21 Apr 2022
You’re probably familiar with the old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” We’ve all seen movies where someone is faced with the imminence of death, and, with no previous evidence of genuine faith, they fall to their knees and plead to God for mercy. Or perhaps less extreme, but more common, is the astronomical uptick in prayers on one Sunday out of the year: Super Bowl Sunday.
Why do foxholes and field goals turn otherwise non-religious skeptics into faith-filled believers? Of course, only God truly knows someone’s heart, and true approaching-death conversions—as in the thief on the cross!—do happen and are to be celebrated. Sometimes the Spirit uses the reality of death to awaken true faith. However, I think it’s safe to say that many of these prayers are not the result of genuine spiritual renewal. Instead, they both have in common an attitude towards God that is just as offensive as not believing in him at all. These prayers treat God as nothing more than a tool.
Geerhardus Vos gives great insight into the function and appeal of idolatry when he writes, “Magic is that paganistic reversal of the process of religion, in which man, instead of letting himself be used by God for the divine purpose, drags down his god to the level of a tool, which he uses for his own selfish purpose.”¹
Vos exposes a struggle that is all too common in my own heart: In my flesh, I don’t want someone else’s agenda forced on me, even if it’s God’s. I’d rather have the freedom to set my own agenda and the autonomy to pursue my own goals. But, by virtue of being a creature, I am inescapably bound to the agenda and purposes of my Creator. Not one day of my life has known the absence of God’s calling to love, worship, and serve him with all my being.
When God’s agenda clashes with my own
If I’m honest, I too am guilty of treating God as a mere tool for my own agenda. I wake up with an attitude that says, “My will be done.” I find myself strolling into the throne room of grace like an ungrateful child asking to borrow $20 from his father, with little intention of actually engaging in relationship with him.
This heart posture toward God is fertile ground for idolatry to spring up. If we functionally treat God as a means to an end, then, when he no longer seems to be on board with our agendas, we’ll start rummaging through our tool kits for something else that will do a better job.
One reason that so many Christians find themselves turning to sexual sin is because God is not serving their agendas. He’s not giving them the sexual satisfaction they expected in marriage, or he’s not giving them marriage at all. But it goes deeper than merely our agenda for sex. We want love, comfort, affirmation, affection, control, intimacy, security, and escape from pain and suffering. Sex delivers on all of those fronts, to varying degrees. It’s easier to avoid sexual sin when life is comfortable, relationships are fulfilling, and ventures are successful. But, when life gets hard, and God isn’t delivering us from those hardships, it becomes very tempting to stop praying and find another tool that you know will get the job done, at least temporarily.
If you find yourself turning to any kind of sinful comfort when life gets hard, there’s a good chance you have reversed your religion, as Vos said, treating God as a tool for your own agenda that can be discarded when his plans veer away from yours.
This is especially difficult for brothers and sisters who are battling same-sex attraction. To begin with, I’ve never heard someone say that same-sex attraction was part of their plans from the beginning. Typically from an early age, they are already wrestling with desires and feelings that were not included in their original agendas. To make matters worse, when they pray and ask God to take these desires away, it feels like God is absent and unwilling to help them. This can bring great confusion about God’s agenda for their lives.
“Does God want me to live a life of forced loneliness?”
“If he hasn’t taken away this desire, does that mean he’s okay with it?”
“Does God hate me?”
“Doesn’t God want me to be happy?”
These are deep, profound questions that are usually drenched in tears. It can feel like God’s agenda for our brothers and sisters is cruel, which is the growing consensus in the wider culture about biblical sexuality.
The essence of true worship
These painful questions are not limited to a select group of Christians; we all ask these questions. We ask them when we get cancer, when a loved one dies tragically, when we are betrayed by close friends, or when we suddenly lose our jobs. We are all confronted with God’s painful purposes for our lives, and these moments force us to ask a question posed to humanity since the Garden of Eden.
