The Joyful Turn

Part 3 of a 3 part series called “Certainty, Doubt, and the Invisible God.” You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Have you ever encountered a happy ending which brought you to tears? You reach a point in the story where it seems like there’s no hope: the circumstances are too bleak, or the main character is too far gone. But then an unexpected reversal changes everything. It turns the tide of the battle and restores the protagonist. This turn is not some kind of cheap trick. The conflict and despair were all real. And yet, the redemption is also real. What was wrong is truly made right.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, J.R.R. Tolkien coins a new word to describe the power of the surprising happy ending: eucatastrophe. He defines eucatastrophe as the“joy of the happy ending: or more correctly the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…it is sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” In the eucatastrophic story, disaster is not the final word. Eucatastrophe brings us to the edge of the cliff, but at the last moment, transforms certain defeat into triumph.

This kind of story leaves a deep impression on us. Tolkien writes, “It is the mark of a good fairy-story that…it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” A well-told happy ending make us cry tears of joy.  We cry because we recognize how close the characters were to utter despair. We laugh through the tears because we can’t believe they’ve really been rescued.

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Tolkien argues that good fairy stories are more than just effective works of literature. Rather, they feel right and true because they possess a kind of self-authenticating glory. The best fairy stories give us a glimpse into the “inner consistency of reality”; a “fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world.”

These stories resonate with us because they point us to the Divine Author. Our God is the God of Eucatastrophe, who delights in saving his people through the unexpected joyful turn. Over and over again, we reach points in his Story where all seems lost. There is no promised child, no way to defeat the opposing army, no hope of turning back the wayward hearts of God’s people, and on and on. And then, God intervenes and makes a way.

This pattern of eucatastrophe reaches its pinnacle and climax in the Gospel, the perfect divine happy ending to which all others point. Tolkien writes:

“The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels…and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”

The Gospel is a happy ending unlike any other, one which encapsulates all of history and invites all people to come; one which offers joy that will last forever and never change. This ending possesses, in Tolkien’s words, the “supremely convincing tone of Primary Art.”

What is it about God’s pattern of eucatastrophe, or the joyful turn, that resonates so deeply with us? What makes it self-authenticating? As I’ve thought about it, two reasons have stood out to me:

The joyful turn provides honest hope. We all long for stories which are both honest and hopeful. Stories that are hopeful but unrealistic offer temporary escape but no real comfort. Those that are honest but nihilistic are crushing. Stories with both qualities makes us cry tears of joy.

Somewhere deep-down, we know that if there were a Perfect Divine Story, it would be filled with honest hope. It would have powerful insight into suffering and sin. It would take our pain seriously so we would feel understood, not patronized or treated cheaply. It would unveil the darkness of our world in all its complexity and ugliness and then fully confront and redeem that darkness.

At their best, the wisest human religions and philosophies can offer only one of honesty or hope. Either they dig small holes and brag about their ability to fill them up, or they dig larger holes as evidence they are realistic and therefore true. Only Christianity hollows out vast caverns and then floods them until every nook and cranny overflows.

The Gospel is painfully honest about the human condition but also unrelentingly hopeful. It tells us that our darkness was so great the Son of God had to be born a man but also that Jesus’ incarnation reveals the Father’s fierce love for sinners. Jesus had to die to pay the penalty our sins deserved, but through his resurrection, death and hell have been defeated forever.

The joyful turn produces humble trust. The moment of eucatastrophe is simultaneously the moment of God’s glory and our good. God receives all the glory because we could never have saved ourselves. We praise him for his faithfulness to fulfill his promises. At the same time, we experience the joy of the reversal and of seeing God’s plan unfold.

Experiencing eucatastrophe humbles us. The proud create their own happy endings, but only the desperate cry out to God for rescue. And so, when God steps in with surprising grace, we recognize that he deserves all the glory. He is meant to be the center of the universe, not us. He is great and glorious. We are small, helpless, and constantly in need of him.

At the same time, eucatastrophe is our greatest good. It produces in us profound trust in God’s character. Why? Because it tells us the way God pursues his glory is by leaving us stunned at his goodness. His glory is not egotistical but generous. He shows us his greatness by winning our hearts through his love.

To me, there is something that rings true about a God who seeks his glory in our good. There is something right about how he has made humble trust, not human strength, the key to true happiness and the root of all real power to change. These truths means there is a special place in Christianity for all who ask God for help: the poor in spirit and the brokenhearted, the irredeemable—and yes, the doubtful.

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In part 1 of this series, I highlighted our need for certainty and argued that certainty is possible through beholding Christ’s beauty in the self-authenticating Word. In part 2, I explored why a good God would allow us to experience doubt—namely, he uses tension between faith and sight to teach us that his Word is more sure than what we see.

