Seven Prayers for Christian Dating

Seven Prayers for Christian Dating

If we refuse to pray in dating, we refuse to receive the precious resources we need most in dating.

Too many of us struggle in dating — to discern our hearts, to communicate with one another, to balance priorities and responsibilities, to reject sexual temptation — without ever asking God for his wisdom, strength, and help. We wonder why we make the same mistakes and fall into sin over and over again, while we leave the King sitting on the bench. We may talk about praying, but we rarely actually talk to God? We read articles, text friends, listen to podcasts, even ask for advice, but put off kneeling at the feet of our Father in heaven. If we want to date well, we will need to pray more.

The invitation to pray in dating is not another burden heaped onto the back of single men and women. It is the path into having our feelings and desires tested, confirmed, and fulfilled. It’s not another gen. ed. course we have to pass before God gives us a husband or a wife. It is the 747 big enough, strong enough, and safe enough to carry us through these single years, and if God wills, into the new country of marriage.

Don’t start dating without praying, and don’t stop praying while you’re waiting. If you don’t know what to pray, here are seven prayers for any not-yet-married relationship.

1. Free us to date differently.

“Whether you eat or drink” — or date or marry — “or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Our Father in heaven, so much in the dating scene today seems so broken — unnecessary ambiguity, unhealthy communication, fear of commitment, boundaries crossed, messy breakups. Because we are yours, we desperately want our dating to be different. Set our relationship apart from every fallen example around us. Allow our love and respect for one another to say something profound and beautiful about your Son, even when we make mistakes or sin against each other.

2. Give us a passion for each other’s faith and joy in you.

I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:25–26)

It will be too easy to focus our attention and energy on each other — the status of our relationship, the nature of our conflict, the trajectory of our feelings — but the most important dynamic in our relationship will be its influence on our relationship with you. I am naturally more concerned with what my girlfriend (or boyfriend) thinks and feels about me, when I should be far more concerned with what she (or he) thinks and feels about you. God, inspire in us a passion for each other’s faith and joy in you.

3. Keep our affection for each other from blinding us to sin.

I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2–3)

The line between affection and infatuation can blur quickly in a relationship, blinding us to you and to ourselves. Having “fallen in love,” we lose touch with our fallenness. Satan steps into the euphoria and deceives us into ignoring, overlooking, or excusing sin. We compromise in relationships in ways we never would otherwise. God, blow away the fog of any infatuation, and fill our eyes with your truth and beauty. When every fiber of every muscle in our bodies wants to give into temptation, ignite our hearts to reject sin’s filthy promises and to prefer you and your righteousness.

4. Remind us our bodies were bought with a precious and infinite price.

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18–20)

Sadly and tragically, sexual immorality seems to be the norm — even, in some cases, among relationships claiming to be Christian. But when everyone else is giving in, we refuse to give up. Whenever we are tempted to cross boundaries you have lovingly set for us, carry our minds to the cross, where Jesus died to liberate us from every ounce of sexual sin. It will be one of the most radical, counter-cultural, Spirit-enabled feats of our lives: choosing to deny the impulse to experiment or express ourselves sexually in dating because we trust you and treasure Jesus.

5. Weave our dating relationship into other meaningful relationships.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13).

Father, guard us from isolating ourselves and our relationship from other believers. The more time we spend one-on-one with each other, the less time we spend with other important people in our lives. That distance is one of the greatest dangers in dating. Draw the men and women we need into our feelings, our communication, and our decision-making. Bring us other Christians who love us enough to ask hard questions. When the temptation will be to date off in a corner, weave our relationship into real, consistent, and engaged community.

6. In your perfect timing, give us clarity about whether we should marry.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. . . . Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. (Psalms 37:5–7)

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

We feel how vulnerable we are in dating — the uncertainty, the fragility, the volatility. It is not a safe love yet, because it is not yet sealed with our promises. If we are to truly, deeply, exclusively, freely, and passionately love each other, it must be as husband and wife. It must be inside the beautiful and mysterious oneness of marriage. So, give us clarity, God. We are waiting for you to make clear whether we should marry. We don’t want to date one day longer than you would have us. We’re pleading for wisdom in dating because we know how much you love to give it to those who ask.

7. At every step, remain our first and greatest love.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27)

I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4)

Above all, forbid that any love would begin to overshadow or replace our love for you. If either us consistently draws us away from you, give us enough faith and love to walk away. Guard us from anyone who wants your place in our heart, and lead us to a husband or wife who has already given all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength to you. Whether we ever marry or not, we pledge our love first and forever to you — from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health — until death once and for all marries us to you.

League of Extraordinary Gentle Men: Where Do Good Dads Come From?

League of Extraordinary Gentle Men

I became a father since last Father’s Day — which means I have very little to say at this point from my experience as a father. But I do see my 31 years with my dad differently now through the eyes of my son. I certainly don’t understand fatherhood now like I hope to in ten years, but I see the Father in my father far more clearly than I did ten months ago.

Coming up on one year of being “Dad” (or really “Da” at this point), I appreciate at least one big quality about fatherhood: its impossibility. As I learn how to care for our son, and then look back on all my dad did for our family — working far more than forty hours a week to provide for us, while saving some of his best energy and creativity to love, discipline, and play with his boys, and to help us know Jesus — I wonder at the miracle.

My dad did not have the same kind of example. My grandfather was one of the worst men I have known personally. I struggle to remember a single positive lesson I learned in the first twenty-five years of knowing him — not one memory, not a piece of profound advice, not a character quality I longed to emulate. For the vast majority of the years I knew him, I learned nothing from him of love or loyalty, of honesty or self-control, of marriage or fatherhood. Such was the playbook my dad received growing up and carried into our family.

But God.

Every good dad is a miracle worked by God in some uniquely impossible circumstances. No man has the giftedness, strength, and resolve to love a woman and their children in a way that joyfully sacrifices for their needs and consistently leads them to Christ. Every good father, then, is extraordinary.

Word for Fathers

The New Testament says surprisingly little to fathers directly. The two pillar texts are really just one pillar said slightly differently in two letters. First, the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians,

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

Then again in Colossians,

Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)

The only direct command given to fathers in the New Testament is a prohibition: do not provoke your children to anger (or discouragement). I take that to mean that, as a father, I will experience the inclination to unnecessarily and unlovingly incite irritation, disappointment, aggravation, or even outrage in my child — through selfishness, through harshness, through neglect, through stubbornness or pride, through a thousand other ways. Paul’s words raise our awareness, as fathers, of the effects of our sin on our sons and daughters.

Yes, instruct. Yes, discipline. But do not provoke.

Die in Love for Your Children

“Do not provoke your children.” It’s true, but hardly something we would print on a T-shirt for Dad on Father’s Day. How might Paul’s charge be stated positively? Paul would not say, “Fathers, do whatever necessary to placate your children’s unpredictable (and often unhealthy) desires, striving at all times to avoid any sadness, frustration, or disappointment.” We know that because he says to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

Discipline does not mean always saying, “No,” but you cannot have any meaningful discipline without it. Good discipline requires regular denial, and therefore regular disappointment, and discouragement, and probably some form of anger (as my wife and I are learning already).

Positively, Paul might say to me and other fathers, “Fathers, do whatever you can, in the strength and resolve that God supplies, to inspire your children to love your God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to delight to live according to his word.” Inspire, sacrifice, encourage, teach, play, and discipline not to please yourself, but to see that your sons and daughters are pleased in God. Die every day to yourself — to every impulse to trade away moments of their growth and good for your comfort or convenience — to shape their hearts for Jesus.

We will not manage our children’s discouragement and anger for long by simply giving them what they want or making their circumstances a little more comfortable. If we really want to father them well, we will model a joyful, selfless, and sacrificial love for God that lives to die for others. If our kids discover that kind of love for themselves, it will stave off a childhood (and a lifetime) of discouragement and anger. We will provoke them, instead, to courage and joy.

The Few, the Humble

Not every dad is a good dad, which means Father’s Day is not a holy-day for every son or daughter.

Some dads refuse to work.
Some dads give everything to work.
Some dads are demanding and oppressive.
Some dads are distracted or indifferent.
Some are harsh, even abusive.
Some dads, tragically, walk away altogether.

Instead of pointing their children to God and his love, they thoughtlessly and selfishly provoke them to discouragement and anger.

But an extraordinary few gentle men love their God and their families with supernatural sacrifice and resolve — men like Richard A. Segal, Jr. Of course, they don’t get the final credit. Miracles don’t brag about their ability or ingenuity. They can’t explain it, other than to point to the only God who makes true gentle men. They simply and joyfully say, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Hope for Your Father

Six years ago, God performed another miracle in our family. Months into a fight with cancer that would eventually take his life, the grandfather I had known, feared, and counted hopeless had become another man — a new man, in Christ, through faith. God had produced patience where there had been a swift temper. God had produced joy — sure and strong — where there had been only bitterness and irritation. God had humbled the proudest and softened the hardest.

He had made a once-terrible father into a chosen son, a once-harsh dad into a gentle man — another miracle.

If your father is not the father God calls him to be, God may still make him new. He rescued Richard A. Segal, Sr., at age 78, and he could just as easily work a miracle for your dad. Keep loving, keep serving, keep sharing, and, most of all, keep praying.

And if you have lost your father, like my dad lost his six years ago now, know that God sent his Son to make you his son or daughter forever. He says to you again this Father’s Day, “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). And according to Galatians 4:4–6, he has sent his Spirit to live in you and to remind you that you have a Father who loves you perfectly and endlessly, especially on Father’s Day.

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Pictured: Richard A. Segal, Jr., and his four sons (left to right), Cameron, Dieudonné, Marshall, and Noah.

The Nightmare Driving the American Dream

The Nightmare Driving the American Dream

Millions wear ambition to camouflage their insecurities.

Not all ambition is insecure or ungodly (Romans 15:20), but a lot of it is. For instance, the apostle Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Ambition for the sake of Christ fills the heart and makes a real difference. Ambition for self draws an elegant veil over an empty heart, staying busy in order to look and feel significant.

The American Dream looks like an impressive mountain to climb when it’s really just a tiny cave in which to hide. People look like they are aspiring, striving, and succeeding, but in reality they are cowering. Confident, put together, assertive on the outside, but terrified within. We cover our deepest fears by trying to achieve more, acquire more, and be more.

Five Fears Steering Our Hearts

So, what are we so afraid of?

Our fears may wear new styles of clothing, listen to new artists, and refuse to pay for cable, but they are ancient, relentless, and contagious. The same anxieties terrorizing us today were terrorizing the church and the world in New Testament times. The list below is not exhaustive, but represents five fears the Bible addresses that are as alive today as ever.

1. We are afraid to have needs.

Jesus knew we would fear need. He preached to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). Then he repeated himself twice more in the next nine verses (Matthew 6:31, 34). If he was preaching today to Christians in comfortable, affluent America, would he say something different?

No, because anxiety about our external needs is not really about those needs, but about our hearts. We are afraid about our food, and drink, and clothing — and mortgage payments, and appliances that need to be replaced, and tuition bills — because we simply cannot believe what Jesus says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

2. We are afraid of what others might think.

Sadly, the Pharisees may fit in just fine in many American churches. Who knows just how happy they would have been in today’s social-media popularity contests?

They opposed and even killed Jesus because they loved the attention and praise of man too much (Mark 11:18). At the same time, they restrained their murderous jealousy against Jesus at times to preserve their favor among the people (Mark 14:1–2). They lived and killed for approval, and ran from disapproval like it carried some life-threatening disease.

Why do we care so much about what others think? Because we are born, in our sin, wanting to be God and believing we are worthy of worship. Not the Sunday-morning-in-the-pew kind of worship, but a visible, countable, comparable kind of reverence and recognition. We live for likes, follows, and compliments, and fear rejection — or even worse, being overlooked.

3. We are afraid of what others might do.

We dread what others might do even more than what they might think. In America, Christians do not worry about being killed for our faith, or even physically harmed in any way. We’re just afraid we might get maligned, shamed, or excluded.

The apostle Peter preaches into our fears and insecurities, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). But what if they never talk to me again? What if they report me to my boss, or spread false rumors about me? What if they fire me, or refuse to do business with me? “Have no fear of them.”

The apostle John goes even further than Peter:

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

Some of you will be thrown into prison. You will be tested. You will die (“unto death”). Do not fear.

If we believe Peter, and John, and Jesus, “we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6).

4. We are afraid to lose control.

Every story from Jesus’s life and ministry deserves special attention and awe, but one has shocked me as much as any year after year. Jesus comes to a demon-oppressed man — in fact, he’s oppressed by a horde of demons (Mark 5:9). The man walked around naked (Luke 8:27), could not be bound by anyone (Mark 5:3), cried out day and night in agony, and cut himself over and over with stones (Mark 5:5).

Then Jesus healed him. He cast all his demons into a herd of pigs, and finally freed the man from a lifetime of enslaving and self-destructive evil. What happens next is the shocking twist:

Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)

Jesus sets the demon-oppressed free, leaving a wild and violent criminal “clothed and in his right mind.” And instead of rejoicing, worshiping, and drawing near, the people retreat and reject Jesus instead. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear” (Luke 8:37).

Why? Maybe because he killed their pigs, and ruined someone’s business. Or might it be because they saw what he was capable of, and they were terrified he might upset, disrupt, and overturn their life, too? They were afraid to lose control.

The demon-oppressed man had lost control a long time ago. When Jesus comes and heals him, he begs to be with Jesus. The crowds had cultivated the illusion of control, and they weren’t ready to surrender that to anyone, not even one with the power and authority and compassion of Christ.

Are we ready?

5. We are afraid to die.

Fears of need, rejection, and persecution plague many of us, but death is the nightmare driving the American Dream. The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus,

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)

Like King David, each of us is born into this lifelong slavery, from our very first breath to our dreaded last breath, unless God raises us from the dead. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:3, 5).

American or African or Asian, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, we are all born into sin and under its curse. The whole earth groans under its death sentence (Romans 8:20–21). Death comes to every one of us, and yet we try to ignore it for the vast majority of our lives, naively thinking it might go away. Yet the harder we run away from it, the faster it closes the gap on us.

The promise of success, and the thrill of sinful pleasure, and the high of spending, and the buzz of entertainment all treat the symptoms, but they cannot liberate us from slavery. They mask our fear of death, dulling our senses, and blinding us to reality, tragically leaving us even more hopeless than before.

Do Not Fear

Death is the nightmare in the American Dream, but not in the Christian life. “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).

We do not fear need, because we know our Father will give us what we need today (Matthew 6:32–33), and everything else forever when we are finally with him (Romans 8:32).

We do not fear what others think, because God himself sent his Son to show us just how much he loves us (1 John 4:9–10).

We do not fear what others might do, because Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God we deserved (Romans 3:25–26), and no one on this earth or anywhere else can separate us from him (Romans 8:35–37).

We do not fear losing control, because we know the one who governs and decides all things is working absolutely everything, large and small, for our good (Romans 8:28).

We certainly do not fear death, because, as John Piper says, “Death has become a doorway to paradise.” Not only can death not touch what we treasure most, because of Christ, but it is forced to deliver our greatest treasure to us.

If we fear God, we need not fear persecution, poverty, punishment, or death. The American Dream loses its appeal because it offers less life, liberty, and happiness than we find in Jesus. Having died to fear, we are raised to freedom.

The Most Satisfying Single Years

The Most Satisfying Single Years

Jesus saved me when I was fifteen, a few weeks after I had broken up with my fourth serious girlfriend in three years. That’s right, four girlfriends before I could legally drive, much less marry.

I dated off and on for the next fourteen years, probably doing things more wrong than right, and hurting too many great Christian girls along the way. I experienced more impatience, disappointment, temptation, and regret in dating than in any other area of my life. And singleness became the daily billboard of all that brokenness — a louder and louder reminder every year of my unfulfilled desires for marriage, my shame-filled failures in relationships, and my unwillingness to trust God and wait for him.

Singleness felt lonely, as I waited for someone to come into my life and never leave again. Singleness felt incomplete, as I wondered if God would bring my other half or fill the massive, glaring hole in my life (at least it looked massive and glaring in the mirror). Singleness filled me with self-pity, as I wanted what others already had, and thought I deserved it more than them.

Marriage and dating towered above my other idols, and so singleness became simultaneously my unrelenting judge and unwanted roommate, reminding me at all times of what I didn’t have yet and what I didn’t do right.

No One Has to Wait

But while I wallowed in my singleness, I missed what the Bible says about happiness. Sure, I had read it before, even recited it since I was little, but I didn’t feel it deeply enough to transform how I lived my not-yet-married life. I had seen too many happy couples, and endured too many lonely nights, to trust that God could make me truly happy even if I never married.

I understood and surrendered to what God had said about obedience, even patience, but I missed what he said about my happiness. In my mind, real joy always laid somewhere on the far side of matrimony. I just had to be willing to wait.

But no one in Christ ever has to wait for joy. We may have to wait for a husband or a wife, or for a job, or for physical healing or relief, or for reconciliation with family members or friends. We may have to wait for all those things and a thousand more — with no guarantee that any of those things will ever come to us in this life. But the sinless Son of God bled and died to ensure that you and I never have to wait for happiness.

Does God Hide Happiness?

Joy in God is not buried in some future circumstance; it’s buried in the ground under our feet today.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The man or woman who has found joy in Jesus isn’t desperately searching for joy anymore, but desperately doing anything and everything to have more of him. They now see every desire and longing through the lens of having already discovered and secured their greatest treasure.

Was the man in Matthew 13:44 married or single? If he was married, what did his wife think about him selling the farm? It doesn’t matter. The point is that Jesus really is worth losing all we have or might have in the future, even a husband or wife. Real happiness is not hidden in marriage; it’s hidden in Him.

Satisfy Me in the Morning

Psalm 90 records a prayer that has been an anchor in my pursuit of joy:

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (Psalms 90:14)

The key to enjoying a lifetime of happiness is to find happiness in God today, in the situations and circumstances he has placed us in today. God does not make us wait for joy, because he does not make us wait for him. If we think we have to achieve a certain relationship status, or a certain income level, or a certain ministry profile before we experience real satisfaction, we haven’t tapped into what he already promises to be for us today. We haven’t looked hard enough at the field under our feet.

Our plea must be this: Lord, satisfy me this morning with yourself, so that I will be able to rejoice all my days — even the hardest, loneliest, most painful ones. Satisfy me in my singleness, so that I will be satisfied every day you give me here on earth, whether I ever marry or not.

Singleness will be torture if we have not given our hearts to God. Marriage may be even worse. The only people who are truly happy in marriage are not mainly happy because of marriage. They are satisfied in the morning with God, and that makes marriage satisfying.

If you love God like that, even unwanted singleness can be satisfying. You can want to be married, and long to meet your husband or wife, and still love every minute of your single life with Jesus.

The Making of a Modern Pharisee

The Making of a Modern Pharisee

We are all born legalists, but we are made into Pharisees.

Spurgeon once preached, “Beloved, the legalist [in us] is a great deal older than the Christian. If I were a legalist today, I should be some fifteen or sixteen years older than I am as a Christian; for we are all born legalists.”

We are all born believing we can earn and deserve heaven. We are born resisting the idea of grace, mostly because of the awful things grace says about us. John Piper defines legalism as “the conviction that law-keeping is the ground for our acceptance with God — a failure to be amazed at grace.”

Pharisees are legalists, but not the newborn kind. They have all the same fears about grace, but they have coated their insecurities with accumulated knowledge, morality, and religion. Pharisees are legalists who are puffed up (1 Corinthians 8:1). They look educated, clean, and alive, all while dying inside. The seeds of sin and death keep growing and spreading underneath the confident appearances and practices, always harder and harder to cover up.

