Pain Our Teacher

Pain is a prominent and protruding feature of a global pandemic. So many folks have experienced pain in new ways. The pain of death, the pain of loneliness, the pain of individuals, families, and nations have all been extremely visible. Is there a purpose to the pain? How can God be working all things for the good of those who love him even in the pain? I think a lot of us are wrestling with these questions. I know I am. 

Growing up in a family with several physicians pain was not a distant thought. I remember seeing many wince as my father assessed their physical condition. In these moments pain was proven to be valuable. Pain revealed a need for healing. Without pain, we would not know we are in need of help. Without pain, we would not know there was a need for a physician in the first place. Internal bleeding, broken bones, and decaying joints would doom us to death far faster without pain’s revelations. 

In my wrestlings regarding the pain of this world, I have begun to learn to turn to the Great Physician to see how He is using this pain to shape, heal, and refine me to his image. In this poem, you will see portions of my doubts, prayers, and findings as I have sought the Lord. I pray this poem will help you process the pain too. Pain has a purpose. 

Seared emotions.
Cauterize the feeling to stop the bleeding.
They said that killing the pain will lead to healing,
But that simply is not true.

Pain is a sign of life.
You can’t ask for surgery and avoid the knife.
A numb limb is doomed to be broken
Even still unaware of this token.
To lose the feeling of pain is to lose feeling altogether.
The same nerve that stings captures the softness of feather.

There are itching ears here demanding a scratch,
And poisonous myths just waiting to hatch.
The birth of a song, it is sweet. It is seduction.
A descant from demon by device of destruction.
Distraction is this salve— impermanent and lethal
Coaxing the mind, undying and deceitful.

Yes, the buzz in the pocket is like that of the bottle,
Except one is regulated, and one runs full throttle.
For you need not be convinced to give your life all to evil.
You only need be pulled away to throw your life in upheaval.
Removal from reality is enough to convince
That peace cannot come from the presence of the Prince.

Instead we buy the lie that leads to death;
Sold a toxin of diversion as addictive as meth
Simply because it kills the pain.
But pain is a sign of life.
And the alternate reality is a barbed and bloody knife
With a shrouded slash of fraudulent facts.
Because the lie hurts less you can ignore your tracts.

But how long will that last you? How long can you avoid what’s true?
That anesthesia will wear off, or you will be dead and through.
Ruined by your fight to avoid everything that bruises
You may be the one who misses out or loses,
Unknowingly doomed to an eternal fire,
A pain irremovable no matter your desire.

So, what is the value of pain here and now?
Is it not just a portrait of eternity’s brow?
No, the Prince says there is hope in the secondary coming.
This the tune of the church which the saints have been humming.

As they look to that day the pain increases the yearning,
While all creation is groaning and aching and burning 
For the skies to be split and their eyes to be learning
The face of their Savior in the clouds there returning. 

The pain also purifies in the heat of its fire
Removing all the dross of erroneous desire.
It floats to the surface unveiling the heart.
Thus refining the faith that doubt may depart. 

Purification is preparation for an eternal weight of glory.
The pain it will cleanse and renew your whole story.
The weight of the agony does not compare to the impending. 
It’s a momentary affliction juxtaposed to His ascending.

The risen Lord means confidence in the inheritance that is looming
For the saints of His bride to hold a bouquet that is blooming
With recreation and beauty by a glassy sea of his grace
At the marriage banquet they will finally get their long awaited embrace. 

Without a trace of their sin.
Without a face carrying tears again. 
Without a race wearying the years of men. 
This is the place of marrying their greatest friend.

So yes, the growing pain is worth the gain through this season.
The stretching soreness is a tool for a reason. 
Pain points us to better things and it draws us to a Savior. 
Pain teaches us dependency thus shaping our behavior.

The potter has his clay, which he beats down to build up.
Only then can the vase be a living water filled cup.
Pain has a purpose, so in the aches do not wander, 
For with Christ in every tribulation we will more than conquer.

He is Risen – Now What?

Easter Weekend provides rhythms for the Christian to reflect on the various elements of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascent. On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s blood shed for us. Holy Saturday is a time to hope and wait. Sunday, we celebrate because the grave was no match for our King. And then we come to Monday. 

Sometimes I wish we knew what the disciples did the Monday after Jesus ascended into heaven. Did they wake up, groggy with the joy of salvation? Were their conversations laced with praise for what they witnessed? Did Thomas stare at his hand, still amazed that it touched the pierced side of Jesus? We can only guess what they thought and felt. 

In 2020, I did not wake up feeling the joy of salvation on Easter Monday. I felt groggy, but it was the kind that makes you pull the covers over your head and wish that you didn’t have to move. My church’s Easter service was haunted by an empty sanctuary, the table at my home was full of food but absent of friends and family, and by the end of the day, a friend cut me deep with hurtful actions. It was the perfect storm to knock me down and cloud my shaky gaze fixed on the cross. I felt a gnawing “Now what?” in my head and though I knew the truth, I didn’t have an answer. 

We all reach these moments in life where we know the truth of the gospel, we know Christ is risen, we know He calls us to obey the Great Commission He gave us, but we feel paralyzed by the troubles of this world, unable to lift a finger toward obedience. 

Christians are not strangers to uncertainty. For the last 2,000 years, Christians have been imprisoned for their love of the gospel and do not know if they will live to see tomorrow. The unmarried in our churches are often faced with repeated disappointments in relationships and unmet good desires. Powerful people abuse their rank and exploit us in every way imaginable. We lose jobs, can’t have children, battle anxiety, face persecution, and have countless other struggles we could never anticipate. It is a weary world. 

We strive and strive and strive to keep our eyes where they should be. Our vision blurry from tears conceived by trouble, our lips trembling in fear of the unknown, our bodies heavy from the weight of sorrow. 

Now what?

Even if you don’t relate to this question today, it is reasonable to assume you either have in the past, or you will in the future. Whenever you face sorrow head-on, whether you’re asking “Now what?” today or five years from now, there are three words that will be sufficient for this question: 

He is risen. 

The very words you said yesterday in your joy are sufficient for your sorrow today or any day after. 

Christ’s resurrection is always the answer to our deepest sufferings. You may read that and think the answer is too simple and too easy, and you would be right. 

This is the miracle of the gospel! The fact that Jesus rose from the grave is the easiest and most simple answer to our most difficult and complex questions in life. The resurrection does not give us a five-year plan and it does not mean that everything is perfect right now. But it does give us everything we could ever hope for. 

Jesus himself said, “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33). 

We are able to be courageous and press on through our struggles because Jesus conquered the world by overcoming sin and death. This doesn’t mean we won’t wake up and feel helpless tomorrow, but it does mean we will never wake up hopeless. 

The fact that He is risen is the most important information we could ever know (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), it is our living hope (1 Peter 1:3), it is what compels us to love (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), it is what frees us from sin (Romans 6:5-6), it is what equips us to do good (Hebrews 13:20-21), and it is what will allow us to reign with God forever (Revelation 20:6). 

