The Burdened Life and the Weighty Word

The man who regularly speaks without a burden should stop speaking until he finds one. Or one finds him.

Until our lives have weight, our words will have none. And until we bear a burden, our lives will be weightless. Burdenless lives produce weightless words.

A man’s burden tells us who he is. It tells us what he cares about, why we should join him, and what it will cost us if we do.

Burdenless people meander. Their words meander, too, just like their lives. There’s nothing to say, but so much saying. Their words have no impact, because impact is proportional to weight.

But burden-bearers waste no steps, and waste no words. There’s no time, no energy for distractions. They’re locked in. You can’t chase fluff when you’re carrying weight. Then, when the weighted man makes contact, no matter his speed, there’s impact.

I remember a grizzly dorm leader from my college years. At competitions he would wear a black t-shirt with one sentence typed in white, all-caps: “I YELL BECAUSE I CARE.” He did, and he did. And I remember. Not that he yelled, but that he cared.

So bear a burden before you build a platform. The man on the highest platform weighs no more because of his height. But the man with a heavy burden weighs more because of his burden. Weight before height.

Humankind isn’t designed to be weightless. We’re meant to carry. Our planet has gravity. So have gravitas. Then, once you have some terrific gale hurricaning within you, some clawed idea slashing from within to get out, some burden pressing you down and pressing you out by sheer force, then by all means, speak, and people will listen. They may follow or mock or kill you, but they’ll listen. Not because you yelled but because you cared.

Get Weird

In 2014, get weird.

You know how you sometimes wonder if you’ll die having given your threescore and ten years to the status quo, having worried too much about being normal and accepted, having spent days and weeks and months looking laterally instead of vertically, having trusted your fears too much and your dreams too little?

Well, don’t. In 2014, get weird.

I mean, don’t get a poodle or a face tattoo or anything, but start asking why you exist and what’s really important and start living according to the best answers to those two questions.

Hey: You’re a free-standing moral agent with more ethical and creative and volitional horsepower under the hood than any other creature on the planet, and we all know when we really stop and think about it that ethical and creative and volitional horsepower are terrible things to waste.

Call it what you want: getting radical, stepping out of your comfort zone, abandoning the American Dream, taking the road less traveled, YOLO. Whatever. Just find something good and right and vital and get after it. And don’t just get after it the way everyone’s supposed to get after it, but actually get after it.

I mean, we belong to a species that puts members of its race on an orbiting moon. Maybe we could aim a tad higher than diet and exercise.

So in 2014, get weird.

“But what do you mean by weird?”

That’s the question, isn’t it?

Give Me the Scenic Route: Intellectual Curiosity vs. Intellectual Cul-de-Sacs

If you want to be a scholar, you have to know your field. The seminal works, the major contributions, the game-changing periods, the ebb and flow of dialogue throughout the decades or centuries or millennia. You have to join the conversation.

There’s one potential problem with this (well, more than one, but only one I’m going to talk about here). Embed yourself too deeply in the field and saturate yourself too exclusively in the literature and you’ll find that your questions, categories, and curiosity are controlled.

Now, I’m not trumpeting naïveté and bombasting knowledge. The benefits of being well-read and well-informed far outweigh the alternatives.

But what if the accepted categories are one too many or two too few? What if the tightly drawn lines should actually be blurred? What if the common antitheses, or the four major views, or the six accepted premises are distorted?

Might the two antitheses have points of harmony and reconciliation?

Could it be that none of the four major views best accounts for the evidence or best answers the problems?

Might we find, upon further and deeper and out-of-the-box inspection, that most of the six accepted premises hold little water?

What if we’re getting diluted answers because we’re polluting the questions?

This isn’t a spirit-of-the-age, question-everything rant. I want to read well and widely, know my chosen fields, and engage in the great dialogues of the ages. But I want to be careful, and part of being careful means pulling back the curtains, poking at the premises, and questioning the questions.

There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are plenty of scholarly field-stones hiding gems of insight from generations of young explorers. We’re told, whether by rank-and-file scholarship or the unspoken rules of the guild or our own fear-bound intuition, to step on these proven stones to reach knowledge. But every so often — quite often, actually — we should tip them up and dig around a bit before continuing to trod dutifully down the well-trodden path. It might just be that the treasure’s been trampled by the footpath and drowned out by the footnotes.

I don’t want to be original, if originality means insatiable inventiveness or intellectual independence or chronological snobbery. But if truth and life are as dazzlingly deep and as dancingly complex as the Bible and my soul are telling me, then this whole shebang should be one great adventure.

I want to drive the open road of inquiry and the scenic route of exploration, not just circle the cul-de-sac of concrete categories and controlled questions.

And ultimately, against all postmodern sensibilities, I want the aerial view. Seeking it, with perpetual humility and relentless effort, is the long path that rises toward wisdom.

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Revised from “Controlling the Questions: Circular Scholarship and the Cul-de-Sac of Inquiry,” originally posted on March 22, 2012.

A Mind Awake

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. It’s been said that the intellectual life, or the thinking life, is nothing more than a mind awake. And who in their right mind could bear to live as a mind asleep?

To think is one of the highest privileges humanity possesses. Made in God’s image to rule righteously, graciously, and wisely over his world, mankind was granted mental faculties that defy the most imaginative technological advances and the most stunning human innovations. In fact, our mental faculties produce both the technological advances that have been made along with the imaginations that dream up future advances.

But the mind is not just a mechanistic, functional tool for innovation. It is a magisterial organism brimming with life, vitality, creativity, and ten thousand more qualities that could not be explained were they not experienced every day in the sheer ecstasy of thinking.

Historian Mark Noll has not offered too severe a judgment when he says that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind. We have exchanged the lush rainforest of thought for the grainy desert of mindlessness. We have realized far too little and far too late that ceasing to think means ceasing to live. Yes, there is far more to life than thinking, but there is never less. Yes, there is far more to human flourishing than intellect, but where intellect is possible and not pursued, the decay of death follows swiftly behind.

