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We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?
The church understands itself to be forgiven and in the process of being transformed. But it is still a company of sinners. Martin Luther’s description of the Christian as being “simultaneously justified and a sinner” is an admission that although Christians have been forgiven and declared righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ, we still struggle with the sinful nature. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for admittance to the church (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). What is more, when Jesus spoke about relationships in the church, He seemed to describe sin between believers as a probability when He commanded: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15).
The practice Jesus describes in this verse doesn’t fit the image many of us have of Christ. The contemporary church favors an uncritical and accepting Jesus. This popular Jesus doesn’t point fingers but stands with arms wide, ready to welcome everyone as they are without expecting either remorse or change. Rather than urging us to point out our brother’s fault, we would expect Him to say that we should let it slide.
Christ’s command to point out a brother’s fault is a hard pill to swallow in an age that regards amiability to be the chief of all Christian virtues. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “expel the wicked” seems incomprehensible to those who are persuaded that the church’s primary mission is to be a place where people feel comfortable and accepted. We are further confused when we read that with one breath, Jesus counseled His followers to confront those who sin, and then with the other, told them to forgive the same person repeatedly (Matt. 18:22). We tend to see these two responses as mutually exclusive.
According to Jesus accountability and mercy are not opposed to one another. These two obligations do not contradict each other, nor does one cancel the other out. Confrontation is its own kind of mercy because its ultimate aim is not to punish Christians for their sin but to loose them from its grip.
Although the vocabulary of confrontation that Jesus uses is drawn from the courtroom, He speaks of reproof more than prosecution. The aim is not revenge or even necessarily justice but restoration of the offender. Yet, the conditional language that Jesus uses to make His point implies both the possibility of failure and the probability of resistance. “If they listen to you, you have won them over,” Jesus says in v. 16. We must win over the offender before there can be any hope of reconciliation, and they might just reject our reproof.
The likelihood that our attempts will initially meet with resistance suggests that the scenario Jesus outlines is not a simple three-step procedure. We do not approach the person once and then immediately move on to stages two and three until we eject them from the church. Many private appeals may take place before one decides to move to stage two. Furthermore, every step provides an opportunity to reevaluate. Is the issue serious enough to take things further? Or should we merely absorb the offense and “bear with” the person?
The truth is that many of the things that bother us about others never even rise to the level of stage one. They may be the result of a moment’s thoughtlessness or perhaps the person’s immaturity. Most of the time, they are not even sins in the technical sense but merely irritations that we must tolerate with grace and patience.
What raises a matter to the level that it compels us to heed Jesus’ command to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17)? It isn’t necessarily the level of outrage we feel or even the fact that we have been wronged by someone. The gravity of the sin is one obvious factor. When the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to expel someone from their fellowship, it was because the sin he was committing was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in following his example is that our standards have sunk so low that we have begun to wonder whether any sin warrants such a response from the church. The gap between what pagans tolerate and what the church accepts has closed. Church discipline itself has come to be seen as, if not a sin, then at least a form of spiritual abuse.
The confrontation that Jesus prescribes for the church isn’t only for the benefit of the person who has sinned against us. Church discipline has a reflexive effect as well. Jesus warns those who intend to confront others to scrutinize themselves first and remove the plank from their own eye before they try to remove the speck from their brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5). We usually think that our reluctance to confront those who have sinned against us springs from a fear of how others will react. But theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that we are just as liable to be afraid of how it might affect us. “Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront,” Hauerwas observes. “The process of confrontation means that we may well discover that we have been mistaken about being wronged.”
Even if the erring sister or brother repents, we may find that we are unwilling to reconcile with them. “I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate,” Hauerwas explains. “It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?”
What is it that separates the church’s execution of this kind of discipline from bullying and spite? Self-interest and revenge often clothe themselves in the garments of righteousness. How can we tell whether our aim is to win over an erring brother or sister or to exact revenge? The presence of grief is one indicator that we are not acting out of our own selfish interests. If we take pleasure in confrontation, we can be certain that we are motivated by the wrong kind of spirit. Church discipline should always be exercised with a measure of reluctance (1 Cor. 5:2; 7:7–11). Careful forethought is another characteristic. No church should be in a hurry to expel someone from their fellowship.
Jesus’ command is a stark reminder that grace has a prickly side. To comply we need to submit ourselves to the same light of truth that we must shine on others. That light will change our view so that we can no longer approach the offender from the moral high ground but must come to them as a companion and peer. And even if things go badly and we find that we must treat the offender like an outsider, we do so in the hope that we will once more be able to call them friend.
Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.”
The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say.
On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?
Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”
Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.
Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.
There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”
See how they irritate one another.
Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”
Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.
Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.
We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.
This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”
It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.
The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.
I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.
The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.
Speed Dating the Church
Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.
But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore. In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.
When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.
Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders
At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.
Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.
But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.
Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.
Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.
Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.
Style of Worship
The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.
The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”
As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.
Location, Location, Location
There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.
Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).
The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.
Have you ever wondered how fast God is? It sounds like the kind of question a child might ask. But for many of us, the honest answer would probably be, “Not as fast as we would like Him to be.” Although 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow, waiting is so much a feature of the redemption story that Revelation 6:11 tells us that even the souls in Heaven must wait.
Nobody likes to wait. Because of this, our prayers can sound more like demands than requests. We are like the man in the crowd in Luke 12 who called out to Jesus and demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Instead of sympathizing with the man or listening to his case, Jesus cut him off with this unsympathetic rebuke: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15)).
There is something unsettling about Jesus’ answer. It doesn’t fit the picture we have of Him. Although we don’t know the specifics about this man’s situation, we can make a few educated guesses. It is obvious that the man believed he had been wronged. It also seems reasonable to assume that his brother was the first-born, who had a right to 2/3 of the estate. Perhaps his brother had decided to keep the entire estate for himself. What is more, it seems likely that, given the circumstances and the nature of the request, this older brother was in the crowd when his younger sibling made this demand of Jesus. Jesus, however, shows no interest in protecting the younger brother’s legal rights in this matter. There are two parts to Jesus’ surprising response. One is an assessment of this man’s false view of Jesus. The other is an implied evaluation of the man’s motive in making the request.
When the Answer Means More than God
Both responses provide an important reality check for us. The first remark is a reminder that Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is not some kind of heavenly civil servant whose primary function is to make sure we get what we want or even that we get our fair share. Jesus’ unsympathetic answer is a blunt reminder that God does not necessarily share our interests. Jesus’ second remark is uncomfortable evidence that we cannot always trust our motives, even when the law is on our side. Viewed from the perspective of the man who made the request, this was a question of justice and equity. Jesus, on the other hand, perceived that it was a symptom of his greed.
Jesus’ blunt refusal to consider this man’s demand uncovers a dark truth about our impatience toward God. It suggests that sometimes our prayers are marked by what might be described as a kind of atheism. Not a denial of God’s existence but dismissal of the personal dimension of prayer. We are no more interested in God than we might be in the clerk at the counter who hands us our merchandise. The important thing for us is the answer. Not the one who grants our request.
In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reminds us that the intensity of our praying is not necessarily evidence of devotion. He asks us to think of the warmth and depth of our prayer when it concerns someone we love or something that matters to our lives. “Does it mean that God matters to you?” Bloom asks. “No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you.”
I am not saying that our requests are trivial or even necessarily selfish. I suspect that for this man in the crowd, receiving his inheritance was not trivial at all. It was a very big thing. Perhaps he was depending on it. But sometimes the things we are waiting for from God grow so large in our estimation that they stand between us and God. They may even become more important to us than God Himself.
Sometimes God’s responses to our prayers seem uneven. He does not treat everyone the same. It may seem to us that God bestows answers too quickly on those who have ignored Him. They are excited about getting an answer to their prayer. It is as if they have discovered a world that they did not know existed, and in a way, they have. We are excited with them, at first. But after a while, there is something about their praise reports that may irk us. We have been praying for many of the same things and are still waiting. Why do their answers seem to come so quickly? Surely, it cannot be that they have more faith than us?
It is possible, of course, that they do have more faith. In Christ’s day, it seemed that those who knew the most about Scripture also had the greatest trouble believing Jesus. Faith does not always correlate with knowledge of Scripture or with spiritual age. Some who know relatively little in comparison with us may outstrip us in faith. While those who have walked with Christ a long time are sometimes still weak in faith. But this is not the only, perhaps not even the primary, reason for the difference. God’s dealings with us are personal in the realm of prayer, just as they are in everything else. God is not a vending machine that thoughtlessly dispenses the blessings we want when we punch the button of prayer. Neither is He a kind of heavenly bureaucrat who doles out the same portions to those standing in the prayer line. God’s answers are suited to His purposes for us as much as they are to our needs.
A Symptom of our Fear
In an essay on the efficacy of prayer, C. S. Lewis describes a startling observation about prayer he once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous,” this person said. “But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
The impatience we feel while waiting for God to answer our prayers is really a symptom of fear. We worry that God may reject our request. What is more, this fear is not without a warrant. Jesus’ blunt rejection of the man in the crowd is one of many refusals recorded in Scripture. But even without these, our own experience is testimony enough to prove that God does not always give us what we want when we want it.
