We Do Not Know What God Is Doing

Have you ever stopped to ponder just how strange everything about the birth of Jesus was? Whatever people had imagined the coming of the Messiah would look like, no one imagined it to look like it did.

In all that he reveals to us about that stra…

You Were Born for Friendship

Each of us is designed for deep, experienced, intimate friendship with God. It’s what we all long for most in the core of our being.

We are never more spiritually healthy than when we not just know about, but really know by experience, the profou…

What Should We Wear to Church?

When I was a little boy, probably 80% of men wore a coat and tie to our church, and 90% of women wore dresses. By the time I was in high school, 40% of men wore a coat and tie, and 50% of women wore dresses to church — the majority of both genders bein…

How to Find Joy in Your Work

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

One of the sadder experiences in our fallen states is so easily losing our sense of wonder in the most familiar things — like the first verse in the Bible, as laden with glor…

The Most Repeated Command in the Bible

What do you think is the most repeated command in the Bible?

It’s not any of the prohibitions or warnings. It’s not about sex, or money, or power. The most repeated command in the Bible will probably surprise you: Be happy. God tells us more than …

The Blessing of a Bad Reputation

How important to you is people’s approval? How important to you is faithfully obeying God? Sometimes we’re forced to sacrifice one in order to have or do the other.

The last time you faced this choice, which did you choose? Was your choice an ano…

Desperate Is Normal: A Field Manual for Overwhelming Anxiety

Desperate Is Normal

The normal Christian life is embattled. It’s full of strange and difficult conflicts with sin and weakness within, and strange and difficult conflicts with spiritual and human adversaries and a world subjected to futility and frail brokenness without.

These experiences typically feel anything but normal. Battles with our sin, our frailty, other people, demons, and a broken world infected with evil can, at times, feel surreal, making us feel desperate. They trigger emotions connected to our particular fears, past hurts, sinful pride, griefs, and hopes that are distracting and sometimes debilitating.

That means a crucial and significant part of the normal Christian life is learning the humble discipline of casting our anxieties on God, who deeply cares for us. Even, or especially, in the heat of battle and the fury of the storm, so that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (1 Peter 5:6–7; Philippians 4:6–7).

The Bible is a field manual for the normal, embattled, desperate Christian life. God has mercifully packed it not only with examples and teaching, but also with songs and prayers for our trials. And we need songs and prayers to provide us words for the chaos, when anxiety and confusion fragment our thoughts.

Psalm 27 is that kind of song. David states his confidence in God, but he also confesses his anxiety and bewilderment and desperation. It’s a song for the normal Christian life.

Your Source of Hope

David begins with the source of his hope:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)

By “light,” David means the same thing written in Psalm 119:130: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” By “salvation,” David means God is his hope to rescue him from his greatest dangers (Psalm 34:6).

This is our song too. For God must be our hope, our light in a dark world, and our salvation from the most fearsome things.

Your Source of Courage

Next, David declares the source of his courage:

Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. (Psalm 27:3)

David was under frequent threat from treacherous countrymen (Psalm 27:2), and from enemy nations. We too are under spiritual attack (Ephesians 6:12). And these attacks can be fierce — spiritual forces of wickedness are out to destroy us (1 Peter 5:8).

But if God is our hope, then these “adversaries and foes [will] stumble and fall” (Psalm 27:2). Singing or praying this truth when fear rises reminds us of why we have good reason to be encouraged and provides us words to quiet our fear and squash the intimidation.

Your Source of Delight

Then David describes the source of his delight:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

David’s deepest desire — his one thing — is not for safety, military dominance, or prosperity. David wants God — to be near God, to see and be satisfied with God’s glory, and to live by God’s wisdom and guidance.

In the embattled, desperate moments of the normal Christian life, when our felt needs can be focused on being delivered from particular troubles, it is helpful to have words ready to remind us of the only ultimately necessary thing we need (Luke 10:42).

Your Source of Help

After David declares his confident hope and deepest delight in God, then he shifts the tone of the psalm to reflect the desperate moment he’s experiencing:

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! (Psalm 27:7)

Even though God is his source of hope, courage, and delight, at that moment, David is feeling some fear-induced perception that God doesn’t want to answer him, perhaps is even angry at him (Psalm 27:9–10). His needs feel very urgent and he’s pleading with God for help and comfort.

This is exactly how we feel in embattled, desperate moments. Our emotions are not in sync with our beliefs about God, and it’s okay to tell him. David’s words give us a prayer to One who understands exactly what we’re experiencing and invites us to come to him for help (Hebrews 4:15–16).

Your Source of Understanding

David’s confusion and desperation make him aware of his ignorance, and so he then turns to God as the source of understanding:

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. (Psalm 27:11)

David didn’t know the plots of his enemies, which made him feel vulnerable. But he knew that God knew. And he knew that if he walked in the obedience of faith with God, it would be the safest place.

We don’t need to understand all the complexities of our trials. Neither do we necessarily need to deep dive into our psychological labyrinths to figure out all our fears (though in certain cases this is necessary). What we need to know most is God’s way, and then we must follow it.

Your Source of Certainty

Lastly, David applies his strong confidence to his weak desperation in a firm exhortation to his soul:

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)

David is declaring the source of his certainty while living in an uncertain world. And it is a beautiful, strengthening way to end his psalm.

This is also a healthy climax to the song of the normal Christian life. Regardless of the way things appear or feel, we will know the goodness of God in the land of the eternal living! We do not need to panic; we need to be strong. And we need to tell ourselves: Soul, don’t cow to intimidation, don’t wallow in hopelessness, and don’t cave in to fear. Wait for the Lord and let your heart take courage.

Fourteen Verses to Memorize

Your normal Christian life doesn’t always feel normal. It is frequently hard, embattled, and desperate. But the Bible teaches us that this is, in fact, normal. And the Bible not only teaches us about these trials, but also equips us with songs and prayers to help us keep our heads and find our bearings.

Psalm 27 is one of God’s precious equipping gifts to us. And, at only 14 verses, it’s worth memorizing, because, in the heat of the fight for faith, it can be brought out quickly as both a “sword of the Spirit” and as a shield from “the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16–17).

Let it be a short song for your normal Christian life.

Whatever Is Lovely: How to Overcome Demanding Thoughts

Whatever Is Lovely

Where do your thoughts come from?

Our conscious thoughts always come from somewhere. That’s obvious enough, you might think. My guess, though, is that much of the time it’s not obvious to you at all where your thoughts are coming from.

Of course, sensory and information input give you frequent food for thought (like this article is doing right now). But what about the thoughts demanding your attention first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, or the compulsive thoughts that dictate your behaviors?

I’ll give you a personal example. During my morning prayer time, it’s not uncommon for me to suddenly realize I’ve stopped praying and am now engaged in an imaginary conversation with myself or someone else regarding something I’m currently concerned about. When I try to stop and get back to praying, it can be very hard — my thoughts are demanding my attention.

You know what I mean, because you experience this too. Such thoughts often have what feels like a gravitational pull on our attention, almost like we can’t resist going where they want to lead us, even if we don’t want to go there. Where are these coming from?

Thoughts, Emotions, Beliefs

If we want to know where our thoughts are coming from, the first thing to examine is our emotions. What specifically are we feeling — fear, anxiety, anger, disappointment, discouragement, grief, sadness, hope, excitement, pride, joy, desire, anticipation? Sometimes powerful emotions like these push us down a certain train of thought. Other times certain thoughts stir up such emotions. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, because our emotions always point to what’s feeding our thoughts.

And what our emotions point to are our underlying beliefs. What we believe is what feeds our thoughts — the thoughts that really matter to us and guide how we live.

We all have official beliefs and functional beliefs, and the beliefs I’m talking about are the latter. Our official beliefs are like a company’s formal mission statement, core values, and policy handbook. Functional beliefs are like how a company actually operates. If we want to know what a company really values, we look at its operations. If we want to know what we really believe at any given moment, we look at our functional beliefs.

And the quickest way to see our functional beliefs is to look underneath our emotions. That’s what’s feeding our dominating, behavior-dictating thoughts.

Think About These Things

But is any of this in the Bible? Yes. God, having designed the human psyche, is the supreme Psychologist, and the Bible is an incredible psychology text. Functional belief-fueled emotions and thoughts are all over the Bible. Why did Gideon think to hide his wheat in the winepress (Judges 6:11)? Why did David think sleeping with Bathsheba was a good idea (2 Samuel 11)? Why did Peter think he should deny Jesus to the servant girl (Matthew 26:69–70)? Why did the anguished father think to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)?

But the text I’ve found most helpful recently is Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Note the last four words: “think about these things.” That’s a strong statement. Paul isn’t offering us counsel; he’s giving us a command. This is something we must obey. God is saying something profound to us through Paul: there is a way to change how we think, and we must choose that way. What way?

Look at the list. Have you ever stopped to think how abstract the concepts Paul lists are? The last time you struggled to escape a compulsive train of thought, how much help were concepts like truth, honor, justice, purity, excellence, and the rest? To the degree they remained abstract, probably no help at all.

Paul never intended these concepts to remain abstract. That’s why he wrote “whatever is” before each one. Paul knew that giving rise to our negative, sinful thoughts are specific false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, ugly, disgraceful, and detestable functional beliefs. Wherever these functional sinful beliefs (or unbeliefs) exist in us, manifesting in our demanding sinful thoughts and emotions, they must be confronted and replaced with “whatever is” the appropriate, God-dependent belief.

Fight for Joy

When we are struggling with distracting, demanding thoughts and emotions, God wants us to know that we are not victims who must simply endure the miserable ride on the train of our thoughts. He wants us to seize the controls he’s given us, switch tracks, and head in a faithful, joyful direction.

And we do this by remembering that superficial thoughts and emotions are the offspring of our deeper functional beliefs. Those false beliefs are based on false promises — any promise that doesn’t have its origin in God through his word. Therefore, when we unseat specific false promises by trusting true promises, we unseat the false belief giving life to dominating emotions and thoughts. When we do this, it produces spiritual peace and joy, even if nothing has changed in our circumstances.

This is hard work, especially if we’re out of practice or have never really made this a consistent practice. It’s a fight of faith, one we engage numerous times a day. And in habits of sinful thought and feeling we’ve conditioned ourselves to indulge, we should expect it to be particularly difficult.

But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Yes, learning the habit of not being pushed around by our thoughts and emotions requires us to exercise discipline. But biblical discipline is not in the long run the denial of pleasure, but the pursuit of pleasure (Hebrews 12:10–11).

It is for joy and freedom and love that God is calling us to fight with all our might to “think about these things.”

The Proven Path to Mental Health

The Proven Path to Mental Health

Is religion bad for our mental health? Popular atheists often say so. Some go as far as to say that teaching children religion is really a form of abuse — at least any religion that teaches a doctrine of sin and divine punishment. They claim such teaching heaps a load of guilt on people, and then traumatizes them with the terrible fear of the threat of hell. How could this not psychologically damage people?

I’m glad the question is being raised, especially by those whose own worldview demands that people come to terms with their ultimate existential meaninglessness: that life is fundamentally a brutal fight to survive and pass on one’s genes. That love, compassion, and psychological well-being are at root naturally selected adaptations to encourage one to preserve DNA. That good and evil are only human psychological constructs. That all our frenetic activity and gene-passing is ultimately futile since sooner or later homo sapiens will undergo species extinction. And that the cosmos cares absolutely nothing about any of this.

Life is a genetic conveyor belt toward extinction — and this promotes psychological well-being? If atheism is true, it makes sense why humans are nearly universally religious: a “God delusion” would help people cope with a hopeless reality.

In fact, it’s hard to overstate how important hope is to human mental health. In this light, we need to ask what worldview gives people the most mentally healthy hope. Because the human psyche’s need for hope, while not itself a proof, is a pointer to ultimate reality.

Why Things Fall Apart

To address this, first we need to begin with a different dichotomy. Drawing the line between religion and non-religion is simply a way for atheists to frame the argument to their own advantage. The line needs to be drawn between truth and falsehood.

I think we can all agree (except, perhaps, extreme postmodernists) that believing any false worldview is going to have a detrimental psychological effect on us, because our worldview shapes how we live and relate to others. So, any false worldview belief — religious or nonreligious — is going to damage us. If atheism isn’t true, and there are powerful arguments against it and growing scientific evidence weakening its claims, it still leaves a world of diverse and contradictory religions to discern between.

Asking the question about mental health really helps at this point because, again, what best addresses our psychological needs may not prove a worldview’s validity, but it’s pointing to something. And if we had to capture in one word what makes us, in all our psychological complexity, most mentally healthy, it would be this: hope. The human psyche is designed to operate on hope. The more hopeful we are, the more mentally healthy we are. The less hopeful we are, the more things fall apart for us.

