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By a delightful stroke of God’s providence, the English language bears witness to a husband’s job description in the very word husband. For a husband is a man who practices husbandry, or cultivation. Like a master gardener, his job is to so nurture and tend to his wife that she brings forth flowers.
We should beware of stretching the image too far, of course. No woman is merely a passive patch of soil, helpless until a husband comes to cultivate her. Remember Anna and Abigail, women who flourished either without a husband (Luke 2:36–38) or with a foolish one (1 Samuel 25:3). Such women (and our churches know many of them today) bloom like wildflowers in the desert, planted and tended by a greater Groom.
Nevertheless, Scripture bids earthly husbands to imitate this heavenly Husband — to nurture their wives into greater degrees of resplendence by practicing Christlike marital husbandry (Ephesians 5:25–30). Therefore, whenever we find a wife in full bloom, we would be wise to see if we can learn from her man.
Proverbs 31 shows us such a woman, as well as such a man.
Many men dream of having a Proverbs 31 wife. She belongs to “the wisest of women,” who build up their homes with industry and skill (Proverbs 14:1). She gives her man a good name so that he “is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). She is “a good thing” without qualification or reserve (Proverbs 18:22), for “she does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:12). He may be noble without her, but with her he is kingly (Proverbs 12:4).
Many fail to recognize, however, that behind the Proverbs 31 woman is a Proverbs 31 man. And if we read this poem in the context of the whole book, we know this man is no dolt. He fears the Lord and does not lean on his own understanding (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). He has absorbed his father’s and mother’s teaching, and made them glad (Proverbs 10:1; 15:20). He has rejected the paths of the fool, the scoffer, and the sluggard to walk in the way of wisdom (Proverbs 3:17; 9:4–6).
In other words, he is not only a husband, but a husbandman, a cultivator of his wife’s character. What, then, can we learn from such a man? Though he walks in the background of the Proverbs 31 poem, he still teaches lessons in the art of husbandry, whether for mature husbands like himself, or for men who have just begun.
The poem’s first description of the husband’s attitude toward his wife may sound unremarkable: “The heart of her husband trusts in her” (Proverbs 31:11). To say “he trusts her” may not surprise us, but it should. In Scripture, the heart’s trust belongs to God alone, as for example in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” But here, his heart trusts in her. Why?
Because early on he learned the lesson that “charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). Bruce Waltke writes,
This present exception elevates the valiant wife, who herself fears the Lord, to the highest level of spiritual and physical competence. The claim implies that this husband and wife enjoy a robust spiritual relationship. (The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, 521)
Many men in the ancient world treated their wives as little more than pieces of childbearing property, the prettier the better (Derek Kidner, Proverbs, 46). Not this man. Marriage, for him, was about more than pleasure and posterity. It was about camaraderie, fellowship, trust, grown from the soil of reverence for God (Proverbs 31:30). And so, in courtship, betrothal, and beyond, he rooted their union in godly fear.
We can taste the fruit of such trust in nearly every verse of the poem. In particular, notice that his trust in her frees him from the need to micromanage. He has drawn her into a household vision shaped by the fear of God, and she is with him, heart and soul. From that place of implicit trust, she blooms with womanly action — gathering, buying, selling, providing, teaching, giving, making — and he enjoys “the fruit of her hands” (Proverbs 31:31).
Before and above every marital priority, then, a Proverbs 31 man cultivates with his wife a fellowship of holy fear. Family devotions trump television. Sunday worship beats Sunday football. His own comforts take a back seat to her Christlikeness. And because she fears God, he is not afraid to trust her.
The Proverbs 31 woman presents us with a paradox. She is, on the one hand, far too domestic and typically feminine to please many moderns. Yet she is, on the other hand, far too tough and subversively feminine to please many mere traditionalists. Her fingers are not too smooth to handle a shovel, nor too calloused to hold thread (Proverbs 31:16, 19). Without ceasing to be distinctly feminine, “she dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (Proverbs 31:17).
And the poem suggests that her husband loves it. When he comes home to find his wife with dirt under her fingernails (Proverbs 31:19), or when he listens to her laugh at the time to come (Proverbs 31:25), or when he watches her bustle about the home with an energy to rival his own (Proverbs 31:15, 22, 27), he is not intimidated. He is strong enough not to fear her strength.
On the contrary, their camaraderie suggests that her strength is his desire, his pleasure, his aim. Her passion and fortitude are part of what make her “excellent” in his eyes (Proverbs 31:10, 29). God calls us men, likewise, to grow so high in maturity in Christ, and so deep in security in Christ, that we do not balk at our wives’ womanly strength, but instead seek to cultivate it.
A husband who does the opposite, who diminishes his wife’s strength either directly (by discouraging her from certain activities available to godly women) or indirectly (by refusing to grow strong himself), does not want a helpmate, but just a handmaid.
Proverbs 31 bears the marks of careful literary craftsmanship, from its acrostic Hebrew structure to the themes that weave throughout. In verses 20–27, the poem also includes a chiasm, a literary device that highlights the center of a passage. When we trace the path to the center of this chiasm, we land at verse 23: “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.”
As Derek Kidner writes, though “her influence spreads far beyond the home . . . her achievements are (as she would wish) valued most of all for their contribution to her husband’s fortune and good standing” (Proverbs, 46). In other words, she summons her remarkable strength primarily to support her husband’s calling.
As the helper of her husband, this wife finds her mission under the wings of his (Genesis 2:18). Their callings are less like two sets of train tracks and more like the trunk and branches of a tree: she makes the home strong and stable so that he can branch out and offer the family’s fruit to the world. Of course, the wife’s calling often brings her out into the world, and the husband’s always brings him back to the household (Proverbs 31:14, 16, 20, 24). But in general, she takes dominion at home so that he can do the same abroad (Proverbs 31:11, 15, 21, 27).
