What Should I Get The Kids For Christmas?

With the holidays right around the corner, conversations with my wife tend to center around how we can make intentional efforts to tune our kids’ hearts to the true meaning of Christmas: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, ESV). After coming up with a course of action, squaring away a family visitation schedule, and mapping out the holiday menu, we finally arrive at what can be the most contested—quite expensive—and yet seemingly least important part of Christmas planning: what should we get the kids for Christmas?

We’ve adopted a saying that is certainly not original to us that serves as a good rule of thumb. Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I’ll leave it to your children to apprise you of their wants, your discretion to determine the need, the fashionistas to set the latest trends, but I have a few ideas on what they might read. Here are a few suggestions on books that will help you cultivate your children’s biblical imagination as they grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord and Savior.

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Recommend Ages 0–10)

With over two million copies sold (for good reason!), it should come as no surprise that this book is a staple for us. We have read this with our kids no less than ten times, and it still moves me! The Jesus Storybook Bible tells the story beneath all the stories in the Bible from the Old Testament through the New where Jesus is the focus and purpose of God’s self-disclosure.

If you already own this book, check out Sally Lloyd-Jones’ other contributions: Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, Found: Psalm 23, and Loved: The Lord’s Prayer.

First Bible Basics: A Counting Primer (Recommended Ages: 1–5)

What better way to teach your little one to count to 10 than associating lynchpin theological truths to each number: “1 God,”“2 Natures of Jesus,” “3 Persons of the Trinity,” “4 Gospels,” “5 Books in the Pentateuch,””6 Days of Creation,” “7 ‘I AMs’ of Jesus,””8 Beatitudes,” “9 Fruits of the Spirit,” and “10 Commandments.” This simple, yet beautiful board book utilizes an essential primary skill like counting to communicate and instill foundational principles of biblical orthodoxy. In truth, I would commend the panoply of primer books for your little ones: Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer, Let There Be Light: An Opposites Primer, From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer.

God's Very Good Idea: A True Story of God's Delightfully Different Family (Recommended Ages: 3–8)

This book helps children understand how people from all ethnic and social backgrounds bear God’s image and are, therefore, precious in his sight. God's Very Good Idea depicts the gospel truth from Ephesians 2:14 that Jesus, our peace, through his work on the cross tore down the dividing walls of hostility and secured for himself a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.

We’re big fans of the entire Tales That Tell the Truth series: The Friend Who Forgives, The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross, and The Storm That Stopped.

The Gospel In Color - For Kids: A Theology of Racial Reconciliation for Kids (Recommend Ages: 7–12)

Let me start by saying that I love this book. It was a timely God-send for my family. Knowing that we wanted to discuss the issue of racial reconciliation with our kids, we still weren’t quite sure where to start. Then, a friend recommended this gem to us! Through stunning illustration and quality writing, The Gospel in Color makes clear how “color-blindness” and false ideas of race brings about suffering and division, and how the good news of Jesus Christ brings about the reconciliation the world desperately needs.

What is God Like? (Recommend Ages: 5–10)

What is God like? To start, God is a se, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and infinite. The aforementioned designations are more than ivory-tower, theological terminus technicus. They are part and parcel of God’s incommunicable attributes, and concepts I desperately want my kids to grasp. William Lane Craig’s What is God Like? series is a great place to start in teaching your little ones to become great theologians.

Check out: God is All-Knowing, God is All-Good, God is All-Loving, God is All-Powerful, God is Forever, God is Everywhere, God is Spirit, God is Three Persons, God is Self-Sufficient, and The Greatness of God.

The Church History ABCs (Recommended Ages: 5–10)

Admittedly, on the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a must read. But when it comes to church history, we should, as Karl Barth once penned, “honor our father and mother.” The Church History ABCs helps us to recognize that Christ’s promise to build his church was instituted before us and will continue beyond us. It does so by highlighting men and women from the annals of history that God has used to enact and participate in the Great Commission. If you’re feeling especially nerdy, check out the follow up book, Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation.

