Introverts, Loneliness, and the Strength to Stay

Imagine two situations with me. First, you’re in a conversation with someone important to you. You’re listening attentively and asking follow-up questions. To an onlooker, the conversation might seem to be going well. But you sense the conversation only continues because you keep it going. If you were to stop contributing, it would falter and sputter to a close. You step away and a few moments later, you see this person talking with someone else. Their conversation has an energy and ease yours lacked. They seem like they could talk for hours.

Second situation: you’re in a circle of friends. There’s laughter all around. You’re part of the group, but at the same time, you feel like an outsider. You feel you have little to contribute, and it wouldn’t make a difference if you were to leave. Your friends would still have a great time. In fact, it might be easier for them to not have to worry about including you.

Now, what if these two situations weren’t once in a while occurrences but seemed to characterize all of your interactions and relationships with others? 

For some of us who are more soft-spoken and introverted, we don’t have to imagine because that’s how we often feel—like we must keep “talking”, literally and figuratively. We must fill conversation to stave off the dreaded silence, which somehow always feels like our fault. We must initiate and maintain friendships to keep them from fading away. Still, despite our best efforts, we feel burdensome and expendable, stuck on the outside looking in.

Then, there’s the added dimension of church ministry. Ministry is difficult enough by itself, but it’s even harder when serving feels like a replay of the situations described above. We watch others establish deep connections with seeming ease while we feel useless. We labor to bring others into a community we’re sometimes not even sure we’re a part of.

Are we really as alone and useless as we feel? And if not, why does it feel like we are—in a visceral way that’s difficult to shake, even when people try to convince us otherwise? More importantly, how can we find the strength to stay in community when all we want is to withdraw?

Grace when Loneliness is Real

I think there is truth to what we feel. Our churches are spiritual communities, but they are also social groups. And with any social group, there are people who fit in better than others. Practically speaking, church life can be boiled down to a series of social interactions—after-church fellowship, shared meals, etc. In general, these interactions tend to favor more extroverted personality types, especially in college and young adult settings.

This isn’t out of ill intent; most church events just happen to take place in large group settings, where more outgoing people thrive. If you enjoy witty banter and spontaneous hangouts, chances are you’ll have an easier time integrating into church life. If you feel uncomfortable in those kinds of settings, at times you’ll feel out of place.

Those with quieter personalities can also struggle to find more meaningful connection. In my experience, being fun in an extroverted sense is often a necessary precursor for depth. The laughter and hanging out help transition relationships from stilted small talk to free-flowing friendship. Without those missing ingredients, conversations often stall out and feel forced, no matter how intentional they might be.

For many introverts, then, loneliness is an inevitable part of participating in church life. Unfortunately, that loneliness will all too often feel like an indictment of our personalities—we’re outsiders because we’re too boring, awkward, or reserved. This will hurt and we’ll wonder if community is more trouble than it’s worth.

We need to be patient with these struggles. While much of our loneliness stems from sin (more on this later), I’ve come to believe much of our loneliness arises from weakness. It results from being introverted people trying to navigate extroverted environments but feeling inadequate. We should do our best to discern and repent of our sin, but we should not beat ourselves up for weakness. Doing so adds an unnecessary burden to an already difficult situation, which only makes us want to withdraw even more.

Instead, our recurring weakness should point us back to the Savior’s grace. Jesus tells us that while people may fail us, he is the most important Person, and he loves us and will never let us go. He reminds us we are created in his image and our personalities are fearfully and wonderfully made. He encourages us that the thorn of unrelenting loneliness can teach us about the power of his grace as we depend upon him.

Perspective when Loneliness is Wrong

While there is some truth to what we feel, we often have a distorted perception of our loneliness. To illustrate this, I’ve created two diagrams. The first captures how loneliness feels. The second depicts what I believe to be a more accurate picture of reality.

Diagram 1: How Loneliness Feels

Diagram #1

Diagram 2: A More Realistic Picture

Diagram 2

In both diagrams, the green circle represents relationships and ministry effectiveness we want but do not have. For instance, we may want to thrive in group settings or be that sought-after leader who everyone flocks to for advice, but we may not be able to because of our God-given limitations. When we feel overwhelmed by loneliness, all we can see is our exclusion from the green “inner” circle. We feel completely isolated and useless. In the second diagram, the green circle is still there (i.e. what we talked about in the previous section), but it is significantly smaller.

The dark blue circle in Diagram 2 represents the friendships we do have and the ministry contexts in which God has gifted us. The dark blue circle might be smaller than we would like, but it’s real. There are people who know and love us and people who are blessed by us.

Finally, the grey circle represents people we don’t know very well and who, to be honest, we don’t think about very often. They may not care much for us, but we probably don’t care much about them either. If we got to know them, perhaps they would fall in the green circle, or perhaps they would be a part of our blue circle. Until we get to know them, it’s impossible to know.

In my experience, I’ve found that one practical step in combating loneliness is regaining perspective that Diagram 2 is true, not Diagram 1. Diagram 1 is completely deflating. It’s almost impossible to muster the strength to stay when you feel isolated from everyone. While there are still difficulties in Diagram 2, it’s more manageable. We can persevere with God’s help.

So why does Diagram 1 so often feel true? And how can we regain proper perspective? Below, I outline a three-step progression which leads to a distorted view of loneliness.

  1. I idolize certain “extroverted” relationships and types of ministry usefulness

If I’m being objective, most of my loneliness comes from feeling inadequate in a small number of relationship and ministry settings. There’s a certain person I want to think well of me or a certain group that I want to feel included in. And because I fall short in those specific relationships, I extrapolate that sense of failure to every relationship.

Likewise, certain ministry settings bring out my insecurities more than others. For example, I’m particularly self-conscious about my reserved personality whenever I’m a camp counselor, since the camp setting is such an extroverted environment. Because I feel limited in specific ministry situations, I conclude I must be useless in every situation.

But the truth is most of the time I’m comfortable not fitting into extroverted settings and would even prefer not to. The inner turbulence I feel is not due to an all-encompassing failure to belong, but because I’ve become overly preoccupied with certain relationships or a certain vision of ministry effectiveness.

To express it in our diagram, the smaller dark green circle represents the actual number of relationships and ministry settings which bother me. The larger light green circle represents the amount of loneliness I feel because I’ve idolized those relationships and ministry settings.Diagram 3

2. I overlook the people who care about me and the ways God has gifted me

Next, I ignore the people who care for me (i.e. I delete the dark blue circle). I take friends for granted because I already know they’ll be there for me. Instead of being grateful, I compare myself against them and become jealous of their successes (i.e. I add them to the green circle).

Similarly, I often take the talents God has given me for granted. I disparage their usefulness and say they don’t matter if I don’t possess the relational gifting I want so badly.Diagram 4 (1)

3. I mistake my own indifference towards others as them rejecting me.

Finally, I take the grey circle of people I’m not particularly close to and lump them into the green circle, making the green circle seem enormous. Suddenly, it feels like I don’t belong anywhere. No one cares about me. But that’s not true. I can’t know how people in the grey circle will respond to me, because I haven’t put in any work to get to know them. Our lack of closeness is due in large part to my lack of care and lazy indifference. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I should challenge myself to better love people outside of my comfort zone.

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And there it is: how Diagram 2 becomes Diagram 1 in three steps. We must battle for perspective at each step of this progression instead of giving in to cynicism and self-pity. We must resolve to believe God’s promises, give thanks for his provision, and grow in costly love for others. We must obey God and trust he’ll take care of us for whatever loneliness remains.

Loneliness can be crushing. It’s so tempting to want to give up when every interaction feels like a stinging reminder of how we don’t quite belong. It is difficult to remain hopeful when we’ve battled loneliness our whole lives, only to watch it return over and over again. Sometime grace is realizing we’re wrong. We’re not as alone as we feel. Rather, idolatry, jealousy, and our own indifference have clouded our sight of God’s goodness in our lives. We may not have everything we want, but God has given us exactly what we need, and he is at work shaping our relationships and ministries.