We are born legalists. But Pharisees are informed legalists.

He Came to Call Sinners

Pharisees were Jesus’s greatest human enemies. They misjudged him, to be sure, but their greater problem, in the end, was that they misjudged God and themselves. The Christ could have come a thousand different ways — in a manger or on a throne, wrapped in rags or robed in fine cloth, to a carpenter or to a king. They always would have rejected the real Jesus, because they refused to believe that they needed the only thing he came to give.

They gossiped to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). But Jesus overheard them and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

Jesus was not saying he came only to save the people that seem to need him most, like rapists, prostitutes, and murderers. No one needs him more than you or me. He was saying he came to save the people who recognize their need for him. While Pharisees were keeping their distance and plotting to kill Jesus, it was tax collectors and sinners who were soaking up every minute of his short life.

Prodigal God

Tim Keller writes about the dangers of Phariseeism today, even in evangelical churches,

We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (Prodigal God, 15–16)

Why would our churches attract the conservative, buttoned-down, and moralistic? Is it because they feel more at home with us than they did with Jesus in his day?

The problem with Pharisees is not simply that they preach a false gospel of works. That is a serious, damnable flaw (Galatians 1:9). But there are plenty of “gospel-centered” Pharisees today. The real problem is the pride and greed and fear underneath any works-based confidence in ourselves. That pride and greed and fear (or whatever sin you struggle with) eventually sever our mind and mouth from our heart.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). They had developed ways of appearing to be godly without really preferring and prioritizing God in their hearts. What they knew about God was disconnected from how they felt about God, and therefore left them even further from God.

Recognizing a Pharisee

If we are serious about grace, and true slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15–18), we must beware of the symptoms of gracelessness. If we refuse to believe we could be a Pharisee, we’re as vulnerable as the Pharisees who murdered the Author of life. So, how would we know if we had subtly become a modern-day Pharisee? Jesus gives us at least six signposts along the highway away from grace.

1. Pharisees know what to say, but do not do what they say.

Jesus says, “They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:3–4). Beware the dissonance between what you say you believe and the reality of how you live, and refuse to make peace with it.

We are all sinners, so there will be always be some dissonance (1 John 1:8). We are always repenting this side of glory. But look closely at any consistent or reoccurring departure — in spending and giving, in serving, in relating to your spouse or children, in loving your neighbor, in indulging in secret sin.

What excuses do you make for the sins that entangle you? The Pharisees were happy to point out sin in others, and even happier to excuse it in themselves.

2. Pharisees practice their faith to be seen by others.

Jesus goes on, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). The Pharisees prayed to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5). They served the poor to be seen by others (Matthew 6:2). They obeyed the Scriptures to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1). And they received what they really wanted: recognition and esteem from others.

Jesus warns, though, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Is your Christianity consistently aiming for acceptance or approval or affirmation? Are you Christian mainly for the social benefits? Or do you pray, and serve, and give “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

If so, the reward from your Father will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

3. Pharisees keep people from Jesus and his grace.

Jesus brings a third indictment in Matthew 23,

“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13–15)

One of the greatest dangers of Phariseeism is that it’s contagious. When we disconnect our heart from our head, subtly putting our confidence in our flesh, we lead other people away from Jesus with us. When Pharisees make disciples of all nations, they breed children of hell, not sons and daughters of grace.

Are the people following you amazed by grace? Does your influence in their lives widen their eyes and heart to the wonder that God would save any of us?

4. Pharisees add their convictions and traditions to the word of God.

What preferences, or convictions, or traditions do we have that are not clearly commanded in Scripture? Pharisees love and protect their traditions with their lives. They build massive systems and programs, like sets for a musical, that unnecessarily burdened God’s people — and that hid what’s really happening inside of them.

They established and enforced laws about swearing that allowed someone to go back on their word in various circumstances. If someone swore by the temple, he did not need to follow through, but if he swore by the gold of the temple, he was bound (Matthew 23:16). Jesus says instead, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37).

What practices or programs in our churches have become exhausting and unfruitful structures of avoiding what God has really called us to do? Maybe they were envisioned, created, and developed with God’s help and favor, but are we preserving and imposing them simply because “we’ve always done it this way”?

5. Pharisees lack love for people in need.

Besides their hatred of Jesus, the most glaring warning light in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ lack of love for people, especially people in need. Jesus rebukes them, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24).

They looked for every conceivable reason not to help the poor, oppressed, and needy. They looked down on Jesus for sitting with sinners, instead of having compassion on them (Mark 2:16). They despised Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand, instead of wanting to see him healed (Mark 3:5–6). They cursed Jesus for casting a demon out of another man, instead of rejoicing that he was finally free (Matthew 12:22–24).

Pharisees find every way to leverage the law to walk the long way around the half-dead man lying in the middle of the road right in front of them (Luke 10:31–32). Those who have died with Christ have died to themselves, and live for the needs and interests of others, whoever God has placed in our path.

6. Pharisees cover sin instead of confessing and repenting.

Jesus exposes the Pharisees a sixth time,

“You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. . . . You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25–28)

Lawful on the outside, but full of lawlessness. Bleached exterior walls, but full of death. A conservative, moral, and religious social media profile, but chasing sin with every secret click.

If we make every effort to cover our sin and hide our need, we clearly have not understood the gospel, and we have not embraced grace. Pharisees say they have fellowship with Jesus while they walk in darkness (1 John 1:6). Lovers of Jesus confess our sin, knowing “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Are You a Pharisee in the Making?

Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself? Anyone who has been given greater knowledge has received greater vulnerability with it.

If we begin to sense a disconnect between our head and our heart — what we say and who we are — the solution is not simply more head. Read more. Take more classes. Google more definitions and explanations. The knowledge is vital (Romans 10:2), but it is not the key to reviving our hearts. God is. Knowledge doesn’t open eyes and ears. God does. God must drag whatever each of us knows about him into our hearts and light it, by his Spirit, with faith and love and joy.

The apostle Paul prays for this, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:16–18). Paul doesn’t say put away knowledge, or neglect theology, or disregard difficult questions in the Bible. No, he simply prays that God would set all of that thinking on fire in our hearts — that he would make grace compelling and Jesus satisfying to us.

Kill Pride Before It Kills You

Kill Pride Before It Kills You

At some point today, someone will probably compliment or praise something you do or say. If not today, it will happen tomorrow, or sometime next week. How will you respond? How do you typically respond?