Thinking deeply and well is a high act of worship, and one of the most noble activities in which a human being can engage.

So, your days may be long and your burdens heavy; your tasks may seem mundane and the status quo inescapable. It may seem as though the ceiling’s the limit, the sky’s out of reach, and the job at hand is simply to do the job at hand. But if you want to recover, in your everyday functioning, the high and noble calling of humanity, then you can start afresh with this: Think. Think about anything. Think about everything. Because anything, rightly thought about, is worth thinking about. And you can’t rightly think about it until you think about it.

So think, and think again, and think some more. And interweave your thinking with doing, and singing, and creating, and eating, and befriending, and conversing, and living. But in all you do, whatever you do, think. Think, and be human again.

Temptation Is Bigger Than You Think

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples to make this regular request: “lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13a). Perhaps because “temptation” sounds so ominous, believers and non-believers alike typically view it as a noticeable, passing, one-time event.

We certainly see these types of temptations in the Bible: Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:1-7), Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), Ananias and Sapphira in Jerusalem (Acts 5:1-6). In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus seems to be talking about occasions of temptation or testing.

But in the classic work Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, Richard Lovelace expands this event-only view of temptation which ignores other scriptural teaching:

[Temptation] is largely misunderstood as having mainly to do with the efforts of demonic agents to entice believers into isolated acts of serious sin . . .

Most commonly temptation is directed toward larger ends: involving believers in whole ways of life or patterns of behavior which are subchristian, which will extinguish their spirituality and make them negative witnesses; or luring them into adopting outlooks which excuse or justify sin and which may almost totally obscure their faith (p. 137).

It’s tempting to say yes in the face of God’s no. It’s tempting to say no in the face of God’s yes. It’s tempting to take what isn’t ours, keep what we should give, back down when we should stand up, or say less or more than the truth.

It’s tempting to get irritable with your kids when you’re tired and they’re wound up. It’s tempting to take a second look at an attractive jogger. It’s tempting to cut a corner financially, miss church for a lame reason, or keep an argument going when it’s time for apologies. 

Temptations are many and varied. Guarding your heart in each of these situations, no matter how large or small, is the path of life. 

But there’s a much bigger temptation at work, and it doesn’t just come around now and then. All these alleged one-time temptations are part of a larger pattern, working together to generate a stronger pull. Paul warns us against these powerful shaping forces and urges us, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). The author of Hebrews tells his audience to keep their hearts soft so they don’t cave to “the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Solomon pled with his son, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

Temptations is serious business, and its doors are open 24/7. We’re not just tempted to get angry on occasion, shut down now and then, or fulfill sinful desires in a momentary heat of passion. The world, the flesh, and the devil hold out sly and savvy invitations to share the culture’s values, live life for self, harbor sin in the heart, embrace half-truths, accept fractured relationships, stay spiritually lethargic, or neglect the basic means of grace.

So don’t just monitor your responses to the isolated temptation or the one-time challenge. Check your life for “whole ways of life or patterns of behavior which are subchristian.” Line up your passions, pursuits, and priorities against the plumbline of God’s Word. And when you find long-standing outposts of darkness, let there be light.

Assumptions vs. Convictions

In a fallen world, life is not worth living without convictions. If such things as evil, lies, and suffering are not mere illusions — not just the darker side of our social constructs — then evil must be fought, lies unmasked, and suffering eased. If such things exist at all, and especially if they flourish, then we must fight. Fighting nobly requires convictions.

The greatest enemy of conviction is not antagonism but assumption. The frontal assault and the silent assassin are both dangerous — the first for its strength, the second for its stealth. But the silent assassin poses a more sinister threat.

Antagonists press against conviction, test conviction, and therefore refine conviction. Of course, there is always great danger that convictions may erode or even fold when pressed by opposing claims and competing visions. But an equal opportunity exists for conviction to be bolstered by those intending to tear it down. In this way, antagonism can serve conviction.

But assumptions have no such potential effect. Assumptions neither strengthen our convictions through opposition nor build them through instruction. Assumptions only erode our passions, like a creaky, neglected home that lacks both the strength to withstand a storm and the warmth to house a family.

Assumed beliefs are obese beliefs — non-functioning mental acquiescence. Convictions are mobile, agile, and hostile. Assumptions are low-octane fuel, if they are fuel at all. Convictions are high-octane fuel, driving the heavy vehicle of right attitudes, actions, and priorities over rough terrain and up steep grades.

I have been privileged to serve at two institutions led by convictional warriors: Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Southern California and President Albert Mohler at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Both men have warned against this sad tendency toward convictional erosion: The first generation fights for truth, the second generation assumes the truth, and the third generation loses the truth.

The assumptions of a pastor may become the assumptions of his church, but the assumptions of that pastor will never become the convictions of his church. A mother’s assumptions may become her daughter’s assumptions, but they will never become her daughter’s convictions. A man may hold a dozen views, but if they don’t hold him, others will not deem them worth holding.

So parent with conviction. Pastor with conviction. Teach with conviction. Live with conviction. If all you have is a wet wick, dry it out. If all you have is a dry twig, scratch up a spark. If all you have is a flickering candle, light a torch. Wherever you’re at and whatever you’re doing, stop living off of cold assumptions and passive opinions. Get a conviction, and let it burn.

Because darkness only answers to a flame, and life is only worth living for something you’ll die for.

All I Want for Christmas: Simeon’s Hope

I’ve always thought the account of Simeon in Luke 2:21-35 was a very precious and moving story. I’ve read it and been stirred by it at all times of the year. But it’s particularly striking around Christmas.

Simeon was an elderly man who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the promised Messiah, “the consolation of Israel” (2:25). We don’t know exactly when or how the Holy Spirit told him this, but we know that he believed it. He believed it and he waited, with great anticipation. I imagine a frail but bright-eyed old man who was ready to die in every way, except for one thing: he longed to see the promised king of Israel who would deliver his people.