Until we are reunited with Jesus, we will regularly ask “Now what?” We must forever return to the same three words.

He is risen.

Pastors Must Be Well Thought of By Outsiders

Part of living as a Christian is living as a witness to the reality of God in the world. For the pastor, there is this additional requirement: “he must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7). There are numerous ways to go about this, but ministers of the gospel ought to take great care to cultivating this qualification. Here are some practical ways to achieve this end:

1. Be involved in your community.

Do you have a third place where you can be a regular? The coffee shop, the café, the corner store, the gym, etc.? Be active, be present, and be friendly. Becoming a regular at a third place is a great way to stay tuned-in to the concerns and values of lost people.

Similarly, if your children are in school, be an active parent. Volunteer to chaperone field trips or to work lunchroom duties. Participate in school sports or on the school board.

 Are there other ways to “get out” and be a regular presence? Take advantage of those.

In addition to helping you get to know your community and its needs, it’s also a vital way to build bridges for evangelistic engagement.

2. Evangelize.

Make a commitment to seek and seize opportunities to share the gospel with others. In order to do this, of course, you will not just need to exist outside your home and office, but also engage with people outside those walls. Listen well and ask good questions. Try to connect. Look for openings to witness to Christ. Ask people if you can pray for them.

You will find that as a pastor, religious conversations are very easy to get into. They simply arise from the normal chitchat with outsiders because of your vocation.

3. Be charitable in your dealings.

Are you known as a miser when the fundraisers come around? Will you refuse to buy Girl Scout cookies or patronize the neighborhood lemonade stand? Do you complain or about poor service at restaurants? Are you the guy at the town hall meetings shouting down other leaders? Are you a complainer or constant critic on your neighborhood’s private social media network? Are you a bad neighbor? Is your posture toward the community—or your church’s posture toward the same—seen as antagonism? There may be valid causes to fight for and injustices to correct, but can you do this graciously?

4. Be circumspect online.

The world is watching. If you are the kind of pastor who is constantly arguing on Twitter or posting angry political rants on Facebook, you are bearing witness to your true hope, which is not Christ. Bear witness to the goodness of Jesus in your online life, not simply your pet theological or political projects.            

Treat others with respect and kindness. Who you are online is who you are. You do not get a pass on biblical qualifications of gentleness and against quarrelsomeness simply because your venom is being mediated through a screen.

(This is an edited excerpt from my new book Gospel-Driven Ministry, which aims to give both pastoral and practical insight to the work of church leadership.)

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament:
 Step 5––Clause and Text Grammar

With step 5 of the interpretive process we move from “Text” to “Observation,” and we consider a series of issues related to how a passage is communicated. Our initial goal is to assess the makeup and relationship of words, phrases, clauses, and larger text units. In short, we need to study grammar.

According to His Own Heart He Sought a Man––Illustrating the Importance of Grammar

Why study grammar? Before answering this question, let me first illustrate the difference it can make. In 1993 I spent a semester studying in Israel. As I went, I prayed that God would make me “a man after his heart.” I was echoing 1 Samuel 13:14 where, speaking of Saul’s replacement, the prophet declared, “The LORD has sought for himself a man after his own heart” (NASB). What does this statement mean? For me, it was something like, “God, let my desires, thoughts, and hates be like yours.” Or it could have been, “Help me be a man who pursues after your heart.”

In English, the preposition “after” can mean “in pursuit of” as in, “the cop went after the robber.” I now recognize that the Hebrew preposition ke (כְּ, “like/according to”) that begins the phrase “after his heart” never functions this way. This means the construction “a man after God’s heart” can’t mean “a man who pursues God’s heart.” That cancels out one of the ways I may have interpreted this statement decades ago.

The next thing to recognize is that prepositional phrases are modifiers, characterizing either nouns (functioning adjectivally) or verbs (functioning adverbially). Most prepositional phrases in Hebrew are adverbial, but the traditional interpretation of 1 Samuel 13:14 treats the prepositional phrase “after/like/according to his heart” adjectivally. Let’s look at three possibilities for interpreting 1 Samuel 13:14. Hebrew reads right-to-left, and the following represents an English interlinear with word-for-word translation under the Hebrew.

First, if “after/like/according to his heart” is functioning adjectivally modifying the direct object “man,” and if “heart” refers to God’s character or loyalty, then the clause means that “YHWH has sought a man whose character or loyalty in some way corresponded to God’s character or loyalty.” This is the traditional reading, and a number of English translations make this view explicit: “The Lord, searching for a man who is pleasing to him in every way …” (BBE). “The LORD has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him” (NETB). “The LORD has found a man loyal to him” (HCSB).[1] “The LORD will search for a man following the Lord’s own heart” (CEB). The figure below represents the word-order of the Hebrew.

Second, when reading “according to his heart” adjectivally, another possibility arises if “heart” refers not to God’s character but to his “desire” or “choice.” Here God’s elective purpose corresponds with or finds fulfillment in the “man.” The basic idea would be that “YHWH sought for himself a man who was in accord with his own choosing.” Some contemporary versions employ this reading: “GOD is out looking for your replacement right now. This time he’ll do the choosing” (MSG). “The LORD will search for a man of his own choosing” (CEB).

There is still a third way of reading the passage, and I think it is to be preferred––that the prepositional phrase “according to his heart” functions not adjectivally modifying “man” but adverbially modifying the main verb “he sought.” In this instance, YHWH’s “heart/will” serves as the standard or norm by which he sought a new king: “YHWH sought for himself according to his own will a man.” In this reading, the verse says nothing explicit about the man’s character or loyalty. Instead, it focuses on how YHWH’s act of discretion in selecting David grew out of a previous act of willing––he sought in accordance with a mental image he had in mind.

There are various evidences that support this third reading, all of which I have addressed elsewhere.[1] Now, if the adverbial reading is correct, even though the verse tells us nothing explicit about Saul’s replacement, it may still tell us something implicitly. If Yahweh, in part, selected David because his life aligned more closely to God’s mental ideal for kingship than Saul’s life did (i.e., Deuteronomy 17:14–20), then even with the adverbial reading, we may learn that David’s inner disposition truly did align more with God’s desires than Saul’s. Even more, his life pointed to his greater Son, Jesus, who perfectly matches God’s ideal image of kingship.[2]

My point in this illustration is to stress the value of knowing grammar. Considering how words, phrases, clauses, and larger texts relate can open up new avenues for questions and interpretation. And because our quest is to rightly understand God’s Word, such efforts count!

What is Grammar?

Grammar is what allows communication to make sense. We cease being coherent if we deviate too far from grammatical norms. To be specific, grammar is the whole system and structure that language uses for communicating effectively. It consists of four parts:

  • Orthography: the study of the alphabet and how its letters combine to form sounds;
  • Phonology: the study of a language’s system of sounds (phonemes);
  • Morphology: the study of the formation of words;
  • Syntax: how words combine to form phrases, clauses, sentences (clause grammar or micro-syntax), and even larger structures (text grammar or macro-syntax).

