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When I was growing up, race was always an issue where I lived, but I don’t remember it being quite as charged as it is today.
Growing up in a predominately white elementary school, I remember being called “Chink” and “Gook.” I remember classmates mimicking my slanted eyes as they spoke gibberish. I remember trying to distance myself from the Southeast Asian students that had come to our community as refugees. I remember doling out racially insensitive slurs sadly typical of the playground and the basketball court.
Now as a pastor, speaking about race, racism, and ethnic harmony seems to be one of the most polarizing topics today, not only in the world, but even within the church. Everyone has a take, everyone takes sides, and it often feels like a lose-lose proposition.
Few things today are as divisive, hostile, fragile, challenging, and complex as race relations are in America. Yet on this weekend, remembering the work and vision of Martin Luther King Jr., we remind ourselves from the word of God that we can and ought to remain hopeful.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, King addressed those who had experienced “great trials and tribulations . . . battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality . . . veterans of creative suffering. . . .” Yet King exhorted his listeners to not lose heart:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
King held out hope that there would be a day when his dream would become a reality. We are not where we were in 1963, but in 2020 we are not yet where we need to be. Our world is still full of violence, animosity, division, prejudice, racial animus, bitterness, anger, hard-heartedness, and indifference. But instead of wallowing in despair, Christians recognize that we are called to advance not the American dream, and not ultimately King’s dream, but the far better dream, the end-time Revelation reality, that is coming to all who hope in Christ.
Every believer and local church is called to make disciples of all nations with the authority of Jesus Christ himself (Matthew 28:18–20). This global mission of making disciples — baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands — will culminate and climax with unparalleled unity in diversity, a heavenly choir comprised of every ethnicity on the face of the earth. The Book of Revelation sums up this glorious, end-time, Christ-exalting biblical dream for us:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
This is the end. There will be every nation represented. Every tribe. Every people. Every language. No second-class citizens. No class of elite. No arrogance. No animosity. No hostility. Can you imagine?
Every wrong will be made right on that day. All the bitterness, misunderstanding, blind spots, hard-heartedness, antagonism, racial prejudice, systemic injustice, and personal sinfulness will be made right. How? Jesus has paid, with his own blood, for every sin of every sinner who trusts in him. For those who reject the free gift of salvation, their sins will be judged in the flawless courtroom of God. On that day, all division, disunity, and hostility will be done away with by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, poured out on his blood-bought people.
If we really believe that will happen, the future should give us great hope for our present. I don’t know if we’ll figure out race relations in America in my lifetime. I suspect we will still be talking about slavery, systemic racism, injustice, police brutality, and racial animosity when my ministry ends. As a Christian and as a pastor, I lament, with great sorrow, how slow and grueling progress has been on these fronts.
But I’m grateful that someday it will all come to an end. There will be a day when justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). God’s people can be conduits and advocates of this biblical justice here and now, and we eagerly await a day when God will bring it to pass perfectly.
In the meantime, Christians love and advance this glorious, end-time vision of a multiethnic gathering comprised of every tribe, tongue, language, and nation. Christ-loving people advance Christ-exalting priorities — in our personal lives, in our churches, in our families, and in our communities. As someone who pastors a church striving passionately for unity in diversity, here are three practices that have helped conform our hearts and minds to the priorities of our Savior.
What seems to be missing among many Christians, is a solid biblical conviction that ethnic diversity in the church is a beautiful thing, and part of God’s ultimate design for his people. It is inconceivable to me that a Christian can have a Christ-exalting love for diversity in the church and be hostile toward diversity in the nation. The knee-jerk hostilities I see betray, it seems, a very thin veneer of politically correct tolerance of diversity, instead of a deep, biblically grounded, cross-centered exuberance over God’s plan to reconcile all nations in Christ.
We need a renewed passion for Jesus’s blood-bought multiethnic bride revealed in Revelation 5:9–10.
Justice is doing what is right and good according to what God revealed in Scripture. God loves justice. Consider Isaiah 30:18: “the Lord is a God of justice.” And Psalm 37:28: “the Lord loves justice.” God rules and reigns in perfect justice.
But God also calls his people to pursue justice in our world. Consider Psalm 106:3: “Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!” Or Proverbs 21:3: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” To love and pursue justice is not to tolerate injustice. Instead, we heed Isaiah’s vision from God: “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).
God’s people seek to advance true biblical justice today, while putting our hope not here on earth but on the perfectly just One who will come.
We are not engaged in a war against our neighbors south of the border. We are not living in fear of refugees fleeing religious persecution, genocide, or political unrest. God commands his people in the Old Testament to love sojourners (Deuteronomy 10:19), to not oppress them (Zechariah 7:10), and to remember that he watches over them (Psalm 146:9). How much more should followers of Christ who have been redeemed by unmerited grace — who are sojourners and exiles here on earth (1 Peter 2:11) — love and pursue those who are oppressed and vulnerable?
We can seek to understand the refugee crisis and the immigration debate, and help to educate others around us in love, patience, and gentleness.
