways their isolation from society shapes their interpretation in both positive and negative ways.
But in my experience, their struggle was not biblical literacy, but good Biblical theology. They knew all the lyrics of Scripture, but they, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), needed someone to come along and teach the theological melody that tied all the words together in Christ. But we would get to all that later in the course.
I wrapped up class that morning and walked out of prison, astonished that I’d just entered a world where the Bible and the Bible alone was cherished and studied and where they implicitly practiced careful observation. I was amazed at the way that the prison culture reminded me of these important virtues of biblical interpretation and excited about the rest of the course.
But before I did anything else, I decided to head home and just spend a little time reading the Bible closely.
Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living By the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 39.
John J. Okeefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 45.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday we have observed since 1986 that commemorates the efforts of the Civil Rights movement in our country, and especially one of the most important voices: Martin Luther King Jr. Though Dr. King spoke and wrote much, it is his “I Have a Dream” speech that is most remembered by the public. I would encourage you to take time today and read through this iconic speech for the first or hundredth time, for its message still speaks today and needs to be heard.
No doubt phrases like “I have a dream” and “Free at last” are recalled by hearers, but as we ponder this speech and the work it represents today, let us remember something else in this speech that Dr. King left us: “We cannot walk alone.”
In context, this phrase refers to the white persons also involved in the cause to end segregation, injustice, and racism in America. King was highlighting that, in order for a community, a society, a nation to truly achieve his dream, all had to strive together to accomplish it.
As I ponder this thought, I am reminded of other writings that King left us relating the cause of civil rights with the nature of the Gospel and the calling of action upon the churches in America:
All men, created alike in the image of God, are inseparably bound together. This is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. This is clearly expressed in Paul’s declaration on Mar’s Hill: ‘…God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, … made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth….’ Again it is expressed in the affirmation. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The climax of this universality is expressed in the fact that Christ died for all mankind.
This broad universality standing at the center of the Gospel makes brotherhood orally inescapable. Racial segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. Segregation is a tragic evil that is utterly un-Christian. It substitutes the person-thing relationship for the person to person relationship. …
Therefore, every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the Christian church. …
The churches are called upon to recognize the urgent necessity of taking a forthright stand on this crucial issue. If we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ we must not rest until segregation is banished from every area of American life.
At the root of King’s argument (and most of his arguments pertaining to racial injustice) is basic anthropology. If we claim to believe in the testimony of Scripture that all are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), then we need to further recognize that there is an inherent equality from person to person. In other words, there is no such thing as sub-humans or super-humans. There are only humans.
Further, when we understand the nature of the Gospel—that salvation is offered to all indiscriminately—it should erase any thought of classes of people with greater or lesser inherent worth. If Jesus’ loving work is offered to all, then it should be unfathomable for any church, or members thereof, to treat others in a manner less than the all-encompassing love offered in and through Jesus Christ.
The truth of this theology is given lip-service by many who claim the name of Christ in our pews, churches, conventions, and fellowships. “Of course this is the right theology,” many proclaim. Yet, in their actions, these same bodies still participate in the systemic injustices that plague our communities now 62 years after King wrote these words.
It would be naïve for any Christian to look at the communities throughout our land and think that we have achieved the dream of equality for which King and others fought. Sure, there has been progress (good progress), but making progress is not the same thing as achieving the goal of racial reconciliation. Clearly our nation is in turmoil on this issue, and too often the church has been silent.
No longer should we relegate the issues of racial reconciliation to bodies that know nothing of true reconciliation. The reunifying of that which was lost is central to the work of the Gospel. Proclaiming good news to the captives is a work relegated to the church of Jesus Christ. It is a long and hard work that needs to be accomplished by all spirit-filled bodies who have understood the unconditional love of reconciliation in their own lives. We need to affirm with King and others that, for those who are in Christ, we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today, let us not merely commemorate the work of a man, but let us remember so that we may also become participants in the Christological and ecclesial task of proclaiming the Gospel that brings reconciliation between God and man, and man and man. It is a task incumbent on all who claim the name of Christian, no matter skin color or economic status. From our unity in Christ, may we exemplify unity in society. But in order to accomplish this reconciliation, we need to heed the words King gave us in 1963: We cannot walk alone.
Martin Luther King Jr., “‘For All … A Non-Segregated Society,’ A Message for Race Relations Sunday,” February 10, 1956, published in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958, edited by Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, Virginia Shadron, and Kieran Taylor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
The tendency to forget is as natural as sinning since the Fall. Yet, we are called in Scripture to remember the Lord our God. Aging seems to be an enemy of our ability to remember, but it is not the only hindrance. The busyness of our lives demands mental attention. Mental focus often ebbs and flows with our passions, and our passions often follow the tyranny of the urgent.
Our admission to this weakness of forgetting is demonstrated by our attempts to remember. Mnemonic devices have been used to recall information at least since the ancient Greeks. Students everywhere have tried to master different methods to conquer exams. Before smart phones, I would write notes on my hand with a pen to remember important information. One time, I called my own house phone to leave myself a message as a reminder. Today, we have digital calendaring devices and the convenience of Siri. Yet, even with all the technology, we still tend to forget things, especially the truths from God’s Word that are essential to life.
In Deuteronomy, Moses warns against the perils of forgetting God. After revisiting the Ten Commandments in chapter 5 and providing a methodology on how to maintain faithfulness in chapter 6, Moses follows with intense warnings for the Israelites. The anger of the Lord would burn against the people if He was forgotten. This anger would not be a result of the simple forgetfulness of the people, but the consequence of the truths forgotten.
It wasn’t long before Moses’ warnings were dismissed. The Israelites moved into the Promised Land to demonstrate God’s faithfulness, but Joshua and the other leaders died. Upon their death, there arose a generation who forgot the God of their fathers. In one generation, they valued the blessings of the land more than the blessing-giver. In one generation, the ways of the native pagans were more desirable than the ways of God, because the people had forgotten.
Do our desires look more native to this fallen earth? If so, we may have forgotten. Our minds have been overshadowed with fleeting cares. Our Godward affections have been eclipsed by earthly trifles. Our flirtatious affairs with temporal things are the primary cause of our struggle to recall. The instability of our minds to anchor upon the rock of Christ is not indicative of His stability or dependability, but of our fickle loyalties.
