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John Piper recently finished a book on the providence of God — the purposeful sovereignty of a heavenly Father who loves and cares for his children.
There are five minor prophets living in my home, all under the age of thirteen. They preach at me continually with their actions and words, exposing my heart for what it is at levels previously unknown. They are my children. When I became a parent, I thought I was ready to address the heart and motive behind their behavior, but I never realized how quickly they would address mine.
My friend was an amazing athlete and played sports in high school and college. His son can’t catch a ball. It’s hard for my friend. Why?
Parents often act as though our role is to shape our children into an idealized version of our younger selves. Were you good at sports? Your kids should be as well. Could you play the piano? Your children’s progress will be measured based on where you were at their age. Was school easy for you? It should be for your children. Love a certain hobby? They should too!
And if they fall short, we often drive them forward even harder toward our idealized version of ourselves. They must be better than me at the things I was best at. If we have the money, we pay tutors and camps and personal trainers to make it happen (which are not wrong in and of themselves). This is how we turn children into trophies. If they don’t measure up or surpass us, we may subtly begin to hide them and make excuses to others for their shortcomings.
But what does Scripture say of your children (and of God)?
You formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13–14)
Are our children wonderfully made to be exactly like us? God has uniquely created his image-bearers and gifted them according to his plan, for the sake of his glory, not ours. We are to develop, encourage, and use these gifts with humility (Romans 12:6–8). The apostle Paul might say, we should not force our kids to be a foot, when they are a hand (1 Corinthians 12:12). Perhaps we need to lay down the love for ourselves that eventually judges our children based on what we are good at and love.
I used to cheat and steal. When I was a new teacher of high school students, I caught a student cheating in my class. I lost it. I tend to judge others harshest for the sins I have been enslaved by most. When my children try to cheat and take something that does not belong to them, that anger emerges.
As they have grown older, they have begun to mimic the faults of my wife and me. They are often the idiosyncrasies and sins that drive us the most crazy. And what is our response? Anger and frustration. We ask ourselves, What is wrong with them?
More like, what is wrong with me? Jesus’s words haunt us: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2). We may mock the postmodern world for quoting this as a form of protectionism from any kind of criticism, but Jesus clearly warns us about being harsh toward others without taking a long, hard look at ourselves (Matthew 7:5).
When we respond this way to our children’s sins, especially to sins they may have learned from us, we have taken the place of God, believing their sin is primarily against us, instead of him. We forget our own sinful nature and treat them in a way we would never wish to be treated when we are caught in sin and in need of help.
Paul writes, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). We’re often quick to heavy discipline, and slow to gentle restoration. Why? Because we loathe our own faults and don’t want others to imitate them. Sometimes we punish our children harshly simply because they struggle with what we hate most about ourselves — instead of disciplining them like God disciplines us, in and through the gospel.
We just want an hour of quiet, but the children want to talk. We want to talk on the phone with a friend, but by some magnetic force, the kids are drawn into the room. We need to prepare for dinner, but they want to wrestle on the floor below the oven. Kids get in the way. We laugh at situations like this, but they are a small glimpse of a bigger trend and problem.
Even having kids is delayed altogether today for personal and professional fulfillment. Once the kids have arrived, you mourn the vacations you can no longer take. There are things you want (or covet) to buy, but now can’t. There are ministries you want to join, but diapers and talking and training your kids leaves so little time. So, you cry out to God, wanting to do something “more significant” than discipling your kids.
We live in a society that is growing in its animosity toward children, primarily because we view them as a limitation, a shift that has sadly infected the church. The abortion industry, which Christians tend to attack the most, is one (glaring) piece of evidence for a much larger cultural idol: limitless freedom. Kids hinder us from doing (or being) what we might do (or be) if they weren’t around to limit our options. We view them as weights around our ankles. It is the idol of self — of determining our schedule and deciding our priorities based on what we want.
The psalmist says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). God calls us to die to our definition of “dreams” and “impact” and view our children, not as limitations, but instead as our God-given gift and responsibility.
My friend worked in construction. One summer, the son of a wealthy Christian came to work with him. The dad showed up to work one day, turned to the son, and said, “I gave you this job for the summer so that you would never want to have to do it your whole life.”
We talk a lot about glorifying God in all we do, no matter what we do as a vocation, but do you find yourself let down by your children’s choice of work? You may have been steering them toward a certain career when, all of a sudden, they choose something totally different, and it’s not up to your standard. A common phrase parents say to a child is, “God made you for so much more than this” or, “God made you for something better than this.” The sentiment reveals a potential (and prevalent) idol: deep down many of us fear what people might think of us based on where our children work.
Where do we get this “so much more” idea? If our children have clear capabilities in academics or business, and they choose construction or farming, have they squandered something “better” or “greater”? Of course you need to help your children to see how God has wired them and gifted them, but choosing a job based on how the world will view you and them is something completely different.
Paul teaches us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24). Whatever we do, we work as unto the Lord. Say it again: whatever. The verses are not just about having bad bosses and doing everything with joy despite how they might treat us. Paul is also saying that our children can honor God in almost any kind of work.
We should help them fight a far greater threat than a lower income or less recognition: against working for “selfish ambition or conceit” (Philippians 2:3). We should help them glorify God, no matter what they do (1 Corinthians 10:31). If we think about children’s careers in a worldly way, it’s likely we have valued other people based on where they work or how much they make. We may have never admitted this, but our child may be exposing our true idol and heart’s desire.
In my experience, Christian parents are the greatest hurdle most missionaries face in heading overseas. I know that sounds crazy. As our kids get older and leave the house, there is an unspoken expectation and hope that they will live close. Most men live within ninety miles of their mother-in-law. But sometimes God calls our kids to cross-cultural work in Bhutan or Pakistan or Indonesia — and they want to take our grandkids with them!
All of a sudden, all the talk about the importance of sending people to the ends of the earth is a reality. Singing “Let the Nations Be Glad” was easy when it didn’t cost your kids. And now you are asked to sacrifice by sending in a manner worthy of God (3 John 5–8). The hesitations in your heart are often plain and simple idols.
If kids are arrows in a quiver, eventually we need to unleash them. That could mean shooting them across oceans. Perhaps you should consider whether your emotions reveal that, at least in your mind, the Great Commission is really for other families if it involves sending your kids far away.
