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Aligning Our Desires with God’s Revealed Will

One of the books we recommend in our weekly Gospel Encouragement is Paul Tripp’s devotional New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional. Each morning provides readers with a dose of conviction and encouragement. The last two Mondays (September 6 and 13) were particularly convicting. Both were about prayer. Here’s how last Monday started:

What do you define as blessing? What do you identify as a sign of God’s faithfulness and care? What fills your picture of the “good life”? When you say, ‘If only I had __________, then I’d be content,’ what goes in the blank? When you are tempted to envy the life of someone else, what are you envying? What causes you to question God’s goodness and love? What tempts you to be disappointed with your life? Be honest—what do you want from God?

As a seasoned counselor, Tripp knows that most people want control, success, acceptance, comfort, pleasure, and material blessings. Thus, he concludes:

Now, none of these things is inherently evil. It is not wrong to desire any of them. The question is this: ‘What set of desires rules my heart?’ This is important because the desires that rule your heart determine how you evaluate your life, how you make small and large decisions, and, most importantly, how you think about the goodness and faithfulness of God. . . . [M]aybe your struggle of faith comes from the fact that you don’t really value what he’s working to produce in your heart and life? (italics are mine).

I said ouch as I read those italicized words. The longer I ponder them, the more I see that I do not value what God is working to produce in me. What I count as a blessing and identify as signs of God’s faithfulness and care all center around . . . wait for it . . . me! My wants, my so-called needs, my desires, and my goals.

Setting those reflections against the entirety of biblical revelation, we recall that God invites us to make our needs known to him (Phil. 4:6) and pour out our hearts to him (Psalm 62:8). We do so, however, in a spirit of humility, submissiveness, and willingness to receive how God answers those prayers. We pray with a posture of trust-filled surrender, believing that God knows best.

Speaking personally, I plan to petition God to align my desires with his revealed will in Scripture. I think God wants me to surrender my life to him and demonstrate greater concern for what he’s doing in the world. I also sense that he wants me to be holy, submissive, loving, caring, and caught up in his ever-expanding reign in this world.

Will you consider praying the same for yourself and for your brothers and sisters at Crossroads?

No Insignificant Days

Jane Kenyon (1947–1995) penned one of my favorite poems. It’s titled “Man Eating,” and goes like this:

The man at the table across from mine
is eating yogurt. His eyes, following
the progress of the spoon, cross briefly
each time it nears his face. Time,
and the world with all its principalities,
might come to an end as prophesied
by the Apostle John, but what about
this man, so completely present
to the little carton with its cool,
sweet food, which has caused no animal
to suffer, and which he is eating
with a pearl-white plastic spoon.

Kenyon’s attention to detail is exquisite. I can almost picture this man enjoying his yogurt. But more than her vivid description, I admire Kenyon’s ability to block out all other distractions and focus her attention on someone else. I’m often too self-absorbed to be fully present with family and friends, let alone strangers.

But I had a moment like this in the early morning of August 20th while drinking warm, hazelnut coffee at Panera. As I pondered what I might write for today’s Crossroads Connection, a group of elderly women sat down at the table across from me. First there were two, but a third joined them several minutes later. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation.

They discussed the routes they take during their daily strolls in the park and the beautiful houses they enjoy along the way. They conversed about their daily schedules and the goings on and whereabouts of their grandchildren. They enjoyed a meal together and talked about life.

Several thoughts occurred to me in that moment:

First, I need to slow down and enjoy conversations with people. Even our small talk can echo into eternity.

Second, I’m too busy if I can’t slow down and enjoy a walk outside. The beauty of creation refuels and energizes me.

Third, life is made up mostly of seemingly unremarkable events. Some days we run, some days we fly, but most days we walk. Yet it’s those days that make up our lives. And since we live under the watchful eye of God, they are significant. They are the canvas on which God paints his faithfulness.

With mercy and with judgment
My web of time He wove;
And always dews of sorrow
Were lustered with His love;
I’ll bless the hand that guided,
I’ll bless the heart that planned,
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land. –
“The Sands of Time Are Sinking”

I think I’ll call some friends and go for a walk today. And, who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy some yogurt afterwards?

The Beneficence of Failure

Confessions of an Enneagram 3
Mentioning the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram) is controversial in Christian circles. Some love it while others loath it. The lovers say it can improve self-knowledge and lead to personal transformation. The loathers call it the “Enneascam,” and say it’s meaningless and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m not here to convince you either way. I can only say it made me ponder the shape of my life.

Here’s what I mean:

I’m an Enneagram 3, which means I’m an achiever. As you might expect, achievers pursue significance through accomplishments. And as obsessive strivers hungry for affirmation, few things are more unbearable to us than a life of anonymity.

If the narcissism in those words induced an eye-roll or two, I get it. I’m not proud of it. I simply cannot deny it.

Looking back, I now see that this drive to succeed started at an early age—especially in my athletic pursuits. I found success in baseball and basketball, and it made me feel like I mattered. And the dopamine hits that came in the wake of a standing ovation were addicting. This feeling of near invincibility made me think I could triumph in any sport—and I tried.

But in high school I met my match in wrestling (pun intended). It was the first sport that didn’t come with immediate success. And contrary to my expectations, my best efforts made no observable difference in competition. My low point came when everyone on the wrestling squad won their matches, but I lost mine. It was humiliating and embarrassing. After nearly sixteen years the loss still bothers me. Why?

Because I worship the idol of success.

The Dead End of Other “Lovers”
In the Bible, God frequently refers to idols as “lovers” (Hos. 2:5; Lam. 1:2) because he is our jealous husband (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Isa. 54:5) who is worthy of our highest devotion and who promises to satisfy us with his love (Ps. 81:10; 90:14). Thankfully, when other lovers lure our hearts away, he graciously places roadblocks in our path to lead us back to him: “Therefore I will hedge up her [Israel’s] way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths” (Hos. 2:6).

God loves us too much to allow our spiritual whoredom to continue. He will show us that disordered desires lead to dead ends. That’s what he did for me.

I now believe that God graciously wove failure into the tapestry of my life so I would feel the inner emptiness that only he could fill. And it worked.

Though I still have much to learn, the school of Christ has taught me two important lessons.

First, love is better than admiration. I recently heard Rich Villodas say that when we don’t feel loved, we’ll settle for being admired. Settling for admiration, however, is a cheap imitation of what we need. What we need is intimacy—with God and others. Consequently, all of our energy and zeal must move in the direction of loving, worshiping, and enjoying God, as well as pursuing meaningful relationships where we open ourselves up to trusted friends who refuse to leave when they discover what we’d prefer to hide.

Second, idols enslave but Christ liberates. Satan is a harsh taskmaster who makes bruising demands and issues harsh penalties. All the while, lasting peace eludes us because idols only raise the bar or crush us under the weight of their unceasing demands. The truth is that you cannot achieve your way into significance. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a goose chase without a goose. Jesus, on the other hand, is generous beyond calculation, and he provides rest: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). The Bible calls us to view life for what it is—a gift from God where we cultivate and employ the gifts he’s bestowed on us in order serve those under our care.

Conclusion
God’s providence never misses its target. The Grand Storyteller orchestrated that a fourteen-year-old high school freshman suffer the lone loss on his team to teach me an enduring lesson: I am not self-sufficient. I cannot self-fulfill. This is the beneficence of failure.

And this is why I want someone to read George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley” at my funeral:

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”

The Marks of True Repentance

During my sermon “Unfailing Love for a Faithless People” (Hosea 14:1–9)—which Vinnie preached for me!—I noted that the path to restoring our relationship with God is through repentance and reliance on Christ.

Besides a brief glance at the Hebrew and Greek words, my comments on repentance were minimal. To dig deeper, I would like to consider the marks of genuine repentance by directing our attention to 2 Corinthians 7:10–11:

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter” (ESV).

According to this text, genuine repentance consists of 1) earnestness, 2) eagerness to clear oneself, 3) indignation, 4) fear, 5) longing, 6) zeal, and 7) punishment (not a helpful translation—see below).

Let’s consider these seven marks together:

Earnestness – The word denotes an accurate perception of sin that eradicates indifference toward God. Since repentance is a gift of God (2 Tim. 2:25), it necessarily births “the strong, lively actings of love to Christ in the soul.”[1] As a result, genuine repentance manifests itself in obedience to God’s commands. Hence, Paul says in Romans 8:3–4 that “the righteous requirements of the law are met in those who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”

Eagerness to clear oneself – Genuine repentance moves us to identify the root cause of our sins so that we do not repeat them. Tracing our destructive behavior back to the lies that gave rise to their actions culminates in intelligent repentance. Such a practice—inconvenient and painful as it may be—mortifies sinful patterns and issues forth in new habits.

Indignation – Genuine repentance is accompanied by hatred toward sin. “Repentance is the vomit of the soul,” said Thomas Brooks (1608–1680).[2] Does the thought of sinning against God produce a gag-reflex in you? You have not repented if your sin does not bother you.

Fear – The fear of God follows repentance because one’s conscience has been awakened to his holiness, majesty, and splendor. Thus, the truly repentant person happily agrees with Calvin: “Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone” (Institutes 1. 2. 2).

Longing – Genuine repentance is marked by a longing to be restored to God and his people, the church. This is because conversion crushes apathy toward God: “Genuine conversion resembles a man that makes haste out of a city that is all in flames.”[3]

Zeal – Genuine repentance is marked by zeal to obey God.

Punishment – The word means “readiness to see justice done.” As an example, the truly repentant person says with Zacchaeus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8). To elaborate: Genuine repentance seeks to make amends when possible.

Conclusion

My goal is not to make readers doubt their salvation. The question is not: How bad do I feel about my sin? The question is: Do I in some measure give evidence of this in my life? Is my life marked by trust-filled surrender to God as he offers himself to me in the gospel?

And so we pray: O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule my heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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[1] Jonathan Edwards, “I Know My Redeemer Lives,” in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, eds. Wilson H. Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, & Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 158–159.  

[2] Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices (1652; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 63.

[3] Nathaniel Vincent, “Make Haste,” in Day by Day with the English Puritans, ed. Randall J. Pederson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 96.

Reading, Pondering, and Cherishing Scripture

I still remember the first time I read this sentence by J. I. Packer: “God’s purpose in revelation is to make friends with us.”[1] I marveled at the thought that the God of the universe wanted to be friends with me. Could it be true?

I now know that through the means of Holy Scripture God shares his life, light, and love with us. He communicates in order to commune with us. He reveals his character in order to elicit our trust. He announces the saving gospel of his Son to sweep us up into his reign of grace and fit us for the new heavens and earth: “The seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son became man, that God is Three and One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever.”[2]

Three exhortations follow:

We should read the Bible. The community of the redeemed should be a community of readers. But not any kind of reading will do. According to the classical Christian tradition, reading well requires learning a set of dispositions—studiousness, attentiveness, humility, modesty, docility, and patience. These virtues reinforce the truth that we receive God’s Word and sit under it as servants. We do not stand over it as interpretive Lords, nor do we sit beside it as God’s equals.[3] God is “absolute giver”; we are “absolute receivers.”[4]

Since God reveals himself not only to inform our minds but transform our lives, let’s prayerfully cultivate these virtues as God’s people, so that we might profit from our time sitting before his feet.

We should meditate on the Bible. I’ve noted in sermons that the Hebrew word for “meditate” means to “mutter, to speak in a low voice, to talk to oneself.”[5] Picture in your mind’s eye someone who whispers the truths of God’s Word under his or her breath throughout the day. Or picture a dog salivating over and chewing on his bone. That’s what we’re to do with God’s Word.

The best way for me to meditate on Scripture is to force myself to answer questions like the following:

Am I living in light of this? What difference does this make? Am I taking this seriously? If I believed and held to this, how would that change things? What does this teach me about God and his character? About human nature, character, and behavior? About church, or life in the people of God? What does this mean for my relationship with God? To myself? To this or that person or group? To this or that behavior or habit? To my friends, to the culture? Be concrete—is there something you must stop doing because of it? Is there something you should start doing? Why might God be showing this to you today? What is going on now in your life to which this would be relevant?[6]

We all prefer the secure confines of predictability and the armor of false peace, but the Bible urge us to open ourselves up to our Savior and taste the freedom of enslavement to Christ.

We should cherish the Bible. That God in his kindness shares a portion of his knowledge with creatures summons us to wonder, astonishment, trust, and gratitude.

I can do no better than conclude with Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), who shows us that God reveals himself to us in Scripture . . .

. . . to the end of re-creating the whole person after God’s image and likeness and thus to transform that person into a mirror of God’s attributes and perfections. Hence the object of revelation cannot only be to teach human beings, to illuminate their intellects (rationalism), or to prompt them to practice virtue (moralism), or to arouse religious sensations (mysticism). God’s aim in special revelation is both much deeper and reaches much farther. It is none other than to redeem human beings in their totality of body and soul with all their capacities and powers.[7]

And so we pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen (Thomas Cranmer’s Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent).

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[1] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 50, italics in original.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 71.

[3] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 76.

[4] Charles P. Arand, “Luther on the Creed,” Lutheran Quarterly 20 (2006): 1–25.

[5] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms: Volume 1, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 96.

[6] Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 148, 154, 158–159.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 346, emphasis mine.