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October 22, 2008

Article by John Piper

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Voting is like marrying and crying and laughing and buying. We should do it, but only as if we were not doing it. That’s because “the present form of this world is passing away” and, in God’s eyes, “the time has grown very short.” Here’s the way Paul puts it:

The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29–31)

Let’s take these one at a time and compare them to voting.

1. “Let those who have wives live as though they had none.”

This doesn’t mean move out of the house, don’t have sex, and don’t call her Honey. Earlier in this chapter Paul says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights” (1 Corinthians 7:3). He also says to love her the way Christ loved the church, leading and providing and protecting (Ephesians 5:25–30). It means this: Marriage is momentary. It’s over at death, and there is no marriage in the resurrection. Wives and husbands are second priorities, not first. Christ is first. Marriage is for making much of him.

It means: If she is exquisitely desirable, beware of desiring her more than Christ. And if she is deeply disappointing, beware of being hurt too much. This is temporary — only a brief lifetime. Then comes the never-disappointing life which is life indeed.

So it is with voting. We should do it. But only as if we were not doing it. Its outcomes do not give us the greatest joy when they go our way, and they do not demoralize us when they don’t. Political life is for making much of Christ whether the world falls apart or holds together.

2. “Let those who mourn [do so] as though they were not mourning.

Christians mourn with real, deep, painful mourning, especially over losses — loss of those we love, loss of health, loss of a dream. These losses hurt. We cry when we are hurt. But we cry as though not crying. We mourn knowing we have not lost something so valuable we cannot rejoice in our mourning. Our losses do not incapacitate us. They do not blind us to the possibility of a fruitful future serving Christ. The Lord gives and takes away. But he remains blessed. And we remain hopeful in our mourning.

So it is with voting. There are losses. We mourn. But not as those who have no hope. We vote and we lose, or we vote and we win. In either case, we win or lose as if we were not winning or losing. Our expectations and frustrations are modest. The best this world can offer is short and small. The worst it can offer has been predicted in the book of Revelation. And no vote will hold it back. In the short run, Christians lose (Revelation 13:7). In the long run, we win (Revelation 21:4).

3. “Let those who rejoice [do so] as though they were not rejoicing.”

Christians rejoice in health (James 5:13) and in sickness (James 1:2). There are a thousand good and perfect things that come down from God that call forth the feeling of happiness. Beautiful weather. Good friends who want to spend time with us. Delicious food and someone to share it with. A successful plan. A person helped by our efforts.

But none of these good and beautiful things can satisfy our soul. Even the best cannot replace what we were made for, namely, the full experience of the risen Christ (John 17:24). Even fellowship with him here is not the final and best gift. There is more of him to have after we die (Philippians 1:21–23) — and even more after the resurrection. The best experiences here are foretastes. The best sights of glory are through a mirror dimly. The joy that rises from these previews does not and should not rise to the level of the hope of glory. These pleasures will one day be as though they were not. So, we rejoice remembering this joy is a foretaste and will be replaced by a vastly better joy.

So it is with voting. There are joys. The very act of voting is a joyful statement that we are not under a tyrant. And there may be happy victories. But the best government we get is a foreshadowing. Peace and justice are approximated now. They will be perfect when Christ comes. So our joy is modest. Our triumphs are short-lived — and shot through with imperfection. So we vote as though not voting.

4. “Let those who buy [do so] as though they had no goods.”

Let Christians keep on buying while this age lasts. Christianity is not withdrawal from business. We are involved, but as though not involved. Business simply does not have the weight in our hearts that it has for many. All our getting and all our having in this world is getting and having things that are not ultimately important. Our car, our house, our books, our computers, our heirlooms — we possess them with a loose grip. If they are taken away, we say that in a sense we did not have them. We are not here to possess. We are here to lay up treasures in heaven.

This world matters. But it is not ultimate. It is the stage for living in such a way to show that this world is not our God, but that Christ is our God. It is the stage for using the world to show that Christ is more precious than the world.

So it is with voting. We do not withdraw. We are involved — but as if not involved. Politics does not have ultimate weight for us. It is one more stage for acting out the truth that Christ, and not politics, is supreme.

5. “Let those who deal with the world [do so] as though they had no dealings with it.”

Christians should deal with the world. This world is here to be used. Dealt with. There is no avoiding it. Not to deal with it is to deal with it that way. Not to weed your garden is to cultivate a weedy garden. Not to wear a coat in Minnesota is to freeze — to deal with the cold that way. Not to stop when the light is red is to spend your money on fines or hospital bills and deal with the world that way. We must deal with the world.