What does this mean for our Proverbs 31 man? It means, counterintuitively, that he serves his wife’s calling best when he gives himself to a big calling of his own. If a man has only a small vision — not only in his work but in his family, church, and community — then he needs only small assistance from his wife. But if his vision is grand and godly, then, as Herman Bavinck writes, she can “assist in the fullest and broadest sense, physically and spiritually, with her wisdom and love, with her head and her heart” (The Christian Family, 6).
And make no mistake: he requires such assistance. The poem implies that this man can hold up his head in the gates not merely because of who he is in himself, but because of what kind of woman he has: not rottenness in his bones, but a crown on his head (Proverbs 12:4).
The poem’s only speech comes at the end, from the lips of an admiring husband:
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.” (Proverbs 31:28–29)
Is he speaking in hyperbole? Probably. But just as the lover can call his beloved “most beautiful among women” (Song of Solomon 1:8), so this man can say, “You surpass them all.” In his eyes, she does.
Such praise is not only a response to a wife’s blooming loveliness, but also a means of cultivating more. In the logic of the gospel — on which all true husbandry rests — love begets loveliness; praise begets praiseworthiness. First comes the love of Jesus; then comes the loveliness of the bride (Ephesians 5:25–27). A husband who withholds his praise, yet expects praiseworthiness, is like a gardener who withholds water until the plants grow.
Does your wife display any trustworthiness (Proverbs 31:11), any diligence in her calling (Proverbs 31:15), any nurturing care toward your children (Proverbs 31:21), any wisdom toward your neighbors (Proverbs 31:26), any generosity toward the poor (Proverbs 31:20)? Then you have reason, without insecurity, to give warm, thoughtful, specific praise.
Praise her in public and in private, with her and without her. Praise her to the kids, to the neighbors, and to your friends. Praise her for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part. And expect that as you do so, she will grow more and more praiseworthy.
A Christian husband does not turn his back to God when he praises his wife. Just as his trust in his wife is ultimately trust in the God whom she fears (Proverbs 31:11), so his praise of his wife is ultimately praise to the God who gave her (Proverbs 19:14). When the Proverbs 31 man praises his wife for the work of her hands, he is praising God for the work of his hands: her.
Sometimes I wonder if the apostle Paul might have been a runner.
Running is a curiously common theme in his sermons and letters. He refers to his own life and ministry as running (1 Corinthians 9:26; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16) and describes the Galatians’ (past) faith in similar terms, “You were running well” (Galatians 5:7).
He also asks the Thessalonians to pray for him, “that the word of the Lord may speed [run] ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). He speaks of human effort and exertion (in contrast to divine mercy in election) as running (Romans 9:16 NASB). He preached in Antioch about John the Baptist “finishing his course” (Acts 13:25), expressed to the Ephesian elders his desire that “only I may finish my course” (Acts 20:24), and wrote in his final letter, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7).
While walking serves as his more common image of the Christian life (nearly thirty times in his letters), Paul’s theology had a place for speaking in more intense, even aggressive terms as well — of a kind of athletic capacity in the Christian life, as he wrote to the Corinthians,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. (1 Corinthians 9:24)
Whether Paul was a runner or not, many Christians have testified (myself included) to finding the regular experience of pushing the body beyond comfort to be of value beyond just physical health. Paul, after all, asserts that “bodily training is of some value,” even as he emphasizes that “godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8). And bodily training is all the more valuable when it serves godliness — when lessons learned in pushing the body translate directly into the instincts of a healthy soul.
We each face our own hills each day. It might begin with getting out of bed. It might be initiating a conversation we expect to be difficult. Or starting into work or schoolwork or yard work. We all encounter hills; some more, some less. And when we do, it takes more effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Again and again, we face challenges big and small. And when we do, what is our default? Will we keep stepping? Slow down? Stop all together? Or lean in?
Fellow runners might know the feeling. You’re tired but continuing to strain toward the finish. You come upon a hill. Your natural response will be to slow down and slog through it. Stopping to walk can feel tempting. But another mentality is to lean in. Push yourself to get over it. Pummel your body for a purpose, as Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:27). Expend more energy first. Get over the hill sooner, then enjoy the down slope.
Once a runner has learned what rewards lie on the other side of a hill, “leaning in” can become the new default, and become an instinct to develop in the rest of life — learning to press through resistance, rather than backing off as a reflex.
It is human and modern to take the path of least resistance and avoid the hills in life we know we should be climbing each day. This is one reason we can be so easily distracted. It’s not just our latest devices and the savvy attention merchants tricking us into distraction. Deep down we want to be distracted. Humans have craved and found distractions for centuries; the digital avenues for it have simply made distraction even easier. We typically want to avoid what we know we really should be doing because the hills that matter most are the hardest ones to climb.
Here’s where “bodily training” and exercise helps not only the body but the will. Physical exertion can help us develop the mentality to lean into tasks we resist instead of avoiding them and procrastinating — to “take resistance as a spur to action instead of avoidance” (Mark Forster, Get Everything Done, 152).
Instead of automatically slowing down, or turning around, when we come to a hill, we can learn to lean in. Learn to see the right hills as opportunities for fruitfulness, for what really matters — for genuine “productivity” on God’s terms.
Today we are surrounded by a wealth of technologies that condition our souls and bodies to expect comfort, and encourage our minds to go to work calculating easiest means rather than best outcomes. Without intentionality, we will be shaped by our flesh’s path of least resistance rather than the Spirit’s call to bear fruit. If we don’t take deliberate steps to rise above the increasingly low bars of discomfort in our society, we will be pulled down into the pit of lethargy around us. We will become (or remain) modern, soft, increasingly lazy, sedentary, and unproductive.
But in Christ, we have cause to move in another direction — to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our minds]” (Romans 12:2), and bodies. To present them as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). When in doubt, we don’t want to default to what’s easiest. We want to pursue what’s most important, knowing that such things are typically the most mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding.
