Jesus & Our Struggles

Jesus walking on the water captivates our imagination. It captivated me as a young boy. When I was 4 or 5, my Dad took me to see Superman 2. The three criminals from Krypton land in the water, levitate, and start walking on the water. I shouted out in the theater in amazement, “Dad! They’re walking on the water like Jesus!”

As an adult, it still captures my imagination.

In Mark 6, there are two aspects of this account that get my interest. The first is that Jesus is on land and sees the disciples straining at the oars.

This reminds me that even when I’m struggling, Jesus sees me. He doesn’t immediately relieve my difficulties. He allows me to struggle. There will be struggles in this life, and Jesus will allow me to go through them.

The second thing is that when He walks on the water, the text tells us that “He was about to pass by them . . .” He wasn’t going to fix their situation. He wasn’t going to relieve their difficulty. He was going to make His presence known to them and then pass by.

They responded with utter terror like the narrator in the Credence Clearwater Revival song.

Jesus responded simply: “It is I! Don’t be afraid.”

And He still does that for us. What if in the midst of my anxieties and fears, I could feel Jesus’ presence and hear Him saying, “It is I. Don’t be afraid”?

Will Someone Take Care of Me?

Mosaic of Fish and Loaves at the Church of Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel
Jesus’ miracle in multiplying the loaves and the fish is one of the most well-known in the Bible. There is so much fruit for reflection in this event.

The accounts of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish bring us face to face with the most basic question of our existence: how will we be provided for? In spite of all our advances in technology, we still fear interruption of our provision for our lives and well-being.

Even if we are not afraid of having bread and fish, we worry that we will not have jobs, good family relationships, safety, security from foreign enemies, continued freedom, freedom from discrimination, and a good place to live.

On a daily basis, we worry about retirement funds, having enough money to get the things for our children that we need, besides being able to provide for ourselves good things to enjoy like vacations, entertainment, and so on.

There are three different perspectives from which we can view these issues.

The Disciples and Jesus
The first is Jesus and the disciples. The disciples have just returned from a preaching and ministry tour of Israel. When they get back, things are as busy as ever, and they don’t even have time to eat.

At this point, Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (v. 31). I love this passage because I imagine Jesus saying this to me at times, and I take comfort in the fact that He cares about that.

When they actually go to rest, the crowds find Jesus and ministry work immediately begins again. How do you react when God interrupts your day, especially a day you planned for rest? If you’re like me, probably not that well.

Do I ever get a break? We might think.

Notice the end of the story, though. Jesus gives them rest: there were 12 baskets left over. Jesus still cares about our rest, even when He interrupts it.

The Disciples and the Crowd
The second perspective is the disciples and the crowd.

At the end of the day, the disciples start to worry. “This is a remote place . . . and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” (35–36).

They seek to solve the problem for Jesus because of their own worry. Do you ever seek to solve the problems of someone else, even Jesus, when you worry?

Since they want to take the problem, Jesus gives it over to them. He says something very interesting, “You give them something to eat.”

Why does He say that? Does he actually want them to perform a miracle? Does He want them to see their own inability? Is he being playful to calm their anxiety? Difficult to say.

At any rate, as they contemplate the magnitude of the problem, they will have to look to Jesus.

That’s what we’ll often find in life. Our resources are totally incapable of accomplishing what they need to.

What do they need to do in such circumstances? Follow Jesus’ instructions, and something amazing will happen.

Jesus and the Crowd
The problem with Jesus is that He is so perfect that we might wonder if we can even go to Him. We all have shame that makes us want to hide. We all have things that make us unworthy.

The crowd approaches Jesus in the midst of His time with His disciples. What will He do? Mark says that He has compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Luke says, “He welcomed them.”

And He will welcome us, whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done.

And through this miracles where He provides for the crowd by multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, He shows that He will provide for us.

In Jesus, we have everything we need, and He will welcome us. “I am the bread of life,” He says. “Whoever comes to Me will never hunger, and whoever believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). In Jesus, we have someone who will satisfy all the deepest longings of our soul.