But as we deal with it, we don’t give it our fullest attention. We don’t ascribe to the world the greatest status. There are unseen things that are vastly more precious than the world. We use the world without offering it our whole soul. We may work with all our might when dealing with the world, but the full passions of our heart will be attached to something higher — Godward purposes. We use the world, but not as an end in itself. It is a means. We deal with the world in order to make much of Christ.

So it is with voting

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The Lionhearted Listener

The Habit That Set Luther on Fire

Article by Marshall Segal

“See how much he has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all” (Here I Stand, 212). On this date, now more than five hundred years ago, the word of God waged a serious war against threats to the gospel emerging from the Roman Catholic Church, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Ninety-Five Theses may not have been nailed to the door, as the scene has been famously painted. They were probably pasted with glue. Pieces like these were often posted to the door, which served as a bulletin board for the university. Luther likely did not even post the theses himself. But his ninety-five nails drove deeper than any metal might have, because they were forged for this emerging war in the fire of divine revelation.

His Ears Led the Way

Timothy George writes,

What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. . . . He listened to the Word because it was his job to do so and because he had come to believe his soul’s salvation depended upon it. Luther did not become a reformer because he attacked indulgences. He attacked indulgences because the Word had already taken deep root in his heart. (Theology of the Reformers, 55–56)

George goes on to quote Luther: “If you were to ask a Christian what his task is and by what he is worthy of the name of Christian, there could be no other response than hearing the Word of God, that is, faith. Ears are the only organs of the Christian” (56). We often remember Luther for his extraordinary mouth, but it was first and foremost his ears that led to his challenging the Roman Church. He launched a revival of faithful and valiant listening — to God.

Long before he composed “A Mighty Fortress,” before he was driven into exile, before he stood fast at the Diet of Worms, before he courageously debated Eck at Leipzig, before he posted his ninety-five theses at the Castle Church, Martin Luther listened. And while he listened to God, he gave birth to centuries of lionhearted listeners.

How Luther Listened

The listening began for Luther long before the reforming, while he still lived and served as a devoted monk in the cloister at Erfurt. Herman Selderhuis writes,

While in the monastery, Luther learned that Bible reading is actually ‘listening to the Bible’: a text had to be read but also heard, again and again, as frequently as necessary until one gained an understanding of what the text said. . . . The goal was to read and listen until one heard God’s voice in the Word. (Luther: Spiritual Biography, 59)

Luther himself explains the importance of good listening: “If you want to become a Christian, you must take the word of Christ, realizing that you will never be finished learning, and then with me, you will recognize that you still do not even know the ABCs. If one was to boast, then I could certainly do that about myself, because day and night I was busy studying the Bible, and yet I have remained a student. Every day I begin like someone in the primary school” (Spiritual Biography, 59).

Behind the brilliant rhetoric and revolutionary leadership was a tenacious humility to hear from God. Luther did not pretend to have mastered Scripture, even as one of the greatest theologians in history, but considered himself always a student, and an elementary school student at that. And by opening the Bible as if he had not seen anything yet, he saw far more than most — certainly far more than the respected priests and scholars of his day.

Selderhuis continues, “Luther searched in the Bible, he ‘knocked’ on the texts, he shook them like the branch of a fruit tree, and then he listened to find words of comfort and reassurance to drive away his fears” (59). Good listeners search and knock and shake the word of God until they hear God speak — until he gives the long-awaited answer, or whispers their fears away, or leads them with clear direction, or breathes fresh inspiration and strength into their life and ministry, or reassures them with his promises. Listening to the very words of God in the Scriptures is not only the quiet key to the Protestant Reformation, but to the faithful, fruitful, and happy Christian life.

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What Makes Sundays More Satisfying

Article by David Mathis

Executive Editor, desiringGod.org

Not every Sunday is a mountaintop. Our hearts often feel sluggish when we come to worship. Distractions around us may abound. Shame over sin can make us feel like hypocrites. Our lives in this fallen world are endlessly up and down. Even in corporate worship. Perhaps especially.

This is what makes our weekly gathering so important. We lift our voices together and turn from that week’s “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) to the superior pleasures to be had in Christ. We help each other move higher up the mountain. And in that process of being renewed, and gaining strength for the daily and weekly demands of life, we find our coming together in worship to be the single most important means of deep and enduring joy in God, even as coming to enjoy him can be an extended process.

But up or down, high or low, with what frame of mind and heart do we come to worship together?

Our God is the all-satisfying fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13). When we seek to quench our deep soul-thirst in him, corporate worship becomes the stunning opportunity to gather together not just with fellow believers, but with fellow enjoyers of God.

Come to the Fountain

The prophet Isaiah raised his voice to summon God’s people not simply as believers but enjoyers:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1–2)

In worship, we enjoy Jesus together as water for our thirsty souls, as milk to nourish our spirits, and as wine to gladden our hearts. God offers a banquet to the human soul — not mainly for individual snacking but for corporate feasting.

We do find encouragement in gathering consciously with fellow believers. In a world that suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) — and lies to us subtly and overtly at every turn that self, not God, is in control — finding ourselves in the assembly, in the congregation, of believers can have a powerful effect on reinforcing our faith. God exists. He made our world. He rules over its every detail, even our sin. And he sent his own Son to rescue us from our sins, and the punishment we justly deserve, by faith in him.

And yet, when we gather in corporate worship, we are more deeply knit together than simply the truths we affirm. A stronger tie that binds us is whom we enjoy. We share in a common joy with uncommon worth: the greatest treasure in the universe.

Come to the Faith

Is it assuming too much to think of your fellow worshipers as fellow enjoyers of Jesus? Not at all. Saving faith is not indifferent to its Savior.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Note the parallels in what Jesus says. Not hungering pairs with never thirsting. And coming to Jesus pairs with believing in him. What, then, according to John 6:35, is Christian faith? It is “coming to Jesus” — not bodily or geographically but in the soul — to have our soul-hunger satisfied and our soul-thirst quenched.

There is an irreducible aspect of enjoyment in such faith, whether the believer is conscious of it yet or not. There is a kind of “joy” that is not only the fruit of faith (Galatians 5:22) but an essential aspect of faith (Philippians 1:252 Corinthians 1:24). Fellow believers in Jesus are fellow enjoyers, with us, of him. Our corporate worship truly is an enjoying Jesus together.

Come to the Father

Whether or not we come in worship as enjoyers, not just believers, may reflect how deeply we see God as our Father — a true Father who we know fundamentally as a giver, not taker.

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Article by Jackie Hill Perry

I know, I know, some of us Christians believe that we are only pointing our gay and lesbian friends to the miraculous. To the power of God to make all things and them new. Well-meaning believers, in an effort to encourage or cast vision to their same-sex attracted (SSA) friends or family, preach this gospel often. This gospel is not the good news of Jesus however, but another gospel. A gospel that I call “the heterosexual gospel.”

The heterosexual gospel is one that encourages SSA men and women to come to Jesus so that they can be straight, or it says that coming to Jesus ensures that they will be sexually attracted to the opposite sex. The ways in which this “gospel” is preached are much subtler than I’ve made it out to be. It usually sounds like, “I know you’re struggling with being gay. I can promise you, if you give your life to Jesus, he will completely deliver you from those desires because he loves you.” Or, “I know a guy that used to be gay and now he’s married. Jesus will do the same for you if you trust him.”

How Not to Use My Story

People have often used my story to point others to what they believe should be the immediate fruit of their repentance. I was a lesbian who came to Jesus and eventually ended up married to a man, giving birth to two daughters. According to them, I am living happily ever after in a state of heterosexual bliss.

Clearly, my life as it is now may have its share of blessings, but it has been far from blissful. And even though God may have called me in particular to marriage, that doesn’t mean he’s called everyone to it in general. My marriage, with all of its difficulties and beauty, is glorious to God because it is a picture of God’s gospel (Ephesians 5:32). But it is not the ultimate glory. Christ is. That is what makes “the heterosexual gospel” so problematic. It tends to put more emphasis on marriage as the goal of the Christian life than on knowing Jesus.

Exchanging One Idol for Another

When the gospel is presented as “Come to Jesus to be straight,” instead of “Come to Jesus to be made right with God,” we shouldn’t be surprised when people won’t come to Jesus at all. If he is not the aim of their repentance, then he will not be believed as the ultimate aim of their faith. They will only exchange one idol for another and believe themselves to be Christian because of it.

What the gay community needs to hear is not that God will make them straight, but that Christ can make them his. In this age, they may never be “straight” (for lack of better words), but they can be holy (1 Corinthians 1:30). We must remind others (and ourselves) that Christ is ultimately calling them to himself — to know Christ, love Christ, serve Christ, honor Christ, and exalt Christ forever.

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Joy in Christ Kept Him in China

Hudson Taylor (1832–1905)

Article by John Piper

“Depend upon it, God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 121). When Hudson Taylor wrote that sentence, he meant every kind of need that we have — money and health and faith and peace and strength. And that is my prayer for this article: that you will see and experience new possibilities for your life — more faith, more joy, more peace, more love, and all the money you need to do his will (which may be none).

