Three Things to Consider When You Are Struggling to Forgive

“ . . . As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” – Colossians 3:13

God commands Christians to be compulsive forgivers. When Peter asked Jesus how many times a repeat-offender should be pardoned, he basically said every time (Matthew 18:21-22). In fact, he went so far as to say that if we are unwilling to forgive others their trespasses, the Father will not forgive us our trespasses (Matt. 6:14)! According to Jesus, a readiness to overlook the sins committed against us always accompanies saving faith. The person who has received God’s forgiveness is required and desires to extend forgiveness to others.

But this Spirit-given desire to forgive sometimes clashes with the not-so-gracious disposition of our flesh, doesn’t it? Everything in our fallen nature wants to hold tightly to offense. When someone lies to us, slanders us, lashes out at us, devalues us, or otherwise sins against us, our natural inclination is not to extend forgiveness but to harden our hearts against the transgressor. And the more intimate our relationship with the person, the more intensely we feel the pains of their betrayal. I find it reasonably easy to forgive those with whom I’m not very close. But the more invested I am in the relationship—the more I love, value, and trust a person—the more difficult I find it to overcome the negative emotions and extend grace.

When my pained heart is reluctant to forgive, I have found it tremendously helpful to meditate on the following three realities:

  • God’s forgiveness of my sins. No matter how grievous the nature of a person’s trespass against me, the smallest of my sins against God is inconceivably more offensive. God is infinitely worthy of my loyalty and love, and I have betrayed him millions of times over. Yet even still, he looks on me not with anger or bitterness but with grace and forgiveness through his Son.
  • God’s justice. The sin committed against me either has been dealt with justly or will be dealt with justly. If the transgressor is a believer, Christ has already taken upon himself God’s wrath against that specific sin. And if the person is not a believer and remains in his or her unbelief until death, God will punish him or her personally for this sin. Whichever way it happens, all sin will be avenged. I don’t have to punish someone with my anger or bitterness. God has done or will do what is just concerning the offense.
  • My innumerable transgressions against others. I have sinned sorely against the people in my life. I have lied to friends. I have slandered brothers and sisters in Christ. I have gossiped about those who love me. My transgressions against others are innumerable. Who am I to stand in judgment over them for doing what I myself have done (and might do again in the future)? Who am I to withhold forgiveness from those who have forgiven me time and again of my sins against them?

I don’t think it is at all wrong to initially be hurt or even angry when an offense is committed against us. But it is sinful to allow these reactionary feelings to linger and produce bitterness in our hearts. Because we (believers) enjoy God’s forgiveness, know God will deal justly with all sin, and are ourselves guilty of sinning against others, we have no legitimate reason to ever withhold mercy from anyone! Whenever someone sins against us, we must remind ourselves of (at least) these three realities and participate in one of the greatest gospel experiences on this side of Heaven: forgiveness.

You Won’t Stop Sinning Until You Start Walking by the Spirit

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” – Galatians 5:16

I have yet to meet a person who genuinely loves Jesus and does not also despise and seek to mortify his or her sin. No Christian does this sin-killing thing perfectly. We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). But though temptations do evil deeds still abound in our not-yet-perfected hearts, we desire and aim daily to “put on the Lord Jesus, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).

However, though we long to crush our sins, how many of us today are seriously struggling or even failing to do so? Probably a decent number of us. I received an email a few weeks ago from a Christian who for years has been attempting to cease from his habitual use of pornography. To his immense disappointment and frustration, these attempts have been largely unsuccessful. He might have a good week here and there, but he always finds himself returning to this filth he both craves and hates.

When I asked him what he was doing to kill his sin, he said, “I have accountability and filtering software on my computer, and I had a friend set up restrictions on my smart phone. But I keep finding ways to get around the blocks!” I inquired further, “Okay, so you have some preventative measures in place. This is good—even though they obviously aren’t bulletproof. What other steps are you taking?” He responded, “I mean, that’s basically it. I just try to avoid it. I set blocks up on my devices, try not to watch TV shows that will trigger the temptation, and hope for the best.”

