When Suffering Doesn’t Make Sense 

Article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner 

Suffering is largely a mystery to me. 

While God’s grace and presence have been unimaginably rich in my pain, I still don’t understand why particular believers who love God endure loss after loss until they feel hopeless and confused, covered in darkness. I don’t understand why people who have not strayed from God’s path, but are looking to him in all things, feel defeated and dragged into the dust. I don’t understand why God’s people, whom he treasures and protects, are led like sheep to the slaughter. 

And I’m not alone in my bewilderment. The Bible reiterates that the reasons for suffering can be mysterious and confusing, and from our vantage, incomprehensible. In the opening scene of the book of Job, for instance, we are taken into heaven and are witnesses to a dialogue between Satan and God. We realize from their interchange that there is much more happening in suffering than any of us can see, for sure in Job’s life but also in ours (Ephesians 6:12). God has his purposes, which are for both our good and his glory, though we may not understand them until heaven. Until then, we live with a seeming paradox: that God is both sovereign and good and yet his people can still suffer unthinkable loss, even when they are faithfully trusting him. 

Psalm 44 reflects on a similar tension. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding its writing, but we do know that the Israelites felt abandoned by God. The psalmist speaks directly to God about their baffling pain in the face of his unparalleled power and past deliverance. He boldly cries out to God, pouring out his questions and doubts, trusting God enough to honestly come before him. It’s a psalm for those who trust God but have more questions than answers in suffering. 

Not by Our Own Arm 

The psalm begins with praise, acknowledging God’s goodness and faithfulness to his people in days of old. In verses 1–8, the psalmist declares that their ancestors flourished and defeated their enemies not because of their skill, but because of God’s intervention. God delighted in Israel and put their enemies to shame, and his people praised his name. It was all God’s doing, as verse 3 says: 

Not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them. 

Then the psalmist reiterates his present faithfulness to God. He doesn’t trust in his own resources, in his sword and bow, but it is only through God that they can be victorious. And they will boast in God and give thanks to him forever. 

But then the psalm takes a turn. In verses 9–16, the psalmist says that God was the one who had engineered their subsequent disgrace and defeat: 

You have rejected us and disgraced us. . . . You have made us turn back from our foes. . . . You have made us like sheep for slaughter. . . . You have made us the taunt of our neighbors . . . a laughingstock among the peoples. 

The Israelites recognized that their suffering came directly from God. They did not understand why it happened, but they knew where it came from. They understood that God forms light and creates darkness; he makes well-being and creates calamity (Isaiah 45:7). He acts and no one can turn it back. 

Like Sheep to Be Slaughtered 

In verses 17–22, the psalmist maintains that God’s actions were not because the Israelites had sinned. They had not forgotten God or worshiped idols or willfully disobeyed him, but rather were faithful and true to God’s covenant. Their hearts had not turned back, nor had their feet strayed from the path. And yet God still broke them. 

Verse 22 is a final word defending their innocence and obedience: “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” In other words, “We are trusting you, Lord, and we are dying for you. Rather than rescuing us, you are behind our earthly destruction.” That may be the cry of martyrs around the world today, who are proclaiming God’s love while being led to their death. And it may be the lament of faithful Christians who are struggling with terminal cancer, unending pain, and precipitous loss. Our lives are in God’s hands, and we are being crushed. 

“God can never forget his people, for they are carved on the palms of his hands.” 

This feels shocking. That God would willingly lead us as sheep to be slaughtered when we are faithfully serving him can make us wonder if he cares about us at all. Which makes it even more surprising that Paul would quote this verse in Romans 8:36, as an example of how we can never be separated from God’s love. The implication is that when we are at our lowest — feeling abandoned by God and growing increasingly hopeless — God is actually lavishing his love on us. He is making us more than conquerors in the place where we’ve been tasting bitter defeat and can’t sense his presence. 

While we associate the times of abundance and success with God’s favor, Paul is reminding us that God’s love is as strong as ever when we are facing despair and even death. The psalmist mourned that God had rejected and crushed them, implying that God was against them, but Paul reframes that perspective for Christians, asserting that even in our darkest moments — especially in our darkest moments? — God is working for our good. 

Who Can Be Against Us? 

Paul’s direct reference to Psalm 44 demonstrates that when we feel God doesn’t care and is indifferent to the plight of the faithful, we’re dead wrong. God couldn’t be more for us. 

The quote is sandwiched between Paul’s stunning declaration that, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32), and his magnificent proclamation that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us because nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:37–39). 

We may live with lingering questions about our suffering. Many questions may go unanswered, particularly the haunting question of Why? We can trust that God has reasons (perhaps ten thousand reasons), although we may not see or understand many of them in this life. But the overarching reason lies in the glorious truth of Romans 8:31–39. While we may see only in part now, we can trust that all that God does is out of his incomparable and unfathomable love for us. 

Our Great Hope in the Valley 

The psalmist concludes by directly asking God for help, saying, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!” (Psalm 44:23). When Jesus was asleep in a boat amidst a perilous storm, the disciples wondered if he cared about them. After Jesus calmed the storm, he asked them why they’d been afraid (Mark 4:35–41). Jesus knew exactly what was happening. But like the disciples, when God isn’t acting, we may wonder if he doesn’t know or doesn’t care, both of which are impossible. 

“When God isn’t acting, we may wonder if he doesn’t know or doesn’t care, both of which are impossible.” 

The psalmist then exclaims, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24). Those are the questions we ask God. Why can’t we see his face? Why isn’t he doing anything about what is happening? We can feel the agony of the psalmist on behalf of those who feel abandoned, lying prostrate in the dust. Yet the reassuring truth is that God can never forget his people, for they are carved on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16). 

Psalm 44 closes with this plea: “Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:26). He is appealing to God for rescue, not based on their own faithfulness, but on the character of God and his unfailing love. As we see in Romans 8, it all comes back to God’s love. 

This psalm is a beautiful lament for those of us who wonder where God is in our suffering. God is the one who has helped us in the past, and God is the one who is letting us suffer now. Yet as Paul weaves Psalm 44:22 into Romans 8, we see that God is pouring out his love for us even as we are being led as sheep to the slaughter. God bids us to cry out to him, voicing our questions and detailing our anguish, while trusting in his steadfast love — even, and perhaps especially, in the face of suffering that doesn’t make sense. 

Vaneetha Rendall Risner is the author of Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption. Vaneetha and her husband Joel live in Raleigh, NC, where she writes at her website, encouraging readers to turn to Christ in their pain. 

Humbly Handling the Reality That the Christian Gospel Can Be ‘Offensive’ to Non-Christians   

Taken from an interview with John Piper (This is really good 😊) 

Non-believers sometimes feel the gospel is offensive or extreme because we say Jesus is the truth and only way to heaven. I have had people reply by saying, ‘So are you saying my religion is fake or I will go to hell when I die? All religions teach “good” things. We should respect all religions.’ So how should we handle such a reply, especially the latter comment about ‘respecting all religions.’ 

I think the first thing to say is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the Bible presents it, is offensive, and it is extreme until God opens the eyes of the heart and calls people out of darkness of rebellion into the light of faith. 

Age-Old Responses 

For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23–24

We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 

The words stumbling block and foolishness are very similar to the accusation that the gospel is offensive and extreme, and it is true — until the calling of God opens their eyes to see the good news. We need to settle it in our hearts that we are willing to be criticized and even persecuted by bringing the best news in all the world, and having it characterized as foolishness. That has happened everywhere the gospel has been preached for two thousand years. Some believe and rejoice in the gospel as the greatest news in the world. Others do not see it, and regard it as the height of arrogance. 

So we must understand and accept that that some people stumble over the claim that Jesus is the truth and the only way to heaven. And I think one helpful way to relate to this criticism, before you hear it and after you hear it, is to communicate the amazement that God would supply any way of salvation — not that he didn’t supply ten, but that he would supply any way of salvation to be reconciled with him. 

In other words, Christians should shift the amazement away from the fact that there is only one, to the fact that there is one. There is one! This should stun the Christian if it doesn’t stun the unbeliever. And that sense of amazement might affect the conversation, because I think often they feel we are coming with this smug sense that we have got only one thing. Are you kidding me? God Almighty stepped into the world to save sinners. 

The apostle Paul was unashamed to walk into Athens, with all of its deities and all of its competing religious allegiances, and preach like this in Acts 17:30–32

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 

So the response he got is the kind of response we can expect everywhere: some mock, and some are interested. 

Responding with the Greatest News 

When people pose objections with Christianity as offensive and extreme because it claims Jesus is the only way to God…it makes me think that perhaps the most helpful thing to draw attention to would be that Christianity is a different kind of thing than religion. Christianity is news. It is news about a historical event, just like you would say, “Did you hear what happened last week?” That is not a religion; namely, the incarnation of the Son of God, his life, his death for sins, his removal of the wrath of God, his dying, his resurrection. It includes his triumph over death and hell and sin and Satan. 

And so the provision for reconciliation and salvation and eternal life with God was brought about by this great work of Jesus Christ in history. Jesus is alive, ruling in heaven today. He will come back unexpectedly to earth and judge the living and the dead. This is not a religion. This is news of God’s action in history to save rebellious human beings who do not glorify God by trusting and loving and worshiping and obeying him. 

‘Is My Religion Fake?’ 

So how should we respond if somebody says, So you are saying my religion is fake? Well, one response would be to use the analogy of someone who comes to the hospital with a book of sayings and someone who comes with an antibiotic to help the person who is dying of pneumonia. 

Now the little book of sayings is not a fake medicine. It is not a medicine at all. It is another kind of thing. But another person comes with an antibiotic. This is a medicine. The aim is to save the patient from death. One person has a book of sayings to help the person live well until they die. Another person has a medicine to save the person from death. It is not a matter of what is fake. They are two different kinds of things. That is the way it is with Christianity and all world religions. It is another kind of thing. 

‘Am I Going to Hell?’ 

What about responding to the statement, Are you saying I will go to hell when I die? You might respond by saying that he whole point of the Christian religion is that all people are going to hell when we die. We are all going to hell. We all deserve God’s judgment because of our sin. You will not go to hell because of your religion. If you go to hell, it would be the same reason I would go to hell: We are both sinners. We have both offended God. We have both failed to love him and trust him and honor him and glorify him and obey him. And therefore, our sin is infinite because his honor is infinite. You and I are in the same condition. Hell is not about religion; it is about God’s justice and his response in justice to all of us who have failed to glorify and thank him. And then, against that backdrop, you declare that, nevertheless, God, in great love and at great cost, has entered into our misery in order to rescue anyone who believes in his Son. 

‘Isn’t Religion Good?’ 

And then if someone says, Doesn’t all religion teach good things?* the response is certainly yes. But this, again, is a confusion of categories. Christianity does not offer itself to the world mainly as a superior set of teachings. It offers itself to the world as a message, as news about a redemption and a resurrection and an eternal life in history through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. 

We don’t need to get bogged down in arguing which religion has better teachings. The issue is: Who has a historical intervention of God into this world to bear the sins of man, so that salvation can come to undeserving people? That is the question. And only Christianity has that message. 

‘Shouldn’t We Respect All Religions?’ 

And it is the same with our response to the last statement: We should respect all religion. Well, one could say it depends on what a religion claims to be. If it claims to have a better remedy for man’s greatest problem, we want to hear it and respect it. Christianity is not first a set of religious practices and ethical teachings that demands respect. It is news, the best news in the world about the coming of the Son of God into the world to bear the sins of man and absorb the wrath of God and reconcile rebels to their Creator. 

So the sum of the matter in relating to people of other religions is: Keep bringing the conversation back to the biggest problem humans face: the wrath of God because of our sin. The greatest question is: Has God done something in history so that our sins can be forgiven and his wrath can be averted and undeserving people like us Christians can have eternal life? So it is not about a superior religious set of practices or teachings. It is about: Has God acted to reconcile rebels to himself? 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

What’s the Center of Christian Growth? 

(Taken from an interview provided by John Piper)

Scripture gives us a constellation of ways to think of the Christian life as to our ‘walk of faith’ in the objective to be faithful and please God with our life as relates to our ‘maturation process’ and what we refer to as our personal ‘sanctification’ process.  So the question posed is this:  Is the key to personal sanctification more about ‘looking to Jesus,’ as Hebrews 12:2 says? Or is it more about being united ‘to him who has been raised from the dead,’ as Romans 7:4 puts it? Or is it mostly about ‘beholding’ Christ’s glory, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it? Or is it more about just obeying and doing the ‘work of faith,’ as 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says? 

Taking these different parts of Scripture — they use very different language — and asking, “Are there deep, common, unified, coherent realities here?”  

So let’s see if I can weave these four strands together into some kind of cord that God might use to bring us along in our pursuit of sanctification. That’s what they’re designed for, and I think that God our Father is very pleased when we try to put the different parts of his word together in order to see the common realities behind them, even when different words are used to describe those realities. 

One Great Work of God 

The realities in these four passages of Scripture would include these (I just made a list of them as I read these passages): 

  • God 
  • word of God 
  • Christ 
  • death of Christ 
  • glory of Christ 
  • law of God 
  • faith in Christ 
  • faith in his word 
  • hope 
  • joy 
  • Christian freedom 
  • the Holy Spirit 
  • human resolve 

All of those are realities, and they are all at work in these passages, and they are not doing contradictory things. 

There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy, making us sanctified, more Christlike. Different texts focus on different ones of these realities, but none of them leads us in a direction that would in any way contradict the other passages. We’ve misunderstood the text if one text is sending us off in a direction that flies in the face of the other passages. So, let me take them one at a time and just see if I can draw out some of the common connections. 

Looking to Jesus 

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2

So in this text, “looking to Jesus” is given as the means by which we run our race with endurance. That race, of course, includes becoming holy, staying on the narrow racetrack to the end. And when we look to Jesus, we see three things that affect our running. 

First, he’s called “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” which means he has done the decisive work in dying and rising and sitting down at the right hand of God. Because of Christ, our faith is well-founded and well-finished. It’s as good as done. In other words, because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith. 

“Because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.” 

Second, we look to Christ as inspiring our endurance because of his endurance — enduring the cross. He ran his race successfully through suffering. This emboldens us to run our race through suffering. 

And third, when we look to Jesus, he shows us how he ran his race. He says he ran it “for the joy that was set before him.” Therefore, the key to our endurance is to stand on that finished work of Christ and be confident that all-satisfying joy is just over the horizon. He’s going to finish it. He’s going to bring us great joy. That’s how we keep going, because that’s how he kept going. 

So this confidence in the joy that is set before us is called, in Hebrews, faith. In the chapter just before, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the joy hoped for. Faith is the foretaste, the substance (Hebrews 11:1). Right now you can taste it — the foretaste of the joy of the promise of God, over and over. In Hebrews 11, the saints obey by faith — that is, this faith, this confident hope of a joyful future, is the key to their obedience, just like it was the key to Jesus’s obedience. So that’s the picture, and that’s the reality of how we are sanctified, in Hebrews 12. 

New Way of the Spirit 

Now here’s Romans 7:46

You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. 

Now, the new reality that Paul introduces here that wasn’t in Hebrews 12 is the fact that when Christ died, we died. Specifically, we died to the law. We were released from law-keeping as the way of getting right with God, as the way of ongoing fellowship with God. 

That’s new, right? Nothing was said about the law in Hebrews 12:1–2. So Paul is coming at sanctification with a different problem in view: not the need for endurance through suffering — that’s the issue in Hebrews; that’s not the issue here — but the need for liberation from law-keeping. That’s the issue here. How do we relate to God? How do we become holy without law-keeping as the foundation for our lives (because that we died to)? 

And the other new reality that Paul introduces in Romans 7:4 is the Holy Spirit. He says that we “have died to the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6) And that wasn’t in Hebrews. 

And I would say that this new way of the Spirit is precisely the way of Hebrews 12, describing the Christian life — namely, the life of faith in the promises of God to fulfill us, to fill us with hope for future joy. That’s the new way of the Spirit in Romans 7. That’s the alternative to law-keeping as a way of walking with God. So, they are complementary texts, coming at sanctification from two very different angles. 

Beholding the Glory of Christ 

Third, 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this text, Paul combines the reality of the Holy Spirit (mentioned in Romans 7) and the reality of looking to Jesus (mentioned in Hebrews 12). And he adds the realities of glory and freedom, neither of which had been mentioned explicitly in those other two texts, but are mentioned here. So he says, 

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18

What this text adds to the “new way of the Spirit,” described in Hebrews 12 and Romans 7, is that looking to Jesus in Hebrews 12 means not only seeing him as enduring the cross, but seeing him as glorious in all that he’s done. 

The focus is on how beautiful and glorious and magnificent he is — and finding that glory so riveting, so satisfying, that it has the effect of transforming us. We tend to take on the traits of those we most admire. This is freedom, because it happens by the Spirit as a natural process. 

This is what Paul called “bearing fruit for God” in Romans 7. Faith and hope and joy are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, but I would say that they are implied in the phrase “beholding the glory of the Lord.” I think that transforming “beholding” is the sight of faith. That’s the way faith sees Christ. Faith beholds the beauty of Christ. Faith finds joy in him when it looks at him and all that God promises to be for us in him. And by beholding him that way, faith transforms. And that’s sanctification. 

Work of Faith 

One more, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where Paul says, “May [God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” So in the process of sanctification, we do make resolves. Yes, we do. We intend things. We will things. We exercise our will. But Paul says that all of these volitional actions are works of faith by God’s power. In other words, we are back in the realm of God’s empowering Spirit. We work by trusting God’s promise that he is at work in us. 

I think if you bore into the actual reality of these four descriptions of sanctification, you will find they are deeply unified and mutually illuminating. It’s a thrilling thing to meditate on the realities of Scripture until we see how beautifully they cohere. 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

Your Darkness Is Not Dark to Him 

Article by Jon Bloom, staff writer, desiringGod.org 

When my daughter Eliana was 6 years old, I wrote her a lullaby that included these words: 

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me. 

These four lines are packed with profound meaning for me. I rarely can sing them without tears. They refer to an extended season of what Christians call spiritual darkness, or a dark night of the soul, or a faith crisis, which I experienced the year before Eliana was born. 

Since I told this story in some detail a number of years ago, I won’t recount it all here. I do, however, want to recount the moment God brought light into my night, because it was a transformational moment when I experienced the biblical truth David describes in Psalm 139: 

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:11–12

I say it was a transformational moment, not merely because light pierced my darkness, but because it drove home David’s poetic point: that just because “the light about [us] be night” and we, for various reasons, lose sight of God, it does not mean the Light is gone. In this moment, I experienced that God really is faithful to keep his promise to be with us when we walk through the valley of deep darkness (Psalm 23:4) — whether we perceive him or not. 

Though the Night Falls 

One spring day in 1997, for reasons too complex and distracting to describe now, God, who had been the Sun of my world since my youth, suddenly became eclipsed in the sky of my spiritual sight. I couldn’t perceive him at all. Existential darkness covered me; the light about me was night (Psalm 139:11). And my faith was in a full-fledged crisis. 

This terrifying experience was foreign to me. But as I desperately ransacked the Bible and books searching for answers, it quickly became clear that this experience wasn’t foreign to saints in Scripture. 

In one sense, this should have been clear to me prior to this crisis, given how often I had read the descriptions of dark nights like mine in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and so on. But in another sense, it’s understandable why it wasn’t. When we haven’t personally experienced such disorienting blackouts (and the disturbing doubts that typically accompany them), it’s almost impossible to imagine what “darkness without any light” is really like (Lamentations 3:2). 

Now, I found myself walking through a “valley of deep darkness” (Psalm 23:4). I found myself praying with Heman the Ezrahite, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (Psalm 88:6). I found myself crying out with David in desperation, 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2

And I found myself wondering what incomprehensible darkness covered Jesus when he made this desperate cry. 

“God sometimes ordains dismayingly dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes.” 

The Holy Spirit used my darkness to illuminate for me the Bible’s clear witness that, for various and deeply good reasons, God sometimes ordains dismaying dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes. And God had provided these scriptural witnesses to help people like me “not be surprised at the fiery trial . . . as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Their experiences gave me a frame of reference as I sought to navigate my way in the dark. 

And We Cannot See 

Navigation, in fact, became a helpful metaphor to me during this time. To explain what I mean, let’s look at David’s description of spiritual darkness with more context: 

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
     Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
     If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
     and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
     and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7–12

In beautiful poetry, David says that it doesn’t matter where he goes — whether to the dwelling of God or the dwelling of the dead, whether to the place where the sun rises or where it sets — God is there with him. And if we widen the lens to include Psalm 139:1–6, we’d hear David say God isn’t merely with him, but God fully knows him. God is acquainted with all of David’s ways, even his thoughts. When David is in such a dark place that God seems absent, God is fully present with him and fully cognizant of him. For there is no such thing as darkness to God. 

‘Various Trials’ Theological Seminary 

Why was David able to make such profound theological assertions? Because he received his theological education in the seminary of “various trials” (James 1:2), where his courses were “many dangers, toils, and snares” — and spiritual darkness. He practiced theology as if his life depended on it. 

So, when David exulted in God’s continual knowing and guiding presence, even when deep darkness descended, he wasn’t waxing poetic over some romantic ideal; he was speaking of a reality he had experienced. Hard-won experience had taught him to navigate life by trusting God’s reliable promises, not his unreliable perceptions and emotions — especially in the darkness. 

I remember when the thought “fly by the instruments” hit me while trying to figure out how to navigate my stormy darkness. When pilots fly planes into dense, dark clouds, they lose all points of perceptual reference. Their normally reliable perceptions suddenly can’t be trusted anymore, since they can feel like they’re flying horizontal and straight when they’re actually spiraling gradually toward the ground. Survival in this situation depends on trusting what the plane’s navigational instruments tell them over what their perceptions and emotions tell them. They must fly by the instruments. 

That’s what David learned in the realm of faith — and so must we. One of the hardest and most valuable lessons we learn during our stormy, cloudy, spiritual nights is to trust what the instruments of God’s promises tell us over what our perceptions and emotions tell us. Such seasons force us to exercise faith. Which is why so many faithful biblical saints learned to “walk by faith and not by sight” during seasons of great desperation (2 Corinthians 5:7). 

Why We Long for Light 

As necessary and valuable as it is for us to learn to trust God in the dark — that he’s with us and fully knows us when we cannot see — we still deeply and rightly desire to experience that truth. We long for God to “lighten [our] darkness” (Psalm 18:28) because “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We long for light because we long for God. 