Jesus has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Our God-given, otherworldly love for one another tells the world we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:35). Christians will disagree on political policy, strategies for addressing problems, the extent of how far reaching this issue is, how we should go about addressing it in church and parachurch ministries, and which pathways forward are the most wise, fruitful, and timely. Mutual love, however, makes no room for division, divisiveness, and hostility in the one body of Christ. We can and should preserve the glorious unity we have in Jesus Christ.
We have hope because we have Christ. And because we have hope, we can take meaningful steps to have our lives and actions reflect the values of Christ’s kingdom. Christ calls us to faith-filled action rooted in Christ’s work and his kingdom, not to earthly agendas on the left or right. We also ought to extend grace to others who have differing strategies, tactics, and levels of understanding as we recognize what we’re all striving to achieve.
In the last day — gathered around his throne, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, finally seeing face-to-face — we will see how we all fell short. No one engaged in these conversations perfectly. Everyone made mistakes along the way in our discovery and understanding of racism. No one will have the moral high ground in that day. We will all stand on level ground, grateful that God saves sinners, and marvel that we had an opportunity to play a part in advancing his end-time mission through our feeble and faithful prayers, labors, and participation.
Oh, may our Lord Jesus come quickly. And if he tarries, let us lock arms as brothers and sisters in Christ, to carry out his work, in his strength, for his glory, until he returns.
True Christian education fills our hearts and minds with a joy so serious and strong that our society loses its power to control where we stand and what we say.
The violent tremors they felt that day may have been the most reassuring earthquake anyone has ever experienced.
Christ had poured out his Spirit, he had established his church, and now he was adding to their number day by day (Acts 2:47). As the word spread, opposition mounted, threatening their young and fragile family. So, they did what souls captured by God do: they gathered to pray.
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them . . . look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:24, 29–30)
The threats against them were deadly serious. Some of them would be killed for standing with the risen Jesus. When they came together, though, they did not pray for protection, at least not here. Instead, they prayed earnestly for the courage to keep telling people about Jesus, to keep putting themselves at great risk for the sake of winning some. And how did God respond to their prayer?
When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31)
God answered, giving them great boldness, but he did more than that. Why would God shake the place where they prayed? Not only to impart more confidence, but also to say vividly, tangibly, even violently, Your Father in heaven loves when you gather to pray.
Why do Christians, from the early church to today, in every time and place, pray together? In part, because heartfelt prayer requires fresh glimpses of God, and we know how little we see by ourselves. We want to take in and experience more of Jesus than we would ever see on our own. We want to kindle our adoration before God through the eyes of others. Tim Keller writes, quoting C.S. Lewis,
By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived. . . . Knowing the Lord is communal and cumulative, we must pray and praise together. That way “the more we share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.” (Prayer, 119)
Praying with others gives us new windows into the worth of Christ. Of course we pray in secret (Matthew 6:6), and yet if we only prayed alone, we would tear out one of our eyes, as it were, missing facets of Christ we see only through others. The soul of any Christian rises or falls with secret prayer, but it is not good for man to only pray alone. We need to hear each other go hard after God, and we need to carry one another’s burdens before him.
As we read through the book of Acts, we see that the early church never stopped praying together. The story seems to turn on followers of Christ gathering to seek their Lord — for wisdom, for deliverance, for boldness, for strength and comfort. They devoted themselves to the word of God, to one another, and to prayer (Acts 2:42). And how did God respond to their prayers?
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 2:46–47)
We all want such power in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our cities, and we should not expect God to do it apart from our praying. So, what did the church in Acts pray together for?
When Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers fell to their knees, “devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:4). They felt the need to replace Judas among the twelve, but the Spirit had not yet been poured out on them. How would they decide between two worthy men, Joseph and Matthias? “They prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen’” (Acts 1:24). So today, we pray together and for one another that we “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9), especially in difficult, painful, or complicated decisions and situations.
As we already heard, the church gathered and prayed, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). They were already bold (Acts 4:13), but they did not presume on past boldness. They asked God to renew their confidence — to continue to speak his word with all boldness. They pled together for courageous faithfulness, for an open door (Colossians 4:3), for clarity and precision (Colossians 4:4), and for supernatural fruit among their hearers (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
When they called men to public office, they prayed together over them. “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). Similarly, they prayed over the seven table-servants (Acts 6:4–6), and over missionaries they sent (Acts 13:3). The church went to God together on behalf of its leaders, establishing a precious path and pattern before the throne for our churches today. The men God has called to us as shepherds need us to go to God together for them in prayer.
When Peter was arrested to satisfy Herod’s pride and lust for approval, the church gathered to pray. “Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5). They didn’t just agree to pray in their own closets, but they came together to pray. And God miraculously freed Peter. When Peter realized what happened, “he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying” (Acts 12:12). What might God do if, instead of only adding another item to our personal lists, we gathered together to pray for those suffering in the body (Hebrews 13:3) — especially for persecuted and oppressed saints around the world?
We know very little of the kind of goodbyes we read about in Acts. They truly did not know if they would ever meet again, and keeping up with one another was extremely difficult. When Paul left the Ephesian elders, “he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:36–38). He did the same, likely through tears, with the believers in Tyre (Acts 21:5). When sorrows rolled, they knew to kneel and pour out their hearts, together, to God.
