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Rod Dreher. How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. New York, NY: Regan Arts, 2015. 320 pp. $29.95.

One of my honors college students asked me last week to identify my favorite epic. Though I have a deep and abiding love for the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, I answered without hesitation: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Nothing, not even Milton’s Paradise Lost, comes close to the monumental scale of Dante’s three-part journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. And yet, despite its epic scale, few works have the power to touch their readers on the most personal and intimate of levels.

So Rod Dreher discovered, to his great and continuing surprise, when he picked up a copy of La Divina Commedia in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Up until that moment, his life hadn’t been going well. He had returned from a sojourn in big city America to his rural Louisiana hometown to tend to his cancer-stricken sister, Ruthie Leming. After her death, he stayed on with his family in hopes of consoling his parents and his nieces, only to find that his decision led to an increase, rather than a resolution, of his sense of estrangement and isolation. To make matters worse, Dreher came down with stress-induced chronic fatigue syndrome, leaving his family to fend for themselves.       

In short, Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative and author of Crunchy Cons (2006) and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) [interview], entered a Dark World, not all that different from the one Dante finds himself in at the beginning of Inferno. The journey toward that crisis moment had been a long and painful one for poet and journalist alike, and Dreher shares his with us in a prose style that balances local color with incisive analysis, sentiment with reflection, pop self-help with painful confession.

Existential Frustration

Though I was naturally eager to get to Dante, I enjoyed, if not savored, the opening chapters in which Dreher recounts the cycle of existential frustration that has dominated his life. Only the coldest of readers could not be moved by Dreher’s attempts to please his good father, who truly loves his son but cannot see him as a different person with his own views, desires, and dreams.

When the sensitive, bookish lad kills a squirrel and is troubled by the sight, his father scorns him and calls him a sissy. When he leaves Louisiana to seek a career, his father sees him as a traitor who has rejected the life he had planned for him. When he and his wife try to impress his family by cooking a fancy bouillabaisse, he is accused of being “uppity” and “inflicting his snooty cosmopolitan tastes on them” (19). To add insult to injury, in all three cases Ruthie sides with her father. Indeed, after Ruthie’s death Dreher learns she’s convinced her daughters that their uncle is a user who cares only about himself and his career and is fundamentally disloyal to his family.

Given his life experiences, it would have been easy for Dreher to paint himself as a victim and blame everyone else for his woes. But neither God nor Dante allows him to do so. Rather, as he descends the levels of the inferno and then ascends the cornices of purgatory alongside the Florentine poet, he comes face to face with his own propensity to make golden calves out of his family and his tradition: in a word, southern ancestral worship. Yes, his father and sister must bear some guilt, but Dreher alone allows himself to become bound to these false idols.

Just as Dante, standing before the Gate of Dis (lower hell), is nearly turned to stone by the face of the Medusa, so Dreher’s memories of his childhood paralyze him and impede his spiritual progress. “My sins,” he comes to realize in a moment of Dantean enlightenment, “always emerged from anger at the unjust way I had been treated and impotent rage at my inability to change my family’s minds or to overcome the power of these memories over my emotions” (112).

Recurring Refrain

In what becomes a recurring refrain throughout the book, Dreher learns what exactly he can and cannot change. “You cannot control other people, but you can control your reaction to them” (66). And that goes for family as well as church. Though raised Methodist, Dreher, whose return to Christian faith was initiated by a visit to Chartres Cathedral in France, converted to Roman Catholicism in his 20s. A decade later, though, he left the Roman Catholic Church for the Orthodox when his journalistic work on the priestly sex scandals caused him to lose faith in the Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy.

While not regretting his embrace of Orthodoxy, Dreher is convicted by Dante’s ability to rage against the corruption of the medieval church while remaining firmly loyal to its leadership and rule of faith. For Dreher, the Divine Comedy becomes, in part, a long search for a proper father figure. Indeed, Dreher’s analysis is most acute when he takes up Dante’s conversations with the heretic Farinata and the sodomite Ser Brunetto Latini.

Both of these anti-fathers lure Dante into a false kind of adoration that promises to supply him with a pseudo-purpose for his existence that doesn’t take into account his true Father in heaven. In the case of the magnificent but arrogant Farinata, Dante must resist the temptation of “keeping up appearances” (119), of acting as if only the earth mattered. As for the literary Brunetto, perhaps the most deceptive speaker in the Inferno, Dante must guard against two erroneous beliefs: that “the purpose of writing is to win worldly fame” and that one “should plot his course through life not by following the divine plan but by seeking his own interests” (142).

Once free from the self-imposed shackles of hell, Dreher moves upward through purgatory, seeking to disentangle himself from the hold of the seven deadly sins. Here, as he does throughout How Dante Can Save Your Life, Dreher gets to the heart of Dante’s understanding of sin as a distortion of love that cuts us off from our true potential and causes us to “worship the thing itself rather than to see the transcendent reality that lies behind the thing” (261).

Though Dreher has far less to say about Paradiso, he correctly highlights one of the chief characteristics of Dante’s heaven: that it is a place where “we are perfected according to our own natures” (273). By the end of his journey, Dreher is empowered to let go of the false “idealized past” (260) he’s carried around with him for years and to accept his own limitations and those of his family.

Just as importantly, he realizes that his childhood home cannot completely cure his feeling of exile. For that he must, like Dante, take a longer and more painful journey to his “true and only home: unity with God, in eternity” (281).

Theologically hungry pastors in Myanmar recently had their souls fed with a large assortment of solid books donated by The Gospel Coalition-International Outreach (TGC-IO). What a pleasure to see the glow of appreciation on their faces! These Kachin pastors serve small, remote churches in the mountains of northern Myanmar (formerly Burma) and in larger urban churches along the Irrawaddy River.

Their resources are few, but hope is rising despite their ongoing oppression as Christians under a Buddhist-dominated dictatorship.

Long-Term Relationship 

Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has a relationship with this people group dating to 1890, when the church ordained and commissioned Ola Hanson to serve among the Kachin people of Burma. He and his wife, Minnie, arrived seven years after the first Kachin believers were baptized. Hanson devoted the next 37 years of his life to learning Jinghpaw, the language of the Kachin. He chose an alphabet and a script to commit the language to writing for the first time to translate the Old and New Testament from the original languages.

The Kachin culture has retained a story passed down through the generations. Its people heard about the creator-god who gave them a book that became lost, but would one day come back to them. In 1927, when Hanson gave the Kachin the Scriptures in Jinghpaw at a formal ceremony, they received this gift with unusual joy. Their long-held hope was realized. Since then, the gospel has spread steadily and, at times, rapidly throughout their region.

Today the majority of the Kachin people profess to be Christians, though nominalism and liberal theology have afflicted many of the churches. Today a number of key leaders want to get the Kachin churches back on the solid ground of biblical truth. In 1990 Bethlehem Baptist Church re-connected with the Kachin and was invited to help their churches grow in the commitment to God’s Word. Many of our teams have been sent to Myanmar over the years, and Kachin believers have visited us in return.

Long-Term Reinforcements

As I write this dispatch from Myitkyina, the capital city of the Kachin state, I am watching our Bethlehem team teach a select group of pastors who represent each geographical association of the Kachin Baptist Convention. In partnership with Training Leaders International we are teaching the attributes of God and pastoral theology. These are part of an eight-course sequence we will share with them over a four-year period. The Packing Hope books donated through International Outreach sit bundled together in the pastors’ study library. Virtually all of these will supplement the courses we teach here. Many of the pastors know sufficient English to benefit from these books. They will return home with resources to reinforce those things they learn. 

Our prayer is that some of these books will be translated into Jinghpaw, and that is beginning to happen. On this visit, we also had the privilege of putting into their hands Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in Jinghpaw—a ten-year project. This combination of personal teaching and well-written biblical resources will serve these pastors well.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill

I still remember my first day as the interim pastor. I was hardly in the building 15 minutes when an assistant pastor shared with our pastoral team just moments before the 8 a.m. service that he and his wife sold their condo and would be moving to Kentucky in a few weeks. I thought to myself, Happy days are here again! It gets better: eight days later, another assistant pastor confided that he would be leaving for Tennessee to accept a deserving opportunity as a family pastor at a prominent church.

These two departures were not the reason I came as interim pastor to this church. Several months before, their lead pastor abruptly resigned and left—overnight—with no warning or announcement to the leaders or to the congregation. An assistant pastor found the departed pastor’s letter of resignation on his desk the next morning.

Although this was a good, loving congregation in many ways, you can imagine the shock, bewilderment, and feelings of crisis that came as three beloved pastors—tenuring more than 30 years ministry—left for different reasons. 

Interim amid Crisis

Welcome to the world of interim pastoring in a crisis.

What do you do when you are thrust into such a situation? On my first day, I encountered residual shock over the senior pastor’s unforeseen departure. Now the situation compounded itself with two more pastors leaving. Where would you start? In my one year of service, God’s grace dripped with many wonderful resolutions: the congregation secured not only a permanent senior pastor, but also several key staff members; the finances of the church remained in the black and actually increased towards a building program; and a feeling of optimism anchored the congregation before the new pastor’s arrival when I left.

Upon reflection on that interim pastorate, God’s grace brought to light six important dimensions of leadership engagement that converted this congregation’s shock into opportunities for strategic advancement in ministry. These six dimensions provide an evaluative template for a church leader or pastor in an interim period.

This is important: if you are a leader (interim pastor, officer, staff, or lay person) in a church that is currently in transition, make sure that before, or at least in the beginning days of interim ministry, you and the other leaders resolve the following issues with heartfelt unity. From experience, this resolution enables practically everyone in leadership to play and to sing off of the same page.

Six Dimensions of Leadership

1Engagement: how will you engage this interim period? 

Is it a season for growth, ministry development, and forming identity, or is it a time of waiting for the next pastor to come? More specifically, what is the emphasis of the position title? Does more stress fall on the “interim” (implying a short-term, “keep it together” approach), or on “pastor” (implying a comprehensive engagement)? Whatever side you choose (proactive or maintenance), whole-hearted unity is needed between the interim pastor and other leaders. 

My two interim experiences showed that both churches wanted to move ahead, so goals were formulated to steer the ministry forward. However, this stance should never be assumed. There are legitimate times when a congregation needs to pause and enter a time of respite, especially if their former pastor (long-term or founding) has died or from some other tragedy that has left parishioners in need of healing space. Keep in mind that both approaches to engagement can intertwine on occasions.

2. Priorities: effective leadership necessitates printing and communicating as early as possible the objectives for the interim period.

This step should be done no matter how long the interim period lasts. What I found strategic was a “first 100 days plan of action,” a document outlining intentional initiatives that not only required aggressive participation by the leaders (through their buy-in), but also held the interim pastor accountable. In any transitional period, a pastor will need to be a leader, manager, overseer, coach, preacher, conflict-resolver, counselor, and trail guide, to name just a few roles. When you think about it, a 100-day action plan is good for practically any pastor (short term or long-term) who wants to inject new vitality into a congregation’s ministry.

3. Communication: reinforcing leadership priorities necessitates explanation.  

You may fulfill this task through preaching, church bulletin, newsletter, website, and social media. People need to hear and to see things as much as four to five different ways to impress new perspectives upon their consciences. This point especially applies to sermon themes. Make sure that the chosen biblical propositions connect with the leadership objectives that were initially adopted. That way preaching becomes a springboard on Sunday for leaders to reiterate within the congregation throughout the week.

4. Presence: when a congregation suffers a crisis, strong pastoral presence is needed

Personal, proactive presence by the interim pastor (with help from other leaders) initiates calm, stability and confidence within the parish. Presence and time are especially important with staff members who need reassurance that everything will eventually be fine over time. After a number of meetings (either in the parishioners’ home, the pastor’s home, restaurant, and so on), a growing sense of buoyancy should develop within the congregation, something similar to what one parishioner said privately to me after the first three months: “You know, it’s going be okay.” There is no substitute for an active, shepherding presence within a congregation and among a staff/leadership dealing with crisis.

5. Identity forming: an interim pastorate is an excellent opportunity to prayerfully reflect on a congregation’s calling in mission. 

Asking, “Who are we?” and “What are we called to do?” can allow congregations to express their convictions and vision for present and future ministry.

For nearly four months, I led the staff and officers through a time of strategic planning, culminating in an official document that we presented to the congregation and the pulpit search committee used to evaluate and to communicate with potential candidates. Giving people a sense of identity and direction is crucial in an interim ministry period. Comprehensive and carefully communicated strategic planning leads to greater likelihood of increased stewardship (the time, talents, and treasures package). During my interim, the giving not only improved, but also the groundwork for a capital campaign was prepared before the permanent pastor’s arrival.  