This man is attempting to overcome his sin just as an unregenerate alcoholic would attempt sobriety or an unbelieving gambler would attempt to break his addiction: by mere prevention and avoidance. Don’t get me wrong—he should be doing these things. They are wise and necessary steps to take. However, sin is much too strong a force to be taken down by mere human wisdom and willpower. This man cannot white knuckle his way into freedom. Putting boundaries in place will not change his cravings. What he needs is for his holy appetites for the things of Christ to be strengthened so that they can then overpower his carnal appetites for the things of this world. His porn addiction will be broken when he wants God more than he wants porn. And only the Holy Spirit can effect this change in his desires.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16) and “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Paul knew how indispensable the Spirit’s role is in sanctification. He alone can transform our longings and cravings. But is this supernatural work something he does without our involvement? Do we need only to sit back and let him do his thing? No! We are to actively participate in this process! We must, as Paul said, walk by the Spirit.

In Romans 8:5, we see that those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. If we are to align ourselves with the Spirit and experience his desire-changing, sin-defeating power, we must fix our minds on the things that concern him—namely, the one whom he was sent to glorify: Jesus (John 16:14). We walk by the Spirit by continually setting our minds upon the person, promises, and purposes of Christ revealed to us in the Scriptures.

When I asked the man who emailed me how much time he spends reading the Bible and meditating on its contents (in other words, utilizing the means God has given us to know him), he said, “I try to read a little every day. But sometimes I just don’t get around to it. I have a lot on my plate and just can’t seem to find the energy to do all that stuff.” Herein lies the problem. This man remains a prisoner to pornography because he doesn’t set his mind on the things of the Spirit! He might one day go as far as to get rid of his smartphone and cut off his home Internet service, but if he still fails to set his mind on Christ, he will continue to be dominated by his lustful impulses. If he isn’t able to access pornography because of the boundaries he’s put in place, he will search out other ways to gratify his desires. So long as his thoughts remain empty of Christ, his life will remain full of sin.

Freedom from sin’s power is found only when Christ becomes our mind’s obsession. If we will make it our highest duty to continually fixate on Jesus and all that God is for us in him, the flesh will not have dominion over us (Romans 6:14). God’s empowering grace will triumph in our lives as we walk in step with his Spirit.

Let Your Pastors Lead You With Joy

God desires for his people to live in subjection to the individual and institutional authorities he places over them. He commands us to yield to the governing bodies (Rom. 13:1-7), our parents (Eph. 6:1), our employers (1 Pet. 2:13-25), and our spiritual leaders (1 Pet. 5:5). Sure, there are circumstances in which we must disobey these human authorities. If the government demands that we recant our faith, if our parents insist that we do something immoral, if our boss asks us to do something illegal, or if our pastor preaches heresy, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But as long as those who are in authority over us are not leading us into sin, we are expected to submit to them—especially to those whom he has appointed to watch over our souls.

Pastors/elders/shepherds/overseers—the Bible uses all these terms interchangeably—are gifted and godly men whom God endows with authority to lead and care for local churches. These men, if they are faithful in their calling, are not power-hungry, boss-like control freaks. They do not view themselves as superior to their congregations but as servants of their congregations. They do not abuse their authority but rather use it to build up the believers under their care (2 Cor. 13:10). They strive to lead as the Scriptures command them to lead:

  • “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:42-45).
  • “ . . . Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
  • “ . . . Preach the word; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Elders are one of God’s most precious gifts to the church. But do we see them as such? Better yet, do we treat them as such? I’ll be honest—when I entered into the church as a new Christian, I was pretty put off by this whole “submit to your elders” thing. My pastors were gracious and gentle men who sincerely loved Jesus and the members of our church. But I just didn’t like the fact that these mere men—sinful and imperfect men, at that—had authority over me. Who were they to exhort me? Who were they to rebuke me? Who were they to have a say-so in various decisions I made? I didn’t have any issue with submitting to God’s authority. But I had tremendous issue with submitting to the pastoral authority of these men.

