“Dwell on these things”

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:6-9

Let’s consider some of the topics and issues we may encounter if we go online, use social media, or even avail ourselves of traditional news sources: the covid pandemic, a war in Ukraine, anti-racism, climate change, rising fuel and food prices, the transgender movement, and now, most recently, a leaked US Supreme Court opinion about potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. Any one of these–and usually more than one at once–often has people from differing ideological viewpoints and worldviews literally screaming at one another and hurling insults and using inflamed rhetoric. Reason generally lags far behind emotion. And virtually all of our media will play to one side or the other, stoking fear and inciting panic for ratings and profit.

Our culture is by all appearances coming apart at the seams. Cue 80s rock band REM: It’s the end of the world as we know it. People use the phrase “culture wars” for a reason. And many become very invested in the outcomes of this conflict. Especially those whose horizon of meaning reaches no further than science, education, technology, and politics. Watch enough media and you will come away with the distinct impression that our southern neighbors aren’t far from another civil war or, worse, that all of Western civilization is on the verge of collapse. Whether the opinions (or the attitudes) of those yelling on Twitter or the evening news are actually representative of most people, perhaps it’s difficult to say. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that we live in divisive times.

Here’s my problem: by and large the church has not helped. And when I say church, I mean the church as a whole.
And what I’m getting at is the degree to which so many Christians, including so many prominent leaders, have accepted the secular terms of engagement of the culture wars. We have become willing to participate in the conflict, even using un-Christlike means to do so. If Christian engagement in the culture looks no different than that of your average political pundit or media outlet, how is this representing the character and will of Christ?

And more importantly, what is it doing to us, to our souls, to our hearts, to our minds, to our ability to participate in the world knowing full well that politics and culture are never ends in themselves? If we are followers of Jesus, then our horizon of meaning extends far beyond the earthly fray of our current experience. We are living in the “meantime” between coming into existence and entering eternity. That’s not to say we ought to ignore politics or eschew cultural engagement. What it does mean, however, is that the character of our engagement ought to be distinct. After all, God says we are to be holy as he is holy. This means to be set apart. It means to be distinct. It means not living as everyone else lives. Not because we are morally superior. Not because we are to escape into some holy huddle. But because the vantage point from which we understand and experience the world isn’t shaped by seeing political goals as the ultimate answer to any of our human ills. We are bound by the cross and the resurrection–and therefore bound to the one who was crucified and raised. And his kingdom agenda–and the means by which he seeks to fulfill it–cannot be circumscribed by political parties or our preferred media and news platforms.

All of this means that for those of us who are people of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we need to be incredibly careful not to let ourselves get so caught up in the so-called culture wars–and the media we consume–that we forget how we are bracketed by creation and redemption. We must not be paying so much attention to the news and to what we see on social media that we essentially become spiritually myopic, conflating the winning of cultural and political points with participating in the reality of the kingdom of God. Because then what will happen? Everything in the news–from covid policy to economic policy to all of the cultural “sturm und drang”–will have the potential to throw us into an existential tailspin. Like how every national election is supposedly the most important election of our lifetime. Like how every news cycle requires a crisis. It’s as though the volume has been turned up to eleven on the amplifier of life.

But we have the choice of a more life-giving, flourishing way. And it’s why I began with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And at the very least Christians ought to be those who seek this way–and who also therefore are inviting others to seek it. If all the news and nonsense of our world causes you anxiety or anger; if you notice that scrolling for too long on Facebook or Twitter actually makes you feel worse and less at peace; and if your media consumption leads you to dehumanize and belittle (even if only in your mind) those with whom you disagree, perhaps it’s high time to begin dwelling on other things. Things that are true and beautiful, noble and just, praiseworthy and excellent–the deeper truths of reality we find in Scripture, truths that lend our lives dignity and hope, and that have the power to reconcile and heal, to relieve our despair, and to provide us with a kind of peace nothing else can.

If we only focus on the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine or the actions of political leaders closer to home, we might have plenty of reasons to spend all of our time worrying. If we only focus on what this world says we need or should want, we might have plenty of reasons to feel anxious and insecure. If we allow what we see and hear in the media we consume to define what’s most important, to define our horizon of meaning, then we are all the more likely to become adrift in anger and frustration that the world isn’t the way we want it to be. And we will also find that this anxiety will become the undercurrent of our attitude, that it will bleed into our conversations, relationships, and the way we deal with our personal circumstances. We will become what we consume. Or to put it another way: You are what you eat.

Now, let me say, I battle with this myself. I also need to listen to what Paul says in Philippians. I need to learn to dwell on what Paul lists in the passage. I need to spend more time filling my heart and mind with what will nourish and bless me and those around me. I need to absorb more and more scriptural truth into my spiritual bloodstream. Because I don’t want polarizing political and cultural outrage to be what primarily shapes my patterns of thought, my mood, or the way I face life. Instead, I want to be able to be aware of and to engage in our common cultural life from a place of spiritual health and stability. And I don’t want to be shaken by events and issues that are often outside my control. I want my reaction to the world, and my interaction with it, to be more and more Christlike.

Notice how Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray instead of worrying. Prayer in the Christian tradition is part of a larger worldview in which we know ourselves to stand in relationship to the sovereign, holy, and loving triune God of the universe. If God is who he reveals himself to be, then worry, even if in fits and starts, ought to have less and less of a hold on my life. But if I want this to happen, if I want to get to a place where I can be at peace in this world even if not with this world, then I need to meditate upon, inwardly digest, and dwell on the God who created it. I believe this is possible, but only if we willingly and intentionally take time to separate ourselves from the noise of our cultural environment and allow ourselves silence and solitude, knowing that there–in the place where we might hear the still, small voice–that God is most likely to meet us. It’s in entrusting ourselves prayerfully to him that we will discover Christ guarding our hearts and minds, and providing the peace that nothing in this world can either provide or take away.

What is a Human Being? Part 3

“To err is human,” or so the saying goes. When someone gives into temptation or makes a mistake of some kind, such a person will often say, “Well, I’m only human after all!” In other words, when we think of what it means to be a human being, usually we include all the ways in which we fall short of some kind of ethical or behavourial standard. To be human is to be finite and flawed. Such a way of seeing human nature is well-engrained into our cultural consciousness. We’re all aware of our own personal shortcomings and of the shortcomings of humanity as a whole. To put it in theological terms, the Christian doctrine of sin is empirically verifiable. There is evidence aplenty that you and I do not always live up to who we ought to be. We disappoint and are disappointed by one another. This is, in part, what it means to be a human being. Yet, secular people in our culture are often loath to admit that the source of the problem is the human heart itself. Many hold the belief that human beings are intrinsically good and that we learn poor behaviour or give into sin on account of our environment.

For this reason, the pride of the secular mind is believing that we can arrive at the solution to our own limitations. We can be the architects of our own utopias. The more effective our education systems and the more advanced our technology, the more we can mitigate human finitude and weakness. Usually those with this view conceive of this happening at a societal level. It’s not us as individuals that are problematic as much as it is our economic, govermental, and social systems. And while Christianity recognizes that there are larger–say, systemic–problems at play in our world, it also points to the individual human heart as the primary location for the human predicament.