We now turn to clause grammar and text grammar.

Clause Grammar

As mentioned, clause grammar is how words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. The time we just spent considering 1 Samuel 13:14 was an exercise in clause grammar because we were seeking to construe meaning within a sentence. In that instance, we sought to determine if the prepositional phrase “according to his heart” modified a noun or a verb. In order to be able to practice clause grammar, it is helpful to know the following terms:

  • Clause: A grammatical construction made up of a subject and its predicate.
  • Phrase: A group of words that fills a single slot in a clause.
  • Subordinate clause: A clause that serves as a modifier and is embedded in a higher-level clause, as in “who is but a youth” in the sentence “David, who is but a youth, slew Goliath.
  • Main clause: One that is not grammatically subordinate to any other higher-level clause. “David, who is but a youth, slew Goliath.”
  • Sentence: A main clause with all its subordinate clauses.

Besides these terms, you need to know the right questions to ask. Some of the key ones include:

  • Could any clause or groups of clauses be understood differently if the grammar were construed differently?
  • Have I identified the antecedent referent of every pronoun and the subject of every verb?
  • Do I understand the function of every subordinate conjunction?
  • Do I know how every clause relates to its context?
  • Have I grasped the role of every discourse marker?

Text Grammar

Text grammar consists of the relationship between structures of thought that are equal to or larger than the clause level. The following diagram of Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is a model with an accompanying explanation of how to begin thinking about text grammar.

Each verse reference (i.e., 7:1[a]; 7:1b; 7:1c; 7:2[a]; etc.) is a clause, which means that it has a subject and a predicate (though in some instances the subject is implied from a previous clause). Below is an explanation of what the text grammar diagram above intends to communicate. Working through these notes will be cumbersome, but grasping what I am doing will serve your Bible study. You can learn more about how to lay out a biblical text as I have at

The time when Israel must destroy their enemies (7:1a–2b)

  • 7:1a begins an extended temporal (“when”) unit of four clauses that run from 1a–2b. The entirety of this “when” unit modifies 2c in that it provides the events that must occur for 2c to happen. I have signified that 1a–2b modifies 2c in this way by indenting the unit to the right. Another way to state this relationship is that 2c can grammatically stand on its own (i.e., an independent clause), but the unit in 1a–2b cannot stand on its own since it is dependent upon 2c. While only 1a includes the temporal “when,” the clauses in 2c–2b link to it with “and,” so that the whole of 1a–2b stands as a block of subordinate clauses that together modify 2c. Step one of this unit is that Yahweh will “bring” Israel into the promised land.
  • 7:1b modifies the word “land” in 1a by describing it. Since 1b develops 1a, I have indented it to the right of 1a. The “land” is the one that Israel will possess.
  • 7:1c begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 1c links back to 1a and continues the subordination begun with the “when” clause. Because 1c connects with 1a, it goes directly beneath 1a. Seeing that 1c links to 1a informs us that the implied subject of 1c is the same subject from 1a (i.e., the LORD you God). When Yahweh brings Israel into the promised land, he will “clear away” the seven nations before them.
  • 7:2a begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 2a links back to 1c and continues the subordinate unit begun in 1a. Because 2a connects with 1c, it goes directly beneath 1c. In this temporal unit, God’s actions move from “bringing” to “clearing away” and then culminate in his “delivering” all of them over to Israel.
  • 7:2b begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 2b links back to 2a and continues the subordinate unit begun in 1a. Because 2b connects with 2a, it goes directly beneath 2a. Nevertheless, the switch from Yahweh as subject in 1ac and 2a to “you” as the subject of 2b identifies that 2b communicates the result of God’s previous actions. Once the Lord “brings,” “clears,” and “delivers,” the result will be that Israel will “defeat.” All these events set the temporal context for the main idea that follows.  

The call for Israel to destroy their enemies (7:2c)

  • 7:2c begins with “then,” and it is an independent clause. The “then” marks the primary act the people need to perform after Yahweh “brings … clears away … and delivers” and after Israel “defeats” (1a–2b). The whole temporal unit in 1a–2b modifies 2c. I have signified that 2c is an independent clause by placing it to the far left. Within the hierarchy of clauses, the fact that this clause is furthest left communicates that it is the main grammatical point of the passage. Operating as instruments of God’s wrath, Israel is called to “utterly destroy” the rebellious inhabitants of the Promised Land.

The implications of Israel’s destroying her enemies (7:2d–4c)

  • 7:2d does not begin with a conjunction (i.e., it’s asyndetic). In context, the lack of conjunction suggests that 2d and the other two clauses linked to it (2d,3a) are together providing some of the implications of God’s call to destroy the peoples in 2c. Because 2d explains 2c, I have indented it to the right. To utterly destroy Yahweh’s enemies means that Israel must “make no covenant with them.”
  • 7:2e begins with the conjunction “and,” which signifies that 2e is adding a further implication to 2d. Because 2e connects with 2d, it goes directly beneath 2d. Israel must also “show no favor to them.”
  • 7:3a begins with the conjunctive adverb “furthermore,” which identifies that 3a links back to 2e and adds to the explicatory unit begun in 2d. To destroy all the peoples (2c) implies that Israel must make no covenant with them (2d), show them favor (2e), or intermarry with them (3a). Because the “furthermore” at the head of 3s builds on 2e, it goes directly beneath 2e.
  • 7:3b does not begin with a conjunction, and as at 2d, the context suggests the lack of connection signals that 3b is now clarifying the previous statement in 3a not to intermarry. They must not allow their daughters to marry the sons of the ungodly. Because 3b modifies 3, I have indented it to the right.
  • 7:3c begins with the conjunction “nor,” thus adding one more element to the explication begun in 3b. To not intermarry will mean that the Israelites must neither give their daughters to the pagans’ sons (3b) nor take the pagans’ daughters for the Israelite sons (3c). Because 3c connects with 3b, it goes directly underneath 2e.
  • 7:4a begins with the conjunction “for.” This conjunction signifies that 4a logically supports 3c by providing its rational basis. Indeed, 4a begins a three-clause unit (4abc) that together gives the reason why God forbids inter-faith intermarriage. The first reason why the Israelites must not intermarry with these who do not fear Yahweh is because (“for”) these pagans would move the Israelites to turn from God to idols. Because 4a provides a logical ground for 3c, I have indented it to the right.
  • 7:4b begins with “then,” which connects back to 4a and thus continues to expand the reasons why the Israelites must not intermarry. Israel’s idolatry will “kindle” Yahweh’s just wrath. Since 4b connects back to 4a, the clause goes directly beneath 4 in the diagram. 
  • 7:4c begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction signifies that 4c links back to 4b, providing the final reason why Israel must not marry outside the covenant with Yahweh––it will ultimately result in God’s “destroying” them. Since 4c connects back to 4b, it continues to provide the rational basis for 3c, and it goes directly beneath 4b. 

Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is a weighty passage with a detailed argument that effectively motivates people to obey the Lord. God called Israel to remove obstacles to their pursuit of him. Failing to take idolatry seriously would certainly result in their ruin.