How we respond to praise from others, especially over time, reveals how highly we really think of ourselves. I’m not talking about every specific email or conversation or social-media update, but about the trends in our emails and conversations and social media. Is our default reaction — our gut heart-level response — to give God credit and glory for our gifts and achievements at work, at home, and in ministry? Or, are we more likely to privately savor that moment for ourselves, to turn the praise over and over slowly in our minds, like a piece of caramel in our mouths?

Every compliment or commendation we receive comes charged with potential for worship. When we quietly, even politely, enjoy affirmation or praise without even thinking to acknowledge God, we’re not only missing an opportunity to worship him (and to call others to worship him), but also robbing God of the glory he deserves for every gift we receive and everything we achieve.

Dying for Praise

Do you know how the apostle James, brother of John, died?

James was one of the very first disciples, one of Jesus’s closest friends, and he was the first apostle to be killed for his faith. Known as “Sons of Thunder,” James and his brother were fishermen before Jesus called them into the ministry. He watched Jesus raise a 12-year-old girl from the dead (Luke 8:51). He stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28). He went with Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane the night Jesus was betrayed (Luke 22:39).

And then King Herod had him killed with the sword simply to entertain angry Jews (Acts 12:1–2).

Herod hated the apostles, but mainly he seemed to simply love himself. He killed James, and then, “when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:3). He couldn’t murder Peter that day because of the Jewish Passover celebration. But he planned to execute him publicly within the week (Acts 12:4).

An angel came and rescued Peter from captivity (bound with chains, a soldier sleeping on each side, and two more guards by the door). When Herod came the next day to kill Peter, and realized he was gone, he killed the sentries instead (Acts 12:19). Murder. Attempted murder. And more murders.

Living for Praise

What does that have to do with how you receive praise? In the next verse, Herod turns his anger against the people in Tyre and Sidon, so they plead for peace and mercy. “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (Acts 12:21). The people shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22). He killed for praise. He dressed for praise. He performed for praise. And he received his reward.

Luke writes, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23)

God did not strike Herod down when he murdered James, or when he imprisoned Peter in order to murder him, or when he executed the innocent prison sentries. No, God’s final hammer fell when Herod took pleasure in being exalted by people — when he plagiarized the power and authority of God, presenting himself as wise in his own wisdom, as strong in his own strength, as great in his own greatness.

Living for Christ

Two chapters later in Acts, the apostle Paul gets a similar treatment. After he healed a crippled man in Jesus’s name, “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’” (Acts 14:11). How does Paul respond to their praise? “We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

Instead of soaking up the attention and basking in the glory, Paul and Barnabas grieved over it (Acts 14:14). And they used their new platform to rehearse all that God had done (Acts 14:15–17). Whenever people are under the impression that we have done something impressive, we have a golden opportunity to teach them we never do anything impressive or meaningful in our own wisdom or strength or ability. We can say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

How to Receive Praise

True humility does not refuse affirmation. It refuses to keep it for ourselves. Paul’s letters are full of warm affirmation:

  • To the Romans: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8).

  • To the Philippians: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel” (Philippians 1:3–5).

  • To the Thessalonians: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2–3).

Paul loves to praise the grace at work in other believers, often getting very personal and specific (Romans 16:3; Philippians 2:19–23; Philippians 2:25–30; and more). But he’s always praising grace in people, not people apart from grace. And he’s always pushing the praise through the person to God.

When someone affirms something you have done — at home, at work, in ministry — you don’t need to rebuke them for not mentioning God. God means for the joy we have in others’ gifts to spill over into the joy of acknowledging and affirming those gifts — just not the kind of acknowledging and affirming that ends with us. Receive the praise with grace and humility, and then joyfully give the praise away to God. Find a fresh way to say that you and your work are a product of grace.

Don’t try to make your admirer feel bad for giving you credit. Affirm his kindness, give him the satisfaction of receiving his praise, and help him see, with you, just how much God deserves the glory for all your skill and effort and success — and for theirs.

He Is Not Dead: Seven Victories on Easter Sunday

He Is Not Dead

“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5–6)

The believers who saw the risen Christ with their own eyes and touched him with their hands spent the rest of their lives talking about the resurrection. For sure, they preached crucifixion and propitiation — the central hinge of the gospel message — but the message of the cross was not the most controversial thing they had to say in their day.

The claims the apostles made about Jesus’s death were wildly controversial, but they were persecuted and martyred not because of what they said about his death, but because of what they said happened next. The sermons in Acts are filled with the resurrection, showing over and over what it means for those who follow Christ. Almost no one debated that Jesus died, but the Jews violently refused to believe that he rose just three days later.

The Jews were not as offended by the two blocks of wood as they were by the empty tomb. The largest stumbling block was in fact a boulder, rolled away and preaching the resurrection of the Christ.

Jesus is not dead. And when he rose from the grave, against all of Satan’s lies and schemes, he guaranteed for you the greatest realities in the world. Two thousand years later, the resurrection still preaches God’s relentless commitment to win every victory for you, including these seven for Easter Sunday.

1. God has defeated death for you.

Satan conspired with Judas, Pilate, and the Jewish leaders to kill the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead (Acts 3:15), “loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). And if you believe in him, death cannot hold you either: “Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’” (John 11:25).

Jesus rose to prove that he had defeated death. Until he rose, death seemed to swallow up every ounce of life and hope from generation after generation. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). So, how could sinners have any hope of escaping death?

God had promised everlasting life centuries before, but the resurrection revealed it was certain for his chosen, redeemed, and adopted sons and daughters. Though many had lived and believed and died before him, Jesus was the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18). And if there is a first, God means for more to follow him.

2. God has purchased all his promises for you.

Jesus rose to prove the Old Testament promises and warnings were truly from God. God’s promises have always been the only lifeline of hope for those of us living under the supreme death penalty. But the resurrection brought those promises into fuller and higher definition.

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. . . . To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39–43)

The promises simply seem too good to be true — until we see God raise Jesus from the dead. Suddenly, what seemed so impossible to man was wonderfully possible and guaranteed with God.

3. God will judge every sin committed by you or against you.

While the apostle Paul was waiting in Athens, he preached, “[God] now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).

Jesus rose to prove that he would one day judge all sins. Every sin we have committed, and every sin committed against us, brings God into question. Will justice prevail? Will we all be wiped away and thrown into hell? When God raised Jesus from the dead, he made clear that every sin would be punished — on the cross for all who repent, and in judgment for all who refuse.

If you are alive with Christ, there is now no condemnation for you (Romans 8:1), and no sin against you will be overlooked or excused by God.

4. God will restore everything wrong or broken in front of you.

The apostle Peter calls his fellow Jews to Jesus, saying, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:19–21).