Loneliness is a complex, tangled mess of weakness and sin, but God gives us strength to stay through all our messiness. I pray you’ve found some practical help in this article, whether you’re a reserved person battling loneliness, or someone learning to better love your introverted brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Come as You Are: A Philosophy of Crocs

Crocs are controversial, to say the least. Detractors love to scoff at the oddly shaped shoes with the bright colors and funny holes. Unsurprisingly, many exulted when news broke last week that Crocs was closing the last of their manufacturing facilities and outsourcing production to third parties (though I, for one, think that Crocs will be just fine). Still, Crocs remain beloved among its devoted fans. In fact, they may actually be growing in popularity, as GQ noted in their article, “Crocs Might be Cool and it’s tearing GQ Apart”. Why are so many people committed to this much maligned shoe? As a proud Croc wearer and philosopher, I have some ideas. Here are three reasons why I love Crocs and you should too*:

  1. Crocs comfort. I mean this in two ways. First and most obvious, Crocs are comfortable, with pillowy soles that grow softer with time and use. But Crocs also give a richer, deeper kind of comfort. They are a refuge from the rat race of fashion. Are you tired and broke from chasing the next big thing? Crocs offer a shoe—more than that, a way of life—where it’s ok to be uncool. You can exchange fashion for function; buttoned-up shirts and designer jeans for sweats, hoodies, and old VBS t-shirts. Crocs invites everyone everywhere to #comeasyouare (I’m not joking, that’s really their motto, and John Cena is their spokesperson). Wearing crocs feels like coming home. It feels like grace. Sole comfort and soul comfort. What more could you want?
  2. Crocs humble you. Nobody will take you seriously if you wear Crocs. That’s great! That means you don’t have to take yourself so seriously either. Crocs are an announcement to the world that we are bums, yes, but not only that—bums who are accepted and loved. There’s freedom in that proclamation. We no longer need to frantically outcompete or outdress others. No matter how we’re treated, we can simply listen, be kind, and offer others the same comfort we’ve found.
  3. Crocs are funny. Let’s be honest, Crocs will never be cool. They’re funny looking. That’s the whole point! As we laugh at our Crocs, we learn to laugh at ourselves. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even more for the Christian Croc-wearer: Christian Croc jokes! If you love lame Bible jokes, you’ll love lame Christian Croc Jokes. The possibilities are endless. There’s the classic substituting “Crocs” into well-known Christian songs and phrases. Or the fun of noting the parallels between the Christian life and life as a Crocs-bearer. My personal favorite was when a friend dismissed Crocs as shoes for little kids. To which I happily replied: “Friend, unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom.”

Each of these tenets is compelling enough on their own**. Together, they form something truly profound—something which I believe captures the essence of the best friendships and the kind of community we all long for. In the best friendships, you can truly be yourself. These friendships are free from pretense and self-promotion. They interweave comfort and humor. Dumb jokes coexist side by side with heartfelt sharing in the same conversation, often the same moment.

As with fashion and footwear, there are so many things we think we need in life: status, money, cool stuff, and so on. But real happiness can be boiled down to a few simple ingredients. Here’s one of them: grace experienced through silly, honest, life-giving friendships.

Crocs make me think of my friends. Four years ago, a friend (who many might call Paul the Apostle of Crocs) and I decided to buy Crocs as a Christmas gift for our small group of five guys. When the presents were unveiled, there was no groaning or protesting, just celebration. Which is no surprise because my friendships with these brothers embody the characteristics of the Crocs. These are brothers who comfort me during rough times, embrace me for the bum that I am, and make me laugh until my sides hurt. Since that day, our friendships have only grown and deepened, helped, in no small part, by our sweet new shoes.

I’m so thankful for these friendships and others like them. No matter where we end up, I know they’ll have my back. And while life is full of uncertainties, it’s not quite as scary with good friends by your side and well-worn Crocs for the road ahead.

crocs

*This article is at least 85% serious.
**90% of what I say about Crocs is also true of Sacramento Kings fans.

 

The Worst of Evan Hansen

For the past few months, I’ve been enjoying the soundtrack of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen. I even had the chance to see it live with some friends when I visited New York. I thought it’d be fun to dig deeper into the show and interact with its ideas from a Christian perspective. In this post, I focus mostly on the songs, but there are also some spoilers from the story. Regardless of what you know about the show, I hope you can enjoy!

DEH 2

Evan Hansen is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, he’s terrified of being known; on the other, he longs to be found. In the opening lines of “Waving through a Window”, Evan lays out his cautious, self-protective approach toward life. “I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I even turn the key,” he sings, “before I make the mistake, before I lead with the worst of me.” Moments later, however, he laments how “he’s on the outside always looking in” and wonders “can anybody hear? Is anybody waving back at me?”

These two powerful desires—Evan’s fear of rejection and longing for acceptance—pull him in contradictory directions. He wants to be truly seen, understood, and loved, but this is impossible as long as he hides who he really is. By pursuing both desires, Evan unknowingly paralyzes himself in perpetual misery, unable to cry out for help or bear his isolation.

The Longing Behind the Lie

The plot is set in motion by a lie Evan tells that he was best friends with Connor Murphy, a social outcast who commits suicide early on in the story. Through this lie, Evan is able to get everything he ever wanted. He becomes popular at school. He wins the affection of Zoe, Connor’s sister and his longtime crush. He finds a home with the grieving Murphy family, something his own mom, a single parent working long hours, has difficulty providing.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of lying, though, is it allows Evan to voice his loneliness without having to risk rejection or reveal the worst of himself. After his death, Evan creates the “Connor Project”—a student group “dedicated to keeping Connor’s memory alive, to showing that everybody should matter.” As part of the project, Evan gives a speech to the entire school assembly, captured in the song “You Will Be Found.” In it, he identifies the loneliness we often feel and promises that someone will find us in our most hopeless moments.

In one sense, the speech is a step in the right direction for Evan. It forces him to overcome some of his crippling anxiety. However, it also allows him to avoid the most painful part of revealing weakness—namely, the embarrassment and shame of sharing your own weakness. Instead, he substitutes the worst parts of himself with the worst of Connor. Rather than saying, “I feel weak, lost, and alone. Please come find me,” Evan can say, “Connor felt weak, lost, and alone. We often feel that way too. We need to find each other.” Evan gets to ask for what he wants most while blending into the anonymous “we.”

Midway through “You Will Be Found” is an interlude in which Evan’s speech goes viral. Soon, Evan’s speech is the talk not only of the school but of millions on the Internet. To his surprise, Evan learns he is not alone in his loneliness. Many of the people he thought looked so put-together actually feel just like him. He just couldn’t see because they were caught in the same paralysis as him, held back from sharing by the same fear of rejection. Similarly to the way Connor’s death made it easier for Evan to voice his weakness, Evan’s speech makes it easier for others to come clean with theirs. His vulnerability gives them permission to also be vulnerable.

One of my friends noted the climax of “You Will Be Found” erupts in almost eschatological language—that is, with the kind of promises of complete restoration you’d expect in a sermon on Revelations, not a secular musical. “Out of the shadows the morning is breaking and all is new,” the choir exults, as the orchestra swells behind them, “it’s filling up the empty and suddenly I see that all is new.” “You are not alone. You will be found,” they repeat, over and over again.

These jubilant proclamations capture the rising sense of communal hope. People are experiencing the joy of being mutually known and loved. There is a renewed sense that anything is possible as we support one another together. We can find others who are hurt and, in turn, be found when we are hurting.

As “You will be Found” comes to a resounding close, and with it the first act, we are left feeling conflicted. We resonate with Evan’s speech. We sense he has uncovered a profound longing that lies within all of us. At the same time, we also recognize that the promises of Evan’s movement rest on the flimsiest of foundations—on a fabricated story by someone actively avoiding the truth. Evan has unearthed our deepest desire. Will he be able to deliver on the hope he’s created?

The Worst of Evan Hansen

In the second act, pressure mounts as Evan desperately tries to hold up his web of lies. Finally, when he can no longer bear it, Evan tells the truth to Zoe and the Murphy family in the song “Words Fail.” He was never  friends with Connor; he had made the whole thing up. In a moment, Evan loses the relationships he had worked tirelessly to build.

Midway through “Words Fail”, the Murphy’s leave and Evan is left alone. Now, the more difficult part of Evan’s journey begins. Evan has not only been deceiving others, he has also been willfully deceiving himself. Now, there is nowhere left to hide. As the song resumes and builds to a crescendo, Evan repeats the first lines of “Waving through a Window”: “I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I’ve even turned the key. Before I make the mistake. Before I lead with the worst of me. I never let them see the worst of me,”  he says. And then, just as the song reaches its pinnacle, he quietly blurts out the truth he’s tried desperately to avoid, the real reason behind his self-preserving mentality:

Cause what if everyone saw?
What if everyone knew?
Would they like what they saw?
Or would they hate it too?

Evan’s worst fear has come true: he has revealed the very worst of himself. He had dreaded this moment and done everything in his power to keep it from happening. And yet, when it does, he feels an enormous burden lifted off his shoulders. He no longer has to seek acceptance by hiding from the truth. He is free to ask the question he should have been asking all along: “All I ever do is run so how can I step into the sun?”

This line, which Evan utters at rock bottom, marks a turn in his character in the right direction.  Throughout the musical, the sun and light are symbols for living truthfully and with courage. Evan’s previous mindset was all about “step[ping] out of the sun if you keep getting burned.” With nothing left to lose, he decides to try going outside again.

His first order of business is to talk to his mom. He shares a secret he has been hiding for the entire story. He had begun the story with a broken arm, which he quickly explained came from falling out of a tree. There are hints that there is more to the story than Evan is letting on. Now, Evan tells the truth. The real reason he broke his arm was he tried to commit suicide. Despite this new revelation and everything Evan had done to ignore and wound her, Evan’s mom embraces him. “Your mom’s not going anywhere,” she assures him, “no matter what I’ll be here.” Evan spills the worst of himself and finds he is known and loved.

