Long-time pastor and New Testament scholar Hershael York is the new dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Here a collection of his articles, interviews and more.
Editors’ note: This article was adapted from the new eBook from Southern Equip and The Gospel Coalition, Porn and the Pastor: The Life and Death Consequences of Addiction in Ministry, edited by Jeff Robinson and Garrett Kell. The book is available for free download.
You’re a pastor and you have a porn problem. You know something has to be done about your sin. Our goal for this chapter is to answer, “How do you (as a pastor) fight this sin?” I hope to pull you out of the ditch and give you a hopeful direction.
Porn struggles are addictions—something harmful that you habitually return to because of your lack of self-control. Let Scripture speak into this. Terms like desires run amok or voluntary slavery help to make sense of your struggle. You’ve voluntarily chosen this sin, and have done it so often that your desires for porn rule your heart and mess up your life.
One principle will undergird everything—as a sinner, you need God’s grace, just like every member of your church. The lie is you’re a super-Christian so you don’t need help. As a pastor, someone who teaches God’s Word to God’s people, you are marked by a greater maturity than the rest (Titus 1:5-9). But depravity corrupts you, just like every believer in your church (Rom. 3:11-12). Pride, selfishness, anger, self-pity, self-righteousness, idolatry—like a drop of poison in the King’s cup, these sins seep into your heart, and dull the effectiveness of your ministry. Grace—God’s undeserved favor—is something you teach, but also something you need. God’s grace triumphs over sin, and you need God’s help to get rid of your porn problem.
Building a solid firewall
Picture a hospital scene, where a man rushes in, screaming, “I’m bleeding! Help me! I’m going to die!” Now imagine me as the triage nurse, looking him directly in the eyes, saying, “Calm down and tell me about your struggles. Why are you so scared?” That would be ridiculous, right? A proper response to acute bleeding is to stop the bleeding and put all the other issues aside temporarily. So it is with porn struggles—we’ll address heart issues, accountability, faith, and other things later. First things first—we’ve got to stop the tide of pornography from seeping into your heart and mind by building a solid, impenetrable firewall. The goal is to let nothing in.
Don’t think that because you are a pastor you’re beyond using the common means that porn strugglers typically use. Pastors who overestimate themselves, and underestimate their sin, get themselves in trouble. Rather, you need to be defined by “sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3) about your sin. See sin for what it is, even in your life—self-deceiving, dumbing down your spiritual senses, fooling you into thinking you can handle this on your own.
The goal is to cut off access to pornography. Be brutal about halting access. A passive approach won’t work. The devil is too smart. He’ll take advantage of your weaknesses. Jesus insists that you need a radical approach to your sin.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt. 5:28-30)
Jesus’ metaphors are very active and violent—tear out your eye; cut off your hand. He’s not passive when it comes to sin. How aggressive are you when it comes to fighting your sin? Have you grown so comfortable with it, that you tolerate it too much? Have you lost that edginess that’s needed to fight your porn problem?
Picture your sinful flesh as a dragon, a hungry beast who is never satisfied with just a little. Your goal is to starve the beast. Literally, put it to death (Gal. 5:24) and make no provision for it (Rom. 13:14).
Be wise about building a firewall. If you are struggling with porn, you’ve shown that you shouldn’t trust yourself. A good rule of thumb—protect yourself from yourself. Be willing to sacrifice your freedom for the sake of your holiness. Any freedom you allow yourself on this issue will be taken advantage of by the devil and your flesh. Build your firewall as if you don’t trust your sinful nature to do you good, but, as expected, your sin will wreak havoc in your life.
Do you have basic internet filter programs on your computer, like Covenant Eyes? If not, what is getting in the way of your doing so? Pride? Over-confidence? Shame? Have you made a habit of guarding your eyes? Do you look away when you see something, or do you linger? Danger zones are typical times and places where you stumble. Are you rearranging your life such that it is harder to access porn in those danger zones? For example, if you access porn while alone in your office, shift the screen on your desk so it is visible at all times. What about your phone? Have you set up the restrictions on your phone so you can’t access dangerous content? If not, why not? Do you proactively make plans when you are vulnerable? Or are you letting your struggle get the upper hand? If you fall, do you have a plan for what to do next?
