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In the Old Testament, the disabled were excluded from the holy place. In the New Testament, Jesus touched and healed the disabled. Why the difference?
Robert Murray McCheyne was a local pastor in Dundee, Scotland, who died in 1843 at the age of 29. No extraordinary events in his life made him likely to be remembered. But he had a very precious friend, Andrew Bonar, a nearby pastor. And within two years Andrew had published Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. It is still in print, and here we are 176 years after McCheyne’s death, encouraged and inspired by his life.
What was it about McCheyne’s short, and in many ways ordinary, life that gave it the force that created the book (and now books) that preserves his legacy to our day?
I suggest that there was a double key to the force of McCheyne’s life: the preciousness of Jesus and the pain of a thorn.
In McCheyne’s description of his teenage years, he said, “I kissed the Rose nor thought about the thorn” — meaning, “I indulged in all the amusing and beautiful pleasures of the world, and didn’t give a thought to sickness and suffering and death.” But after his conversion, he spoke often of Jesus as his Rose of Sharon, and he lived in almost constant awareness of the thorn of his sickness and that his time might be short. He said in one of his sermons,
Set not your heart on the flowers of this world; for they have all a canker in them. Prize the Rose of Sharon . . . more than all; for he changeth not. Live nearer to Christ than to the saints, so that when they are taken from you, you may have him to lean on still. (Sermons of Robert Murray McCheyne)
McCheyne lived only the morning of his life: he died before he was 30. His effectiveness, however, was not frustrated by this fact but empowered by it. Because of his tuberculosis, he lived with the strong sense that he would die early. So the double key to his life is the preciousness of Jesus, the Rose, intensified by the pain of the thorn, the sickness and the shortness of his life.
McCheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813. He grew up in an atmosphere with high moral standards, but was, by his own testimony, “devoid of God.” When he went to the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14, he studied classics. He was kissing the rose of classical learning, and ignoring the thorn of suffering and death.
But all that changed in 1831 when he was 18 years old. David, Robert’s oldest brother, was neither spiritually nor physically well. In the summer of that year, he sank into a deep depression and died on July 8. Suddenly, the thorn of the rose stabbed McCheyne through the heart. All the beauty of the rose he was living for wilted. And by God’s grace, he saw another Rose in what happened to David.
In the days leading up to his death, David found a profound peace through the blood of Jesus. Bonar said that “joy from the face of a fully reconciled Father above lighted up [David’s dying] face” (Memoir). McCheyne saw it, and everything began to change. He had seen a rose other than classical learning. And he saw it as beautiful, not in spite of the thorn, but because of it. The thorn pierced him awake.
Four months after the death of his brother, McCheyne enrolled in the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University, November 1831. There he met the man who would have the greatest influence on his life and ministry, Thomas Chalmers.
Chalmers pressed all of his great learning into the service of holiness and evangelism. He warned McCheyne and the other students of “the white devil” and “the black devil” — the black devil leading to “fleshly sins” of the world, and the white devil to “spiritual sins” of self-righteousness. And he made the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners the central power for this holiness.
Chalmers was also deeply burdened about the poverty in the slums of Edinburgh and how little gospel witness there was. He established the Visiting Society and recruited McCheyne and his friends to join. This threw McCheyne into a world he had never seen as an upper-middle-class university student. It awakened in him a sense of urgency for those cut off from the gospel. On March 3, 1834, two and a half years into his divinity studies, he wrote,
Such scenes I never before dreamed of. . . . “No man careth for our souls” is written over every forehead. Awake, my soul! Why should I give the hours and days any longer to the vain world, when there is such a world of misery at the very door? Lord, put thine own strength in me; confirm every good resolution; forgive my past long life of uselessness and folly. (Memoir)
So McCheyne would take away from his time in divinity school a passion for holiness and a passion for evangelism. These would never leave him and would become defining impulses of his life — all of it motivated by the beauty of the Rose, and all of it intensified by the thorn of suffering.
The last day of McCheyne’s divinity lectures was March 29, 1835. He was just shy of being 22 years old. And that fall he was called to be the assistant minister in the double parish of Larbert and Dunipace. He served there as an assistant until the call came from St. Peter’s Church in Dundee in August 1836. There McCheyne served as the pastor until his death six and a half years later.