Jesus has compassion on us, but He also challenges us. He may call us to work when we’re ready to rest. He may not enter into our worry. He may put us in impossible situations.

But that doesn’t mean He doesn’t care. He cares, and He will provide. He will provide for us what we need and do amazing things that we thought could never be done.

There is someone who will take care of us, and He lays down the challenge for us to trust Him when we don’t know where our provision will come from.

That’s the comfort and challenge of Jesus.

The Comfort and Challenge of Jesus

“Comfort! Comfort!” These are the words announcing Christmas, the coming of the long-promised Messiah in Isaiah 40.

Isaiah declares immediately after that every mountain needs to be leveled and every valley filled in. The coming of God brings comfort, but it also presents a challenge. Our lives will have to adjust to fit the new reign of God.

It’s not surprising, then, that when we meet Jesus in the Gospels that we find a person who brings amazing comfort but who also presents significant challenges.

He is His own person, has His own goals, is willing to challenge people at almost any time, and is unwilling to get caught up in the torrent of our emotions. But He also stays connected; welcomes everybody; and provides help, blessing, and comfort beyond our wildest expectation.

The account of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 is an illustration of the comfort and challenge of Jesus.

After a long day of teaching, Jesus is tired and enters a boat with His disciples to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Mark reports, “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (v. 37). This was no small or imagined problem. Their lives were in mortal danger.

And what was Jesus doing? “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion” (v. 38). As followers of Jesus, we will often feel like we are in mortal danger, and we will wonder, why isn’t Jesus more concerned about this?

When we feel anxious about a situation, we generally want others to feel the same way. It’s not easy to tolerate a calm presence when we are filled with anxiety. So, what do we do? We’ll try to pull people in, and we’ve got a lot of ways of doing this.

One way we try to bring people into our anxiety is through accusatory questions. The disciples seek to pull Jesus into this situation by waking and asking Him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

This is just the sort of question that is designed to awaken our anxieties as parents, pastors, bosses, and leaders. Our response is generally to defend ourselves, to reassure, or to argue.

But that’s not what Jesus does. He actually doesn’t address that issue at all. In essence, He says, “I’m not going to get into that with you, but here’s what I’d like to talk about: why are you so afraid, and where is your faith?”

This is the sort of question that would probably deeply disturb and annoy us. Here we are, we might say, in serious trouble, and you want to challenge our emotions and our faith!

It’s frustrating! Here’s a serious issue, and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid and have faith. A real challenge!

The fact is, though, that Jesus does care about them and us, and He is willing to help them. He stands up and responds to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” –

Remember that at this point the disciples are just beginning to understand who Jesus is. So, they are terrified. The Greek adjective is mega. They are terrified with a mega-fear. They are in total disbelief at what has just happend.

Who is this? They ask. And that’s a great question for us to consider this Christmas. Who is this man? What kind of person is He?

In calming the storm, He not only solves their problems but gives them the key to controlling their anxiety and fear in every situation. Instead of seeing the storm, they need to see Jesus who is Lord above all storms. If they can understand that, then they will have a foundation for faith that can give them peace in the midst of every storm.

That’s why the question that Jesus asks is so crucial. Jesus has compassion on us but doesn’t enter into our anxious responses. He challenges us to have a faith that is the antidote to every anxious response.

So, where are you feeling anxiety this week? What are you anxious about? If you could see Jesus as for you and Lord over the totality of those events that you are worried about, wouldn’t that make a big difference? Wouldn’t that calm our anxious nerves?

But it’s hard to let go. It’s a real act of faith to say that we’ll let go of our own anxious responses and trust Jesus and His solutions.

That’s the comfort and the challenge of Jesus.

Learning to Accept Loss

How do we make sense of loss?

Last year, wildfires came down from the Smoky Mountains and consumed Gatlinburg, killing 14, leaving hundreds displaced and thousands of buildings destroyed.

How do we make sense of such losses? How can we learn to live with the loss of a spouse or child or the losses caused by abuse?

It’s not easy, but we can come to a place where we accept the losses we have experienced.

However, it’s important to recognize that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss is something that takes time. We should not rush it. We need to be patient.