And all of that is because of your union with Christ, as is put so well in one of Taylor’s favorite texts: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). And then, because of all that, I pray you will launch into some venture, some dream of ministry, beyond all your real or perceived inadequacies, for the glory of Christ.

Conversion and Call to China

Hudson Taylor was born May 21, 1832, at Barnsley, England, into a devout Methodist home. At the age of seventeen, he was dramatically converted through the prayers of his mother. Four years later, on September 19, 1853, Taylor sailed for China with the Chinese Evangelisation Society. He had no formal training in theology or missions. He landed in Shanghai five and a half months later.

He learned the language quickly and, in his first two years in China, engaged in ten extended evangelistic journeys to the interior. Then, on January 20, 1858, when he had been in China almost five years, Taylor married another missionary, Maria Dyer. They were married for twelve years. Before Maria died at age thirty-three, she had given birth to eight children. Three died at birth and two in childhood, and the ones who lived to adulthood all became missionaries with the mission their father founded, the China Inland Mission.

Decisive Moment

Five years later, after Taylor had begun his own mission agency — the China Inland Mission — and in the midst of prolonged frustration with his own temptations and failures in holiness, the epoch-making experience happened. Notice what he was experiencing leading up to the great change. He wrote to his mother,

[The need for your prayer] has never been greater than at present. Envied by some, despised by many, hated by others, often blamed for things I never heard of or had nothing to do with, an innovator on what have become established rules of missionary practice, an opponent of mighty systems of heathen error and superstition, working without precedent in many respects and with few experienced helpers, often sick in body as well as perplexed in mind and embarrassed by circumstances — had not the Lord been specially gracious to me, had not my mind been sustained by the conviction that the work is His and that He is with me . . . I must have fainted or broken down. But the battle is the Lord’s, and He will conquer. (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 140–41)

The stage was set for the crisis that happened on September 4, 1869, in Zhenjiang. What happened that day was not ephemeral. He looked back almost thirty years later, giving thanks for the abiding experience of it:

We shall never forget the blessing we received through the words, in John iv. 14, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him SHALL NEVER THIRST,” nearly thirty years ago. As we realized that Christ literally meant what He said — that “shall” meant shall, and “never” meant never, and “thirst” meant thirst — our heart overflowed with joy as we accepted the gift. Oh, the thirst with which we had sat down, but oh, the joy with which we sprang from our seat, praising the Lord that the thirsting days were all past, and past for ever! (Separation and Service, 46)

We should beware of being cynical here. Taylor was not naïve. He was speaking of a thirty-year-long experience in which he battled with some very low times. “The thirsting days were all past” does not mean he never had desires for Jesus again. We will turn to what it does mean shortly. But for now, we should simply be aware that, as his most thorough biographer wrote, his whole life “came to be revolutionized” by this experience (The Shaping of Modern China, Vol. 2, 109).

Kept by Union with Christ.

And just in time, too. The next year, 1870, was the most difficult of his life. His son Samuel died in January. Then in July, Maria gave birth to a son, Noel, who died two weeks later. And to crown Hudson’s sorrows, on July 23, Maria died of cholera. She was thirty-three years old, and left the thirty-eight-year-old Hudson with four living children.

It was as though God had given Taylor his extraordinary experience of the all-satisfying Christ not as a kind of icing on the cake of conversion, but rather as a way of surviving and thriving in the worst of sorrows, which came to him almost immediately.

A year later, Taylor sailed for England. While he was there, on November 28, 1871, he married the woman with whom he would spend nearly the rest of his life, Jennie Faulding. They were married for thirty-three years before she died in 1904, the year before he did.

In February 1905, Taylor sailed for China for the last time. After a tour of some of the mission stations, he died on June 3 at Changsha, Hunan, at the age of seventy-three. The year 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the mission that Taylor founded. In 1900, there were one hundred thousand Christians in China, and today there are probably around 150 million. This growth is God’s work: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Nevertheless, it is the fruit of faithful labor. And Taylor labored longer and harder than most. That labor was sustained by union with Christ. So we turn to look at what this union meant for Taylor.

Scales Fall

September 4, 1869, when he was thirty-seven years old, Taylor found a letter waiting for him at Zhenjiang from John McCarthy. God used the letter to revolutionize Taylor’s life. “When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from dear McCarthy was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed to me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never known it before” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

The prayer of Ephesians 1:18 was answered as never before: “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know . . .” Taylor said, “As I read, I saw it all! . . . I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He had said, ‘I will never leave thee.’”

