About Your "Boring" Conversion Story...

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the lives of Christians that God converted through his Spirit, discipleship, and the book of Romans. The testimonies of these men are phenomenal and very moving.

Augustine’s story was colorful and is, perhaps, very familiar to many people. He was skeptical of Christianity, despite being raised by a Christian mother. Instead, he pursued the high life through womanizing and jetting through his career as a rockstar professor in Rome. But God had different plans. In his early thirties, Augustine came to know the Lord and went on to do incredible things for the church. Augustine's is an incredible sinner-to-saint story.

Luther’s story was equally moving. After making a weird deal with God to save his life during a thunderstorm, Luther would spend years in a monastery fasting, working, and beating himself to death. He did so because he felt that he owed God. To Luther, God was an angry, capricious bully; Jesus was nothing more than a “terrible judge.” It wasn't until after an eye-opening trip to Rome—at a time when popes, priests, and prostitutes knew each other, biblically speaking—and steady discipleship did Luther come to know Christ’s righteousness by God’s grace alone. Luther would go on to spark the Protestant Reformation, a time that reemphasized a core gospel truth (salvation by faith alone) and forever reshaped Western civilization. Luther's is an amazing legalist-to-saint story.

But, then, there’s John Wesley. He grew up in a Christian home, went to Oxford, became a missionary, and then later preached in churches. After experiencing a few failures—at least from his perspective—he felt his heart “strangely warmed” while listening to a sermon on the book of Romans in London. “I felt I did trust in Christ,” John later reminisced, “and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins.” John became a Christian after a life of living Christianly. The end.

Compared to Augustine and Luther, John was a choirboy whose worst sin was the time he left a door open after entering the house. By all worldly measures, John’s conversion story is uneventful and boring. Is it even worth mentioning? Wouldn’t it be better to tell an eventful and exciting story to show how amazing God’s work can be?

No, not necessarily…

I’m afraid that sometimes Christians feel that crazy, drug-induced, sex-romping, sinner-turned-saint stories are the only stories worth telling. Think about that one guy’s testimony who, having been born to a drug addict and pimp, was mixed up in drugs, sex, and the gang scene on the southside of Chicago by age sixteen. Also, he was a Nickelback fan. But then, by God’s grace alone, Christ reached into his life and pulled him out by his love. Now, he is a stand-up father, an elder at a local church, and a Bible study leader. Importantly, he is also no longer a fan of Nickelback.

Now that’s a conversion story. Look what God has done!

Then, you look to your own conversion story—you grew up in the church, kept your nose clean, struggled with some sin (ever stole from the cookie jar?), repented, and, one Sunday during a sermon, felt your heart “strangely warmed.” Boring. Bland. Vanilla. Meh. Right?

Wrong. There is no such thing as a “meh” conversion story. Here’s why.

Four Reasons Why Your Conversion Story Matters

First, it’s a miracle that anyone is saved. Sin—the great separator between God and us—touches every aspect of our being. We were born in sin (Psa 51:5), without excuse for our sin (Rom 3:23), and dead in sin (Eph 2:1). Yet, God redeems us anyway. He does not need to, but, out of love, he does. He turns enemies into sons and daughters, and he did so through the sacrifice, death, burial, and resurrection of his Son. It is a miracle that anyone is saved at all.

Second, your conversion story is a sure sign that God is working in your life. We cannot convert ourselves; that’s entirely the job of the Holy Spirit. If you are a believer, then that means God has been working in your life. Think about how Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That knowledge was not something he came to on his own. Instead, Jesus pointed out, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Matt 16:17).” Your conversion means that God revealed himself to you. How beautiful and wonderful is that?

Third, it is a blessing that God spared you from pain. We are all moved by the conversion story that begins in low valleys and ends on high mountaintops, but those stories came with an incredible price to the story-teller. Behind those amazing stories is a massive wake of sin, rebellion, and destruction. It is forgiven sin, but the consequences are still real. Your “bland” conversion story is actually an incredible blessing—God, as a good Father, spared you, his son or daughter, from a ton of pain.

Fourth, your conversion gives hope to new believers. The enemy would love nothing more than to see a new believer revert to his or her old identity. Conversion stories of God’s consistent and steady faithfulness provide new believers with precious assurance. New believers can be plagued by haunting questions: Is God really faithful? What if I sinned too badly? How long will God love me? Your “bland” testimony and life with the Lord is one way that God may use to answer their prayers. "Yes," you can say, "God is longsuffering and faithful. Just look at my life-long journey in his patience and grace!"

Do you believe that you have a “boring” story? Shake that lie. Your conversion story is precious to God, even if Steven Spielberg could not turn it into an award-winning drama. Who cares? Your conversion is, after all, the story of your second birthday. Embrace it. Celebrate it. Share it.

Conversion is God’s story in you. Now, go tell someone about it.

Reading Outside Your Tribe

The Bible is inerrant. Because it is the inspired Word of God, it is incapable of communicating falsity. While being kept from error, the human authors of the Bible were moved by the Holy Spirit so that all they wrote (in their own words) fully encompassed all he desired for them to write. What happens, then, when we read about their misgivings and failures? Does God’s inerrancy suffer at the hands of his people’s errors? My issue is how easily some unintentionally apply this supernatural activity of the Spirit with respect to the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration beyond the text, and extend it to the authors themselves. 

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:11–14, ESV)

When these certain men came from James, the brother of Christ and leader of the Jerusalem church, Paul was forced to confront Peter (Cephas). Paul opposed Peter, the rock on whom Christ promised to build his church (Mt 16:18), for acting in a manner that was out of step with the gospel. It’s baffling that two of the “super-apostles” (cf. 2 Cor 11:5) are indicted in these four verses: the former for propagating (enforcing?) ethnic division in the church, the latter for sheepishly cowering to the forces of sinful peer-pressure. The moral of the story: everyone (even the Apostles!) is susceptible to theological blind spots. 

The crusades don't rebuff the wisdom of Aquinas. The burning of Servetus doesn't nullify Calvin's contributions. Whitefield's pension for slavery doesn't overturn his homiletical genius. Again, we are all susceptible to theological blind spots. One way we can remedy this is by reading outside of our tribes. While it would be incredibly convenient, Christendom does not neatly divide along the lines of theological good guys and theological bad guys. We must be Bereans. We are big boys and girls. If there are bones in the fish, pick them out and feast on the meat.  

Barth, Swiss Reformed, was an ostensible universalist; yet he taught me a great deal about Christian ethics and the highest good. Lewis, an Anglican, was an errantist; yet he tutored me in the school of Christian imagination and what it means to have an awakened mind. Mary Prokes, a Roman Catholic, was a Franciscan nun; yet her prose on human embodiment—specifically on the true purpose and meaning of sexuality—was outstandingly illuminating and edifying. R.C. Sproul Jr., a Presbyterian, believes that God created sin; yet he taught me much on trusting in God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in the midst of the storm.

Isaac Newton, arguably the most influential scientific figure of all time, once penned to a friend, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This was Newton’s way of acknowledging that his accomplishments were due in large part to those who went before him. This maxim has been adopted to comment on the invaluable contributions of the Christian tradition. We are recipients of a rich and diverse tradition of theological formulation. This gift is to be received with thanksgiving, as an extension of God's promise to be with us always and to build his church. My only problem with the co-option of this quote is the imagery. If we are standing on the shoulders of giants, then when they fall we all fall. As Protestants, we stand on the Bible. Because the Bible is inerrant, I don’t need Luther to be. And neither do you.

Divine Hiddenness: A Power Argument for Atheism?

Has there ever been a time in your life where God felt distant? A season when you could empathize with the Psalmist who said, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far away (Ps 10:1)?"

For most believers this feeling is a part of faith. The "nearness" of God, from our perspective, seems to ebb and flow during our lives. Of course, we may acknowledge his omnipresence, but when we speak of "nearness" we are speaking in terms of relationship.

That feeling, that divine hiddenness (DH), according to J. L. Schellenberg is not evidence of a temporary strain in the creator-creation relationship, but the absence of an eternal creator altogether. For Schellenberg, the feeling we get when we feel far from God is proof that God does not exist. It feels like he's not there for a good reason – he's not. This, according to Oxford University Press, is a "powerful new argument for atheism."[1]

On the OUP blog, Schellenberg summarizes his argument;

 "A perfect personal being (which God must be) would be perfectly loving toward all such creatures as ourselves, and so would be open to the relevant sort of relationship with us, and therefore would never allow the sort of nonbelief – completely nonresistant nonbelief – that flourishes on the planet."[2]

I would like to comment on this argument. And while I must admit that I've not read Schellenberg's recently released The Hiddenness Argument, he gives us enough to strike up the conversation in his OUP blog. Additionally, you can see the flow of Schellenberg's thought on DH in his Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason and Divine Hiddenness and Human PhilosophySo, I thought I'd share some reactionary thoughts on Schellenberg's divine hiddenness as I impatiently await the mailman to deliver my copy of his latest work.

I've divided my thoughts into two categories: general theism and Christian theism.

General Theism

First, I'm not sure why OUP (or whoever) considers DH a "powerful new argument" for atheism. It's not very new at all. Schellenberg himself outlined DH in 1993 (Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason). Wind the clock back further and we see the psalmists––and let's not forget Job!––wrestling with DH millennia ago in Christian scripture. They grappled with faith and doubt as a result of DH.

Additionally, DH is commonly categorized as a subtext to the larger discussion over theodicy, or the problem of evil. (If God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist?) This argument is as old as humanity itself. It is certainly not new. Perhaps the way in which Schellenberg has framed his DH argument in The Hiddenness Argument is new, but the argument itself is very old.

Furthermore, the obvious must be point out––DH does not speak to all forms of theism. DH is ostensibly not an issue for eastern religions like Hinduism or Buddhism. Also, deism, the idea that God created the universe and walked away, certain takes no issue with a perceived absence of the divine. In fact, certain beliefs in the divine actually anticipate or even expect that the divine is neither personal nor present in the lives of its creation.

Where the atheist may see DH has a problem for God's existence, the theist may see DH as an issue of existential concern. The question isn't over why God is absent, but over what God's absence means for his character. For theists, then, DH speaks less to God's existence than it does to God's character. What is he truly like if he remains hidden from his creation?

Again, this does not affect all theistic belief, but it does touch on Christian theism in particular, which describes God much the same that Schellenberg has in his argument. So, Christianity should answer the question, "If God is omnipresent and all-loving, how can he also be 'hidden?'"


I see DH within Christian theism as a problem within a problem because it is especially luminous during times of suffering. DH causes suffering more so in those already experiencing some type of suffering. For example, look back to Psalm 10 where the psalmist asks, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (Ps 10:1)?"

Here, the psalmist is wrestling with theodicy ("times of trouble"). Adding insult to injury is his additional suffering from DH ("stand far away"). If God is good, why does he allow suffering and feel distant from those whom he loves? 

The psalmist answers his own question by noting that God "sees" mischief among the reprobate (Ps 10:14) and "hears" the desires of the afflicted (Ps 10:17). God continues to seek justice and the welfare of the afflicted despite his perceived absence. Clearly, DH is not a matter of lost faith to the psalmist.

But how does he come to this steadfast faith? I cannot help but imagine that the psalmist has already constructed a theological system through which he views DH. A system that incorporates the creation narrative of Genesis and prophetic revelation.

Perhaps, then, Christian theism reconciles--voids? answers?--the problem of DH by (1) recognizing that DH is a result of sin, not God's character, (2) pointing the blame for DH at the self rather than at God, (3) noting that God may be experienced in times of DH through scripture, and (4) looking forward to the eschatological, eternal abolishment of DH in the future.

Divine Hiddenness Within Christian Theism

1. DH is a result of sin, not God's non-existence. The original intent behind God's creation of humanity was to establish an eternal, intimate relationship with them. This is seen in Gn 1:27 where God places his "image and likeness" on humans, or what theologians call the imago dei. The Hebrew words for image and likeness (selem and dumuth) evoke relationship terms between a king and his vassal stewards in the ancient near east. 

However, this unique relationship was severed in Gn 3 with the fall. Sin entered the picture and severely damaged the divine relationship between humanity and God. Therefore, from a Christian theistic perspective, the fact that we experience DH is proof of his existence. It is the residual effect of sin, not the result of God's non-existence.

In a way, DH is actually interwoven into the story of Christian theism and is to be expected. Thus, the psalmist can openly wrestle with DH without losing faith. Perhaps unwittingly, Schellenberg's argument aptly describes Gn 1 (divine personal relationship) while ignoring Gn 3 (sin's separation of God and humanity).

Instead, Schellenberg maintains that God should be open to a relevant relationship with us (which is true), but would never allow disbelief. That is to say, God should want a relationship with us so badly that he would protect it at all costs. In a sense that's true (consider the cross, atonement, glorification), but I suspect not to the degree that would satisfy Schellenberg.

2. God does not allow unbelief in us; rather, we willingly suppress the truth of his existence. Romans 1 offers a succinct Christian answer for DH.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:18-23

Paul understands disbelief (and, consequently, DH) not as a result of God's absence, but of human rebellion. The fact of God's existence should be obvious, but, prideful as we are, we choose to honor ourselves by dishonoring the creator.

The fact that God allows us to willingly reject his existence is different from God allowing us to disassociate with him. Furthermore, if God restrained all of humanity from rejecting him, then the very nature of our free will would be so violated as to render it non-existent.

We have the ability to disbelieve in God's existence, but that does not necessarily mean God does not exist. And if we willingly choose to disbelieve God, it is no wonder the phenomena of DH is prevalent in the human experience.

3. Many Christian theists testify to "finding God" or "experiencing God" through scripture, even in seasons where he seems distant. Perhaps the chief example of this is Christ's famous quote from the cross of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Reading a bit further into Christ's reference, the Psalm read, "Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer (Ps 22:1-2)."

Let me first point out the obvious, though mysterious, application from this verse. If Jesus Christ himself experienced DH, ought we (Christians) not anticipate such seasons in our faith?

It is interesting to me that Christ recites this particular passage from the cross, not least for the incredibly prophetic illusions from Ps 22 of his crucifixion. That Christ would acknowledge and experience DH as part of his humanity must count for Christianity's strongest acknowledgement of the phenomena. Yet, where Christ finds comfort (prayer and scripture) must also count for Christianity's strongest solution.

When Christ experienced DH, he found comfort in scripture. This must constitute the core of Christianity's answer for, at the very least, how one copes with DH. Admittedly, it does not answer why DH occurs.

Nonetheless, the fact that Christianity recognizes DH, so much so that Christ himself experienced it, speaks to the faith's resilience against this "powerful new argument" for atheism. Apparently, it's not all that powerful (nor all that new).

4. The grand promise of Christian eschatology is the abolishment of DH in glorification for eternity. Ultimately, this is Christianity's answer for DH – it exists, but it will not last forever. While this may not satisfy an atheist now, according to Christian theism God is under no obligation to confirm his act and character to meet our felt needs in such a relationship.

He can offer a solution at he leisure and according to his divine will and purpose. Christianity, it seems, sides with this explanation.

Final Thoughts

I look forward to reading Schellenberg's  The Hiddenness Argument, specifically to learn what makes it "new," at least according to OUP. Yet, as a Christian theist, I currently fail to see how this is a "powerful" argument for atheism.

Christianity has proved incredibly resilient to DH. It has readily acknowledged DH (Psalmists, Job, Christ), provided a method for coping with DH (scripture), and offers a solution for DH in its eschatology.

Thus, the Christian answer to the question, "If God is omnipresent and all-loving, how can he also be 'hidden?'" is simple. God isn't distant from us; rather, because of sin, we are distant from him.

Praise be to God that the Lord Jesus Christ is our way to eliminate that distance forever.

Thoughts on Preaching and Robinson Crusoe

I often use mnemonic devices to help me with vocabulary. One I’m particularly proud of is the image I used to remember the Greek word for "I am preaching", ke̅russo̅. I imagined the stranded Robinson Crusoe, preaching to his flock of goats. I read the book—probably an abridged version—when I was a kid, so I can’t remember if this was an actual scene in the book or something that my brain came up with to help me memorize the definition of the word. Either way, it seems fitting because I can just about guarantee that, were I stranded on a desert island and isolated from other humans, sooner or later the goats would be hearing expositions and exhortations from Scripture. I love preaching God’s word that much.

Admittedly, I’ve not always thought about this love in the right way. At times I’ve loved preaching because it gave me opportunities to demonstrate what little intelligence or wit I have. At others I’ve loved the exhilaration that comes from receiving affirmation from those who heard me. But I think preaching to goats, who are neither enamored by the preacher’s intelligence nor able stroke his ego with affirming words, would surely test this love. This experience would probably clarify something essential to biblical preaching: Who am I preaching for?

