Friendly Thorns

I’ve been enduring some challenging times lately. Most significantly, despite my rigid adherence to my new diet, my Celiac Disease is causing me almost constant stomach discomfort, sometimes acute. Before people chime in with helpful suggestions (which I think we’re too prone to do when someone is suffering), rest assured that I’m pursuing solutions with my doctor’s help—dietary, medicinal, and otherwise. I hope there are some.

My point in writing isn’t to mope or seek pity, but to point you to a few resources that have been especially helpful to me. Many are enduring trials much worse than mine and might find help here. First, knowing my own pride, meditating on Paul’s experience of an unrelenting thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 has been instructive. Not only did the Lord allow it to persist despite Paul’s pleading for relief, but He used it for Paul’s protection and growth. And even though it was foisted on Paul by Satan himself, God was using even the Devil as a sanctifying instrument in Paul’s life. I love that. Paul’s physical malady was such a spiritual balm that it became a cause of joy to him. That’s good for me to read, though I acknowledge I’m not there yet.

Second, I rather randomly came across Piper’s biography of Charles Simeon on my MP3 player a few weeks ago. It ministered to my soul, as all Piper’s historical sketches do. It reminded me that trials are a necessary part of Christian life and ministry, and it urged me not to give up. I commend it to you. You can listen to it here or read it here (packaged with studies on John Newton and William Wilberforce) as a free, downloadable book. Yes, free.

One portion of the study especially stuck in my memory. It’s a description of a ship’s ballast, which I confess I’d never heard of or at least never noticed. Although we are struck with the lofty masts of weathered ships, it is the ballast—the unseen weight—that keeps them from tipping. It may slow them and make them ride lower in the water, but without the hidden ballast, the ship would capsize. Simeon and Piper use that picture to describe the necessity of humiliation, both in our spiritual estimation of ourselves before a holy God and in our life experiences. Life is not all masts and sails, all branches and leaves. Our Lord graciously allows unseen trials to root us to Himself, lest we fall. They are, then, evidences of His grace to us. They allow us to stretch higher in our knowledge and service of Him because we are plunging deeper in our need of Him.

As often happens, my meditations on these themes have taken the form of poetry. (At the very least, it was distracting from my discomfort over the weekend.) I’m not sure that what follows is complete or even good—I should probably sit on it a while before making it public—but it’s the expression of my heart at present and may be of use to you in whatever challenge you face. I hope so.

Depend on God’s sufficient grace, which may very well be shown in the midst of trials, not by relief from them.


Friendly Thorns

For ev’ry branch that’s high and green
A root dives downward, dark, unseen.
To stand when furious winds have blown
A tree must cling to soil and stone.
So Christians who would upward grow
Are anchored deep by secret woe.

Where tow’ring ships o’er oceans blow
Their heavy ballasts lurk below.
Though lofty masts draw sailors’ eyes,
The sunken burdens save their lives.
So we who race through waves and reefs
Are kept upright by hidden griefs.

The soul that stretches wide and tall
Must root itself to Christ or fall.
So God of pride and peril warns,
Then tethers saints to Him with thorns.
Thus friendly thorns are gifts of grace,
And uneased pains, His strong embrace.

Copyright 2010 All rights reserved.


What I’m Reading: God Is the Gospel

My pastoral and preaching ministries have been influenced by many solid resources over the years. No book has affected me more than John Piper’s relatively small book God Is the Gospel. If I could only recommend one ministerial book to students and pastors, this would be the one. It’s affected my life and ministry like no other. That’s high praise, but it’s not hyperbole. Let me illustrate anecdotally.

I preached a funeral shortly after Joe Tyrpak came to Tri-County Bible Church as our assistant pastor, around 5 years ago. He was fresh out of seminary, and I took him along so we could fellowship, talk about ministering the Word at funerals, etc. I told Joe that I do my best to make eulogies as personal and gracious as possible, taking them as an opportunity to let the bereaved know that I care for them and want to honor their loved one. In a sense, I think of a heartfelt eulogy as an opportunity to “earn a hearing” for the straightforward gospel message that will follow. So it was that day. I finished the eulogy, then preached the gospel, urging the hearers to repent of their sins and trust Christ so that they’d be ready for their own deaths.

