The Place of the Sulk

When we think about our salvation by grace and the fruits of grace that would provoke others to jealousy, even elect Israel (Romans 11:11), we do not deny “the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha” (John 19:17). We call it Calvary, from the Latin, Calvariae meaning “skull.” Jesus was tortured, mocked, and crucified at Calvary. He was crucified as a sinner so that He could be a substitute for sinners.

Because of His death, He is our righteousness, our eternal life, our present and our future. So we should not turn our remembrance of the place of the skull into the place of the sulk. We’re at this Table by invitation of the King. We’re here because He paid for us to be.

Why might a communicant sulk?

  • forgetting one’s forgiveness in Christ, or not seeking it
  • giving too much credit to sin, acting as if guilt can’t be covered by Christ
  • holding a grudge against another member of the body of Christ
  • judging another member of the body for not appreciating communion with Christ like you do

We desire fruit, but a garden can be full of all sorts of rotten fruit. A rotten-fruited garden does not make anyone jealous. “How did you get all that rotten fruit? We were wanting to make something just like it for ourselves!”

Bread tastes good, wine gladdens the heart, the word of the cross is the power of God. So celebrate! Sing! Smile! Enjoy! It isn’t because of what we’ve done. We can’t forgive ourselves or cover our sin or make fruit grow. Jesus paid. Jesus saves. Jesus lifts. Reckon it so, and rejoice! Our kids should want in. The elect of all nations should want what we have in Jesus.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9)

Flotsam and Jetsam

The Bible contains some hard truths, truths that cut against the grain of our sin. Scripture is profitable, Paul wrote, for teaching and reproof and rebuke. Through the God’s law sin is revealed. The mirror of the Word reveals our imperfections. The living and active Sword divides in order to rearrange us and make us more pleasing sacrifices to Him.

Spiritual leaders sometimes say hard things to confront or challenge. Paul wrote that way to the Corinthians but he wanted to make sure that they understood his motivation. After his first letter he had avoided coming to Corinth again and exercising his authority to confront them with the following clarification.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. (2 Corinthians 1:24)

Even when he challenged them to change, it wasn’t because he thought he was the boss. He wasn’t motivated to get others to act for him. He wanted others to act for their joy. He pressed, he pushed, he admonished, and he taught in order to stimulate their faith for their own gladness.

Many things attack our faith which means our gladness is vulnerable. Selfishness attacks faith, as does bitterness, envy, fear, cynicism, greed, lust, pride, and any sort of cistern drinking. The river of faith flows toward joy, so whatever is blocking up faith must be recognized and removed. Someone on the bank can see the crash coming, even help pull some of the flotsam and jetsam from their position on the side. But it usually requires effort from the one in the boat, too. “We work with you for your joy.”

Our corporate worship is for our faith for sake of our joy. We are in it together, pursuing the same goal. We need to confess any sin that is blocking the exercise of believing or the experience of gladness in God.

Motivation for Obedience

We believe that God is God meaning that He does whatever He pleases (see Psalm 135:6). We believe that He controls everything, from ants in driveway cracks to the color of lights on the White House. We also believe that God writes all things into existence for His glory, and in light of His unmatched wisdom and power, we would be right to conclude that what we see around us is ultimately the best way for Him to be seen as great.

One practical sanctification question for those with straight theology about God’s sovereignty is this: If God is in control, and if He gets glory whether I obey or not, then why should I pursue obedience or be concerned when I sin?

Most Christians who are savvy enough to ask this already know that God commands righteousness. He explicitly said, “Don’t sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) even though more grace would seem to bring Him more glory. Yet sometimes this simple order doesn’t satisfy all the way down. We still might question if the sovereign God isn’t at least a little disingenuous.

God does desire His glory. He also desires our obedience. He also gets glory when we don’t obey. But when we don’t obey, we don’t have joy.

God told Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). God was and still is honored through Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness but this didn’t make Pharaoh feel better. God wrote Judas’ part in the gospel story (Matthew 26:24) and must be praised for it, but Judas did not get joy. God gets glory, in some way, even when we sin, but we do not get joy.

