Tuesday, December 27, 2016

God Pursues Our Joy in Him

I was struck recently with the thought that very little, if any, of my knowledge is original with me. It seems that the Bible is in agreement: "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9). As I sit pondering the things that are most wonderful to me, every stream of thought originated in something I learned from someone else. One of those teachers, though I've never met him, is John Piper. Over the last 10 years, he has taught me that "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him." The central teaching of his ministry is that God's passion for glorifying Himself, and God's passion to bring us joy, are not mutually exclusive pursuits. They are the same. As He reveals Himself to His creatures as the most satisfying treasure in existence, and we enjoy our God more than anything else, He is glorified. This is the reason we were made- to delight in Him and show His worth. God, in all His perfections, is the source of true happiness. So, it makes sense that He should be the chief pursuit of all people. This is why it is such a travesty that human beings seek ultimate happiness in anything but Him (sin and idolatry), and why that is such an affront to God. It is also why Christian evangelistic efforts are not merely the desire of one man to change another man's mind. It is the desire for others to share in the happiness of God. It is the pursuit of their good, and their joy. Piper has spent his life expressing these truths, and leading others to know eternal joy through Jesus Christ.

He is quick to point others to the man who brought this world of thinking to him- Jonathan Edwards- the 18th-century American pastor/theologian. When expressing the impact of Edwards' thoughts on his own, Piper unpacks 15 implications of God's pursuit of our happiness in Him, in a book titled God's Passion for His Glory. I wanted to share one of these, which should have great effect on how we come together for worship every week in local churches:

"The essence of authentic, corporate worship is the collective experience of heartfelt satisfaction in the glory of God, or a trembling that we do not have it and a great longing for it. Worship is for the sake of magnifying God, not ourselves, and God is magnified in us when we are satisfied in him. Therefore, the unchanging essence of worship (not the outward forms which do change) is heartfelt satisfaction in the glory of God, the trembling when we do not have it and the longing for it. 

The basic movement of worship on Sunday morning is not to come with our hands full to give to God, as though he needed anything (Acts 17:25), but to come with our hands empty, to receive from God. And what we receive in worship is the fullness of God, not the feelings of entertainment. We ought to come hungry for God. We should come saying, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2). God is mightily honored when a people know that they will die of hunger and thirst unless they have God. 

Nothing makes God more supreme and more central in worship than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing—not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends—nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their sinful, guilty, aching hearts besides God. This conviction breeds a people who go hard after God on Sunday morning. They are not confused about why they are in a worship service. They do not view songs and prayers and sermons as mere traditions or mere duties. They see them as means of getting to God or God getting to them for more of his fullness—no matter how painful that may be for sinners in the short run. 

If the focus in corporate worship shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen again and again is that subtly it is not God that remains at the center but the quality of our giving. Are we singing worthily of the Lord? Do the instrumentalists play with a quality befitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? And little by little the focus shifts off the utter indispensability of the Lord himself onto the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of the technical distinction of our artistic acts. Nothing keeps God at the center of worship like the Biblical conviction that the essence of worship is deep, heartfelt satisfaction in him, and the conviction that the trembling pursuit of that satisfaction is why we are together. 

Furthermore, this vision of worship prevents the pragmatic hollowing out of this holy act. If the essence of worship is satisfaction in God, then worship can’t be a means to anything else. We simply can’t say to God, “I want to be satisfied in you so that I can have something else.” For that would mean that we are not really satisfied in God but in that something else. And that would dishonor God, not worship him. 

But, in fact, for thousands of people, and for many pastors, the event of “worship” on Sunday morning is conceived of as a means to accomplish something other than worship. We “worship” to raise money; we “worship” to attract crowds; we “worship” to heal human hurts; to recruit workers; to improve church morale; to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling; to teach our children the way of righteousness; to help marriages stay together; to evangelize the lost; to motivate people for service projects; to give our churches a family feeling. 

In all of this we bear witness that we do not know what true worship is. Genuine affections for God are an end in themselves. I cannot say to my wife: “I feel a strong delight in you so that you will make me a nice meal.” That is not the way delight works. It terminates on her. It does not have a nice meal in view. I cannot say to my son, “I love playing ball with you—so that you will cut the grass.” If your heart really delights in playing ball with him, that delight cannot be performed as a means to getting him to do something. 