However, as I continued to study the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit revealed to me that submitting to the elders was something God required of me. To resist their authority was to resist his authority. My reluctance to live in subjection to my pastors was actually an act of defiance against the One who had sovereignly placed me under their care! Upon this realization, I repented of my rebellious, individualistic attitude and began submitting to my elders as the Scriptures commanded me to submit to them:

  • “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).
  • “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).
  • “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

We who are blessed to have godly leaders should continually give thanks for these men as we gladly submit to their God-given authority. They are not perfect. If the apostle-elder Peter could make mistakes and commit sins (Galatians 2:11-14), you better bet they will, too. But despite their imperfections, our pastors are co-laborers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) who are working tirelessly to mold us into the people Jesus has called us to be. For their sakes, for our own sakes, and in obedience to God’s command, may we let them do this with joy (Heb. 3:17)!

Once Saved, Always Saved?

“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” – Romans 8:13-14

Someone recently asked me if I believe in “once saved, always saved.” It’s difficult to answer this question with a simple yes or no. I believe the Bible teaches that God sustains his elect until the very end. I wrote about that here. However, to many people, “once saved, always saved” means that as long as someone has asked Jesus to come into their heart at some point in their life, they are 100% destined for Heaven. They believe that reciting some version of the “sinner’s prayer” ensures justification. And I do not believe the Bible affirms this idea.

The Scriptures teach that God justifies all whom he has predestined and preserves all whom he justifies (Romans 8:29-30). In this sense, “once saved, always saved” is true. But the question that really needs to be asked is how do we know if we’ve been saved? “I asked Jesus to come into my heart when I was twelve” is not a satisfactory answer. A person’s initial profession of faith can be evidence of genuine conversion, but it is not sufficient evidence. Jesus taught that many people would respond positively to the gospel only to then later demonstrate their unregenerate state by falling away (Matthew 13).

The evidence of justification is something that must be looked for beyond the moment of suspected conversion. Peter wrote that we should make our calling and election sure—or, in other words, grow in assurance of our salvation—by increasing in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5-11). More concisely, James taught that good works always accompany saving faith (James 2:20). And I have already quoted Paul at the top of this article who said it is those who are led by the Spirit—namely, those who kill sin and grow in personal righteousness by the Spirit’s power—who are the sons of God (Romans 8:13-14).

In summary, those who imperfectly but progressively love God, love others, and wage war against their sin have good reason to be assured that God has justified them. And because they can be assured of their justification, they can also be confident that God will allow nothing to snatch them out of his hand (John 10:28-29). He will keep them from falling away (Jude 24), protect them from the Evil One (1 John 5:18), and complete the redemptive work he began in them (Philippians 1:6). He will permit nothing in Heaven or Earth to separate them from his love for them in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

A Father, Friend, and Helper to be Honored, Feared, and Worshipped

I saw The Shack the week after it premiered. Though I did not read the book beforehand, I had read multiple articles describing how it portrays the Trinitarian God of Christianity. So I entered the theatre with some sense of what to expect. There were parts of the film that troubled me, and there were parts of it that I actually enjoyed. However, my aim today is not to give the film’s theology a thorough shakedown. I am only going to focus on the element that benefited me most and the element that bothered me most.

The Shack depicts God as a warm and relational Creator who longs to have an intimate friendship with every human being. Though the bad decisions made by his wayward creatures upset him sometimes, he isn’t all that angry with them. When Mack asks God about his wrath toward sin, he flat out denies that he possesses such a thing. “Sin itself is punishment enough,” he says. The god of this film doesn’t feel the need to exert his authority over anyone. He isn’t a fan of laying down laws or commandments and requiring people to obey them. He would just like everything to be “a conversation between friends.”

The movie’s depiction of God was severely lacking at times and outright heretical at other times, but it wasn’t utterly devoid of biblical truth. For example, I thought it captured God’s relational nature pretty decently. It insinuated that God relates to all people—believer and unbeliever, alike—in the same way, which simply isn’t true. God is wrathful toward those who live in faithless rebellion against him (John 3:18). But as to how he relates to those who take refuge in his Son, I found some biblical truth in The Shack—truth that challenged me, personally.

Though I find it easy to see God as holy, righteous, and awesome, I struggle to view him as someone who calls me his friend (John 15:14). It is difficult for me to envision the great “I Am” sharing a meal with me or casually chatting with me on the front porch, as he does with Mack in The Shack. However, is this not similar to the way Jesus interacted with his followers? Jesus called these men and women his friends and treated them as such. He ate with them (John 21:12-13). He served them (John 13:1-20). He wept with them (John 11:28-35). John felt comfortable enough with Jesus to lay his head against his chest (John 13:23-25)! There really was a relaxed, friendly dynamic to the relationship between Jesus and his disciples—one quite similar to what I saw in The Shack.

However, what bothered me most about this story was its utter lack of reverence toward God. It hyper-casualized man’s relationship with his Creator. Mack and God laughed together, ate together, cried together, and hung out by the lake together—but Mack never worshipped God. He didn’t have a healthy fear of the One who is called “the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). And this didn’t seem to bother God at all! He didn’t want Mack’s reverence and worship; he was only interested in his friendship and love.

The Gospels reveal quite a different picture of how man should relate to God. Though the disciples felt comfortable with Jesus and experienced his friendly disposition toward them day after day, they did not see or treat him as their equal. They knew their place. He was the eternal, transcendent, and Almighty God. They were merely human beings to whom he said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Jesus’ disciples bowed to him (Matthew 28:9), praised him (Luke 19:38), kissed his feet (Luke 7:38), and anointed his head with oil (Matthew 26:6). They worshipped the One who called them his friends—something of which I saw nothing in this allegedly Christian story.

It goes without saying that people shouldn’t derive their theology from fictional books or films. I understand that many fans of The Shack would say that its author did not intend to give a theological dissertation. They would argue that he never wanted his book to be the chief informer of anyone’s perspective of God. Whether or not I agree with that argument doesn’t really matter, because regardless of his intent, people have drawn erroneous theological conclusions from his story. I hope that everyone who saw and loved The Shack will open the Bible, see God’s own description of himself, and love him as really he is: a Father (Matt. 23:9), Friend (Jn. 15:4), and Helper (Jn. 16:7) to be honored (1 Pet. 3:15), feared (2 Cor. 5:11), and worshipped (Jn. 4:23).

*Photo credit: Facebook.com/theshackmovie*

Lord, Deliver Me From Weak Faith

In his short but powerful book All of Grace, Charles Spurgeon wrote that weak faith, as long as it is true faith, saves a person no less effectively than strong faith: “A trembling hand may receive a golden gift.” Similarly, D.A. Carson set forth a parable in one of his sermons about two Hebrew men on the night God was to slay all the firstborn in Egypt. Both men, in obedience to God’s instructions, had smeared the blood of a lamb on the doorframes of their houses so that they would not be harmed by this final plague. One man continued to be a bit nervous about the impending judgment coming upon the land that night. The other was calm and confident, firm in his belief that God would do just as he said and pass by when he saw the blood. On the night the deadly plague descended upon the land, which of these men’s houses was spared? The both of them! Though one man had weak faith and the other strong faith, both of these men believed God, obeyed God, and were blessed by God.

What Spurgeon and Carson were saying is that it is not the intensity of faith that saves but the object of faith that saves. And I believe they are correct. This principle can be seen in the narratives of almost every biblical character. There were times when the faith of Abraham, Jacob, David, Jonah, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Peter, and many others was strong and steadfast. But the faith of these men dwindled at times. Did their seasons of weak belief disqualify them from God’s saving mercy? Absolutely not!