One of the primary roles of the Christian parent is to—in the spirit of Archibald Alexander—place firewood on the hearth of our children’s hearts, so that when the Spirit of God strikes, their souls may be set ablaze. A sure way of doing this is to make certain that you’re continually stacking up logs of truth: through catechetical instruction, family worship, and equipping them with quality resources. That being said, Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

On the Baptism of the Holy Spirit


Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a single event concurrent with one's regeneration or a unique, second-experience—privy only to those who ask in faith—stemming from their conversion, evidenced by speaking in tongues? Unfortunately, one's answer to this theological inquiry determines the locale of his or her seat among the denominational isles. This question is especially pertinent to me. My father came to faith in the Pentecostal Stream. As such, he believes the latter position to be sound doctrine, which has caused him to question the authenticity of one's profession of faith if they cannot claim to have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. After years of personal study, coupled with many hours of intense-and-often-heated debates with my father, I have concluded that the baptism of the Holy Spirit describes the act where Jesus Christ, in order to mark the advent of a new dispensation in redemptive history, fulfills his old covenant promise to inaugurate the coming of his kingdom through a unique and unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit on new covenant believers (cf. Acts 2:14-21), thereby purifying, empowering, and purposing people from every nation, tribe, and tongue into a single, unified-yet-diverse community of faith: the church. This permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an individually experienced, one-time-event, indiscriminately applied to all who call on the name of the LORD in faith throughout the church age, at the moment of regeneration.

In this post, I will lay out the traditional articulation for the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience through the arguments of renowned theologian and avid defender this position, the late J. Rodman Williams. I will, then, interact with Williams, use relevant biblical passages to express my understanding of this phenomenon, and offer a response to those who claim to have experienced the reception of baptism with the Holy Spirit after their conversion.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a Second Experience

According to Williams, every believer is born-again through a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit: "Those who turn to Christ in true faith and thereby enter into a new life in His name may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."1 However, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (sometimes referred to as "infilling") is a different matter entirely. While the Spirit dwells in all believers, not all believers receive the infilling of the Spirit. These are, in fact, two distinct experiences: one brings new life and salvation, the other, empowerment.

Williams places the Apostles' reception of the Holy Spirit at the command of Christ to "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22) in juxtaposition with their ostensible, later experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8; 2:4).2 This, coupled with Peter and John's successful prayer for Holy Spirit to come upon the Samaritans who had previously "received the word of God" (Acts 8:14) and John's disciples who did not immediately receive the Holy Spirit when they believed (Acts 19:1-7), provide further evidence that baptism of the Holy Spirit is not necessary byproduct of one's saving faith. Rather, it is received only through a heartfelt request for God to grant the experience. Williams comments "By persistence in asking, seeking, and knocking, you may be sure that God delights to give the Spirit to the ardent seeker."3 The Apostles expectantly followed the command of their Savior to wait in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, setting for believers an example to ask and wait for the same. The reception will be evident, as the baptism of the Holy Spirit is always evidenced by the conferral of the supernatural and phenomenal gifts, i.e., speaking in tongues.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a one-time-event

How should one respond to Williams' conclusion, which on the face of it, seems to be self-evident, and biblically substantiated? By exploring the passages mentioned above and setting them in their proper redemptive context, I believe we will arrive at a very different conclusion. Concerning the Apostles' separate receptions of the Holy Spirit, Williams takes the unique temporal context of the dusk of the old covenant and the dawning of the new as the normative pattern in the church age. In a sense, he is correct. This was a distinct, second event.

