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If we are truly content in Christ, our contentment will increasingly silence all our grumbling.
Paul calls God “blessed”: “. . . he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). Why is God blessed, and what does that mean? The answers to these questions are the source of great Christian comfort and happiness.
As an infinitely perfect being, God is as pleased and satisfied in himself as he can be — and he is unchangeably pleased in himself so that even the tiniest hint of dissatisfaction is anathema to God’s view of himself. God’s blessedness — his happiness, delight, and self-satisfaction in who he is — results from the perfection of his being. Any form of imperfection, in any way, reduces one’s blessedness and self-satisfaction. We understand this even on a human level when something goes wrong with our body (a virus, for example) and we feel less satisfied in ourselves. But God, being perfect, is never dissatisfied with himself.
Before there was a world, God was blessed because God is who he is (Exodus 3:14). After the creation of the world, God is still blessed, but not more or less blessed, because he is infinitely and eternally unchangeable in his being (James 1:17). “The blessedness of God,” says the Puritan theologian John Owen,
consists in the ineffable [that is, inexpressible, overwhelming] mutual inbeing of the three holy persons in the same nature, with the immanent reciprocal actings of the Father and the Son in the eternal love and complacency of the Spirit. . . . Herein does God act in the perfect knowledge and perfect love of his own perfections. (Works of John Owen, 1:368)
The three persons eternally relate in a loving communion that is marked by perfection and enjoyment. Thus, for example, the Son is as blessed as the Father and the Spirit because, being God-of-himself, he cannot lack anything possessed by another person in the blessed Trinity.
God has the highest enjoyment of his being. (By highest we mean eternally, infinitely, incomprehensibly, unchangeably.) God knows himself perfectly; he perfectly knows his perfections. We also enjoy our own “perfections.” Think of a woman with a lovely singing voice who loves to sing because of how she sounds, or think of a professional athlete who loves his perfections in terms of his ability to run or hit the perfect shot. And yet these are mere flea bites in comparison to God’s perfections. God necessarily loves his perfections because he understands himself — namely, that he is perfect. Hence, he is eternally blessed because he cannot not love who he is. He is necessarily immune from all evil, change, hurt, and disappointment. So he not only loves who he is but loves that he will always be who he is.
If we should desire one attribute of God’s to be communicated to us, perhaps there is a good argument for blessedness. Why? Because the more blessed a being is, the more there is a perfect union of all good things in that being. Our eternal blessedness will result from the fact that we are transformed from these lowly bodies into resurrection bodies that will allow for the harmony of all good things we can receive as we are made partakers of the divine nature (Philippians 3:20–21; 2 Peter 1:4).
We will not be frustrated in glory because we will be blessed. Our blessedness in heaven, which means the union of all good things in our being, is inconsistent with frustration or sadness because we shall always be able to do what we want to do. Our desires shall never be apart from God’s will. Therefore, even here on earth, to the degree that we desire what God desires, we shall experience our own blessedness. But in heaven we will be entirely satisfied with who we are, and that is why we shall be the blessed of the Lord.
God is fully actualized, and lacks nothing he desires, because his attributes all gloriously harmonize with one another. His life is a truly happy life; he needs nothing and possesses everything; he is not only free from evil but possesses all that is good. There is nothing that can make God envious or jealous; there is nothing that can make him better than what he is. Because, in this life, we lack the union of all good things, we are prone to envy and jealousy; we are prone to dissatisfaction; we are prone to sadness and depression; we are prone to that which is contrary to blessedness because we are not only human, but humans with indwelling sin. As such, in this life, our blessedness is only a tiny fraction of what we shall one day experience. But part of Christian hope is (joyfully) contemplating the goodness that shall fill us in glory, which is true blessedness.
We can be sure of our eternal blessedness because of God’s infinite blessedness. As Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) writes,
Were he not first infinitely blessed, and full in himself, he could not be infinitely good and diffusive to us; had he not an infinite abundance in his own nature, he could not be overflowing to his creatures; had not the sun a fulness of light in itself, and the sea a vastness of water, the one could not enrich the world with its beams, nor the other fill every creek with its waters. (Works of Stephen Charnock, 2:288)
God’s offering us his blessedness is like the ocean’s offering to fill a small pothole.
If God is the fountain of our own blessedness, our happiness in this life is entirely contingent upon the truth that God is not only our God, but the God who gives of himself to his creatures. Thus, we are only as happy or miserable as the god we serve. Nothing can offer more happiness than what it rightly possesses in itself. God is infinite in happiness and so supplies joy and satisfaction first (and preeminently) to his Son and then, by virtue of our union with him and the indwelling Spirit, to us.