We know the church gathered to pray for more, but these five prayers give us a great place to start in any prayer gathering, however big or small. If we don’t know what to pray for with our family or with other members of our church, we can start by praying what we know Christians have prayed for together since the church began.
As we gather to adore God, we see more than we would have seen on our own. As we gather to plead with God to move in specific ways among us (supplication), he is all the more eager to stretch out his hand to guide, to heal, to embolden, to comfort, to provide. Another surprisingly precious ingredient in corporate prayer, however, is the confession of sin. As we humble ourselves before one another in hope-filled honesty, grace rises and Satan runs (James 4:7).
How many of us have been stuck in ruts of sin while no one else prayed for us? And how would others pray for us if we never confessed our sin to them? God wants us to confess to one another, and then go to God together for forgiveness, renewal, and healing.
Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:16–18)
When we confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, we welcome that kind of power into our war against sin and all its consequences — the kind of power that disperses clouds and holds back seas. When we confess and pray together, we’re no longer a lone soldier against sin and Satan, but we fight alongside an army of warriors backed by the sovereign throne of heaven. James speaks of a kind of culture of hope and healing that comes through humbling ourselves, confessing our sin to one another and then going to God together in prayer.
Finally, when we pray together, we not only adore our God, confess our sins, and make our collective requests, but we also thank our great God together. We know, even by instinct, how to ask God to fix the present or provide for the future. We are not, however, as naturally thankful. Thankfulness, however, is indispensable to prayer, whether private or corporate.
Paul writes, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). He wanted the church to watch together for reasons to thank God together. And we are never without reasons. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). So, when you sit together to pray, give place to give thanks.
Corporate prayer makes gratitude wonderfully contagious. As Paul writes, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). While the whole world restlessly runs ahead to the next event, plagued by anxiety about the future, linger uncomfortably long over all the good that God has done for you.
Thank him alone in secret, but don’t only thank him alone. Let your prayers strengthen someone else’s hope, and let their prayers strengthen yours.
Even healing can be dangerous, if we do not reckon with the purpose of our healing: repentance.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis begins his discussion of the natural loves with the observation of de Rougemont that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god.” Or, in Lewis’s restatement, “love begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.”
Lewis is concerned that human loves, at times, tend to claim for themselves a divine authority that overrides all other claims and obligations. They demand unconditional allegiance and thereby become gods (and thereby become demons which destroy both us and themselves).
Significantly for Lewis, the human or natural loves only make this claim when they are at their highest, at those moments when they most resemble God. Their claims to divinity are only plausible if there is a real likeness between the natural love and Love Himself. But having become deities, they become demons, and as demons, they cease to be loves at all but instead become only very complicated forms of hatred.
To illustrate the point, we might consider a recurring character in Lewis’s writings — the tyrannical and possessive mother. In The Four Loves, she is called Mrs. Fidget. In Screwtape Letters, she is described as “the sort of woman who lives for others — you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.” And in The Great Divorce, she is called Pam, the ghost who is Michael’s mother.
It is this last example that I wish to use as an illustration. In the allegory, Lewis depicts a bus traveling from hell to heaven. The conversations that happen on the bus unfold the tensions between good and evil, grace and judgment, all to show (in Lewis’s words), “If we insist on keeping hell (or even earth) we shall not see heaven: if we accept heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of hell.”
Pam’s love for her son, Michael, is “uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac.” When she meets her brother Reginald on the green plains, she is put out because Michael has not come to meet her. Reginald, a solid spirit who is there to lead her to the mountains (heaven), insists that she must be “thickened up a bit” before Michael will be able to see her. The thickening process begins with her desiring someone else besides Michael.
Pam sullenly agrees to try “religion and all that sort of thing” but only so that they will hurry up and let her see her boy. In other words, she attempts to use God as a means to Michael. Her love is intensely possessive. “I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.” This is a twisted form of the rightful affection that a mother has for her son. A child does belong to his mother, in some sense. But when natural affection becomes a god, it makes a total and ultimate claim to ownership.
What’s more, Pam’s love for Michael has the appearance of sacrifice but is, in fact, a complicated form of hatred. She protests that she gave up her whole life for Michael, that she sacrificed everything for his memory. But George MacDonald, Lewis’s guide in The Great Divorce, points out that her love is not excessive, but defective. It’s the type of love that will even demand to have the beloved with her in hell rather than give up possession. It prefers to possess the beloved in everlasting misery, rather than release them into joy. Hatred is not too strong a word.
Lewis takes pains to remind us that the corruption of such loves is greater because their natural goodness is greater. Mother-love is a grand and glorious virtue. Therefore, when it goes bad, when it becomes a god, it becomes a terrifying demon indeed.
Lewis, of course, applied this principle to the three natural loves — storge (familial affection), eros (romantic or sexual love), and philia (love between friends). But in principle, he notes that the same can be applied to many other kinds of love — love of country and love of nature, for example. But in The Great Divorce, he also points to another surprising form of corrupted love, what he calls, “the passion of pity.” The passion of pity is what happens when love for the hurting, the broken, and the weak (what we typically call compassion) becomes a god, and in doing so, becomes a demon.
