It has become rather trendy to portray Jesus as a homeless indigent whose radical bent towards the kingdom of God led him to pursue a life of poverty and transience, eschewing any touches of comfort. Such interpretations of the life of Jesus might have problems with the rather innocuous verse of Matthew 9:1:
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.
Jesus was from somewhere. Certainly he was well travelled, but he had a city that he called his own. This reality doesn’t make Jesus any less driven to break forth the kingdom of God in a new way into human society. It does mean that we must be careful not to take our own self-conceived notions of what the most radical expression of kingdom looks like and attribute them to Jesus. Jesus was the most faithful expression of kingdom living, and Jesus had a home.
1. No ministry position will ever satisfy. Three days ago I was named Resident Director of Carver Hall at Boyce College, the undergraduate program of Southern Seminary. Being an RD is something I have pursued for several years, knowing how much the Lord has shaped who I am by the faithfulness of my own RDs at The Master’s College. Your passions reflect what and who has shaped you. And yet, despite the joy and thanksgiving for being entrusted with this position, it does not satisfy. I have gained what I have striven for, and discovered through experience what I already knew to be true: Nothing other than Christ will satisfy. If I expect to find my joy and happiness in a position where I am able to mediate Christ rather than Christ himself I may taste faint echos of presumed blessing, but those presumed blessings will be the ghost-like wisps of self-delusion. RA, RD, Dean, Pastor. It does not matter. Man. Boyfriend. Husband. Father. Grandfather. It does not matter. If I try to find my identity and joy in anything other than the wonder of salvation, then I will never find what I’m looking for. Or worse I might think I have, only to discover at some sad moment in the future that my life was spent on the triviality that is myself.
2. Hotel employees can easily recreate everything that you do inside your room. Just trust me on that one. I’ve seen multiple incidents in the past three months that would curl your toes, sicken your stomach, and incite your rage. None of these ordinary people thought about the witnesses to what they were doing or about to do. Not just divine witnesses, but human as well. I can give you names, days, and times of porn watchers, adulterers, drug users, and spouse abusers. I’m just the face that checked you into your hotel. But if I knew you were a pastor and you came down to pay for that fifteen minute long movie in cash, let’s just say your secret wouldn’t be safe with me for the sake of the kingdom of God. Maybe we’re most tempted when we travel because there is the illusion of anonymity. I can tell you that just isn’t true.
3. All authentic ministry begins with servanthood.
4. Servanthood is most simply defined as “You’re in it for them.” Not for what you can gain from the exchange, not for status or reputation or a surge of dopamine, but for their benefit. Be it the awkward pursuit for the sake of better brotherhood, the ease of hard-earned camaraderie, or the stunned silence of confrontation, it is all for their sake, not your own. This is what it means to consider others better than yourself. It’s easy to read; it’s hard to live.
Nighttime was hell, a hell I put myself through. I laid awake, terrified at the prospect that I might not know God. I had asked him into my heart around my fourth birthday. But I couldn’t remember that moment, and it didn’t seem to provide the kind of assurance my soul craved. Time and again I would pray the sinner’s prayer, hoping against hope that maybe this time it would mollify the raging abyss in my soul which consumed my mind night after night. And time and again these words failed me, no matter how I changed the wording in hopes that I’d get the formula right once and for all. Marked by frequent panic attacks and terror, sleep was often long in coming. Many nights my parents stayed up holding their little boy’s hand, leading me in prayer, walking through the alphabet and thinking of the attributes of God that begin with each letter. What they could not know was the ever-growing body of sin that I refused to confess which burned hot in my heart and fed the wide-eyed terror that gripped my heart.
I knew that they loved me unconditionally. But I refused to confess, choosing to endure a dank, concrete self-made prison cell of misery rather than feel the green grass of freedom underneath my feet. Why? Reputation. I was the pastor’s son. I was the good Christian boy, the one who always played by the rules. I had a pile of AWANA awards which declared me so. Good pastors’ sons don’t swear. They don’t lie to their parents by inventing evangelistic conversations with other kids in order to appear more holy and righteous. And they certainly don’t worry about whether they’re saved or not. Maybe some pastor’s kids would sin that way. But I certainly did not.
And so I lived, shooting down the feelings of condemnation with the ammunition of obedience. I read in the Scriptures that we were to get baptized. So I was baptized on the Sunday nearest my 13th birthday. I came to understand that we were to confess our sin. So I confessed everything I could possibly think of to God and to my parents, except a few particular particularly reputation-damaging sins. I read that we are to read the Bible, so I read the Bible and felt condemned for my lack of interest in it and understanding of it. But I read it.
If you had asked me a question about the gospel, I would have given you knockout answers for them all. How are we saved? Through grace alone by faith alone. Atonement? My sins transferred to Jesus and his righteousness to me. Election? In love God predestined before the foundation of the world. And yet there was no gospel in my heart. Proverbs 8:13 reads, “The fear of Yahweh is the hatred of evil.” I hated evil, but I hated it because of what it did to me and the terrors it wrought upon my heart. Ever the scorecard hung before me, mocking me with its tally of condemnation. Yet I was convinced that this was the good and happy Christian life. This was blessing. Having become so accustomed to guilt and accusation, and being so sure that my outward obedience proved that there was an inward heart reality, I fully believed an absolute delusion of what the kindness of God looked and felt like. He fell upon my soul with condemnation, and I called it his favor.