Before God could supply us with his blessedness, something else had to happen. Our Father, who has unmixed blessedness, sent his Son, who also has unmixed blessedness, into this world so that, for a time, he would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). The Son possessed all good things in himself, in need of nothing, but willingly chose to become “nothing” so that he might give to us everything he can give to us (Philippians 2:6–8).
The highest and greatest gift that God can give us is not riches, prestige, life, or even salvation itself. No, the greatest gift is himself, of which no greater gift exists. The blessed triune God is ours because he gave himself to us: each person gives, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son literally gave of himself for us: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Indeed, we can say with the psalmist, as we reflect on the good gifts God offers out of his abundant blessedness,
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5–6)
This is blessedness: to know that God is ours and we shall possess the truly abundant life. As we carry our crosses in this life, we not only look to what is promised, but we also remember Jesus. We remember his blessedness, and we claim it as our own: for in him and by the Spirit, his blessedness really becomes ours.
When Christian parents have a number of educational options for their children, what biblical principles help us decide what’s best?
One of the reasons Jonathan Edwards’s vision of God has proved so helpful in my worship and ministry is that he does, and he doesn’t, “explain” the Trinity.
When he has gone further in his “explanation” of the Trinity than many have gone, he admits, “I am far from asserting this as any explication of this mystery that unfolds and removes the mysteriousness and incomprehensibleness of it” (Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, 139).
Edwards dares to climb in the mountain ranges of the Trinity, because he believes “the Word of God . . . exhibits many things concerning it [more] exceeding glorious and wonderful than have been taken notice [of]” (Writings, 139).
In other words, he doesn’t think we honor truth by ignorance of it. He does not think that increasing our knowledge decreases God’s mystery. He is not one of those who believes that the majesty of God is magnified by repeating how little we know of him — by hunkering below the cloud-line and speaking vaguely about mountain peaks we can’t see.
My own opinion is that there is something fishy about saying our wonder and worship of God become greater as we focus on how little we know of him. One gets the impression that such “wonder” and “worship” are vague esthetic feelings on the brink of a void, rather than what we meet in the Psalms: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalms 139:17).
Edwards believed that true learning increases both knowledge and mystery. The more knowledge we have of God from the Bible, the more of his reality we grasp, and the more mysteries we see. The benefit of increasing mystery this way (rather than by means of preserving ignorance) is that what we do know gives direction to what we don’t know. We do not wonder if the mystery we don’t grasp contains a sinister God, because what we do grasp directs us away from that speculation.
Edwards explains with the analogy of a child:
When we tell a child a little concerning God, he has not an hundredth part so many mysteries in view on the nature and attributes of God . . . as one that is told much concerning God in a divinity school; and yet [the divinity student] knows much more about God. (Writings, 139)
He clarifies further by pointing to how the New Testament increases understanding of the Trinity, while at the same time turning up more mysteries.
Under the Old Testament, the church of God was not told near so much about the Trinity as they are now; but what the New Testament has revealed, though it has more opened to our view the nature of God, yet it has increased the number of visible mysteries and things that appear to us exceeding wonderful and incomprehensible. (Writings, 139–140)
So, when Edwards guides us above the usual cloud-line of understanding, he is giving a kind of “explanation” of the Trinity. But it would be silly to think that he, or I, imagines that by seeing more, we have shrunk the majesty of God. No matter how far you climb into infinity, the distance above you remains endless.
Edwards also was aware that human words are only pointers toward reality. Statements about God are not God. Words, and the reality they represent, are radically different things. When Paul was caught up into heaven and given glimpses of heavenly realities, he said he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4). Our language is insufficient to carry the greatness of all that God is.
But the inadequacy of language is only surpassed by its indispensability. Inadequate does not mean useless. Language may not carry all there is, but what it carries can be true and valuable — infinitely valuable. To be sure, “we know in part and we prophesy in part. . . . We see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). All human language about God, even Scripture, is baby talk. John Calvin said, “God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children” (Institutes, 1.13.1).
But biblical baby talk is sweeter than honey, and more to be desired than gold (Psalm 19:10). Oh, how precious is the baby talk of God! It is not like grass that withers or flowers that fade. It abides forever (Isaiah 40:8). It is like “silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).