How do we remember the Lord our God, who brought us out of bondage and slavery? We must remember God’s promises. Our success is not based on circumstances, but on God’s name. With a new year come new trials. For the Israelites, the wilderness was not a pleasant experience. The point was not to harm or demoralize them, but to humble them to trust in the faithfulness of their God. He wanted them to hope in His delivering work, remembering His works on their behalf in Egypt.
The people of God tended to forget the work of God, choosing to focus on the circumstances of the wilderness rather than the faithful character of their redeeming God. We must remember the works of God in our tribulations. Trials seem to build a wide chasm that appears to divide the works and promises of God from our present situation so that forgetting is easier than remembering. Feelings that He is far away become more believable than the promise that He is near. In the battle of our minds, feelings become the dominant force gaining victory over the comforting work of God that was once a strong tower of hope. We must remember that the humility bred from our trials anchors our hearts to His promises alone.
We must remember the fear of the Lord. The best way to remember the Lord is to fear Him and obey His words. There are many things in this world that can harm or destroy us physically, but we are called to fear God, the only one who can destroy both body and soul. Yet, with all the terror of the Lord, He has graciously acted in lovingkindness toward us. It is this love, demonstrated in Christ, that compels us to obey His commands.
Here, I want to offer two ways that I have found helpful to remember the fear of the Lord. When my life gets busy and I seem to lose my bearings, I revisit certain passages to recalibrate my obedience. 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22 is one such passage that often acts to reattach my floundering and forgetful heart. “See that no one repays evil for evil … seek after that which is good … rejoice always … pray without ceasing … in everything, give thanks … do not quench the Spirit … hold fast to that which is good … abstain from every form of evil.” I find these basic commands to be nuggets of truthful nourishment upon which I can focus to rekindle my affections and contribute to my sanctification in order to remember the goodness of God.
Second, in my household filled with eight imperfect people, there is rarely a day when some sort of conflict does not arise. The truth of Ephesians 4:29 is a crucial part to any peace in our home. There are times when we forget the principles of speech given, and conflict is exacerbated. We may take a week to focus again upon obedience to this passage: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” When we, as a family, intentionally seek to obey the Word, we notice the peace that results, which grows our affections for God’s wisdom and ways.
As a final word, listen to the words of the apostle Paul: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8). Remember the life that Christ lived. Meditate upon His righteousness and upon His affliction and suffering to secure your redemption in obedience to the Father. Remember the power of God to raise a dead and decaying body to newness of life. And remember today that God possesses authority over the one obstacle that man will forever be powerless to defeat—the grave.
Would you commit to spend more time this year meditating on the words of God, letting them dwell in your heart richly? Remember that we live not by the blessings of our good God, but by every word that comes from His mouth. Strive hard to remember the redemption of Christ from our past that frees us from the bondage of sin and death as we run hard to the hope of the future that supersedes circumstances. Will you commit to rest in Christ and remember all His benefits this year?
Growing up, I was the salutatorian of Vacation Bible School. I could have easily been valedictorian had it not been for Emily being “gifted” and “more spiritual” than me. One year, a simple question was posed: Who do you want to be in the Bible? As an accidental Pharisee, I needed to show everyone how spiritual I was with my answer.
The teacher gave us time to consider our options. So we opted, in silence. The fear of answering incorrectly and facing public scorn during VBS was real.
Should we want to be one of the important men and women from the Old Testament? Even a childlike reading of the Old Testament ruled them out. What about people in the New Testament? Ah, yes!
John the Baptist, Peter, Paul? No. Jesus. I wanted to be Jesus. If there was anybody who could be Jesus, it was me. Remember, I said I was an accidental Pharisee. This would be perfect.
Alas, I failed.
Over time, I’ve re-thought this question: Who do you want to be in the Bible? I soon realized one of the biggest mistakes in my ministry is that I convinced myself, and others, to “go be Jesus to people.” None of us can be Jesus to people—only Jesus can be Jesus to people. When I try to be Jesus, I deceive myself, and others, into subversively thinking we don’t need Jesus—that we can be Jesus.
But that’s never been the goal for us as disciples of Jesus. The goal for disciples of Jesus, is to let Jesus be Jesus, and to obediently follow Jesus.
I am a disciple of Jesus.
I want to be like the disciples of Jesus in the New Testament. This led me to a curious encounter in Acts 9. This chapter describes Saul’s conversion and how he became a disciple of Jesus. But I want to look at someone else. I want to observe Ananias.
Saul is headed to Damascus to arrest and persecute a group of Christians there. He meets Jesus on the road and is blinded. Then we’re introduced to a disciple of Jesus, Ananias.
I want to be like this disciple—Ananias. Why?
1. His LIFE demonstrated that he was a disciple (Acts 9:10).
Ananias was known as a disciple. Biblically, a disciple is someone who is in a relationship with Jesus and obeys what Jesus commanded. This means that Ananias believed the Gospel for his salvation.
Being known as a disciple means that his life matched his lips. It’s convenient for a season to put on a good face, to say the right things; but over the long haul, it’s merely a matter of time before who you really are comes out. What are you known as?
2. He LISTENS to the Lord (Acts 9:10).
His response to the Lord is “Here I am, Lord.” We know Ananias was a man who was listening for the voice of God. Are you listening? Do you hear Him?
A great way in 2018 to listen to the Lord is to read God’s Word; to have your Bible open and to actually read it. Do you have a plan to read God’s Word? Here’s a link to some Bible reading plans: http://www.lifeway.com/Read-The-Bible/Readers/c/N-1z0zf8aZ1z1244x?carid=lw-social-ReadtheBible
This is what disciples do. They don’t go rogue; they listen to the Lord. Too often, we’re unable to hear His voice when He speaks because we’re preoccupied with our own thing when He calls us. The only right place for any servant of God to be is “here.” That is, to be present and accounted for when He calls for you.
I love Ananias’ response to what God invites him to do (Acts 9:13). He basically says, “Lord, I’m not sure you’ve heard this yet, but this guy Saul … well, he’s not really interested being friends with your disciples.” You see what Ananias is doing—he’s trying to tell God details that God already knows.
Ananias shows me, me. He doesn’t have unwavering trust in God.
God knew everything about Saul. And God told Ananias to go. Are you going?
3. He LEANS into the Lord (Acts 9:17).
Being surrendered to God, Ananias obeys. Ananias walks with a lean to obey Jesus, and he does what he is told to do. He appears before Saul and has the honor of laying his hands on this broken, blind man, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Saul’s blindness dissipates.
Ananias didn’t have unwavering trust in God, yet he obeyed. You may be the same way—your trust in God will often be tested. Your faith, often, will be weak. But followers of Jesus—disciples of Jesus—obey. God’s commands do not always make sense, but they are always right!
But this is what I love the best…
4. He LEAVES the story.
Ananias’ role in this entire story is small but significant. This man who was a disciple, and one who wavered, was obedient. This small act of obedience led to a great impact on the Kingdom of God. Ananias disciples Paul, then he leaves the story.
That’s the lesson. This is why I want to be like Ananias. When we obey God and His Word, even in the small things, the results will be big. God knows better than we do; we just need to trust Him along the way. Perhaps Ananias never knew in his lifetime the full extent of what his obedience meant, but I know that Jesus Christ knew, and you do too.
In 2018, I want to be like Ananias of Damascus. I want to my life to demonstrate that I’m a disciple; I want to listen to His voice, lean into His will, and leave.
The best thing we can be known as is a disciple of Jesus. So, ask yourself this question: How can I be known as a disciple of Jesus in 2018? Listen to Him, lean into His will, and leave for Him to do great things.
 The term “accidental Pharisee” comes from a book by Larry Osborne, where he writes about the tendency for spiritual zeal that does not align with the totality of Scripture. He defines “accidental Pharisees” as “people like you and me who, despite the best of intentions and a desire to honor God, unwittingly end up pursuing an overzealous model of faith that sabotages the work of the Lord we think we’re serving.” (Larry Osborne, Accidental Pharisees, (Zondervan; Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012), pg. 17)
The people of God need to pray, we ought to pray, we MUST pray. Great movements of God are normally preceded by great movements of prayer by God’s people. We see this pattern throughout Scripture and throughout the history of the church. God does not need us to pray in order to move. But in His sovereignty, He has chosen to work in power, time and time again, in response to the concerted cries of His people. Since 2012, the Southern Baptist Convention has declared January of each year a month-long Call to Prayer. Such a declaration is honorable and right, but is not of much impact unless we actually heed the call.
The New Year is always a time of changes, fresh starts, and renewed promises. May we seek the Lord in having a renewal in the discipline of prayer! I have never experienced a time in my Christian walk where I felt like I was praying too much. I doubt you have ever had such an experience either. How can we respond to this Call to Prayer in such a way that it is not just another event on the SBC Calendar? If it is going to be more, we need to be intentional with a plan of action. How, then, must we pray?
1. Have a plan for your personal prayer life
We talk about prayer, we have studies about prayer, we even sometimes go to conferences about prayer, but are we praying? Every believer should establish a pattern of consistent and focused prayer. Certainly, we should “pray without ceasing,” but this verse does not exclude us from the consistent need to be still and get alone with God. According to Mark 1:35, Jesus rose long before daylight and found a quiet place to be alone with the Father. The pattern of our Savior was to remove Himself from the busyness of life and ministry to seek the Father. What intentional steps are you taking to improve your prayer life? Here are a couple that have been helpful to me through the years:
- Journaling. Writing down my thoughts and prayers always helps me to stay focused. There are so many distractions around us at all times that we must find ways to keep our thoughts on the Lord.
- Prayer List/Cards. Keep a running prayer list, with specific requests to direct your prayer time. Specific requests help us see when God has answered our prayers and encourages us through the process. I teach in a seminary and have students come through my classes each semester. I have each of them fill out a card with their family information and any specific prayer requests. These cards (hundreds of them now) are a special and important part of my prayer routine. Establish prayer cards or reminders helpful to you in your personal prayer time.
2. Have a plan for your family prayer life
Christian families ought to be praying families. Life is busy, and if we are not careful, there can be seasons of weeks, months and even years where the only time you pray with your family is at the dinner table before a meal. Even these prayer times are in great danger in our culture because of the busyness the world demands from our families. How can we redeem the focus of prayer in our Christian families?
- Be intentional. If you do not make family devotion and prayer time a priority, it normally will not happen. Think through what works best for your family and take the steps necessary. Family devotion is most effective in our home around the dinner table. The benefits of this time are many, including guarding family meal time, we are less tired than in the early mornings or late at night, and we save money by not eating out as much.
- Be specific. I know this sounds incredibly simple, but take prayer requests before you pray with your spouse or with your family. Maybe it is just me, but if I am not incredibly careful, my prayer times can fall into a vain repetition. I am not talking about trying to use fancy words or overly repeating the same phrases, but without specific prayer requests, many of my prayers begin to sound the same. Take time to listen to what is going on in the lives of your family members and then lead praying through those issues specifically.
3. Be involved in your church prayer life
Does your church family have an organized prayer ministry? How involved are you and your family? We make time for what is most important in our lives. In many ways, we have not recognized with our time, energy, and resources how important prayer is to the believer’s walk individually but also corporately. If your church has a prayer ministry, you should make every effort to be faithfully involved. If your church does not have a prayer ministry, maybe God will lay a burden on your heart to start one.
The month of January is a Call to Prayer throughout the Southern Baptist Convention. I pray the Lord Jesus strengthens us to heed the call and grow as men and women of fervent prayer.
This summer, I was visiting my son Thomas and his wife Holley, who are missionaries in Belgium. Besides longing to see them, I was interested to see a local expression of the European attitude to Christianity and religious belief. Thomas and Holley had already put a lot of work into speaking French, understanding the local culture, and building relationships. Holley wanted me to meet one of her good friends and so, one morning, we went to meet Jessica at her work. Holley was and is excited about this friendship and hoped that Jessica would come and join a Bible study in the future.