There is something warm and wonderful about elderly people whose souls are aflame with some undying hope. There is something precious about a white-haired Jewish man with weathered skin and an arched back who still has a glow in his eyes because he knows that the last thing he’ll see on earth is the fulfillment of God’s greatest promise. Cindi and I have often shared this common observation: people seem to grow old in only two directions — sweet or bitter; soft or hard; pleasant or cranky. You get the sense that Simeon had grown old very sweetly, never ceasing to seek the Lord and cling tightly to the priceless promise that one day God would put the hope of the world right before his eyes.

This year I’ve been particularly struck by the way Luke describes Simeon. He simply says, “This man was righteous and devout” (2:25). But what made Simeon “righteous and devout”? What did his righteousness and his devotion consist of? How was it expressed? Luke makes it clear grammatically: “This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel.

There is no such thing as righteousness devoid of Christ-centered anticipation; no such thing as devotion that lacks Christ-embracing hope. Biblical holiness is not just performing the right duties and using the right words and knowing the right doctrine. Biblical holiness means having a hope-driven heart like Simeon’s. It means channeling the entirety of your desire and your longing and your anticipation toward the glorious Savior of the world whose redemption has surged into the world and flooded us with grace as far as the curse is found. It means looking forward to the coming of Christ so intently that you really can be described with a single action word, like Simeon: looking.

Simeon lived for one thing. He wanted to see one thing. He waited for one thing. He was searching for one thing. He cared about one thing. His heart was so driven by this one thing that when he finally held baby King Jesus in his arms, he literally said, “Now I can die” (Luke 2:29).

Is the promised Savior so precious to you that if you were to see him come during your lifetime, you could genuinely say, “I can die now”? And are God’s words so sure to you that you will wait expectantly until that day? Not waiting like you wait in the doctor’s office or the checkout line, but waiting eagerly with intensity and focus and a burning eye riveted to the horizon?

God had told Simeon that he would see the hope of the ages with his own eyes. God has told us that the coming of the Savior and the ultimate consummation of the kingdom is just moments away — one blink away, just around the corner, coming like a thief in the night.

All I want for Christmas is Simeon’s hope. That means two things: I want the same Christ that Simeon wanted, and I want to live with the same Christ-centered hope that Simeon had. I want Jesus to come, and I want to be someone who’s looking for his coming. Tonight I have neither in full measure: Christ is not fully reigning, and my love for him is weak. Tonight I am once again aware of my worldly distractions and my selfish ambitions and my short-sighted hopes. I feel anything but Christ-centered and Jesus-driven. But of all the times to believe that God is a giver of great gifts, tonight would be the night. So I ask for a great blessing:

May God plant Simeon’s hope in our hearts, may Christ return in our generation, and may we be found looking when he comes.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

Adapted from December 24, 2006

Letter to a Sorrowful, Suffering Saint

Handwritten LetterHow do you encourage someone after a tragic loss? How do you minister to someone languishing in discouragement? There’s no simple answer, and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. The most helpful initial responses are counterintuitive: presence, sympathy, listening, and hands-on help. Inexperienced counselors or fix-it friends often err by rushing to offer solutions and explain truth before the person has absorbed the tragedy or had the chance to explain their despair.

However, in every relationship, the time comes to speak truth in order to provide perspective and stability. A few months ago, a student emailed me asking for advice about dealing with overwhelming discouragement. We had already talked in person about the difficulties she faced in life, but her trials had multiplied and she was wanting more concrete guidance on dealing with despair. I share the meat of my reflections here because her request for advice forced me to write down some thoughts I’d shared with others struggling in similar ways. There’s much more to say, of course, and many other important angles to address. But here’s one angle I have found essential when wrestling with lasting discouragement or depression.

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I would encourage you to spend time reading and re-reading Psalm 77. In the first nine verses, Asaph bemoans his life and his suffering, questioning God and wondering if God is truly who he promises — a God of enduring love, a God of gracious promises, a God who is kind and compassionate toward us. In the last ten verses (vv. 11-20), Asaph resolves that he will remember God’s mighty and gracious works on behalf of his people. Asaph reminds himself that despite what he feels and senses, God is consistent and good and stable and loving. Asaph specifically reminds himself of the Exodus, when God freed the Israelites from 400 years of slavery and abuse and brought them into their own land. These events show that God is truly powerful, faithful, and good, despite the dark circumstances in our lives or the painful feelings in our heart.

You have legitimate reason to feel sorrowful, broken, and overwhelmed, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about your grief. Suffering and death are horrible, and the Bible is the story of how God is redeeming his people and his creation from sin and its horrible effects. Grief and devastation are biblical and right responses to the sin in our hearts and the destruction in our world.

At the same time, we tend to question God when our experiences grow dark. This is like questioning the presence of the sun because clouds have rolled in. Remember that the sun doesn’t change — its position doesn’t change, its nature doesn’t change, its light doesn’t change, and its warmth doesn’t change. But every 12 hours we experience a deep darkness, and often even the daytime is darkened by clouds. When this darkness comes (in our circumstances or in our emotions), God has not changed at all. Only our situation or our feelings have changed. As you meditate on Psalm 77 and learn to preach to yourself about who God is and what He’s done (like Asaph does), you will find that your feelings will be dictated less by the darkness of the clouds (which you see and feel) and more guided by the presence of the sun (which you believe and know).

In order to deal with and conquer overwhelming feelings of grief and despair, you will have to read and re-read and memorize and meditate on the truths of God’s Word. After you spend some time in Psalm 77, I can recommend some other passages to you. Only God’s Word contains truths that are so real and powerful that they can uphold you when your heart is failing. Only the Bible has the truth that can re-orient you when you feel confused and lost in the darkness of grief. Only the Bible can re-introduce you to your God who loves you with a covenant love and who holds you securely at all times.

