How to Encourage Those Who Grieve

When a loved one dies, we feel more than just sadness. We know pain and despair and heartache in the center of our souls. Because we hurt, we can feel disoriented, asking the deepest questions of our lives.

We can understand, therefore, why Paul needed to write part of his first letter to the Thessalonians. These Christians were grieving and confused, wondering what had become of their friends and family members who had died.

In 1 Thess 4:13–18, Paul answered their questions and addressed their fears. In doing so, he has shown us just how much comfort comes from thinking rightly about the future.

Grief is Good

When Paul addressed his brothers in 1 Thess 4:13, he spoke about their grief.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:13)

Those outside of the church grieve, but they have no hope anchoring their grief. Paul wanted his friends to grieve with hope, and he gave specific grounds for that hope in the following verses.

Paul was no Stoic; he did not prohibit mourning. But our mourning should be done—like everything else in our lives—as Christians. We should not deny the natural emotion of grief, but our grief should be informed by the truth of God’s word.

Those Who Have Died Have Not Missed Out

From what Paul wrote in 1 Thess 4:15–17, it seems the Thessalonians were concerned that their loved ones might not experience the full joy of the coming of the Lord. Paul reassured them.

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord,that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:15–17)

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then there will be a joyous reunion with loved ones (“caught up together,” verse 17) and with the Lord. Though we do not know the time nor all the specifics, there is great comfort in knowing what is to come.

For Those Who Believe in Jesus

It’s important to state this unpopular truth: Comfort in the coming of the Lord is reserved for those who believe in Jesus.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess 4:14)

Though Paul did not write the entire Christian gospel here, he stated its central truth (“Jesus died and rose again”). In the first century, Christians were chiefly set apart by this belief in the work of Jesus. Paul wanted these believers to know that God’s work for their loved ones was not over. He will bring them with him when he comes.

Genuine Hope

We’ve all heard hollow words of hope and empty promises of comfort surrounding death. At least he’s in a better place. You’ll feel better, just give it time.

Paul had no time for faint hope. He pointed to the best, most lasting comfort there is—the eternal presence of God. How sweet to know that “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).

Without interruption or distraction, we will be with our loving, faithful, glorious Lord. Our sin made us unworthy of being near him, but Jesus has brought us close and will, on the last day, take us closer still.

Encourage One Another

Paul ended this short portion of his letter with a command. “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).

Far too often the coming of the Lord has been a source of controversy, division, and apprehension among Christians. Yet Paul sees this coming as a source of courage for the grieving.

We are often called as a church to love and comfort those who are mourning. And this passage tells us how we can pray for and speak to our grieving friends. We remind them of the gospel, we point to the future, and together we cling to the sure hope of eternal fellowship with the Lord.

Post credit | Photo credit

I Know God’s Will for You

The title of this post is true, you know. I know God’s will for you, sure as the shoes on my feet.

This isn’t a predictable message. It doesn’t involve your career, your home, or your spouse. It’s not about the next big decision in your life. (At least, not specifically.)

Are you jittery with suspense? Here’s the truth.

God’s will for you is your sanctification.

God’s Role in Your Sanctification

My revelation for you comes from God’s word. Specifically, Paul writes this to the Thessalonians: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).

“Sanctification” sounds like a fancy theological word, but it’s easy enough to understand. It refers to our growth as Christians, the development of greater trust in the Lord, deeper love for God and our neighbors, fuller obedience, more thorough repentance. Sanctification is the process—sometimes a painful one—by which we resemble Jesus more and more.

It would be terrifying if sanctification were left entirely to us. But God is involved through and through, as Paul writes in his letter.

We should focus on pleasing God. Though we please God by observing his law, Paul directs our focus specifically to God. This is far more motivating than merely holding up a set of rules to obey.

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thess 4:1)

Sanctification is a sign of knowing God. In this passage, Paul writes pointedly about sexual immorality, and he draws a contrast between Christians and Gentiles. He wants the Thessalonians to behave with “holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:4–5). Knowing God should be the beginning of all ethical decisions and behavior.

The Lord is an avenger. Sanctification involves loving our neighbors, including our brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul warns his friends that they must not “transgress” or “wrong” their brother, “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thess 4:6). As we must remember that God is our father, we must not forget that he is also the judge.

God has called us for purity. When we sin, we go against the very purposes of God for us. “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thess 4:7). Purity and obedience are not easy, but it is comforting to know that we swim with the current of God’s will for us when we abstain from immorality.

God gives us his Holy Spirit. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who ignore his exhortations are in danger for their souls. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess 4:8). The command for holiness comes from God, not from man. But God gives himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to teach, strengthen, guide, and encourage us in this same holiness.