Jessica came across as a lovely young lady. She was friendly, smart and an overall attractive person who seemed to be successful in life. After we had chatted for a while, I noticed she had a unique, abstract tattoo on her forearm. I commented on it and how unique it was. She said that she had had it done as a reminder for her to accept herself. I was surprised and told her that she seemed to be a lovely person who had been beautifully created by God. I pushed a little further and told her that God does not make mistakes and does not make rubbish. She did not expect this response and was not sure how to answer. I did not want to cause embarrassment, so we talked about other things and then left on a good note.
Jessica’s story illustrates what can happen when biblical truth is removed from a cultural worldview. Is human life random and only significant in how we try to make it so? Do we have to make our lives mean something? Do we end up creating distinctions between people and valuing one life over another so that some lives count more than others?
The value of human life is an essential teaching in the Bible. Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Job 33:4 says, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
These passages are life-changing. If God has created human life, then every life is meaningful—even when our culture and personal life experience tell us otherwise. But Scripture goes even deeper.
The biblical principle of the Imago Dei is found in Genesis 1:26—“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” This is amazing! All human beings are created with God’s likeness within them. This makes each person incredibly valuable. Jessica has no idea how amazing and valuable she really is.
Ah, but there is more! In Psalm 139, we read of God’s personal involvement with each human being in a way that should blow our minds. He does not just create us and then leave us alone. He is intimately part of our lives so that there is no place we can go that He is not there.
Because we live in a fallen world, our own sinful natures and the lies and deception of Satan will distract and blind us to God’s presence in our lives. This is the predicament in which Jessica finds herself—God is right there with her, but she cannot see it; it is like a hidden mystery. The way out for Jessica and every other person who is spiritually blind is found in Colossians 1:26-27—“the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Jessica can solve the mystery and discover how valuable she is as she discovers Christ and the message of the Gospel. But this passage also shows that the way for her to discover this is through someone like Holley—it is as Holley proclaims Jesus, who dwells within her life, that Jessica will discover her own need for Christ.
My heart breaks for the people of Europe who find themselves trying to give a meaning to life that can only be found in the Gospel. I have discovered that meaning, and this Christmas is a special opportunity for me to share Christ with many people like Jessica. Will you join me in looking for every opportunity to do so?
As a Biblical Hebrew teacher, I have heard many reasons why people don’t study languages—or at least do not do so with excellence. Top of the list: I’m no good with languages! This reason betrays several assumptions. These assumptions, however, fall flat when met with substantive reflection.
(1) Language Gene – Students tend to think there are certain gifted individuals who can simply pick up a language quickly with little effort. When students find that they are not mastering Biblical Hebrew quickly, they throw up their hands and confess, “I just don’t have what it takes to learn languages.” Once they reach this conclusion, students simply stop. Sure, they still show up for class, but they stop trying.
So is it true? Is there a language gene possessed only by an elite group of people? In short, NO! The idea of a language gene flies in the face neurological study and common sense. Our intelligence is by no means fixed in such a way that we cannot improve cognitive functions, such as our memory. Furthermore, it is quite plain that language and being human just go together. Language is what we do.
(2) Difficulty = Stupidity – When students hit a rough patch in language learning, they can start to equate their difficulty with their (supposed) lack of intelligence. The problem here lies with the expectations students have for learning a language like Biblical Hebrew. Language learning takes time. For example, most students have forgotten basic grammar and syntax by the time they land in a Hebrew class. Thus, a professor has to teach the fundamentals of language and the actual language of Hebrew; that’s a tall order. Students become frustrated when, after one month, they do not feel comfortable with the language. They think there is something wrong with them.
When difficulty comes—and it certainly will—students should not let up. That is key. Students must become comfortable with the fact that learning a language is uncomfortable. Students are shaky with vocabulary at first. They are timid with translations. They cannot see how the system of the language fits together. But that is okay! With a proper teacher, a calm, dedicated student will learn more than he or she could ever dream. But the student must push through the difficulty.
(3) Effort is Evil – While students might be inclined to equate difficulty with stupidity, there is also the temptation to think that effort is criminal. Some students envision a week full of social media, Netflix, and SportsCenter with occasional moments of study. Reading, translating, and practicing a language should not constrain a student’s social life, should it? Can’t a student have it all? A life full of media entertainment, church ministry, and academic study should all go together, right? Well, if they do not all go together, then certainly academic training must go, especially if it takes substantial effort, right? Unfortunately, some students would answer in the affirmative. But is effort wrong? Of course not! More important, effort to study languages should limit one’s media exposure, not the other way around. Now let me be clear: Media, be it social or watching football, is by no means wrong. Entertainment, however, is not a right. It is a luxury that we should appreciate and enjoy in moderation. What’s more, we must not push off effort as if it were immoral. We must embrace it.
The riches of learning a language are many. The vivid nuances of Biblical Hebrew, for example, are often dulled by English translation. Beyond content, learning Hebrew can also affect our character. Often, studying Hebrew produces perseverance and discipline—characteristics that this world sorely needs from Christians. Learning Hebrew demands humility as well. No matter the natural intelligence of a student, each man and woman enters Hebrew I with virtually no understanding of the alphabet, vocabulary, syntax, or verbal system of that ancient language. A student might begin the course with arrogance, but over an entire semester, arrogance gives way to humility.
The ability to read the Hebrew Bible is not reserved for the elite. It requires no language gene. It does, however, necessitate effort. For those of us who have the privilege to study Biblical Hebrew, let us not squander our time. Rather, let us give ourselves to the discipline of learning!
Seminary Hill Press is the publishing arm of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, publishing works by the institution’s faculty and alumni. In 2017, the press produced multiple titles that would make great Christmas gifts for theologians and laypersons alike. Here are the year’s top five must-have books:
1. Youth Ministry That Lasts a Lifetime, by Richard Ross
The real criteria for evaluating youth ministry is this question: Are we consistently introducing teenagers to Jesus and then discipling them into believers who will, for a lifetime, love God, love people, and make disciples for the glory of God? The issue really is not, “How is our youth group doing today?” Instead, the core question is, “How will our youth group be doing for a lifetime?”