One way to learn to “lean into the hill” is to learn to look to the reward. For the runner, it is “the eyes of faith” that fuel us to press harder, when part of us would rather slow down, because we’re looking beyond the hill in front of us. Just a few more minutes, and the hill will be behind me, and I will be happier for having leaned in rather than having given in.
The more we learn to look to the reward on the other side of the hill, the more — strange as it may seem at first — we learn to taste joy even on the upside. Even now. The eyes of faith begin to realize, or taste, in seed form, in the moment of hardship, the joy that is to come. Faith is a tasting now, in the present and its discomforts, of the full reward to come.
Whether Paul made a habit of running or not, he had learned how to lean in. When he met conflict in Philippi, he leaned in, and bade the church do so with him. “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29–30). Resistance to the gospel challenged the apostle. But he didn’t back down. He engaged. He leaned in. He continued to run, and invited others to join him.
So too in Thessalonica. Conflict came, and Paul leaned in. “Though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). And yet, example though he is, Paul is not the supreme leaner, but his Lord.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Why? “For it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). This was emphatically not the easiest path but the hardest. The greatest of hills. He would perish, he said, and in the worst possible way: on a cross.
When Hebrews exhorts us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), he also shows us how: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” who leaned in, himself looking to the reward — “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
The resistance mentioned is not the one we might expect: shame. We cringe at even the thought of the physical anguish of the cross. And we should; it was literally excruciating. And yet what Hebrews highlights here is not the physical pain, horrible as it was, but the shame. It was a public, prolonged, naked execution at a crossroads. The unspeakable bodily pain of the cross would have been equaled, if not surpassed, by the shame.
Yet such pain and shame didn’t send Jesus retreating. Rather, he saw the reward on the other side of the shame. Even as such barriers were set immediately before his face, he looked to the joy on the far side, and leaned into the Hill.
Does God love everyone in the world? Does God care about both the elect and non-elect in the same way?
God has given us a high and holy calling in Christ. But can a Christian ever be too hard on himself as he strives to live up to that calling?
When God looks down at America, does he see a land where ostriches roam?
In Scripture, the presence of ostriches in the land signifies desolation. Their presence in the Prophets is a sign of a barren, uninhabited land: “Wild beasts shall dwell with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall dwell in her. She shall never again have people, nor be inhabited for all generations” (Jeremiah 50:39).
More specifically, the ostrich becomes an emblem for a desert land leveled by judgment. God describes what Edom will be after he visits it with his vengeance: “Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches” (Isaiah 34:13; see also Isaiah 13:19–22). Where the ostrich dwells, few men do.
Though the United States does show signs of living under the wrath of God (Romans 1:18–32), ours resembles a land of ostriches due to a different feature of this bird: she is a cruel mother. We live in a land that supports, funds, and legalizes parental cruelty, and calls it a human right. And to normalize it, some, with billion-dollar originations backing them, defend, protest, and even shout their “right” for a mother to become like an ostrich.
The sufferings of Job on the cosmic stage are well-documented for us in the book bearing his name. Toward the end, when God confronts Job with divine thunder and calls him to account (Job 38:3; 40:7), God tours the brilliance of his creation to ask Job where he was when all these were formed. Pausing at the ostrich, the Creator says,
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
because God has made her forget wisdom
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider. (Job 39:13–18)
As much as we might find various forms of “toxic masculinity” in the animal kingdom, a good candidate for “toxic femininity” is the ostrich. This giant bird cares little for her young. She leaves them to be trampled on. God directs Job to wonder at such unnatural heartlessness. And yet, for the past 48 years in the world of men, the United States, among other nations, has summoned powerful forces to make women just like them. No matter what name you call it — “choice,” “women’s rights,” “reproductive freedom” — abortion fashions women into ostriches. Notice the tragic resemblance.
Unlike the she-bear, whose jealous love is known for mauling anything and everything that endangers her cubs (Proverbs 17:12; Hosea 13:8), the neglectful bird digs a hole and throws her eggs in it, leaving them during the day completely unprotected. “She leaves her eggs to the earth and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them and that the wild beast may trample them” (Job 39:14–15).
She takes no pains, like other birds, to provide shelter and seclusion. Rather, she plops them on the ground, where any wild beast or human traveler may come by and trample them, or predators take them for a meal.
The leaders of the abortion industry in our land are not content for a woman to merely leave her children exposed — like the ancient Romans who left their babies to perish slowly in the streets. No, they would have her pay for a wild beast to crush them. They don’t afford Moses the chance to even float downstream to an improbable rescue, or leave him in the streets of Rome for a Christian to save. They invite her to hand him to Pharaoh directly and pay for the “services.”
God created women to be nurturing to their children. They are naturally affectionate and sacrificial with their babies. Even before children are born, mothers give their bodies as a home for them to live in. Then mothers go through incredible pains to bring them into the world, feed them with their own bodies, and watch over them with a special eye of affection and provision the rest of their days. It is a privilege to watch this heavenly flower unfold.
Deprived of that God-given affection between mother and child, “She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers” (Job 39:16). Where is the impulse to care for her young? They simply lie in the hole, strangers to her. “Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young; but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4:3).
Enter again the so-called liberators of women, pro-choice progressives and radical feminists who would destroy this most feminine instinct. What can be more backward and sinister than bidding a woman to go against her own nature — a nature to care for and protect her young — and to welcome the predator into her own body to “terminate the pregnancy”? Instead of emanating that natural warmth and gentleness with her little ones (1 Thessalonians 2:7), she conspires in their brutal end.
It is no wonder that the jackals and vultures of Planned Parenthood must, with forked tongue, try to soothe her conscience by telling her that the thing inside the egg is not “her young,” but simply a clump of cells. Many find out — heartbreakingly too late — that it was in fact her baby.