We see subtle indications of the complicated dynamics when compassion goes wrong in Pam’s conversation with Reginald. Recall that Pam was attempting to use God as a means to see her son Michael. When Reginald points out this fact, Pam rebuffs him with her own suffering as a mother. Reginald reminds her of God’s love and suffering on her behalf, and Pam responds, “If he loved me, he’d let me see my boy.” In other words, Pam is appealing to a certain definition of love, a love that does whatever the beloved wants, especially if she has suffered.
Now, it’s important to get straight on this situation. Pam really has objectively suffered. Her beloved son Michael was ripped from her through death. And her pain didn’t cease with the loss of Michael. After his death, she lived for his memory and continued to feel the pain of his loss, even as she learned to “expect no sympathy” from her husband and daughter who, in her mind, didn’t truly care for Michael or for her. That’s her lived and experienced reality as a bereaved mother.
But notice how her brother Reginald diagnoses her suffering. The truth is that her high and holy mother-love was actually tyrannical. Living only for Michael’s memory was a mistake (and, according to Reginald, she knows it). Her husband and daughter loved Michael and only rebelled against Pam’s attempts to dominate them with her sorrows. Her insistence on clinging to the past was, in fact, “the wrong way to deal with a sorrow.”
Pam’s response to Reginald’s correction is telling. “You are heartless. Everyone is heartless.” And then, sarcastically, “Oh, of course. I’m wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you.” In other words, here we see Pam attempting to use her suffering (both real and imagined) as a way to get what she wants from Reginald. In her grief, she will sulk and pout in order to elicit compassion from her brother. But then, we see a key interaction as Pam erupts at Reginald and at God.
“I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of love.”
“And yet, Pam, you have no love at this moment for your own mother or for me.”
“Oh, I see! That’s the trouble, is it? Really, Reginald! The idea of your being hurt because. . .”
“Lord love you!” said the Spirit with a great laugh. “You needn’t bother about that! Don’t you know that you can’t hurt anyone in this country?”
The Ghost was silent and open-mouthed for a moment; more wilted, I thought, by this re-assurance than by anything else that had been said. (103–104)
In this moment, Pam realizes that she can no longer use her suffering to hurt and manipulate those who love her. A weapon has been taken out of her hand.
But Lewis’s most extended display of this danger occurs at the end of the book in the conversation between Sarah Smith and the ghost who was her husband Frank. When they first meet, Frank acts as though he’s concerned about the misery of his wife in his absence. He wears his compassion on his sleeve.
However, as he discovers that she has not been miserable in his absence, he grows offended. He contemplates overlooking the offense, but wonders whether she’ll notice his sacrifice (he remembers the time on earth when she had not noticed that he allowed her the use of the last stamp even though he needed to mail a letter himself). Thus, he persists in attempting to comfort her in her misery, and then is frustrated to discover that there are no miseries in heaven.
It becomes clear through the remainder of the conversation that he views her misery as a measure of her love for him. He can only imagine a love that desperately needs him in order to be happy, and which he can manipulate to get his way.
Frank resists all attempts by Sarah to draw him out of his selfishness and instead attempts to awaken guilt in her by threatening to return to the misery of hell. He paints a picture of himself back in the “cold and the gloom, the lonely, lonely streets.” When she says, “Don’t talk like that,” he seizes on what he thinks is her grief and guilt. “Ah, you can’t bear it. . . . You must be sheltered. Grim realities must be kept out of your sight. You who can be happy without me. . . . You say, don’t. Don’t tell you. Don’t make you unhappy.”
But Sarah quickly corrects him. She doesn’t tell him to stop because she can’t handle the grief. She tells him to stop acting for his own sake. And then she describes Frank’s besetting sin, the sin that he must turn away from if he is to be saved.
[Stop] using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.
You see, I know now. Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic . . . because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, “I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.” You used their pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end. And afterwards, when we were married . . . oh, it doesn’t matter, if only you will stop it. (131–132)
Sarah’s joy is now invulnerable to Frank’s manipulations. Her love and joy is no longer at the mercy of his frowns and sighs. He can no longer hurt her, because she is in Love, and she cannot love a lie. In the end, Frank rejects her calls to come out of his sulky selfishness and vanishes back to the Gray Town.
Now, Lewis knows that his description of the invulnerability of joy will be shocking to his readers. After Sarah and her entourage leave, he asks his guide, George MacDonald, “Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”
MacDonald presses through the apparent compassion and mercy of the question to point out the underlying reality. What lies beneath the desire for Sarah to be touched by Frank’s misery is “the demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that hell should be able to veto heaven” (135).
And then the narrator asks the question that is central for us: “Dare one say that pity [compassion] should ever die?” MacDonald wisely says that we must distinguish between the action of pity and the passion of pity. The passion of pity leads men to concede what should not be conceded. We surrender the truth out of misguided pity and compassion for the hurting. Or we flatter others rather than speak the truth. Men have used the passion of pity to cheat women out of their virginity, using hang-dog looks to manipulate their lovers into the backseat of cars (and then to conceal the sin out of pity for their reputation). As we saw earlier in Pam’s interaction with Reginald, pity and compassion can be wielded as a weapon against good-hearted people.