In other words, Edwards’s “explanation” of the Trinity is highly refined baby talk — like all sermons, and theology books. But oh, how helpful it can be! So, keep in mind that it is a human effort to draw inferences from hundreds of passages of Scripture, and then construct with words a conception of how God is one God in three persons, who are all divine, and equal in essence and dignity, but have different roles to play in the great work of redemption.
I recall an unbeliever who, at the request of his friend, came to hear me preach. His friend brought him to me after the service, and his first question was about the Trinity. “It makes no sense. Can you help me understand?” I gave him a two-minute summary of Jonathan Edwards’s conception. He said (something like), “That is the most helpful thing I have ever heard.” I said nothing exhaustive. There was no claim to remove mystery. There was simply a human, verbal expression of how one might conceive of the Trinity. One barrier to faith was loosened.
Readily visible below the cloud-line in the Bible is the truth that there are three divine persons who are one God. For example, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:1, 14). The Word “was” God and the Word was “with God.” Both God, and with God. Then, fourteen verses later, these two designations “Word” and “God” become “Son” and “Father.” And the Word/Son becomes “flesh” — truly human, the God-man. And “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19).
And this God-man, the incarnate Son of God, spoke of the Holy Spirit as a distinct (third) person. “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (John 14:26). “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. . . . When the Spirit of truth comes . . . he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:7, 13–14). Jesus is not speaking about a force, but a person — who teaches. And this person is distinct from the Son of God, for Jesus speaks of him as “another” person. And he is distinct from the Father, for “the Father will send” him.
Yet this person, the Holy Spirit, is also one with the Son of God. Jesus identifies the coming Helper like this: “You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). Then in verse 25, he says, “I have spoken to you while I am still with you.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is one with the Son.
Paul points to the same thing:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:9–10)
“The Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” and “Christ” and “the Spirit” are used in such a way as to treat them as, in some sense, one. If you have the one, you have the other.
From these, and many more passages, the church has taught for two thousand years that God is one God, and exists in three persons who are all God. This is the Trinity. That much has been clear below the cloud-line where most Christians can see it with joy and amazement, if not with full comprehension.
Now, when Edwards penetrates through the cloud-line and pushes farther up the mountain of Trinitarian truth, he attempts to provide a conception of the Trinity that is true, rooted in scriptural language, intelligible, and helpful, even while making no pretense to fully comprehend the mystery. Let’s look first at his summary statement of how all three persons are one God, yet each a person.
The Father is the Deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated, and most absolute manner, or the Deity in its direct existence. The Son is the Deity generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of himself, and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the Deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth, in God’s infinite love to and delight in himself. And I believe the whole divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the divine idea and divine love, and that therefore each of them are properly distinct persons. (Writings, 131)
Edwards may have technical philosophical reasons for using the words “subsisting” and “subsist” instead of “existing” and “exist” (emphasizing independent reality upholding other realities rather than stemming from any), but for our simpler purposes here, you can just read, “The Father is the Deity existing in . . .” etc.
So, the Father is unoriginated, absolute. (Don’t hear in the word “unoriginated” the implication that the Son and the Spirit have a beginning. They don’t. They “originate” eternally, as we will see.) The Son is the Father’s “idea” or “understanding” (or image) of himself. And the Spirit is God’s love to, or delight in, himself. Now, admittedly, without saying more, that seems like a deficient view of the Trinity, because it sounds like the Son is an impersonal idea, and the Spirit is an impersonal emotion. But Edwards says more, much more.
Notice immediately that this conception may not be so far-fetched since the Son of God is called in John 1:1 God’s “Word” or “logos,” which can mean “reason or thought,” which is not so far from “idea.” And the Holy Spirit is, obviously, a Spirit. Keep in mind that the entire Godhead is called spirit in John 4:24. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” So, God, who is spirit, has a Spirit, who is distinct from God the Father because he “intercedes” to the Father (Romans 8:27) and “searches . . . the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). And might not this Spirit of God, who is spirit, be God’s essential nature, the Spirit of love (1 John 4:8)?
But we need to let Edwards clarify what he means by calling the Son the “understanding or idea” that the Father has of himself — and has had from all eternity (so that the Son is coeternal).
If it were possible for a man by reflection perfectly to contemplate all that is in his own mind in an hour, as it is and at the same time that it is there, in its first and direct existence; if a man had a perfect reflex or contemplative idea of every thought at the same moment or moments that that thought was, and of every exercise at and during the same time that that exercise was, and so through a whole hour: a man would really be two. He would be indeed double; he would be twice at once: the idea he has of himself would be himself again. . . .