All We See is Sky

In the first act, Evan sings a song called “For Forever.” He plans to tell the Murphy’s there had been a misunderstanding and he hadn’t really known Connor. Instead, he fabricates an elaborate story of an afternoon they spent together. The song culminates with the two climbing a tree for a better view and Evan plummeting to the ground. As Connor rushes to his aid, Evan repeats the chorus, quietly at first, then triumphantly:

All we see is sky for forever
We watch the world pass by for forever
Feels like we could go on for forever this way
Two friends on a perfect day.

Afterwards, Evan wonders why he was unable to stop lying. As the audience, we wonder why so much detail and an entire song is given to a made-up event. The revelation of his attempted suicide, however, helps explain the significance of this song for Evan. Evan was unable to deal with the dissonance that at his moment of greatest need, nobody was there. That reality was so deeply painful for Evan that when the opportunity came to rewrite that moment, he felt compelled, consciously and unconsciously, to do so.

Evan’s lie began first and foremost as an attempt to deceive himself. He reimagines the moment he most longed for a friend as the moment he is found by his best friend. He refashions stepping out of the sun into climbing to the heights so it could shine on his face.

The final song of the musical is a reprise of the chorus from “For Forever.” In this version, the choir is more reserved. Their singing is tinged with sadness but also hope. If “For Forever” is Evan sitting blindly in the dark, singing victoriously about the beauty of the sun; then the finale is Evan emerging from the darkness, pale, weak, and emaciated, but truly in the light. And, for that reason alone, there is reason for optimism.

Indeed, we see glimpses that Evan is taking small steps forward. He ends the play as he started it: with a letter to himself. This time, however, Evan is at peace. He has faced the worst of himself and in doing so, has allowed himself to be found by the person who matters most. In his short conversation with Zoe, Evan also shares he has found a list of Connor’s favorite books and is reading them to try get to know the real Connor. Now that Evan has been found, he is learning to truly find others.

sky-01

Known to the Bottom, Loved to the Sky

Dear Evan Hansen’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is its ability to capture the anxiety and exhaustion of facing the worst of ourselves. We know exactly how it feels to be in Evan’s shoes, caught in a tug-of-war between our desire to share honestly and our fear of what others might think. In the moments before confession, we tense up, our palms begin sweating, and a thousand excuses race through our minds. We have to physically exert ourselves just to force the words out. At times, like Evan, we have to muster all our strength just to tell the truth to ourselves.

And yet, even as the musical conveys the difficulty of our inner battles, we are reminded that we have a much greater hope than Evan Hansen. Jesus, the most important person in the universe, knows us to the bottom and loves us to the sky. Despite seeing our darkest thoughts and deeds, he left his heavenly throne to come find us. He sought us all the way to the cross.

The Gospel gives us the strength to share the worst of ourselves. It’s still scary. When we look out, everyone else seems happy and put-together. We fear we will be burdensome or other will think less of us. And yet, we can find courage in the truth that we are loved and accepted by the one who matters most and knows us best. No human rejection can crush us because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Friends, here’s a challenge for us: let’s not let Evan Hansen outrace us into the light. Rather, as children of the light, let’s strive to be more transparent in our Christian friendships. Maybe that means opening up about a hidden struggle to close friends or a trusted mentor. Maybe it’s empathizing with a downcast believer and sharing about God ‘s faithfulness in our weakness and sin. As God empowers us to be vulnerable, we help others to be vulnerable too. And together, we can grow into the kind of community which Evan could only imagine—a community of sinners saved by grace, freed from fear and the need to prove ourselves, loving one another as we have been loved.

 

 

Logan and the Long Road to Eden

I’ve wanted to write about Logan ever since I watched it in theaters. Logan is my favorite type of superhero movie—the kind that focuses on the humanity and hardships of its hero, rather than on explosions and special effects. I also think there are a lot of interesting parallels to draw between the movie and our Christian lives. Hope you enjoy!

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Logan’s central question is whether heroism—that is, courage, self-sacrifice, and the ideals heroes represent—can exist in a cruel and violent world. Logan uses its R-rating to hammer home just how brutal life as a hero can be. Normally, superhero movies are selective in what they show. They glamorize the excitement and glory of heroism while minimizing the costs. Logan, however, shows us everything. We see the full effects of Logan’s claws as they pierce, sever, and kill. We see the full aftermath of years of endless fighting. Most heroes have died. Those who are left suffer from crippling guilt and regret. They’ve grown old, given up, or gone crazy. The bleakness of Logan’s world startles and shakes us up. It makes us wonder: what hope is there for heroism if it’s this hard?

We meet Logan as a man who has given up on heroism. He lives a withdrawn life, working as a chauffeur, caring for Xavier, and otherwise avoiding every reminder of his past. We’ve seen characters like him before–the cynical old man–but it’s still jarring to see what Wolverine has become. Two things have happened to reduce Logan from brash fearless hero to this shell of himself.

The first is that he has lost hope. Heroes are expected to be beacons of hope. When all is lost, they step in and tells us everything will be okay. But Logan has watched friends die. He’s seen evil defeated countless times, only for it to appear again in a different form. He’s experienced too many disappointments to maintain hope, much less provide it for others.

Second and closely related, Logan has lost confidence in himself. He no longer believes in his abilities or his goodness. Externally, his body is breaking down. Internally, his resolve has left him, and he is racked by guilt from his violent past. In his mind, he is not strong enough to be a hero, and even if he were, he would be unworthy to be one.

The movie contrasts Logan’s cynical view of heroism with the picture put forth by comic books. The plot revolves around Logan delivering Laura, a young girl with identical claws to his, to a mutant safe haven called “Eden”. Eventually, however, Logan learns this Eden is based on coordinates from an old X-men comic book. Logan is understandably upset. He hates comic books. Not only are they untrue, they perpetuate the backbreaking expectations placed on heroes. More than that, they remind him of how far he’s fallen from who he once was and what he once believed.

In many ways, comic books are like the Biblical Eden. In them, good and evil are clearly divided, no one dies, and justice triumphs in the end. Logan, however, has experienced the fall. He has seen sin and suffering. For him, comic book heroes are a myth just like Eden. That kind of heroism never existed, and if it did, it’s gone and there’s no going back.

The movie sets up these two opposing views of heroism—Logan’s nihilism and comic book idealism– and places them on a collision course. Will Logan find Eden or barren wasteland when he reaches the comic book coordinates?  What he discovers will be the movie’s referendum on which understanding of heroism is true.

All the evidence points to Logan’s view being affirmed. Senseless violence and tragedy follow Logan and Laura every step of their journey. After each stop, they leave behind a bloody trail of fallen friends, innocent bystanders, and enemies. It seems inconceivable that a movie which has taken such pains to show the costs of heroism would resolve with a pat, happy ending.

Carried

But something surprising happens. Logan’s strength fails him in the final leg of the journey, and he awakens, to his amazement, in “Eden”. This Eden, of course, is not the paradise of the comic books. It offers only a temporary reprieve from the approaching danger. However, it is something instead of nothing and for Logan, that is earth shattering. He had resigned himself to believing that realized hope was for comic books, not real life. And yet, here he was. Against all odds, the comics had been right.

In Eden, Logan is greeted by a community of children, each with the same traumatic back story as Laura. These children solidify something Logan had been learning throughout his journey with Laura: namely, that even someone as broken as him can still be a hero. For so long, Logan thought his failures disqualified him from being a hero. But for Laura and the other children, they are the very things which make him their hero. The wounded don’t need or want a comic-book hero. They need someone who understands their pain and can say “Don’t be who they made you.” They need someone who can guide them through the guilt, fear, and shame because he’s wrestled with very same things himself.

Can heroism exist in a cruel and violent world? Prior to Eden, the answer seemed to be no. We had only been presented with two answers: either you cling to the ideals of comic book heroism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or you abandon the idea of heroes all together. When the question is posed as a binary choice, the second option seems far more realistic, especially in the R-rated world of Logan. But in Eden, we’re given a third option, a middle way which has the honesty of Logan’s view with the hopefulness of comic books.

What is this middle way? It is a heroism restored by surprising grace. By grace I simply mean that Logan is helpless to restore himself and yet somehow is restored.  He is so exhausted and defeated that he must be carried into Eden, but once there, he stumbles on to the two things he needed most: hope and a chance for redemption. Hope, in that Eden should exist at all. Redemption, by finding the children are willing to accept, admire, and depend on him in spite of—indeed, because of–all his flaws.

Logan experiences what J.R.R. Tolkien calls the Eucatastrophe. He defines the term as:

“The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” …It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Eden is Logan’s Eucatastrophe. The sudden unexpected turn to his story. There is no explanation given why there should something instead of nothing in Eden. Or why Logan should make it there with Laura and her friends instead of living out his weary life alone. But, for some reason, at his darkest moment when he had given up all hope, Logan finds everything he needed and never thought he would.

Logan’s experience in Eden changes him profoundly. On the surface, that change doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. There is no miraculous happy ending, at least in the traditional sense. The children are forced to flee as their pursuers descend upon  Eden. The last battle yields only the smallest of victories for Laura and her friends–another day of survival. Logan dies in obscurity with the world is just as violent as before; the outlook for mutants, just as bleak.