Jesus rose to prove he would eventually return and make all things right. This last year provides another twelve months of evidence that this world is broken and breaking. And this Easter is another statement that our hope is as alive as Jesus. The world will be rid of sin, including all its causes and consequences. In God’s wise and loving plan, that day is not today. But today is a great day to stop beside the empty tomb, and remember what will be one day.

5. Your bondage to sin is great, but God really can set you free.

Peter healed a man lame from birth, inviting him to finally walk after all these years, in the healing name of Jesus. The priests came to arrest Peter and John, “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). In custody and under trial, Peter boldly says,

“Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10–12)

Jesus rose to prove that you really can be saved from your sin. You do not deserve salvation, and you could never achieve it in your own strength and resolve. If Christ did not rise from the dead, hope would have lain next to him in the grave. But he is not dead, and therefore we have hope.

Sin condemns us to everlasting judgment and never-ending torture (Matthew 13:41–42; Revelation 14:11). And sin mercilessly enslaves us to death (Romans 6:16–20; Ephesians 2:1). But God. Christ rose to cancel our debt, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14), and to set us free from sin for God. Paul preaches about the resurrection,

“For David . . . fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:36–39)

For our forgiveness and freedom, Christ has died, risen, and set us free (Galatians 5:1).

6. God will not only rescue you, but people from all over the world.

Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, but he did not die and rise only for ethnic Israel. Again, Paul preaches,

“I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:22–23)

Jesus rose to prove God had chosen people from everywhere in the world — not only from Israel, but from Asia, Africa, and America, too. His blood was sufficient to purchase people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). His death not only reconciles us to God, but reconciles us to one another across every conceivable barrier and boundary. And his resurrection is powerful enough to hold out hope to people everywhere on earth.

7. No evil can disrupt God’s good plans for you.

The death of Jesus looked like the single greatest defeat God’s people had ever experienced. Instead of ascending to a throne and conquering his enemies, the promised King had been humiliated and crucified. But at the precise moment when it looked like evil had won, God was wielding every ounce of wickedness to accomplish his greatest victory. As Peter preaches to the Jewish officials,

“Jesus of Nazareth . . . delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:22–24)

Jesus rose to prove that God is sovereign even over the worst evil in the world (Acts 2:23). In the ultimate act of rebellion and injustice, God was pivoting all of history, with love, to save and satisfy his people. And by raising his Son from the dead on Easter, he promised to work all things, including the hardest and most painful things in your life, for the good of all his sons and daughters.

Does Dating Prepare Us for Marriage — or Divorce?

Does Dating Prepare Us for Marriage — or Divorce?

The common trends in dating today are more likely to prepare you to get divorced than to enjoy and persevere in marriage.

Dating is an intentional pursuit of marriage, not casual preparation for it. Unfortunately, many of us are being told we must date early and often if we ever want to be ready for marriage. For instance, one popular Christian dating book reads, “Dating is an incubator time of discovering the opposite sex, one’s own sexual feelings, moral limits, one’s need for relationship skills, and one’s tastes for people.” Sounds practical and reasonable on the surface. Until you think about putting yourself (or your daughter) into someone else’s “incubator” for a few months, or years, while he or she tries out their “sexual feelings” and “moral limits.” We put too much of ourselves at risk in dating to donate our hearts to someone’s romantic experiment.

The truth is we have given dating far too much credit, and far too much power in our pursuit of marriage. And because we misunderstand and misuse dating, we end up making more and greater mistakes in our search for love.

Wait to Date?

Wait to date until you can marry. That’s my advice for the not-yet-married, reflecting on my personal experience (and failures) in dating and on years of walking with others falling in love (and often falling harder out of love). In short, if we are dating in order to marry, we need to be ready to marry before we begin dating.

I definitely do not expect everyone to agree with me. Godly wisdom is a wide stream, and God’s word often allows us to apply his heart and wisdom in remarkably different ways, even in dating. But one common point of pushback puzzled me. It came in many forms, but it goes something like this:

Dating is indispensable preparation for marriage. How else will young men and women learn how to love their future husband or wife without dating?

I say it puzzles me even though I’m sure I could have preached that verse as a teenager to anyone who would have listened. I bought the message in middle school: If dating is a critical education in relationships and romance, and we want to be married, then we should date early and often. So, I started paying tuition, registered for classes, purchased the textbooks, jumped into relationship after relationship, and never looked back — until I wanted my money back.

My problem was that I subtly treated each new relationship — each potential marriage — like a mini-marriage.

Lab Rats in Love

Dating is not eighth-grade marriage. The men or women we date are not a series of lab experiments that prepare us to be a better husband or wife. The relationships are real relationships, and the people are (most likely) someone else’s future husband or wife. A dating relationship is not a marriage covenant, but the spiritual and emotional stakes are still high. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that the liberties many of us take in dating are more likely to harm our future marriage (and our significant other’s future marriage) than they are to prepare us for marriage. We cultivate the “mini-marriages” that subtly undermine any real marriage God might eventually give us.

Again, dating is primarily pursuit, not preparation. Dating well is not mainly looking for how, but for who. Like other experiences in life, dating will prepare and mature us in one way or another, but we don’t date in order to prepare ourselves for someone else. God prepares us for marriage in a thousand other ways that are not spring-loaded with the risks, obstacles, and difficulties of dating.

For example, far better than experimenting with romance and intimacy for ourselves would be to spend lots of time with marriages we respect and admire. Instead of “studying” for marriage by only giving ourselves away to other lovesick single people, we give ourselves to observing real-life, faithful, and happy husbands and wives. Instead of making out in the basement or watching more chick flicks, we could find creative ways to help families we want to learn from.

I am not saying you should not date. The vast majority of us will have to date in order to get married, at least in the West. It’s simply how most people find a spouse today. I’m just not convinced dating is necessarily preparing us — heart, habits, character — for marriage. I’m not discouraging you from dating, but encouraging you to date with clarity and purpose, and not as an experiment. My advice is not necessarily to marry the first person you date, but to date in a way that serves the person you marry one day.

How Dating Prepares Us

If dating did prepare us for marriage, what specifically would those relationships prepare us to do in marriage?

  • To relate romantically to someone of the opposite sex?
  • To plan better dates — food, places, activities?
  • To express affection effectively?
  • To buy the right kind of flowers, or candy, or jewelry?
  • To carry on meaningful conversations?

Dating indeed may prepare us to do each of these things incrementally better than if we had never dated. Experience almost always teaches us something. The problem is that at the end of each relationship, we have learned how to love someone, but that someone wasn’t our spouse. We prepared ourselves to marry our ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, and then we never got married. We cultivated love emotionally and exclusively, learned specifically how to love each other practically, and then we walked away. And then started the whole process over with someone else.