At the same time, Christianity is all about redemption. Acknowledging that we are sinful, Christianity tells a story of spiritual transformation. The arc of the biblical narrative bends towards hope: hope that no matter how broken we are, we needn’t remain this way. However we experience our flawed human nature, the promise of God told through the trajectory of the Old and New Testament is that we can be forgiven for the ways in which we have brought hurt into the world; and that we can also experience the kind of spiritual change that diminishes this hurt and its effect on us and those around us. We can experience personal, spiritual change. That is, if we seek to do so.

As it happens, this change is possible because God himself comes into our world as a flesh and blood human being. Without going into all of the complexities of trinitarian doctrine, Christianity teaches that the second person of the Trinity, the Son, becomes a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus is the incarnation of the divine Son of God. He is both fully divine and fully human. For our purposes here, this is important because it is in Jesus that we see humanity as God has always intended. Jesus is fully human; we, in fact, are not. More, it is our very brokenness that prevents us from being fully human. To err is not what it means to be fully human; it is, however, what it means to be a human being in need of restoration. Put another way, if we want to know what it means to be fully human, we need to look to the person of Jesus.

More specifically, in Christ we see who we are supposed to be. Through the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives, we are to become more and more Christlike. That is, we are to become more and more free from the power of sin and more obedient to God. Our very desires are to be transformed so that we want what is sinful and evil less and less. It’s about living in complete and joyful freedom in relationship to God and one another. It is to become who we were created to be. Think of these words from the apostle Peter:

His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. By these he has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.

2 Peter 1:3-4

Through God’s power working in us we can come to share, as Peter says, in the divine nature. This is what allows us to experience forgiveness and freedom from sin and healing for our brokenness. It’s what frees us not only from sinful actions but sinful desires. Through Christ and the Spirit we can become who we were made to be in the presence of the Father. We are to exhibit what Scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), characteristics that describe the person of Jesus. Indeed, in the very next verse Peter shares a list of spiritual qualities believers ought to display that is very much like the one Paul shares in Galatians 5:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:5-9

In view of what I wrote about in part 1 of this series, that each of us is made in the image of God, it is also of profound importance that Christ is described in Scripture as the image of the invisible God. The image of God in human beings was broken through sin and disobedience. In Christ we see this image perfect and complete. And it is through his redemptive work and the sanctifying work of the Spirit that the image of God is us can be restored.

Of course, this process is life-long. Only in eternity–when we have been raised by Christ to enter his kingdom–will the imago Dei in us reach its fulfillment. Only then will we be complete. Only then will we be fully human. This means that in our lifetimes now, we will in various ways continue to struggle with our limitations, sin, and brokenness. Those of us who are “in Christ” are moving in the right direction but only with his return will we reach our destination and achieve our final telos. As the apostle Paul says: For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). It is with the parousia of Christ that we will also see ourselves (and one another) for who we really are.

Given that this series of posts has been about looking at what it means to be a human being in light of the conversations in our culture surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, and especially the transgender movement, what does the possibility of our restoration in Christ have to say to this?

First, there’s no reason to deny that there are people who experience an inner-sense of self out of step with their biological identity. Until recently this was known as gender dysphoria. However, acknowledging someone’s feelings as genuine to them does not automatically prescribe a particular course of action, medical or otherwise. Seeing the many stories of families being torn apart because the parents did not want to affirm their child as transgendered is both disturbing and immensely sad. This seems to me to be indicative of the various ways in which the tendrils of human brokenness insinuate themselves into all the nooks and crannys of our lives. Clearly, there are people in our world who believe that somehow they are trapped in the wrong body. What we do about this and what we do for these people is a very important conversation to have. Unfortunately, in my country, thanks to the recently passed Bill C-4, it is unclear whether having certain views or even having conversations about these matters is even legally permissable.

Second, human sexuality and identity is broken but there is hope for healing and redemption. The process of redemption that Christ invites us to enter is one that will continue until the day we die. Part of what this means is having to live with aspects of ourselves that remain outside of God’s purpose for us. For example, someone who experiences same-sex attraction may have to live with that desire even after coming to faith in Christ. There’s no guarantee of complete transformation in this life. No doubt different people with same-sex attraction may experience sanctification to different degrees. Each of us has to deal with temptations and sinful desires and forms of brokenness, though the Spirit of God indwells us. Indeed, God by his Spirit is renovating the hearts of those who have come to faith in Christ, but not altogether overnight. One day we will be made completely new but we live between the now and the not yet.

Third, since we are each a work in progress, it is up to God and not to us which part of ourselves (and others) he chooses to restore first. What I mean is this: if someone experiences the sense that they are in the wrong body or a same-sex attraction or another sense of self incongruent with God’s design, we shouldn’t assume that this is what God plans to work on first. We are complicated creatures, and God knows perfectly well what keeps us from enjoying fellowship with him. Indeed, what someone else sees as my more egregious shortcoming may not be what I experience as my biggest struggle with sin. More important than helping someone with what we think they ought to change or work on first is listening to them, demonstrating the truth and love of Christ, and leaving the work that has to happen in their heart and in their lives to God. Not that we can’t ever offer spiritual direction, but we ought to do so with humility and grace and compassion. Yes, we may have some wisdom, but God is wisdom.

Underlying all of this, of course, is my assumption that the Christian story–the biblical narrative arc of creation, fall, and redemption–is the story. I believe that this story is the human story. All of our lives fit into this story. You fit into this story. God wants to tell his story through your life. What this means is that understanding ourselves as human beings begins with who God has revealed himself to be and how he has created us. For each of us, there will be ways in which our desires and our thoughts and our choices do not line up with God’s purposes for us. This includes how we see our sexuality and gender identity. But because God created us out of the infinite abundance of his love, he also makes it possible for us to be realigned with his purposes. And this is so through Jesus the Christ, the one through whom and for whom all things were made. This includes you and me. Therefore, if we want to know what it means to be human in the fullest sense, it is through Christ that this is revealed and through him that we can begin to have the fullness of our humanity restored.

What is a Human Being? Part 2

Several weeks ago I posted some thoughts regarding the Christian view of human nature in light of the current transgender movement and our culture’s increasingly confused approach to gender, sexuality, and identity. You can find that post here. There I focused on Genesis 1:27 and the foundational truth it reveals about human beings: namely, that we are created in the image of God and that we are created male and female. Having been created by God, of course, means that we receive and do not manufacture our identity as human beings. There is a fundamental sense in which we do not get to choose what we are. Having been created male and female means that there is a binary reality to gender and human identity, contrary to what many are presently trying to assert. Given that the debate surrounding the questions of gender identity and sexuality permeates our culture, those of who are Christians, who hold to what we might call a traditional view of human sexuality, have an obligation to think through these questions as thoughtfully and as sensitively as we are able. This means having a robustly biblical understanding of what it means to be a human being.