That’s the simple sum of his professional life: a student till he was 22, an assistant pastor for a year, and a senior pastor for six years. As I have tried to think through what makes such an uneventful life so useful even 176 years after his death, it isn’t any extraordinary event in his life. Rather, it is his extraordinary passion for Christ — for the Rose — and for holiness and for lost people, all intensified by the shortness of life — the thorn. And all this passion preserved in powerful, picturesque language. He is still influencing us because of the words that came out of his mouth, not the events of his life.
So let’s listen to him concerning the pursuit of holiness and concerning his communion with God through the word and prayer.
God had given McCheyne the gospel key to pursuing personal holiness. He received it through the teaching of Chalmers. Chalmers was very concerned about excessive introspection in the pursuit of holiness. He knew that a believer cannot make progress in holiness without basing it on the assurance of salvation, and yet the effort to look into our sinful hearts for some evidences of grace usually backfires.
Chalmers said that glimpses into the dark room of the heart alone give no good prospect. Instead, he said we should
take help from the windows. Open the shutters and admit the sun. So if you wish to look well inwardly, look well out. . . . This is the very way to quicken it. Throw widely open the portals of faith and in this, every light will be admitted into the chambers of experience. The true way to facilitate self-examination is to look believingly outwardly. (Introduction to The Christian’s Great Interest, 6)
McCheyne had written that down in a class and underlined the last sentence. So it is not surprising to hear him give his own counsel in similar terms: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. . . . Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms” (Memoir).
This was the basic strategy in the pursuit of holiness. So when McCheyne spoke what are probably his most famous words, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness,” he meant not only that they need a pastor who is morally upright, but that they need a pastor who is walking in constant communion with Christ, and being changed into Christ’s likeness by that constant fellowship. Which brings us now finally to the way he cultivated that constant communion with Christ.
McCheyne has much to say about the disciplines of meditating on God’s word and praying. His scheduled disciplines aimed at fixing the habit in his heart of living in constant communion with Christ. He had formed the habit of rising early to read the Scriptures and pray, and he tried to maintain this to the end of his life. He loved to meet Jesus early. He journaled, “Rose early to seek God and found him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company?” He wrote to a student, “Never see the face of man till you have seen his face who is our life, our all” (Memoir).
And when he spoke of seeing the face of God, he had in mind seeing God in the word of God, the Bible. He wrote to Horatius Bonar, Andrew’s brother, “I love the word of God, and find it the sweetest nourishment to my soul” (Memoir). The written word became the window through which he gazed on the glories of Christ — the beauties of the Rose. This was the key to his constant communion with Jesus, which was the key to his holiness and preaching.
But communion goes both ways, and prayer was essential to McCheyne’s power. Both the word of God read and the word of God preached depend on prayer for their power. Prayer was so crucial to his power in preaching that he was jealous to discern quickly any hindrance to prayer. One of the measures that McCheyne used to discern if he was too much in love with the world was by noticing the effect it had on his prayer and Bible reading: “Brethren, if you are ever so much taken up with any enjoyment that it takes away your love for prayer or for your Bible . . . then you are abusing this world. Oh! Sit loose to this world’s joy: ‘the time is short’” (Sermons).
By this means of word and prayer, the Rose of Sharon became more and more beautiful and precious to McCheyne. And all the while, these acts of devotion were being intensified by the thorn of his suffering and the shortness of his life. The week he finished his university studies, he wrote, “Life itself is vanishing fast. Make haste for eternity” (Memoir).
It wasn’t long before the evidences of tuberculosis were unmistakable. Early in 1839, he wrote, “My sickly frame makes me feel every day that my time may be very short.” And to his own congregation, he said early in 1843, “I do not expect to live long. I expect a sudden call someday, perhaps soon, and therefore I speak very plainly” (Memoir).
All of this suffering and expectation of death produced a focused simplicity and intensity that gave increased power to everything else McCheyne did. He saw it as a merciful way that God lifted the veil from eternity. In living and dying in the morning of life, McCheyne kissed the Rose and felt the thorn. His supreme joy was to know Christ. He lived in fellowship with Jesus through the word and prayer. And the thorn of his suffering intensified and purified that fellowship so that we are still being inspired by it 176 years later.
“You want me to do what?” It was all I could muster. For some reason, I didn’t immediately say no.
Being asked to speak at my college fellowship group felt like being asked to fill in for Billy Graham at one of his crusades. The mere thought made my palms sweat. The butterflies in my stomach turned to a flock of flapping birds. I was not public-speaking material. I was timid up front. I was shy and awkward before others. I didn’t aspire to stand up and address even small gatherings, much less large crowds.