Being convinced that I was a believer, I did not go seeking salvation. Ray and Kathy were invited over for dinner one fall night, which was not a rare occurrence in our household. As we all pushed forward our empty plates and the conversation turned to more serious concerns, Kathy begin to share her worries about the legitimacy of her salvation. “Pastor Jim, when I became a believer all I prayed was ‘Lord Jesus, I’ve tried everything else. I’ll try you.’ Sometimes I worry because there was no expression of confession or repentance.” And my Dad leaned across the table and said, “Kathy, do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” “Yes, Pastor Jim.” “And has there been an observable change in your life and heart since then?” “Yes.” “Kathy, that’s the mark of a believer.” And then he said the line that changed it all for me: “It’s not the prayer that saves you, it’s Christ that saves you.”
That second I felt an almost physical snap inside me. Suddenly it all made sense as the scattered puzzle pieces of condemnation and works and prayers of repentance and terror rushed into place. No prayer would ever save. But Christ does.
Nobody could have ever predicted the stroke which would unmask my delusion. It was the entirely unintentional byproduct of a conversation that had nothing to do with me in the minds of everyone sitting around the table. If you had a friend deluded about his state of grace, that would not have been the conversation you would have wanted him to be apart of in hopes he would come to see his delusion. But it was for me. I thought I was saved and was not seeking salvation. But of far more importance, God was seeking me.
There was no fresh expression of repentance. There was no confession of sins. But where once there was blindness now there was sight. All of the terror and the doubts and the fear melted away in an instant as I came to love what before I had feared. “But as for me, the nearness of my God is my good,” says the Psalmist. Where once the presence of God was a terrifying thing, now it was indeed my good.
It has taken a great deal of time for me to come to understand the Lord’s work in drawing me to himself. For years I’ve believed that my conversion at three was authentic and my experience at fourteen was a moment of fresh discovery of what grace and love truly are. Inside the pages of Jonathan Edwards I discovered a doctrine that explains my own experiences, a doctrine called preparationism. Falling under God’s conviction and terror is not the same as loving him. Such conviction and terror is preparation, as man must first come to see his state of condemnation before knowing his desperate need of grace. For some the period of preparation may be short. For others like myself, it may be marked by long years of darkness before the Light is understood and embraced. True religion is love to God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Where there is not love, there is no true grace.
It is my hope that reading this proves to be an encouragement and not a source of doubt. I understand how it could easily shake what has no reason to be shaken. But see in me how God was powerful to save even when I thought I was already indeed saved. I was not seeking him, thinking that I had already gained him. No matter how deep our delusions, Jesus Christ saves. No wonder we are commanded to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.
Cliff McGuire had an eye
For all that could be sour
Ever seeing darkened grey
In minted gold and flowers.
Though the cobblestones were straight
He eyed them all askance
When he sat amongst the ball
He wouldn’t ever dance.
The shopkeep forced inflation
The cooper’s barrels leaked
The preacher man was boring
The mason’s skills had peaked.
And when some kindly person
Inquired of his health
He’d reckon it an insult
Against his spotless self.
Cliff McGuire never met
A man he could affirm
For his eyes saw nothing but
The wormwood and the worm.
*Cliff McGuire is a fictional character.
How can I celebrate a nation that stabs and poisons and vacuums the brains out of its unborn and hails it as virtue and justice? How can I celebrate a country that is addicted to scandal, whose love for celebrity is only eclipsed by its love to revel in every sordid detail of a celebrity’s moral implosion? And what of the disregard for facts, the passion for punditry and the affection for every degree and shade of snark imaginable? Or a younger generation where 15% of elementary school students, 40% of middle schoolers and 65% of high schoolers visit the school nurse not for Tylenol but for free and secretive condoms?
Homosexual marriage in New York, illegal immigrants streaming across our borders in Arizona, groping or body scanning a prerequisite to getting on an airplane, debt so great that even the monthly interest payment is a figure so large that no elementary schools student would know how many zeros to put on the whiteboard behind it. Divorce rates unbelievably high. Even our diversions rocked by scandals of steroids and rigged voting systems and dirty agents and money that just disappears without a trace.
A nation that does not read, except for romance novels and porn. A nation that does not parent, except for turning on the most recent Disney princess movie. A nation that masks all of its health problems by turning to yet a new set of pills as opposed to reconsidering its policy of eat and eat and eat. A nation that is addicted to consuming $30,000 cars and million dollar firework shows and $100 jeans while shrugging off any kind of responsibility for the people whose homes are the kinds of landfills all their consumer goods go to fill. And beyond all of this a culture that trumpets how great the American way of life is. How we love freedom and have God on our side, as we struck a mighty blow for his kingdom by winning the fight to keep his name in our pledge and on our coins.