Afterwards, I asked Joe if he had any observations or questions about the service. He was a bit hesitant—much more so than he would be now, for sure!—but he noted that in preaching the gospel I highlighted Christ as a way to heaven and out of hell, but I didn’t mention anything about people actually being reconciled to God. I thought about it, we talked about it, and life went on. I think I assumed that he was being a bit picky. However, shortly thereafter (I think at Joe’s urging) I began to read God Is the Gospel. My understanding of the gospel and the way I present it changed in a subtle but vital way. In fact, I think our entire church began to change from that time.

The gist of the book is that through the gospel, God isn’t merely offering pardon or life or heaven. He is offering to us Himself. He is justifying us, yes, but He is doing so in order that He might reconcile us to Himself. Christ suffered for sins not just to bring us to heaven, but to “bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Hence, salvation has an intensely relational emphasis. The tragedy of sin is rebellion against God. And the triumph of the gospel is reconciliation with God. So what will make life in heaven heavenly—and what makes life on earth heavenly!—is fellowship with God. So says Piper:

“What makes all the events of Good Friday and Easter and all the promises they secure good news is that they lead us to God. ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God‘ (1 Pet. 3:18). And when we get there, it is God himself who will satisfy our souls forever. Everything else in the gospel is meant to display God’s glory and remove every obstacle in him (such as his wrath) and in us (such as our rebellion) so that we can enjoy him forever. God is the gospel. That is, he is what makes the good news good. Nothing less can make the gospel good news. God is the final and highest gift that makes the good news good. Until people use the gospel to get to God, they use it wrongly.” (p. 42)

I read the book again over the weekend, and I was reminded how much of it has been absorbed into my thinking. John Piper has done some things and written some things with which I disagree, to be sure. Call no man master. But he has also written some wonderful things, highlighting vital truths of Scripture perhaps more than any other writer in our generation. I once heard him tell Mark Dever he thought his most important book was probably The Pleasures of God. Others would argue for his most read book, Desiring God. Still others would cite Let the Nations Be Glad or Don’t Waste Your Life. For my part, no book has left a mark on my heart, my appreciation of the gospel, and my preaching ministry like God Is the Gospel. It’s Piper at his best.

We don’t just have a great salvation. We have a great Savior.

(Update: You can get a free pdf of the book here.)

More on John Piper and Rick Warren

I’ve watched both of the videos in which Piper explains his thinking in inviting Rick Warren to speak at the 2010 Desiring God Conference (here and here) Though I’ve spoken often of my appreciation for Piper, neither video encourages me. Neither really alters my initial take.

  • He has put himself in the strange place of defending both Warren’s orthodoxy and the effectiveness of Saddleback, especially in last night’s video.
  • He has allowed for a great divide between one’s belief (the “left hand” in his earlier analogy) and behavior (the “other hand” in his analogy).
  • He has given Warren a great opportunity to make an apology for his philosophy of ministry—and I don’t mean “to say sorry.” I imagine that Warren will rise to the occasion, which will only muddy the waters further.
  • He has acknowledged that this is more than an effort to satisfy his curiosity (as some had guessed), but is an attempt to broaden the Reformed base.
  • He has, IMO, allowed his love for unity and theology to trump his love for purity. His great heart has overcome his great head.

I’m not just sounding off. I’m not out to get John Piper, whom I admire tremendously. But what Piper says matters. A lot. If his embracing of Warren doesn’t change the way T4G-type leaders think of the Saddleback model, it will undoubtedly do so for scores of students. And to say that he’s not embracing or endorsing Warren is naive, especially after watching the videos. Of course, I’d love to see him influence Warren, perhaps turning the church marketing genius into the next Spurgeon. Do it. Godspeed! But do it in private. Do it without putting him forward as an example.

It reminds me of counsel I give to young ladies with a heart for “James Dean” types. Sure, reach out to them. Pray for them. But dating isn’t a good ministry strategy.

I thank God for John Piper’s advancing in me and others a delight in God’s glory. As I said earlier, no other has influenced my thinking and preaching more. But this is a compelling reminder that while we learn from each other—while we thank God for and pray for helpful teachers—we must have but one Teacher (Matthew 23:8-10).

Piper on Leaders Zealous for God’s Glory

From chapter 1 of Let the Nations Be Glad, which I commend to you enthusiastically. Read it, or read it again.

“The zeal of the church for the glory of her King will not rise until pastors and mission leaders and seminary teachers make much more of the King. When the glory of God himself saturates our preaching and teaching and conversation and writings, and when he predominates above our talk of methods and strategies and psychological buzz words and cultural trends [and I might add obsession with humor], then the people might begin to feel that he is the central reality of their lives and that the spread of his glory is more important than all their possessions and all their plans.” (p 38)

Related posts which I encourage you to consider:

Piper on the Necessity of Disputation

Last week I greatly enjoyed this message from John Piper on John 1:1-18. It’s about Christ’s incarnation, but it contains a compelling call to arms and an explanation about the necessity of contending for the faith—adding disputation to education and exaltation, to use his words. Beginning at about 23:30, Dr. Piper says:

“I could wish—oh how I could wish!—we could move always directly from education to exaltation. Ah! Wouldn’t it be great?! Without the intervening disputation—controversy. Why is it that we have to move from education often through the shark-infested waters of disputation on the way to exalation? Because it can become so easily perceived that…’What you really love is disputation.’ It’s not what we love. I long for the day when this will be gone; it will be over; there will be no disputation, no controversy, no arguments, no heresies, no false teaching in heaven. I’ll be corrected, everybody will be fixed, and we will be one mind completely, and there will be exaltation and learning, and exaltation, and learning, and exaltation—forever and ever, with no intervening step of controversy. But here, it won’t happen. And if yo utry to make it happen—if you say ‘I’m not going to be part of that. Our church is just going to go straight from education to exaltation, and we’re not going to be part of controversies.’ You may last one generation, or two. It’s cheap to let everybody else do the dirty work and preserve the precious truth on which you stand. And it won’t last. It won’t last. Every one of Paul’s letters is called forth by disputation. We wouldn’t even have a New Testament if people acted that way.”

Amen. Very well said.

Two other sermons on John 1:1-18 that I’ve enjoyed are this one by Dr. Michael Barrett, and this one by Dr. Albert N. Martin.

Piper: “No, Mr. President.”

This is something out of the pages of a William Wilberforce biography:

(HT: MissioMishmash, here and here.)

Piper on TV, Movies, and Contextualization

fuzzy televisionThis is one reason why it’s inaccurate to write off all conservative evangelicals as worldly. Piper (who I’ve heard attribute much of his biblical insights to the fact that his mind isn’t cluttered with pornographic images; he’s seen something like two in his entire life, and those many years ago) speaks eloquently in this post about why he avoids almost all Hollywood entertainment. I summarize his arguments with 3 T’s: temptation, triviality, and time. It’s well worth the 60 seconds it will take you to read it.

Because he is providing an answer to a question that specifically contrasts his take on entertainment with Mark Driscoll’s, I think his denying that entertainment has anything to do with legitimate contextualization is especially helpful:

“I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. Sources of spiritual power—which are what we desperately need—are not in the cinema. You will not want your biographer to write: Prick him and he bleeds movies.

If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. Listen to her, not the movie. Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.”

The kicker? Many young men hang on Piper’s every word until he says something like this. It’s past time for those of us who appreciate Piper’s high views of God and salvation to also learn from his radical commitment to purity and industry!


Related MTC posts: