Hyouka and the Cheerful Cynic

I’ve been meaning to write a post about cynicism and the Christian life for a while, but couldn’t find the right way to approach it. I finally found some inspiration from an unlikely source: an anime called Hyouka and a great series of write ups on the show from a blog called Wrong Every Time. These ignited some amateur English-major analysis of my own (which could be totally wrong), and launched some fruitful reflection on cynicism. No need to have watched the show to understand this post but beware, there will be some spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy!

Hyouka and Helplessness

Hyouka tells the story of four friends who solve mysteries together as part of the Classics Club. Oreki (third to the right) is a lazy energy-conserving genius and the main protagonist. Chitanda (far left) is his joyful and endlessly curious foil. Satoshi (far right) and Mayaka (second to the left) are Oreki’s childhood friends.

At its heart, Hyouka is a show about helplessness. ‘Hyouka’ is the title of an old club anthology and the key to the show’s first mystery. At first, it appears harmless and nondescript – the word ‘Hyouka’ simply translates to ‘Ice Cream’. But, after learning the details of how it came to be, Oreki and his friends realize Hyouka is actually a silent cry for help: ‘I Scream’.

This bit of wordplay colors and characterizes the rest of the show. Hyouka becomes a symbol for something that appears trivial, but actually reveals a person’s inward pain. Many of the subsequent mysteries follow the same pattern as the first. They begin with ordinary details, but eventually reveal someone who feels hurt or marginalized. An unfinished script, for instance, reveals a quiet author who has been pushed aside by her more outspoken classmates. A series of petty thefts reveal a web of hurt feelings, unmet wishes, and personal insecurities.

This idea of Hyouka – the silent cry for help – has stuck with me, even after I finished watching the show. Here are two observations about the idea that make it interesting and helpful to my thinking:

I. Hyouka captures the ache of ordinary helplessnessMost mysteries use dramatic crimes and character motives to captivate their audience’s attention (think CSI or Sherlock Holmes). Hyouka’s mysteries, however, are more subdued.  Characters don’t murder or kidnap others; they act out in insignificant and barely noticeable ways. They aren’t motivated by rage or pathology, but by ordinary struggles we can all relate to. Hyouka doesn’t make a big show of a mystery’s “reveal”. In fact, it hardly lingers on its characters at all. We see a brief glimpse of someone’s inner pain and then the show moves on —  to another character, another day, another mystery.

This subtlety, rather than minimizing idea of the Hyouka, more perceptively captures it. Hyouka captures ordinary helplessness – the kind we feel most often, but which can be the most difficult to explain. Ordinary helplessness, Hyouka argues, can be just as devastating as the pain of obvious tragedy. The difference is that this pain breaks you not all at once, but as a slow and constant ache. It is pain too trivial to share without feeling overdramatic, yet not drastic enough that we can’t go on. So we let it exist in the background and only hint at it to others.

II. Hyouka captures our conflicted response to helplessness The wordplay of Hyouka both conceals and reveals. It does not declare what the author really feels, nor does it hide it altogether. It’s a clue for the attentive eye. A piece of evidence that reveals the truth.

This provides an astute observation about the ways in which we respond to helplessness. When we feel helpless, we feel  a strong desire to conceal. After all, everyone else seems to have their life together and the reasons why we hurt are so mundane. Who would understand or take us seriously? Wouldn’t people think less of us for being overly sensitive?  We feel shame in showing who we truly are.

At the same time, we feel an equally strong desire to reveal. We want someone to see our pain and to understand it. Even if we don’t, at some point we have to find an outlet to let out our pent-up frustration – just as someone holding their breath must eventually exhale.

What results from these two competing desires to conceal and reveal? Hyouka – silent cries of helplessness – in all their various incarnations. In the world of Hyouka, mysteries do not come from criminal masterminds, but from the inner conflict of ordinary hurting people. Shouts for help  in small details and cryptic actions, passed over by the masses but discovered by the observant eyes of these four friends.

Satoshi the Smiling Cynic


As the show progresses, we see ‘Hyouka’ extend beyond the club’s mysteries into the lives of the main characters. Satoshi is Oreki’s childhood friend and one of the four members of the club. At first, he seems happy. He’s always wearing a smile, is well liked, and actively participates in school activities. As time passes, however, we learn to trust his cheerfulness less and less. Visually, he is often shown smiling while shrouded in shadows. And despite his cheerfulness, he always seems strangely detached.

In a later episode, Satoshi goes from solving mysteries to being the subject of one. From investigator to the investigated. When Oreki corners him, he finally explains the reasoning behind his false cheerfulness. Nick, at Wrong Every Time, summarizes it in this way:

Then Satoshi spills it all. “I won’t ever be the best at anything,” he says, dwarfed by snowflakes falling like bright stars. “Or rather, I’ve stopped trying to be.” Reflecting back on his middle school self, he reflects that “winning was boring. So I got tired of it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed with anything. Since then, every day’s been a happy day!…” These words ring completely hollow to our understanding of Satoshi…

Satoshi wants to be a person who can truly engage with the world, but his fear is much stronger than his hope, and so this is how he rationalizes his refusal to engage. He says that winning is “boring,” and tells himself he’s not actually in engaged in anything – but all this really means is that he’s still committed to the adolescent mindset of either being a winner or a loser. Satoshi can’t see value just in the attempt – like Kouchi from the manga club, he doesn’t even want to try if he knows someone will be better than him…

Satoshi has many things going for him. He is gifted with a computer-like memory. He has friends who love and care deeply about him. But none of those things provide any comfort because he is constantly measuring himself against Oreki. Time after time, he puts forth his best effort to equal or surpass his friend, placing his self-worth on the line to be validated by a win or crushed by a loss. And each time, lazy Oreki, with a yawn of bored indifference, outperforms him. Satoshi is brilliant, but Oreki is blessed with extraordinary unreachable genius.

Every failure reminds Satoshi of his mediocrity. It reminds him that no matter how hard he tries, his best efforts will never match Oreki’s and he is helpless to do anything about it. This is a crushing realization and Satoshi applies it not only to his relationship with Oreki, but to all of his life. He loses confidence in his ability to engage the world. He no longer trusts that there is a relationship between hard work and worthwhile results.

So what does he do instead? He becomes a cynic – though he won’t admit it to himself or to Oreki. He stops competing. He avoids any risk that reminds him of his limitations. He distances himself from everything he cares about. And he does it, not with a scowling face like we might expect, but with a smile.

His cheerful persona acts as a defense against feelings of failure. It allows him to avoid the ups and downs of competition and the sting of losing, and instead to create a stable kind of joy. He can still enjoy the good things – friendships, lighthearted contests – while ignoring everything else.

We’ll return to the merits and demerits of Satoshi’s chosen strategy in the next post. But for now, I want to end this post by noting the close connection between helplessness and cynicism for Satoshi. When we look closely, we see that Satoshi’s smile and the cynical philosophy behind it are his ‘Hyouka’. They are the way he tries to conceal pain – from other and even from himself. But they are also the way he reveals his pain. Through his smile, Oreki and we the viewers gain a truer insight and understanding into his character.

Can you relate at all to the idea of Hyouka? Can you sympathize with how Satoshi feels? I sure can.  All of this might still seem odd and irrelevant, especially for those of you haven’t watched the show. In tomorrow’s post I’ll use some of these concepts and ideas to talk about cynicism in my own life. But until then, farewell!



My Sin and the Depth of David’s Repentance

psalm 51

This past Friday, I had the privilege of teaching from Psalm 51 – David’s famous psalm of repentance after committing adultery and murder.

When I first started studying the passage, David’s repentance felt remote to me. It made sense that he felt such deep contrition since he was repenting for two of the worst sins imaginable. But how did that relate to the ‘small’ and ‘ordinary’ sin I fight in day to day life?  Was I supposed to feel the same brokenness over my sin as David did?

As I dug deeper into the passage, however, I was struck by the depth of David’s understanding of sin. I saw that his words were not just for the adulterers and murderers,  but also for me. Psalm 51 shows my sin and my need for repentance. Here are two lessons in particular that stood out to me:

#1: Sin is First and Foremost Against God:

In verse 4, David declares “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” I had to think a lot about those words. What did he mean that he only sinned against God? Had he not also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah and everyone who had counted on his leadership?