I saw not only that Jesus will never leave me, but that I am a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. The vine is not the root merely, but all — root, stem, branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit. And Jesus is not that alone — He is soil and sunshine, air and showers, and ten thousand times more than we have ever dreamed, wished for, or needed. Oh, the joy of seeing this truth! (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149–50)

Taylor experienced such a powerful revelation of the inexpressible reality of union with Christ, as an absolute and glorious fact of security and sweetness and power, that it carried in it its own effectiveness. “How to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One” (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 149).

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Weeping at the Foot of the Cross

Article by

On Good Friday, we celebrate the saddest day in history.

Blood streamed down his face. Massive thorns stuck to the head of their Maker. Groans of agony came from the mouth of him who spoke the world into being. The soldiers beat him. They flogged him. They tortured him.

As he inched through the streets of Jerusalem, his cross pressing into his lacerated back, many shuddered at him. The face of God, which Moses could not look at and live, could no longer even be recognized as human (Isaiah 52:14). Women hid their children from the bloody mass of flesh before them. Men taunted him. Soldiers clubbed him. Angels shrieked in horror.

Every prophecy about his suffering was being fulfilled. By judgment and oppression, he was taken away. His sheep scattered when their enemies struck him. One of his own sold him and betrayed him with a kiss. He found no rest as they beat him, spit on him, and mocked him through the night. In the morning, he gave his back to those who struck him, his cheeks to those who plucked his beard.

He stepped forward to Calvary as a lamb to the slaughter.

His Love Was Rated-R

I remember the first time I watched The Passion of the Christ fourteen years ago. The sight of Roman ninetails sinking their claws into his back seemed to pierce my soul with Mary’s (Luke 2:35). The blood. The screams. The anguish. I could never again thoughtlessly tell others that Christ died for them. The scene forbade cliché. It was grizzly, ghastly, gruesome — rated-R.

I rarely cry, but as I watched Jesus shed his blood all over the Roman courtyard, I could not help but weep. As they held the nails over his hands and feet — his mother watching him — every swing of the hammer pierced my heart. Only the heartless could watch unfeelingly. Has there ever been a more tragic scene?

I did not consider his wounds enough. I did not weep over his suffering as often as I felt I should have. But how does Jesus respond to me, and people like me, who take Good Friday to grieve over his unbearable sufferings? Two thousand years ago he said to those weeping for him that day, “Weep not for me; weep for yourselves.”

Silence on the Set

Of the many horrors of Calvary, one that was especially acute was the shame of it all (Hebrews 12:2). His was a public execution. The condemned usually were naked. To add to this, the prophecy reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads” (Psalm 22:7). It is one thing to suffer; another to do so before a whole nation as they ridicule you.

But mockery was not the only sound made on his behalf. A host of women trailed behind him, lamenting the expiring prophet. They followed Jesus’s drops of blood — as so many of us do today — with drops of tears.

But upon hearing their sobs, Jesus, battered and broken, turned his face towards them and spoke these gracious, yet shocking words: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28).

This part of the passion didn’t make the movie.

On that first Good Friday, Jesus turned to his loudest sympathizers — those who are not cursing him, mocking him, but wailing on his behalf — and silenced them. He commands their tears escort him no further. He opts to press into the night without their mourning.

Weep Not for Me

Jesus did not need their tears two millennia ago, and as unpopular as it may be, Jesus does not need our tears today. And this fact owes to us seeing his passion through the eyes of faith.

Weep not for me, he said. As if to say,

I am saving my people. I have prayed, tender souls, and know my Father’s will concerning this cup — shall I not drink it (John 18:11)? My hands willingly grasp this wood because my food is to do my Father’s will (John 4:32, 34). And his will is glorious: he sent me to serve and give my life as a ransom for my people. My body is broken, and my blood is spilled for you (Luke 22:19–20). Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Do not weep over the labor pains that give birth to your salvation and unshakable joy (John 16:20–22).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am not a helpless victim. I am a warrior-king with thousands of angels at my beck and call (Matthew 26:53). One word from me and this horror would end. One word from me and Rome would be destroyed. One word from me and all would be eternally condemned. But I was sent to save the world, not condemn it (John 3:17). Trust that no man — or army — can steal my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord, and I will take it up again (John 10:11–18).

Weep not for me, as if to say,

I am conquering. You see my heel being bruised and you mourn — but look through the eyes of faith and see the serpent’s skull trampled (Genesis 3:15). Although I walk as the Lamb, I conquer as the Lion — the predator, not the prey, will hang on the cross (Revelation 5:5–6). I am a King who shall rule the universe from a tree. And I shall make this cross my scepter. As they lift me up, I thrust my enemies under my feet as a footstool (Psalm 110:1). My triumphal entry is followed by a triumphal exit. Why should you weep over my hour of glorification (John 12:27–28)?