What is the root cause of all of these things? James would say disordered desire. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1) It is why we covet. It is why we get angry. Those passions fuel our pride. We are by nature lovers and protectors of ourselves. We are by nature at the center of the universe, desiring everyone to orbit around us.
One way God reveals this is through the minor prophets that grow up in our homes. And when their preaching hits home, the response should be repentance and not self-protection. It is to lay aside our old nature (Ephesians 4:22), deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24), and choose to, instead, follow and treasure Christ.
Christians, in theory, cling to an “old, old story” in an era freshly fixed on what’s new. As a society, we are increasingly like — and now perhaps exceed — those ancient Athenians who “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). The information and digital revolutions have conspired to create a veritable vortex of telling and hearing new things (“news,” for short). Meanwhile, we Christians hold to our admittedly (and gloriously) ancient truths — truths both out of step with the news milieu, and precisely what we most need to regain our bearings and restore spiritual sanity.
In the early 1990s, D.A. Carson identified a danger now all the more pressing a generation later: “The cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 26). And the temptation goes back even further than that. Pastor and poet Horatius Bonar (1808–1889) wrote in 1864 in the book God’s Way of Holiness,
The secret of a believer’s holy walk is his continual recurrence to the blood of the Surety, and his daily [communion] with a crucified and risen Lord. All divine life, and all precious fruits of it, pardon, peace, and holiness, spring from the cross. All fancied sanctification which does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross is nothing better than Pharisaism. If we would be holy, we must get to the cross, and dwell there; else, notwithstanding all our labor, diligence, fasting, praying, and good works, we shall be yet void of real sanctification, destitute of those humble, gracious tempers which accompany a clear view of the cross.
Bonar’s charge cuts painfully across the grain of our day, and perhaps his antiquated language might give us a much-needed angle of focus as we cling to the ancient center in the era of media inundation.
What is the biblical support for such a claim that all true holiness and good works “spring from the cross”? For the early Christians, that Jesus had been crucified was not simply a singular event, but it quickly became part of his identity, and theirs. Everything changed when God was crucified.
“Crucified” became a kind of identifying descriptor of our Lord even in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection, when the angel speaks to the women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen” (Matthew 28:5–6; so also Mark 16:6, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified”). Then, fifty days later, at the climactic moment of his Pentecost address, Peter declares, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Soon after, in Acts 4, when Peter has healed a lame beggar and been arrested, and now stands before the council, having been asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7), he answers, “By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). “Crucified,” as an identifying marker of Jesus, then came into its own in the ministry of the apostle Paul, who writes to the Galatians that, in his preaching, “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1).
For the apostles and early church, that Jesus was crucified was not accidental or peripheral; it was profoundly revealing. Counterintuitively, the early church didn’t try to hide his crucifixion but push it front and center. The Son of God had not only taken on our flesh and blood, but he had given himself, sinless, in our stead, to execution at the cross — which revealed to us, through Jesus, the very person and heart of God for his people (Romans 5:8). As Carson says about the cross, this was “the most astonishing act of divine self-disclosure that has ever occurred” (16).
The signature meditation on Christ crucified came to be 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5, where Paul speaks to the startling, counterintuitive, revelatory nature of the cross. “The word of the cross” — the gospel message of a crucified Christ — “is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). For natural people, the cross turns the world upside down. In the cross, God makes foolish the world’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:20) as Christians “preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Apart from new birth, sinners reject the cross as folly or a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23), but by the Spirit, we see the glory and receive the crucified (and risen) one as “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The cross is not simply a component of the gospel message that tips nonbelievers into the kingdom through faith. Rather, the cross reveals to us God himself and his ways in the world (“wisdom”), and how to get right with him (“righteousness”) and be holy (“sanctification”) and be bought back from the world (“redemption”). Which is why Paul would go on to say, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) — not because his preaching was so narrow and restrained, but because the cross is so massive and all-pervasive.
Paul came to Corinth and Ephesus and everywhere he went with “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). It’s not that he limited his scope in Corinth, but that the cross was so central, so omni-relevant, so deeply revelatory, that all he had to say, about any subject under the sun (“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable,” Acts 20:20) did indeed “spring from the cross,” in the words of Bonar. As Carson comments on 1 Corinthians 2:2, “What [Paul] means is that all he does is tied to the cross. He cannot talk long about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered” (38).
Early on, the cross became the symbol of Christianity, and has remained so to this day, not simply because it was easier to depict graphically than an empty tomb. The cross represents the whole of the Christian faith not to minimize the resurrection, or to in any way downplay its cataclysmic importance and essentiality, but because it is the cross that slays worldly wisdom and expectations. Resurrection displays an otherworldly power, but the cross puts to shame human vision. We will not see power in the resurrection until we have seen God’s upbraiding wisdom in the cross. Which makes the cross especially distinctive and appropriately representative. Other world systems of belief will dream up resurrection (even though they can’t produce it). Only Christianity puts God on the cross.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul says that this crucified Christ “became to us . . . sanctification,” or literally, holiness (Greek hagiasmos). Bonar speaks to two sanctifications: real and fancied. “Fancied sanctification,” he says, “does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross.”
With this, John Owen would agree. Commenting on Psalm 130:4 (“with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared”), he expresses how essential it is to approach God on the basis of forgiveness: “Now, the psalmist tells us that the foundation of this fear or worship, and the only motive and encouragement for sinners to engage in it and give up themselves unto it, is this, that there is forgiveness with God. Without this no sinner could fear, serve, or worship him” (Works of John Owen, 6:469).
For Christians, true worship and “real sanctification” not only flow from the purchase of the cross, but also draw strength from conscious faith in the crucified Christ. We know our former selves to be crucified with him (Romans 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). So also for us: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Practically, then, how do we “get to the cross, and dwell there,” as Bonar commends? Again, he claims, “The secret of a believer’s holy walk is his continual recurrence to the blood of the Surety, and his daily [communion] with a crucified and risen Lord.”
