God Plans for the Unexpected and Inconvenient

God Plans for the Unexpected and Inconvenient

When Luke recorded his version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2–4), he included Jesus expounding on this prayer through an odd parable that would have made his original hearers cringe:

“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:5–8)

What’s odd is that a story about a socially humiliating situation and a reluctant, irritated benefactor is supposed to encourage us to pray. What does Jesus want us to see in this kind of need and this kind of provider?

1. Expect Unexpected Needs

The first thing to see is that the protagonist’s guest was unexpected. Jesus’s original hearers would have implicitly understood this.

In first-century near-Eastern cultures, having no food to offer a guest was deeply shameful. Note that this man would rather wake his sleeping friend’s entire family in the middle of the night than fail to provide food for his unexpected guest. Both situations (no food and sleeping friend) would have been deeply embarrassing and he would have avoided them if at all foreseen.

Lesson One: Jesus wants us to expect unexpected needs and respond to them.

2. Prepare Yourself for Inconvenience

A second thing to see is that the protagonist’s unexpected guest arrives at midnight. Of course it would have to be midnight.

Most of us today would consider midnight an inconvenient time to meet an unexpected need. Back then it was a really inconvenient time. We could assume our protagonist also had a family who also had their sleep interrupted. It’s not hard to imagine the crankiness and culturally equivalent grumbling whispers of “Are you serious?” when suddenly forced to entertain an unexpected midnight guest — especially when there’s no food to offer them. With no 24-hour convenience stores, and no phones to discreetly call for help, the man is required to trudge over to a friend’s house in the dead of night, and wake an entire family to ask for three small loaves of bread.

Lesson Two: Jesus wants us to expect to respond to unexpected needs at very inconvenient times.

3. Admit Your Insufficiency

A third thing to notice is what the protagonist says to his sleepy friend: “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.”

“I have nothing.” These are powerful words about impotence. The man in the parable found himself suddenly called on to respond to a need he lacked the resources to meet, and this forced him to beg provision from someone who had the resources.

Remember, this is a parable about prayer, not hospitality. In the man’s words, “I have nothing,” Jesus means for us to see our condition before God. Does this not describe our frequent sense of desperation in the face of someone else’s need? I feel this daily as a husband, father, friend, pastor, writer — as a Christian. I don’t have resident in me the resources to meet the needs around me. Our lack tempts us to avoid others’ needs rather than expose our insufficiency.

But Jesus not only knows our impoverished condition; he designed it. He’s the Vine; we’re the branches. “Apart from [him we] can do nothing” (John 15:5). He wants us to feel keenly that we have nothing to offer on our own because this desperation moves us to ask God for what we need. That’s why immediately after telling this parable, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).

Lesson Three: Jesus wants our inability to meet unexpected, inconvenient needs to drive us to plead with God to supply the resources we need to serve others.

4. Remember God Is Eager to Help

A fourth thing to notice is the sleepy friend’s reluctance to help his desperate friend. This is what really makes the parable odd. The sleepy friend doesn’t want to be bothered. This forces the already inconvenienced and humiliated protagonist to become impudent (stubbornly persistent) in begging for help.

Why did Jesus use a reluctant friend to encourage us in prayer? We can see his reason in a similar point he made a few sentences later:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

Jesus’s point here is that our heavenly Father is more inclined to give us good gifts than we evil fathers are inclined to give our children good gifts. Similarly, the friend’s reluctance in the parable is not a reflection of our heavenly Father; he is a contrast to our heavenly Father. If a selfish, inconvenience-avoiding friend can be moved by “impudence” to meet his friend’s need, how much more will our eager, generous heavenly Father be moved by our persistent prayers! If God delays in answering our prayers, it is not due to reluctance on his part.

Lesson Four: Jesus wants us to respond to unexpected, inconvenient needs we cannot meet, with persistent prayer, remembering our Father’s eagerness to provide for us.

Will You Accept the Invitation?

This odd parable about prayer is a wonderful gift. Jesus is reassuring us that unexpected needs, arising at the most inconvenient times, which are beyond our ability to meet, and so press us to plead with God for provision, are part of the normal Christian life.

They are, in fact, God’s design. Few things have the power to make people feel more loved than our willingness to joyfully sacrifice to make them a priority. And few things honor God more than our willingness to really trust him to provide for our needs. The two forces combine when we face unexpected, inconvenient, overwhelming needs. They are opportunities to sacrificially love like Jesus and radically trust in Jesus at the same time.

When It’s Hard to Believe

When It’s Hard to Believe

Believing what we cannot see is hard. All of us are skeptics to some degree. Some more than others. But there is often more going on inside a skeptic than meets the eye. And, as Thomas’s experience illustrates (John 20:24–29), Jesus knows how to reach them.

The following imaginative story explores what it might have been like for Thomas to linger alone in his skepticism for eight long days. I have combined John’s account with accounts in the other Gospels to put together a new fictional account for fellow skeptics.

It Can’t Be True

Jesus’s death had been difficult and confusing for everyone. Having been welcomed into Jerusalem like a king, he was dead before the week was over. And when the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). But they regathered in a secret hideout in Jerusalem.

On Sunday things took a weird twist. It began with Mary Magdalene insisting that she had seen Jesus alive that morning. True, Jesus’s body disappearing was admittedly strange. But still, everyone knew Jesus had really died. No one could really believe Mary’s claim, except maybe John.