We find some helpful clues in the narrative account. Listen to how God describes of David’s sin through the Prophet Nathan :

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites…

…David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7-9, 13 ESV)

We see similarities in this passage with verse 4 of Psalm 51. Both passages talk about doing evil in God’s sight and both end with David repenting of his sin to God.We also learn more about the nature of David’s sin. The primary sin in this passage is sin against God – David despised the word of the Lord.

That sin is heightened further by two factors. First, it is magnified by God’s past grace and generosity towards David. In verses 7-8, God reminds David of all that He had done in David’s life: he chose David even though he was not outwardly impressive, he protected and sustained David from Saul’s persecution, and he handed over all of Saul’s kingdom into his hands. And God was glad and willing to bless David more, if he came to him in humility and faith. Yet, despite God’s faithfulness, David scorned God’s word and rebelled against it.

Second, it is magnified by the extent to which David despised God’s Word. How did David despise God’s word? By sinning greatly against Uriah and Bathsheba. God includes David’s horizontal sin in David’s vertical sin against him. David’s transgression of the first commandment was worsened and heightened by his grave transgression of the second commandment.

Out of curiosity, I searched the terms ‘sinned against’ and ‘sins against’ on the ESV Bible website and was surprised to find the Bible nearly unanimously references sin as against God. It seems that while it is legitimate to talk about sinning against one another (Jesus does, for example in Matthew 18) sin is primarily against God – so much so, that it is right for David to say ‘against you, you only, have I sinned.’ God is the one most offended by our sin, the ultimate judge of sin, and the one to whom we must give account

How does this deepen my understanding of sin?  While Psalm 51 presents sin as being primarily against God, I often think of it as primarily against others. Because of that I reason that if my sin doesn’t harm others like David’s did, it really isn’t that serious and I don’t need to repent.

It’s true that sin against others is serious, but the Bible takes our understanding of sin a step further. All sin is serious because all sin despises God’s word. Our sin is heightened the more generous God has been to us, or the more our sin overflows and hurts others. But even if David lusted privately after Bathsheba or harbored bitterness in his heart instead of killing Uriah, he would be guilty of great sin because he would be breaking the greatest commandment – to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

#2: We have Sinful Hearts and God Examines the Heart

In verses 5-6, David writes: ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being. You teach me wisdom in the secret heart.’

David first laments that he was born a sinner. Many today use inborn sin as an excuse why they’re not sinful: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m not a sinner.’ But David reaches the exact opposite conclusion: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m a great sinner.’ David knows he is not a good person who happened to made bad choices, but a sinner with a sinful heart. Sin was knit deep into his nature from birth.

After confessing his sinful heart, David then declares that God examines the heart. He delights in truth in the inward being, he says, and teaches wisdom in the secret heart. He desires not just outward actions and religiosity, but genuine righteousness and faith that flows from the inside out.

David grasped this truths perhaps more than anyone else in Scripture. He was the man after God’s own heart in no small part because he realized that God valued his heart. That truth truth had been seared into his mind from the moment he learned why God had chosen him:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

And yet, despite everything David knew, his heart still strayed. It had grown dull, apathetic, and passionless. It had wandered so far that he committed adultery and murder. If David’s heart went astray, how much more will our hearts?

I tend to think of sin as primarily outward. Easily observable sinful actions like murder or adultery are clearly sin, but I often view heart sins as small or not sin at all. The Bible, however, takes heart sin far more seriously because it is the source from which all outward sin flows. Jesus, in Matthew 15:18-20, tells us:

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:18-20)

In Psalm 51, David asks forgiveness for the symptoms of his sin – the adultery and murder – but he also repents of his heart from which the adultery and murder flowed. Not only that, but David cries for God to strengthen his heart:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:10-12)

This is humbling for me. I can manage my outward actions to a certain extent, but I cannot manage my own heart – my anxiety, jealousy, anger, pride, and much more. Like David, I must repent for the bad heart which constantly leads me back toward sin. And like David, I must constantly be asking God to renew and uphold my spirit so that I might obey him willingly and joyfully.

David’s sin and repentance are not remote from me. I began my study seeing myself as above David, only for God to point to me and say ‘You are the man!’. My symptoms might manifest themselves differently from David’s but they come from the same bad root – a bad heart that despises and drifts from God’s Word. This is no small thing. If I’m not careful, then someday – soon or years down the road – my sin will overflow in catastrophic ways.  I am in need God always: to forgive me for my sin and to uphold and strengthen my heart. Praise him for his grace in the Gospel!

For more on sin, check out the other posts in the Forgiven Much series:

Forgiven Much: An Introduction

Forgiven Much: For a Bucket of Rainwater

Forgiven Much: Nowhere to Hide

Forgiven Much: The Greatest Commandment

The Wide Road and the Sovereign God

This is Part 2 of a series on the justice and goodness of God in hell and judgment. You can read part 1 here. I had a hard time writing this one so I hope it make sense. I’m definitely still learning and thinking about this topic and would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and feedback.

This past summer I spoke to the collegians at my church on the topic of ‘Joy in Evangelism’. Personally, it was one of the hardest messages I’ve ever had to prepare. It wasn’t that my text was particularly hard to understand; I struggled with the topic because in truth, I often viewed evangelism with discouragement and guilt, rather than joy. Evangelism called to mind the overwhelming number of people still without Christ.

If these countless men and women did not hear the Gospel and turn to Jesus in repentance, they would face an eternity under the judgement of God. I couldn’t shake the thought: there will be so many people who go to hell. How can this be, God? I agonized emotionally and intellectually about how that truth should affect my understanding of the power, justice, and goodness of God.

In this post and in posts to follow, I want to wrestle out loud with some of my own questions about the fact that so many will take the wide road to destruction. How can we have any peace as Christians while knowing this harsh reality? How can we continue to evangelize with courage and conviction? How can we uphold the goodness and justice of God?

These are tough questions that have no easy answers. But the answer I find myself returning to, both emotionally and intellectually, is the sovereignty of God. A Sovereign God is big enough to hold both salvation and judgment in his hands. A Sovereign God is just and good and in control even when many choose to turn away from him and perish. A Sovereign God strengthens us to go boldly and joyfully into a lost world.

Originally, I hoped to answer three or four questions in this post. But, after attempting to answer the first, I decided this post was lengthy enough already. Hopefully, I can return to those questions in future posts.


Question #1: Do nonbelievers know enough about God to be justly condemned to hell?

Hell is easier for our finite minds to accept when we imagine a hardened sinner raising his fist to the heavens and shouting, “I choose my sin instead of Christ!” But what about those who have never heard about Christ? What about those who have limited Gospel exposure?

Because of the sheer number of  people in the world, there will inevitably be many non-Christians who have limited contact with the Gospel and faithful believers. This is true of unreached people groups and places where Christianity has a small influence, but it’s also true closer to home. In college, I would sometimes do cold-contact evangelism with students on campus. For many of those whom we met, that was their first time hearing the Gospel. I remember looking out at the crowds of students on campus and feeling hopelessly outnumbered. 

How in the world were we supposed to bring the Gospel to all of these students? And if they never heard the Gospel, what did that mean for their rejection of God? How could they rebel against a God they knew nothing about? What knowledge of God could they knowingly rebel against?

It seemed to me that God would only be just to condemn those who meaningfully and knowingly rejected him. Yet, with so many non-Christians in the world, there were bound to be many without exposure to the Gospel, whether they were an uneducated villager in a remote region of the world or a nice polite collegian I met on campus. How could God justly punish those who had heard nothing or very little of him?

My Response for myself: I can rest in the sovereign witness of God which allows him to justly judge every man.

It’s easy for me to begin to think of salvation as merely sociological. That is, people become Christians by human means and methods – because they were placed in the right environment, exposed to the right information, and had the right temperament. If you were smart enough, you could measure and understand all of this logically – in the same way, for instance, you might measure why people become Democrats instead of Republicans.

If this were the case, then in order for salvation and judgment to be fair, everyone would need the same information. A disparity in information would be akin to wealth inequality. After all, belief or nonbelief isn’t spiritual; it has nothing to do with sin or rebellion against God. It has to do only with environment and exposure to the right information. For God to punish someone who didn’t have the same opportunity to hear the Gospel would be unjust.