Where does this final article fit in? Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe brings together those two main ideas from our previous articles.  It tells us there is self-authenticating glory in the way God resolves the tension between faith and sight—that is, through eucatastrophe or the joyful turn.

Put it all together, and what do you get? There is divine wisdom and beauty both in God’s reason for doubt and in the way he resolves our doubts. That realization might seem small, but it was itself a kind of eucatastrophe for me. For so long, I had thought the Bible had little to say about the experience of doubt. As a result, I felt isolated from God’s Word and unsure if there was a place for me in his kingdom.

I longed for certainty as the answer, but God, in his grace, has given me something even better. He has shown me that the truths I find most beautiful and convincing about Christianity are the very truths which speak most powerfully to my doubts. The honest hope which shines so clearly in the Gospel tells me there is hope for my hardest questions. Jesus’ invitation to the poor, the sick, and the sinners is the same invitation he extends to my often doubting heart: come, lay down your pride, bring your need, and I will give you bread that satisfies and living water to quench your every thirst.

What a privilege it is to worship this God of surprising grace. Would I continue to grow in my trust of his Word and reliance on his grace.

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Thank you to everyone who followed along with this series! I hope you enjoyed it and were encouraged by some of my scattered musings. These posts are very personal to me, which is perhaps why it’s taken me forever (literally years…) to write them. They feel like a culmination of what I’ve tried to express on this blog.

During the summer of my senior year of high school, I titled this blog “Joy Inexpressible”, a reference to 1 Peter 1:8: “though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” At the time, I was just looking for a catchy, spiritual-sounding title. I had no idea what a fitting verse it would turn out to be.

These past eight years have been a journey—and often a battle—to find joyful certainty in the invisible God. I’m thankful that God has been with me each step of the way. He has grown me, not just in spite of my doubts, but through them. He has used them to foster a dependence on his Word and on his grace that I would have never otherwise found. I pray for his continued grace in the years to come. More posts to come soon!

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The Reason for Doubt

Part 2 of a 3 part series called “Certainty, Doubt, and the Invisible God.” You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Why would a good God allow us to struggle with doubt? This question lies at the heart of C.S. Lewis’ book Till We Have Faces, which retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis frames his story as the narrator Orual’s accusation against the gods for unfairly punishing her and her beloved sister, Psyche. Psyche had told Orual that she’d been chosen to live in a beautiful castle with a god as her husband. However, when Psyche brings Orual to this supposed castle, Orual sees nothing at all—it is invisible to her. Doubtful, Orual convinces Psyche to test the god by disobeying him. And as a result, Psyche is banished to wander the earth alone.

Years later, Orual comes across a small temple dedicated to Psyche, who has come to be viewed as a goddess by some. Orual hears the story that has arisen about her and her sister. In this version, Orual is portrayed as sabotaging Psyche out of envy, not disbelief in the unseen. Orual is furious. Below, she describes her anger at how the gods have told her story:

It was as if the gods themselves had first laughed, and then spat, in my face. So this was the shape the story had taken. You may say, the shape the gods had given it…That much; and wiped clean out the very meaning, the pith, the central knot, of the whole tale. Do I not do well to write a book against them, telling what they have kept hidden?…For if the true story had been like their story, no riddle would have been set me; there would have been no guessing and no guessing wrong. More than that, it’s a story belonging to a different world, a world in which the gods show themselves clearly and don’t torment men with glimpses, nor unveil to one what they hide from another, nor ask you to believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongue and fingers…

In such a world (is there such? it’s not ours, for certain) I would have walked aright. The gods themselves would have been able to find no fault in me. And now to tell my story as if I had had the very sight they had denied me…is it not as if you told a cripple’s story and never said he was lame, or told how a man betrayed a secret but never said it was after twenty hours of torture?

Why do the gods allow us to doubt? Orual’s answer: because they are not good, but cruel and capricious. They ask you to “believe what contradicts your eyes and ears and nose and tongues and fingers” but tell your story as if you “had the very sight they had denied [you].” Orual’s bitter accusation haunted me after I first read it. She had voiced one my worst fears: that my God was somehow like her gods, one who hides and obscures himself and then judges us as if everything were easy.

The implications would be devastating. I knew my doubts weren’t free from the stain of sin. Still, I longed for God to understand that there are honest struggles that come with believing the invisible. I wanted to know that God had a reason for my unwanted doubts and that he was with me in my confusion. But if God was like Orual’s gods, there would be no room for nuance or sympathy—all my doubt would be treated as sinful, willful unbelief.

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There are countless good reasons, I’m sure, why God allows his people to experience difficult seasons of doubt. Here is one I’ve found personally helpful—in his love and wisdom, God uses our doubts to teach us that the certainty of his Word is more sure than what we see.