God will grant some requests merely because we ask, as long as our request is accompanied by faith. Scripture says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith will be saved (Acts 10:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Anyone who lacks wisdom is encouraged to ask for it (James 1:5–7). But the majority of our prayers fall into a category that we might describe as discretionary. The outcome is uncertain. God may grant them, or He might choose not to do so. Even if He does give us what we want, we do not control the timing. Another person may receive the answer in a moment, while we must wait for months and even years.
Waiting as an Act of Faith
Waiting for God is a fundamental discipline of faith. The closer we are to the end of the age, the more it will be required of us. “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming,” James 5:7–8 urges. “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” The farming analogy in this passage does more than point to waiting as an inevitable fact of life. It is a reminder that a fundamental conviction about the goodness of God must accompany our waiting (2 Pet. 1:3). We are not merely waiting to see what will happen with our request. We are waiting for God to act on our behalf. He who hears our prayer is the one “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Our waiting is energized further by the certainty that we will not have to wait long, at least by God’s standard of time. “The Lord’s coming is near,” James assures. 2 Peter 3:9 makes a similar promise when it says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
An old hymn describes God as “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.” But the Bible says that God is in a hurry. According to Scripture, God watches over His people the way a cook waits for a pot to boil, or the watchman on the wall eagerly looks for the coming of dawn (Isa. 60:22; Jer. 1:12–13). Despite what the hymn writer says, speed is a characteristic of all God’s saving acts. That’s because the speed of God is the speed of redemption.
Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.”
I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer never seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I have been praying for as long as I have been a Christian. Longer, even. I’ve never felt that my problem with prayer was a matter of mechanics. Prayer never seemed like rocket science to me. You just talk to God. When I became a pastor, I became a praying professional. That is to say, prayer was a part of my job. I prayed publically as the church worshipped. I opened board meetings with prayer. I led the church’s weekly prayer meeting. I prayed for the congregation in my study. And I prayed with those who came to me for counsel. Over time I discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vaguely dissatisfied. We aren’t sure why.
Our Problem is Relational
It seems to me that the primary problem most of us have with prayer has nothing to do with motivation or method. Our problem is relational. We don’t like the way God treats us. We feel like we are doing all the talking. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who never talks back to you. After a while, a person begins to feel like the other party in the conversation is disinterested. Even when we do get an answer to our requests, they rarely seem to take the form that we anticipate. God’s disposition is unreadable and His paths seem oblique.
The main reason for this is because prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that He is unresponsive. Good listeners are often silent when they are paying attention. It is true that in ordinary conversation, silence can also mean other things. When we try to talk to others, people may respond with the silence of disinterest, rejection, or even complete absence. But where prayer is concerned, the fundamental assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. If we ask whether God is hard of hearing, Scripture’s emphatic answer is no: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
The one guarantee we have in prayer is that God always hears us. But there is more to this hearing than awareness of our requests. The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of what we say. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into His plan.
John’s condition that our requests must be “according to His will” is not God’s liability clause designed to protect His reputation if we find the answers to our prayer disappointing. This is a condition that implies that we have a responsibility to consider the nature of our requests before we make them. Do we have a warrant to ask such a thing of God? Is it something for which He has told us to pray? How does the request fit with a larger understanding of God’s general will and plan for our lives? What is our motive in asking? God’s hearing of our prayers includes an assessment of everything that lies behind them.
We Misinterpret God’s Silence
We misinterpret God’s silence if it leads us to think that we are the initiators in prayer and that God stands by impassively as we wait to see what He will do for us. The Scriptures paint a very different picture. They show that God moved in our direction first. “The first word is God’s word,” Eugene Peterson explains. “Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.”
For this reason, Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.” Consequently, our prayers are a conversational answer to what God has already said. Prayer is a response to an invitation, extended to us through Jesus Christ, to express our needs and desires directly to God. The fact that God does not answer in kind when we speak to Him in prayer does not mean that God has nothing to say. As the hymn writer declares, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”
Scripture is an essential companion to prayer, not only because it teaches us how to pray but because it shows us where the conversation began. The Bible tells us what God has already said. By reading it carefully, we develop a way of thinking about prayer. We begin to understand the one to whom we are speaking.
It is easy to accuse God of being unresponsive to our prayers because we cannot hear His voice. But the truth is, we are the ones who are disengaged. God has spoken first, but we do not take His words into account. We are deeply interested in getting what we want when we pray but not nearly as concerned about God’s wishes. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible or that we have no interest in God. Only that we tend to be single-minded. We do not bother to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when, all the while, He has been waiting for us. We are hoping that God will say something new without bothering to orient our prayers to what He has already said.