But the sovereignty of God changes the way we see both salvation and judgment, faith and unbelief. It shows us that salvation is not merely sociological; it is a supernatural work of God. . I’m reminded of this every time I go to a baptism service. I love baptisms because they shatter my preconceptions and remind me of God’s sovereign witness in salvation. Before someone shares, I’ll often assume I know what they’ll say: “Here comes another kid who had his life changed at camp” or “here’s a lady who grew up in the church”

Yet, more often than not, I come away surprised by God’s pursuing grace. Instead of cookie cutter stories, each story is wonderfully unique. I’ll hear about how God worked through suffering and heartache; how he used chance encounters, an ordinary sermon, or a passing word from a friend. How he worked over many years, through the ups and downs of immature faith and outright rebellion,  slowly exposing sin and patiently winning the affections. There is no formula that pinpoints how people become Christians. Faith cannot be explained away by human logic; rather it shows a good God who powerfully and personally pursues sinners.

The sovereignty also changes the way we understand unbelief. Without the sovereignty of God, the unbeliever’s knowledge of God would depend on human methods and power. It would depend on our ability to tell as many people about the Gospel as possible. Inevitably, we would fail and many perish not knowing about God. But, because God is sovereign, the unbeliever’s knowledge of the Divine depends on his methods and his power.

How does God bring a nonbeliever to know of him? For me, seeing God’s pursuing grace in salvation gives me a window into understanding his witness to unbelievers. That is, when we look back at our testimonies, we see the unmistakable hand of God drawing us to him through our experiences. It is not merely that we grew up in the right environment or heard the right information. It is not that we found God, but that God came and found us. In the same way, nonbelievers won’t be able to plead ignorance or injustice that they did not know God. I suspect when they look back through their lifetime, they will see the same unmistakable hand of God, drawing and pursuing them.

They will remember the moments of despair when they limped forward in their own strength, instead of looking beyond themselves for help. They will remember the moments of clarity when they  saw beyond their culture and ‘rationality’ to Someone greater. They will remember the moments of sin in which they knew they needed forgiveness from a Savior.  They will remember the moments where they saw the majesty of nature and felt their insignificance (Romans 1). They will remember those scattered moments when they met Christians and heard about Jesus, but ignored them as annoyances.

The unbeliever will look back at all of these moments and see that, while each moment seemed small at the time, over a life time they add up to a real and meaningful knowledge of God. He will not be able to claim innocence in his ignorance, but will see that he really did know God and that he really is guilty for his suppression of the truth in unrighteousness.

I, in my finite mind, look at the masses of unbelievers and assume that logically, someone will fall through God’s hands. Someone won’t have a fair shot and will be condemned unjustly. But God is sovereign and powerful enough to sufficiently witness to  every man – whether it is through direct Gospel preaching, the testimony of a Christian friend, the ups and downs of life, the stirrings of the conscience, or the beauty of nature. And because He was there witnessing and pursuing, he is fit to judge. He is able to judge fairly according to what each man has done, not punishing anyone above what he deserves.

I don’t know exactly how he will do this. But I trust his sovereignty to pursue even the most remote and hardened sinner and because of that, I can trust his justice when they stand before him.

If you’re interested in reading more on this difficult question, I recommend reading Faith Comes from Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism. Let me end with a quote from that book, which I think poignantly captures God’s witness and pursuit to those who have never heard.

We can say that natural man is ever busy repressing or exchanging. But does he always succeed to the same degree? That depends on the strength with which God approaches him. God can at times, as it were, stop the noiseless engines of repression and exchange and overwhelm man to such an extent that he is powerless for a moment. There is, also, the silent activity of the Holy Spirit inside man, even if he resists him constantly…. When a missionary or some other person comes into contact with a non-Christian and speaks to him about the gospel, he can be sure that God has concerned himself with this person long before. That person had dealings more than once with God before God touched him, and he experienced the two fatal reactions-suppression and substitution. Now he hears the gospel for the first time. As I have said elsewhere, “we do not open the discussion, but we need only to make it clear that the God who has revealed his eternal power and Godhead to them, now addressed them in a new way, through our words. The encounter between God and that man enters a new period. It becomes more dangerous but also more hopeful. Christ now appears in a new form to him. He was, of course, already present in this man’s seeking; and, because he did not leave himself without a witness, Christ was wrestling to gain him, although he did not know it…. In the preaching of the gospel, Christ once again appears to man, but much more concretely and in audible form. He awakes man from his long disastrous dream. At last suppression and substitution cease-but this is possible only in faithful surrender. (121)


Seeing the Story of the King

With Easter approaching, many of us will spend time in the Gospels reading about the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this post, I wanted to share two ‘principles’ that been helpful in my own personal reading. I hope they can serve you well as you prepare for Easter.

  1. Seeing the Story – Read to Understand Structure

The best stories have compelling plots. They sweep us up into the world of the story. They introduce conflict and build tension as they inch toward the dramatic climax. Those are the books and movies that we rave about to our friends. “You have to read this book!” “That movie blew my mind!”

Recently I reread the Harry Potter series and found that I was often more excited to return to J.K. Rowling’s world of magic than to spend time in devotions. Why was it that I had an easier time absorbing myself in a secular fiction than in the story of the King?

One reason is that I struggle to see structure in the Gospels in the same way I do in modern storytelling. In a story like Harry Potter the way various events combine to form a coherent plot that builds toward a climax is pretty clear. In the Gospels, I’ve found I need to do more work if I want to understand how everything fits together.

On a surface reading, the Gospels might seem like a series of meandering and disconnected events: Jesus goes here and heals this person. Then, he goes somewhere else and performs a miracle. Then, he argues with some Pharisees and teaches about random topics, etc.

But we must make sense of the beginning and middle of a Gospel – exposition, rising action, conflict –  because they play a pivotal role in setting up the eventual climax. Without them, the climax will seem forced and implausible. When I fail to make sense how the Gospel unfolds, it undercuts my appreciation of the ending.

I’m much more excited about Scripture when I can see the structure of the book. Structure helps me to experience a coherent and compelling plot line. I can pinpoint exactly where Jesus is in his ministry. I can observe how Jesus’ relationships are evolving with different groups of people. Structure helps me to make connections between different events and see the bigger picture of what the author is trying to convey.

If you’re interested in reading for structure, I’d recommend opening up a good study Bible and finding the outline for the book you’re reading (I use the ESV online website). Or, if you feel comfortable, you can create an outline from scratch from your own study. You could also adopt a hybrid approach: start with a study Bible outline and compare it with your own outline, or vice versa.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d also recommend you check out the Bible Project.They create animated visuals which show the structure of different books with easy-to-understand explanations. Here’s an example from the book of Matthew:

  1. Seeing the Story of the King – Read to Understand Jesus’ Character

Recently, I read an interesting article about emotional manipulation and storytelling. The author writes:

Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits

We’ve all seen stories where an author tries to evoke emotion without doing proper character work and it falls flat. There might be spectacular action,tragedy, or even death in the story, but we’re not moved because there’s no reason to care about any of the characters.

If we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen when we read the Gospels. In an effort to make the cross central, we can divorce Jesus’ climactic sacrifice from his character. The cross becomes less about a real person, and more a series of propositions. But just as stories don’t affect us when we don’t care about the characters, the cross becomes less moving when we lose sight of who it is about.

J.I. Packer writes this about holding the person and the work of Christ together:

“It is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker…What the New Testament calls for is faith in or into or upon Christ himself–the placing of our trust in the living Savior, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was”

I feel most dull to the sacrifice of Christ when I lose sight of his character. When I feel distant from him, the Gospel story feels no different from any of the countless deaths in others stories in novels or on screen. Reminders about the cross begin to feel almost like that author who shortcuts his way to my emotions. I know this should be emotionally moving, yet what makes this man so special?

On the other hand, Jesus’ sacrifice feels fresh and exciting when I understand his character; when I feel I know him as a person. When I see his personality as he interacts with others; how he responds when he is sinned against or encounters difficulty. All those things help deepen my appreciation for the Gospel. Then, when I see Jesus nailed to the cross, it moves me. Here is the greatest, the kindest, the most selfless and strong man I have ever met. The perfect Son of God who humbled himself and became a servant. Why is he on that tree? How could this happen? Who put him there? What grace that he should die for all of my sins!

What are some practical ways to see the character of Christ? I find that seeing structure helps me. When I see the Gospel as disconnected stories, it’s hard to form a coherent picture of who Jesus is. But when we understand the unfolding plot, we can begins to see patterns in the way Jesus acts.

Something that has been helpful for me is to know the different groups that show up frequently in the various stories: the disciples, the hostile religious leaders, the crowds, and the many individuals responding in faith. What are each of these groups like? How do they act?