I do not deny that authentic corporate worship may have a hundred good effects on the life of the church. It will, just like true affection in marriage, make[s] everything better. My point is that to the degree that we do “worship” for these reasons, to that degree it ceases to be authentic worship. Keeping satisfaction in God at the center guards us from that tragedy."

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Losing Our Awe- The Self-Existent, Uncreated God

In an increasingly scientific and technology-driven world, our culture is becoming more and more unfamiliar with mystery and awe. We are uncomfortable with grappling with what cannot be fully explained- that which is larger than us- certainly when it comes to the subject of God. It's possible for Christians, who profess to know God, to spend very little time considering His awesomeness- that His mind, ways, and being are often beyond our ability to explain- and because of that, we should offer Him our humble praise, and pursue what we can know of Him in this life. A.W. Tozer writes poignantly of this issue more than a half-century ago:

"The human mind, being created, has an understandable uneasiness about the Uncreated. We do not find it comfortable to allow for the presence of One who is wholly outside of the circle of our familiar knowledge. We tend to be disquieted by the thought of One who does not account to us for His being, who is responsible to no one, who is self-existent, self-independent, and self-sufficient.

Philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God, the reason being that they are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The philosopher and the scientist will admit that there is much that they do not know; but that is quite another thing from admitting that there is something that they can never know, which indeed they have no technique for discovering. To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of our reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: this requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him. Yet how He eludes us! For He is everywhere while He is nowhere, for “where” has to do with matter and space, and God is independent of both. He is unaffected by time or motion, is wholly self-dependent and owes nothing to the worlds His hands have made...

It is not a cheerful thought that millions of us who live in a land of Bibles, who belong to churches and labor to promote the Christian religion, may yet pass our whole lives on this earth without once having thought or tried to think seriously about the being of God. Few of us have let our hearts gaze in wonder at the I AM, the self-existent Self back of which no creature can think. Such thoughts are too painful for us. We prefer to think where it will do more good—about how to build a better mousetrap, for instance, or how to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before. And for this we are now paying a too heavy price in the secularization of our religion and the decay of our inner lives.

Perhaps some sincere but puzzled Christian may at this juncture wish to inquire about the practicality of such concepts as I am trying to set forth here. "What bearing does this have on my life?" he may ask. "What possible meaning can the self-existence of God have for me and others like me in a world such as this and in times such as these?"

To this I reply that, because we are the handiwork of God, it follows that all our problems and their solutions are theological. Some knowledge of what kind of God it is that operates the universe is indispensable to a sound philosophy of life and a sane outlook on the world scene...

We can never know who or what we are till we know at least something of what God is. For this reason the self-existence of God is not a wisp of dry doctrine, academic and remote; it is in fact as near as our breath and as practical as the latest surgical technique.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Word to the Newly Married (and those considering it, or needing encouragement)

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
(Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV)

A certain section in Ephesians 5 has gotten a lot of attention over the years because of what it says about the roles of the husband and wife in marriage…and the apostle Paul is certainly teaching about those things- how each spouse is called to model the likeness of Christ, whether in submission or in leading. But something else is going on there in his instruction- something bigger than the roles of two people living together and loving one another for the rest of their lives. God wants us to see that marriage has a higher purpose- it points us to something bigger than ourselves. It’s a picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
            God’s desire in your marriage is to use each of you as His primary tool to make your spouse more holy- to be THE person who sacrifices self for the good of the other. As a wife, you are called to humble submission, just as Jesus joyfully submitted to His Father for the good of His church- setting aside His own glory. As a husband, you are called to servant leadership. Just as Jesus gave His life for the good of His bride, to make her holy, so you are to give your life for your bride.
            Both of you are called to sacrifice. But what God wants you to see as you sacrifice for one another is that in your mutual self-giving…is mutual gain. You both gain as you lay down your life for the other. You gain a best friend; You gain an intimate lover; You gain a trusted counselor. Because two become one flesh, as you sacrifice and love your spouse, you profit and love yourself. But even larger than that, God’s mission is to use this life-long commitment to grow you together toward Christ-likeness. Marriage, then, is a work of grace.
            The flaws and sinful tendencies that each of you have will be the very things that the Lord will use to teach you compassion, patience, and bearing another’s burdens. It’s a mysterious work of grace that your weaknesses will make you and your partner stronger. Even the most challenging days that are in front of you will be a gift from God to transform you both into the image of His Son, Jesus. Nothing will be wasted as your hearts draw closer together, and become more like His.  You are instruments in your Redeemer’s Hands to model and display the glory of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, as you shape each other into your future selves in the Kingdom of Christ.