Then later in the day Peter announced that he also had seen Jesus alive. This troubled Thomas. But he figured he could cut Peter some slack. After denying Jesus publicly, who could blame Peter for desperately wishing it to be true? He just needed time.

But then Cleopas burst into the house Sunday night claiming that he had walked — walked! — with Jesus to Emmaus that afternoon (Luke 24:13–35). What Thomas found particularly hard to believe was that Cleopas and his friend hadn’t recognized Jesus the entire time until dinner, and then poof! he just disappeared.

Well, this excited everyone else. But Thomas only felt agitated. He desperately missed Jesus too, but he wasn’t going to let grief make him believe the bizarre. Jesus was dead.

Yet he didn’t feel like dousing everyone’s unreal hope with a wet blanket of reality. They weren’t ready to hear it anyway. Thomas decided he needed to clear his head with a walk. By himself.

Could It Be True?

After whispering a discreet excuse to Nathaniel, he managed to slip outside without notice. After being very careful not to betray the hideout, he covered his head and started down an empty street.

The quiet was refreshing, but the walk wasn’t as helpful as he had hoped. The Jesus sightings disturbed him, especially because the witnesses were credible. He knew them. They weren’t liars. They weren’t unstable. None were given to delusions. Peter, particularly, was a rock of reason.

A rush of memories from the past three years flowed through Thomas’s mind. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus.

And Jesus had seemed to know that he was going to die in Jerusalem. He had said those strange things about his death and resurrection.

Suddenly Thomas realized he was arguing with himself. His agitation really wasn’t over his friends’ failure to face the facts. The facts, in fact, were now confusing. He was agitated because part of him actually believed Jesus was alive again. That’s what Jesus had meant, wasn’t it? But this frustrated the skeptic in him who took pride in being a man of common sense. A resurrection just seemed too incredible to be true.

The more he thought, the less sure he became. No one knew where Jesus’s body was. Those who claimed to have seen him were people he trusted. It would make sense of certain prophecies. Could it be?

His skeptic side shouted within him, Show me the body! At least Lazarus could be seen and touched in Bethany by any doubter. If Jesus really was alive, why this game of hide and seek? Wouldn’t he just show himself to them all?

He would believe Jesus was alive if he saw him alive for himself.

Stubborn, Lonely Doubter

When Thomas returned to the house, four of his friends pounced on him (John 20:24), “We have seen the Lord, Thomas! It’s all true! He was just with us! Where were you?”

Thomas felt a surge of shock and unbelief. Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus.

In self-pity-fueled anger, he blurted out with more conviction than he felt, “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).

Most of his friends were dismayed. But Peter just watched him, smiling slightly.

The following eight days were long and lonely for Thomas. His friends were gracious. No one debated him. It was, in fact, their calm confidence in Jesus’s resurrection that aggravated Thomas’s growing conviction that he was wrong. Outside he tried to maintain a façade of resolute intellectual skepticism, but inside he was wrestling and melting and wanting more than anything to see Jesus too.

Surrender

And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).

Thomas could hardly breathe. Jesus spoke to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

All objections and resistance in Thomas evaporated. And in tears of repentance, relief, and worship Thomas dropped on his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Be Patient and Prayerful

Be patient and gracious with the skeptics in your life. Don’t assume their outward confidence accurately reflects their inward condition. Keep praying for them and share what seems helpful when it seems helpful. Keep confidently and humbly following Jesus. And trust his timing. He knows best how and when to reveal himself to each of us.

When It’s Hard to Believe

When It’s Hard to Believe

Believing what we cannot see is hard. All of us are skeptics to some degree. Some more than others. But there is often more going on inside a skeptic than meets the eye. And, as Thomas’s experience illustrates (John 20:24–29), Jesus knows how to reach them.

The following imaginative story explores what it might have been like for Thomas to linger alone in his skepticism for eight long days. I have combined John’s account with accounts in the other Gospels to put together a new fictional account for fellow skeptics.

It Can’t Be True

Jesus’s death had been difficult and confusing for everyone. Having been welcomed into Jerusalem like a king, he was dead before the week was over. And when the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered (Mark 14:27). But they regathered in a secret hideout in Jerusalem.

On Sunday things took a weird twist. It began with Mary Magdalene insisting that she had seen Jesus alive that morning. True, Jesus’s body disappearing was admittedly strange. But still, everyone knew Jesus had really died. No one could really believe Mary’s claim, except maybe John.

Then later in the day Peter announced that he also had seen Jesus alive. This troubled Thomas. But he figured he could cut Peter some slack. After denying Jesus publicly, who could blame Peter for desperately wishing it to be true? He just needed time.

But then Cleopas burst into the house Sunday night claiming that he had walked — walked! — with Jesus to Emmaus that afternoon (Luke 24:13–35). What Thomas found particularly hard to believe was that Cleopas and his friend hadn’t recognized Jesus the entire time until dinner, and then poof! he just disappeared.

Well, this excited everyone else. But Thomas only felt agitated. He desperately missed Jesus too, but he wasn’t going to let grief make him believe the bizarre. Jesus was dead.