However, though feeble faith is in some sense permissible, it is certainly not ideal. The Scriptures never affirm it. As I was reading Matthew’s Gospel last week, I couldn’t help but notice how often Jesus called out his disciples about their “little faith.”

  • But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Matthew 6:30
  • When they were on the boat with Jesus and a storm began raging, he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26)
  • When Peter got out of the boat and began walking on the water but quickly became afraid and started to sink, Jesus said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
  • When the disciples quickly forgot how Jesus had just fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, he said to them, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” (Matthew 16:8)
  • When the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to cast a demon out of a young boy, he answered them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

At the very least, our lack of faith robs us of joy and peace. But sometimes, as we see in Matthew’s Gospel, our doubt can even hinder God’s supernatural activity in our lives. When Peter’s faith dwindled, God withdrew from him the power that enabled him to walk on water. When the disciples lacked faith, God withdrew from them the power that enabled them to cast out demons. Does human doubt somehow disable the omnipotent God? Absolutely not! He can do whatever he wants whenever he wants however he wants. Our faith is not the source of his power. He doesn’t need it. However, we see throughout the Scriptures that it is his good pleasure to manifest his power through and on behalf of his people’s confidence in him.

God doesn’t want us to just barely believe in him. He wants us to live confidently and courageously in light of who he is, what he has done, and what he swears to continue doing for us! He wants us to wholeheartedly believe that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). When we pray according to his will, he tells us to believe we have received what we have requested (Mark 11:24). He commands us to pray in faith with no doubting (James 1:6), warning that the doubtful man should expect to receive nothing from him (James 1:7).

So, how do we move from weak faith to tenacious faith?

First and foremost, we should cry out to God like the man in Mark’s Gospel, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Faith is not some innate force within us that can be mustered up by our own self-will; it is a supernatural gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8). We need God’s help to believe in him as fully as we should. Second, we should immerse ourselves in the Bible. The Spirit gives and strengthens faith by means of God’s Word (Romans 10:17). Peter tells his readers, “Pay attention to [the prophetic word] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). It has been a constant pattern in my own life that the amount of time I spend “paying attention” to God’s revelation of himself in the Bible corresponds to the strength of my faith. The more I dwell in the Word, the more robust are my belief and trust in God.

I realize that “Bible reading and prayer” sounds like a simple, Sunday school answer. But it really is that simple! God is not in the business of complicating things. If we will just take up these means of faith-strengthening grace he has given us, the Spirit will work through them to enhance our faith. The question is, will we?

Your History Doesn’t Decide Your Ministry

I once believed that my primary mission field was the LGBT community. God had not revealed this to me, nor had he especially burdened my heart for this particular group of people. But because I had been a member of this community before my conversion, it seemed logical to me that God would want me to direct the most of my ministerial energies in their direction. I thought my history with these people made me the perfect candidate to minister to these people.

However, the Lord has since revealed to me that our histories do not decide our ministries—he decides our ministries. Though we may have experience among a particular type of people, that doesn’t necessarily mean God wants the majority of our gospel-proclaiming energies to be directed toward those people. As I was reading in Acts last week, I saw this truth realized in the life of the apostle Paul.

Prior to his dramatic conversion to Christianity, Paul was a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). He grew up in Jewish culture, treasured Jewish traditions, and ruthlessly persecuted those who forsook traditional Jewish religion to embrace the Way of Christ.

In his own words:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem), educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness.” Acts 22:3-5

Given his experience and expertise in all things Jewish, surely God would use him mightily among his unbelieving kinsmen, right? You may think so. Paul definitely did. But God had other plans in mind:

“When I (Paul) had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw [the Lord] saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” – Acts 22:17-21

Paul was convinced that his fellow Israelites would listen to him. He had history with these people! They witnessed him persecute those allegedly heretical followers of Christ! Surely his radical change of heart would persuade them to believe there was something to this Jesus-is-the-Messiah stuff! But God basically told him, “No—you will leave your kinsmen and go proclaim my name among the Gentiles.” Though this former Pharisee had decades of history with the Jewish people that would enable him to relate to them on so many levels, God gave him an unexpected ministry: he would be an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8). Paul, with all his Jewish experience and expertise, would spend his life preaching the gospel primarily to non-Jews.

