Begin to Hope Again

“I’ve come to see that part of my calling here is simply to be a person of hope.”

Our car bounced down a dirt road in a small Middle Eastern town, seven of us packed into a five-seat sedan. A dim moonlight lit the blues and oranges of ramshackle g…

The Teenage Martyr: Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537–1554)

The Teenage Martyr

February 10, 1554: Two days before Lady Jane Grey climbs the scaffold. The Catholic chaplain John Feckenham enters Jane’s cell in the Tower of London in the hopes of saving her soul. Or so he thinks.

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Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary”) had already signed her cousin Jane’s death warrant, but she sent her seasoned chaplain to see if he could woo Jane back to Rome before her execution. Jane is about seventeen years old.

A charged debate follows — Feckenham the Catholic apologist and Jane the Reformed teenager. He presses that justification comes by faith and works; she stands her ground on sola fide. He asserts that the Eucharistic bread and wine are the very body and blood of Christ; she maintains that the elements symbolize Jesus’s saving work. He affirms the Catholic Church’s authority alongside Scripture; she insists that the church sits underneath the piercing gaze of God’s word.

“I am sure we two shall never meet [again],” Feckenham finally tells Jane, implying her damnation. But Jane turns the warning back on him: “Truth it is that we shall never meet [again], unless God turn your heart.”

Lady Jane’s Sovereign God

From one angle, Jane’s life is a story of manipulation, of powerful people using a teenager girl as a social and political prop. Her parents forced a severe education regimen upon her in the hopes that she could marry the heir to England’s throne. When that opportunity passed, the Greys colluded with the king’s chief minister to wed Jane to Guildford Dudley, a man she despised. And then, at the king’s passing, a group of political conspirers handed her the crown that would cost Jane her head.

A true angle as far as it goes, but it belongs to Ecclesiastes — it’s the under-the-sun perspective on Lady Jane. Through the lens of God’s providence, a different Jane appears. A Jane who used her Greek and Hebrew to study the Scriptures in their original tongue. A Jane sent to Henry VIII’s court for grooming, only to meet Jesus through the Christian witness of Queen Katherine Parr. And, finally, a Jane who faces trial, imprisonment, and beheading with God’s very words on her lips.

This second perspective is no attempt at hagiography or hero worship. The accounts tell us Jane could be stubborn as a weed. The perspective simply acknowledges that the God of Joseph still threads redemption through conniving relatives and lonely jail cells. “You meant to use me for your own ends,” Jane might have told any number of people, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

The Tower Cell

Lady Jane reluctantly took the throne on July 10, 1553, and willingly left it on July 19, 1553, when Mary gathered an army to depose her cousin queen. So Jane is often remembered by a number: the Nine-Days’ Queen.

On February 7, 1554, Mary signed the death warrant that would lead Jane to the scaffold just five days later. In addition to sparring with Feckenham, Jane spent her final days preparing a brief speech for her execution and sending some last remarks. On the inside of her Greek New Testament, she wrote to her younger sister, Katharine,

This is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. . . . And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life.

On the Scaffold

The morning of February 12 brought Jane to the wall of the central White Tower, where a small crowd and an executioner awaited her arrival. Turning to the onlookers, Jane announced, “I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ.” She then knelt and recited Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God. . . .”

Once blindfolded, Jane groped her way to the execution block and laid her head in its groove. The last sound the crowd heard before the axe thudded into the block was a prayer from Jane’s seventeen-year-old voice: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” So ended the life of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage martyr.

The Teenage Martyr: Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537–1554)

The Teenage Martyr

February 10, 1554: Two days before Lady Jane Grey climbs the scaffold. The Catholic chaplain John Feckenham enters Jane’s cell in the Tower of London in the hopes of saving her soul. Or so he thinks.

The Teenage Martyr t918za0p

Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary”) had already signed her cousin Jane’s death warrant, but she sent her seasoned chaplain to see if he could woo Jane back to Rome before her execution. Jane is about seventeen years old.

A charged debate follows — Feckenham the Catholic apologist and Jane the Reformed teenager. He presses that justification comes by faith and works; she stands her ground on sola fide. He asserts that the Eucharistic bread and wine are the very body and blood of Christ; she maintains that the elements symbolize Jesus’s saving work. He affirms the Catholic Church’s authority alongside Scripture; she insists that the church sits underneath the piercing gaze of God’s word.

“I am sure we two shall never meet [again],” Feckenham finally tells Jane, implying her damnation. But Jane turns the warning back on him: “Truth it is that we shall never meet [again], unless God turn your heart.”

Lady Jane’s Sovereign God

From one angle, Jane’s life is a story of manipulation, of powerful people using a teenager girl as a social and political prop. Her parents forced a severe education regimen upon her in the hopes that she could marry the heir to England’s throne. When that opportunity passed, the Greys colluded with the king’s chief minister to wed Jane to Guildford Dudley, a man she despised. And then, at the king’s passing, a group of political conspirers handed her the crown that would cost Jane her head.

A true angle as far as it goes, but it belongs to Ecclesiastes — it’s the under-the-sun perspective on Lady Jane. Through the lens of God’s providence, a different Jane appears. A Jane who used her Greek and Hebrew to study the Scriptures in their original tongue. A Jane sent to Henry VIII’s court for grooming, only to meet Jesus through the Christian witness of Queen Katherine Parr. And, finally, a Jane who faces trial, imprisonment, and beheading with God’s very words on her lips.

This second perspective is no attempt at hagiography or hero worship. The accounts tell us Jane could be stubborn as a weed. The perspective simply acknowledges that the God of Joseph still threads redemption through conniving relatives and lonely jail cells. “You meant to use me for your own ends,” Jane might have told any number of people, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

The Tower Cell

Lady Jane reluctantly took the throne on July 10, 1553, and willingly left it on July 19, 1553, when Mary gathered an army to depose her cousin queen. So Jane is often remembered by a number: the Nine-Days’ Queen.

On February 7, 1554, Mary signed the death warrant that would lead Jane to the scaffold just five days later. In addition to sparring with Feckenham, Jane spent her final days preparing a brief speech for her execution and sending some last remarks. On the inside of her Greek New Testament, she wrote to her younger sister, Katharine,

This is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. . . . And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life.

On the Scaffold

The morning of February 12 brought Jane to the wall of the central White Tower, where a small crowd and an executioner awaited her arrival. Turning to the onlookers, Jane announced, “I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ.” She then knelt and recited Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God. . . .”

Once blindfolded, Jane groped her way to the execution block and laid her head in its groove. The last sound the crowd heard before the axe thudded into the block was a prayer from Jane’s seventeen-year-old voice: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” So ended the life of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage martyr.

Whitewashed Heroes: The Flaws in Our Reformers

Whitewashed Heroes

If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

We can celebrate Calvin’s faith in God’s providence when he wrote in his Institutes, “When we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness . . . remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation” (1.17.8).

We can celebrate Zwingli’s faith in God’s power when he wrote in his “Sixty-Seven Articles,” “[Christ] is an eternal salvation and head of all believers, who are his body, but which is dead and can do nothing without him.”

We could go on. Through these Reformers, God opposed proud rulers, unmasked depraved priests, and recovered for the world the happy news that God justifies sinners by grace alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone, as taught with decisive authority in Scripture alone.

Every True Saint

So yes, we are right to call the Reformers heroes. They were heroes with a dark side, certainly, but that’s true of every hero except the One they all reflect. These men and women may have mingled “a deep knowledge of grace with defective views and flawed living,” as Piper writes. But “every worthy theologian and every true saint does the same” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 27).

Every true saint is a divided person — a new self that relapses into old ways (Ephesians 4:20–24), a spring that pours forth both freshwater and saltwater (James 3:11), a confounding mixture of good and evil. But as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli display, the Reformers’ flaws posed no obstacle to the Lord of the Reformation. Jesus will build his church, and he will do it with broken saints.

The British Candle: Latimer (c. 1485–1555) and Ridley (c. 1502–1555)

The British Candle

For those familiar with the English Reformation, the name Latimer sounds incomplete on its own. It demands a Ridley.

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Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are fastened together in history primarily because they were fastened to the same stake on October 16, 1555, on the north side of Oxford. But Latimer and Ridley share more than a martyrdom. The bishops also join each other on the list of England’s most influential Reformers — men and women whose allegiance to Scripture and the glory of Christ transformed England from a Catholic kingdom to a lighthouse of Reformation.

Both Latimer and Ridley lived during the reigns of four English monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII (the one with all the wives), Edward VI, and Mary I (aka “Blood Mary”). Both witnessed the Reformation’s tug and pull under Henry VIII’s tentative acceptance, Edward VI’s warm embrace, and Mary I’s violent resistance to Reformed doctrine. But they were anything but casual observers.

Latimer the Preacher

Latimer, born around 1485, spent the first thirty years of his life a zealous Catholic — or, in his words, an “obstinate Papist.” “I was as obstinate a Papist as any was in England,” he wrote, “insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration was against Philip Melanchthon [i.e., Luther’s right-hand man].”

But soon after Latimer’s anti-Reformation oration, a young Cambridge divine named Thomas Bilney approached him with a request. Would Latimer allow Bilney to privately explain his own Reformed faith? Latimer agreed, and from then on he “began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries.” Latimer gathered up the arrows he had been shooting at the Reformation, and he started pointing the bow in the other direction. Throughout the next couple decades, he distinguished himself as a fervent Reformed preacher, at times enjoying Henry VIII’s favor for it, and at other times fearing his persecution (depending on the king’s mood).

Perhaps the most fruitful years of Latimer’s ministry came under Edward VI’s short reign, from 1547 to 1553. Despite his age, Latimer assisted Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in reforming the English church, and he also preached like a man who just couldn’t stop. According to J.C. Ryle, “No one of the Reformers probably sowed the seeds of Protestant doctrine so widely and effectually among the middle and lower classes as Latimer.”

Then, in 1553, Queen Mary came to power, and Latimer was sent to a cell in the Tower of London.

Ridley the Scholar

Ridley, nearly twenty years Latimer’s junior, was born around 1502 near the border of Scotland. Throughout the next five decades, he would become one of England’s sharpest intellects, even going so far as to memorize all the New Testament letters — in Greek.

After attending Cambridge’s Pembroke College in his teenage years, Ridley continued his studies in France, where he likely encountered Reformation teachings. Unlike Latimer, Ridley left no clear account of his passage from Catholic priest to Protestant preacher. But we do know that he signed the 1534 decree against the pope’s supremacy, that he accepted the post of chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer three years later, and that he renounced the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by 1545. When he became the bishop of London in 1550, he replaced the stone altars in London’s churches with plain wooden tables. According to Ridley and the Reformers, communion was a spiritual feast, not a sacrifice.

Ridley’s scholarly abilities launched him from one prestigious post to the next, even under Henry VIII’s capricious reign. From Canterbury to Westminster to Soham to Rochester to London, Ridley studied, preached, and, once Edward VI took the throne, threw himself into Cranmer’s reforms.

But then Queen Mary came to power, and Ridley joined Latimer in the Tower.

England’s Candle

On October 16, 1555, after spending eighteen months in a tower cell, Latimer and Ridley met at an Oxford stake. With Latimer in a frock and cap, and Ridley in his bishop’s gown, the two men talked and prayed together before a smith lashed them to the wood.

Ridley was the first to strengthen his friend. “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” As the bundle of sticks caught fire beneath them, Latimer had his turn. Raising his voice so Ridley could hear, he cried, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Three years later, Mary I died and passed the kingdom to her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant queen. And Latimer and Ridley’s candle burst into a torch.

Defend the City: A Call to Single Men

Defend the City

When Solomon saw a man without sexual self-control, he saw an enemy army and a pillaged city. He saw broken windows and unhinged doors. He saw the stronghold taken and the people defenseless. Or in his words:

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:28)

In the modern West, no city has walls; you don’t need to knock at a gate to enter Boston. But in Israel’s ancient Near East, where nations warred for land and survival, walls could make the difference between a flourishing city and a ravaged one. When Babylon breached Jerusalem’s walls, the city that was once “the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 48:2) became a widow and a slave (Lamentations 1:1).

So it is with us in the war against sexual sin. You are a city under siege. The armies of lust are at the gate, with seething hatred in their hearts and satin lies on their tongues. They seek to steal your contentment by making you grasp for phantom pleasures. They yearn to kill your manhood by rendering you incapable of cherishing a woman who is not airbrushed or imaginary. And they long to destroy your very soul by leaving you more in love with lust than with Jesus (1 Peter 2:11).

None of this happens overnight, of course. But over time, as we consistently throw a rope to these “deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22) and allow them to climb into our city, the walls crumble under their feet.

A City Without Walls

We haven’t yet grasped the nature of the fight against lust if we think only in terms of individual skirmishes. Each act of disobedience certainly has its consequences; we all know the sting of immediate guilt, regret, and self-reproach. But no single battle destroys your city — no one failure robs your contentment, your manhood, and your soul. That only happens in stages, as habitual defeats gradually weaken your defenses and silence the sound of your war cries.

Yesterday’s loss will not subject a man to the tyranny of lust, but weeks and months and years of losses will (Galatians 6:8). That’s because sin has a subtle soul-twisting quality. Each time we follow the phantom of lust into the caves of our imagination, our eyes become more accustomed to the darkness, and we find the light less welcome. This morbid curving of the soul is what C.S. Lewis called “the real evil of masturbation”:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. . . . Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 758)

If we allow ourselves to habitually conjure up that imaginary harem, we will gradually become men who choose imagination over reality, men who find contentment as elusive as a shadow, men who have lost the ability to love a real woman. Or, to return to our image from Solomon, we will gradually become a city without walls. A city where lust roams at will, a city where no woman feels safe, a city that is flirting with total destruction (Matthew 5:29–30).

I know how tempting it is for single men to seek refuge in the thought that marriage will end this warfare. But marriage, as much as it may bolster a man’s sexual self-control (1 Corinthians 7:8–9), cannot make a persistently lustful man pure. Saying “I do” cannot rebuild the walls he has demolished through a thousand clicks, fantasies, and double takes. Men who have laid down their weapons during singleness should not be surprised when months, weeks, or even days into marriage they find lust inside the city gates.

A City with Barricades

So Satan and the armies of lust are laying siege to your city. The destroyer who turned a garden into a wasteland would smile to see your citadel collapse into ruins.

But the Holy Spirit is on a counter mission to defend your city — to raise the battlements, to post the guards, and to fortify the gates. He burns with zeal to make your city a home of righteousness, where a woman walks safely and where the noise of songs and dancing rumbles through the streets. The Holy Spirit’s presence transforms your city into a temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 6:19), and he is jealous to make it holy.

If habitual sin twists our souls and tears down our walls, habitual righteousness beautifies our souls and builds our walls. Every time you say no to lust by the power of God’s Spirit, you are not simply denying yourself; you’re building. You are not simply beating off the hordes of enemy armies; you’re setting stone on top of stone until the walls become impenetrable.

Every time you lower the sword of God’s promises on the leering head of lust (Ephesians 6:17), you are turning outward toward other people instead of inward toward yourself. You are banishing those shadowy brides and preparing to welcome a flesh-and-blood wife. And most importantly, you are sharpening your sight of God’s beauty — the only sight that will flood you with pleasure upon pleasure forever (Matthew 5:8).

In other words, you’re becoming more like Jesus, the man who faced the rage of enemy armies but never once let a soldier through the gates. Jesus was a walking fortress of a man — a city of contentment and manhood and sexual wholeness. Within his walls lives everything good. And one day soon, he will welcome us in as his bride, and we will revel in the strength of his steadfast love (Revelation 19:6–8).

