Collapse in My Father’s Arms

“If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means he does not understand Christianity very well.” (J.I. Packer)

I love when my son rests his head on my shoulder. There is something special that this little person feels safe enough to fall asleep in my arms. He plops himself snugly on my chest and dozes off.

A few months ago, I caught COVID and quarantined away from my wife and son. While I was sick, I had all the free time in the world that I had lacked during the early newborn days, but everything seemed boring and trivial. I missed being with my family.

When I finally tested negative, I was excited to see my son and put him to bed. However, as I was going through our routine, I was in for a surprise: my son had progressed in his head control! Rather than resting his head on my shoulder, he was awake and alert, bobbing his head and peering curiously around his room.

Now, setting developmental milestones aside, imagine if my son thought to himself: “Dad is back! I can’t fall asleep. I need to show him I’m all grown up, independent, and awake.” So, instead of collapsing into my arms, he raises his head and starts looking around, anxiously checking for my approval.

It’s a silly example, but there are parallels to our prayer lives as children of God. We reach the end of the day physically and mentally exhausted. We sense our need to pray but hesitate. Why? Partly because we’re weary but also because our tired prayers don’t feel worthy to bring before God.

This instinct often comes from a sincere place. We want to show reverence to God and imagine that “real” prayer looks a certain way. Yes, we know that prayer is not performance-based, but surely it should be more than these incoherent sentences and scattered ramblings. Right?

No. Just as I am happiest when my son rests his head on my shoulder, our Heavenly Father delights when his children rest in him. Prayer, then, is collapsing into the Father’s arms — through prayer, we cast our burdens onto God and rest in his strong, steadfast embrace.

Rest Your Head

God does not care about the length or eloquence of our prayers. He does not hear us because of our many words but because he is a generous, loving Father. We need not heap up empty phrases, because he knows what we need before we ask him (Mt 6:7-8)

But our Heavenly Father goes a step further than that: he invites us to pray especially when we don’t know what to say. In those moments, he ministers to us through his Spirit. Romans 8:14-16 teaches:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. [15] For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” [16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

The passage continues in verse 26:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (ESV)

The Spirit of adoption drives home the reality that God is our Father, and we are his children. And when our words fail, the Spirit himself prays for us, perfectly bringing our needs before God in a way we never could even on our best days.

What does this mean for us? It means weariness should drive us to our Father. On those days when our thoughts are jumbled, and we can barely string together a sentence, we should pray. We should pray when we don’t know what to say. We should pray when there is so much going on, we don’t know how to put it into words.

If you don’t know where to start, simply cry “Father!” Say it with faith and sincerity. Then, be still and let the Spirit apply the weighty truths of Scripture to your heart.

Remember that God welcomes you with open arms despite all your prodigal wanderings (Lk 15). Remember he is the Father of lights who gives good gifts to his children (Jms 1:17-18, Lk 11:11-13). Remember your riches in Christ. In his amazing love, God has made us his children, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17). Bask in these truths and let them warm your heart.

Then, pour out your heart to him. It need not follow a prescribed formula. It can be as short as “I’m tired” or as long and rambling as you need. In his short booklet entitled, Enjoy Your Prayer Life, Michael Reeves describes Spirit-led prayer in this way:

The Spirit knows that we’re weak, that we struggle to pray and that we often don’t know what to pray – and his desire is to help us. This means that we don’t need to pretend to be giants in prayer or make resolutions that are out of our league. Since the Spirit knows our weakness, we can be real with our Father, accepting how babyish we are in our faith, and simply stammer out what’s on our hearts. In fact, that’s just the way to grow in our relationship with God. True intimacy is an acquired thing, something that develops – but it only develops with honesty. So if your prayer life is a bit ropey, I suggest starting again by stammering like a child to a Father. Cry for help. Don’t try to be impressive. (28)

Finally, rest in your Father’s care. Bring your anxieties and burdens to God and experience the surpassing peace of knowing he will provide for your every need (Phil 4:6-7, Mt 6:31-32). Don’t stay up late eating the bread of anxious toil. Let the day go, and trust that God gives his beloved sleep (Ps 127:1-2)

Not a Metaphor

This is the last post in a series on metaphors on prayer for the weary Christian. So far, we’ve explored how prayer is like:

  1. The sun on a snowy morning – it warms our dull hearts to be happy in God.
  2. An empty pail at the ocean – through prayer, God fills our empty hearts so we can pour ourselves out in service to others.
  3. Looking up and seeing the sky – it expands our self-centered perspective and humbles us before the majesty and love of God.