None of what I’m saying is meant to minimize your pain and struggle. You should grieve honestly and freely because suffering and death are grievous things. However, I hope that as you walk with your gracious Father through this trial, you will also learn practically how to remind yourself of the truth of God’s Word which gives real stability when our circumstances and emotions are shaking uncontrollably.

When you return [to your spiritual community], I would encourage you to talk with your friends and leaders about what you’re going through. Having fellow believers walk with you through this time of deep pain will be very important. As they comfort you, also allow them to challenge you. This is a great opportunity to grow deeper in your relationship with Christ and more mature in your walk with him. These women are faithful believers and wise counselors who can help you — both by comforting and challenging you in love.

We love you and have been praying for you as a staff. Thanks for opening up your life to us.

How Is the Fear of the Lord the Beginning of Wisdom?

Wisdom StoneThe wisest man in history besides Jesus of Nazareth said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7a; 9:10a). Like many proverbs, this one is layered. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom in several ways:

1. Fearing God grounds wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom like the foundation of a house is the beginning of the house. You cannot have a house without a foundation. You cannot have wisdom without fearing God. The strong structure and beautiful home of wisdom cannot exist without the unshakeable foundation of godly fear.

2. Fearing God produces wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom like a spring is the beginning of a stream. The fear of the Lord produces wisdom like an apple tree produces apples. Put wisdom under a microscope and it has the same genetic code as the fear of the Lord. Fearing God generates and causes and creates wise choices, habits, and priorities.

3. Fearing God cultivates wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom like the work of the gardener is the beginning of harvest. The fear of God weeds out hatred and anger and gossip and laziness and plants love and gentleness and healing words and diligence. Wisdom’s fruits are planted with the seed of godly fear.

4. Fearing God summarizes wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom like love is the summary of ethics. Ecclesiastes is a book of great wisdom. Here’s Solomon’s conclusion: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccles 12:13).

Contemporary Christianity speaks little of the fear of God. If you want to be wise, you’ll have to swim upstream. Fear God and you will find wisdom.

From Anxiety to Gratitude

Every day in my role in Student Life at Boyce College, I enjoy rich conversations with students and staff about the nature and dynamics of spiritual life. I only wish that I had an hour at the end of each day to reflect on all that I learned. Today, my late afternoon conversation with an enjoyable young man turned to the topic of anxiety. I shared with him three major ways we can move away from anxiety.

Turn your anxiety to gratitude. Gratitude and anxiety are mutually exclusive. When my heart is filled with gratitude, I cannot be controlled by anxiety. And when my mind is whirling with anxiety, I cannot be focused on gratitude. Thankfully, having a grateful spirit is not always as difficult as it often seems. A grateful heart is usually a choice, not just an emotional reaction or a spontaneous spiritual high. Gratitude must be chosen and cultivated. As we finish up dinner each night, one of our children regularly asks that we “do something fun.” With four children, what we decide on is often not his first choice. Sometimes I have to encourage him to enjoy what we’re doing together instead of moping about all the fun ideas we’re not doing. In those moments I am urging (and I hope training him) to turn discontentment to gratitude.

Turn your anxiety to prayer. From prison, Paul encouraged the Philippians to morph their anxiety into prayer (Philippians 4:6). Anxious thoughts should become instant prayers. The language of anxiety should be translated into the language of request. Through the course of an average day, we don’t often put our anxieties into words. But if you’ll mentally verbalize your concerns, you’ll find that you can easily hijack the language and steer it toward prayer. “I’m worried about our financial security because of my husband’s job” is channeled into “Heavenly Father, please provide for us financially and help us to trust you with my husband’s job.” What’s the effect? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

Turn your anxiety to service. One of the best ways to forget about yourself is to serve others. Turning your attention to others’ lives, stories, interests, and needs detoxes you from that addictive focus on your own busy schedule, overwhelming responsibilities, insufficient sleep, physical hardships, difficult decisions, relational conflicts, financial pressures, and future uncertainties. It’s not that others’ trials are more difficult than my own — sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. It’s that others’ lives are more important than my own. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Service can distract us (in a healthy way) from our natural preoccupation with our own challenges and concerns.

Anxiety comes in many different shapes, sizes, and forms. But we are all tempted to be anxious in one way or another, to one degree or another, in one circumstance or another. Anxiety is as poisonous as it is common, as it undercuts trust in God, draws us into ourselves, and leaves us fearful and grasping. Choosing gratitude, prayer, and service is a pleasant cure.

A Great Sermon or a Great Savior?

When the pastor closes in prayer, the service ends, and the congregation is dismissed, what’s the first thing you say about a great sermon?

One thing I hear (and say) far too often:

“That was a great sermon.”
“He did a great job.”
“He’s a great preacher.”

These are ways of communicating our conviction over the message and expressing appreciation for its impact, but they betray a dangerously misguided perspective on the nature of the sermon and the role of the preacher.

Insightful exegesis, clear exposition, powerful rhetoric, tight logic, colorful illustrations, precise vocabulary, and Spirit-fueled passion are not the end but the means. We are not meant to read Paul’s tightly-woven argument in Romans and rave about the apostle as a brilliant theological logician. We are meant to read Romans and feel dead in our sin and separated from God; grasp that we are justified solely by faith in Christ; embrace our new position as sons of God and slaves of righteousness; and take up the gospel ethic in true spiritual community. We are meant to read Romans and believe afresh in the saving righteousness of Jesus Christ who forgives our sins, reconciles us to God, and binds us together in love.

The reader of Romans should not mainly say “What a great epistle!” but “What a great evangel!” Not “What a great speech!” but “What a great Savior!”

The prophets spoke for God. Jesus spoke for his Father. The apostles spoke for Christ. And every true preacher of the gospel in our generation speaks the message of Christ from the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Sermonic impressions are simply not the point.

When the Word of God is preached, hear the Word of God, and rejoice not in the cohesive outline or the colorful metaphors or the clever maxims but in the crucified Savior.