Healthy Pointer of Hope

Our psyches, our inner selves, our souls, are hope machines. Our psyches burn hope like our bodies burn energy. And like our bodies grow faint when we run low on energy, when we run low on hope we start feeling discouraged, even desperate. All the wonderful things that have happened to us in the past will not fuel our hope if our future looks bleak. We can be grateful for the past. But we must have hope for the future in order to keep going.

When we’re hopeful, the world is full of wonder and possibilities. We have drive and curiosity. We don’t want to waste our lives. We take on challenges and see adversity as something to be overcome. But when we run low on hope, the world becomes a fearful, threatening place, full of chaotic futility. Hopelessness saps our desire and drive. It robs us of interest and appetite. We just want to curl up and protect our inner selves, our souls.

This makes the mental health of hope a powerful pointer to reality. It means we are designed to be hopeful. And hope is what we feel about the future. But the only way we can have hope for the future is if we believe the future is promising. Which means, we are designed to believe in promises.

Designed to Live by Faith

In other words, we are designed to be creatures who live by faith. And this is where atheism really falters as a pointer to ultimate reality. All it has to offer by way of mental health is autonomy. You’re free to do as you wish, but you must build your autonomous house, in the words of Bertand Russell, on “the unyielding foundation of universal despair.” This does not work for us psychologically. Those who believe God is a delusion, then, must construct some kind of hope delusion, or suicide will become increasingly appealing.

What keeps us going is hope in a future fueled by promises about the future. We, by nature, are not designed to “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). So, from a general human-mental-health standpoint, the issue becomes, What promises give us the most healthy, robust hope?

We Long for Redemption

That question is not hard to answer. It courses through us every day, and runs through the myths, legends, stories, songs, and poems we have loved most in all cultures and in every era: redemption. We long for good to triumph over evil. We long for justice to triumph over injustice. And we long for personal forgiveness and freedom from guilt — not guilt that man-made religion has heaped on us, but guilt from the depravity inside us and the things we have done, said, and thought that we would be mortified for anyone else to find out.

The doctrines of sin and divine punishment are only psychologically damaging if they are false. But if they are true — if God exists, and we are sinners, and God is going to bring the triumph of good over evil and the triumph of justice over injustice, including giving us sinners what we deserve — they are not damaging, but they are urgent necessities.

And no religion or system of beliefs in the history of mankind addresses human depravity and injustice in ways that so align with our experience of reality — while at the same time holding out such hope to us in such wonderful, almost incredible, precious promises — as Christianity.

Christianity names us as what we already know we are: sinners. It tells us what the wages of our sin deserves — and that our sins are even worse than we thought because our Creator is far holier than we thought. It tells us that our Creator is not only holy and perfectly just, but that he is gracious beyond our comprehension and has made a way for us to escape his righteous judgment against us by himself paying the debt of our sin and himself absorbing his wrath, making it possible for us to have what every one of us longs for: redemption and eternal life, free from sin and in full, restored fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer.

Christianity turns out to be the greatest, most beautiful story of redemption ever told. It addresses all our greatest and deepest needs and longings. It offers all of us the most hope, no matter who we are and how horrible we’ve been. When holistically believed and consistently lived, Christianity produces the most mentally healthy people history has ever known.

Heart of Mental Health

The heart of our mental health is found here: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24).

And here: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32).

And here: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).

And here: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

And here: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).

And in hundreds of other hope-giving promises in the Bible.

Unhinged from God

It’s not religion that damages us; it’s unbelief. Things fall apart for us when we disbelieve God because the foundation of our hope erodes. Unhinged from God, our hearts, minds, and bodies are restless. The more unbelief is operating in us, the more disordered and mentally unhealthy we become. But the more we trust God, the more we abound in hope — no matter what our circumstances are, no matter how bleak things look at the moment (Romans 15:13).

The human heart is designed to love God most, and is never happier than when it does. The human soul is designed to find its rest in the promises God himself makes to us. The human psyche is designed to find its security in the unconditional acceptance and love of its Creator. And the human body is designed to work best when the heart, soul, and mind are functioning in a harmonious love for and trust in God.

The proven path to our soundest mental health is a robust, holistic trust, in everything and every circumstance, in the triune Christian God.