On the other hand, the action of pity, true compassion, is a weapon for the sons of light. It will descend from the highest to the lowest place, no matter the cost. It effects transformation, bringing light into the darkness. But, significantly, true compassion will not impose on good the tyranny of evil, no matter how many cunning tears hell cries. True compassion will not lie — it will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on keeping their jaundice. It will not turn a garden into a dung heap because some people can’t abide the smell of roses.
Now, Lewis knew that many would be offended by his portrayals in these scenes. He knew that some would accuse him of being inhuman and pitiless, of attacking the holiest and best things. And so, after witnessing the interaction between Pam and Reginald, the narrator asks MacDonald, “But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother, in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?” MacDonald’s response is crucial.
No, no, son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it will be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.
This is what Lewis is doing: attempting to say in general what many are afraid to say. But it’s cruel not to say it, and the absence of such truth-telling is “why sorrows that used to purify now only fester.” And then MacDonald insists on the same truth that we saw in The Four Loves.
But you and I must be clear. There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to him and bad when it turns from him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. (105–106)
In other words, love — even love for the hurting and broken — becomes a demon the moment that it becomes a god.
Now at this point, we may rightly ask what we should do with Lewis’s insight about the dangerous passion of pity? We might examine our subtle tendency to wield our afflictions (especially our minor afflictions) as tools of manipulation. It’s easy to magnify our inconveniences in order to elicit sympathy from those who love us, to make martyrs out of ourselves and send our loved ones on a guilt trip. The sulks are not only a danger for children.
Or we might consider the way that we can wield the suffering of others in the same manner. Compassion is a great and glorious good, a spur to joy to help those who are suffering. But the line between spurring joy to help misery and using the misery of others to steer the merciful is not always easy to see. The tyrannical mother did not recognize her tyranny. From the inside, her mother-love was holy, righteous, and good.
Nor do we always recognize when our compassion ceases to be compassion and instead becomes a subtle tool of emotional blackmail. But if Lewis is right that the highest and best things become demoniac when they begin to be gods, then we ought to be aware that compassion — which is one of the highest and best things — can also fall into this trap.
However, for myself, I think that the best application of Lewis’s insights comes from the solid Spirits in his story. They are full of love; indeed they are in Love himself. Compassion — what Lewis calls the action of pity — flows from them like streams of water from an inexhaustible fountain. To bring the heavenly picture down to earth, faithful compassion leans into the suffering of others, weeping with those who weep, genuinely joining the sorrowful in their grief, and then, when the time is right, taking action to relieve the pain.
But while compassion will leap from the heights of joy to the depths of sorrow in order to bring healing, even at great cost to itself, it will refuse to be steered by the manipulations of the afflicted (or their advocates). True compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme.
Like Job, compassion can absorb the grief-driven accusations of a bereaved mother and refuse to curse God and die (Job 2:9–10). It refuses to concede what should not be conceded, even in the face of great human suffering. It refuses to flatter under the pressure of pity, but will insist on speaking the truth (or at least clinging to the truth, if wisdom directs that it’s not yet time to speak). It is willing to be called “heartless” in its pursuit of the true and lasting good of the afflicted. There is a holy stability and integrity to true compassion that has the paradoxical ability to move toward the hurting, without being swallowed by their grief.
Compassion ceases to be a demon when it ceases to be a god, and compassion becomes itself, in all of its glory, when it revels in the fact that God is God, merciful and gracious and abounding in steadfast love.
Most fundamentally, marriage is not a convenient matchup of vocations, but a covenant that displays the love Jesus has for his church.
How do you feel when you hear the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?
Those three words can feel like a flunking grade to a tender conscience. The vague fear that we are failing the Christian life has once again been confirmed. Others of us struggle to see this call as anything other than an impossible ideal, perhaps attainable for pastors, but not for mothers with four children or businessmen with sixty-hour workweeks.
Still others hear the command to pray without ceasing as we might hear the command to jog without ceasing. We know prayer is good for us, and we genuinely want to pray more, but we still feel prayer as more of a burden than a blessing, more of a drain than a delight.
None of these feelings, however, captures the essence of “pray without ceasing.” This command from God is not a guilt trip, a monkish dream, or a summons to drudgery. It is, rather, a call to become who you were made to be. It is a command to live up to your privileges in Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to enjoy your God, not just once in the morning, but all day long. And for those who are in Christ, no matter the stage of life, it is possible.
“Pray without ceasing,” of course, does not require us to spend every hour on our knees. The same apostle, in the same letter, commands all sorts of other duties that forbid literally constant prayer. The Thessalonians must “work with [their] hands,” “build one another up,” and “admonish the idle,” for example (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 5:11, 14) — all activities that send us out of our prayer closets and into the world.
What, then, did Paul envision when he wrote this command? “Pray without ceasing” comes sandwiched between two similar commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).
Surely, Paul writes always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances to cast a net over everything we do. Along with joy and gratitude, prayer must pervade every part of life — waking and sleeping, eating and working, serving and resting. We may not pray every moment, but we do, over time, bring prayer into all moments. We may not walk with our heads always bowed, but we do always walk in a posture of dependence, ever ready to pour out our hearts to God.