The commendable preachers of Scripture weren’t preaching for themselves, to be seen as wise or intelligent, to receive money or fame. They preached for the glory and fame and worship of the Lord Jesus. They preached when the likely outcome was bodily injury, social ostracization, imprisonment, or death. When their audience was goats, (in the Matthew 25 sense), those who listened patiently but refused to allow the message to have any true impact on their lives and loves. And they did it gladly.

“After calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:40–42, NASB)

Ultimately, this willingness to preach regardless of the outcome reflects the biblical understanding of the calling to preach, summed up beautifully by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:8—“To me, the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” The preacher knows that it is a grace, a gift, to proclaim the truth about Christ. He knows that it does not rest on him, a dirty castaway, but on the God who first saved him, and now enables him to declare his truth.

I love preaching because it brings me joy to share with others the unfathomable love of Christ that has captured me and compells me to preach. To study Scripture and search its depths in prayer and with help from God’s Spirit Himself. To wrestle with texts, to organize thoughts, and write line by line explanations and applications. To lift Jesus up, set Him forth, and hold Him out for careful, prayerful, worshipful reflection. It is God’s grace to me that I get to do that.

So like Crusoe in my mnemonic device, were there no one around to hear it I couldn’t keep it in, nor would I try. I’d sound like a madman preaching to goats and trees and the ocean itself. With the Psalmist I’d say, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and all it contains; Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy Before the LORD, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 96:11–13).

Give Yourself Away

“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11–12, ESV).

Impart a Spiritual Gift

Writing to believers in a church he did not establish, in a city he had never visited, Paul communicates that he longs to see them, so that he might impart “some spiritual gift.” This phrase is curious. I cannot find an approximate match anywhere else in Scripture. Some have argued that the spiritual gift is the message of the gospel, charismatic gifts (e.g. tongues, prophecy), or perhaps, the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:6). The problem, of course, is Paul does not say this. He says some spiritual gift, and as Jewett rightly comments “the particle τι (‘some, some kind of’) leaves open the question of precisely what Paul seeks to contribute within the parameters of a charismatic gift.”1 One thing we can conclude, however, is that the giving of the gift is tied to Paul’s visit: he is the conveyer of the gift, and it cannot, therefore, be given by letter or via proxy.

Using The Clear To Interpret The Unclear

One passage that may help shine a light on this esoteric gift is 1 Thessalonians 2:1–16. There, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his ministry among them. In v. 8 Paul tells the church that they were “affectionately desirous of you,“ translated differently: they longed for them. He goes on to say, ”we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess 2:8, emphasis added). Additionally, in v. 17 Paul laments being “torn away” from the Thessalonians (“in person not in heart”), and tells them that he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess 2:17, emphasis added). This, I think, is the key to understanding what Paul means by “some spiritual gift” in Romans 1:11.

Perhaps the reason Paul does not specify the nature of the gift, and why it cannot be received apart from his visiting in the flesh, is because he, himself is the gift. Stott elucidates, “there is ‘an intentional indefiniteness’ about his statement, perhaps because at this stage he does not know what their main spiritual needs will be.”2 Paul’s ambiguity as to the form of the spiritual gift is due to the fact that he does not at present know what they need. Willing to become all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22), he will wait until he arrives in order to determine how best to serve the believers in Rome.

No Substitute For Physical Presence

We have to ask, why does embodied presence even matter? What’s the difference between a text message and a face to face conversation? In our burgeoning digital age, this is a terribly relevant question. I believe Paul knew the answer to this question, for he understood the importance of face to face interaction. Allow me to explain.

As the saying goes, it’s not the quantity but the quality that really matters. Frank Bruni, however, disagrees. In an op-Ed piece entitled “The Myth of Quality Time”3, Bruni praises the integrity in acknowledging the havoc our rat-raced busyness has caused, but admonishes our attempts to remedy this with dedicated pockets of quality time. He argues that quantity (of time) is the key to enhancing quality (not the other way around). And nothing works better to bridge the gaps in intimacy than extended time in each other’s presence.