So the next time the pastor closes in prayer, the service ends, and the congregation is dismissed, don’t just say “What a great sermon!” Say to yourself and to your friends, “What a great Savior!”

The Sympathy of Christ and the Throne of Grace

Thrones are not where you go for grace. “The rulers of the Gentiles,” Jesus said, “lord it over them” (Mark 10:42). Sovereigns are not often known for their sympathy.

So when we read that we have (a) a “great high priest” (b) “who has passed through the heavens” (c) as the very “Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14), such high position and transcendence does not immediately communicate a sense of approachability.

But this high priest, in his high position, is highly approachable. This high priest, in all his holiness, is wholly compassionate. He is “able to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Why, and how? Because he became a human being and experienced the full range of our weakness and temptation — “in every way” — but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

In times of trial and need, no one likes talking to someone who doesn’t understand. Lack of understanding typically translates into lack of compassion. Easy answers, carefree counsel, and simplistic responses are discouraging, frustrating, and isolating. I don’t want to seek respite from the war among those who’ve never touched the trenches. I don’t find great encouragement from those whose choices and circumstances have never required courage.

But what do the experiences of weakness, emptiness, darkness, and temptation produce? They cultivate compassion and create sympathy. Jesus experienced the greatest weakness, emptiness, darkness, and temptation of any human being who ever lived. The depth of his incarnation and temptation engender qualities that make him highly approachable.

His sufferings give him compassion, and his compassion gives us confidence. His temptations give him sympathy, and his sympathy is our summons. The author of Hebrews could not be more clear about this connection between Jesus’ experience of human weakness and the exhortation to approach him boldly for help.

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Without his sovereignty (v. 14), he would not have the power to help. Without his suffering, he would not have the sympathy to help (v. 15). Without his sinlessness, he would not have the purity to help (v. 15). But because he is our sovereign, sympathetic, sinless high priest, we should seek him boldly because has the power, compassion, and purity to help us in our every time of need.

The sympathy of Christ grounds our confidence in prayer. We ascend boldly to him because he descended boldly to us.

He sits on a throne, but his is a throne where mercy is found. This high priest sits on a throne of grace.

The Sight of Faith

I often cannot see the guiding hand of God over the days, weeks, and months, but over the years it is crystal clear. I often identify any cascade of consecutive trials as an erosion of his covenant promises, but the dusk of each season of life finds him faithful once again.

“God doesn’t play games with us,” an elderly Christian once told me. God is not in heaven pulling arbitrary strings for maximum self-entertainment and minimum human enjoyment. He possesses a clear purpose and plan and marches forward in his relentless and effortless mission: he will get glory, and we will get good.

The intellectual non-believer begs to differ. He cannot countenance conflicting acts, cannot stomach the twists and turns of the epochal drama. He demands the denouement, even while his demand tightens the tension that will make its arrival so arresting.

We can beg to differ, or we can beg to delight.

The artist has colored the canvas by his own skill and sensibilities. His sophisticated color palate finds a competitor in those who think they see, but to the self-acknowledged blind it is beautiful. Since we need his lenses to appreciate his world, only the humble can love the ways of God.

Yes, the cosmos is strewn with sin, pain, and sadness. There is no pleasure in sin, no nobility in pointless pain. But where sight sees mismatched shards that slice and skew, faith sees a colorful mosaic whose rugged beauty requires the jagged shape and precise placement of each piece.

Never is such faith more difficult than when the jagged shape lacerates our own lives or when the precise placement presses against everything we hold dear. But never are we more refined than during these surgical lacerations or when the painful pressure molds us into a new and better shape.

We live in a world of smart phones, drive-thru, and unpixelated pornography. Nothing seems unavailable, nothing can be slow, and nothing is left to the imagination. We cannot believe that we don’t know best, or that we should have to wait for the best that we know.

Enter faith. Faith acknowledges unavailability, embraces delay, and hangs on imagination. We yield, we wait, and we anticipate. What you see is not what you get, and what you do not see is infinitely better than what you’ve ever gotten. The distasteful can even become delightful with time and perspective.

The years of our lives progressively unfurl the deep strategies God uses to embed his purposes and priorities into our hearts, to saturate our minds with his renewing Word, to burn the image of his Son into our psyche. Throughout these years, God is exercising his character on our behalf. And God’s ways mirror his character: often unseen and always underestimated, but forever perfect.

I can’t wait to look back and see all that I will see. But hindsight is not for today.

After all, everyone will see it then. But the faith-full see it now.

I will not live my life saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

No, I’ll believe it until I see it.

Glad I’m Not Famous

I’m glad I’m not famous. I’ve never worried about the possibility, but now and then I eyeball the perks from afar. Something about status, influence, and attention attracts the human psyche. It’s easy to envy the dominant athlete, the stunning actress, the chart-topping artist, the powerful mogul, the soul-moving preacher. “Man, I’d really love to be…”

Today, here’s why I’m glad I’m not:

  1. I wasn’t mentioned on social media. I just lived my life (novel idea). Didn’t have to defend my reputation, respond to fans, decide which gigs to take, or meet the supersized expectations of the public.
  2. I wasn’t suspicious of anyone I met. No one tried to schmooze me, sell me, or network me. If I’m ever schmoozed, sold, or networked, it’s at a pretty low level. My friends are my friends are my friends.
  3. I ran errands without anyone noticing me, stopping me, or hounding me. I just walked in, did my deal, and walked back out.
  4. No one interrupted my family dinner asking for an autograph and photo. I only sign my name every now and then, and only for normal reasons. Only my family and friends take photos of me, and not because of me but because of us. My dinners are interrupted by laughter, spills, and bathrooms, and always by the same cute little people.
  5. I wasn’t expected to save someone financially, satisfy any groupies, or meet-and-greet with influencers. My boss expected me to show up and work, my coworkers expected me to be at the meeting and contribute, and my family expected me to come home and engage. That’s it.
  6. I didn’t worry about my wife or kids being hounded by paparazzi. My wife doesn’t worry about being trailed and my kids don’t worry about their last name.
  7. No buses or cars slowly passed my house chauffeuring gawking celebrity tourists. Only family, friends, and delivery guys come to my door.
  8. My decisions weren’t influenced by major sponsors, donors, interest groups, or other constituencies whose conflicting interests I have to balance. I’m not the rope in a tug of war.
  9. I wasn’t scrutinized, judged, and skewered by talking heads who know nothing about me. The people who might really criticize me know me pretty well and have the freedom to say something.
  10. I wasn’t praised, worshiped, and yearned for by fickle masses who know nothing about me. The people who might really praise me actually have something substantial to say, and in the right proportions.