“We long for light because we long for God.” 

And so, on Saturday, August 23, 1997, while alone in the house, I threw myself on the living-room floor and pleaded with God (again) for light and deliverance. I prayed something very specific: “Lord, if you just somehow whisper to me that you’re still there, and I’m your son, and this whole dark season is something you’re allowing for your good purposes, I think I can endure anything. All I need is for you to whisper to me that I’m your son!” 

And God answered. He answered in such way that all the attempts my inner skeptic has made to explain it as something other than an answered prayer seem so improbable as to be incredible. (If you’d like to know specifically how, I describe it here; in short, God spoke not through an audible whisper but through a friend directing me, unaware, to a specific passage of Scripture.) And when God answered, he brought light into my night. In his light I again saw light (Psalm 36:9). 

Then, quite unexpectedly, one more aspect to this story occurred, which only made it harder to explain away. 

When the Time Is Right 

Several months after these events, my wife and I joyfully discovered we were expecting our second child. When we found out we were expecting a girl, we began searching for the right name. We ended up choosing Eliana, which in Hebrew means my God answers. We chose it as a memorial to that moment of answered prayer. 

Eliana was born on Saturday, August 22, 1998. The day after her birth, I got to thinking, “It was somewhere around this time last year that God answered my prayer.” So, I got out my journal and realized Eliana had been born exactly 365 days after that answered prayer, on the corresponding Saturday one year later. A shiver of awe passed through me, and grateful praise filled my mouth. 

God had been faithful, not only to his promise to cause “light [to] dawn in [my] darkness” (Psalm 112:4), but also to his promise to be fully and attentively present in my darkness, even when I couldn’t perceive him. And that’s why, even 25 years later, it brings me to tears almost every time I sing, 

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me. 

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) serves as teacher and cofounder of Desiring God. He is author of three books, Not by SightThings Not Seen, and Don’t Follow Your Heart. He and his wife have five children and make their home in the Twin Cities. 

What Is Sin? The Essence and Root of All Sinning – Part 2

Taken from a message given at a conference in 2015:  John Piper 

Provided in Two Parts:  Today, Part 2

What Is the Deepest Root of Sin? 

A Definition of Sin 

So my definition of sinning is: Sinning is any feeling or thought or speech or action that comes from a heart that does not treasure God over all other things. And the bottom of sin, the root of all sinning, is such a heart — a heart that prefers anything above God, a heart that does not treasure God over all other persons and all other things. Or, as I once tried to express it in a message years ago. What is sin? Sin is: 

The glory of God not honored. 

The holiness of God not reverenced. 

The greatness of God not admired. 

The power of God not praised. 

The truth of God not sought. 

The wisdom of God not esteemed. 

The beauty of God not treasured. 

The goodness of God not savored. 

The faithfulness of God not trusted. 

The promises of God not believed. 

The commandments of God not obeyed. 

The justice of God not respected. 

The wrath of God not feared. 

The grace of God not cherished. 

The presence of God not prized. 

The person of God not loved. 

Why is it that people can become emotionally and morally indignant over poverty and exploitation and prejudice and abortion and the infractions of religious liberty and the manifold injustices of man against man, and yet feel little, or no, remorse or indignation or outrage that God is disregarded, disbelieved, disobeyed, dishonored, and thus belittled, by millions and millions of people in the world? And the answer is: sin. And that is the ultimate outrage of the universe. 

Once Paul has made clear what the essence or root of sin is in Romans 1–3, he now makes clear in the following chapters the magnitude of its power in us. He speaks of sin reigning like a king in death (5:21), holding dominion like a Lord (6:14), enslaving like a slavemaster (6:6, 16f, 20), to whom we have been sold (7:14), as a force that produces other sins (7:8), as a power that seizes the law and kills (7:11), as a hostile occupying tenant that dwells in us (7:17, 20), and a law that takes us captive (7:23). And this powerful presence in us, defines us until we are born again. 

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). And Paul adds, “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). What we are apart from new birth, new creation by the Spirit of God because Christ, is the embodiment of resistance to God. Romans 8:7, “The mind of flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Because it doesn’t want to. We disapprove of God as supreme treasure. We prefer other things. 

So you may lay to rest forever the notion that your sin is mainly what you do or don’t do. It’s not mainly what you do. It is mainly who you are—until you are a new creature in Christ. And even then, for us who are born of God, it is an ever-present, indwelling enemy to be put to death every day by the Spirit (Romans 8:13). 

Before Christ, sin is not an alien power. Sin is our preference for anything over God. Sin is our disapproval of God. Sin is our exchange of his glory for substitutes. Sin is our suppression of the truth of God. Sin is our heart’s hostility to God. It is who we are to the bottom of our hearts. Until Christ. 

So can such sinners do good works — build hospitals, keep the speed limit, negotiate peace, heal diseases, feed the poor, pay a fair wage? And of course the answer from one angle is yes. 

Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. (Romans 13:3

So what did Westerholm mean when he said “human beings are incapable of doing [good works]” (p. 32)? Was he just wrong? 

(Reference to Stephen Westerholm’s book, Justification Reconsidered

No. Because there is another angle from which to look. Another biblical angle. 

The other angle starts in Romans 3:1012, “None is righteous, no, not one; . . . no one does good, not even one.” From this angle, without Christ we cannot do good. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). And Paul puts it like this: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). 

In other words, the reason some deeds of unbelievers are called “good” in the New Testament is because in the ordinary use of language we sometimes describe deeds according to ordinary human standards. Committing adultery is bad. Not committing adultery is good. 

But there is another angle. If not committing adultery comes from a heart that has no love for God and treasures many things more than God, then that act of chastity is not an expression of love to God. It’s not a way of expressing his value. And so it is a dishonor to God. He is neglected, ignored, not a decisive factor, and in that sense the fruit of that heart is not good. Westerholm put it like this: “Where God is not honored, something basic is awry, spoiling even what would otherwise be good” (48). 

What this calls for is a radical God-centeredness in the way you think about everything. If God is not central and supreme. If his honor and glory are not uppermost in your affections, then God-ignoring kindness, God-ignoring, truth-telling, God-ignoring generosity will not be seen by you as evil. You won’t have a category for that. That only makes sense if God’s glory is the all-defining, all-pervasive good in the universe. 

Paul had to undergo a massive reorientation of his mind when he was converted — a reorientation concerning God and sin and most everything else. He said in Philippians 3:6-8 that before he was a Christ he was “blameless in the law.” That included many good deeds, and the avoidance of much evil. And after he became a Christian, he said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. . . . and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). In other words, unless all those good deeds come from faith in Christ, they are refuse and loss. That was his new orientation. 

The reason Paul says that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is that faith is a receiving of God in Christ as our Savior, and Lord, and supreme Treasure. Which means that actions which don’t come from faith, don’t come from treasuring God over all things. And that’s what sin is — not treasuring God above all things, preferring anything more than God. 

Grace Becomes Sweeter 

So there I am sitting in my chair in Knoxville, Tennessee last summer, realizing as never before the horrible and glorious truth that the reason my justification, my right standing with God, cannot be founded on 99.99% grace and .01% good works is that there are no truly good works in those who are not yet justified. They don’t exist, and have never existed since the fall. The question for the unbeliever is not, Can you do enough good works to outweigh your bad works? The question is, can you do one good work and contribute that as part of the basis of your acceptance with God? And the answer is no. “No one does good. Not even one” (Romans 3:12). 

For all of us, this should be a weighty moment of realization. And justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone has never been more sweet. I pray that will be true for you.  (End)

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

What Is Sin? The Essence and Root of All Sinning – Part 1

Taken from a message given at a conference in 2015:  John Piper 

Provided in Two Parts:  Today, Part 1

What Is the Deepest Root of Sin? 

So what I want to do in this message is mainly answer the question biblically: What is sin? What is the essence and root of all sinning

Let’s go for deepest root immediately. I want to find out if we humans are so sinful that apart from the grace of God in Christ we cannot do any good works at all. It’s a pressing question, because you know that you call much of what unbelievers do “good” — build hospitals, keep the speed limit, negotiate peace, heal diseases, feed the poor, pay a fair wage, and on and on. And the Bible itself says that ordinary people without reference to their faith can do good works. 

Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. (Romans 13:3

The most penetrating and extensive treatment of sin in the Bible is Romans 1–3. And even when the word isn’t used, we know that is what Paul is dealing with because when he comes to summarize it he says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). And he leaves no doubt about his conclusion in the next verse: “None is righteous, no, not one” (verse 10) and in verse 12, “No one does good, not even one.” 

So we back up then to Romans 1 in search of the essence of sin. By essence I mean: What’s at the bottom of it? What makes all sinful actions sinful? What is wrong with us at our core that gives rise to so many different kinds of evil? 

You might say: Why do you even think that way? Why don’t you just assume that sin is what we do? Why do you go beneath the doing to a root or a condition or a so-called depravity? 

The reason I go beneath our doings to a root of depravity is because Paul does. And he does so not incidentally but vigorously and forcefully. Paul sees that the essence or the root all sinning is a presence, a force, in us, part of who we are, called sin. For example, in Roman 7:8 he says, “Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” 

Now everyone agrees that covetousness is a sin. “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17). It’s a sin in the heart. A heart-sin that might produce outward sinning like stealing. But notice, Paul says, “Sin produced covetousness.” Well, covetousness is sin. Right. And so there is a sin beneath sin that produces sin. That’s what I want to see. I want to know at the root what is wrong with me. What is at the bottom of all my evils? And all the evils in the world? 

Let’s go to Romans 1 and start with verse 18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness (adikian) suppress the truth.” Here mankind in general is described as “ungodly and unrighteous.” John says in 1 John 5:17, “All unrighteousness (adikia) is sin.” So we are talking about sin here. And Paul choses to talk about it first in terms of ungodliness and unrighteousness. 

And the first thing he says about it is that is that it causes people to suppress the truth. Sin repels the light of truth and runs to the darkness of falsehood. Jesus said that we are guilty sinners not because we are victims of the darkness but because we are lovers of the darkness. John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.” So sin by nature inclines and empowers us to suppress the truth. 

What truth particularly does sin hate? The next verse tells us. Romans 1:19. The reason we know that men suppress the truth is “Because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Knowledge of God is repulsive to sin. So, Paul says, when this knowledge is suppressed, we have no excuse. Why? Verses 20–21: “So they are without excuse. For [because] although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him.” 

So the root of suppressing the knowledge of God is the desire to avoid glorifying and thanking God. Sin does not love to glorify God. Sin does not love to thank God. Sin hates glorifying God and thanking God. That’s what “ungodly” meant in verse 18. In “ungodliness and unrighteousness,” he said, we suppress the truth — namely, the truth that God is infinitely worthy of glory and thanks from our hearts. Sin hates that and therefore suppresses that truth. 

But sin is not just a hater. Sin is a lover. When the hated truth is suppressed, the loved lie is embraced. This is described over and over in the rest of chapter 1. Look at verse 22–23: “Claiming to be wise, they (that is, those who suppress the truth and have darkened hearts) have became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” They don’t just bury truth; they embrace alternative lovers. There’s no vacuum. When the real God is rejected, images are embraced. They “exchanged the glory of God for images.” Sin hates the real God and loves his God-substituting images. 

Is this the root of sinning? And if there ever was an age devoted to images, it is our age. We spend most of our leisure time looking at images. Watch how Paul describes now the relationship between this exchange, this suppressing of true God and this embracing of replacement gods—the relationship between that, and the outpouring of sinning in the world. 

Verse 24: “Therefore [because of this exchange in verse 23] God gave them up in the lusts [desires] of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Because of the exchange of verse 23, God goes hands off and godlessness and unrighteousness of the human heart goes unrestrained into sinning. 

And lest we missed the connection between verses 23 and 24 (the root of suppressing God and the shoot of impurity of life), he states it again in the connection between verse 24 and 25. 

Why did “the desires of their hearts run to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies” (verse 24)? Verse 25: “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” The impurities of active sinning have a root. And the root is this: Sin hates the truth of God, suppresses it, and exchanges it for what sin loves and worships. Sin loves to worship and serve the creature not the Creator. That’s the root of sinning. 

And just in case we missed it in the connection between verse 23 and 24 and in case we missed it in the connection between verse 24 and 25 Paul shows it again in the connection between verse 25 and 26. Verse 26: “For this reason” — for what reason? For the reason of verse 25, because we exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature — for this reason (now continue in verse 26), “God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” The flood of dishonorable passions in the world, with all their behaviors, has root. And the root is that sin hates the truth about God and worships, serves, loves God-substitutes. 

And, please forgive Paul, if you think he is overdoing it — I said he probes vigorously and forcefully down into the root of depravity beneath our sinning. But he does it here one more time — for a fourth time (not only the connection between verse 23 and 24, and 24 and 25, and 25 and 26) but now look at verse 28. “And since (or “just as”) they did not see fit [or did not approve, edokimasan] to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” 

“They did not see fit to acknowledge God,” is, I think, a bland translation that would be more forcefully rendered, “They did not approve to have God in their knowledge.” The truth of God comes to them from every direction and they feel, “I don’t approve of you! I don’t want you. I don’t like you. I will not let you in as part of my knowledge.” And then comes the connection that we have seen four times now: So, “God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” 

Notice two crucial terms: because they prefer lies to truth (verse 25) and images to God (verse 23), therefore God hands them over to “a debased mind.” Another good translation of debased would be depraved. So if you are ever wondering: Where does that idea of human depravity come from, here is one answer. Without redeeming grace through Jesus Christ, we are handed over to a mental depravity that does not want God. 

And the second crucial term to notice in verse 28 is “to do what ought not to be done.” “God gave them up to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done.” This depravity that does not want God does things that ought not to be done. In other words the root of sinful action is a sinful nature. And the bottom of the sinfulness of the sinful nature is: We don’t like the true and living God. We suppress truth that leads to him. We exchange his glory for images. We disapprove of having him in our knowledge. We have a deep, unshakeable, compelling preference for other things rather than God. That is the bottom. 

So, when we get to the end of Paul’s analysis and indictment of our condition and he starts to turn to the great work of God to save us from our sin and from his wrath against our sin, we are not surprised that we would sum it up with these words in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The word for “fall short” is literally “lack” (husterountai). What does this mean? 

Well, if you come short of something you lack it. You don’t have it. But you can lack, or come short of, or not have, something in more than one way. So here we come short of or lack the glory of God. Does that mean: Come short of being glorious with the glory of God? Or does it mean come short of having God’s glory as our supreme treasure — our highest perspective? 

Now we know from Romans 8:17 that if we have the glory of God as our supreme treasure, we will be glorified with the glory of God. But what is meant here? What’s the focus of Romans 3:23? And my answer is: He means that all have sinned, that is all have come short of embracing God as our supreme treasure. And the reason I think that’s what he means is because that is what he has said at least four times leading to this conclusion. 

Romans 1:18, we suppress the truth about God. Romans 1:21, we don’t glorify him or thank him. Romans 1:23, we exchange his glory for images. Romans 1:25, we exchange the truth about God for a lie. We worship — we stand in awe of what God made, not God. Romans 1:28, we disapprove of having the true God in our knowledge. We don’t want him. We prefer others things and other persons more than God. He is not our supreme treasure. We have come short of this: knowing, cherishing, prizing, loving, treasuring God above all things. That is the essence of our sinful condition and that is the root of all sinful action. This is the bottom.   (Continued, Conclusion, Part 2 tomorrow).

Why Dead Men Must Die – Part 2

Friends:   My pastor and friend, suggested it would be helpful to further clarify one point in ‘yesterday’s’ post related to “the second way we die.”  The first is that we were crucified with Christ – positionally.  The ‘second’ is that we have to learn to ‘reckon ourselves dead to sin’.  We have to mortify the flesh.  We have to claim the reality of what Christ did positionally.  (Romans chapter 6).   

The premise of this week’s post and study is this:  We can’t pursue the kind of life God calls us to live if we don’t know what happened to us when became a Christian. There’s a great deal of emphasis today, it seems to me, on what has happened for us in the cross, namely that our sins are forgiven, and that we are accepted, and that we are loved, and that we have eternal life. But there doesn’t seem to me to be as much emphasis on what has happened to us in becoming Christians, what happened to us because of the cross. 

And it’s precisely this — what happened to us, what changed in us — that Paul emphasizes as the key to how we are to pursue holiness and love and righteousness and all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So here is a further emphasis and clarification from John Piper’s study. 

Who died, and who came to life, when we became Christians?  

And Paul describes who died in at least four ways. First, he says, “I died.” Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who lived.” So I died. Number two, he says our old self died. Roman 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him.” Third, he says that our flesh died. Galatians 2:24: “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh.” Fourth, he says the body of flesh. Now that’s a reference back to what we just saw in Colossians 2:11, the body of flesh. He says that in being buried with Christ, we have put off the body of flesh. 

Now putting those four ways of saying it together, here’s what I conclude. In so far as I am identified with my flesh and in so far as my body is the instrument of my flesh, I died and my body died because my flesh died. Now, what does that mean? 

What Is My Flesh? 

What is my flesh? And here’s Paul’s answer to that question in Romans 8:7: “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God for it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh” — that is in the control and sway of this thing called flesh — “cannot please God.” So the flesh is not synonymous with the body. The flesh is my old self in its hostility to God. It’s insubordination to God. It’s inability to submit to God and please God — that’s my flesh. That’s what died when I became a Christian. God killed my hostility to God. God killed my insubordination to God. 

God killed my inability to submit to God and my inability to please God. He killed me in that sense. And in the place of that old self of hostility and insubordination and inability, God created a new self. He calls it a new creation in 2 Corinthians 5 and in Ephesians 2:10. And what are the traits of this new creation, this new self that came into being when I was united to Christ and died and rose with him? Galatians 2:19–20 give a beautiful answer that says I died to the law so that I might live to God: 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and here comes the key phrase I think, the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. 

So three ways Paul describes his new self as a Christian. First, he’s alive to God. God is real to him, precious, beautiful, desirable. He isn’t hostile to God anymore, he admires God, he loves God, he trusts God, he’s alive to God. Second, his new self lives by faith in the Son of God. So he’s no longer insubordinate and self-sufficient and self-exalting, he trusts the son of God like a little child. He submits and depends upon the mercy of God in Christ. He’s a believer, that’s what came alive. A believer came alive. And third, another way to say it is that Christ himself lives in us. I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me. 

The new self of the Christian is the God-loving, son-of-God-trusting, Christ-inhabited self. That’s the new creation that came into being when I rose with Christ. 

Be What You Are 

Now, we should be asking how this reality, not possibility, reality, these things really happen to us, we don’t make them happen, they really happen to us, how that relates, to our battle with sin. And the answer is that this way of understanding ourselves is the way we do battle with sin. Paul didn’t say, “Oh, since this glorious death and resurrection has happened to you, there’s no more battle of a sin.” 

He said this new reality of life from the dead and this old reality which has died with Christ is precisely the way we fight sin in our lives. For example, Colossians 2:20, he says, “If with Christ, you died to the legalistic elemental principles of dos and don’ts — do not taste, do not touch, do not handle. . . .” And he’s explaining the false religion there. If you died to those, why are you submitting to such regulations? You’re dead to those. Don’t submit to them, be who you are. 

Then later in chapter 3, he said, “You have died. So put to death what is earthly in you, immorality, impurity, passion.” So Paul did not say because you have died, there’s no battle. He said, “Because you have died, reckon yourselves dead,” Romans 6:11. Reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In the other words, be what you are.  

“Reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In the other words, be what you are.” 

Cleanse Out the Old Leaven 

It may sound paradoxical, but it is a profound and glorious truth. God has made us what we are. In Christ, we are new creatures. We don’t make ourselves new creatures; we are new creatures. We act the miracle that he performed. He performed the miracle, we act it out. 

Listen to first Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump of dough as you really are unleavened.” That just captures everything right in one verse. You are unleavened, so get the leaven out. I just love it. 

So, I say to all of us, don’t let your death with Christ in your new life in Christ cause you to shrink back from making war on your sin as though that conflict should not be happening. Rather, let your death with Christ and your newness in Christ be the happy, confident ground where you take your stand and put to death the sin that remains. 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

Why Dead Men Must Die  

From an interview with:  John Piper, Founder/Teacher, desiringGod.org 

Dead men must die if they are to live. That’s true. That’s the clear teaching of Scripture, and there are two senses in which the dead must die in order to live. So now, if we step back and say, “Whoa, that sounds really confusing” — there are five things that need to be clarified. 

First, in what sense are all people dead apart from Christ? Second, in what sense are those dead people alive while they are dead? Because it’s clear those dead people are walking around all around us during the day. Third and fourth, what are the two ways that these dead people must die if they are to live? And then finally, fifth, what is the difference between the life we have after this double death and the life we had while we were dead? 

It all sounds very odd, I know, but those are exactly the questions that Scripture leads us to ask. 

Dead in What Sense? 

So here’s number one. First, in what sense are all people dead — all people, until God makes them alive in Christ? Here’s the way Ephesians 2:1 and 2:3 describe it: “And you were dead in trespasses and sins . . . and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” So, this is not just a few people. Deadness is what characterizes all of mankind, Paul says — all human beings. 

And here’s the way John describes our deadness before new birth: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). 

Or here’s the way Jesus talks about it: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). And the father in the parable of the prodigal son says, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). Or here’s Paul again in 1 Timothy 5:6: “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.” So in what sense, then, were we all dead before God made us alive in Christ? Paul has several ways of describing our deadness. 

Here’s one in Ephesians 4:18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” So, darkness and hardness — can’t see certain reality, can’t feel certain reality. 

What couldn’t we see when we were dead? Second Corinthians 4:4 says unbelievers cannot see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And in this darkness, this blindness and hardness, we don’t have the moral ability to gladly submit to God. Romans 8:7–8 says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” 

So what does our original deadness mean? It means hearts hard and blind to the beauty of Christ, and therefore in revolt against the will of Christ. 

Alive in What Sense? 

Second, in what sense are those dead people — all of us before conversion — alive? Because Ephesians 2:1–3 also says they’re very, very active. Paul says this: 

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked [you’re walking, dead men walking], following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once conducted ourselves [so we’re dead, conducting ourselves] in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 

So, we are very active dead people. And Romans 6:17 and 6:20 describes the dead as slaves of sin. There was no faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). We sinned and sinned and sinned. So the dead were very active slaves, but nothing came from faith. 

How Do the Dead Need to Die? 

Now, here comes this double clarification, third and fourth, I said. There are two senses in which the spiritually dead need to die in order to live. First, they need to be united with Christ so that his death counts as their death. 

Romans 6:5: “If we have been united with him in a death like his . . .” 

Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ.” 

Romans 6:6: “Our old self was crucified with him.” 

So this union with Christ in his death happens through faith. When we believe in Christ, God counts his death to be our death. This means that the condemnation owing to our sins falls on Christ. And because of our union with him, we are now counted free from punishment, no condemnation for those united to Christ — that is, “in Christ” (Romans 8:1). So that old, hard, blind, rebellious, dead self is now freed from guilt. Its sins are punished, covered. Now what? 

Here’s the second sense in which the dead must die. Our old self — our old, blind, hard, rebellious nature — is replaced by a defining new nature, a new person. This is what the new birth does. This is a real transformation. Paul describes the ongoing experience of this newness like this: “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9–10). 

So, the original dead person passes through two deaths on the way to life. The hard, blind, rebellious, dead self is miraculously, graciously, freely, sovereignly — by God — united to Christ as God creates faith in the heart, so that all the punishment that dead men deserve was endured by Christ. And in that same instant, in that same act of faith, God creates a new nature in us. Which leads now to one last question. 

What Distinguishes the Living? 

What is the difference between the life of this new nature and the life we had when we were dead? Let’s let Paul answer the question, because he does it so beautifully in Galatians 2:20. There are not many verses more preciously personal in Paul’s writings than Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And now here comes my answer to the question. What’s the new life that you have after this double death that you walked through? “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

So, the new nature that God created in the new birth is a nature that has faith in the Son of God. It is a nature that believes. It is not hard. It’s tender to the truth and the beauty of Christ. It’s not blind. It sees the supreme worth of Christ. It’s not insubordinate and rebellious. It gladly submits to the lordship of Christ. So yes, Josiah, the dead must die in order to live. And what a glorious work Christ has wrought in his death and resurrection to make that happen. 

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

Plunge Your Mind into the Ocean of God’s Sovereignty

Article by John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org 

Sometimes we need to plunge our minds into the ocean of God’s sovereignty. We need to feel the weight of it, like deep and heavy water pressing in against every pore, the deeper we go. A billion rivers of providence pour into this ocean. And God himself gathers up all his countless deeds — from eternity to eternity — and pours them into the currents of his infallible revelation. He speaks, and explains, and promises, and makes his awesome, sovereign providence the place we feel most reverent, most secure, most free. 

Sometimes we need to be reminded by God himself that there are no limits to his rule. We need to hear from him that he is sovereign over the whole world, and everything that happens in it. We need his own reminder that he is never helpless, never frustrated, never at a loss. We need his assurance that he reigns over ISIS, terrorism, Syria, Russia, China, India, Nigeria, France, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America — every nation, every people, every language, every tribe, every chief, president, king, premier, prime minister, and politician, great or small. 

Sometimes we need to hear specific statements from God himself about his own authority. We need God’s own words. It is the very words of God that have unusual power to settle our nerves, and make us stable, wise, and courageous. 

God’s Voice 

On the one hand, hearing the voice of God is like a frightened child who hears the voice downstairs, and realizes that daddy’s home. Whatever those other sounds were, it’s okay. Daddy’s home. 

On the other hand, it feels like the seasoned troops, dug in at the front line of battle, and about to be overrun by the enemy. But then they get word that a thousand impenetrable tanks are rushing to their aid. They are only one mile away. You will be saved, and the enemy will not stand. 

Vague generalizations about the power of God do not have the same effect as the very voice of God telling us specifically how strong he is, how pervasive his power, how universal his authority, how unlimited his sovereignty. And that our times are in his hands. 

So let’s listen. Let’s treat the Bible as the voice of God. Let’s turn what the Bible says about God into what God says about God — which is what the Bible really is — God speaking about God. 

And as we listen, let us praise him. There is no other fitting way to listen to God’s exaltation of God. This is what happens to the human soul when we plunge into the ocean of God’s sovereignty. 

We praise you, O God, that all authority in the universe belongs to you. 

“There is no authority except from me, and those that exist have been instituted by me.” (Romans 13:1

“You, Pilate, would have no authority over my Son at all unless it had been given you from me.” (John 19:11

We stand in awe, O God, that in your freedom you do all that you please and all that you plan. 

“Whatever I please, I do, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6

“I work all things according to the counsel of my will.” (Ephesians 1:11

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46:9–10

We marvel, O God, that you share this total authority and rule completely with your Son. 

“I have given all authority in heaven and on earth to my Son, Jesus.” (Matthew 28:18

“I love my Son and have given all things into his hand.” (John 3:35

“I have given my Son authority over all flesh.” (John 17:2

“I have put all things in subjection under my Son’s feet — all things except myself.” (1 Corinthians 15:27

“I raised my Son from the dead and seated him at my right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. . . . I put all things under his feet.” (Ephesians 1:20–22

“I welcomed my Son into heaven. He is at my right hand, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.” (1 Peter 3:22

We submit with reverence to you, O God, because, through your Son, you remove and install the rulers of the world. 

“Wisdom and might belong to me. I change times and seasons; I remove kings and set up kings.” (Daniel 2:20–21

“I loose the bonds of kings and bind a waistcloth on their hips.” (Job 12:18

“I sent my angel and struck Herod down, because he did not give me glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (Acts 12:23

Indeed, O God, you not only raise rulers and put them down; you govern all their deeds in every age. 

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in my hand, says the Lord; I turn it wherever I will.” (Proverbs 21:1

“I will put an end to the wealth of Egypt, by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. . . . I will break the yoke of Egypt, and her proud might shall come to an end. . . . I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon and put my sword in his hand, but I will break the arms of Pharaoh.” (Ezekiel 30:10, 18, 24

“I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes. Then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave.” (Jeremiah 27:6–7

“As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand. I will break the Assyrian in my land; and his yoke shall depart from my people.” (Isaiah 14:24–25

“I will make the nations the inheritance of my Son, and the ends of the earth will be his possession. He shall break them with a rod of iron.” (Psalm 2:8–9

We acknowledge with wonder, O God, that no plan of man succeeds but those which you, in unfathomable wisdom, permit. 

“I bring the counsel of the nations to nothing; I frustrate the plans of the peoples.” (Psalm 33:10

“No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against me.” (Proverbs 21:30

And how mighty and wise you are, O God, that no man, no nation, force of nature can thwart your holy plans. 

“No purpose of mine can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2

“I do according to my will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay my hand or say to me, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35

“There is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 43:13

So, we bow, as dust in the scales, O God, and confess with joy, that we are as nothing compared to your greatness. 

“Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales. . . . All the nations are as nothing before me, they are accounted as less than nothing and emptiness.” (Isaiah 40:15, 17

“I sit above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. I stretch out the heavens like a curtain, and spread them like a tent to dwell in. I bring princes to nothing, and make the rulers of the earth as emptiness.” (Isaiah 40:22–23

The joy of our hope, O God, is that you magnify your greatness by lifting up the low, and putting down the proud. 

“Who but me can say to a king, ‘Worthless one,’ and to nobles, ‘Wicked man’? I show no partiality to princes, nor regard the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of my hands.” (Job 34:18–19

“I shatter the mighty without investigation and set others in their place.” (Job 34:24

“I look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand.” (Job 40:12

“I the LORD kill and bring to life; I bring down to Sheol and raise up. I make poor and make rich; I bring low and I exalt.” (1 Samuel 2:6–7

“I have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; I have brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” (Luke 1:51–52

And so it will be forever, O God. You rule over all, with an everlasting rule, for the sake of the lowly who trust your Son. 

“I live forever, for my dominion is an everlasting dominion, and my kingdom endures from generation to generation.” (Daniel 4:34

“My dominion shall not pass away, and my kingdom shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14

“My Son will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:33

Therefore, overflowing with praise and thanks, O precious and holy God, we rest in your absolute sovereignty over our lives. And rejoice to hear you say, 

“Your times are in my hand.” (Psalm 31:15

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently What Is Saving Faith? 

The Word of God Is Worth the Work 

Article by Scott Hubbard, Editor, desiringGod.org 

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Range is home to 58 peaks that reach 14,000 feet above sea level. “Fourteeners,” they’re called. Fifty-seven of those 58 peaks are accessible only by a long and sometimes grueling hike — Long’s Peak, for example, runs 14.5 miles round trip and rises 5,100 feet from trailhead to summit. One of these mountains, however, called Pikes Peak, has a parking lot at the top. 

Having topped both Long’s and Pike’s — the one through a desperate, why-did-I-agree-to-this trek, and the other through a comfy car ride (with doughnuts at the top, if memory serves) — I will confirm what you can probably guess: there is a difference between walking to 14,000 feet and driving there. 

The view may be the same, with those Rockies running like a river of mountains across the West. But the experience of the view is not. The 14.5 miles and 5,100 feet, it turns out, are not impediments to the beauty, but part of the beauty. You can’t separate the summit from the path, or the final footsteps from the 30,000 that precede them. The difficulty of the way increases the wonder. 

A similar principle applies to the spiritual life, including Bible reading. 

‘Restless Experientialists’ 

Many Bible readers can see ourselves in J.I. Packer’s description of “restless experientialists”: 

[They value] strong feelings above deep thoughts. They have little taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in their callings and their prayers. They conceive the Christian life as one of extraordinary exciting experiences rather than of resolute rational righteousness. (A Quest for Godliness, 30) 

In Bible reading as well as mountaineering, many would like the experience of heart-skipping beauty without working their quadriceps to jelly. We often would prefer, say, to drive to the summit of Romans 8 without traversing the rocky fields of reasoning, and climbing the alpine slopes of argumentation, and patiently tracing the winding paths of logic in Romans 1–7. We want the thrill of spiritual feeling without the labor of spiritual thought. 

“God has carved only one path to the human heart, and it runs through the mind.” 

To be sure, a Christian is nothing without sincere spiritual affections. But God has carved only one path to the human heart, and it runs through the mind. 

Bright Minds, Burning Hearts 

Passage after passage in the Bible shows this relationship between thought and affections. In fact, the Bible’s very existence suggests it, because here we have a book that unashamedly addresses the brain en route to the heart. But consider just one passage for now. 

On the Emmaus Road, when Jesus finally reveals himself to Cleopas and the other disciple, the two men say, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” (Luke 24:32). Every Christian has felt something of the burning heart — the blaze of glory, the flame of joy. And every Christian, on some level, wants more. 

Notice, however, how the disciples finish the sentence: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened to us the Scriptures?” And by opened, they mean this: “[Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus took the men on an Old Testament tour, interpreting its Christ-centered meaning. In other words, he led an in-depth Bible study with them. Then, and only then, did fire kindle within. Before their hearts burned with love, their minds brightened with truth. 

Packer draws the conclusion, 

Man was made to know God with his mind, to desire it, once he has come to know it, with his affections, and to cleave to it, once he has felt its attraction, with his will. . . . God accordingly moves us, not by direct action on the affections or will, but by addressing our mind with his word, and so bringing to bear on us the force of truth. (A Quest for Godliness, 195, emphasis added) 

“Our affections catch true fire only when our souls are full of truth’s kindling. And the Spirit lights the flame.” 

Deep Christian feeling is supernatural, to be sure, but it is not the product of spontaneous spiritual combustion. Rather, our affections catch true fire only when our souls are full of truth’s kindling. And the Spirit lights the flame. 

How to Summit Scripture 

How then shall we read the Bible? To return to our mountain image, we read the Bible well by hiking rather than driving — by prayerfully thinking our way to affections rather than bypassing the brain. Or, to get more specific, we don’t pass over the hard places, we slow down enough to see, and we resist the comforts of sentimental reading. 

Don’t pass over the hard places. 

On the Emmaus road, what Scriptures did Jesus open to Cleopas and his friend? Luke writes, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He took them to Genesis and Isaiah, Leviticus and Kings, Deuteronomy and Psalms, showing how his whole story reveals his whole glory. 

We may imagine a book like Leviticus can do little for our hearts; the sand around Sinai seems to offer little spiritual refreshment. And if we come to the Bible looking mainly for a quick emotional kick, we likely will drive right past Leviticus in search of better views. But what if good Bible reading looks less like finding familiar comfort and more like hiking, sometimes through rough terrain, toward a summit whose beauty will thrill us more because of where we’ve walked? 

Christian joy becomes more whole the more we read the Bible whole: whole chapters, whole books, whole testaments. Over time, even a book like Leviticus — filled with Christward types and gospel whispers — will lay so many logs on the hearth, ready to be lit by the Spirit. 

Slow down enough to see. 

As you travel through whole books and testaments, consider also reading slow, at least slow enough to notice details that can’t be enjoyed by car: daffodils along the path, birds’ nests in the branches, unexpected prospects through the trees. 

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an unexpected sight while walking through familiar territory. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:44–45). Suddenly, that simple word his freshly welcomed me into a God-filled world. The sun is God’s sun, and he raises it, lovingly, like a father turning on the lights in a child’s bedroom. A pronoun changed my day. 

God means for pronouns to change us — and conjunctions and prepositions and definite articles. Not that we need to know the names of these parts of speech: a rose without a name still smells just as sweet. We can’t enjoy them, however, without noticing them, and noticing calls for an unhurried pace. 

Resist the comforts of sentimental reading. 

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon on Hebrews 12:5–11, shares some strong words for those who read Scripture only in what he calls “a sentimental manner”: 

There are many people who read the Scriptures in a purely sentimental manner. They are in trouble and they do not know what to do. They say, “I will read a psalm. It is so soothing — ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.’” They make it a kind of incantation and take the Psalms as another person takes a drug. 

The problem with such sentimental Bible reading is that it goes against the grain of Scripture’s own approach to our problems. “The word of God does not merely give us general comfort; what it gives us always is an argument,” Lloyd-Jones writes. And therefore, “We must follow the logic of it, and bring intelligence to the Scriptures. . . . Let them reason it out with you” (Spiritual Depression, 253). 

Often, the logic of a passage — its fors and therefores, its ifs and buts — is the trail leading to the summit of glory. “There is therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1); “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6); “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) — all of these are scriptural summits. We can enjoy some of their glory if we drive quickly to the top. But oh, how much better the view if we patiently walk the path. 

Patience is, indeed, the virtue many of us may need most in our Bible reading. For the deepest joy, the kind “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), comes only to those who prayerfully and thoughtfully plod the path. They read the Bible to know what God says and how he says it — in order that they might then feel that knowledge become worship by the power of the indwelling Spirit. 

Resist, then, the urge the drive through your devotions. Glory awaits those who walk. 

Scott Hubbard is an editor for Desiring God, a pastor at All Peoples Church, and a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Bethany, live with their two sons in Minneapolis.