God has made the ostrich forget wisdom, and banished her understanding. “Though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear, because God has made her forget wisdom and given her no share in understanding. When she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider” (Job 39:16–18). She does not fear though her labor pains be in vain. This is her nature. She is a foolish bird of the wasteland. But what of the sons and daughters of Eve?
Endowed with supreme intellect and understanding — made in the very image of God, and handed the light of God’s supreme revelation — women of abortion (and all who encourage them), while claiming to be wise, have become fools, exchanging the glory of the immortal God for that which is not-God. They have become darkened in their understanding, and have been given over to wicked devices, including being “full of . . . murder” (Romans 1:29), and that toward their own children.
And if the modern spirit of radical feminism had its way, she would even laugh at those who try to stop her. The ostrich is a fast bird, faster, in fact, than the horse. When she rouses herself to flee, this eight-foot, three-hundred-pound bird can run over forty miles per hour. Today, a spirit lives that would send competent women sprinting from hearth and home, scoffing at the family — persuaded to end a new life that might slow her down.
Look, then, at the ostrich. Look at this creature who hazards her children with beasts, who fails to recognize her young, who fears neither men nor God. And then consider that millions today are fighting, funding, protesting, and cheering to form women into their image. We live in a land that makes women ostriches.
At the same time, there must be no equivocation: women who procure abortions conspire in murder. Other factors play their part in such wickedness, but none of them justifies the horror of ending a life. “Out of the heart,” Jesus taught, comes murder (Matthew 15:19). “You desire and do not have, so you murder,” reiterated his brother (James 4:2).
Further, none of these factors will be a balm on quiet nights, nor a salve on the day of judgment. Evil women might stand up and herald their abortions now, exclaiming that they feel no shame and neither should you, but these are evil ostriches, bidding you toward unspeakable treachery and, if unrepentant, the condemnation of hell.
But for such a spiritually dark land, where ostriches roam free — where judges put this darkness for light and the governing authorities call this evil “good” — there is hope, even now, including for those who have already procured an abortion. If your conscience has awoken from its dark slumber to a nightmare of what you have done, read these words from the prophet:
Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:18–21)
The water in the wilderness, offered to all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, flows from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He overcomes the judgment we deserve. He meets us — shamed sons and daughters of Adam, brutes and ostriches — and promises that, if we confess our sin, repent, and believe in his death for sinners, he can make the vilest clean and unleash a river in the wastelands of our former idolatries. Deserts can run with rivers, mouths that negotiated abortions can become fountains of praise, ostriches can — and have by the thousands — become daughters of God who were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–11).
Only in Christ, and yet most assuredly in Christ, forgiveness is enjoyed so that quiet nights and painful memories are ruled by the peace of Christ and the love of God.
There are two ways that God’s children could conceivably fail in the Christian life. One is for us to turn away from God. And the other is for God to turn away from us. Jeremiah, amazingly, says that in the days to come — the days of the new covenant — neither of these will happen:
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:40)
God “will not turn away from doing good to [us].” And he will work in us “that [we] may not turn from [him].” That is how God’s providence brings his people to everlasting glory. In other words, God doesn’t just require holiness; he promises it to his people. Therefore, the holiness that God requires of his people on their path to glory is absolutely certain. It will not fail. This certainty is revealed in Scripture with clarity for all to see.
The aim of that clear revelation is the joyful, confident, wholehearted, vigilant pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14) and glory (Romans 2:6–7), because God has made it so sure. As Paul says in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul labors to seize Christ as his prize, because Christ has seized him. This is the mystery of sanctification that so many people find incomprehensible — that the certainty of belonging to Christ would make us vigilant to lay hold on Christ! I am praying that you will find this not bewildering but beautiful. If it starts as an enigma of confusion, I pray it ends as energy for Christ.
The clearest and fullest promise that God will give us all we need and infallibly bring us to glory is Romans 8:28–39. It is manifestly designed to give fearless confidence to God’s children in the face of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Romans 8:35).
The context is the global suffering of all people and the groaning of creation under its subjection to futility and corruption (Romans 8:18–25). All the universe is groaning. Believers share the pain and perplexity. We often do not know how to pray. In this context of universal suffering and perplexity even in prayer, Paul says, in effect, “We may not know how to pray (Romans 8:26), but we do know something!” “We [do] know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). That is the beginning of the most exalted of all Scriptures concerning the absolute assurance believers can have in the face of Satan, sin, sickness, and sabotage.
God works everything — everything! — for the good of those who love God and are called by him. This promise contains the entire commitment of God to do everything necessary for the eternal good of his people. We see this in the argument that follows. Paul supports this massive promise with the assertion that, beginning in eternity past (foreknown) and extending to eternity future (glorified), God is committed, at every step of the way, to bringing his people to glory:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. . . . And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)
The point of this golden chain is this: no link breaks. Nobody falls out. Every foreknown one becomes a predestined one. Every predestined one becomes a called one. Every called one becomes a justified one. Every justified one becomes a glorified one. Few things could be clearer or more glorious. Assurance! Confidence! Stability! Courage!
The mention of the “called” in this chain links back to verse 28, which is a promise to “those who are called.” That link helps us see that what Paul is describing in this chain is the “good” he had promised in verse 28. God works all things for our good. And the good is conformity to Christ (Romans 8:29) and unfailing glorification (Romans 8:30).
After Paul gives the massive foundation for our assurance in Romans 8:28–30, he steps back and asks, “What then shall we say to these things?” (Romans 8:31). Here’s what we shall say: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If the omnipotent, all-planning, all-accomplishing God is committed to our good and not to our harm, then no adversary can succeed in breaking the chain that brings us to glory.