Abstain from Sexual Immorality

The specific issue Paul had in mind for the Thessalonians’ sanctification was sexual immorality. From what I understand, in many Greek cities in the first century, sexual immorality was rampant. Men rarely limited their sexual relationships to only their wife. It was vital that this church take a clear stand before their watching neighbors on this matter.

Through Paul, God’s command is to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3). This is not an area that calls for moderation; these Christians are not to wean themselves from this behavior like a man who wants to quit smoking. All sexually immoral behavior needs to be put aside, now.

This is not just an ancient message, of course. We need Christian sexual ethics just as much as the first century church. Because we are loved by God, adopted by him at the highest possible cost, we must live in a way that pleases him.

Excel Still More

Paul has a brilliant, loving way of bringing this command to his friends. He encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing, only more.

The Thessalonians know the instruction Paul gave them, how to walk with and please God, and they are doing it (1 Thess 4:1). Paul pleads with them to “do so more and more” (1 Thess 4:2).

Find more ways to love and obey. Do it more often, in more areas of your life, regarding more and more people. Search out more ways to repent. Don’t be content with a plateau.

This is good for us to hear. It is far too easy to fall into patterns that are at cross purposes for our Christian obedience.

Be encouraged, dear saints. When you hear that God’s will for you is your sanctification, you may be disappointed, because for too long “obedience” has come to make us think of a boring, humorless, locked-down life.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. What God commands is not only good for us, it’s best for us. And there is deep, lasting joy in aligning ourselves with God’s will and purpose for us.

Post credit | Photo credit

What Do We Want for Our Friends?

It is a sad fact of life that friends move away. How do you pray for such a friend? What do you want for them?

Perhaps you pray for their health, their family, or their church. You surely pray for specific requests they share.

And while these petitions are wonderful, the apostle Paul would like to add to our list.

Paul and the Thessalonians

Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as an evangelist and pastor. But the warm nature of the letter shows that he also wrote to these people as friends.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13, I notice at least five things Paul earnestly wanted for his friends.

Paul wanted to see them face-to-face

Paul was driven out of Thessalonica after a short period of ministry (Acts 17:1–10). He described it as being “torn away” from them, so great was his pain (1 Thess 2:17).

Though I’m sure Paul was grateful to send written communication, he longed to be with his friends in person. (See 1 Thess 2:17–183:63:10, and 3:11.) In fact, this is one of the dominant themes of the letter: Paul loved the Thessalonians, missed them, and wanted to see them!

The same is true for us. We can thank God for modern technology that lets us keep in touch with our distant friends while still longing and planning to see them in the flesh.

Paul wanted to strengthen and encourage them

Paul couldn’t stand the separation from the Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1) so he sent Timothy to visit. Paul was willing to give up the help and fellowship of his dear friend so he could send a personal word to this church.

Timothy was sent, in part, to “strengthen and encourage” them in their faith (1 Thess 3:2, NASB). The Thessalonians were disheartened because they heard of Paul’s suffering (1 Thess 3:3–4). Paul wanted them to know this was an expected part of following Jesus (1 Thess 3:3).

Paul was not just acting as an apostle. This is a vital role friends play in each other’s lives. We remind each other of what is true, because we easily forget. We need our friends to point us back to God, to rehearse the good news of the gospel for us, to recall the hope we have for the future because of Jesus.

Paul wanted to hear about their faith

Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica for at least two purposes. In addition to encouraging this church, Paul wanted Timothy to bring back a report about their faith (1 Thess 3:5).

Paul was concerned that the disturbance the Thessalonians felt regarding Paul’s afflictions might tempt them to turn from the faith (1 Thess 3:5). This was no idle curiosity for Paul—he loved his friends so much that their standing with God was vital to him.

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. (1 Thess 3:6–8)

How often do we pray this simple prayer for our friends? Lord, strengthen them to stand firm.

Paul wanted to minister to them

As Paul thanked God for the joy the Thessalonians gave him, he prayed “most earnestly” that he could see them face to face. One reason he wanted to see them was so he could “supply what [was] lacking in [their] faith” (1 Thess 3:10).

Because of the way Paul had to leave Thessalonica (Acts 17:10), he likely had not finished the initial training and instruction he had planned for these young disciples. While we are not apostles, we do have important roles to play in ministering to each other within the body of Christ. God often calls us to be bearers of grace to one another.

Paul wanted them to be ready to meet Jesus

Paul ended this section of his letter with a benediction.

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess 3:11–13)

Paul has Jesus’s return in view throughout this letter. Here he holds up Jesus as the judge. He wants them to be blameless, and he knows that abounding in love is the way to get there.

Praying for Our Friends

This is a convicting passage for me. I don’t always have my friends’ growth and love in mind as I pray. I’m not often looking for opportunities to encourage and minister to them.

As I see my failings as a friend, I am reminded of Jesus, the Friend of sinners. He encourages, strengthens, and ministers to his people. Even better, he wants to be with us forever, and his sacrifice secures our hope.

As those who are friends of Jesus, by his grace, let’s learn to be better friends to each other. Then we can say, with Paul, that we really live if our friends are standing firm in the Lord.

Post credit | Photo credit

When Ministry is Like Parenting

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians might be the most tender epistle in the New Testament. In every chapter—in nearly every paragraph—Paul’s love is evident, rising like carbonation bubbles and popping on the surface.

Though Paul’s face-to-face time with the Thessalonians was brief (see Acts 17:1–10), they built a deep, warm bond. So it’s no surprise when Paul describes his time with them in familial terms.

Like a Mother

In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul defends himself against accusations of bad behavior. He did not preach out of “error, impurity, or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3). He and his companions were not interested in pleasing men, like many other traveling teachers; they were only interested in pleasing God “who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4). Finally, Paul was not interested in glory from men (1 Thess 2:6). He would not use his office as an apostle to make demands on the people (food, shelter, or money).

In contrast, Paul compares his missionary party to a nursing mother.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:7–8)

These two verses paint such a warm picture of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians! Take note of the affectionate words: gentle, nursing, taking care, affectionately desirous, share ourselves, very dear.

Not all ministry situations will look this way. Paul and his companions were willing to share their lives with the Thessalonians because they “had become very dear” to them. The affection came first, then the sharing of life.

A ministry that has this gentle, affectionate flavor is compelling. Though not all Christians are called to traveling, evangelistic ministries, we are all called to love our neighbors. And Paul’s description raises some important questions.

Would our neighbors describe us as gentle? Are we cultivating affection for our neighbors? Are we willing to share our lives along with sharing the gospel?

Like a Father

Further on in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul continues to defend his behavior in Thessalonica. He and his companions “worked night and day” so that they “might not be a burden” to the people (1 Thess 2:9). The Thessalonians were witnesses of their “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (1 Thess 2:10).

Paul longed for the Thessalonians to walk closely with the Lord.

For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess 2:11–12)

Each one of those verbs in verse 11 is important. Paul and his co-laborers exhorted, meaning they explained the expectations in detail from the word of God. They also encouraged, meaning they gave the Thessalonians courage, they cheered them on. Finally, they charged, meaning they emphasized the people’s responsibility to fulfill their duties.

To appreciate the beauty and power of Paul’s comparison to a father, imagine a good, kind father teaching his son to ride a bike. After a period of instruction, the father jogs beside the bike, helping the boy to balance. When he sees his son catching on, he is lavish with his encouragement, telling the boy how proud he is. The training time goes on and the father reminds his son of the timing and actions needed for success. Before too long, the boy is able to ride on his own.

It is possible—all too common, in fact—for Christians to act more like an overbearing boss or a scolding nanny than an encouraging father. We pedal along, scoffing at those who can’t yet ride on their own. Or we laugh when we see a brother take a fall, and we eagerly gossip about his mistakes and injuries.

Madness Without the Gospel

Paul describes a close, vulnerable kind of ministry, and this model of love is madness without the gospel.

After all, when we get as near to others as family members, they will see our scars. They will learn our secrets and our sins. And this will give our enemies ammunition. Why would we choose this path?

The gospel is the answer. Paul was eager to share his life with the Thessalonians because his life was no longer his own. He would share his life along with the gospel, the good news that the Son of God not only shared his life but gave his life for his people.

Paul could encourage the Thessalonians to walk worthy of the Lord because this same Lord called them “into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). The kingdom and glory that await—that are ours purely by grace—far surpass any damage that might come from people knowing the real us. In fact, we highlight the glory of that king and his kingdom by reminding others that we are welcome because of his goodness and power, not our obedience or worth.

Risk and Love

Don’t leave this passage in awe of Paul, thinking you could never follow in his steps. Leave this passage in awe of the Lord and how he works through his people.

We can love because we are loved. We can reveal ourselves because Jesus revealed himself. We can confess our weakness, because with Jesus that humility is strength.

Post credit | Photo credit

Turn to Serve and Wait: Our Christian Calling

The late author and theologian John Stott introduced me to the wonderful phrase, “holy gossip.” In contrast to gossip that wounds people and splits churches, holy gossip happens when news spreads about the work God is doing.

In the apostle Paul’s ministry, he heard holy gossip about the Thessalonians, and he wrote about it in his first letter to that church. In the process, he gave a memorable description of the fundamental calling of the Christian life.

Early Christian Growth

Paul began his first letter to the Thessalonians by thanking God for his work within these people. When the letter was written, the church was only a few months old, and Paul had seen and heard convincing evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit among them.

