Scene One: I’m in the kitchen on my knees, clinging to my wife, my arms wrapped tightly around her waist, pleading with her to hold me. My sense of desperation is tangible.
Scene Two: A few hours later, I’m lying face down on my bed with my forehead perched on my forearms, envisioning reading my resignation letter before the congregation on Sunday morning. My sense of shame is palpable.
These two scenes from nearly a decade ago sit in my memory like a houseguest you hope will get the hint that you’re ready for them to leave. But just as proper decorum requires you to entertain them until their departure, so likewise we must entertain (that is, give attention to) our wounds in order to wrestle meaning from them.
For what it’s worth, here’s the meaning I’ve been able to wrestle from a time when I was “sore-dismayed in mind,” to quote George MacDonald.
To set the stage, you should know that one of my prayers as I embarked on ministry back in May of 2013 went something like this: Lord, don’t let me be a statistic. Let me make it through the first five years of ministry without quitting.
Notwithstanding my earnest and frequent pleas, by September 2014 I was ready to quit. A combination of unrelenting criticism, poor church attendance, and a significant budget deficit—to say nothing of adjusting to rural life in a small town, few friends, and a non-stop sparring match with my Imposter Syndrome—made me feel like an underwater swimmer trying to reach the surface to come up for air. I needed air. I needed God.
The morning following the two scenes described above, I did what I always do. I brewed my coffee and headed to where I feel most at home—my study.
My appointed reading for that day was Psalm 119. While I had read this lengthy passage countless times, on this occasion my eyes were fixated on verse 75:
I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
Though I heard no audible voice, I clearly sensed that God was saying to me, “Joe, this is from me. I am doing this, and this is for your own good.” In his faithfulness, God was afflicting me.
But why, I wondered?
The heavens didn’t part with an answer. But since that time a handful of dead pastor-theologians have thrown me lifelines from their graves, and in turn have helped me make sense of a challenging season of life.
Diadochos of Photiki (400–486)
The first was Diadochos of Photiki—a fifth century Byzantine monk and theologian. He observed that God often takes his children through an “educative desolation.” God brings us low to mature us. And maturity always hurts. But the hurt gets our attention, propelling us into self-reflection—a prerequisite for spiritual maturity. God had my attention.
Eugene Peterson (1932–2018)
Next, Eugene Peterson helped me see that my prayer life may have been to blame for this “educative desolation”:
“When we pray we have a more than average chance of ending up in a place that we quite definitely never wanted to be, angrily protesting, preferring death to the kind of life that God insists on recklessly throwing us into. . . . We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. . . . Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.”
Prior to May 2013, I had been asking God to humble me. (Aren’t Christians supposed to pray for humility?) I had also been asking God to do with me as he pleased; to send me where he wanted to send me, and to use my life for his glory. But while I gave lip-service to wanting life on God’s conditions, once I realized what it entailed, I started having second thoughts. By that point, however, it was too late. My “educative desolation” was in full effect.
John Newton (1725–1807)
The third writer was John Newton. While reading his Letters in my study one morning, an audible yes! came rushing forth out of my mouth. Newton wrote to a young pastor:
“The Lord abhors pride and self-importance. The seeds of these evils are in the hearts of his own children; but rather than suffer that which he hates to remain in those he loves, he will in mercy pound them as in a mortar, to beat it out of them, or to prevent its growth.”
I had no doubt about this. God was pounding me—in his mercy. He was beating pride and feelings of self-importance out of me.
Though I would not have verbalized it this way at the time, I know that in the subterranean parts of my heart I believed that God owed me a better life than the one I was living through. Putting my life on the line for God, I believed, warranted him giving me a growing church filled with people who loved, admired, and supported me.
I was wrong. I needed humbling.