Yet he didn’t feel like dousing everyone’s unreal hope with a wet blanket of reality. They weren’t ready to hear it anyway. Thomas decided he needed to clear his head with a walk. By himself.

Could It Be True?

After whispering a discreet excuse to Nathaniel, he managed to slip outside without notice. After being very careful not to betray the hideout, he covered his head and started down an empty street.

The quiet was refreshing, but the walk wasn’t as helpful as he had hoped. The Jesus sightings disturbed him, especially because the witnesses were credible. He knew them. They weren’t liars. They weren’t unstable. None were given to delusions. Peter, particularly, was a rock of reason.

A rush of memories from the past three years flowed through Thomas’s mind. He had seen so many things that would have been unbelievable if he hadn’t seen them. Most haunting right now was Lazarus.

And Jesus had seemed to know that he was going to die in Jerusalem. He had said those strange things about his death and resurrection.

Suddenly Thomas realized he was arguing with himself. His agitation really wasn’t over his friends’ failure to face the facts. The facts, in fact, were now confusing. He was agitated because part of him actually believed Jesus was alive again. That’s what Jesus had meant, wasn’t it? But this frustrated the skeptic in him who took pride in being a man of common sense. A resurrection just seemed too incredible to be true.

The more he thought, the less sure he became. No one knew where Jesus’s body was. Those who claimed to have seen him were people he trusted. It would make sense of certain prophecies. Could it be?

His skeptic side shouted within him, Show me the body! At least Lazarus could be seen and touched in Bethany by any doubter. If Jesus really was alive, why this game of hide and seek? Wouldn’t he just show himself to them all?

He would believe Jesus was alive if he saw him alive for himself.

Stubborn, Lonely Doubter

When Thomas returned to the house, four of his friends pounced on him (John 20:24), “We have seen the Lord, Thomas! It’s all true! He was just with us! Where were you?”

Thomas felt a surge of shock and unbelief. Then he felt regret for having left. Then he felt isolated. He was the only one who hadn’t seen Jesus.

In self-pity-fueled anger, he blurted out with more conviction than he felt, “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).

Most of his friends were dismayed. But Peter just watched him, smiling slightly.

The following eight days were long and lonely for Thomas. His friends were gracious. No one debated him. It was, in fact, their calm confidence in Jesus’s resurrection that aggravated Thomas’s growing conviction that he was wrong. Outside he tried to maintain a façade of resolute intellectual skepticism, but inside he was wrestling and melting and wanting more than anything to see Jesus too.

Surrender

And then it happened. Thomas was staring at the floor, sinking again under the fear that maybe Jesus had rejected him because of his stubborn unbelief. If so, he knew he deserved it. Then someone gasped. He looked up and his heart leaped into his throat! Jesus was standing across the room looking at him. “Peace be with you” (John 20:26).

Thomas could hardly breathe. Jesus spoke to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

All objections and resistance in Thomas evaporated. And in tears of repentance, relief, and worship Thomas dropped on his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Be Patient and Prayerful

Be patient and gracious with the skeptics in your life. Don’t assume their outward confidence accurately reflects their inward condition. Keep praying for them and share what seems helpful when it seems helpful. Keep confidently and humbly following Jesus. And trust his timing. He knows best how and when to reveal himself to each of us.

Look, the World Has Gone After Him: Prelude to Palm Sunday

Look, the World Has Gone After Him

We know from the apostle John why Palm Sunday happened:

The crowd that had been with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. (John 12:17–18)

The Sunday parade of palms was a celebration of a resurrection.

A Confusing Providence

But that resurrection was preceded by a confusing death.

Lazarus had died. We don’t know what he died of, only that he was “ill” (John 11:1). The Bible rarely provides grisly details. But death by illness in the First Century, with none of the medical aids we modern Westerners take for granted, was no doubt horrible.

His death brought profound grief to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who had nursed him as best they could. And Jesus, their dear friend, who also happened to be the greatest healer in the history of the world, had not come. This added grief upon grief for the sisters (John 11:21, 32). Jesus had not even made it for the funeral. When he finally did show up, Lazarus’s corpse had already begun to decompose.

“Why?” “Where were you?” These were the implied agonizing questions both sisters expressed to Jesus. They weren’t the only ones asking. Others present were muttering, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37) He had saved others. Could he not have saved Lazarus? To Martha, Jesus gave an ambiguous hint of his purpose (John 11:23), but he was too troubled in spirit to say much to Mary (John 11:33).

And then within a matter of minutes Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were in a tri-fold embrace, weeping together with unexpected, ineffable, awe-filled joy! Jesus had done exactly what he foretold: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).

A Plan of Prescient Precision

But so much more was going on than the happy siblings, or the stunned observers, or even Jesus’s disciples understood. Not only did this resurrection demonstrate with unprecedented power the reality of who Jesus was, it also set in motion the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Word of Lazarus’s resurrection naturally spread like wildfire. The Jewish authorities’ serious concern over Jesus escalated to alarm. They plotted to murder him (John 11:47–50).

Jesus laid low for a few weeks, and then reappeared in Bethany to share one last and remarkable supper at the Bethany home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The remarks got out quickly, and soon a large crowd gathered to get a glimpse not only of Jesus but also of the newly resurrected and probably reluctant celebrity (John 12:9). Being a celebrity for rising from the dead was ironically proving to be deadly, since the authorities were planning to take Lazarus out along with Jesus (John 12:10–11).

But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. The timing of Lazarus’s horrible death, of his astonishing resurrection, of Jesus’s laying low, and now of his public reappearance was all coordinated with a prescient precision that would not be noticed until later (John 12:16). His hour had come at last. He would no longer lay low. The news must spread. It was time for the ancient gates to raise their heads, and the ancient doors to lift in homage. The King of glory was on his way (Psalm 24:7).

A Prophetic Procession

And so the news spread, and so the crowd swelled to receive in procession the One who had raised a man from the dead. Could there be any doubt that he was the Messiah? Doubts would come, but few doubted it that day. People grabbed palm branches, a symbol of Jewish nationalism, and cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13).

Few if any recognized in the euphoric moment the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

But Jesus recognized the moment. And so he “found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14).

I said few doubted Jesus that day. But the few who did wielded a lethal amount of earthly power. As the Pharisees watched this potent moment with unmistakable implications unfold, they said to each other, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). But this was not resignation. The crowd’s jubilation only hardened the authorities’ resolve to kill the dead-raising Son of God.

A Prophetic Precursor

And Jesus knew this. In the midst of the prophetic, palm-waving party, Jesus knew it would trigger the fulfillment of another prophecy:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Jesus knew Lazarus’s expiration would result in resurrection; he knew this resurrection would result in the crowd’s celebration; he knew this celebration would result in the Council’s homicidal determination; he knew this determination would result in his unjust condemnation; and he knew this condemnation would result in his own brutal expiration by crucifixion.

And he knew that his innocent, yet guilt-imputed expiration would result in the imputation of his righteousness to many (Isaiah 53:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and in a resurrection far more glorious and world-shaking than Lazarus’s.

Palm Sunday was a celebration of a resurrection. But it was only a prophetic precursor. One week later, a resurrection occurred whose celebration has continued two millennia hence.

And look, the world has gone after him.

Lay Aside the Weight of Passivity

Lay Aside the Weight of Passivity

Our mind-sets make a huge difference in how we perceive our circumstances.

What we expect shapes how we respond. If we expect peace, we will resent having to fight. If we expect rest, we will resent having to endure. If we expect leisure, we will resent having to work hard.

This is why it’s so important for us to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13). It’s clear in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit wants us to prepare to fight a grueling war, to run an endurance race, and to engage in the difficult work of kingdom farming.

Prepare for Action

Paul captures all three analogies in his exhortation to Timothy:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:3–7)

Paul wants Timothy and us to “think over” what he says. He wants us to engage in expectation-shaping thinking, because Paul knows the crucial importance of mind-sets:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5).

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Philippians 3:19).

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2).

So, the Holy Spirit speaking in 2 Timothy 2:3–7 wants us to have a soldier’s mind-set, which is very different from a civilian’s. A soldier expects to suffer the rigors and dangers of war; a civilian does not.

The Spirit wants us to have an athlete’s mind-set, which is very different from a spectator’s. “Every athlete [expects to exercise] self-control in all things” in order to win the prize; a spectator does not (1 Corinthians 9:25).

And the Spirit wants us to have a farmer’s mind-set, which is very different from an average customer’s. A farmer expects to work hard for long hours, over long months, in all kinds of weather, to realize a harvest; a customer does not.

Civilians are passive during war; spectators are passive during competition; an average customer is passive during the growing season. As Christians, we are not called to easy passivity, but to rigorous activity. Therefore, we must prepare our minds for action.

What Do You Expect?

Sometimes this preparation is preventative (to preempt discouragement), and sometimes it’s restorative (to revive courage). The former is always helpful, but all of us repeatedly require the latter. We lose perspective and forget that in this age war, not peace, is the norm; vigilant self-control, not indulgent rest, is the norm; difficult cultivation, not easy picking, is the norm.

Our emotions typically tell us what our mind-sets are; our responses reveal our expectations. So, when weariness, disappointment, disillusionment, and resentment set in, we need to examine what’s fueling those feelings. Perhaps they’re the result of sleep deprivation or overwork, and we need to heed the biblical model of regular Sabbaths and occasional seasons of rejuvenation. But frequently these emotions are fueled by misplaced expectations, and what we need is to re-set our minds.

So, ask yourself: what do you expect? What is your mind set on? Are you a soldier or civilian? Are you an athlete or spectator? Are you a hardworking farmer or a customer?

Think it over, “for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).

Lay Aside the Weight

Soldiers and farmers cannot afford a passive mind-set. It makes them ineffective and unfruitful. Passivity weighs an athlete down, sapping his endurance (Hebrews 12:1). It needs to be laid aside.

The original readers of the epistle to the Hebrews were weary, disappointed, and disillusioned because they had lost perspective and forgotten who they were. And to help them reset their minds, the writer said this:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:12–14)

The writer sought to restore them by helping them re-prepare their minds for action. And he did this by calling them to take action and lay aside their passive mind-set.

Our emotions springing from misplaced expectations of peace, rest, and leisure ask to be coddled. But the Bible doesn’t coddle them; it confronts them. This is kind, not cruel. Because such expectations are weights to be discarded, not desires to be indulged.

You Do Not Need to Understand Everything Now

You Do Not Need to Understand Everything Now

The Bible reveals some things to us that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). We recognize some of these things in our experience, but when we try to define or explain their essential nature or how they actually work, we find ourselves utterly perplexed.

Take, for instance, the Trinity. Relating to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is, in many ways, much easier experienced than explained. A child can believe in, interact with, and trust the triune God, but the combined power of the greatest theological minds of the past two millennia have not been able to explain triune mechanics. We know it works, but we don’t know how.

Or consider the coexistence of God’s universal, absolute sovereignty (John 1:1–3; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 1:3) and human personal accountability for our moral choices (Matthew 12:36; Romans 2:2; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 9:14–23). We know this reality by experience. We can all point to God’s sovereign interventions in our lives that go way beyond appealing to our wills, and yet we know instinctively that we are not machines, and that we are responsible for our moral choices. We know it works, but we don’t know how.

Some find such mysteries troubling, wondering if the realities are so hard to understand because they’re not just conundrums, but contradictions. Some scholars consider such mysteries to simply be esoteric religious nonsense. They encourage folks to place their faith in more concrete and certain things, like discoveries in the physical sciences.

Interestingly enough, though, the deeper scientists have delved into the nature of nature — in an effort to comprehend how physical reality works at its fundamental levels — they too have found themselves utterly perplexed.

Quantum Conundrums

Once upon a time, it seemed like Newtonian (classical) physics would eventually answer the biggest questions for us. In the euphoria of Enlightenment optimism, some confidently believed that “equipped with unlimited calculating powers and given complete knowledge of the dispositions of all particles at some instant of time . . . Newton’s equations [could be used] to predict the future, and to retrodict with equal certainty the past, of the whole universe” (Polkinghorn, 1).

But with the dawn of the 20th century, this intoxicating hope was sobered by the discoveries of quantum mechanics. The brightest minds in physics reeled as they peered into the subatomic world and saw stranger things than anyone had ever imagined.

They saw atomic particles move from one location to another with no apparent lapse of time. They saw particles “entangle” with other particles (invisibly and inexplicably connect), so that a change in one particle instantaneously produced the opposite change in the other particle, no matter the distance between them — even if separated by billions of light years. They saw particles “tunnel” through barriers that should have been impenetrable. They saw particles behaving both like particles (think tiny balls) and like waves (think sound or light waves) simultaneously. And they saw an indivisible particle pass through two separate openings at the same time.

In other words, they observed phenomena that, according to classical physics, were contradictory nonsense. But extensive, rigorous experiments over the past century have confirmed that the various phenomena, enigmatic though they are, do indeed occur. Physicists know that quantum mechanics works, but they don’t know how. Does that sound familiar?

What’s the Matter?

The strange nature of quantum mechanics has called into question long-held assumptions about the fundamental nature of matter. As one physicist said, “after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is.” One implication is that materialism is not nearly the self-evident, straightforward, common sense worldview promoted by popular atheists.

Instead of the certain world of Newtonian physics, “quantum physics teaches [us] that the world is full of surprises” (Polkinghorn, 87). The pioneers of the field were so surprised by their discoveries that they must have frequently repeated this quote to each other, since its origin is attributed to many of them: “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think; it is stranger than we can think.”

Who Knows the Mind of God?

Stranger than we can think. If this is true of the universe, how much more should we expect it to be true of God himself? Quantum mechanics are hard to understand; do we think Trinitarian mechanics shouldn’t be? Our brains struggle trying to reconcile how a particle can pass through two separate openings at the same time without dividing. Should we be surprised that we struggle to reconcile the coexistence of God’s sovereignty and human accountability?

It’s surprising how easily we forget that with God, we’re dealing with a person whose intelligence, power, and complexity so far exceed our comprehension that we have no metaphor or superlative that can even remotely do him justice. We should expect perplexing conundrums. And if we’re paying attention, we can see in the quantum conundrums the same marks of genius that are present in the Christian conundrums. They are revealing God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20).

Paul, after eleven chapters of unsurpassed human attempt to explain the most glorious mysteries of salvation, couldn’t help but break out in worship of an intelligence so far beyond his:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:33–34)

The Bible reveals some things we find extraordinarily hard to understand — inscrutable things that perplex, confound, and even disturb us. But nature reveals traces of the same designer. When we run up against conundrums that show us the limits of our intellectual capacities, we don’t need to follow cynical doubts. But like Paul, our limits can lead us to awe-filled worship.

Five Marks of a Servant Leader

Five Marks of a Servant Leader

All professing Christians agree that a Christian leader should be a servant leader. Jesus couldn’t be clearer:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25–26)

Where there’s not always agreement is how servant leadership should look in a given situation. Sometimes servant leaders wash others’ feet, so to speak (John 13:1–17), but other times they rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). Sometimes they serve at their own expense (1 Corinthians 9:7), but other times they issue strong imperatives (1 Corinthians 5:2; 11:16).

Wading into Muddy Waters

Other factors muddy the waters even more for us. To begin with, all Christian leaders have indwelling sin, which means even at the height of their maturity, they will still be defective servants. Add to this the fact that most leaders have not yet reached their height of maturity. Add to this the fact that all Christian followers also have indwelling sin and most haven’t reached our height of maturity either. Add to this the fact that different temperaments, experiences, giftings, and callings influence both how certain leaders tend to serve, and how certain followers tend to perceive that leadership — a leader’s genuine attempt to serve might be interpreted by a genuine follower as an attempt to “lord it over” them (2 Corinthians 1:24). And then there are wolfish, self-serving leaders who, while deceiving their followers, appear for a time to behave in ways similar to servant leaders.