Paul described how the Thessalonians began their Christian lives. They first received the word of the Lord with joy, though with much tribulation (1 Thess 1:6). In this way the people became imitators of Paul, his companions, and the Lord (1 Thess 1:6). Believers in nearby areas pointed to this church as an example (1 Thess 1:7).

Though the church was young, God was using them mightily. The word of the Lord “sounded forth” from them, and news of their conversion and faith was the holy gossip of the day (1 Thess 1:8).

Verbs for the Christian Life

Here is what Paul heard regarding the Thessalonians.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

Paul’s verbs in these verses give us a compelling summary of a Christian’s calling.

Turn

First, the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. Conversion always involves a turning around, whether from a life of violence and addiction or disinterested religious observance.

The word “idols” may evoke images of carved, wooden figures, but we’re better off thinking of an idol as anything we worship instead of God. Comfort, success, relationships, health—these can all be idols.

A turn to God from idols might not be immediate, but it is decisive. Once we realize the water glass at our lips is full of sand, we can’t help but run to the fountain of living water.

And though this decisive turn happens at the beginning of our Christian lives, the implications reverberate through our remaining years. Walking faithfully with God means developing a habit of turning to him from idols.

Serve

The Thessalonians didn’t just change their religious allegiance. They turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

Conversion is not merely a shift in our religious thought life; it is coming alive from the dead. And the clearest evidence of our new life is our service to our new king.

The order here is crucial. Our service to this “living and true God” does not gain us his love. We are not loved because we serve; we serve because we are loved. When we wake from the dead and see how we have been bought with a great price, we cannot help but love and serve our God and Father (1 Cor 6:20). Of course, this service to God also involves loving our neighbors (Matt 22:34–40).

Wait

The most surprising verb in Paul’s list might be the last one. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve and to wait. This is a hard command for impatient people.

Faith in God always has a forward-looking element. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we have great hope for the future. We long for our true home, our true family, our true king, and the glorious end of the curse. And since the future is not the present, we must wait.

This is not a thumb-twiddling, foot-tapping, bored-and-yawning sort of waiting. We’re waiting for a person—the Son of God! Paul describes this Son in verse 10.

First, he is in heaven. He is on the throne, in power, having ascended to his rightful place. Also, he has been raised from the dead. He was crucified and shut behind a stone. But death could not triumph over Jesus.

Finally, Jesus is the one who delivers us from the wrath to come. Wrath is coming, and we all deserve it. But Jesus will rescue those who are his from this terrifying end. We wait for the one who experienced wrath in our place.

Look to Jesus

This summary of our Christian calling might sound like an impossible task list. And if we separate this summary from the gospel of Jesus, that’s exactly what it is. But God never intended that separation.

We will fail to turn, serve, and wait perfectly. But Jesus has turned, served, and waited in our place!

Jesus never worshiped an idol (1 Pet 2:21–25). He turned away from idols toward God without fail.

Service was the foundation of Jesus’s life (Mark 10:45). He served the living and true God through obedience, love, and sacrifice.

Finally, Jesus waited. While on earth, he longed to return to his father (John 17:11Luke 9:51), and he waited three days for his resurrection. He looked toward the future with hope like no one ever has.

As we look to Jesus, let’s help each other to identify and turn from our idols, to serve God and our neighbors, and to wait for his Son from heaven. Living this way will generate more holy gossip than we could imagine.

Post credit | Photo credit

Learning from the Humiliation of Jesus

Jesus’s crucifixion was not only unjust, it was tortuous. The Romans were famous for their punishing, public executions.

But physical pain was not the only agony Jesus suffered in his final days. In fact, one Gospel writer highlights the emotional torment of Jesus far more than his bodily pain.

Mockery in Luke

As my small group made its way through the end of Luke this year, the humiliation of Jesus jumped out at me.

After Jesus was arrested, the men who held him abused him. Notice the way they mocked Jesus, belittling his position as a divine prophet.

Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him. (Luke 22:63–65)

Later, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod and his soldiers “mocked him.” As part of this humiliation, Jesus was dressed in “splendid clothing” (Luke 23:11).

Jesus was “railed at,” “scoffed at,” and “mocked” (Luke 23:35–3739). He suffered the indignity of being crucified with criminals. Jesus’s accusers threw the title of “Savior” in his face—surely he cannot be the Christ or the King of the Jews if he can’t even save himself!

The Pain of Public Taunting

Let’s consider these indignities carefully. In public, Jesus was denounced as being utterly powerless. Jesus couldn’t be the Christ, he couldn’t be the Chosen One, he couldn’t be the King.

