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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.
Since the day of Pentecost and the beginnings of the Church, persecution against the church has been a reality. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death for his bold proclamation of the gospel. The apostles were threatened not to “preach in this name,” which is to say the name of Jesus. James the apostle was killed by Herod to gain political favor.
However, persecution was not a new phenomenon when the church began. There are numerous examples of the persecution of the people of God in the Old Testament. Jesus had promised his followers, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
Indeed, Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of persecution—a necessary one for our salvation. His resurrection, in turn, was the greatest response to the persecution and rejection of the world. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we find the greatest answer for the church today as it faces persecution throughout the world.
So how should Christians pray for their persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world? I would like to offer a few suggestions to help us.Understand the nature of persecution
In western culture, we can sometimes use the word “persecution” rather loosely. We might call it persecution when kids are not allowed to pray or study the Bible in public schools. We might call it persecution when a business uses the words “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the month of December. We might consider it persecution when someone is told not to pray in Jesus’ name in a public setting or when a worker is not allowed to display a copy of the Bible at work.
Whether these are instances of persecution or not, I will leave it to the reader to decide. I am not saying that they are not. We might say that they are at least indications of attempts to segregate expressions of Christian faith from the public sphere. However, when we compare such limitations on faith expression with the fact that in some countries churches are being burned, Christians are being killed, families are losing their homes, children, and their livelihoods for the sake of Christ, we are forced to ask the question again, “What is persecution, really?”
Again, Jesus said that if they had persecuted Him, they would persecute us also. As we look at the life of Christ, we will discover perhaps what He meant by the word persecution. We see that Jesus, for the sake of his preaching and teaching, was ridiculed, lied about, rejected by men, illegally tried, unjustly condemned, mocked, beaten, and killed by crucifixion in an attempt to silence Him. If any of these types of things have happened to us, we might justifiably say we have been persecuted. It may be helpful to us to distinguish between what is persecution and what is spiritual inconvenience or annoyance. Again, I will let the reader make that distinction under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.Understand the reality of persecution in today’s world
Usually our understanding of the nature of persecution is based on perspective. If we only see persecution as we think it exists in the USA or the Western World, our understanding of worldwide persecution will likely be skewed. It can be argued that we owe it to our persecuted brothers and sisters in the world to at least make an attempt to understand what they are facing.
There are a variety of resources that are available to us to understand persecution in today’s world. Organizations such as The Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors USA provide information about the persecuted church worldwide and list and describe countries where Christian persecution is most witnessed and experienced. Mission agencies often post articles regarding persecution on their websites.
The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has information about persecution throughout the world under the “Research” tab on its website. A simple search of any trusted Christian website may yield a number of articles that have been posted which will serve as resources for understanding worldwide Christian persecution. Simply reading a variety of missionary biographies can give us a new perspective on how God uses persecution to advance the gospel. Adoniram Judson, John Paton, Jim Elliot and the Ecuador martyrs, among others, are good examples.Pray specifically and discerningly
Armed with information about the persecuted church in the world that we have received from sources such as those listed above, we can pray specifically for the real needs of persecuted Christians. The next question we must ask, however, is “How do we pray?”
Should we pray that persecution stop? Should we pray that there be unhindered freedom of religion for Christians everywhere in the world? Should we pray that no one dies? The temptation is to pray such prayers. We certainly do not want a brother or sister who loves Christ as we do to suffer. In a perfect world we would not want it to be so. However, we certainly know that we do not live in a perfect world. It was this imperfect world that Jesus was referring to in his high priestly prayer in John 17 when He said “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)
While the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the evil one exist simultaneously in the world, there will be persecution. Jesus and the Word of God make it clear that we can expect this and biblical and church history teach us that we should see it as permitted as part of God’s plan for His church and the expansion of the gospel. It is also clear that some are chosen for martyrdom. The reasons for this are God’s and we should not pray against it.Know specific needs
Here are some specific ways to pray for the persecuted church in the world:
- Pray for the wisdom of the persecuted church in the preaching of the gospel and evangelism.