Once I’ve answered that, I ask myself how am I like these characters? Over the years, I’ve seen my slowness and pride in the disciples and my hypocrisy in the Pharisees. I’ve seen my shallow faith in the crowds and my neediness in those who came to Jesus in faith. Then, when I see how Jesus responds to each of these groups, I feel I know him in a very personal way. I can see how he responds in particular situations and apply that to my relationship in Him.

When I do this, I remember that there really is no one like Jesus. I see that the cross is no piece of emotional manipulation, but the highest expression of the love that Jesus had showed throughout the Gospels.

I’ve always feared Easter a little. I know it is a special day, but when I don’t prepare well Easter Sunday feels like coming in two-thirds of the way through a movie and seeing the climax without the set up. It’s hard to be properly affected even if I want to be. I pray that in the weeks leading up to Easter, we would ready our hearts and minds to approach the cross, and then – praise God! – the empty grave.


To Whom Shall I Go? – A Reflection on John 6

Jesus was at the height of his popularity. Multitudes of men, women, and children were flocking to see him. Many were even clamoring to make him king. After feeding them with miraculous bread, Jesus turned to address the massive crowds. What would he say to those who had come to see him?

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (6:53)

The crowds listened dumbstruck. What was Jesus talking about? Did he want them to literally eat and drink his body and blood? Was he speaking figuratively and if so, what did he mean and why did he have to use such disturbing imagery? Was he asking them to depend on him completely for life and sustenance? Jesus’ words were bewildering. Unable to understand or accept his words, many of the enthusiastic supporters began to leave, muttering to themselves: “This is a hard saying who can listen to it?

Turning to his disciples, Jesus asked them: “Do you want to go away as well?” And Peter, always first to speak, answered:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God”

Over the years, Peter’s words have become some of my favorite in all the Bible. I’ve meditated on them and repeated them to myself many times, especially during times of doubt. Below are some of my reflections on Peter’s response. I hope these verses can be as helpful for you as they have been for me!


Lord, to whom shall we go? – It’s scary to admit but sometimes I feel like leaving Jesus as the crowds did. Sometimes I feel tired of trying to understand and accept the hard teachings of Scripture. Or I feel naive and ignorant for holding on to promises that seem too good to be true. In those moments, I think about a life without Jesus. If I weren’t a Christian,, I wouldn’t have to daily wrestle to live by faith. I wouldn’t have to surrender my thoughts, feelings, and life to God’s Word – a daily submission which all too often feels like dying. Maybe, apart from Christ, I find myself thinking, I might have more peace.

My instinctive reaction to those thoughts is to immediately suppress them and pretend they don’t exist, instead assuring myself of my allegiance to Christ. But that knee-jerk response ignores the problem and is driven by fear, not biblical faith. How can I preach to myself when there are real feelings of wanting to depart?

I’ve found that a good way to begin is to start with Peter’s words: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter doesn’t answer Jesus with a bold declaration of his allegiance. He does not even deny that he wants to leave. All he can manage to say is: Lord, I have nowhere else to go. There is wavering and confusion and uncertainty in his voice. But there is also faith.

Likewise, when I feel like leaving, I’ve found the best way to begin preaching to myself is to remember: I have nowhere to go outside of Christ. I may wrestle with the justice and goodness of God, but leaving won’t help me find a higher standard of moral beauty. Everything I’ve ever learned about humility, self-sacrifice, and genuine love has come at the foot of the cross. If I left, I would return to a life of self-absorption and self-centeredness and empty righteousness. I might struggle to believe God’s story and promises, but leaving would not bring me greater meaning. Instead, I’d go back to a life of triviality and of pragmatic nihilism, in which I try to get the most for myself in a world that amounts to nothing.

It’s easy to take Christ for granted. We forget who he is and how much we need him. We lose sight the grace he has shown us. Sometimes it takes bluntly facing a reality without him, to remind us just how precious he really is; to jolt awake our dead affections to see him again with wonder and awe.

You have the words of eternal life – Notice, Peter does not say he understands Jesus’ words, nor does he say that Jesus’ teachings are easy to accept. He says Jesus has the words of eternal life. He’s saying, in effect, “I may not understand you now, but I’ve been around you long enough to know that no one speaks with the authority, wisdom, and beauty you do, so I will trust you.”

Doubt gives us tunnel vision. It makes us think “Unless I resolve this question or circumstance or feeling, I cannot believe”. But Peter’s words help me to step back and remember the ultimate foundation for my faith. I don’t believe because I’m able to answer every single question. I believe because I’ve become convinced that the Jesus revealed in the Scriptures holds the words of eternal life.

Who could have imagined a Gospel in which God himself lays down his life to save sinners and satisfy justice? Who could have conceived of a story so perfectly unified from start to finish? Who could of known the complexity and beauty of the triune God? No one but the Perfect Author Himself.

I believe because I have felt my heart burn within me at the unfolding of Christ in the Scriptures (Lk 24:32). Because I have heard the shepherd’s call and recognized his voice (Jn 10:3-4). Because I have seen light shining out of darkness in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).

Remembering the foundation of our faith allows us to cling through difficulty and confusion. We know Christ has the words of life so we can trust his heart even when we cannot understand. Though the wind and the storms rage around us, we stand knowing our lives are laid on the strong foundation (Mt. 7)

And we have believed, and  have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God –

Just one year before, Peter made the choice to believe in Jesus. By faith, he left everything to follow him, not knowing what would happen. And in that short time,  Peter came to know Jesus. As we have seen, Peter came to know the power of Jesus’ words, both to impart wisdom and perform miracles. But more than that, he came to know his character: his integrity publicly and privately. His compassion. His life of prayer. He came to know his faithfulness. Jesus had confused Peter with hard words before, but he had never once let Peter down. Everything Peter knew about Jesus pointed to an inescapable conclusion: that Jesus was the Holy One of God – the long awaited Messiah. The Savior of the world.

The crowds decided Jesus was not worth following because of one difficult message. Peter, on the other hand, based his allegiance on his history with Jesus and on Jesus’ proven track record of faithfulness. Because of that, Peter is not quick to leave at the first signs of hardship.

In the same way, the Scriptures have revealed more than wisdom and life lessons to me; they have revealed a person – the person of Jesus Christ. When I became a Christian, I believed in him. I made a commitment to follow and trust him, even when things got tough. And, over the years, I have come to know him. I have found him to be faithful. I have learned to trust him even when I cannot see, because he has taken painful circumstances and turned them for good time and time again.

Yet, there are times when I feel no affection at all for the Savior. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to remember what the big deal is about Jesus. He seems like a Sunday School cliche, distant from the realities of daily life. He feels easy to ignore and leave behind. What do I do in those moments?

Peter has taught me not to wallow in present feelings, as if they have the final say, but to remember his past faithfulness:  Remember, O my soul, who you have believed in and come to know. Remember everything you’ve learned about the character of your Savior. Remember your history together: all the times he’s come through in your life. Could it all have been fake? Could it all have been a lie? Or are you the one not seeing clearly? Trust that he is faithful and good.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God. Those words don’t magically fix everything, but I’ve found they strengthen me to cling to Christ when I feel like letting go; to hold on with sincerity and faith when I feel nothing. To pray and ask for help for another day.

Did I not choose you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil -For a long time, I focused on Peter’s words and skipped over Jesus’ response to the disciples. Jesus’ words seemed harsh. I wasn’t sure how to read his tone or what he meant. Was he dismissing Peter’s plea? Was he rebuking the disciples? I’m still not sure I understand completely, but I think there are comforting words here for doubting disciples.

I’m sure Peter felt the frailty of his words as he said them – what if his belief failed him? What if he strayed past the point of return? We know later in the Gospels that Peter, and all the disciples with him, would stray that far. Peter would go on to deny his Lord three times and flee from him in shame.