Will you worship God for his sake alone?²
Satan believed that no one does that. In fact, he dared to say that Job, God’s beloved servant, only worshipped God because of the gifts he gave him. He believed that if God took all of those gifts away, Job would curse him.
While there are many applications of that story to our subject matter, what is particularly relevant is the end of Job’s story. Job doesn’t ask God to give back all the things that were taken from him; he simply wants an explanation: Why did God allow this to happen? But God never tells Job why, even though we as the readers know why. Instead, God reminds Job of who he is as the Creator, and of who Job is as the creature. And that was sufficient for Job. He needed no other answer.
Why was this sufficient for Job?
The reality is that God has no need to explain himself to us. The very fact that he is God is more than sufficient for his creatures to be completely submitted to his agenda. Job rested not in his understanding of his situation, but in the character of God.
Thus, true worship can be characterized in at least two ways:
- True worship is not dependent upon our own judgments of God’s agenda, but on complete trust in his character and purposes.
- True worship does not worship God for what he does for us first and foremost, but for who he is.
Jesus is the only true worshipper
If you’re like me, it’s sobering to consider how much my worship is often tethered to my own understanding and approval of God’s purposes for my life. But this is why I need Jesus, because he is the only true worshipper, through whom I offer my worship to God.
Jesus is the only person who ever lived his entire life fully submitted to the will of his heavenly Father. Consider his own testimony about himself in John 4–5:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19).
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
I confess that my mind is often baffled by these statements. If there is anyone who would have the right to act according to his own will, it’s the second person of the Trinity come in the flesh. But Jesus, in his humanity, shows us what a life of true worship and submission to the Father actually looks like.
Jesus not only testified that this was true, but he also showed us this heart posture during his most agonizing trial, in the garden of Gethsemane. No other human will ever know the depths of suffering that occurred on the cross of Calvary, and no other human could have born the weight of submitting to the Father under those circumstances.
Jesus submitted perfectly to the Father’s agenda because none of us could. We often fall into the temptation of using God as a tool to find satisfaction outside of him. The epicenter of satisfaction for Jesus was in doing the Father’s will. He graciously gives us his righteous robes that cover our imperfect worship so that, in Christ, our worship is acceptable and pleasing to the Father. And as we worship and submit to God through Christ, the Holy Spirit gradually grants us greater strength to say with Jesus, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
¹ Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 137.
² Olinger, Danny. “You Need to Know Geerhardus Vos.” Reformed Theology and Faith. 11/9/2019. https://blog.daum.net/byk2739/727
10 Feb 2022
A few months ago, I wrote a blog about the role of suffering in Christian sanctification. There’s no way to escape the reality that God uses trials in our lives to make us more like Christ. If I’m honest, more of my suffering than I’d prefer to admit is the result of my own unwise, sinful choices.
The Bible gives us clear categories for righteous and unrighteous suffering. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Later, in 1 Peter 4:15, he says, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”
God does not want us to suffer as a result of our sinful, foolish choices. His commands are meant for our flourishing. Living according to God’s will in more situations than not will actually lead to much prosperity in this life. In our appropriate resolve to kill any hint of a false prosperity gospel, we can’t throw out large swaths of the Bible, like Proverbs, that would show us how righteous living has many present benefits.
One common form of avoidable suffering
Suffering on some level is usually the context for sexual temptation. While God can and does use that suffering to point us to him in our time of need, what if God also wants to show us a better way to live our lives that frees us from much of our avoidable suffering? Let me give you a few examples.
Perhaps the most common form of suffering that leads to sexual temptation is boredom. That might sound petty to some of you, but the most obvious danger zone for many adult men is time alone at home with no one else around and nothing to do. Boredom is almost always an avoidable form of suffering. There are countless productive things we can be engaged in at any moment, even if we’re immobilized due to injury or COVID quarantines. But a combination of laziness, love of comfort, lack of zeal for Christ’s Kingdom, and the conditioning of modern technology, which has us (myself included) often mindlessly scrolling our lives away, keeps us from pursuing a truly full and rich life. A free afternoon home alone can be a wonderful gift from God that can lead to endless possibilities for your own and others’ enrichment!