Would we pray differently if we believed that God’s silence meant that He was truly listening? It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. We usually interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. But in true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Indeed, genuine listening may be even more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience. We have all had conversations where the other party did not really hear what we were saying. Their silence was merely a pause before speaking. We ourselves have been guilty of this. Such conversations are not conversations at all but merely an exchange of sounds.
Silence & Presence
Silent listening is essential to genuine conversation. It is also a common attribute of the experience of communion. Every happy couple knows that the joy of conversation is not the chatter but the pleasure of exchanged presence. The Christian idea of communion is rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, a Greek word that means fellowship or sharing. Sometimes koinonia speaks of our experience with God, and at other times, of our experience with other believers. There is a connection between these two. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called them “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Such language denotes a special kind of relationship. It is a fellowship or union with Jesus Christ. The church celebrates this relationship when it observes the Lord’s Supper, a rite that we often call “communion.” But the spiritual communion Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:9 is something more. Fellowship with Christ is an abiding union with our savior. Those who have been called by God and have trusted in Christ are themselves “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
This union is what Jesus prayed for when He asked that all those who believe “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17: 21). He went on to ask, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We often view Jesus’ words as a prayer for church unity, and unity is partly in view. But Jesus was asking for much more. Our mistake has been to see Jesus’ words as a statement of aspiration. Interpreted this way, Jesus’ words are more of a wish than a prayer.
If desire were all that Jesus meant, He might as well have said, “Father, I hope that they will be one.” Indeed, this is exactly how we usually hear this text preached in church. The emphasis is not on what God has done in response to Jesus’ prayer, but on what we are supposed to do if it is ever going to be a reality. Instead of a prayer addressed to the Father, we have changed it into a sermon preached to the church. But the “may be” of verse 21 is not a maybe. It is a “let it be” that echoes the Father’s declarations at creation. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus prayed, “Let them be one in us and in one another.”
What does this have to do with our prayers? It means that communion is a state before it is an experience. Communion is still a fact even when we do not sense its reality. God hears us when we pray, even when the silence leaves us feeling like we are talking to an empty sky. God is present when we pray, even when we do not sense His presence. Sometimes when we pray, we act as if we need to attract God’s attention. We feel like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see them. But God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. Nor do we need to arrest His attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there. Whenever we pray, and even when we are not praying, we are always in the Father and the Son. God cannot be any closer than He already is. Even if we were in heaven (Rom. 10:6-8).
Have you ever wished that you were taller or had eyes of a different color? Or maybe you wondered why you were better at basketball than someone else or could play the piano like a virtuoso. Some things are programmed by heredity and DNA. But not everything. There are things we can do to nurture growth and development, or we can hamper it.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. Those who are in Christ cooperate with the Holy Spirit as they grow in grace and obedience. They may also hinder the process. In 1 Peter 2:2, the apostle tells us to “crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” The Greek text literally says that we grow “into” our salvation. It almost sounds as if there is a mold, and spiritual growth is the experience of being poured into it. In a way, this is true. The shape of spiritual growth in its final form has already been determined for us. It is not a list of behaviors but a person. We are growing into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
But the process of growth is not automatic. There are some Christians who seem to be stalled in their spiritual development while others grow more quickly. What makes the difference? Is there a secret to spiritual growth? The primary means that God uses to nurture our growth is the word of God. Peter describes it as “pure spiritual milk” and tells us that we should “crave” it. This command is a little surprising. It implies that we have a responsibility to be disciplined in our intake and cultivate our hunger. In a way, Peter tells us to develop a taste for God’s word.
Spiritual growth is not automatic.
When it comes to ordinary food, we develop a craving by tasting it. This is also true of God’s word. But many Christians find that the taste for God’s word does not come automatically. They may begin to read Scripture and find that parts of it are hard to understand. There are many stories in the Bible, and they don’t understand the background. Or maybe they don’t enjoy reading. So they begin but quickly lay the Bible aside.
Acquiring a taste for the Bible begins with a conviction about the Bible itself. We read it because it is more than a book. It is the word of God. Our belief about the Scriptures is the same as the Thessalonians, who “accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God,” which is at work in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13). The truths of the Bible not only work on us. They work in us. God’s word transforms those who crave it.
Prayer is another practice that contributes to our spiritual development. There is more to spiritual growth than learning to perform a series of spiritual tasks. It is growth in our relationship with God. If Bible is the primary means that God uses to speak to us, prayer is how we talk to God. When we pray, we not only make requests, we also worship, unburden our hearts, and spend time in God’s presence. Prayer is not conversation so much as it is communion.
We do not need to go to great lengths to get God’s attention when we pray. Nor do we need to make clever arguments. Jesus assures us that God not only hears our prayers but also says that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). “He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him,” John Stott observes. “He is our Father–a Father who loves his children and knows all about their needs.
In most cases, spiritual growth is not something we experience in isolation. God has designed the spiritual life so that it flourishes best when it takes place within a community of believers. The Bible’s name for that community is church. Ephesians 4 says that Christ has gifted the church with individuals whose ministry is “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Those that he lists include pastors and teachers who exercise a ministry of God’s word. They proclaim the gospel and teach the truths of Scripture. Those who are trained by their teaching implement what they have learned by building up the body of Christ.
We do not experience spiritual growth in isolation.
We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ.
Christians come together as church to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught.
In the natural realm, eating and exercise go together. Food provides fuel for growth and activity. The same principle holds in the spiritual realm. Spiritual development comes when we combine spiritual nourishment with obedience to what we have learned. Ultimately, however, it is God who makes us grow. God has given both the word and those who teach it. His Spirit grants us understanding and empowers us to obey. Spiritual growth is not an accomplishment for which we can take credit or feel pride. Like everything else in the Christian life, it springs from grace. Those who grow spiritually “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18). Just as God is the source of our spiritual life, He is the secret behind our spiritual growth.
Every generation seems to have its own idol. Each one represents the spirit of the age, a false god who shapes the ethic of the culture at large. All too often, these idols find their way into the church. Sometimes they are brought in intentionally by those who fear that the church has become irrelevant. More often, they are introduced unwittingly by Christians who have absorbed the ethic from the culture in which they live. They do not learn it in a formal sense, by thoughtful examination and critical analysis. Rather, it comes to them through the atmosphere, the way the smell of smoke clings to one who has been near a fire even when they try to keep their distance. These spirits are never introduced to the church as idols but as scholarship or forward-thinking or some “new” and “enlightened” understanding that somehow shows that what Jesus really meant by what He taught is in line with whatever our modern prejudice happens to be.
These days the idol of the age is best represented by what I would call “the cult of nice.” Nice is a quality urged upon us by mothers, who advise us that, if we can’t say something nice about someone, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Unfortunately, those who attempt to enact this philosophy rarely opt for silence. If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of working with such people, you have discovered that they tend to be fundamentally dishonest when it comes to their assessment of others. They dismiss bad traits and inflate those they deem to be good, even when they are merely an affectation. Such people would probably find something positive to say about Satan himself if he were a member of their team.
These days the idol of the age is best represented by what
I would call “the cult of nice.”
The cult of nice is a code that shapes ethics and whose appeal springs from its disarming simplicity. The basic rule of the cult of nice can be summarized in this sentence: “Whatever does not spring from niceness is not of God.” Part of its appeal is that it has a kind of Johannine ring about it. We find several statements that sound something like this in John’s writings. For example, in 1 John 4:16, the apostle says, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” The cult of nice identifies itself with this principle but restates it: “Whoever is nice lives in God, and God in them.”
However, it only takes a modicum of common sense to recognize that niceness and love are not the same. To say that God is love is one thing (1 John 4:8, 16). To say that He is nice is something else. The problem is that “nice” is essentially a cultural trait. What seems nice to one may not seem nice to another. What is more, the Jesus portrayed in Scripture–the same one to whom those who worship in the cult of nice appeal so often to justify their ethic–often behaved in ways that the acolytes of nice would find abhorrent. It only takes a few examples to prove my point.
For example, Jesus used harsh language when referring to those who disagreed with His teaching. He called them “fools,” “blind guides, “snakes,” and “vipers’ (Matt. 23:16–17, 33). Jesus was also divisive. He said things that He knew would outrage those who saw matters differently from Him. When Jesus contradicted the teaching of the Pharisees, His disciples complained. “’Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’” (Matt. 15:12–14). In other words, Jesus wasn’t just untroubled by their outrage. He was openly dismissive of it.
Perhaps rudest of all, at least by the standards of today’s cult of nice, was Jesus’ tendency toward exclusion. One of the cardinal doctrines of the cult of nice is that to be truly Christian, we must be inclusive. Inclusion is their Ockam’s razor–the test they use to sift through traditional teachings and decide what to reject as erroneous or obsolete. Jesus was inviting but exclusive in that invitation. He said that His way was narrow instead of broad and warned that “only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14). He claimed to be the way to God to such an extent that He said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He even taught that a brother or sister who sins and rejects the repeated appeals of other Christians to turn from their sin should be expelled from the church (Matt. 18:15–17). This is so far from the current culture of nice that even churches that agree with Jesus in principle rarely practice His teaching on this point.
Nice isn’t listed among the attributes of God, yet neither is mean. Like nice, mean is one of those fuzzy words that can be taken several ways. It came from Middle English and was initially used to speak of what two or more people held in common. It developed into a word that spoke of one who was ignoble or base. But these days, we use it mainly to refer to those who are unkind and spiteful. A common complaint of children is that someone has been mean to them.
Nice isn’t listed among the attributes of God, yet neither is mean.
There doesn’t seem to be a single biblical equivalent to the modern vernacular when it comes to mean. Like nice, mean is culturally defined. What seems mean to one person is perfectly fine to another. It is also a movable standard which we usually manipulate in our own favor. Just as those who often criticize others for not being nice fail to condemn the same behavior in themselves, mean people never seem to think that they are mean. They tend to see themselves as stern, businesslike, or no-nonsense sort of folks who are practical and refuse to suffer fools gladly. But the suggestion that their treatment of others is mean is baffling to them.
This is especially true of mean leaders, who are convinced that those who criticize their meanness are merely soft or lazy. They view those who offer such critiques as namby-pamby bleeding hearts who are overly concerned about hurting the feelings of others. More often, they take no notice of them at all. But merely plow ahead without regard for those who disagree with their agenda. They do important work informed by a grand vision. Why should they trouble themselves over such objections when they are so obviously right in their judgments? Not only do they think that they represent God’s interests in their plans, they believe they mirror His character in their actions. This conceit is equally true of those who belong to the cult of nice.
In reality, mean is merely a selfish and distorted imitation that mistakes God’s sovereignty for impassiveness and confuses arrogance with independence. Likewise, nice is an insipid distortion of grace that fails to make the essential connection between God’s compassion, grace, patience, and faithfulness with His holiness and justice (Exod. 34:5–7). A nice god might not lower the boom on you for your sin. But He wouldn’t do anything to help you out of it either. For that, you must look to a God who is more than nice. One who cares enough about you to ignore your preferences and sensitivities and who will tell you what you are really like. To find practical help with your sin, you must look to a God who will not mince words about your foolishness or the desperate state of your condition. More than this, you will need a God who is willing to go beyond words and do something about it because He knows that you can do nothing for yourself.
In short, to find any real help for your sin, you must go beyond nice to truth. You must go beyond winsome or pleasant or amiable to love. Because only love is willing to stand in your place. Only love is strong enough to bear the brunt of the whip and the weight of the cross. Only love will allow itself to be taken by wicked hands and slain. And love alone, after being laid in the grave, is able to stand up again on the third day with arms open in invitation to the ones who put it there. God is not nice. God is love.
Recently, I had to make a decision. Not life-changing but significant enough to require some thought. It also involved money. Not that much, but still, it was money. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken me a few minutes. What gave me pause was that this decision had to do with a goal that I have been working toward for several years and have not quite achieved. I wondered whether it was time to throw in the towel. Actually, what I really wondered was what God thought about it. Was He saying, “John, keep it up. You’ll achieve your goal eventually.” Or was He shaking His head because I hadn’t figured out that it is a dead-end? How many disappointments does it take to realize that God wants us to move on? To put it another way, what’s the difference between faith and stupid? How does one tell the difference between persistence in faith and stubborn refusal to acknowledge that God is not behind your agenda?
After meditating on this question for several days, I did what any theologically reflective person would do. I posted the question on social media. What struck me was how certain many of those who responded seemed to be. They made it sound easy. The difference was a matter of humility, someone said. It was merely a question of discerning whether you were seeking to glorify God or yourself another proposed. Or it was a simple question of guidance. All you have to do is follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some seemed to point to circumstances as the deciding factor. You move forward until you have to stop. Others sounded as if the solution was more a matter of paying closer attention to an inner feeling of some kind.
Who Are You Calling Stupid?
Perhaps they are all right to some degree. But one thing is clear to me. The difference between faith and stupid is not as apparent as one might think. To the unbeliever, faith looks like stupid, and to the believer, stupid sometimes looks like faith. For this reason, the best place to begin is with a definition. Faith, on its most fundamental level, is simply taking God at His word. Faith is an exercise in trust, and the effectiveness of faith depends entirely on its object. Place your faith in an unreliable person or an undependable object, and it makes little difference how firmly you believe. You will still be disappointed in the end.
According to this definition, the primary difference between faith and stupid is a matter of presumption. Stupid is a conviction that goes beyond God. Likewise, stubbornness is what stupid looks like when we apply it to action. Stubbornness is perseverance that is misdirected. We keep moving but in the wrong direction. Yet, like Peter, when he attempted to dissuade Jesus from taking the path that would lead to the cross, we are convinced that we are acting in God’s interest (Matt. 16:21–23).
The difference between faith and stupid is a matter of presumption.
If stupid sounds harsh to modern ears, perhaps we would prefer the Bible’s term for this, which is “folly.” It sounds more elegant, but it’s really no better. Among other things, folly’s most fundamental characteristic is its lack of common sense. “Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are,” Ecclesiastes 10:3 complains. The fool ignores the obvious. The signposts are there, but the fool doesn’t bother to consider them. He prefers to go his own way. It can be hard to discern the difference between persistent faith and stubborn refusal because we are prone to folly. Like Peter, our natural bent is to be of the wrong mind. We often replace God’s concerns with our own.
The Cure for Folly
The good news is that there is an antidote for stupid. The cure for folly is wisdom, and the Bible tells us that wisdom is offered freely to any who will take it. James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James goes on to qualify this wildly generous promise by warning that: “. . . when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6–8).
I used to think that his point was that, to receive this wisdom, we must believe that God will give it to us before we ask. There are similar promises in Scripture (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). But I suspect that there is more in view here. We have trouble accepting God’s wisdom not because we think that He will refuse to grant it to us. It is because we are not convinced that it is wisdom. The cure for folly is not only to take God at His word but to trust that He has a better idea of what is going on than we do. Where God’s directive is clear, we do not need to question. Nor do we necessarily need to understand why He has commanded it to be so. It is enough to know that it is God who has told us what to do.
But where there is no explicit directive, God calls for a different kind of faith. We might call this cooperative or even collaborative faith. The journey of the Christian life is more than a simple matter of command and response. As those who have been created in His image, God grants us the dignity of making plans and choosing options. We set goals and strive to reach them. We may move in one direction, then decide it is not the right one and change course. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
What is more, neither our success nor our failure in what we attempt is necessarily a reliable measure of either God’s will or His approval. Solomon’s career was at its peak when his heart “turned away from the Lord” (1 Kings 11:9). Jesus’ moment of victory came at the point when His life and ministry appeared to be an abject failure (John 19:30).
Pillar & Cloud
We tend to envy ancient Israel because of the way God guided them during their wilderness journey. Exodus 13:21 says, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” We would like a pillar and cloud of our own. Yet, the certainty that God was guiding Israel did not keep them from questioning their direction (Num. 21:5). Nor did it protect them from disobedience or rebellion. Knowing what God wants us to do doesn’t always mean that we want to do it.
Even when God guides us, He does not always spell out the fine details in advance. According to Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” Likewise, the apostle Paul declared, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there” (Acts 20:22). Actually, Paul knew a little of what awaited him. After saying this, he went on to add: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:23–24). Divine guidance does not come with a detailed map, but it does provide a trajectory.
Divine guidance does not come with a detailed map.
Those in Christ do not need a pillar of fire or a cloud of glory because the Holy Spirit indwells them. Yet even His indwelling presence is no guarantee that there will not be times when we feel uncertain about the direction we should take. Acts 16 describes how Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from preaching the word in the province of Asia. It would be interesting to know exactly how the Holy Spirit closed the door, but Scripture doesn’t tell us. Luke says that when they tried to enter Bithynia, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t allow them to go there either. One almost gets the impression of Paul and his team bumbling around Asia, trying one direction and then another, until God finally sends him a vision in the night of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” In Acts 16:10, Luke writes, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
If even Paul sometimes felt muddled about which direction to go in the age of miracles, we should not feel too badly if we also have moments when we lack clarity about whether or not to continue on a certain path. When it comes to what God has written, faith is a matter of taking God at His word. And when it comes to those things that God has not spelled out for us, faith is a matter of trusting that He will still guide us, using ordinary and sometimes even extraordinary means to take us where He wants us to go. Desire, circumstances, and the mysterious prompting of the Holy Spirit all work together to move us along the path that God has laid before us. And even if we happen to make a few missteps along the way, the destination is still sure because we are not traveling alone. “I am with you always,” Jesus says, “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Shortly before I retired, I asked a friend to describe what the experience was like. “It’s like death,” he said. “It goes on and on.” He was joking, but I was unnerved by his reply. Something in my bones told me that he was right. For obvious reasons, the primary metaphor of retirement is rest. But rest is also a euphemism for death. The truth is that we experience many kinds of death throughout our lives.
Every new stage of life lays to rest the one that preceded it until we reach the final stage and eventually lay aside physical life itself. Every major life event, especially the happy ones, is often attended by a measure of sadness or a sense of loss. The graduate realizes that the years of preparation and childhood are over, and it’s time to look for a job. The bliss of the newly wedded couple is unsettled when they feel the chafing tug of their lost freedom. New parents feel the awful weight of responsibility for the life that has suddenly been thrust into their hands. Then they must yield that burden up with tears when the time comes for the child to leave home as an adult. Knowing that this is part of the natural order does not make it any easier to accept.
Since I retired, I find myself saying no to things that I once would have been eager to take on. I am not doing the things I thought I would do. Some of those things are no longer of interest to me. Others have grown more difficult, and I am either unwilling or unable to expend the energy. It is unnerving. I find that I am disappointed with myself for the things I no longer want to do and disappointed with God for the things He has not permitted me to do.
Change is disorienting. Those stages associated with aging are also disquieting because they usually involve the laying aside of tasks and identities that we have carried with us for decades, perhaps for most of our lives. How are we to think about ourselves now that we are no longer what we once were? The answer, of course, is that we are not what we do. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we are more than what we do. This truth is hard to accept. One of the questions people ask when they meet for the first time is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by the tasks and jobs that occupy our time. But that is not what we are. It does not help matters that the church tends to do the same. In sacred spaces, as in secular ones, we assign significance based on role, task, and return on investment. Those who perform and produce have value. But what happens when our capacity to produce begins to diminish? What value do we have then? According to 1 Corinthians 12:22, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are “indispensable.”
Part of the work of aging is letting go. We must let go of aspects of our former identities, familiar tasks that we once enjoyed, along with the friends and colleagues that go with them. There is relief, but it is a relief tempered with a measure of sorrow. “To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death,” Stanley Hauerwas and Laura Yordy remind us. “As our friends move away or die we lose the confirmation of our own life stories and identities. We are not even sure, as we grow old, that we are still the same people we were.” Perhaps we are not. But the change does not necessarily mean that we are less than we once were. We may do less. But we have not lost value, at least to God, because of the difference.
A little over a decade ago, I sent a letter to Eugene Peterson asking if he would endorse a book that I had written. A short time later, I received a gentle refusal in the return mail. “I am honored that you would trust me in the task,” Peterson wrote. “But I cannot. I am fast becoming an old man; the strength diminishes; I’m unable to do what I used to take on effortlessly.” Then, in the style that made me love him as a writer, Peterson added a brief line of poetry from Wendell Berry: “I am an old man\ but I don’t think of myself as an old man \ but as a young man with disabilities . . .”
I have often heard Christians say that the Bible does not teach retirement. This assertion, usually expressed in a condescending tone by church leaders, is meant to shame those who have pulled back from activities to reenlistment. Or it is a form of virtue signaling by those who have reached retirement age meant to highlight the fact that they have not slowed down like others they know. Ironically, the Old Testament does more than describe something that might be called a form of retirement. It mandated it, at least for the Levites. According to Numbers 8:23–26, the Levites were required to retire from tabernacle service at fifty. They were permitted (though not required) to assist their younger brothers in their duties at the tent of meeting, but they were not allowed to do the work themselves. The wisdom in this should be self-evident. Levitical work included physical labor and heavy lifting. Where the tabernacle was concerned, they were something like the team that sets up and tears down the church that meets in the school auditorium.
A secular form of the non-retirement myth often appears in television commercials, usually for companies that trade in financial planning. We see a montage of scenes that involve a stylish and attractive smiling couple in their 60s that shows how fit and active they are. They gaze happily in each other’s eyes as a tropical sun sinks below the horizon just off their yacht or their hotel balcony or the dinner table, where they clink their wine glasses together in mutual self-congratulation. The message is clear. Age brings no diminishment of power for those who take charge of their life (and use the services of this financial company). We only get better looking, wealthier, and busier in the things we love to do.
Perhaps this is true for some. But it is not the case for most. “There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy; nor should we expect that many of us will have a lot of ‘golden years,’” warns Maxine Hancock in an essay that describes aging as a heroic stage in one’s pilgrimage of faith. “From what I have observed, what lies ahead is more like a rockclimbing expedition, straight up a rock face, and then a slipping and sliding down through the shale on the other side to the place of our ‘crossing over.’”
But if letting go is proof of our growing weakness, it is also an act of faith. We submit to the changes that come with aging because we have no other choice. We are unable to exercise the degree of control over our lives and our energies that the detractors of retirement or the marketers would like us to think. Yet even as things that were once precious slip from our grasp, we ourselves are held fast. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” Jesus promised (John 11:26). For the Christian, what may feel like a swift descent into the Valley of Shadow, turns out only to be a momentary point of departure for a different location. One where we will find brighter fields and better service.