6. Optimism: it is important to spot moments of accomplishment and to communicate them publicly as another “win” for God.  

These wins can come from a stewardship milestone reached, a successful outreach endeavor, a new staff hire, or something else that instills optimism and a sense for God at work. The idea is to look for substantive, strategic moments to inject hope and to encourage broader participation within the church.

Winston Churchill said it best: there is opportunity and difficulty in leadership, especially in an interim period. Yet, if engaged strategically, collaboratively, optimistically, and prayerfully, this time under God’s providence can produce lasting fruit—and friendships—for years to come.

Eliana Joy Davis was born on December 13, 2014, at 12:30 in the morning—three months prior to her due date. Days earlier my wife, Rachel, had gone in for a checkup after not feeling our baby move as she normally did. It was nighttime in Qatar, where I’d been deployed for several months, when I received a video call on my computer.

I’ll never forget that moment. Rachel was lying in a hospital bed with my mother and brother surrounding her, choking back tears as she delivered the news. There was no heartbeat. Eliana would be born lifeless. That was Monday night. By late Wednesday I was reunited with my wife in California. On Friday morning the doctors began inducement.

Different Kind of Delivery

It took 14 hours for the delivery to be completed. Mercifully the process went as smoothly as possible. That day in the hospital was much different from the delivery of our firstborn, Graedon. It was longer and quieter. Our room was less busy. There were fewer monitors. Notably the one measuring fetal heart rate was absent. When the moment finally arrived, only the doctor and a nurse were present. There was no assisting staff waiting to receive our baby. No pediatrician ever came to perform an initial check and monitor vitals. Most painfully, no infant cry pierced the silence of the room. The only sound was Rachel’s and my uncontrollable sobbing as we clung to each other in sadness. I called my mom to let her know Eliana had arrived. While the nurse bathed her and wrapped her in newborn blankets, the doctor finished ensuring Rachel was okay before departing to another delivery room. Soon the nurse was handing Eliana to my wife before leaving us alone to spend our only moments with our daughter on this earth.

Initially I was scared to meet Eliana. I didn’t know how she would look. How she would feel. Those fears melted away when Rachel took her in her arms and said through tears, “Oh, she’s so beautiful.” It was true. Eliana was beautiful. At 26 weeks her eyes, nose, and lips looked much like Graedon’s as a newborn. Her face was peaceful. Rachel and I sat there looking at our daughter and wondering in amazement at the beauty of God’s design. After a while Rachel handed me the daughter I had been longing to hold for the past six months. Never in my life have I experienced the inexplicable mingling of sorrow and joy more than I did in that moment. This was my little girl—a beautiful gift given by God to a man so undeserving.

Saying Goodbye

My dad and mom arrived at the hospital with my brothers and sisters who were in the area. They all held Eliana. My mom rocked her in the hospital chair, just as she did with us as kids and just as she does now with all her other grandchildren. For two hours we shared many tears and many smiles. My brother and dad prayed for us and then they all left, leaving Rachel and me to say our final goodbyes. We both held her and spoke to her again. Then I climbed into the bed beside my wife and together we sang Eliana my favorite hymn to sing to Graedon as I rock him to sleep, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The nurse came to transfer us from the labor and delivery unit to a room on the mother and baby floor. We laid Eliana in the bassinet and gathered our belongings to leave. There were a few items that I would have to return to retrieve. When I did, the room was empty and Eliana was lying in the bassinet where the nurse would eventually take prints and molds of her hands and feet. I gathered our final belongings and then stood next to my daughter’s side looking at her face. Not wanting to leave her behind. Not knowing how to say goodbye. I leaned over and whispered a final “I love you” and then turned around and walked out of the room.

It was the hardest, most painful thing I’ve ever done.

Finding Grace Amid Suffering

How does one endure such an experience? How do you bear up under the weight of sadness that threatens to crush? My wife and I have found that God gives grace for the moment and faith for the day. From the earliest moments of our video conversation, God has granted Rachel and me a measure of hope and joy that has grown ever stronger in the days following. He has flooded our lives with truth from prayers, conversations, emails, and phone calls from family and friends all around the world. A week following her birth, we laid Eliana to rest in a grave donated by my grandparents. At her service I had the opportunity to share the following truths that God has used to sustain and encourage us during these difficult days.

1. God was and is absolutely sovereign and unceasingly good.

Nothing takes God by surprise. He knows and ordains the events of this world, and everything he does is good. We certainly cannot see exactly why God chose to take Eliana when he did, but we have felt an undeniable assurance and peace in knowing that her passing was not a mistake. One of the passages read at Eliana’s service was Psalm 139:13-16:

For it was you who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, and I know this very well. My bones were not hidden from you when I was made in secret, when I was formed in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all my days were written in your book and planned before a single one of them began.

That God planned each and every one of Eliana’s days—all 26 weeks’ worth—is a remarkable truth. It was never in God’s plan for Eliana to live outside of Rachel’s womb here on earth. He allowed her nearly seven months of safety and comfort with her mother and then called her home. This was no mistake. It was God’s good plan for her life. Psalm 119:68 says, “You are good; and you do what is good.” In the book of Job, God comes to his doubting and suffering servant who has experienced more loss in a single day than most will endure in a lifetime. Amazingly, he doesn’t give Job a reason-by-reason analysis for all that had happened to him. Instead, he allows Job to see and behold the greatness of his glory and sovereignty. Job 38:4-11 says:

Where were you when I established the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? What supports its foundations? Or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Who enclosed the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its blanket, when I determined its boundaries and put its bars and doors in place, when I declared: “You may come this far, but no farther; your proud waves stop here”?

When life’s events are inexplicable, there is great hope in knowing we serve a God who is always in control. The same God who commanded the violent waves, “You may come this far, but no farther” is the same God who whispered to Eliana, “This is as far as you come my little girl—I’m taking you home.” Were it not for the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty in all things, Rachel and I would surely be swallowed up in grief and despair. Yet we see that Eliana’s death was not a mistake. It was not meaningless. Rather, her life and death are part of God’s grand tapestry of work in human history and in eternity to come.

2. Not only is God completely sovereign and unceasingly good, he also intimately knows what it means to suffer.

Two years ago Rachel and I were anticipating the joy of the Christmas season by welcoming the birth of our firstborn, Graedon. I thought often about the fact that God knew the overwhelming joy of a father at the birth of his son. Almost immediately after hearing of Eliana’s passing, God laid on my heart the truth that he also knows the sorrow of a father after the loss of his child.

Indeed, there is a measure of sobriety to the joy of Christmas when one considers that Christ came in order to be killed for the sake of God’s people. It was always God’s plan that his Son would die. Thus he intimately shares in our suffering and loss. Christ himself was a man of sorrows and grief. The writer of Hebrews makes the case that Christ is our perfect high priest and Savior because he is able to identify with us in our suffering and weakness (Heb. 2:9-18). God is not detached. He is not distant and aloof. He’s ever-present and all knowing, with us in our grief and sorrow. He truly is Immanuel.

3. Rachel and I have greatly rejoiced in the assurance of Eliana’s eternal security.

Though we mourn the life we have lost with her on earth, we praise God for the life she has gained in heaven. Our deepest prayer for our son, Graedon—as it was for Eliana while she lived in the womb—is that God would grant him faith and repentance that leads to salvation. Graedon lives in a world of rebellion and sin. He needs a Savior. He needs to know and believe the beauty of the gospel—that Christ came to offer forgiveness of sins through his life, death, and resurrection.

This is our deepest longing and prayer for Graedon, and God answered this prayer for Eliana. Her deepest need was not to be held and raised by her earthly parents, but rather to know and love her Savior. God gave her 26 weeks of life inside Rachel’s womb, hearing and knowing the voices of her parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Then he took her and brought her face-to-face with her Lord and Savior.

What a life! What an inheritance! Our future hope is her present reality. Life is hers in abundance. She will never taste sorrow. Never see violence. Never fear death. Never feel the sting of sin. Her portion was none of the suffering and all of the gain. This is because of God’s good grace—because of Christ’s finished work. These truths fill Rachel’s and my heart with inexpressible joy in the midst of deep sorrow. God provided and cared for our daughter in a way that we could not and, for that, we are forever grateful. We also had 1 Peter 1:3-4 read at Eliana’s service:

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to his great mercy, he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.

So we rejoice, knowing that one day we will hold our daughter in an eternity without sorrow or loss. And we mourn, but not like those without hope (1 Thes. 4:13).

Eliana’s middle name comes from her aunt Rebecca—Rachel’s twin—a wonderful woman of faith whose life is marked by joy and service to others. The name Eliana means “God has answered.” In the days and weeks following her death, we’ve asked ourselves why God would take her so soon. This side of eternity we may never fully know. However, we do know that God has answered—once and for all—in the person of his Son, whose life, death, and resurrection have swallowed up death and secured eternal life for all who call on his name.

The Story: A judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will touch upon the continuing debate over whether caged chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons,” in the eyes of the law, and thus sue, with human help, for their freedom.

The Background: The case in question was brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that, as the New York Times’ notes, has been active in promoting a legal theory that some animals, such as chimps, are “legal persons” with the right to “bodily liberty.” The group claims that two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are being “unlawfully detained” at a university on Long Island. The order, by Justice Barbara Jaffe of New York State Supreme Court, directed officials at Stony Brook University to show cause for holding the two chimps, at a May 6 hearing.

This case is the most recent brought about by the great ape personhood movement which seeks to extend personhood and some legal protections to the chimpanzees , gorillas, and orangutans. Prominent advocates in this movement include primatologists Jane Goodall, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Peter Singer, and legal scholar Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Why It Matters: The concept of personhood for certain animals will strike many people as absurd, but ultimately harmless. In reality, the redefining of personhood may have profound ramifications for human dignity and could even lead to the denigration and exploitation of human infants.

The Christian worldview is not longer the dominant framework in our culture for considering questions about ethics, science, or technology. Unfortunately, we live in a society where answers that cannot be shoehorned into an acceptable non-religious interpretative structure must be discarded altogether. It is similar to being asked to provide the sum of 4 and 3 but having to do so without resorting to a “religiously based” prime numbers. The absurdity of this approach is obvious since no answer we could give would ever be correct. Yet this is often what is expected when we are asked to provide answers to questions about animal rights that must rely on non-religious criteria.

Take, for example, the question of why humans have more intrinsic dignity than other animals. The reason, according to Christian thought, is because our dignity rests upon being created in imago dei, in the image of God. Our dignitas, our worth, is not a characteristic we acquire, an ability we possess, or a condition we can lose. It is based on our being created for the purpose of entering into covenant fellowship with our Creator.

Secularists, however, not only deny that this explanation is essential to explaining dignity, but reject all such “God-talk” as irrelevant and thus excluded from all debate on the topic. Instead, they believe the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals must be rooted solely in non-religious criteria.

But just as in the search for a non-prime seven, the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals will be in vain. Inevitably, they will have to either tacitly accept the Christian answer that humans are metaphysically different or they will have to reject the question altogether. Most, like Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, will choose the latter. In his 1989 essay titled All Animals Are Equal, Singer claimed:

The truth is that the appeal to the intrinsic dignity of human beings appears to solve the egalitarian's problems only as long as it goes unchallenged. Once we ask why it should be that all humans—including infants, mental defectives, psychopaths, Hitler, Stalin, and the rest—have some kind of dignity or worth that no elephant, pig, or chimpanzee can ever achieve, we see that this question is as difficult to answer as our original request for some relevant fact that justifies the inequality of humans and other animals. In fact, these two questions are really one: talk of intrinsic dignity or moral worth only takes the problem back one step, because any satisfactory defence of the claim that all and only humans have intrinsic dignity would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that all and only humans possess. Philosophers frequently introduce ideas of dignity, respect, and worth at the point at which other reasons appear to be lacking, but this is hardly good enough. Fine phrases are the last resource of those who have run out of arguments.

Singer is correct. Once we reject the idea that humans have intrinsic dignity merely because they are humans we must accept, as his title claims, that “all animals are equal.”

Singer obviously missed the irony of taking the title from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As the book’s readers will recall, when the animals took over Manor Farm, the pigs painted the tenets of Animalism on the barn wall. The seventh commandment “written on the tarred wall in great white letters that could be read thirty yards away” was “All animals are equal.”

