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Puritan Sundays: Jeremiah Burroughs

I’ve benefited immensely from the Puritans, those English Protestant writers from the 16th and 17th centuries, the ones I lovingly call “the good old dead guys”. But I realize that not everyone knows about these authors and not everyone has the patience to read them. The language takes a while to get used to. So what I want to do is take every Sunday to introduce you to some of them. I haven’t read extensively, but I’ve read enough of them to know that more people need to be taking up these old books. There is a depth of understanding and an intensity of affection for the things of God that no modern writer can measure up to.

Today’s Puritan of choice is Jeremiah Burroughs. He lived from 1599-1646. Think about that. Only 47 years of life. But there was so much wisdom in all he wrote. The book I want to share with you today is called Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It is an extended treatise on Philippians 4:11 which says, “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am.” The more you read the Puritans the more you’ll recognize their style. They like to take one verse or a few verses and write a whole book on them, sometimes in the style of an outline. It seems like overkill, and maybe sometimes it is, but most of the time you end up being overwhelmed by all the sweetness they can squeeze out of such a small portion of Scripture.

Here is a short quote from the beginning of Rare Jewel:

“I offer the following description: Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition. I shall break open this description, for it is a box of precious ointment, and very comforting and useful for troubled hearts, in troubled times and conditions.

I. Contentment is a sweet, inward heart-thing. It is a work of the Spirit indoors. It is not only that we do not seek to help ourselves by outward violence, or that we forbear from discontented and murmuring expressions with perverse words and bearing against God and others. But it is the inward submission of the heart…Not only must the tongue hold its peace; the soul must be silent. Many may sit silently, refraining from discontented expressions, yet inwardly they are bursting with discontent. This shows a complicated disorder and great perversity in their hearts. And notwithstanding their outward silence, God hears the peevish, fretful language of their souls. A shoe may be smooth and neat outside, while inside it pinches the flesh. Outwardly there may be great calmness and stillness, yet within amazing confusion, bitterness, disturbance and vexation.”

I hope you can perceive already the depth of insight Jeremiah Burroughs had into the heart. His illustrations can cut deeply and reveal the true condition of our souls. I will never think of an uncomfortable shoe the same way! I encourage you to pick this book up. It’s deep and it may require you to read only a couple pages at a time, but it is worth it. If you truly desire to learn contentment as Paul did, I can think of no better tutor in this art than Jeremiah Burroughs.

Qualified Prayer

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” John 14:13-14

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John 15:7

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” John 16:23

“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” 1 John 5:14-15

There’s a temptation to respond to these verses with a ‘Yes, but…’ I want to qualify these promises and I easily think of all the potential loopholes and exceptions. Even after studying the surrounding context, making sure that I understand them as much as I can, I’m left with a mixture of questions and amazement.

Whatever you ask…I will do it.

Really? Can I really believe that whatever I ask the Father in the name of Jesus, he will give me? I’m afraid to believe it. I’m afraid of being sold a bill of goods, of being disappointed. There are many things I’ve prayed for over many years that seem to be in line with God’s will. And still I haven’t seen the answers.

But what if instead of tying myself up in hermeneutical knots, overanalyzing, I look instead behind the promise to the character of the Promiser?

The God of the Universe is inviting me to ask! Just that fact should stun me. That the Creator of the cosmos actually hears me! And then he goes further and encourages me that whatever I ask for, if it is in line with his will, he will give it to me. And it’s not like Jesus was pressured to say these things. These words come tumbling out of his mouth more than three times during what’s called the Farewell Discourse. John 13-17 are the last words he spoke to his disciples and one of the things he wants to get across to them is how willing the Father is to answer prayer that aligns with his will.

So what is my problem? Why do I have such a hard time with these verses? I don’t think it’s a problem of interpretation. It’s a problem of unbelief.

I don’t fully believe in the goodness of God.

I still believe the old lie that was told to Eve and then repackaged a zillion times: God is holding out on you.