But the Lord answered wavering Peter with these comforting words : did I not choose you? Those words didn’t come out of nowhere. Jesus had touched on the idea of being chosen throughout chapter 6 as he addressed the crowds:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:35-40, 44-45 ESV)
Jesus tells the crowds the real reason why they will leave behind the Bread of Life. It is the reason why Judas will reveal himself a devil: they have not been chosen by the Father. The Father has not drawn them. But Jesus also tells the disciples the real reason why they will persevere. God chose them. God drew them to come. And it is Father’s will that Jesus lose nothing of what the Father gave him.
But how can I know if I’m chosen? What if I’m like the unbelieving crowds? What if I’m like Judas, who ate, drank, and lived with the Savior, but walked away unchanged? In a great and wonderful mystery, Jesus extended an invitation and promise to chosen and unchosen alike.
Whoever comes to me I will never cast out. And whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. It does no good to worry and waver about whether you are chosen. If you are afraid of losing the Savior, come to the Savior. Listen to the voice within that tells you to hold on to Him no matter what, even when your feelings and your intellect and your righteousness fail you. He will hold you and not let you go.


Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12 ESV)

Wee Little Zaccheus and Me

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

Maybe it’s the children’s song, but I’ve always pictured Zaccheus as a laughable cartoon character. Luke tells us that he was so “small in stature” he had to scurry up a tree just to see Jesus. When I imagine the scene in my head, it seems comical and a bit ridiculous.

I can’t help but wonder if deep-down Zaccheus thought of himself as a joke too. I imagine him as someone who longed to be noticed, but whom no one really took seriously. Maybe that’s what drove him up the ranks to become the powerful but hated chief tax collector. Perhaps he said to himself: “Yes, there may be stigma and ridicule, but at least there is power and wealth. And maybe, at last, I’ll be able to find that sense of significance I’ve longed for.”


Yet, in Luke 19, something drove him to climb that tree to see the Savior passing through. Perhaps he had reached a dead-end in his search for significance. His job had given him power and wealth. But it also led him into a lifestyle of sin. Further, it had not given him the significance he desired, but drove him further into isolation.

Rich Tax Collector Zaccheus was as pathetic as ever. He was still “wee litle” Zaccheus – someone who was, in every sense of the word, small.

What do you do when you feel small?

I see a lot of myself in Zaccheus. I feel small most of the time too. Like Zaccheus, I find myself flailing to ‘stand tall’ among my peers or hiding away when I feel like I’m still the same “wee little” Chris I’ve always been.

How much of our lives are spent trying to make something out of ourselves? “At all costs, I will not be pathetic!” we say, with shaky and unsure voices. We try to build ourselves up so we’ll be successful in our careers, worthy of romantic love, and worthy of admiration from those we love.

However, any search for significance apart from God is sin and leads only to more sin. Our sin may not be as blatant or stigmatized as Zaccheus’ tax-collecting, but we are building our own nicely decorated towers of Babel. Ultimately, these searches are idolatrous and disastrous. There is no significance to be found outside of Jesus. And so, like Zaccheus, we find ourselves just as lonely,  insecure, and empty as we were before.

Weakness is the Way to Jesus


What if, instead of trying constantly to make something of ourselves, we let our smallness drive us up the tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior?

The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that Jesus welcomes the pathetic, helpless, and small. “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says.

Zaccheus had just wanted to see Jesus. Yet, here was Jesus treating him like someone who mattered- like someone significant. Him! The man who everyone looked away from in disgust when they passed him on the street; the liar, the thief, the pathetic joke of a life. Out of everyone, Jesus wanted to stay at his house.

The truth that Jesus came not for the well, but the sick – not for the righteous, but for tax collectors like him – moved Zaccheus so deeply that  he declared, suddenly and joyfully: ‘I will give everything back!’ In a moment, he left behind his old life and everything it represented.

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham,” said the Savior, “for the Son ofMan came to seek and save the lost”

Compare Zaccheus to the rich young ruler who had come to Jesus just one chapter earlier. If Zaccheus was the kid in high school who ate alone at lunch, the rich young ruler was that rare guy with the distinction of being genuinely nice and a handsome rich stud at the same time.

While the rich young ruler came to Jesus sincerely, he also came confidently. He was not in the tree like Zaccheus. He was not ignored and ostracized by the crowds. Everyone viewed him as an asset. A successful and godly man whom Jesus would be lucky to have as a follower. Subtly, maybe even subconsciously, the rich young ruler believed that about himself too.

And so, when Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he instinctively answered: “All these I have kept from my youth”, not realizing what a bold and proud statement that really was. He had none of Zaccheus’ brokenness. He did not know what it felt like to be unclean, ignored, lonely, and utterly pathetic.

Jesus, to the everyone’s surprise, does not invite him to dinner. He responds with a backbreaking request for radical generosity and turns the rich young ruler away.

Weakness is just weakness

I need to be careful when I talk, think, and write about Jesus and weakness.

My sinful hearts wants to use Christianity as revenge for the losers. Christianity flips the script! Now weak and insignificant people like me and Zaccheus matter, and the people I always envied (like the rich young ruler) are on the bottom. I co-opt my weakness and turn it into a badge of righteousness to search for significance in the same old ways.

Look at me! Look how weak I am, but how I still depend on Jesus. I’m honest and real, yet I’m not trying to present myself as strong. Aren’t I wise? Humble? Worthy of admiration and respect?”

But weakness is just weakness. There is nothing special about weakness. Weakness feels pathetic because it is pathetic. And weakness only matters if it leads to repentance and joy in Jesus.

Zaccheus’ weakness made him realize he was the worst of sinners. It  taught him the spirit of the tax collector, who stood far off with lowered eyes, beating his breast and saying , “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Weakness taught Zaccheus that he belonged in the tree, not at the front of the crowds. He knew Jesus had every reason to pass him by. Jesus should have passed him by.

That’s why Jesus’ grace affected him so deeply. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, it seemed ridiculous him. But Zaccheus does just that in his joy, without even having been commanded by Jesus. It was the fruit of repentance. He couldn’t believe that Jesus would call someone so weak, so insignificant, and so sinful down from the tree.

Would we embrace weakness instead of trying so hard to show that we’re not weak. Would we let our smallness lead us up the tree to see Jesus. And we will find joy, when he invites us down to follow him.



Wrestling with the Weight of Hell

Hell is a hard and weighty doctrine. These past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fairness and goodness of God in hell and judgment. I hope to share more in posts to come, but in this post, I want to share how two passages, Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, have been helpful to my thought process.


If you have time, I encourage you read the passages in full but for the sake of length, let me briefly summarize them.

In Ezekiel 18. God is responding to Israel’s complaints that they’re being unfairly punished for the sins of their fathers. He explains to Israel the principles that govern his justice: each soul dies for his own sin, not the son for the father’s, nor the father for the son’s. The righteous man who walks faithfully with God will surely live; the righteous man will die when he strays from righteous path; and the wicked man will live if he repents and turns to God. God ends with an invitation for Israel to turn from their sin and live.

In Genesis 18, God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. A distraught Abraham begs God to spare the two cities if he can find 50 righteous men. When 50 aren’t found, Abraham asks God to spare the cities if he can find 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 righteous men. When none are found, Abraham returns to his place.

Here are some thoughts on how these two passages have helped me think through God’s goodness and justice in hell.

Question: What is God’s Heart in Sending a Sinner to Hell? — 

My Response: God is sovereign and wrathful, but also sorrowful and reluctant in carrying out judgment.


I can’t think of anything more important in our Christian life than our view of God. It’s more than just an abstract or intellectual issue; it’s an immensely practical one. Our view of God affects the way we relate to him in our day to day lives. It changes whether we come with a heart of joy or of fear, of worship or of resentment.

In forming our view of God, we must acknowledge that God is incredibly complex. Knowing this, we need to be careful not to misunderstand God or go beyond what Scripture tells us. We also must make sure to balance each particular attribute of God with the rest of his revealed character (here’s an Ask Pastor John that I found helpful).

For me, God’s wrath, jealousy, judgment, and his sovereignty in election are some of those complex concepts that, if viewed alone, threaten to warp and distort my view of God and cause me to doubt Him. If I focus too much on his anger, for example, I begin to see him as scary and cruel, waiting to break out in anger at even the smallest offense. If I isolate God’s sovereign pursuit of his glory from the rest of his character, I begin to imagine Him calmly and coolly predestining sinners to hell for his own pleasure. When I begin to doubt God’s character, I become hesitant or even resentful when I come before Him.  I lose my love and wonder at the Gospel. I even imagine myself as more compassionate than God since I am somehow more willing to forgive and see the good in nonbelievers than He is.

It would be easy if we could just sweep his wrath or sovereignty under the rug, but that would disregard the clear witness of Scripture. God is angry, does predestine, and does delight in justice. How can we balance these different attributes as we try to understand the whole character of God? It has been helpful for me as I think about God’s anger and his sovereignty to also remember his sorrow and reluctance in carrying out justice upon sinners.