God wasn’t as direct with me as he was with Paul, but, by means of the passions he has placed in my heart, the way he has sovereignly situated my life, and the wisdom I have gleaned from more mature believers, he has shown me that my primary mission field is not the people with whom I most closely identified in my pre-Christian life.

As regards my writing, I realized a couple of years ago that I didn’t find joy in writing solely about my experiences as a same-sex attracted person. Though such content received a significant response from readers, I longed to write about the gospel in a more multifaceted way. So, that’s what I started doing. Broadening my scope and tackling a wide variety of biblical topics has brought me tremendous joy in Christ. And this, I believe, confirms that I am writing in the way God has called me to write.

Concerning my “offline” life (where the majority of my life is lived), God showed me soon after my conversion that, yes, my evangelistic energies should be geared toward a particular group of people—and those people are the ones he places around me. God has continuously thrown me into the midst of all kinds of unbelievers with all types of issues, and based on my understanding of Scripture, he wants me to engage all of them—no matter their age, background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or sin struggles. I feel closest to Christ when I am seeking to minister to whomever God puts in my path. And this, I believe, confirms I am walking in the primary ministry to which God has called me.

Did the fact that God called Paul to minister mainly to the Gentiles mean he would never preach Christ among the Jews? No. Does God’s calling on my life mean I never engage the LGBT community with the gospel? No. When Jesus was in the process of converting Paul, he told Ananias, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15; emphasis mine). Though they were not his main focus, God did want Paul to engage his Hebrew kinsmen with the gospel sometimes. And though they are not my main focus, God does want me to engage the LGBT community with the gospel sometimes. To whatever degree he sees fit, God will use our past experiences for his redemptive purposes. But our histories do not decide the overall trajectory of our ministries. God decides that.

God Sometimes Terrifies Those He Loves

One of God’s first acts in his newly instituted church was killing two of its members. As Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, observed the praise other Christians were receiving for selling their properties and donating the proceeds to the church, they decided to join the ranks of these generous givers. The couple likewise sold one of their properties, laid some of the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, and kept a portion for themselves (which was their prerogative—it was no sin). However, they did sin in that they lied. Though they only gave away part of the money to the church, they claimed to have donated the whole sum of it. When Peter confronted them and they persisted in their deceit, God struck Ananias and his wife dead. Luke recorded the response of the church: “And great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:5).

I believe the church’s reaction to this couple’s demise is precisely what God was aiming for: great fear. It is dangerously easy for us to minimize God’s holy seriousness in light of his unfathomable tenderness. As we consider “how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is” (Ephesians 3:18), we might be tempted to presume he gladly glances over unrepentant sin within his church. He guarded against this presumption when he judged the premeditated deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7)—but he also wants his church to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). And one indispensable ingredient in the holiness-producing formula is a healthy fear of God.

Some might buck against that notion, citing 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” I not only believe John’s words here; I treasure them with my whole heart! However, the fear of which he is speaking—the unwelcome kind that must be cast out by a revelation of God’s love—is not the reverential fear the New Testament repeatedly instructs us to walk in. John is talking about what could be better described in English as dread. God does not desire for us to fear him in the sense that we are tortuously afraid of him. As objects of his fatherly affection, we need not be scared he will throw us into hell with the unregenerate masses. Though vile we may sometimes be, we cannot sin our way out of his immutable, electing, and preserving love.

But alongside our confidence in his love, God wants us to remain fearfully aware of his lordship over us. When you search the New Testament using the keywords “fear of God,” there are thirteen separate occurrences where the inspired writers affirmed the fear of God as a good and necessary component of Christian living. Paul instructs believers to “bring holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1) and describes unbelievers as people who have “no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). Peter simply exhorted his readers, “Fear God” (2 Peter 2:17).