At Animal Farm it did not take long before all the commandments were reduced to one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I suspect we will see the same thing occur once Singer’s concept of equality becomes the norm. Singer, who is always ahead of the bioethical curve, sees no relevant distinction between animals and human infants:

The preference, in normal cases, for saving a human life over the life of an animal when a choice has to be made is a preference based on the characteristics that normal humans being have and not on the mere fact that they are members of our own species. This is why when we consider members of our own species who lack the characteristics of normal human beings we can no longer say that their lives are always to be preferred to those of other animals. In general, though, the question of when it is wrong to kill (painlessly) an animal is one to which we need give no precise answer. As long as we remember that we should give the same respect to the lives of animals as we give to the lives of those human beings at a similar mental level we shall not go far wrong.

If it is considered morally acceptable to experiment on monkeys then why should we not also experiment on human infants? Similarly, if we would have no qualms about euthanizing a severely deformed newborn orangutan why would we object if the newborn is a human child? If all animals are equal and some animals (i.e., a 3-year old ape) are more equal than others (i.e., a 3-day old human) then the definition of what constitutes “animal experimentation” could be broadly expanded. And this is where the true danger lies in expanding personhood to animals. We won’t merely be treating some animals like humans, we’ll begin to treat some humans like animals.

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill; he fashions up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.

I love this hymn for the same reason I love Romans 8 and country music. I’m not talking about modern-day country music, the kind that is slick and well-packaged, the sort that is merely countrified pop music. By country music, I mean Hank (Senior), Cash, Jones, the Hag. Legends, all, whose lives were marked by the profound suffering and searching of which they sang. They were not dime store cowboys and neither was the author of “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” In some ways, the British poet William Cowper is to classic, Reformation-tradition hymnody what Hank Williams was to country music: both men perennially suffered deep, dark depression and anguish of soul. Out of their pain, each man wrote deeply emotional, heart-felt poetry that was set to music. Of course, their biographies part ways there: both diagnosed the illness that drove their angst in a deeply fallen world, but only Cowper found the transformative cure, locating his healing balm in the old rugged cross. Sadly, Hank sought solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and died of an overdose of alcohol and pain killers at 29. Hank sang “I Saw the Light,” but never seems to have run to it.

Two bruised reeds, two smoking flaxes, two different outcomes, but two men who were unsentimental about the mysteries of life and God’s providence east of Eden. “God Moves” is my favorite for two fundamental reasons: the story of the man behind the lyrics and the robust theology of Romans 8 that it expresses in unforgettable poetry. Every time I sing it in corporate or family worship (and I love the revised tune by Bob Kauflin and our friends at Sovereign Grace Music), I think of its author, and I am strengthened by the grace of which it speaks.

Embattled Soul

John Calvin referred to fallen humanity and the world in which we live as broken actors performing on a broken down stage. Cowper’s brokenness was as profound as it was palpable. In his excellent biographical essay on the life of William Cowper, John Piper wrote of him, “The battles in this man’s soul were of epic proportions.” Indeed.

Cowper lived from 1731 to 1800, a contemporary to John Wesley and George Whitefield in England and Jonathan Edwards in America. Heartache was his handmaiden virtually from birth. William and his brother John were the only two among seven siblings to survive past infancy. At age 6, his mother died giving birth to John, leaving William deeply distraught. Cowper moved from school to school before landing at Westminster school in 1742 where he was bullied mercilessly by older students. While studying for a career in law as a young adult, he fell in love with his cousin Theodora and sought her hand in marriage. Her father refused to consent to the union and nuptials were never exchanged. Lost love left him crestfallen.

As he progressed into adulthood, things grew appreciably worse. In 1763, he was offered a position as a clerk of journals in the House of Lords, but the specter of the job examination sent him off the rails; he experienced grinding depression that bordered on insanity. Three times he attempted suicide and was sent to an asylum for recovery. The asylum turned out to be a place of grace for Cowper. Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, an evangelical believer, cared for Cowper and showed him the love of Christ. One day at the hospital, Cowper found a Bible and opened it. The pages fell upon Romans 3:25. God opened Cowper’s blind spiritual eyes that day, and he was converted to a saving hope in Jesus Christ. Salvation changed his heart, but not his propensity for melancholy.

In 1767, two years after leaving the asylum, Cowper met the slave-trader-turned-preacher John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” and curate of the church at Olney. Newton mentored Cowper. He encouraged Cowper and ministered to him. There were numerous additional suicide attempts as the viper of melancholy gripped the poet every ten years, usually every tenth January. Cowper wrote “God Moves” in 1773 at the behest of Newton, who later published it in the Olney Hymnal. Soon after Cowper wrote “God Moves,” the darkness returned, and he attempted suicide by drowning. He died on April 25, 1800, in the throes of depression. The final poem he composed in 1799 was titled “The Castaway,” but by God’s grace that did not describe his eternal state.  

Hymn for Rough Weather

Cowper’s story makes this hymn all the more remarkable. Life between the times is full of hurt and pain; we live in what John Bunyan aptly called a vail of tears. Relationships sour. Malignant tumors grow inside our frail bodies. A phone call shatters our dreams. The spring flowers die, and our lush summer lawns turn brown in winter. The only thing consistent in this embittered cosmos is that nothing stays the same. Cowper lived in and wrote out of this reality as much as any figure in church history. “God Moves” was originally titled “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness.” Cowper knew first-hand that life is warfare.

This hymn is my favorite for the same reason Romans 8:28-39 is my favorite Bible passage. The final four of the six stanzas are pure gold for suffering saints—that’s all of us on various levels—on pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death: “You fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds that you now dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.” The world is groaning, we are groaning, but God is protecting us, forging our faith on the anvil of affliction because of his love for us and because of a passion for his own glory. Charles Spurgeon once said that God’s sovereignty is a doctrine for rough weather; “God Moves” is a hymn for stormy days, and there are many such days in a fallen world. 

Behind a Frowning Providence

The fourth stanza is the best-known: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” It is easy to hear echoes of Isaiah 55 here: “My ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.” We are not omniscient. We have a limited ability to exegete our experiences. We face moments when the God who has declared himself good won’t seem so good. Life may seem bad, sometimes, very bad. But we do not find peace in our ability to interpret events but in the God who is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Ps. 145:17). The fifth verse is a healing balm: “His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”

Cowper concludes the hymn with a reminder for forgetful Christians like me, a reminder I need to hear hourly: “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain. God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” We don’t know the future. We don’t often understand his ways. But we can trust him because he is never late and never gets the wrong address.

I have never suffered anywhere near the level of William Cowper, but I am grateful that he has set to verse the theology that describes his thorny life so that we might be encouraged and equipped for the fight. Cowper may have spent much time in darkness, but he truly saw the light. 

Editors’ note: This article is the first in a new series titled “This is My Story, This is My Song,” which will explore the favorite hymns of various evangelical writers and leaders within and without TGC. 


As you’ve surely noticed, everyone is “spiritual” today. Some years ago I came across a USA Today survey where even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m just not a spiritual person.” Perhaps for many spirituality simply means spending time occasionally in personal reflection. For others maybe it means consciously trying to live by certain principles, or attempting to be thoughtful on important issues like the environment or homelessness.

However, the common perception of spirituality is not the biblical one. I’m writing from the perspective that spirituality includes—but transcends—the human spirit, and involves the pursuit of God and the things of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s self-revelation (that is, the Bible).

Spirituality and the Gospel

This kind of spirituality is not self-generated; rather it is one result of the new spiritual life that God creates in the soul as he works through the gospel. In other words, Christian spirituality is part of living in response to the gospel. In theological terms, spirituality is an aspect of the sanctification that necessarily begins at and follows justification.

Think of it this way: we come to God through the gospel, and we live for God through the gospel. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). Through the gospel by faith we receive Christ, and through the gospel by faith we walk in Christ.

The gospel—in a word—is Jesus. In a phrase, the gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why we can speak of the Christian life as a gospel-centered life. We come to God initially on the basis of faith in who Jesus is and what he has done for us. And we continue to come to God and to live a life pleasing to him on the same basis. To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3:3, having begun by the Spirit through the gospel, we are perfected (that is, sanctified; made like Christ) in the same way—by the Spirit through the gospel.

Role of Spiritual Disciplines

Although the Holy Spirit gives a believer the desire and the power for a biblical spirituality, some reformatting of life and habits must also take place to practice a gospel-centered piety. Thus Paul also wrote, “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). This doesn’t refer to physical training, for mere bodily activity—despite its health benefits—does not by itself build godliness, as the next verse makes plain. Rather, the kind of training or exercise that promotes godliness (that is, Christlikeness) is spiritual training.

No Christian coasts into Christlikeness. Godliness, according to this text, requires training. Some Bible translations render “train” as “exercise” (KJV) or “discipline” (NASB). Thus the biblical and practical ways in daily life of living out this command to “train yourself for godliness” have often been termed “spiritual exercises” or “spiritual disciplines.” (Note: some false teachers have also used these expressions, but that doesn’t invalidate such biblically derived terms any more than a heretic’s use of the word Trinity nullifies our orthodox use of that term.) What was true in Paul’s day is still true: by means of the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture we are to pursue godliness.

Of course, legalism is always a danger in spirituality. Anything a Christian can count, measure, or time can be twisted into something that falsely assures a person that by this—instead of the sufficiency of the life and death of Jesus—he is more spiritually secure or favored by God. But just because the disciplines of godliness can be misused doesn’t mean they should be neglected. “Train yourself for godliness” is God’s command, therefore it must be possible to pursue obedience to it without legalism.

Disciplines in Practice

So how do Christians practice a gospel-centered spirituality?

First, practice the right disciplines—those personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines found in the Bible. A gospel-centered spirituality is a sola scriptura spirituality. For individual practice, the most important personal spiritual disciplines are first, the intake of Scripture, and second, prayer; all the others relate to these two. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church.

Second, practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus—pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines seek to be with Jesus and like Jesus.

Third, practice the right disciplines the right way. Emphasize the person and work of Jesus in each one. Through them, learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy Jesus—who he is and what he has done. Let your soul be restored by the truths of the gospel.

Engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture so that you are continually shown your need for Christ and the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.

Editor’s note: This article adapts one that originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine and is republished here with permission. For more on this topic, check out Donald Whitney’s updated and revised work Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 2014).

Editors’ note: A new documentary on the life and ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones debuted at The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference: Logic on Fire: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Media Gratiae. TGC continues to feature a series of articles on Lloyd-Jones. Ben Bailie appeared in the film and has studied and written extensively about the life and ministry of Lloyd-Jones. 

One of the beautiful things about the film Logic on Fire is the way it juxtaposes Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s sternness in the pulpit and his sweetness outside of it. In one of the opening scenes, his daughter Anne Beatt says, “He was grave in the pulpit,” which is followed by an image of him scowling in his black Geneva gown. But his grandson, Jonathan Catherwood, tells us that one of the most disturbing things about his legacy is that the glaring man on the book covers was nothing like the sweet grandfather they all knew at home.

So why was Lloyd-Jones so serious in the pulpit and so sweet outside of it? Because he entered the pulpit a burdened man. 

Burden from the Lord

Lloyd-Jones’s preferred term for a sermon was a “burden.” He believed every time a preacher enters the pulpit he should come with a burden from the Lord. The burden should be a specific message God has given the preacher to be delivered at a specific time to a specific congregation from a specific text. This burden should shape every aspect of preaching, from the manner of delivery to the content. A preacher is a burdened man. The burden shaped his manner in the pulpit. For example, if challenged about his stern demeanor he would respond:

This is how Paul entered the pulpit—conscious that he was about to address immortal souls; aware of the terrible nature of sin; knowing the love of God in Christ. The great responsibility! The fear that he might in some way stand between the people and the message!

The burden was the driving motivation behind his many great sermon series:

  • The Sermon on the Mount” is driven by the burden that spiritual superficiality is the curse of the age.
  • Ephesians” is driven by the burden that the most urgent need for the church is a clear understanding of who we are in Christ.
  • The Gospel of John” is driven by the burden that the most urgent need for the church is a personal experience of what is true of us in Christ.

Repetition of Key Words

The burden shaped both the form and also the content of his sermons. A particular rhetorical device Lloyd-Jones used to drive the burden of his sermon home to the congregation was the repetition of key phrases.

One of the most striking and haunting elements of his preaching was the way in which he repeated and emphatically enunciated one or two key words through out a sermon. Generally, those words would be the specific words, or word, from the text that he desired to emphasize. One way to analyze every sermon he preached is simply to note the phrases he repeated. Since Lloyd-Jones never gave any of his sermons a title, practically all of the titles provided by the editors of his sermons are the key phrases that control and dominate that sermon. 

Sometimes the repeated phrase would control his entire sermon. For example, in a sermon in the series on 2 Timothy 1:12, the phrase “that day” serves as the constant refrain. Lloyd-Jones repeated “that day” 37 times, each time enunciating the words with a rhythmic, Welsh growl that served to sear the words into the hearers’ subconscious. Weeks after hearing the sermon, one needed only to hear the phrase “that day” and the full force of the message would come back in all its rhetorical potency. 

