New Easter devotional: The Last Days of Jesus

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The events of Easter are among the most important in the Christian faith—the death and resurrection of Jesus, which brought about the end of our separation from God and gave those who believe the promise of new life!

To help Christians prepare to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death, I’ve written a new devotional in partnership with Compassion Canada,1 The last days of Jesus: eight readings through the death and resurrection of Jesus.


Download the devotional


There are a couple of ways you can read these devotionals:

  1. Download the PDF and read at home (print it out or view it on your eReader).
  2. Visit here or at compassion.ca from April 13–April 20, 2014, to read the latest entry.

I pray these devotional readings will be a blessing to all who read them as you prepare your hearts to celebrate the good news of Easter. Enjoy!

The tension of talking/not talking about your giving

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I’ve seen a theme pop up again and again over the last several years when it comes to talking about giving, one that typically presents itself in one of two ways:

1. From those trying to motivate Christians into giving more: “Statistics show Christians are not generous! If they just gave X percent more, we could [meet budget/fund a church plant/end poverty/build a castle for the pastor/etc.].”

2. From revisionists who try to deflect inquiries and arguments from orthodox Christians: “If these so-called orthodox evangelicals spent half as much time caring for the poor and needy in the world as they do fighting about abortion and homosexuality, the world would be a better place.”

Notice the common theme:

You’re not doing enough, you’ve got the wrong priorities, and you need to do more. 

Now, of course, with all generalizations, there’s a nugget of truth. Some Christians almost certainly are of an ungenerous disposition. Generally speaking, though, those are nominal believers and/or false converts (see what I did there?).

Generosity is a natural byproduct of the gospel (see Acts 2:42-47; 2 Cor. 9:6-15). If one has truly experienced the grace of God, they can’t help but be generous.

But not everyone who is generous is so because God’s grace in Christ has been at work in their lives. Some are generous simply because they want to be seen as generous. The classic example, of course, comes from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Read that carefully and pay careful attention to the words of the Pharisee’s prayer: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” This is his spiritual resume. He’s sharing this ostenibly with God, but more likely boasting to all those who are within earshot. It’s the same hypocrisy Jesus condemned in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:2-4:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The proud—the hypocrites, as Jesus calls them—need to be seen as generous by others. They need to be seen as “world-changers,” activists, poverty warriors, or just the most generous family in the church. And so their checks are accompanied by a big show.

But Jesus, in contrast, emphasizes a sanctified kind of secrecy. The humble don’t need to boast about what they give to their church, to missions, or to relief organizations. Their reward comes from their Father.

Which takes us back to the theme noted above: You’re not doing enough, you’ve got the wrong priorities, and you need to do more. 

So what’s a faithful Christian to do?

I believe the answer really comes down to the principles given us in Proverbs 26:4-5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

1. Sometimes the best thing to do is say nothing. Honestly, a lot of the time, people—and this especially applies to the revisionists—are just trying to trap you, much like those who were trying to trap Jesus with their word games. And unfortunately, reasoned responses tend to fall on deaf ears, so sometimes the best thing you can do is say nothing and carry on, knowing that Jesus will vindicate His people’s faithfulness in the end.

2. Talk about the ministries you support that you’re passionate about. For example, if you sponsor a child with an organization like Compassion and it’s a really meaningful part of your family’s life, you should be talking about the difference it makes in your life. The point there is not to show how generous you are, but to say, “I didn’t realize the impact doing XYZ would have on my faith and my family.” This, in other words, is offering encouragement to others.

3. Ask qualifying—and clarifying—questions. We have to question bad statistics, and I suspect many of the touted stats on giving are less than indicative of what engaged, orthodox Christians are actually doing. We’ve seen this to be true with the frequently cited stats on divorce among Christians, as well as the rate of young people leaving the church (they’re not). So question the stats being given and encourage the user to fact check.

Talking and not talking about our giving is a tension that’s only going to grow. I can only hope and pray that all of us who consider ourselves orthodox evangelicals will navigate the tension with wisdom.