So, determining whether or not a leader is acting from a heart of Christlike service requires charitable, patient, humble discernment. It’s not simple. There’s no one-size-fits-all servant leader description. The needs and contexts in the wider church are vast and varied, and require many different kinds of leaders and gifts. We must guard against our own unique biases when assessing leaders’ hearts. Each of us is more or less drawn to certain kinds of leaders, but our preferences can be unreliable and even uncharitable standards.

Marks of a Servant Leader

Still, the New Testament instructs us to exercise due diligence in discerning a Christian leader’s fitness (see, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:1–13). What traits do we look for in a leader that suggest his fundamental orientation is Christlike servanthood? This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are five fundamental indicators.

1. A servant leader seeks the glory of his Master.

And his Master is not his reputation or his ministry constituency; it is God. Jesus said, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood” (John 7:18). A Christlike leader is a bondservant of Christ (Ephesians 6:6), and demonstrates over time that Christ — not public approval, position, or financial security — has his primary loyalty. In this he “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).

2. A servant leader sacrificially seeks the highest joy of those he serves.

This does not conflict with seeking the glory of his Master. Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant . . . even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26, 28). Whatever his temperament, gift mix, capacities, or sphere of influence, he will make necessary sacrifices in order to pursue people’s “progress and joy in the faith,” which results in the greater glory of God (Philippians 1:25; 2:9–11).

3. A servant leader will forgo his rights rather than obscure the gospel.

Paul said it this way: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). What did this mean for him? It meant sometimes he abstained from certain foods and drinks, or refused financial support from those he served, or worked with his own hands to provide for himself, or went hungry, or dressed poorly, or was beaten, or was homeless, or endured disrespect inside and outside the church (1 Corinthians 4:11–13; 9:4–7). And he decided not to marry (1 Corinthians 9:5). This all before he was martyred. Paul’s servant bar may have been set extraordinarily high, but all servant leaders will yield their rights if they believe more will be won to Christ as a result.

4. A servant leader is not preoccupied with personal visibility and recognition.

Like John the Baptist, a servant leader sees himself as a “friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29), and is not preoccupied with the visibility of his own role. He doesn’t view those with less visible roles as less significant, nor does he covet more visible roles as more significant (1 Corinthians 12:12–26). He seeks to steward the role he’s received as best he can, and gladly leaves the role assignments to God (John 3:27).

5. A servant leader anticipates and graciously accepts the time for his decrease.

All leaders serve only for a season. Some seasons are long, some short; some are abundant, some lean; some are recorded and recalled, most are not. But all seasons end. When John the Baptist recognized the ending of his season, he said, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29–30).

Sometimes a leader is the first to recognize his season’s end, sometimes others recognize it first, and sometimes God lets a season end unjustly for purposes a leader can’t understand at the time. But a servant leader graciously yields his role for the good of Christ’s cause, because his identity and trust are not in his calling, but in his Christ.

Be Gracious with Your Leaders

No earthly Christian leader is the perfect incarnation of these five fundamental marks of servanthood. Jesus alone bears that distinction. The vast majority of our leaders are imperfect servants trying to be faithful.

So, some of the greatest gifts we can give our leaders are 1) our explicit encouragement when we see any of these graces in them (loose our tongues), 2) our quiet patience with their stumbling (hold our tongues), and 3) our charitable judgment and gracious feedback regarding decisions that raise questions and concerns (bridle our tongues). And all three can be as easily applied in speaking about our leaders as in speaking to them.

If a leader needs help recognizing the ending of his season, let his faithful friends bring a loving, gracious, gentle, and patient encouragement, and if necessary, reproof.

But sometimes, like Diotrephes (3 John 9), a leader’s sinful defects are too damaging, or like Judas (Luke 6:16), they prove to be a wolf. At that point a gracious response looks like appropriate, godly, mature followers taking the servant initiative to rebuke (Matthew 16:23), and even discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). We’ll know we’ve reached that point because, after a season of observation, it will become clear that these five marks are conspicuously missing in that leader.

Drowning in a Drop of Water

Drowning in a Drop of Water

When you read that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV), what does “immeasurably more” bring to mind? How big is your imagination for the “immeasurable”? A peek inside a water drop just might explode your previous conceptions.

At dinner the other night, my youngest, Micah, asked, “Dad, do you know how many molecules are in a drop of water?” Having had my last science class a long time ago, I replied, “I don’t remember.” He said, “Something like six million billon.” Incredulous, I responded, “That sounds way too high.” Micah insisted it wasn’t. So, I consulted my closest science expert (Siri). Sure enough, it’s not six million billion (or six quadrillion). It’s 1.67 sextillion. A million billion “only” has fifteen zeros; a sextillion has twenty-one zeros. Micah’s number was actually way too low!

1.67 sextillion molecules in one drop of water. Do you have any way of getting your mind around that number? Here are a few ways not to comprehend it. If you could count ten molecules a second (that’s really fast), it would take you over four trillion years to count the molecules in that drop. There are more molecules in a tablespoon of water than there are stars in the universe, at least according to some estimates.