Today I got to live a normal, average day. When you think about it, that’s a very happy thing. “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6).

We all wrestle with discontentment one way or another. The grass often looks greener next door or down the street. The rich, the famous, the influential, the positioned — they seem to have it all. But don’t be so quick to trade the simple joys of your normal life for the burdened privileges of celebrity.

Mom of three? Great life. Middle management? Nice balance. Single and free? Wealth of options. Married and settled? Wealth of blessings. Average job? Everyone understands. Medium-sized church? Hotbed for community. Simple house and car? Your cup runs over.

Sure, I don’t actually know what it’s like to be famous. But it’s funny how my ignorance doesn’t keep me from envying. It’s funny how that greener grass is all pros and no cons. Discontentment and jealousy are doubly blinding. The one hides my blessings, the other hides his curses.

Look, I’m sure you have your fair share of problems and challenges just like me. But cheer up — at least you’re not famous.

The Story Above All Stories

Four years ago, on August 11, 2008, I preached my first message as Associate Dean of Men at The Master’s College. With 14 pages of single-spaced notes on a music stand and 45 staffers and student leaders packed into the corner of a dorm lounge, I told “The Story Above All Stories” — my first attempt to preach the whole story of the Bible in one sitting.

“The Story Above All Stories” didn’t have four main points, like creation-fall-redemption-consummation. I didn’t cover the seven covenants of classical dispensationalism. I simply told the story chronologically — book-by-book, event-by-event, character-by-character — trying my best to flip over the great tapestry of the Bible and show the underlying multicolored threads running from Eden to the New Jerusalem.

What I Didn’t Know

I grew up in a sound, authentic Christian home where we read our Bibles right alongside our morning chores, heard Bible stories and memorized verses in Sunday School classes, and digested 45-minute expository sermons every Sunday morning and evening. I then did a bachelor’s in Bible and master’s degrees in pastoral ministry and systematic theology — somewhere around 250 credit hours of mostly Bible and ministry courses.

But in all my years, I never heard the full story of the Bible told in one sitting. I never heard the miraculous stories and colorful characters and diversified genres and evasive dates and geographical shifts — all 66 books — rolled into a single unified narration.

Why I Didn’t Know

I don’t think anyone failed me. I’m not an angst-ridden ex-fundamentalist warring against the outmatched flannelgraph of his strawmanned past. That attitude, unless your past was full of biblically-defined Pharisees and hypocrites, is near-sighted, reactionary, and immature. I am eminently blessed by and eternally grateful for the parents, churches, programs, courses, chapels, professors, and degrees that have influenced my life. When I did sit down in the late summer of 2008 to construct “The Story Above All Stories,” I found that all those years of Bible saturation were all relevant — I was drawing from a rich reservoir of valuable and accurate information that had been invested in me over three decades.

Still, throughout most of my college and seminary years, I had a vague, disjointed, and atomistic understanding of the Bible’s many texts (and its overall story). Numerous factors, both internal and external, contributed to this weakness. Two external factors were my education (college and beyond) in highly dispensational and expositional circles. The dispensationalism emphasized discontinuity between Old and New Testaments, often focusing on the argument that many Old Testament promises must be fulfilled in a future millennium and not with the Messiah’s arrival or the early church or the present age. The expository emphasis put rigorous, detailed exegesis at the fore (which I love) but had a tendency to atomize the text and miss the forest for the trees.

Naïve about the Narrative

For their own variety of internal and external reasons, many Christians are in the same boat I was. The main stories, major characters, key texts, and central truths of the Bible are clear. But the progression, the interweaving, the interconnectedness, the tapestry — these are vague at best.

Much of the reason is simply time. It takes a lot of reading and re-reading, a lot of meditation and reflection, and a lot of study and sermons and conversations to get both the forest and the trees. But another significant reason is our approach. I recently spoke to a pastor who’s been taking his young church plant through the story of Scripture. Most of his congregation are young believers without much Bible knowledge. But as they finished the series, he said the connections they were seeing and the observations they were making and the questions they were asking showed a clear-minded grasp of the Bible’s interrelated themes along with the major twists and turns in the scriptural narrative.

So the lesson is not that Christians must spend thirty adult years studying the Bible before they can comprehend its dominant currents and threaded themes and promised fulfillments and overarching story. It’s that we must study, teach, and talk about both the parts and the whole, and should see such a multi-angled approach as the task of parents, pastors, teachers, and mentors. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying my children and students and churchgoers will walk away from my ministry with a comprehensive grasp on everything Bible. There will be gaps, because my life and ministry are both finite and fraught with failure. But I want to close those gaps as much as I can.

The Narrative Now

Now I’m studying at Southern Seminary with a Ph.D. concentration in biblical theology. I came here because four years ago I got really excited about The Story Above All Stories. And I started seeing how the scriptural narrative is like a participatory drama. The current stage, props, lighting, cast, and script only make sense if you know the whole story. Many Christians live with hazy vision and diluted passion because they read the script they’re handed, scan over their set of lines, and can’t make out why they’re performing their role or what exactly the dialogue means or how their act will be resolved in the finale. They don’t know — with precision — where the drama has been or where it’s ultimately going.