Combining biblical exegesis with current research and author Richard Ross’ many years of experience in the church, this work invites readers to consider a radical new model of youth ministry that is likely to lead many more teenagers to lifetime faith. (Available in both hardcover and paperback here.)
2. Growing a Great Commission Church: Biblical Principles and Implications for Methods, by Mike Morris
From the perspective of a former pastor in America and a long-term IMB missionary to South Korea, Mike Morris discusses key biblical principles for growing a Great Commission church in both quality and quantity. Because of the cultural and racial diversification of American neighborhoods, a missiological perspective is greatly needed in American churches.
Morris discusses the biblical principles in detail, uses down-to-earth illustrations, provides some implications for methods, and deals with possible objections. He stresses the importance of both evangelism and discipleship for the healthy growth of a Great Commission church. (Available here.)
3. Everyday Parenting, edited by Alex Sibley; foreword by Dorothy and Paige Patterson
As anyone who has children can attest, parenting is hard. As such, many parents are overwhelmed by the responsibilities associated with raising another human being, and they would likely agree it is easy to lose sight of what parenting is truly about: raising children to walk in righteousness.
So how can parents maintain their focus? What tools has God provided for dealing with the various issues that stem from raising children? And where can parents turn for answers to their questions?
Through His Word and His Spirit, God has provided both the instruction and the power for parents to persevere in the parenting task. This volume—written by faculty, alumni, and friends of Southwestern Seminary—aims to illuminate that instruction so parents can move forward in the task of everyday parenting armed with the Sword of the Spirit in order to face head-on the challenges of raising children in the ways of the Lord. (Available here.)
4. Text-Driven Contextualization: Biblical Principles for Fulfilling the Great Commission in the 21st Century, by Michael Criner
How do 21st-century evangelicals carry out the Great Commission biblically but also effectively in a world full of cultural diversity? Does the Bible provide any principles for communicating and contextualizing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to particular demographics, people groups, and nations?
In Text-Driven Contextualization, Michael Criner argues that the Bible does, indeed, provide instruction for how to contextualize—and how not to contextualize—the Gospel in preaching and evangelism. A thorough examination of five sermons in the book of Acts (two delivered by Peter and three by Paul) reveals principles by which pastors and teachers can biblically contextualize their sermons for the 21st century with evangelistic fervor. (Available here.)
5. Advent: 25 Daily Devotionals on the Coming of the Son of God, by Armour
Advent, Latin for “the coming,” is a four-week period culminating on Christmas Day intended for extended reflection upon the meaning and significance of Christmas. That is, the coming of the Son of the living God into our world to dwell amongst us as one of us; His defining and embodiment of genuine love; and His service even unto His atoning death upon the cross from whence spilled the innocent blood that paid the ransom for many.
This resource comprises 25 daily devotionals directing attention to passages from the Gospels of Luke and John in order that families may devote the month of December to such reflection and begin to grasp the true significance of the coming of Immanuel, “God with us.” The book also contains four Christmas carols accompanied by explorations of their composition and rich theology. (Available here.)
To learn more about these titles or to browse through other Seminary Hill Press products, visit SeminaryHillPress.com.
Dry dusty roads led into the village. Worshipers gathered. As a missionary guest that day, I preached at that church. Lively music and dancing are typical of African worship. This day was no exception. It came time for an evangelistic invitation. A sub-chief walked the aisle for a decision. That was all well and good, even celebrative. The only complication to this man’s expression of faith was that he brought his five wives with him to make this decision. What does a foreign missionary do?
Polygamy, a long-standing issue in most African settings, is characteristic of African Traditional Religious belief systems that pre-date the advent of both Islam and Christianity. These ideologies persist in the fabric of various Christian traditions, whether denominational or not, in African churches today.
Solutions are not simple fixes. The convention we were part of had already developed a policy to help normalize reaction to this issue. The convention’s historical practice was to ask the man to choose one of the wives and “put out” the remaining ones. There were usually children involved, and this act created serious and ongoing social crises. The wives who departed the family network usually were as destitute as widows. People in the rest of the culture viewed these women as still being the wives of the man who wished to join the church. That limited their likely options for any sort of familial support in the aftermath of such disruptions. More often than not, they were soon resorting to prostitution to provide basic needs for their children and even to eat. As supposedly new believers, this was no healthy discipleship program.
At the time, a recently developed policy recommended first in-depth counseling with them all in order to understand their own personal decisions regarding Christ. If confident in their decisions to yield their lives to Christ, one could proceed with discussion of church membership. After all, Christ’s blood covers the sins associated with polygamy too. Finally, they could be presented for church membership on the grounds that, in a group, they each gave testimony of their salvation; confessed having entered the practice of polygamy due to cultural norms without knowing about Christ or that this was sinful; and agreed to end the practice of polygamy with that generation and to never seek nor accept leadership roles in the local church. They would ask for the congregation to assist them in teaching their children not to continue polygamous practices when they would eventually have families.
In parallel with these happenings, I had a very sharp African seminary student in my biblical ethics class. He asked me if an article he had read was true, namely that in America we have a problem of men marrying many women over time or sequentially. “It does, unfortunately, seem to happen in some families,” I replied. My own mother and father married each other three times and divorced each other three times. When my dad died, he was on his sixth marriage. The student said then, “Sir, in America, you have the same problems, then, that we face here. The main difference is that, in our cultures, it is common to have all the wives simultaneously.”
Eventually, I found academic articles that characterized our North American marriage and divorce cycles as “serial polygamy.” In the end, lest we get too prideful and ethnocentric in judging other cultures, we should look at ourselves. Could a man walk the aisle to present for membership this Sunday, and the pastor be asked to conduct him through the membership process, though essentially the gentleman is a “polygamist,” having had multiple marriages? It is not a question of one culture being more fallen than another. Instead, it is that we need mutually to assist one another with “beams” and “specks” in our eyes for better glorification of God’s design for the family.
Every pastor deals with a certain reality every single week. I’ve heard it referenced as the “relentless return of Sunday.” You preach your heart out, pour yourself empty, and exhaust yourself physically and emotionally only to wake up on Monday or Tuesday and realize the process begins for another week. In many ways, it is equivalent to writing and presenting a research paper every single week.