Nonetheless, weeks later I found myself standing up, sharing with a group of my peers about prayer. God didn’t remove my inadequacies or my feelings of weakness. Instead, he began to work in my weakness.
How should you respond to your feelings of inadequacy? Maybe you just don’t believe that God can use someone like you. You’re from a dysfunctional family. You have too much baggage from your past. You’re a minority in a majority-led world. You’re too brash, too shy, too fearful, or too afraid to try.
Perhaps you’re not enough. You don’t think clearly enough. You don’t speak well enough. You don’t know enough. You’re not smart enough. You don’t have the platform, followers, endorsements, letters behind your name, or degrees on your wall. You sin too much. You doubt God’s willingness to use someone so weak. You’re ill-equipped for the task. What do you do?
Consider our old friend Moses. Although he was raised as royalty in the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation, he murdered a man and fled the consequences of his actions. He had been hiding out in the Midian protection program for forty years, thinking he had escaped his checkered past.
But God had other plans. Out of a burning bush that wasn’t burning quite right, God called Moses to go and deliver his people (Exodus 3:10). “Go back home, Moses. Go back from where you came from — where you have no honor and no esteem — to do my work. Go back to where you’re not wanted. Go back to the people you abandoned.”
Moses wants to interject, “You must be out of your mind,” but he doesn’t dare do so to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who has revealed himself in flame and spoken audibly. So Moses gives five objections and excuses:
Essentially, Moses says, “You have the wrong guy. I’m not going.” At least a couple of Moses’s excuses were right. Moses was a nobody: an elderly foreigner laboring as a shepherd. And he was supposed to go to the most powerful ruler in the world to demand the release of God’s enslaved people? Not a chance. Not a glimmer of hope. Moses is outclassed, outmanned, outgunned, and out of his mind if he goes.
Moses also lacked any public speaking ability (Exodus 4:10). Perhaps he lacked confidence: his voice cracked, trembled, and wavered. Perhaps he had a speech impediment: a stutter, a stammer, or a lisp. Or perhaps he had lost his command of the Egyptian language after forty years of disuse. Whatever the reason, Moses’s objections held weight. Nonetheless, God had chosen his servant.
Moses offered every excuse, but God had none of it. Instead, God promises to go with Moses (Exodus 3:12). “You are a nobody, but I am Somebody, and I’m coming along with you.” God goes on to make known his powerful name, the suffering of his people, and how future events will unfold (Exodus 3:14–22). Not only does God do the commissioning, but he knows and holds the future. Nothing in the plan is up for grabs. God makes clear, “I’m in control.”
God goes on to give Moses signs of his power to validate Moses’s mission (Exodus 4:1–9). God makes clear it’s his power that is behind all ministry, all evangelism, and all labors to make Christ known. Our instinct is to be like Moses: “What if they don’t believe me?” Yet God has given you his power in the proclamation of his word and in the work of the Spirit. You can doubt your ability, but don’t mistake that for God’s ability to work through weak and inadequate disciples.
Moses’s speech impediment elicits a less sympathetic response. “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11). Wherever your disabilities rear their head, God can use you. Your limitations do not limit the limitless God. Our disabilities plus God’s ability equals limitless possibilities. Moses is told to stop looking at himself and behold the power and presence of the almighty God.
Moses — in all his weakness and frailty — reminds us we have someone better. Moses was imperfect. Sadly, he never entered the Promised Land. But God raises up a better prophet who will lead us all the way home. Where Moses runs from the serpent in fear, Jesus crushes the head of the serpent. Where Moses wavers to go to his people, Jesus comes to suffer and to save the lost. Where Moses stutters and stammers to reveal God’s word, Jesus reveals it perfectly as the living and incarnate Word. Where Moses is reluctant, Jesus goes willingly to lay down his life for his sheep.
It is a glorious thing we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus became weak to make a way for God to save and now commission weak people to accomplish his glorious purposes in the world. So like Paul, we can say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What the church needs this Sunday is God’s word — not laugh-out-loud humor, not moving stories, not news updates — God’s word.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day? (Psalm 13:1–2)
Does David strike a chord with you as he cries out in desperation? Is God permitting an agonizing wait for answers to your most urgent and heartfelt prayers?
Perhaps it’s physical healing you or a loved one most needs, or a child or family member who has unrepentantly turned from God. Maybe you have been waiting and longing for years for a spouse, or for the gift of children, or for a transformation of your marriage, or maybe simply for a job to support your family. Perhaps you have been in a spiritual desert such a long time you have begun to doubt God exists at all.