“The Surety” here is a reference to the cross as an objective event and fact, and demonstration of God, in history, of his gracious heart toward his people, and the guarantee of his everlasting favor. Bonar commends “continual recurrence” to the cross in daily communion with our crucified and risen Lord. Similarly, in holding up Paul’s cross-centered vision, Carson commends we “constantly reappropriate” the reality of the gospel, and particularly the cross (25).
Neither Paul, nor Bonar, nor Carson then turns to prescribe to every Christian what “continual” and “constant” getting to the cross must look like in every time and season and life. The precise means of your dwelling at the cross may look different than mine. But Christians in every time and place might benefit from asking themselves, Am I indeed getting to the cross? Do I really dwell there? What would it take for me to do so? How constant and how continual our approach may vary, but we either “get to the cross, and dwell there” or not. And our holiness is either real or fancied.
Bonar does mention one other general indicator: “daily.” And I can testify that daily is not too often. God will see to it that our hearts never tire of knowing our Lord as crucified. Having lived with this old, old truth now for almost fifteen years, I can say it’s never grown close to old.
“It really doesn’t make sense and feels like it can’t be true.” Another suicide.
The friend that texted me had a good friend, a Christian whose faith by all appearances was authentic and vibrant, who succumbed to an incomprehensible darkness and incommunicable despair — a despair that, at least at the moment of final decision, he didn’t believe he could live with. My friend was reeling, blindsided by a tragedy that defies explanation.
We call it “the problem of evil,” trying to reconcile how evil and suffering exists in a world ruled by an almighty, all-good, all-knowing God. But calling it a “problem” hardly begins to describe our experiences of it in this fallen world.
A buoyant friend suddenly ends his life. A beloved child dies of disease. We witness torture. The spouse we trusted with everything abandons us. The plane-ruined towers collapse upon three thousand souls. The horrific abuse we suffered leaves us soiled with shame for decades. Such tragedies and sins almost never make sense to us. And the closer we are to the destruction evil wreaks, the more chaotic and senseless it appears.
In these experiences, we glimpse the real nature of evil — and it’s worse than we had conceived. The evil events themselves, and God’s good providence in choosing not to prevent them (especially when we know he has chosen to deliver others), exceed the bounds of our rational capacities. We’re left with anguished, perplexing questions only God can answer. Most of the time he doesn’t, not specifically. He rarely reveals his specific purposes for allowing our specific tragedies and the resulting wreckage.
What we find is that we simply aren’t suited to bear the weight of the full knowledge of good and evil. It’s knowledge too complex for us to manage. It’s beyond us on both sides. And the merciful truth is that God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.
There are mysteries that are great mercies. Great, great mercies.
The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil contained a secret — one that God said should remain a mystery. God warned the man and woman that it would be better for them not to eat it. It would be the death of them if they did. Rather, he wanted them to trust him with the mystery of this knowledge and his administration of it (Genesis 2:17).
However, Satan told them this fruit would not kill them, but would open their eyes to the heights and depths and lengths and breadths of God’s knowledge, making them wise like God (Genesis 3:4–5). They believed him, and so they ate. Then the eyes of both were indeed opened to good and evil in ways they had not yet known — ways they were not at all equipped to deal with. And we have been languishing under this knowledge ever since.
As a result of that first sin, God subjected the world to futility (Romans 8:20), and the evil one was granted a kind of governing power (1 John 5:19). Sin infected us profoundly. Not only were our eyes opened to more knowledge than we have the capacity to comprehend, but we also became very susceptible to evil deception.
Our indwelling sin nature also has adversely affected our ability to comprehend and appreciate good. That’s one reason we need “strength to comprehend . . . the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18–19). It’s why we must pursue through intentional prayer “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” when we’re anxious (Philippians 4:7). It’s why we need “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation” to enlighten “the eyes of [our] hearts . . . that [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us]” (Ephesians 1:17–18). The goodness of God would be far beyond our imagination even if we were sinless, but it is all the more so in our fallenness (1 Corinthians 2:9).
We forfeited a great mercy when we believed we could be wise like God and opened the Pandora’s box of the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil.
Mystery refers to what exists in the dimensions of reality beyond the edges of our perception (things we can’t see) or comprehension (things we can’t grasp). Some things are mysteries because we are unaware of them until God chooses to reveal them to us. Other mysteries we might be aware of, but they just exceed our ability to comprehend them, at least in this age.
The book of Job is the great piece of ancient literature that God inspired to illustrate how we experience these mysteries and how the restoring of our souls begins as we hand God back the fruit. The purposes behind Job’s tragedies were mysterious to him and his friends because of what they could not see and could not know.
Job’s friends thought they had sufficient grasp on the knowledge of good and evil to diagnose Job’s suffering. They were wrong (Job 42:7). And in the end, God did not explain himself to Job, but challenged Job’s assumption that he could comprehend the wisdom of God. Job responded by putting his hand over his mouth and saying, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6), effectively handing the fruit back to God.
The message of the book of Job is not that God hates when people pour out their bewilderment in their pain and tragedies. Indeed, God the Son, when he became flesh and dwelt among us, cried out in the depth of his agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Rather, God’s message — which is a core message of the whole Bible — is “trust me.” Where God does not grant us to see or to know, he has merciful reasons for it.
When you think about it, God has designed the gospel and the Christian life to require us to hand back, and keep handing back, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — to render back to God what is God’s, what was never meant to be man’s.
When the realities of good and evil exceed our limited perceptions, overwhelm our limited comprehension, and threaten to override our psychological and emotional circuitry, there is a reason for this. We may be “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but we are also fearfully finite. There are many things too wonderful for us to know. The peace that surpasses our understanding (Philippians 4:7), which we need so much, is available to us if we are willing to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
When I texted my friend back, as he was grieving the tragic suicide of his friend, I sought to capture the essence of these truths in a few sentences. He asked me to write more on it, and I’ve attempted it here. In the face of devastating tragedy, we find that we simply aren’t suited to bear the full weight of the knowledge of good and evil. The merciful truth is that God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.
Is the term “reckless” too reckless? Pastor John offers pastors, worship leaders, and congregations ways to think about the popular lyrics.
The apostle Paul expressed a deep love and longing in his letters. How often do you express that kind of love to other Christians?