This is yet another evidence that we are not robots, that God desires more from us than a warm body to play a part. If you are holding onto sin, especially if you are trying justify it theologically, confess and repent motivated by a desire for joy. We pray like David, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Everything brings God glory, but not everything brings us joy. He offers us both.

As Reliable as the Sunrise

On the night He was betrayed, Jesus told His disciples that the cup poured out for them was the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). It is the sign of the promise revealed in Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31. The Lord committed to Israel that He would cleanse their sins, take away their hearts of stone, give them hearts of flesh, and cause each of them to know Him. This covenant stands out because it depends wholly on the Lord. As it’s been observed, no man can give himself a heart transplant.

Not only is this promise unconditional, it is also as reliable as the sunrise. Jeremiah explains what would need to happen before this promise could fail.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
“If this fixed order departs
from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
from being a nation before me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:31–36)

God established the light and seasons of the sun to teach us about His strength and faithfulness. Through these God also shows His joy. As Chesterton speculated in his book Orthodoxy, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun.” He does not get tired of calling the sun into place, and He does not tire of keeping His promises.

We Gentiles partake as the overflow of the new covenant life. There is a season when God is grafting in those who had no promise to receive the salvation, and even this is part of God’s plan to finally save Israel (Romans 11:25-27).

As we eat and drink communion week by week, as we cross off days on the calendar until the Son comes, as we take it for granted when our weather apps say the sun will come up tomorrow, then we have reason to trust God in all His good words to us.

Be Cheered!

Over her Christmas break from college, Katie Herrington came to our Life to Life group after one of the messages on worship. The question for discussion related to any general thoughts on our Sunday morning liturgy. Katie said that while she enjoyed having communion each week, and while she appreciated the glad attitude we bring to it, she also had a difficult time not imagining us lifting our cups toward each other and saying “Cheers!”

There are differences, to be sure, between men in a bar clinking glasses for another round, or guests at a wedding reception toasting the couple, and the ordinance of communion. The difference is that it is okay not to be truly glad in the bar or at the reception. We will be judged for being half-hearted in our joy at this Table.

We won’t start saying “Cheers!” as part of our liturgy, but can we not look around when we drink the cup that shows the price of our freedom from sin and think, “Be cheered, soul! Be cheered, neighbor! Be cheered, little Christian!”? All of our true cheer, all of our lasting happiness originates in the grace of God, and that grace radiated most clearly at the sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross.

Be cheered, believer! He has accomplished Your redemption and will finish the good work He began in you. That is something to eat and drink about.

Focus on Rejoicing

The shortest verse in the Bible is not John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Counting letters in the original language, there are 16 characters in three words. But the Greek text of 1 Thessalonians 5:16 includes only 14 characters in two words, typically translated, “Rejoice always” (ESV, NAS, NKJV, NIV, NRSV). The variations are not really that diverse: “Rejoice evermore” (KJV) and “Always rejoice ye” (YLT). Though it’s the shortest, it may be the second most difficult command to obey in Scripture after loving Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

This command comes in the final chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and near the middle of 17 different exhortations. We ought not separate it from its context but we can focus on it. Rejoice. Always.

How have you done rejoicing in 2014? What percentage of proactive rejoicing have you done? Are you faithful to schedule (and practice) rejoicing with God’s people on the Lord’s Day? Do you make rejoicing the agenda at your meal times and holiday get-togethers? What percentage of reactive rejoicing have you done? Do you rejoice with others when they receive good news, or is envy a more likely response? Do you mix rejoicing in with your burdens or reports of bad news? Paul said he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Rejoicing does not eliminate heaviness (see 1 Peter 1:6), but it does flavor, lighten, and transpose that heaviness.

You may or may not use the changing of the year to take stock of your sanctification. But you absolutely must hear the will of God as revealed in His Word and measure your walk accordingly. Are you the grinch, the grouch, the grumbler? Or are you the glad, grateful, again and again rejoicer?

Joy That Cannot Be Lost

Jim Elliot famously journaled, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” There is much wisdom about forsaking temporal things for eternal things in Elliot’s quote. I think the same truth applies to forsaking sinful things for righteous things: “He is no fool who repents from what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

When we choose sin we choose a fool’s paradise. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, we imagine that we are rich, that we’ve prospered, that we need nothing (verse 17). But we cannot keep our dream alive no matter how long we pretend to sleep. The reality is that we are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Only a fool would build his house on an hallucination.