But Logan was never about a traditional comic book ending. It was about finding traces of heroism in the midst of pain, suffering, and sorrow. And as we watch Logan sprint and snarl and slash one last time, as we watch him die protecting those he has come to love, we catch the briefest glimpse through the dust and dirt, that heroism is alive and well.

Logan and the Weary Christian

We don’t have to look hard to find parallels between Logan’s journey and our own. As Christians, especially those of us who are leaders, we also strive for heroism. We seek to be people of character who serve others sacrificially and with courage. In doing so, we carry burdens, deal with expectations, fight battles, and struggle with our human limitations.

How many of us haven’t felt like Logan at some point?  We grow weary of doing good. We lose hope or doubt that God could love people like us. And so, like Logan, we withdraw. We become bitter and resentful. We begin viewing the Gospel like how Logan saw the X-men comic books—too simplistic for the realities of an uncaring world.

And yet, we too are restored by surprising grace. For us, there is no mystery where that grace comes from. It pours forth from the hand of a loving God. In his wisdom, he dismantles our comic-book expectations for the Christian life, which we’ve filled with visions of self-glory and adoration. And then, in his grace, he rebuild us from the ground up.

He revives our hope.  His means are often quiet and ordinary–an answered prayer when we had stopped believing he still heard us. A caring word from a friend when we had become convinced we were all alone. Unexpected fruitfulness when we had despaired of ever being useful. These evidences of grace might go unnoticed by everyone else, but they are monumental for us because they remind us we are loved by a sovereign and good God.

Not only that, he reminds us we have a role to play in his story. It is not the role we first expected. We imagined ourselves as Superman or Wonder Woman, confident and strong. Instead, God calls us to be like Logan. We are to be the wounded serving the wounded and carrying them to the One who heals. We are to serve amidst hardship and disappointment and show that God’s grace is sufficient for us. When we are weak, he is strong.

Logan Grave

The Better Hero and the Better Eden

“When you read a comic book, the thing I’m always looking for is not the colorful clothes—I wear colorful clothes. It’s not the masks—people wear masks in sports and stuff. It’s the notion that at the worst moment of your life, someone will be there for you. Someone will rescue you from certain doom, the jaws of death, and utter disappointment. That’s what I’ve always loved about comic books.”

Recently I heard a pastor use this quote from a non-Christian  filmmaker to explain the popularity of superhero movies. Superhero movies, this pastor said, reflect our innate longing for someone to rescue us in our darkest moments.

At first, I wasn’t sure I agreed. It’s not that I don’t long for a savior. My problem is that most superhero movies don’t feel very realistic. The heroes are strong but also simplistic. I could imagine them saving me from a giant monster or a villain with apocalyptic powers, but not any of my darkest moments. My struggles are far more ordinary than the movies, but also far more resilient. When you defeat the big bad guy, he’s gone forever.  Loneliness, doubt, or hopelessness, however, return over and over again. Superheroes can provide a superficial rescue and happy ending. I long for something deeper.

Logan provides an interesting contrast to your average superhero movie. The internal battles of its main character resonate more deeply with the complexity of our own experiences. The darkness of its world is more like our own. Because of its realism, Logan better captures our longing for a savior. We want someone to save us from these kinds of struggles and this kind of world.

But Logan is not a savior figure. If anything, the movie uses him to deconstruct the idea of superheroes as saviors. Logan’s example tells us that though heroes have extraordinary abilities, they are still human. Over time, the expectations and burdens of being a savior overwhelms even the strongest of heroes. Logan is someone we identify with and maybe aspire to imitate, but not someone we look to to save us.

The problem we run in to, then, is that superhero movies with strong saviors aren’t realistic, and those that are realistic cannot give us strong saviors. We long for a Savior that is strong and who truly saves us from our darkest moments.

Isn’t that what we find uniquely in Jesus? Jesus is strong. He is God himself, the creator and sustainer of all things. When he is with us, we stand with complete confidence, even when everything around us gives way. If he is for us, who can be against? Jesus truly faced the deepest problems of our hearts and the darkest evil in our world. He entered in to our R-rated story, a story filled with injustice, disease, and violence, in which metal nails pierce and innocent men are condemned to death. On the cross, he bore our sins and tasted the sting of death. And in the greatest Eucatastrophe of all–the one to which all others point–he rose again victorious.

We follow our hero on the long road back to Eden. This Eden is not a return to the innocence lost at the fall. It is more poignant and profound than that. Jesus is leading us to an Eden where grace fully heals all that has gone wrong. As C.S. Lewis wrote, it is an Eden which “once obtained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory”. We see suffering and the collateral damage of sin and despair at how irreparable it all looks, but we’re headed to a place where all will be made right.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4 ESV)

Humility and the Mystery of Hell

“Will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:22)

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that question. In many ways, it gets to the heart of my doubts about hell–namely, my sense of dread that only a few will be saved while masses and masses of people go away into eternal fire.

I struggle to reconcile that bleak picture of judgment with God’s goodness and sovereign power to save. I find myself asking, “Lord, if you are good, how can you punish so many? God, if you are sovereign, how can you let so many perish? Father, this all feels overwhelming and impossible to bear.”

Dwelling on hell can crowd out my wonder for God’s grace. The Gospel becomes less about my love for Christ and more about desperately wanting to rescue people from the fires of hell, which, in turn, results in despair at how little impact I have.

I become gripped by a kind of paranoia. I fear for the strangers I see on the street who will one day stand before a Holy God. I even start fearing for the believers in church. Do they know enough about the Gospel? Are they bearing enough fruit to escape the wrath to come? Heaven or hell becomes the all-consuming question, casting a shadow over everything else.

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The Mystery of Hell

There is a place for hell to give urgency in evangelism, a place for examining others to see if they are truly in the faith, and a place for bringing our questions about hell honestly to God. At the same time, if we focus too much on hell, it can become unhealthy and unhelpful.

I don’t believe God calls us to constantly dwell on the number of nonbelievers who will perish in hell or imagine the details of their punishment. That burden is too heavy for us to bear as finite creatures. Ultimately, only God is wise, strong, and just enough to fully understand and carry out eternal justice.

Rather, I think God allows us to hold aspects of hell as a mystery. Will the majority of humanity be saved? Only a select few? Somewhere in the middle? The Bible tells us that both many and few will be saved. John reports “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9). While Jesus reminds us that way of salvation “is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14 ESV)

We don’t know how many will be saved. We can judge by the statistics, but we must also leave room for God’s surprising sovereign work in drawing the poor and broken. Beyond that, we don’t know many others things about hell. And that’s okay. We can leave our uncertainties in God’s hands. He knows how to justly punish sin in hell. He knows the exact number of people who will be saved and damned. He sees the full picture of each person’s life, death, and eternal destiny. We can be content to live with mystery and trust that the Lord of all the earth will do what is right.

I used to struggle to reconcile God sovereignty with man’s responsibility. No matter how hard I pondered, I couldn’t fit the two together. How could both be true simultaneously?

Over the years, however, I learned to make peace with these truths by embracing mystery. Instead of fixating on perfectly working out the logic, I found it helpful to focus on what the Bible emphasizes when it talks about our sovereign election–namely, the security and peace we have in God’s love. God wants his sovereign grace to comfort me, not lead to endless speculation and philosophizing.

I suspect that it is similar with the weighty truth of hell. Instead of dwelling on what we cannot know and becoming overwhelmed by our fears and questions, let us focus on what the Bible emphasizes when it talks about hell.

What is that emphasis? I think God primarily means for hell to humble us.  Hell makes us tremble before the Holy Judge who can destroy both body and soul. Hell reminds us of the seriousness with which we must fight sin. Hell shows us of the terror of the wrath which Jesus bore in our place.

DIfferent Dimensions of Humility?

Humbled by Hell

“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13:24)

That is how Jesus begins his response to the question from the crowd. Instead of directly answering, Jesus places the focus back on the questioner and each person listening.

What’s more important, Jesus says, is whether you yourself will enter through the narrow door. Do not take for granted that you will make it in. Salvation is free but the way is hard. It will take everything you have so trust God like your life depends on it.

That, I think, is the common pattern of Jesus’ teaching on hell. He challenges his listeners not to look at others, but to examine themselves. He rebukes arrogant Pharisees who assume they have God’s favor: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:33) He warns his disciples and the eager crowds to fight sin with urgency “for it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Mt 5:30).

This is important for me to remember. In this series,  I’ve focused primarily on God’s justice in hell towards other people. In doing so, it has been easy for me to forget to think of hell in relation to myself. Instead of allowing hell to humble me, I begin to take for granted that I’m already “in” as if salvation was cheap and easy. I turn to God and say, “You better have a really good reason for not letting these other people in!”

Thus, in my heart, I frame the question “will those who are saved be few” to emphasize the fewness of the people saved and the largeness of the people who are not. I tie the goodness and power of God to the number of people he saves and begin thinking God somehow owes us salvation. Unless you save this amount of people, I say to God, the outcome is unacceptable.

I think I am being compassionate in my doubts, and to an extent that might be true, but I must also realize how easily compassion for the lost can be contaminated by presumption and pride. The right way for me to think of salvation is not to protest those who do not receive it. It is to react with wonder and amazement that any sinner would be saved–especially a sinner like me.

Jesus concludes his answer to the crowds with these words: “And behold, some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Lk 13:30). The last day will be full of surprises. There will be many who enter in whom we never would have expected–the most shameful and very worst of sinners. While many of the best and brightest of the world will go away empty-handed because they trusted in their own goodness and strength. Grace turns worldly standards upside down.

But of all the surprises, the biggest one for each of us will be that we are able to enter in. That we are treated as first, though we deserve to be last. The weight of that will leave us trembling. It will humble us to the dust. We deserved hell. We were children of wrath. God had every right to send us away forever, but instead covered us with grace. On that day, there will be no smug certainty. No charge of injustice. Only gratitude and joyous disbelief that Jesus took our place, bore our hell, and with open arms, welcomes us home.


This is the fourth post in a series on hell. You can find the previous three below:

 

 

 

Judgment, Worth, and the Humans of New York

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For November’s blogpost, I guest posted over at Reformed Margins. Be sure to check out their other work if you haven’t already. I originally planned for this post to be the third in a series on wrestling with hell and God’s judgment. If you’re interested in reading more, check out part 1 and part 2.

Here’s an excerpt from the post. Hope it can be an encouragement!

What does God think of human worth? What does he feel when he looks at the humans of New York who don’t know Christ? Does he only see criminals who have broken the law and deserve death and destruction? Or does he also see the complexity of human life–the suffering and difficulty–and the preciousness of each individual, even in judgment?

The turmoil and upheaval of this past year has reminded me of how often we are guilty, individually and as a society, of treating others as worthless. We are guilty of judging according to stereotypes and of ignoring injustice when it does not affect us personally. We are guilty of failing to listen to other people’s stories and take their pain seriously.

At times, I struggle with God’s judgment because I fear it shows the same disregard for human worth which is so prevalent in our human failures. I fear that God is like a teacher who punishes a student for failing to meet a high and inflexible standard, without understanding the student’s background or valuing the student himself.  I fear that it is the humanist, with his emphasis on human goodness, who is able to bring compassion to the downtrodden and struggling, while the Christian, with his emphasis on sin and judgment, is ultimately insensitive and unkind. How can I answer these questions and fears when they come into my mind?

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.

Courtroom

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)

 

John and the Personal Gospel

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Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.(John 20:30-31 ESV)

I’ve learned a lot about genuine faith from reading the Gospel of John these past few months (for devotionals and for teaching Sunday School). I learned about Jesus’ identity, his Father, and his mission of salvation, about how outward religiosity can hide stubborn unbelief (the Jewish leaders) and false belief (the crowds), and more. But out of all the takeaways from my time in John, what stood out to me most were the scattered stories of genuine belief I found throughout the book.

In his prologue, John foreshadows for his readers what Jesus’ ministry will look like:

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13 ESV)

In chapters 1-12 (which cover Jesus’ three years of ministry up until his final week) that’s exactly what we see. Jesus comes to Israel. He does miracles; he pleads for them to recognize and believe in him, but they reject him over and over again. But in the midst of widespread unbelief, John slips in stories of what it looks like to really encounter Jesus. In chapter 3 we find Nicodemus, a top religious leader who comes to Jesus by night looking for answers.  In chapter 4, we read of an adulterous Samaritan woman receiving Jesus as her living water. In chapter 9, we see Jesus heal a blind man and in chapter 10, watch him raise Lazarus from the dead, to the joy of Mary and Martha.

At first, I didn’t quite know what to make of these stories. On the one hand, I was always happy to find a positive response to Jesus in a book mostly filled with depressing rejection. On the other hand, these weren’t conversions as I normally thought of them; Jesus had not yet died on the cross, so they couldn’t have known the full Gospel that we know today. What exactly did these characters know about Jesus? How could they know enough to be Christians after a short conversation or encounter? John’s sparse details left open plenty of other questions for my curiosity: what happens to Nicodemus between chapter 3 and when he pops up again later in the narrative? Did the Samaritan woman and the blind man persevere in their faith after Jesus leaves? I didn’t doubt that these characters truly believed and remained in Jesus, but still, John’s lack of elaboration left me wanting to know how it all worked.

But if everything John writes is so that we would believe, then what is he trying to teach us from these stories? Here’s what I think: the essence of the Gospel is a personal encounter with Jesus.

In these stories, we get to know Jesus and the beauty of his character. We see his stern wisdom as he humbles the great religious teacher; his heart of grace as he crosses cultural and social boundaries for a despised woman and a forgotten man; and the interplay of his  power, compassion, and sovereignty when he raises Lazarus. We see him meet broken people just like us in their greatest need: Nicodemus, in his empty religion; the Samaritan woman, in her loneliness; the blind man, in his poverty and isolation; and Mary and Martha, in the grief of a lost loved one. We see him restore each of their sin, suffering, and sadness and watch their joyful reactions in real time. Each character responds in his or her own unique way: Nicodemus swallows his pride and the fear of his peers to defend Jesus (chapter 7) and anoint his dead body (chapter 19). The Samaritan woman evangelizes and brings revival to her oft-maligned people. The blind man courageously defies the Pharisees even though it means excommunication from the synagogue. And Mary responds in lavish worship by pouring out expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.

This, John says, is what genuine belief is. It is when we see the character of Jesus as he meets us in our deepest need, and we respond in worship. John doesn’t tell us every detail about these characters. He doesn’t need to. When you experience Jesus in such a personal way, John says, you never forget. You never walk away. You can’t. If you need more information about him, you go out and get it. If hard times come, you persevere and cling to him. Even though we may not know everything about these characters, we know this for certain: they saw Jesus for who he really was.

Before reading the book of John, I had been in a spiritual dry season. One big reason, I realized, was that despite my ‘Gospel-centered-ness’, I had allowed the Gospel to become general instead of personal. I had begun to think of it as a 4-point outline for random evangelism, a way to judge whether someone was a ‘solid’ Christian or not, a truth to offer as advice, a theory that needed to be theologically precise, and a right answer that made your sermon or your worship set legitimate, but somewhere along the way, it had ceased to be personal. The Gospel was something I was supposed to be amazed at and love at all times and in all situations, but not something I was amazed at because it met my deepest need. Even though I was thinking, talking, and singing about the Gospel, I had allowed it to become divorced from the story of Scripture and from my own life.

As I read the stories of John, it was odd; I felt more connected to these personal encounters than I did when I thought about Jesus dying for my sins. I felt like they showed me the beauty of Christ and really connected to my struggles, while the cross felt like a tired cliche. But when I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t right at all. These stories aren’t more personal than the Gospel; they are parables about the Gospel. Everything I loved about these stories is exemplified times infinity at the cross. I loved watching the beauty of Jesus character as he sought out the outcast and sinner–the cross displays that love fully.  I loved watching the responses as each person saw Jesus meet their greatest need. At the cross, Jesus met my greatest need–my sinful standing before a wrathful God.

This past Easter, I had the privilege to share on John 21 about Jesus’ restoration of Peter. After wrapping up his wonderful Gospel with his thesis (the passage I started this post with), John cannot help but give us one more story–one more chance to see the wonderful love of Christ. Peter, burdened by the guilt of denying Jesus, decides to go back to his old life as a fisherman. When he returns after a long night of failed fishing, Jesus is standing at the shore. He performs the same miracle that he did when he first called Peter–a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11). In doing so, he sends this powerful message to Peter: It was never about your strength; you’ve always been a fisher of men by my grace alone. You were then, at the start, and you are now, even in your failure. Peter, I still want you as my follower. I still love you. Come follow me.

I was thankful that Jesus is not just this personal with Peter, or with Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the blind man, Mary and Martha, and the other disciples. He has sought me out personally. At the cross, he has revealed his character in the most personal of ways. And at the cross, he has personally met and healed my every longing need. To him be the glory!

And, as an added bonus, for the first time in quite a few months, I wrote a song! I hope you enjoy.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15 ESV)

The Parable of the Passion

Hello faithful blog followers! Although it may seem like it, the blog is not dead. There’s a lot of stuff I want to write, which I hopefully will write. After the craziness of the quarter, spending winter break as a hermit writing actually sounds quite appealing. So stay tuned.

Anyway, if you’re bored and have nothing to do, take a look at this very lengthy paper I wrote for finals. Somehow, in a literary theory class, I ended up getting assigned to basically exposit the Bible and ended up learning a ton about two passages which were always really difficult for me to understand–Isaiah 6:1-13 and Matthew 13:10-17. Here was the prompt: Taking Isaiah 6:8-13 and Matthew 13:10-17 as your interpretive templates, discuss the trial and execution of Jesus in that gospel: how is the story of Jesus’ passion (“suffering” or “undergoing”) a parable of faith in Jesus’ sense of “speaking in parables”?