In my previous article, we established a crucial difference between Orual’s view of the gods and the God of the Bible: namely, God has given us a path to certainty through the self-authenticating glory of his Word. But if God’s Word is so glorious and certain, we might ask, then why do we still struggle so much with doubt? Shouldn’t trusting the Bible be easy? I would argue that we experience doubt, even as Christians, because we encounter tension between the real certainty of God’s promises and the felt certainty of what we see—the greater the tension, the more intense the doubt we’re likely to feel.

Our deepest instinct is to trust what we see. From the moment we’re born, we rely on sight to make observations and recognize patterns. Over time, we form complex webs of beliefs about how the world works. To us, these beliefs are self-evident and certain. We rely on them without thinking twice. Faith, however, challenges our natural instincts. We arrive at certainty in Christ not through physical proof, but by beholding his beauty through eyes of faith. As his disciples, Jesus calls us to make decisions not based on what we see but on present and future promises found in his Word.

What we find all throughout Scripture is that God goes out of his way to pit faith and sight against each other. He actively and intentionally creates discrepancies between his promises and what we can see. Think of Abraham and Sarah who were promised a child when their bodies were old and dying. Or the Israelites who saw the fearsome Egyptian army approaching on one side and the Red Sea on the other. Think about Jesus who was crucified and buried before being raised on the third day. Or Paul who was called to preach the Gospel amidst constant persecution and suffering. In each case, God made his promises seem impossible according to sight.

Why does God do this? Living by sight is not necessarily a bad thing—it can help us make wise decisions and plan for the future. However, there is a close connection between living by sight and our sinful tendency toward self-sufficiency, pride, and idolatry. To live by sight alone is to live independent from God. It is to live as if God doesn’t exist and the physical is all that matters. When we live by sight alone, we look for happiness in earthly possessions. We base our confidence in our human abilities and plans.

The trouble is that even after we’ve come to faith in Christ, we still view sight as primary. Our instinct is still to trust what we see more than what God has told us. We know God alone provides lasting joy, but instead seek temporary earthly pleasures. We affirm God is sovereign and all-powerful, yet rely on our own strength to better ourselves and change our circumstances.

And so, God, in love, refines our faith through the fire. He places us in situations where we must cling to his Word even though everything we see tells us otherwise. He strips away our earthly joys and sources of confidence. He brings us to the end of ourselves, to a place of utter dependence, so that in our weakness, he might powerfully show us his grace (2 Cor 12:9).

God does this over and over again until we learn to trust him. It is an agonizing process, but it is the most loving gift God could give us. Dependence on sight feels sure but results only in disappointment. Dependence on God’s Word feels foolish at first but provides true safety and satisfaction. Through inward trials, God produces in us endurance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3-5). He molds us into a people who are recklessly courageous, generous, and loving because we know our God is greater than all we see.

To borrow the analogy from our first article, God doesn’t send storms of doubt to punish or destroy us but rather to teach us that Jesus cares for us in the storm and is sovereign over the storm (Mk 4:35-41). So that with that knowledge, we would be emboldened to walk on the waves with our Savior (Mt. 14:22-33).

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At the end of Till We Have Faces, an aging Orual is finally able to bring her complaint before the gods. However, when she looks down to read the book she’s written, she sees it has been replaced by a much smaller book. This book is her real complaint, stripped of self-righteousness and pride. When she reads her true complaint, she realizes it is petty. She had felt so justified in her anger towards the gods, but she had loved Psyche selfishly just as the gods had said. The gods had known her better than she had known herself.

Having given her complaint, it is now Orual’s turn to be judged by the gods. On the day of Psyche’s banishment, Orual heard a voice from the heavens declare, “You too shall be Psyche.” Orual interpreted this as a word of judgment. Ever since that day, she had waited for their punishment. She would be a martyr, she thought with bitter satisfaction, her death would be evidence of their injustice. But now, before the gods, Orual learns that those words had been words of grace all along. Psyche’s banishment had been for the purpose of bringing Orual into the divine fold, that she too might be beloved and beautiful.

My journey with doubt is not unlike Orual’s, albeit with less bold rebellion and more fear. I couldn’t understand why God allowed unwanted doubt to persist in my life. I was afraid what it might say about his character—that he somehow couldn’t understand my doubt or that he would react to it with scorn and not mercy.

But like Orual, I have realized that God knows me better than I know myself and has all along. He knows when I am sincerely trying but struggling to believe. He also knows my sin—when I refuse faith and desperately cling to what I can see and control. God comforts me in my weakness and does surgery on my unbelief. In either case, he has the same loving goal in mind: that I would know the peace of resting on his promises.

When I cry out to God for help in my doubts, then, I have no need to fear I will encounter a cruel and capricious God. I can be confident I will be welcomed by my loving Father, whose very desire is that I would always humbly depend on him.

A Foundation in the Storm

Part 1 of a 3 part series called “Certainty, Doubt, and the Invisible God.” You can read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Can we be certain of a God we can’t see? I remember agonizing over this question. Here was my struggle: I desperately wanted to believe in my Christian faith, but I kept having recurring doubts. Some were intellectual questions about God’s existence or his goodness. Others were more experiential—God seemed absent and my affections for him felt constantly dull. I would resolve one question and then feel unsettled by another. I would answer that question, only to find I had two more and felt unsure again about the first.

What was I to make of these stubborn, persistent doubts? I feared the reason why these doubts kept arising was because deep-down I didn’t really believe in Christianity, I just didn’t want to admit it. After all, I had a vested interest in believing in God. Christianity was everything to me—my upbringing, my community, my entire way of looking at the world. I wondered if I could really be objective when thinking about my faith.

These were deeply painful thoughts, but if the doubts never went away, how could I dismiss them? And if I couldn’t dismiss them, how could I ever pursue Christ with full joy and confidence? The daily fight to believe was so tiring. The thought of doing it for a lifetime, unsure if I was faithful or in denial, felt too difficult to bear.

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Here’s the best way I can think to describe the experience of doubt: imagine you’re caught at sea in the middle of a raging storm. Fierce winds howl around you. Waves crash against your ship, spilling icy water inside. It’s night, but there’s no land in sight. All you can see through pouring rain is dark threatening water on every side.

That image captures the exhaustion and anxiety of wrestling with doubt. On land, we take moving normally for granted. But when you’re at sea being tossed to and fro by waves, even the smallest step of faith requires enormous energy. You never know if the next wave will be the one to capsize your ship and hurl you into the sea. Likewise, I was constantly fearful that the next unresolved question would be the one to finally shipwreck my faith. I felt like a beleaguered sailor and, with no end to the storm in sight, I was beginning to despair.

But what if,  instead of a ship, we were inside a sturdy house built on a strong foundation? We would be in the same dangerous storm, but we would be far less afraid. Why? Because we’d know our shelter would survive. The ground would no longer be shifting beneath our feet. We’d be able to stand and move freely.

That is a picture of certainty. I longed for certainty—a way to know that God was real and was who he said he was. If I could have that, I thought, I would be free from my paralyzing introspection. Unanswered questions, painful circumstances, and changing feelings would still come. They would still be difficult and scary. But I would be able to face them with confidence, knowing God was with me and he would not let doubt break my faith.

But how could be I certain of a God I couldn’t see? Normally, our human senses dictate what is most sure to us. We don’t doubt the reality of something if we’ve seen it with our eyes or felt it with our hands. But I had never seen God, heard his audible voice, or witnessed a physical miracle. How could I really be sure that I knew God and was loved by him?

I thought I had good reasons why I believed in God, but none of them felt decisive or definitive. My strongest apologetic argument had at least a plausible rebuttal. My religious experiences could be dismissed by sociological, nonreligious explanations. Neither of these could sustain me when my doubt was fiercest—when I was was the one dismissing the legitimacy of my faith.

I came across this video of a Q+A session with Pastor John Piper during what was probably my most difficult season of doubt. A student asks Piper, “How do we handle the doubt that the Bible or Jesus or the Gospel isn’t true?” Piper’s answer left a deep impression on me. He answers compassionately and acknowledges the pain and confusion of the doubting student. More importantly, he gives the student a way forward in his doubts.

He encourages the student to, “Cry out to the Lord to open your eyes to the self-authenticating glories and beauties of Christ in the Bible.” When Piper says “self-authenticating”, he’s not saying to believe the Bible because it says it’s true, though the Bible does say that. Rather, he’s telling us to we can know for certain that the Bible is true because it shows us wisdom and beauty that is unmistakably divine.

And what is this self-authenticating glory? To sum it up simply: Jesus—his person and work; his life, death, and resurrection. In his character and at the cross, we see strength and humility, love and justice, compassion and courage all intermingled perfectly. In him, we see the unity of the Biblical storyline and how it reveals our desperate need for a Savior.

We encounter Jesus and over time, we come to love and trust him. Like the disciples, we can say, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69). No one speaks like you do. No one loves how you love. Seeing Jesus’ glory, combined with walking in relationship with him, provides the certainty we need to anchor us in the storms of doubt.

Piper uses the illustration of his relationship with his wife. What if someone came to him and told him his wife was being unfaithful. Would he be haunted by the possibility that it could be true? No. Piper says he wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep. Why? “An absolute, subjective, eyeball-to-eyeball trust. I know this woman.” When we see Jesus’ glory and walk with him, Piper argues, we can have that same kind of confidence.

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I had never thought to look to the beauty and wisdom of Scripture as decisive proof of it’s truthfulness. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I didn’t have to look to apologetics or my own wavering feelings for evidence that Christianity was true. I could look to Christ. I thought about everything I had learned about him through the pages of Scripture. Were these truths just like any man-made religion or had I seen divine glory which could not have been fabricated? Did I have that sense of subjective, eyeball-to-eyeball trust in the Jesus of the Scriptures? Even at my weakest, I could still say, “Yes, I have seen glory. Yes, I trust you Jesus.”