On other occasions, Lloyd-Jones would simply use a keyword to emphasize his main point for part of the sermon. For example, in his first message on Isaiah 40:1 the burden of the sermon explains that the gospel is a message of comfort that has been sent by God to man who is in a state of warfare. His first major point is, “The first thing we must always realize about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is a message sent by God.” In the actual preaching of the sermon, Lloyd-Jones begins this point at the 9:22 mark and ends right at the 17-minute mark, taking more than eight minutes to develop the point. But in those eight minutes he repeats “God” 53 times. In so doing, he sought to bombard the congregation with the fundamental reality that the gospel comes from God—it is God’s action, God’s activity, and God’s doing.

Another prime example comes from his four-part evangelistic sermon series on Psalm 1. The key word for the second sermon is chaff. The burden of the sermon is to unpack how true happiness should not be pursued. In this sermon he repeats, or better yet growls, the word chaff, often with a note of clear and obvious disdain, 61 different times. The cumulative effect is that the word enters into the hearer’s subconscious and creates a repulsion and desire not to be like chaff. By this method, he infused the scriptural words into the audience’s mind.

Apostolic Model 

Of course, this approach is not unique to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. All great preachers have done something similar. Augustine did it. Chrysostom did it. Spurgeon did it. One of the marks of a great preaching is powerful repetition.

But for Lloyd-Jones, the apostles were the model. In commenting on Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, he exclaimed, “Now that is preaching! Do you get tired of hearing me saying the same things, my friends? Well, I am just doing what the apostle Peter did. I am sure he was right and I am sure I am right! Our greatest trouble is that we forget.”

Why was he so grave in the pulpit? The burden of the Lord demanded it. Every time Lloyd-Jones entered the pulpit he was a burdened man. And this apostolic repetition was the primary way in which Lloyd-Jones sought to brand his burden upon the minds of the congregation.

I have two of the busiest, sweetest (I’m biased), bundles of joy. Obviously, I’m leaving out the various struggles of motherhood, but we do enjoy one another. And when I say busy, I mean insane. It’s nonstop listening, talking, cuddling, breaking up fights, and cleaning up spills. They are young, so I’m still doing much of the heavy lifting. It’s easy for me to see why many women who are busy at home and at work simply don’t feel they have the capacity to add things like worrying about the issues of today.

But I’d like to encourage you to engage, and not just engage but press in on what’s happening in areas like racial injustice and reconciliation, ISIS, and other current events. I have no desire to add to your burden. Instead, I’d like to provide reasons why you might get involved without taking time away from what you are already doing.

Women in the Church

Researchers have long observed that more women than men attend church. Our service to the body of Christ, then, must include being aware of the world around us, for what is in the world will indeed affect the church.

David Mathis suggests that Christians reverse the popular saying “in the world but not of the world” to “not of the world but sent into it.” Mathis uses Jesus’s high priestly prayer to argue his point:

But notice that for Jesus being “not of the world” isn’t the destination in these verses but the starting place. It’s not where things are moving toward, but what they’re moving from. He is not of the world, and he begins by saying that his followers are not of the world. But it’s going somewhere. Jesus is not huddling up the team for another round of kumbaya, but so that we can run the next play and advance the ball down the field. Enter verse 18: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” And don’t miss the surprising prayer of verse 15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”

So often we run from these hard issues, because they seem too hard to tackle along with laundry. It seems they’re best left to social justice workers, pastors, or even the media. Others might simply fear engaging—these issues seem too burdensome. How can we be sent into the world when there’s a child crying over spilled milk in the corner of the room? How can we be in the world and not of the world, when just going to the grocery store is a burden?

Great Motivator

I understand and feel the same tensions. But the Great Commission motivates me to engage and learn. If I am to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20), it is helpful to know what might be on the hearts and minds of those I engage with at the park, the grocery store, and in the church. I don’t want to assume that my burdens are the same as others. I want to be informed so that I can effectively relate to others as I seek to also share the best news they’ll ever hear.

Another motivator is the calling to love our neighbor as ourselves. If my neighbor is from Turkey, Israel, or Nigeria, for example, I’d like to at least know this background so I might ask questions and if necessary and possible, provide comfort. We don’t have to be international reporters to love our neighbors. We don’t have to know much to ask questions, but we do have to care.

We are busy with caring for the immediate, but we must remember the world.

What if we began to talk about current events and topics at the dinner table, while doing dishes, or during play dates, where appropriate? Our children will learn about these things on the playground and in the neighborhood, but wouldn’t it be helpful if we added gospel-informed understanding to what they are learning? What if we began to make praying for these current events a part of our lives? Our hearts would begin to burst.

Making It Easier

Perhaps you see the need to be informed but find the search for information to be overwhelming. The internet is saturated with information, so how might you find something helpful? Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

Listen to a podcast. Podcasts are great way to listen in on relevant issues, topics, and stories without much effort. There are a number of podcasts available, but perhaps The Briefing by Albert Mohler could be a good place to begin. You might also try Question and Ethics by Russell Moore.

Find a news source. You won’t agree with everything shared by a news source, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something valuable. The Washington Post has a new blog, Act of Faith. I also skim the headlines on Christianity Today and WORLD magazine are wonderful resources as well.

Find a few good sites. I find the current events channel at The Gospel Coalition and specifically Joe Carter’s contributions helpful in this area. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission also highlights current events and news from a Christian worldview.

This is not an exhaustive list, but perhaps it’s a start. We are busy with caring for the immediate, but we must remember the world. Taking even one step could prove to be just what the Lord uses as you seek to serve and love your neighbors. We want to be informed so that when we face the discouraging news of the hour, we mourn with hope in the gospel. Let’s be ready to give an answer by hearing the trouble and pouring out peace and hope (1 Pet. 3:15). Let these words from our Savior bring us comfort: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). 

As Christians who take the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell seriously, we are often faced with the tension between the mundane joys of life and the reality of the eternal stakes. During certain seasons of my life this tension has been paralyzing. How could I attend a college football game knowing that thousands of my fellow fans were lost and perishing? How could I enjoy the simple joys of picnics and Frisbee when many of those passing by were accursed and cut off from Christ? How can I experience and enjoy the normal delights of human life when we’re all perched on a ledge with the New Jerusalem on one side and the burning fields of Gehenna on the other, and millions traveling the broad way that leads to destruction?

I thought about these questions recently as I was reading The Brothers Karamazov with my students. After the death of the beloved elder Zosima, Alyosha Karamazov is torn between the sanctified life of the monastery and his concern for his debauched father and unbelieving brothers. In the midst of his wrestling, Alyosha has a strange experience, an encounter with the grace of the God that marks him for the rest of his life. While meditating on Christ’s first miracle at Cana of Galilee, Alyosha is stunned afresh by Jesus’s surprising way of fulfilling his mission: 

Christ visited [men’s joy] when he worked his first miracle, he helped men’s joy . . . He who loves men, loves their joy . . . [He did not come down] just for his great and awful deed [the cross], but his heart was also open to the simple, artless merrymaking of some uncouth but guileless beings, who lovingly invited him to their poor marriage feast.

Alyosha’s epiphany cut through the tension I feel between the simple joys and the eternal stakes. It revealed how much I need a bigger heart, one that’s big enough both to preach the great and awful deed, and to be open to simple and artless merrymaking. I need a heart deeply convinced that life is deadly serious, and therefore refuses to take myself so seriously. I need a heart that deeply delights in watching the game with friends, and does so precisely because we’re standing on hell’s overlook.

Alyosha’s Epiphany in the Home

For those of us who are parents, God has given us a tremendous testing ground for Alyosha’s insight. My young sons will one day stand before God. They will give an account of their lives. They will either enter into his presence, standing on his grace, or they won’t. Their faces will shine when they hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or their teeth will gnash as they are cast from joy with a “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” That’s reality. And because of that reality, it is essential that I join them in their joy, in their simple and artless merrymaking. It is essential that I turn the couch pillows into a fort, that I defend the Lego castle from the band of pirates, that squeals of laughter echo off of the walls of my home because fatherly fingers are tickling a toddler tummy. I love my sons, and I want more than anything for them join me in my joy, to join me in the joy of the Son of God (John 17:13). So I must join them in theirs.

But we can’t stop with our own families. If we only love those who love us, how are we any different from the Gentiles who don’t know God? When we love our neighbors (and even our enemies), when we join them in their joy, then we see how deeply the power of the gospel and the example of Jesus penetrates our souls.

Alyosha’s Epiphany in the World

The Jesus of Cana’s wedding compels us to get creative in loving our neighbors and friends and co-workers. We must find ways to join them in their joy, which is much harder when many of their joys have been twisted almost beyond recognition. But God gives a greater grace. The difficulty of pursuing holiness while pursuing sinful people can’t deter us (even if wisdom must make us mindful of our particular weaknesses). We don’t have to endorse their abuses to join them in their joy. Instead, we anchor ourselves in the gospel, say “thank you” for common grace, and find the beauty amid the ashes of their delight. Perhaps we need an addendum to one of our evangelical proverbs: Love the sinner, hate the sin, and love the good that sin has corrupted. 

So we search and inquire carefully. We ask questions about their interests. We look for opportunities. We remember that weddings belong to Jesus. So does cycling. And college basketball. And gardening, and Tom Clancy novels, and Wes Anderson movies, and classic cars. The earth is the Lord’s, and all of its fullness.

Make no mistake: the stakes are real. Eternal joy and eternal destruction hang in the balance. And all of us are moving one way or the other. Because of this gravity, because of the weight of glory, we must join men in their joy.

From Cana to Calvary and Back

Alyosha’s epiphany would mark him for the rest of his life. In that moment, he came face to face with the Jesus of Cana’s wedding, the Jesus of Calvary’s tree, and it broke him to the dust. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterward, with firm belief in his words. When he arose, he was no longer a weak and timid youth burdened by doubts and fears. He was a champion, a warrior, a fighter for men’s joy, ready to venture out on his “sojourn in the world.”

This is the glorious movement of the gospel. It leads us to Calvary and then sends us back to Cana. We ascend the Hill of the Skull and then descend to Galilee, bearing the easy yoke of the weight of glory. And we do so in hope that by joining men in their joy, they might join us in ours, that by entering into the joy of our neighbors, they might enter into the joy of our master.

I remember exactly where I was when I lost interest in professional sports.

In 1998 the World Cup was in France, and the player to watch was Michael Owen, starting forward for England. He was that country’s youngest player ever to participate in a World Cup. I was 16. Michael Owen was 18. I was in my parent’s basement in mid-Missouri. He was in the Stade de Toulouse in France. I played JV soccer, defense specifically, because I couldn’t score. But Owen was scoring goals against the best players in the world. He was internationally famous. I was moderately popular in my high school.

The players were just as exciting as before I lost interest in professional sports; they hadn’t changed. But somewhere along the way, as I grew up, things had changed for me. My perspective had become twisted. I loved sports because one day I could be a star, or so I thought.

But at 16, I now had the sinking feeling that dreams long cultivated would not be harvested: in two years, I was not going to catch Owen.

All of this came flooding back to me a few months back at the church office. In the stack of mail was Christianity Today. The cover story was titled “33 Under 33.” I just stared at the cover, as though opening it and skimming the pages would declare me guilty of something.

Temptation won.

The article celebrates, as you might expect, 33 leaders in Christianity (authors, pastors, musicians, entrepreneurs, political activists, and even a dancer) who are making a difference for Jesus. And they all have one thing in common (besides being on Twitter): they are all 33 years old or younger.

I flipped the pages, and I stared at them—their super cool bios, trendy haircuts, and young faces. And they stared at me, all smiles.

I frowned. It seemed, all over again, as though Michael Owen was scoring goals in France, and I was in my parent’s basement.

Since this initial, deflating moment in the church office, I’ve had more time to think. Here’s what was going on in my heart.

1. Anything Can Become an Idol

The capacity of the human heart to turn anything into an idol is astounding. To paraphrase Tim Keller in Counterfeit Gods, when something, even a good thing, becomes an ultimate thing, then idolatry happens. Keller writes:

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. . . . 

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.

We can do this (idolatry) with just about anything. We can do it with soccer and athletics, or with beauty and power. We can do it with career advancement, reputation in academia, political causes, or with family and children. We can do it with marriage or with singleness, profit or artistic expression.

