Why You Have That Thorn

I have a “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t like it. I often wish I didn’t have it. At times I am exasperated by it. It makes almost everything harder, daily dogging me as I carry out my family, vocation, and ministry responsibilities — nearly everything I …

Unanswered Prayers Are Invitations from God

Of the three most important spiritual disciplines of the Christian life — Bible reading, prayer, and Christian fellowship — prayer is the least exercised. Why do we struggle so much to pray?

That question has many answers, and we’ve probably hear…

The Single Most Important Day in History: Relive the Surprise of Easter Sunday

It is Sunday, April 5, AD 33. This day will change the entire course of world history, more than any other day before or after, though only a handful of people will know this by day’s end.

In an ancient, arid, Near Eastern city, one singular even…

Children Need a Crisis of Faith: Seven Lessons from Parenting Through Doubt

My wife and I have five children. Our oldest two have exited childhood and are adventuring into the uncharted territory of young adulthood. Our younger three are navigating the tricky waters of adolescence. As parents, we have the sacred, marvelous, da…

The Path to Short-Lived Greatness

The Path to Short-Lived Greatness

What greatness do you really value? If you’ve been a Christian very long, you know the right answer — Jesus’s answer (Matthew 23:11). But if you’re ruthlessly honest, who would you list as “the greatest among you”? The greatness you value is not necessarily what you can articulate to others, or preach from your pulpit — or write in your article — but what you secretly wish you were or who you wish you were more like.

Throughout history, human greatness has almost always been measured within some framework of meritocracy. By meritocracy, I mean any social system — great or small, formal or informal — where people earn rewards or status based on achievements that their social system values highly. Alexander the Great merited greatness through his military and leadership achievements, Shakespeare through literary achievements, Steve Jobs through technological design achievements. They each lived in very different eras and socio-cultural-political environments. But they’re remembered for their merits — for what they each achieved.

Every human culture and subculture has its meritocracies. And that’s not necessarily evil. In many cases they are the most just and beneficial systems, all things considered in this age. But since we tend to have an upside-down definition of greatness — the measure of our superiority to others rather than our love for them — our meritocracies have a powerful tendency to appeal to the sinful, selfish, self-exalting parts of us.

A Strange Greatness

Which is why Jesus’s definition of greatness can sound so foreign and disorienting to us:

“The greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)

It’s very tempting to take Jesus’s statement as a sort of poetic flourish, a metaphor for remembering to be kind and somewhat generous as we pursue achieving some level of relative greatness compared with others (like everybody else does). The only problem is, Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He very literally meant we should aspire to be servants.

In every culture throughout history, servants have been those who, by virtue of birth or circumstances, have been forced to spend much of their lives pursuing the good of someone else above their own. The vast majority of servants have occupied the lower tiers of social status. And while a servant might aspire to a more socially recognized and rewarded level of servitude, it has been extremely rare that a free person would aspire to servanthood. In almost every human culture, servanthood is not the path to greatness. The best servants can hope for is to serve great people (Matthew 20:25).

But in the kingdom of God, as Jesus demonstrated, servanthood is the path to greatness (Philippians 2:5–11). “The last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). Those who humble themselves will be exalted, while those who exalt themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23:12). God incentivizes our freely and joyfully choosing to put others’ interests above our own (Philippians 2:3¬–4).

This is a strange greatness to fallen humans. It is an otherworldly meritocracy — not in terms of meriting salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9), but in terms of meriting God’s commendation and rewards (1 Peter 5:6; 1 Corinthians 3:14–15; 2 Corinthians 5:9–10). It is a greatness so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that it is impossible to pursue unless a person really believes the gospel is true.

The Mark of Misplaced Greatness

When Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant,” the context was a scathing public rebuke of the Jewish religious leaders. Here’s some of what he said:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:2–7)

A key — and convicting — phrase is, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” This revealed the heart’s affections that were fueling leaders’ behaviors. They were operating in a fallen human-defined meritocracy. They were pursuing the rewards and commendation their culture valued. In all their pious-appearing achievements, they were aiming for this-worldly greatness — and probably mistaking it for next-worldly greatness too. The evidence was that they were too preoccupied with appearing righteous in order to win human approval than to attend to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

That is the mark of misplaced greatness: valuing one’s personal benefit and reputation more than the real good of other people.

A Greatness Only Grace Produces

So, what greatness do we really value? The ambitions that govern our motives and actions will tell us. We will always desire the treasure we believe most valuable. We will always pursue what we believe is true.

It’s not sinful to desire to be great; it’s sinful to desire idolatrous, selfish greatness. Kingdom greatness reveals the character and genius of God: the greatest among us are those who love and serve others most — who love others most by serving others most. The truly greatest among us are those who by their actions demonstrate they trust God to exalt them at the proper time and to the appropriate degrees (1 Peter 5:6), and, like Jesus, don’t measure their greatness by the commendation and rewards they receive from their social systems (John 5:41).

This is an otherworldly greatness we only pursue when we truly understand the grace of God — that the Triune God has so utterly and completely served us in every facet of our experience that we wish to freely give what we have freely received (Matthew 10:8), and in love present our bodies as living sacrifices of worshipful service (Romans 12:1).

You Must Fight Hard for Peace

The dove is a nearly universal symbol of peace. And a very appropriate one. Doves are beautiful, gentle, faithful creatures. They’re also, well, flighty creatures. It doesn’t take much to send a dove fluttering away. A harsh word, a rash gesture, and o…

How Do I Know If I Really Love Jesus?

How do we know if we really love Jesus? The Bible’s answer might surprise you.

We know if we love Jesus by what we consistently (not perfectly) do and don’t do. We know this because Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John…

The Best Way to Find God’s Will for Your Gifts

The Best Way to Find God’s Will for Your Gifts

Let’s imagine, for the sake of illustration, that you’re not very familiar with fish (perhaps you don’t have to imagine). And you’ve agreed to participate in an experiment where you’re asked to identify whatever is placed before you. You don’t know it, but you’re about to view anatomical parts of a largemouth bass.

First comes the translucent green pectoral fin in a petri dish. You look at it and answer, “Is it some kind of leaf?” Next comes the slimy swim bladder. “Gross! I’m guessing it’s some small animal’s intestine or something.” Next comes a red piece of gill tissue. “I have no idea what that is!”

Now, had you viewed these parts in the context of the fish’s body, you’d grasp to some degree their importance in helping the fish function properly. But taken out of the context of the body, the parts make little sense. It takes the fish’s body to understand the function of a part and it takes all the parts to make a fish function.

“So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Each of us is a part of the body of Christ and has a particular function. But it takes the body of Christ to understand the function of a part and it takes all the parts to make the body function.

Designed to Depend

If you’re struggling to figure out how God wants to use you, one possibility is that you’re examining yourself out of context, isolated in a petri dish, so to speak.

This is essentially the way we in the West (especially in the United States) are trained to see ourselves. Perhaps more than at any other time in history, our culture understands individuals as autonomous units rather than interdependent parts of a larger social organism.

Today, we largely view interdependence on others as optional, not necessary — partly due to our nearly sacred cultural value of individual liberty, and partly due to all the technological advancements that enable us to pursue it in unprecedented ways. We’re free to voluntarily associate, and free to go it alone. Interdependence on others is only really necessary on the meta-scale, where we need large-scale systems to distribute things like food, clothing, and energy, or facilitate things like mass communication, mass transportation, government, and finance.

As a result, when it comes to determining how each of us should use our time, abilities, resources, and relationships, we primarily assess them based on how these things will advance our individual goals and dreams or cater to our individual preferences. In the abstract, we think working toward the common good is a good thing. But in the concrete world of day-to-day life, we see ourselves as independent, autonomous bodies, and so the individual good is the best thing.

But there’s a problem: we aren’t designed to be billions of independent, autonomous bodies primarily doing our own thing. God designed us to be interdependent body parts that contribute to the healthy functioning of a larger social body.

So if we conceive of the purpose of our lives as primarily an individual pursuit of happiness, it’s no wonder we can find discerning where God wants us to invest our lives illusive and perplexing. It’s like a pectoral fin or swim bladder or gill tissue trying to figure out in the petri dish what it should do. Body parts don’t make sense, much less function right, apart from the body.

Where Your Life Is Meant to Make Sense

That’s what 1 Corinthians 12 (and 13 and 14) is all about. Paul writes,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

We aren’t each individual bodies of Christ. We collectively “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Our lives are meant to make sense in the context of the body of Christ because each of us has a God-given function to perform — a function that is interdependent on other functioning parts.

Christ’s body is the primary context in which God intends for our unique gifts and kingdom callings to be revealed, confirmed, and engaged. And what Paul primarily has in mind by “Christ’s body” in 1 Corinthians 12 is our local church.

Millennia before there were tests for profiling our personalities, finding our strengths, or identifying our spiritual gifts, there was the local church, where each member was “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). That’s what the spiritual gifts — both more supernatural gifts (like miracles and healing) and more constitutional gifts (like administrating and helps) — are for: the common good of the expression of Christ’s body we belong to.

God eventually calls a few of us to serve broader portions of Christ’s body in various ways. And he calls some of us to isolated situations, like remote church planting, frontier missions, and imprisonment — where “body life,” at least for a while, doesn’t look or feel typical. But like Paul and the church in Antioch, such callings are meant to be confirmed in, commissioned by, and accountable to our local church body, if at all possible.

Like every thing else in our defective world, there are exceptions — diseased local churches that aren’t facilitating a healthy body made up of interdependent members. Sometimes God calls us to be agents of improved health for such a body, and sometimes he directs us to find a healthier body.

And, of course, no church does “body life” perfectly because they’re all comprised of imperfect people, like us. But nonetheless, the local church is God’s bodily provision for us, the context where our lives are meant to make sense.

Where Do You Look for God’s Direction?

Understanding ourselves and each other as interdependent members of a corporate body is very different from what we’ve learned from our culture. And even though we might be very familiar with 1 Corinthians 12, and abstractly admire Paul’s “body” analogy as a theological concept, it does not mean we’ve internalized it and that it’s shaping and governing us.

We can tell what understanding of ourselves and others shapes and governs us by how we answer this question: Where do we look for God’s direction on how we should use our giftings? Do we see this as primarily an individual quest for self-actualization, or are we looking for it in the context of Christ’s body as we seek to meet the needs of others? Most of us Americans naturally gravitate to the former, and we must relearn to seek for it in the latter.

And there is no neat-and-clean formula. It’s not fast, like a test. It happens in the messiness of the life of the body. But if we fixate less on our particular part and more on the good of others and the common good of the larger body, God will faithfully show us what members we are. That’s God’s design. Pursue love (1 Corinthians 14:1), and we will discover his will for us. Seek first the kingdom, and all we need will be provided (Matthew 6:33).

It takes the body of Christ to understand the function of a part, and it takes all the parts to make the body function.

Know What Not to Say

Christians should be the most careful speakers in the world. We ought to be characterized by two kinds of trembling when it comes to words: we should tremble at the words God speaks and we should tremble at the words we speak.

We know we should t…

Lord, Set Me Free from Fear

On Thursday night, Peter said to the One he knew was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35). Then, in the wee hours of Friday morning, Peter said to a couple of serva…