I have no doubt that there are people who experience a sense of who they are that does not conform to the biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, and personhood. Furthermore, I have no doubt, for example, that people who experience same-sex attraction are genuinely attracted to those of the same biological sex and that such feelings are not under their control any more than my attraction is to those of the opposite sex. As it is, I don’t decide to experience an attraction to my wife (or other women I find attractive); I simply experience it. For this reason, it is understandable to ask: If someone’s inner-sense of self doesn’t conform to their biological sex or if someone is attracted to a person of the same biological sex, doesn’t this mean that God made them this way? And if that’s so, doesn’t that mean we simply ought to affirm without question any given individual’s inner-sense of self? If someone is created in the image of God, doesn’t this include the inner-sense of self experienced by those, for instance, who describe themselves as transgender? Were such persons not, as the song says, born this way? Didn’t God intend some people to live out their lives as transgendered? If someone is born with same-sex attraction, doesn’t that mean God intends them to pursue relationships with people of the same biological sex?

It is at this point that many might expect me to quote the various passages in Scripture that refer to sexual activity between two people of the same biological sex as sinful. But those passages, while important, are often weaponized or simply quoted without placing them within the larger biblical understanding of human nature and personhood. Because even though I do think Scripture forbids same-sex sexual intimacy, this is not the only kind of sexual activity the Bible forbids as out of step with God’s created intent for his human creatures. In point of fact, the only biblically rightful place for sexual intimacy is in the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. Sexual activity with someone other than your spouse is sin. Sex outside of marriage, even with someone of the opposite biological sex, is also sin. Whatever what someone believes about sexuality and gender identity, it is within this biblical horizon that I approach the questions about them.

Within this biblical horizon not only is it true that human beings are created in the imago Dei and as male and female but God, having created human beings, pronounces them very good. And this very good concerns not only their initial creation but the purpose for which God made them: to be his stewards in the world, his representatives to the rest of creation. To the degree humanity fulfills its telos, humanity is very good. Living in right relationship with God, creation, and one another is what it means to live according to God’s purposes for us. And if there is a right way to live in relation to God and one another, there is also a wrong way. Not every available way for human beings to live in relationship to one another in this world conforms to the way we were made.

For this reason human beings are also portrayed as having strayed from the purposes with which they have been designed by the Creator. The primordial sin is not sexual but it does have consequences for our sexuality (and every other aspect of our humanity). In Genesis 3 the character of the serpent–described as crafty or shrewd–plants the seeds of doubt about God’s trustworthiness first in the mind of the woman. Referring to God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent deceitfully intones, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?” It is the first half of the question that carries the weight of the whole: Did God really say? In other words, the serpent cunningly asks, “Are you sure God can be trusted? Maybe you’re better off making decisions about your life without regard to this God who seems so intent on putting obstacles in the way of your self-fulfillment.” Alas, both the man and the woman agree. So, sin enters creation.

This story doesn’t fit our current secular cultural narrative. Sin is very nearly an extinct term. Bringing it up rudely interrupts the ongoing liberal project of progress towards some kind of human utopia. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that to many it is a term of disparagement. After all, people are intrinsically good. With enough proper, government-approved education and technological advancements, we can engineer people and therefore society to fit the mold of our best intentions. Raising the spectre of sin casts doubt on how people in our world either see themselves or are told to see themselves. Not to mention that it raises the undesirable possibility that our questions and predicaments demand answers from a transcendent source. And we can’t have that.

Contrary to the narrative much of the world wants to assert as true, the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament boldly assert that all human beings are lost, broken, and sinful. We enter the world already in need of rescue and repair. And what we’re talking about here is how each of us has in effect listened to the serpent and is therefore inclined to pursue a sense of identity and meaning apart from reference to a divine Creator and Redeemer. And this includes the way in which we understand and live out what it means to be sexual, gendered creatures. If someone experiences an inner-sense of self where they feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body, this doesn’t mean they ought to identify as a man and live accordingly. Put simply, to be born this way doesn’t mean we ought to live that way.

So when we speak of sin, we’re not only talking about particular actions or examples of behaviours. We’re talking about a disposition or moral orientation that all human beings share. Obedience to and faith in God is not our natural inclination. This means that even if someone by all appearances is a good person, this doesn’t mean they are not sinful. An individual can exhibit positive character traits, be a good neighbour and citizen, for reasons other than a genuine desire to love. We can act virtuously for selfish reasons. Of course, even if we act virtuously for good reasons, our motivations are never entirely pure or unselfish. It is this sinful inclination of our hearts that manifests in various actions and attitudes that betray our underlying lack of faith in or contempt for God and his purposes for us. Not only do we sin, we are sinful; and the latter precedes the former.

We see this in Romans 1. There, speaking first of God, the apostle Paul says that his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. . . .Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. A rejection of God and his purposes for us leads to idolatry, disordered loves, and thinking unanchored in the purposes embedded in the fabric of creation.

It is after Paul says this he goes one to say that God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. And lest we think that Paul only refers to sexual sin, he goes on: And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind so that they do what is not right. They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know God’s just sentence—that those who practice such things deserve to die—they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them. Much can be said about these verses from Romans 1, but what’s clear is that rejecting God leads to a proliferation of sin among human beings. Such sin includes but isn’t limited to sin that involves our sexuality. All this to say that even if someone is born with (or comes to experience) an inner-sense of self that doesn’t match their biological sex, this does not mean that God designed them to be a transgendered person. It doesn’t mean that it is God’s will for a man to transition, with or without medical intervention, to being a woman or vice-versa.

I understand that what I’ve said will be rejected by some. Others will find it hard to hear. And I should also point out that I am not a scientist, doctor, or any kind of medical expert, so I cannot pretend to understand fully the complexities of transgenderism or other gender identity issues. I also want to make clear that I think it is absolutely possible and crucial for those with a traditional biblical understanding of personhood and gender to demonstrate love and compassion to those who identify as transgender or as a gender other than male or female. Not everyone will agree. Instead, the current thinking leans towards seeing the wholesale acceptance of any and every gender expression as essential to what it means to love and have compassion. According to this perspective, seeing such gender expressions as manifestations of our broken and sinful human nature is, therefore, intolerant and hateful. Is it any wonder, then, that public discourse around these sensitive subjects are often so polarizing? What we have here is one example of the clash of worldviews that is at play between Christianity (or even religious theism in general) and a culture that is unmoored from any discernible ethical foundation.

According to Scripture, human beings are created in the image of God with value and purpose. And human beings are created either male or female. Each of us also has a sinful human nature, one which inclines us to pursue lives out of step with God’s telos (or ultimate purpose) for us. So we each need forgiveness. We need God’s healing power in the midst of our brokenness. The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is actively at work seeking to redeem each of us out of the mess into which we have gotten ourselves. And while we each experience this mess in different ways, it is into our collective mess that Christ comes to effect the spiritual transformation that will enable us to become the human beings we were always created to be. When time permits, it is to this spiritual transformation and what it means that we will turn next.