My job going forward isn’t to unravel the hermeneutical knots so I can understand why God hasn’t answered this or that long term prayer. My job is to lay my requests at the Father’s feet, trusting that he is exceedingly generous and wise, powerful and good, and he is more than willing, in his perfect timing, to grant whatever I ask in the name of Jesus.

The truth of that should be paramount in my mind and heart and encourage me to ask boldly and often.

Uncertainty

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that nothing in this world can be certain except death and taxes. Let me add another – uncertainty. Every day is filled with a myriad of unknowns. So why are we continually caught off guard by it? Uncertainty scares us and leaves us insecure. It destabilizes us and absolutely messes with our calendars. And so we constantly grasp at control, using our latest gadget or habit. If only we could predict and plan and control time and events better! But no matter how hard we try and no matter how many gadgets are invented to help us measure this and control that, uncertainty knocks us off our axis time and time again.

The way we react to the uncertainties of life says a lot about our core beliefs. It reveals the nature of the foundation upon which we’ve been building our lives. How do you react to uncertainty? Do you anxiously grasp for explanations? Do you go out determined to prepare yourself better for next time? What do you latch onto? To whom do you turn?

Almost everything in this life is uncertain. Only God is certain. But even those of us who say we believe in the sovereignty of God are put to the test when the things we value most are threatened. When our pretty much “normal” life gets turned upside down. We think we know how we will react, but we really don’t until that time comes. Will we grasp like others to outward forms for security, like statistical odds or self-help platitudes? What really brings the security we crave when the uncertain and unpredictable inevitably comes?

What brings security is not merely saying we believe in the sovereignty of God but actually doing the work of anchoring our hearts in that truth. How do we go about that? It’s not glamorous. It’s a continual practice. A day by day renewal of our minds. We wake up every morning and allow the truths of God’s Word to direct our gaze toward the Lord like that compassionate mother who gently puts her hands on her anxious toddler’s face, directing his gaze into her eyes.

If you’re overwhelmed with uncertainty, take some time to just sit in the Word of God. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to see Jesus. Behold him and soak in his promises and allow yourself to be transformed from fretting and fearful to content and confident.

“O Lord my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” Psalm 131

When God Seems Idle

I’ve been teaching the book of Habakkuk to several different groups of women since the fall of 2020 and I’ve been immersed in the book since the spring before that. One of the themes we’ve seen in the book has to do with the reciprocal judgment of God. What is that? It has to do with God’s equitable judgment, the assurance that, in the end, God will judge between what’s right and what’s wrong and hold everyone accountable for their deeds. At the end of chapter 1, Habakkuk laments that the Babylonians, whom God has chosen to discipline his own people, will get away with all their evil behavior. Yes, God’s people need to be disciplined, but the Babylonians as God’s instrument of judgment?

Really God? Aren’t they much more wicked than Judah?

As the prophet wrestles with this question and continues to detail their idolatry and pride, he can’t see them ever being defeated.  But God has the last word and the vision that He unfolds to Habakkuk in chapter 2 begins to reveal the answer to all his questions and laments. Yes! God has been paying attention. No! They will not get away with it. God will hold them accountable. Evil will not have the last word.

This isn’t the only time in Scripture where we read of someone wrestling with God over their perception of how he is dealing with, or more frustratingly, not dealing with evil. In fact, there are many times when the people of God seem overwhelmed and utterly confused by the evil that seems to be steamrolling through history. I think of Psalm 73:

“Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence…But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…Psalm 73:12-13, 16

Looking at the whole scope of redemptive history, beginning from Genesis 3, it seems like evil has had the upper hand. For 400 years, the Israelites groaned under the heavy weight of their bondage in Egypt. Would it ever end? In Judges, things went from bad to worse until there seemed to be no one who knew the ways of God.  Everyone just did what was right in their own eyes. Was God paying attention? During the 55 year reign of Manasseh, he did more evil than the wicked and pagan nations that neighbored the people of God. Why did God allow that to continue for so long? And if we’re honest, right now at the beginning of 2022, we question and lament the evil around us. Cancer, car accidents, natural disasters, evil governments who persecute and starve their people. Doesn’t God care? Doesn’t he see?