Until that day, men, let’s fight with everything we have to become more like him.

He Died for This

Maybe you read this and think it’s too late. You’ve already dismantled the walls of your city. Lust has taken up its residence inside you, and you feel beaten, shackled, enslaved. If that’s you, hear Jesus’s word to every sinner, sexual or otherwise: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus died to seek and save people like you — the lost, the sexually defiled, the one who has no self-control, the city without walls.

And Jesus also died so that you might take up a sword and raise the resistance. He died so that you might “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” and live a “self-controlled, upright, and godly [life] in the present age” (Titus 2:12). He died so that, by the power of his Holy Spirit, you might build some walls, raise some barricades, and defend the city.

Defend the City: A Call to Single Men

Defend the City

When Solomon saw a man without sexual self-control, he saw an enemy army and a pillaged city. He saw broken windows and unhinged doors. He saw the stronghold taken and the people defenseless. Or in his words:

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:28)

In the modern West, no city has walls; you don’t need to knock at a gate to enter Boston. But in Israel’s ancient Near East, where nations warred for land and survival, walls could make the difference between a flourishing city and a ravaged one. When Babylon breached Jerusalem’s walls, the city that was once “the joy of all the earth” (Psalm 48:2) became a widow and a slave (Lamentations 1:1).

So it is with us in the war against sexual sin. You are a city under siege. The armies of lust are at the gate, with seething hatred in their hearts and satin lies on their tongues. They seek to steal your contentment by making you grasp for phantom pleasures. They yearn to kill your manhood by rendering you incapable of cherishing a woman who is not airbrushed or imaginary. And they long to destroy your very soul by leaving you more in love with lust than with Jesus (1 Peter 2:11).

None of this happens overnight, of course. But over time, as we consistently throw a rope to these “deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22) and allow them to climb into our city, the walls crumble under their feet.

A City Without Walls

We haven’t yet grasped the nature of the fight against lust if we think only in terms of individual skirmishes. Each act of disobedience certainly has its consequences; we all know the sting of immediate guilt, regret, and self-reproach. But no single battle destroys your city — no one failure robs your contentment, your manhood, and your soul. That only happens in stages, as habitual defeats gradually weaken your defenses and silence the sound of your war cries.

Yesterday’s loss will not subject a man to the tyranny of lust, but weeks and months and years of losses will (Galatians 6:8). That’s because sin has a subtle soul-twisting quality. Each time we follow the phantom of lust into the caves of our imagination, our eyes become more accustomed to the darkness, and we find the light less welcome. This morbid curving of the soul is what C.S. Lewis called “the real evil of masturbation”:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. . . . Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 758)

If we allow ourselves to habitually conjure up that imaginary harem, we will gradually become men who choose imagination over reality, men who find contentment as elusive as a shadow, men who have lost the ability to love a real woman. Or, to return to our image from Solomon, we will gradually become a city without walls. A city where lust roams at will, a city where no woman feels safe, a city that is flirting with total destruction (Matthew 5:29–30).

I know how tempting it is for single men to seek refuge in the thought that marriage will end this warfare. But marriage, as much as it may bolster a man’s sexual self-control (1 Corinthians 7:8–9), cannot make a persistently lustful man pure. Saying “I do” cannot rebuild the walls he has demolished through a thousand clicks, fantasies, and double takes. Men who have laid down their weapons during singleness should not be surprised when months, weeks, or even days into marriage they find lust inside the city gates.

A City with Barricades

So Satan and the armies of lust are laying siege to your city. The destroyer who turned a garden into a wasteland would smile to see your citadel collapse into ruins.

But the Holy Spirit is on a counter mission to defend your city — to raise the battlements, to post the guards, and to fortify the gates. He burns with zeal to make your city a home of righteousness, where a woman walks safely and where the noise of songs and dancing rumbles through the streets. The Holy Spirit’s presence transforms your city into a temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 6:19), and he is jealous to make it holy.