God wants us to be cognizant of how serious he is about our personal holiness—and to what lengths he will go to ensure it. When the Corinthian church participated in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, God afflicted some of them with illness and even caused some of them to die. Was this God’s condemnation? No—it was his disciplinary judgment. Paul writes: “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). God chastises those he loves so that they may share his holiness (Hebrews 12:10)—and sometimes that chastisement can even come in the form of death.

God loves his glory and us too much to let us bring reproach upon his name and destroy our souls in unrepentant sin. If we stubbornly persist down a road that despises his glory and puts us at risk of falling away from him, he will remove us from that road by whatever means necessary. God is inconceivably tender toward us when we strive to live reverently before him—but he can also be terrifyingly severe toward us when we fail to take him seriously. It is good, healthy, and in our own best interest to fear him.

Do You Hear Jesus’ Voice?

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” – John 10:27

My friend Ben recently told me he fears he may not be saved. When I asked him to share with me the reason for his lack of assurance, I expected him to divulge that he was being mastered by some secret, besetting sin or that he was growing doubtful about the truthfulness of the Scriptures. But that wasn’t the kind of response I received. He said sorrowfully, “I don’t hear from God like I should.”

Ben’s charismatic cousin once told him that God speaks to her everyday. He asked her if she meant that the Spirit guides, influences, and “inspires” her—because he too experiences these things. She said no, insisting that God literally speaks to her—and not in a “he brings bible verses to mind” kind of way. She said he encourages her with personal words of affirmation, gives her ‘words’ to give to other people, and sometimes even informs her of events that lie ahead in the future.

Ben was intrigued by his cousin’s description of how God speaks to her in such a clear and direct way. But he was also discouraged that his relationship with the Lord lacked this kind of super-personal communication. When he told her he doesn’t hear from God like that, she said, “You have not because you ask not, Ben!” So Ben started asking. For two years now he has been pleading with God to speak to him in a more personal way and has been listening intently for his voice. But he has yet to hear a divinely uttered word. The deafening silence in his soul has caused him to question whether or not he is really known and loved by Jesus.

Ben’s trouble reveals how vital it is that we rightly understand what the Bible means when it talks about hearing God’s voice. But before we venture into what it means to hear God, we should first consider how God most commonly speaks. I cannot find any biblical ground to stand on in saying he never speaks to believers in the way Ben’s cousin described. However, I do not believe the Scriptures portray this as God’s normative method for speaking to his people. In the introduction of his epistle, the author of Hebrews described how God usually communicates:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” – Hebrews 1:1-2 (emphasis mine)

It has been God’s longstanding practice to speak to the general population of his people through spokespersons or prophets. And as the author of Hebrews wrote, God’s last major spokesperson was his Son. The Father gave Jesus words of eternal life (John 6:68) to speak into the world (John 17:8). He spoke many of these words while dwelling bodily on the Earth, and he spoke the rest of them by the Spirit through his hand-selected messengers (John 16:12-15). The biblical writers supernaturally remembered, received, and recorded Christ’s words so that future generations would have access to God’s final, glorious message to the world: the good news of the gospel.

To this day and until the end of days, God speaks primarily through his Son, Jesus Christ, whose words are preserved for us in the Bible—both those he spoke with his physical mouth (red ink) and those he spoke by his Spirit through the inspired writers (black ink). While the New Testament obviously does not contain every word Jesus ever spoke (John 21:25), it does contain every word the Father gave him to give to us (John 17:8).

So, understanding that God’s normative method for speaking to Christians is by Jesus through the inspired Scriptures, we can now ask the question: what does it mean to hear Jesus’ words?

In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Christ stated that the distinguishing mark of his sheep is their ability to hear his voice. Ironically though, there were many listening to him who he said were not among his sheep (John 10:26). These people heard with their physical ears the words he spoke—yet he accused them of not hearing him. It’s obvious that the kind of “hearing” Jesus was talking about involves more than merely processing his words with our physical capacities.