If Only

If Only

If only I could find my soulmate to marry. If only my mate felt like my soulmate. If only I could find that friend who really understands and accepts me for who I am. If only I could pursue the career I really want. If only my church were more [fill in the blank]. If only I weren’t so [fill in the blank]. If only I lived [fill in the blank]. If only I had [fill in the blank]. If only my family [fill in the blank]. If only [fill in the blank] hadn’t happened to me.

What are your if only’s? We all have them, because if only’s are a form of regret, and regrets are simply unavoidable in our experience — though not all of them are unavoidable. Some are nothing more than delusions.

Either way, we must take care with our regrets, because, whether based on something real or fantastic, they can erode our faith in God by subtly shifting our faith from God to our regrets — and that is truly regrettable.

Real Regrets

When I say that some of our regrets are unavoidable, here’s what I mean:

1. We are sinners who, even as regenerate believers in Jesus, are committing or omitting sin in greater or lesser degrees all the time, and this scorns God and damages ourselves and others to greater or lesser degrees.

2. We live our lives intertwined and interacting with other sinners whose God-scorning sin affects or damages us in greater or lesser degrees.

3. We live in an age riddled with futility, so things are always breaking down or not working out the way they should (Romans 8:20).

4. And we live in a world under the power of the evil one, so we are frequently affected by the oppression and opposition of demonic forces (1 John 5:19).

This means we all have legitimate regrets for past occurrences that have detrimentally influenced who we are and where we are. It’s right to regret ways we have harmed or been harmed by others. And it certainly isn’t wrong to feel some if only’s over certain effects of the fall that we or others have suffered, resulting in terrible grief and loss.

There are numerous appropriate reasons we might wish things could have been or could now be different. And having a robust belief in the sovereignty of God does not necessarily preclude our feeling regret. Paul even begins Romans 9, the Bible’s most clear defense of God’s sovereignty in election, with an anguished “if only” lament over his fellow Israelites’ rejection of Jesus as the Christ (Romans 9:1–3). It’s just that confidence in God’s providence allows us to faithfully rest in God’s power and wisdom to work all things together for his children’s good, even if, like Paul, on a human level we really wish things were different (Romans 8:28).

Fantasy Regrets

But not all our “if only” regrets are legitimate and unavoidable. Some of our if only’s are rooted in imagined ideals or fantasies we believe because we’ve absorbed messages from our family, friends, and cultures (or indulged selfish desires).

Fantasy Ideals are not as easy to spot as our real regrets, because they are not as poignant. Unlike real regrets stemming from painful events we’ve endured or caused, we often can’t identify the genesis of fantasy regrets because they are amalgamations of various messages, impressions, aspirations, envies, and hopes we’ve picked up along the way, some extending back into childhood.

These are often unexamined, uncritical assumptions about what will make us happy that wield remarkable power over us because they keep forming mirage dreams we end up chasing. We don’t recognize them as fantasies; they just impress us as the way things should be. And when they keep dissipating as we approach them, they become sources of chronic “if only” discontentment.

The End of If Only

Whether we’re dealing with real or fantasy regrets, the way we know we are focusing too much on them is that we find them draining our hope and sapping our joy. They lead us into a wasteland of discouragement or sitting in the dungeon of despair.

What’s happening is that these regrets are shifting our focus away from trusting the promises of God — the grounds and fuel of our future hope — to trusting the promises of our regrets. Discouragement and despair set in because we feel trapped by regrets we cannot seem to change.

The path out of the wasteland, the key out of the dungeon, lies in two small words that convey omnipotent power to deliver us from every regret: “But God.”

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1–7)

You were once spiritually dead, living in regrettable sin, no matter how sordid or relatively well-behaved you were. But God! He loved you, he saved you, and he has made your future brighter than your heart has yet imagined (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The gospel truth is this: you are not trapped by any “if only” regret — real or fantasy, legitimate or illegitimate, past or present. All of your if only’s will find their end in your God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in a love for you so powerful, it conquers death and hell. All of his promises to you are yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). All your real, deep longings for joy he will fulfill, to some degree in this age, and in the age to come with all joy you will be capable of experiencing (Psalm 16:11).

So if you’re regrets are weighing you down, examine them. What is giving them life? Once you know, lay them aside and turn your gaze to Christ (Hebrews 12:1–2) and seize some of his promises. Remember: But God. Let him work your regrettable past for good, and let him blow away the fog of any fantasies.