.

Living in the Reality of the Triune God ( Or Being Written into God’s Story)

God, simply put, is. Without God nothing else would be. And without God nothing else would continue to be. We live in the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Triune Godhead is the all-encompassing reality within which we live and move and have our being. To experience life is to experience the world this God both transcends and is present in, a world created by the Father, through the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because God is, we are.

This means that all we do and all that we are—all the details of our everyday lives—happen in relation to the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything from the breaths we take to the daily chores we do that often seem mundane to the relationships we inhabit and give our lives meaning all take place because of the prior and ongoing activity of the Triune God. Nothing occurs apart from him.

That this is so doesn’t depend on my acknowledging it. It simply is. Every human being past, present, and future, exists only because of this God. And we experience life as it ought to be—as this God intends us to experience it—to the degree that we are willing to acknowledge this reality. Eternal life is no less than willingly and joyfully living in this reality; it is more, to be sure, but not less.

So when the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, he did so to invite us into this reality. The kingdom of God is here! Repent and believe in the good news! He comes to open our eyes and hearts to the reality of who God the Father is. He comes to make it possible for us to see ourselves and our world in a completely new and different way—to such an extent that we become new people. When this happens to us, we are, to use Johannine language, born again. Like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!

 Sin is the denial of this reality. Sin is a failure to acknowledge God for who he is and as he has revealed himself through the person of Jesus. Disobedience or transgressing the laws and commands of God means, simply, setting ourselves against the way things actually are. If indeed in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, then sin is anything which runs counter to why there is anything at all. Sin is a denial of our telos, our very reason for existence. I have always loved Augustine’s words at the start of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.” Or as the Shorter Westminster Catechism has it, we’re here “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to align my life with the truth. Eventually, when truth found me in the person of Christ, my life took on a purpose and had a determining centre that it had never had before. Colossians 1:16 says of Jesus that all things have been created through him and for him. This speaks both of Jesus as both the source of my existence and my purpose for existing. I am here because of Jesus. I am here for Jesus. As are you.

John 1:1-3 tells us that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. Think of all the days you have lived, the sum total of your experiences, the breaths you have taken, the pulse you can feel just under your skin—all because of this Word that is God. Think of the billions upon billions of stars. Think of the billions upon billions of atoms. Think of all the factors that make intelligent life possible, without which we could not exist. All because of this Word that is God.

Verse 14 gives us the punchline: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Astonishing. Breathtaking. Wondrous. The very source of all things, the reason there is anything at all, why there is something rather than nothing, became a part of his own creation. All so we could know this Word. So we could know reality. So we could see the truth. So we could experience the relationship that forms and gives shape to the heavens and the earth and everything in them. So we could know where we came from and where we’re going, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The one in whom we live and move and have our being became a human being. God spoke himself into our time and space.

In many ways the search for meaning, for purpose, for fulfillment, is both a search for ourselves and a search for God. We can’t find one without finding the other. We can’t know one without knowing the other. Yet were it not for God revealing himself, we would have nowhere to begin. God initiates. He always moves first.

As I look back on my life, even with my very limited perspective, I think it’s possible—even necessary—to conclude that though I wasn’t always aware of him, God was there. I believe he protected me. I believe he led me to himself. I believe he continually placed people in my life and brought circumstances into my life so that I would seek after him. I say this both of joyful and difficult times—maybe more so through difficult times.

The time I can most concretely point to as a conversion was a personal low point, a moment of feeling the weight of insecurity and a desperate need for a power outside of myself to help me. I felt alone, trapped inside of myself, shackled to my fears and anxiety. It was there that Jesus met me. It was not a dramatic conversion. There was no blinding light. I heard no audible voice, angels singing, or trumpets. But I heard him. I heard him mostly in community, in the accepting grace of peers and through the discerning wisdom of improbable mentors. And I heard him in his word. Indeed, hearing from God through Scripture is also to hear him through the voice of both peers and mentors, people who through their faith and failure reveal to us the very grace of God. I believe our stories, our very lives, can be a part of the story God is telling. I hope that’s true of me. I believe it is. Notice how I said, I believe it is. Present-tense. It’s still true. God is still writing my story. More chapters remain. And it’s my hope and prayer that if you’re reading this, you’re discovering yourself being written into God’s story too.

Trusting God in the Dark

Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out before you day and night.
May my prayer reach your presence;
listen to my cry.

For I have had enough troubles,
and my life is near Sheol.
I am counted among those going down to the Pit.
I am like a man without strength,
abandoned among the dead.
I am like the slain lying in the grave,
whom you no longer remember,
and who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.
Your wrath weighs heavily on me;

you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have distanced my friends from me;
you have made me repulsive to them.
I am shut in and cannot go out.
My eyes are worn out from crying.
Lord, I cry out to you all day long;
I spread out my hands to you.

Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do departed spirits rise up to praise you?
Will your faithful love be declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Will your wonders be known in the darkness
or your righteousness in the land of oblivion?

But I call to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer meets you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face from me?
From my youth,
I have been suffering and near death.
I suffer your horrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath sweeps over me;
your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
they close in on me from every side.
You have distanced loved one and neighbor from me;
darkness is my only friend.

Psalm 88

Wilderness #5: Coming Out of the Wilderness

This series was based in part on Rob Renfroe’s book, A Way Through the Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard. I read this book as part of an online pastor’s group where the theme was learning to be resilient. In any case, that’s why the sermons in this series include so many quotes from Renfroe. I recommend the book if you appreciated these sermon notes.

This is not a place we want to be indefinitely. It’s not even where God wants us to be indefinitely. Isaiah 43:18—19 says:

Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

The key question when we began this series was this: Who will you be when this difficult time is over? When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you have become? As we finish this series, we’re going to look at three final lessons from the wilderness: the wilderness will reveal your heart, the wilderness will change you, and the wilderness will give you a gift to share.

How do you find out what’s in a sponge? You squeeze it, right? What’s in a sponge only comes out because of pressure. That’s like us. We’re like sponges. Pressure reveals who we are. Have any of you had to have a stress test? It’s for your heart, right? To see how strong and healthy it is—to see what’s really inside of it. Rob Renfroe says: “The wilderness is a spiritual stress test. It shows us the real condition of our spiritual hearts, our character, and our faith.” Let me ask: have you ever done anything out of character because of a very stressful situation, because of really difficult circumstances? I’m going to suggest something. I’m going to suggest that we never really do anything “out of character.”

Psalm 78:18 says this about the Israelites in the wilderness: They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. This is incredibly important: What was in their heart came out as an attitude toward their circumstances. They were being squeezed like lemons and out came complaining and demanding. The demanding and complaining were already there—their circumstances simply brought it to the surface.

There’s a profound connection between our hearts and our actions. Think about Psalm 119:11: I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Here the psalmist wants to make sure that he does not sin—and this is why he has stored up God’s word—where?—in his heart. Jesus himself says: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. Proverbs 4:23 says: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Other translations say, Guard your heart. All this to say: The wilderness will reveal your heart.