By practicing text grammar as I have done above, you can discern that the main point of Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is verse 2c: “then you shall utterly destroy them.” This is the passage’s main idea, and every other part of the passage supports or develops it in some way. 7:1–2b identifies the time when Israel must destroy their enemy neighbors, and 2d–4 explains some of the implications for what it means that they will destroy these objects of God’s just wrath. We have only just begun learning to trace an argument. I will devote all of next month’s post to this step in the interpretive process.

Note: This post adapts material from “Chapter 5: Clause and Text Grammar” in DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 181–236.


For other posts in this series, see:

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Introduction

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 1––Genre

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 2––Literary Units and Text Hierarchy

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 3––Text Criticism

How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Step 4––Translation

[1] Jason S. DeRouchie, “The Heart of YHWH and His Chosen One in 1 Samuel 13:14,” BBR 24.4 (2013): 467–89.

[2] For my understanding of the Apostle Paul’s use of 1 Samuel 13:14 in Acts 13:22 see ibid., 488–89.

[1] The newer CSB returns to a more traditional rendering: “The LORD has found a man after his own heart.”

Rejoice Together, Suffer Together, Repeat

Have you ever heard something good that happened to a friend but rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you compare your success or want what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.

Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life — climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that isn’t in what you have, accomplish, or do. 

The context of this command in Romans 12 is worship and Paul argues that worship is always a communal act. You present your body as a sacrifice in relationships with real people in everyday life, and this is our spiritual worship. When Paul exhorts believers to celebrate their different giftings (12:3-8), to love one another genuinely (12:9-10), and to live in harmony (12:16) he is hammering in that Christian worship happens in community, not just in personal time with God. So when you find yourself in my situation of not wanting to love your sister genuinely and with affection (12:9-10), you and I have a worship problem. 

Worshipping the Lord together

When a good friend of mine got engaged, I was ecstatic. But I remember after talking through the details of how he proposed and dreaming about a wedding, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for being excited with me.” 

Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). It is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from Him (James 1:17), and we get to praise Him for what He has done. When my friend got engaged I didn’t tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing. 

But if she hadn’t shared her news, she would be preventing me from worshipping with her. She would be withholding joy that God had given her and an opportunity to declare what God was doing. Sometimes we withhold because we think that another person won’t want to rejoice with us. Sometimes it’s because we feel it is selfish to ask people to celebrate with us. But perhaps what is selfish is thinking that our successes are our own and forgetting that God wants to bring Himself glory through the good things He gives us. In gospel communities, we are able to rejoice with one another because our accomplishments and good news are never about us. They are always about what God is doing. 

Being Christ to one another

Sharing our suffering and weeping together is essential to community and worship. My default for difficult things is to not talk about them. Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite, and he is slowly breaking me of my bad habit. When something hard happens, he reaches out to family, friends, and co-workers asking for prayer, asking for meals, asking for people to be in this with us. He understands gospel community better than I do.

Several years ago I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. My husband was leading a mission trip in Ethiopia so I found out the news alone with no way to contact him. It forced me to depend on community. A friend drove me to the ER, another to appointments, another brought me food, another checked in every single day. I was weeping and my community showed up to weep with me. 

When we don’t share our hardships we prevent the body from worship through cooking meals, being present, and being Christ to us. Furthermore, not letting community into our sorrow prevents them from rejoicing when the Lord uses pain for redemption. It refuses the chance for others to see how God has provided, grown, and even blessed you. God wants all his work and glory to be on full display. Eugene Peterson says that all prayers end in praise. All weeping and sorrow will one day be turned into praise. When we don’t let other people join us in our sorrow, we will keep them from praising God for the work he has chosen to do through it. 

Those months of recovery after my ectopic were painful, but they were the months I felt the most loved and cared for by my church community. They also taught me how to suffer with others. Most of us fear that we will burden others with our problems. But we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). Jesus bore our burdens for us, and bearing burdens is one way we grow in imitating him. When we weep with those who weep, we participate in the work of Christ, our suffering King who wept with his friends.

Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the suffering of the cross. It was the joy of knowing that we would be freed to love others more deeply than themselves that led Jesus to suffer. It was the joy of knowing that his Spirit would empower us to worship him rightly. It was the joy of knowing that one day He would wipe every tear and rejoice with his people in perfect worship at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 21:4). But until then, it is for the joy set before us to be conformed into his image, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice for the glory of our king.

On Easter, Forget the Noise and Preach the Resurrection

I remember my very first Easter sermon as a new pastor. I had been in the job at our small church barely ten months. I really didn’t know much of what I was doing, to be honest, and the people there were so gracious to endure my inexperience.

But I couldn’t wait for Easter. I knew our auditorium would be fuller than it typically was.  I was full of nervous energy. A generous donor paid for a catered breakfast before the service. Our volunteers worked hard on activities for the kids. Yet when I ascended the stage, I prayed God would block out all the noise and help me focus on the central message at the heart of our gathering this morning.

This Easter there will be no shortage of things that will weigh on your heart. Pastors are facing pressures like they’ve never faced before. The pandemic has created exposed deep rifts on safety and fear and mask-wearing and even the act of gathering itself. Racial and political tensions have squeezed and forced pastors into difficult positions. And many families, isolated for so many months, are emerging with mental health issues, relationship dysfunction, and a sense of despair. To pastor now is exceedingly difficult.

And yet, the message of Easter is why we got into this business in the first place. We put ourselves through seminary, we surrender our lives to this mysterious calling, we hammer out sermons, visit people in hospitals, put up with the shifting whims of congregants all because of one singular fact: Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Paul grounds his whole ministry in this fact when writing to a Corinthian church that had given him so much trouble. Sexual scandal, divisiveness, gluttony, greed, personality worship, arrogance, and so many other issues (sound familiar?) plagued this New Testament church. Yet Paul endured betrayals, shipwreck, stoning, abandonment, ostracization by his family, and a thousand other points of suffering because he knew and believed Jesus had defeated sin, death, and the grave. If Jesus didn’t rise, Paul says, it is Christians who should, of all people be “most pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Ministers of the gospel should especially be pitied if we don’t, down to our very bones, believe the resurrection to be true. This also means that believing it’s true helps us see past the noise and declare this good news with power on Easter morning.

You might be tempted to think, after scrolling the social media posts of cynical Christians, that all is lost in the world, that the church has failed so badly, that you getting up and opening the Word and declaring the gospel on Sunday just no longer works. You might be tempted to think that the idea that Jesus saves is a reality for another time, a past golden age when it was easier to preach. But you’d be wrong. Christ is as alive today as he was yesterday and the Spirit is, right now, drawing the hearts of men and women toward salvation. Even in your community. Even with your feeble efforts and preaching. Even among the seemingly intractable folks who will stumble into your church building or watch you online.