The case of Joseph is instructive. Several decades after experiencing abuse and human trafficking at the hands of his brothers, he was able to accept what had occurred and even see some good in it. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

But this didn’t happen overnight. He had a long road to walk. His experience at the hands of his brothers was a very traumatic one. The trauma was so bad that his brothers continually feared that the guilt of it caused them to continually fear that something bad was going to happen to them, “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” (Gen. 42:21).

They did not take Joseph’s life. Instead, they sold him as a slave to Egypt. Potiphar purchased him, but he was falsely accused of adultery by Potiphar’s wife. This landed him in prison, and he had no clear timetable of when or if he would get out.

Finally, he saw a light. He was able to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, and he thought that one of them would take his plight before Pharaoh and get him out of prison. But two full years passed before the cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh. Two more years of Joseph in prison!

During all that time, I imagine it was very difficult for Joseph to accept the loss of his family and get past what his brothers had done to him.

Joseph was released from prison because Pharaoh dreamed two disturbing dreams which none of Pharaoh’s servants could explain. At that moment, the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was able to explain that the dream was a declaration of the future: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph took the opportunity to suggest how Pharaoh could deal with the famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he put him in charge of carrying out the plan. Now, at last Joseph might begin to think, maybe God brought all this about for a purpose. If I had not been sold, I would not be in a position to do good, he might have thought

The seven years of plenty passed, and the famine arrived. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers showed up. They come to Egypt to buy grain because it was the only place that had an abundance of food.

I can imagine that Joseph’s thinking crystallizes at this point. He realized he had an opportunity not only to save Egypt but his family.

Joseph initiated a series of tests to see if he could trust his brothers. He wanted to see them not only provided with food but also restored as a family. The result is that his brothers did show their repentance, and family trust was restored.

But after the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers got nervous. They started to think that now Joseph would get even with them.

At this point, Joseph wept. I believe he wept because it brought back all the pain he had experienced. The trauma he had experienced many years earlier had left a scar on his soul that would never fully heal in this life.

At the same time, he had come to accept the loss. He could say with conviction: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Over time, Joseph had learned to accept the loss.

Joseph is not the only biblical example of learning to accept loss. Here are a couple more from Scripture:

1. David experienced that affliction had helped me return to the Lord: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).

2. Solomon learned that hardships could be discipline from the Lord that would train him. So, he told his son: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Prov. 3:11–12).

3. The Apostle Paul struggled with some “thorn in the flesh” that he asked God to remove. He came to accept that God’s grace was sufficient for him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8).

4. James learned to recognize that suffering could even be a joy because it could ultimately shape us into what God wanted us to be. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).

5. Peter, who had rebuked Jesus for saying that He would suffer, came to recognize the importance of suffering and see it as walking the way of Christ: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

6. Jesus Himself had to learn to accept His own suffering. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). He recognized that his death would mean suffering but that it would be the salvation of the world: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32).

The important thing to recognize is that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss does come. It just takes time.

If we are struggling with accepting loss, we should enter into the grieving process (for an explanation of this process, see my post here). We should not expect to be able to accept the loss right away. It will take time and grieving.

For those who are helping others grieve, let me encourage you to let others come to their own way of accepting loss. Do not be like Job’s friends who talked and talked trying to explain his loss. They were all wrong in the end. Job eventually did come to his own way of accepting the loss and to healing, but his friends had been more of a hindrance than a help.

I find it very common for Christians to want to give quick explanations for loss. We don’t need to do this. We just need to be there to help someone grieve and be a loving presence. Acceptance will come with time.

As we walk through the grieving process, listen for our own and others way of accepting loss. Let that be the way you help yourself or someone process it.

Throughout the Bible, there are a variety of ways of making sense of suffering. We don’t have to use a one-size-fits-all method.

The good news is that we can come to accept the loss. It may be dark all around you, but the light will dawn. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).

Understanding the Grieving Process

A depiction of an ancient Egyptian funeral procession

The Apostle Paul calls God “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

One way that we see God as the God of all comfort is the fact that His Word, the Bible, has so many descriptions of grieving people and funerals.