In the middle of those times, when evil seems so overwhelming and God seems to be doing nothing, we need to go back to those stories in Scripture. They’re written for our benefit so we can learn like our fathers of old how to anchor ourselves in who God is and what he has promised.

So what did God reveal to Habakkuk in chapter 2 that can act as a pattern and example for us and allow us, like him, to emerge with a psalm of praise?

God’s Promise is True

God responds to Habakkuk with a description of the vision. Pay close attention to how he describes it:

“Write the vision, make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:2-3

By my count there are 11 references to the vision in these verses. What is the point of this repetition? The point is this – God doesn’t lie. His word is true. What he promises to do will happen. Habakkuk was tempted to interpret God through his circumstances, that the success of the Babylonians meant God wasn’t just and he wasn’t going to act. God repeats himself so many times to emphasize to Habakkuk and the people of God the rock solid truth of his word and his character. Notice also the language of the appointed time and the repetition of how the vision will surely come and not delay. God has a time for all things. The problem is, it’s never when we expect or desire it to happen. But the fact that God has an appointed time for this vision to unfold should give us confidence that God really is in control. He always knows what he’s doing.

Faith Looks at God

Habakkuk 2:4 is the hinge of the whole book. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

God has been paying attention! He sees the bloated pride of the Babylonians. But what Habakkuk needed to do was not look at the Babylonians but at God. This verse is the beginning of God’s turning Habakkuk’s attention toward him and his promises. And this is the pattern of faith throughout the Scriptures. Faith isn’t untethered; it isn’t mindless. It’s steadfastly directed to its object. Abraham demonstrated this faith as it says in Romans 4: “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Romans 4:20-21 Abraham’s faith wasn’t directed toward his decaying body but to his God who was more than able. His faith grew stronger as he considered who God was, not what his circumstances were.

The Judge of All Will Do Right

Starting in Habakkuk 2:6 until the end of the chapter, God further unfolds the vision with a taunt song that is sung by those whom the Babylonians had defeated. There are five occurrences of the word ‘Woe’ that are directed toward them and if you have spent a lot of time in other parts of the Bible, you’ll see a pattern that repeats itself in redemptive history, the pattern I talked about earlier called reciprocal judgment. The evil the Babylonians did will come back upon their own heads. They will not get away with it. We see the same pattern in Proverbs:

“The upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.” Proverbs 2:21-22

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous.” Proverbs 3:33

And going back to Psalm 73, we see Asaph gain perspective as he ponders the way of the wicked in the light of God’s coming judgment:

But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I discerned their end.

 Truly you set them in slippery places;
    you make them fall to ruin.
 How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!”

So Habakkuk now knows that judgment will surely come upon the Babylonians who are about to invade Judah. And maybe he thought that that would satisfy all his questions. Many of us think that payback is what will ultimately satisfy us – the bad guys finally getting what’s coming to them. But God points us further up and further in. Seeing this pattern of reciprocal judgment is good. It’s good that evil will be defeated in the end. But that isn’t what will ultimately satisfy our hearts and it’s not ultimately the end of the story. Pay attention to what God tucks into the middle of these five woes in chapter 2.

Glory is the Goal

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14

From the beginning to the end of redemptive history, justice hasn’t been the ultimate goal. It’s part of the goal, and it helps get us to the goal, but it isn’t the goal.

Glory is the goal.

That isn’t just a Sunday School answer. It is the goal toward which God is moving all of history. And one day we will see it. The glory of the Lord will be so bright in the age to come that we will not need the sun! He wants the whole of his creation to be filled with the effulgence of his majesty. And he wants all of us to know it and see it because he knows that this is what will ultimately satisfy us – to be with him, to see him as he is and to be transformed into his likeness. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:4

We want judgment, but what our hearts really need is glory. They need God.

So when you’re discouraged by the evil around us, and the evil still within your own heart, when you feel like God is idle and blind, not paying attention at all, remind yourself of the truths God laid out for Habakkuk:

God’s promises are true.

Faith anchors itself in God, not circumstances.

