Wee Little Zaccheus and Me

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

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

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

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

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

What do you do when you feel small?

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

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

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

Weakness is the Way to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weakness is just weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wrestling with the Weight of Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why I Find Writing and Blogging Worthwhile

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

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

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Writing as Ministry

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

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

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

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

Writing to Redeem Social Media

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

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

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

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

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Writing for Understanding by Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day Our Daily Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let me know how I can pray for you!

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

 

Songwriting and the Honest Happy Ending

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

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

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

Sad Songs and the Importance of Honesty

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

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

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

Sad Song and the Danger of Idolatry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Danger of the Lazy Happy Ending

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

Step 1: Write a sad song like normal

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

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

The Honest Happy Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thumper, Ellie, and Lessons of the Father’s Goodness

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As some of you may know, Thumper passed away this past April after 8 years with our family. It was pretty rough. I felt like I had lost one of my best friends. At the same time, I didn’t know what to think about her death. The Bible didn’t seem to talk much about animals or pets, at least to my knowledge. And while I couldn’t rule it out completely, I was hard-pressed to argue that I’d see Thumper again in heaven. Theologically and Biblically, it seemed Thumper’s death was a non-event.

But how, I wondered, could something that felt so personally significant seem so theologically insignificant? And, more broadly, how should I think about pets–their lives and their deaths–in a Biblical and God honoring way?

I’m not sure if I’ve answered those questions in this post, but here are some of my scrambled musings from these past few months:

Saying Thank You for a Timely Gift:

Thumper’s death was sudden and unexpected. There was no time to brace myself or even to say goodbye. In the days following, I found myself wishing I could see her for just a few moments to give her a big hug and tell her ‘thank you’. Yes, I know that’s corny, and yes, she’s a dog who doesn’t understand English. But I really felt like she had been a huge blessing in my life and I wished I could tell her that.

I’ve written in the past about my struggles with loneliness (here and here), insecurity (here), and doubt (here). Thumper helped me in very real ways during some of those seasons of deep discouragement. Sometimes just the presence of a friend can lift the fog of loneliness and Thumper was often that constant companion. She was always eager to play or lie quietly by my side. She was there to greet me with a wagging tail and a smile after a long day. When Katie took my room and relocated me to the couch, she was my roommate sleeping next to me on her big red chair. With her, I never had to worry about measuring up, fitting in, or feeling like I had to think up something interesting to say. I could be myself. She made time at home restful and enjoyable. She was there for the countless dogwalks I spent praying or wrestling through a tough question. It was always comforting afterwards to look down and see her happily panting beside me.

What was I to do with that gratitude? It felt like a waste not to be able to express it in some meaningful way. Ultimately, I realized my desire to thank Thumper was misplaced–it reflected my human tendency to make much of creation, rather than the Creator. Unlike Thumper, God hears my prayers and deserves my praise. He gave me Thumper as a gift of common grace to help me through difficult seasons, just as he had orchestrated countless other people, events, and conversations to sustain me these past 8 years.

As a Christian, I know my thanksgiving is never wasted. I can always give thanks to my infinitely wise Father–for big things like salvation, and also for more ordinary things, like a dear pet. Nothing is too small a reason to give thanks to God. Thank you Father!

Called to a Greater Love by the Greatest Love:

I’ve heard pastors talk about video games as fake war and pornography as fake love. Video games give the adrenaline of heroism without the danger of real battle, while pornography grants the pleasure of sex without the sacrifice or commitment of a real relationship. The end result, the argument goes, is a whole generation that wants instant and easy gratification, without any cost.

That’s a subject for a different post, the point I want to make is that if we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen with our pets: they can become a source of easy and non-costly love that replaces the costly love of human relationships. Christoph sums it up best in ‘Reindeers are better than people’ (or if you prefer Eeyore:  Donkey’s are better than people):

Reindeers are better than people
Sven, don’t you think that’s true?

Yeah, people will beat you
And curse you and cheat you
Every one of them’s bad except you

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He’s right! Pets are easier to love than people. Relationships are messy and require work. People do hurt you. They have problems and annoying quirks.  They’re tiring. They bring out your insecurities. Pets, on the other hand, are furry and cute and always happy to see you. They can give the affection and loyal companionship we seek in relationships, while demanding far less than their human counterparts. I’m not saying pets are bad, just that if we’re not careful, we can take something good, like a pet, and use it for wrong purposes.

I think that was true for me. I’m naturally very introverted and shy. I often find social interactions tiring and you’ll often find me making excuses to avoid gatherings or hangouts. I wouldn’t say I ever thought Thumper could replace human friendship and community, but I do think she minimized the negative consequences of isolation, and thus made it easier for me to hide at home.

One of the big lessons God has been teaching me this past year is to fight my instinct to withdraw and instead to love people. More specifically, he’s been challenging me to commit to the church in greater ways; to better serve my family, especially as an example for Katie as she grows up; and to share his grace with my friends who desperately need him. All of these things require me to step out of my comfort zone and love in more costly ways. I have to die to pride and laziness in the church, impatience and selfishness at home, and distraction and earthly-mindedness with non-Christian friends. I’m forced to depend on God in deeper ways. I can love a pet by myself, but I cannot summon Christlike love by my own strength. I must meditate on and draw near to the amazing love that Jesus has shown me.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but when I reflect on the timing of Thumper’s death, I see God’s wisdom and goodness. He allowed her to be a part of my life for a season, because he knew the inner turmoil in my heart and knew I could use all the help I could get. But now, as He calls me to move outward from isolation and self-introspection back into community, he saw it fit to take her away. He knew that taking away Thumper would challenge me to embrace a more costly and ultimately a more mature love. He blessed me through Thumper’s life and is teaching me to love in her death. Truly, he works everything–both big and small–for my good.

Ello Ellie!

When my family asked me if I wanted to get another dog, I was hesitant. The wounds from losing Thumper were still fresh, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to experience that again. I tried to put off the decision but it seemed I was in the minority–my dad missed having a dog around, Katie wanted a puppy to play with, and my mom wanted a new exercise buddy. So, with Anthony’s departure to Portland imminent, we decided to go ahead and add a new member to the family.

Meet Ellie Autumn Locke, our new Goldendoodle! (I picked the first name, Katie chose the middle name) We picked her up this past weekend:

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Why did I choose the name Ellie? Ellie is named after a character in Pixar’s Up. Her reddish fur resembles the crazy red hair of her cartoon counterpart. I like Ellie’s character. She’s spunky, crazy, and adventurous, but also sweet and caring. I also like how Pixar movies combine substance and emotional gravity with simple and imaginative storytelling. Their movies have a sense of childlike wonder–which fits well for the name of a family pet.

But more along the lines of this post, Ellie’s name serves as a sort of tribute to Thumper and the lessons God has taught me through her. Ellie, you’ll remember, passes away early in the movie and her death serves as the catalyst for Carl’s growth. He begins the movie as a cynical and withdrawn man but over the course of the movie,  he learns to courageously pursue adventure and love in deeper ways. I hope my time with my pets can drive me to do the same.

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So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do [like having a pet], do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV)

 

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)

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

Our series marches on!

Paradoxology: An Introduction

Paradoxology: The Trinity and God’s Massive Love


The Trinity and the Cross

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

The Trinity tells us how much the Father gave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember the line from the hymn?

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

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

The Trinity tells us how much the Son lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradoxology: The Trinity and God’s Massive Love

Paradoxology: An Introduction


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into this great love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradoxology: An Introduction

Paradoxology: An Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post on its way soon!