The truth is that God calls all of his children (but especially pastors), to live with a broken will—a life marked by zero resistance to his call and direction. But since no one signs up for this on their own, God often breaks our wills by breaking our hearts. Which is why Scott Hafeman was correct in saying, “A ‘pastor’s heart’ is a broken heart.” Pastors can expect an extra measure of trials because they must excel others in humility, meekness, and self-denial.
François Fénelon (1651–1715)
François Fénelon is the final author who helped me interpret my “educative desolation.” In a letter offering spiritual guidance to a friend, Fénelon urged:
“. . . you ought to give yourself up to his [God’s] just dealings, and accept his intention of nailing you to the cross in union with his beloved Son, Jesus.”
Today we call this cruciformity—a term that captures the idea that the shape of our lives will mimic the shape of the cross. As theologian Michael Gorman notes, to be “in Christ” is to be a “living exegesis” of the drama of Christ’s life, where exaltation follows humiliation. In order to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, we must first experience “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:11). If we want “the life of Jesus” to be “manifested in our bodies,” then we must always carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10, 11). Hence, Paul’s conclusion: “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (v. 12).
Each “educative desolation” God brings into my life “must be interpreted as an opportunity to forsake self-reliance,” and “a reminder that there is nothing life-giving in this mortal body but only in Jesus risen from the dead.”
If I had to choose a verse from Scripture to sum up that season of my life, I would pick Psalm 59:10:
“My God in his steadfast love will meet me.”
God showed up. God met me.
His Word connected to my life in a relevant way. His servants throughout history helped me understand what he was accomplishing in my life.
Let me ask you: What portion of Scripture has God used in your life in a significant way? How has God’s Word connected to your life recently? What authors have helped you make sense of the story God is telling with your life?
I’d love to hear your story.
 Cited in John Starke, The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020), 87.
 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 44, emphasis mine.
 Countless pastor-theologians have made this point throughout church history. See, e.g., St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 77, 94; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 33; Charles Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” in Lectures to My Students (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), or read it online here.
 François Fénelon, “False and Real Humility,” in The Complete Fènelon, trans. and ed. Robert J. Edmonson, CJ, & Hal M. Helms (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018), 10.
 William R. Edwards, “Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 455–469. See esp. 463.
Here’s my top ten books of 2023 in no particular order. I hope you find something that piques your interest.
Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 2 Volumes.
Theologian Fred Sanders once said that reading Charnock’s Existence and Attributes has to become a way of life if you ever hope to finish it. Well, I made it a way of life and, after 14 months of reading, I finally finished. It was worth it. I invite others to make reading Charnock a way of life. You won’t regret it.
Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender.
Christians need to read this book. We need to understand the philosophical underpinnings of transgender ideology.
We need to understand how we got to this place as a society.
We need a refresher course on the Christian anthropological perspective on human nature and the human body—namely, that we view the human person as a body-soul unity and that sexual differentiation between men and women is purposeful. It is not an accident.
We need to know that transgenderism is a creation heresy because it denies the goodness of the human body and the goodness of creation. Trying to unshackle ourselves from our humanity leads only to degradation, not flourishing.
Our performative culture has given rise to what some mental health professionals call “performancism.” This is the mindset that equates what you do or do not do, what you accomplish or fail to accomplish, with who you are as a person.
If I could give the younger generation (and older generation now, it seems) one piece of advice it would be: Permanently deactivate all of your social media accounts as soon as possible.
True, as Starke points out, the world will ignore those who “don’t participate in the systems of performance” (63). But I say get out anyway.
After you deactivate your social media accounts, pick up Starke’s book on prayer. Remember: “One of the great uses of Facebook and Twitter will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time” – John Piper
David Powlison, God’s Grace in Your Suffering.
Powlison is a gifted writer whose beautiful prose, rich theological insights, and wise application of biblical truth implants within readers an empathetic disposition toward strugglers crippled with grief, disillusioned by chronic pain, and doubtful of God’s love.