Simple steps to reduce avoidable suffering
But many people will complain that they are too tired to really invest their lives into anything more than simply surviving, and there may be legitimacy to your exhaustion. Certain seasons of life are going to leave little to no margin, especially if you have young children. But consider how much of our exhaustion and lethargy is avoidable:
- Learn the value of saying NO. Have you committed to too many things that are keeping you from doing the most important things well?
- Are you exercising? Exercise not only increases physical energy, but it’s also a natural anti-depressant. So many people lack the motivation to get off the couch because they aren’t taking advantage of God’s natural means of physical and emotional boosts through exercise.
- Are you getting enough sleep? I know all too well that many of us struggle with sleep for a variety of legitimate reasons, and there may be no easy answer for you. But have you at least tried the recommended options for getting optimal sleep? Have you tried being disciplined at going to bed and waking up at the same time each day? Have you tried cutting back exposure to blue light before bed? Perhaps much of our sleep issues are really lifestyle issues.
- Are you eating a healthy diet? I know there are many different schools of thought regarding what a healthy diet is. Is fat good or bad? Vegan or carnivore? Intermittent fasting or five small meals per day? My concern is whether you are being proactive at seeking a healthy diet. All nutritionists can at least agree that that second or third piece of cheesecake will probably lead to avoidable suffering.
I could go on to list many other types of unhealthy lifestyles that add to our suffering, but my point is that we are often hindered in our Christian walk not because we aren’t spiritual enough, but because we have neglected the reality that God made us as physical beings. He created us to need exercise, good sleep, and healthy food. Just as sexual sin goes against God’s design for humanity, so too does unhealthy ways of living. Yet we rarely talk about these as issues of sanctification.
I believe that our silence as the Church on these matters can lead many to give up hope that life can ever be better. They’ve capitulated to always feeling tired, lacking energy and motivation, and scraping by at work just to make it to the weekend. No wonder sexual sin looks so appealing! Many of our brothers and sisters gave up a long time ago in believing that this earthly life could bring many blessings and benefits outside of sinful pleasure.
Avoidable suffering and unbelief
Consider Adam and Eve as you listen to the description of the Garden in Genesis 2.
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east… And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:8, 9, 16–17).
God gave Adam and Eve a paradise of rich food and enjoyment. He was not stingy with them. But the serpent was able to cast doubt on God’s lavish provision. He tempted Adam and Eve to focus only on what God prohibited, to the neglect of all that he permitted. They could’ve spent their lives enjoying so many good gifts from God’s hands, but instead they spurned his generosity in unbelief and doubt.
In the same way, I would ask you to consider how much of your avoidable suffering is an issue of unbelief. Do you fundamentally see God as a stingy taskmaster who doesn’t know how to give good gifts to his children? Do you see him as a bully who loves to pull the rug out from underneath you?
Or do you view him as a loving Father who delights in seeing his children enjoy his good gifts? Do you see how those gifts are meant to nourish our relationship with him?
For some of you, God may allow you to suffer physically in significant, chronic ways. Much of what I’ve shared in this blog may not apply to your particular situation. But, for most of you, I would challenge you to consider how God wants you to steward your body, your finances, and your time for greater Kingdom impact. God wants you to be healthy so that you have strength to serve him and others. He wants you to flourish because he’s your heavenly Father, and he loves you and wants what is best for you!
10 Sep 2020
Do non-Christians care about sexual sin, particularly behaviors like masturbation that our culture views as benign? Believe it or not, many do! There are even online support groups for unbelievers who are particularly focused on stopping behaviors like masturbation and pornography. Groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous have very stringent standards for sobriety, and yet many of the people who regularly attend would not claim to follow Christ.