“A-good-thing-turned-ultimate-thing” can even be true of Christian ministry success—the kind of Christian ministry success that appears in the glossy pages of Christianity Today, calling to pastors from the stack of mail on the counter. In the CT article, Sam Hurd wrote:

Today, as American Christianity faces declining affiliation, intense public debates over religious freedom, changes in the family structure, and technological advances, millennial Christians have already picked up the baton. For this story, CT set out to find young believers who we think are leading today’s church in key ways—and who embody what it will look like in the years to come (Sam Hurd, CT, July/August 2014, 35).

The problem was not with the article; it was with my own heart. In other words, we should celebrate the provision of God and the faithfulness of his people, not bemoan our own anonymity. It was never about “us.” It was never about me. Lord, forgive me for making the advancement of your kingdom about the advancement of mine. 

2. God Changes People

By the grace of God, people can, and do, change. Their desires can change; their worship can change. Through the gospel, people leave behind false gods and turn to the true God. Through Jesus, we can say that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his the beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).

On the morning I read “33 Under 33,” the jealous urge was just a twinge, just a moment. Fifteen years ago, watching Owen in the World Cup, it was not just a twinge. Fifteen years ago, a sinkhole opened up, a foundation crumbled, and a house built on sand went splat. Fifteen years ago, there was not sorrow, but despair. Keller writes:

There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that, if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.

Since the time of Michael Owen, international phenom, versus Benjamin Vrbicek, JV peon, a decade and a half of life has passed. In that time—only by God’s grace—a new foundation has been laid with Christ as the cornerstone. That foundation cannot be shaken.

3. Start Strong, Finish Strong

What matters in a race is how you finish. That’s when they give the medals. I’m thankful for the young men and women celebrated by CT. I really am. I read their blogs and listen to their music. And now I’m praying for them the same thing I pray for myself: that we would finish strong.

Marriages can start well, pastorates can start well, and so can the Christian life. But consider Solomon in the Old Testament or Demas in the New Testament (Col. 4:14, Philemon 1:4, 2 Tim. 4:10). They seemed to start well, but they failed at what really counts: finishing well. 

When we get to heaven, the true measure of every ministry will be evaluated, and faithfulness to Christ will be fully seen and rewarded. In light of that future, our highest aim should be to finish well, and hear in the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” No matter our age, relative fame, or anonymity, may we all be able to say with Paul, “[We] have fought the good fight, [we] have finished the race, [we] have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Bob Oesch lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where he serves as managing partner of the law firm of Reizman Berger, P.C. He has practiced in the field of estate planning since 1989, and chairs the trusts and estates practice at his firm. He and his wife attend The Journey, where TGC Council Member Darrin Patrick is lead pastor.

How would you describe your work? What do you do every day?

My law practice falls into two primary categories—planning and administration. On the planning side, I help clients own and pass assets to their beneficiaries in wise ways while trying to avoid four different types of taxes. On the administration side, I guide fiduciaries in carrying out their complicated jobs of administering a trust or estate. I strive to be a family advisor and counselor at law, providing both tax advice and wisdom in dealing with families.

As an image-bearer of God, how does your work reflect some aspect of God’s work?

My work reflects God’s work in three main ways. First, in the planning stage, I get to be intellectually creative and innovative. The tax law is complex, with a lot of rules and regulations, but I seek creative ways for families to save money. Creating tax strategies and applying them in my client’s situation is actually creative, and a tiny echo of the creative nature of God.

Second, estate planning is in essence helping people be good stewards of their family resources. Stewardship includes preserving and protecting assets, and also designing ownership methods that are wise and appropriate for their loved ones.

Finally, when a client passes away, I have a chance to be what’s rather unexpected: a caring and compassionate attorney. I try to add expertise to these qualities so I can help care for surviving loved ones by administering the will and ensuring that one’s wishes are carried out. In most cases, the husband passes away first, leaving his widow with a tremendous amount of financial and tax pressure. I get to help her in practical ways during this time of great need.

How does your work give you a unique vantage point into the brokenness of the world?

On the planning side, the ultimate brokenness of the world—our very mortality—is at the center of my work. All of us are going to die, and I help my clients plan for this certainty.

On the administrative side, I work with broken family dynamics, personal problems, and relational struggles. Each family is broken in a unique way—whether siblings are fighting or the love of money is driving a wedge in the family.

Jesus commands us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” How does your work function as an opportunity to love and serve others?

In my work, I get paid to be the expert—but that doesn’t mean that I have to be caring or compassionate. While a young attorney, I took a theology class at Covenant Seminary and was deeply affected by the concept of imago Dei. This doctrine shapes how I interact with and care for my clients as people, image bearers, no matter how rich or poor, problematic or broken. Yes, I want to be a tax expert and good attorney, but I also want to value people as image-bearers whose presence offers a glimpse of God’s glory.

Editors' note: The weekly TGCvocations column asks practitioners about their jobs and how they integrate their faith and work. Interviews are condensed.

I have spent my whole life trying to be successful. I thought it was what we were supposed to do. Worse than that, I thought success was the mark of a blessed Christian.

If God loves you he’ll bless you, says the prayer of Jabez and North America’s favorite verse, Jeremiah 29:11. His desire is to prosper us, not to harm us—to give us hope and a future.

Just look at all those megachurches, with their million-dollar sanctuaries. Look at all those bestselling Jesus-loving authors and speakers.

But then there are the 21 Egyptians, or the 30 Ethiopians, martyred recently for their Christian faith. There are the faithful pastors who don’t have megachurches, who suffer heartache and setbacks. And there is my own journey as a Christian author, through anorexia, miscarriage, and anxiety. And there are countless other believers who do the right thing, who say the right prayers, who believe, and yet who know the anguish of Job.

At some point in my life, Christianity had become a magic wand instead of a humble posture.

Here are some lies we in the church often believe about success.

1. Bigger is better.

No, in fact, small is good. Small is the only way to get into the kingdom of heaven. We are to become like a child. A child is defenseless, dependent. A child has no “status” in today’s world. He or she doesn’t strive, but rather dwells. “Unless you become like one of these,” Jesus says, “you will not enter the kingdom” (Matt. 18:3).

2. God’s blessing is tangible.

Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who grieve, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, blessed are the pure in heart. These beatitudes have nothing to do with physical or material blessings, and everything to do with entering eternal life now by knowing Christ fully.

3. God helps those who help themselves.

When God tells us to become like a child, he doesn’t mean “become like a child emotionally but make sure you have life insurance and pension and a stocked pantry.” No, he means seek first the kingdom of heaven and all of these things—the food, the clothing, the future—will be added unto you. He wants to take care of us while we devote ourselves to him. And it will probably mean appearing foolish to the rest of the world.

4. You are what you make of yourself.

There’s a lot of pressure to speak up, to be assertive, and to make your name known lest you get lost in a sea of pixels. But Jesus says the last shall be first. Despite being God, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to death—even a cursed death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–11). He trusted God to glorify him, even as he emptied himself of glory. We’re called to do the same.

5. Suffering is a sign of failure.

When did North American culture become averse to pain? If we begin to feel uncomfortable, we pop a pill. If we struggle with depression or discouragement, or if we encounter a terrible diagnosis, we rush to therapy or the doctor instead of first going to the Father and asking him what he wants us to learn through this suffering. God uses suffering for our good, even if it should end in death. We carry around within us the death of Christ, and we will never know the power of Christ’s resurrection if we don’t enter first into suffering.

6. If it feels good, do it.

We are big on praying for answers, but not big on waiting for them. We figure if we’ve prayed about something, it’s been heard and blessed. But God so often asks us to wait for his timing, and this waiting hurts. It’s so hard to be patient when you want something now. The world, and the prosperity gospel, teach us to seize opportunities and chase after our dreams. But the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). Become pliable to the Lord, submit yourself to him, and then will give you the desires of your heart. Why? Because his desires will have become your desires, not the other way around.

7. Believe in yourself and anything is possible.

On the contrary, we are like dust. Apart from Jesus, we are nothing (John 15:5). Indeed, God “chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; he chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29).

8. Only trust what you can see.

Our faith depends on the unseen. True value and true success cannot be measured, it won’t be witnessed or grasped until we reach heaven. Look at Hebrews 11. Consider these Christians of the past who “were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39–40).

They never received what they were promised, and yet they believed until the end—because they knew life wasn’t finally about them. They knew they were but a thread in a beautiful tapestry of faith God was weaving through his people. Many of us have lost this collective sense of story, trying independently to make a mark. But what would happen if we laid down our lives for one another, for the greater story, for the gospel?

I spent my whole childhood thinking the point of life was to become an adult. Now I’m spending my adulthood trying to be like a child. Because that’s where the pearl is (Matt. 13:45–46).

Because several genocides began in April or have a major anniversary in the month, many organizations and institutions around the world have set aside April to be a month of genocide awareness and action against genocide. Here are nine things you should know about genocide in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries:

1. The term genocide was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin from the rooted words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1941, drafted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a resolution which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The Genocide Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

2. Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:

(a) Killing its members;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

3. In what is widely considered the first genocide of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire subjected the Armenian people to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation during World War I. The genocide began on April 24, 1915, when the Turkish government arrested and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals. A group of nationalists known as the “Young Turks” organized “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.” An estimated 1.5 million of the 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire died between 1915 and 1923.

4. On January 20, 1942, Hitler’s official plan for genocide was developed at the Wannsee Conference. Fifteen Nazi leaders, which included a number of state secretaries, senior officials, party leaders, SS officers, and other leaders of government departments, held the meeting to discuss plans for a “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe.” The most commonly cited figure for the total number of Jews killed is six million — around 78 percent of the 7.3 million Jews in occupied Europe at the time. Additionally, the Nazis murdered approximately two to three million Soviet POWs, two million ethnic Poles, up to 1,500,000 Romani, 200,000 handicapped, political and religious dissenters, 15,000 homosexuals, and 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, bringing the total genocide toll to around 11 million.

5. One of the most horrific genocides to occur after the signing of the Genocide Convention occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 to 8 million died of starvation, execution, disease, or overwork because of Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge movement. Pol Pot died in his sleep on April 15, 1998, due to heart failure. To date, a United Nations-backed tribunal has convicted only a handful of Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity.

6. The Rwandan Genocide was a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. During the approximate 100-day period from April 7, 1994 to mid-July an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, constituting as much as 20 percent of the country's total population and 70 percent of the Tutsi then living in Rwanda.The U.S. was reluctant to get involved in the “local conflict” in Rwanda and initially refused to label the killings as “genocide.” Then-president Bill Clinton later publicly regretted that decision in a television interview. Five years later, Clinton stated that he believed that if he had sent 5,000 U.S. peacekeepers, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved.

7. In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established the precedent that rape during warfare is a crime of genocide. In Rwanda, HIV-infected men had participated in the mass rape of Tutsi women. That same year the Tribunal also had the first genocide conviction when Jean Paul Akayesu, the Hutu mayor of the town, Taba, was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

8. In 2002, an international treaty established the International Criminal Court (ICC) a universal response to past and present atrocities. The ICC is a treaty-based criminal court that can only try individuals for designated atrocity crimes. The ICC Is a permanent court, unlike the two ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, that has the power under certain conditions to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of committing an atrocity crime within the ICC's jurisdiction after July 1, 2002. As of 6 January 2015, 123 states have ratified or acceded to the Rome Statute. (The U.S. has made it clear it will not ratify this treaty.)

9. In 2003, two rebel organizations took up arms against the government of Sudan. In response, the government unleashed Arab militias known as Janjaweed, or “devils on horseback”, which attacked hundreds of villages throughout Darfur. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed and millions of civilians were forced to flee their homes. The genocide in Darfur killed 480,000 and displaced over 2,500,000 people. In 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling for unilateral or multinational action to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.


Recent posts in this series:

Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • Prayer in the Bible • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • C.S. Lewis • Orphans • Halloween and Reformation Day • World Hunger • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 6th Street Baptist Church Bombing • 9/11 Attack Aftermath • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers. I corresponded with Joe Carter—communications specialist for the ERLC, editor at The Acton Institute and The Gospel Coalition, and adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College—about what’s on his nightstand, some of his favorite works of fiction, and what books have most profoundly shaped him.

What's on your nightstand right now?

I’m a slow reader (and even slower thinker), so I like to fool myself into reading more by reading a dozen books at a time. By reading 10 to 20 pages a day in each I delude myself into believing I’m actually making progress on my book pile. Currently I’m working my way through:

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. Bryson provides a fascinating intellectual history disguised as a tour of his home, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. I don’t appreciate when authors feel superior to their literary creations, so I’ve never been enthusiastic about Sinclair Lewis.

Physics for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller. An introduction to the science behind public policy issues, like nuclear weapons and space programs. The chapter on energy has already made the book worth reading.