Tim Keller sets this truth in front of us beautifully in his book, The Meaning of Marriage:

When two Christians who fully understand this stand before the minister all decked out in their wedding finery, they realize they’re not just playing dress up. What they’re saying is that someday they are going to be standing not before the minister but before The Lord. And they will turn to see each other without spot and blemish. And they hope to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Over the years you have lifted one another up to me. You sacrificed for one another. You held one another up with prayer and with thanksgiving. You confronted each other. You rebuked each other. You hugged and loved each other and continually pushed each other toward Me. And now look at you. You’re radiant.” Romance, sex, laughter, and plain fun are the by-products of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification. Those things are important, but they can’t keep the marriage going through years and years of ordinary life. What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness… That’s your job as a spouse. Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you’re just playing at being married.”

Husbands and Wives, that’s your goal as you begin this journey together- sacrificing yourself for the other’s holiness, just as Christ has done for you.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Father's Wish

I can remember the conversation with my wife some years ago with general clarity...I told her I didn't want more than two children (we had one at the time). I needed to be able to adequately care for them, send them to college, make sure they would have the proper foundation for success, and so on. It was good, practical, thinking in my mind. Things went according to my plan for a few years...and then the child explosion happened. Today, some twelve years after that initial conversation, (where my wife continued to say she had always wanted six kids-crazy right?), we have seven children- six of them girls. I would have never imagined this...

The oldest is now thirteen- seeking independence, finding her own style, listening to crummy music, and challenging my "wisdom," all the while trying to discover who she is, and her purpose in life. I don't find myself longing for the baby days (since we're still in them), but I find myself longing for something far more for her than what she is able to envision for herself. In her world where "what gets me noticed" is often the greatest gain, I find myself yearning that she would have a passion to live for what would give her the greatest joy. And this, not just for her, but for each of the little ones who will come behind her.

I do not want my children to settle for lives that will gain them much in the short run, but very little on the scale of eternity. I want them to learn to take risks, be generous, and sacrifice for others- not because this will add to their experience portfolio, or create a persona that makes for a good story- but that they might make much of Jesus and demonstrate that He is an all-satisfying treasure by the way they choose to live during their short time on earth. I recently told my oldest that it would be far better to me as a father that instead of her pursuing comfort, education, and what anyone might deem "successful," and forfeit all the joys in following Jesus; that she would find a heart for a people group around the world, commit to bringing them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and never come back (though I would long to see her I'm certain). I would prefer to receive a letter from a young man like this one, as he asks for my daughters hand in marriage:

"I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world ? whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life? whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death? Can you consent to all this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Saviour from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?"

This was written by Adoniram Judson to the father of Ann Hasseltine in 1809. The father consented, and Ann did in fact give her life in service to the people of Burma. But what a life!

About the same time I had the conversation with my wife about our prospects of children, I gave my life to Christ, not knowing what the future would hold. I am very much a work in progress. I have a heart that is prone to wander to the temptations of comfort and worldly security (just like my daughter), but little by little my Lord is releasing its grip on me, and I'm sure He will be doing this until I see Him face to face. He is transforming my mind to what it means to be "successful." My hope is that my children, all of them, will not settle for less than a life lived to make much of Jesus, at home or abroad-to have this vision from a young age- to see this as beautiful, even though it will be rejected by those around them. If that means they have poverty, but get Jesus, it's riches for them! If they are scorned by the world and are weak, but have Christ, His power rests on them! This is real success.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
(Mark 8:35-36 ESV)