The wilderness is a time when we can learn about ourselves, a time of growing in self-awareness. This can help us understand who we are, why we are the way we are, why we respond to life the way we do, and how all of this impacts our relationship with God. Here’s the thing: when life is going well, we don’t tend to think about it. It’s much easier to avoid the messier, more difficult stuff inside of us.

This is the challenge: most of us don’t want to deal with what the wilderness may reveal about us. It will seem too painful or too difficult. It will likely bring up stuff from our past. It’s just too hard. So as difficult as it is, it’s God’s way of revealing our heart so we can grow and become more like Jesus.

Let me ask: How do you respond to stress? When life squeezes you like a sponge, what comes out? What weaknesses in you does the wilderness reveal? What strengths does it reveal? What about yourself would you rather avoid? How does avoiding it affect your walk with God and your relationships with others?

Sometimes people talk about having a Sunday School faith. And what they mean is that their understanding of faith and of God hasn’t really grown. A person can be an adult but have no more mature a grasp of God than a young child in Sunday School. On the one hand, yes, we’re invited to have the faith of a child; on the other hand, we’re also called to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15). 1 Corinthians 13:11 says: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Along with revealing your heart, the wilderness will change you. In other words, the wilderness doesn’t reveal our heart just so we know ourselves better. It’s so we can grow. And the wilderness will change you; but how it changes you depends on how you go through the wilderness. It’s possible to come out of the wilderness but for the wilderness to remain inside of us. It’s possible that the difficult circumstances pass and for us to come out bitter and hardened, trusting God even less than before.

The challenge is this: We need to come to terms with the fact that God is good, that he loves us, and that for this reason he allows us to enter the wilderness. Think of it as discipline. Proverbs 3:11 says: My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof. Hebrews 12:6 says: For the Lord disciplines the one he loves. Changing—and allowing God to change us—can be profoundly difficult and even painful as God seeks to address old habits, ways of thinking, and patterns of behaviour that keep us from trusting and loving him more fully.

So let’s ask: In what way might God be looking to change you (your habits, your thinking, your attitudes)? What’s ultimately more painful: staying as you are or accepting God’s discipline and letting him change you? Have your more difficult circumstances led you to trust God more? Why or why not?

Have you heard of the “one another” passages in the NT? Here are some of them: Romans 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection. 2 Corinthians 13:11: Comfort one another. Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens. Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. 1 Thessalonians 5:11: Therefore encourage one another and build one another up. James 5:16: Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.  1 Peter 1:22: Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.And while it’s always true, in the wilderness it’s especially true that we need comfort, we need kindness, we need someone to bear our burdens, we need someone to encourage us, we need someone one to hear our confession, we need someone to pray for us and with us, and we need someone to love us. And chances are, someone will also need these things from us.

The wilderness reveals our heart. The wilderness changes us. And, lastly, the wilderness gives us a gift to share. One of the most profound ways we can encourage others is to share how God has been with us, and what he has taught us, in our most difficult seasons of life, from our struggles and our failures.  

Renfroe says: “The wilderness prepares us to be that person for others. When we remember how we struggled, when we remember how long our nights were and how nothing eased our agony, when we remember how alone we felt, when we remember that doing all the right things and praying all the right prayers still left us empty and in pain—that’s when we can give other hurting souls the most important gift of being with them, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. And knowing they’re not alone can be enough to get them through the most difficult time of their life.”

The challenge is this: none of us likes being vulnerable. We have a culture of not talking about deeper issues, the ones that most deeply affect us. We sweep and hide difficult feelings and painful experiences away. We don’t know how to bring these things into community. We don’t know how to bring these things before God with honesty.

So: Based on the “one another” verses, what should relationships in the church be like? Is this your experience? Why or why not? Has knowing others understand what you’re going through been an encouragement? How can you encourage others? In what ways has God met you through the love of other people?

One last quote from Renfroe: “The wilderness is always devastating. It brings us to the end of ourselves so that we can have a new beginning with God.” The wilderness will reveal your heart. The wilderness will change you. The wilderness will give you a gift to share. It comes down to trusting God, to knowing how much he loves us, and to who he calls us to become. It’s not so much about what’s happening to us but what’s happening in us.

Churches can also enter a wilderness, a season of testing, when God calls us to trust him more deeply, to acknowledge our failures and our struggles, and to find grace and even transformation. But to come out of this wilderness, to become who God calls us to be, means being honest about who we are, where we’ve come from, and why we are here.

I think a lot of churches in our society are in a wilderness. Some of this is because of outside factors, things beyond our control. Our society has changed profoundly over the last few decades. Some of this, however, is also because of choices we’ve made or failed to make, decisions about our buildings, our mission, and about how we deal with one another. Some of this is because as churches—just like us as individuals—we convince ourselves into thinking that we can move on without these things having an affect on us now.

So, do we really trust God? Are we willing—not only as individuals but as churches—to let God move us forward? Because this means:Letting God reveal our heart as a church. Where have we come from? Who are we? Why are we here? What aren’t we dealing with that is holding us back?Letting God change us as a church. What might God want to change about us? What does he want to see happen here? Are we willing to go through whatever it takes for that to happen?

The wilderness is painful. No matter how we go through it. I remember someone once talking about churches that are struggling. He said that we have to “choose our pain.” There’s the pain of change, of the hard work of love, of honesty, of deeper relationships; and then there’s the pain of slow decline, of dying without trying.

Or to put it another way, there are two kinds of dying, two kinds of death. One kind of death comes our way because we don’t want to change. This sort of death comes our way because we’re trying to hold onto our life, onto our agendas, onto our comfort. It’s not a death that leads anywhere. But the other kind of death is death with a purpose. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves. He calls us to put to death our sin, our selfishness, our pride, our fear—all by coming to him, all by kneeling at the foot of his cross, all by marveling at the empty tomb. This is the death that leads to life, new life, resurrection. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus says: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Who do we really want to be? Who do we really want to become? And who is Christ calling us to be? The difference between these two kinds of pain, these two kinds of death is this: our choice. And this is the choice that we face in the wilderness.

Wilderness #2: Walking with Others in the Wilderness

Moses said to Hobab, descendant of Reuel the Midianite and Moses’s relative by marriage, “We’re setting out for the place the Lord promised, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things to Israel.” But he replied to him, “I don’t want to go. Instead, I will go to my own land and my relatives.” “Please don’t leave us,” Moses said, “since you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can serve as our eyes. If you come with us, whatever good the Lord does for us we will do for you.”

Numbers 10:29—32
A Monastery in the Desert

Edward Powell was the pastor of Grand Bay Baptist Church when my family and I were living in Nerepis. I love Edward. He was one of the most supportive friends I had during our time there. One of the most wonderful things about Edward is that at the end of every conversation with him, either in person or on the phone, he would pray for you. Even when he left a voice mail, he would pray.