ABSTRACT: One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, eight in ten American churches consist of predominantly one ethnic group. In the pursuit of greater ethnic harmony, white Christians can benefit from learning about and learning from the black church, including its history in America. That history reveals the limits of racial-diversity initiatives, the need for sympathetic listening, and the interdependence of white and black Christians. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We are bound in a single garment of destiny,” and we will not grow up into the fullness of Christ without each other.
One of the pressing issues for American Christians to confront in our day is the racial divide in the church. No less pressing is the complacency many Christians feel toward this divide. According to a report on a 2015 LifeWay Research study, “Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated hours in American life, with more than 8 in 10 congregations made up of one predominant racial group. And most worshipers like it that way.”1
Racially divided worship may feel comfortable to most people, but this comfort is out of step with our Savior’s heart, who died to tear down such divisions. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile.2 He did this so that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). Christ’s peacemaking mission fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham centuries before to bless all the nations in Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 22:18). We catch a vision of this blessed community in Revelation 7:9, where John describes “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” worshiping God together.
Therefore, when we pray as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), we are, among other things, asking God to set his Revelation 7:9 choir in our midst, free us from our cultural silos, and give us an ear for Zion’s praise.3 What can we do, then, to challenge (rather than cater to) our comfort with racially divided worship? How can we pray and work to see God’s multiethnic kingdom become more of a reality in our churches?4
In this article, I want to focus specifically on the black-white divide in the church, and I want to explore how white Christians, in particular, can help bridge this divide.5 Out of the many possibilities that present themselves, I limit myself to the following: I want to encourage many white believers to do more to learn about and learn from the black church. To that end, I will survey the history of the three major streams within black Christianity: Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal. Then I will make three concluding observations about what white believers can learn from this history.
Before beginning this discussion, I want to acknowledge the important work that many white Christians have done and continue to do to bridge the racial divide. Much work remains to be done, but God has been faithful in each generation to raise up a contingent of white and black brothers and sisters who have joined together in the struggle for racial unity. I long for more white believers to join this contingent. But I don’t want to overlook those who already have. For this reason, I take care in this article to avoid making sweeping statements about all white believers without exception.
The phrase “the black church” encompasses three types of mainly black congregations: (1) churches affiliated with one of the seven historically black denominations, (2) mainly black churches that are part of mainly white denominations, and (3) mainly black churches unaffiliated with a denomination.6 As we will see below, the black church is the product of the eighteenth-century religious awakening in America as well as this country’s long history of race-based chattel slavery, segregation, and discriminatory treatment of African Americans. The black church was born out of tribulation. It is, historically, America’s own version of the persecuted church.7
The black church is not a uniform institution. It is as dynamic and complex as any other large-scale movement in society. In their extensive study of African-American Christianity, religion scholars Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya explain that black churches differ in the extent of their involvement with social and political concerns, in their support for black consciousness movements, in their organizational structures, and in the degree to which they accommodate or oppose white cultural expectations.8 Black churches also differ from one another in their doctrinal beliefs, emphasis on personal piety, and views on issues such as sexual morality and abortion.9
According to Lincoln and Mamiya, African-American Christians inhabit a “black sacred cosmos,” a way of viewing the world that stresses God’s commitment to deliver his people from oppression; the full humanity of Jesus, especially as seen in his experience of suffering, death, and resurrection; and the equal dignity that all human beings possess as God’s creation.10 Sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson extend this concept of the black sacred cosmos and present what they call “the five building blocks of black Protestant faith.” They argue that black Protestants (1) prioritize the role of experience in the Christian life, (2) view their faith as an indispensable resource for persevering through the evil and suffering in this world, (3) make room for the perplexities of Christian teaching and practice, (4) highlight God’s regular intervention in the details of life, and (5) are “committed to social justice and equality for all individuals and groups in society.”11
When I speak about the black church in the remainder of this article, I fully acknowledge the diversity and complexity of the institution. I also want to clarify that I do not endorse everything that falls under the category of the black church. Believers should submit any church’s teaching to the authority of Scripture (Acts 17:11). The black church, just like any collection of churches, has its own assortment of wheat and chaff. In asking more white believers to learn from and about the black church, I am not asking for them to romanticize the black church.
In conversations about the racial divide in the church, it is not uncommon for some white Christians to misconstrue the nature of the black church tradition, assuming, for example, that black churches exist because “birds of a feather flock together” or that the chief legacy of black Christianity is the gospel choir and soulful preaching. To be sure, each of these claims about the black church contains an element of truth. Cultural similarity affects whom we want to be around.12 And the black church, in part because of its roots in the African diaspora and its experience of slavery and racial segregation, has developed unique worship traditions that emphasize communal experience and emotional expression.13 These popular assumptions about the black church, however, represent only a fraction of its theological, political, and cultural significance.
In large measure, the black church tradition arose in response to racist attitudes and actions coming from the white majority.14 It was not only unbelieving whites who were to blame. Many white Christians alienated their black brothers and sisters by accommodating and even promoting their unjust treatment. During the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, increasing numbers of whites and both free and enslaved blacks turned to Christ under the ministry of revivalist preachers like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), George Whitefield (1714–1770), and Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764). Methodists and Separate Baptists saw particular success in the South in the decades that followed. This success owed, in part, to the work of black preachers, both lay and ordained, who proclaimed the evangelical message to white and black hearers alike. As more free and enslaved blacks converted to Christianity, they began populating churches that had, up to that time, been predominantly or exclusively white. This influx of African Americans made many white congregants uncomfortable. As religion scholar Albert Raboteau observes,
The swarming of black converts into Baptist and Methodist churches led to mixed, though segregated, congregations. Negroes usually sat in galleries or in back pews. It was not unusual for the black membership in a church to far exceed that of the whites. When Negroes became too numerous, separate services were held for them, or sometimes, particularly in cities, white members withdrew, leaving black members to form a separate church.15
The first black churches were the African (or Bluestone) Baptist Church, founded on a southern Virginia plantation in 1758, and Silver Bluff Baptist Church, founded between 1773 and 1775 on a South Carolina plantation just east of Augusta, Georgia.16 Aside from gathering in organized churches, it was also common for enslaved men and women on plantations to meet secretly for Christian worship. These meetings constituted what historians have called the “invisible institution.”17
The first black denomination was the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which Richard Allen (1760–1831) founded in 1816. In 1787, Allen and Absalom Jones (1746–1818), along with other black congregants, had walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in protest. They had chosen to pray in a section of the church reserved — unbeknownst to them — for white attendees. Before congregational prayer was over, a trustee of the church had tried to force Jones up off of his knees, insisting that he not remain in the white section. A second trustee came to remove another man. When prayer concluded, Allen, Jones, and the others in their group left the church.