Ignorance about the story produces hesitation over the script. You can’t walk on stage and play your character and sell your lines if you don’t know who was up before you and who’s on after you. The drama is determinative.

This is why my next two messages in that three-part series four years ago were entitled “The Bride and the Bridesmaid” (the role of the church and the parachurch in our present act of the drama) and “Your Chapter of the Story” (the role of an individual student leader in this multi-level story of redemption).

The final introductory line of this third sermon reads (cut and pasted from my four-year-old manuscript):

The million-dollar question at the end of this week is: “How should you minister as a Resident Assistant on your wing of 25 students in order to help accomplish the mission of The Master’s College which is to prepare students to be effective members of the local church which is God’s light to the world in this age?”

I believe every Christian (and every human being) should press himself hard to answer this type of question — to funnel the great ultimate purpose of your worldview into the passions and priorities and practices of your daily life.

Four years ago, I didn’t want to ground our shared ministry on the common assumption that we all know the Bible, we all know who we are, and we all know what we’re supposed to be doing and why. I wanted us to share in the great drama of redemption — to survey its shapes and contours, to tour its peaks and valleys, to track its promises and fulfillments, and to marvel at its mysteries and revelations.¹ I wanted us to know the Bible, to know who we are, and to know what we’re supposed to be doing and why.

Four years later, I know the story better than I ever have (naturally), but I feel like I know less than I ever have. There is so much to learn, but I am delighted for the education ahead because I know the learning will transform. I will become more aware of the backstory, more eager for the finale, more sincere and savvy in performing my role, more enthusiastic in exhorting my fellow actors to play their parts, and more passionate about inviting outsiders into the bright side of the drama.

Biblical Theology Briefings

As I continue this educational journey, I can’t write regular extended posts on scriptural themes. I just don’t have the time or the skill to clear wide swaths of biblical insight. Yet I do want to share what I’m learning (without turning Raw Christianity into an academic exercise).

My solution is a regular “Biblical Theology Briefing.” In these briefings I plan to share observations, arguments, outlines, books, articles, reviews, sermons, videos, diagrams — anything I’ve found that could foster a clearer understanding of the Bible’s parts as they relate to its whole.

“Biblical Theology” is a specific discipline within biblical studies. It doesn’t mean “theology that’s biblical in content.” It means the science and art of tracing the progressive scriptural storyline as promises and themes are unfolded across the texts that make up the Text.²

The passion God ignited in me four years ago has not abated. I still want to survey the story, examine its interconnectedness, study how the New Testament authors interpreted Old Testament texts, and discern how promises and themes developed as the story of Scripture was progressively unfurled through the ages. And I want to share what I learn. I hope you’ll join me in this Emmaus Road journey (Luke 24:13-35). It continues to leave me with my heart burning and my eyes seeing Jesus more clearly.

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¹ The two binary categories “promise and fulfillment” and “mystery and revelation” are used in D. A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: Volume 2–The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, M. A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 393–436. HT: Patrick Schreiner.

² This informal definition of “biblical theology” is my own, but Stephen Dempster employs the “text” and “Text” terminology in Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003).

Linsanity (or, Why We All Claimed Jeremy Lin): Ethnicity, Status, Religion, and the Search for Vindication

graphic by Ishaan Mishra

Remember Jeremy Lin?

This undrafted, unheralded, 6’3″ Asian-American put the sputtering New York Knicks on his rookie shoulders and took the NBA by storm back in February. Gushing headlines about the 23-year-old Harvard grad consumed one of the few industries where being a Harvard grad puts you behind, not ahead. His 38-point, 7-assist explosion (a) against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (b) on a Friday night (c) in primetime (d) on national television (e) in Madison Square Garden blew the roof off the phenomenon we came to know as “Linsanity.”

Articles sprang up overnight chronicling Lin’s storybook climb from unscholarshiped high school senior to undrafted Ivy League grad to languishing D-League regular to wrongfully-waived benchwarmer (guilty parties: Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets) to instant superstar and cultural icon. His #17 jersey outsold every other NBA player’s except for reigning 2011 MVP and Chicago über-guard Derrick Rose. A Boyce College student even won the New York Times’ Jeremy Lin t-shirt design contest.

But the full-throttle roar of Linsanity had long since descended from the MSG rafters by the time the Knicks were unceremoniously but predictably dispatched from the first round of the playoffs by the uncaring Miami Heat. Opposing teams clamped down on Lin, his turnover rate rocketed, the Knicks sputtered again, and he suffered an unfortunate meniscus tear in March putting him back on the bench for the rest of the season. Mike D’Antoni, the run-and-gun head coach whose free-flowing offensive system allowed Lin to flourish, “resigned” in mid-March. Interim Mike Woodson, an old-school coach who emphasizes defense and runs a slower offense, just signed a long-term contract. Jeremy Lin is now a free agent coming off knee surgery in a mismatched offensive system.

I loved the Jeremy Lin story as much as anyone, and I was thoroughly impressed by his level-headed humility throughout the whole ordeal. He played with the swagger needed in high-level athletics and lived with the humility appropriate to human finitude. I was disappointed when he was injured and the Knicks faded, and I really hope he gets another chance with New York or another team that will utilize his skill-set.

What made me increasingly uncomfortable through his meteoric rise was all the claiming.

During that frenzied February only four months ago, everybody wanted Jeremy Lin. Asians wanted him, underdogs wanted him, Ivy Leaguers wanted him, and Christians wanted him. These represent four major elements of our self-identification: ethnicity, status, education, and religion.

I’m delighted that everyone was cheering Jeremy Lin. He deserved to be cheered. For his performance. For his perseverance. For his humility. For his story.

But claiming Jeremy Lin? That’s a different story.