Repentance, faith and forgiveness
When you stumble, do you feel bad about the sin (guilty feelings), and then return to it like a dog returning to its vomit (Prov. 26:11)? Or do you experience a godly sorrow for what you’ve done? If you are grieved over this sin, that’s a good sign. Godly sorrow leads to repentance and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (1 Cor. 7:9-11).
Ask yourself, have you genuinely renounced this sin? Or are you going through the motions—confession, scrambling to make changes—but are not really grieved over the sin? Repentance is turning your back on sin. But it’s more than that. It’s a change of heart that leads to a change of life. Does your life evidence repentance? It’s not just in what you do (like taking practical steps to build a firewall), but also your heart attitude (grief over this sin).
What should be most intimidating is the thought that your sin of pornography consumption is an offense against a holy, righteous, morally pure God (Ps. 51:4). Does that thought scare you? Does that grieve you?
The absence of sin is not the same thing as faith. We don’t trust in a system of redemption, but a personal Savior. I know you know this. I know you preach this.
But it is possible to preach truth each week, and not let it affect your heart. Do you feel distant from Christ? Does your faith feel hallow? If this describes you, you’re in a spiritually dangerous position. Turn to Christ right now, and pledge to fight every temptation that cuts off your heart from the truth of Jesus.
No matter how far gone you are in your sin, don’t ever forget that even for you, there is forgiveness in Christ. Pornography is not the unforgiveable sin, even for the pastor. “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (Rev. 1:5).
Your internal life
Consider a few more battlefronts with your heart and mind. First, there are lies and self-justifications that perpetuate your sin.
- “I can control it.”
- “I’ll do it just one more time.”
- “Pornography hurts no one but me.”
- “I need this. I’m burning and can’t bear it anymore. Something has to give.”
- “If my life were better, I wouldn’t be tempted to do this.”
- “I’m stressed out, and I need some relief.”
- “God will forgive, so it doesn’t matter.”
Do you recognize any of these lies? What are the lies you tell yourself? The devil wants you to buy into self-justifications and lies because they perpetuate your sin. Repent of the lies. Put them to death. Don’t believe their sparkly promises. Put your hope in the promises of God (Exod. 14:14; Isa. 40:10, 29; 54:10, 17; Ps. 18:3; 46:1-2; Matt. 6:31-33; John 3:16, 36; Eph. 3:16-19; Phil. 4:6-7).
Second, as pictures and images get imbedded in the hard-drive of your mind and heart, they become a playground for your sinful flesh. Your corrupt imagination can take those images, and turn them into a full movie-reel. You arouse yourself and indulge yourself as you do so. As we’ll talk about more in a moment, accountability shouldn’t be limited to your external behavior, but should reach into your mind and heart. Does your accountability partner ask you about your fantasy life?
Third, ongoing struggles with porn can lead to battles with doubt. Sometimes the building up of guilt and shame over the course of this struggle can make you condemn yourself (“What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I get my act together?”) and second guess God (“Is God going to help me?” “Have I messed up so badly that God doesn’t care?”). Pastors struggle with doubt. Don’t be ashamed to admit this fact, because it’s true. As you struggle with porn, the evidence of your sin stacks up and you wonder, “Maybe I’m not saved after all,” or “Maybe God has abandoned me,” or some other dreadful thought. Unbelief takes root.
Fight the unbelief. Don’t bottle this up. Tell others about your porn struggles, and the doubt that follows. If you are confident in what Christ has done for you on the cross, and his imputed righteousness for you, don’t let doubt get the upper hand. Lean in on the truth that you are justified in Christ.
Fourth, we know that there are desires and motives that drive what we do. As heart-oriented creatures (Prov. 20:5; Matt. 12:33-37; Luke 6:43-45), we want to know the deep purposes of our hearts. Do you act out because of stress? Are you longing to be affirmed? Are you struggling with the boredom of a pietistic life and want more adventure? Are you longing for more intimacy and creating false paradises? Are you using porn as a means of escape? The reasons are never simple, and often as you map out the topography of your sin, you see that porn struggles are not just about lust. What drives you to act out?
The war of your desires sits behind everything—every deed, thought, feeling and action. The flesh’s desires are battling the Spirit’s desires. As you kill off your carnal desires, you retrain your desires for more holy things. Is your greatest affection for Christ, or are you running on spiritual fumes? Training takes time. Every step of obedience, every moment of joy in the Lord, every lie put to death, every promise of God owned, every tinge of affection that grows for Christ—each of these trains your heart, and moves you in a holier direction. You probably preach this truth to your members, but now you get to live by it.