Through the biblical category of “common grace,” we can acknowledge that someone can overcome addictive sexual behaviors and still be dead in their sins. What this means is that a biblical approach to repentance must have a deeper aim beyond mere behavioral change.
At the root of all true Christian ministry stands not a technique, but the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whatever good people may attain through techniques, they are of zero lasting benefit if those techniques do not lead them to Christ. Jesus said as much in John 5:39–40:“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (ESV).
At some point or another in our lives, aren’t we all guilty of reading Scripture merely to check it off our lists? It is a sobering thought that even reading the Bible can itself become a technique devoid of Christ and therefore have no power to give life to the reader. If you are seeking to offer hope to someone stuck in slavery to sexual sin, or if you yourself need hope, you must keep their—and your—eyes fixed on the only person who can give eternal life in whatever techniques you offer.
Your goal in helping a brother or sister should be the same goal of the apostle John in writing his gospel. John said, “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 20:31).
At first glance, you might hear John’s words only in an evangelistic context. You might say, “My brother or sister already believes in Jesus, but they still struggle with sin.” Certainly, if you only see belief in Jesus as an entrance into life and not the way of life, then you will forfeit any power to fight sin.
Faith in Christ unites us to him and all of his saving benefits. Through Spirit-wrought faith, a believer has passed from death to life. Their old nature died with Christ, and their new nature was raised to walk in newness of life. The believer’s new life is fundamentally sustained by the one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
This life that Christ gives is not limited to the moment of regeneration but is instead a constant wellspring that sustains you through your eternal union with Christ. Every second of eternal life that you enjoy both now and forever will be inextricably linked to your union with Christ.
John uniquely highlights Christ’s life-giving power in almost every chapter of his gospel. Jesus frequently speaks of eternal life that he alone can give. But this gift is not something outside of him; Jesus offers himself. Here is a sample of these statements:
- “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
- “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5:21).
- “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst”
- “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
- “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
Without specifically using the word “life” in John 15, Jesus speaks of the utmost necessity of abiding in him for bearing any good fruit. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and branches to clearly illustrate that a branch cut off from the vine has no life.
What this means practically is that your primary aim as a helper for those struggling with sin is pointing them to the way, the truth, and the life. Are other things needed to overcome sexual sin? Yes. People need community. People need to cut off access to temptation. People need to confess their sins and learn how to love others instead of consuming them. But all of those efforts and means of repenting have no eternal power if they are cut off from Christ.
In response to Walter Marshall’s classic work, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Bruce McRae writes in a footnote about the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, “These ‘means of grace’ are not what you do to attain holiness; they are what bring you into a deeper fellowship with Christ who makes you more holy.”¹
Your life, Christian, is only found in Christ. More than any other activity or responsibility you have today, may your first and primary goal be to abide in Christ. Your life is so united to the life of Christ that you can say with the apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
¹ In his book, Walter Marshall outlines nine different means of grace: reading Scripture; examining one’s life by the Scriptures; meditating on Scripture; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; prayer; singing; fasting; and fellowship and relationships with other Christians in the Church.
You can also watch the video, “Serving Self or Serving Christ,” which corresponds to this blog.
13 Aug 2020
The story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is an oft-used example for illustrating unbelief. Even after God rescued them from the Egyptians, the Israelites complained, rebelled, lacked faith, and committed some serious idolatry. If you’re like me, you can easily shake your head in disapproval over their glaring sins. But why do we so easily judge them? Is it just because we’re so proud and arrogant and think we could do better? On some level, yes. But in a positive sense, I believe, as observers, we rightly and readily see the folly of their unbelief. The reason we perceive their sin so clearly is because we see the bigger picture. On the front end, we see how miraculously God saved them from Egypt. But even more powerfully, we already know how their wilderness journey ends. We know that God will bring them safely into the Promised Land, and that he will deliver their enemies into their hands. This is why it’s so distressing to read the account of the spies returning from Canaan. We agonize over the passage, wishing the people of Israel could hear us when we cry out, “Listen to Joshua and Caleb! The land is yours; God will fight for you!”