My colleague Owen Strachan analogized and typologized from Jeremy Lin to the vindication of all kinds of underdogs — from grade-school hopefuls to the Great White Throne. Carl Park springboarded from Jeremy Lin to the intricacies of Asian-American Christianity and the potential for increased inclusion in the wider American church. Prominent sportswriter Rick Reilly slid from Jeremy Lin to what he hopes will be the less-stereotyped future of his Asian-American daughter. Jorge Castillo jumped from Jeremy Lin to the hopes of overlooked Ivy League ballers. Then Michael Luo blended it all together because he shares Lin’s ethnicity, religion, alma mater, sport, and family story.

In hermeneutical terms we call this corporate solidarity. We want a representative, a hero, someone who’s like us but who’s accomplishing something so much greater than us. We need coattails to grab, a bandwagon to jump on, a hero to follow.

I really like Jeremy Lin, and I really liked the Jeremy Lin story. He deserved to be blowing up Madison Square Garden, trending on Twitter, and dominating sites from ESPN to the NY Times (to The Gospel Coalition!). But he didn’t deserve to bear the suffocating weight of the mixed masses’ desperate search for identity and vindication.

In the Christian world, how much of this instant epic was generated by the ever-changing identity of evangelical culture? How much of it stemmed from the Christian unease rising with the clouds of our culture’s increasing intellectual, political, and moral persecution? How much of the Jeremy-Lin-is-one-of-us saga was really about our vindication before the watching world?

It’s wonderful that we loved Jeremy Lin (what wasn’t to love?). But it’s different if we needed him. It’s frightening if we need a baller in the bright lights to prove that Christianity is more acceptable than people think, or if we need a #15 at Mile High Stadium (and now, ironically, The Big Apple) to tell us that we still matter — that we can still fill up the airwaves if the story’s good enough.

Often the church isn’t sure who we are, but if we could just be like that — just be in his corner, be in his pocket, be on his team — things might change for us. Through Tebow we’re persecuted and we persevere. Through Lin we’re cast aside then vindicated. “Look at how they treat us . . . but look at what we can do!”

I’ll be rooting for Jeremy Lin the rest of his career, and I love the character and testimony of Tim Tebow. I’m sure many other Christians (and even many non-Christians) agree. But I’m not sure Lin’s Taiwanese-American-underdog-Harvard-Christian shoulders can bear the weight of our mixed corporate identity. I’m not sure they were meant to.

Yes, Jesus went undrafted by the religious elite of his day. Yes, Jesus came and served and died as the ultimate underdog. Yes, the harbingers of our coming eschatological vindication appear in various types and shadows.

I get it: cultural and ethnic and sociological and theological typologies have their place. This vale of tears is a hall of mirrors. There are pointers everywhere, and we are wise to see them. But if Jesus taught us anything, he taught us to beware the hype. If we want to claim Jesus, we leave our identity and our family and our money and our fame behind, and we claim a blood-spattered cross. We go lower — much lower — than unrecruited, undrafted, and unheralded. We’re lower than 6’3″. We’re 6-foot-under. We lose ourselves in him — and then we find him in us.

The story of Jeremy Lin was indeed a microcosm of the great coming judgment when the last shall be first. “Linsanity” was a vague and temporary metaphor for the final vindication of all God-pleasing underdogs. We can analogize from God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and Jeremy Lin’s humble rise to instant stardom over the superstars of The Big Apple. The instant popularity of a humble Christian athlete is rightfully encouraging as the community of faith stares into the increasingly sharp teeth of this wicked and adulterous generation.

But Jeremy Lin is not Jesus, the New York Knickerbockers are not the church, and that frenetic early-February week during this year’s truncated NBA season was not exactly the final judgment. Jeremy Lin reminded us, helpfully, of many things. But we need far more than his minority ethnicity, his admirable perseverance, his undrafted status, or even his sincere faith. We need, if the initial reports out of the media frenzy were correct, his Savior. He’s the one who claimed us before we rose to the top, and called us to do the same with him.

Everyone claimed Jeremy Lin because everyone needed Jeremy Lin. Asian-Americans needed an NBA star to replace and outshine retired Yao Ming, and to solidify their status in the great banquet hall of American life. Ivy League ballers needed an NBA Cinderella story from their own ranks to push some scout over the edge in making a stronger draft recommendation to management. Underdogs everywhere needed a fresh reason to wake up early again and keep working hard and persevere through the dark tunnel of unaccomplished dreams. Anyone who’s ever been held back, held down, or held under needed a vindicated frontman who crawled out of the pit of insignificance and climbed the towering heap of public respect. And American Christians needed a humble orthodox hero whom no one could criticize — someone who believes the right things and does the right things and says the right things and doesn’t get ridiculed in the process.

We have to admit: at least some of Christianity’s Linsanity was based on the dangerously misguided hope of being vindicated in the present, the hope of riding the coattails of someone who believes what we do and is also cool, hot, in, and accepted. For the moment, Jeremy Lin appeared to be all of that and more.

But never drive an earthly stake of identity too deep. That stake was driven home 2,000 years ago, and the scar remains for all eternity. The scar tells us who we were and what we deserved. And it’s more jagged than any unrecruited, undrafted, unheralded scar out there.

If we ascend with Jeremy Lin, we must also descend with him. Those who carry our hopes carry our destinies. That’s why trusting Jesus is so freeing. After he descended once for all (taking us with him), his ascent (and ours) was irreversible.

So pray for Tebow and root for Lin. Hope that their stars rise again and continue to shine bright. Thank God that there are Christians in every sphere of influence, from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden to the sweat shops of Indonesia. But make sure the metaphor stays a metaphor, and the analogy stays analogous. In this life, Jeremy Lin can represent the Christian faith, and we should hope that he does so for many years to come. But Jeremy Lin cannot vindicate the Christian faith.

One day, the righteous will be vindicated, and the least of these — the underrated righteous, the underdog saints, the unrecognized servants — will step up to their rightful place in the starting lineups of the new creation. But making Jeremy Lin bear the weight of our collective need for vindication? That was just Linsanity.