In all of these posts, I’ve compared God to something in the natural world. We can easily call to mind the warmth of the sun, the immensity of the ocean, or the expansiveness of the sky. These stark images help shake us awake to God’s greatness and majesty.

But these are only metaphors. God may be like the sun, ocean, or sky in some ways, but he is not those things. But God is a Father. He has always been a Father, loving his only begotten Son in the Spirit for all eternity. And in the Gospel, he has become our Father. What amazing love! It is the most intimate of images, and it is fully true for us in Christ.

I will end with Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ profound comment on the opening words to the Lord’s prayer:

“Do you know that the essence of true prayer is found in two words…’Our Father’? I suggest that if you can say from your heart, whatever your condition, ‘My Father’, in a sense your prayer is already answered.”

Come in your weakness and weariness and pray. And as you remember who he is as your Father, and who you are as his child, you’ll realize you have all you need.

From Sky to Sky

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky”

Morning can be a struggle with dull affections and discouragement, but it’s also a time of hope. It’s a fresh start from the disappointments of the day past. Perhaps, we think, today will be the day I’ll be disciplined and check off all the items on my to-do list. Maybe today I’ll be more patient or make more time for God. Perhaps today will be better.

By afternoon, however, reality sets in. Our initial excitement fades as we realize that today is eerily similar to yesterday. The day is half-gone, and we’re already off track and in a rut. A cloud of restlessness settles over us. Our space begins to feel constraining and claustrophobic.

In these moments, I find it helpful to take a walk and look up at the sky.

There is something about the beauty and expansiveness of the sky that helps with my feelings of internal clutter. It’s as if when I’m inside, trapped in my own thoughts, there is a camera zoomed in at an uncomfortably close angle, but outside it gradually returns to a normal perspective. I can breathe easier and think more clearly.

Looking Up, Becoming Small

When we’re frustrated at ourselves, the world around us shrinks until our shortcomings are the only things in focus. We berate ourselves: Why can’t I change? Why can’t I do anything right? The weight of current and past failures bears down on us. We begin to feel suffocated and trapped. If we’re not careful, these are the moments when we can spiral into temptation or unhealthy coping mechanisms*.

We need help to look away from ourselves. Just as seeing the sky helps us regain perspective when we’re stressed, prayer reminds us that our self-focused frustrations are small in light of the expansive love and wisdom of God.

The Bible often features the sky as a metaphor to describe the majesty and greatness of God. In Psalm 8:3-4, the Psalmist looks to the heavens and meditates with wonder that the almighty Creator cares for tiny specks of dust like us:

[3] When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, [4] what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (ESV)

Psalm 103:10-12 uses the sky to describe the immensity of God’s mercy and forgiveness toward his children:

[10] He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
[11] For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
[12] as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (ESV)

Your Kingdom Come

The next time you feel restless and frustrated, take a deep breath. Resist the temptation to turn to the temporary relief of sin or trivialities. Instead, go outside, take a walk, and look up.

Let the expansiveness and beauty of the sky point you to our big God. See how the sky expands beyond your peripheral vision, stretching to an eternity on either side? That is how far God has separated your sin from you in Christ. See the bright blue of afternoon or the violet hues of evening? They are the handiwork of our God, who created the heavens and the earth, and who cares for us though we are but dust.

From there, take to heart Jesus’ opening to the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come”**. I like to pray my own para-phased version: “It’s not about me, it’s all about you. It’s not about me, it’s all about your kingdom.” My frustrations pale in light of God’s love for me. My shortcomings may detract from my tiny kingdom here on earth, but they cannot hinder the wise plan of my Sovereign God, who has called me his own.

Remembering who God is helps reframe my frustrations into proper perspective. All is not lost. My failures are not the final word. I am still loved by God. I am still a part of his plan.