This kind of strong confidence in God’s ability to accomplish his purposes for his people is a desired result of reading God’s Word. We should read the story of the Old Testament and come away from it lamenting the people’s sin and praising God for his grace and faithfulness.
But the problem we run into is that we don’t understand how similar Israel’s story is to our own. This is why Hebrews is such a necessary book for every Christian, especially Christians who are struggling. Hebrews tells us that the Church in this age is marked by a people traveling through the wilderness. Just like the Israelites, we’ve experienced a miraculous salvation out of slavery. We are now a free people in Christ, and God dwells in our midst through the Holy Spirit. But we are also a people who haven’t yet made it home. Hebrews is written to warn the Church to not give up in the wilderness. As the author of Hebrews describes our situation, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
What does the wilderness mean for God’s people? It involves suffering, groaning, longing, danger, discouragement. What does the wilderness require for God’s people? It requires faith, hope, endurance, patience, remembering what God has done, and calling to mind what God has promised.
Giving into sexual sin is essentially telling God, “I’m tired of the wilderness. I’m tired of this manna. I’m tired of waiting for you to bring me home. Look, right over there is a great plot of land, with ample water, and a home custom-built for me. I’m not following you anymore; I’m going to settle right here.”
Brothers and sisters, just like we want to shout at the spies in Numbers 13, Hebrews 12 tells us that there is a great cloud of witnesses, made up of all of God’s people who have finished their wilderness wanderings, who have made it home. They are pleading with us, “Don’t settle there; don’t give up! Keep going, keep trusting, keep your eyes fixed on Christ. He will bring you safely home!”
As you know, love, and care for people who are struggling with sexual sin in the wilderness, here are a few ways you can pray for them, based on the book of Hebrews. You could also pray these prayers for yourself:
“Father, protect my brother from an evil unbelieving heart. Help me to speak the truth in love. Take my exhortations and use them to guard his heart against the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12–13)
“Jesus, usher my friend gently into your throne room of grace. Bring to her mind all of the ways you have suffered through temptation, yet have not sinned, so that she finds grace in her time of need from you, her sympathetic high priest.” (Hebrews 4:14–16)
“Lord, I see how easily he loses heart in the midst of suffering. He struggles to trust in your promises when sin offers tangible relief right now. Point him to Jesus, our forerunner, who has already entered into the highest heaven, becoming a high priest forever interceding for him, so that he might no longer be tossed to and fro but have a steadfast anchor for his soul.” (Hebrews 6:19–20)
“Merciful Father, when she is tempted, help her to believe that in this very moment, Jesus is praying for her.” (Hebrews 7:25)
“Gracious Lord Jesus, help me to know how to stir him up to love and good works. Give me strength and wisdom to encourage him, because the day of your coming is drawing near, and we want to be found doing our Father’s will.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
“O Lord, my sister sees what so many other people have in this world, and she struggles to understand why you would keep that from her. Guard her heart from despair and selfishness. Instead, may a deepening anticipation and knowledge of her better and abiding possession in the heavenly places move her towards compassion and love for those in need.” (Hebrews 10:34)
“Heavenly Father, my brother has trained his mind for years to live only for what he can see with his eyes. He struggles to see any reward by drawing near to you in faith. Protect him from throwing away his eternal inheritance for a single meal.” (Hebrews 11:6, 12:16)
“Our great shepherd and forerunner, give me spiritual sight to see a better country from afar. Give me the grace to embrace my pilgrim identity. Grant me a holy longing for a heavenly homeland, and remind me that you are preparing a city for me to dwell in forever.” (Hebrews 11:13–16)
You can also watch the video, “Doubting God’s Help in Our Time of Need,” which corresponds to this blog.