Any honest pastor will tell you there are days when you stare blankly at a certain passage of Scripture and have the thought, “How do I preach this?” We question how to make it into an outline. We wonder how we can apply this to our people’s everyday lives. Sometimes we even wonder what in the world the passage means!
I’ve discovered a secret that has been more helpful to me in sermon preparation than any other principle. I also believe it’s the key to personal discipleship, to counseling burdened people, and even to sharing the Gospel with a lost friend. Here’s the principle: Just say what the Bible says.
That may sound overly simplistic. In fact, I bet when you read that statement, you thought it was an extremely elementary thing. I understand that. I really do. I also believe that sometimes we complicate preaching, discipleship, counseling, and evangelism. I want to encourage you to begin implementing this simple principle in your everyday life. Here’s how this statement affects the following areas.
There are passages that are difficult to preach. Shocker, right? Some texts are hard to understand, difficult to work into an outline, or tough to try to apply to a group of people. My guiding principle throughout this is to just say what the Bible says. I believe it was Paige Patterson who once said, “Expository preaching is getting your people to read their Bible.” There is perhaps no better way to implement expository preaching than to just say what the Bible says. No more, no less. It’s important to notice that the most important question in sermon preparation is not, “What does the commentary say?” God wrote a book. Let that book speak to the people of God.
What is successful discipleship? People would probably answer this in a myriad of ways. I believe all successful discipleship has one thing in common: an intensified passion and focus on the Word of God in the life of the person being discipled. If that happens, then it truly will affect all other areas of his life. In other words, if we can get that person to begin to just say what the Bible says, we have helped put him on the path toward an abiding walk with Christ.
The Word of God affects all of counseling. It doesn’t matter if it is a professional counseling environment or one friend counseling another over coffee. We have all had those difficult times in the midst of counseling someone else or simply giving advice to a friend where we have come to that line. You know, THAT line. Do I take a step out and tell him what he really needs to hear? Do I tell him what God’s standard is for his life? Or do I cower back in fear and just say something to appease him? We should maneuver through these times by simply saying what the Bible says.
The reality of heaven and hell are tough things for a lost culture to grapple with. If we’re honest, it is a difficult message to deliver to people who don’t believe the same way we do. Some, in an attempt to be loving and inclusive, change what the Bible says to make it more palatable to a lost person. How unloving! The most loving thing we could ever do is say what the Bible says. The Bible speaks of repentance, of faith, of surrender, of taking up your cross, of following the Lord Jesus Christ. Those words are life. Just say what the Bible says.
I truly believe that if you’ll begin to practice this principle in your everyday life, you’ll see the Lord do some amazing things. God loves to work in the lives of those who hold His Word as the source of life and truth in the world. Will you take God at His Word? Will you just say what the Bible says?
The insightful Enlightenment philosopher Blaise Pascal notes that “the immortality of the soul is something so important to us, something that touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to knowing the facts of the matter.” Most thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, traditionally have held that a human person is a unity of two distinct entities: one physical (the body) and one immaterial (the soul). This idea, called “dualism,” is pervasive in the history of Christian thought—not least because it seems essential to numerous tenets of the Christian faith (not to mention implied by the straightforward reading of Scripture, e.g., 1 Peter 3:18–20 and Matthew 10:28). And yet dualism increasingly is being rejected by the unlikeliest of scholars: Christian scholars. Pastors and theologians are well-advised to take note of this development.
The 20th century saw dualism widely replaced by views of human persons as wholly physical beings. Being convinced by naturalist arguments to this end, a growing number of Christian scholars (the “Christian physicalists”) are adopting this view. But upon inspection, we notice that Christian physicalism is incompatible with key Christian doctrine. Consider, for example, the Christian belief in the intermediate state: that is, a temporary state of personal, disembodied existence following death.
On the basis of passages such as John 5:25, 28–29 and Romans 8:11, Christians believe in the future resurrection of the dead. This resurrection is not instantaneous at death; it is in the future, specifically at Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This means Scripture teaches the future bodily resurrection of the dead; at Jesus’ coming, all the dead are going to be resurrected. Of course, we know from experience that all people die physically, that is, their spirit is separated from their bodies. For believers, the physical (earthly) body will be resurrected and transformed into a glorified body, a body like Christ’s present body, which will be reunited with the soul—but not until the future return of Christ. The intervening period between physical death and the resurrection of the dead is a state of disembodied existence. The apostle Paul calls this a state of “nakedness” since during this period believers’ souls will exist with Christ apart from the body. In 2 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul discusses having a physical, earthly body (“earthly tent”) versus having a transformed, glorified body (“building from God, a house not made with hands”). While clothed in our earthly tent, we groan and are burdened, looking forward to being re-clothed in our glorified bodies. The intermediate state therefore refers to the state of the disembodied soul, that is, the soul after being unclothed of the earthly tent and before being re-clothed in the resurrected body.
Now, ideas have consequences, and one consequence of Christian physicalism is that it would render the biblical doctrine of the intermediate state impossible. If a person, Nathan, is nothing more than his body, then Nathan equals his body. But if that is so, then upon physical death it is not possible for Nathan enter into a disembodied state. It will not do to suppose that God could solve this problem by later re-creating Nathan, say, at the future resurrection of the dead. This is because Nathan, the once denizen of earth who was a sinner redeemed by grace, stopped existing upon death. Even if the “Nathan” God later creates looks and acts exactly like the original Nathan, the two are not the same person. After all, the later created “Nathan” only begins to exist at the moment God creates him; he was never a sinner and was never redeemed by grace!
It seems to me, on the other hand, that dualism has no difficulty accounting for the soul’s existence in both embodied and disembodied states, making it the most (if not the only) sensible account of the resurrection of the dead and the intermediate state. In other words, these doctrines make the most sense when understood as a soul being embodied (while alive on earth), then disembodied (at death), and then re-embodied in glory.
As the great 20th-century theologian J. Gresham Machen put it, “we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul.” Machen seems to me correct. In light of its incompatibility with key Christian doctrine, Christian physicalism ought to be rejected in favor of dualism.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. and trans. by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 217.