Enjoy!

Matthew 13:10-17  ESV10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you,many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

Isaiah 6:10-17 ESVAnd I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump

In order to interpret the parabolic significance of Jesus’ passion, we must first understand the meaning of the passages which serve as our interpretive framework—Matthew 13:10-17 and Isaiah 6:8-13. In the Matthew passage, Jesus has just finished teaching a great crowd of listeners a parable about a sower who sows seeds on different kinds of soil. Afterwards, his apostles approach him with an understandable question: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Mt. 13:10). Jesus gives them a peculiar answer. He tells the disciples that there are two types of people who have two very different responses when they hear his parables. The first group, that is, genuine disciples, will be blessed when they hear the parables—they will learn “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” and to them “more will be given, and he will have in abundance” (Mt. 13:11,12). In contrast, the parables will have a very different effect on the listening crowds, who “[have] not” (Mt. 13:12). For them, Jesus says that parables reveal their inability to apprehend spiritual truth and their impending judgment. For someone in this second group, “even what he has will be taken away” because “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt. 13:12,13).

If Jesus’ answer here is read literally, it appears to be both difficult to understand and seemingly unfair. Jesus’ response, itself, is unexpected. As a Rabbi, one would expect the purpose of Jesus’ parables to be for teaching; that is, by giving the uneducated crowds everyday earthly analogies, that they might better understand deeper spiritual truth. However, Jesus response confounds this expectation. He says, in fact, that he speaks in parables so that the crowds might not understand their need to be healed. Not only is Jesus’ answer unexpected, it also appears unfair. One’s response to the parables is determined completely by a factor, which is his completely beyond his control—whether he “has” or “has not”. Whatever this object is, which one has or does not have, Jesus makes it clear that man cannot secure it on his own; it must be “given” (13:11). This appears unfair. How is it fair that one group loses everything they have and is relegated to perpetual ignorance, solely because they have not been given this “something”; while another group receives an abundant blessing and understanding, because they have received “it”? The strangeness of Jesus’ answer and its apparent injustice creates a pressing question for Jesus’ disciples, which is crucial for our understanding of Jesus’ use of parables: What is it that the first group has, which the second group does not have?

The key to this question is found in our other passage in Isaiah 6:8-13 which Jesus quotes to answer his disciple’s question. In that passage, God commissions Isaiah to do what Jesus says is his purpose for his parables: to preach despite knowing that his words will have no effect. He tells Isaiah to preach God’s judgment upon Israel already know that his audience is completely unable to see, hear, or understand his message. The clue to understanding Jesus’ words, however, comes in the context immediately preceding this passage. In Isaiah 6:1-7, before his commission, Isaiah receives a vision of the Hidden God. In this vision, Isaiah sees only a partial view of God—God’s full glory is obscured by the “train of his robe” and the “smoke” which “filled the temple” (Is. 6:1, 14); however, even this partial vision of God in his holiness, leaves Isaiah devastated at his filthiness in the light of God’s perfection. He cries out, “Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5). God does not deny Isaiah’s self-condemnation; however, rather than punishing him, He purifies the Isaiah’s polluted lips by touching them with burning coals. After this, God declares that Isaiah has been healed and redeemed, saying “behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Is. 6:7).

Isaiah’s vision at the beginning of chapter 6 is crucial to understanding his commission in chapter 6:8-13. The important observation is that God commissions Isaiah only after He purifies him. Isaiah is only able to speak the divine Word as a Prophet, after the sinfulness of his mouth has been atoned for. However, Isaiah’s lament still rings true: he is from a people of unclean lips. These people are polluted not only in their lips, making them unworthy to carry the divine word, but also in their ears and eyes, rendering them unable to understand the message of the divine word. What is the message which they fail to see and understand? Isaiah tells us, and Jesus reiterates it Matthew 13. The effect of the people’s failure to “see with their eyes, and hear with their ears” is that they are unable to “understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Is. 6:10). When Isaiah sees God he immediately understands his unworthiness before Him; as a result of this realization, he turns to God by acknowledging his sin and God heals him by atoning for that sin. The people need this very same divine healing which Isaiah receives. The problem, however, for the people is the hiddenness of God. The reality of one’s sinfulness and need for redemption becomes painfully obvious when he comes face to face with the holiness of God. The people, however, have not seen a vision of God as Isaiah has, and because of that, they do not see their dire need to be reconciled with him. Instead, the people are fixated on the earthly material world. The only thing important to them is what they can physically see. As a result, they are hopelessly consumed with their own lives in which they make themselves, and not the hidden God, the center. Thus, when Isaiah comes bearing the message of judgment by a Holy God against sinful man, the people feel no urgency to turn and receive the same healing which Isaiah has received.

With that, another question arises: how can those who have not seen a vision of the unseen God, look beyond the earthly material realm to realize their sinful condition and turn for healing? The argument of the New Testament writers is that one finds healing through faith. In Hebrews 11:1, faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. It is faith which allows an individual to look beyond the physical realm to be convinced of spiritual realities. Faith, as Augustine, says allows an individual to escape the “spiritual slavery” which comes from always interpreting “signs [as physical things]” and gives him the capability of “raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation as to absorb eternal light” (Norton 160). The faith-filled believer looks at the account given by God in the Scriptures, the cultic system of sacrifices in the temple, and Israel’s history, and is able see the reality of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness, and thus turns to God for healing. Finally, it is important to notice that faith, just like the purification Isaiah receives is given only by God’s initiative. In the same way, Jesus makes it clear that the faith, which allows the disciples to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” has “been given” (Mt. 13:11). Like purification, God provides faith as a gift. One cannot create it himself by human wisdom or will.

Isaiah 6:1-13, then, answers the question of what it is the disciples “have” which the crowds “have not”—namely, faith which allows them to apprehend their hopeless condition before a Holy God, and thus, receive forgiveness. The function of parables, therefore, is not primarily to teach in the Greco-Roman dialectical sense of the word—that is, to present information in such a logical manner that everyone, who exercises their intellect, will be able to understand. Rather, parables serve to reveal what is already inside of a man. Jesus’ parables show either that an individual is preoccupied with the material physical world and thus cannot see the reality of the hidden God, or that a person has faith. Just as in purification, man is completely dependent on God to give this faith which allows for understand. In order for man to even have the capability to look past his sinful delusion to Jesus’ invitation: “he who has ears let him hear”, God must first purify him and give him ears (Mt. 13:9).

There is one final note before use our two passages to interpret Jesus’s sufferings and that is that the structure of Jesus’ parables themselves mirrors the nature of the hidden God. God throughout the Bible functions under this consistent principle—he is always defying expectations of those who pridefully rely on appearances, while giving redemption to those who humbly trust in God for forgiveness and direction. The form of a parable, itself incorporates this aspect of God’s character into its structure. Parables are told using figures from the earthly realm, which the speaker then infuses with a deeper significance. In Matthew 13:1-9, for instance, Jesus uses the everyday image as a sower sowing seeds on different kinds of soil to show that it only the one who receives God’s word who bears fruit. The parabolic form, itself, is meant to push the audience into viewing reality spiritually rather than by appearances. Even if they aren’t sure of the exact meaning, it is clear to the audience when Jesus tells the parable of the Sower that he is not speaking literally, but aiming for some kind of deeper spiritual truth. By employing the form of the parable, then, Jesus is offering an extra means to encourage his audience to view things spiritually. The form of the parable tells the audience that just as one clearly cannot interpret a parable literally and arrive at its true meaning, similarly one cannot live relying by sight and expect to arrive at a true understanding of oneself and God. The failure of the audience to discern the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ message even with the parabolic form serves as a further condemnation of their fixation on appearances.

With that, we have a working interpretive framework with which to answer the question: how is the story of Jesus’ passion (“suffering” or “undergoing”) a parable of faith in Jesus’ sense of “speaking in parables”? The very question, itself, appears odd at first glance. We do not usually think of an historical event as parables. In a parable, the speaker creates the world of the parable: he chooses the characters, the events, and the plot and structures them in a way that creates an analogy to some deeper truth. A mere man, however, cannot do that with history, because he has no control over history and thus, cannot assign deeper significance to historical events. God, however, is not bound by those limitations. He has providential control over history and can order history to reflect his intended message. Under this God, historical events such as Jesus’ passion can function at the same level as a parable. Just like a parable, the historical event itself is the earthly appearance, and only through faith does one understand its larger significance. Jesus’ passion acts as a parable of faith in two main ways. First, it demonstrates the same message which God commissioned Isaiah to bring to the people—that man stands at enmity with a Holy God and must turn to him to receive the healing which he alone can give. Second, Jesus’ crucifixion, like a parable, reveals what is inside man, either unbelief which clings to earthly appearances and leads to damnation, or faith which sees its need for purification and leads to salvation.

Isaiah 6:1-13 reveals that there is a common message shared between Jesus’ crucifixion and the message at the heart of every expression of the divine word, including Jesus’ parables. That message is revealed when Isaiah stands before God—that man is utterly sinful in light of a holy God. All prophetic language is a plea to man that if he will but realize and acknowledge this fact, then there is healing and atonement for his sin. If, on the other hand, he insists on hubristically making himself the center of the universe, he has only the fearful expectation that “even what he has will be taken away”. Jesus’ passion—his suffering and crucifixion—is the ultimate expression of this message. The divine message centers on the need for reconciliation sinfulness of man and the holiness of God. The Christian gospel, or good news, says that Christ’s crucifixion is the fulfillment of the type of Isaiah’s purification in that it is the actual means by which Isaiah receives his “atonement” (Is 6:7). God redeems man from his sinfulness by punishing Jesus, who is sinless, with the physical and spiritual death which man deserves. Everyone who, like Isaiah, acknowledges their offenses against a Holy God receives the same comforting words which Isaiah received: “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Is. 6:7). Just as Isaiah 6, purification is given by God’s initiative alone and not man’s effort or righteousness. It is God who sends Jesus to atone for man’s sins because man cannot save himself and Jesus, the son of God, who willingly lays down his life to accomplish what man himself cannot.

Second, Matthew 13:10-17 reveals a common purpose which motivates both Jesus’ passion and the divine word of Isaiah and Jesus’ parables. Jesus’ passion, like the parables, reveal what is inside of man—either enslavement to appearance which reflects his fixation on himself, or a faith-filled heart which is able to accept God’s Word and bear fruit. Depending on whether or not faith, Jesus’ passion serves as either judgment of one’s blindness or a means for one’s salvation. The one who has been given faith is able to see the crucified son of God and apprehend that Jesus is expressing God’s message—that he is holy and that man is in need of healing, and he has provided a way for healing in Jesus, if man will but turn to him and trust him in faith. But to the one who has not faith, he looks upon Jesus and sees only his literal appearance—that because this man is pathetic and dying on the cross, God must hate him. Because he appears weak, everything he said about himself as son of God is untrue, and any claim for radical repentance and chance can be disregarded. Because of earthly appearances, the carnal mind thinks it can continue living his life with himself at the center. Thus, like the parables, Christ’s passion increases the guilt of those who walk in an unbelief, but saves those who believe.

 

True Leadership

I had the privilege to speak again this past Friday on 1 Timothy 3:8-13 on the topic of deacons. It was cool,because I picked my passage in Matthew 6 and was assigned this passage, but both dealt with the importance of integrity and character in our faith–something God has really been teaching me this year. I know its long, but if you’re serving in any capacity this coming year, I think this would be a helpful message for you. To him be the glory!

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives–I’m convinced b the argument that this is referring to women deacon– likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. Forthose who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13, ESV)

Introduction

When I read Paul’s letters, I’ve found that it’s helpful for my understanding to ask the question: How does this passage fit into the rest of this book? Paul writes with a specific purpose for a specific occasion. So as we begin to consider our passage on deacons today, let’s ask the question. How does Paul’s discussion of leadership fit into his overall purpose for writing 1 Timothy? The primary problem, which prompted Paul to write 1 Timothy, was the presence of false teachers in Timothy’s church in Ephesus. We see a large part of 1 Timothy dedicated to dealing with these false teachers within the Church. He warns Timothy about them all throughout the letter.

We don’t know a ton about the specific details of these false teachers. If you read chapter 1, you learn that they have a wrong understanding of the law. In chapter 4, you see that their teaching somehow involved a legalistic kind of asceticism. Other than that, though, we don’t know exactly what kind of message these false teachers were spreading. One thing is clear, however, Paul’s main issue with these false teachers was their character. They wanted all the benefits of being leaders, without doing the hard work of having the character of a leader.

I’ve entitled my message today, True Leadership. I want to approach this passage today by showing you the picture of true leadership Paul describes here in chapter 3 and contrasting it with the leadership provided by the false teachers. My hope is that we’ll be able to apply these lessons in whatever type of leadership we’re in. Today, I have four points or principles that a true leader exhibits and which false teachers fail to exhibit. So let’s get started.

1.      True Leaders are Christ-like Servants

Have you ever wondered: Why are the church offices so random? Why did Paul choose overseers and deacons, in particular, to be the positions of leadership? Well, it turns out that, even though we don’t normally use the words overseer or deacon in our normal vocabulary, these offices aren’t random. Both overseer and deacon each follow the example of leadership that Christ himself provided for us when he walked this earth.

Overseers follow the example of Christ by shepherding over the congregation, just as Christ shepherds over his people. In 1 Peter 2:24-25, Peter tells us that Christ is the ultimate leader, the ultimate Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and Overseer, who watches over his flock. Later in the letter, when Peter tells the human shepherds and overseers how to lead, he tells them to follow the example of the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-3). The false teachers, on the other hand, are the exact opposite of Shepherds. They don’t love the sheep; rather they love themselves. In Acts 20:23, Paul warns the overseers at the church in Ephesus about these false teachers. He says, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock”

Overseers follow the example of Christ in leading like Christ. Deacons follow the example of Christ by serving the congregation, just as Christ serves his people. The word “diakanoi” in the Greek means servant– someone who supplies the needs of others. We find that deacons, too, find their example in Christ. Turn with me over to Luke 22:24-27.

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27, ESV)

What word does Jesus use when he says “I am among you as the one who serves”—He uses the word diakonwn: one who serves. What is a deacon?  The Bible really doesn’t tell us too much about what specifically a deacon should do. But one thing is clear, a deacon is to serve like Jesus served. Jesus served in very practical ways. Washing the feet of the disciples. Healing the sick and providing for the needy. And so, deacons are to serve to supply the needs of the church in whatever way is necessary.

So the first thing we realize about leadership within the church is that it’s modeled after Christ. Christian leaders, whether your job is more in leadership or more in service, are to be selfless, humble, loving, and sacrificial just as Christ was. Let’s turn back to our passage 1 Timothy 3:8 and we’ll get back into the text.

–In my message, at this point, I clarified why I thought “gunaikas” in vs. 11 is probably better translated “women” referring to women deacons. But i’ll leave that part out–

So far, we’ve learned that the positions of overseer and deacon both call for someone who will be a Christ-like servant. Now, my question is: if we’re this kind of leadership, what kind of person is qualified for this role. And how do we find him or her? This brings me to my second point:

2.      True Leaders show Godly Character

The main qualification for church leadership is not what you can do; it’s your inward character.  That’s what Paul is looking to test here in giving these qualifications. Originally, I was going to focus in on each quality individually, but I decided not to since I think most of us have at least a general understanding of what these characteristics mean. The question I want to ask is this: If Paul’s goal is to find men of godly character why does Paul choose these attributes in particular?

I think the reason why Paul chooses these attributes, in particular, can be found in verse 10: “Let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.” Now, imagine we’re in Timothy’s shoes and we’re trying to fill this position of overseer or deacon. Paul just gives us one requirement: you’re looking for is someone with character. The problem we run into is you can’t see someone’s character. I think Paul gives these requirements of deacons—and of elders in the previous chapters—because it provides tangible ways to learn about someone’s character from the way they act.

So if we were Timothy trying to figure out who could be a deacon. We could ask: is this person dignified? The word in the Greek means “honorable and reputable”; it also carries the sense of a seriousness. This quality functions like the phrase “above reproach” for overseers. It’s a broad term which the following qualities will flesh out. But if we were looking for a leader that would be a good starting point: Is this person respectable? Does this person have a good reputation? Does he have a sense of seriousness for his faith, or is everything fun and games for him?

1)      How you speak reveals a lot about your character. Being a deacon means you’re going to be involved with the affairs of people in the church, so if you’re not trustworthy in your speech you’re going to cause a lot of problems. So Paul says to consider: is this person double tongued? For the ladies, is this lady a slanderer?

2)      Is this person addicted to much wine? Or, as Paul says for the ladies, is she sober minded? If someone is addicted to much wine, it tells us something about his character. He lacks self-control. He doesn’t think clearly. She’s not sober-minded with a singular focus on advancing the kingdom of God.

3)      Is this person greedy for dishonest gain? What is his or her relationship to money? Is this a lady who is using her riches to glorify herself through her outward appearance (1 Timothy 2:9)? Is he someone who is content or is he always striving for more and more? (1 Tim 6:6-7). Does he put his hope in the uncertainty of riches or does he put his hope in God and use his money generously to do good works (1 Tim 6:17-18)?

4)      We’ll come back to vs. 9 in a separate point because I think this is the most important character trait. Look down with me to verses 12. Here Paul says test the faithfulness of a man’s character by looking at his testimony at home. Is he faithful to his wife and to his kids? Does he demonstrate love, patience, kindness as a father and a husband?  And for the ladies, at the end of verse 11: is she faithful in all things? Is she faithful in her service at church, and to her family?

Let me give you guys a few points of application here. First, your actions show something about your character. Paul says, “when you’re looking for men of character, look for men who live in a way which shows they have character”. On the flip side, Paul uses some of these qualities to reveal the ungodly character of the false teachers. He calls them out mainly for two qualities: for their speech and for their love of money. Paul says, because I see these qualities in your life, I know you don’t have genuine character. Look with me over to chapter 6:3-5

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” then skip down to verse 9: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruins and destruction.”