This shows us that God comes alongside us at these times and is with us.

Ultimately, it points us to Jesus who is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:1). He knows what it is to grieve as we we are reminded when He stood before the tomb of Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

In the many funerals of the Bible, God teaches us what it means to grieve. He teaches us about the grieving process which is a process that He has created for human beings to recover from loss.

A funeral for a loved one isn’t the only time we enter into the grieving process. We may need the grieving process for all sorts of losses: when loved ones move away, when we lose a job or a dream is shattered, when opportunities are lost, or when we experience trauma. However, funerals represent one of the strongest forms of grief, so they are particularly helpful in teaching us about grieving for all sorts of loss.

One example of a funeral in the Bible is the funeral for Jacob in Genesis 50. There are several important points about this funeral:

  1. They expressed their emotions. “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). Later, they spent a whole week expressing their emotion at the loss (v. 11).
  2. They took time. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for 70 days (50:3).
  3. They talked about it. They didn’t hide it. They openly shared that they were dealing with struggles, and Joseph even asked Pharaoh for a leave of absence so he could process the grief (50:4–6).
  4. They got support. Joseph and his brothers didn’t do this alone. They took along those who cared about them and were a part of their lives (50:7–8).
  5. They used rituals. This whole section of Scripture involves detailed rituals that the Bible and ancient wisdom recognized as a good means for walking through the grieving process and recovering from loss.

This same pattern can still be used today. The grieving process is what God has created for human beings to recover from loss.

When I say that it is a process, I do not mean that these five points are a checklist such that once you’ve checked off all these things from your list, you are done grieving. No. These five things are just the sorts of things that we must do in order to walk through the grieving process.

We also cannot say for certain how long or how often we will have to walk through these things in order to recover. As Scott Floyd writes: “Grief allows no timetable” (Crisis Counseling: A Guide for Pastors and Professionals [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008]).

Indeed, there is a sense in which recovery is never complete. There is real and substantial recovery in this life but rarely a perfect one. As C.S. Lewis explained: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop” (cited in Floyd, Crisis Counseling, 79). In other words, sorrow becomes part of our lives and is incorporated into it, even when we find substantial healing.

The continuing presence of an element of sorrow in our lives causes us to look forward to the life to come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).

Our culture is the culture of the quick fix, but the human soul is not designed for a quick fix. If we follow the Bible’s wisdom, we can help people enter into the grieving process that God has created for recovery from loss and teach people what it means to mourn as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:12).

Preparing for Suffering and Trials

Trauma can happen to anyone. We should expect suffering. Trials are part of life.

When we read these things, we know they are true.

However, everyone seems to get the belief that somehow they will be exempt. “It won’t happen to me!” we think. Or we don’t think about it all. We just live as if life will go on forever the way it is.

It won’t.

The more we can recognize that this is the case, the more we will be equipped to deal with trials, suffering, and trauma when they occur.

That doesn’t mean that suffering won’t hurt. It just means we’ll be in a better place to process it.

That’s why the Bible constantly tells us to expect suffering. I did a brief survey of passages on suffering. It is truly amazing how often the Bible warns us to expect suffering. Here’s a brief list.

  1. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2–4).
  2. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  3. 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 (1 Peter 4:12).
  4. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb. 12:7–8).
  5. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
  6. When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
  7. Jesus wept (John 11:35).
  8. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Pet. 2:21).
  9. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said (Acts 14:21–22).
  10. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know (1 Thess. 3:2–4).

Another thing that helps us to process suffering and loss is to learn ahead of time the comfort that can come in the midst of suffering.

Here are a few ways to think about suffering and loss that will help us deal with them when they occur.