As God with perfect clearness, fullness, and strength understands himself, views his own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act, but it is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of himself is absolutely himself. This representation of the divine nature and essence is the divine nature and essence again. So that by God’s thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten; there is another infinite, eternal, almighty, and most holy and the same God, the very same divine nature.
And this person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God. He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial, and personal idea which God hath of himself. And that it is so, seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of [God]. (Writings, 116–117)
To grasp what Edwards is trying to communicate, we have to expand our conception of the word “idea” — to put it mildly. Edwards is trying to help us see that God’s “idea” or “understanding” or “image” of himself is so perfect, and so full of all that God is, as to be the living reproduction, or begetting, of God himself. Therefore, God the Son is coeternal with the Father and equal in essence and glory.
To support this claim, he points to biblical texts that describe the Son as the form and image and imprint and word of God.
Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. (Philippians 2:6)
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
He is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Hebrews 1:3)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
“The Scripture teaches us,” says Edwards, “that Christ is the logos of God [John 1:1]. It will appear that this logos is the same with the idea of God, whether we interpret it of the reason of God, or the word of God” (Writings, 120). With these and many other Scriptures, Edwards shows that his conception of the Son as the Father’s “idea” of himself is not unwarranted.
Edwards turns then to focus on the Holy Spirit.
The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s having an idea of himself and standing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sweet energy arises between the Father and Son: for their love and joy is mutual, in mutually loving and delighting in each other. Proverbs 8:30, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.”
This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act; the divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz. the Deity in act. (Writings, 121)
Edwards cites numerous texts, including 1 John 4:8, to root this conception in Scripture:
We may learn by the Word of God that the Godhead or the divine nature and essence does subsist in love. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8 KJV). In the context of which place I think it is plainly intimated to us that the Holy Spirit is that love, as in the twelfth and thirteenth verses: “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” (Writings, 121)
How can this Love of God be a person in his own right? Words feel very inadequate. But can we not say that the love between the Father and the Son is so perfect, so constant, and carries so completely all that they are in themselves that this love stands forth itself as a Person in his own right? C.S. Lewis tries to get this into a conceivable analogy:
You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club or a trades union, people talk about the “spirit” of that family, club, or trades union. They talk about its spirit because the individual members, when they’re together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they wouldn’t have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course it isn’t a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that’s just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God. (Beyond Personality, 21)
In summary, then, there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons equal in divine essence and glory. The Father has, from all eternity, begotten the Son, meaning that the Father has known himself from all eternity with such fullness that the self which he knows is fully God — God the only begotten Son. And the Father and the Son have from all eternity (there are no beginnings in the eternal Godhead) loved each other, delighted in each other, with such a fullness that this infinite delight carries all the deity and stands forth as a third person — God the Holy Spirit.
The Son is not an impersonal idea, nor the Spirit an impersonal emotion. They are persons, and all the fullness of deity dwells in God’s image, or idea, of himself; and all the fullness of deity dwells in God’s delight, or love, for himself.
Edwards saw that this view of the Trinity helps illuminate “many things that have been wont to be said by orthodox divines about the Trinity” (Writings, 134–5). For example,
“Hereby we see how the Father is the fountain of the Godhead, and why when he is spoken of in Scripture he is so often, without any addition or distinction, called God” (Writings, 135).
“Hereby we see how that it is possible for the Son to be begotten by the Father, and the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and Son, and yet that all the persons should be co-eternal” (Writings, 135).
I close with an implication that is significant in my own effort to understand the crucial place of joy in the Christian life — what I call Christian Hedonism. What Edwards shows is that joy has the massive place it does in Scripture ultimately because it belongs to the very nature of God. God is Joy.
That is, God the Holy Spirit is the divine person who “originates” (eternally!) from the Father and the Son in their loving each other. And this love is not a “merciful” love as if they needed pity. It is an admiring, delighting, exulting love. It is Joy. The Holy Spirit is God’s Joy in God. To be sure, he is so full of all that the Father and Son are, that he is a divine person in his own right. But that means he is more, not less, than the Joy of God.
This means that Joy is at the heart of reality. God is Love, means most deeply, God is Joy in God. As Edwards puts it, “The honor of the Father and the Son is, they are infinitely happy and are the original and fountain of happiness; and the honor of the Holy Ghost is equal, for he is infinite happiness and joy itself” (Writings, 135).
To be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to be indwelt by the Joy of God in God. To be full of the Holy Spirit is to be overflowing with God’s Joy in God. We are not left to our own limited personalities. We are given divine assistance to enjoy what is infinitely enjoyable. God the Spirit is our indwelling ability to enjoy God.