A few years before moving here my wife went through a few months of having horrible insomnia. Most nights it took her hours to fall asleep. Sometimes she would have fallen asleep just before the sun came up. Once in awhile she didn’t fall asleep at all. And so you can imagine what that must have been like. I was a full-time pastor. We had our three kids. It was exhausting and stressful. After talking to Edward about this, he offered to come over to spend some time praying with us about it. He also asked if he could bring someone else who had had a similar experience. So they came over and we shared and we prayed. What I still treasure is how someone was with us when we were having a hard time. Whatever else we can say, we didn’t feel alone.

In Galatians 6:2, Paul writes: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. We all have burdens. But we don’t have to carry them alone. Sometimes the only thing worse than being in the wilderness is being alone in the wilderness. This morning we’re talking about walking with others in the wilderness. Our key question is: Who will walk with you in the wilderness?

There’s a stereotype about men that if they get lost while traveling they don’t want to ask for help with directions. And the truth is, a lot of us don’t like asking for help. Maybe because it makes us feel vulnerable. We don’t want to look weak. We think we should find our own way through whatever circumstances we’re in.

As we see in our passage from Numbers, the Israelites were in the wilderness, journeying to the promised land. And in our passage Moses asks Hobab to come with them to help guide them. Now, some might think this shows a lack of faith on Moses’ part. After all, the Israelites had the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to guide them. But I think it shows humility on Moses’ part. I think that it takes courage to ask for help. It takes courage to admit you need help. It’s risky. It means stepping beyond our fear and pride.

We live in a culture that emphasizes self-reliance, independence, handling things on your own. We don’t want to bother other people with our worries. We think we shouldn’t, that we’re not supposed to. And I think this same attitude or way of seeing things is in the church too. If I can be honest, too often even in church (or around other Christians) it’s sort of like we have to not only put on our best clothes but our best moods. We have to pretend we’re not hurting, that we’re not confused, that we’re not having a difficult time. It’s as though being open about our struggles will somehow ruin everything.

Once I had someone who led a depression support group come share with our church. I was really struck by the fact that those who go to this group can simply vent, talk about messy stuff, and be themselves. Like AA. When you go to a support group, there’s no hiding. Simply attending is an admission that you need help from other people. Though it often isn’t, church ought to be like that too.

So, the first thing about walking with others in the wilderness with others is this: Walking with others in the wilderness means admitting we need others. Coming to church should be like admitting that I can’t trust God on my own—and all the more so when I’m in the wilderness. When we come here, to some extent we should be free to stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Derek, and I struggle with anxiety.” The community of the church is—or should be—a support group.

So, let’s ask: When you’re going through a difficult time, is asking for help difficult? Do you experience church as a place where you can be honest about your struggles? Would you like it if church were this kind of place?

I’ve had the blessing of being in online spiritual formation groups with other pastors, and I am in one now. We meet each week online. It’s a valuable and profound experience because there are things pastors can only talk about with one another. Because only other pastors understand. We’ve traveled the same territory.

When Moses asked his brother in law Hobab to come with them to serve as eyes to guide them on their journey, he had a specific reason for doing so. When Moses married, he married a Midianite woman—Zipporah—and Hobab was Moses’ brother in law. Midianites were wilderness nomads. This means they knew the territory.

That’s why Moses says to Hobab: Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. So in asking Hobab, he was asking someone who could help them on their journey, someone already familiar with where to look for water, where to find vegetation for their animals, what the dangers were. Moses knew what he didn’t know.

Rob Renfroe, in his book A Way Through the Wilderness, writes this: “God will bring into your life someone who knows the terrain and challenges you are facing. God will place someone in the middle of your wilderness who has been there before you, knows the way through, and will teach you the lessons you need to learn.”

Now, it’s probably the case that you won’t share your deepest struggles with everyone. Maybe there’s one or two people who you know you can trust with your struggle. You know they’ll accept you and love you no matter what you share. Proverbs 17:17 says A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. It also makes me think of Paul’s words in Romans 12:15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

But there’s another dimension to this also. I know that if I am having a hard time in my life and I’m having trouble seeing why God might allow these particular circumstances, I don’t just want someone who’s had a similar experience, but someone who can show me how to trust God even when life is hard. In other words, I would want a more experienced Christian, a spiritually mature believer who has also wrestled with God.

Because, remember, Moses and the Israelites weren’t on just any journey. They were going where God was leading them. They were learning how to trust God in the most barren, desolate places. They were on their way to the Promised Land. So are we. Between here and there, we’re learning to trust God.So we can also say this: walking with others in the wilderness means having others with us who know the terrain and can encourage us to keep walking with God while we’re going through it.

Let me ask:If you were to find yourself in a spiritual wilderness, who could you talk to about it? Who has been where you are? Are you comfortable asking for prayer for personal struggles?How might God want to use the presence of other people in your life to draw you closer to him?

After he asks Hobab to come with them, Moses says to him: And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you. Hobab will enjoy the same blessings as Moses and the Israelites. So lastly: walking with others in the wilderness means sharing what we learn with others. We help as we’ve been helped. We bless others as others have blessed us. When we’ve had someone pray with us about our struggles, we’re learning how to pray with others who are hurting. There are times when we’re on the receiving end; other times we’re on the giving end.

Walking with others in the wilderness is also not mostly about giving advice or having answers to someone’s problems. It’s mostly about being there. Being present. Because people will have problems we have no idea how to solve, but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk with them.

So maybe it’s being a shoulder to cry on or taking someone out for coffee so they can talk and you can listen. We underestimate the value of listening. Listening is a form of ministry. In fact, more than advice, it’s about sharing our own stories. It’s a way of saying, “Been there.” It’s also about remembering and sharing how God was with us while we were in the wilderness.

The question to ask ourselves is this: Who around me is hurting or struggling? Who can I come alongside and encourage? What can I share from my own experience that will help someone else to trust God even in a difficult season? Because when we—or someone we know—ends up in the wilderness, it’s important to know that you’re never alone.  

Prayer #4:Praying for One Another

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength . . . I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 1:15—19, 3:16—21

I heard someone say once that most prayers are about steering wheels and stomachs! In other words, we pray for people who are sick or traveling. And I think this more or less rings true. And of course there’s nothing wrong with praying for these concerns.

But I think this is also why prayers in the Bible can sometimes sound strange to us. This is definitely true with respect to how people pray. Last week we saw Abraham enter into a bold yet humble conversation with God in a way that most of us probably do not. And prayers in the Bible can also sound strange to us because of what people pray for. And we see that with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. It’s characteristic of Paul to include prayers in his letters, usually at the beginning, but often throughout too. By looking at his prayers, Scripture also teaches us how to pray. Specifically, we’re being taught how to pray for fellow believers.

Have you ever thought about what God wants for the people you’re praying for? Is his first concern their physical health? Maybe the Lord has allowed illness to enter their lives to get their attention. The first thing we see here is this: Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Now, what do I mean by this?