  1. You’re not alone. Suffering is the lot of human beings in this fallen world. When you feel intense grief, you may feel like you’re going crazy or strange. This is not true. The grief process is part of processing loss, and everyone who experiences loss has to walk through it in one way or another.
  2. God is shaping us through it. That’s why James says to count it all joy when we experience various trials and temptations. The testing of our faith produces character.
  3. God will be with us. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Is. 43:2–3).
  4. God brings light out of darkness. After a long period of time, Joseph was able to forgive what his brothers had done in large part because he saw how God had used it for good by putting him in a position to save his family and many others (see Gen. 50:20). We shouldn’t rush to conclusions about how God is going to do this, but over time, we will often see it.
  5. God Himself has entered into the suffering of this world. Tim Keller writes in his excellent book The Reason for God that Jesus’ death on the cross may not answer all the questions, but “we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition” (31). He has entered into it.
  6. Suffering is generally temporary in this life. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time and season for everything, a time to weep and a time to laugh. There are times for both in this life, and life goes through its seasons.
  7. Suffering is absolutely temporary for believers in Christ. For believers in Jesus, this is the time of suffering. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be no suffering, for we have this promise: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If we keep these things in mind, we will weep but not as those who have no hope. Processing loss will be a process, but the God of all comfort will comfort us so that we can comfort others with the same comfort that we have received (2 Cor. 1:3).

The more we can recognize that this is part of life, the better we will be prepared to process loss when it happens.

Why Do Good Works? 8 Ways Good Works Are Consistent with God’s Free Acceptance

500 years ago next Tuesday, the Reformation began with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on door of the church at Wittenburg.

Luther had gained crystal clarity on this amazing truth: human beings stand condemned and guilty before a holy God, but God offers acceptance as a free gift based on what Jesus has done. The proclamation of this truth changed the world.

But not everyone agreed with Luther. Many people said, “no” to the Reformation. One of the central objection to the Reformation was and is, “why do good works?”

If we are accepted by God as a free gift, then why should we do good works at all?

Before I answer this question, let’s note that this was the same type of objection the Apostle Paul received. “Do we then nullify the law through faith? Not at all! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, see also Romans 6:1ff.).

I think it’s right to say, if we never get this objection to our teaching, then we should examine ourselves. Are we really teaching free grace like Paul?

On the other side, if people who get our teaching don’t respond with a “may it never be!” then we probably haven’t taught the necessity of good works very well either.

Luther’s fundamental answer to the objection was that acceptance with God isn’t based on our works, but the God who accepts us also produces good works in us by the same faith that receives the gift of salvation.

He wrote: “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus, good works come out of faith” (Commentary on Romans, [Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1976], xv).

Luther goes on to say in a very memorable passage: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man” (Ibid., xvii).

Ways Protestants Think of Good Works
I want to suggest 8 different ways that Protestants (those who follow the Reformation) think about good works. These different perspectives all express the same truth: works are necessary as a result of salvation but not to obtain salvation. If one of the 8 ways, helps you, hang onto it. If one of them doesn’t, just keep going to the next one.

1. Root and Fruit: The most common is the idea of faith as the root and good works as the fruit (see Mt. 7:16–20). The Methodist Articles capture this very nicely: “Although good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit” (Article 10).

2. Two Gifts: When we accept Jesus for salvation, we don’t receive merely one gift, forgiveness. We also receive the gift of transformation. Protestants often call these two gifts justification and sanctification. It’s important to note that we can’t accept one without the other. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith says: “the chief actions of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2).

3. Dying to sin: We can think of the life of fallen human beings as a life that is alive to sin. People are committed to themselves and their own way of solving their problems. When we come to Jesus Christ, we die to this way of life. We nail it to the cross, so to speak. That’s how the Apostle answered the question, should we continue in sin? in Romans 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1–2).

4. Alive to God: The flip side of the previous image is that we are alive to God. We do good works because we are now alive to God. Becoming a Christian is about a new life. The Wesleyan Church describes the way that Protestants think about this new life:

We believe that regeneration, or the new birth, is that work of the Holy Spirit whereby, when one truly repents and believes, one’s moral nature is given a distinctively spiritual life with the capacity for love and obedience. This new life is received by faith in Jesus Christ, it enables the pardoned sinner to serve God with the will and affections of the heart, and by it the regenerate are delivered from the power of sin which reigns over all the unregenerate. (Article 12)

5. Union with Jesus Christ: When we come to Jesus in faith or ask Him into our heart, we are united to Jesus Christ. Jesus compares our relationship to Him as branches to a vine. If we are united to Him, we will bear fruit and do good works. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We will do good works because we are connected to Christ who is the source of good works.