Let’s remember that the Christian church was built with people a recruiting firm wouldn’t necessarily target as catalysts for the next big movement. Jesus called very ordinary men and women to follow him, like the uneducated fishermen from Galilee, a tormented woman named Mary Magdalene, and a stubborn persecutor named Saul. There was no evangelical infrastructure to support the early church, only the Spirit of God and the willingness of those who witnessed the miracle of the Resurrection.

The Peter who preached at Pentecost and saw thousands converted was slinking away in fear only months earlier. The Thomas who gave his life to evangelize India had to be dragged by his fellow disciples toward Jesus after the crucifixion. The John who would pen much of the New Testament was not an Apostle of love when Jesus first chose him, but a Son of Thunder wanting to call down fire on his opponents.

This should give us encouragement about the flaws of the Christian movement and the flaws of its messengers. From the first century to the twenty-first, the church has been characterized by a mixture of both faithfulness and faithlessness, sin and salvation, saints and scoundrels. Even at our best, it has been the church itself that has empowered the church’s witness, but the Spirit of God. In other words, you, pastor, can find hope this Easter in preaching the gospel because Christ is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

So, as you put your finishing touches on your sermon this Easter, as the enemy’s doubts crowd your mind, as your own insecurities plague you, as the worries and cares of congregational shepherding weigh on your heart, take courage in knowing that you are not the first one to stand and declare that Christ is risen and you are not the last. You are not only standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before, you are standing the central truth that has empowered missionaries and martyrs for 2,000 years. And you are standing in the power of the Spirit of God who is as active this Easter season as he has been at any time in church history.

God can use your feeble obedience. So forget the noise and preach the resurrection of the Son of God.

Pastoral Advice Worth Repeating – Part 2: Cultivate Humility

Four times each academic year, I sit with every M.Div. student in Midwestern Seminary’s Timothy Track program. Together, we process the things that they are seeing and learning in the context of the local church where they are serving under a mentor. I reserve part of this time with each student to convey real-life advice from experienced pastors that is worth repeating. Over the past several years, I’ve asked scores of pastors (and other ministry leaders) about the things they wish someone had reiterated with them over and over when they were first getting started. I’ve asked them what they’d want to emphasize to a seminary student sitting in the office with them.

These conversations, combined with my own experience in ministry leadership, have yielded the content of this series. For those training for ministry leadership, we emphasize that they 1) walk with God, 2) cultivate humility, 3) learn patience, 4) invest in ministry friends, 5) plant themselves in the Word of God, 6) prepare to address and experience suffering, and 7) love and serve their current church until they die (unless God moves them). While not exhaustive, this is a list of things to practice well as they dive into ministry leadership.

In Matthew 20:20–21 and Mark 10:35–37, two of the disciples of Jesus—brothers James and John, along with their mother—make a bold request of Jesus. Well, “bold” may be a bit generous. It’s shocking and audacious, even if these two were among the closest to Jesus. They ask Jesus for the honor of each brother being seated on the right and left side of his throne in the eternal Kingdom. And they do so within earshot of the other disciples, who understandably became indignant with them (Mt. 20:24; Mk. 10:41). It’s a cringeworthy scene to read.

What makes this request from the brothers even more unbearable is when it occurs: just before Jesus—the second person of the Trinity, the perfect Son and agent of Creation, God in the flesh—humbles himself to the point of death on a cross. As he enters Jerusalem, God in the flesh is preparing to sacrifice his divine position to assume the sinners’ position under wrath in the grave. James and John angle and position themselves for a notoriety they don’t even understand even as Jesus is preparing for the greatest act of humility this world will ever see. While the Son of God goes to be stricken and scorned, to bear the wrath of God for the iniquity of us all, his friends are elbowing for personal glory.

The account makes us want to shout at them. Do you not see? Do you not understand?

One of these brothers, John, would later write within the canon of Scripture of Jesus’s washing of their feet: the inversion of personal glory-seeking. While they sought position, Jesus willingly gave up position and served. He countered the request for greatness by demonstrating greatness in God’s eyes.

It’s a helpful exercise today to step back and see the absurdity of redeemed sinners scratching and biting for notoriety or inflating themselves with pride. And blatant, self-serving pride is so distasteful anyway, isn’t it? It’s even more the tragic marvel when you view it through the lens of the cross.

So let’s stop shouting at James and John and talk about me. Let’s talk about you. We’re talking about something that’s obvious, distasteful, and obnoxious when we notice it in others. But how about some introspection? When discussing pride in others, we are often quick to voice our “concerns.” But who in our lives has the permission (from us) to voice concerns with us? How honest are we about the ways we elbow for personal glory? Are we even evaluating ourselves for subtle expressions of pride that may be going wildly unchecked? If you are training for pastoral ministry, a habit of a regular and honest assessment here is even more urgently necessary, and with the help of trusted ministry mentors and friends.

Discussions of humility and pride can often be too theoretical or general to affect real decision-making. So when I’m working with students at Midwestern, the challenge is to help them think about specific manifestations of pride, specific temptations—and targeted ways to grow in humility for the sake of godliness and ministry. These specific threats and temptations may be seedlings now, tiny roots, with nothing sprouting yet aboveground. But if they remain ignored and unconfessed, they can become deadly.

Of course, it is difficult to convey wisdom about something that plagues me so thoroughly. But for my good and your good and the good of our churches, it’s worthwhile to cultivate humility in our hearts. It’s pertinent to consider real-life expressions of our pride, for the sake of the name of Christ and for his Church.

Self-Glory: An Enemy of Christian Ministry

In Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling, he suggests that there may be “no more powerful, seductive, and deceitful temptation in ministry than self-glory.” Tripp’s sample of possible fruit which self-glory can produce is sobering: an aura of inapproachability, a chorus of “yes men” as an inner circle, defensiveness, a lack of spiritual wisdom and moral protection, characteristic blame-assigning and control-seeking, and a confusion of ambassadorship vs. kingship.[1]

How does it get to this point? How do shepherds begin resembling wolves? This is the question I encourage seminary students, or anyone considering pastoral ministry, to consider with sincere gravity. I also challenge them to rebuke the belief that “that could never be me.” The stakes are too high to ignore the prideful roots in our hearts which, if left unexposed and unconfronted, can sprout with slow and sinister ramifications at a later date. And these roots are not always obvious, especially not to others. What’s dangerous is when we like to keep it that way.

In a lot of cases, we seek self-glory in subtle ways, just under the radar. It may not be common that we make blatant requests for the seat of ultimate honor within earshot of those who know us best. But we should be on guard against seemingly humble, slight movements of our hearts and hands to position us for even negligible glory. In our charade, we are often secretly elbowing for grander glory. And often, the desire in our hearts for glory comes when we see others receiving any praise we envy. As Charles Bridges wrote, “We wish for eminence rather than for usefulness. We want to stand alone. Instead of rejoicing in the spiritual acquirements of others, we are reluctant to admire superior talents, even when they are consecrated to the cause of their Great Master. We cannot bear any thing that shines too near us, and will probably eclipse our own brightness.”[2] But how absurd we are! How can we look on Christ and then turn away to stake our own claims to personal glory?

Do we not see? Do we not understand?