He went on to say in the next verse, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Notice what the sheep that truly hear his voice do: they follow him. The only people who follow Jesus are those who believe, embrace, and bank their lives on his words. Many who were under the sound of his voice rejected what he said; therefore they did not truly hear him. But those who believed his words followed him and thereby demonstrated that they truly heard his voice.

Simply put: to believe Jesus is to hear Jesus.

Back to my friend, Ben. I asked him, “Ben, do the words you read in the Bible resonate with you as the truth that is from God?” “They do,” he said. “Do you cherish what you read in the Bible?” I asked. “With all my heart!” he exclaimed. “Does what you read in the Bible convict and challenge you?” I asked. He laughed and said, “Only every day.” “Then you hear God’s voice!” I assured him.

Some of my fellow Baptists may take issue with what I’m about to say, but I do believe God sometimes speaks to people outside of Scripture (though never out of sync with Scripture). I see nothing in the Bible that leads me to conclude he has utterly discontinued communicating in the forms of an audible voice, dreams, and visions (though the content of these forms of suspected communication must be tested against biblical revelation). However, the clearest and most common way God speaks to all his beloved children is by the sacred Scriptures. It is no insignificant thing when we read the Bible and our souls swell with gratitude, awe, comfort, fear, and praise. Our faith-filled response to these inspired words demonstrates that we are legitimate sheep of Christ who truly hear his voice.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – John 10:27-30

Hold Loosely

God calls Christians to an odd kind of life—one that is lived in the present, transient world but lived for the future, eternal world. Though some sects of Christianity take the “this is not our home” concept to an extreme and totally withdraw from the secular culture, God doesn’t desire for his people to detach themselves from the morally neutral activities of this world. His instructions to the exiled Israelites are certainly applicable to us, the contemporary sojourners of God:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7

The majority of us probably are not planting gardens and arranging marriages for our kids, but we are working jobs, getting educations, taking our children to soccer practice twice a week, and participating in the world in a myriad of other ways. And this is good. The Lord wills we do this exile-thing in such a way that it contributes to the wellbeing of this world—primarily by carrying with us the good news of the gospel everywhere we go. Jesus reflected this as he asked his Father not to take us out of the world but to keep us from being of the world as we are sent into it as witnesses (John 17:15-18).

Check out this passage in 1 Corinthians, though:

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” – 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Paul’s language is pretty strong here. At first glance, it can appear as if he is commanding Christians to be functionally and emotionally detached from the roles and realities they must live in every day. But I don’t believe that’s what he’s doing. He isn’t telling husbands to stop loving and serving their wives. He isn’t instructing those who are burdened by worldly troubles or delighted by worldly blessings to pretend as if those troubles and blessings don’t exist. He is calling us to embrace a particular disposition in our dealings with the world that will free us from the anxieties to which we are so prone.

I wrote a bit last year about my own wrangling with anxiety. Like so many people, most of my worries are rooted in an over-attachment to transient things. I fret about losing temporary comforts and encountering unpleasant or even vexing circumstances. Lately, I believe the Holy Spirit has been whispering the following words to my soul when my anxiety begins to flare: “Hold loosely to the world.” I believe this is exactly what Paul is getting at in this passage.

Our all-wise God, through Paul’s writing, is calling us to loosen our grip on the things of this fading world and grasp tightly to the right objects: Christ and his eternal Kingdom. He is urging us to “set [our] minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2) as we engage in the affairs of this life below. He is commanding us to look ahead to the permanent city of God (Hebrews 11:10) as we sojourn in our temporary cities. He is exhorting us to set the eyes of our hearts not on the transient things that are seen but the eternal things that are invisible (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Do you want to be free from anxieties? Do I? Then let us heed the Lord’s instruction and hold loosely to the things of this world as we look intently to our Savior King and the glorious future that awaits us in him. We are not able nor asked to pull our bodies away from our earthly roles and activities. But we can keep our hearts from idolatrously attaching to these things and instead set our affections and hopes on unshakeable, invisible, eternal reality.