Because Jesus was fully man, we can imagine some of what he felt during this mockery. Think of a core mission of your life or a label given to you by God. Now imagine someone screaming these taunts at you in the town square. You must not be a child of God! She is not much of a mother! He cannot be a true missionary!

Here’s the awful, terrible truth. Jesus was completely humiliated. He was mocked and taunted and denounced. He heard every biting word, and, one by one, they sliced open his heart.

Lack of Physical Suffering

When compared to the emotional pain that Jesus suffered, Luke records far less physical suffering.

Luke tells us about the beating from the soldiers (Luke 22:63) and the way Herod and his soldiers “treated him with contempt” (Luke 23:11). But Luke doesn’t record Jesus’s crown of thorns or his scourging by Pilate’s men (see Matthew 27:29 and Matthew 27:26, respectively). Luke also omits other incidents of beating, spitting, and slapping that we read in the other three Gospels.

These omissions don’t point to a contradiction. They also don’t mean that Luke was unaware of these abuses. Luke just chose to emphasize Jesus’s emotional suffering.

Why This Emphasis?

This may seem like a strange focus, but it is a natural conclusion to the way Luke writes Jesus’s story. Throughout his ministry, Jesus identified with those who were scorned and cast out. He elevated the humiliated and called his followers to humble themselves in service of others. Once we look for this thread, we see it woven through every page of Luke’s Gospel.

  • Jesus announced his ministry by saying he would focus on the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18–19).
  • Jesus’s healings largely focused on those suffering in ways that put them on the margins of society. Among others, he healed a leper (Luke 5:12–13), a naked man possessed by many demons (Luke 8:26–39), a woman with a 12-year discharge of blood (Luke 8:43–48), a boy possessed by a violent demon (Luke 9:37–43), a woman with an 18-year “disabling spirit” which bent her in half (Luke 13:10–13), and a blind beggar (Luke 18:35–43).
  • He kept company with “tax collectors and sinners” at a time when religious leaders looked at such people with scorn and disgust. (See Luke 5:27–32Luke 7:34Luke 7:36–50Luke 15:1–2, and Luke 19:1–10.)
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated (Luke 6:20–23).
  • Jesus’s teaching on discipleship emphasized self-denial (Luke 9:23–27), selling one’s possessions to give to the needy (Luke 12:33–34), and inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind to a banquet instead of friends and family (Luke 14:12–14).
  • Jesus showed concern for the humiliated in his parables. In the parable of the banquet, the master brought in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (Luke 14:15–24). The father of the prodigal ran to meet his broken and humiliated son when he returned (Luke 15:11–24). And Lazarus, a poor beggar covered with sores, was elevated to heaven while the rich man suffered in Hades (Luke 16:19–31).
  • Peter proclaimed he was willing to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33) and wanted a fight when Jesus was arrested (Luke 22:50). He didn’t want to be identified with a humiliated Jesus (Luke 22:54–62). Jesus’s look at Peter (Luke 22:61) was a quiet rebuke; following Jesus does not bring the honor of a final glorious battle, it requires the willingness to give up one’s rights and die.

After Jesus loved and cared for the humiliated through his ministry, he became humiliated at the end. He took the place of those he loved.

Our Response

Jesus knows our humiliation because he was humiliated. He is able to sympathize with every one of our conditions and weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). This is why we can draw near to his throne of grace with confidence, knowing that we’ll find all the mercy we need (Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus also calls us to willingly suffer humiliation for others. As we lower ourselves, giving up money or time or status, we elevate others.

In this, we embrace the pattern of Jesus, who suffered to save his enemies (including us, Romans 5:10). We also depend on (and demonstrate) the power of Jesus. Embracing humiliation for others is not natural; only after we have been changed can we seek out the lower place by the gracious work of the Spirit.

Post credit | Photo credit

The Right-Now Blessings of the Kingdom of God

Christians have a sure hope of heaven. Because Jesus has paid for our sin and we have received his righteousness, we are children of God who will be with our Father forever.

That’s wonderful! But, some might ask, what’s in it for me now?

Though most Christians don’t ask this question in polite company, many have wondered. Aren’t there some tangible, present-time benefits of being a Christian? Or must we wait entirely for heaven?

We Have Left Our Home

Jesus addresses this matter with his disciples on the heels of his interaction with the rich ruler in Luke 18. The ruler wants to do something to inherit eternal life, and Jesus pokes his finger where it hurts.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

The ruler leaves in grief because he is so wealthy, and Jesus notes how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of prosperous Christians, however, because “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Peter then says, “See, we have left our homes and followed you” (Luke 18:28). Peter must be thinking back to Jesus’s words in verse 22. We have done what the ruler did not. What does that mean for us?

Jesus’ reply is stunning.

And he said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29–30)

There is eternal life to come, but the blessings of the kingdom of God start now. And those blessings are abundant.