For seminary students, this is particularly noteworthy. The environment of a community such as Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is unique for many. There are godly and intelligent people all over the campus, and for that we rejoice. Yet in any environment full of ministry rock stars, temptations toward pride can easily abound, and so we have to be careful. It’s helpful to ask these questions: Am I trying to prove myself in ungodly ways? Am I aiming to be known, esteemed, admired, or envied? And toward what end? Do I pride myself in being associated with someone “important” or influential? Do I have an insatiable craving to demonstrate my intellectual capacity and diverse ministry activity?

This can also take place in small churches, in your secular workplace, or in any relationship. If you’re training for pastoral ministry, let me suggest what many experienced pastors are suggesting: assess this issue regularly, and invite others into the process. It’s ok to own it, that your own battle against pride may be more severe than you realize. Engage the fight of mortifying that pride with proportional severity. In an echo of Paul Tripp’s caution, Jared Wilson says, “The proud pastor is an enemy of God. He is inviting God’s opposition and wrath.”[3] If that is indeed the reality, then our fight with our own pride needs to get real.

The Gospel: The Antidote to Pride

So what does cultivating humility actually look like? Well, it’s a proactive pursuit, but it starts with grace. Grace means proactivity on God’s part and submission on ours. The first true Christian humility comes at God’s initiative, when He opens our eyes to see our sin and our need for the salvation only Jesus Christ gives.

We never leave that reality: that each of us was so hopeless, we had to be redeemed by God Himself from our sin. And pride cannot withstand that truth. That’s why we need to hear it every hour of the day—so that our pride is cut down each day. Thus, daily reminders of the gospel are a first step to proactive cultivation of the humility God gives. Regular time in the Word and in prayer and fasting reminds us of how desperate we are for His goodness and grace in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, I mentioned above how much we need the help of trusted ministry mentors and friends. Invite others into your cultivation. Investing in such relationships is vital for growing in humility. Particularly for those called to church leadership, these relationships are the kind that save your ministry—and perhaps your marriage. And let’s just establish a good rule: you should never be the most impressive person in your life. Why even try to be? And beyond this, for your own sake, spare yourself the task of always having to appear confident, or always be intelligent, or always be free of difficulty or struggle. Someone has to have permission to kick that pedestal out from under you, dust you off, give you a hug, and take you to lunch. Someone has to have permission to talk to you in detail about your temptations and weakness. Someone has to have permission to help us see the stupidity of our sin and remind us of eternity. We all need it. So do the hard work of identifying and naming those little subtle roots of self-glory-seeking, and then pass around some hatchets and chop away.

Third, be on guard about leveraging relationships for the gaining of influence. “If I’m known by him or her, people will be impressed.” Usually that person sees right through what you’re doing, anyway. But on top of that manipulation, the real ends of that game are ugly. You’ll never be satisfied, and you’ll end up trampling people on the way to your unsatisfying heights of futility.

Let Jesus Have the Glory

Good news! Even sinners who are riddled with pride are offered the grace of Jesus. There is freedom from our slavery to sin. We need not let pride run a rampant course, but we need not dwell in shame or guilt either.

Humility is the better way, the way of a soul at peace with God through Jesus Christ. Humility is the calm assurance that the mirage of self-glory can’t come close to what Jesus gives. In our pride, we want to be known: Christ assures us that we are known by the grandest audience imaginable—God Himself. No applause or fame will ever match Him. We want to be esteemed or valued—God Himself made the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate how valuable we are. Nothing else makes us worth more. Like James and John, we want to have position: the King of Kings, the Almighty God of all Creation has made us sons and daughters. No position affords greater privilege or honor.

But be it far from us to boast in our flesh, in our empty pursuits: let us boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone deserves all glory. And let us boldly, quietly, humbly help others on the way to him.

[1] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 167.

[2] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, with An Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency, 8th reset ed. (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 154.

[3] Jared Wilson, The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 64.

Humility and Greatness are the Same Thing

Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of a Salesman, features a pitiful character named Willy Loman. His story is a cautionary tale of a life that is hollow and sad, because the most important thing in life for him is to be well liked and well respected by others. According to Willy, appearing successful matters more than being successful; appearing kind, generous, and virtuous matters more than being kind, generous, and virtuous; and appearing to have one’s act together matters more than having one’s act together.

Rather than living authentically, Willy hides his true self behind a self-protective mask. To be sure, this career salesman is selling a product—but the product isn’t a vacation or a house or a set of knives, but a false image of himself. He is the quintessential poser, a shell of a man with no real friends, no real intimacy, no real joy, and no real purpose. He is a tragic prototype of what Henry David Thoreau alluded to when he said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The worst part is that Willy’s hollow, poser way of life is the only legacy he knows of to pass down to his two sons.

In the Bible, the scribes and Pharisees provide us with a tragic parallel. Like Willy, these religious professionals are obsessed with externally appearing holy, righteous, and pure while being none of these things internally. They say prayers, not to connect as a means of connecting with the Living God, but as a means to gain the approval of others. They fast regularly, not to sharpen their focus on God, but to be seen and praised by men. They order their external lives around the letter of the law, not to love God, but to gain leverage over God and moral superiority over others.

For the scribes and Pharisees, the most important thing in life was also to be well liked and well respected by others. Theirs is a tragic counterfeit of the good life, a form of stage acting through boisterous and public displays of piety. Their displays are undergirded not by the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, but rather by a grouchy, judgmental, relationally bereft, radically insecure, spiritually juvenile, and emotionally stunted private reality. While giving an appearance of virtue on the outside, the religious poser in the scribes and Pharisees is broken, empty, and bereft on the inside. And, sometimes, so are we.

This longing we all have to receive affirmation from others is tricky, because its origin comes from a good place. While the longing for approval can manifest in dysfunctional ways like the scribe and the Pharisee, the original source of the longing is our identity as people made in the image of God, whose very essence and nature is to receive praise.

The image of God in us is the reason why we desire more healthy forms of affirmation and praise: a pat on the back for a job well done, an affectionate “I love you” from a spouse or loved one, or hearing the words, “I’m so proud of you!” from Mom or Dad.

Once when our youngest daughter was six years old, she asked me if I wanted to watch her read a book…silently. So there I sat for several minutes, quietly watching her as she thumbed through the pages without a sound. Then, I exclaimed how proud I was of her for being such an outstanding reader of books. Her longing for a paternal blessing—for a “Well done!” from her earthly father—was merely an echo of her deeper longing for the same from her Heavenly Father. This desire in a child is right, good, lovely, and never to be denied.

It’s true of all of us. Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us lives with a deep craving for positive, life-giving verdicts to overrule the negative verdicts pronounced over us from the outside and from within. When parents shame us, when peers exclude or tease us, when colleagues and bosses and spouses express disappointment in us, when our social media posts don’t receive the “likes” that we had hoped, when we are confronted with failure and with not measuring up—our impulse is to run for cover, to shield ourselves from condemnation and shame, to put up a defense, and to re-establish ourselves as worthy. We want to matter, to be significant, to be thought well of. And so, we live thirsty for benediction—for a good word spoken over us to reverse the negative verdicts from the outside.

But those negative verdicts shout at us from the inside, also, don’t they? I once saw an interview with Mariah Carey in which the interviewer asked her why she, a very successful and celebrated musician, still struggled with feelings of emptiness and insecurity. Her answer was that she could hear a thousand praises and one criticism, and the criticism would overrule all of the praises.

In her honest answer, Mariah Carey put words to what all of us experience inside. When a text message comes in that reads, “We need to talk,” our impulse is to assume that criticism is on the way. Our hearts naturally assume that we have been found out, and that the sender of the text—based on whatever she or he now knows about us—may on that basis leave or forsake us. This can be true of bosses, colleagues, neighbors, friends, or even family members. We think to ourselves, “If they knew everything about me, or even if they knew just a little bit more about how I really am, surely they would lose respect for me.”

Perhaps this is why Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, said that if he could convince his patients that their sins were forgiven, seventy-five percent of them would no longer require psychiatric care.

Similarly, the famous musician, James Taylor, once said in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine that criticism of his music brings out a deep insecurity in him. Also regarding criticism, Taylor said, “I’ll be fine as long as every once in a while someone like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney says to me, ‘Keep going, kid.’”

When we lean on the praise of others—whether in a grumpy religious way or in an emotionally needy way—when we feel that we need applause from other people to prevent an emotional breakdown or a crisis of identity, we are trying to fill an infinite space with finite goods. The truth that musicians like Mariah Carey and James Taylor must face, and for that matter, what pastors and authors like myself must face, is that all human applause has a limited shelf life. Eventually, all memory of us and of any praiseworthy things we offered to the world will be completely forgotten.

Put another way, the praise of others—and Willy Loman’s desperate quest to be well liked and respected—while originating with the image of God, can also be distorted into an idol that can never satisfy our emptiness.

We would be better off pursuing what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility.” Nouwen, who spent several years writing and speaking and being celebrated as a teacher at esteemed universities including Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, forsook his ascending celebrity at its peak. At the urging of his friend, Jean Vanier, Nouwen would instead spend the rest of his life pastoring a small community of mentally disabled men and women called L’Arche. Nouwen’s rationale for this radical, “downward” move was as follows:

“Scripture reveals…that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility…The divine way is indeed the downward way…[Jesus] moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth…resisted upward mobility.”[1]

For Henri Nouwen and for us all, greatness is not found in being well liked and respected by others, not in striving to reverse the negative verdicts, not in making a name for ourselves. Instead, greatness is found as we become more boastful about Jesus and more shy about ourselves…and in a life increasingly poured out for Jesus and others.

How do people like Henri Nouwen become so free? How to they find strength to renounce emotional neediness and the craving to be well liked and respected by others, and to instead pour their lives out in love for others…even those who can give nothing in return? I dare say that this ability to become self-forgetful, this ability to divert their eyes away from toward God and neighbor, was fueled and sustained by the daily voice of their Heavenly Father and ours—whose love through Jesus is always unfailing, always secure, and always triumphant over negative verdicts—saying to them, “Keep going, kid.”

The way up is the way down. When we walk the path of downward mobility, we are lifted up by the “Well done” of our Father in heaven.

What could be better than this?

Editor’s Note: This originally published at

Grief Is An Exhausting Journey

On December 14, 2019, our sixth grandchild was born. The thirty-one weeks of life she enjoyed in the safety of her mother’s womb continued for about forty-five minutes after birth. Then she was escorted into the arms of her Creator and Savior. The death of a loved one—even when it is expected—can take the wind out of your sails. Grief is exhausting.

At eleven week’s gestation, our daughter and son-in-law learned of their firstborn’s dire medical complications—complications that would make it impossible for her to survive outside the womb. Medical personnel immediately offered termination of pregnancy to her parents, but they responded that since they knew that their little girl was created in the image of God that wasn’t an option to consider.

As time went by it became clear that, apart from God performing a miracle, she wouldn’t survive outside of the womb. Her spine was at 45 degrees and her vital organs were outside of her body.  She wouldn’t be able to sustain life once the umbilical cord was cut.

When the expectation of miscarriage passed and the likelihood of their little girl going full term became the new reality, her first-time parents named her Isabelle. At that point, their prayer requests became very specific, namely, that Isabelle would survive birth so that her mom and dad could meet her while she was still alive. God answered these prayers. For three-quarters of an hour, they snuggled with their little one, and then placed her into the arms of Jesus.

Even though we knew what was going to happen, it does not make the grief of her loss any easier. Walking through this valley of sorrow, the pain has been immense. We’ve experienced a different, double-layered kind of grief. As parents, we’ve tried to walk alongside our grieving daughter and son-in-law and be a comforting presence as much as we could. As grandparents, we are also feeling our own deep sense of loss.

Three Stabilizing Truths to Remember During Grief

In the valley, we have anchored our faith to three stabilizing truths drawn from three portions of Scripture. I hope these principles can be applied to your own journey through the valley of grief, whatever the circumstances, whether expected or unexpected.

1. God ordains the length of each person’s life, even before they are born.

“Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psalm 139:16 NASB).

Every human life is of immeasurable value regardless of abilities or disabilities, or how long the person lives. Since every human’s life is created in the image of God, and their definite purpose is ordained by God, they should be protected from harm and treated with utmost dignity. Some may be tempted to think of our granddaughter’s very brief life as a failed pregnancy, but it was nothing of the sort. Isabelle’s days were ordained for her and, even in a very short time, she did more to impact people for the gospel and the glory of God than we may ever know.

2. Death is a defeated enemy.

“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).

Death is one consequence of the original sin that was engineered by the Enemy of our souls. The devil is a destroyer, but neither he nor death will get the final word. The devil’s doom and death’s end have already been sealed by Jesus (Revelation 20:10; 21:4). One day, Jesus will win the day forever, and all who find their soul’s rest in him will be resurrected and glorified in triumphant victory.

3. Grief hurts, but God’s comfort is real.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” [2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

Loss hurts deeply, regardless of the age of our loved one. No matter how or when it occurs, loss is painful. Thankfully, the triune God is for us. We have the Savior who understands our pain, the heavenly Father who comforts us, and the Spirit who applies the healing power of scriptural truth to our wounds. But grief is not a burden we are strong enough to carry on our own, without the help of other people. We need one another, and shared loss eases the pain somewhat and bonds broken hearts together.

The comfort we receive from God, and through others, equips us to become more compassionate comforters ourselves. Shared grief has a way of strengthening God’s church as a gracious family. This has been, and continues to be, a difficult valley, but comfort continues to flow to us through the Word of God and the love of his people.