Weep not for me, as if to say,

Sunday is coming

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‘God Did the Work, Period’

My Tribute to Billy Graham (1918–2018)

Article by John Piper

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I recalled this morning (with more emotion than I expected) that one of the fears of my life as a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, was that Billy Graham would die. I know there was a good deal of immature failure in that fear to trust the God who is quite able to run the world without Billy Graham. But it does give you a glimpse of the role he played as a kind of sun holding the planets in place in the solar system of my religious world in the late 1950s.

Now I am 72 in Minneapolis (remember “Box 123”?!), not a teenager in South Carolina. And Billy died today at the age of 99. This morning I have been singing his songs (“Just as I Am” and “How Great Thou Art”). The flood of emotion they awaken, after a lifetime of profound associations, is a sweet sorrow. Thank you, Lord, that you answered my boyish prayers and preserved his life as long as you did. And not just his life, but his faith and his witness.

‘I Surrender All’

Billy Graham was born on November 7, 1918, in North Carolina. In 1934, under the preaching of evangelist Mordecai Ham, Billy was converted to Christ. He attended Bob Jones University in Cleveland, Tennessee, for one year and spent three and a half years at Florida Bible Institute in Tampa. In March of 1938, he first sensed God’s calling to preach.

One night in March, 1938, Billy Graham returned from his walk and reached the 18th green immediately before the school’s front door. “The trees were loaded with Spanish moss, and in the moonlight it was like a fairyland.” He sat on the edge of the green, looking up at the moon and stars, aware of a warm breeze from the south. The tension snapped. “I remember getting on my knees and saying, ‘God, if you want me to preach, I will do it.’ Tears streamed down my cheeks as I made this great surrender to become an ambassador for Jesus Christ.” (John Pollock, Billy Graham, 17)

In the summer vacation of 1937, he had asked Emily Cavanaugh to marry him. In May of 1938, she said no.

Billy was ordained in 1939. The first time he gave his own “altar call” he was at a little church on the Gulf Coast, with 100 people present. Thirty-two young men and women came forward (Pollock, 22).

In the fall of 1940, he entered Wheaton College. He met Ruth Bell in the lobby of Williston Hall — the same dormitory where my wife Noël lived as we were dating at Wheaton.

Ruth told Billy that she was unsure after all. She feared that her desire to be his wife denied a clear missionary call, unless he were bound for Tibet. “He went and prayed about the mission field, and he just had no leading whatsoever. Finally he said, ‘Well, do you think God brought us together?’ — and I had to admit I felt God had.” Billy pointed out that the husband is head of the wife: “The Lord leads me and you follow.” Ruth agreed, in faith. (Pollock, 26)

They were married August 13, 1943.

His Crisis of Faith

In August, 1949, his faith in the Bible was put to the test. It came to a climax at a student conference in the San Bernardino mountains of California. Charles Templeton had asked questions about the Bible’s truthfulness that Billy could not answer.

Billy went out in the forest and wandered up the mountain, praying as he walked, “Lord, what shall I do? What shall be the direction of my life?”

He had reached what he believed to be a crisis.

He saw that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You must go beyond intellect. He thought of the faith used constantly in daily life: he did not know how a train or plane or car worked, but he rode them. . . . Was it only in things of the spirit that such faith was wrong?

“So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put the Bible on the stump, and I knelt down, and I said, ‘Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.’” (Pollock, 53)

That next month came the decisive turning point in Billy’s global evangelism, the Los Angeles Crusade. Overnight he became a nationally known figure. One year later, Newsweek called him “America’s greatest living evangelist” (May 1, 1950).

‘Sheer Sovereignty Chose Me’

He never lost the unshakable conviction that God had called him sovereignly to the work of evangelism and that he owed everything to God’s initiative.

“With all my heart as I look back on my life, [I believe] I was chosen to do this particular work [of evangelizing] as a man might have been chosen to go into East Harlem and work there, or to the slums of London like General Booth was. I believe that God in his sovereignty — I have no other answer for this — sheer sovereignty, chose me to do this work and prepared me in his own way.” (Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders, 234)

For all the technology he employed, he relied profoundly on the Holy Spirit in the work of evangelism.

He told students in 1964 at Harvard Divinity School . . . “I used to think that in evangelism I had to do it all, but now I approach evangelism with a totally different attitude. I approach it with complete relaxation. First of all, I don’t believe that any man can come to Christ unless the Holy Spirit has prepared his heart. Secondly, I don’t believe any man can come to Christ unless God drives him. My job is to proclaim the message. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to do the work, period.” (Catherwood, 230)

When it was not yet the politically correct thing to do, he was an advocate for racial integration and respect.