Those who pray without ceasing find themselves, like Paul, breaking into prayer spontaneously (1 Thessalonians 3:11–13; Ephesians 3:14–19). Prayer invades the hours after morning devotions as we turn every burden into “Help me,” every pleasure into “Thank you,” every temptation into “Deliver me,” and every opportunity for obedience into “Strengthen me.” Prayer is more than a slot in our schedule; it is the reflex of our hearts, the aroma of our waking hours.
How, then, do we do it? To be sure, no one can manufacture this spirit of dependence through a series of steps; no one can self-help themselves into unceasing prayer. At the same time, however, no one drifts into such prayer without effort. To grow in praying without ceasing, then, we can begin by rethinking some of our spiritual practices and expectations, and asking God to train us by his grace.
Disciplined, scheduled times of prayer are not the enemy of spontaneous, effusive prayers. Just the opposite. Spontaneous prayer is like the glory that shone from Moses’s face, which rested upon him after he spent time in the tent of meeting (Exodus 34:34–35).
Unceasing prayer depends upon scheduled times, vigilantly guarded, where we cease from everything but prayer. For many of us (certainly for me), “vigilantly guarded” is a necessary reminder. Too easily, a planned half hour of prayer becomes, over time, twenty minutes, then fifteen, and then a few quick words on the way to work. I may have “prayed” morning by morning, but hurriedly, distractedly, settling for a mere Godward glance when I could be gazing on his glory. Other tasks, many of them good and upright, have slowly edged out the “one thing . . . necessary” (Luke 10:42).
Scheduled, daily prayer — the kind that creates spontaneous, unceasing prayer — calls for godly discipline. If we want to carry on a lively communion with God, we will need to follow the pattern of psalmists, apostles, and our Lord himself, who diligently devoted portions of their day to get alone with God (Psalm 119:62; Daniel 6:10; Acts 3:1; Luke 5:16).
In Scripture, prayer is our response to God’s revelation, the human answer to divine speech. We can address God only because God has first addressed us — in creation, certainly, but especially in his word.
Hence, the Bible’s book of prayers begins with an exhortation to meditate on God’s word (Psalm 1:2). The praises, laments, and confessions that follow are all the fruit of delighting “in the law of the Lord” and meditating upon it “day and night.” The psalmists, having breathed in God’s word, cannot help but breathe out prayer.
We will grow to pray without ceasing, then, only when we carry God’s word with us. When we find ourselves with a few minutes to pray as we wait for a friend, we might begin by rehearsing a word from our morning devotions. If we aim, along with Charles Spurgeon, to “put a few words of prayer between everything I do,” we might use memory passages as prompts. As we kneel beside our beds at night, we might read a psalm beforehand to guide our words.
Just as children learn to speak by hearing their parents’ voices, so we learn to pray by listening to our Father. The more his words rest in our hearts, the more readily we will speak them back to him.
Michael Reeves, in his helpful booklet Enjoy Your Prayer Life, writes,
When you default to thinking of prayer as an abstract activity, a “thing to do,” the tendency is to focus on the prayer as an activity — which makes it boring. Instead, focus on the one to whom you’re praying. Reminding yourself whom you are coming before is a great help against distraction, and changes the prayer. (30–31)
Too often, I forget whom I am talking to in prayer. I say, “My Father,” but they are just words; my mind is focused on the activity of prayer instead of the God who hears me. Prayer has become a “thing to do,” a task as impersonal as doing the laundry.
We might find ourselves praying more often, and with more relish, if we took a moment at the start of each prayer to remind ourselves of whom we are addressing. When we open our mouths in prayer, we have the attention of our Almighty Father, at once exalted above the heavens and acquainted with all our needs (Matthew 6:7–8). We come before him through the merits of his Son, whose blood and righteousness grant us access to God’s throne (Ephesians 2:18). And we do so through the strength of our Helper, the Spirit who meets us in our weakness (Romans 8:26–27).
If prayer is merely an activity to do, then “pray without ceasing” will sound oppressive. But if prayer is communion with God — communion with this Father, Son, and Spirit — then we will hear the command differently: “Enjoy God without ceasing. Depend on God without ceasing. Gain strength from God without ceasing. And find that he is ever near, always faithful.”
Of course, none of these spiritual practices will destroy all our difficulties in prayer. We have not yet shaken off this cumbersome flesh, nor left the devil behind. But in all our stumbling efforts to pray without ceasing, and at the end of every prayerless day, and in moments when our prayers seem to go no farther than the breath that carries them, we would do well to remember: God made us to pray.
We may persevere for a time in something that we were not really made for — but only for a time. A tone-deaf woman may try to sing in the opera, or a clumsy man learn to juggle, but their limitations will eventually catch up with them. They simply weren’t made for the task. Such is not our situation when we come to pray.
Every Christian, no matter how immature, has the Spirit of God within him, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Every Christian, no matter how distracted and inarticulate, was made to “call upon the name of our Lord,” along with all of God’s people (Genesis 4:26; Psalm 105:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2). Every Christian, no matter how small in faith, is invited to ask, seek, and knock at their Father’s door (Matthew 7:7–8). Unceasing prayer is our birthright and privilege as children of God; we are not ourselves without it.
One day soon, you will not struggle to pray. Prayer will feel as natural as breathing, as pleasurable as tasting fruit from the trees of the New Jerusalem. Until then, persevere to become the person God is remaking you to be. Ask, praise, thank, and confess to your Father — and find that he hears and helps without ceasing.
I was converted at age 22. As my father did not share my faith, it was difficult to go to him for spiritual advice. He disciplined and loved me. For that, I will be eternally grateful. He is now dead, and I miss him. He was my biological father, but he was not a spiritual father.
A local pastor reached out to me, spent time with me, and discipled me in the Christian life. Today, I think of him with fondness and gratitude. Although he was not my biological father, he was a spiritual father for me.
Even as believers, it is possible to be a biological father but not a spiritual father to one’s children. This is not the biblical ideal. If born again, we want to be both the biological and spiritual fathers of our children. I hope, by God’s grace, to equip and motivate biological fathers to gladly assume the responsibility and privilege of being their children’s spiritual fathers.
God is preeminently a father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). Through the miracle of new birth, God adopts us into his family. We become his children, and he becomes our Father.
God created fathers and families to glorify this eternal reality, and biological fathers become spiritual fathers by knowing and imitating him. “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13). This “knowing” is more than academic. It is also experiential. There is no shortcut to this knowledge. It is the byproduct of a lifetime of spiritual, mental sweat.
The Holy Spirit is our heavenly Father’s agent. He unveils the Father to us. To the degree that he does this, we become spiritual fathers. Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and Paul are examples. Each was filled with the Holy Spirit. Each was single. None had biological children, and yet ironically God’s people called them “father.”
What made these men prototypical spiritual fathers? They “knew” God the Father and imitated him. Here are three dimensions of God’s fatherhood that these men saw and imitated.
First, God the Father is an affectionate disciplinarian, and so are the spiritual fathers who imitate him. It is never either one or the other. It is always both. They do this because this is what our Heavenly Father does. He disciplines the children that he loves.
God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7–8)
In the same way, Elijah disciplined Israel. As a consequence of their idolatry, he called down drought on Israel (1 Kings 17). Through his disciple, Elisha, God judged Gehazzi’s greed. John the Baptist preached God’s coming judgment (Matthew 3:8–12), and Paul repeatedly warned his spiritual children that, if necessary, he would use his power to discipline the unrepentant (1 Corinthians 4:18; 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:23–24).
But our heavenly Father is also affectionate. God called himself a father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5). He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). Therefore, although single and childless, Elijah and Elisha raised children from the dead (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4).
In fact, God sent John the Baptist “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Luke 1:17). The spirit and power of Elijah cares for widows, orphans, and children. In the same way, Paul spoke eloquently of his affection for the churches he planted (Philippians 1:8).
Discipline without affection can be tyrannical. Affection without discipline will spoil children. But combine these two virtues in the same man and he is on the road to spiritual fatherhood.
God taught and then modeled in his Son. We look through Jesus to see God the Father (John 14:9). So extensive was the Son’s teaching that the apostle John called him the Word of God, and Jesus modeled in flesh and blood everything he taught. Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul did the same.
I’m not suggesting that spiritual fathers model perfectly. Far from it. I am suggesting that they effectively teach their children from the Bible, and then sincerely attempt to walk it out. For most dads, the best time to do this is the dinner hour. In the presence of your wife and children, you can open the Bible for ten or fifteen minutes each night, explaining and applying what you’ve read, and then walk the talk.
Genuine faith and sincerity will manifest itself when a man is willing to admit that he is wrong. If you treat your wife disrespectfully, apologize to her in front of your children. If you discipline unjustly, ask that child to forgive you. Your apologies will communicate to them that you are in deadly earnest about obedience, that you are not content to continue in sin, and that you are attempting to walk out what you teach.
God the Father is a combination of humility and initiative. Humility is the ability to see myself as I really am apart from gospel-grace. In the words of Revelation 3:18, “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” A humble man has no illusions about this. He knows he has fallen short of the glory of God, and he does not expect his performance to merit his relationship with God. He joyfully lives by grace, not his virtues. He is at peace with his God and his circumstances. Despite his weaknesses, he rejoices in an unearnable love gifted to him by a gracious Father.
Many think humble people are weak and passive. The truth is the exact opposite. Humility is a byproduct of great faith, and faith always acts. This means it initiates! C.S. Lewis suggested that masculinity is the willingness to initiate. God is the great initiator. He initiated creation, redemption, and our salvation. In the same way, spiritual fathers initiate. This is especially important in spiritual things like family prayer, Bible study, church attendance, and discussions about spiritual things.
All of this needs to be applied with grace. A father might do everything right, and yet despite this, one of his children never relates to him as a spiritual father. Here we need to rest in the mystery of God’s sovereignty. Neither should faithful single mothers be discouraged. God is a Father to the fatherless. This means he will compensate for the absence of a biological father. Cast yourself upon his infinite mercies. Trust him, and he will act.
The effect of these three dimensions — discipline coupled with affection, teaching modeled with sincerity, and humility that initiates — is magnetic. It turns biological fathers into spiritual fathers, and like fillings to a magnet, children are attracted.
This principle is also crucial to leadership in local churches. It starts at home. To the degree that pastors and elders become spiritual fathers to their biological children, their churches, like their biological families, will become spiritual families. “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5). Capable elders begin by becoming spiritual fathers to their children. Then they become spiritual fathers to the local church.