But lest anyone doubt that God is for us, Paul invites us to consider once more what Romans has been about for eight chapters: God’s giving his Son to bear our condemnation (Romans 8:3) and become our righteousness (Romans 5:19). So, Paul says it again and reveals the indissoluble connection between the death of Christ and the promise of Romans 8:28:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
The logic of the verse is clear and strong: not sparing his own Son is the hardest thing God has ever done. Since he did this hardest thing “for us all” — that is, for all who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) — we know that there is nothing he will not do to bring us to himself in glory. Nothing is harder than offering his Son. He did that. For us. It follows that he will not fail to “give us all things” — that is, all that we need in order to be conformed to his Son (Romans 8:29) and then glorified (Romans 8:30).
The rest of Romans 8:31–39 deepens and broadens the claim that nothing can “separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35) and “from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:39). The main point of Romans 8:28–39, for our purposes here, is that “those whom he called . . . he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). He sees to it that all of his converted people make it to glory. Our glorification is so sure that Paul speaks of it as accomplished, though it is yet future.
This is not a promise that bypasses God’s demand for Christlikeness in holiness and love. God’s promise to conform us to Christ is precisely what predestination guarantees. All the foreknown are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). This happens through our calling, our justification, and finally our glorification (Romans 8:30). The implications for our lives are these: Be strong in faith. Be unshakable in the assurance that God is for you, and will bring you to glory. Be done with fear. Be full of joy. Be overflowing with courageous love for others.
We can think about what Paul has done in Romans 8:28–39 another way: he has established God’s faithfulness. From all that Paul has said, it is clear that there is nothing mechanical or natural or automatic about our conformity to Christ and our glorification. All of it is dependent on God’s action.
Many people have mechanical, or even biological, conceptions of eternal security. They think of once-saved-always-saved similar to the way an inoculation works. They think, “When I was saved, God inoculated me against condemnation. It’s built-in — the way disease-preventing antibodies are in the blood.” That way of thinking about the assurances given by Paul in Romans 8:28–39 is mistaken. Everything hangs on God, not on built-in spiritual antibodies. If God is not faithful to the promises made here, we will perish. Our perseverance in faith, our conformity to Christ, and our final glorification depend on whether God is faithful — day by day and forever.
I often ask people, How do you know you will wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? The bottom-line answer is that God will cause you to wake up a Christian, or you won’t. God will be faithful. God will keep you. Everything hangs on the faithfulness of God to his promise: “Those whom he called . . . he also glorified.”
None of the requirements for making it to glory have been revoked. That is not how God gives assurance. The obedience required has not been repealed. It has been promised. “I will . . . cause you to . . . be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). The conformity to Christ that God commands has not been rescinded. It has been predestined. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). The fear of failure is not remedied by abolishing obligations. It is remedied by God’s faithfulness. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
These promises that God will create in us what he commands from us are so magnificent that they elicit from Jude one of the most exalted doxologies in the Bible:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)
If you woke up a Christian this morning, this is how you should feel. Glory, majesty, dominion, and authority have been at work for you while you slept. Your being kept for a joyful meeting with God has been promised. God is faithful. He will do it.
ABSTRACT: At the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes, “Remember my chains.” Thousands of Christians around the world today could write the same words. Some are locked behind bars; others are threatened with intimidation, discrimination, and violence. Yet as persecution grows in many parts of the world, so too does the gospel. From North Africa to North Korea, from Central Asia to Central Africa, Christ is building his church — and very often, he is doing so not despite persecution, but precisely by means of it.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. (Colossians 4:18)
Did Paul’s shackles clank as he penned this postscript? His letter to the Colossians lifts us to the heavens with soaring sentences portraying the beauty and power of Jesus and his magnificent gospel:
“He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)
“By him all things were created.” (Colossians 1:16)
“He is the beginning.” (Colossians 1:18)
“He is the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18)
“This mystery . . . is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)
“Christ . . . is your life.” (Colossians 3:4)
At the end of this letter, though, Paul brings us back down to earth, reminding his readers that he was in chains. This is not a prayer request so much as more gospel truth — the iron-hard reality that the advance of the gospel will meet with opposition. Persecution does not stop its progress; rather, it is part of it. That’s been clear from the beginning.
Jesus’s words to his disciples still speak today: “Behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). I’ve looked into the faces of these lambs. Sometimes their faces are scarred from knife attacks. Sometimes they are filled with wide-eyed fear, like the Christian schoolgirls I met in Pakistan who had just survived a night of terror as their homes and churches were looted and burned by a Muslim mob.
I remember the bruised, swollen face of an Iranian brother named Mohammad, living in a refugee camp in Greece. When Mohammad openly professed Christ as his only Savior, he was badly beaten and kicked out of the camp. The pastor who was discipling Mohammad told him not to return to the refugee camp, and said he’d find a safe place for him. Mohammad refused, saying, “If I am afraid to go back and face my people as a Christian, what would that say about my Lord?” So, Mohammad returned — as a lamb among wolves and as a lamb like the Lamb of God. Jesus with saving purpose went to the cross as a Lamb to the slaughter, and so Mohammad (newborn Christian as he was) could return and stand with the marks of his beating, knowing that “a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:24–25).
Jesus’s sobering send-off is a good place to start when considering the persecuted church today. Across a wide swath of the world — from North Africa to North Korea, from Central Asia to Central Africa — “the persecuted church” is simply “the church.” These believers — like first-century Christians in a twenty-first-century world — live, serve, and witness in the face of hostility, and remind us of our roots. And if the opening decades are any indication of things to come, this century promises to exceed the persecution of Christians of the last bloody century.
Six years ago, I wrote an open letter to the freshly self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. I pointed out to Mr. al-Baghdadi that, as the successor to the prophet Muhammad, his role was ultimately doomed — in fact, he was already losing his grip on his subjects:
I think it’s best that you know that you will not succeed. You and your Caliphate are destined for failure. Of course, all empires, caliphates, and reigns of terror eventually come to an end, but something else is happening — another kind of failure in your command over the Islamic world. It’s that Jesus Christ is building his church . . . by gathering worshipers to himself from every tribe and language and people and nation — and that includes many, many among your subjects. From North Africa to Indonesia — and at many points in between — I’ve spoken with a number of formerly committed Muslims who are now joyful Christians.
That’s why I said you can’t win. The gospel will continue to be heard in more and more places in your realm because our King will continue to send his servants there. These are men and women who are willing to die, but not like the suicide bombers that you use so often. The King’s servants are not bringing death; they are bringing life. As they go, they will risk everything, driven not by hate, as your servants are, but by the love Jesus demonstrated by dying for us.1
Five years later, al-Baghdadi died in an escape attempt as U.S. special forces closed in. He killed himself with a suicide vest and, true to form, was a killer from start to finish, murdering two of his children in the blast.
During the caliph’s brief reign of terror in Iraq and Syria, thousands of Christians were killed (some by crucifixion), and thousands more were raped and sold into slavery. The Islamic State’s territorial control collapsed, and their leader died, but two realities are ongoing. First, jihad (“holy war”) continues. Second, multitudes of Muslims will escape the prison house of Islam through the shackle-breaking power of the gospel.
That jihad will continue is more than a statistical probability — it is an Islamic certainty. The eminent Bernard Lewis wrote,
Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. . . . Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history — in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.2
And so, the al-Qaeda and ISIS wannabes will continue to seek opportunity to kill — as they did in the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt in 2017, in the spectacularly bloody Easter bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and recently in Mali with the murder of Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockli. Since 2015, over eleven thousand Nigerian Christians have been killed and two thousand churches destroyed by the Islamic terror group Boko Haram and Fulani militants. While statistics can be abstract and numbing, the eyewitness accounts from survivors are not. Here’s one from central Nigeria:
Four [Christian] farming villages in the Ropp district, Plateau State, were attacked on 18–19 May 2015. . . . Armed militants killed 21 people. . . . “They were trained terrorists with guns. They killed those who couldn’t run — the aged, the children, and the blind. A pastor was their first casualty. They surrounded him. They killed him and then they rejoiced, shouting ‘Allah u Akbar’ and ‘we have got a hero.’”3
But even in the face of such atrocities, something else is happening. Muslims are believing on Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What I wrote to the caliph is still true:
Several of your erstwhile subjects told me that Islamic terror in the name of Allah was what broke their faith in the only religion they had ever known. Having rejected Islam in their heart, when they heard the gospel, they believed! They told me that the September 11th attack — what your mentor (the late Osama bin Laden) did — first opened their hearts to the love and grace that is in Jesus alone. And so, Osama bin Laden and his kind have been unwitting agents in the gospel’s advance.
The kingdom of darkness is being shaken by the boldness of Muslim-background believers — like a pastor I was with recently in the Middle East. Ten years ago, Mohammad planted a church in a Hezbollah stronghold. Outside the church, which is within the shadow of a mosque, the streets are lined with posters honoring the local suicide bombers. But inside, the church is lined with people eager to hear of life in Christ. Threats and prison bars have not silenced this brother, who himself was once bound in the chains of Islam but was delivered by Christ, who sets captives free and raises the dead. It’s hard to threaten a man who will now live forever. Mohammad’s ministry (even his name!) reminds me of the amazing and unlikely reach of the gospel even into the very heart of the Islamic world.
Jihad is, of course, the most extreme form of the violent persecution of Christians in the Muslim world. But for most Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, besides family and communal pressures, persecution comes more in the form of barriers to employment and education, and sometimes a lack of full legal standing. This makes Christians easy prey for assault, rape, and charges of blasphemy, which often carries with it years in prison — if the victim isn’t killed by a mob before then.
Christian persecution is not, of course, limited to the Muslim world. As my friend Lord David Alton once observed, “Of the world’s six billion [now 7.8 billion] inhabitants, more than half live in countries where being a Christian could cost you your life.”4 That’s certainly true in North Korea, with its well-earned reputation as the worst persecutor of Christians. Reliable numbers about this notorious regime are hard to come by, but it is estimated that there are 200,000–400,000 Christians in North Korea, with tens of thousands of them imprisoned in labor camps, where many will die under horrific conditions.
Yet less in the headlines than Kim Jong Un’s spectacular evil is the growing persecution in a country known as “the world’s largest democracy.” In India, the radical Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi have led India from number 31 to number 10 on Open Doors’ Annual Country Watch List of the top persecutors of Christians.5 India is now positioned between Syria and Iran. This rapid descent represents more violence against Christians, the beating and murder of pastors, and church burnings, all in a system where Christians (especially those who won’t pay bribes) have little recourse with the police or the courts.
Paul reminded Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). This verse isn’t just for Christians living in Libya or Afghanistan. We often think of persecution in terms of torture or martyrdom, but persecution comes in many forms. Persecution is purposeful suffering for the sake of Christ and for his glory. Suffering for the sake of the gospel may come suddenly and violently, but it often begins with simple intimidation and shunning by family and colleagues. For some Christians, this is where it stops because it silences them — and silencing them is the whole point. If shaming and intimidation work, then no violence is needed. If that doesn’t silence a Christian, then more substantive opposition may follow. This in no way implies that a Christian who is laughed at or who loses a job promotion because of his faith is suffering in the same way as a believer who has been beaten or jailed for his faith. It does mean, though, that following Christ will cost us — whatever our context.
The freedoms and legal protections we enjoy in the West are a blessed anomaly from much of the rest of the world — and from much of the history of the church. Intimidation has always been the first shot across the bow, starting when the council (and recent crucifiers) in Jerusalem took Peter and John “and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Peter and John could have sized up the threat and shrugged, “Okay.” Instead, these Spirit-filled sent ones said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20). Sometimes intimidation comes quickly, sometimes subtly, but in time it will come to those who in the humility and boldness of the gospel say, “I am not ashamed of the One who bore my shame on the cross.” So, be prepared — not to build higher, thicker walls, but to give “a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
With discrimination and intimidation on the rise in our Western context, there are some parallels and shared experiences that grow our courage as we see what is being modeled by believers in even more vulnerable circumstances. For example, in recent years, all of my Chinese Christian friends who held professorships in universities in China have lost their jobs in the Communists’ sweeping purge of academia. This is not unlike the situation in state universities in America, where a professor can be openly anything and celebrated for it — except openly and faithfully a Christian. There are exceptions, of course, but there is a growing cancel culture against Christians. With the rising storm against a biblically bound Christian witness over here, perhaps our suffering brothers and sisters over there won’t seem so far away. They have much to teach us, for they refocus our shortsightedness to see the unsurpassed worth and glory of Christ.