6. Slavery and freedom: The Apostle Paul uses this imagery to explain our lives before and after receiving God’s free acceptance. Before we were connected to Jesus, we were slaves to idols and sin. We let all sorts of things govern our lives. Coming to Christ is about being set free. We are now connected to the only one who can give us true freedom. Good works are simple the free life of living to God: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22, see vv. 14–23).

7. The Presence of the Holy Spirit: Another way of thinking about good works is that they are the work of the Holy Spirit. Every believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes us new. The Southern Baptist Faith and Message puts it this way: “At the moment of regeneration [the Holy Spirit] baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church” (II.C., see 1 Cor. 12:3, 13).

8. A Psychological Connection: Protestants at various times have explained ways in which faith is connected to good works by psychological necessity. One explanation that I have found helpful is that of Reinhold Niebuhr. He says that as long as we are filled with anxiety about our identity, security, and position, we are not freed to love. Faith in the Gospel releases us from this anxiety and thus opens up the way to love. He writes: “Without freedom from anxiety man is so enmeshed in the vicious circle of egocentricity, so concerned about himself, that he cannot release himself for the adventure of love.”

When you understand this multi-faceted way of seeing salvation, it becomes rather obvious why the Protestant answer to, “Then, good works don’t matter,” is, “may it never be!”

Common Questions About This Perspective
Whenever I teach our “root and fruit” theology, people ask several different questions about it. So, I’d like to address these. Maybe you’re thinking of one of them. If you have others, let me know in the comments section.

1. Does that mean that someone who has no fruit is not a Christian?
Yes. You can’t have Christ and not be changed. A good tree will produce good fruit. If we don’t see any change in our lives, any increased love of God, any desire to follow His commands, or any affection for the brothers and sisters in Christ, we should question whether we really believe in Jesus in our hearts.

2. Will we ever be without sin in this life?
No. As James says, “We all stumble in many ways” (3:1).

It’s a realistic goal for believers to be freed form the dominion or domination of sin in our lives. It’s flat out wrong to think that we will ever be free from the presence of sin in this life. There will always be a part of us in this life that will lead us to cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:25).

3. If we continue to sin in this life, then how can we know that we are producing good fruit?
Short answer: progress and growth. If life is present, growth will occur. Don’t look so much at the day to day. Look at the months. How far have you come? Sometime this can be difficult to see.

One Pastor told me a story about his life. He was not converted in college, and, by his own admission, he was a jerk. Time went on, and he lost contact with many people who were in his life during that time. Then, he became a Christian. Years later, he reconnected with many of his old friends on Facebook. They got reacquainted with him, and their big question was: “What happened? You were such a jerk!” He answered, “Jesus.”

As the days go by, believers will see progress in Christ. It’s probably more evident than we think.

4. How should we evaluate other people’s relationship with Jesus?
Cautiously. Some would say not at all, but we are called to help one another and build one another up. In order to serve a person well, you need to know where they are. Jesus warns us against judging and tells us we will know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:1–5, 16–20).

One reason we need to be cautious is that outward behavior can be misleading. Someone who has a natural self-discipline can change a lot of outward behaviors without much inward change. Someone without that personality trait will have a much harder time. It’s remarkably easy to clean the outside of the cup and have the inside of the cup be filthy.

Here’s a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis when he was asked, “Are there any unmistakable outward signs in a person surrendered to God? Would he be cantankerous? Would he smoke?”

I think of the advertisements for White Smiles Tooth Paste, saying that it is the best on the market. If this is true, it would follow that:

(1) Anyone who starts using it will have better teeth;

(2) Anyone using it has better teeth than he would have if he weren’t using it.

But you can’t test it in the case of one who has naturally bad teeth and uses it, and compare him with [someone] who has never used tooth paste at all.

Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian. and how much more likable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.

The best context for helping others is love, relationship, and careful listening. This will enable us to judge righteous judgment and not one according to mere appearance (John 7:24).