J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1937), 137.
The incompatibility of “Christian physicalism” and a variety of Christian doctrines is explored at length in R. Keith Loftin and Joshua R. Farris, eds., Christian Physicalism? Philosophical Theological Criticisms (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).
Augustus Hopkins Strong—Baptist theologian, seminary president, and pastor from generations past—stated of those in Christian ministry, “The natural tendency of every minister is to usurp authority and to become a bishop. He has in him an undeveloped pope” (Strong ST 898). Strong recognized the temptation of power and pride for those in the ministry. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for ministers today is not necessarily with the congregations they serve but with the enemy within—the tendency to channel their inner pope rather than radically empty their egos.
Philippians 2:5-11 provides a model for all Christians to follow, which begins with the command, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus….” The idea is to keep on cultivating the mind of Christ. The command is for the whole church to correct the natural drift of the human heart to wield power for one’s own benefit rather than in sacrificial service to others. God’s plan is to shape His people into the image of Jesus Christ, and God calls Christian ministers to lead in following the example of Christ’s self-emptying humility. What does godly humility look like in the servant of Christ?
The servant of Christ does not crave power, use it for selfish gain, or seek to subvert the accountability structure of the local church and other believers that God has put in place around him. Instead of selfishly clinging to power to avoid His suffering and death, Jesus humbled Himself and became a servant. He added humanity to His deity (the true meaning of “emptied Himself”), taking the way of the cross to atone for our sins.
Christian ministers will constantly be tempted to believe that consolidated power is the way to advance the cause of Church and Kingdom. Paul, however, learned that the power of Christ is displayed in weakness and not in the strength of man so that the praise and glory will go to God alone for any fruit from our ministry (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Christian ministers and pastors hold great spiritual authority, but this does not come without accountability. Ministers of the Gospel profit the church when they embrace the way of the servant, submit to accountability, equip the saints for the work of the ministry, and sacrificially serve the church as an example to the flock. Strong notes,
It should be the ambition of the pastor not “to run the church,” but to teach the church intelligently and scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word “minister” means not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but he does not drive. He is like the trusty mountain guide, who carries a load thrice as heavy is that of the man he serves, who leads in safe places and points out dangers, but who neither shouts nor compels obedience (Strong ST 908).
The church is not the arena where Christian leaders advance their own agenda or a platform to promote their own ministry. Paul refers in Philippians 1:14-18 to errant minsters of the Gospel who preached Christ out of envy and strife, to do Paul harm in his imprisonment, and out of selfish motives. The church belongs to Christ. Peter put it this way:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that it is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4, emphasis added).
A Christian pastor can either rule, or he can have the reputation of ruling; but he cannot do both. Real ruling involves a sinking of the self, a working through others, a doing of nothing that someone else can be got to do. The reputation of ruling leads sooner or later to the loss of real influence, and to the decline of the activities of the church itself (Strong ST 908).
Often, though by no means always, what is left behind after a man of God’s departure from a church is a good indicator of the type of ministry he engaged while serving the church. Here we can appeal once again to Strong. He notes,
That minister is most successful who gets the whole body to move, and who renders the church independent of himself. The test of his work is not while he is with them, but after he leaves them. Then it can be seen whether he has taught them to follow him, or to follow Christ; whether he has led them to the formation of habits of independent Christian activity, or whether he has made them passively dependent upon himself (Strong ST 908).
Only God’s power at work within can enable us to follow the path of Christ; it is not natural to empty our egos. When Christian leaders exhibit the humility of Christ, God is glorified, the church is edified, and the Gospel is advanced. We are not popes but bondservants of Jesus Christ. The apostles did not appoint successors and neither should men of God be concerned about their legacy in ministry other than the one Paul describes in 2 Timothy 4:6-8,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Having recently completed a discussion of Plato’s Republic with a terrific group of college students, I am once again reminded of its beauty and depth. When teaching the Republic, I am always struck by the seemingly innocent back and forth of the dialogue that inevitably entices us straight into discussing life’s deepest issues. I am convinced that the genius of Plato is that we, in a way, cannot help but become a participant in his dialogue.
The influence and importance of the Republic as a single work is hard to match. It finds its way onto every self-respecting list of the most influential books, often ranking in the top five. Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Many philosophical topics that are live discussions today are traceable to Plato’s Republic. In short, the Republic is really, really good and worth our time.
One of my favorite discussions to have with students in reading the Republic is Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the dialogue, the main character, Socrates, tells a story according to which people are held captive within a cave and are bound such that they are only able to see the shadows on the wall of the cave. They have been there their whole lives, and so they think the shadows are all there is. It is possible to escape, but it is exceedingly difficult and no one really wants to because they are not sure there is anything beyond the shadows. The way of escape is an arduous journey, and, if one is successful, one encounters blinding light. It is so bright it’s painful. It takes some time for one’s eyes to adjust, but once they do, one sees the true world—the world as it really is.
The allegory is intended to illustrate how philosophy can free us from a fixation on the world of sensation. We are, in a way, bound by the shifting and ever-changing material world—the shadowlands, to use C.S. Lewis’ turn of phrase. For Plato, the material world is not necessarily evil, but it is a world in a constant state of flux and change. Thus, one cannot have genuine knowledge or even say true things, because before one finishes one’s inquiry, the world has already changed. The true world—what Plato calls the world of the forms—is the world of eternal and fixed ideas. This is a world discoverable not by empirical inquiry, but by philosophy.
In the shifting material world, one experiences things that have beauty to some degree. Or one may experience things that are somewhat good. But these are, at best, the mere shadows of beauty and goodness as they really are in themselves. In the world of the forms, one experiences beauty and goodness themselves along with the rest of the forms. And by knowing beauty and goodness themselves (as well as the rest of the forms), we are able to live well—at least, better—in the material world since there will be less confusion about what is beautiful, good, etc.
At this point in our discussion of the Republic, I always try to show how profound this is. What motivation to do philosophy! You can gaze on beauty and goodness themselves in doing philosophy! But here’s the thing. As good as that is, there’s something better still. For the Christian philosopher, there’s something (or someone!) that stands behind the forms.