The Judge of all will do right.

Seeing the glory of God is the goal.

Humble Hermeneutics

A big part of reading the Bible has to do with interpreting the Bible. That’s what hermeneutics refers to: the science of interpretation. For all of church history there have been debates, schisms, persecutions, and even wars as a result of disagreement over how to interpret certain parts of the Bible. Right now, in our own communities, we see the multitude of different denominations that have sprung up over differences in interpretations. And on a personal level, we all have preferences when it comes to how we read and interpret certain passages of Scripture.

I’ll just come out and say it. I thought I was right about Romans 7. You know the passage? It’s at the end of the chapter where Paul agonizes over doing what he doesn’t want to do. For years I was absolutely sure that Paul was describing his post-conversion experience of fighting with the sin that remained in his flesh. Of course it was! I heard John Piper preach on it that way! (Insert appropriate sarcastic emoji) I had even read John Owen on it. And it seemed obvious from my plain reading of the text.

But something interesting happened the other day when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Knowing Faith. If you haven’t heard of it, go check it out. This season the hosts have been going through the first half of Romans. When they came to that passage in Romans 7, I eagerly anticipated their takes. Would they agree with me? (What I was really thinking was, “Would they hold the correct interpretation?”) And guess what? They threw me for a loop in their interpretations. They didn’t come down firmly on either side: pre- or post-conversion. I was surprised. But as I continued to listen I was humbled. I realized that I had been holding so firmly to my specific interpretation, thinking it was the only correct one, that it had led me into a dangerous ditch.

I was so sure for so long of my position on this passage that I had become inflexible. I wasn’t willing to entertain other possibilities. And not only that, I had unwittingly categorized people who held the opposite position as somehow unenlightened or ignorant. As a result, I would avoid teachers and scholars who held that position and would’ve looked down upon their other work because of their position on this one passage.

The truth is, your position on whether Paul was speaking of his pre- or post-conversion experience in Romans 7 isn’t an essential of the faith. The major doctrines of the faith – the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, etc. – don’t depend on it. But I had elevated my interpretation to such a level that it had produced a kind of hermeneutical pride that prevented me from loving my fellow brothers and sisters who held a different interpretation.

How often do we allow this to happen in other areas? How often do we allow our view of baptism or our preference in worship music to drive us toward looking down on others instead of thinking of them as more significant than ourselves? (see Philippians 2:1-4) Earlier in my life, I am embarrassed to confess that I looked down on moms who went back to work after having kids. I had elevated my interpretation of Titus 2:5 to such a level that it caused me to look down on my sisters in Christ who made different choices for different reasons that were none of my business. Truthfully, I am becoming more and more convinced that the majority of our problems in the church could be solved if we just sought to obey this one command – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

For sure, be a lion on the essentials! But just as importantly, be careful to exercise wisdom in knowing what is essential and what is not. Don’t elevate your or your favorite teacher’s interpretation on a disputed passage to such a high level that it causes division and only puffs up your ego. Examine yourself and your reactions to those who differ with you on these non-essentials. Is your default reaction one of pride and scorn, or are you humble enough to realize you might be wrong?

We would all do well to adopt the motto that originated with an obscure 17th century German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius who wrote a tract on Christian unity during the bloody Thirty Years War:

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Anticipating Weakness

“Be prepared for surprises in this Kingdom.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones

In two days I will start chemotherapy. It still feels like this whole thing is happening to someone else. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what these toxic drugs will do to my body. There’s no way of knowing for sure how my body will react.

I have many friends who have encouraged me by telling me how strong I am and how I’m going to kick cancer’s butt. I do appreciate those sentiments and all the love and support that come with them. In the cancer world, there’s a lot of talk about being a survivor and overcoming and beating the odds. A positive attitude definitely helps. But I have a feeling all that isn’t going to be enough when the inevitable weakness comes. When I’m wracked with nausea or shocked by my changing appearance or troubled by some weird side effect that I wasn’t expecting.