Not all waiting involves such agony, of course. A college applicant longs for a letter of acceptance. Children can’t wait for summer break. In Minnesota, during the seemingly unending winter months, we seriously long for spring. These longings are different, though, because we know an answer will come. When David prayed, he could not be sure if or when or in what way God would answer, and most of us face life issues equally serious and uncertain.
Most of the years of my life have been pockmarked with struggles and heartaches that were simply beyond my power to change.
Close relatives who have faced life-threatening illnesses or some serious, persistent mental-health issues. Loved ones passing from this life inexplicably resistant to the promise of hope in the gospel. Agonizing, in some cases unending, challenges in the lives of my children for which I am helpless to provide solutions and must simply remain on my knees, crying out with David, “How long, O Lord?”
It may be tempting to believe God is cruel, or simply does not hear us when we pray. After all, why would God, who we have been told loves us, fail to address our pain and suffering? But everything in God’s word, the pinnacle of which is the suffering and death of his own Son for us, flies in the face of that accusation. God is not cruel. God’s love is everlasting and uniquely personal to each one of his children, and he does not permit one bit of suffering for which there is not a greater purpose.
Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31).
God’s silence never indicates that he does not care about us or is not listening. He simply knows, in ways that we cannot, that his waiting, or failing to respond in the way that we desire, is better than doing what we ask at that moment. He knows things that we do not know. Because he is perfect and holy, his ways are not our ways. They are far higher (Isaiah 55:8–9).
We have a lot of biblical examples to help us understand the purposes God might have in waiting or even saying no.
I wonder how many times Joseph cried out to God to help him as his brothers sold him into slavery, as he was unfairly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and as he unjustly languished for years in prison. Yet God was using all of these experiences and others to prepare Joseph for leadership, and to deepen his faith and trust in the Lord. Joseph’s faithful willingness to suffer and wait upon the Lord helped him ultimately save his family, as well as the Hebrew and Egyptian nations, during years of famine.
At the end of his life, Joseph understood that what his brothers (and others) meant for evil in his life, God permitted and meant for good (Genesis 50:20). Joseph couldn’t see where it was all leading when it was happening any more than we can in our suffering, but he trusted, and God was faithful beyond his wildest dreams — as he will be for us.
The apostle Paul prayed and prayed for the thorn in his side to be removed, but God said no. It is hard for us to understand, but pain and helplessness strengthened Paul’s ministry. The pain he suffered daily was a reminder that he was weak and dependent on God for everything. Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Our weakness is often a reminder and opportunity from God to stop trying to control our situation and “fix” everything by our own power and resources. It is God’s strength that we need. Look what God did through a weak and suffering servant like Paul. It’s impossible to imagine all that God might do through our willingness to persevere in faith, trusting in God’s strength and wisdom, and not our own.
Even Jesus prayed that the cup of the cross might pass from him, yet “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Make no mistake: Jesus did not want to suffer any more than we do, but he was willing to suffer if it would rescue us from sin and glorify the Father. Are we willing to suffer, believing God will use our suffering for a higher purpose?
You are probably thinking, What higher purpose could God have in mind for my suffering? Clearly, he is not using you or me to provide a means of salvation, as he did through Jesus. He is not using our suffering to inspire Scripture, as he did through Paul. He’s likely not using our suffering to pave the way for famine relief for nations, or any similar global-relief effort, as he did through Joseph.
He might, however, be using our faithful suffering as an example to inspire someone else to ask for the reason for our hope and come to believe (1 Peter 3:15). He might be using our waiting to give us a testimony that will encourage countless others who are experiencing discouragement (2 Corinthians 1:4). He might cause us to miss one opportunity because he has something better in store. He might simply want us to know him better and learn to be content with God as our companion, come what may.
We cannot possibly know all of the things God might be doing in and through our waiting and suffering, but as we cry out, “How long?” with David, there are some things God would have us know for sure.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. (Jeremiah 31:3 NIV)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4–5)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (1 John 5:13–14)
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2–3)
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
I am the one who helps you.” (Isaiah 41:13)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea. (Psalm 46:1–2)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27)
He [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3–7)
If you are crying out as David did in Psalm 13, desperate for the Lord to hear and answer your prayers, you are joining generations of saints who have persevered in faith through trials and persecutions every bit as serious as the ones you are facing.