The certainty of the Scriptures in the self-authenticating glory of Christ has provided me a way forward through the paralysis of doubt. When Satan whispers that God isn’t real or that I don’t truly believe the Gospel, I can remember God’s past faithfulness to me through his Word: the truths about Christ he has shown me and allowed my heart to understand; the times he has nourished and sustained me; the ways he has transformed me from who I once was.

There are no magical, quick fixes to doubt. If I’m honest, my doubt is often just as strong now as it ever was before. Still, I’m confident I’m not acting out of intellectual cowardice or blind, irrational faith. I’ve really seen something. I’ve really come to know a Savior worth cherishing and holding on to. When I feel crippled by doubt, this knowledge gives me the strength to crawl back to God’s Word and cry out for fresh sight of the beauty of Christ. It gives me strength to hold on in faith until God helps me see clearly again.

The Scriptures are our sure foundation in the storms of doubt. May we build our lives on the strong words of our Savior. The rains will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against the houses of our souls, but our faith, founded on the rock, will not fail (Mt. 7:24-27).

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!

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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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

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)

 

Paradoxology: The Trinity and God’s Massive Love pt. 2

Our series marches on!

Paradoxology: An Introduction

Paradoxology: The Trinity and God’s Massive Love


The Trinity and the Cross

When we understand the infinite depth of the Father and Son’s loving relationship, it helps us to understand and appreciate the cross even more.

The Trinity tells us how much the Father gave

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

How does the Trinity change our understanding of these well-known and beloved verses?

My point here is simple. Our understanding and appreciation of God’s love towards us depends on how much God loves his Son, whom he sent for us. If God loves his son a little, then his love for us diminishes. He wouldn’t be giving up much to save us.

But we know from our understanding of the Trinity that the exact opposite is true: the Father loves his Son more than anything. He has for all eternity been pouring out perfect love towards him in the form of glory–in the divine commendation, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. How great was this love? It was the Father’s love for the Son that exploded into the creation the world; he wanted the whole world to see just how beautiful his Son is.

Sometimes you’ll hear a skeptic say, “What kind of Father is God that he sends his Son to breathe the dirty air of earth and suffer a shameful death upon the cross, while he stays up in Heaven? Our understanding of the Father’s love for the Son should put that accusation to rest once and for all. Ask any father, and I’m sure he would say that he would much rather suffer in place of his child.” Make no mistake, it pained the Father to restrain his greatest instinct–to pour glory and love upon his Son–and to pour out instead the full angry wrath, meant for sinners.

Do you remember the line from the hymn?

“How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure. That he should give his only Son to make a wretch his  great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns his face away. As would which mar the chosen One, bring many sons to glory”

The Father’s love for us is deep and vast beyond all measure. So much so that it pleased him to crush his only Son so that we might be saved. We look with thankfulness to Paul’s rhetorical question in in Romans 8:31: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

The Trinity tells us how much the Son lost

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to his Father: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt. 26:39). Luke, the physician, records that Jesus was under such great duress that he began to sweat great drops of blood.

We are jarred to see the Son of God so unnerved and distraught. Jesus, throughout his ministry, was always calm and always collected. He was always strong and compassionate. What was in this cup? What was it that was so terrible about the cross that made the Savior ? Was it the torture, the abandonment of his disciples, the mocking? Was it the excruciating pain of the cross?

It couldn’t be that. We know from church history that many disciples were abandoned, beaten, mocked, and scorned, but still endured with great courage and confidence. Many of the disciples later faced their crucifixions with great strength and courage. We know that the disciples were not greater than their master. The only explanation is Jesus was about to experience something far more painful than even the pain of the crucifixion.

What about the cross made Jesus tremble? Matthew captures the heart of Jesus’ pain in his agonizing cry as he hung on the cross:

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”

When we understand the eternal love between Father and Son, we understood how great Jesus’ love is for us. We understand that for all eternity the Father has been loving on the Son. They have never been apart. They have been one in every sense of the word. But on the cross, the Son gives up this fellowship in the most drastic way possible–instead of receiving the Father’s glory and love–he receives God’s full angry burning wrath.

When we understand the Trinity, we also understand Jesus’ cry from the cross as one of profound loss and loneliness. Jesus enjoyed perfect intimacy and union with his Father for all eternity. But on the cross, for the first time, Jesus finds himself utterly alone.

What great love the Son has showed us–that he would trade eternal infinite joy for eternal infinite pain and loneliness? For who? For us, sinners and enemies of God.

The more we meditate on God’s intra-Trinitarian love the more we will be amazed at the love of God at the cross!