“When enduring all this persecution…” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (4)

While enduring all this persecution, Christian and Faithful remembered what their faithful friend Evangelist had told them about the suffering that would happen to them. This strengthened their resolve to bear all the abuse and await patiently the outcome of their situation. They also reminded one another for their mutual comfort that whichever one of them suffered death would have the best outcome. Therefore each secretly hoped that he might be the one chosen for that fate. Nevertheless, each committed himself to the wise plans of Him who rules all things, and so they were content to remain in their current condition until it should please God to use them otherwise.

Then at the appointed time they were led to their trial, which was planned with only one purpose in mind—the condemnation of them both. First they were brought before their enemies and formally charged. The judge’s name was Lord Hate-Good. Their indictments were the same in substance, though somewhat varying in form. The contents were as follows: “That they were enemies to, and disturbers of, trade; that they had made commotions and divisions in the town and had won a faction over to their own most dangerous opinions, in contempt of the law of the prince.”1

Personal reflection

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One of the tragic fruits of cultural Christianity, at least as it’s stood in the West for the last 50-odd years, has been our being lulled into a false sense of security. We expect the culture to be “for” us, when it’s only natural that it would be against us. After all, the gospel is an offense to those who do not believe. When it takes root, things inevitably start changing, from business practices to sexual ethics.

So is it any wonder, then, that (as we’ve just seen in New York) churches can be barred from renting public spaces and lease agreements can be cancelled? Is it any surprise that someone holding to a traditional view of marriage would be forced to resign from his position in the name of keeping corporate America “inclusive, safe, and welcoming to all”?

Is it any wonder, then, that we seen so many Christians fail under the weight of the temptation to compromise, to give in and go along with the cultural scene?

Christian and Faithful endured their trial, one met his end. This is not (yet) the world we face in North America. But it could be, eventually. If we can barely whether the storm of cultural distaste, how can we stand against true opposition? Lord, grant us mercy.

Reading with Ryken

The episode of Vanity Fair became so famous in the cultural history of England and America that it has held the status of a proverb and familiar metaphor for the cheap and trivial. On the story level, Bunyan does two things to make the episode come alive in our imagination. First he draws upon his great descriptive ability to paint a verbal picture of a crowded local fair or concentration of street booths for selling trinkets and entertainment. He secondly creates a plot conflict of the utmost intensity as the evil crowd victimizes a pair of helpless travelers. This expands into a false trial with a stacked jury. Everything in the episode makes our blood boil in protest against what is happening.2

Next week (in a couple of weeks, actually)

The next discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters eight and nine.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Here, again, is a bit of insight from Ryken to help guide our discussion:

There is no more modern or contemporary chapter in Pilgrim’s Progress than this one. Our day specializes in the cheap and tawdry, and Vanity Fair in effect gives us an outline into which we can fit manifestations from our own culture. What links are suggested to you? Equally, the unwillingness of an unbelieving society to allow Christians to live their religious lives in peace is something that every Christian faces; what have been the examples of persecution and discrimination in your own life and observations? The temptations to a life of wealth and earthly success are also always at hand in the modern world; what forms have they taken for you? On a broader cultural scope, what are the current manifestations of the “prosperity gospel” that By-ends and his friends represent?3

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

God is not a Magic 8-Ball

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As part of my re-reading project this year, I’m going back and reading a number of books I really enjoyed and looking at them again with (hopefully) fresh eyes. The most recent on the list is Kevin DeYoung’s little book, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will.

One of the things I love in this book is DeYoung’s ability to lovingly deconstruct our sometimes goofy notions about how to know God’s will. His major beef? That we think we “need” to know God’s specific plans for us at all:

God is not a Magic 8-Ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience and invites us to take risks for Him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That’s wonderful. The problem is we think He’s going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know—and need to know—what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God’s will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than wisdom.