I’m definitely interested in philosophy for its own sake. That is, I think the philosophical pursuit has intrinsic value and is a good. But, if I’m honest, my interest in philosophy sometimes waxes and wanes. What remains is a deep longing in my soul for something that makes sense of it all. Plato’s view, though interesting, strikes me as ultimately unsatisfying. For him, the forms, like beauty and goodness, just exist without any further explanation. They just eternally are. But why? Is this really all there is?
In a Christian view, we can gaze on beauty and goodness, and, given their value, we should do so. But we should not forget what stands behind it all. We can look further and gaze on God Himself as the ultimate foundation. This strikes me as far more satisfying in that this God created you and me to know Him. The ultimate metaphysic of reality loves you.
So here’s the vision. I do philosophy as a Christian because, for any philosophical question I may pursue, it seems to me that God stands behind that question as the ultimately satisfying answer. When I get out of the cave, as it were, I find God. It all leads to God, and this truly satisfies.
This is not, of course, to say that deep philosophical reflection is necessary for knowing God. We can certainly meet God in the mundane. It is to say, however, that philosophy done Christianly may be motivated by deep devotion and the desire to know God more fully. Moreover, philosophy done Christianly results in worship. The knowledge of God and philosophy are certainly not at odds. We should, as Christians, be interested in philosophical reflection precisely because it leads us to the God who is the foundation of all.
 Process and Reality, p. 39 [Free Press, 1979]
In 2016, Mercy Me released the single “Dear Younger Me.” The popular song is birthed from lead singer Bart Millard’s reflections on a troublesome childhood. The message considers the advice he might offer were he afforded the opportunity to speak to the 8-year-old version of himself. That idea is most intriguing. Consider the possibility of giving counsel to your younger self, especially in light of pastoral ministry. What advice might a seasoned pastor offer the younger version of himself as he begins pastoral ministry?
In my case, I would impress on that young man the importance of intentionally learning to relate to God’s people as a shepherd. Scripture often describes God’s people as a “flock” and “His sheep.” Coupled with the charge given to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3), it seems fitting for the pastor to grasp some important shepherding principles as he leads his congregation. While the list of such principles could be lengthy, I would suggest these five “musts” to my younger self beginning to shepherd the people of God.
1. A good shepherd must be compassionate.
Sheep are sensitive, fragile creatures that require a measure of gentleness. They can become distraught, easily disoriented, and filled with despair. A good shepherd must be mindful of their fragility in order to lead and care for his flock well. There is a clear and present danger of callousness in pastoral ministry. The regularity with which you are exposed to people in vulnerable stages of life can lead to a hardened heart, losing sensitivity to the dangers surrounding the sheep. The antidote for callousness is compassion. A good shepherd must be compassionate toward his sheep if he is to serve them and lead them effectively in Kingdom ministry for the glory of God.
2. A good shepherd must be patient.
Sheep are senseless, frustrating creatures that can try the patience of the most caring and disciplined shepherd. A casual reading of Exodus and Numbers reveals how easily Israel was deceived by either themselves or others. The people quickly turned to idolatry while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. They constantly complained about circumstances, consistently questioned leadership, and refused to enter Canaan even though they possessed the presence of God and the promise of His deliverance. Scripture recounts that they reasoned among themselves to return to Egypt as slaves. It is hard to imagine a level of senselessness greater than when one desires slavery over following God in faith.
Moses’ relationship with the people highlights the need for patience in a shepherd. For the most part, Moses sets the example well, but even he grew weary beneath the load of senseless behavior. In one act of anger and frustration, Moses disobeyed the Lord, and it cost him dearly. After shepherding Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, he would not join the sheep in the grazing fields of Canaan. Instead, he would die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Learn from Moses’ shepherding example. There are times in pastoral ministry when frustration with the sheep you serve will be overwhelming. You must learn to be patient. Failure to do so will only serve to bury you on Nebo and keep you from ever entering Canaan.
3. A good shepherd must be firm.
Sheep are stubborn, foolish creatures. Rarely, if ever, do sheep discern the presence of a dangerous predator. Often, one will wander from the flock and hardly seem to be aware of its vulnerability. Indeed, much of the history of Israel seems to be one bad decision after another. Refusal to heed Joshua and Caleb’s counsel to enter Canaan, the desire for a king like the surrounding nations, and compromise with pagan peoples within their borders are just a few of the plethora of the poor decisions of God’s people.
Pastoral ministry is one of the most difficult tasks known to man. It is the nature of humanity to rebel. This stubborn streak in God’s sheep often emerges as the shepherd attempts to guide them along the Lord’s path. A good shepherd must learn to balance his compassion with strong leadership, and his gentleness with firmness. Ultimately, the responsibility and accountability of a good shepherd is to the Great Shepherd who commands our loyalty and obedience, whether popular or not. Be gentle, because sheep are fragile; but also be firm, because sheep are stubborn.
4. A good shepherd must be loyal.
Sheep are relational, familial creatures. The bond between a shepherd and sheep can be quite strong. Such a relationship demands loyalty. Sheep need a shepherd who is intentionally committed to them. Pastor, be careful to guard your heart. The temptation to be envious and covet a flock other than your own can be immense. It is easy to desire another flock when they appear to be more appealing and healthy than yours. Do not be so easily fooled. Every flock has sensitive, senseless, stubborn, and sick sheep; and every shepherd faces the same issues. Be loyal to the Great Shepherd and to the flock over which He has made you an overseer. Certainly, He can move you wherever He desires, but unless/until He does, remain loyal to sheep He has given you to serve.
5. A good shepherd must be diligent.
Sheep are treasured, favored creatures. The Great Shepherd loves His sheep. Such royal devotion demands a resolute diligence from those who serve the sheep. Pastor, no one loves your church more than God, and because God loves your church, she deserves your diligence. Study well. Invest deeply. Serve all. Work hard. Do all of this unto the people of God, but for the glory of God.
God has made you an overseer of His flock. He treasures them. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”; they are “a people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). Your church is His church, your flock is His flock, and both God and His people demand your diligence, loyalty, leadership, patience, and compassion. Listen carefully, young man: Start well and finish strong, faithfully shepherding the sheep of God!