A History of the World in 100 Weapons by Chris McNab. A good explanation of how military technology—from flint axes to stealth fighters—has changed human history.

The Information by James Gleick. A fascinating account of the ways humans transfer information. The section on the talking drums of Africa is amazing.

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark. Not as useful as his previous book, Writing Tools, but Clark has a love of language that is infectious.

The Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant. I wasn’t expecting the memoir of our 18th President to be so readable—or for Grant to be so relatable.

In Defense of War by Nigel Biggar. Biggar provides a helpful contribution to the debate about how Christians should consider the ethics of war and peace.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. Tuchman’s excellent work is helping me fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge about World War I.

King Henry V by Shakespeare. I’m trying to catch up on all the Shakespearean plays I’ve missed out on. So far, this is my favorite of his historical plays.

The Bees: A Novel by Laline Paull. This science fiction story, told from the perspective of a bumblebee, is a weird and intriguing examination of politics, religion, and individualism in a society that requires conformity.

Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldworthy. TGC director of women’s initiatives Kathleen Nielson put it best: “A classic presentation of the Bible as one unified work centered in God’s redemption in Christ.”

What are your favorite fiction books?

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Lonesome Dove, Leaving Cheyenne, and Cadillac Jack by Larry McMurtry

All the Pretty Horses, The Road, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy 

World Made by Hand, The Witch of Hebron, A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 

If you had asked me two years ago I wouldn’t have known how to answer. I had always read for personal growth and not deliberately for the sake of serving others. But last month I finished a year-long writing project on spiritual disciplines. For research purposes I read more than a hundred books related to the topic. Here are three that will certainly shape how I serve and lead others in the future:

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen. You see this one recommended a lot—and for good reason. Owen isn’t an easy read, but this book is well worth the effort.

The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. Kevin is such a superb writer and communicator that readers have come to expect his books will be worthwhile. And they are. But this one is different. This book is easily one of the best books on sanctification I’ve ever read—and I’ve plowed through a lot of them. I wish every Christian would read this book.

Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray. I’ve become convinced that if you’re not reading the Bible to better see Jesus, then you’re reading it wrong. There are probably a half-dozen books I could recommend on seeing Jesus in Scripture, but Murray’s is the one I'd suggest as a starting point.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

Unflinching, self-denying obedience to Christ is absolutely essential to the Christian life. I’ve been a believer more than 30 years, and for all that time I’d have nodded in agreement with that statement. But it was only during this past year of research and study that I truly began to understand and appreciate the role of obedience in the life of the Christian.

Obedience is such a core theme of the Bible that I don’t know how I missed it for so long. And now I don’t know what to do with that realization. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Yet we live in a culture where obedience is considered an optional add-on to faith and the Christian life.

I feel compelled to tell everyone I see that we can’t truly love Jesus and follow Christ if we are not keeping his commands. But too many people will dismiss that message as “legalism” and refuse to hear that the only appropriate response to grace is eternal gratitude and unquestioning obedience to the Lord of the universe. 

Also in the On My Shelf series: Timothy GeorgeTim KellerBryan ChapellLauren ChandlerMike CosperRussell MooreJared WilsonKathy KellerTullian TchividjianJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti Anyabwile, Elyse FitzpatrickCollin HansenFred SandersRosaria ButterfieldNancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.

About a year ago, I seethed over a compliment. Someone in Washington political circles said, “It’s really amazing; you’re a real-deal born-again type, and yet you are really intelligent and thoughtful.” I rolled my eyes, because I have heard this talk before. When I showed up in Washington as an 18-year-old congressional intern, a colleague from Massachusetts said, “You’re from Mississippi and you sure read a lot; good for you!” In both cases, I simmered inside, because both compliments were really forms of ridicule.

In my mind, I was upset because I was protective of the reputation of evangelical Christianity. I thought: Are you so ignorant that you’ve never heard of Augustine or Justin Martyr or Blaise Pascal or Carl Henry? And, years ago, I thought I was protective of my home state. Yes, I think maybe William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams read more than I do. But in both cases, I was wincing at a personal slight. I’m a born Mississippian and a born-again Christian. When one insults these categories, one is insulting me—and I didn’t like it.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an unprecedented and nasty turn in American culture against basic religious freedoms, freedoms that once composed the bedrock of the American consensus. In the years to come, we will be called upon to advocate for religious liberty and soul freedom for everyone, over and against a government and media culture hostile to the very idea. In order to do that, though, we must learn to differentiate between persecution and insult, between religious liberty and freedom from ridicule. They are not the same thing.

Why Religious Liberty Matters

Religious liberty matters because religious liberty is an issue of worship. The state is given the power of the sword to coercively act against threats to public order and justice (Rom. 13:1-7). The state does not have the power of the sword to regulate what is owed to God (Mark 12:17). What God requires is not forced or feigned worship but that which flows from an open and pure conscience (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 9:14). A state that forces a person to act against conscience is a state that has overstepped its bounds, a state that is attempting violence on persons from a judgment seat at which the state is not a party.

Moreover, in an American system of government, religious liberty is everyone’s problem, because the state is accountable to the people, who are, ultimately, the governing authorities. A Christian, then, who doesn’t care about working for religious liberty is a Christian not only wishing to be persecuted, and to consign others to persecution, but also wishing to be, by his silence, a persecutor of others. This is contrary to the way of Christ (1 Pet. 1:12-17).

That said, there is always a temptation to conflate the right of soul liberty with the idea that we should be outraged when we are marginalized or ridiculed in the public square. We should fight this temptation.

We can combat bad laws with better laws. We don’t combat ignorant insults with better insults.

When we work for religious liberty, we are working in the interest of the common good; we are not just protecting ourselves. We are working to keep ourselves from participating in the evil of a conscience-restricting coercive government. The apostles denied the authority of a decidedly non-democratic authority to intrude into such matters (Acts 4:19-20). Much less should we expect it of a government with constitutional guarantees of the natural rights of religious freedom.

We Aren’t ‘Normal’

This doesn’t mean, though, that we should vent outrage when we are ridiculed or insulted or slighted. In fact, this impulse will leave us less equipped for contending for religious liberty. Behind our hurt at insults, after all, is a desire to be seen as “normal.” If people just saw us as we are, we think, they would see that we’re not as stupid or backward as they think. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus share such a concern. He is accused of drunkenness, of insanity, and even of demon possession, and through it all Jesus is frustratingly tranquil.

As a matter of fact, whenever Jesus is received well, he presses on with his strange talking until people are outraged by the weirdness or subversion of what he has to say (Luke 4:22-28; John 6:22-70). Jesus didn’t hide the strangeness of the gospel, because he knew only a gospel strange to the course of this world can save us (1 Cor. 1:21).

We should seek to keep our conduct honorable “among the Gentiles,” as the Bible tells us (1 Pet. 2:12), but we shouldn’t chafe at being strangers and aliens to them (1 Pet. 1:11). When we are ridiculed and mocked, it’s probably a sign that people are starting to actually hear what we are saying. Our gospel isn’t safe and normal. Our gospel is a strange message of turned cheeks and bloody crosses and empty tombs, of coming judgment and of poured-out mercy.

Some will point out, rightly, that the ridicule is part of a cultural wind that brings with it religious liberty violations. That’s true. But we can combat bad laws with better laws. We don’t combat ignorant insults with better insults (Rom. 12:14-21).

If we are a free people in a constitutional government, we should expect our government to leave consciences free. We will work for liberty and justice, for all. But that means we should also expect many free people to jeer at us as crazy or stupid. We will walk with Jesus and bear such reviling, without reviling back (1 Pet. 2:22-23).

As citizens, we should expect freedom of religion. As Christians, we shouldn’t expect freedom from ridicule.

Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed meeting and getting to know Ken Mbugua from Nairobi, Kenya. I’m excited about how God is at work in his life and ministry, preparing him for leading the church there. In 2013, my son and I spent a little time with Ken and his team at Emanuel Baptist Church. He recently completed an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Ken is one of the primary contributors to a recent book focused on dealing with prosperity teaching in Africa. The Gospel Coalition International Outreach is partnering with ACTS Kenya to put this book into the hands of thousands of church leaders all over Africa. To learn how you can join with us in this effort, visit our Relief Project page for Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel.

Why is prosperity theology such an important issue to address for Africa?

There are millions of Africans attending churches where the only message they hear is the prosperity gospel. The churches that preach this false gospel are everywhere, but sadly they seem to thrive even more in the poor communities of urban areas. Famous prosperity gospel preachers in the United States are very popular here in Africa. Their books are readily available, and their sermons are played on local television. Many are caught up either as preachers or followers without ever having heard the true gospel. A softer version of the same false teaching is affecting even mainstream churches.

From the Jerusalem Council to the Council of Nicea, the church has been called to contend for the faith against many different distortions. The primary distortion the gospel faces in Africa is the prosperity gospel. Although many believers and preachers oppose it, there are few resources addressing it. In many ways the prosperity gospel is being allowed to raid and plunder the church freely. We need more voices in the African church to put up a fight against this false gospel before it’s too late.

Africa needs the gospel more than it needs food aid. We need the gospel more than we need democracy. The prosperity we need the most is not offered by the American dream.

In what ways does this teaching negatively affect the lives of individual Christians?

There are poor people giving their small earnings to false gospel teachers in exchange for a false hope that will often leave them broken and doubting. There are middle class people getting conned out of their wealth, being told to give up their cars, land, and so on to the pastor. There are thousands of Christians attending church every Sunday to hear messages void of the gospel but full of self-help poisonous fluff. There is the constant shame brought to Christ and his church at large when the media exposes one false teacher after another.

Right now in Kenya this false gospel is destroying the foundations of the faith that are supposed to sustain Christians through times of persecution. As persecution of Christians increases in Kenya, we need Christians who truly believe that dying is gain and that Jesus is worth it all a million times over. The prosperity gospel, soft version or otherwise, is doing nothing but harm to a church that might soon be called to the same thing the church in Smyrna was called to—“faithfulness unto death” (Rev. 2:10).

How does the biblical gospel bring the truth to bear on this false teaching?

The biblical gospel tells us that the problem is far worse than the prosperity gospel suggests. Our greatest problem is not that we are broken or sick. Our greatest problem is that the God of the universe is righteous in his holy anger, and he is coming to pour out his divine wrath on all who do not worship him as God. The biblical gospel tells us that the good news is far better than the fact that we will be made healthy and wealthy (even though this will be true of all believers in the new heavens and the new earth). The biblical gospel tells us that we get God as our treasure. We get to worship God as God. He sets us free from all other posers that promised joys they could never provide.

Africa needs the gospel more than it needs food aid. We need the gospel more than we need democracy. The prosperity we need the most is not offered by the American dream.

As a contributor to this book, what are your hopes for the effect that it could make?

All that we are offering to God with this little book is less than the little boy's lunch he once used to feed a multitude (John 6:1-15). We have seen God do amazing things with it already. Bible schools have started using it to prepare their pastoral students to defend the gospel. Other missionaries have bought multiple copies and distributed them at conferences in villages far beyond our reach. Hundreds of high school students have studied the book and written research papers on it.

We can only hope that God will continue to use this much-improved version of the book to reach even more pastors and church members with the true gospel. We pray that many who believe the prosperity gospel will be unshackled and that many who have not yet been trapped will be protected from it. We pray that God will bring the truth of the gospel to those who are naively holding on to a false gospel. We pray that the sheep will hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him.

Learn more about TGC International Outreach’s mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church. And watch this video interview with Ken during IO’s 2013 visit to Nairobi. 

I have a confession to make. I am a former English teacher and lifelong reader who has what many people would consider an abominable habit. I almost always read the last page of a book first. Supposedly, I’m spoiling the surprise and maybe even ruining the whole reading experience. Some would say this habit demonstrates a lack of patience; my husband would say that I just hate surprises. Both are probably true. But even though my initial motivations for forming this habit may not have been so noble, I have come to realize over time that there is much to be gained by knowing how a story ends in advance. In fact, Scripture demonstrates the power of this principle as it applies to the Christian life.  

Why is there a market for book, movie, and TV “spoilers”? What is the appeal of knowing how something ends before we’ve even begun to read or watch it? I think the answer is fairly simple: knowing the ending makes the process of reading or watching more bearable and perhaps even more enjoyable. When I begin reading a novel, I know that I am going to encounter conflict and tension, struggle and heartbreak. Though a book probably wouldn’t be worth reading without at least a little bit of this tension, I have a hard time wading through those parts unless I know that it ends well. I need to know that the struggle will be worth it, that the characters will grow, that relationships will strengthen, that there will be redemption in the end.

