Journey of the Magi

For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.

The Magi are a mystery in the Christmas narrative. They appear suddenly and soon disappear, like the star that drew them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. They trouble Herod with a question: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Matthew does not tell us their names or say how many made the journey. When he describes their point of origin, it is only in general terms. His most detailed description is the term Magi itself, which designated a wise man, astrologer, or magician. What is evident is that the Magi were foreigners. They were the kind of people the apostle Paul would later describe as “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

The Magi were indeed foreigners to the promise, but they were not ignorant of it. The answer given by the priests and teachers of the law to their question indicates that the Magi were not looking for an ordinary royal birth. Based on the information the Magi supplied, the religious leaders concluded that they were looking for the Messiah (Matt. 2:5). The Magi stopped at Jerusalem first because they knew it was Israel’s seat of power spiritually as well as politically.

The Magi came seeking information only to discover that they already knew more about what God was doing than Israel’s king or its priests. The religious leaders, for their part, seem to have been caught unaware by the news. When the Magi showed up on their doorstep asking for information, the chief priests and teachers of the law were able to pinpoint the location of His birth from Scripture. But instead of taking the lead in locating the Messiah, they have nothing more to say. At least for the time being.

Herod, on the other hand, was disturbed. He saw the new king as a personal threat (Matt. 2:9). Herod was an insecure ruler famous for his jealousy and cruelty. Although he urged the Magi to search carefully for the child, promising to follow later and pay him homage, it was merely a ploy (Matt. 2:9). Herod’s real intent was murder. But God thwarted Herod’s plan by warning the Magi in a dream. He also sent an angel to Joseph to tell him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:12–14). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped, but the sons of Bethlehem did not. When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he ordered all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity aged two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:16).

Matthew says that the Bethlehem massacre fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; cf. Jer. 31:15). This quote is proof that God was not taken by surprise. He did not need a contingency plan when Herod and the religious leaders refused to cooperate with His agenda. Indeed, Jeremiah’s prophecy indicates that they were playing into God’s hands even in their resistance.

Does this part of the story have a happy ending or not? It is hard for us to tell. Herod’s bloody rage introduces a somber note into the Christmas narrative, reminding us that not all is starlight and wonder. There is also blood. Bethlehem’s massacre is evidence of the two kingdoms at work in the narrative, just as they are in the world. One is a realm of light and life. The other is a kingdom of darkness and death. However, the death of the sons of Bethlehem was more than the aftershock of Herod’s jealous anger. It foreshadowed a greater casualty that was yet to come. This child, the object of Herod’s rage, escapes. But only for the moment. Before Jesus has worked any miracle or spoken a word, the cross is already looming on His horizon. A stanza in a popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” alludes to this:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

The battle that swirled around Jesus in infancy will follow Him into adulthood. The religious leaders who were silent when Herod attempted to kill Jesus by slaying the children of Bethlehem will eventually speak up and demand that Pontius Pilate finish the job. An angel will come to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but not to deliver Him from death. This man will be handed over to His enemies “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and with the help of wicked men, those enemies will put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross (Acts 2:23).

The good news, which is also the gospel, is that this is not how the story ends. Peter tells the rest of the tale in his sermon on the day of Pentecost: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). It is often said that Jesus was born to die, but this is not exactly right. Jesus was born to die for us and then to live again.

God is not responsible for evil but He is not a hostage to it either.

It’s true that Herod’s brutality introduces a discordant note into the Christmas story. Still, it also provides us with a needed reality check that serves as a good reminder now that the holiday is over. We exhaust ourselves in our attempt to create the perfect atmosphere during Christmas. We tell ourselves that we are only doing this to make the holiday pleasant. But is it possible that we are instead trying to convince ourselves that we can have a different kind of life? We want the fairy tale life we have seen in holiday movies or the ideal life we think we should have had. Why can’t our family be nicer and our friends friendlier? Is it too much to ask that we might have the kind of life we have always dreamed of for at least one day a year? We find our attempts to get into the season’s spirit spoiled by the ruts and hollows that mar the landscape of our lives. Those ruts and hollows will follow us into the new year. An empty chair at the table will remind us how death or illness has become an uninvited guest in our home. Simple boredom will creep in. The pandemic will continue to trouble us, at least for a while.