One result of the gospel in man’s life is that a biological father will also be his children’s spiritual father. Even though we live in a fallen world, and we often fall short of this ideal, let us labor wholeheartedly toward this end.
“Why did you not bring him?” The Pharisees were exasperated that the officers had not arrested and delivered Jesus yet. How did the officers explain their failure? “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
By the time we get to John chapter seven, Jesus had made himself a serious religious and political issue in Palestine. Everywhere he went, he created controversy. Some people said he was demonized with paranoia (John 7:20). Some seriously wondered if he might be the Prophet Moses foretold (John 7:40; Deuteronomy 18:15–18), or even the Christ (John 7:31, 41). Others said the Christ hypothesis couldn’t be true, since obviously the Christ would come from Bethlehem, and Jesus was from Galilee (John 7:42) — and of course no prophet ever came from there (John 7:52).
One thing that helped fuel the rumors among the crowds was the fact that, in spite of all Jesus was saying, the Jewish leaders had not arrested him yet. Was this a signal that even they thought Jesus might be the Christ (John 7:26)?
When the chief priests and Pharisees caught wind of this, they decided to snuff out that rumor by arresting him, so they sent officers to do just that (John 7:32). The officers, however, returned empty-handed. When the Jewish leaders asked them why, the officers responded, “No one ever spoke like this man.”
The echo of that sentence has reverberated down through history. No one ever spoke like this man. The proof of its veracity is in the pudding of the historical result: the words of Jesus have shaped the course of world history more than any other human voice.
Observed as a historical phenomenon, it is the strangest thing. How did Jesus get to be the most famous man in history? Two thousand years later, no one’s words have been read more, studied more, quoted more, debated more, pondered more, written and lectured about more, translated into more languages, fueled more literacy efforts around the world, and shaped more diverse cultures than the words of Jesus of Nazareth.
Over the centuries, many nonreligious theories have been proffered for the tenacious, massive, increasingly global influence of this wandering, first-century, Jewish rabbi with peasant roots and ordinary disciples. None do him justice. Political, institutional, economic, social, cultural, psychological explanations all prove reductionistic and overly simplistic. They don’t explain why people find Jesus so compelling.
When you look at all he said and taught, what did Jesus say that has been so historically profound? He said he was God.
Many have tried to argue that he didn’t claim this. The attempts are futile. The New Testament, the most reliable record we have of Jesus’s words, is unequivocal on this assertion. Any honest reading is unmistakable. And Jesus’s claim to divinity is the only reason he has been and remains such an incredible force in world history. Listen to just a few of his unparalleled statements.
The woman at the well said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus responded, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25–26). Jesus knew he was the prophesied Jewish Messiah.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And what did Jesus say to that? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:15–17). Jesus not only affirmed his Messiahship, but he affirmed the title “Son of God,” and Peter’s use of this term is clearly and uniquely divine.
If that’s not convincing, this ought to be. When being interrogated by the High Priest during the infamous midnight trial, when his answer would either lead toward or away from crucifixion, he was asked directly “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus responded, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61–62). Everyone in that room knew exactly what Jesus was referring to: the divine Son of Man prophesied in Daniel 7:13–14, which is why they called it blasphemy.
And the apostle John quotes a string of audacious “I am” statements Jesus made:
Has anyone ever spoken like this man?
But perhaps the most powerful “I am” statement Jesus ever made, the one that captures the single greatest reason he has influenced the world like no other man, is this one:
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25–26)
Who ever said such a thing? Why does anyone listen to such preposterous words? It’s not wish-fulfillment. Mass movements of people don’t follow a crazy man. There is only one reason such words ever gained historical traction: Jesus’s tomb was empty that first Easter Sunday morning. Too many people personally witnessed him alive (1 Corinthians 15:6), too many of them paid with their lives for claiming to have witnessed him alive, and too many people throughout history have encountered Jesus as a real, living presence and power, and found eternal life in his words (John 6:68).
Jesus claimed to be God. He prophesied that he would be killed and rise from the dead three days later. He was killed and his tomb was empty three days later. And hundreds of witnesses who had nothing material to gain (and everything to lose) by claiming his resurrection, claimed it was so.
The brief snapshot we see in John 7 captures the controversial effect Jesus of Nazareth had on those who came in direct or indirect contact with him. And this is still the controversial effect he has on those who come in contact with him today. Some still think him demonic, some think him delusional, some think him distorted by his biographers and early followers, and some think him divine.
But one stubborn thing is, Jesus doesn’t go away. We keep talking about him, much to the ire of certain powers-that-be. Over and over people keep trying to bury Jesus, and he keeps refusing to stay dead. He is still speaking and his words keep making people alive.
Just a handful of disciples heard him say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). How audacious did such a statement sound the day it was spoken? How much more ridiculous did they seem as he hung on a cross just days later? Yet now, two thousand years later, we read these words in the light of the strange, unexpected, unrivaled impact Jesus has made on history. It must make each and every one of us wonder, forcing us to answer his question for ourselves: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
Say what you like about Jesus, one thing is true: no one ever spoke like this man.
Should parents require non-Christian teens to attend church with them? And if so, how do they avoid creating hypocrites of their kids?
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