When John the Baptizer comes on the scene, he announces that he was performing baptism with water to express repentance. This baptism was a type of ceremonial cleansing, but John is clear in explaining that "he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Mt 3:11). Jesus receives John's baptism. Therefore, it is safe to assume that his disciples followed suit. If one is to compare the disciples' experience to our own-as Williams does in his defense-he or she must ask, should all Christians expect to receive John's Baptism of repentance, a Great Commission sanctioned baptism into the threefold Godhead, as well as a third experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit? Of course not! John's baptism with water is universally distinguished from the water baptism prescribed in the Great Commission (Mt 28:19), as it precedes it in its covenantal context. It was a place-holder. Believer's baptism corporally enacts the spiritual reality of being buried and raised with Christ. Jesus' prescription comes after his resurrection. The point remains, the one of whom John spoke would institute a new baptism of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

Under the dispensation of the old covenant, the work of the Holy Spirit primarily occurred within the boundaries of God's covenant people, Israel. God foretold of a new covenant he would make with his people that was not like the old covenant (Jer 31:31-34). In this covenant, he promised to put his Spirit in his people, and this Spirit would cleanse them and move them to follow his decrees and keep his laws (Ezk 36:24-28). This regeneration by- and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a concurrent act. The New Testament usage of "baptism of the Holy Spirit" describes the act where Jesus Christ abrogates the previous covenant and inaugurates the new. This is how the Apostles viewed this purported "second experience."

In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter does not describe the coming of the Spirit as a second thing believers should pursue. On the contrary, he explains to non-believers that this unprecedented and indiscriminate outpouring is a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy that in the "last days" God would pour his Spirit out on all who call upon the name of the Lord.

Chad Brand explains that, of the seven passages in the New Testament that describe a baptism in the Holy Spirit, six of them point to "the fulfillment of the promise of the gift of the Spirit (John 14:25-27; 15:26-27; 16:7-11), first to the Jews in Jerusalem, then to the Gentiles. Christian Jews and Gentiles are now one not only because they have a common Savior but because they have the same gift of the Spirit (Eph. 2:11-3:6; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 2:9-29; Col. 1:26-27).”4 The inauguration of the coming of Christ's kingdom was ushered in through a unique and unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit on people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.

The Samaritans of Acts 8 receiving the Spirit after Peter and John lay hands on them is distinct not because they receive a unique dispersal of the Spirit. For the remarkable detail in this story is not the timing of the Spirit's falling, but the subjects on whom he fell. This is the point of Luke's recounting of Peter's vision in Acts 10, Cornelius' conversion, and Peter's startling realization that "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34-36). He goes on to say, "And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to the Gentiles, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9).

The same Spirit that fell on God's people fell on "not his people." For this was part and parcel of the terms of the new covenant: God would have mercy on "No Mercy," and he would say to "Not My People," that they are his people and he is their God (Hos 2:23). Baptism of the Holy Spirit, then, does not refer to a second encounter where believers—only after asking—receive the special empowerment. It refers to "the work of Jesus Christ in which he pours out the Holy Spirit on new believers thereby incorporating them into his (Christ's) body, the church."5

Concerning John's disciples receiving the Spirit after Paul lays hands on them, it often goes without comment that this same group is the only examples of someone receiving the sacrament of baptism twice. Suffice it to say, it is likely that they had not truly believed in Christ but were only privy to the sign of John's baptism without understanding the significance of the one of whom John preached. This explains why, after hearing Paul's articulation of the gospel as an offshoot of John's baptism, they were baptized in the "name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:5) and received the Holy Spirit. John baptized in water, but the one who was greater than he would baptize those who truly repented and believed in the Holy Spirit. Blomberg concludes:

Just as baptism in water was the initiation rite symbolizing repentance and faith in Christ, entrance into the community of believers, and incorporation into Christ's body, so "baptism in the Spirit" referred to that moment in which the Spirit first began to operate in believers' lives.6

Concluding Thoughts

As I stated earlier, my father is one who claims to have received a baptism with the Holy Spirit after conversion, evidenced by the manifestation of speaking in tongues. How would one begin to articulate this doctrine to someone who truly believes they have experienced this "second blessing"? First, I would remind them that Scripture is the canon, the right-rule that governs our understanding of God and this world, and should, therefore, serve as the primary and final lens through which we inspect our experience. Second, I would explain that Scripture teaches that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a single event that occurs at the moment of our Salvation where we are regenerated, cleansed, empowered, and permanently indwelled by him. Third, I would explain the distinction between the baptism of the Holy Spirit (one-time-event) and the filling of the Holy Spirit (reoccurring): the former is the root, the latter the fruit. The filling of the Spirit is subsequent to one's initial experience of the Spirit where they are empowered for specific tasks or purposes.7

In closing, I offer an admonishment that accepting the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience can have disastrous, unintended consequences. It can conflate the seismic covenantal shift from old to new covenant inaugurated by Christ's death, resurrection, and exaltation. It can obfuscate a right understanding of the ordo salutis (order of salvation). It can create a vacuum where one uses their subjective, sensible experience as the lens through which they read Scripture. It can divide Christendom into the haves and have-nots, leading to an air of spiritual superiority. By arguing that tongues are the evidence of true faith, proponents of a second experience may trouble the consciences of genuine believers, resulting in disheartenment, lack of assurance, or worse: humanly conjured manifestations of artificial tongues.

I will end how I began, by asking a question: Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a single event concurrent with one's regeneration or a unique, second-experience-privy only to those who ask in faith-stemming from their conversion? After briefly, yet charitably, laying out a defense of the latter position, I interacted with the answers given, surveyed the relevant biblical texts in light of their redemptive-historical context, and hopefully articulated the strength of understanding the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be a one-time event in the life of a believer. I hope, by God's grace, that you will arrive at the same conclusion.

  1. J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 186. ↩︎
  2. Williams, 196. ↩︎
  3. J. Rodman Williams, “Theology Q&A - The Holy Spirit,” CBN.com - The Christian Broadcasting Network, September 25, 2013, http://www1.cbn.com/biblestudy/theology-q%26a-holy-spirit. ↩︎
  4. Chad Brand, “Baptism With/in the Holy Spirit,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Archie England (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 169–170. ↩︎
  5. Gregg R. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 16, no. 4 (2012): 5. ↩︎
  6. Craig Blomberg, “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), 49–50. ↩︎
  7. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” 15. ↩︎
The Power of Words

The way children pick up language is amazing. Over a relatively short period time—something like 18 to 36 months—children go from cooing and babbling to speaking in simple, but complete, sentences. Some of these sentences are sweet and make parenting worth it: “I love you, mommy.” Others are a little hard to deal with: “Go away, daddy. Leave me alone.” Isn’t it amazing how even 2 and 3-year-olds can use their words to lift someone up or tear them down? Words have power, even when they’re wielded by a toddler.

The Bible also reveals the powerful nature of words. We see it in its explanation creation. When God created the world, He exercised His power through speech: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen. 1:3). We see it in God’s relationship with humanity. After creating Adam and Eve, “God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Gen. 1:28). Later, when He called Abram from Ur, “the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). Scripture tells us that God’s speech makes him unique, all other gods are like “scarecrows in a cucumber field…they cannot speak” (Jer. 10:5). God alone speaks to His people, giving them His instructions and revealing to them His saving power. The Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by Him and written down for our progress in spiritual maturity (2 Tim. 3:16). God exercises his power over creation and in relationship with His people through speech.

But God’s speech is significant, not just for the he uses it, but for how it reveals to us his nature. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This Word is the Son of God, revealed to us in the person of Jesus, who “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3).

If speech is inherently powerful and closely related to who God is and what God does, it is unsurprising that James would instruct Christians in its proper use. There is power in speech: the power to woo one’s lover, to instruct children in the proper way to live, to express hopes and dreams for the future. There’s also the power to “defile the entire body, and set on fire the course of our life” (James 3:6). Scripture tells us that we must put away unedifying speech (Eph. 4:29), and be diligent to speak as “from God” to the world (1 Jn. 4:5–6). To put it simply, human speech must become more like God’s speech, “always…gracious, as though seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).

How does your speech compare to God’s speech? In what ways does your speech need to change?
Everything Bagels and Contentment

I like everything bagels. Of all the bagels, they’re the most delicious. They have the perfect combination of seasonings and spices: garlic, onion, sesame and caraway seeds, and salt. They aren’t topped with literally “everything,” but rather, everything you’d ever want on a bagel.[1]

I also think—and I recognize I might be forcing it—they’re a pretty good illustration of contentment. Could we put more things on the everything bagel? Of course. Do we? We do not.

Life is the same way. I don’t have everything I could have in life. I could buy a new car or more books, go on a crazy once-in-a-lifetime vacation, or search for the next ministry position. But I have everything I need. In fact, I have everything my God wants me to have (Matt. 6:25–34; Phil. 4:19). He has placed me in this season of life and given me precious gifts, things for which I should be thankful. Contentment is our constant recognition of His provision and our willingness to accept it with thanksgiving.

However, contentment is a difficult thing to gain because, instead of enjoying God’s gifts, we often use them as motivation to pursue more. We begin prizing the gifts over the giver. We take the delicious everything bagel and ruin it with cream cheese and lox, if you will. But though contentment is difficult to find, it is not impossible.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, says that we can be “content with what we have” and remain “free from from the love of money” by remembering a simple promise: “I will never leave you nor desert you, Nor will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

The key to contentment is seeing God’s presence and gifts in our life as the perfect, soul-satisfying answer to our hunger for more. He is our daily bread.

The Law is Good

There are times when an activity’s rules keep us from enjoying it like we should. For example, have you ever been to a hotel pool with a “NO DIVING ALLOWED” sign? Without fail someone breaks that rule. Can you really enjoy a swimming pool if you’re not soaking everybody with the waves from your world-class cannonball? On the other hand, there are times when an activity’s parameters actually increase our enjoyment of it. Just think, if you’ve never learned the rules of the piano—the scales, time signatures, or how to read music—your enjoyment of the instrument is severely limited. Maybe you can play “Chopsticks,” but without learning the rules of music, you’ll never know the joy of playing Chopin.

Which one of these examples best explains the function of God’s law in our lives?

  • Does the law keep us from behaviors that make life more enjoyable? or
  • Can it actually enhance our joy?

When we look to Scripture, what we find might surprise you. Paul tells us “the law is good” (1 Tim. 1:18), and James describes it as the “law of liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12). So, though our obedience to it can never earn us a place in heaven (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:15–16), the law should be seen as serving a positive role in our lives. In fact, it reveals to us the lifestyle that God intends for his people to live. Of course, the law functions differently for believers today than it did for the Israelites in the Old Testament, and it has been fundamentally changed through the work and teaching of Jesus who rendered the sacrificial laws obsolete through his once-for-all death on the cross (Heb. 9). Nevertheless, we must strive to view the law positively.

One way to do that is by remembering this simple phrase: “Discipline without direction is drudgery.” [1] If God’s law was simply a set of regulations given by an absent deity, it would feel oppressive—on the order of a “NO DIVING ALLOWED” sign. But since it comes from a loving and compassionate God, it is purposeful. He gives us the law for our good as he remakes us into the image of the One who lived in perfect obedience to him, Jesus. In that way it truly is a law of liberty and something we should strive to live out as we pursue the goal for which we were created.

  1. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1991), 15.  ↩

In the Blood

I’ve written about the positive influence parents can have on their children, giving them a spiritual “leg up” by raising them to think about the things of God. This is God’s intention for parenting, and it is both commanded and exemplified in Scripture (e.g., Deut 6:7; Ps 44:1). But while it is God’s intended order for the family, it is not our society’s norm. In fact, a certain degree of familial dysfunction is expected, and when it’s not apparent in your family, people assume you’re hiding something.

This dysfunction can have terrible consequences on the children living in it. Parents do, after all, have a foundational role to play in their children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual development. We are biological beings, created in the image of God through the invisible, biological union of our parents’ gametes. We are the product of an elaborate genetic process through which our ancestors exhert incredible influence over the color of our hair and skin, the shape of our eyes and face, and our predisposition to certain health risks. Once we enter into the world, our parents’ influence isn’t over; they begin training us to find our place in the world. They teach us to communicate, to stay clean, to do chores, and, hopefully, to be kind and loving.

But what happens if your parents are dysfunctional? Are you destined to be ruled by your “nature and nurture”? Will you one day wake up to realize you are your controlling mother or aloof father?

That’s what John Mayer wonders in his song, “In the Blood.” He asks painful questions like, “How much of my father am I destined to become?/Will I dim the lights inside me just to satisfy someone?”, and, “Does a broken home become another broken family?/Or will we be there for each other, like nobody ever could?”

What hope do you have when you begin to see yourself doing the things you watched your parents do, but swore you would never do yourself? Do you resign yourself to the cruel determinism of your biology, or can you claw your way out of your circumstances through hard work? Mayer gets to that point and asks a startling pair of questions:

“Could I change it if I wanted, can I rise above the flood?/ Will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?”

His questions hold out hope for some kind of salvation: an ark to carry him on the flood that can cleanse him. Perhaps he’s grasping for something that he doesn’t consciously know he wants, or maybe Mayer is exploring Christianity. We don’t know. But what we can say is, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

That’s because the prophet Jeremiah looked to the day when God would make a new covenant with his people (Jeremiah 31). Under the terms of this new covenant each person would be responsible for his own sin:

“In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ “But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31:29–30, NASB)

If we want to break the cycle of sin in our dysfunctional families, there’s really only one way to do it. We need a clean break and fresh start. We need a new identity molded and shaped after the image of Jesus. The good news is that the covenant Jeremiah looked toward has been established through the death of Jesus. By faith in him, we come to claim a share in that covenant and experience all its benefits, including the forgiveness of our sins and the presence of his Spirit who enables us to live humbly before him. We’re no longer slaves to our flesh or the sin that claims a foothold there. It does, in a sense, “wash out in the water” (1 Peter 3:18–22; 1 Corinthians 6:11).

Come on in, John, the water’s fine.

The Hamster Wheel

Hamsters must be the most physically fit rodents on earth. Rather than letting them sit around stuffing their jaws with little pellets of food, their owners supply them with an exercise machine, the hamster wheel. You know what it looks like, and if you’ve ever had a hamster of your own, you know what it sounds like at 3 AM! The hamster runs in the wheel, and if you think about it too long, you can almost start to feel sad for them. They exert so much energy, but never actually get anywhere. Maybe you can relate.

Our hurried lives are often punctuated by setbacks, frustrations, and, to use the apostle James’ word, trials. While you’re in the middle of one of these setbacks, you feel powerless to get out of it. No matter how hard you push or how fast you run, you just can’t get out. As they say online, “The struggle is real.” What’s worse, it’s not always apparent what we did to deserve the trial we’re facing, and it can sometimes feel like God has abandoned us to go it alone. Thankfully, God knew that we would fall into this “Hamster Wheel Perspective,” and in James 1:1–18 we’re told two things that get us out of the hamster wheel and on with our lives. First, there is a purpose to our trials (Jas. 1:2–4), and second, we’ll be rewarded for our perseverance through them (Jas. 1:12).

There seems to be little purpose to the hamster’s ceaseless running. Clearly, he’s going nowhere and fast. Not so for the believer! God has begun a work in us and He promises to complete it (Phil. 1:6). He has stretched a path in front of us, and though it may prove difficult at times, His purpose is for us to reach our goal and to finish our race. Life is not a hamster wheel. Each trial has a purpose as God shapes us and molds us into the image of His Son, Jesus (Rom. 8:29).

In addition to never actually going anywhere, the hamster doesn’t win anything for running in his wheel. It’s a mindless exercise in futility. But, Christian, we are promised a wonderful reward for our perseverance. James refers to it as “the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (Jas. 1:12), and Paul calls it a competitor’s “prize” (2 Tim. 2:5). Both argue that it is a motivation for our perseverance.

So when you find yourself facing an obstacle, give up the hamster wheel perspective that keeps you from seeing its point. Remember that God is at work to change you and make you more like Jesus, and that He promises a great reward for your faithfulness to Him through it.

Regarding Joy

Confess and Believe

What must we do to be saved? In a way, nothing. Paul explains that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9). We are not saved by our doing. Salvation is not an outward act of meeting God’s standards (hands and feet) and meriting righteousness. Salvation comes by faith in Christ (heart and mouth cf. Rom 10:10). One should not attempt to put a wedge between “believing” and “confessing” or “justification” and “salvation” for they are parallel realities: heads and tails. There is, however, a nuanced component to believing and confessing. Believing is an internal trust; placing your faith in the person of Christ (inward). Confessing is a public acknowledgment or praise of the truth (outward). These are not two, distinct realities, but one fluid motion that starts internally and manifests itself externally.

We know that the gospel is “good news” (that's what it means). We believe it in our hearts. We believe it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). We are not ashamed of the gospel, per se. But we sometimes struggle to muster the courage to tell our next-door neighbor—whom we discuss sports, taxes, work, and politics with—about the reconciling work of Christ on the cross and his kingdom. I am not trying to promote evangelism through guilt. In fact, I hope to do the opposite. Rather than trying to convince you that if you really loved God, you would share your faith, my aim is to fan into flame your heart for evangelism through joy.

Praise is the Consummation of Joy

The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with this Q & A:

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

While there are two parts to this answer, I have always understood it as one stroke of the pen (the cursive of joy): man’s chief end is to glorify God by and through enjoying him forever. Or as Piper puts it: God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. “But Dave,” you protest, “I thought you said that belief and confession are inward and outward expressions of faith? Now, you are implying that our only call is to enjoy God, which sounds like a one-way street.” Not exactly.

As we breathe in grace, we breathe out praise. Praise, or the public profession of our faith, is not merely an expression of our faith, but the completion of our joy.

It took me years to learn this lesson (the hard way). And, by God’s grace, he allowed me to learn it through the pen of C.S. Lewis. In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis discusses his difficulty with accepting the ostensible vanity of God in his commands for the people to praise him. He explains:

The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least….

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.1

The outward expression of praise is the consummation of our joy. It is the last step in the process. As Lewis says, "It completes the enjoyment." It's the teapot whistling when the water is boiled. Pleasure with your spouse (inwardly) manifests itself externally through smiles, laughter, cards, flowers, dates, sweet words, and even children. The enjoyment experienced watching your team pull off a historic comeback in the Super Bowl is typically followed by outstretched arms, screaming, and dancing. No one told me to throw my hands in the air when Julian Edelman made the catch of a lifetime: I just did it. Paul's point in Romans 10:10 is that the "heart and mouth, inward belief and outward confession, belong essentially together.”2 And maybe, just maybe, the reason you struggle with evangelism isn’t because you don’t believe the gospel, or because you're afraid of men, or a host of other reasons. Perhaps the reason you struggle with confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord is that you haven't experienced the profound, sensible joy that this confession can bring. It is possible that you have been so preoccupied with your duties as a soldier in Christ's army, that you've not allowed yourself the bliss of knowing that “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 6:3).

What are some steps Christian can take to increase their delight in God?

We can talk to God, rather than about him (1 Jn 5:14). Like David, we can ask him to give us joy: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps 51:12). We can read his Word with eyes to see him, and ears to hear his voice believing that he will speak to us and teach us his truth (Ps 119:130). We can seek joy in God by putting to death our sins, which are obstacles to real intimacy with him (Prov 28:13). We can enjoy God by reminding ourselves of his presence with us, even as we pursue “menial” tasks of obedience, whether it is changing diapers, cutting the lawn, waking up early to work out, taking out your neighbor’s trash (1 Cor 10:31). Some may need to cultivate their joy in the Lord by partaking in the common-grace of medicine to fight off depression. We can use our senses to cultivate our joy by enjoying the Giver through his gifts (Ecc 9:7; 1 Tim 4:4). The joy of the Lord is meant to be your strength (Neh 8:10). If your joy in Christ is lacking, your faith is only partial. Seek joy in Christ! Joy will buoy you up (inward) and joy will send you out (outward).

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13).

  1. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Books, 1986), 93–5 emphasis added. ↩︎
  2. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 283. ↩︎
David KakishComment
Spiritual Upward Mobility?

J.D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is a hard-hitting and immensely practical book for those of us in pastoral ministry. Vance identifies major sources of the depression, hopelessness, and substance abuse many of the people we're trying to reach are experiencing. If we can read this book without identifying ways to communicate the gospel so that the person—the whole person: body, mind, and spirit—is changed, we’re not carrying out our mission correctly.

Hillbilly Elegy also raises interesting parallels with raising Christian kids. Throughout his story, Vance notes that his experience wasn’t all that unique. Most kids in his community had families plagued by relational instability, drug and alcohol use, incarceration, and nearly inescapable poverty. Where his experience diverged was the influence of his grandparents. He writes, “despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me” (60). While most kids drowned under the overwhelming brokenness around them, Mamaw and Papaw Vance taught J.D. the value of hard work and determination, which enabled him to succeed in school and life.


J.D.’s life at home largely inoculated him against the forces at work around him. I wonder if our kids can say the same. The forces at work around them may not be as ominous as those in Middletown, Ohio, (our kids only face pressures toward unbelief, sexual promiscuity and experimentation, or irreverence). But what force is at work in our family? What message are they hearing from us? Do our kids hear about the triumph of the Lord Christ over all his foes, or the defeat of the church by the forces in the world? Is the gospel of Jesus the aroma of the home? Is the Spirit knitting us to them not only with the natural affection appropriate between parent and child, but with the love that only He can produce?

Believe it or not, the message they hear at home largely influences the way our children develop in their faith.1 “Training up a child in the way they should go” generally ensures that “when they are old they won’t depart from it.” They’ll either grow up to be as spiritually impoverished as we are, or building on the spiritual progress they make while at home, grow up to exceed us in their walk with Jesus. Is there such a thing as spiritual upward mobility?

  1. Of course, the uncomfortable reality is that J.D.’s family situation was an exception in his working-class neighborhood. Every kid isn’t born into the ideal spiritual environment either. This is where the men and women of church must become a second family, a home away from home, for children and students in spiritually impoverished homes.  ↩

Affection and Pastoral Ministry

Wendell Berry writes about the way “morality, even religious morality,” is insufficient to motivate our care of the land. Knowing that we should live our lives in such a way that the land, and the people who live and work on it, are conserved and cherished is very different from actually doing it. The gap between what we should do and what we actually do is only bridged, in Berry’s mind, by affection.[1]

I think this equally applies to our concern and care for people.

We will have a hard time caring for those entrusted to us if we’re only relying on our sense of morality. We may visit the sick in the hospital, call someone who missed church, or send a note of encouragement to someone going through a difficult time because we know it’s what a pastor should do. But shouldn’t a pastor do other things too? Isn’t he supposed to preach the Word? And study to show himself approved? Shouldn’t he cast vision and lead people?

If he should do all these things, does he? Probably most of the time, but when he can’t because there aren’t enough hours in a day, what gets dropped? I think it’s the thing for which he has the least affection. Hopefully that’s not caring for people.

How can you determine if you care for people out of obligation or because you love it? Do you have a sense of “informed sorrow” for them? Is your imagination filled with a vision of what God might do in them if you give them focused attention? Do you love them?[2]

  1. Wendell Berry, “It All Turns on Affection,” in It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012), 32–33.
  2. Ibid., 34.  ↩