The better way is the biblical way. Seek first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we know what they are and where we’re going. (26)

As much as we think we need to know God’s specific plans for our lives, we really don’t. Instead, can—and should—enjoy the freedom given in His explicit command: seek first the kingdom. God will take care of the rest.


photo credit: somegeekintn via photopin cc

What inspires generosity? Only one thing…

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The apostles, following their baptism in the Holy Spirit, went about proclaiming Christ in Jerusalem, and every day more were added to the church. God the Holy Spirit was bringing men, women, and children to faith in Jesus, regardless of social class. Those who saw what was happening were left in awe at miracles that were taking place. But there was something else—genuine community began to form. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” Luke wrote (Acts 2:42-43).

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47; see also Acts 4:32-37).

So strong was the bond between these believers that they had a great desire to meet one another’s needs. Nothing was off-limits. Homes and lives were open. People were giving away what they had, exchanging their earthly treasures for treasure in heaven. It’s amazing to consider, possibly because the whole concept is so foreign to those of us living in the western world.

What’s going on in this picture of the early church? Was it some form of proto-communist experiment? There is no record of anyone suggesting, much less commanding them to do this. Despite what some proponents of poverty theology might suggest, personal property was not seen as wicked or sinful in the early church. Indeed, even during this time, many believers continued to own homes where they would meet (see v. 46)—in fact, Acts 5:4 indicates that the believers were under no obligation to relieve themselves of all their earthly possessions.

So, why this outpouring of generosity? It was motivated by the grace of God. It was a spontaneous response to God’s lavish generosity toward them in not holding back the most precious treasure of all— free and unmerited salvation through the Son. No command or guilt trip can inspire the openhanded lifestyle.

Awaiting a Savior, p. 84-85


photo credit: Zoriah via photopin cc

4 things I liked and 3 I didn’t about the new Noah movie

Russell Crowe as Noah

This weekend, director Darren Aronofsky’s epic Noah made its way into theatres with many a feather ruffled. Much ink has been spilt discussing concerns about the filmmakers’ liberties in bringing the story of God’s wrath against humanity to the big screen.

It’s the kind of movie that, honestly, if it’s you’re temperament, you’re guaranteed to find something to hate about this movie. But frankly, that’s every movie. Nevertheless, the movie isn’t all bad, nor is it all great. Here’s a look at four things I liked and three I didn’t:

What I liked: they nailed the problem of sin.

Seriously. They absolutely got it right—the problem of sin wasn’t—and isn’t—external. It’s inside each one of us. There’s a quite brilliant scene where Crowe’s Noah is describing the problem to his wife (Jennifer Connelly), and she counters his argument, trying to remind him of the virtues of each of their sons. But Noah tell her how even those good qualities—and even their love for their children—can be perverted by sin.

Throughout the movie, you see this over and over again: in this film, there is no denying that humanity is twisted and evil to its core. The destruction of creation, the competing narratives of Noah and Tubal-cain (who treats God’s command to have dominion over creation as permission to abuse it rather than faithfully steward), the possible cannibalism… this is a dark world filled with wicked people. You can’t blame God for wanting to destroy it.

What I didn’t: the empty hope of the film’s second chance.

The big idea in the end is that the Creator is giving Noah and his family a second chance, to let humanity be the way it was intended in its relationship to creation. And yet, given the rest of the film, the note of hope falls flat.

As much as the filmmakers get right in their depiction of sin, they still get a key thing wrong: they still show it as something that can be mastered by human will. And so the hope rings hollow. We can try all we want to master the beast, but eventually it’s going to eat our faces.

What I liked: they gave us a human Noah.

Noah is a bit of an enigma in the Scriptures. Because we don’t know a lot about him, so there’s a lot of whitespace to be filled in. Aronofsky, naturally, has to take a lot of liberty in giving him a personality (to say nothing of giving his wife a name…). He is a man with a clear sense of justice. He takes the call to wisely care for creation seriously. He cares for his family until…

What I didn’t: they gave us a very human Noah.

There’s a lot to like about this Noah, but he’s also one who you struggle to relate to. A religious zealot, a man obsessed with obeying his God and utterly lacking in compassion and mercy in the task. And when he finally exhibits those characteristics, he believes he’s failed the Creator.

But this just isn’t the picture we’re shown in the Scriptures. Instead, we’re shown a man who was declared righteous, who was shown grace by God and spared by God to be a type of Christ—a “second” Adam through whom all the people of the earth would come.