How was Paul able to tell that these men had rotten character? He simply tested them by our lives. My first point of application is that your actions show something about your character. And how you conduct yourself in public in private, at church and at home, can qualify or disqualify you from leadership. If Paul or Timothy were to test your life to consider you for leadership would your life qualify or disqualify you?

Second, don’t take shortcuts in leadership but rather pursue godly character.  The false teachers here wanted all the benefits of leadership without all the hard work. Character is hard work. It requires you to love the Gospel, to deny yourself and to death sin. Character doesn’t happen overnight. It happens as the result of years and years of following after Christ. Paul tells Timothy, “look at all these guys trying to take shortcuts. Don’t be like them. Do the hard work of cultivating Godly character within yourself.”

Look with me over at 1 Timothy 4:7—“Have nothing to do with irreverent silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Look again to chapter 6:11 where Paul exhorts Timothy, “but as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness”. Don’t take shortcuts like these false teachers. Pursue genuine godly character because that qualifies you for leadership. This brings me to my third point that…

3.      True Leaders are Transformed by the Gospel

In my first point, I talked about how the positions of deacon and overseer call for Christ-like servanthood. In my second point, I talked about how the people who are qualified for these positions are people with godly character. The next question I want to answer: where does this godly character come from? There is one characteristic that I skipped over. Look with me at 3:9: “they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”. Here, I think we have the key to developing genuine character. Let me try and break this down.

First, he says deacons must hold the mystery of the faith. This isn’t the kind of mystery where we don’t understand something about our faith. The word for “mystery” in the Greek is “musterion”. It’s talking about something that was once hidden but is now revealed. Paul uses this phrase throughout the New Testament to refer to different aspects of the Gospel—God’s plan of salvation which was once hidden, but now is revealed to us. Let me show you a few examples of Paul using this word.

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6)

I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully knownthe mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)

I don’t usually use illustrations, but I think this might help us understand what Paul is trying to communicate when he talks about a mystery. So Jon Ginn, as you may or may not know, really likes movies. In particular, he likes movie with an intricate plotline which builds up to a huge plot twist. Throughout the whole movie, there is a crucial detail of the plot which is hidden and then in the plot twist, it’s revealed. And then your mind-blown, because this plot twist changes the trajectory of the whole movie. And so, if you’re Jon Ginn, what do you do?  You re-watch the whole movie and you catch all the seemingly insignificant details and you realize how everything ties together. And then, if you’re Jon Ginn, what do you do next? You run out and tells everybody about how ingenious the movie is.

I think that captures Paul’s sense of amazement and wonder at the mystery of the Gospel. As a Pharisee, Paul knew the story of Scripture really well. And then, he gets hit by the plot twist of the Gospel and it changes everything he knows about God. So Paul is like Jon Ginn. He thinks about it all the time, and he goes and looks through every detail of the Bible, and he sees how Jesus affects everything. And then he’s so excited that he goes out and tells everyone about this mystery—about the plan of salvation which God has revealed. Paul says here that a deacon must hold this mystery. He must be gripped by the Gospel and let his whole life be consumed by it.

The second part of the qualification is that a deacon should hold this mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. Now, what does this mean? The word conscience, like the word “mystery”, is one of those words that you wouldn’t expect to be used very much in the Bible, but which Paul uses actually quite a lot. In 1 Timothy there’s multiple other instances where Paul uses this same word conscience.

Look with me over to 1 Timothy 1:5, Paul writes, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion.” Later, in 1 Timothy 1:19, Paul urges Timothy to fight the good fight: “holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith” And again in chapter 4:1. Paul writes, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.”

So, the first thing we notice is that having a clear conscience is really important. Paul says that one of the main goals of his entire charge to Timothy is love that comes from a good conscience. As we saw in those verse, Paul points out that the false teacher’s lack of a good conscience is their big problem. Listen to the serious effects of not having a good conscience: they wander away into their vain teaching, they make shipwreck of their faith. He says because their consciences are seared these false teachers depart from the faith.

So what does it mean to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience? I think Paul means this: holding the faith with good conscience means having a consistency between your belief in the Gospel and the way in which you live your life.

Turn with me over to 2 Corinthians 1:12 and notice how Paul uses this phrase: For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. (2 Corinthians 1:12, ESV)

Basically, what Paul is saying here is that: “When I think about my ministry toward you guys, I have a clear conscience. I wasn’t someone who preached the Gospel to you but didn’t live it out. But I behaved in a way that was consistent with the Gospel I preached. I had integrity, simplicity, and godly sincerity towards you, and so my conscience is clear.” That’s the idea that Paul wants to get across. A true leader’s life should be one marked by love for the Gospel, and a life in which everything is consistent with that love for the Gospel.

That, in the end, was the false teacher’s biggest problem. Beyond their teaching, beyond their love for money, the false teacher’s biggest problem was that they forsook integrity in their character. They became comfortable with not living out the things that they taught. Paul calls them insincere and liars because they’re preaching isn’t honest about who they really are inside

True leaders are transformed by the Gospel. They are amazed and in awe at God’s plan of salvation, and they let it transform every aspect of their lives. So when they look back over their lives and ministry they can say, with confidence, my boast is this, the testimony of my conscience, that I conducted my private life and my public life in integrity, in simplicity, in godly sincerity.

I’m backtracking a little bit but I want to give you guys a practical point of application here: We see that the formation of godly character comes from a sense of amazement and wonder at the mystery of the Gospel. How can we learn to be amazed at the Gospel like Paul was?

Remember how I used the example of the suspense movie? To extend that analogy, I think, as Christians today, one of our problems is that all we do is watch the plot twist over and over again. And we think because we do that, that we understand the plot twist. Well, actually no, an understanding of the plot twist comes from an understanding of the whole story—all the tiny details, all the setup that built the tension and the drama for the plot twist to happen.

I think Paul was amazed at the Gospel because he understood how it changed everything in the whole story of God’s word. If you check all the references where Paul talks about the mystery of the Gospel, he rarely ever talks about the Gospel in the same way. He’s always connecting it to some aspect of Scriptures. I think the more we understand the whole of God’s story the more we will be amazed at the mystery of God’s salvation plan which he has revealed to us.

We live in a Gospel centered age, where there’s books about the Gospel, and songs about the Gospel, and sermons about the Gospel. But Paul talks about how this mystery is revealed through the Holy Spirit by the apostles and the prophets. Where did they write in? The Bible. If you want be amazed by the mystery of God’s plan then there’s no better book to read.  Read the Old Testament and the New Testament and you’ll see like Paul that the Bible is the perfectly woven together story and the Gospel is the plot twist that links it all together.

4.      True Leaders have a Better Reward

Being a true leader is tough. You’re called to follow the example of leadership that Christ set. More than that, you need to have godly character. And more than that, you need to have a love for the Gospel that transforms everything you do. Many of us are in that process of trying to be better leaders but struggling with our weaknesses and our sin. Some of us are thinking about future ministry and the qualifications that the Bible has.

And we wonder to ourselves, is it worth it? And, we won’t tell it to anyone else, we wonder in our hearts if we can be a little like the false teachers. It likely isn’t as blatant as the false teachers, but maybe we start to wonder: I know leadership is supposed to be Christ-like servant hood, but I wonder if I can get away with sneaking in a little glory for myself. Or I know requires us to have a godly character, but maybe if I do things well I won’t have to address this flaw in my character. If I do well in leadership, or I won’t have to address the fact that I’ve become dull in my love for the Gospel, or that I’m not living of a life of complete integrity.

True leadership is hard. And the temptations to compromise a life of integrity are great. But our passage ends with a reminder that, though it may be hard, it’s far more worthwhile. In verse 13, Paul promises two kinds of rewards that a true leader receives:

First, he says those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves. Basically what Paul is saying here is that if you serve faithful as a deacon you will gain the respect of the church and those following you. Oftentimes we think of the praise of man as a bad thing and it certainly is a bad thing if that’s the driving factor which motivates our leadership. But as a leader it’s absolutely vital to have the respect of those under you. Paul says, “if you strive after a life of character and integrity, you won’t have to trick people into following you. People will see your example, and they’ll want to follow you.” I think we all understand this. The people I respect most, I respect not chiefly because of their abilities, but because of their character.

Second, Paul says that those who serve well also gain a great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. Objectively, we’re saved by grace and noting we do can add to our salvation or make us any more secure. But subjectively, our confidence in our faith varies. If our conscience is not clear, if we feel guilty and far from God, then we have little confidence in our walks with Christ. But  Paul says here if you’re deacons who has served well can have a great sense confidence in your walk with God. You know that you’re striving to please him by having godly character, you know that you love him for what he’s done in the Gospel, and you’re living out that love for him in your life. If that’s you, you can have a great sense of boldness—not the self-righteous kind—but an inward confidence  that you’re doing God’s will and honoring him, and that God is pleased with you because your life glorifies Christ.