Bruni describes his family’s (extended family) ritual of blocking out an entire week every year to rent a house where they can all stay together. He confesses that for years he purposely showed up a day late, or ducked out two days early, because he “appreciated his private time.” But in recent years, he was determined to stay the entirety of the week. He recounts what he has learned:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

Those who believe that they do not have time to do something like this attempt to substitute quantity time with carefully planned opportunities to spend quality time. To this line of thinking Bruni retorts:

But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.

Some of our most treasured memories took place almost serendipitously on some seemingly mundane day. As Bruni succinctly puts it, there’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. Deep down, I think we all know this—and so does Paul.

Bruni goes on to write:

Sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the “I love you” that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purest.

I know how my 80-year-old father feels about dying, religion and God not because I scheduled a discrete encounter to discuss all of that with him. I know because I happened to be in the passenger seat of his car when such thoughts were on his mind and when, for whatever unforeseeable reason, he felt comfortable articulating them.

And I know what he appreciates and regrets most about his past because I was not only punctual for this summer’s vacation, but also traveled there with him, to fatten our visit, and he was uncharacteristically ruminative on that flight.

It was on a run the next morning that my oldest niece described, as she’d never done for me before, the joys, frustrations and contours of her relationships with her parents, her two sisters and her brother. Why this information tumbled out of her then, with pelicans overhead and sweat slicking our foreheads, I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I’m even more tightly bonded with her now, and that’s not because of some orchestrated, contrived effort to plumb her emotions. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.


The author and book escape me at present, but I remember recently reading a line that said, “It is God’s job to get people through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. As Christians, it is our job to sit with them in it.” We serve an incarnational God (cf. Jn 1:14), who has charged us with an incarnational mission. Paul textures the Christian life in anatomical terms by referring to the church as members of Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12; Eph 5:30). Therefore, we are charged with being the physical manifestation of his invisible attributes.

If I was in the hospital, it would mean more to me if you took the time to come and pray with me over sending a get-well-soon email. I would prefer a hug, an encouraging word, and a prayer of blessing on my birthday, over an “HBD” on my Facebook wall.

Make yourself available. Be present. As Jim Elliot was fond of saying, “Wherever you are be all there.” Inconvenience yourself for the sake of others, and in so doing you will, like Paul, be mutually comforted (cf. Rom 1:12).

  1. Robert Jewett and Roy David Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006),, 124. ↩︎
  2. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 57. ↩︎
  3. Frank Bruni, “The Myth of Quality Time,” The New York Time, September 5, 2015. ↩︎
A Pastor's Prayer
I wish to be thankful for what the Lord is pleased to do among us; but, at the same time, to be more earnest with him for a further out-pouring of his Spirit.

— John Newton, To the Rev. Matthew Powley, Letter III
A Brief Meditation On Suffering

Variegated Manifestations of Suffering

James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2, emphasis added). I find encouragement in the phrase “various kinds.” In the past, I assumed that the only suffering that counted was religious hardship like martyrdom, getting fired for being a Christian, or being harassed for not seeing the latest raunchy comedy with friends. But James urges us to count it as joy when we meet trials of various kinds. This includes the AC going out in the fever pitch of summer, flat tires on the way to work, paper cuts from your child’s science project, indigestion from the Chinese buffet you had for lunch, or worst of all, a string of sleepless nights with a colicky baby. Whatever form your trials/hardships take, they fall under the umbrella of various kinds.

Rejoice in Suffering

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5, ESV).

How do we respond to such suffering? Paul gives the same answer as James: rejoice! As I said, I wrongly believed that the only suffering that counted was that incurred on account of my faith. In contrast to this, James and Paul teach that what makes suffering count is not the type but your response to it. Paul assumes that clueing us in on the purpose of our suffering (i.e., endurance) will help us frame the right response to it.

For the mom who has not slept since Reagan was President, Rejoice! For you belong to a God who never sleeps nor grows tired. And he has promised to be with you always, to never leave you or forsake you. He gives strength to the weary, and sleep to his beloved. Cry if you must, but know that he holds your tears in a bottle, and he will wipe them all away one day. Most importantly, know that he is using this season to shape and form you. He is teaching you that like your child, you are equally as helpless, and need him to feed, protect, and provide for you. He is taking you to a place where you can move beyond cliché Christian platitudes, and into the throes of real, vulnerable, messy faith.

Mind Over Matter?