This experience will reach its climax when we see the Son of God as he truly is at his coming. He prayed for this climactic joy-love, when he said to the Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).
That love for Jesus will, for all eternity, not be a sacrificial love, but an all-satisfying love. God will be in us, and we will love his Son with his own love, the Holy Spirit. This Joy will be so manifestly owing to the sight of God and the presence of God, that God will be supremely glorified in our joy. He will, at last, be all and in all.
Exercise not only improves physical health, but also impacts spiritual vitality. We love God and neighbor better when our bodies are able and ready to serve.
When I answered the phone that evening, I heard my daughter-in-law’s trembling voice: “I just found out that my sister may have only twenty-four hours left to live.”
She immediately caught a flight to California, hoping to be with her oldest sister one last time. The next morning, I received this text message: “I didn’t make it. She passed away.” Her sister’s passing came just five days after the anniversary of her mom’s death, six years earlier. Of course there were tears. Many tears.
Whether you are enduring the loss of your loved one, facing your parents’ divorce, discovering your husband’s unfaithfulness, abiding your teenager’s hostility, learning about your friend’s betrayal, or experiencing a breakup with the man you thought you’d marry — painful and perplexing circumstances bring forth tears. Naturally, we all desperately wish we could avoid such heartbreak, and we would do anything to prevent this kind of anguish for those we love. But truth be told, we can’t. This is the painful reality of living in a fallen world.
Tears are a fact of life and an expression of the pain we experience. The little book of Ecclesiastes prepares us to interpret our tears. In his famous poem in the third chapter, the author identifies seasons and times marked out for us in this life by our sovereign God, including seasons of sadness: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to weep” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).
If, for you, it is “a time to weep,” your emotion is not a deficiency of faith: God has appointed your tears, and it is appropriate to cry. While it may seem like you will never be happy again, your crying won’t last forever. Weeping has its time — meaning, it has a beginning and an ending date.
This is not to suggest you will one day be unmoved by what is causing your tears; certain painful experiences will remain with us always. But Ecclesiastes tells us that God also has appointed “a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Or, as the psalmist puts it, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Though it may be hard to believe right now, you will laugh again someday.
Granted, in times of grief, it’s hard to see beyond our tears, hard to imagine past the time of pain to a time of mirth. But more is happening in seasons of sadness than we may realize.
In his infinite wisdom, our Heavenly Father is weaving the painful threads of our life into a grand design; he is making something beautiful from our tears: “He has made everything [even times to weep] beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Rarely, though, do we see the beauty God is creating. Our vision is filled with the devastation of our suffering and questions overflow with our tears. Why me, Lord? Why this? How can anything good come from so much pain?
It is part of our DNA to want to know and understand. We recognize that there is a bigger picture, a wider purpose for our suffering, because “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We want to figure out what God is doing, but we are stopped short when we discover that God also has placed limitations upon our capacity to comprehend: “yet . . . [man] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This ability to perceive, and yet not perceive, is a work of God.
In other words, both our desire to make sense of our tears and our inability to make sense of them have been ordained by God. As J.I. Packer writes, God “has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out . . . in our own lives.” When we accept that we know something, but cannot know all, we will stop striving to figure everything out. Our angst will subside and a sweet peace will pervade our souls. We can simply cry before our Lord and trust him to create something beautiful for his glory.
To help us endure times of grief, God provides us with gifts each day, and surprising gifts, at that! “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man” (Ecclesiastes 3:13). Ordinarily, we think of food and drink simply as nourishment for our bodies, but they are more than fuel for living. As John Calvin writes, “If we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer.”
During a weeping time for me (and for my whole family), a friend sent us chocolate croissants with Samuel Rutherford’s famous quotation written on the card (only slightly reworded): “When I am in the cellar of affliction, I look for the Lord’s choicest [croissants].” Not only were those the best croissants I have ever eaten, they also brought me cheer in the midst of a bleak season.
At this same time, I was helping one of my daughters launch her small business; not something we would have started if we knew what was coming. But each day as we worked from morning until night — setting up a workspace, ordering supplies, framing artwork, fulfilling orders — we realized that God had provided this endeavor as a helpful distraction from our pain. The simple pleasures of food and drink and work really are wonderful gifts from God in times of weeping.
When we turn to God in our tears, times of weeping also become our times of greatest growth. Ecclesiastes tells us that God uses our appointed season of sorrow to teach us to fear him: “God has done it, so that people fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
While it might seem like we have stalled, or even digressed spiritually in the midst of our tears, the opposite is true. God is at work in our lives to bring about growth in godliness. He appoints “a time to weep” in order to reveal himself to us in deeper ways than we have ever known. He is sovereignly leading us through this valley of tears so that we might come to trust and treasure Jesus Christ above all.