Drowning in a Drop

It makes you see drops differently, doesn’t it? The clear tear on your cheek contains an unfathomable enormity. Your leaky faucet drips an astronomical amount each minute. The molecular vastness you drink in a bottle of water is as incomprehensible as the cosmos.

We could exponentially increase the boggle in our minds by contemplating that there are about 75,500 drops of water in a gallon (U.S.), and roughly 326 million trillion gallons of water on earth. How many drops and molecules are we talking about now?

You do the math (and ignore the fact that each drop contains more than five sextillion atoms and more than ninety sextillion quarks). These numbers had this humanities-heavy father drowning in the drop.

Who Then Is This?

These realities should have us trembling when we remember how Jesus didn’t drown. The Incarnate Creator Word (John 1:3) was in such comprehensive command of the math and the molecules that they were literally “in subjection under his feet” as he walked upon a sea (John 1:14; Matthew 14:25; Hebrews 2:8; John 6:1) — a sea ironically renamed after the reigning Roman emperor. This molecular miracle was metaphorical, for the sea would never so acknowledge Tiberias’s lordship. And when Tiberias’s government executed Jesus, the imperially ordered death also prostrated itself under the feet of the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8; 15:20, 27).

It is no wonder that the disciples were filled with wonder. As they watched the sea obey Jesus’s command, “They were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this?’” (Luke 8:25).

Who Indeed

All their lives they had heard of him:

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:9)

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7:11–12)

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (Exodus 14:21–22)

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” (Job 38:8–11)

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. (Psalm 107:23–27)

The disciples were right to fear and marvel. For the incomprehensible reality was just beginning to dawn on them: this man standing in their boat was the “Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).

Immeasurable Might

Before the storm hit, “mighty” meant something to the disciples. But after watching the tumultuous Tiberias bow its knee to the Lord Jesus Christ, it meant something new and different.

What does “mighty” mean to you?

The disciples knew nothing of molecules or atoms or quarks or sextillions. But we live in an age where we perceive God’s “eternal power and divine nature . . . in the things that have been made” at macro and micro levels unimaginable even four or five generations ago (Romans 1:20).

All things were made through [Jesus],” and “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:3). It doesn’t require a sea-stilling; a drop of water is more than enough to fill our imaginations with marvelous fear and make us say, “Who then is this?”

In the boat, Jesus asked his awed disciples, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25). The Lord who can do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” shows us a drop of water and asks us the same.

The Devil Knows How to Discourage You

The Devil Knows How to Discourage You

This principle seems to hold true in nearly every area of life: The most satisfying joys we experience are realized mainly through adversity and struggle, while poor, unhealthy, thin joys can be had without much effort. Fulfilling joys usually require strenuous pursuit.

Another similar principle also seems to be true: When the pursuit of a fulfilling joy moves from an inspiring idea to actually having to work hard for it, the reward suddenly diminishes in appeal. Therefore, we must often strenuously pursue a fulfilling joy when we don’t feel like it.

I find both principles are often true when it comes to thanking God. A heart full of thanksgiving experiences profound joy. But cultivating a thankful heart is hard work — work we often don’t feel like doing.

But God knows this about us, and his many commands that we “magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalm 69:30), “come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Psalm 95:2), “sing to [him] with thanksgiving” (Psalm 147:7), pray “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6), eat “with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3), indeed, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) are not intended as guilt-ridden reminders of how ungrateful we are. Rather, these commands are prescriptions written by the Good Physician to help us escape from chronic bouts of discouragement.

Why Are We Discouraged?

Discouragement is, by definition, a deficit of courage.

Biblical courage is the ability to face uncertainty, adversity, danger, or suffering with faith-fueled hope that God will keep his word to us, come what may. Paul went so far as to say that since “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ],” especially the resurrection, we should “always [be] of good courage” (2 Corinthians 1:20; 5:6).

But we are not always of good courage. Why? Because unbelief in the promises of God dis-courages us. This is the focus of all Satan’s massive, multifarious strategies: to dis-courage us through dis-belief in God’s promises. His strategies are disorientingly sophisticated, but his goal is simple: to discourage Christians. Discouraged Christians are immobilized threats. They are diffused gospel bombs. They are silenced evangelists whose faith-anemia can be contagious.

Is it really any surprise that we find discouragement a chronic problem? Daily placed before our eyes, spoken into our ears, and breaking our hearts are reasons to be discouraged — and our indwelling sin is quick to believe them.

That is precisely why right after Paul says, “we are always of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6), he says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Worldly perceptions will tend to sap our courage. But faith perceives a reality so hopeful that even death itself cannot quench the resulting courage.

Thanksgiving and Courage

What does this have to do with thanksgiving? Nothing is as en-couraging as seeing God’s abounding grace (2 Corinthians 9:8), and gratitude is what we feel when we see it (2 Corinthians 1:11).

But what we need to understand is that biblical thanksgiving is not merely our grateful response to a perceived grace received from God; it is a means to perceiving that grace. Biblical thanksgiving is not merely a command to be obeyed; it is a call to see beyond our normal perceptions to hundreds of graces we would otherwise miss due to our sin-induced myopia. And it is a call to see future graces in God’s promises so certain that we can thank God for them now.