What I liked: the Creator—God—is a central figure in the story.

There are no atheists in this film. No one doubts the existence of the Creator. Truly, I am grateful the filmmakers didn’t go the cheesy and blasphemous route with having Liam Neeson’s voice come out of a cloud, or Morgan Freeman show up wearing a white suit. There are no two ways about it: God is a powerful presence in Noah.

What I didn’t like: the Creator is hard to understand.

And while His is a powerful presence, He’s still not a character. Because the Creator in the film speaks in dreams and visions to Noah, as opposed to clearly speaking, what He wants to communicate can be obscured by the recipients interpretation.1

This is what leads Noah into his compassionless quest, one where he believes that his family is not to repopulate the earth, and what leads him to believe he’s failed in his mission when he shows compassion at a key moment. This is not the kind of Creator we need, and thankfully it’s not the kind of Creator we have.

What I liked: Discussing the movie with Emily afterward was actually more fun that watching it.

Honestly, the movie itself is pretty okay. It’s not a life-changing film, but it’s also not a waste of a movie ticket. But talking about it with Emily afterward was terrific. We spent about an hour chatting about what each of us noticed about the movie, and more importantly, thanking God that He did speak clearly to Noah, and that He continues to speak clearly to us today.

Did you see Noah or are you planning to? What are your thoughts on the film?

“All this is true, and much more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (3)

Apollyon accused, “You almost fainted when you first set out, when you almost choked in the Swamp of Despond. You also attempted to get rid of your burden in the wrong way, instead of patiently waiting for the Prince to take it off. You sinfully slept and lost your scroll, you were almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions, and when you talk of your journey and of what you have heard and seen, you inwardly desire your own glory in all you do and say.”

“All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention,” Christian agreed. “But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive. Besides, these infirmities possessed me while I was in your country, for there I allowed them to come in. But I have groaned under them, have been sorry for them, and have obtained pardon from my Prince.”1

Personal reflection

If I ever flirted with the idea of the Christian life being one of health, wealth and happy relationships, God effectively ripped such notions out of my head and heart very quickly. My earliest weeks as a believer were filled with strife and conflict.

  • Sins I’d committed (all related to speech) were levelled against me.
  • Conflict with family over lifestyle changes created tension.
  • Trying to untangle the mess of Emily’s and my pre-Christian life together into something pleasing to God nagged at us.

This was a time of intense accusation mixed with serious conviction.

I wonder if this is the case for more of us than we think—and I wonder if it’s part of the reason so many get frustrated in their walk with the Lord? There seems to be an assumption that everything should be coming up Milhouse once we put our faith in Jesus. And as soon as anything remotely bad (or mildly inconvenient) comes up, we start shouting, “Why isn’t this working? Where are you, God?”

We forget that the Christian life is a war. It’s a war that’s already one, to be sure, but a war nonetheless. Our enemy is constantly accusing us, and yet we do not need to despair. We win the battle when say with Christian, “All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention… But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive.”

Reading with Ryken

At a purely narrative level, the two episodes are among Bunyan’s most inspired creations. They take their place among the best of epic and romance adventures and are triumphs of the literary genre known as “fantasy.” Doubtless the book of Revelation was an influence on Bunyan’s imagination when he composed this chapter. The journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is equally heightened, replete with such archetypal details as a place “as dark as pitch” and a narrow path with “a very deep ditch” on one side and “a very dangerous” bog or quagmire on the other. Adventures such as the two in this chapter require a childlike willingness to be terrified by monsters and dangers. C. S. Lewis’s comment on Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene applies equally to Pilgrim’s Progress: it requires a dual response, one childlike and the other sophisticated and able to figure out the allegorical meanings of the details.

On the allegorical level, then, we are given pictures of the power of evil in the form of what the Bible calls “principalities and powers.” Compared to these giant threats, the more subtle obstacles to the Christian faith represented by people named Talkative and Timorous seem rather tame. The dangers through which Christian passes in this chapter are more than human.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters six and seven.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:

  1. How does Christian’s battle with Apollyon reflect your own experiences as a believer?
  2. What similarities do you see between the physical details of Christian’s adventures to this point and the dangers we face in our spiritual lives?
  3. What means has God given us to overcome these dangers?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

Three tips for choosing a charity

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How do I choose a charity to give to? 

This seems like it should be a no brainer in some ways. After all, the Scriptures show us that in the heart of every true believer is a deep desire to be generous to others with their time, talents, and treasures. Maybe not all in the same ways or all the same causes, but if we’ve seen the richness of Christ, we will not be people who withhold from those in need.

Which takes us back to the question: How do you choose what charity to give to? In Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty, I shared three factors to consider:

Do they share the gospel?

First and foremost, give to organizations that demonstrate Christ’s love, not only in practical ways but also by explicitly sharing the gospel with those they serve. “Deed ministry” and “Word ministry” cannot be divorced. It is not enough to give a child clean drinking water; that child also needs “living water.” (cf. Jer. 2:13, 17:13; John 4:10; Rev. 7:17)

Are they trustworthy?

Equally important is an organization’s ability to prove its trustworthiness. How do they handle money? Can they prove that what they say they do actually happens? This is ultimately a wisdom issue.

Do you align with their values?

Finally, consider whether or not their goals and methods resonate with your values. If what you really care about is giving people clean water (along with the gospel), then do it. If you care about seeing a little boy or girl go to school, do it. If your heart is for training pastors in the developing world, do it. Get involved in whatever cause you find motivating.


photo credit: Zoriah via photopin cc

Three things we are learning about forgiveness

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One of the things we’re working with our children on is the concept of forgiveness—how to ask for it and how to offer it. My oldest typically does the begrudging, sullen, “Sorry…” thing and tries to leave things at that. My middle one is very honest and when you ask if she’ll forgive you says, “I’m not sure, I have to think about it.” And for the moment, Hudson remains a quasi-sociopath. Because, well, he’s two.

But talking with my kids about forgiveness is tricky, in part because it requires me to check my own heart on how I approach it—do I withhold forgiveness as long as possible? Do I do anything that cheapens it?

Here are three things I’m trying to remember and impart to the wee ones:

1. Assume the best—and be honest when you’re having a hard time doing so. Whenever someone asks forgiveness, I want to assume they’re genuinely asking. That there is true, heartfelt, Spirit-wrought  conviction. I’ve not been perfect with this; in fact, I’ve been down right terrible at it a lot of the time. But rather than putting on a nice face, sometimes it’s best to be honest about this struggle, rather than damage a relationship further by saying you forgive but are harboring bitterness.

2. Always pray and watch for the fruit of repentance. To be clear: our offer of forgiveness doesn’t mean we don’t care whether or not people change. It actually means we care very, very much. One of the kids really struggles with telling the truth right now, and we’ve told her that when she makes a habit of lying, it’s hard for us to trust what she says. We frequently pray with her that God will help her tell the truth, we coach her on honesty (and remind her that the consequences are always less severe when she’s upfront about something), and we watch. This requires a lot of patience because the fruit of repentance develops over a long period of time.

3. Protect the repentant from falling back into sin. Sometimes you can’t remove a person from a situation. For example, my daughters share a bedroom because we live in a three bedroom townhouse. This is going to be their reality for the foreseeable future. As a result, there are some things we’re not going to be able to protect our girls from, such as Hannah’s desire to irritate Abigail as much as possible.

But if a privilege or a responsibility offers too much temptation to sin, we remove it  for a season (or indefinitely) and explain why. We’ve done this with making choices at various ages (such as what they’d like for breakfast or choosing their own outfits), and we’ve also done it with an extended bedtime for our oldest (who, it turns out, is a much chipperer person when she’s gotten a little extra bit of rest).