Relationships and accountability
The pastorate is very isolating. The pressure of appearing godly, and expectations placed upon you, make it hard to figure out where to get help. Don’t believe the lie that you can go at this alone. Don’t let the fear of revealing your sin get the upper hand. No sin should ever be fought in isolation. If you agree with me, then the question is who do you tell?
If it is possible to share with someone within your church, I think that’s best. As a shepherd, you have wounds, hurts and struggles. Let fellow leaders or church members take the responsibility given to them in Scripture to take care of you. Is there another pastor in the church who you can tell about your struggles? If not, is there a mature Christian man in the church to whom you can confess? Ask them to hold you accountable, but take it upon yourself to be proactive in going to them with your sin. Don’t let the overwhelming burdens of the pastorate be an excuse for you to not deal with your sin.
If you can’t tell someone in your church, find a professional counselor in your community, who has experience helping porn strugglers, and who can walk with you through these struggles.
Your wife should also know about your struggles. The first ditch you can fall into is not to tell her anything because you are ashamed, and you don’t want to hurt her. Or, you could err by tell her everything. In a cathartic effort to cleanse your conscience, you tell all without regard to what it does to her soul. Think of your wife’s weaknesses, not just physically (cf. 1 Peter 1:7), but also emotionally. If she stands as your primary accountability, the emotional toll of your confessions over time will degrade the trust in your marriage. Maybe not initially, but with time, I’ve always seen it get to this place. That’s why I think your main accountability should be another man, whom your wife can access directly when she has questions or concerns. Let another guy bear the brunt of your struggles, not your wife.
She should know if you are struggling, but only in general terms. Think in terms of a dirty laundry bag—she needs to know the size and shape of the problem, but not the details of what’s in the bag.
What then is her role? To be an ally with you against your sin. She prays for you. She stays aware of the sin in general terms. She helps you porn-proof your life and home with a substantial firewall on all devices in the home. She enjoys a rich sex-life with you. She helps you to find joy in Christ and in life. You get to do all of this together.
As you share with her, realize that the feeling for her is one of betrayal. That’s the most common word I hear wives use. Porn degrades the trust in marriage. So show your wife you’ll fight this sin and work to rebuild trust.
Fight the war, not just one battle
It might seem a bit much to do all of this, but any military strategist knows you can’t win a war by fighting on just one front. You tactically plan for a multi-front war—a robust firewall, repentance and faith, forgiveness, good accountability with men, rebuilding trust with your wife, and putting to death lies, doubts and fantasies.
The blessing of being an undershepherd is that there is a Chief Shepherd. He’s ultimately in charge, not you. Your soul, just like the souls of everyone else, is in his hands. As you fight this war, remember that God has not forgotten you. He’s by your side.
Deepak Reju is the pastor of biblical counseling and family ministry at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He’s married to Sarah and has five children. He’s authored She’s Got the Wrong Guy (2017) and Pornography: Fighting for Freedom (2018).
Current needs require that we proclaim the truth that biblical male leadership is not about self-preservation and self-glorification. Rather, it is about protecting and providing for others. Biblical manhood is about service and sacrifice. This becomes apparent when biblical manhood is defined according to the perfection of Christ rather than according to the imperfection of men.
“Biblical manhood” is a term often bandied about today in the church as a foil to the inanities of secular liberalism. Secular liberalism lauds the perverse, excuses the obsequious, and demands fealty to the false gods of sexuality, socialism, and status. We correctly point out the problems with the world’s perversity, but is this ever an excuse for bringing in and exalting our own perversity in the guise of being “biblical”? Have too many looked at our representation of Godly manhood as involving gold, guns, and gross historical fallacies, and seen not healthy manhood but hypocritical mysticism?
In his famous novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn pointed out that the real problem we face as human beings is not in the communities who oppose and oppress us. The real problem we face is in the heart of every man. If you think your real enemy is out there, such that if you could only get that laser pointer on his chest and eliminate the threat, then you fundamentally misunderstand the true war in which we are engaged. The enemy is not on the political left or on the political right of you; your true enemy is right in the middle of yourself. Your true opponent is your own heart. Our real enemies are sin, Satan, and death.
In his famous commencement address before Harvard University in 1978, Solzhenitsyn stunned his audience, not by praising the West, but by pointing out its spiritual weakness and vulgar materialism. “The West should not preen at its victory in the Cold War,” he said, “for it lacks ‘manliness’ and courage.” (Never invite a prophet to give a panegyric!)
So, what is true “manliness”? What is biblical manhood? I think some have lauded biblical manhood but have substituted their own ideals and their own foibles for that which is biblical. Fallen Adam is not the exemplar of true manhood! Don’t take Abraham’s self-preserving lies, Judah’s perverse sexual escapades, or Saul’s proud death-dealing efforts as exemplary male virtue. Rather than looking to the First Adam, look to the Last Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:45).
Real biblical manhood is not about demanding what you want, dominating over others, or dallying in selfish sensuality. Being a real man is about obeying God, leading others into excellence in Christ through hearing the Word, and being respectful to the leadership of the Spirit in others. A real man is like Jesus. He doesn’t put others to the sword like Mohammed. No, he climbs up with courage onto the cross that God gives him just like the Lord, Jesus Christ!
And when you look to the teaching of Jesus Christ for who he thinks is an exemplary leader in the faith, prepare to be shocked. Jesus does not laud a son of Israel, a choice man among the chosen people. No, he points out their problems – Even John the Baptist, whom he follows and adores, is classified as being among the “least in the kingdom of God” (Luke 7:28). Instead, Jesus praises one of the occupying soldiers, and a high-ranking one at that. It is this Gentile, this Centurion, who Jesus praises as an exemplar: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).
What does real biblical manhood look like? (By the way, men were created by God to rule. We who are men have been given real yet limited power and authority. And God will hold each one of us responsible for what we do with the gift of authority.) So, what does male leadership, courageous manliness, entail?
Luke 7:1-10 gives us what Jesus, the only perfect Man, thought real manhood looked like. In this passage, the Centurion displays seven characteristics of true manhood, biblical manhood, redeemed manhood—the type of manhood of which Christ Jesus approved:
- The Centurion is a man characterized by great “faith” (Luke 7:9). Real manhood cannot be grasped except through faith in Jesus.
- This real man honors Jesus Christ. He does not see himself as a Messiah, for he sees Jesus as his superior (v. 6). There is no “Messianic complex” at work here.
- The Centurion uses power, but not for selfish ends. He does not abuse, misappropriate, or glorify self. He does not see himself as “worthy” even to be in the presence of Jesus (vv. 6-7).
- This real man “highly valued” those other human servants whom God gave him to lead and care about (v. 2). He seeks out Jesus to heal his servant (v. 3). He continually serves those who serve him by doing all he can for them.
- The Centurion leads a life of unparalleled virtue. He is “worthy,” as even his natural political enemies testified to Jesus (v. 4). (The significant Greek terms translated as “worthy” in this passage, axios and hikanos, indicate “fittingness” and “sufficiency,” respectively.)
- This real man, whom Jesus lauded as possessing unparalleled faith, loved those who were different from him. This Gentile loved the Jews (v. 5). This man showed no evidence whatsoever of racism. He had a deep appreciation for other human beings who were different. This man showed no evidence whatsoever of racism. He had a deep appreciation for other human beings who were different.
- The Centurion built houses of worship (v. 5). His legacy was to build up the people of God, all of which was ultimately for the glory of God.
Why did the Centurion not want to be in Jesus’ presence? Because he did not feel “worthy” enough. It is not that this man of dignity, authority, and power possessed an inferiority complex. Far from it! He was not a wimpy wallflower. Rather, he understood where true authority lies. True authority, like true glory, begins and ends with God. The Centurion’s assessment was correct, for Jesus in his manhood is worthier than the Centurion ever could be. He was not a wimpy wallflower.
If you want to see what a real man, the perfect man, looks like, don’t look to fallen men. Don’t gaze at the screen or the pulpit or the podium. Instead, look toward the Man of perfection—look to where He is. The real Man is there, on the cross, providing for and protecting others, and preaching and practicing love. Christ Jesus on the cross provides us not only with our salvation but with our definition of real biblical manhood.
Whether you are revitalizing a church in critical condition, planting a new church, or shepherding a flock in stable condition, you will experience the weight of the cross. How do we as shepherds of God’s flock minister with the zeal and the joy of the Gospel while inflicted with our own bone-crushing sorrows? How can we look at our people in the eyes and radiate with Gospel light when our own souls are barely flickering? How can we preach the hopes, promises, and delights of God’s Word when the faith of our own hearts hangs by a thread?
I have asked these questions myself lately while in the midst of a particularly discouraging season. In the past month, we have had a beloved member pass away unexpectedly. That same week, our former pastor (who desired to stay a member once he retired) had a massive heart attack, but thankfully survived. Then, a few days later his wife had problems with breathing and I found myself at the hospital again in the early morning hours. We were right in the thick of a delicate and painful church discipline situation which has been (and still is while writing this) very taxing. Less important but still weighty, our house was broken into. Intermingled are desires for church growth, maturity of the body, dissatisfaction with my own preaching, knowledge of a member who is not feeling connected, and the desire to be a faithful husband and daddy. And all of those weights seem to intensify personal struggles such as the need for approval, comparing myself to other larger churches and more successful preachers, and finding significance in lesser things than in my Savior alone.
If you are not discouraged right now, you will be. If you are coming out of a season of despair, then take a stronger hold of the confession of your faith while the seas are calm. And if you are feeling the weights and burdens of shepherding like I am right now, then marvel with me at these redemptive truths:Cry out to the Lord because he always hears and redeems his people.
I cannot think of anything more glorious than the reality that God’s whole attention is inclined to the cries and groans of his people. Yet, it is hard for us to cry out to the Lord. It means we have reached our limits. It is a lethal blow to our pride. It costs us our control over every aspect and every circumstance. It demands a deep level of emotion and affection that is hard to display. Nevertheless, a glorious God has invited us to cry out to him in our distress and has promised that he will always hear us.
Jesus expected that a faithful life that displays the Gospel would produce seasons of weariness so much so that he promised we could cast our burdens onto him and receive rest (Matthew 11.28). When the Israelites groaned and cried for help in Exodus 2, God heard and remembered his covenant with them and delivered them from their distress.
Amazingly, for the believer, God hears a better and more righteous groan! As we groan and cry out for the Lord, the Son intercedes for us as our perfect High Priest (Hebrews 7.25). And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness to pray by interceding with groans too deep for words (Romans 8.26-27)! And, it is by the Holy Spirit that we can cry “Abba! Father!” as adopted sons confidently and boldly approaching the throne of grace (Romans 8.15; Hebrews 4.16).
Your people, who are also suffering, need a shepherd who cries out to God. As you cry out in your own suffering, you are leading your people to the source of all their hope and joy. As the God of all comfort comforts you in your suffering, know that he is equipping you to comfort your people in the midst of their afflictions with the comfort you have received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 1.3-7).You are carrying in the body the death of Jesus in order to produce life in others.
A Shepherd of God’s flock is called to lay his life down for the sheep. They are not to lord over their faith. Instead they are to work and grind and suffer for their joy in Christ. Paul describes his own Gospel ministry strikingly,
“[We are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” 2 Corinthians 4.10-12
Paul saw the effectiveness of his own ministry to produce the life of Christ in others woven into his own sufferings and afflictions. They were not detached circumstances that he just had to fight through. Quite the contrary! He saw his afflictions and sufferings as the means that produced life in other people. This is a radical view of suffering and ministry to say the least!
Carrying Jesus’ death in his own body was sweet fellowship for Paul and was the foretaste to sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. Because of this glorious hope, we can minister in the midst of our afflictions knowing confidently that they are producing life in others and achieving for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4.17)!
Could it be that we bemoan the very tool that God uses in our life to transform those whom we shepherd? Are we too quick to turn away from the God of our trials and his promises when he means to draw us into deeper fellowship in the midst of all our afflictions? As you carry the death of Jesus in your bodies, friends, know that a full display of eternal grace in the presence of a radiant Savior awaits those who endure to the end.Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest.
Jesus took on flesh in order to become our sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 2.14-18). He came in order to experience the same suffering and temptation of those he would rescue. And, though the seed of the serpent bruised his heel, he came out victorious by destroying the devil and delivering his people from lifelong slavery to the fear of death. This is absolutely spectacular.