Ezekiel 18 shows me God’s sorrow in judgment. In verse 23, the Lord declares: have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked…and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Later he pleads: why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (v.31-32). Genesis 18 shows me God’s reluctance in judgment. Five times, he heeds Abraham’s request to look for righteous men in Sodom, each time lowering the requisite number needed to turn away wrath. Eventually, when no righteous men are found, we see that God’s original intent to destroy Sodom on the spot was not hasty, out of control, or an overreaction, but plain justice. The Lord would have held back his wrath for even ten righteous men if they were to be found.

Combined, these two passages show that God’s judgment is not driven by malice, nor is he disengaged with those under judgment. God’s compassion shines forth even in his wrath in the form of anguish and his patient hope that sinners might repent. God feels that same desire I feel–that none should perish; that each person made in the image of God, with a soul, hopes, longings, and dreams, would be restored to his Creator; however, he also has an infinitely greater understanding of justice and the heinousness of sin than I do. No matter how much he loves us, he cannot violate his decree that “the soul who sins shall die”; nor can he ignore that “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very great and their sin is very grave” (Ezk 18:4, Gen 18:20). So, God judges and destroys. Yet, even in judgment, he is not gleeful or vindictive, but sorrowful and patient, preferring that the proud heart would have embraced the simple repentance that turns away wrath.

It has been helpful to let God’s sorrow and reluctance in judgment color the way I view his wrath and his sovereignty. Yes, God is wrathful, but he patiently withholds his promised wrath, not wishing any to perish (2 Pet 3:9). Yes, God is sovereign in salvation, but that in no way dampens God’s sorrow or his pursuit of sinners. I may not understand how it all works, but God knows we will fall into sin and he is surprised and indignant when we do. He knows who will repent and who will be lost and he pleads for non-elect sinners to come back and weeps for those who don’t.

We see wrath and sovereignty mingled with sorrow when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:

[41] And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, [42] saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

Jesus wholeheartedly accepts the justice of God’s wrath against Israel for their sin. He knows God has sovereignly hidden the truth from their eyes. He knows that many in Israel will reject him, persist in their sin, and be lost. He knows that God will judge them by destroying the temple. And he still weeps for them. He still spends three years pleading, inviting, begging for them to come and accept the Savior they’ve been waiting for. He still wished they knew that day what made for peace with God.

Question: Is it okay to wrestle with the idea of Hell? —

My Response: Yes, we can bring our questions honestly if we will also bring them humbly.


In Ezekiel 18 and Genesis 18, both Israel and Abraham ask questions regarding the justice of God. In Ezekiel, Israel asks, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?…the way of the Lord is not just” (19,25). In Genesis 18, an anguished Abraham cries out, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (23-25).

How does God respond to each of these questions? We find that God takes their questions seriously and also their sin seriously.

In Ezekiel, He rebukes Israel for their question: Hear now, O House of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” The children had focused on their unjust suffering, instead of taking a serious look at their sin. But God is also patient with the children. He could have responded only with a question as Jesus often did with the Pharisees, but he repeatedly explains his ways to them and extends this heartfelt invitation:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the LORD GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions. Cast away from you you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the LORD GOD; so turn, and live. (18:30-32)

How does God respond to Abraham? Abraham speaks to God with surprising boldness. Yet, God does not rebuke him, but patiently hears and accepts his request. At the same time, God does not absolve Sodom and Gomorrah because of what Abraham might have felt or believed about their righteousness. He took their sin seriously and dealt with them accordingly.

I could be wrong, but I believe God treats us the same way when we wrestle with his justice and goodness in sending sinners to hell. He takes our questions seriously and he takes sin, both ours and the world’s, seriously as well. If there are sinful roots and assumptions in our questions, God will not be afraid to call them out. And if God’s justice demands punishment, he will not change or compromise because of our feelings or preferences.

I believe this give us a helpful paradigm about how we should ask questions to God. Namely, we can be honest with God but we also must be humble before him.

Since God takes our questions seriously, we can come to him with boldness and emotion.  We can say things like: Far be it from you! Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? We can give expression to our questions and have their complexity acknowledged. Our God is not an insecure tyrant who allows no questions; he is a patient and loving Father who welcomes his angry and perplexed child into his arms. We in turn can give full vent to our questions and still trust our Father holds us and is good.

I think bringing our honest questions to God can be more than merely acceptable; it can actually be a beautiful expression of faith. I love Abraham’s question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (v. 25). The ambiguity of questions allows for tension between certainty and uncertainty. I believe there is a sense in which the question is rhetorical for Abraham: he is thinking to himself, “of course, the Judge of the Earth shall do what is just!” And yet, I also believe there is a genuine struggle in Abraham’s heart: “Will you do justice God? Because it doesn’t feel just, O Lord” Questions allow for certainty and uncertainty to exist simultaneously. When we use our questions not to accuse God but to plead before him, I think it’s a profound expression of faith.

We can be honest before God but we must also come humbly because of our sin.We must remember that our judgment can be clouded by sinful emotions and by our finite human understanding. This means that even when we feel strongly about something, we can be wrong. For me, this is comforting. I don’t want to come with infallible knowledge to a bumbling and inept king. I want to come and learn at his feet. Sometimes I feel like my doubt is too great and I’ll never make sense of my faith. I don’t want that feeling to be right! Praise God that I’m often wrong.

We can be honest and direct with God, but we also must remember he is holy and awesome. We must ask as Abraham did: “Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak…I who am but dust and ashes” (27,29). God is gracious, but he is the king, and we are the beggar. He is the one with understanding and we are the ones who have come to learn. We are asking for God’s patience of us, not the other way around, and God’s answers to our questions are all of grace.

Finally, we must humbly accept the answer we receive from God. In the end, we must trust God’s character and accept his designation of those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous, as well as the punishment which the unrighteous deserve. Abraham, at first, believed that there were righteous men in Sodom. However, when God found none, he trusted God’s judgment. In the same way, we can, like Abraham, anguish about the destruction of nonbelievers and the good things we see in them, but we must learn (and study and restudy) God’s standard of righteousness and unrighteousness. We must trust the justice and sorrow of the God who sent his very own Son to save us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking around. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you wrestled with the doctrine of hell? If so, how have you made peace with God’s judgment? what passages have helped you and how?

[22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God… (Romans 11:22 ESV)



Why I Find Writing and Blogging Worthwhile

It’s crazy to think that I started this blog the summer of my senior year in high school–more than five years ago! 42 posts later, I’m still slowly chugging along. I’ve had long dry spells throughout the life of this blog in which I posted infrequently or not at all. A big reason for that inconsistency was I wasn’t sure what priority I should place on writing. My posts run on the long side, and long posts take time and energy. With so many good things worthy of my time and energy, why spend it on writing?

Here are a few thoughts on why I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to write in a public forum (aka blog). Who knows, maybe this will convince some of you blog fence-sitters to take the plunge? One can hope…


Writing as Ministry

How has God gifted me? What do I enjoy doing? How can I build up the body of Christ? How can I reach out to others? Where is there a need?

Those are questions we ask ourselves as we seek to find where God wants us to minister in the church. For me, I think writing can be one of those ways of ministering to others. I know I still have a long ways to go as a writer, but I do think it’s an area where God has given me ability and interest. English was always my favorite subject in school and was my major in college. I’m always thinking about random stuff and trying to explain things that don’t make sense to me, which is a natural fit to be expressed through writing.

I think writing has unique opportunities for both inreach and outreach. My blog is a reflection of what I’m thinking and feeling in the ups and downs of my Christian life, as well as God’s faithfulness through it all. My hope is that by sharing openly and honestly, yet still thoughtfully and hopefully, I can resonate with both believers and nonbelievers. I can give a voice to discouraged brothers and sisters and articulate questions and struggles that might otherwise go unsaid. At the same time, I can show my unbelieving friends that there are Christians who struggle in very human ways, yet still think well and have strong faith.

I’ve often envied other people’s ministry gifts. People who can preach well, or counsel powerfully, or administrate and lead in a way that others joyfully follow them. I’m realizing more and more I’m limited in all of those areas and that’s okay. John Newton admitted his letters, and not his preaching, were oddly his most effective ministry (and man, if you haven’t read Newton’s letters, you should check them out). God will raise up gifted administrators, preachers, counselors, and leaders. Perhaps he is calling me to expand his kingdom rule to a path less traveled, and perhaps my writing can play a part.

Writing to Redeem Social Media


I don’t post much on social media. That doesn’t mean I’m somehow more humble or godly. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m a consumer on social media. I refrain from posting partly because I don’t have anything interesting to say and partly for fear of putting myself out there and not being noticed. Instead, I use Facebook and other social media mostly to relieve my boredom with updates from my friend’s lives. My social media usage is ultimately selfish–I take what other people post for my own entertainment and contribute nothing worthwhile in return.

Recently, I began posting the link to new blog posts on my Facebook page. Prior to that, I had refrained for a number of reasons, some good, some bad. On the one hand, I was afraid of writing to gain the applause of people–I know my heart is so prone to finding joy in those ego-satisfying red notifications. On the other hand, I was afraid of having others read about and see my weakness. It’s okay for close friends to read, but it’s different when it’s out in the open for everyone. I was also afraid of being misunderstood–”Look at that guy who posts his writing on facebook, who does he think he is?” We all have those thoughts from time to time, and I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘that guy’.

Ultimately, I decided to start sharing the links again because I felt like the benefits outweighed the risks (although I know I need to constantly examine my heart motives!). God calls us to extend his kingdom reign to every sphere of life for his glory. The sphere of social media, for better or for worse, plays a huge role in our lives. In my experience, however, it’s an area relatively untouched by Christian influence. I see lots of playful joking and pictures of fun experiences and good food and NBA Basketball memes. That’s all good. I also see lots of cringe-worthy stories in my Facebook News sidebar and cringe-worthy rants from Christian and non-Christian friends. That’s not so good.

But how cool would it be if social media could be a place where Christian share what they’ve been learning and thinking about, how God has been faithful to them, or even how they’ve been struggling and trying to hold on to God’s goodness? What if our faith, with all its beauty and warts, was on display for the world to see? I think blogging can be a way to do that.


Writing for Understanding by Faith

As a principle, I try not to sugarcoat or simplify in my writing; rather, I try to share my struggles as they really are and to express questions and tensions in their most potent form–that is, the way I feel them myself.

That can be a scary prospect. I often feel that certain struggles should go unshared and certain questions unasked, because what if I can’t find the solution? What if there is no solution? Better to file doubts and discouragement into the cabinet in the back of my mind. It’s scary also because there aren’t always easy answers. Oftentimes when I write, I don’t write because I’ve figured out the answer; I’m figuring out the answer as I write. I’m afraid of being a hypocrite and portraying myself as more sure and more okay than I actually am. I’m afraid that, in being honest, I might slowly collapse for the world to see.

Writing publicly for me is an act of faith. It is me saying, “I’m not afraid of doubt or despair, but I trust that with my Lord’s help I can confront them head on. I can’t always see the outcome, even when I’m writing, but I trust that he will bring understanding, he will keep me through every season, and he will use my weakness for his glory. And because of that I can blog.”

Those are a couple of reasons why I choose to blog. How about you?

For those of you interested in reading more about writing as a Christian, here are a couple of fun Piper interviews and articles about his thoughts on writing:

  1. http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/has-god-called-me-to-write
  2. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/self-doubt-and-writing
  3. http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-important-is-a-christian-writer-s-influence


“And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:4 ESV)

This Day Our Daily Bread

It can be frustrating and scary how often I find myself in seasons of dryness, dullness, and doubt. It’s frustrating because I feel in my heart of hearts I want to believe and treasure the Gospel.  Why, I impatiently wonder, won’t my feelings follow my will? Scary, because it feels like my Christian life is often more characterized by wanting to love the Gospel, than an actual experience of loving the Gospel. What does that say about me?

There’s a voice inside that tells me: ‘You feel dry and dull because you don’t actually love the Gospel. You doubt because you don’t actually believe the Gospel. You’re just afraid to admit it. You can’t admit it because you have too much at stake, don’t you? But if you love and believe Jesus, then why do you have to try so hard to find joy in Him?’

What do I tell that voice when it comes? After all, isn’t it right? I’ve been a Christian for so many years, shouldn’t I be better by now? Shouldn’t I trust him more? Why does my faith still feel so fragile? Why do I still have to write posts like this?

A few months ago, I was listening to a talk by Kathy Keller at a Redeemer conference on singleness. She shares this quote from an article that had been helpful for her:

If the thought of enduring your marriage or lack of marriage for the rest of your life is daunting, it is because God doesn’t hand out grace in a lifetime supply. He provides it one day at a time. If you feel like God has not given you the capacity to love your spouse for a lifetime, that’s because he hasn’t. But he has given you exactly what you need to be loving today. Furthermore, God has not given celibates the grace to bear a lifetime of solitude. But he will give you what you need to make it through this day.

…God will give us what we need, but he will not give it to us until we need it. He didn’t give the Israelites enough food to last through forty years in the wilderness; he gave them manna one day at a time. None of us has a lifelong stockpile of grace, but we can look forward to God’s faithfulness over a lifetime, offered to us one day at a time.

The quote mostly refers to difficulties with singleness and marriage, but I’ve found it helpful and practical in seasons of doubt and dryness.

Those terrible questions–‘Do you really love? Do you really believe?’ rest on the assumption that genuine faith should always come naturally and effortlessly. If something is truly beautiful, compelling, and true, the logic goes, you wouldn’t have to strain to be amazed. You would just be amazed. And if you aren’t, then it’s probably not that beautiful, compelling, and true or you at least don’t really believe that it is. There’s no room for a faith that cries out ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

But what if there is value in the pleading? What if there is something worthwhile and beautiful in coming day by day, hour by hour, and asking God for daily bread to love and trust him?

Perhaps weak faith which leads us to desperate prayer places us in God’s story, not outside of it. Perhaps Christian maturity will look different than I first thought. I always imagined that being mature meant hopping out of bed with a heart full of affection for God, ready to dive into his word and praise him through prayer–to have a lifetime supply of faith, if you will, to use the language of the article. And yes, there are seasons of that. But there are also seasons, when you wake up with a heart full of uncertainty and heaviness. Days when you have to drag yourself out of bed and sigh, ‘Lord, please help me. Please give me just enough to make it through this day still following after you’. We hope for seasons of blessing; but in seasons of dryness, perhaps we need not doubt our closeness to him. He has a way of working powerfully through them.

Why does God give us just enough to make it through the day? Why does he want us to ask for our daily bread? Because our great sin is our self-dependence; our self-exaltation; our desire to be free and independent from Him. If faith always came easily, we might be tempted to forget him and stop praying. And so, God, in his wisdom, sometimes makes it difficult to believe and trust. He makes plead so we might remember, as John Newton so poignantly writes:

‘These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me’

I’ve been trying something new in my journal recently called ‘Daily Bread’ where I write down evidences of God’s grace that remind me that, even when I’m discouraged, he is still sustaining me day by day, always giving me just enough. Here are some of the scattered highlights from the past few weeks:

  • God’s grace in impressing on my heart verses from my devotions and enabling me to hold on to them: Proverbs 1:7 ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom‘ and Philippians 1:21 ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain‘ .
  • Going to class, on a day when I felt spiritually low, and providentially hearing many encouraging verses (John 6: ‘To whom shall I go, you have the words of eternal life?‘ Proverbs 2:4-5, Matthew 9)
  • The chance to share my testimony with a friend and remember the weight of God’s faithfulness in my life. The chance to hear another friend preach the simple Gospel and the grace to listen well. A good conversation with friends about difficult subjects.
  • And much more…

We’ll see if it becomes a permanent fixture in my journaling (or if my journaling becomes a more permanent fixture in my life). But so far, it’s been helpful to see that in a season where my faith often feels nonexistent, God is still actively holding and keeping me day by day.

As I close, I highly highly recommend listening to this sermon on prayer. It’s probably one of my favorite if not my favorite sermon from Pastor Peter. And while I don’t reference it much in this post, it’s had a powerful effect one me these past few months and on this post. Plus it’s full of epic quotes like ‘I hope nothing good happens to you until you pray’ and ‘You don’t need to pray to get a job!’ that deserve whole blog posts on their own. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to revisit it in the future!

If you’re a reader of the blog, please pray for me! You might have noticed that I’m trying to write more (once every 3 weeks), but it’s humbling because I already feel like I’m running out of things to say and the conviction with which to say them. As I continue to wrestle with issues of faith and doubt, I don’t want to glorify the struggle itself. There’s no use to wrestling in a public forum if all I have is questions. But I’m learning as I write and writing as I learn that God’s grace is sufficient in weakness and that he can work through doubt, even though I’m not always sure how. Pray that this blog would be helpful.