None of these are things I’m perfect at, but they’re things I want to improve in and to train my kids to understand the importance of. Forgiveness is too important to cheapen with faux-repentance or withhold from the genuinely contrite. It is serious business. Lord willing our whole family will continue to see it that way.


photo credit: quantumlars via photopin cc

Sad but not strange

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photo: iStock

It is sad that Jesus finds it necessary to exhort the followers closest to him to believe his words, and therefore to believe that he is himself the revelation of the Father. Sad, indeed; but not strange. Is not our own unbelief proof enough of the commonness of unbelief? Even after we have been assured of God’s love for us again and again, of his sovereign pleasure to bless his people with what he judges good for them, do we not retreat to practical skepticism when difficult circumstances seem to call in question his goodness or his power?

Jesus’ first disciples in John 14 are experiencing difficulties of several kinds. They are perhaps intellectually slow to believe the daring claim on Jesus’ lips, made repeatedly, that he is in the Father and the Father in him. Worse, they are bound up emotionally as well as intellectually as they wrestle with talk about death, betrayal, Jesus’ departure, their inability to follow him at present, and the like. What they need more than anything else is to believe Jesus, to believe that what he is saying is true. If only they believe, then the uncertainties surrounding these other large matters will be swallowed up by confidence that Jesus is none other than the revelation of the Father. There is no belief more basic to spiritual triumph than that.

D.A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.1

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:3

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

God might call you to be ignored

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In Isaiah chapter six, in one of the most stunning pictures of the pre-incarnate Christ recorded in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah experiences a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne. When he lays eyes on Him, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

Isaiah is so distraught that he curses himself—he knows that no one can see the Lord and live (Exodus 33:20). But he doesn’t die—instead, an angel takes a piece of coal from the altar and cleanses him, touching the burning coal to his lips. His guilt is taken away; his sin atoned for (Isaiah 6:7).

And then the Lord speaks: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

Almost every time this story is shared, this is where it stops. We get to see Isaiah boldly answering the Lord’s call, in what I always imagine is a rather heroic fashion, as though he’s saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this!”

And this is how so many of us treat this passage—as though it’s a call to “our” moment to go and do great things for God. To move mountains and make the sun stand still.

At least, if we stop reading at verse eight and totally ignore Isaiah’s marching orders. This is what God commands:

Go, and say to this people:

Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed” (v. 9b-1o).

Essentially, Jesus tells Isaiah he’s going to be ignored by the people to whom he will be sent. He will preach judgment upon Israel, and promises of the coming of the Messiah to rescue His people…

And they’re not going to listen to a word of it.

Isaiah’s ministry, like so many of the prophets, is marked by stubborn disobedience that comes as a response to his preaching. The people won’t hear, because they cannot. That’s the point. His ministry is to “make the heart of this people dull.”

Can you imagine how difficult that would be? To know that your calls to repentance will have the exact opposite effect?

Maybe this is what God’s calling you to, as well.

This isn’t a pretty thought for many of us. This is not the stuff mega-churches are made of. And yet, it’s probably the reality for more of us than we realize. We speak, we pray, we plead… and there’s nothing. For many, your words are nothing more than the incoherent mutterings of Charlie Brown’s school teacher.

This is the reality I deal with on a regular basis, in fact, as I try to share the gospel—it’s like it passes right over them. And it can be unbearable, if you don’t remember where to find hope in the midst of discouragement. Again, Isaiah helps us:

…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

There’s a confidence here that grounds the exuberance of Isaiah’s cry of “send me!” It puts flesh on the bones of Isaiah’s cry, if you will: God’s word does exactly what it is purposed to do. It means some hearts will be hardened by the unapologetic proclamation of God’s Word, while others will turn and be saved. As Spurgeon said so well, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”

This truth should cause us not to despair, but to rejoice. We need not be ashamed of the gospel, and we need not be despondent when its truth goes unheeded. God’s word will still accomplish all that He purposes. Whether we’re heard or ignored, that has to be enough for us.


An earlier version of this post first appeared in May 2009.