Walk around and enjoy the fresh air. Then, come back. Make a modest plan for the rest of the evening and then prayerfully carry it out. Remember that it’s never too late to redeem the day, even when it’s gotten off to a poor start.

Our Creator, who made the heavens and whose love is wider than the sky, is with us. We can bring our frustrations to him, release them to his strong grip, and take the next step forward in obedience and faith.

See previous posts in the series:

Additional Notes:

*John Piper has an insightful quote contrasting the expansiveness of the sky with the puny pleasure of sin:

“Do you know why there are no windows on adult book stores? Or do you know why there are no windows on certain kinds of nightclubs in the city? I suppose your answer would be, “Well, because they don’t want people looking in and getting a free sight.” That is not the only reason. You know why? Because they don’t want people looking out at the sky. You know why? The sky is the enemy of lust. I just ask you to think back on your struggles. The sky is a great power against lust. Pure, lovely, wholesome, powerful, large-hearted things cannot abide the soul of a sexual fantasy at the same time…There is something about bigness, something about beauty that helps battle against the puny, small, cruddy use of the mind to fantasize about sexual things.”

Be wary that when our self-focused frustrations become inflated, so too does the temptation for a quick, sinful fix. Seeing the sky and remembering God bigness puts our small frustrations and the trivial pleasure of sin back into perspective.

**Years ago, I wrote this song about the Lord’s prayer. Prayer reminds us we are small before God and that is the best place we can be.

An Empty Pail at the Ocean

How can I pour myself out for others when I feel empty myself?

I struggle with this question when I feel burnt-out and unmotivated to love others.

Jesus tells us that one mark of Christian love is we love even when it’s not reciprocated (Lk 6:32). The opposite is often true of me. I can appear loving so long as my own needs and expectations are being met. But when I feel that isn’t happening, my strength and love run dry with alarming quickness.

Instead, I begin to pity myself:

“I try so hard for others. What about my needs?”
“No one understands or appreciates me”
“Why does no one care for me the way I care for them?”

The longer I linger on these thoughts, the more I spiral into bitterness and discontentment, and the less motivated I am to love those God has placed in my life.

Broken Cisterns

What is going on in my heart when I fall into this pattern? I am carrying out my own version of what God condemns Israel for in Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer 2:13)

I am looking to the wrong source to be filled. Usually, I am seeking undue, unrealistic satisfaction and comfort in my human relationships. I am looking to marriage, ministry, or friendships to give the consolation and validation that only God can provide.

I am looking at the wrong source to do the filling. Rather than depending on God for strength, I am relying on myself. I am pridefully trusting in my own abilities to be patient and kind.

Jeremiah’s rebuke reminds me I am no victim, as my self-pitying thoughts would lead me to believe. Rather, I’ve turned from the fountain of living waters to broken cisterns that can carry no water.

The Bountiful Fountain

In Communion with the Triune God, John Owen chooses the image of an overflowing fountain as the central metaphor to describe the Father’s love for his children. He writes:

The love of God is a love of bounty…it is held out as the cause and fountain of some free gift flowing from it. He loves us and sends his Son to die for us – he loves us and blesses us with all spiritual blessings…as the sea communicates its waters to the river by way of bounty out of its own fullness — they return unto it only what they receive from it. It is the love of a spring, of a fountain (118)

Owen reminds us that the Father is the source of all love. It may sound like a simple, elementary truth, but it directly addresses the pattern of burnout I describe above. God alone can fill my emptiness and longing to be loved, and God is the only source who can fill me so I can pour myself out to others. Love originates from God, not us. We love because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

Second, Owen highlights the abundance of God’s love. It is a love of bounty; it is not a slow drip from a leaky faucet, but as explosive as a fire hydrant and as vast and deep as the ocean. To echo the language of Ephesians, God, according to the riches of his grace, has lavished us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-10)

An Empty Pail at the Ocean

Here is my spin on applying Owen’s fountain metaphor, particularly when I’m struggling to love others: I like to imagine filling an empty pail at the ocean.

In the moment, perceived unmet needs can feel like cavernous channels that require torrential rain and countless gallons of water to fill the void. But this image helps restore proper perspective. My needs are not so dramatic and are nothing compared to the overflowing resources I have in Christ.