When we repent with zeal (Revelation 3:19), we turn toward true joy. We turn toward Jesus who makes us rich with gold tried by fire, who clothes us with white garments and covers our shame, who anoints our eyes so that we may see (Revelation 3:18). When we come to Christ, He lines us up with a new reality, a true reality that cannot be lost.

The gospel not only demands that we repent from sin that we cannot keep, it also promises us joy that we cannot lose. To get from the losing to the keeping, we must confess and forsake our sin. It’s the least lukewarm decision we could make.

Merry Warriors

Merry Warriors

No one in my (small) theological circle would say that God gets panicked. Also, no one I know would say that God doesn’t care about righteousness. So if He created us to reflect Him, then why do we freak out when things aren’t yet the way He wants? Image bearing is a big responsibility and we should watch Him to see how He handles the battle.

Attitude is a key ingredient in our reflection. Yes, we love truth and seek righteousness. God does. But we don’t fight with worldly wisdom or weapons. God doesn’t.

Doug Wilson, in Our New Birdfeeder, argues that:

The besetting sin of conservatives who see what is going on around us is the sin of being strident and shrill. The besetting sin of most other conservatives is to react against that shrillness by adopting a posture of cluelessness. For has not experience shown us that as soon as someone gets a clue, they move straight into Shrill Mode?

And, for my money, this is point of the post (emphasis mine):

What we need, what we desperately need, are merry warriors. What we need is for someone to establish an alternative to “Goliath is a buddy,” on the one hand, and “Goliath is an invincible foe” on the other. No, no…Goliath is our new bird feeder (1 Sam. 17:46).

Quoting Bible verses to defend the fleshiness of our fracas is too typical in the truth-lover’s camp and reflects poorly on our Commanding Officer. Instead, we need more better fighting with Spirit-produced love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. Call up the merry warriors.

Pay Close Attention

While pounding out seven miles on my treadmill yesterday I listened to C.J. Mahaney’s message from the recent T4G conference, Sustaining a Pastor’s Soul. It was the least dramatic message I’ve listened to by Mahaney (albeit out of only a dozen or so from Resolved, Shepherds’ Conference, and various mp3 downloads) but it had/is having appreciable effect on me.

The central point of his message was that God is best served by glad pastors. He asserted that it is simply not sufficient for a pastor to serve faithfully, he must also serve joyfully. I’ve heard that before, but God graciously opened the eyes of my heart anew. The entire sermon challenged the soul by considering the apostle Paul’s joyful ministry in the midst of demanding responsibilities, hard sufferings, and even imprisonment for sake of the gospel as seen in Philippians 1:3-8.

As I’ve heard him do previously, Mahaney urged each pastor to ask those closest to him–wife, ministry team, personal assistant–a series of simple questions about whether he lives and serves joyfully or irritably, with happiness or moodiness, gladness or discouragement. This time I took his advice.

I didn’t have to ask Mo for her answers. I just went ahead and asked her forgiveness immediately after I finished my run yesterday. But earlier today I arranged for some of the guys who work with me on a daily basis to listen to Mahaney’s message with me and then invited them share their observations about my life and ministry. I warned them in advance that a quiz would follow and when it was over I printed the questions and even initialed the disclaimer at the bottom so they could hold me to it.

Here’s the quiz. Click on it to see it full size.

SKH joy quiz

I won’t go into specific successes or failures, but suffice it to say the process was less painful than it would have been three or four years ago. One thing they all agreed on is that my attitude is “ridiculously influential” for better or worse and that I should wield that influence with great care.

Since the door’s already open I suppose you are welcome to participate as well. The condition, however, is that you’ll need to email me so that the comments don’t get carried away in either direction. I’m not looking for praise or pettifogging criticism, but for signs of grace and areas needing growth. Of course God is the ultimate and only inerrant judge as well as the only One who can see my heart. Even so, my progress is supposed to be evident to all. Some very important things depend on my paying close attention and maybe you can help.