Being present, as Christians, with lost people

Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) is the husband of Stephanie and daddy of Allison and Ethan. He lives and works in Wichita, KS as the Community Pastor at Journey the Way and the director of Porterbrook Kansas. He is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and The Resurgence Training Center. Catch up with him at jwritebol.net.


everPresent

For years in ministry I’ve struggled with how to get the gospel to the lost. I’ve wanted to be a good evangelist and share my faith. I’ve wanted to help people who don’t know Christ to see how great and gracious he is and come to faith in him. I’ve wanted to see new-birth, conversions, life-change, salvation or whatever you want to call it. The problem for me, however, was that I was paralyzed in living on mission. I was stuck trying to wade through the mountain of techniques, methods, and skills required to find, invest in, and hopefully convert a non-Christian to Jesus. I was frustrated with my lack of ability and felt disobedient to the call of Christ to “make disciples of every nation.” Theologically, I knew how it worked. God is the one who draws and saves at the declaration of the word of Christ. Practically, however, it was not happening.

As I spent time reflecting on my problems, I had to take a look at all the methods I was relying on to make me a better missionary. As I processed through the “how” of making disciples, the Holy Spirit brought into focus the real issue. I was lacking presence with unbelievers. I didn’t know any of them. And they didn’t know me.

Then I had a moment. A friend one day was pressing me on what it looked like practically to live on mission in the midst of unbelievers. We were discussing sports and how we can build relationships based around the common interest of sports. My friend challenged me to come up with practical ways that the sporting-life would transfer to Christianity. I had to admit, I was a bit stumped. The only thing I could come up with was the opportunity it created to be present with lost people. And that idea, of being present with lost people, became a watershed moment for me.

The watershed moment brought a further insight about the nature of God. He is a God who is present everywhere. Theologians have labeled this attribute God’s “omnipresence.” Wayne Grudem defines omnipresence: “God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.”1 As I reflected on this truth about God, I had to move the theology of God’s presence into the practice of my life. As image-bearers of God, we are called to reflect who he is to the world. This includes attributes like omnipresence. This is where the watershed moment was for me. How do I, as a limited, finite creature, reflect God’s omnipresence? By being present.

Understanding God’s presence throughout the Bible and our relationship to him as the ever-present God has transformed my understanding of missional living. Once I realized he is present everywhere, in and through his people, I discovered that the method for being on mission to the lost was really simple. I had overanalyzed it. The method is: be present, as a Christian, with lost people.

My goal in everPresent is to help you see how being present in the everyday places we inhabit is missional living. You don’t need amazing practices or innovative techniques to help you live on mission. If anything, I’ve already told you what the technique is. Be with lost people. Even that is difficult in today’s world. We are promised the ability to be everywhere through technologies that replace face time with Facebook. At a recent birthday party for one of the children in my daughter’s school, I observed several parents who were present, but they weren’t engaged. They were lost in their smartphones and Instagrams. Even though they are physically in the room, mentally they have left it altogether. As we consider the theology of God’s presence and place, that theological reflection should lead to practical application. My purpose in this book is to help you understand God more fully so you will live as his people more faithfully. I want to bring the technique of disciple-making down a few notches to show you how God equips everyday, ordinary people to be his “sent ones” as they live their lives in the presence of unbelievers.

I am eager for you to see God’s presence in your life so that we can go and be present in the lives of unbelievers for the sake of the gospel. When this happens, we will reflect an ever-present God by holding out an ever-present gospel.


Jeremy’s new book, everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present is now available at Amazon (paperback) and Gospel-Centered Discipleship (eBook).

The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when…

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photo: iStock

The authority of Jesus to heal and transform is implicit in his person and mission. The authority is already his. He needs only to will the deed, and it is done. Few lessons are more urgently needed in the modern church. Hope for reformation and revival lies not in campaigns and strategy (as important as such things may be), but in the authority of Jesus.…

Our generation is in danger of forgetting this.… The church is closest to heaven-sent revival when it comes to an end of its gimmicks, and petitions the great Lord of the church, who alone has the authority to pour out blessing beyond what can be imagined, who alone opens doors such that none can shut them and shuts them so that none can open them, to use the full authority that is his (Matt. 28:18) to bless his people with repentance and vitality and thereby bring glory to himself. Only his authority will suffice.