Rejoice in the midst of suffering: easier said than done, right? Maybe. It depends on how we define “joy.” We must note that Paul does not tell us to rejoice for our suffering, depicting Christianity as a religion of masochism. Rather, he tells us to have joy in our suffering. Keller recapitulates Paul’s exhortation to rejoice while maintaining the balance of rejoicing in our suffering and not for our suffering when he writes:

God hates the pain and troubles of this life and so should we. Rather, a Christian knows that suffering will have beneficial results. A Christian is not a stoic, who faces suffering by just gritting their teeth. Christians “look through” the suffering to their certainties. They rest in the knowledge that troubles will only increase their enjoyment and appreciation of those certainties.1

The foundational tenant of Buddhism is overcoming or lessening suffering (i.e. evil) in this world. Ironically, since the material world is just an illusion, suffering must be categorized as an illusory reality, as it is part and parcel of the created realm. Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity does not see the world as a temporary holding cell for the not-yet-enlightened. We believe that God created the material world. Therefore, Christians are called to rejoice in our suffering because the material world was good, and will be made new one day.

Suffering in and of itself is a parasitic aftershock of the fall that leaches onto God’s good creation. It stands as a testimony to the reality of evil (ipso facto, all matter). When Jesus relays the signs of the end of the age, he tells his disciples that “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mt 24:7–8, emphasis added). He speaks of the sufferings we will witness and perhaps endure as the beginning of the birthing process. Paul contributes to this equally puzzling allegory when he writes, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22). The natural question should be, what is being birthed? Freedom—“creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). The road to this freedom, however, is marked in suffering.2

When Christ returns he will bring heaven to earth. As Christians, then, our current mission, the whole reason we are sent into the world, is to open windows of the future-kingdom-life for those engulfed in the darkness of this present age. But we do not overcome suffering by denying the metaphysical or the goodness of this world (i.e., mind over matter).

When you are victimized by the sin of gossip, you can embrace the one who wronged you and speak forgiveness over them. When your neighbor’s dog incessantly exercises his bowels on your lawn, you can pick up his deposits and place them in the trash. When you encounter a child who has suffered at the hands of negligent guardians, you can clothe, feed, adopt, protect, pray, and provide for him or her, as a way of unfurling the effects of the fall.

These examples of suffering (and many others) will no doubt affect us. But encountering suffering in this world is not merely an exercise of mind over matter. Rather it is finding joy in the fact that God is shaping our minds through matter, so that—through our transformed minds—he can affect the material world. The biblical-expectation is that, with the Spirit’s help, we will internalize suffering in such a way that joy in suffering is fueled by our eschatological vision, which will stir up our ever-increasing obedience of faith.

  1. Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2014), 112. ↩︎
  2. If you are confused as to why the biblical authors use the analogy of pregnancy and birth pains, I encourage you to ask a woman who has birthed a child if she agrees with this verse: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (Jn 16:21). ↩︎
The End of Protestantism Videos

I got a followup email this week that let me know my review copy of Peter Leithart's new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, is due to be sent out by the end of the week. I'm looking forwarded to reading the book and engaging with the ideas through a review here on the blog. I wholeheartedly agree with Leithart's concern about the fragmentation in the church—the unity of the church is essential to our mission (see e.g., John 17:21-23). However, I'm not sure I'll agree with his suggestions for pursuing that unity. 

In anticipation of the book's release next month, the folks at Brazos Press have developed a great website for the book and are featuring the following videos to give you an idea of what the book will be about. 

The first explains the wordplay in the title. Leithart doesn't just seek to explore the "end" of Protestantism as its conclusion, but also its goal or purpose.

The second explains the rise of denominationalism, as well as the signs that he believes indicate its losing steam.  

MOTD — Doxology (Jude 23-24) — Sandra McCracken

I love this song, “Doxology (Jude 23–24)”[1] , off Sandra McCracken’s new album, God’s Highway, for two main reasons:

  1. It is a song that is derived from and reflects on a text of Scripture. It is good to sing songs that contain doctrinal language and reflect on biblical themes, as most hymns and worship songs do. It is another thing entirely to sing the words of Scripture themselves.

  2. In its reflection on Jude 24, it takes us to the day when the promise is fulfilled, when “we are standing in His presence with our garments clean and white”—i.e., unblemished. We’re caught up in the thought of what it will be like when the God who is able to keep us from stumbling and present us unblemished to himself has done it. Won’t it be glorious!