By grace, we are part of something that is so much bigger than what we can see. This is the glorious reality that Peter magnifies in his first epistle, which was written to persecuted, beaten-down believers. Like lambs among wolves, they felt isolated and exposed. They had no strength in numbers, no place to hide. These brothers and sisters — like many Christians in similar circumstances today — must have felt so small and vulnerable. So, beneath the hail of threats and insults, Peter’s cross-centered words gave them fresh confidence to refocus their tear-stained vision on their great Savior and the great family they were now a part of forever. As it turned out, there was indeed strength in these numbers.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)
Because of our geographic sprawl and our linguistic and cultural differences, it is easy for believers to forget that this big, scattered, seemingly dysfunctional church is one blood-bought family. In mercy, God has made us his people. By grace, our righteous, risen King accounts us as “a holy nation.” Ours is a nation, a kingdom, without borders, and peopled with men and women from every tribe and tongue. The pioneer missionary Samuel Zwemer well described this borderless kingdom when he wrote, “The kingdoms and governments of this world have frontiers that must not be crossed. The gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It never has been kept within bounds.”6
So, when we speak of the persecuted church, we are speaking of our family. To call a Christian sister and brother is not a nicety — it’s an expression of love and honor that is deeper than blood, stronger than death. As I’ve walked point with these brothers and sisters in little house churches meeting in the shadow of a mosque or in a thatched hut or in the charred ruins of their church buildings, they all have reminded me of how the resurrection fuels our confident hope and courageous witness. And they have been stunning examples to me of the surprising reach of the gospel.
First, in their courageous suffering, they remind us of our death-defying hope. In China, for example, the courage of Christians is legendary — and it’s been so since the first gospel pioneers pushed into the interior. As Hudson Taylor said to his band, “China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women.”7 Chinese Christians today are worthy heirs of these trailblazers. This is especially evident as the church experiences heightened persecution under the dictator Xi Jinping, who sees himself as the second coming of Mao. Under Xi, online Christian resources have been blocked, church buildings destroyed, and pastors and church members arrested. In December 2018, pastor Wang Yi, a prominent leader in the house-church movement, was arrested along with his wife and one hundred church members — and he has not been heard from since.
Pastor Wang, aware that a crackdown was coming, wrote a letter to be released in the event of his arrest. Here is an excerpt from that letter, words that could have been penned by Peter or Paul:
I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. . . . Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family — the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.
Like Stephen facing a screaming mob bent on stoning him, Wang Yi’s hope was steadied by the presence of his resurrected Lord.
Second, my brothers and sisters there and here have reminded me of the radical rescue work of the gospel. God still saves the least likely, the insolent opponent. He still transforms persecutors like Paul so that the depths of his grace, the heights of his mercy, and the breadth of his love are on display all the more.
Over the years, I’ve met a number of modern-day Pauls. Their conversions stir up both wonder and anger, and their salvation is a work of God from start to finish, for there is nothing more powerful or permanent than a life transformed and driven by the gospel. Here’s the story of one such life in a Muslim-majority country in Central Asia. Anvar, in his own words, tells what happened after his first-ever encounter with Christians, when he and his fellow policemen raided a house-church meeting:
We were told they were Masihi (Christians), people who were converted from Islam to Christianity. The group of people were arrested because they had a meeting without legal permission. It was outrageous to me to see how they betrayed the faith of our fathers. I participated in interrogating those people. They answered all our questions but refused to write anything down. We put pressure on them, threatened them, but nothing helped. It was very interesting they always finished the conversation with what God had done in their lives. We were very nervous because they were very calm and always talked about sin and about the love of God. You may know the theme of sin is the most unpleasant thing to talk about. That day I went home unhappy with myself and the whole world. Their case was given to the court, and they were sentenced — some were fined, and two people were imprisoned for 15 days. Deep in my heart, I knew they were not spies. I saw in their eyes they had a deep faith in their God. At that time I didn’t yet know that those people prayed for me. I kept trying to arrest those people, but I felt so bad in my heart. My relationship with my wife got worse. We were about to divorce. I lived life on a powder keg.
One day when I came to my mom’s house, I saw her Bible. I saw the same book in a Christian’s home who was sentenced. I was shocked my mom had that book. She said she read that book for about a year and believed in Christ. I started telling her that it was a very dangerous book and tried to convince her not to be a Christian and frighten her that because of her faith I might be fired from work. My mom was crying and said she prayed for me to come to Christ. I was shocked and started shouting at her. Seven days later I got into a car accident. I was drunk and crashed into a tree. I knew I should have died, but God was merciful to me. After that, I started reading the Bible. Now I pray and fellowship with other brothers, but most of all I thank God for saving me and being merciful to me.
Paul’s powerful postscript, “Remember my chains” (Colossians 4:18), is an appeal that could be made by persecuted Christians around the world today. Some are actually in prison. Others have the scars of their cross-bearing upon them. Others are in prison of another kind, where walls of intimidation, discrimination, and violent threats surround their families, churches, and livelihoods. Each would say to the brothers and sisters of their forever family, “Remember my chains.” But they would also remind us to look beyond the pain and chains and prison wall of fear to see unsurpassed joy and unending life.