That’s why God commands us so often in the Bible to give thanks. The commands prompt us to ask, “What do I have to be grateful for?” That question alone can stop the train of our thoughts from derailing into discouragement, while it draws us back on the track of faith. It forces us to answer, and in answering, we start seeing graces. So, the obedient act of giving God thanks actually results in our feeling grateful to God. The commands are in and of themselves gracious.

God intends for this practice of thanksgiving to become a gracious habit. The more habitual thanksgiving becomes, the more gratitude we will feel. We will find that to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) is not an impossible ideal, but an increasingly satisfying joy, and a potent, counterintuitive antidote to discouragement.

The Best Things Are Hard to Learn

Thanksgiving is a counterintuitive antidote to discouragement because when we feel discouraged, we don’t feel like giving thanks. That’s why we must remember those two common principles: 1) fulfilling joys usually require strenuous pursuit, and therefore, 2) we often don’t feel like pursuing the things we need most. This experience is “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). When we experience it, we shouldn’t be surprised as if something strange were happening to us (1 Peter 4:12).

Experiencing the joy of gratitude requires the hard work of learning the habit of thanksgiving through daily practice. It’s difficult to learn because of our deeply ingrained habits of seeing the world through self-centered lenses. And because Satan works hard to distract us with all sorts of discouraging things.

But there is abounding grace available to help us see grace (2 Corinthians 9:8). That’s why there is an abundance of commands for us to give thanks! These commands are a grace, for they call forth in us what they demand of us.

Mine the Bible for the “thanks” and “thanksgiving” commands, and practice them — especially when you don’t feel like it. That’s likely when you need them the most. And “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Fight discouragement with thanksgiving. Fight hard! God will supply the strength you need (1 Peter 4:11; Philippians 4:19).

As you obey, you will begin to see and savor the grace you missed before.

Strive to Rest: If Grace Is Free, Why Must We Work?

Strive to Rest

Isn’t the gospel an invitation for us to come to Jesus to receive his gracious, priceless, yet free gift of salvation? Yes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Isn’t the gospel an invitation for us to come to Jesus to be relieved of our souls’ burdens and receive his incomparable rest? Yes:

“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.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Then how do we reconcile these wonderful, comforting statements of gospel passivity with the following exhortations to rigorous, uncomfortable gospel action?

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25)

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you. (Colossians 3:5)

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)

Let us therefore strive to enter [God’s] rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [as Moses’s generation]. (Hebrews 4:11)

Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord [and] see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. (Hebrews 12:14–15)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. (1 Timothy 6:12)

How can the passive receiving of God’s “inexpressible gift” of grace (2 Corinthians 9:15), which Jesus purchased fully for us through his atoning work (Romans 3:23–24; Ephesians 2:8–9; Galatians 6:14), in order to liberate us from our own hopeless works so that by faith we can rest in Christ (Matthew 11:28–30; Romans 11:6; Galatians 3:2–3), demand our active “straining” and “press[ing] on to make it [our] own” (Philippians 3:12–14)?

If salvation is God’s gracious free gift to us and is “not a result of [our] works,” why do we need to “work out [our] salvation”? Is this just the Bible speaking out both sides of its mouth?

No. We are simply encountering a genius of staggering proportions — the paradoxical design of our redemption. If we examine it carefully, we will see the peculiar, self-authenticating, revelatory glory of God in this plan of salvation, a plan which humans would not think to invent (and never have in any man-made religion).

Staggering Genius

Let me just highlight one aspect of this glory. Though we are saved by God’s unconditional, electing grace (Ephesians 1:4; 2:5), through the free gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), the works our faith produces prove that our faith is real (James 2:18). Faith is the free gift of election; works are evidence of that election.

That’s why on one hand Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father . . . draws him” (John 6:44) — the free gift of election — and on the other hand he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) — the evidence of election. He ties both together when he says, “My sheep hear my voice (election), and I know them, and they follow me (evidence)” (John 10:27).

The genius of God’s design here is seen in some of Jesus’s parables. He says that when the gospel net is cast into the sea of the world, it “gather[s] fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47), some righteous and some evil. The visible church is always a mixed catch, or always has weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30), or always has goats among the sheep (Matthew 25:31–46). What distinguishes the elect from the others is their God-given faith demonstrated by their God-dependent works (James 2:14–26; 1 John 3:10). Faith works through love (Galatians 5:6).

Words are cheap. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Make Your Election Sure

There is so much more glory to seen in this brilliant, paradoxical design of God’s free gift of saving grace manifesting itself through our will and works (Philippians 2:13)! We could explore how it displays God’s wisdom and power in ways completely unanticipated by proud human beings (1 Corinthians 1:27–31; 2:8), or how it bears public witness to the reality and gospel of Jesus (John 13:35), or how it strengthens our God-gifted faith, increases our joy in God, and sanctifies us (James 1:2–4; Hebrews 12:11). But those are for other articles.

There is no contradiction in the gospel invitations to passively receive God’s free gift of salvation and in the gospel exhortations that we press on to make this gift our own. Our works are not decisive in our salvation. They are evidence of God’s saving work in us.

And that is why we must “be all the more diligent to confirm [our] calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) by working out our salvation with fear and trembling.