But thank God he has not left us alone and without his promises when those times come. Many of those promises are wrapped in lessons that run directly counter to the advice the world gives us. The world says to avoid discomfort and suffering at all costs, but God promises that it will come. The world says to keep your head up and believe in yourself when trouble comes, but God tells us to rejoice in our sufferings, to delight in our weaknesses because in his economy, in his kingdom, things are upside down and surprising. It’s when we delight in our weaknesses that God’s power rests upon us.

It seems the apostle Paul could give a master class in these lessons of the upside down kingdom, and we are to imitate him as he imitated our Lord Jesus Christ. The Corinthians were used to measuring people by their soaring rhetoric and powerful presence, but Paul appeared as just the opposite of what they expected. He says, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling…” 1 Corinthians 2:3 Paul’s life was filled with all kinds of suffering (see 2 Corinthians 11:16-29!) and he teaches us how to not just survive but live faithfully in the midst of our sufferings. It’s not by pumping ourselves up with the latest self-help advice. It’s by identifying with Christ and learning, through the suffering, the surprising lessons of this upside down Kingdom.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he recounts again his sufferings and hardship and teaches us these things:

  • At the point of despair, rely not on yourself but on God who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
  • In the midst of affliction and persecution we do not give up hope because we’ve learned that we’re just jars of clay carrying around the very reality of both the death and life of Jesus in our bodies. Any manifested power belongs to God and not us. 2 Corinthians 4:7-12
  • When we have pled with God to take away the suffering and pain and he says no, we learn that his grace is enough because his power is made complete in our weakness. We can even rejoice in our sufferings knowing that it’s at the point of weakness that we see the power of God on display. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

In this school of suffering, I feel like I’m only a kindergartner, but I take comfort in knowing there are many who’ve gone before me and graduated from this school. They have all learned what Allan Chapple shares here from his book called True Devotion:

“…power-in-weakness lies at the heart of authentically Christian life and service. In this in-between time, we experience God’s power not so much in being kept from hardships and weaknesses but in being kept in them. His power is seen most often in our perseverance, when we triumph not by rising above our trials but by staying true in them.

20 Years

It’s been a tough year with a lot of changes in our household. Part of the changes had to do with my in-law’s moving and more than half of their stuff coming to live in our garage. Then my oldest moved out, and moved back in, then moved out again. Bit by bit, we’ve been going through things, getting rid of things, and finding new identities for children’s rooms. And then my husband got the idea of cleaning out the attic for the first time in our 25 year marriage and this was something that couldn’t be denied. One of those unspoken honey-do’s was coming true!

One of the boxes in the attic contained a bunch of old journals. I started reading through them to correct some memories I’d included in a writing project. But before long I got sucked back into my life of 20 years ago. It wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of hormones. Did I only write when I was emotional? I hope so because if not, I was a lot more unstable than I remember! Sitting on the floor of what was once my oldest son’s room, I read about myself and my husband and our struggles with a long bout of unemployment and young children and starting to homeschool. It was a lot and I think I underestimated the stress and strain it put on me and my family. But 20 years later I found myself feeling kind of discouraged instead of thankful for how God had brought us so far. Yes, this has been a tough year. But I am more stable, my marriage is much stronger, and I know God so much more deeply than 20 years ago.

If you’re in the midst of diapers, or homeschooling small kids, or at your wit’s end with teens, hold on and give yourself grace. Know that the Lord is with you in all of the less than ideal aspects of your life. He is pleased with you amidst all the frustration and loose ends. If you struggle to fully believe certain things about God, keep pressing in as Paul says, press on toward that goal for that prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14) What does that look like practically and specifically? It looks like gazing upward instead of inward. Spend more time meditating on his steadfast love and faithfulness than wallowing in your failures. I guarantee you that if you do that, 20 years from now, things will look a lot different.