In Ephesians, Paul bursts into prayer immediately after having spoken of the reality of salvation, the blessings we have through Christ, and God’s purpose for those whom he calls. Here are some of those words: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ . . . In him we have received an inheritance . . . In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed.

If you read the beginning of Ephesians, it almost feels like Paul’s words are tumbling out. He’s like he can’t keep it in. He’s overjoyed and overwhelmed by God and his blessings. And so his prayer for the Ephesians literally spills out of these words. He says: This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. In other words, he’s saying: “I’m so incredibly glad that you have experienced the gift of salvation, that you have come to know Christ and have become a part of the family of God. I’m blown away and filled with gratitude with what God has done in your lives.”

Paul’s prayers are fueled by biblical truth, by the reality of what God has accomplished for us through Jesus and by the Spirit. And this is what motivates Paul to pray in the first place. It also shapes what he prays. For instance, he prays: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spiritof wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

Do we pray like this? Do we ask God boldly and humbly to open the eyes of the hearts of our fellow Christians, so that they would be further and further filled with faith, hope, and love? Isn’t this what God wants for them? Indeed, for us?

Here’s the thing: if want more motivation for our prayers and a deeper understanding of how we should pray, we need Scripture. We need the Bible. It is the fuel for our prayers—including our prayers for others.

And this is true whether we’re praying for Christians or for people who are not Christians. Either way, we’re called to ask God to be at work in people’s lives. This can mean continuing to grow in faith or it can mean coming to faith in Christ for the first time. Praying for others requires the fuel of biblical truth.

When you pray for others, what do you pray for most? What specific biblical truth about God fuels your prayers? Do you fuel your prayers with Scripture? What difference does it make?

Do you remember the OT story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)? Elijah challenges the prophets to see if their god is more powerful than Yahweh, to see which God will shower their altar with fire. The prophets of Baal spend all day crying out to Baal. They even cut themselves, hoping he will respond. He never does. Elijah mocks them. Then after they’ve had their turn, Elijah makes sure his altar is soaked with water. He utters a short, simple prayer; and fire falls on the altar, thoroughly drying out even the water that spilled over into the trench. The prophets of Baal seemed to be trusting in the fervency of their prayers. It was about what they could do to manipulate their god to act. On the other hand, Elijah spoke a simple, trusting prayer in the God of Israel: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, today let it be known that you are God in Israel.  Elijah’s faith was in a powerful God. Then God showed up in a powerful way.

So the next thing we then see is this: Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God can do what he says he will do. It means trusting that he can answer our prayers. It means trusting that he can be at work in our lives. He can rain fire on the altar of our hearts.

I think we struggle with this as Christians. But I wonder if that’s because we focus too much on ourselves and not enough on the character of God? Fueling our prayers with biblical truth can really help us to trust in the power of God.

Paul mentions the power of God a couple of times. First, he talks about the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength. He goes on to say that God exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead.

So he wants the Ephesians to understand—to take deeply into their hearts and minds—that the power at work in them is the same divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s this same power that gives us strength to live the Christian life: I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And do you see what he’s praying for here? That the Ephesians would be strengthened spiritually in their walk with Christ, that their faith in him would grow and become more resilient.

Look at how Paul concludes his prayer with a benediction: Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Did you catch that? Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us. This is an expression of deep trust in the power of God. Paul’s saying we can trust God’s power to answer our prayers according to his purpose. I also believe this: the more we pray like Paul, the stronger our own faith can become.

Based on Paul’s prayer, what does God want for us and our lives? Is this what you usually pray about for others? How would you describe the power of God that’s at work in our lives?What does believing in the resurrection have to do with trusting in the power of God for our lives now? Do you pray for others with this kind of trust in God’s power?

I think as a father, the most important thing I want my kids to know and experience from me is my love for them. I say, “I love you,” all the time. Maybe it even annoys them after a while! Sometimes, rather than saying “I love you” back they say “I know, Dad.” But did you know that this is what God wants us to know and experience of him also? God wants us to comprehend the length and width, height and depth of [his] love for us.

This is what Paul prays for the Ephesians. And we should pray the very same thing for others too. Put simply: Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. Listen again to what Paul prays:  I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Isn’t that just amazing? Whatever else Paul is saying here, it’s all rooted in the love of God for us, a love that he wants us to be profoundly aware of. And indeed if Paul makes this his prayer for the Ephesians, we can also make this a part of our prayers for others.

In his book, Prayer for Beginners, Peter Kreeft writes: “Trusting God’s grace means trusting God’s love for us rather than our love for God. Therefore our prayers should consist mainly of rousing our awareness of God’s love for us rather than trying to rouse God’s awareness of our love for him.” Because there is nothing that can and will transform us more than knowing and experiencing—comprehending deeply—God’s love for us in Christ.

To quote John White, from Daring to Draw Near, “In knowing the love that passes knowledge we are changed . . . All Christians are meant to grasp it, not to understand an abstract concept but to perceive that they themselves are loved by a love that has no measure.” We should be praying that all of us would become more aware of, and changed by, this very love, the love that we see ultimately in the person and work of Jesus.

Do you need to know and experience God’s love more deeply? Are you comfortable asking him to help you with this?How does knowing someone loves you enable you to trust them? Why might praying that others may know God’s love for them change how we see them?

George Whitfield, 18th century evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote: “If we inquire, why there is so little love to be found amongst Christians, why the very characteristic, by which everyone should know that we are disciples of the holy Jesus, is almost banished out of the Christian world, we shall find it, in a great measure, owing to a neglect or superficial performance of that excellent part of prayer, Intercession, or imploring the divine grace and mercy in behalf of others.” Our love for one another goes hand in hand with praying for one another. With praying specifically that we would grow in our knowledge of God’s love for us, in our trust in God, in our walk with Jesus.

Maybe you’ve shared with someone a difficulty you’re having and they’ve said, “I’ll pray for you.” Or maybe you’ve said that to someone when they’ve shared with you. And if you’re like me, there are times when you completely forget and never actually follow through. So, if possible, what I try to say instead is this: “Can I pray for you right now?” And if the person says yes, which is what they usually say, I do it right there and then.

Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Or to put it another way: prayer is a key way of applying my knowledge of Scripture in a very practical way. Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God wants to and is able to change the people we are praying for. Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. This is true for us believers, because all of us need to more fully receive the love of God for us. And it’s true for people who have yet to experience faith in Jesus, because they need to know, even if for the first time, just how much God loves them. The truth is: we all need the eyes of our hearts opened more and more to the reality of the love of God the Father and to the good news of Jesus the Son. We’re all in need of further and deeper transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to become and to grow as a Christian. And this takes prayer. This is why we pray for one another.

Unafraid?

God is our refuge and strength,
a helper who is always found
in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid.