Looking Ahead Brings Comfort

The Christian life is much the same. We are better able to bear struggle and difficulty by looking forward to the reward God has promised for those who are in Christ. Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:33 plainly to expect difficulty: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Thankfully, he immediately follows that warning with a comforting truth: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus is giving a glimpse of the ending, which is already written. He has overcome the world. When discouragement and defeat come to us personally, or when we witness the devastating effects of sin on our country and our world, we can continue on, strengthened and comforted in the knowledge that the ultimate victory is already won. 

Jesus’s model of juxtaposing present reality with future hope is repeated many times in Scripture. Consider how David proclaims his assurance of God’s faithfulness in Psalm 23.  In verse 4 he alludes to a present struggle saying, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” But he ends looking to the future, proclaiming, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” He is comforted not only by the knowledge that the Lord is with him in present struggles, but also by looking forward to his eternal home. 

Looking Ahead Encourages Obedience

The author of Hebrews helps us to see how Abraham and Moses were spurred on in obedience to God’s will by looking forward to their heavenly reward. Abraham was called to go out “not knowing where he was going,” so “by faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land” (Heb. 11:8-9). How was Abraham able to take this huge step of faith, to uproot his entire life not knowing what was ahead? Verse 10 tells us: “He was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” 

Similarly, Moses “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Heb. 11:24). Moses chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25). How could Moses make the choice to be mistreated rather than pampered? Verse 26 explains, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” Abraham and Moses were able to leave behind earthly comforts and act in obedience to God’s call on their lives because they were looking ahead to their eternal reward.     

Looking Ahead Enables Faithfulness

A future-sighted view can also strengthen the believer to remain faithful amid temptation, a concept that English Puritan preacher Thomas Manton (1620-1677) eloquently explained in a sermon he preached on Hebrews 11. He taught, “Foretastes of heaven will bring such a strong influence in the heart of a believer, that all the reasons in the world cannot alter or break the force of our spiritual purpose.” He explained the benefits of a forward-looking faith with these examples:

  • When tempted to disregard the service of the Lord in favor of earthly advantages, faith looks to the immeasurable riches of heaven.
  • When tempted to seek the fame and good opinion of the world, faith looks to the crown of righteousness that God will give us.
  • When tempted to complain and grumble under the weight of taking up our cross and following Christ, faith looks to the end of the journey, which will find us in sweet fellowship with him.

Manton taught that God’s promises for the future protect our hearts. Knowing what God has in store for the believer does not spoil anything; to the contrary, it improves everything. 

I hope you’ll agree that I’m not spoiling anything when I tell you (or perhaps remind you) how the greatest book ever written ends. It ends with a promise, a prayer, and a blessing. There is a promise to remind us that our future is sure, the victory is won, and our bridegroom is coming; a prayer that invites us to look forward with joyful anticipation to the fulfillment of God’s promises; and a blessing that gives us what we need to remain faithful until our hope is fulfilled. Be encouraged by the words of Revelation 22:20-21: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”

The Gospel Coalition just released the latest issue of Themelios, which has 194 pages of articles and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software (coming soon). A print edition will be available for purchase in several weeks from Wipf and Stock publishers.

The latest issue opens with editorials by D. A. Carson and Mike Ovey. It includes a review essay by Nathan Finn on three recent books on evangelicalism. The remaining four articles focus on the patriarch Abraham. David Gibson and Martin Salter explore Abraham’s important place in paedobaptist and credobaptist theology, building upon their earlier exchange on baptism in Themelios 37.2. Next, David Shaw reflects on the patriarch’s significance in Romans and Paul’s doctrine of justification. Shaw critically interacts with the influential interpretations by N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell, among others. Finally, in the Pastoral Pensées column, Matthew Rowley addresses the problematic reception history of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and offers guidelines for interpreting and applying Genesis 22. The issue closes with 59 book reviews in Old Testament, New Testament, history and historical theology, systematic theology and bioethics, ethics and pastoralia, and mission and culture.

Links to all editorials, articles, and book reviews in Themelios 40.1 are included below.

  1. D. A. Carson | Editorial: Why the Local Church Is More Important Than TGC, White Horse Inn, 9Marks, and Maybe Even ETS
  2. Michael J. Ovey | Off the Record: Courtier Politicians and Courtier Preachers
  3. Brian J. Tabb | Editor’s Note: Abraham, Our Father
  4. David Gibson | ‘Fathers of Faith, My Fathers Now!’: On Abraham, Covenant, and the Theology of Paedobaptism
  5. Martin Salter | The Abrahamic Covenant in Reformed Baptist Perspective
  6. David Shaw | Romans 4 and the Justification of Abraham in Light of Perspectives New and Newer
  7. Nathan A. Finn | Evangelical History after George Marsden: A Review Essay
  8. Matthew Rowley  | Pastoral Pensées: Irrational Violence? Reconsidering the Logic of Obedience in Genesis 22
  9. Old Testament Reviews
  1. New Testament Reviews
  1. History and Historical Theology Reviews
  1. Systematic Theology and Bioethics Reviews
  1. Ethics and Pastoralia Reviews
  1. Mission and Culture Reviews

To Flannery O’Connor, grace was a violent thing. Not a solemn walk down a church aisle or a hushed prayer, but a bullet. A bull’s horn. A suicide.

You won’t find her in Christian book stores, though you may have read one of her stories in college. Her goal in writing fiction was clear: “My audience are the people who think God is dead. . . . To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Her characters are grotesque. Her religious voice is unconventional. She’s kind of my hero.

Shocking Grace

When I first hand my students an O’Connor story, their typical response is to cringe or ask incredulously: What did I just read?

I understand this reaction. It’s what good ‘ole Flannery would have wanted. Shock. But she wanted that shock to lead to understanding. So before helping my students unpack the story, I ask them a question: What must come before grace? I ask because the answer is what every Flannery O’Connor story is about: the moment when characters realize they need grace.  

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find that moment arrives when a notorious convict points his gun at a grandma. Though she’s spent the majority of the story picking at others while basking in her own goodness, she has a moment of clarity. She looks at the criminal and is reminded of her own son. She realizes that the two men aren’t so different. She stops talking. Her fancy hat falls to the ground. And she sees that she isn’t so different from the murderer, either. Her epiphany ends abruptly, with three bullets to the chest:

“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

With this morbid line, O’Connor reminds her audience that grace is a wake-up call. It carries a dramatic message: You are not ok. You never will be. You need something outside of yourself.

Grace for the Guilty

When I think about the grandmother’s epiphany, I think about a song by indie artist, Sufjan Stevens. It’s about John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer known for dressing up as a clown and murdering more than 30 teenage boys in the 1970s. The last lines of the song are striking:

And in my best behavior/I am really just like him.

Before we can accept grace, we must admit that we are filthy, rotten sinners who need grace. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’s day couldn’t understand. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable aimed directly at their stubborn hearts: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9).

You know the story. Two men enter the temple to worship. The Pharisee stands tall and proud saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” while the other man can hardly lift his face (v. 11). Instead, he stays low to the ground and cries out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).

Until we see ourselves as sinners, we won’t recognize Christ as Savior (Luke 5:31). I remember interviewing a prostitute in Los Angeles years ago. She said that one night she saw a man murdered. Somebody threw him out a window. Everyone knew who did it, but no one told. I asked her why not, and she said that the murdered man had molested a child. “Anyone who would do something like that deserves to die,” she said.

She’s right. Anyone who would do that deserves to die. Anyone who sins against God in any way deserves death. James 2:10 puts me in the same camp as pedophiles and serial killers: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

I have failed. I’m accountable for all of it. I need grace.

Offensive Grace

In another O’Connor story, The Lame Shall Enter Firsta confident atheist, Shepherd, realizes that his good deeds have missed the mark. After the loss of his wife, he reaches out to a bitter, delinquent, teenage boy with a club foot. The boy, Rufus, wants nothing to do with him, but Shepherd insists. He takes him into his home, buys him a new boot, and tells him how much potential he has. He spends all his time playing savior to someone who doesn’t want his help. All the while, his son grieves alone. By the time Shepherd realizes his mistake, it’s too late. His son is gone.  

Throughout this story, grace continually offends. It offends Shepherd’s pride and superior intellect. “That book is something for you to hide behind,” he says when he sees Rufus reading the Bible. “It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.”

He assures Rufus: “You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.” But Rufus angrily replies, “You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.” Grace is what we need, whether we accept it or not. And though Shepherd dismisses the gospel at every turn, he is given insight into the depths of his own failure. He failed to save Rufus. He failed his own son. He is the one in need of a shepherd.

Grace is offensive because it points to the deficiency in each of us.

Costly Grace

Even more offensive than our need for grace is how much it costs. Too often I forget that because God is just, my sins couldn’t just disappear. They had to be punished. And Jesus walked toward that punishment. He walked toward the hill where pain was a promise.

His death wasn’t merely symbolic. When we read about the countless slaughtered animals in the Old Testament, we must make the connection: Jesus’s body was the ultimate bloody sacrifice. It was real nails ripping through skin and muscle. His emotional agony was so intense that, before his death, he asked God if there were any other way (Matt. 26:39). None of us could die as Jesus died. Sinless. The perfect substitute. His death was gory because that is what our sins deserve.

God’s Desire

The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus spent so much time with unworthy people. Jesus told them it was because they were sick and needed a doctor. He saw the Pharisees’ disease as well. He knew that it ran deep but that they were unwilling to cry out for help. Witnessing people reject the medicine of grace grieved Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34). 

Flannery O’Connor may have written violent stories about strange characters from the South, but she understood grace. She knew that no man is righteous until he is clothed in Christ. This requires that we see our nakedness and recognize our need. Grace is costly. It is necessary. And God desires that we admit our problem and embrace his solution.

Ed Stetzer - Lifeway 

Pat Hood explains what it is like to pastor a "sending church."

Tell me about some unique things your church is doing in outreach.

I don't know if we do anything that's really "unique." I would describe our outreach as "simple." I think Jesus' was too. He simply told his disciples, to "Go, make disciples." That's what we teach our people. We challenge them to live sent lives in every domain of their life. We tell our people that we have no marketing campaign. We don't blanket the community with fliers. We don't rent billboards. We tell our people they are the outreach plan.

How did LifePoint transition from a traditional First Baptist to an international, multi-ethnic "sending church?"

In 2004, I felt a clear direction from the Lord to lead our church to a time of prayer, fasting and worship. We would fast for three days and then meet together at night for a time of intense worship: no preaching, just fasting and meeting together to pray and worship.

We had already begun to transition some external things like our music style and dress, and, as a result, had seen lots growth. As a result, we were in the middle of a building program to build a new auditorium. We thought this time of prayer and fasting was to prepare us for what God was going to do when we opened our new auditorium. However, during those three days of prayer & fasting, we realized that God had called us together because He wanted to open our eyes to His heart for the nation. So, our focus changed from bringing more people in to sending more people out.

How did you measure success in the past?

I've always been a pastor who loved people and love seeing their lives transformed by Jesus. But, admittedly, there was a time when I was more ...

Continue reading...

A Conflict of Christian Visions; An Open Letter to Church Planters; Anti-Psychotic Overmedication

If you are not reading Anthony Bradley, you really should be. In this article, he pushes a bit about our view of the creation narrative. Interesting stuff…

A Conflict of Christian Visions: Gen. 1-2 vs. Gen. 3 ChristianityAnthony Bradley

Christine was recently on The Exchange (along with my friend Kathy Ferguson Litton), for an interview regarding her new book, The Church Planting Wife. Here is a related letter that's worth a read.

An Open Letter to Church Planting PastorsChristine Hoover

We've talked a lot about mental illness lately. I've written for CNN, and at my own blog. The Huffington Post, the Blaze, CNN (here and here), and lots of others have reported on our data. In my most recent article, I wrote about the danger of overmedication. Being an evangelical, one of the biggest challenges is to encourage Christians to see mental illness as an actual illness. We have a long way to go, based on our recent research. However, the other extreme is that of overmedication, as this article explains.

Doctors: Anti-psychotic meds overused for dementia, kidsKim Painter

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with evangelist Luis Palau on The Exchange. What regrets does he have in his experience as an international evangelist? Don't forget to join me every Tuesday at 3:00 PM Eastern for The Exchange.

Continue reading...

Large and fast-growing churches make sacrifices for the kingdom of God.

Outreach Magazine just released their Outreach 100 issue for 2013. LifeWay Research does the research for this issue. I was particularly encouraged to see the list focus especially on fastest growing churches. You can subscribe to the magazine here. Here is my article with a bit of analysis of some of the fastest-growing churches in America.