After I put away those journals and gave myself time to process all that the Lord has done these last 20 years, I was able to get some perspective. I was tempted to be discouraged and wallow in what I looked like 20 years ago. But then I thought about the things I struggled to really believe about God back then. I struggled with thinking that God was indifferent. I so wanted the knowledge that I knew with my head – that God is truly for me and loves me no matter what – to burrow deeply into my heart. As I reflected, 20 years later, I saw that those things have burrowed their way into my heart, almost imperceptibly, and have become the rock solid ground under my feet that are sustaining me this very day. Slowly, very slowly, but surely, God was working over these last 20 years to build my faith stronger and stronger. Yes, 20 years ago, a lot of things weren’t pretty, but God was in it and he’s been faithful. And he is faithful right now and forevermore.

When in Trouble…

Psalm 77 gives us a perfect prescription for what to do when we’re in trouble. The first nine verses recount Asaph’s lament and teach us that even the most faithful of God’s people experience doubt and despair. He speaks of endless weary nights of trouble, putting forth honest questions about God’s character. “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?” Psalm 77:7-8

But then there’s a big turn that happens in verse 10. “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this…'” What Asaph does beginning here in verse 10 is deliberately turn his attention back to who God is and what he has done. You can almost imagine a pounding of the fist as he urges himself toward God in verse 11:

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.”

What deeds and wonders will Asaph bring to mind? He reminds himself of the greatest deliverance in Israel’s history: the Exodus. God is the wonder working God who brings redemption to his people. He speaks of the waters of the Red Sea being afraid of God and his lightnings lighting up the world. The whole earth responds at his command. After recounting and meditating on all God has done, Asaph is able to rest his weary hands that have been stretched out in prayer night after night and instead glory in God’s mighty and faithful hand that worked such a powerful deliverance.

What Asaph did in Psalm 77 is a pattern we all should learn and practice for those times when we get lost amidst the suffering we’ll inevitably endure in this life. I don’t know what Asaph was going through, but for me, right now, I’m at the beginning of a long journey of cancer treatment. I’m on the outskirts of a kind of suffering I’ve never experienced and I’m already seeing how it can easily make me forget what I already know about God. So I’m reminding myself of God’s character, specifically, his knowledge and power over all things, big and small. Here’s a sampling of what his Word tells me:

God knows the number and names of all the stars. Psalm 147:4 “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” 

God appoints plants and worms and winds. Jonah 4:6, 7, 8 “Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah…But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant…When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind…”

God takes notice of every sparrow and numbers the hairs on your head. Luke 12:6-7 “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”

From stars to worms to hairs and sparrows, he knows. And if he governs the large and the small, he also governs the microscopic. He governs my cancer. I don’t fully understand that but what is the alternative? The alternative is chance or chaos. And I’d rather be content not fully understanding God’s ways than panicked and without hope thinking that it’s all out of control.

So when you’re in trouble, learn from Asaph. Urge your soul forward towards the Lord. Remember who he is and remember his deeds. His understanding is unsearchable and he is still sovereign.

On Profanity

Profanity: (according to Wikipedia) socially offensive use of language, which may also be called cursing, swearing, or expletives.

Have you noticed profanity becoming more and more commonplace? People have always used offensive language, but it wasn’t always out in the open. People avoided using it in polite company, broadcasters banned it on most television shows, and kids only whispered it behind closed doors with their friends. But lately there seems to be less and less of a problem with it. Expletives grace the covers of books and new media outlets like podcasts have no restrictions. The profane speech that was once frowned upon now elicits shameless giggles and even cheers.

The Atlanta Braves just won the World Series. For an Atlanta sports fan, this has been a big deal and long time coming. We rewrote the narrative (see Superbowl LI and last year’s NLCS among other examples) and claimed a major sports title for the first time since 1995. One of the players we added halfway through the season made quite a contribution with his bat and his personality, profanely proclaiming his prowess as he hit another game-changing home run in the NLDS. The fans loved it.

One of the elite runners I admire won the New York City Marathon in 2017. As she ran the final stretch in Central Park toward the finish line, realizing the gravity of her accomplishment not only for herself but for U.S. distance running, she screamed a triumphant expletive. It went viral and everyone loved it. Overnight the phrase flooded social media posts and became a meme of sorts for strong women everywhere.