As with Jesus’ righteousness, the world could never contain the book of our sins. And not individual sins, but corporate. We do not like to think of corporate guilt, but it is a real and present theme throughout the Scriptures. Kneeling in his window, face set towards the home he was torn from, face set towards the graveyard of so many of his family and friends, righteous Daniel opens his heart to the Lord. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets…To you, O Lord belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel” (Dan 9:5-7). Daniel’s eyes moisten at the sins of his people. He is haunted by the evil done by his nation. And his prayers are not those of the just, but of the condemned. Even though he listened to the prophets and did righteously.
But this shouldn’t be rain on the fireworks, flies on the potato salad, or gopher holes on the baseball diamond. Even as we acknowledge the evils of our society, we celebrate the goodness of God by having us live in America. A contradiction? No. A paradox? Perhaps. A good deal of Christian maturity is being able to live a life shaped by paradoxes, understanding that we live in a broken and evil world. If we wait to rejoice until all is made right, we’ll be wearing black until we die. Good and evil can exist side-by-side, and there is no contradiction in celebrating the good while abhorring the evil.
We live in a nation where proclaiming Christ isn’t synonymous with having your head removed from your body. We live in a nation of (mostly) peaceful streets and law and order. We live in a nation where there is a care and concern for the less fortunate, where the corpses of the trampled aren’t left on the sidewalks. Our police are our heroes, not villains. Our soldiers are not murdering, raping, pillaging hordes. Our presses turn out thousands of God-glorifying books, and twitter hums with theological discussion for the sake of sharpening one another. None of these nullify anything said before. But we cannot live in a purely black and white world. Things are not only good or only evil. We know that from peering into the depths of our own hearts.
This 4th of July, let us celebrate and let us mourn. Let us be thankful for the good gifts the Lord has given us, for he has given us many good things. But let our celebration be realistic as well. This is not our home country. We celebrate as exiles, tinged by the mourning felt by all those who live in a country both theirs and not their own. God bless the USA, yes. But God bless his kingdom most of all.
This is part five of a series on Jonathan Edwards’ thought regarding the active work of Satan in the world.
This satanic guidance of culture is not the primary battleground between good and evil in the physical, human realm. Culture exists as an amalgamation of a million individual persons. These million individual persons, for Edwards, are of chief importance, for though societies will be judged, it is individuals who are the responsible agents and bearers of that judgment. Societies are not cast into hell; individual men, women and children are.
The question of one’s own relation to God is the most important discussion a man may have with himself. As such, it is natural to expect that the greatest point of demonic influence in the soul consists of attempting to delude an individual of his or her relation to God. The Scriptures bear witness to the intentional work of the demonic realm in an attempt to counteract the work of the gospel inside the particular human heart. In Jesus’ parable of the sower, Luke identifies the “birds of the air” who came and snatched away the seed along the path as the devil, with the result that “they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Paul charges the Corinthian believers to beware for, “In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) Again Paul writes, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Edwards writes, “[T]he devil can counterfeit all the saving operations and graces of the Spirit of God . . .” (253). At the heart of the work of the devil is counterfeiting and deception. He is indeed the father of lies. Deception is a difficult concept to consider, for according to the very definition, those that are deceived do not know that they are indeed deceived. The moment deception is realized, it is no longer deception but insanity. Matthew 7:21-23 is a chilling passage bearing witness to the existence and eternal fate of those who are convinced of their own reconciliation before God, but who are not known by Him.
In order for deception to be a reality, the one deceived must be deceived through means. He must be given something that mirrors that which he is seeking in order to be convinced that he has the real thing, and that substitute must produce the happiness and assurance that he is expecting to derive from the real thing. Though a counterfeit will never be of the quality of the genuine object, to the individual who has never known the delight of the genuine, the benefits received from the counterfeit may very well convince them that they possess the genuine object.
[I]t must be observed, that a natural man may have religious apprehensions and affections, which may be, in many respects, very new and surprising to him; and yet what he experiences, be nothing like the exercise of a new nature. His affections may be very new, in a very new degree, with a great many new circumstances, a new co-operation of natural affections, and a new composition of ideas. This may be from some powerful influence of Satan, and some great delusion. (267)
A counterfeit gospel will always produce affections, otherwise it would have no power to first entice, and then retain. Natural men are always slaves to their own quests for happiness, whether Pascal’s man upon the noose or the shadowy sexual tryst. As we have noticed earlier, there are a thousand ways to remain in rebellion to the Lord, yet only one road that heralds a change of kingdoms. Satan does not care which one of the thousands paths his slaves travel, so long as they are blind to the highway that leads to freedom.
A man who converts from the predominant secular naturalism of American culture to Islam will have “religious apprehensions and affections’” that are indeed “very new and surprising to him.” And yet, that man still will have no greater grace within him after as before. Likewise, a man may believe himself to be converted to Christianity from the same cultural milieu, while having only transferred himself from one of the devil’s battlefield trenches to another, all the while believing himself to be liberated because of the change of scenery. The psychological effects of having a cause to fight for are a powerful thing, and to a man unacquainted with true Christianity may appear to be the same thing. One’s perception of reality does not necessarily equate to reality itself.