If habitual sin twists our souls and tears down our walls, habitual righteousness beautifies our souls and builds our walls. Every time you say no to lust by the power of God’s Spirit, you are not simply denying yourself; you’re building. You are not simply beating off the hordes of enemy armies; you’re setting stone on top of stone until the walls become impenetrable.

Every time you lower the sword of God’s promises on the leering head of lust (Ephesians 6:17), you are turning outward toward other people instead of inward toward yourself. You are banishing those shadowy brides and preparing to welcome a flesh-and-blood wife. And most importantly, you are sharpening your sight of God’s beauty — the only sight that will flood you with pleasure upon pleasure forever (Matthew 5:8).

In other words, you’re becoming more like Jesus, the man who faced the rage of enemy armies but never once let a soldier through the gates. Jesus was a walking fortress of a man — a city of contentment and manhood and sexual wholeness. Within his walls lives everything good. And one day soon, he will welcome us in as his bride, and we will revel in the strength of his steadfast love (Revelation 19:6–8).

Until that day, men, let’s fight with everything we have to become more like him.

He Died for This

Maybe you read this and think it’s too late. You’ve already dismantled the walls of your city. Lust has taken up its residence inside you, and you feel beaten, shackled, enslaved. If that’s you, hear Jesus’s word to every sinner, sexual or otherwise: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus died to seek and save people like you — the lost, the sexually defiled, the one who has no self-control, the city without walls.

And Jesus also died so that you might take up a sword and raise the resistance. He died so that you might “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” and live a “self-controlled, upright, and godly [life] in the present age” (Titus 2:12). He died so that, by the power of his Holy Spirit, you might build some walls, raise some barricades, and defend the city.

Let Go and Get Going

Let Go and Get Going

If the quarter lands heads five times in a row first, it means we should break up. If tails five times in a row, we should not.

It was an anguished prayer. My girlfriend and I had been dating a few months, and the way forward was a fog. Desperate to know God’s will for our relationship, I turned to a coin in my pocket.

Heads. Heads. Heads. Tails. Sigh. Tails. Tails. Heads.

I was a new Christian, gripped by the Bible’s stories of miraculous answers to prayer — and eager for my own. If God answered prayers with seas parting, armies fleeing, fire falling, and prison doors opening, couldn’t he answer me with a flipping George Washington?

I kept at it for a while longer, each flip shoveling another handful of disappointment over my half-buried hopes. I gave up.

Fireworks Show?

You may have never looked for answers to prayer in a quarter; it’s certainly been a long time since I have. But I wonder if you share an assumption that inspired my flip-a-coin prayer — an assumption that still subtly shapes my own expectations for how God relates to us.

Here’s the assumption: in real, bona fide answers to prayer, we are more like spectators than actors. In other words, we expect answers to prayer to feel something like a fireworks display: we pray, take our seats, and then enjoy the show. We all know (or have experienced) stories that follow this pattern. You pray for healing, and the tumor vanishes overnight. You ask for financial provision, and an anonymous envelope appears in your mailbox. You beg for wisdom, and three people offer you the same unsolicited counsel.

And, of course, Scripture brims with spectacular answers to prayer. Moses prays in the wilderness, and water bursts from the rock (Exodus 17:4–6). Hezekiah cries out for deliverance, and Assyria’s 185,000 keel over dead (2 Kings 19:14–35). The early church pleads for Peter’s release, and the chains fall off his hands (Acts 12:1–11).

Sometimes God bares his mighty arm so powerfully that the world gropes for an explanation.

God’s Answers in Our Acting

But what about when you pray and the tumor disappears through three rounds of chemo? Or when financial provision comes after weeks of scouring the web, looking for a new job? Or when you discern your next steps by researching the options and consulting a mentor? Is God somehow less involved in these answers?

David didn’t think so. At the beginning of his reign, he asks God to “bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you” (2 Samuel 7:29). The answer to that prayer, as the next chapter shows, was not a fireworks display. David did not sit back and watch God destroy his enemies. Instead, “David defeated the Philistines and subdued them” (2 Samuel 8:1); “he defeated Moab” (2 Samuel 8:2); “David had defeated the whole army of Hadadezer” (2 Samuel 8:9).

David prayed for help, and then he picked up his sword and went to war.

But then David wrote Psalm 18, a fifty-verse celebration of God’s answer to his prayers for deliverance. He sings, “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:3). According to David, it was God who “sent out his arrows and scattered them” (Psalm 18:14); it was God who “rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me” (Psalm 18:17).

What’s going on here? Did God defeat these enemies, or did David? The answer, of course, is both. David acted one hundred percent, and God answered one hundred percent. God did not answer David’s prayer apart from David’s acting; he answered through David’s acting.

I Did It, God Did It

If you’re like me, you may hesitate to sing a psalm of praise when God answers your prayers this way. In your small group or with friends, you wish you could share some real, spectacular answer to prayer — some story of how God acted totally apart from anything you did. But for David, God’s answering through our acting is already real and spectacular. Why do we struggle to see it that way?

In Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis gives one reason:

We profanely assume that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that “God did this” and “I did this” cannot both be true of the same act except in the sense that each contributed a share. (50)

We sometimes assume that more of our involvement in an answer to prayer means less of God’s involvement. If we contribute seventy percent toward an answer to prayer, then God only contributes thirty percent. But David and the other biblical authors believed they could act one hundred percent and still praise God for answering one hundred percent.

If someone asked David, “Who won those battles?” he could sincerely say, “I won them.” But he wouldn’t waste a breath before adding, “But I’d prefer to say God won them. It’s God who equipped me with strength (Psalm 18:32), who trained my hands for war (Psalm 18:34), and who made my enemies sink under me (Psalm 18:39).”

When David fought and won the battles, he knew God was answering his prayer. And he thought that kind of answer to prayer was so magnificent it deserved worship.

Let Go, Get Going

So when we pray, we do not let go and let God. Rather, we let go and get going. We let go of the burden by admitting our weakness and trusting a specific promise from God, and then we get going by doing whatever needs to happen for our part.

We pray for opportunities to share the gospel, and then we go knock on our neighbor’s door. We plead for strength to resist lustful temptation, and then we text or call a friend. We beg God to guide us with some hard decision, and then we do not flip a coin, but we research, seek counsel, and think hard.

And then, when God answers in our acting, we make a big deal about it. We marvel that the living God is at work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We praise him for equipping us with everything good to do his will (Hebrews 13:21). We tell “the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation” (Psalm 40:9).

Answered prayer is more than fireworks. It’s also the thrilling experience of God’s answering in our acting. Both types of answered prayer require God’s supernatural help, both demonstrate his power, and both call for celebration (Psalm 126:2).

Learn How to Be Brought Low

Learn How to Be Brought Low

You don’t need to be anyone special to know what it means to be brought low.

You don’t need to be Job to know that God gives and takes away (Job 1:21). You just need to know the heartsickness of hope deferred (Proverbs 13:12), or the bitterness of solitary pain (Proverbs 14:10), or the ache of God’s seeming silence (Psalm 13:1). In other words, anyone with a pulse knows what it means to be brought low.

But can we stand up, square our shoulders, and say with the apostle Paul, “I know how to be brought low” (Philippians 4:12)?

Can we say, “I know how to face financial disaster,” or “I know how to be betrayed,” or “I know how to endure years of chronic pain”? The words stick in my throat.

School of Faithful Suffering

There was a time when Paul didn’t know how to be brought low. We know that because he says a verse earlier, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

There was a time when Paul didn’t know how to give thanks from the dirt floor of a prison cell. But God taught him (Philippians 1:3–5). There was a time when he didn’t know how to rejoice when others in ministry stabbed him in the back. But God taught him (Philippians 1:17–18). There was a time when he didn’t know how to gaze at the blade of Caesar’s sword and say, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” But God taught him (Philippians 1:21).

And God can teach us. So, let’s take a seat in this bittersweet classroom and learn, with Philippians as our study guide, three lessons in being brought low.

1. God works wonders in the low places.

When Paul drafted his plan to evangelize the known world, he surely didn’t write at the top, “Get stuck in prison.” We can safely assume a jail cell didn’t fit neatly in his five-year personal ministry goals or church-planting strategies.

But it fit into God’s. And at some point, shackled to a Roman prison guard, Paul realized as much. “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (Philippians 1:12–13).

Paul’s imprisonment did not sabotage God’s plan to advance the gospel. Prison was God’s plan to advance the gospel. And the same is true for us. Being brought low may ruin our plans, but not God’s better, wiser, kinder plans for us. If we will learn how to be brought low, we will one day testify, “I want you to know, brothers, that this bankruptcy has really served to free me from money’s stranglehold.” Or, “I want you to know that this betrayal has really taught me how to forgive.” Or, “I want you to know that this sickness has fueled my hope for heaven like nothing else.”

It’s okay if you’re still too low to look back and chart the sweep of God’s good purposes over the expanse of your sorrow. But while you’re there, remember this, on the testimony of Scripture and a thousand saints: God works wonders when he brings us low.

2. Jesus knows the low places.

Perhaps the most painful part of being brought low is the loneliness. Even the most faithful comforters cannot plumb the depths of our sorrows, or always speak the right word in the right tone, or discern our ever-changing needs. But there is one who has promised, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). And he is one who knows the low places.

For us, being brought low is usually a passive experience. We’re thrown, dragged, and kicked into this pit; we don’t jump in ourselves. Who would choose this grief?

Jesus would. He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7).

Jesus traveled from the highest place to the lowest place on purpose. He left the praises of angels to face the scorn of men. He left the happiness of heaven to feel the horror of Gethsemane. He left the right hand of his Father to endure the forsakenness of the cross.

Jesus has seen every shade of sorrow, heard every tone of grief, and tasted every flavor of pain. So, as Zach Eswine writes, “When we search for someone, anyone, to know what it means to walk in our shoes, Jesus emerges as the preeminent and truest companion to our afflictions” (Spurgeon’s Sorrows, 85).

The time will come when we’ll sit in the bright light of hindsight, and praise will cascade from our mouths in fountains. But until then, we are not walking this trackless waste alone. We have a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3), and he leads our way.

3. God will raise you up from the low places.

But Jesus does more than comfort and console when he meets us in our pain. He also promises, with all authority in heaven and on earth, that we will not stay there.

Jesus embraced a lowly station, and he submitted to the lowliest death humans have devised — “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) — but he did not stay low, and he did not stay dead. He rose up from his humiliation in a blaze of resurrection glory, and took his seat in the highest place, receiving from his Father “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

And now this King of heaven pledges to all who are his that he will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21). Jesus’s living, glorified, death-conquering body declares that the low places do not last forever, that the grief of the tomb gives way to Easter gladness. Whereas God’s wonder-working power (lesson one above) assures us that he is doing good things right now that will bear fruit for this life, his promise to raise us up guarantees that one day we will be done with pain altogether. We will be done with being brought low.

When Jesus breathes life into your lowly body and raises it up in glory, you can be sure it’ll be the end to everything else that’s broken. Your poverty will turn to riches, your heartache to healing, your loneliness to steadfast love. You’ll finally gain Christ himself (Philippians 1:21–23; 3:8). You’ll bow and sing beneath his lordship (Philippians 2:10–11). You’ll know the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10).

Your citizenship does not lie under this shadow of sadness, but in the bright skies of heaven, from which “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

Grieve and Give Thanks

Those who know how to be brought low do not play the stoic, as if these lessons could shield us from the stabs of our sorrows. Instead, we move forward in faith, learning to let joy and sorrow mingle together in the same heart, learning what it means to feel, and speak, and act in a way that is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

We are not sorrowful only, as if this low valley has swallowed all that is high and lovely and good. Nor do we only rejoice, as if the valley is not really a dreadful place after all. No, we grieve and give thanks. We sob and we sing. We say with George Herbert, in his poem “Bittersweet,”

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.