Draw upon the gift of faith God has given you, remain in the word of God daily, continue to cry out to God in prayer, invite other trusted believers to cry out with you, and perhaps most importantly, remember God loves you, he is with you, the Spirit and Christ are interceding for you, and “this light momentary affliction” affliction will pass (2 Corinthians 4:17).
In Psalm 13, David does remember God’s goodness. He closes by rejoicing that God is sufficient for all of his needs:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5–6)
Take heart. If you are in Christ, the Lord is dealing bountifully with you too.
God could have chosen all to inherit eternal life, but he didn’t. So why would God choose some and not choose others?
Why is humility so important to God? I mean, it’s really, really important to him. Listen to the kinds of things Jesus said:
Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave. (Matthew 20:26–27)
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3–4)
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Humble slaves rank first in God’s kingdom, only the humble childlike get into the kingdom, and the meek will be given dominion over the world. These are statements are so radical they sound nearly ridiculous.
I wonder if we’re too familiar with these sayings. I don’t know about you, but I have found it disturbingly easy to dissociate theological truths I intellectually assent to from what I functionally believe (the ways I actually behave). If statements about humility like these don’t throttle us, I doubt we’re really hearing Jesus — given how much we are not like this by nature, given how unappealing serving is when we must actually sacrifice our own pursuits in order to do it, given how little we want to be regarded as childlike when it comes to how others actually think of us, and given how not meek we feel when someone else actually offends us.
Did you catch what’s at stake? If this kind of humility doesn’t characterize us, we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). It’s the same sort of statement Jesus made about those who aren’t born again (John 3:3). It’s the same sort of statement Paul made about the sexually immoral, idolaters, the greedy, drunkards, and revilers (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). Do you, by your behavior, put pride in the same category of seriousness as sexual sin? I think God considers pride to be worse. Nowhere in Scripture does God say the most sexually pure are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
What is it about humility that God esteems so much? What’s so great about humility?
That’s a question many critics of Christianity ask. Some view statements like “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26–27) as so alien to human experience that they are completely unrealistic, however altruistic Jesus’s intentions may have been.
Others go much further and call Jesus’s humility ethic evil. Karl Marx considered it an opiate to pacify the proletariat masses so the bourgeoisie could keep their economic grip on the means of production. Friedrich Nietzsche abhorred it as doing nothing but enfeebling the human race, encouraging the whole lot of us to behave precisely in ways that keep us from pursuing the ruthless strength we need to survive in a brutal, uncaring universe.
Indeed, the humility Jesus commends here seems alien, otherworldly. It was alien to Jesus’s disciples when he made the statement to them. James and John were angling for the seats of eternal honor (Matthew 20:20–21), moving their ten comrades to get bent out of shape, since each figured he had a fair claim to those seats (Luke 22:24). This was the greatness they knew. They lived in a world where greatness was defined by social position, where scribes and Pharisees loved their seats of honor (Matthew 23:6) and rulers loved lording (Matthew 20:25). They lived in the world we live in. What world did Jesus live in?
When Jesus called the disciples to pursue greatness through the humility of serving others, he wasn’t merely calling them to be countercultural; he was calling them to be counter-natural — or better, to be supernatural. None of us is born with this character quality. If Jesus’s humility ethic seems alien, it’s because it is. It is the ethic of a foreign kingdom (Matthew 18:1), a better country (Hebrews 11:16).
Actually, that’s not exactly right. It’s more accurate to say that humility is the ethic of a former kingdom. For the kingdom of heaven was the original administration of earth, and humility was the ethic of Eden. The domain of darkness (Colossians 1:13) is the actual foreign kingdom that staged a coup at the forbidden tree by enticing Adam and Eve to stop trusting fully in God and start leaning on their own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). And the foreign kingdom’s pride ethic prevailed.
But the Bible tells us that humility will once again be the prevailing ethic of the future kingdom, when the evil foreign power is at last overthrown, and every knee bows to the supremely humble King of kings (Philippians 2:5–11). When we finally see him, we will know that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven indeed is the servant of all.
But I still haven’t answered the question: What’s so great about humility? Why does God rank it as such a high quality of human greatness? I believe it’s because humility is the only state of the soul that allows us to accurately perceive and value truth and glory for what they really are. Only the humble can truly see.
We’ve all heard some version of the adage “pride blinds.” That’s exactly what it does. Pride keeps sinful man from seeing God (Psalm 10:4). Pride keeps us from seeing our approaching fall (Proverbs 16:18). Pride is the light in the eyes of a wicked heart (Proverbs 21:4), and “if then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).
But humility puts us in the frame of mind to be able to see. Which is why God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9). Only the humble can be “pure in heart,” and therefore only the humble can “see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Pride sees the self as the supreme value, and views everything else as means to enhance the self. It’s insatiable, and it can be deadly. But in humility, one does “not to think of [one’s self] more highly than [one] ought to think, but . . . think[s] with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).
The humble person accurately sees God’s place, his own place, and everyone else’s place in the world. The humble person sees himself as a sinner in desperate need of God’s mercy, and having received it through the supremely humble servanthood of God in Christ (Philippians 2:5–8), finds it more blessed to give to others than to receive so that they might maximally enjoy the mercy of God forever too (Acts 20:35). Having this mind, he sees existence, the world, beauty, redemption, and judgment as incomprehensibly bigger than himself and so full of glories that he is overwhelmed and can’t contain it all. His humility allows him to see, and what he sees humbles him.
Why did Jesus say only the humble can enter the kingdom? Because only the humble can see the kingdom. Why are the greatest in the kingdom the servants? Because the more humble we are, the more reality we truly see, the more of God’s multifaceted glory we truly see, and therefore the more joy we experience, and therefore the more we want others to experience that joy. What makes humility so great is that it’s God-like.
In calling us to meekness, Jesus is inviting us to abandon the bankruptcy of pride and have the eyes of our hearts enlightened that we may know “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). He’s inviting us share in the very joy of the Triune God, the most humble Persons in existence.
Why does God answer yes to some prayers and no to others? Why does God miraculously heal some people and not others? Why does disaster strike one city and not another?
I’ve been pondering these questions since Hurricane Florence devastated much of eastern North Carolina last year. I live in the center of the state, and contrary to the foreboding predictions, we were relatively unaffected. In response, a friend said, “I know why we were spared catastrophe and the storm circled our area and went south. I was praying that God would keep us safe and he answered my prayers!”
I had no words.
I know that God answers prayer. And we need to pray. God tells us to ask, and it will be given to us (Matthew 7:7). But my friend’s words made me wonder if she thought that no one in eastern Carolina was praying. I know people whose livelihoods were destroyed in the storm. Everything they owned was gone. They escaped with their lives but nothing material left. Some of them begged God to spare their city.
What are we as believers to infer from these natural disasters? Can we simply draw straight lines between our requests and God’s answers? Years ago, I heard a pastor tell of his cancer that went into remission. When he told his congregation the good news, several commented, “We knew God would heal you. He had to. So many people were praying for you.”
While the pastor was thankful for others’ prayers, he also knew God did not owe him healing. Faithful believers throughout the ages have earnestly prayed and yet not been healed. The apostle Paul was not healed in order that God might show that his power could be made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And then there was my own son, Paul, who died as an infant. We had prayed, fasted, and asked friends to pray for his healing. Several years after his death, we met a man who said when he learned of our loss, “Don’t take this wrong, but we prayed for all of our children before they were born. And they were all born healthy.” We had no words.
In considering the question of when and why God chooses to rescue, I was reminded of Acts 12 which begins, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. . . . So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:1–3, 5). Peter was then rescued the very night that Herod was about to bring him out, to presumably kill him as he had killed James.
Why did God let James die and Peter live?
Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’s closest disciples. These three were often selected to be alone with Jesus. Yet their earthly lives after Christ’s resurrection were markedly different. John was the last of the disciples to die, Peter was rescued from prison in Acts 12, but church history records that he was later martyred by being crucified upside down.
James was the first of the disciples to be martyred. The Bible records that Herod killed James with no elaborating details. We simply know that Peter was spared while James was not. What are we to make of this? Did God love Peter more than James? Was James’s life less important? Did James have less faith? Were people not praying for James?
Looking at the fuller counsel of the Bible, it is clear that God has plans that we do not understand. His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). Because we believe that death is just a passage into eternal life (2 Timothy 1:10), one that all of us will go through, it ultimately doesn’t matter when we pass through it. God numbers our days before they begin, and he alone determines when we will die (Psalm 139:16).
Though we often cannot understand God’s purposes in this life, we can be sure that James’s life as a disciple and his death as a martyr was intentional. Everything God does has purpose (Isaiah 46:10). Because of that, we can be sure that at the time of James’s death, he had accomplished what God had called him to (Philippians 1:6), while Peter’s work on earth was unfinished (Philippians 1:24–25).