Coming to Jesus in your own affliction is all-satisfying because he knows the loneliness you feel. He understands the counseling situation gone horribly wrong. He has experienced heartache when the crowds rejected his preaching. He looked into Satan’s eyes and resisted his most robust temptations and lies. He knows what it feels like to have your life threatened and taken. He has been misrepresented. His character has been drug through the mud. He carried his own burdensome cup to his Father in prayer while his friends fell asleep. And he suffered all of this in order to help all of those who are being tempted.
In your trials and afflictions be comforted by a Savior who experienced your trials and afflictions and has the life-giving power to rescue you and help you in your darkest hour.Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ.
Paul proclaims with the zeal of heaven at the end of Romans 8 the eternal power of God’s undying love in Christ. The anchor of our souls is the the absolute power of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ.The Sovereign Creator of the universe is defending you by the blood of Jesus against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
There is no condemnation! You have been freed by the blood of Christ! You are more than conquerors through him who loved us! Jesus is seated at the right hand of God interceding for us, leading us, shepherding us, feeding us, crying out for us, and holding our faith and our lives together by the power of his own blood and resurrection.
Though we are being killed all the day long and are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39).
I know you have heard these things before. But afflictions have a way of inducing a lethal memory loss of the truths that are meant to sustain us. We are never promised separation from trials and afflictions while at home in the body. What we are promised is that we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
I’m always amazed at contrary the world is to the Christian life. I’m thinking specifically about how the world will define, almost without fail, the best way forward in life as the way of ease. That is: The path of least resistance is, by definition, the right path to choose.
This is not so in God’s economy. The Bible is full of reminders about how, in the call of God, things will be difficult rather than easy, complex rather than simple, and strenuous rather than leisurely. Indeed, it’s for good reasons that the Bible often calls us to endure and persevere — conditions irrelevant for times of ease.
We get a powerful picture of why God orchestrates things this way when we remember Moses’ words of merciful warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:11–19:
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.
Beware times of ease, Moses warns, for it is uniquely then that we are tempted to forget God (notice how Moses says nothing of the Israelites forgetting God in the “great and terrifying wilderness”). And the result of forgetting God is to “surely perish.” Indeed, the stakes could not be higher.
So it is that God brings into our lives “heavy providences” as a means of nurturing in us “God remembrance.” I call these circumstances “providences” because it’s God who brings them. I call them “heavy” because, well, that’s what they are — circumstances that are not easy and call for a deep dependence on God for his strength to endure. It is fitting that God would operate this way. Knowing that this most exalts His holy character and results in our eternal good, God will have His people depend only on him.
We need to be mercifully weaned from this world so that we can see something of the glory to be revealed.Darkest of days
One such heavy providence came into my life a few years ago when my four school-age children and I said goodbye to their mother and my wife of sixteen years at the end of her nearly five-year battle with breast cancer. Just after 7 p.m. on February 2, 2014, Julia Pohlman received the “outcome of [her] faith, the salvation of [her soul]” (1 Pet. 1:9).
In the final moments of Julia’s earthly life and throughout her cancer fight, we were reminded of how fleeting our life on earth is. Through surgeries, CT scans, PET scans, MRIs, blood draws, and near-weekly chemotherapy treatments, we were reminded that this world is not our home. And when I stood at the graveside of my beloved, pleading with the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort to help our grieving family, never has heaven felt so real.
Cancer, perhaps unlike anything else, has a way of focusing your attention on eternal realities. And this, of course, is good. We need to be mercifully weaned from this world so that we can see something of the glory to be revealed.The American Dream makes it difficult
I share this story because I believe the American church desperately needs this perspective on life — the perspective captured in the profoundly simple hymn that sings, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” But by and large, the evangelical church in America sings, “This world is my home and I’m putting down roots!” The words of the prophet Amos are a solemn warning to us today:
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion. . . . Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (Amos 6:1, 4–6)
What both the church and the world need are Christians who identify as pilgrims, feel like sojourners, and exist as exiles. When people look at us, do they see a people gloriously uneasy in this world because we’re longing for another?Go hard after God
Of course, we long for the city of God because we long for God. He is our great pursuit. Knowing this helps this sojourner rejoice in heavy providences, for God is using them to nurture in me a worshipful remembrance of Him — the One in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).
Editors’ note: This article was originally published in Tabletalk.
Mike Pohlman is assistant professor of Christian preaching and chair of the Department of Christian Preaching at SBTS and executive director of Team Julia.