Reflecting on this humiliating experience some years later, Allen wrote, “They were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct. But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigour to get a house erected to worship God in.”18 Two churches resulted from this departure: St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 and pastored by Absalom Jones, and Bethel Church of Philadelphia, also founded in 1794. Bethel would be the birthplace of the AME Church, over which Allen presided as bishop.19
At its inception, the racial divide in the church was both theological and not theological, depending on how we look at it. It was not theological in that black and white believers generally agreed on the basic tenets of the Christian faith.20 They could both trace their spiritual lineage back to the First Great Awakening and, through that, to the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.21 The divide was theological, however, in that it involved competing understandings of what salvation in Christ entailed. Both sides agreed that the gospel made blacks and whites spiritual equals. It delivered all men and women, regardless of color or station in life, from the power of sin and death. The disagreement lay in whether and how far the equalizing force of the gospel extended into American society.
Of pressing concern at the time was the issue of slavery. On this topic, Raboteau writes about what he calls “the irreducible gap between the slave’s religion and that of his master.” “The slave knew,” he continues, “that no matter how sincerely religious his master might be, his religion did not countenance the freedom of his slave. This was, after all was said and done, the limit to Christian fellowship. The division went deep; it extended as far as the interpretation of the Bible and the understanding of the Gospel.”22
Intertwined with the issue of slavery was the racial hierarchy that slavery had constructed and reinforced — in the South as well as in the North. It was this hierarchy that persisted even after emancipation. It was this hierarchy that the Civil War left largely undisturbed. Historian Mark Noll describes the Civil War as a “theological crisis” because white Christians — on both the abolitionist and pro-slavery sides — were largely unable to see that it was not slavery per se that contradicted Scripture but rather the dehumanizing ideology of white supremacy. “The crisis,” writes Noll, “created by an inability to distinguish the Bible on race from the Bible on slavery meant that when the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished, systemic racism continued unchecked as the great moral anomaly in a supposedly Christian America.”23
Many African Americans saw clearly how the Civil War had failed to address racism, but many white Americans largely ignored their concerns as they pursued their own vision of national prosperity. As Noll writes, “Because African Americans were progressively deprived of a public voice in the decades after the [Civil War], national politics reflected scant influence from the only constituency that thought it was important to understand the Bible for its message on race as well as its implications for American national destiny.”24
We can see the abiding influence of racism after the Civil War when we consider the birth of modern Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century. William Seymour (1870–1922), an African-American pastor from the Holiness tradition, presided over the famed Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909. Seymour had learned Pentecostal teaching from a white evangelist named Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), who had opened a Bible school in Houston, Texas. Attending a ten-week training course from the end of 1905 to the beginning of 1906, Seymour was forced to sit outside of Parham’s classroom and listen to his teaching through a partially opened door. According to the state of Texas, Seymour’s skin color disqualified him from participating fully with his white peers in their educational pursuits.
In spite of the racial exclusion he had endured, or perhaps because of it, Seymour went on to lead a movement that eschewed racial segregation from the beginning. From 1906 to 1909, multitudes flocked to an abandoned warehouse on Azusa Street to receive the gift of tongues under Seymour’s preaching. Observers noted the racial diversity of the crowds. In fact, one commentator remarked that, during the revival, “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”25
This assessment was premature, however, because after the revival drew to a close in 1909, the racial divide resurfaced. The Church of God in Christ, which had begun in 1897 under the leadership of Charles H. Mason (1866–1961), was a black Holiness denomination that became Pentecostal after Mason attended the Azusa Street meetings in 1907. Initially, it was the only Pentecostal denomination that licensed ministers, and so white Pentecostal pastors, out of necessity, had to submit themselves to African-American oversight. This arrangement lasted for seven years. In 1914, white ministers from the Church of God in Christ joined with other white ministers to form the Assemblies of God denomination. Their departure from the Church of God in Christ left it a largely African-American denomination, which it continues to be today. Because of white racial prejudice, modern Pentecostalism — which began, in the words of Lincoln and Mamiya, as “a distinctly interracial movement” — went the way of the earlier Baptists and Methodists by separating along racial lines.26
Even a brief glimpse into the history of the black church tradition raises several important points for us to consider.
First, white Christians, by and large, bear primary responsibility for their broken fellowship with black believers. To say it another way, when looking at the racial divide within the American church, white Christians, for the most part, historically have been the offending party, and black Christians have been the offended party. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this point powerfully when he wrote, “It is to their everlasting shame that white Christians developed a system of racial segregation within the church, and inflicted so many indignities upon its Negro worshipers that they had to organize their own churches.”27
Some readers may object that a claim like this tries to load the consciences of white Christians with guilt and offers them no hope of redemption. It represents law rather than gospel, some might say. But this objection overlooks how, because of Christ’s death on our behalf, Christians need not run from guilt. Christ was condemned in our place, which means we can face wrongdoing head-on — both our own and that of our forebears — and allow it, by God’s grace, to lead us to repentance. In itself, grief is not dangerous. It is worldly grief that Christians aim to avoid. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
“But,” some might ask, “how can we repent for the deeds of our ancestors? I did not personally own slaves. I did not drive Richard Allen out of my church or make William Seymour sit in the hallway during class lectures.” This objection is true to a point. God does not hold contemporary white Christians personally responsible for sins they were not alive to commit. As we read in Ezekiel 18:20, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” However, patterns of sin often make their way from father to son, especially if the son fails to recognize and repudiate them. In this sense, a son can share in his father’s guilt if he repeats in his own day the same type of transgression his father committed.
Generally speaking, many white believers have not turned from the sins of their fathers. To understand what I mean, we need to see the common thread running through many white Christians’ repeated failures to confront racial injustice in their generation. The common thread is that, by and large, many white Christians in America have not listened in earnest to the concerns of their black brothers and sisters. If they did, they might be more aware of the significance and extent of racism in American society.