How many times could you fill up a pail until the ocean runs dry? An infinite number. That is how sufficient and abundant God’s love is to meet my needs and strengthen me to love others.

His only requirement? To humbly come each day to fill my pail. As Jesus taught his disciples: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” and “give us this day our daily bread” (Jn 7:37, Mt 6:11). Through prayer, God fills our empty hearts and hands with the grace and strength we need for the day.

How might this look practically in our prayer lives?

It begins with last week’s post. We lay aside any dull thoughts of God as distant, impersonal, or irrelevant by meditating on his love for us. Owen gives similar counsel. He exhorts his readers to eschew hard thoughts of God and dwell on the Father’s love:

“Assure yourself, then, there is nothing more acceptable unto the Father than for us to keep up our hearts unto him as the eternal fountain of all that rich grace which flows out to sinners in the blood of Jesus…Exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him… Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. ” (127)

Once our hearts are warmed by reflecting on God’s character, we bring our needs to him. We examine our motives and confess where we’ve turned to broken cisterns, either by idolizing the praise of man or by trusting our abilities to love apart from him. We recognize the weight of our sin but also rest in his full forgiveness.

We lift up relational struggles and ask for God’s help to be merciful as he is merciful, rather than responding to provocation.

We refocus and remember that we do not live for the approval of man but to be servants of Christ (Gal 1:10). His validation, recognition, and praise are what matters most, and his love for us is secure in the Gospel.

We ask God for strength to faithfully love those He has placed in our path for the upcoming day.

Then, we go forth to the busyness and chaos of daily life. Circumstances may remain the same, but inwardly we are different. We are filled.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32) Jesus calls us beyond the reciprocal love the world has to offer. He calls us to love even our enemies and to expect nothing in return.

It sounds and feels impossible, until we realize who our God is. We can pour ourselves out again and again, because our hearts can turn again and again to our Father, the fountain of living water (Jn 4:13-15, 7:37-38)

Previous posts in this series:

The Sun on a Snowy Morning

“I cannot liken it to anything that I know of better than the snow which melts in the sun. You wake up one morning and all the trees are festooned with snowy wreaths, while down below upon the ground the snow lies in a white sheet over everything. Lo, the sun has risen, its beams shed a genial warmth; and in a few hours where is the snow? It has passed away. Had you hired a thousand carts and horses and machines to sweep it away it could not have been more effectually removed. It has passed away. That is what the Lord does in the new creation: his love shines on the soul, his grace renews us, the old things pass away as a matter of course. Where His blessed face beams with grace and truth, as the sun with warmth of light, He dissolves the bands of sin’s long frost, and brings on the spring of grace with newness of buds and flowers.

I first came across this quote from Charles Spurgeon in Rejoicing in Christ by Michael Reeves, and it has stuck with me since. Spurgeon refers more generally to Christ’s work in salvation to make us a new creation, but I think the imagery works just as well to describe his work to renew us day by day (2 Cor 4:16-18, 5:16-18).

Awakening to an Icy Heart:

Each day we awaken with a layer of snow, as it were, over our hearts. Morning has a way of surfacing the anxieties and frustrations of the day before. These thoughts weigh us down and threaten to discourage us before the day has even begun.

Morning can also be when we feel furthest from God. I usually do my devotions in the morning. However, if I’m not vigilant, my heart will drift away from spiritual things as the day goes on. By the next morning, I’ll wake to a feeling of dullness towards God. He’ll seem abstract and distant, separate from the cares and worries of my real life.

Basking in the Warm Sun

In the early days of the pandemic, I’d wake up before work and drive to a nearby park to do my devotions. This began as a way to avoid distraction and escape the feeling of being cooped up. Soon, however, it became just as much about enjoying the outdoors. Before and after reading, I’d walk around, pray, and take in the beauty of early morning: the stillness, the crisp air, the vivid green of the trees and grass, and best of all, the gentle warmth of the sun.

The word I’d use to describe these morning strolls is “basking”. A loose definition for basking is lying (in my case, walking) in the warmth and light of the sun for relaxation; or reveling in and making the most of something pleasing. Basking in the sun provides an apt image for how to revive our anxious hearts and cold affections: our hearts are thawed and rekindled when we bask in the warmth of God’s love for us.