So, to my daughter-in-law and to all who are weeping: look to Christ, your Savior, who walked this earth, wept over sinful, suffering humanity, and went to the cross in our place. No matter how long and hard this painful season, may you find comfort as you recall the truth of Ecclesiastes 3: God is creating beauty, providing you with gifts each day, and teaching you to fear him.
And one day soon, “a time to weep” will be no more. For God himself “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
The secret to overcoming obstacles is not believing that you can do anything you put your mind to, but doing whatever you do in the strength of Christ.
Do you struggle, even after years of believing the gospel, to feel forgiven by God?
The most vital reality, of course, isn’t to feel forgiven, but to be forgiven. Yet the Bible is unashamed in speaking about our subjective experience of the gospel’s objective truths (Romans 5:5; 1 Corinthians 13:6; 2 Corinthians 1:4; Ephesians 3:16–19; 1 Peter 1:8).
Many of us, if we are honest, do have trouble feeling forgiven. We are sincere-hearted Christians. We want to follow Christ. We have enjoyed profound experiences of God. But we continue to find ourselves faltering in the Christian life — dismayed at the frequency of our boredom with God, resentment toward others, critical spirit toward our church, or seasons of despair and emptiness. Or perhaps we simply find an undefinable cloud of nonspecific guilt hanging over us.
Try as we might to “preach the gospel to ourselves,” the gospel doctrines we rightly cherish do not melt and warm our hearts. And so we go through life finding our sense of divine forgiveness fluctuating.
The Puritans understood the human heart better than we do, they understood God’s word better than we do, and they understood how to connect the two better than we do. One way they walk us into new depths of felt forgiveness is by teaching us that we need to see not only the verdict that has been rendered over us but also, more deeply and wondrously, the heart from which that verdict comes. Not only the result, but the cause.
Or, as John Owen put it, not only the stream, but the spring. Commenting on believers who enjoy a settled awareness of forgiveness, he says,
General notions of impunity they dwell not on; they have a closer converse with God, than to be satisfied with such thoughts. They enquire into the graciousness of his nature, the good pleasure of his will, the purpose of his grace; they ponder and look into the mystery of his wisdom and love in sending his Son. If these springs be not clear unto them, the streams will yield them but little refreshment.
Others, however, profess Christ but have tepid enjoyment of divine forgiveness, as Owen continues,
And some think, if they have got a form of words about them, they have gotten a sufficient comprehension of them. It is, doubtless, one reason why many, who truly believe, do yet so fluctuate about forgiveness all their days, that they never exercised faith to look into the springs of it, its eternal fountains, but have merely dwelt on actual condonation [pardon]. (Exposition upon Psalm 130, 104)
What’s Owen after here? Both kinds of people he describes are believers. This is not a distinction between the unregenerate and the regenerate, but between two kinds of Christians whom we could call unhealthy and healthy. Unhealthy Christians “fluctuate about forgiveness.” Healthy Christians don’t.
What’s the basic difference?
Look at exactly how Owen puts it. Unhealthy Christians content themselves with “general notions of impunity.” They latch on to the basic message of the gospel and leave it at that. They think that “a form of words” equals “a sufficient comprehension of them.” In other words, as long as they have the right apprehension of gospel truth, they’ve gone as deep as they need to go.
What they haven’t done is looked beyond the gospel into the heart from which it comes. They have downloaded the formula of the gospel, but not the Person out of whom it pours. They believe that they are justified by faith alone on the basis of what Christ alone has done. This is vital, and to be cherished daily. But they have not peered down into the source out of which that gospel flows.
These Christians know that Jesus is justifying and atoning in his work, but not that he is gentle and lowly in his heart (Matthew 11:29).
Here and elsewhere in his writings, John Owen is saying that we will remain adolescent Christians if we stop short of (as he puts it in the same passage) “the heart of Christ.”
Knowing we are forgiven brings relief. But it is only knowing Christ himself and his own longings — his sheer delight and unblushing joy in embracing messy-but-penitent sinners into his deepest heart — that brings transformation. Understanding the gospel, if kept at a transactional level, brings fluctuating levels of felt forgiveness. Seeing the unquenchable fountain of love from which that gospel flows brings settled enjoyment of felt forgiveness.