Sometimes, white believers think we can heal the racial divide in the church simply by bringing whites and blacks together to learn from each other’s perspectives. To be clear, interracial relationships are crucial to racial unity. However, it is important for white Christians to understand that, for centuries, African Americans have had to become fluent in the white perspective in order to survive. In fact, it was chiefly the white perspective that created the racial divide in the church in the first place.28 Studying the history of the black church tradition shows that the racial divide in the church is less like the quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2) and more like the rift between Joseph and his brothers after they had sold him into slavery (Genesis 37–50). Joseph longed to be reunited with his family. However, before he was willing to reveal himself to Reuben and the others, he needed to see that their hearts had truly changed. Otherwise, he would reenter their lives only to suffer further mistreatment. A hasty reunion would serve neither Joseph nor his brothers, because it would encourage his brothers to continue running from the healing and freedom that only repentance can bring.
A second point that the history of the black church raises is that racial diversity initiatives alone likely will not bridge the divide. As we have seen, African Americans have shared the same worship spaces as whites before. The problem is that they have done so as second-class citizens.29 For Christians to pursue biblical diversity, we need to take whatever corrective steps are necessary to ensure that our churches look not only to the interests of ourselves, “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Historically, the black church has provided African-American Christians with opportunities to lead and innovate. It has protected and encouraged black cultural achievements. The black church also has provided a safe place for African-American believers to lament injustice and to organize for social progress. If white Christian diversity efforts presume that black Christians will sacrifice what the black church has made possible for them, these efforts may end up doing little to heal the racial divide in the American church.30
When white Christians overlook the advantages they have inherited in American society — willingly or not — because of their racial identity, they risk reproducing in their churches and institutions the very racial hierarchy that has plagued our land for centuries. Sociologist Korie Edwards explains this danger well:
Blacks, by necessity, are aware that whites are culturally and structurally dominant. The implication of color-blindness or ignoring white privilege for multiracial churches is that they, without any specific intent to do so, can reify white supremacy, a belief in the cultural and structural dominance of whites. As a consequence, they can communicate to members that the experiences, preferences, and beliefs of white members are more important and relevant than those of blacks.31
In other words, before proposing multiracial churches as a solution to the racial divide, white Christians might seek to understand how multiracial churches can actually contribute to the problem.
Finally, the history of the black church teaches white Christians to take a sober look at their attitudes toward, and assumptions about, their black brothers and sisters. Do we regard black Christians as more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? Or do we act and speak in ways that suggest otherwise? What is our demeanor toward like-minded black churches in our area? Do we care to know about them? Do we pray for them? In our attempts to bridge the racial divide, are we willing to collaborate with and learn from our black brothers and sisters? Do we grieve not only individual acts of racism but also systemic injustices that affect many African Americans? Do we have any black theological heroes? If not, are we willing to search them out? When we think about American church history, do we include the black church in that narrative? How often do we read books or articles by black Christian authors? Do we have any close friendships with African-American believers?
In his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King Jr. reflects on how the fortunes of black and white Americans are inescapably intertwined. “The black man needs the white man,” he writes, “and the white man needs the black man.” To illustrate this mutual dependence, King remarks that “we are bound together in a single garment of destiny.”32
If this is true of Americans in general, regardless of religion, how much more is it true of American Christians? White and black believers are bound together in a single garment of destiny, and this single garment is the crucified and resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ, who died to make one new man out of both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:15).33 White Christians need black Christians, and vice versa. We will not grow up into the fullness of Christ without each other (Ephesians 3:18–19; 4:15–16).
Bob Smietana, “Sunday Morning in America Still Segregated — And That’s OK with Worshipers,” LifeWay Research, January 15, 2015. ↩
Unless noted otherwise, all Bible quotations come from the English Standard Version. ↩
To be clear, multiethnic churches may not always be feasible. Curtiss Paul DeYoung and others argue that “when possible, congregations should be multiracial” (DeYoung et al., United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003], 143; italics added). They acknowledge three situations in which a church may understandably be primarily monoethnic: (1) if a church exists in a monoethnic community, (2) if a church serves non-English speakers, and (3) if a church provides cultural refuge to a first-generation immigrant community. As they note, however, “these special cases are a small percentage of total churches” (143). ↩
The racial divide in the church involves more than the disunity between white and black Christians. Other racial and ethnic minorities have suffered from white cultural normativity in the church, and I do not want to minimize or overlook their experiences. I focus on the black-white divide because, alongside America’s indigenous peoples, African Americans have endured the most pronounced and prolonged discriminatory treatment in American history. And this mistreatment has often come from the hands of white believers. ↩
Jason E. Shelton and Ryon J. Cobb, “Black Reltrad: Measuring Religious Diversity and Commonality among African Americans,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 56, no. 4 (2017): 739. The seven historically black denominations are the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC); the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. (NBCA); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC); the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME); the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ); the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME); and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). For more on each of these denominations, see C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 20–91. ↩
According to religion scholar Albert J. Raboteau, “The suffering of African-American slave Christians” serves as “a prime example of the persecution of Christianity within our own nation’s history” (“America’s Persecuted Church,” Christian History, 1999). ↩
See the discussion in Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 10–16. Lincoln and Mamiya identify six “dialectics” that black churches navigate: (1) “the dialectic between priestly and prophetic functions,” (2) “the dialectic between other-worldly versus this-worldly,” (3) “the dialectic between universalism and particularism,” (4) “the dialectic between the communal and the privatistic,” (5) “the dialectic between charismatic versus bureaucratic,” and (6) “the dialectic between resistance versus accommodation” (12–14). These six dialectics do not exhaust the dynamic nature of the black church. As Lincoln and Mamiya acknowledge, “other polarities could be added to the model such as dialectical polarities involved in sexual politics (male-female), or those of liberation theology (oppressor-oppressed)” (15). ↩
Shelton and Cobb, “Black Reltrad,” 745–58. Shelton and Cobb propose a ninefold division to better represent the spectrum of African-American religious identity: “Baptists, Methodists, Holiness/Pentecostals, historically white mainline Protestant denominations, historically white evangelical Protestant denominations, non-denominational Protestants, Catholics, other faiths (including nontraditional liberal and conservative Protestants), and respondents with no religious affiliation” (741–42). To give an example of the diversity within the black church, Shelton and Cobb observe that black Christians within the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition “pray, attend worship services, and/or are more likely to interpret the Bible literally than Baptists, Methodists, members of historically white mainline Protestant denominations, and Catholics. They also report more conservative beliefs about sexual morality, and are more likely to oppose abortion rights than the aforementioned affiliates” (757). In other words, black Christians who belong to the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition tend to be more socially and theologically conservative than black Christians in other traditions. ↩
Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 2–4. ↩
Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 8–9. ↩
See Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook, “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 415–44. ↩
As Albert J. Raboteau writes about enslaved African Americans adopting Christianity, “Even as the gods of Africa gave way to the God of Christianity, the African heritage of singing, dancing, spirit possession, and magic continued to influence Afro-American spirituals, ring shouts, and folk beliefs. That this was so is evidence of the slaves’ ability not only to adapt to new contexts but to do so creatively” (Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, updated ed. [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004], 92). ↩
DeYoung and others write, “Congregations populated predominantly by persons of color did not emerge as reactions to the concept of multiracial congregations but in response to white racism, or at least in response to particular needs not addressed by predominantly white congregations” (United by Faith, 129). ↩
Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 23; Raboteau, Slave Religion, 139; Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 118. ↩
Raboteau writes, “At first glance it seems strange to refer to the religion of the slaves as an invisible institution, for independent black churches with slave members did exist in the South before emancipation. In racially mixed churches it was not uncommon for slaves to outnumber masters in attendance at Sunday services. But the religious experience of the slaves was by no means fully contained in the visible structures of the institutional church. From the abundant testimony of fugitive and freed slaves it is clear that the slave community had an extensive religious life of its own, hidden from the eyes of the master. In the secrecy of the quarters or the seclusion of the brush arbors (‘hush harbors’) the slaves made Christianity truly their own” (Slave Religion, 212). ↩
Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen (Philadelphia: Martin & Boden, 1833), 13. ↩
For discussion of Allen, Jones, and the founding of the AME Church, see Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 50–52; Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 121–22; Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 53–54. ↩
Tisby writes, “The divide between white and black Christians in America was not generally one of doctrine. Christians across the color line largely agreed on theological teachings such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the importance of personal conversion. More often than not, the issue that divided Christians along racial lines related to the unequal treatment of African-descended people in white church contexts” (The Color of Compromise, 52–53). ↩
Sweeney argues that the evangelical movement both continued and modified the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. “Evangelicals,” he writes, “comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist” (The American Evangelical Story, 23–24). Regarding the historical and theological connection between black Christians and white evangelicals, he writes, “For better and for worse . . . black and white evangelical Christians have been knit together with yarns from a common spiritual ancestry” (Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 127). ↩
Mark A. Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 46. ↩
This quotation comes from Frank Bartleman’s (1871–1936) How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, quoted in Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 146. Information on Seymour, Parham, and the Azusa Street Revival comes from Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 143–46; DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 56–58; and Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 113–14. ↩
Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 76. Information on Mason, the Church of God in Christ, and the formation of the Assemblies of God comes from DeYoung et al., United by Faith, 56–59; Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 80–81; and Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 123–26. Although the Church of God in Christ is a historically black denomination, it belongs to an interracial association called the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America (PCCNA). The Assemblies of God is a member of this association as well. The PCCNA resulted from the 1994 “Miracle in Memphis” meeting of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA), which was founded in 1948 as an all-white organization. At the 1994 meeting, the PFNA acknowledged its racist past, disbanded, and reconstituted itself as a deliberately interracial organization. For more information on the “Miracle in Memphis,” see Vinson Synan, “Memphis 1994: Miracle and Mandate,” History, Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of America, accessed March 11, 2019, http://www.pccna.org/about_history.aspx. See also Frank D. Macchia, “From Azusa to Memphis: Evaluating the Racial Reconciliation Dialogue among Pentecostals,” Pneuma 17, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 203–18. ↩
Martin Luther King Jr., The Strength to Love, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 501. This quotation comes from a sermon King preached titled “A Knock at Midnight.” ↩
This approach to racial reconciliation also overlooks how power dynamics affect exchanges between majority-culture and minority-culture members. Drew Hart, an African American, relates a conversation he had at a restaurant with a white pastor. The pastor set an empty cup between the two of them and said, “Because I can’t see what’s on your side of the cup, I need you to share with me your perspective so I can see things from your standpoint. . . . Likewise, you need me to share my point of view so that you can understand the world from my vantage point” (Drew G.I. Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism [Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016], 24, Kindle; italics original). Hart explained to the pastor that, as a black man, Hart had to learn the white perspective in order to succeed in American society. The opposite was not true for white people. Also, in reflecting on the conversation, Hart observes how racism introduces an imbalance of power between white and nonwhite groups. “Racism,” he writes, “isn’t first and foremost about a horizontal divide; it is a vertically structured hierarchy. Social hierarchy and power have defined, in varying degrees, human worth, beauty, and significance in society” (26). Because the white pastor failed to acknowledge this social hierarchy, he held a distorted and counterproductive view of racial reconciliation. As Hart explains, “Very frequently, racial exchange solely happens under the terms and conditions of white people, which in itself is already an act of reaffirming the racialized hierarchy” (27). Hart’s story appears in Adrian Pei, The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018), 45–46. ↩
Sociologist Korie L. Edwards writes, “Multiracial churches are not a recent phenomenon. Blacks and whites have worshipped together since before the Revolutionary War. However, denominations and churches actively affirmed the racial order providing it with moral validity and divine legitimacy. Black Christians were not treated as equals in these early racially diverse churches” (“Much Ado about Nothing? Rethinking the Efficacy of Multiracial Churches for Racial Reconciliation,” in Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith, ed. J. Russell Hawkins and Phillip Luke Sinitiere [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014], 234). ↩
For more on how white churches that ignore the black church tradition can exhaust rather than encourage black Christians, see Isaac Adams, “Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People,” 9Marks, September 25, 2015. ↩
Edwards, “Much Ado about Nothing?” 247. ↩
Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 588. ↩
For an extended meditation on the power of Jesus’s flesh to undermine modern Western society’s racialized view of humanity, see J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008). ↩
I am drawn to people who suffer without murmuring. Especially when they believe in God but never get angry with him or criticize him. It seems to me that not murmuring is one of the rarest traits in the world. And when it is combined with a deep faith in God — who could alter our painful circumstances, but doesn’t — it has a beautiful, God-trusting, God-honoring quality that makes it all the more attractive. Paul was like that.