In the next post, we’ll look at how understanding God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love expands and deepens the way we understand our relationship with God.

Paradoxology: The Trinity and God’s Massive Love

Paradoxology: An Introduction


The first biblical ‘paradox’ I’d like to talk about is the doctrine of the Trinity. There was a period in my life where I really struggled to understand and love the Trinity. As I wrestled with my doubts, I read several books on the topic hoping to find some answers. By far the most helpful book I read was Michael Reeve’s Delighting in the Trinity (You can read Challies’ review here). Reeve’s helped me to not just accept the doctrine of the Trinity, but to cherish it. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in growing in a deeper understanding of God.

That being said, I want to acknowledge up front that I’ve only scratched the surface in studying the Trinity. I write not as an expert, but as a beginning student. The Trinity is not an easy topic to study, so if you reach different conclusions in your study of the Bible, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.  I’m all for any disagreement and discussion that leads to a deeper biblical understanding of and love for our Triune God.

Before we begin, let me give a very quick refresher course on the doctrine of the Trinity:

  • God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each distinct individuals, with distinct thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and actions. The Father is not the Son. The Father is not the Spirit, nor is the Son the Spirit.
  • Each person is fully God: We believe that each person is fully and completely God. As God, each person is equally powerful and equally deserving of glory. None is more powerful or more glorious than the other.
  • Yet there is only one true and living God: We do not believe in three gods. We do not believe in a one-person God manifesting himself in three different forms. We do not believe in one God and two super created beings. We believe there is one true and living God, who has existed eternally in three persons.

You can begin to see the difficulty of the Trinity. How are we to understand that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate persons, yet still one God?

In the past,  many well-meaning theologians have fallen into heresy trying to reconcile the Trinity with human logic. Others have concluded that Christianity is absurd, while others have tried to get rid of the doctrine altogether. Many of us see the perils of studying the Trinity and in our desire not to be heretics or apostates, we try to talk and think about the Trinity as little as possible.

Is it worth studying the Trinity at all? Can we grapple with the paradox of the Trinity and fall more deeply in love with God? I think so!

For me, the key that helped me see the beauty of the Trinity was understanding God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love. (Yes, I know. It doesn’t sound very beautiful, but hear me out). What do I mean? God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love means  that the persons of the Trinity–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–have been sharing perfect love among themselves for all eternity. God, in other words, has always been loving. Before time began, God experienced perfect love within himself.

In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, we get a tiny glimpse into the eternal inner life of the Trinity, and the results are some of the  most mind-blowing truths in all of Scriptures.

In John 17:24, Jesus prays: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you loved before the foundation of the world.”

Before time began, the Father was giving glory and love to his Son. How are we to understand the Father’s glory? We could describe it as acceptance, approval, and praise. Probably the best way to think about it is to imagine the Father telling the Son how immensely proud of him he is. He loved him with a great love and as a result showered the Son with great love. What does the son do? He responds with loving obedience and submission to his father.  So, for all eternity there was this perfect harmonious love between Father and Son. The Father pouring out love like a fountain and the Son responding in love to the Father.

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into this great love?

John 17 focuses primarily on the love between Father and the Son, but we can draw some clues from the rest of the scriptures.

We see elsewhere in the Scriptures that the Father pours out his love through the Holy Spirit. Do you remember Jesus’ at baptism in Matthew 3. As Jesus rises from the water, the skies open up, and the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. The Father does what he has been doing for all eternity–he is giving glory, praise, and approval to the Son, whom he loves. But do you remember what happens as the Father declares his love? The Holy Spirit comes and rests on Jesus in the form of a dove. Paul, in Romans 5:5 explains how this truth works in our relationship with God: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”.

Second, we see that in our lives, the Holy Spirit causes us to both know and respond to God’s Fatherly love towards us. In Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, Paul writes about the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption and sonship, who assures us that we are beloved children of our Heavenly Father. As the Holy Spirit brings God’s love into our hearts, Paul says, we respond by crying, “Abba Father”. If this is true for us, sinners, I think it’s reasonable for us to assume this is supremely true of Jesus, God’s Beloved Son.

We’re starting to get a picture of the massive weight of God’s eternal intra-Trinitarian love. The Father loving the Son through the Holy Spirit. The Son responding to the Father’s Love in the Holy Spirit.

Now, think about massive God’s love is. As humans, even at our best, we have conflict in our relationships. Why? Because we are sinners. When we love, our love is often tainted by our selfishness. Not only that, the ones we love are often selfish well. No friendship, family, or marriage is exempt from our sin. Sooner or later our selfishness will cause us to sin against one another.

It is not that way with God. The Father and Son’s love is perfect–there is no taint of selfishness or sin. The Father has every reason to love and glory in his Son and the Son has every reason to delight and obey his Father. They are united in the deep fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Father pouring out his love through the Holy Spirit and the Spirit stirring in the Son to cry, “Abba, Father”.

When people talk about the Trinity, people are endlessly trying to come up with analogies and clever explanations to explain how God can be three, yet one. I don’t know if I’ve thought this through enough, but I think perhaps the best way is to think about the massive weight of his love.

From what I can tell, when the Bible talks about oneness, it’s intimately connected to love, commitment and unity. We find for instance, the Bible talking about oneness between husband in wife: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and shall hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The beauty of marriage is that two different individuals are joined in spiritual, emotional, and physical union. We see in Philippians 2, we see that as we, the Church, grow in our knowledge of Christ and our participation in the Spirit, we will increasingly grow in humility and have “the same mind, the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”.  The love of the Gospel can take diversity and bring about wonderful oneness as we grow in our love for Jesus.

A husband and a wife may be spiritually, emotionally, and physically one (what a beautiful way of viewing God’s good design for sex!), but they are not literally one. The church can be one in purpose and love as members serve one another humbly, but they are not literally one. But God’s love is so great, his unity and fellowship so perfect, that he is actually one, in every sense of the word. That doesn’t resolve the paradox logically, but that is a kind of paradox that leads me to humble amazed worship.

So far, we’ve seen that if you start with the Trinity, you have a wonderful sharing God of love. What happens if you get rid of the cumbersome doctrine of the Trinity?

Well, if you take away the Trinity, you lose any possibility of God being eternally loving. By definition, in order to be loving, you need someone else to love. You could say you love yourself, but that’s not the kind of love we’re talking about. Instead of being eternally loving, and looking outward to other persons, this God would have been eternally by himself, self-centered, and looking inward.

Whether or not God was eternally loving may seem like semantics, but if you think about it, it’s hugely important for how we view creation. Depending on how you look at it, Genesis 1:1 can either be good or bad news.

If the Triune God creates, it is great news! Here is a God who is fundamentally sharing and loving; so sharing and loving, in fact, that it overflows and explodes into creation. God wants to share his own life with us. The Father wants us to know and understand the beauty of the Son which he has been enjoying for all eternity! We can have great confidence in God’s love because he has forever been a Father in the deepest part of our identity.

On the other hand, if a single-person God, it would be bad news. Why? I can think of only two reasons why he would create. Either he is lonely and needy and wanted someone  to praise him. That God would not be very worthy of our worship, would he? He would be weak, insecure, and dependent on his creation. The other reason would be that God created us to rule over us. That would be scary! We see what happens when men are given free-reign and absolute authority to do whatever they want with no accountability, they become terrifying dictators.

In the next post, we’ll look at how understanding God’s eternal intra-trinitarian love expands and deepens the way we understand Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the Cross.

Paradoxology: An Introduction

Paradoxology: An Introduction

“Paradoxology”, as you can probably tell, is a wordplay off of Paradox and Doxology. The idea here is that the most difficult paradoxes of our faith can lead us the  deepest worship. Paradox leading to worship? How can that be?”  G.K. Chesterton. in his book Orthodoxy gives us some provocative. yet insightful thoughts:

“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.” (20)

Now this exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth but it is stubborn about the subtle truth…it is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth (75)

Chesterton acknowledges that there are paradoxes in the Christian faith; certain things are mysterious, even seemingly illogical. But he notices there is always something funny about biblical paradoxes–if you can humbly accept them, everything becomes wonderfully and beautifully clear; but if you try and explain them away, what’s left of your religion neither makes sense, nor inspires worship. Christianity says odd things, but they turn out to profoundly explain some of the most complex realities of our world.

Biblical paradoxes, in other words, do not prove that our faith is incoherent or absurd. It’s exactly the opposite. They give us some of the most powerful evidence that our faith is true. The wisdom of the world is polished, smooth, and logical. Yet, upon closer examination, these explanations are woefully inadequate to explain reality. The wisdom of God on first glance seems strange, even laughably contradictory–who in their right mind would think of something so odd?–but upon closer examination, it possesses divine beauty and truth. And in Chesterton’s words, when we allow some mystery, everything becomes marvellously and wonderfully clear. We are left in awe, saying, “We could never have thought of this. Truly, this is the Word of God. Glory be to his name”

For now (we’ll see if I can think of more paradoxes later), I plan to write first about the Trinity and afterwards, the sovereignty of God. I’ll be drawing most of the material for this series from two great books: Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves and The Sovereignty of God and Evangelism by J.I. Packer. These are some of the most important books I’ve read. They have  not only helped me to better understand the Trinity and God’s sovereignty, they have also led me to deep thankful worship  .

My hope is that through these series, you would realize we don’t have to uncomfortable or embarrassed with the paradoxes of our faith. Rather, we can respond as Paul did as he emerged from one of the densest, most difficult parts of Scripture at the end of Romans 11:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 ESV)

Next post on its way soon!