An orphan who receives a financial gift from a billionaire on the other side of the world is grateful for the benefit, but can have no confidence of further blessing because the heart of the benefactor is not known. But what if that orphan was seen, pitied, and in overflowing compassion flown home and adopted by that billionaire?
Healthy Christians look beyond the benefits of the gospel to its springs.
But how does this work? How exactly do we look beyond the gospel itself to the heart from which it flows?
There is no neat and clean answer to this. Indeed, from one angle, this is the great battle of the Christian life, which we will be grappling with our whole lives long. But there are some actionable steps that may provide the breakthrough many of us need, as our prayers go up and the Holy Spirit comes down.
We all tend to cherry-pick the Scriptures and privilege certain emphases and passages above others. We read it all, but we don’t drink it all down. Give yourself time to mature out of that.
Memorize not only Romans 3 but also Hosea 11. Ponder not only the neater, cleaner, more downloadable parts of the Bible, but also the parts of it that throb with heaven’s heart to the point that we start to blush as we meditate on it — that we are, for example, God’s “darling child” (Jeremiah 31:20) or that God “yearns jealously over” us (James 4:5). In such texts we are brought to “look into the springs,” as Owen put it.
A “healthy church” can of course be defined a hundred different ways. Here’s one. Find a church that talks not only about the transaction of the gospel, but the God and Christ of the gospel; not just the formula, but the Person; not just the stream, but the fountain; not just God’s work, but his heart.
Find a church where you are not only taught the love of God, but feel loved by God.
Find someone who will go with you, yes, into the gospel of grace and all its benefits, but beyond that who will plunge with you down into the very springs from which those benefits come. Someone who is wonderfully discontent with only “a form of words” and wants to look into God’s very heart.
Your entire church might not be there. Maybe not your whole small group. Maybe not even your spouse. But someone is. Find that person and don’t let them go. Sharpen each other, ask questions of each other, pray for each other. “Two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).
Or a Reformer. Or a modern author. But sit down next to someone who has left a library of writings behind that lead you by the hand into the inner workings of a divine love which, as it is seen, calms your heart into non-fluctuating settledness about your state of being forgiven once and for all.
At the end of the day, do whatever helps you dare to believe it. Note that Owen said that we need to “exercise faith to look into the springs” of divine love. We naturally think cold thoughts of God’s heart. To see God’s heart as it really is cannot happen as we are left to our own natural intuitions. We need faith. We need eyes to see. All we know otherwise is to project onto God our own calculating way of loving and forgiving.
So, ask God for a glimpse of his heart, the “springs” from which the gospel flows. Then have the audacity to believe God doesn’t love like you do. Step out of the misery of fluctuating. And then march through your day, with all its challenges and perplexities, daring to feel forgiven.
A slow-moving calamity rolled through the ancient world, now more than 2,500 years ago, crawling, at a haunting pace, through one nation after another.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, or a terrorist attack, or a tsunami along the Pacific Rim, this plague caught very few off guard. Every king, every nation, every citizen saw it coming. They heard the reports. They lived under the specter. The world’s greatest city at the time, Nineveh, didn’t fall overnight, but over painful weeks and weeks, even months. Jerusalem came next. Waves of destruction came to the holy city, first in 605 BC, then eight years later in 597, and finally total decimation eleven years later in 586.
What threat paralyzed the world’s great cities not just for hours and days, but for weeks and months, even years? The rising power of Babylon and the slow march of its army from one capital to the next, setting up months-long sieges, and toppling the world’s leading cities as their supply lines ran out and the people began to starve.
And all the more, the coming calamity should have been no surprise to God’s first-covenant people. Even in the middle of the seventh century before Christ, while Assyria was the reigning world power, and Babylon was only slowly on the rise, God’s prophets, like Isaiah, told of the coming disaster decades ahead of time. As did a far less prominent prophet named Habakkuk, who may have an especially striking word for us in our present slow-moving distress.
Unlike any other Hebrew prophet, Habakkuk never turns and speaks directly to the people in his short, three-chapter book. He reports his dialogue with God and God’s surprising work in him, leaving personal application to the reader. The book’s outline is rather simple, as far as Hebrew prophecies go.
First, Habakkuk begins with his seemingly righteous frustrations, perhaps slightly overstated. He asks, “How long, O Lord?” to the rampant wickedness he sees around him, among God’s own people, in an era of spiritual decline (Habakkuk 1:2–4). God responds with a revelation the prophet not at all anticipated (1:5–11). Essentially: Yes, little prophet, my people have become wicked — and I am not looking idly at it. In fact, I am raising up the Babylonians to destroy them.
Habakkuk reels and rocks. He thought he had justice problems before. Now all the more. He responds with a second complaint (1:12–2:1). How can God “idly look at traitors” (Habakkuk 1:13), Babylonians even more wicked than God’s backslidden people? The prophet becomes more defiant: “I will take my stand . . . and look out to see what [God] will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1). He presumes God’s response to his second complaint will not suffice, and he’ll be ready to answer back.
But God’s second response (2:2–20) does silence him. The prophet never registers a third complaint. God will not leave Babylon unpunished. His full justice — his fivefold woe — will be served in his perfect timing. The hand of justice indeed will fall, destroying the prideful and rescuing the righteous who live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
The core of the book’s message, from the voice of God to the hearts of his people, is live by faith in unprecedented days, come what may. God doesn’t promise the anxious prophet that soon he’ll make things better. In fact, he promises to make things much worse before they get better. Utter devastation will come first, then deliverance. First total ruin, then final rescue.
To the disoriented, panicked prophet, God exposes the folly of human pride, and issues a fresh call to humility and faith, to patiently receive God’s mysterious “work” of judgment (Habakkuk 1:5; 3:2). To trust the divine in the toughest of times, in days of looming trouble. Here we have God’s timeless call to his people in mysterious times, Habakkuk’s and ours: live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
But what does that mean? “Living by faith” can sound so vague and general. What might it mean for us here on the ground, under the present (and coming) threat?
After he has been silenced, Habakkuk speaks again in chapter 3, but now in prayer, not complaint. He has heard and heeded the divine voice and now celebrates God’s unstoppable power and uncompromised justice. The prophet’s prayer concludes with two “Yet I will” statements. First, he says he will exercise patience. The prideful and unbelieving may ride it out with all sorts of panic and noise, but Habakkuk will wait quietly:
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us. (Habakkuk 3:16)
His faith in God’s perfect justice has been renewed. He will adjust the clock of his soul to God’s timetable, not presume the converse. God is not standing idly by, of this we can be sure. He is watching. He is attentive. He sees every movement, every detail. In the end, the world will see that he has done right, never treating any creature with injustice.
And as prone as we are, in our finitude and sin and anxiety, to want to force on God our own timetable for resolution, he calls us to quiet patience, even as painfully slow as the present distress may unfold.
The second and final “Yet I will . . .” comes in verse 18: “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” And the prophet says so precisely with the worst-case scenarios on the table:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
In other words, though the supply lines should fail, and the shelves be bare, and the economy tank, and the virus come to our own city, and street, and even home, yet — even then — this newly humbled prophet will rejoice in the Lord. Will we? Not in our supplies. Not in our health. Not in our own security. Not even in the defeat of the enemy. There is one constant, one unassailable surety, one utter security, one haven for true joy in the most challenging of journeys: God himself. He holds himself out to us as he removes our other joys. Will we lean anew into him?
Those puffed up in pride will certainly be destroyed in time, whether sooner or later. But those who welcome God’s humbling hand and bow in faith — in quiet patience and trans-circumstantial joy — will find God himself to be “my strength” in such days (Habakkuk 3:19). So too for us, living by faith in such times will come to expression in patience and joy. But what again might that look like?
Among the many ways God may inspire his church in the coming days, we at least have one clue from Habakkuk what such patience and joy sounds like: singing. That’s the stunning and unusual way this short interaction between the prophet and God ends — with the prophet singing praise. That’s why he ends with directions for corporate worship: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” These final lines are not only a prayer. They are a song for others to join.
There’s not anything else quite like this in all the prophets. Habakkuk begins with as much feistiness and (what seems like) defiance as we find anywhere else. And yet God graciously moves his soul from protest to praise. Which should be an encouragement to those honest enough to admit to finding this pandemic tripping up the feet of our faith so far.
As we’ve seen, Habakkuk didn’t come into the news gracefully. Yet God met him there, in his pride and defiance and fear. The little prophet foolishly took his stand, and God mercifully brought him to his knees. God humbled him, and the prophet received it, humbling himself. He received the disorienting, inconvenient, painful purposes of God in the coming judgment, and he abandoned his protest, bowed in prayer, and rose in praise.
Will we do the same in the lingering confusion and disorientation of the slow-moving uncertainty we’re living in? Will our protests, however justly conceived, lead to bent knees? And will our prayers lead us to sing?
God never wastes his children. If you devote yourself to serving the Lord, he will never leave you without significant opportunities for good works.
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