In 1972, Graham accepted an invitation to speak in Durban and Johannesburg provided that the audiences were racially integrated. The South African government disliked this and only reluctantly agreed. . . . Howard Jones recalls [Martin Luther] King telling Graham, “Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.” (Catherwood, 209)

Two Roots of His Message

He is famous for saying that he preached too much and studied too little.

One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. Donald Barnhouse said that if he knew the Lord was coming in three years, he would spend two of them studying and one preaching. I’m trying to make it up. (Christianity Today, September 23, 1977)

This is especially ironic in view of Pollock’s 1966 description of Billy’s habits of study:

Beyond all else Billy Graham studies the Bible, the supreme authority for his belief and action. Every day he reads five Psalms, covering the psalter in a month, and one chapter of Proverbs, the book that “shows us how to relate our own lives to our fellow men.” He reads through a Gospel each week, using commentaries and modern translations, and constantly returns to the Acts of the Apostles. He annotates throughout the Bible. “Sometimes His word makes such an impact on me that I have to put the Bible down and walk around for a few moments to catch my breath.” (Pollock, 248)

All of this was saturated with prayer. “I have so many decisions to make each day, and so many problems, that I have to pray all the time” (Pollock, 248).

Surely John Pollock is right that “prayer and Bible reading, inextricably intertwined, are the tap roots of Billy Graham’s character and of his message” (248).

Into Everlasting Joy

There are different ways to measure the greatness of a man’s impact. One would be the institutions that were created in the wake of his influence. Another would be the shaping power of his ideas in the culture at large. Another would be the methodological and stylistic impact of his way of doing things on the religious life of America.

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At Home in Wakanda

Article by Greg Morse

We did not make it two steps into the movie theater’s front door before we were greeted, “What’s good, my brothas?” As he shouted to us over the masses in the ticket line, he crossed his arms, clenched his fists, and gave a slight bow — a Wakandan greeting.

“Ya’ll will understand after you watch it,” he said. And with that, he disappeared into the night, and we entered into Wakanda.

Overall, I was a fan of Marvel’s new blockbuster, Black Panther. It wasn’t “the best movie I have ever seen,” as one person told me repeatedly in the hallway, but it was one of the better Marvel films. The story picks up after the explosion in a previous Marvel movie where T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, dies in the bombing. T’Challa, his son, then returns to his homeland to assume the throne and take his rightful place as king of Wakanda and as the Black Panther. But opposition arises, leaving the fate of Wakanda — and the rest of the world — at stake.

Having watched a civil-rights documentary beforehand, I found the ideologies of the two main characters to be thought-provoking. And although Black Panther has good action scenes, strong characters, a decent narrative, and helpful questions about global responsibility, the enchantment of the movie for many blacks in the theater was not, in my estimation, about the hero per se, but about the society. I left wanting to be like the Black Panther. But I left wanting to be in Wakanda even more.

More Than a Movie

In the movie, Wakanda is a fictional African homeland hidden from the rest of the world. It is uncolonized, technologically advanced, brimming with black excellence and beauty, industrious, mountainous, breathtaking. But the utopia itself, not the black superhero, hit an ancient ache that four hundred years in America hasn’t come close to soothing. We rally around superheroes like the Black Panther because we hope that they can lead us to Wakanda.

But such a place was make-believe. Or so I thought.

Even before I could watch the movie, I heard the trickle of Wakanda’s waterfall, felt the sunshine of her gladness, and witnessed her people dance to her music.

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Providence Is No Excuse

Exposing a Reformed White Supremacist

Article by Daniel Kleven

It is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly. –Robert Lewis Dabney

History teaches us that proper thought does not necessarily lead to proper action — even when those thoughts align with God’s. In numerous glaring instances, humans have been subjugated to brutal oppression by those who, by their own teachings and sermons, should have known better. Orthodoxy alone is not enough to ensure that we will live as God requires.

The history of racism in America is a clear example. Within some of our lifetimes, schools were segregated, African Americans denied full citizenship, and and many of those created in the image of God were repeatedly treated as less than human. In the midst of this moral failure, many Bible-believing Christian churches wanted nothing to do with their bleeding black brother lying on the other side of the road. Though we celebrate Dr. King’s work now, few orthodox Christian churches did then. In many cases, members of these Bible-believing churches were the first to scold his efforts.

Today we rightfully celebrate the social justice work of Dr. King; but for those of us who are white, Reformed, American Christians, eulogies to King sound hollow while the echoes of white supremacy still haunt our halls. Just because we embrace traditional Reformed orthodoxy does not mean we have not afflicted atrocious injustice on our fellow human beings.