Blessings in this Time

We can almost hear the gears turning in Peter’s head. What is it that we receive now?

Jesus is not talking about wealth. That wouldn’t make sense in the context of leaving house and family, and it doesn’t fit after the warning about material riches.

There are probably hundreds of gifts we could discuss, but let’s focus on three.

The Freedom from the Grip of Idols

If an idol is anything (even a good thing) that occupies a commanding place in one’s heart, then the ruler made an idol of his wealth. Jesus told him to sell everything—not because this is a universal command to all believers, but because Jesus wanted the ruler to confront his idol. Sadly, the ruler was devoted to his riches.

When we follow Jesus, we start down the path of freedom from our idols. Jesus calls us to this freedom and gives us the power to make this freedom happen.

To determine the idols that occupy our hearts, we must ask ourselves: Where do I turn for refuge, safety, comfort, or escape? What brings me hope or causes me despair? It could be family, reputation, achievement, politics, or work. It might be a dozen other things.

If you’ve identified one or more idols here, don’t despair. It simply means that you are a human being. Jesus is eager to help idolatrous humans like us!

The Church

In the first century, a disciple who left his family (Luke 18:29) was leaving virtually all of his friends and contacts. With a few exceptions, he probably didn’t know any other disciples, but he was so compelled by Jesus that it didn’t matter.

We may lose family and acquaintances when we follow Christ, but we gain so much more. Christians who have joined a healthy, local church know the joy of belonging to a new family (Matt 12:46–50).

The people in the church are our brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29). They care for us; they help us with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; they share a mission and a vision with us. In prayer, in gathering around the Scriptures, they point us toward the most important things in life—loving God and loving our neighbors.

The Presence of God

The disciples walked the same roads as Jesus. This was its own blessing—they learned from and were cared for by the Son of God! This is the very gift Jesus wanted to give the ruler in Luke 18.

And this gift is just as present for us. We have the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said that in some ways we have it better than his first-century followers.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

The presence of God—lost in the garden of Eden, accessible to a select few in the tabernacle and temple, described and promised in the psalms and prophets—is a real, glorious gift for Christians right now.

Not Just in the Age to Come

The best earthly blessings resonate with us because they offer a foretaste of heaven. Freedom from sin, the fellowship of believers, the presence of God—we long to have these gifts in full!

But the good news of this passage is that leaving everything to follow Jesus has benefits now. These present-time blessings strengthen us, encourage us, and develop our affections for eternity.


Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by email (see the box on the upper right part of the page), or follow my blog’s RSS feed here.

Post credit | Photo credit

Learning to Lament

What should we do with our sadness?

If life was one sunny day after another, this question would hardly make sense. But in these bodies, we know grief; we feel it in our bones. We see the storms. At times we feel like opening the spigot and filling buckets with our tears.

Unfortunately, many churches don’t make it easy for Christians to admit their sadness. “How are you?” greetings have only one acceptable response: “Fine, thanks.” Beyond individual relationships, the community activities and liturgies of some churches have no space for sorrow. Every face wears a smile and every song is jubilant.

This need not be the case! There is a precious, biblical category of prayer known as lament. When we ignore this tool God has given, we miss a rich opportunity to trust the Lord and lean on him in difficult times.

Four Steps to Lament

Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is an exploration of Biblical lament. Vroegop is a pastor at a church in Indiana, and he and his wife were awakened to lament when one of their children was stillborn. He writes with depth and wisdom that come only from experience.

Vroegop defines lament as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust” (page 28).

You might think lament is the opposite of praise. It isn’t. Instead, lament is a path to praise as we are led through our brokenness and disappointment. The space between brokenness and God’s mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise. (Vroegop, page 28)

The first half of the book explores the four elements of lament, the first of which is turning to God. This may sound too basic to mention when it comes to a type of prayer, but Vroegop makes a compelling case.

To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough questions, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I’ve found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there’s something far worse: silent despair. Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief. (Vroegop, pages 31–32)

After turning to God, the second step of lament is to complain. Yes, there is a godly form of complaint! It is found throughout the Psalms of lament.

If you’re going to offer a complaint to God, it must be done with a humble heart. As I said before, I don’t think there is ever a place to be angry with God. However, I do think it’s permissible to ask pain-filled questions as long as you’re coming in humility. Proud, demanding questions from a heart that believes it is owed something from God will never lean into true lament. (Vroegop, page 52)

A complaint is never an end in itself. Indeed, “we bring our complaints to the Lord for the purpose of moving us toward him” (Vroegop, page 54). The third ingredient of lament is asking God. Specifically, we call “upon God to act in accordance with his character” (Vroegop, page 57). The question of why moves to the question of who. If we have confidence in who God is and what he has promised, we can ask him boldly to intervene and help.

After asking God to work, we come to the final step of lament. We trust. We hold onto God as we wait for deliverance.

Lament helps us to practice active patience. Trust looks like talking to God, sharing our complaints, seeking God’s help, and then recommitting ourselves to believe in who God is and what he has done—even as the trial continues. (Vroegop, page 74)

Laments in the Bible

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy is packed with Scripture. Each of the first four chapters—one is devoted to each of the four steps of lament—takes a close look at a Psalm of lament. (Mark Vroegop reports that more than one third of the Psalms are laments!)

In the next part of the book, Vroegop walks his reader through the book of Lamentations. While not an exegesis or commentary, he highlights important themes from the book. Vroegop shows us that lament is thoroughly biblical and teaches us what we can learn through the practice of lamenting.

The last part of the book is dedicated to application. Vroegop suggests specific ways that lamenting might take hold for individuals and churches.

When Lament is No More

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy was a valuable book for me to read. I saw that lament is a biblical prayer category about which I’ve been ignorant, and I now understand how valuable the discipline and practice of lament can be for Christians.

Perhaps most importantly, this book has changed my prayer life. I now have some tools for mourning before the Lord and crying out to him in pain and sadness. Mark Vroegop has taught me this is a normal—even an essential—part of being a Christian.

However, lament will not last forever. Though praise and thanksgiving will continue through the ages, there will be no occasion for lament in heaven. Ultimately, lament points us to the sure, curse-free future God has in store for his children. Though lament may start in despair, because of the work of Jesus, it ends in hope.

Post credit | Photo credit

Disclosure: The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links.

The Transforming Power of the Crucifixion

Until this year, I didn’t dwell much on Jesus’s crucifixion. Who would hang out at the gloomy execution when the empty tomb is right around the corner?

My categories were far too simple. I thought of the resurrection as the event where all of the good stuff happened, where all of the change took place, where the gospel reached its climax and hope bloomed. But through a closer study of the crucifixion itself, I’ve seen just how transforming that grisly, dark event can be.

The Criminal

In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus was crucified between two criminals (Luke 23:32–33). And while the salvation of the second criminal is a rather famous story, Matthew tells us that both men, along with many others, were hurling abuse at Jesus (Matthew 27:44).

So, what happened? What made the second man rebuke his partner in crime, confess his sin and Jesus’s innocence, and cry out for deliverance to Jesus as his king (Luke 23:40–42)? Certainly God changes hearts, but what means did he use for this dying man?

There was just a parenthesis of time. Yet Luke wrote the answer bold, with exclamation points. What changed this man was Jesus, dying on the cross.

The criminal watched Jesus submit to the humiliation of the cross. He saw the added disgrace of his near-nakedness (Luke 23:34). He heard the sneering of the rulers, the mockery of the soldiers, and the taunting of his fellow criminal (Luke 23:35–39). And he observed Jesus suffer all of this without defending himself or lashing out.

Above everything else, what likely captured this criminal’s heart was the love of Jesus. There is hardly another explanation for Jesus’s posture in his last hours. In love’s chief display, Jesus prayed one of the most shocking prayers in the Bible.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend and denied by another. He had endured baseless accusations and a trial in which he was declared innocent. He had submitted when a cowardly ruler gave in to a mob, demanding Jesus be killed.

He felt nails driven through his flesh. He knew the excruciating pain that would last until the end. He heard all the scorn and the mockery and the insults.

And yet, as he hung dying, he asked his father to forgive them. They didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t grasp who he was. Please forgive them!

Jesus’s love broke through the second criminal’s hard heart. He knew it must all be true—all the teaching and rumors and questions about Jesus—because he saw Jesus extend love in the face of hate. And Jesus received that criminal with one of the world’s greatest promises: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

But the criminal wasn’t the only one changed by the crucifixion.

The Centurion

We don’t have much back story on the centurion. Did he join the soldiers in their mockery (Luke 23:36)? Was he a proud Roman who delighted in punishing this likely rebel? Or did he carry out his duties with indifference, just part of the job?

We may not know where he started, but we know where he ended up.

Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47)

The centurion witnessed three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44–45) and an earthquake (Matthew 27:51). He also saw Jesus take his last breath after crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

How did this lead to the centurion knowing Jesus was innocent? How did this lead to praise for God?

No one but an innocent man would gladly, with a great cry of relief, entrust his soul to God. Anyone with even a hint of sin—and even a glimmer of an understanding of God’s justice—would tremble in their final moments. But Jesus was innocent, and he knew that God would soon vindicate his unjust death through resurrection.

Why did the centurion praise God? Again, we don’t have many details. But it’s possible the centurion was on day-long guard duty. He may have witnessed Jesus’s interaction with the criminal and all that came before it.

When the criminal proclaimed Jesus’s innocence and asked Jesus to remember him, perhaps the centurion wanted to believe. And then Jesus’s final cry and the signs of God’s judgment (darkness and earthquake) convinced him.

If Jesus was innocent, everything was upside down. The mob was wrong. Everything Jesus taught was true. So in that moment, the centurion didn’t weep in regret. He praised God, because God’s innocent son welcomed and died for sinners.

What About You?

We often want to read past Luke 23 (the trial and crucifixion) to Luke 24 (the resurrection). We want to get to the good stuff. And we should!

But there is earth-shaking, curtain-tearing power in the crucifixion—the son of God killed for sinners, an act of unthinkable, glorious love. We should all pause a little longer at the cross to consider the horrible scene.

Let’s not stay silent, though. Consider Jesus’s compassion and, like the criminal, run repentant to your Savior. Consider Jesus’s innocence and, with the centurion, cry out with praise to God.

Post credit | Photo credit

3 Three-Word Phrases I Tell My Kids

Parents are always communicating with their children. A touch of restraint on the arm, an encouraging word after school, or a hug before bed all convey important truths. From the casual smile across the dinner table to the tear-filled conversation before bed, every exchange with my kids is an opportunity.

For Christian parents, one goal must shape every interaction: to help our children grow in their knowledge and love of God. We want them to believe and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ!

There are on-ramps to discuss the gospel in many of our conversations with our children. And many of these conversations with my kids can start with these three-word phrases.

“I love you”

I grew up in a home where I never questioned my parents’ love. My mother and father both told me (and showed me) that they loved me on a regular basis. I thank God for this—I now realize how much security and stability this gave me.

Children first learn what love is from their parents. So parents must communicate love to their children in a way that is not dependent on performance. My kids should not only know they are loved when they score a soccer goal, when they bring home a good report card, or when their painting wins a local prize.

If parents are teaching their children about real love—and ultimately about God’s love—they will remind their children of their love in good times and bad, during times of correction and praise. Every instance of instruction is an opportunity.

Parents must tell their children “I love you,” and they must say it in a way that is full of grace.

“Please forgive me”

Any two people living in close proximity will sin against each other. Often. This is a sad fact of our fractured world.

Before children turn two or three, parents must think about discipline. They will have hard talks during which they help their children confess their sins to God and others. But one of the most powerful conversations a parent can have with their children is when the shoe is on the other foot.

I have needed to seek forgiveness from my kids many times. I have yelled at them in anger and impatience, I have joked at their expense, I have been deliberately unkind as a form of retaliation. This is, sadly, only a partial list.

My confession to my kids is both necessary, because God commands it of me (James 5:16), and important, because it teaches them vital truths about being a Christian.

In my confession, I teach my children about sin. We are all sinners; we will not lay aside these selfish hearts as we age like some pair of toddler pajamas. And sin has consequences. Because sin offends God, we must confess our sin to Him. When we sin against others, we must seek reconciliation.

I try not to make excuses when I confess my sin to my children. I acknowledge the ways I have hurt them and express my sadness and regret for my actions. We discuss Jesus’s work on the cross for me: I can be sure God has forgiven me because Jesus died, was buried, and rose. And then I ask them to forgive me, explaining that they will bear a cost in forgiving me (not holding a grudge, not retaliating, not bringing the incident up as a weapon in the future). There is always a cost to forgiveness.

We talk and then we pray. We hug. I hope this practice creates a culture of humility, short accounts, and eager reconciliation in my family that my children will remember and take with them. What better way to get to the heart of Christianity than to forgive each other and treasure the work of Jesus together!

“God loves you”

This wonderful truth is the foundation of all gospel hope, and we must say it often to ourselves and everyone around us. God really does love you (1 John 4:10)!

God’s love is the foundation for all our belief and the proper motivation for our obedience. When children ask why our family goes to church, there’s an enormous difference between an answer that describes our duty and an answer like this: “God loves us and wants us to worship him” (see Romans 12:1).

When I remind my kids of God’s love, this provokes all kinds of related questions.

How does He show us His love? How can we know His love? Why does He love us? How do we experience His love? Where do we learn about His love? How should we respond to His love?

These are questions of discipleship—both ours and our children’s! They naturally lead to conversations about the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, spiritual disciplines, and the local church.

Parents are long-term disciplers of their children, so we should seek out these conversations, even when our kids respond with questions that are difficult or unrelated.

Conversations Matter

Parents aim to surround their children with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our time, our actions, our sacrifices, and our priorities all speak loudly to those nearby.

Our conversations matter most of all. And big conversations—conversations of eternal importance—can begin with these smallest of phrases.

Post credit | Photo credit