The full text of Jude 24–25 is —

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you unblemished in His glorious presence, with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all time, and now, and for all eternity.

Here are the lyrics:



Support the artist by buying her music.

  1. While the song is called “Doxology (Jude 23–24)”, it actually contains the doxology of Jude 24–25. So I’m not sure if it’s a simple typo or what. Additionally, while it’s listed on her store page as “Doxology (Jude 23–24)”, Spotify has it simply listed as “Doxology”.  ↩

Far Be It From Me: The Scandal and Sin of Pastoral Prayerlessness

There are many ways to fail as a pastor. Moral lapses, theological error, and spiritual apathy are just a few of the more obvious ways we can harm the congregations we serve. But there is perhaps one failure that gets overlooked. We can build successful ministries, influence people with biblical truth, and give the general appearance of faithfulness without anyone ever knowing that we are prayerless men. But this is to our shame. Do we truly believe that we can properly care for the people of God without bringing their names and burdens before Him in prayer? Our prayerlessness indicates we do. More than that it underlines the reality that we have drifted from the biblical and historical view of what it means to be a pastor.

Two stories from 1 Samuel demonstrate how seriously spiritual leaders (prophets and priests) took their responsibility to pray for the people in their care. The first comes from Samuel himself. After anointing Saul as king over the people, Samuel tells them they have committed evil against YHWH by asking for a king to rule them (1 Sam. 12:12–18). The people recognize their sin and say to him, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, so that we may not die” (12:19). Samuel’s response is telling, especially when he considers his role in their future obedience: “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way” (12:23). For Samuel, prayer for the people is such a vital part of his role that to abandon the practice is unthinkable. More than that, to neglect this prayer is “sin against the LORD”.[1]

A second story comes later in the book after YHWH has rejected Saul and chosen David as king. David was on the run from Saul and came to Nob where Ahimelech the priest gave him the consecrated bread for food and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21:1–10). When Saul hears that Ahimelech has aided the fugitive David, he sends for all the priests and interrogates them on the charge of treason. In his paranoia, Saul accuses the priest of giving David food and arming him with a sword, as well as having “inquired of God for him”—that he sought to determine God’s will and seek His help for David’s mission against Saul. Ahimelech’s answer again demonstrates how essential this prayer was: “Did I just begin to inquire of God for him today? Far be it from me!” (22:15). Ahimelech’s intercession for David was not unique, but rather a normal part of his role as priest that he was bound to carry out.[2]

Turning to the New Testament, we again see the central role of prayer when we examine the Apostle Paul’s relationships with the churches to whom he wrote. He tells the Romans, he “unceasingly” mentions them in his prayers (Rom. 1:9), as he does the Ephesians (Eph. 1:16) and Philippians (Phil. 1:3–4). That these prayers are made “unceasingly” indicates the importance Paul attributes to them—as if they are essential for the churches’ growth in Christ. Beyond Paul’s personal example, we have the instruction in James for the elders to pray for the sick that they might be healed (Jas. 5:14). The prayers of pastors for their people are essential to God bringing about His healing purposes in their lives.

With this quick biblical picture in mind, it is no wonder that, “For the majority of Christian centuries most pastors have been convinced that prayer is the central and essential act for maintaining the essential shape of the ministry to which they were ordained.”[3] Indeed, Derek Prime and Alistair Begg argue that it is the “principal and main work” of pastoral ministry since it is the first way we exercise care for our people and the first step toward an effective teaching ministry.[4] If Scripture and historical practice tell us prayer for our people is central to fulfilling the ministry to which we’ve been called, it is truly a scandal when we neglect it. Far be it from us that a day should come when we fail to lift up the names and needs of the people entrusted to our care. God help us all be men of prayer.

  1. See Ryan Fullerton, “A Call for Pastors to Pray for Their People,” 9 Marks Journal (Spring 2016): 7–11. I am indebted to this article for prompting my reflection on this topic. See the journal for other helpful articles on making prayer a priority in your life and church, https://9marks.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/9Marks-Journal-Spring–2016.pdf.  ↩
  2. Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 229.  ↩
  3. Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 26.  ↩
  4. Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 65.  ↩