A sobering reminder of this is a champion of Reformed theology who was a white supremacist and vehemently defended the cause of slavery — a man who can teach us that “good theology” and “sinful blind spots” cannot always be so easily disentangled.

Reformed White Supremacist

 In his time, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was considered one of the greatest teachers of theology in the United States. Revered theologians such as Hodge, Shedd, Warfield, Bavinck, and Barth viewed him with appreciation and respect. Dabney was a thoroughly Reformed, five-point Calvinist who believed in the supremacy of God in all things. However, his view of God’s sovereignty, a true and beautiful doctrine, tragically became interwoven with his racism, as he consistently used the doctrine of “providence” to reinforce his white supremacy.

In his Systematic Theology (1879), Dabney includes the standard Reformed doctrines but also includes a lecture on “The Civil Magistrate” in which he considers in what sense “all men are by nature free and equal” (868). He asks, “Are all men naturally equal in strength, in virtue, in capacity, or in rights? The thought is preposterous.” Dabney believed that even “a general equality of nature will by no means produce a literal and universal equality of civil condition” (869). Then, lest he be misunderstood, he applies it specifically:

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue, and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare, and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (869)

Slavery as Providence?

In 1867, Dabney wrote a lengthy defense of slavery entitled A Defense of Virginia and the South. Here he directly applies his doctrine of providence to slavery: “for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where he has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation” (25).

After the Civil War, in the midst of reconstruction, Dabney fought hard against the changes taking place in his beloved Southern society. Among the things he opposed was universal education in a series of articles called “The State Free School System.” For Dabney, “this theory of universal education in letters by the State involves the absurd and impossible idea of the Leveller, as though it were possible for all men to have equal destinies in human society.” On the contrary, he insisted,

The system supposes and fosters a universal discontent with the allotments of Providence and the inevitable gradations of rank, possessions and privilege. It is too obvious to need many words, that this temper is anti-Christian; the Bible, in its whole tone inculcates the opposite spirit of modest contentment with our sphere, and directs the honorable aspiration of the good man to the faithful performance of its duties, rather than to the ambitious purpose to get out of it and above it. (247)

For Dabney, to attempt to “level the playing field” and to give everyone an “even start” in the race of life is “wicked, mischievous, and futile” (248). God himself has structured society in this way — “the utopian cannot unmake it” (249). Those who would attempt to teach “the Negro” to read were guilty of resisting God.

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Article by David Mathis

Executive Editor, desiringGod.org

For years, our three stocking holders each brandished a letter: J O Y. It’s common Christmas decor. Joy in Christmas lights. Joy on banners. Joy in frames.

This year, as we unpacked our Christmas boxes, and did our annual purge, the JOY stocking holders wound up in the pile for the thrift store. The immediate cause was the advent of baby Mercy, born in April. Three letters are inadequate to hold four stockings. But perhaps we have a theological reason as well to let the JOY holders go.

Plain old joy undersells the glory of Christmas. Matthew and Luke accent different aspects of the birth story, but they sing this note in unison: Christ’s coming is not simply an occasion for joy, but great joy.

God’s World of Joys

In the beginning, the God of joy made a world of joys — a creation full of good, altogether “very good,” and primed to delight his creatures (Genesis 1:31; 2:9). As the work of his hands, we know joy. We have tasted his goodness in his world, even on this side of sin’s curse. We have experienced, however meagerly or infrequently, the blessed emotional surges of God-made delight — in a kind word, in a friend’s hug, in our team’s victory, in a cool breeze, in good food and drink. We know normal joy.

But Christmas is not normal joy. Christmas, the Gospels say, is great joy. Christmas is not natural joy, but supernatural. God set Christmas apart. He himself has come down in the person of his Son. The Word has become flesh. The long-awaited Savior is born. When the angel heralds his arrival, he says, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). And when pagan astrologers traverse far and find him, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

God gave us a world of joys to get us ready for this moment when announcing “joy” no longer would be enough. God gave us joy for Christmas joy to surpass it.

God’s Words of Joy

But not only did God fill his world with joy, but also his word. The Bible is replete with “joy” — more than two hundred times in an English translation — but “great joy” appears in single digits. “Great joy” is rare and climactic. At the anointing of David’s own son as his successor, at the height of Israel’s kingdom — “great joy” (1 Kings 1:40). At the restoration of the Passover after generations of neglect — “great joy” (2 Chronicles 30:26). At the dedication of Nehemiah’s rebuilt walls after the return from exile — “great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43). Joy is the stuff of every day; “great joy” is kept for the highest of moments.

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