- Pray for boldness for Christians who are persecuted for their faith.
- Pray for secret house churches that are meeting daily throughout the world.
- Pray for Christian brothers and sisters who are imprisoned for the sake of the gospel.
- Pray for specific examples of persecuted believers or churches that you read or hear about in various parts of the world.
- Pray for the power of the gospel to transform oppressive nations throughout the world by name.
- Pray for God’s grace for those for whom God has chosen the way of extreme suffering or death for his glory.
- Pray that the burden for the persecuted church will be placed on your heart more heavily.
- Pray that we will pray about persecuted believers in the world according to God’s will.
- Pray that we will be ready to give an answer for our faith in Christ should we be chosen for persecution.
As you pray for the persecuted church, consider it an obligation to pray with knowledge and discernment of God’s purposes in the world. By all means, pray!
This article was previously published on Reaching & Teaching.
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by John Cartwright, Gabriel Etzel, Christopher Jackson, and Timothy Paul Jones (Baker Academic 2017, $19.99)
Review by RuthAnne Irvin
Humans interact with more technology today than ever before. Most traditional forms of education, media, and communication shifted with technological advances, that brought both advantages and prospective challenges. One of those advantages is the opportunity for distance education. Students can enroll in courses from home, eliminating the need to uproot their family, career, or other circumstances in order to pursue an education. In recent years, the growth of online theological education has increased as more institutions offer degrees taught online by seminary faculty and staff.
In their new book, Teaching the World: Foundations for Online Theological Education, John Cartwright, Gabriel Etzel, Christopher Jackson, and Southern Seminary’s Timothy Paul Jones collaborate to bring a diverse collection of essays about the origins of online theological education, the benefits, the objections, and prospective ways to produce a fruitful online theological education experience for distance learning students.
The main argument for online education, the authors write, is Paul’s example in his epistles in the New Testament. They introduce the topic discussing the external and internal reasons institutions often initiate online learning programs. External factors such as student body growth, monetary needs, or growth in resources all affect the decision to offer an online program. Internal issues, such as theological and pedagogical ideas that change over time, often affect the decision to start or terminate online programs.
As institutional leadership begin to think through how to offer the best online theological education, the authors use Paul’s epistles as both an example to follow, and as cautions for potential issues with distance education. They discuss issues ranging from the power of presence with a physical classroom, the importance of place and education, and social presence theory. One common objection to online education is the priority of presence, but throughout Teaching the World the authors provide a fair and balanced examination to both online and in person theological education.
“Giving priority to traditional, face-to-face formats does not preclude the use of online formats in theological education, just as the primacy of visitation in Paul’s apostolic ministry did not preclude the use of the epistle,” they write.
Online theological education’s legitimacy correlates with Paul’s epistles, which form much of the authors’ arguments for online learning. Instead of standing as separate instances of instruction, the authors emphasize how Paul’s epistles held significance as “not merely supplemental to his visits but were rather an integral part of his grater cohesive apostolic mission.”
The authors continue the book with essential aspects of a successful online program, including the integrity and spiritual leadership required of professors. The role of a professor in the spiritual formation of his or her students is an imperative aspect of education, and it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure the professor is equipped to train students both academically and encourage them spiritually.
“For the online faculty member, servant leadership through one’s courses and interaction with students must become a way of life, as the image of God affects all reads of life, including relationships to God, to others, and to God’s creation.”
This book is a good starting place for those interested in learning more about the necessary foundational theories and historical arguments for and against online theological education. Students taking online courses will benefit from the authors’ thorough examination of the benefits and implications of distance education. Each author writes from their experience in education and ministry, and they provide a robust selection of topics for readers, including application and practical questions at the end of each chapter, creating an immediate opportunity to think critically about each topic.
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.
- First Last
If God is sovereign and all powerful, he must not be good. Or if he is good, then he must not be sovereign and all powerful.
So reason many who believe that there should simply not be any suffering in the world. But even if they understand some suffering in the world, surely an all-powerful and good God would not allow any difficulty to come into the lives of those who are serving him and his people.
Those who reason in this manner are dumbstruck when missionaries suffer setbacks, sickness, or sorrow—paying the ultimate sacrifice through martyrdom is completely inexplicable to them. They sometimes conclude that there is no God, or the One who exists must be powerless to stop evil, or that he is indeed powerful, but is evil himself, and therefore does not wish to stop it. Our sovereign, all-powerful, omnibenevolent God has used suffering to advance his cause and bring glory to himself throughout history and around the world.
The history of missions is filled with stories of those who suffered for his name to advance the kingdom. In Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The best apologists for Christianity in the early days were its martyrs. The anvil breaks a host of hammers by quietly bearing their blows.”
God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in the calling, guiding, and sustaining of missionaries in their work on the field. There is no other reasonable explanation why men and women with higher education, successful careers, meaningful ministries, and extended families would leave everything to go to live in difficult settings, exposing both themselves and their children to tropical diseases and dangers they would not know in the land of their comfort zone. But a right understanding of the call to missions assumes the very real possibility of suffering.God of history
When Adoniram Judson was asking for the hand of his future wife, he wrote to her father:
“I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls, for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?”
Jim Elliot often spoke of the dangers he knew he would face as a missionary in Ecuador’s eastern jungles. After watching a death there, he wrote in his journal, “And so it will come to me one day, I kept thinking. I wonder if that little phrase I used to use in preaching was something of a prophecy: ‘Are you willing to lie in some native hut to die of a disease American doctors never heard of?’”
Given that suffering is so much of the missionary’s life, we have to wonder why any sane person would leave the comforts of home to embrace it. I don’t think he would, any more than anyone would think of leaving a successful business to pastor a local church as a savvy career move. The call of God on the lives of men and women creates an inner sense of the “shoulds and oughts” and a fire shut up in their bones.
Only a sovereign God could so stir men and women to walk away from homes, families, careers, and lifelong dreams to embrace what may very well be a life of suffering; it’s not a choice one makes in a vacuum.
The Bible teaches that God has a plan for your life, and it may be very far removed from any plans you have developed on your own (Psalm 139:16; Eph. 1:11). The Bible records God’s calling of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jonah, and Paul to a life they would never have imagined—or chosen. In more modern contexts we often hear missionaries recounting their call to a life that is counter-intuitive at first, but perfectly understandable in response to his call.What if God’s plan includes martyrdom?
Star athlete, Ed McCully, who won the 1949 National Hearst Oratorical Contest and was unanimously elected to be senior class president at Wheaton, had been accepted into Marquette University Law School. He was working as a hotel night clerk to while in law school. God called him to Ecuador through his study of Nehemiah during a night shift at the hotel the night before he was to begin his second year. He left all he had planned to follow God’s unmistakable call, knowing it would require sacrifice and self-denial. Ed was martyred in the Ecuadorian jungle on January 8, 1956, along with Jim Elliot and three other friends.
Jim Elliot was a fervent missions mobilizer, known for passionate preaching to persuade people to missions. “Our young men are going into the professional fields because they don’t ‘feel called’ to the mission field. We don’t need a call; we need a kick in the pants.” Yet, even this fervent young preacher understood the importance of hearing God’s call before stepping into such a life. He had been recruiting his friend, Pete Fleming, to join him as half of an initial two-man team in Ecuador. Pete hesitated before committing and Jim realized he might have been pushing too hard. He then wisely cautioned him in a letter to consider the challenges and be sure of a missionary call before launching out:
“I have no word for you re: Ecuador. I would certainly be glad if God persuaded you to go with me. But He must persuade you. How shall they preach except they be sent? If the Harvest-Chief does not move you, I hope you remain at home. There are too many walls to leap over not to be fully persuaded of God’s will.”Sovereignty, suffering, and the Bible
We clearly see God’s sovereignty in the Scriptures and throughout the pages of history in the calling of men and women as well as guiding them to the places where he would have them to serve. Syrian Antioch was the first truly intercultural, international, missions-minded church. It was also a church of believers that were so committed to following Christ—even after the suffering and martyrdom that drove them there—that they were first called Christians there. It should be no surprise that it was to that church that the Holy Spirit said to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work of missions. They sent their best teachers to the places He was calling them.
God calls each of us to serve him, and he guides us to the places he wants us to be. In Acts 16, the Holy Spirit redirects Paul and his mission team to the place where he would have them go. He guides his people today in many ways as seen in his calling of young men to youth ministry, guiding youth ministers to transition to associate pastor roles, then to be senior pastors, and later to serve him in some capacity in their retirement. In the same way that he guides pastors from one church to another throughout their ministry career, he stirs, calls, and guides missionaries. Sometimes missionaries move to serve the Lord in other places or in other capacities when he redirects them.
Our sovereign God not only calls and guides, he also sustains those he leads through all the years, tears, and fears of their missionary careers. Would that we had time and space to review the sufferings of missionaries such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, C. T. Studd, and Jim Elliot, along with God’s sovereign sustaining. Those familiar with their stories know that God’s sovereign plan for them included suffering.
In contemporary adoption practice, the adopting parents give a child full rights of inheritance and familial equality with their natural children. Even though the adopted children may have no resemblance to anyone in the family physically, they are accepted and embraced as fully as the other children. The Bible teaches us that when God saves us, he not only adopts us into his family, he then begin begins to conform us to his image. Suffering is often the tool that God uses to shape and fashion us. He knows precisely what we need to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28-30, 12:2; Phil. 3:10; 1-2 Peter).
When his children suffer, it is not cosmic child abuse, it is loving us just as we are, but loving us too much to leave us that way; he uses whatever he knows that we need to begin to take on the family likeness of our Elder Brother.
The Bible teaches us to rejoice in suffering, (Rom. 5:3-4; Acts 5:41), and presents plenty of our biblical heroes surviving and even thriving in and through suffering, such as Job, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The Scriptures speak of the suffering of righteous people, teaching that it is for their good and his glory (Psalms 22, 73; Luke 12:12-19, 13:2-4; Rom. 8:33-39; 2 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 12:2-7).Seed of the church
Even though the world argues that it cannot possibly be for our good, we recognize God’s sovereignty in our suffering—even to the point of martyrdom—and to do so, we need look no farther than the Lord Jesus Himself. Beyond his example of suffering for our salvation, we see in the Bible the good that resulted from the sufferings of others such as Stephen and Paul. The Christian life we have been called to live would be hard to understand and impossible to recognize without suffering. Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
All the martyrs of church history demonstrated the truth of Tertullian’s declaration in Apologeticus, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Throughout Christian history, it has been God’s sovereign plan to expand his kingdom through suffering. Indeed, there is such a close connection between suffering and success, trials and triumph, and pain and praise, that we should not seek to avoid suffering at all costs or keep it hidden when it happens.
Suffering advances the Kingdom in ways inexplicable to modern man. The persecution and martyrdoms of missionaries during the Boxer rebellion, including that of missionaries John and Betty Stam (relative of the late Chip Stam, longtime SBTS professor), were followed by significant advance of Christianity in China. Totalitarian regimes and countless tragic martyrdoms have not extinguished the church, but rather resulted in its growth.
After the martyrdom of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully in Ecuador, news media spread the news around the world. The number of those who volunteered to go to mission fields to take their place is estimated in the thousands, and they came from all over the world to go all over the world. In subsequent years, when the widows would tell their stories and noted the results of so many people surrendering to missions, some remarked that it was obvious why God allowed the men to suffer and die.
Yet, the widows wisely responded that although God had clearly used the events for good, they cautioned against concluding God’s reasons. Elisabeth Elliot said that we may not know until we get to heaven why God allowed the martyrdom, and we have no guarantee that we will be told even then. It is our place to trust our sovereign, all-powerful, all-good God in the meantime. Whatever success or suffering attends their work, missionaries recognize that it is all for our good and his glory, and all he wants is all they want.
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.