Each year at LifeWay Research, we work together with Outreach Magazine to create the Outreach 100 listings of the country's Fastest-Growing and Largest Churches. On one hand, these lists are one of the most anticipated things we do each year. People seem to eagerly await the lists so they can learn from these churches about what God is doing to build his kingdom across the United States. On the other hand, there are those who complain about the lists. They seem to think this is a way of exalting "big churches" in an effort to make them look better than the churches that are not on the list, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Remember folks: facts are our friends.

I love to learn. I have spent a significant portion of my adult life in the classroom, either as a student or as a professor. These lists feed our hunger to learn as we evaluate the temperature of the churches we study in an effort to learn more about the ways God is working. I hope these lists encourage you and challenge you. I hope, like me, you read them and celebrate the ways God is working. I hope they challenge you to think through your own strategy to reach your community with the gospel.

On this year's lists, we noticed many of the same trends we've seen in the past. Among the recent trends, we continue to see multisite churches becoming more and ...

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Evangelicals Wrong on Mental Illness; 4 Public Invitation Tips; Stop Copying

Amy Simpson responds to our research on mental health that has been reported at CNN (here and here), The Huffington Post, the Blaze, and lots of other places.

Evangelicals, You're Wrong about Mental IllnessAmy Simpson

I appreciated Ronnie Floyd's words here. At our church, we don't do a "come forward" invitation-- that does not work in a movie theater-- but we always invite people to Christ at the end of every message. I found his comments helpful.

4 Words to Keep in Mind When You Give a Public InvitationRonnie Floyd

Helpful article on innovation from Justin and Matt.

How to Stop Copying and Start InnovatingJustin Blaney and Matt Carter

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with evangelist Luis Palau on The Exchange. Listen to the advice he had for others who share the Gospel. Don't forget to join me every Tuesday at 3:00 PM Eastern for The Exchange.

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How church partnerships can help foster multiplication.

Denominations and networks of churches were and still are created for the purpose of partnership in mission. At times, these organizations have successfully unified churches around their common goals and accomplished much. But sometimes the very institutions meant to unify and encourage the mission have inadvertently hindered their own ability to multiply efforts through partnership.

Without a clear avenue to foster partnership for multiplication, the need for these organizations becomes less clear. If denominations and networks do not exist-- at least in part-- to multiply churches, then they have lost a big part of their purpose.

Denominations, networks, and other such partnerships (referred to occasionally as simply "partnerships" for sake of space), when functioning correctly, should help foster multiplication.

I regularly work with a variety of denominational leaders to help them chart a course toward unified missional engagement. There are several points of weakness common to many of the organizations I have seen.

Since these blind spots seem to be somewhat universal, it makes sense to give broad consideration to the ways of overcoming them. So, I have taken a talk I gave to the Evangelical Free Church leadership and modified it a bit to share here.

Hopefully this information can serve other groups as well. Here are six key steps toward creating the type of unity among churches in denominations/networks that leads to sustainable multiplication of a movement.

1. Recognize that Multiplication is Part of Health.

First, your partnership must understand that multiplication is a sign of health.

Healthy churches multiply disciples, groups, ministries, and churches-- and healthy partnerships cultivate ...

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Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission 
<p><span class="caps">WASHINGTON</span>, D.C., April 23, 2015—Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission, joined religious leaders in signing an open letter on the defense of marriage and religious freedom today.</p> <p>The letter, addressed to those in positions of public service, expresses a shared commitment to promoting and protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman.</p> <p>“At this significant time in our nation’s history with the institution of marriage before the United States Supreme Court, we reaffirm our commitment to promote and defend marriage—the union of one man and one woman,” leaders wrote. “As religious leaders from various faith communities, we acknowledge that marriage is the foundation of the family where children are raised by a mother and a father together.”</p> <p>Moore comments on signing the letter:</p> <p>“I&#8217;m happy to stand with a broad coalition of convictional leaders to say that marriage matters, and religious freedom does too. We cannot allow the most important institution of the creation order to be ignored simply because it is no longer fashionable. We also cannot let conscience and religious exercise become captive to whatever the majority wills at the moment.” </p> <p>The letter was released in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s deliberation on the right of states to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, with oral arguments set for April 28, 2015 and a decision expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.</p> <p>Other signatories included:</p> <p>Leith Anderson, President, National Association of Evangelicals <br /> Samuel Rodriguez, President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference <br /> Gary E. Stevenson, Presiding Bishop, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints <br /> William Lori, Chairman of the <span class="caps">USCCB</span> Chairman Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty</p> <p>A full copy of the letter can be found <a href="">here.</a></p> <p>The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide. The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission is the SBC’s ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.</p> <p>- <span class="caps">END</span> &#8211; </p> <p>To request an interview with Russell Moore<br /> contact Elizabeth Bristow at 202-547-0209<br /> or by e-mail at <span data-eeEncEmail_qxJmkxDuZY='1'>.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)</span><script type="text/javascript">/*<![CDATA[*/var out = '',el = document.getElementsByTagName('span'),l = ['>','a','/','<',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112','>','\"',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112',':','o','t','l','i','a','m','\"','=','f','e','r','h','a ','<'],i = l.length,j = el.length;while (--i >= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, '&#'));while (--j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute('data-eeEncEmail_qxJmkxDuZY'))el[j].innerHTML = out;/**/

<p><span class="caps">WASHINGTON</span>, D.C., April 22, 2015—Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, commended the U.S. Senate on breaking the political gridlock surrounding The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. The Senate passed the bill today after more than a month of debate.</p> <p>&#8220;I am thankful the Senate has acted on this important legislation,” Moore said. “Human trafficking is a modern day plague on our world. Its victims suffer indescribably at the hands of merciless lust and rapacious greed. Every instance of human trafficking, wherever it happens and whatever kind, is a violent repudiation of human dignity and a shame on our culture.”</p> <p>Debate between both sides of the Senate on the bill centered on whether funds designated for victims of human trafficking could be used for abortions. The deal achieved on Wednesday assures pro-life senators that no money appropriated for victims of trafficking will be used to fund abortions.</p> <p>“All life—born or unborn, poor or rich, male or female—matters infinitely to God,” Moore said. “Recognition of this fact is a mandatory feature of a humane nation. Congress sent the right message to victims of human trafficking today.&#8221; </p> <p>The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide. The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission is the SBC’s ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.</p> <p>- <span class="caps">END</span> &#8211; </p> <p>To request an interview with Russell Moore<br /> contact Elizabeth Bristow at 202-547-0209<br /> or by e-mail at <span data-eeEncEmail_bispiEtiMJ='1'>.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)</span><script type="text/javascript">/*<![CDATA[*/var out = '',el = document.getElementsByTagName('span'),l = ['>','a','/','<',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112','>','\"',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112',':','o','t','l','i','a','m','\"','=','f','e','r','h','a ','<'],i = l.length,j = el.length;while (--i >= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, '&#'));while (--j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute('data-eeEncEmail_bispiEtiMJ'))el[j].innerHTML = out;/**/

<p><span class="caps">NASHVILLE</span>, Tenn., April 20, 2015—The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention’s communication team won first place in the public relations for special events category at the 2015 Wilmer C. Fields Awards Competition. </p> <p>This competition is designed to encourage professional excellence among Baptist Communicators Association members and to recognize those members who have done exemplary work. Each year the awards are presented at the annual <span class="caps">BCA</span> workshop. The competition is named in honor of <span class="caps">BCA</span> lifetime member and retired vice president of public relations for the SBC’s Executive Committee, Wilmer C. Fields.</p> <p>“We are honored to be recognized by our peers in receiving this award,” said Daniel Darling, ERLC’s vice president for communications. “Our communications teams is made up of godly, servant-hearted, gifted men and women who come to work each day energized to share the good news of the gospel of the Kingdom with the world.” </p> <p>The <span class="caps">ERLC</span> communications team was awarded first place for their 2014 National Conference PR campaign. </p> <p>The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide. The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission is the SBC’s ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.</p> <p>- <span class="caps">END</span> &#8211; </p> <p>To request an interview with Russell Moore<br /> contact Elizabeth Bristow at 202-547-0209<br /> or by e-mail at <span data-eeEncEmail_FyeVIkoFBE='1'>.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)</span><script type="text/javascript">/*<![CDATA[*/var out = '',el = document.getElementsByTagName('span'),l = ['>','a','/','<',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112','>','\"',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112',':','o','t','l','i','a','m','\"','=','f','e','r','h','a ','<'],i = l.length,j = el.length;while (--i >= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, '&#'));while (--j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute('data-eeEncEmail_FyeVIkoFBE'))el[j].innerHTML = out;/**/

<p><span class="caps">NASHVILLE</span>, Tenn.—Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, commended the Arkansas legislature and Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson on the passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (<span class="caps">RFRA</span>). The new Arkansas law mirrors the federal <span class="caps">RFRA</span> passed in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton. </p> <p>“I commend Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas legislature for showing real leadership and doing the right thing,” Moore said. “Religious liberty is not a prize to be won by whatever group has the most votes. Religious liberty is a natural right granted to all people by God.”</p> <p>The Arkansas <span class="caps">RFRA</span> comes in a week that saw controversy over similar legislation in Indiana. Indiana’s <span class="caps">RFRA</span> bill was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week but state lawmakers subsequently sought to significantly amend the bill. Pence signed the altered version on Thursday. Moore said that the Arkansas legislature set a superior example by making religious liberty a priority. </p> <p>“Arkansas set a model of strong protection of soul freedom for all citizens,” Moore said. “I wish Governor Pence had shown the same leadership.” </p> <p>- <span class="caps">END</span> –</p> <p>To request an interview with Russell Moore<br /> contact Elizabeth Bristow at 202-547-0209<br /> or by e-mail at <span data-eeEncEmail_SbiJSdURMY='1'>.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)</span><script type="text/javascript">/*<![CDATA[*/var out = '',el = document.getElementsByTagName('span'),l = ['>','a','/','<',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112','>','\"',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112',':','o','t','l','i','a','m','\"','=','f','e','r','h','a ','<'],i = l.length,j = el.length;while (--i >= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, '&#'));while (--j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute('data-eeEncEmail_SbiJSdURMY'))el[j].innerHTML = out;/**/

<p><span class="caps">NASHVILLE</span>, Tenn.—The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention will host its 2015 National Conference on “The Gospel and Politics” August 5 at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn. </p> <p>This second annual national conference will immediately follow the North American Mission Board’s <a href=""><span class="caps">SEND</span> North America Conference</a>, Aug. 3-4 at the Bridgestone Arena. It will equip pastors, church leaders and lay people to think through tough political issues with a gospel lens at the start of the 2016 presidential primary season. </p> <p>Current speakers include Russell Moore, <span class="caps">ERLC</span> president, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. More speakers will be added soon. </p> <p>Commenting on the conference, Moore said:</p> <p>&#8220;Many churches and church leaders are tired of the screaming and warring that too often characterizes conversations about politics. Some are asking if we cannot just bow out of contentious political debates and focus on teaching the Romans Road of Salvation. But Christian engagement of politics is about much more than winning arguments: it&#8217;s also about loving our neighbors and winning them to the kingdom of Christ.</p> <p>&#8220;Christians often instinctively know that politics matter but don&#8217;t know how to respond in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. What we want to talk about is how Christians can understand the way the truths of the Bible intersect with social and political needs. We want to empower pastors and church members to lead out in their communities with a Jesus-centered and neighbor-loving vision of public policy.&#8221;</p> <p>The main sessions will be live-streamed on Follow the conversation on Twitter by following <a href=""><span class="caps">ERLC</span></a>, <a href="">dmoore</a> and #ERLC2015.</p> <p><a href="">Registration</a> is now open and a schedule of events and speaker information can be found <a href="">online.</a></p> <p>The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide. The Ethics &amp; Religious Liberty Commission is the SBC’s ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.</p> <p>- <span class="caps">END</span> &#8211; </p> <p>To request an interview with Russell Moore<br /> contact Elizabeth Bristow at 202-547-0209<br /> or by e-mail at <span data-eeEncEmail_iyWXGvfBfb='1'>.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)</span><script type="text/javascript">/*<![CDATA[*/var out = '',el = document.getElementsByTagName('span'),l = ['>','a','/','<',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112','>','\"',' 109',' 111',' 99',' 46',' 99',' 108',' 114',' 101',' 64',' 115',' 115',' 101',' 114',' 112',':','o','t','l','i','a','m','\"','=','f','e','r','h','a ','<'],i = l.length,j = el.length;while (--i >= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, '&#'));while (--j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute('data-eeEncEmail_iyWXGvfBfb'))el[j].innerHTML = out;/**/


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