In his exposition of the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father’, Martyn Lloyd-Jones talks about the importance of pausing in prayer to remember who God is. We are tempted to jump straight to supplication. Lloyd-Jones describes our natural instinct in this way:

“Pressed by the urgency of our position, the cares, the anxieties, the troubles, the anguish of mind, the bleeding heart…we are so full of this that, like children, we start speaking at once.”

Instead, Lloyd-Jones counsels us to pause and remember what prayer is and with whom we are speaking. This is a fundamental shift in our perspectives. The chief consolation of prayer is not relief from our circumstances but a restored experiential understanding that God is our Father, who loves us with an unending, steadfast love.

Lloyd Jones concludes:

“Do you know that the essence of true prayer is found in two words…’Our Father’? I suggest that if you can say from your heart, whatever your condition, ‘My Father’, in a sense your prayer is already answered. It is just this realization of our relationship to God that we so sadly lack.”

What a difference it makes when we remember anew that God is our Father. In prayer, we come before the God who gives new mercies every morning (Lam 3:21-33); who has shown the light of the Gospel in our hearts through Christ (2 Cor 4:6); and who despite our coldness, calls us his children and draws us near (1 Jn 3:1).

Our hearts may not thaw all at once, and we need more than cursory reminders of God’s love to calm our fretful hearts. We need to bask in our Father’s love and care, the way we might enjoy the morning sun on an unhurried stroll. Pause. Remember you are coming into the presence of your Father in Heaven. Dwell upon both his nearness and his majesty. Be still and know that his fatherly care covers and eclipses every worry you face. Then, rest in that love.

I find that when I begin times of prayer in this way, God warms my affections, and I slowly but surely experience what Spurgeon describes: Lo, the sun has risen, its beams shed a genial warmth; and in a few hours where is the snow? It has passed away.

This is part 2 of a series on metaphors for prayer. You can find the previous post here.

What is Prayer Like? – Metaphors for the Weary Christian

“Strange as it may seem to you, you start praying by saying nothing; you recollect what you are about to do.”

Martyn Lloyd Jones

As a new father, I’m conscious of my weakness now more than ever. I feel it in the mornings as I wake to face a new day and in the evenings when I lay down my head, exhausted from the day past. And yet, my weakness and weariness do not always lead me to my knees in prayer as they should.

Often they are obstacles when I pray: my thoughts are foggy and jumbled. I struggle to focus and string together coherent sentences. I run out of words too quickly and am easily distracted.

Other times they hinder me from wanting to pray at all. When I’m tired, prayer seems tedious; another checklist item on top of everything else I need to do. It feels more rote than something with real spiritual power.

During times when I am weary but prayerless, I’ve found it helpful to call to mind several metaphors which remind me of what prayer is. This may seem like an odd strategy, but these word pictures help stir my imagination to recollect (to use Lloyd Jones’ term) and remember what I am doing as I bow my head.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring four metaphors for prayer. I’ve divided them by morning and afternoon/evening to roughly correspond with the weaknesses and needs I feel at those particular times of day*.

Morning Metaphors:

  • Prayer is like the sun on a snowy morning — it warms our dull hearts to be happy in God and find rest in His love for us.
  • Prayer is like bringing an empty pail to the ocean — through prayer, God fills up our empty hearts so we can pour ourselves out in service to others.

Afternoon/Evening Metaphors:

  • Prayer is like stepping outside and gazing up at the sky — it expands our self-centered perspective and humbles us before the majesty and love of God.
  • Prayer is collapsing into the Father’s arms — through prayer, we cast our sins and burdens onto God and rest in his strong, steadfast embrace.

It goes without saying that applying these metaphors (technically similes but “metaphors” sounds cooler) is not prescriptive; these are merely images which help nudge me towards prayer. Hopefully they can do the same for you.

Most of all, my hope is that delving into these images and bearing them out through Scripture will help me grow in my personal prayer life; to remind myself that prayer is a privilege and so learn to turn to God at every opportunity.

*Tim Keller wrote a helpful article on praying without ceasing which explores this idea of having multiple times of prayer to address the specific needs/struggles of the day.

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.


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.

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.


*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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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: