The temptation of Jesus works backward and forward. It works backward because we see in the ways that Satan tempts Jesus the exact same ways he tempted Adam and Eve. If you remember, the serpent led Eve to believe that the forbidden fruit looked good for food. This parallels Satan tempting the hungry Jesus to turn the stones to bread. Then Eve saw that the fruit was “a delight to look at.” This is similar to Satan showing Jesus the dazzling cityscape of all the promised kingdoms. Finally, the serpent promised Eve that by taking the fruit, she could become like God, would become a kind of god herself. We see Satan tempting Jesus to exploit his own deity in Luke 4:9-11.
At each step of the way, the Accuser echoes the temptation of Adam and Eve in his temptation of Jesus. But where Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, rebelling against God’s will and bringing death into the world, Jesus withstands the temptation, holding to the Father’s will. He thereby brings life into the world for all who will trust in him.
This is where you and I stand each day. Like Adam, we are passive. With Adam, we suffer from indwelling sin. Temptation rises up to meet us each day, in these same three ways. We are tempted to fulfill our appetites with money, with sex, with all kinds of fleeting pleasures, as if they will really satisfy the “rumbling tummies” of our flesh. We are tempted by the things we see, by what dazzles us—we want to look good, powerful, successful, put-together. And we are always tempted to put ourselves at the center of our lives, to exalt ourselves and live like little self-worshiping gods. This is all our fault, but it began thanks to Adam.
But Christ’s temptation works forward. We see in Adam’s fall our own sinfulness, but we see in Jesus’s obedience our righteousness. We are forgiven by his grace. We are filled by his grace. And we can withstand temptation by his grace (1 Cor. 10:13). Through faith, we even receive Christ’s perfect submission to the Father’s will as if it were our own! And at each point of temptation, when we set our minds to the perfect work of Christ, we find the strength to say “No” to the tempter and “Yes” to God’s glory. Unlike Eve, we don’t have to run out of “As it is written’s.”
When we go our own way, we prove we’ve still got Adam in us. But when our accuser comes calling, we can plead Christ’s obedience. Sin is all our fault, but it ends, thanks to Jesus.
Article by Sam Storms, Pastor, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
I’m a sucker for news articles with headlines such as “The 10 Most Enjoyable Places to Live” or “The Least Expensive Cities in the US” or “The Best Places in the US to Retire.” But it’s not because I want to know where my state or city ranks. My curiosity is focused on the reasons that are given: everything from climate to taxes to crime rates to job availability and other similar factors.
My wife and I are profoundly happy living in Oklahoma City, the occasional tornado notwithstanding. But neither here nor your place of residence can begin to compare with life in the new heaven and new earth. What is it that makes the prospect of our eternal abode so appealing? What makes heaven so heavenly?
He Will Be Our God
The apostle John declares that this present earth and the heavens above will pass away (Revelation 21:1) when Jesus Christ returns to destroy his enemies and consummate his kingdom. But this present earth gives way not to a purely spiritual existence somewhere in the clouds above. “The first heaven and the first earth” give way to “a new heaven and a new earth.”
“Our experience of joyful satisfaction in God will suffer from no limitations, and none will fathom the depths of our delight.”
Those who love to fish, sail, water-ski, and ponder the expanse and beauty of the ocean may be upset that in John’s vision “the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). But this does not mean there won’t be bodies of water in the new earth for us to enjoy. In the Bible, the sea is often regarded as a symbol for evil, chaos, and anti-kingdom powers with whom Yahweh must contend (Isaiah 17:12–13; 27:1; 51:9–10; 57:20; Jeremiah 46:7–8; Job 26:7–13). The sea is the origin of the beast as well as the pagan and rebellious nations that oppose the kingdom of God (Revelation 13:1; 17:2, 15). It is also the place of the dead (Revelation 20:13) and the location of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (Revelation 18:10–19).
This, then, is John’s way of saying that in the new creation, all such evil and corruption and unbelief and darkness will be banished. Also absent are tears of sadness, death, mourning, crying, and all pain, whether emotional or physical (Revelation 21:4).
But what makes heaven heavenly isn’t the absence of the things that we dislike now on earth, but the presence of God. The new heaven and new earth will be glorious not primarily because there will be no sin or death or pain or tears, but because God is there. God will be with us. We will be his people, and he will be our God (Revelation 21:3).
No Greater Blessing
Two blessings in particular highlight the fact that life in the new heaven and new earth will be one of endless joy and satisfaction. “To the thirsty,” declares the Lord, “I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (Revelation 21:6). Why doesn’t he simply say, “to the one who believes”? Why “to the thirsty”? And why, at the end of the book, is water given to the one who “desires” it (Revelation 22:17)?
John’s point is that saving faith or belief is more than mere intellectual agreement with the truth of the gospel. Saving faith, the belief that leads to eternal life — the belief that slakes the thirst of the dry and desperate soul — is at its core a yearning and desiring for the satisfaction that only Christ can bring. Simply put, everyone in heaven will be a Christian Hedonist!
“In the new creation, all evil and corruption and unbelief and darkness will be banished.”
The second of the two blessings is God’s promise that he will be our God and we will be his children (Revelation 21:7). There is no blessing greater than this: to be a child of God. As his beloved sons and daughters, we get God and all that God has. Just like the father of the Prodigal, who cast aside concern for personal dignity and ran down that road to embrace his repentant child (Luke 15:20), God comes to us with a ring and a robe and a never-ending feast of every spiritual blessing.
But how can we know that this joy and deep delight in God will be endless? Countless things in this life satisfy, but only for a season. Virtually everything on which we depend comes and goes. No matter how much of an experience we relish, it eventually fades. Over time it loses its capacity to enthrall and excite. Will our joy not also suffer from entropy? How could God possibly sustain in us not simply the presence of joy in the new heaven and new earth but its endless, incessant, expansive increase?
The answer is rooted in God’s infinity. He is the one Being in the universe of whom it can never be said, “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.” Given enough time and patience, we could eventually count every grain of sand on the shores of earth. They are not infinite in number. The same can be said of the stars in the sky. Though there are undoubtedly trillions and trillions of them, they are not limitless or without number.
But God is! He is truly without limit. There is in God an inexhaustible plenitude of power and perfection. There is no end to his attributes. And with each attribute there is an infinite height, depth, width, and breadth. If at any time anything about God were to reach a conclusion or be exhaustively comprehended, he would cease to be God. God is by definition infinite in goodness, beauty, power, and majesty — and these are only the beginning of a never-ending supply of characteristics and attributes and features.
This means that what can be seen, known, and experienced of God is likewise without limit. And if our sight, knowledge, and experience never cease, never fully exhaust all there is in him, so too it must be with our enjoyment of all that he is and does. With each revelation of yet one more facet of his immeasurably complex being comes more joy, more fascination, more excitement, more love, more worship.
Joy in a Glorified Body
If you live in fear that the never-ending revelation of God’s splendor will overwhelm and eventually short-circuit your faculties of comprehension and enjoyment, recall the words of Jonathan Edwards, who said,
Without doubt God can contrive matter so that there shall be other sort of proportions, that may be quite of a different kind, and may raise another sort of pleasure in the sense, and in a manner to us inconceivable, that shall be vastly more ravishing and exquisite. . . . Our animal spirits [i.e., our physical senses] will also be capable of immensely more, fine and exquisite proportions in their motions than now they are. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:328)
Or again, in the new heaven and new earth, “every perceptive faculty shall be an inlet of delight” (Works, 18:721).
At Christ’s return, our bodies will be glorified and thus delivered of weakness and frailty and obscurity. Our intellect and senses will be heightened and magnified, and their capacity to see, touch, feel, hear, and smell greatly increased and no longer hindered by disease or distraction. Our experience of joyful satisfaction in God will then suffer from no limitations, and none will fathom the depths of our delight.
More Sight, More Delight
Joy in the new heaven and new earth never occurs in a vacuum, but is the inevitable fruit of our ever-increasing comprehension of God and his love, grace, beauty, and kindness. With each new revelation comes a corresponding insight that in turn fuels the flame of delight and exhilaration.
“What makes heaven heavenly isn’t the absence of the things that we dislike now on earth, but the presence of God.”
Joy will increase forever because there will never be a moment when God’s greatness diminishes or runs dry. Throughout the ages to come, forever and ever, we will be the recipients each instant of an ever-increasing and more stunning, more fascinating, and thus inescapably more enjoyable display of God’s grace and glory than before.
If our ideas and thoughts of God increase in heaven, then so also must the joy, delight, and fascination that those ideas and thoughts generate. As understanding grows, so too does affection and fascination. Edwards put it this way:
Therefore, their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, doubtless their holiness. For as they increase in the knowledge of God and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency; and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him; and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness . . . will they have in him. (Works, 13:105).
Trustworthy and True
But how can we be so certain? How do we know it isn’t all a pipe dream? How can we be sure that if we put our hope in this promise, it won’t come crashing down on us and leave us disappointed, as has happened in so many other instances in this life? John provides the answer in Revelation 21:5: “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And we know they are trustworthy and true because they are the words of him who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6). God has staked his reputation on it. His honor and fidelity hang in the balance. He said it, and therefore it will come to pass.
Unclean spirits stir. Demonic thrones and dominions gather. Cosmic powers over this present darkness come to attention. And the devil himself, ready to devour and destroy, ignites his fiery darts and stretches his legs for the lion’s prowl.
As All Hallows’ Eve draws nigh, the spiritual forces of evil align, and Satan prepares his hordes for the party of the year — that grand harvest festival, celebration of darkness and death, when they pretend to be their strongest.
Halloween is almost here. And so is their final defeat. Jesus haunts their Halloween.
One Little Word
As the demonic rulers and authorities make ready, the one who sits in the heavens laughs (Psalm 2:4). The devil is no threat, with all his orcs and goblins and the wickedest of witches. This is no evenly matched bout. If the incarnate Christ, in his humblest state, commands unclean spirits and they obey him (Mark 1:27) — how much more the risen and glorified Lord? It is Jesus who does the real haunting.
“Jesus came to conquer fear, to truly haunt whatever haunts us.”
Even as his adversaries marshal their best, they can’t escape serving his purposes. It is all through him and for him. “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). Jesus haunts their Halloween.
No demon lurks apart from his will. No spirit pounces apart from his plan. He is sovereign over even the movements of evil minds. “God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled” (Revelation 17:17).
Luther nailed it — one little word shall fell them. Jesus haunts their Halloween.
He Put Them to Shame
It was precisely when the devil feigned to be his fiercest that Jesus delivered the deathblow. It was a Halloween-like gathering of ghouls and goblins at Golgotha when “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15).
Jesus came to conquer fear, to truly haunt whatever haunts us. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He stooped to share in our flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15).
Every Single Inch
Those who are in Christ have no need to fear the night. This is now our day. He has won it for us, and will not leave us to fend for ourselves in the devil’s domain. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). This we know: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
“It was precisely when the devil feigned to be his fiercest that Jesus delivered the deathblow.”
“Take heart; I have overcome the world,” he says (John 16:33). Every inch of this universe — every single one — is his. And that includes All Hallows’ Eve and all its worst, and all the pretense. He is the one who empowers us to “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). And he says that just as he squashed the Serpent’s skull with his heel, so “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Our feet. Get your boots.
Jesus haunts their Halloween. And so too he must haunt ours.
Dressed Up for Real
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) and “put on the new self” (Colossians 3:10). Dressed in the full armor of God, we “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11) on the exact night when he’d most want us to circle the wagons. We have a Book and will “not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). We “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16).
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we pour in the extra energy and creativity to capitalize on this opportunity to meet new neighbors and go deep with the old — whether we’re ushering our kids from house to house or leaving our lights on and giving out the best candy.
Sent into the Harvest
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we remember that our enemy is not the scariest-clad Halloween reveler, but “the god of this world” who has blinded their minds and keeps them “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We war not against unbelievers but “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present darkness, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we look on the cheekiest carousers with compassion — as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). On this night, as much as any, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” and so we “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38). And we walk in faith to be those workers.
Freed from Fear
And when Jesus haunts our Halloween, we fight not only Satan, but fear in our souls. We see that our Halloween horrors reveal our lack of faith in who Jesus is, what he has accomplished, and that he has commissioned us so clearly.
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we do not flee, but go on the offensive. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). We don’t retreat, but resist — with level heads and open eyes. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8–9). We engage, with care and with courage.
Staring Death in the Face
“Those who are in Christ have no need to fear the night.”
When Jesus haunts our Halloween, we remember that the forces of evil, which we can be so prone to fear, are actually terrified of Jesus. Everyday is a spook for the devil and his demons, and Jesus does the haunting. The decisive blow has been dealt, and soon we will land the final punch.
Jesus has promised his gospel will advance (Matthew 24:14). He will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18). And so when Jesus haunts our Halloween, we join the triumphant anthem:
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55–57)
Article by Greg Morse, Staff Writer, desiringGod.org
As children, we love stories. We lie in bed, or curl up on our parent’s knee, as the voice of our mother or father takes us into fictional worlds. We explore Where the Wild Things Are. We join the inquiry, Are You My Mother? We doff our hats with Babar, learn life lessons from Charlotte’s Web, stand with outstretched arms towards The Giving Tree. We wonder what Green Eggs and Ham actually taste like.
Then we grow older. But hopefully not too old to pass through wardrobes into Narnia, or dig our five-by-five Holes with Stanley Yelnats, or live in them with The Hobbit. We might imagine seeing color the first time with The Giver or soaring on a Nimbus 2000 with the boy bearing the thunderbolt scar. We humans are creatures of story.
As such, we are born with a unique skill: the ability to detect off-notes in narrative. Like the wrong key struck on the piano. Little ones tell their dad, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go!” But sadly, many hear God’s story, and give the same protest when he reads that chapter which spans eternity.
Truth Some Hearts Can’t Bear
As many wrestle with the existence of hell — or as we ourselves wrestle with it — that innate sense resurfaces. Many read, “These will go away into eternal punishment” — to be tormented with fire and sulfur, day and night, without any reprieve or rest, forever (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 14:9–11) — and reflexively say, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go.” They shake their heads, How is that a good story? Such try to rescue us from orthodoxy with Rob Bell, who writes,
Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. (Love Wins, 110)
For Bell and company, the lack of a happily ever after for all — or even most — sounds off. Even annihilation, to them, seems like a better ending. A God that would punish humans for an eternity is devastating, crushing, unbearable, traumatizing, terrifying, cruel, wrong, untenable, unacceptable, awful, unlovable. Hear it from Bell, this God is a being that no amount of good music or coffee can cover.
“Heaven will not be heaven without the reminder of God’s righteous condemnation.”
The challenge, then, is not to merely prove the existence of hell from one’s exegesis, but to answer why God’s story is better than we would have authored — because it is. We must try to reason with the heart, for Jesus taught us an extraordinary truth when he exposed that the mind will misunderstand what the heart detests: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (John 8:43). So it is with many today when considering hell.
Four Truths About Hell
We should not come to this subject lightly. We are talking about a real hell for real people for a real eternity. A place it would have been better to never have been born than to enter. A place of fire. Punishment. Banishment. Outer darkness. Curse. Destruction. Anguish. Second death. A place where worms feast, strong men weep, and teeth gnash. The four letters describe an unending punishment for those we have, for a brief time, known.
How Paul considered the lostness of his kinsmen, and how Jesus lamented the unbelief of Israel teaches that we need not lay aside our love for the lost in discussing the eternal lostness being an appropriate punishment for their sin. Consider four truths.
1. Who Will Be in Hell
The hatred of God, the impatience, the lustful thoughts, the greed, the slander, the viciousness, all will stampede forth. The evil that showed itself in seed form on earth will grow to be forests.
We can see ungodliness ripen in our own life span. Little Adolf, sleeping in his crib, becomes Hitler. Jezebel casts aside her dolls to slay prophets. But these do not compare with the change to be seen when hearts fully harden, and they’re faced with the Master they hate. God cut down our life span to prevent such ripening (Genesis 6:3). While citizens of heaven are their most fallen on earth, citizens of hell are their most human.
John casts a ray of light upon the tormented in the book of Revelation. These creatures will still hate God, still curse the name of our Lord, still blaspheme the Holy Spirit who eternally dwells within us — even while under the pain of judgment.
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. (Revelation 16:8–11)
Between gnawing themselves in anguish, they still move their chewed tongues to curse our God. “Immortal horrors,” C.S. Lewis rightly called them. Preferring to be scorched than saved, they will share the fate of their father, the devil. What fellowship shall children of light share with these creatures when both are seen as they truly will be?
2. What Hell Says About God
Some, like Bell, believe that God cannot be glorified in hell. “The belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (Love Wins, 108).
Behold the wisdom of man. To which the apostle Paul responds,
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22–24)
Hell, like all of creation, tells of the glory of God. Bell says it doesn’t; God says it most certainly does. The Almighty is not embarrassed by it. God’s righteous vengeance against those who exchanged his glory and rejected him for a lifetime will not be conducted in back alleys. He shows his wrath and makes known his power. Why? In order to communicate the full riches of his glory to his children.
Contrary to how we might write redemption’s story, the lake of fire warms us with the reminder that our God is powerful, righteously severe, and abundantly merciful toward his own. Heaven will not be heaven, in God’s perfect plan, without the reminder of God’s righteous condemnation — this beyond, even, eternally exposing the scars of Christ. We will be sobered. We will be amazed. We will be thankful for God’s mercy to us.
“Hell, like all of creation, tells of the glory of God. The Almighty is not embarrassed by it.”
The unredeemed hate this. They begin to gnash their teeth already. Starting with men as the end of all things, they will not allow God the right of his deity: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). They show how presumptuous the creature can be when he tells God that he must save all men; when they are shocked — not that God would have mercy on any, but that he won’t show blood-bought mercy to all.
3. What Hell Says About Christ
In all discussions of hell, we must remember that God the Son knows it better than anyone else ever will — including all submerged in it forever. A thousand lifetimes later, no closer to the end than when they began, they shall not inch any closer to saying those words we find upon the Savior’s lips in the Gospels: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). With all the torment they experience, they remain but near the surface of that burning lake which Christ, out of love for his people, plunged to the bottom.
When Paul, the apostle who experienced unceasing anguish for his unsaved kinsmen (Romans 9:1–3) and labored for their salvation (Romans 10:1–4), considered the refusal of the creature to his Lord’s hell-assuming love, he said, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22). In other words, when he considered the refused proposal of Jesus Christ — who did not merely stoop to one knee to ask but stooped to the grave — he said, it is proper for such a one to be damned.
Did the King of glory travel from the celestial throne to a beastly stable to the garbage dump of a cross to submerge under the fire of God’s wrath — to be rejected by ants who prefer their lusts, appetites, and self to him? What must be the result when a world scrolls past the King of glory for lives of pornography and ESPN? Hell. God calls to the angels, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate. . . . They have forsaken me [and now my Son], the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:12–13). Hades testifies that preferring anything to Christ — not hell itself — is eternally horrifying.
4. What We Learn from Fairy Tales
Perhaps we should pay more attention to our children’s stories. The pattern is familiar: The pristine kingdom falls, the land is cursed, evil gains the upper hand. This sets the stage for the hero to defy the curse, and, at great cost to himself (self-sacrifice), conquer the dragon, ushering in the last state that surpasses the first — the light shining best for those who have seen darkness.
Yet remember how these stories end: the witch, the monster, the evil king and his henchmen, stand vanquished and banished from the kingdom. Have you ever witnessed a child cry for them? No child I have known protests the demise of Scar, Lord Voldemort, or the Witch-king of Angmar. While the analogy breaks down, as all analogies inevitably do, we should still ask why that is. Because we know the rightness of the villains being punished. We just don’t like the fact that we — and those we love — are by nature the villains of the narrative.
Both Old and New Testament writers exalt in something peculiar to our modern ears: God, the man of war, slaying his enemies. Modern man, made more in the image of secular humanism than the Holy One of Israel, wonders, Singing about God’s drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea — how can this be? (Exodus 15). Our spiritual ancestors celebrated God’s holiness, his power, and his love to save his people from their enemies — while the Egyptians deemed him unlovable.
“We are talking about a real hell for real people for a real eternity.”
But is this heartless? Unfeeling? Will we not be able to enjoy heaven while ones we knew are in hell? God’s Book, along with the fairy tales and great epics, teaches us that the death of the wicked defines romances and comedies, not tragedies. One day, the lake of fire will be filled, the evil warlord and all his minions will be conquered, and we will celebrate our King’s victory over those who cursed his Son’s name and devoured his people.
When we consider the story of eternity, we must silence that carnal protest that throws God in the dock to give his defense before our felt sensibilities. He is the potter; we are the clay. He is all-wise; we are all-foolish, apart from him. He is the Judge of the world; he will surely do right. And right includes hell; the casting of Sauron and his orcs into the utter darkness of Mount Doom. In so doing, he communicates the full range of his power and glory to his people, the full loveliness of his Son, and the perfect harmony of his purpose and plan — of which the redeemed will not detect a single off-note.
What do you do when you have tried everything, but joy still feels far away?
You have read your Bible — silently and aloud, five verses at a time, even whole books at a time. You have pasted promises on note cards, and whiteboards, and on the back of your hand. You have gathered with God’s people, unburdened yourself to friends, searched for unrepentant sin. You have prayed — oh, have you prayed — by yourself and with others, in your room and on long walks. Perhaps, in desperation, you have gone on spiritual retreats, fasted for extended periods, heeded impressions you thought might be from God.
But still, darkness. Silence. Doubt.
Does he hear me? Does he know me? Is he there? Am I his?
Sometimes, when joy feels far away, we need to hear some simple reminders.
By simple reminders, I do not mean simplistic solutions. You may have heard your fair share of those by now — counsel from people who, though well-intentioned, assume the problem is not that bad, the solution not that difficult. “Just do x,” they say. If they only knew.
“Seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people.”
The Bible never hands us such simplistic solutions. It does, however, remind us again and again of simple truths we are prone to forget. Such truths may not lift the darkness. But they may shine out to us like stars between the clouds, reminding us there is a world of light we cannot see, strengthening us to keep walking till dawn.
In Psalm 40, King David gives four simple reminders for those whose joy feels far away: Darkness is normal. God is near. Joy is coming. Hope in him.
Darkness Is Normal
David reminds us, first, that seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people. And seasons is the right word there. Psalm 40 does not describe an afternoon’s sadness, but rather a long and stubborn darkness.
Notice, for example, the length of David’s darkness. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” he begins (Psalm 40:1). We never learn how long David sat in the shadows. We know only that, for a time, he cried to the Lord and received in return that miserable word: wait.
Mark also the persistence of David’s darkness. At the midpoint of the psalm, David seems to have escaped “the pit of destruction” and “the miry bog” (Psalm 40:2). But then, unexpectedly, he falls back in (Psalm 40:11–13). His return to the pit almost undoes him: “My heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12).
Finally, observe the ongoing presence of David’s darkness. By the psalm’s end, David still finds himself engulfed in shadows. Instead of rejoicing, he laments: “I am poor and needy.” And instead of praising, he pleads: “Do not delay, O my God!” (Psalm 40:17).
David’s song of happiness lost, found, and lost again chastens our expectations for joy in this age. His experience, alongside that of so many others, reminds us that we must not grasp for heaven too soon. All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours. As long as we walk in a frail body, and carry within us a mortal enemy, our joy, though real, will be mixed with darkness.
The darkness, agonizing as it can feel, is a shared darkness. Shared with psalmists, prophets, and apostles. Shared with saints before us and beside us. And shared, of course, with our Savior. “We are not on an untrodden path,” C.S. Lewis reminds us. “Rather, on the main-road” (Letters to Malcolm, 44).
God Is Near
Black is not the only color on David’s paintbrush, however. This psalm, so full of melancholy, is nevertheless more than balanced by hope. Darkness is normal, yes. But God is near.
Even when David’s prayers seemed to sail unheard into the sky, they were in fact caught by the God who never left his side (Psalm 40:1). Even when David found himself in the pit again, God drew near to him with steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 40:11). Even when David felt poor and needy, his heart nearly failing him (Psalm 40:12), he could nevertheless say, “The Lord takes thought for me” (Psalm 40:17).
“All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours.”
“But if God is so near,” we might ask, “why is darkness normal?” Sometimes, of course, the darkness is our own fault, as David’s was, at least in part (Psalm 40:12). God has always been near, but we have walked into the pit ourselves. Often, however, God’s people sit in darkness through no fault of their own. And in those moments, we remember that the Lord who loves us — indeed, who has loved us unto death — has some purposes that can be fashioned only at midnight.
We need look no further than David’s greater Son, whose footsteps echo through this psalm (Psalm 40:6–8; Hebrews 10:5–7). Compared to the darkness Jesus endured, David’s was just a passing shadow. No one was nearer to God than his own Son. Yet no one’s path was darker.
Resist judging God’s nearness to you by the brightness of your sky. If you belong to Jesus, you are not forsaken or forgotten; your Lord, infinite as he is, takes thought for you (Psalm 40:17).
Joy Is Coming
God’s nearness, then, does not mean we will never walk in darkness. It does mean, however, that darkness is never an end, but only ever a means: the tracks, not the station; the pathway home, not the fireside. In the darkness, God tunes the strings of our souls, readying them for the coming praise.
In God’s time, the joy that seemed so far away from David returned: “He drew me up . . . and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2–3). The memory of joy lost and restored then emboldens him to pray at the end of the psalm, when joy has once again fled from him, “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” (Psalm 40:16).
David’s confidence in the coming joy does not mean his darkness was not so deep after all; it means that joy, for those in Christ, is always deeper and surer than the darkness — everlastingly deeper, infinitely surer. You may not feel the truth of it right now. But can you, in hope against hope, imagine yourself singing again, laughing again, telling everyone who will listen, “Great is the Lord!”?
Lost joy need not stay lost. For those in Christ, it will not. Though your joy in Christ seems barely to flicker right now, it will one day burst back into full flame. Even if darkness lingers in great measure for the rest of your earthly pilgrimage, you will one day stand firmly on the rock, your feet no longer slipping; you will one day sing a new song, your mouth no longer sighing. However much darkness you face in this battle for joy in God, it is, as Samuel Rutherford puts it, “not worthy to be compared with our first night’s welcome home in heaven” (The Loveliness of Christ, 21). Fullness of joy is coming, Christian. Exceeding joy, everlasting joy, world without end.
Hope in Him
The promise of coming joy does not belong to all who walk in darkness, however. It belongs to those who, even in their darkness, never stop seeking God. Notice the qualifying phrase in David’s prayer: “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you” (Psalm 40:16). David’s last reminder, then, comes to us as an exhortation: hope in God.
“Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.”
Keep waiting for your God, even when he tarries long. Keep clinging to his promises, even when it feels like he’s abandoned them. Keep crying out to him, even when you’re unsure he hears. Keep seeking his face, even when you want to least. Refuse the temptation, when you find yourself tired of waiting, to “go astray after a lie” (Psalm 40:4) — some refuge other than God that promises immediate relief. Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.
Soon, darkness will not be normal, but nonexistent. God will not be merely near, but visible. Joy will not only be real, but full, and forever. As Thomas Kelly writes in “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him,”
Then we shall be where we would be, Then we shall be what we should be, Things that are not now, nor could be, Soon shall be our own.
Article by Jon Bloom, Staff Writer, desiringGod.org
The wisdom of God is often only fully seen in retrospect. When man’s wisdom has passed as a fad, the mountain of God’s truth remains. Whereas time exposes the world’s wisdom, it will only vindicate God’s — and anyone who faithfully declared it to the world.
If you want a good picture of what the church looks like before the world, think of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Put yourself as an observer in the governor’s headquarters that morning, witnessing the interaction between the two. Who appeared weak and who appeared strong? Who sounded foolish and who sounded sensible? Which one seemed to be pursuing the best outcome for all involved?
You have got to be kidding! Pilate rubbed his eyes in exasperation.
For Pontius Pilate, the man standing before him was a major inconvenience. The Roman governor’s agenda for the day hadn’t included trying some renegade rabbi in trouble with the Sanhedrin. And first thing in the morning! The council wanted him to pronounce this man guilty of capital treason. Today. Before the Passover. Pilate resented the pressure. His patience strained at the seams.
He’d heard of this controversial Jesus before, but hadn’t felt a need to bother with him. The intelligence he’d received profiled just another Jewish mystical teacher. Some claimed he had miracle powers. But there’d been no reports of Jesus denouncing the emperor or calling for revolt against Rome. Apparently, he had even inspired some Roman soldiers, but there were no accounts of disloyalty as a result.
Easy Way Out
It wasn’t that Pilate had qualms over dispatching a Jewish troublemaker when needed. But this situation gave him a bad feeling. Jerusalem was swelling with Passover celebrants — not a good time for a political “dispatch.” If Jesus himself hadn’t called for revolt, executing him just might. He was popular with the peasants, and the Jewish zealots would seize any opportune moment.
Yet Jesus wasn’t helping his own cause. Had he no political savvy at all? In asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate had essentially offered him a quick exit from execution. All Jesus needed to give were a couple quick, clear denials and he’d be off Rome’s excruciating hook. The Sanhedrin would have to solve their own problem, and the governor could get on with the day’s important work.
But Jesus’s reply — “My kingdom is not of this world” — just made the unnecessary situation worse. Come on, man. If you don’t want to die, don’t mention a kingdom — imaginary or not — to the Roman governor! Now Pilate was forced to probe further.
Who Was Delusional?
“So you are a king?” Pilate asked. Jesus answered him, “You [rightly] say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
Pilate couldn’t help a sardonic snort. Just what he thought: a Jewish mystic with his head in the clouds. Delusional? Clearly. But a real political threat to Rome or anyone else? Clearly not. Jesus was a King of Truth whose only subjects were those willing to listen to his voice. Pilate figured they would never amount to enough for a rebellion. Plus, Jesus’s servants didn’t want to fight worldly powers (John 18:36). This was religious madness, not treason. Jesus didn’t need to be killed.
Then Pilate had an idea. There was a way out of this mess, a way to release Jesus so Rome looked benevolent, the Sanhedrin saved face, and the Jewish masses would be placated: the Passover prisoner release! As he got up to pitch the idea to the Jews, he sarcastically remarked to the King of Truth, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
World and Church
Sitting in his headquarters that morning, Pilate had the full authority of the Roman Empire behind him. Jesus appeared to have no one; he stood there “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3).
Pilate’s words must have sounded reasonable, given the apparent context. Jesus’s words must have sounded delusional and strange. Pilate seemed to be pursuing a politically pragmatic course that would stave off an unjust execution, frustrating but not alienating the Jewish council, and keeping the civil peace in Jerusalem. Jesus inexplicably seemed to do nothing to avoid crucifixion.
However, with the benefit of retrospect, we see that Jesus was strong and Pilate was weak: Pilate only wielded authority by God’s decree (John 19:11). We see that Jesus was wise and Pilate was foolish: the governor only found Jesus’s words unintelligible because he heard them as a “natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NASB). And we see that Jesus, not Pilate, knew what would make for the best outcome of all involved: Pilate had no idea of the peace Jesus was pursuing for billions as he sought merely to keep the peace of the city.
This is the position of the church in the world. Though God will station his people in places of governmental influence as “Josephs” and “Daniels” and “those of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22), the church will not wield the power of the world. It will stand in the weak places, saying truths that sound delusional to worldly authorities, and pursuing aims that will be misunderstood and misinterpreted. But its position will, in reality, be strong, because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
You Will Be My Witnesses
As Jesus witnessed to his governing authorities, and as Paul witnessed to his (and was told, “Paul, you are out of your mind,” Acts 26:24), so Jesus tells us, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). For some of us, that will literally mean “stand[ing] before governors and kings for [his] sake” (Mark 13:9).
But whether we’re called to stand before government officials or coworkers or neighbors or family members, what we have to say often will, in the immediate context, sound strange. We will feel how foolish it sounds to them, and we will feel our apparently weak position.
That’s when we need to remember Jesus before Pilate. What matters is not how things appear and sound in the awkward or even deathly serious moment. What matters is being faithful to the truth — even if that audacious-sounding claim only elicits a sardonic snort. What is ultimately significant, what God is actually doing in and through that moment, is frequently only seen in retrospect.
If you are a Christian, you know what it feels like to live with a madman. “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). If we feel prone to doubt such a bleak judgment, one sin in particular should convince us that Solomon was right: pride.
We are, every one of us, creatures of the dust. Yet we somehow find a way, overtly or subtly, to strut through the streets of the earth as if our strength were not fragile, our knowledge not narrow, our lungs not rising only because God gives us breath. Madness is the right word.
“Eventually, we must come back to saying, ‘I am a Christian because God made me one.’”
To be sure, every Christian has received a new heart — clean and pure, rather than evil and insane (Ezekiel 36:25–27). But we are not yet through with the madman. Pride, though forgiven, defeated, and doomed, still follows at the elbow. We wake, work, talk, play, and sleep with madness in our flesh.
Lately, the apostle Paul has been helping me to argue with my pride. In 1 Corinthians 1–4, he reminds us again and again of the madness of pride and the happy sanity of humility.
1. The pride of man murdered God’s Son.
We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:7–8)
Paul would have us remember, first, that the pride of man murdered God’s Son. The “rulers of this age” include not only Herod and Pilate, but also those Paul calls the “wise,” the “scribe,” and the “debater of this age” — in a word, the proud (1 Corinthians 1:20). When people like this meet a Savior like Jesus and a message like the gospel, they reach for wood and nails.
If we would see pride rightly, we need to remember the body count in its wake. Once fully grown, pride does not balk at murder — in the heart, if not with the hand (Matthew 5:21–22). Those who nurture and relish their own pride follow Cain into the field (Genesis 4:8); they ask Jezebel to advise them (1 Kings 21:5–14); they dine with Herod the Great (Mark 6:25–27).
The beginnings of pride look harmless enough — a posed shot on social media, a hidden hunger for approval, a contemptuous thought toward those whose opinions differ from our own. But here Paul shows us the beast all grown up, unable to recognize the Lord of glory though he stands before our face.
Destroy in me every lofty thought, Break pride to pieces and scatter it to the winds, Annihilate each clinging shred of self-righteousness. . . . Open in me a fount of penitential tears, Break me, then bind me up.
“Pride reigns only where the cross has been forgotten or distorted. Pride cannot breathe Golgotha’s air.”
Prideful men may have murdered Christ, but they accomplished only what God’s “hand and . . . plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). In God’s wise providence, pride crucified Christ — and the crucifixion of Christ destroys all pride.
Throughout 1 Corinthians 1–4, Paul takes us to the cross, bidding us to feel the splinters of the wood and the steel of the nails. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” he says (1 Corinthians 2:2). He knows that pride reigns only where the cross has been forgotten or distorted. Pride cannot breathe Golgotha’s air.
But how does the cross destroy pride? First, by reminding us that ours was the sin that nailed him to the tree. “Christ died for our sins” — our toxic mouths, our secret lusts, our strutting shoulders, our lofty eyes (1 Corinthians 15:3). John Stott writes, “Before we can see the cross as something done for us, we must see it as something done by us” (The Cross of Christ, 63).
Second, the cross destroys pride by putting a better boast in our mouths. Christ crucified does not remove our boasting, but rather redirects it from ourselves to him. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 1:31). Make your boast in sins forgiven, devils defeated, death undone, wrath removed, righteousness given, heaven opened. Breathe in the love of Jesus Christ, and breathe out the sanity of praise.
Christ was crucified for me; therefore, I cannot boast in myself. Christ was crucified for me; therefore, I have every reason to boast in him.
3. You are a Christian because God made you one.
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)
Once, Jesus was just another name from history, the gospel just another memory from Sunday school, salvation just another religious idea. Until I became a Christian. Then, Jesus became the sweetest sound, the gospel the best news, salvation a gift better than all the world’s wealth. How did that happen?
“Pride offers us something, only in exchange for all things.”
We are in Christ Jesus, Paul reminds us, not ultimately because we were born into a believing family, nor because we were smart enough to discern Jesus’s true identity, nor even because we were self-aware enough to see our need for a Savior, but rather “because of him.” Behind any outward circumstance that led us to repentance and faith is the Father who called us, the Son who sought us, the Spirit who claimed us. Eventually, we must come back to saying, “I am a Christian because God made me one.”
And, as Paul goes on to say, the middle and the end of the Christian life follow the beginning. We plant and water in ministry, but “only God . . . gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). We labor for holiness, but every exertion comes from “the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). We believe because God gives us new birth; we mature because God grows us; we reach the end because he keeps us (1 Corinthians 1:7–9).
When pride deludes us into thinking we are the author of some gift or victory, one question can snap us back to reality: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). When we cannot take ultimate credit for anything, we can finally give thanks for everything. All of life becomes a gift of grace, a reason for praise.
4. All things are already yours.
All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)
We find pride persuasive for a reason. For a moment at least, pride gives us what we’ve grasped for: the admiration of our peers, the eyes of passing admirers, the laughter of the crowd, the pleasure of being part of the in-group. But the purchase is costlier than it appears, for pride offers us something only in exchange for all things.
D.A. Carson explains the startling logic behind Paul’s simple statement “all things are yours”: “If we truly belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God, then we belong to God. . . . Everything belongs to our heavenly Father, and we are his children; so everything belongs to us” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 87).
When pride tells us that we are deprived of some good thing, Christians remember that our Father owns all things, and will so arrange our circumstances so that we can say with David, “I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). When Christians indulge their pride, we are like a prince who scrambles for a two-acre lot in his father’s kingdom, forgetting all that his father owns is already his.
Pride offers us something, but only for a moment. God offers to work all things now for our good and, in the end, to give us the whole earth (Matthew 5:5; Romans 8:16–17). For we belong to Christ. Christ, as the Son of the Father, belongs to God. And God owns the world. “Let the humble hear and be glad” (Psalm 34:2).
Article by Greg Morse, Staff Writer, desiringGod.org
“Never be ashamed of letting men see you want to go to heaven,” J.C. Ryle once said to those tempted to creep from bush to bush along the narrow path. He did not address those who were facing persecution — whose slight showing of the uniform would get them and their loved ones shot at. He addressed young men who were tempted to sneak quietly from this world into heaven for fear of the scorn shouted from those on the broad path. He addressed the Nicodemuses among us, and in us, who would seek to visit the Lord under cover of night.
This tiptoe Christianity does all to not disturb a sleeping world. It may appear valorous at times, but only on topics that it is fashionable to be valorous about. With causes out of cultural fashion, it dresses in civilian clothes. Very different from our forefathers who “turned the world upside down,” these tiptoe Christians do not desire to make it clear that they are seeking a homeland — no need to cause a fuss. The modern words employed are “tolerant” and “inclusive.” The old word was cowardice. We have need for Ryle’s admonition.
Joy Set Before Him?
While we are all tempted to hide our true aim in life, at different times and in different ways, we now are tempted to hide our desire to go to heaven by denying we even consider heaven at all. We seek to be servants of men without any regard to heavenly compensation, and call it virtue. We read texts like Matthew 6:1 with a dyslexic trouble with the sequence of words, “Practice your righteousness before men, and expect no heavenly rewards from your Father.” Trailing in the wake of Immanuel Kant, we try to make self-denial, stripped of self-interest, an end in itself. Heaven, the supreme place self ought to be interested in, is rarely glanced at.
“Tiptoe Christianity does all to not disturb a sleeping world.”
So, some venture on as ships sailing to nowhere, soldiers fighting for nothing, runners pursuing no trophy, farmers plowing but expecting no crop. The old self-denial of lesser pleasures for supreme ones has been replaced with just the denial of pleasure for its own sake. The sweat, blood, and toil is its own reward. We think ourselves the more virtuous for enduring the company of so-and-so with a smile, without ever considering how “love . . . for all the saints” could be “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:4–5).
A film I saw some years ago serves as a good illustration. The premise showed a man who spent the entire story in search of seven people he could drastically help by donating body parts to them — when he eventually committed suicide on their behalf. The heart went to one. The liver to another. The lungs and bone marrow to still others, and so on. Perhaps partially motivated by guilt from a car crash, one motivation remained clear: self-sacrifice for the good of others without reference to self. He entered death for them — without any joy set before him to defile the benevolence. This man, unlike our Savior who had two eyes beyond the cross to the reward (Hebrews 12:2), serves as a modern ideal.
Far Too Easily Pleased
In his paramount sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis addressed the same ideology in his day:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
The righteous seek heaven unashamedly. They do so before their religious neighbors who might consider the idea mercenary. And the holy man seeks eternal life with a passion not to be derailed by cheap thrills of his unreligious neighbor. He does not have the half-hearted, whimsical pursuit of happiness that contents itself with appeasing appetites no higher than a gerbil’s. He is a man, not a pet. He will not be distracted from heaven by the mere scratch of his lust’s belly. His desires have broad shoulders. And his master offers to place a weight of glory upon them — “Well done, good and faithful servant” — and he is fueled by Christ’s promises.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
“It is the great error of mankind to pretend to be more holy than God.”
What has a child of God to fool around with drink? “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). Why ambitiously build mud pies in Babel’s image when we have this promise: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21)? Why be detoured by Delilah’s wiles when the New Jerusalem awaits?
He Offers Us Heaven
Jesus does not give as the world does. To incentivize our fealty, he does not merely offer greater earthly joy; he offers us his own joy. We do not just need an alien righteousness; we were made for alien joy — a joy that when received will make our joy full (John 15:11). The righteous will not deny their conscious belief in God’s unblushing rewards, nor can they:
Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Like Daniel, Christians conduct their pursuit of heaven with the curtains drawn, accepting the king’s wrath, because we know that a lion’s den is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). We will endure the cost of suffering because we are “sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). Our Lord finds our desires for happiness not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with a passing world, when heaven is offered to us.
Not Ashamed to Seek Him
It is the great error of mankind to pretend to be more holy than God. Living life from sheer duty, gritting one’s teeth on the way to glory, is not Christian. We lose our lives, not as martyrs for the mere benefit of others. We lose our lives to gain them.
We can lambaste “the prosperity gospel” so much that we forget that our gospel very much has to do with prosperity. God’s Book woos us with talk of fullness of joy, eternal life, crowns, thrones, crystal rivers, unfading inheritance, white robes, laughter, mountains, songs, angels, feasting, fellowship, eternal light, the undoing of all wrong, the ensuring of all right, and, of course, of God himself resplendent in all his glory. We do not close our eyes to this in the name of duty. Rather, we listen to the music playing through the cracked door, and take hold of it with holy aggression, letting all know that we wish — more than anything — to be with our King forever.
When the eleven disciples saw Jesus after his resurrection, at the moment of receiving the Great Commission, in fact, Matthew tells us “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Do you find it remarkable that some disciples doubted this extraordinary phenomenon? I find it both remarkable and eminently reasonable. And comforting, because we find ourselves in good company when we and our brothers and sisters also struggle with doubts.
The Greek word translated “doubt” here (distazō) often refers to a wavering, hesitant uncertainty — a general lack of confidence. What made some of the disciples waver on that Galilean mountain? Matthew doesn’t tell us, which is the Lord’s mercy, I think. I imagine each doubter’s doubt varied to some degree, depending on his experience and temperament. Suffice it to say, strange encounters with the resurrected Son of God and the scope of the mission he was giving them, colliding with all their prior conceptions and contrasting with their experience of normal life, would have been a surreal experience for any normal person. It would be strange if some didn’t doubt.
Scholars debate whether or not members of the eleven doubted or whether the doubters were those among the broader group of disciples who may have accompanied the eleven to Galilee. The text seems to point to the eleven, but it doesn’t really matter. Doubt was present among the eleven and the broader group on and after Easter Sunday.
We know Thomas refused to believe Jesus’s resurrection till he saw Jesus with his own eyes (John 20:25–29). We know members of the eleven struggled to believe even what their own eyes saw when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them (Luke 24:36–43). And we know that members of the broader group of disciples doubted the initial resurrection reports they heard (Luke 24:13–34).
“Not all doubt is the same. Therefore, mercy toward doubters doesn’t always look the same.”
The remarkable and comforting fact is that some of Jesus’s first disciples, who personally saw and heard so many amazing things, doubted. Is it any surprise that some of us also experience a wavering, hesitant uncertainty — doubt — that what we have seen, heard, and experienced is all real?
This is why I’m so thankful that Jesus’s brother, Jude, wrote, “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22).
The brief book of Jude is mostly a sober warning against false teachers. Like John’s epistles, Peter’s second epistle, and Hebrews, Jude wants us to feel the seriousness of their perversion of and departure from the gospel so that we will persevere in faithfulness.
But in his closing remarks, he says, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” Jude uses the Greek word (diakrinō) that also means a wavering uncertainty, and as one dictionary puts it, “being at odds with oneself.” In other words, be merciful to those who are struggling over the competing truth claims. Don’t crush them or condemn them; help them.
I can’t help but think that Jude recalled how Jesus once showed mercy to him. Because there was a time when he doubted his divine brother’s claims, and Jesus at some point helped him (John 7:5). And there are numerous other examples of Jesus’s mercy to doubters.
Jesus’s Diverse Mercy
The New Testament uses a number of different Greek words for doubt, because not all doubt is the same and not all doubters are the same. Therefore, mercy toward doubters doesn’t always look the same. Some cases call for patient, compassionate understanding and encouragement. Some cases call for an exhortation or even a rebuke. That’s why we see a range of responses from Jesus toward those who doubted.
John the Baptist
In Matthew 11:2–6, we see a touching example of Jesus’s kindness to a surprising doubter: John the Baptist. God had revealed Jesus’s identity to John in utero (Luke 1:41) and by special revelation (John 1:29–34). But confined in Herod’s prison, likely knowing he wasn’t getting out alive, and likely experiencing significant spiritual oppression, John was second-guessing whether he had been right about his calling as forerunner. So, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
Jesus’s response was merciful kindness, intended to fortify John’s faith in his last, brutal days. Jesus does not break a bruised reed (Matthew 12:20). He knows when to deal gently with the doubts that assault us in the darkness of suffering and isolation.
In Matthew 14:28–33, Jesus addresses a different kind of doubt with a different kind of mercy. Peter had just exercised significant faith in Jesus, getting out of the boat to walk on top of the stormy sea. But when he was partway to Jesus, Peter realized just how incredible this whole experience was — people don’t walk on water!
“Jesus knows when to deal gently with the doubts that assault us in the darkness of suffering and isolation.” As he lost faith in Jesus’s power, Jesus let him sink. This prompted Peter to scream, “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30). Which Jesus did, along with giving this rebuke: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Jesus’s response was merciful disappointment, intended to imprint upon Peter (and the other disciples) the danger of transferring his trust (manifested in his fear) from the power of the Word to the power of the world. He knows when to deal firmly with the doubts that assault us in the storms of life that demand focused, persevering faith.
John 20:24–29, of course, is the most famous instance of Jesus dealing with a disciple’s doubt. When Thomas heard that the other ten disciples had seen the risen Jesus, while he hadn’t, he declared, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). We can only speculate what was going on inside of Thomas, but this is a different kind of doubt than either John the Baptist’s or Peter’s. This is skeptical doubt about the central claims of Christianity. It’s doubt in Jesus’s own predictions and in the eyewitness accounts of people Thomas knew.
Jesus’s response was merciful delay — he let Thomas sit in his unbelief for eight miserable, lonely, probably scary days. And then, when the time was right, Jesus appeared to him, saying, “Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27). He knows when to deal silently, and for how long, with doubts that assault us when, for whatever reason, we elevate our wisdom above God’s (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Wired to Doubt
I’m not addressing the issue of doubt as a dispassionate observer, but as one who is well-acquainted with doubt in its wide spectrum, including the kinds illustrated in the three examples above. And I believe I’ve received Jesus’s merciful encouragement, his merciful rebuke, and his merciful silence in response to my various doubts.
To some extent, I’m wired to doubt. This is partly because, like you, I’m a human being possessing a reasonable, yet fallible, capacity for rational, logical analysis, living in a world full of competing truth claims, uncertainty, error, and deception, and therefore nearly constantly needing to discern what’s true and what’s not. This is not easy.
“The fight of faith is hard. Doubt, in whatever form, is part of the hard fight.”
But it’s also partly because I have by constitution — and, I’m sure, conditioning — a kind of sensitive conscience that is fairly easily given to uncertainty that my perspective is accurate and that I’m doing the right thing. I’ve been this way as long as I remember. So, I’m familiar with riding waves that are “driven and tossed by the wind,” which James warns us about (James 1:6). His warning, like those of other apostles, is well-placed, and I’m grateful for its gravity.
But I am also grateful that James’s brother Jude included his kind, pastoral word to doubters and those who pastor them: “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 22). And I’m grateful for the varied forms of mercy Jesus showed to doubters.
The fight of faith is hard. Doubt, in whatever form, is part of the hard fight. Doubt is dangerous to faith and, to some degree, a necessary experience of believers in an age where “the faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints” is under constant assault (Jude 3), where well-aimed “flaming darts” are frequently being shot at them (Ephesians 6:16), and where believers on their best days see only “in a mirror dimly,” and know only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). On their worst days, this mirror can seem very dim indeed.
So, let us be merciful on those who doubt. Let us not crush them or condemn them. Let us learn from Jesus that this mercy takes different forms for different doubts — none of which is crushing or condemning. And let us tread carefully here, “praying in the Holy Spirit” that we may “keep [ourselves and others] in the love of God” (Jude 20–21).
I used to have a great life. I went on exciting vacations, cooked gourmet meals for my family, and painted everything from dishes to canvas. Sure, I had limitations from my childhood polio, but I was able to do whatever I wanted. Slowly, however, all that changed. Today I use a wheelchair to go where I once walked. I admire art I once created. I need assistance when I once only offered it. My world has grown smaller.
Decades ago, the words from 2 Corinthians 6:10, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” seemed admirable in theory but impossible in practice. I couldn’t imagine joy and sorrow even coexisting; by definition, having one meant the absence of the other. The only way I could have imagined rejoicing when I was sorrowful was if my temporary sorrow were to be displaced by swift, miraculous deliverance. Then I could rejoice, while everyone marveled at my faith and God’s goodness.
My Unexpected Sorrows
So, when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with post-polio syndrome sixteen years ago, I couldn’t see how I could find joy apart from healing. The doctors said there was no cure for my condition, and I would live with continual loss. To slow down the progression, they advised me to reduce life to a bare minimum and stop overusing my arms. As a wife and mother of young children, I was forced to make difficult choices daily, and new losses cropped up every month. It felt relentless. Honestly, it still does.
Today I can’t even make my own coffee, much less carry it to the table. I deal with ongoing pain that will only intensify. While this may sound depressing, it has surprisingly made me more joyful. I’ve learned to stop fixating on my circumstances and start rejoicing in the God who has drawn closer to me through them.
How I Still Rejoice
As my body weakens, God has become more real and present than ever. I can echo the words of Psalm 46:1, that God is my “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In all my trials, the Lord has never failed me, never left my side, never let me go.
“As my body weakens, God has become more real and present than ever.”
The Bible has become more precious to me because God’s assurances of comfort, strength, and deliverance are no longer simply words I’ve memorized; now they are promises that sustain me. Because I have to depend on God for even the smallest tasks, I must constantly look to him. It is a conscious decision to stop focusing on what’s around me and start focusing on God. It’s a choice I must make all day, every day.
As I have walked with God through the valley of the shadow of death, I have learned three great lessons for being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Before I can rejoice, I need to lament. This step is critical because it is only through acknowledging and grieving my pain that I’ve experienced God’s presence and comfort. Without this step, my words may sound spiritual and even eloquent, but they are disconnected from my life — I’m left feeling empty and alone.
I used to think it was wrong to lament. I would pretend my pain didn’t bother me, silently pulling away from God while outwardly praising him. I didn’t know how else to handle being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Since then, I’ve learned that God understands our lament. The Bible has given me words to use — God, in his kindness, shows us how to be real with him.
In the Bible, David (Psalm 69:1–3), the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7–9), and even Jesus himself (Mark 14:36) all asked God to take away their suffering, so I boldly ask God for deliverance as well. God doesn’t expect me to stoically approach pain, pretending it doesn’t hurt, but rather invites me to cry out to him and tell him what I long for. It is in this authentic, intimate conversation with God that he changes me. I tell him when I feel abandoned. I ask him for renewed strength. I beg for a reprieve from pain.
David begins Psalm 13 by saying, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1), and yet he ends a few verses later by saying, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5). What caused his new outlook? How could he go from questioning God one moment to rejoicing the next? For me, just as for David, this shift happens when I talk directly to God, expecting him to answer.
“In suffering, I often see God most clearly, perhaps because I am more desperate to find him.”
When I follow David’s example, my perspective changes as David’s did. My circumstances may be unchanged, but what’s happening around me is no longer my focus. Something inside me shifts as I read God’s words and pour out my unedited thoughts to him. God himself meets me, comforting and reviving me. One moment I am overwhelmed by the pain in my life, and the next moment I have renewed hope and perspective. Countless times, I have prayed Psalm 119:25, “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” And God has done just that.
2. Look for Him
In sorrow I have learned the joy of God’s presence. God is always with us and there is nowhere we can flee from him, but there are times I am more aware of him. In suffering, I often see God most clearly, perhaps because I am more desperate to find him. As Hosea 6:3 says, “Let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”
God comes to us as we look for him. I can echo David’s proclamations in the Psalms — I have found fullness of joy in God’s presence, and I’ve tasted and seen God’s goodness firsthand. This kind of joy is in God alone who comforts me, strengthens me, and assures me that he will never leave me.
3. Trust His Design
I have joy knowing there is a purpose to my suffering. My suffering was designed by God for my good — not to punish me but to bless me. Though I may not readily see or understand what God is doing, I know God is transforming me through my trials. My suffering has produced a resilient joy — one that leads to endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3–5). The things of this world are less appealing, and the things of God are far more precious.
After living through my worst nightmares, I have less fear of the future and more joy in the present. I am confident that God will be with me, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and I know he is working all things for my good. Being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” doesn’t mean we need to rejoice about our suffering, but that we can rejoice even in the midst of our suffering.
Yes, I used to have a great life, but now my life is even better. My sorrow has produced an overflowing joy that can never be taken away.