Structured around the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” each chapter orients readers to the chapter’s focus, applies a stanza to our real-life circumstances, and then concludes with a personal story from Powlison’s life. Finally, Powlison concludes with practical suggestions or questions for readers to answer—all designed to transform their lives in the present.
(Note: I read the following two books for my pastoral counseling course at Gordon Conwell)
You don’t need me to tell you that pornography addiction is a huge problem. The evidence is everywhere: High divorce rates, listlessness among young men, sex trafficking, abuse, and the degradation of women—to name only a few. Ortlund aims to counteract the scourge of pornography by reminding men of their calling and nobility.
Michael John Cusick, Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle.
As a former porn addict, Cusick writes with empathy and wisdom. He rightly notes that men who act out sexually must go “below the water-line” of their lives (42), and look beneath the surface of their actions, and unearth what is motivating their behavior.
After twenty-plus years of counseling sex addicts, Cusick delineates the seven core thirsts of every man: 1) Attention, 2) affection, 3) affirmation, 4) acceptance, 5) satisfaction, 6) significance, and 7) security (30–31). Sex addicts typically act out if these thirsts were not quenched by their childhood caregivers. While this does not excuse their behavior, it does explain it.
A second key insight was Cusick’s distinction between wounds of presence and wounds of absence. Cusick noted that sex addicts tend to suffer from wounds of absence—they were either neglected or abandoned as children.
One final insight that I will carry with me is his chapter on neuroscience. By showcasing what goes on in an addict’s brain, Cusick furnishes addicts with hope: Change is possible.
William R. Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding.
Read this book if you want to have better conversations with people.
(Note: The next two books are novels.)
Penelope Wilcock, The Wounds of God.
In the second installment of The Hawk and the Dove Series, the author transports readers into a thirteenth-century monastery, detailing their daily activities and interactions with one another. As I read, I found myself highlighting large swaths of conversations between the brothers. It’s a virtual show and tell of how to engage in meaningful conversations with humility, self-awareness, and empathy.
William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace.
Though not classified as such, this is essentially a whodunnit.
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River.
I spent a significant amount of time reading this novel, so I feel like it belongs here—if for no other reason than to justify the hours I put into it. Good storyline, interesting characters, and lots of memorable lines.
Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
All in all, this is Classic Keller. Easy to read, excellent cultural analysis, and lots of insights to take with you into your daily life.
I do have a quibble, however. I found Keller to be uncharacteristically imprecise with regard to his treatment on divine impassibility. On more than a few occasions, Keller spoke about “God suffering,” or “the suffering of God,” without qualifying his statements.
As an ordained minister in the PCA, I know Keller affirms that “There is but one only living and true God, who is without . . . passions,” (WCF 2.1), which is why his language confused me. I would have expected Keller to specify that God the Son suffered, or that he would refer to the suffering of the Son of God. But he didn’t.
Forgive me if this seems overly scrupulous, but I can’t forget Nicholas Lash’s comment that “theology is the practice of learning to watch our words before God.”
Happy reading in 2024!
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul calls upon Christians to “pray without ceasing.” But what does that mean? I recently got some help from reading the Puritan pastor Ezekiel Hopkins (1633–1690). He observed: “To pray without ceasing is not to be engaged in the duty of prayer at all times so that other duties are swallowed up in its place.” Rather, it is “to pray with importunity and emotion.” It is to talk to God with frankness and honesty.
Thankfully, we can do this anywhere and at any time. “If our heart and affections are heavenly, they will force out a prayer through the crowd and tumult of worldly business.” In other words, we carry on a conversation with God throughout the day. We might actually pour out our petitions to God while in conversation with a co-worker or friend. We silently voice our needs to God as they well up within us.
Hopkins eventually offers this summary of 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “This is probably the most genuine and natural sense of the words of the Apostle here: to have the habit of always freely and sweetly breathing out our requests unto God. It is to take all occasions to prostrate ourselves before the throne of grace.”
And in case we need some encouragement, ponder these precious words: “Nothing is so desirable in this world as a faithful friend, to whom we may at all times unburden ourselves, and make all our secrets and grievances known. . . . [God] is our most faithful friend who can best help and counsel us.”
I encourage to maintain an ongoing conversation with God this week, remembering that you can speak to him as you would the closest friend you have on earth.
In volume 2 of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, he has an especially moving section on how God’s goodness in redemption exceeds God’s goodness in creation. I share it with you this week in hopes that it will touch your heart and move you to worship:
He has sought us out when we were lost and ransomed us when we were captives; he has pardoned us when we were condemned and raised us when we were dead. In creation, he reared us from nothing; in redemption, he delivers our understanding from ignorance and vanity, our wills from impotence and obstinacy, and our whole man from a death worse than that nothingness he drew us from by creation. . . . His generosity in the gospel does infinitely surpass what we admire in the works of nature. His goodness in the latter is more astonishing to our belief than his goodness in creation is visible to our eye. There is more of his bounty expressed in that one verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), than there is in the whole volume of the world. . . . In creation, he formed an innocent creature from the dust of the ground; in redemption, he restores a rebellious creature by the blood of his Son. . . .
For the effecting of this, God parts with his dearest treasure, and his Son eclipses his choicest glory; for this, God must be made man, eternity must suffer death, the Lord of angels must weep in a cradle, and the Creator of the world must hang like a slave. He must be in a manger in Bethlehem and die upon a cross on Calvary; unspotted righteousness must be made sin, and unblemished blessedness be made a curse. He was at no other expense than the breath of his mouth to form man. The fruits of the earth could have maintained innocent man without any other cost, but his broken nature cannot be healed without the invaluable medicine of the blood of God.
View Christ in the womb and in the manger, in his weary steps and hungry stomach, in his prostrations in the garden and in his clotted drops of bloody sweat; view his head pierced with a crown of thorns and his face besmeared with the soldiers’ saliva; view him in his march to Calvary, his elevation on the painful cross with his head hanged down, and his side streaming blood; view him pelted with the scoffing of the governors and the derision of the rabble: and see in all this what cost Goodness was at for man’s redemption. In creation his power made the sun to shine upon us, and in redemption his compassion sent a Son to die for us (1255, 1256).
This past Sunday I preached on Psalm 73. And in God’s good providence, I read some of Richard Sibbes’s (1577–1635) remarks on this wonderful Psalm:
Carnal reasoning will tell you that God does not see or govern, but has left the earth. But as we go into the presence of God we learn that all things are beautiful in their time (Eccl. 3:11). All of God’s ways are merciful and true though we might feel forsaken at the present. The Holy Spirit teaches us to see that God is our best friend, and that he will never forsake us. He is always present in power and providence by his Spirit in supporting, comforting, and strengthening the hearts of his children. God alone can fill every corner of the soul of man. God is a fountain that will never run dry.
If it is good to be near God, then the nearer we are to him, makes it even better. Man must not neglect God for any reason, and it is good to lose all for God. Why? Because we have riches in him, liberty in him, and all in him. A man may be a king on earth, a yet a prisoner in himself. If we lose anything, even our own life for God, we shall save it. Taste and see how good God is (Ps. 34:8). How excellent is your lovingkindness, which you have laid up for them that fear you! (Ps. 36:7). “How precious to me are your thoughts, God!” (Ps. 139:17).
Labor to be near him. God is near to all that call upon him. There is not a minute of time in all our life but we must either near to God or we will be undone. We must grow in our understanding and fill our thoughts with him. The soul is never at rest till it rests in him. The soul grows in the Spirit and finds sweet communion. Our affections mount up in prayer as in a fiery chariot to hear him speak to us, seeking comfort in our distresses. Draw near to him in praise. This is the daily work of the angels and saints in heaven. Let us lift up our hearts with joy inexpressible (1 Pet. 1:8).