Living or dying, being spared or being tortured, being delivered in this life or the next is not an indicator of God’s love for us or the measure of our faith. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and our future is determined by what he knows is best for us (Romans 8:28, 35–39).
Paul understood this principle well when he said in Philippians 1:21–23, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Departing this world and being with Christ is far better, because eternal life is far better than life on earth. No matter what this life holds, we will eventually be deliriously happy in heaven, where God has all of eternity to lavish us with his kindness (Ephesians 2:7).
Even though I know these truths, I have often been discouraged that others have been rescued while I was still suffering. Prosperity gospel proponents have told me that if I had prayed in faith, my body would have been healed, my son would have been spared, and my marriage would have been restored. It was all up to me. If I just had the faith, I would have had a better outcome.
Their words have left me bruised and disillusioned, wondering what I was doing wrong.
But that theology is not the gospel. God’s response to our prayers is not dependent upon our worthiness but rather rests upon on his great mercy (Daniel 9:18). Because of Christ, who took our punishment, God is always for us (Romans 8:31). He wants to give us all things. Christ himself is ever interceding for us (Romans 8:31–34).
If you are in Christ, God is completely for you. Your suffering is not a punishment. Your struggles are not because you didn’t pray the right way, or because you didn’t pray enough, or because you have weak faith or insufficient intercessors. It is because God is using your suffering in ways that you may not understand now, but one day you will. One day you will see how God used your affliction to prepare you for an incomparable weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is the gospel. And it holds for all who love Christ.
Dozens of countries are experiencing a resurgence of biblical Christianity. Pastor John shares several stories from his recent trip to Brazil and Argentina.
I can tell you anything. No one understands me like you do.
I don’t know what I would do without you.
I’m so glad we struggle with the same sins. It makes me know that I’m not alone.
Perhaps some trace of these statements sounds familiar to all of us, but when they characterize the tenor of our relationships, we have a problem. Codependency stems from an epidemic — a crisis that has quietly crept into our churches. Rosaria Butterfield calls it the “crisis of loneliness.”
I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, on the topic of codependency. Many have responded to the rise of codependency by encouraging various boundaries in friendships, but Rosaria believes the problem (and solution) is at a deeper level. “Idols serve something; they plug a hole,” says Rosaria. “They are born because people are tragically and dangerously lonely.” This crisis is “not about boundaries.” Boundaries perpetuate our hearts’ petting of idols and enable a “culture of infancy” to flourish in our churches. She tells us, we must “deal with the crisis of loneliness” by filling the hole with more than just each other.
According to Rosaria, we form a codependent relationship — “make an idol out of a friend” — when we: “(1) ask that person to be something more than she should, and (2) ask that person to love me more than she should, to see me as a kind of savior.” An idol is born, Rosaria warns, from “not mediating that relationship through Jesus Christ.” When we “desire for a person something that God does not desire for her, or desire for that person to see us in a way that God does not want us to be elevated,” we have crossed the threshold from brotherly affection to worship distortion.
Rosaria directs us beyond changes in the structure of our churches and families to identify and eliminate underlying, distorted views of ourselves and of Christ. We need a mental shift for healthy relationships in the church in four key areas: sin, identity, discipleship, and repentance.
Three problems regarding our understanding of sin feed the codependency wildfire: our ignorance of our own sin, our world’s perception of sin, and our “sin in common” mentality.
“Sin is predatory. I don’t think Christians really think about that. They think, ‘I’ve got it under control,’” Rosaria says. But we need to know the way “Adam thumbprinted us,” and if we don’t know what that is, we must rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ to tell us where we need to watch out for temptation. And feelings — the “precursor for our actions” — are not immune to temptation. Feelings can often subtly birth a codependent relationship because we do not check them against the word of God to filter their fleshly origin.
We also need to acknowledge how Satan fans the flame of codependency to potentially become a “homosexual outworking of idolatry.” In a sexually charged world, “homosexuality has now even become iconographic of progressiveness,” rendering tamer forms of codependency acceptable. But if we are mindful of how homosexuality has been normalized in our world, we can remember the Bible’s taboo against it is there not to harm or hinder us, but to protect us — for our good and for God’s glory.
And sin should not bond believers. That role belongs to Christ. Rosaria warns,
Maturity is not having a bunch of people who gather together because of a particular imprint of Adam on them. That is not maturity. That is anti-maturity. Maturity is where we know each other’s sin patterns well enough that part of being our brother’s keeper is that we watch over people in that way. We make sure that there’s a healthy distance. We don’t set people up to fail, and then walk away from them when they do.