So, instead of preparing ourselves for marriage, we actually prepared ourselves, practically speaking, to walk away from marriage. Dating really prepared us for divorce.

Something You Never Hear

Still don’t believe me? Have you ever heard a husband openly celebrate his wife’s past dating relationships? Have you ever heard a wife mourn that her husband didn’t date more people?

How would we communicate if you hadn’t spent all those hours on the phone with Rachel?
I’m so thankful you learned how to be a better kisser with Greg.
Where would our marriage be if you hadn’t bought all those flowers for Susan?

Husbands and wives do not talk that way. If a husband or wife does celebrate their spouse’s past relationships, it’s almost always because of what they didn’t do — not because that other relationship was a “valuable learning experience” on the way to marriage.

Think about that. We might talk freely about how much dating will prepare us for marriage before we are married, and then we almost never talk about our dating relationships after we’re married. Why? Because dating does not really prepare us for marriage, especially if we treat it like a trial run or a test drive.

How God Prepares Us

What does God say about what it looks like to be prepared for marriage, and how do those things map onto what we see and experience in dating today? The clearest picture we have in the Bible comes in Ephesians 5:22–33. If you want to prepare yourself for your future husband or wife, you need to learn how to practice these five graces in marriage:

  • To be utterly and fiercely exclusive (Ephesians 5:31).
  • To become one spiritually, emotionally, and physically (Ephesians 5:31).
  • To submit our desires and preferences totally to someone else (Ephesians 5:21–24).
  • To work hard for someone else’s purity (Ephesians 5:26–27).
  • To die to ourselves for someone else, even if it costs us everything (Ephesians 5:25).

Does that sound like the dating scene we see today? Does that sound like your dating relationships? It does not sound, look, or smell like most of my dating experience. That’s mainly because Ephesians 5:22–33 was written about marriage, not about dating. We’re not meant to experience those five points with several men or women, and then more with our spouse. God meant for us to experience them with one person, within the safety and intimacy of a promise — within a marriage.

Prepare Yourself

By all means, if we want to be married, we should prepare ourselves to be married. But we don’t prepare ourselves for true, lifelong romance by experimenting with lesser, short-term romance. We prepare ourselves for deeper, fuller, longer-lasting romance by becoming more like Christ. If we want to be as happy as humanly possible in marriage, we practice loving others like he loves us. And the ways we prepare ourselves to love like him will look very different from every other trend in dating.

1. Prepare yourself to love exclusively.

When we say “exclusive” today, we typically mean one person at a time. We immediately think of our mini-marriages. For instance, someone could have been divorced five times and still be “exclusively” dating someone today. I think we can all agree that is a shallow and superficial way to think about exclusivity. Exclusively dating boy after boy, or girl after girl, looks less and less exclusive over time, and robs us of at least some of the exclusivity we might give a spouse one day.

Instead of treating each new relationship like a mini-marriage, cultivate a ferocious and truly exclusive love for your future husband or wife — even though you do not yet know who he or she is. As you relate to your boyfriend or girlfriend, always assume they are not your future husband or wife until he or she is your husband or wife.

2. Prepare yourself to serve others selflessly, and not satisfy yourself.

Prepare yourself to serve, and not be served (Mark 10:45). Marriage requires our gladly dying daily to ourselves for the sake of another, while dating more often looks like stuffing ourselves to death at someone else’s expense. We storm the free all-you-can-eat buffet, but forget someone else is always paying.

If we want to love our future spouse well one day, we must learn to live for someone other than ourselves now. We are all born knowing how to take care of ourselves (Ephesians 5:29). We all need to learn how to set ourselves aside for the sake of others — to postpone our own gratification in order to protect and serve our current boyfriend or girlfriend (as well as our future husband or wife).

3. Prepare yourself to wait patiently.

“Now” might be the defining word in modern dating — love now, titles now, touch now, sex now, marriage now. Every moment of unfulfilled desire pulses with tension in our bodies. Yes, “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22), but only when he finds her in God’s time and in God’s way.

Impatience drives as many of our missteps in dating as anything else. Romance, marriage, and sex are really good gifts from God, and like every other good and perfect gift we receive, we have to submit to God’s timing and God’s terms to truly enjoy them. If you encourage your cravings for instant gratification in dating, you will be lost in the day-in, day-out, lifelong pursuit of marriage.

4. Prepare yourself to pursue purity fiercely.

The pursuit of purity does not stop when you get married. It’s not a saddle single people are forced to wear. It’s a burden blood-bought men and women love to bear (1 Corinthians 6:18–20).

The not-yet-married are told over and over again through Bible-pounding law and menacing scare tactics — shame, pregnancy, and STDs — to guard their purity. And the Bible does warn us, in no uncertain terms, about sexual immorality and impurity (Ephesians 5:3, 5). But the greatest and most effective motivation for your personal purity — single or married, young or old, new believer or veteran — is not potential consequences, but potential joy.

Prepare your heart to treasure Jesus more than love, sex, and marriage, and you will date, marry, and make love differently. And the differences will make all the difference for your happiness, and for your future husband or wife.

Can the World Explain Your Comfort?

Can the World Explain Your Comfort?

When grace gets a hold of a people, it does remarkable, unexplainable things in us. Grace confiscates peace, and instills peace. Grace levels fear, and grace kindles fear. Grace rips away comfort, and grace produces comfort.

The first followers of Jesus experienced emotional miracles like these every day. They risked their lives and were ready to lose all they had for the sake of Christ. They gladly gave up everything (Acts 2:45), had so much to fear (Acts 9:1), and yet persevered and even multiplied. The church actually grew while it was under attack. Luke writes, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31).

One of the great evidences that the gospel has taken root — in a city, or a church, or a heart — is this coming together of seemingly conflicting emotions and experiences: fearless and fearful, uncomfortable and comforted. We set ourselves apart in the world by facing the hardest, darkest realities without fear, and by embracing trials with unshakeable comfort and joy.

Wrong Kind of Fear

Does the kind of fear and comfort above describe your church and your own heart? Unfortunately, life in a fallen world often incites the wrong kind of fear and curbs the kind of fear we need most. We fear God far less than we should, and a lot of other things far more. Instead of fearing the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly just Judge of the universe, we fear little things like change and rejection.

One kind of fear surrenders all other fear and follows Jesus (2 Timothy 1:6–7). Another kind of fear hears what Jesus promises and demands, and runs hard away from him. One kind of fear holds everything else loosely because we know that one day we will own it all forever (1 Corinthians 3:21–23). Another kind of fear holds everything a little tighter, trying to build at least a slice of heaven here.

Wrong Kind of Comfort

We are prone to fear the wrong things, and to crave the wrong kind of comfort. Modern life multiplies comforts, and yet we lack categories for comfort in suffering, or loss, or persecution — the kind of supernatural comfort carrying believers through the book of Acts.

Has there ever been a more comfortable era for Christians in the history of the world than life today in many places around the world? Jesus warned the wealthy and comfortable of his day, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24) — same word as Acts 9:31. You have received your comfort.

How comfortable are we and the Christians in our lives? Does our comfort look more American — wealthy, domestic, and entertaining — or more Christian — humble, spiritual, and durable? Is our comfort the kind that is purchased with money, or the kind produced by the Holy Spirit?

Right Kind of Fear

The wrong kind of fear drains our lives of faith and meaning. The right kind of fear brings hope and fills us with purpose and happiness. As the early church fearlessly stepped out and invited hostile neighbors to follow Jesus, they did so with great fear (Acts 9:31; 5:11). They lived these unexplainable verses in Isaiah:

Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary. (Isaiah 8:12–14)

When we come to God through Jesus, we stop fearing rejection, death, and judgment (1 John 4:18), but we never lose a holy fear for the one who rescues us from fear. Christian fear does not mean anxiety about today or eternity, but persistent awe and wonder before God (Acts 2:43), heightened seriousness about sin against him (1 Peter 1:15–17), and relentless passion for his glory (Acts 19:17).

Right Kind of Comfort

How does a church experience comfort when its members are being thrown in jail, and even murdered? By finding comfort in something other than our circumstances. Have you ever been able to say, “I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:4)? “Afflicted at every turn” (2 Corinthians 7:5), but still filled with comfort and overflowing with joy. That is a wonder the world cannot explain.

Being a Christian in those first days of the church was anything but comfortable, but Christian comfort has never been on fuller display. As they suffered for the sake of Jesus’s name, they worshiped,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction. . . . For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:3–5)

Comfort in these verses clearly is not dependent on physical health, or financial security, or what we call “quality of life.” It’s so much more reliable and satisfying than any of those things. Christian comfort does not mean the absence of suffering, but the presence of hope and joy stronger than any suffering we might experience in this life. Nothing can threaten or diminish the comfort we find in Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:16).

So, if you are in Christ, you have no reason to fear anything that is frightening in this world (1 Peter 3:6), and every reason to fear God more than ever — not because of what he might do to you, but simply because his strength, holiness, justice, and worth are so far beyond us. Beware of comfort in this life, and seek comfort with all your might — by the power of the Holy Spirit. The relative comfort we feel in the modern world is a mirage ready to expire, but the comfort we feel in God’s mercy will never, ever fail us.

My Joy in the Desert

My Joy in the Desert

For most of us, the single greatest threat to our faith in God and his promises has been the miles we have walked in the desert. Suffering is the proving ground for what we believe. How will we respond when things go badly? Will adversity, disappointment, and crisis undo our trust in God and hope for the peace, joy, safety, and love of the gospel?

The apostle Peter writes his first letter to Christians in conflict. Since following Jesus, these believers have not found the peace, safety, or relief that they might have expected. This world and their lives continue to be marred by inconvenience, disease, disappointment, persecution, and even death.

Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice” (1 Peter 4:12–13). Is there a more counter-cultural, counter-human-nature message in the Bible than this? Jesus invites us to follow him and enter into inexpressible and glorious joy, even in the most bitter, heartbreaking, and excruciating moments of our lives.

Our prayer in the desert is not simply for strength and survival, but for joy. Only Christians can truly rejoice in trials, because only Christians find more of God there.

Death-Defying God

Ironically and beautifully, in God’s providence, trials are meant by God to serve our fullest and most lasting good and happiness. Peter begins that same letter with praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3). Why?

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3–4)

Blessed be the life-giving, death-defying, all-powerful God of absolutely miraculous mercy. If you believe and follow Jesus, you will face really difficult — likely even more difficult — things in this life. But the God who raises the dead is now your God. He is now with you, not against you. God has given you a new, true, and full life through his Son, Jesus. And the life he gives is filled with an unconquerable, unquenchable hope.

Unfading Future

One day, this hope will give birth to an inheritance in and with God beyond our wildest imaginations. This inheritance is imperishable. It doesn’t need an annual checkup. It can’t be used up. It will not die. It cannot die. Because our heavenly Father, who gave us life and adopted us into his family, cannot die. Nothing can touch or steal or spoil this inheritance.

It is undefiled. It’s not tainted or polluted in any way. Everything we have in this life, even our most precious possessions, are marred in some way by sin, either because they’re human and sinful, or because they sometimes tempt us into sin. Families, jobs, friends, sports, music, they’re all good and can be loved and enjoyed for God’s glory, but because of sin — because of our broken, deceitful, sinful hearts — there’s nothing perfectly good or safe or pure in this life. But our eternal hope, our heavenly inheritance, will be undefiled.

The inheritance we have with and from God is unfading. It cannot die, but everything fades with time, right? Passion fades. Energy fades as we age. Beauty fades. Our cars seem sturdy, well-built, reliable, but they fade. Our computers, fast and clean when we buy them, soon fade. They slow down and have to be replaced. Our bodies eventually age and break down and fail us. They fade. But our inheritance with God is unfading. Our hope is living and vibrant and filled with ever-renewing love, joy, and peace forever — always stronger, always deeper, never fading.

Learning to Love Desert Life

When we are faced with suffering, it’s not primarily about figuring out how to play the hand we’ve been dealt, but realizing the game is won. In Christ, our hand is already full of winning cards, so regardless of the particular situations, circumstances, or suffering we find ourselves up against, our hope is alive and our inheritance is huge because of God’s mercy to us in Jesus.

Faith like this will shock those around us. The world really doesn’t have a category for joy in suffering. They may rejoice in the baby born after the excruciating labor, or in the clean bill of health after hours of torment on a treadmill, or in the national pride and unity aroused after a terrorist attack. But they haven’t tasted joy in the pain, in the insult, in the heartache. They may just see the beauty and power of Jesus while watching you walk through your deserts and battles, and finally believe him for themselves.

God uses suffering to strengthen and purify our faith in his promises like nothing else. What we hold faithfully through trials, we are more likely to hold in the face of temptation. So, God sovereignly wields suffering to purify our hearts and our resolves for him so that we shine more brightly with his light and sufficiency. When we hold onto Christ through the loss, through the cancer, through the betrayal, we say that he is enough — that he is worth it all — and we prove that the Spirit is in us, sealing us and keeping us forever.

The suffering very painfully, but also very sweetly and powerfully, serves to prepare us for eternity and to display our good news to those around us now.