The journey of redemption includes evil as well as good. This is not only true of the stories we read in the Bible; it is true in our daily life. God is not responsible for the evil, but the story of the Magi reminds us that He is not a hostage to it either. The Bible reveals that redemption is a drama unfolding along two storylines. The first begins with Adam and descends into disobedience and decay. The second storyline issues from God’s promise in the garden that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). These two intersect at the place where the Magi’s quest finally comes to rest. After leaving Herod, the Magi were overjoyed to discover that the star had reappeared. They followed it until they came to the house where the child was. When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshipped. The journey of the Magi ends where ours begins.

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Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

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.

Growing into Salvation

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.

Faith & Stupid

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).

Why We Need the Church

I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.

In the early days of my new life, it didn’t dawn on me that church was also part of the package. Our family didn’t attend and now that I thought of myself as a Christian, it seemed unnecessary to me. I had Jesus and the Bible. I had made friends with others who shared my faith. Why ruin it all by adding church into the mix? I had visited a few churches in the past. With its unfamiliar people and odd music, the experience was more uncomfortable than anything else. We stood and sat. Stood and sat. And then a man got up and lectured us about things I didn’t really understand. But after I became a follower of Jesus, I started regularly attending because someone told me that it was what Christians do. The music was still strange to me, but the lectures made more sense now that I was reading the Bible. I have been going to church ever since, though not always with enthusiasm. The music and the people still seem odd to me at times. But I have come to see the church as an essential part of my Christian life.

What is the Church?

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We say we are “going to church.” We point to a steepled building that we call “the church on the corner.” 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. For example, later in his letter, Paul brings greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, two of his friends and colleagues, and from “the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). This is the same letter that he addresses to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So a church is not a building but an assembly of believers. A church is a community of faith. When you read Paul’s references to the church in the New Testament, you find that he sometimes refers to it in the singular and at other times in the plural. He speaks of “the Church” and also of “the churches.” These are the church’s two primary modes. One is broad, and the other is narrow. On its most expansive level, there is only one Church made up of all believers, at all times, and in all places. This church is not confined to what is seen. It spans heaven as well as earth and includes both the living and the dead. It is also evident from the way Paul writes that there are many churches. This is the other mode of the church. It is local and consists of individual congregations made up of those who profess faith in  Christ. These local assemblies each have their own distinctive make-up, personality, and style and may sometimes differ on points of doctrine or practice. As a result, the New Testament can speak both of the Church and the churches without contradiction.

Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, characterized the church as “a paradise in the world.” The book of Acts provides a snapshot of what life was like in the early church. According to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Luke describes what, on the surface, might sound like a utopian community. They shared their possessions, and their meetings were characterized by gladness and sincerity. Yet, the New Testament also paints a realistic portrait of church life. There we find people who are much like us, forgiven sinners who sometimes fight and complain but are still traveling the way of Christ together with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, we see some of the real-world flaws of this remarkable community. We discover that some of its members were hypocrites (5:1–2). We learn that the church’s first significant organizational change took place because some of its members were being neglected, possibly due to cultural prejudice (6:1). And we observe how reluctant the church initially was to accept the newly converted Paul because of his former life (9:26). Its members struggled with jealousy and ethnic prejudice. Some New Testament Christians were upset after they heard Peter had met and dined with Gentiles (11:2–3). Paul and Barnabas had so sharp a disagreement that they each went their separate ways (15:39). Some preachers taught with needed further doctrinal instruction (18:25–26). And Paul warned that others would become false teachers (20:30).

Why Church is Necessary

But do we really need the church? The Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes. One reason is that the assembled church provides a unique context for worship. When Christians come together as church, they do so to worship God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that those who are in Christ are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. They are a kind of temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. All who belong to Christ are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” One of the primary reasons Christians come together is 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. On the one hand, the word of God is the foundation that establishes the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Because of this, the church is also an agent of truth that proclaims God’s word to the world.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 the apostle Paul describes the church as the “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Long before social media adopted the language of connection to refer to relationships enacted in the digital realm, the apostle Paul expressed the idea more concretely by calling the church a body made up of members who have been joined to one another through Christ. The church is a place where “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). God’s Spirit has empowered every believer to contribute to the well-being of the other members. Instead of losing our individual identity and disappearing into the whole, each of us has a distinctive function in the church. Every member adds value to the church, even those who do not seem to add value. Christ has arranged the church this way, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, Christians come together as church to worship God, hear the word of God proclaimed, and care for one another. Then they each go their way to represent God’s interests in the world around them.

Although there are many organizations that work for the betterment of the world, three things set the church apart from every other institution. First, the church is a community where God uniquely manifests His presence. It is the dwelling of God by the Spirit. Second, the church is a believing community that both hears and proclaims the word of God. It is through the church that God spreads the good news of forgiveness through Christ. Third, the church is a community of servants empowered by God to represent His interests in the world.

God’s Beautiful Imperfect Church

Anyone who has visited a church knows that it is still a work in progress. God has given Christ’s righteousness to the church as a gift, but our practice of that righteousness is not yet perfect. Those who claim that there are hypocrites in the church are right. No congregation is everything that it should be. But there is more to the church than our experience of it. An essential discipline of the Christian life is learning how to view the church through the eyes of faith. We learn to look beyond our disappointments and take God at His word. All that God says of the church is true. This faith-driven approach to church life does not deny or explain away its problems. Just the opposite. Most of the New Testament was written in an effort to apply the truth of God’s word to the failures and inconsistencies of the church.

So how does one find their place in the church? The starting point is to recognize that union with Christ also unites us to the church. The same faith that is the door to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is also our entrance pass into the church. We must also recognize the importance of intentionality. Scripture urges Christians to study the art of being a church. Belonging to the church comes automatically, but behaving like the church takes learning and practice.  Hebrews 10:24-25 uses the vocabulary of thoughtful reflection when it tells us to: “. . . consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The closer we get to Christ’s return, the more we need the church.

Keeping the Cross in View

According to Charles Dickens, after being visited by three spirits, Ebenezer Scrooge was a changed man. Terrified by the specter of his death, Scrooge made this solemn promise to the ghost of Christmas yet to come: “I will honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year.” At the close of his tale, Dickens says that Ebenezer Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.”

For some reason, we never talk this way about Easter. When Christmas comes around, we remind ourselves of the need to observe it all year like old Scrooge. We celebrate the Christmas spirit, but we seem to know nothing about the Spirit of Easter. Christmas is magical. But Easter is just a memory and a somber one at that. Christmas, even though it comes in winter, is all warmth and firelight. Easter arrives with spring, and like spring comes with a different quality of light. It is colder somehow.

If you doubt this, look at how artists have depicted each event down through the centuries. Their portraits of the nativity have a coziness that Easter lacks. We are charmed by the sight of the mother and babe, surrounded by animals and rough shepherds who bend their knees in adoration. The artistic vision of Easter is more spare somehow. Our observance of the two holidays also reflects the difference. Christmas announces its approach for weeks with colored lights, a mountain of gifts, and endless parties. We are sad to see it go. Contrast this with Easter, who arrives suddenly with a sheepish grin bearing only a ham and a few jellied candies.

Part of our problem is that we tend to separate the Nativity and Easter in our thinking. We know they are both moves in the larger story of Christ’s life. But to us, each has its own distinct atmosphere. In the church’s message, however, they are inseparably linked. Each was necessary to accomplish Christ’s purpose. If we remove one of them, they both cease to have meaning. Galatians 4:4–5 tells us that: “. . . when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. . . .” The birth of Christ sets the stage for Good Friday. Without the incarnation, the work of the cross would be impossible. To redeem, Christ must first die for our sins. And to die for our sins, He must first be made like us.

Christ’s true humanity was necessary to our salvation because Jesus came not merely as a role model but primarily as a replacement. He came to die on our behalf as the only sacrifice that God will accept for sin. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But Christ’s birth and death were not enough. The nativity did indeed set the stage for Good Friday. Yet Good Friday without Easter is as meaningless as Christmas without the cross. Paul describes the blunt necessity for Christ’s resurrection this way in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” The resurrection is proof of Christ’s divinity. It is also evidence that God has accepted Christ’s payment on our behalf.

Still, the cross has a unique place in the church’s proclamation of the gospel and the believer’s life. Indeed, we might say that the key to living the Christian life is the secret of keeping the cross in view. Paul told the Corinthians that he had not come to them with eloquence or human wisdom as he proclaimed to them the testimony about God: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Even though Paul’s gospel included the birth of Christ and the resurrection, he labeled it “the message of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18).

The cross has a unique place in the believer’s life.

More than this, Paul assigned the cross of Christ a critical role in enabling believers to live the Christian life. He pointed to the cross as God’s solution for the guilt of sin and its practice. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin,” he explains in Romans 6:6–7. The cross is a historical event that exerts a kind of power in the believer’s life. But the power of the cross does not work on its own. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the cross to bear on our sinful nature. We do not overcome the pull of sin by relying on willpower but something far more potent. Those who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” also “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Through the cross and the Spirit’s enablement, we find a permanent solution to the problem of sin. It begins with forgiveness. The blood of Christ shed on the cross pays the penalty for all our sins. The word that we sometimes use to describe this is atonement. Atonement is a payment that satisfies God’s wrath, and the only price that God will accept for sin is the one He has made Himself. Christ “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). The result is a change in our relationship with God and a change in our nature. Instead of being God’s enemies, we become His friends and children. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” We also become different people, or as Scripture puts it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:16). The Holy Spirit empowers those who receive Christ’s righteousness, enabling them to put that righteousness into practice. The word that we use to describe this aspect of the Christian life is sanctification. It is God’s work of making us holy.

How, then, do we keep the cross in view? It starts with something that the apostle Paul calls “reckoning” ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God (Rom. 6:11–12). This is an act of faith, where we take God at His word and accept as true all that He has said about our relationship to sin. Keeping the cross in view also calls for a response whenever we find ourselves drawn by the desire of sin. This response involves a conscious turning away from sin and a corresponding turn to Christ. Instead of allowing sin to rule over us as it once did, we offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13). Paul describes this as a kind of death. He tells us to: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). This is simply the act of saying no to ourselves and our impulses where sin is concerned. It is an act that assumes that Christ’s death has made a difference in us. We really can say no.

The Dickensian world of Scrooge appeals to us because it suggests that all we need to deal with sin are good intentions and noble effort. This message appeals to our human vanity and spiritual pride. But painful experience has shown us otherwise. Such an approach only leads to the kind of seasonal change that Dickens envisions in his tale. It is not deliverance from sin, but at best, a brief holiday. The cross promises something more. Here is the great difference between Charles Dickens’ notion of “keeping Christmas” and the Bible’s message of new life in Christ. For Dickens, Jesus Christ was primarily a moral example. To “keep Christmas” was to remember His goodness and try to imitate it. The forces at work in Ebenezer Scrooge’s fictional transformation are mostly guilt and fear. But the change that comes through the gospel operates on a very different level. It is a real, not a fictional change, that works through faith and hope instead of guilt and fear.

Gospel transformation begins with faith in Christ’s death and resurrection as the basis for our hope that we can live a different kind of life. Nowhere in Scripture does Christ tell us to “keep Christmas.” He doesn’t tell us to “keep Easter” either. What He does tell us to do is to remember the cross. This is not something we only do on Good Friday. Nor is it limited to the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We keep the cross in view every time we say “yes” to God and “no” to sin.

A Piece of Work: Understanding the Human Condition

Usually, when someone calls you “a real piece of work,” it’s not a compliment. We say such things about those we think are odd or whose behavior is hard to understand. But in a famous soliloquy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Yet Hamlet’s opinion of humanity is mixed. He calls human beings “the beauty of the world” and “the paragon of animals.” But he also asks, “what is this quintessence of dust?”

These days it is common to treat human beings as if they were only high functioning animals. Humans are indeed creatures but the Bible teaches that we are much more. According to Genesis 1, human beings were the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Not only were they the last creatures made, but they were created in God’s image. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Made in God’s Image

Humans were not the only sentient beings God created. He also created the angels who dwell with Him in heaven. Likewise, the book of Genesis says that animals and humans have “the breath of life” in them and that this life comes from God (Gen. 1:30; 6:17; 7:17). According to the Psalmist, God made humans “a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). Yet of all God’s creatures, it is only human beings that Scripture says are made in God’s image.

What is this image? Not everyone has the same understanding of what this phrase means. Many early Christian theologians understood the divine image to be the power to reason. Others linked the idea of the divine image with various human faculties like spirituality or immortality. In the Genesis account, humanity’s creation in God’s image sets the stage for the divine mandate to increase in number, fill and subdue the earth, and to rule over the other creatures God has made “(Gen. 1:28). However we understand God’s image, it at least means that God made us in His likeness to represent His interests in the world. To do this, He created humanity to be male and female. Each complements the other as they share the same divine calling. Both reflect the divine image equally. The task of dominion is granted to both alike but the domain in which they exercise that dominion belongs to God

The Bible’s account of human origins takes a sharp turn in the third chapter of Genesis, which describes the fall of humanity into sin through disobedience. The primary agent in this tragic turn of events was Satan, a rebellious angel who took the form of a serpent and tempted Adam and Eve to eat from the forbidden tree (Gen. 3:1–6; cf. 2:15–17). The entrance of sin fundamentally changed humanity’s relation to God and to each other. The word the Bible uses to describe its primary consequence is death (Gen. 2:17). We think of death as the cessation of physical life. It is this, but it is also, first and foremost, a state of alienation from God. Those who are dead in sin are God’s enemies.

The Nature of Sin

Just as we tend to be limited in our thinking about death, we are also narrow in our view of sin. The popular measure used to determine what constitutes sin is movable. This incomplete view reduces many of the things we used to call sins to matters of bad taste or cultural insensitivity. Contemporary culture has removed many of the thoughts and practices that we used to call sins from the category of sin altogether. They are called “choices,” “alternative lifestyles,” or simply “mistakes.” The fatal flaw in these views is their exclusion of God. Where there is no God, there is no sin. That same flaw has corrupted our notion of virtue. Where there is no God, there can be no virtue or goodness, either. There are only privately or commonly held standards.

What renders an action a sin is that it is ultimately committed against God. David understood this. In Psalm 51:4, he declared, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” This is an astonishing statement, given the events that prompted it. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, after he learned that she had become pregnant. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.”

What, then, are we to do about the human problem of sin? Some people treat sin the same way they do high cholesterol. They know that if they ignore it, things will go badly. But they hope that if they take certain basic measures, it can be kept under control. Others think the solution is a matter of discipline. Those who treat sin as if it were a disease think it can be cured through treatment. Those who see sin as a lack of discipline believe it can be eliminated with education and training. But the Bible views sin differently. Sin is more than a disease or a failure of discipline. It is a condition of guilt and a deeply ingrained moral bent.

Sin is more than a disease or a failure of discipline.

Ever since Adam, human beings have been wired for sin. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul explains that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). God’s reason for binding the rest of humanity to Adam’s one act of disobedience was to open the door of forgiveness through the one man Jesus Christ. “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man,” the apostle goes on to observe, “how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 5:17).

Just as our union with Adam in his sin had a profound effect on the human condition, union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection also affects us. Adam introduced the dynamic of sin into human nature with its guilt and alienation. Jesus replaces this guilt with His own righteousness and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, enables those who are His to act out that righteousness in their daily lives. The word the Bible uses to describe this new relationship is justified. Romans 5:1–2 explains, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”

Just as If

Some have tried to explain justification by saying that it makes us “just as if we had never sinned.” Although this is a good start, it does not go far enough. Christ’s death on the cross does indeed take away our sin, rendering us guiltless in the eyes of God. But the work of Christ does more than restore us to the state Adam was in before he sinned. Because Jesus obeyed God perfectly as our substitute, His righteousness is also credited to us. It is not only “just as if I had never sinned,” but also “just as if I had perfectly obeyed.

How should we think about the human condition? The Bible tells us who and what we are. Humans are more than complex animals. They are creatures made in God’s image with a physical and spiritual nature and were created to act as His representatives in the world. Humans are also deeply flawed by what the Bible calls sin. This is both a condition of guilt and a natural inclination that alienates us from God and one another. All the ills we see in the world today can ultimately be traced to the problem of sin.

The hope of the Christian where sin is concerned is Jesus Christ. He is God’s answer for sin. Christ’s death paid the price for all our sin. Christ’s obedience earned our righteousness. His resurrection has made us  “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). All those who are in Jesus Christ exchange death for life. It is only because Christ has given us new life that we can live a new life.

Dangerous Virtues: Satisfaction-Coping With the Hunger that Cannot be Satisfied

I have been bothered by my weight most of my life. As a child, I was heavy, a condition which my mother euphemistically described as being “big-boned.” I was so obsessed with the fear of being fat that even when I thinned out in my adolescence, I did not think of myself as thin. I am no longer thin, and I am still bothered. I am not alone. According to some estimates, forty-five million Americans go on a diet each year. In our weight-conscious culture, you would think that we would have a greater sensitivity to the sin the Bible calls gluttony. The truth is most of us wouldn’t recognize a glutton if he swallowed us whole. We certainly wouldn’t be able to tell whether we are gluttons, and the mirror will not help us. That’s because gluttony isn’t really about one’s weight.

Gluttony is essentially a sin of inordinate appetite. The ancients measured gluttony by the amount of food one consumed. The Christian ascetics viewed hunger as both a virtue and a tool. They seem to have believed that it was better to be hungry than to be full. They thought that hunger and thirst could be employed to bring all the bodily passions into submission. Most moderns do not think that the consumption of either food or drink belongs in the category of sin. We are, however, willing to admit that people have psychological problems in these areas. In the twentieth century, the church’s perspective on eating changed from the ancient practice of fasting for the spirit to the modern habit of dieting for health.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler
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Gluttony is not a matter of body size. It is a sin of consumption. Gluttony is to food what lust is to sex. Gluttony distorts and magnifies bodily appetite until appetite becomes an end in itself. Food, drink, indeed, all our ordinary bodily appetites are part of God’s design. But what exactly is His design for our hunger? Functionally, appetite is a means to an end. Proverbs 16:26 says, “The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.” This proverb echoes Genesis 3:17–19, where the link between toil and eating is a consequence of sin. But the proverb reveals the complementary benefit that comes from this connection. Hunger is a motivator that drives us to work. We work because we do not want to go hungry (see 2 Thess. 3:10). Hunger also motivates us to take in the sustenance we require for life. But, similar to the curse of Genesis, hunger has two sides. Like work, hunger existed before the fall. As was the case with the first temptation, ordinary hunger can be a gateway to inordinate appetite. Part of the appeal of the forbidden fruit was that it was “good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Sin has the same effect on all our bodily appetites. Hunger can be a motivation, but it can also be a master. Just as sin distorted God’s design for work by introducing an element of drudgery into its execution, our hunger can make us slaves.

Slavery to food can take many forms. For some, this bondage expresses itself in a variety of eating disorders. Binge eating, starvation, and binge eating followed by purging are destructive coping methods for dealing with perfectionism and low self-esteem often related to body image. By eating (or not eating), those with eating disorders attempt to heal themselves or make themselves feel better. Food plays an increasingly larger role until it becomes the central focus of life. For others, bondage to food is reflected in an unhealthy, almost paralyzing, fussiness when it comes to eating. In Paul’s day, this was usually a result of misguided religious conviction. In 1 Timothy 4:3, the apostle warns that the last days will be marked by false teachers who demand that their followers live an ascetic lifestyle. They will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.” Likewise, in Colossians 2:21, he speaks of those whose rule of life was comprised mainly of prohibitive regulations, which he summarizes in the three commands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

Slavery to food can take many forms.

According to the apostle, a combination of ignorance and pride fueled this bankrupt approach to spirituality. Those who adopted its practices thought that they could obtain eternal life by keeping traditions that focused on “things that are all destined to perish with use” (Col. 3:22). Today’s culinary aesthetes are more liable to be driven by a political and social agenda than a religious one, but their spirit is the same, and Paul’s directive to the Colossian church equally applies: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink” (Col 3:16). Righteousness is not a matter of one’s dietary preferences. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (Rom. 14:17).

In an affluent culture like ours, eating is not just a necessity; it is also a form of recreation. This leads to another type of bondage when it comes to food. Some people are fussy about what they eat because they scorn simple fare. Every meal must be a grand experience. These people view their food the way others look at their possessions. Only the rarest and most expensive will do. Their problem is not that they eat good food but that they view ordinary food, along with those who eat it, with contempt. Their diet is a symptom of greed and pride. They are addicted not to food but to luxury. In the book of Revelation, this is the fare of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 18:3).

Does this mean that it is a sin to enjoy our food? Are we acting unchristianly if we eat a meal at an expensive restaurant? The Bible teaches that the enjoyment of food is a gift from God. One of the ways God shows His love to the world at large is by supplying us with food.  Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

The mistake of gluttony is the error of thinking that appetite is the gateway to satisfaction. In reality, it is the opposite. Hunger by its very nature can never be entirely satisfied. Ecclesiastes 6:7 observes, “Everyone’s toil is for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied.” Satisfy your hunger with a meal now, and a few hours later that hunger will return. There is nothing to be done about it. When eating becomes an end in itself, it turns into a kind of slavery (1 Cor. 6:12–13). Gluttony conflates desire with satisfaction, expecting more from food than it can supply. The glutton does not eat to live but lives to eat. In reality, our appetites are merely signposts which point to a hunger that cannot be filled by any human means. They point out our emptiness and our need for God. When we look to earthly means to fully and finally satisfy ourselves, we become those whose “god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:19).

Jesus’ perspective on eating was personal and practical. Scripture says that Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). He taught the church to ask for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:11). Ordinary food played an important role in Jesus’ ministry just as bread was a central image in His teaching. The connection between food and Jesus’ ministry should not surprise us. He lived in a culture in which worship and eating were connected. Jesus made communal eating a part of the sacred life of the church. At the same time, Jesus taught that life is more than food (Luke 12:23). Food is necessary for life but is not itself life. We do not live by bread alone (Matt. 4:4). Life is more than food just as the body is more than clothing. Food is necessary for life but is not synonymous with life. The power of Jesus’ teaching on this matter is grounded in His assumption that food is needful. We need to eat, but when we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

When we conflate life with the means we rely upon to sustain that life we set the table for idolatry.

It does not have to be food. We can rely upon our health or finances or even clothing. Like the Israelites who worshiped the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness, we forget that our life does not come from the things that God uses to sustain it (2 Kings 18:4). How then do we deal with gluttony? The primary method the Bible prescribes is self-denial. “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” the writer of Proverbs warns. “Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Prov. 23:1–3). Self-denial is not an end in itself. By practicing self-denial, we discover how God supplies all we truly need.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but food is an important part of our earthly life. Eating has played a vital role in the worship as well as the ordinary fellowship of the church, and it will continue to be part of our experience in the life to come. As important as food is, it was never meant to be an end in itself. The basic rule when it comes to our eating is the same rule that guides us in all of life: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Help My Unbelief

The first believers I knew talked a lot about faith. As far as I could tell from what they said, faith was a variable commodity. Some had more and others less. The difference mattered since the results one might expect from God depended upon the amount of faith one was able to muster. Perhaps that’s why we spent so much of our time declaring our faith. When it came to prayer, it seemed that quantity was associated with volume. The more faith we wanted to prove that we had, the louder we prayed. I am not sure who we were trying to reassure more. Was it for God’s benefit or ours? It did not seem to make a difference either way. I felt no more certain no matter what the volume, while God did not seem to give my loud prayers any more attention than my soft.

In those days, it also seemed to me that the measure of one’s faith was determined by the size of the request. I thought faith was a muscle and praying was like weight training. The more you exercised it, the greater it grew. The larger the request, the greater the faith. I decided that my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold. I decided that if I was going to become a person of faith, I needed to believe God for greater things.

I decided my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold.

About that time, my mother’s health failed. She grew so weak that my father had to carry her to the car and drive her to the hospital. The doctors performed exploratory surgery, and she grew worse. I stood at her bedside and prayed that God would heal her. She died instead. I prayed that God would raise her from the dead, the way that Christ called Lazarus from the grave. The casket remained closed. In the months after my mother’s death, my father’s alcoholism worsened. I prayed that God would deliver him from bondage. His alcoholism eventually killed him.

But this is a one-sided picture. It leaves out all the prayers that God did answer, requests both great and trivial. They seem to fade in my memory. Somehow, it is the refusals that stick. Perhaps I don’t want to think about the others because they remind me how often I have been anxious about trivial matters. Each time I have asked for bread, the Father has never given me a stone. Or maybe it is because listening to the full scope of my requests is an uncomfortable reminder of how shrill my voice often sounds when I cry out to God. I may come into God’s presence kneeling like a petitioner, but I speak to Him as if He were a servant. My requests sound more like demands. I sometimes wonder why I even have to ask at all. Why doesn’t God just give me what I want?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites His disciples to make requests of their Heavenly Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” Jesus says. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus signals the Father’s welcome by piling on imperatives of invitation: “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like. Before we can receive we must ask. Before we find we will need to seek. Before we may enter we must knock.

“Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges us. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like.

There is a hint of persistence in all of this. For some things, we must ask and keep on asking. We will seek for some time before we find what we want. We will knock, and the door will not swing open for us at once. Nevertheless, Jesus invites all those who are His to bring their requests. The quiet reminder of our need to persist, which is implied in both the word choice and the verb tense, is meant to relieve our fears. Delay does not always signify refusal and refusal is not necessarily a rejection. Like any parent, the fact that our Heavenly Father does not always give us what we want does not mean that He does not love us.

It is a mistake to measure our faith based on the size of the request. It is equally a mistake to place our confidence in the measure of our faith. Some of us have more faith than others. But if prayer is a lever, it is God who acts as the fulcrum. The power of faith depends upon God not on the size of our request. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). The thing we ask of God, whether it is great or small, is not the object of our faith. Our faith rests in God.

God is not the object of our faith either. God is not an object at all. We are in a relationship with Him. When we objectify God, we turn Him into an idol. Jesus condemned the objectification of God in prayer when He warned about the babbling of pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayer does not work like magic. You cannot recite a formula and compel God to do what you want. Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal. Even a child can refuse, though there are often consequences. It is only the slave who cannot refuse, and God will be no one’s slave.

Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal.

Of course, this may offer only cold comfort to those for whom God’s answer is no. Given a choice between a genuine relationship with God and the thing we want, many of us would choose the thing. A relationship seems like small compensation compared to health or love or that job we had hoped to get. We aren’t exactly mercenaries where God is concerned, but we are often little better. We are like the crowd that came looking for Jesus on the other side of the lake after He had fed the multitude. “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” Jesus chided. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). When the crowd asked Jesus what kind of work He had in mind, His answer to them was faith. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

Well, we do believe. Or at least, we want to believe. We want to believe enough to get what we want. I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them. Instead, my prayers sound more the man in Mark 9 who brought his demon tormented son to the disciples. “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid” the man told Jesus. “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them.

I can easily imagine a note of reproach in the man’s voice. “What kind of slipshod operation are you running here, Jesus?” the man seems to say. But Jesus refuses to accept the blame. “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus says, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” To whom is this rebuke directed? Is Jesus speaking to the father? Is He criticizing the disciples? The answer is that Jesus seems to be talking to both.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence. They seemed to have plenty of confidence. They were as surprised as anyone that their attempt to help the boy had failed. Later on, when they were out of earshot the crowd, they asked Jesus to tell them where they had gone wrong. “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” they asked. “This kind can come out only by prayer” Jesus replied. So if the disciples hadn’t attempted to drive the demon out with prayer, what had they done? At least in this instance, theirs was a faith without reference to God. Indeed, this wasn’t faith at all. It was confidence. They had cast out demons before. They could do it again. They thought they had this.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence.

Once in Jesus’ presence, the demon threw the boy into a convulsion. He rolled around on the ground and foamed at the mouth. Sounding like a doctor, Jesus questioned the father about the boy’s condition. “How long has he been like this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

If I were writing the story, Jesus would give His bumbling disciples a sidelong glance to remind them of their failure. He would say something compassionate to the father and command the demon to depart. Instead, Jesus reproves the father. “‘If you can’?” Jesus says. “‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’”

I see myself in the father. Only my point of doubt is slightly different. It is not “if you can” but “if you will.” I know that Jesus can. I’m just not sure that He will. Especially when it comes to those things that I have been praying about for a long time and haven’t seen any evidence of His interest in my case. The father’s prayer is also my own. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Here is the measure of faith that God seeks. It is not great faith, equal to the size of the request that we are making. It is not even perfect faith, one that is unmixed with any doubt. It is not self-confidence. If anything, it is the opposite. To me, this man’s request is the purest form of prayer. It is not the blustering assurance of the apostles. Nor is it the scolding complaint of the father in His first approach. This is the cry of the helpless.

God does not scorn our requests, but He will not be manipulated by them either. We cannot use faith as a lever to force God to do our bidding. We cannot bully God with our prayers or make Him feel guilty. Indeed, Jesus has assured us that such measures are not needed. “Do not be like them,” Jesus says when He compares the prayer of faith to the prayer pagans, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

Here, then, is what faith looks like. Faith is trust. It is the assurance of a child who relies on a parent to provide what is needed. Faith is a trust, which does not always make us feel comfortable, but which is nevertheless convinced that God ultimately knows what is best and that He will do what is right. Faith is our helpless reliance upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.