When we suggest that sin marks our commonality, we are easily leading ourselves to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13) — we defer to an “everybody does it” mentality. But we shouldn’t settle for common sin. We rejoice in our common Savior. God calls us to exhort one another in Christ (Hebrews 3:13). We serve the Lord together and have hard conversations. We don’t get comfortable with our sin because our brothers and sisters “do it too.” We exhort another, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we kill it. Together.
Do we place our identity in someone other than Christ, whether self or one another?
“The more we are clear that our primary relationship is to the Lord, we are less likely to ask other people to either see us as their savior or see them as our savior.” Rosaria reminds us, “We’re all to look to Jesus. We have union with Christ.” The Bible teaches we are indeed all sons of God through faith, all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27–28). Christ lives in us and our lives are an outpouring of that identity and reality (Galatians 2:20). When we substitute the Savior with mini-saviors, we have unknowingly dragged others with us into an identity crisis.
We need to be watchful too, Rosaria warns, that we aren’t using our identities as opportunities to live in false freedom. “One of the most dangerous things is for believers to enter into anything and simply presume that because you’re a believer, you’re being Christ-centered about what you’re doing.” We must be mindful that we are walking in true Christian liberty, which Rosaria describes as “a liberty to not sin.” It is indeed “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), to cause us to “live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16), walking in our Christian identity.
A skewed concept of discipleship also perpetuates codependency. Rosaria advocates for continued discipleship in the church, but encourages us to understand its true purposes and parameters.
Discipleship serves to fulfill “a specific task” centered on building the church, to “walk in strength and liberty in the Lord, to be free of idols and patterns of sin.” Its purpose is “not to create dependence, drafting off of other people’s spiritual lives, but to help people launch.” So we “proclaim [Christ], warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Rosaria challenges us to question, or at a minimum, cautiously enter into, one-on-one discipleship relationships because of their potential to replace the object of our affections and endanger our identity in Christ. She provides a grave warning to explain why. “A discipling relationship can be claustrophobic,” Rosaria says. “It can court a sense that I can tell X anything, but only X. That breeds the problem [of codependency].” She advocates for anchoring discipleship instead in our family devotions. In her mind, we either “use family devotions as a way to mark the family of God, to create intimacy that is safe, to encourage sanctified relationships,” or our church will have to “do a great deal of counseling on the other end of idolatry.”
One-on-one relationships — under elder oversight and for a specific reason — do not necessarily translate into codependent ones, but Rosaria suggests that “discipling comes as a natural outgrowth of how the Christian family functions.” Christian family life is the heartbeat of discipleship:
We need to do something about the culture of discipling. When people ask me, “How many women are you discipling?” you know what the answer is? Zero. I disciple my children. And then there are a number of men and women at our table at night. And there’s a mutual discipling that goes on. And from there, I have occasions when we are going to talk because something is up and someone can help with this.
The Bible is about communal relationships — “I see Titus 2 communally. I see older women and younger women working things out communally, not one on one.” She also references Jesus with his disciples. “There are one-on-one moments, but even they have a kind of group setting to them.”
Have we created a problem in the church by emphasizing one-off discipleship? Perhaps. But as we grow in how we operate as a family of God, our ability to disciple one another will flourish. And as Rosaria aptly notes, we should constantly pray “that all of our friendships would be sanctified.”
Rosaria’s counsel formed a number of questions to help us assess the health of our relationships and determine if repentance is necessary:
When we assess a relationship as codependent, Rosaria offers us hope: “Nothing sanctifies a friendship better than repentance.” We “[turn] to God from idols” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) — we repent. And Rosaria tells us to seek forgiveness from our friends — we confess to them that we have used our friendship to “fuel our pride,” and we “have tried to make ourselves indispensable to them,” disregarding our Savior and his blood. Repentance must be the first step. And then, in the power of the Spirit, we change.
There is someone who understands us like no one else. There is a model we cannot live without. There is someone who never leaves nor forsakes us. There is someone who treasures us beyond our comprehension.
If idols plug holes, as Rosaria explains, let’s fill the holes. Boundaries will not cure codependency. But Christ can. By his power, if we begin to dig in to the hidden illness of misplaced identities and misunderstandings of sin, discipleship, and repentance, codependency will no longer enable the crisis of loneliness to plague our churches.
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Nursery service is available at the 9:30 service.
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LENTEN WORSHIP: Wednesday's @ 6:00 PM