And let me know how I can pray for you!

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)


Songwriting and the Honest Happy Ending

Last year I wrote an article called Songwriting and the Spirit of the Text. In it, I talked about how good songwriters weave together music and lyrics to communicate truth in a powerful way. With our recent Open Mic night, I figured I’d take another shot at a songwriting post. For those of you who aren’t songwriters, stick around! I think you’ll find the core truths of this post have application beyond songwriting.

Recently, I sat down at the piano. As will happen sometimes (increasingly less these days, sadly), I found a catchy chord progression, improvised some lyrics, and emerged with a very rough draft of a song. When I finished for the night, however, the song still didn’t have a happy ending. It ended with a question mark, with the speaker still searching, not in despair, but definitely still unsure.

Here’s the question I’d like to explore today: as a Christian songwriter, can I write a sad song that doesn’t end with a resolution? Can I write a transparent confession of doubt, for instance, without the a-ha moment of enlightenment or a love song that ends with heartbreak instead of a triumphant declaration of contentment? Or is there something self-glorifying and even idolatrous about a sad song that doesn’t acknowledge the power and sufficiency of Jesus?

Sad Songs and the Importance of Honesty

As we think about those questions, let me start first by asking: what is it about sad songs that moves us so deeply? This will sound obvious but I think they move us because they honestly capture and express feelings of sadness. Sadness is one of our strongest and most important emotions. It is also one of our most complex and difficult-to-explain emotions. Because of that, we often struggle to communicate what we feel and to find others who can understand and speak into our experiences. Words often feel inadequate to do justice to the turmoil of our hearts.

But, every once in awhile, we come across a song that expresses exactly what we’re feeling. The music and lyrics work together to powerfully and precisely capture our sadness. Interestingly, I’ve found that many of these profoundly sad songs are written by nonbelievers. There are Christian artists who do this well, but, on the whole, non-Christian songs tend to be more honest about insightful about sadness. They don’t simplify or sugarcoat, but rather show sadness as it truly is, with all its painful warts and sores.

We as Christian songwriters (writers, preachers, artists, etc) can learn an important lesson from our non-Christian counterparts. We must be careful that we are talking about sorrow honestly. Don’t talk about it cheaply or lazily. Don’t skip straight to the solution. The more truthfully we capture sorrow, the wider our audience will open their hearts to listen to what we have to say.

Sad Song and the Danger of Idolatry

Honesty and transparency are good, but they are not ends unto themselves. The problem is that our raw and honest feelings are often contaminated with sinful self-pity. John Piper says this about the dangers of self-pity:

“Crying out to God is one thing. A very good thing too. But self-pity is not that. Self-pity is crying out in the echo chamber of my own little world. It’s issuing a lament just to take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over.”

Writing sad songs can amplify and aggravate these dangers. Why? Because when we write sad songs, we take our laments and craft them into something beautiful and moving to listen to. The better written our songs are, the greater the temptation to ‘take pleasure in hearing the lament over and over’.

Moreover, writing sad songs can become an idol that we trust in to deal with sorrow. Expressing sorrow and finding the solution to that sorrow are two very different things, but if we’re not careful, sad songwriting can  trick us into believing that the expression of sorrow over and over again actually is the solution to pain.

What do I mean by that? There is something cathartic and pleasurable about expressing sorrow. When you’re sharing, you don’t have to worry about what comes afterwards–it feels good just to let it all out. Sad songs freeze time right at that pleasurable moment of confession. As long as you keep listening and singing, you can confess forever and never worry about finding an actual solution to your sadness. But it’s a false promise. The solace only exists in the imaginary world of the song, not in reality where you must move on and live courageously in spite of sadness.

Let me try to illustrate through Love’s not a Spaceship. A while back, some friends and I thought it would be fun to make a musical/love story set in space (strange, I know). This song is part of that larger story:

In the song, the speaker is expressing something beautiful and, you could even say, heroic. Loving someone against all odds is commendable. Being willing to do anything or go anywhere for the one you love is something we can all root for. Laying your raw feelings out for the world to see is moving and powerful.

But the song is only heroic and beautiful if there is a chance she might turn back. What if the relationship really is over? What if years pass by and he’s still singing this same old song? Then, heroism and beauty changes, doesn’t it? Heroism would be letting go of all the hopes, dreams, and longings he placed in that relationship, even if it hurts to do so. Beauty would be loving her sacrificially from a distance even if she never notices, instead of broadcasting his hurt feelings to anyone who will listen. Over the course of the musical (which we never quite finished, sadly) that was a theme I was interested in exploring. How could this character move on from singing about his sorrow and in doing so, clinging to it as an idol, to acting with quiet courage and sacrificial love?

The Danger of the Lazy Happy Ending

There’s a danger to writing sad songs without happy endings, but I would say there is an equal danger to writing lazy happy endings to our sad songs. I won’t name any names, but I’ve deduced a popular formula for turning sad songs into happy ones.

Step 1: Write a sad song like normal

Step 2: At the very last verse/chorus, tweak a few words to make it happy

I don’t doubt the sincerity of artists who have written songs this way. I think, if done rightly, it can actually be very effective. Speaking personally, however, I’ve always feel a bit uncomfortable when I write songs in this sort of formulaic way. I feel like I”m writing a happy ending out of obligation. I know it’s the right thing do. Or I don’t want to be perceived as a pitiful Christian. It’s the same reason why I lessen the extent of my sin when I share at small group, or why  I put on a happy front at church when in reality, I’ve been struggling all week. It is that old sin of the Pharisees which dwells so deep within us: our hypocrisy and fear of man which paralyze us from telling the truth.

The Honest Happy Ending

What are we to do then? Write honest happy endings. Not sad songs without hope, or cheap happy endings. No, show sadness in all its darkness and bigness. Be honest with how you really feel. But then, show with your music and lyrics how Grace overflows into every single nook and cranny of our sorrow. I believe that kind of songwriting makes the biggest impact on people. Why? Because that kind of songwriting comes closest to the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is the true Happy Ending. It is brutally honest about our hopeless condition. And then, at the moment when all hope is lost, God steps in and saves the day through his Son. He changes all that is impossibly wrong with the world and our hearts for good at the cross.

This principle drives my songwriting. Once you understand the honest happy ending, you’ll see that many of my songs are basically reiterations of that same theme–new attempts to try and capture the moment when hopeless sorrow turns to joyous disbelief (If you’d like some examples, see Heart of my own Heart, Made Well, At the Shore)

I’ll end with the story of a song I wrote called ‘O Father Please’. It’s definitely not my most polished song. It has too many choruses and the melody isn’t the most memorable. But I would say, far and away, it’s the most honest and sad song I’ve ever written (and I’m a pretty depressing songwriter!). The song was written in tears. I wrote it at a time in my life, where I didn’t feel like I could honestly write a happy ending. So I didn’t. The song ended like this:

Have mercy God
Lift up this head bowed low
Oh Father please, I know you are good
But I cannot see

You, you do not treat
The lives of the servants you love as cheap
But I feel so lost, so put to shame
Forsaken alone
So this is my shout, shout in the dark
Lord, if you hear me, please answer me now
So I may know, you do not treat
the lives of the servants you love
The servants you love as cheap
O Father please, O Father please
Have mercy on me

At the same time, though, I didn’t feel like it was finished. So I didn’t perform it or post it. I waited. A year or so later, I came back to the song and felt I could write the happy ending in a way that was honest and not forced.

Your heart is good and your love is kind
You take away that we might find
That your heart is good and your love is kind
So take these dreams and let them die
Your mercy stings but its not cheap
You have given all for me
And I will sing cause I”m not cheap
You have given everything

At last year’s Open Mic, I had the chance to perform this song with a few friends. I taught the last chorus to the audience so we could all sing it together. The musician in me wishes it was less rough-around-the-edges, but singing that last chorus together with fellow brothers and sisters was powerful and made a deep impression on my heart.

Can we write sad songs without resolution? I wouldn’t say it’s wrong or that I’d never do it. But songs like ‘O Father Please’ remind me of the power of the honest happy ending. If you have an unresolved sad song, perhaps you should wait awhile. God might have something to say to you and your song still.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:5)