Psalm 46:1–2a

Yesterday while having a Zoom conversation with my spiritual director, he asked what I want more of from God. It took me a few moments, but this is what came to mind at the time. When I think of what I want more of from God or how I want to grow spiritually, it would be to be able to look my fears in the face more and more without feeling threatened. I want to move toward experiencing God more and more as my refuge and strength, as the psalmist says, so that my fears do not get the best of me. More and more I want to live out of my security in God rather than the insecurity of unreliable circumstances. Because I can never really trust my circumstances or the world around me, but I can always trust the God who is a refuge and strength to his people. Whatever else is true or whatever else is happening in my life, I pray that the reality of who God is–and his presence in my life–would be where I increasingly place my trust. I want to live as unafraid as I can.

What is a Human Being?

You may have noticed recently that in mainstream media the term “pregnant woman/women” is almost never used. Instead, articles will use the language of “pregnant person/people.” Why do you think that is? Or perhaps you’ve seen TikTok videos of parents proudly parading out their transgender-identified 10 year old girl or boy for the world to see. Author and journalist Abigail Shrier has even written a best-selling book on what she refers to as a “transgender craze” among girls.

Whereas only a few years ago, the question was whether or not same-sex marriage ought to be legal (thereby re-defining the very meaning of marriage itself, at least legally), the transgender movement takes this cultural development considerably further to questions concerning human nature and identity. If Bruce Jenner can simply become Caitlyn Jenner and we’re all supposed to accept and even applaud this transition, then fundamental questions about who we are as human beings inevitably come to the fore. What is a human being? Do all human beings share what we might call a human nature? Is human identity something that we receive from an external source or must each individual human being determine their own identity as a matter of self-expression?

In his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, theologian Carl Trueman sets out to unpack how our culture has come to see questions of identity in the way it now has. Specifically, he addresses why it is that a particular statement–“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”–has, as he says, “come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful.” Having just finished reading it, I highly recommend Trueman’s book (or the newly released popular level version). It will help you understand how it is that our society has reached the point where biological sex–the actual physical reality or embodiment that is our basic experience as human beings–has become virtually disconnected from gender and the way in which many experience their consciousness of being a self. By the word self Trueman means the following: “For me to be a self in the sense I am using the term here involves an understanding of what the purpose of my life is, of what constitutes the good life, of how I understand myself–my self–in relation to others and to the world around me.” Through his analysis of pertinent philosophical and cultural history, he shows how we have reached the state where for many a sense of self–or self-consciousness–involves “a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology–we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’–for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is.” In other words, today a person is who they feel themselves to be, irrespective of biological or other considerations.

As one example of this, a recent episode of “Dr. Phil” featured panelists that included two individuals who identify as a gender other than their biological sex. One is self-described as “non-binary transmasculine.” One of the other panelists was conservative Catholic podcaster Matt Walsh. At one point during the discussion, Walsh asked what seems like a simple straightforward question, “What is a woman?” This is a question that for most of human history was an easy question to answer. Apparently not so now.

This clip encapsulates precisely what is at issue in this conversation around transgenderism, identity, and human nature. And what is quite clear from the conversation is that not only is there serious disagreement over gender and identity, there is also a deeper, more fundamental difference about where we get our sense of identity and about how we know who we are. Or: What is human nature? Does it transcend our inner sense of self or can it be reduced to who we feel we are?

Christians need to seek biblical clarity and wisdom with respect to these questions. At a time when many understand love and compassion to mean an unquestioning acceptance of profoundly shifting norms concerning human sexuality and identity, Christians need to discern ways to love their neighbours without uncritically flowing with the cultural tide. Put more pointedly: If we have a family member, friend, or neighbour who chooses to identify as a gender that does not correspond to their biological sex, then how do we relate to this person with love and wisdom, with both truth and compassion? Knowing how to relate to such an individual means, first, having a foundational understanding of what it means to be a human being. Because love apart from truth will almost inevitably devolve into mere sentimentality. If I conclude that loving someone means accepting and living as though they are who they feel they are, even if who they feel they are has no basis in actual reality, am I truly loving them or am I actually causing that person further harm? When does love become simply an exercise in preserving the goodwill in the relationship? I am not saying that navigating these questions is easy, but if we have to navigate them, do we not want to do so in a way that is honest and that seeks to apply a biblical understanding of personhood even to the closest of our relationships? Put another way: Can we not love someone–and indeed love someone fiercely–even without accepting their every decision and impulse?

Not only that, of course, but Christians cannot separate loving our neighbours from loving God. The two great commandments, given in the Old Testament and reaffirmed by Jesus and the whole New Testament, are profoundly interconnected. Except that we need to understand what it means to love our neighbour via what it means to love God. Loving God is the first great commandment. Loving God means knowing God as he has revealed himself to be. It means our relationship with God ought to determine what it means to love other people. Loving someone, therefore, doesn’t mean loving them exclusively according to their definition of love. Instead, loving someone means desiring for them what God wants for them. And that is something we come to know through a careful and prayerful reading of Scripture. This careful and prayerful reading of Scripture also includes discerning what it means to be human, and what it means to have been made male and female, and then applying this biblical teaching of who we are as human beings with sensitivity, love, and conviction to our culture’s current conversation surrounding sex and gender. So I want to do a bit of that here to the extent that I am able. I want to say a few things based on the the first account in Genesis of God creating humanity. Here is the verse:

So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

Genesis 1:27

So what do we see here about what it means to be a human being? I will mention two things. The first and most obvious point is that we are creatures, which means we are not the result of a mindless and purposeless biological process. Our existence is the result of divine action. God created man. We are not an accidental product of evolution. As creatures, we have a Creator. Or you might say a Designer. In other words, God created human beings with intention and purpose. We are here for a reason. There is nothing random about the way we were made. We are not an “oops!” in the mind of God.

Second, he created us male and female. Whatever else we say about this, at the very least it means that there are only two actual, possible genders. And none of us gets to choose which gender we are. Our gender identity is identical to our biological sex, and this sexual identity is something we are given, not something we choose or that we can change without distorting reality or mutilating our physical bodies.

An important implication, therefore, of the biblical account is that we have an external source of identity and purpose as human beings. We only know what it means to be a human being—and what it means to be a man or a woman—because God tells us. There is a fundamental sense in which we do not get to decide or even change who we are as individual conscious selves.

This is directly contrary to how people in our culture—including even some Christians—often view questions of identity and human nature. Human personhood is very nearly altogether defined by one’s internal sense of self, and is largely, therefore, psychological. Divorced almost entirely from questions of biology, the modern self is malleable to the extreme. Is it any wonder, then, that there are people who choose to physically alter their bodies in dramatic ways so it conforms to their internally determined identity?

Of course, to identify someone as male or female isn’t the same thing as cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity. Nor does it provide immediate wisdom or direction about how to handle personal conversations or relationships that involve these questions of gender and identity. So even if I accept the basic biblical understanding of gender and identity, there is still the matter of how I interact with someone who views these questions differently. If someone I know and love were to reach the conclusion that their internal sense of self does not align with their biological sex, there is still the matter of how I show love and compassion to this person. Because whatever else that person believes about their gender and identity–about who they are as a particular human being–he or she has been made in the image of God. And as we engage in these challenging and complex conversations, as people of faith it is here that we must start.