This truth is beautifully summarized in a song I was taught many years ago by Christians in a borderland region in Southeast Asia where gospel opposition was hard on the heels of gospel advance. The lines drawn from Philippians 3 still thrill me and drive me to add my voice to this great cloud of witnesses worldwide:
I want to know Christ and the power of his rising,
Share in his sacrifice, conform to his death.
As I pour out my life to be filled with his Spirit,
Joy follows suffering, and life follows death.
Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Random House, 2003), 37. ↩
Baroness Caroline Cox, “An Insurgency of Terror: The Crisis Facing Christians in Nigeria,” Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, November 2016. ↩
David Alton and Michele Lombardo, Passion and Pain: The Suffering Church Today (Addlestone, UK: Jubilee Campaign, 2003), 1–2. ↩
Samuel Zwemer, The Unoccupied Mission Fields of Africa and Asia (London: Marshall Brothers, 1911), 90. ↩
A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, vol. 5, Refiner’s Fire (London: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1984), 57. ↩
Seeing and savoring God’s providence in our redemption fills us with wonder and trembling joy. We owe everything to his grace.
God wants to give us good things. Not only that, he promises good things to us and assures us they will all come to pass (Joshua 23:14). In fact, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
I love those promises, yet there are many good things that I’ve begged God for that I haven’t received. Good things like a healthy body, a thriving family, and a balanced, secure life. When my infant son died, after my first husband left, or as I’ve seen my body slowly deteriorating, I’ve wondered why God did not answer my prayers for good things. Had I not been upright enough? Was I not asking the right way?
Or were God’s good things different than mine?
I know that I haven’t walked uprightly on my own, and I’m increasingly aware of my sin, but God sees me as righteous and perfect because of Christ’s blood. I need not fear that I’m not measuring up, that I’m not praying perfectly, or that God is denying me some essential good. He could not be more for me, and he will graciously give me all things (Romans 8:32), because he longs to give his children good gifts when they ask (Matthew 7:11). So, God’s definition of good things must be different than the earthly blessings I often think I need.
What, then, are God’s good things if they are not earthly blessings? How can we recognize them when our focus is riveted on our circumstances, especially those that feel unfair, unfixable, or unfinished? Many of us have struggled for years, even decades, faithfully serving God but living with unfulfilled longings, broken dreams, and mounting losses. Do God’s good things include those?
As we see in Scripture, the unfair, the unfixable, and the unfinished often mark the lives of God’s chosen. Moses reluctantly accepted God’s call, worked faithfully for decades, and then failed in a moment and never entered the Promised Land. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet, yet was persecuted all his days. An angel proclaimed to Mary that her Son would sit on the throne of David, yet she watched him die on a cross. John the Baptist was a faithful prophet who prepared the world for Christ, yet never served with him. None of these people saw the fulfillment of all God had spoken over their lives — they only embraced them from afar (Hebrews 11:13).
Though God commended these saints, their lives were often hard and lonely. Now we can look back and see how powerfully God used each of them, how God was with them, how they fulfilled the purpose that God called them to. We know that their suffering was not wasted and that God never left them, even when life didn’t turn out as they had planned. And we know that they have received an “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4), and that they are rejoicing because their suffering was not even worth comparing with the weight of glory they now enjoy (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17).
All their stories were part of God’s larger story. A story that unfolded through Scripture. A story that God has used for generations to demonstrate who he is.
Can we look at our lives through the same lens, understanding that we all are in the middle of our stories and that our disappointments and missteps are all part of the beautiful story God is writing?
When we are discouraged at what’s happening in our lives, we must remind ourselves that there’s more to come. We are looking at one frame, or perhaps one scene in the story. We may see our circumstances dramatically change in this life, as Joseph did, or we may need to wait till heaven when it will all make sense to us. Either way, we will thank him for all of it. We can be assured that, if troubles were not beneficial to us, God would neither allow them nor send them. Everything God gives us and withholds from us must be part of his good things.
Sir Richard Baker, who was unjustly imprisoned in England in the seventeenth century, wrote,
But how is this true, when God oftentimes withholds riches and honors and health of body from men, though they walk never so uprightly? We may therefore know that honors and riches and bodily strength are none of God’s good things; they are of the number of things indifferent which God bestows promiscuously upon the just and unjust, as the rain to fall and the sun to shine.
The good things of God are chiefly peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Ghost in this life; fruition of God’s presence, and vision of his blessed face in the next, and these good things God never bestows upon the wicked, never withholds from the godly.
The truly good things of God are bestowed on those he loves. His presence. His peace. Joy in the Spirit. The assurance of heaven and beholding his face. Nothing can take away these good things of God. They are independent of circumstances and often grow stronger in trials. Adversity may be one of God’s best gifts because it makes us grab hold of God, desperate for his presence and peace. We cling to him more tightly when there is nothing else to cling to.
King Solomon was given everything, including wisdom, riches, and fame, yet they did not knit him to God in love and gratitude. In the end, he turned from following God and clung to his foreign wives instead (1 Kings 11:2). Solomon didn’t need to fight battles, to trust God for his life, to beg God for protection, or to worry about anything. He didn’t experience the struggles that draw us to God and make us dependent on him. Perhaps that is why he drifted away — unlike his father David, he didn’t hunger for God’s presence or experience the intense fellowship that accompanies deep suffering.
For believers, the troubles of the world can be blessings because they draw us to God. We desperately long for God’s presence, where we find fullness of joy that can never be taken away (Psalm 16:11; John 16:22). And we know that adversity can make us stronger, more compassionate, and more fruitful.
At the same time, there is nothing wrong with enjoying good things like honor and riches and good health. God created them, understands their value, and freely bestows them. But Christians should never mistake fame, money, and health for the best things of God. That distinction is reserved for the things that bring us closest to Jesus. It is often in our darkest moments, when we have nothing to hold on to but God, that we truly understand that “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”
Where would we be today, or in a thousand years, if God were not rich in mercy?
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