Paul tells of the time when his faith was put to the test in a way that brought him to the brink of despair and death:
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Corinthians 1:8–10)
Three things are remarkable here. First is the severity of the suffering: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Second, there is purpose or design in this suffering: “That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Third, this purpose was God’s purpose. It could not have been Satan’s, since Satan certainly does not want Paul to rely on God.
So, the truth that Paul believed about his suffering — no matter how severe — was that it came ultimately with God’s purpose, and the purpose was that Paul would trust himself less and trust God more, every moment of his life, especially as death approached.
This, it seems, is how Paul could be free from murmuring in his suffering. He knew God was in charge of it, and that God’s purposes were totally for Paul’s good. Paul fleshes this truth out in several other places:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
Again, the basis of Paul’s freedom from murmuring — indeed, the presence of his rejoicing — was his confidence that God was at work doing something crucial in Paul: producing endurance and God-saturated hope.
But what about suffering that leads only to death and not to a new chapter of life on earth where reliance on God (2 Corinthians 1:9) and deepened character and hope (Romans 5:4) might be increased? Paul was keenly aware of this question and gave his answer in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:
We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The issue here is the gradual wasting away of human life — through affliction and sickness and aging. In other words, the next chapter after this suffering is not a season of greater faith and hope on earth. The next chapter is heaven.
So, is there any point in the increased suffering that comes with the approach of death? How do those of us who have only a few years left not murmur at our aches and pains and the onrush of death? Paul’s answer is that this life’s afflictions — if we endure them by trusting Christ — actually produce greater measures of glory in heaven. “This . . . affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.”
Therefore, even though Paul’s life was one of seemingly unremitting sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:23–33), there is scarcely a hint of murmuring, and none against God. He could get angry at destructive error and its teachers (Galatians 1:8–9; 5:12). And he could express his pressures and burdens (2 Corinthians 11:28). Nevertheless, his contentment through it all was unusual.
He said he had learned the secret of contentment:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
This “secret” seemed to be the all-satisfying presence and worth of Christ (Philippians 3:8), together with the confidence Paul felt in the merciful sovereignty of God that would work all things for his good (Philippians 1:12; Romans 8:28). Watching Paul maintain his humble, God-dependent, Christ-cherishing contentment through all his sufferings causes me to stand in awe of this man.
When God feels distant, he may be calling us away from a flimsy faith to a tough, unshakable allegiance to Jesus.
Of all the wonders in the world — the steepest mountains, the grandest canyons, the widest oceans — none compares with the Son sent from heaven. If we think we have seen the full extent of who he is, we are deceived. We cannot fathom just how breathtaking he is. Have we forgotten? When was the last time you were mesmerized by Jesus?
If he does not captivate us anymore, it is not because he lacks anything. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus radiates the beauty and worth of God, embodying infinite wisdom, justice, strength, and love perfectly and forever. He carries every continent, planet, and galaxy with less than a pinky — with just a sound from his mouth.
He orders each wave in the Pacific Ocean to rise and fall as he pleases. He feeds every blue jay and hummingbird every single meal, and decides the height and hue of each blade of grass in every field on earth. Seven billion people will take their next breath because, and only because, he gives it to them (Acts 17:25).
And yet, we often yawn.
Sometimes we yawn because we forget what it means to see at all. We were born so blind that even the blazing brightness of his glory could not break through (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan had boarded up every sliver of every window in our hearts. Our retinas saw everything they see now, and yet, nothing. We saw the surface of reality, but missed the source of reality. But then the Author of sight gave us a new prescription and introduced us, for the first time, to true wonder.
“God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). If light has flooded your heart, God put it there. God ended your aching search for happiness, and mended the shattered pieces of your heart. He pulled back the curtains of sin and shame, held up the brilliance of his Son, and sent his Spirit to open your eyes wider and wider to himself.
When you open the Bible looking for Jesus, remember that not everyone can see him like you can. If we knew what we have been given, we would not take it for granted — we would not yawn. We would tremble, and rejoice, and gaze at him in his word.
We also yawn before Christ because we do not give ourselves time to wonder.
When did you see him for the first time? For every follower of Jesus, there was a time when he went from interesting to stunning, from intriguing to mouth-stopping, from inspiring to everything — from great man to God himself. When we fed on his word those first few weeks, we ate like we had never had a real meal. When we drank the living water from his well, we barely stopped to breathe. Like the man who sold all he had, we had found our pearl of great price, our treasure beyond compare. Wasn’t he marvelous?
We lose that sense of awe when we don’t give ourselves time to gaze. How extravagant could he possibly look if we only ever give him a few minutes here and there? A thousand other things eat away at the precious minutes we used to spend at his feet. If Satan cannot keep us from seeing the light of Christ, he will do everything he can to direct our attention elsewhere — to fix our eyes on anything but Jesus.
If we want to see the wonders in him, if we want him to take our breath away again, we will have to keep Satan (and everyone and everything else) at bay long enough each day to see.
Give your life to gazing at Jesus in his word, and you will not be bored — and you will not see all of him. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). If we yawn, shame on us.
There is more power in him than in all the waves in all the oceans. There is more wisdom in him than in all the world’s universities. There is more purity in him than in the finest pearl or diamond. There is more courage in him than in the bravest soldiers in the fiercest wars. There is more gentleness in him than in a mother with her newborn. There is more justice in him than any human court or judge. There is more love in him than we have ever known or felt. And that power, that wisdom, that love — that radiance — came to earth and died for you, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
He is wonderful and beautiful, righteous and mighty, marvelous and holy. Isn’t he?
Sunday: 9:30 am
Nursery service is available at the 9:30 service.
Sunday School 10:20 am