Signs, Wisdom, and the Word of Christ pt. 2

In Part 1, I talked about God’s wisdom in giving the Gospel over some spectacular sign. Why? Because only Jesus can address the real problem of our hearts. Fire from heaven might wow people, but only a crucified Savior can bring us back to God and give us true assurance.

This all sounds nice, but I could easily raise this objection: “Well, I can understand what you’re saying. Jesus dying on the cross is better than a spectacular sign. I get that. But isn’t that still a sign? I mean if I was actually there and saw him die and rise from the dead, then it would be easy to believe. But I didn’t see it and I can only read about it in the Bible. That’s not a sign, that’s just one story among all the religious stories and how can I be sure its true? Chris, honestly, I have a strange suspicion that this is a cop-out answer as to why miracles and signs don’t seem to happen today…”

The question I want to ask in this post is this. Which do you think would better resolve your doubts and provide a solid foundation for your faith: the Scriptures or to personally witness Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection? If you could only have one which would it be?

In my first post I talked about the sufficiency of Christ for our doubts. In this post, I want to talk about the sufficiency of the Scriptures of revealing Christ. Like last time, my thoughts here are not my own, but come courtesy of a recent sermon I heard from my church’s youth pastor, Henry Chung. He was speaking from Luke 24 on the resurrection of Christ and pointed out something I’d never seen before: how Jesus emphasizes the Word of God as our source of faith, even over his own physical death and resurrection.

Wait, really? the Scriptures over his own death and resurrection? Yep. Pastor Henry pointed out three instances throughout chapter 24 where the Word of God takes a central place.

The first instance is when the women visit the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They are surprised to find the stone rolled away and two angels there instead of their Lord.  The angels, however, are more surprised why the women have come mourning as if Jesus were dead. They ask them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise?”  In other words, Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh, predicted this. And you’re surprised?” Here are eyewitnesses who heard Jesus say that he must “[die] for our sins according to the Scriptures, [be] buried,  [and be] raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:2-3, Luke 9:22,44, Matt:17:22-23, Mark 9:30). And yet, though they witness the Lord die just as he predicted, they are completely oblivious to any possibility that he might come back to life.

The narrative then switches from the women at the tomb to two men on the road to Emmaus. Two travelers are walking and discussing Jesus’ death which they too had witnessed. Both were deeply saddened because they “had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Jesus comes to them in disguise so that their “eyes were kept from recognizing him” and asks them about their conversation. The two men go on to recount the sad details of how the man they thought would be Messiah had been crucified. What does Jesus do next? Drop the disguise and say, “Need proof that I’m risen? Here I am”? Notice what he says and does:

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 25-27)

And look what happens next:

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Annd he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:30-35)

Christ proves who he is, not by showing them physical proofs of his resurrection– he intentionally keeps them from knowing his identity– but rather he convinces them by reasoning with them from the Scriptures. They too witnessed the Lord’s death and had even heard the women’s account of seeing angels at the tomb (v. 22-24), but they were not convinced of his resurrection until they had seen it proven through the Scriptures. Only then, did their hearts burn with certainty that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.

Finally, the narrative shifts to when Jesus appears to his disciples. Here, we see the same thing happen: physical proof of the crucifixion and resurrection do not convince the disciples.

“As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your heart? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.” (Luke 24:36-43)

I guess the women and the two travelers had some excuse– they still had not seen the Lord. But here Jesus appears in the flesh to the disciples, the ones who were supposed to know him best. He offers physical proof to touch his wounds, and yet still the texts reads they “disbelieved for joy”. What happens next? We see the Scriptures emphasized again!

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them. Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45-47)

Isn’t that crazy? It wasn’t just us, 21st century readers, who struggled with doubts, even the disciples and those closest to Jesus still doubted even though they saw the actual proof of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ words in Luke 16, which he spoke in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man are prophetically true here: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (v.31). And yet, at the same time, we see the text give a resounding affirmation to the sufficiency of the Scriptures for it was not until they witnessed Jesus in the Scriptures that they were able to believe.

I could write a whole other post about what it is that makes the Scriptures so important for faith (simple answer: Holy Spirit, see John 16:7 ), but my main point is this: let us not be dissatisfied with the Scriptures as the solution for our doubts. Let us not elevate experience, or signs, or philosophical wisdom and seek to use them as our primary answer to our questions above our Bibles. The Bible is enough!

To end this post, I’ll leave you with some final questions. Could it be that the simple reason we struggle so much with doubt is that we don’t know the Scriptures? Could it be we’re just like the Sadducees to whom Jesus said, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures, nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24). Could it be that if we studied them with all our heart we would see how all the Scriptures point to Christ in the greatest story ever told? And that, if we really studied our Bibles we would find ourselves trusting and standing in awe of this God more and not less?

Let’s find out!

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 ESV)