Closer to home, there’s a certain race I’ve run three times. It’s a 50K race that fits into a special category in which there are no prizes or t-shirts. It’s a casual, just-for-fun ultramarathon. Race organizers have chosen a colorful name for these kinds of races. At first I didn’t want to say the name because I don’t use that kind of language. But then I heard others use it, even Christian friends, so I told myself to lighten up. It’s not a big deal. The name really wasn’t that bad. So I started using it. But then I thought some more about it. I thought about how powerful language is and how easy it would be to allow other, more colorful words to creep into my vocabulary once I started using this milder one.

As Christians, we’re called to a certain standard in our behavior and with our mouths. Psalm 19:14 says, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Words are important because they reflect the heart. Jesus told his disciples that you can judge a person’s character by his words: “for out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45

So how should Christians respond to a more casual attitude towards language, a coarsening of speech not only in the culture around them but maybe even in their own Christian circles? I admit that I have struggled with how to deal with this. No one wants to be seen as a prude or a legalist, but should a desire to be careful with our words be labeled as prudish? Isn’t it a desire to follow Peter’s admonition: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'”? Holiness is never seen as ‘cool’ by the world, but shouldn’t it be encouraged by our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?

Maybe we all need to go back and read James 3 again and take to heart what the apostle tells us about the tongue:

“For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body…the tongue is a small member yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

If these words seem over-the-top and shocking to us, perhaps we haven’t understood clearly the power of language. But just look at a social media platform like Twitter which is powered almost exclusively by negative speech! In that case, the keyboard acting as proxy for the tongue truly is a fire and a world of unrighteousness.

Believers shouldn’t be embarrassed into going along with the coarsening of culture, especially in our speech. We should seek to live differently, to speak differently, to live as Paul instructed us, as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” Philippians 2:15

The spirit of the age is all about the individual, expressing yourself in any way without a thought for what others may think. The world tells us that whatever comes out of our mouths is an expression of our true selves. But as believers, we’re told who our true selves are, it’s the new self who has been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24) We’re told that the Christian life is a continual practice of putting off the old self and putting on this new self. The new self is to do all things in love, thinking of others as more significant than ourselves. The new self takes the place of the old self, the earthly self, which we are called to continually put away and put to death with all its anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk. (Colossians 3:5-10) Holiness and love should characterize all our speech so that we follow Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Instead of blending in with the culture, let’s aim to speak in ways that are pure, edifying, appropriate and gracious. Such speech isn’t embarrassing. It’s beautiful and glorifies our Lord Jesus Christ.

Come Down

I’ve been reading The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, which is a good introduction to the Puritans if you’ve never read them.

Here is a quote and my reflections on it.

Christ came down from heaven and emptied himself of majesty in tender love to souls. Shall we not come down from our high conceits to do any poor soul good? Shall man be proud after God has been humble?

What is he getting at here? It’s about imitating Christ. Think on our Lord Jesus Christ who is the highest of the high emptying himself for lowly sinners like ourselves. Does he lord over us his majesty and power? Does he look down on us who are weak? No. He comes to us with compassion and tenderness. A bruised reed he will not break. (Isaiah 42:3) He comforts us and weeps with us. (John 11:35) And so we also should weep with others, coming down to their level.

Advancing in theological knowledge is fun and some of us love to learn the heavy doctrines and talk about them with those who are like-minded. All that is fine, but if that knowledge separates us from others’ struggles, causing us to look down on those who haven’t advanced as far as we have, what good is that knowledge? If you can explain the five solas but refuse to serve at the soup kitchen, what good is that?

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8 that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. It’s not that knowledge isn’t important. For Paul’s audience, he affirms the truth that idols are nothing and so the issue of eating or not eating meat sacrificed to them won’t commend us to God. But not all possess this knowledge. So don’t let the freedom you have received from this knowledge cause you to make your brother stumble. That is the most important thing in Paul’s mind. He concludes this way, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” 1 Corinthians 8:12-13

And this is Sibbes’ point as well. If Christ, who is highly exalted above all, stoops to the level of lowly sinners, shouldn’t we also come down to serve those who are the least among us?