In this valley of sorrow the Spirit reminded me of how often the Scriptures employ “the pain of childbirth” as a description of our own suffering in this fallen world (Romans 8:22). It struck me that what sustains a woman through pregnancy and the pain of delivery is the hope of bringing her precious child home from the hospital. But in our granddaughter’s story, her parents never had this comfort. Instead, they embraced the privilege they had been given to provide a safe place for their little girl in the womb, and love her for as many days as the Lord has ordained for her. Like expectant parents, by faith we choose to embrace the God-given privileges we have now, while looking forward to the day when God will wipe away every tear and make all things new (Revelation 21:4–5).

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published on the New Growth Press website, used by permission.

Allergies, Anyone? The Trinity Does Not Fit Into Your Tiny Box of History

I must admit, we evangelicals have developed an allergy to things eternal, especially when it comes to our doctrine of the Trinity. To be brutally honest, we are prone to conflation. We approach the Bible assuming history is its only focus. Ironically, this approach is a failure to be biblical enough. Yes, Scripture’s story line does take narrative form, focused as it is on salvation history. But the biblical authors never stop there, nor is narrative an end in and of itself. Never do they shove the infinite, incomprehensible Trinity into our tiny box of history, limiting who God is to what God does, prioritizing function over being. Either in their presuppositions (consider the Psalms) or in their theological conclusions (purview Paul’s letters), they intend the reader to read theologically. More to the point, the biblical authors are not so focused on the historical facts of the life of Christ that they are unconcerned with his eternal, trinitarian origin prior to the incarnation. They are not so earthly minded that they are of no heavenly good.

We should not be either.

Consider the opening of John’s Gospel, for example. As I share in Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit(Baker), I often hear pastors advising churchgoers to give the Gospel of John to someone they are trying to evangelize. That’s for good reason, too: John’s Gospel lays out the gospel with lucid conviction, bringing the unbeliever face-to-face with the crucified and risen Christ and the many gifts he gives to all recipients of his grace. That’s why we love texts like John 3:16; we desire to tell the world about God’s Son so that they might receive eternal life.

But in our rush to talk about eternal life, we sometimes skip to the second half of John 3:16 and forget to talk about the eternal Son. As the first half of John 3:16 says, God “gave his only begotten Son” (KJV). Let those words marinate: God . . . gave . . . his . . . only begotten . . . Son. When we rush to the benefits the Son brings and skip over the identity the Son has in eternity, we neglect not only the first half of John 3:16 but the first two chapters of John’s Gospel—chapters, need I remind you, that precede John 3.

Did you know, for instance, that John begins his Gospel not with the eternal life we receive but with the life the triune God enjoyed in eternity? Go back to the opening of John 1 and what do you read? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (1:1–2). Before we get to the good news about Jesus and the eternal life he brings, let’s take a step back and consider, as John does, where this Jesus originates from in the first place. This will be hard, but let’s put off what God has done in creation and focus first on who God is apart from creation. Why would we do that? Here’s why: unless you understand who God is apart from you, you will never understand the importance of what God has done for you, at least not in full. I realize how counterintuitive that sounds, holding off on the history of redemption—your history—to talk about things eternal. Abstract and esoteric perhaps. But John is convinced that in doing so you will have a better grasp of who this Word is and why he became flesh and dwelt among us. Furthermore, a long line of church fathers also believe that John’s approach avoids a dirty swamp of heresies, many of which threaten to conflate who God is in and of himself (ad intra) with how God’s acts externally (ad extra) toward his creation.

Notice what John does first: he begins in the beginning. But what John means by the beginning is probably not what you think. He echoes the language of creation from Genesis to talk about the eternal God who made creation, and who this God must be before any rose bush or palm tree came into existence. As the church father Basil of Caesarea once pointed out, before all ages, there was God and nothing else. Before the cosmos existed, there was God and him alone. Except alone may sound as if he was lonely. He was not. For in the beginning, says John, was the Word—John’s way of referring to the Son. Coeternal, this Word was with God. Coequal, this Word was God. It’s hard to more closely identify the Word with God than this. He is coequal with God as the one who was God himself.

John’s choice of language—Word—is strategic. For soon enough he will tell his reader that this Word is none other than the Son of God himself. A word is worded by its speaker, meaning there is a source. Likewise with the Word: as the Word of God, he comes from God from all eternity to reveal God to those in history. John will spell this out in more detail when he switches his imagery from Word to Son (1:14). As Son, he is from his Father, for that is what it means to be a son after all. Yet since this is God we are talking about, the Son is generated from the Father’s nature before all ages. Never was there a time when the Father was without his Word, because never was there a time when the Father did not beget his Word. Otherwise, in no way could John say the Word (the Son) was both with God and was God. In John’s mind the Word (the Son) is both distinct from God the Father (the Word was with God) and one with God himself (the Word was God). But distinction (in personhood) and identity (in essence) is only possible because of eternal generation: the Son is distinct precisely because he is begotten by the Father; the Son is coequal precisely because he is begotten from the Father’s nature, the same divine nature the Son shares.

Having established the Word’s eternal relation of origin in verses 1–2, John is now ready to introduce the world. It is because the Word is eternal (never was there a time when the Word was not with God) and it is because the Word’s origin is divine (never was there a time when the Word was not God) that “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (1:3). Through the Word, God created the cosmos ex nihilo. To clarify, it’s not the Word who is created out of nothing; the world is created out of nothing by the Word.The Word is not created along with creation, nor is the Word created prior to the rest of creation. Rather, the creation is brought into existence through the Word whose existence never began, whose divinity never had a starting point.

But it’s not just creation that is attributed to the Word; salvation is as well. No work of God is kept from the Son. Transitioning metaphors, John calls the Word the “life” and the “light” (1:4–5), the “true light” that gives life to the world (1:9). He can do that since the “world was made through him” (1:10). But here’s something more remarkable still: in order to give life to the world, the Word became incarnate. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (1:14 KJV).

Extraordinary! The eternal Word, the Son of God himself, the one who is begotten from the Father from all eternity, was sent by the Father to ensure we would be recipients of his grace. On the one hand, says John, “No man hath seen God at any time” (1:18), an observation the Old Testament itself reiterates (Deut. 4:15). On the other hand, “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (1:18 KJV). How appropriate, then, for John to call the eternal Son the eternal Word. It is because he is the only begotten Son from the Father, begotten before all ages as the Word who was with God and was God, that he can then, at the proper time, become incarnate and reveal the Father to us for our salvation. He is the revelation of God in the flesh.

From John 1 forward, John and Jesus will both move back and forth from eternity to history, from God in himself to God toward us, always demonstrating that the latter is contingent on the former. But never, never conflating the two. As Jesus claims repeatedly to be the way to salvation in John’s Gospel, he will also back up his right to make that claim, especially when the religious leaders question his authority, by appealing to his eternal origin from the Father. It is only because he is begotten by the Father from all eternity that he can then claim to be sent by the Father to become incarnate in history. His eternal relation to the Father constitutes his redemptive mission to the world, but not vice versa.

Get that order right, and we see the gospel in proper trinitarian perspective; get that order wrong, and we misuse the gospel to redefine the Trinity in eternity.

Matthew Barrett is the author of Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Baker). He is the host of the Credo podcast and associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him @mattmbarrett.