5. If growth is an organic process, should we work hard to produce fruit and good works?
Yes. The Bible is filled with images of the Christian life that involve strenuous effort: a worker, a soldier, a runner, a farmer, and so on. Paul says plainly, “Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

We always need to remember in working hard, though, that we are totally dependent on God’s power working in us both to will and to do. This calls for prayer, an attitude of dependence, and communion with Him.

In addition, mere hard work is not the most effective way to produce change.

6. So, what is the most effective way to produce change?
If you want to see better fruit, give attention to the roots. We need to strengthen our faith.

Outward behaviors are just part of the equation. Most of the change needs to be with our mindset and emotions. This is something that occurs internally. Most of the Christian life is about replacing a sinful mindset with one that is governed by faith. This is a long process. It involves becoming acquainted with ourselves, confessing our sins, meditating on Scripture, worship, and lots of conversations with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, all with a strong sense of dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Final Encouragement
The heart of this message is not to discourage anyone. Good works are attainable for anyone. All we need to do is to be connected to Christ. We don’t need to settle for our old ways of life, the same old patterns that harm ourselves and our families. We will always have something in us that we struggle with, but we can experience substantial change and transformation through the power of Christ.

And that’s the good news of the Reformation. There is grace for forgiveness and grace for change. Jesus is available, as Augustus Toplady, penned as the “double cure”: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure” (from his hymn “Rock of Ages”).

Don’t Judge and Drive

I have to admit. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have. I was on the phone (albeit hands free!).

I was at the corner of the intersection of Parkway and Main Street.

Let me tell you about this intersection. If you want to go south at that intersection, there is only one lane. If you want to turn left to go south, you cannot be out in the intersection at all, or you will make it very difficult for the cars that are turning left coming from the north (going east) to get around you.

This is the single lane heading south

I was in that turn lane coming from the east to turn south where you cannot be out in the intersection.

The white Ethra bus is where I was. Notice that it is several feet behind the line. I was about that far in front of the line.

Earlier, I had noticed that a cop had come by and gone south, but I hadn’t paid that much attention to what he was doing.

The left turn signal turned green, and I was ready to head south. So, I began pulling out into the intersection.

Then, uh-oh. There was a stationary semi that sitting in the only lane going south. I could not turn, but I was already out in the intersection a little ways.

Never mind. I’ll back up. Uh-oh. There’s a truck right on my tail. I’m stuck. I can’t go anywhere.

The light turned yellow then red. Still, I could not move. There was nothing I could do.

Finally, it came time for the cars coming from the north to attempt to turn left and go around me. It was not easy.

I got nasty look after nasty look. Several cars gave a long honk on their horn.

There’s one of two possibilities here. They may have seen the semi blocking my turn, and then they thought I was an idiot for trying to turn; or, they didn’t see it, and they just thought I was an idiot who just wanted to make their lives difficult.

I thought, come on people, it’s either an innocent mistake or an impossible situation.

At that moment, I thought of all the times I had honked my horn at other cars. I wondered, how many times have I honked the horn without realizing all that was going on? Probably quite a few.

A good lesson for me. Don’t judge and drive.

3 Principles for Speaking into Your Child’s Life

There are a large variety of areas in which you need to speak into your child’s life. You need to help them with finances, schooling, jobs, God, ethics, relationships, and so on.

In each of these areas, you need specific wisdom and insight into how to speak well to them. I like to develop little phrases that I can go back to again and again. Some I invent. Others I borrow. In most sports, one of the keys is “keep your eye on the ball,” which is a good life principle as well.

However, there are several ways of relating to our children that apply to any and every situation. Let me suggest three of them.

Value them
First, value your children. Children can be overwhelming. It’s easy to see the things that you could be doing if you didn’t have them.

Children can cause you trouble and pain. They have their own minds and wills. They don’t always follow you or do the things that you like. They sometimes decide to get angry or do crazy things in public. Let’s be honest. It can be wearying at times.

It’s so important that we don’t let the struggles cause us to miss what a blessing they are. The Bible tells us, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Psalm 127:3, 5).

Be Present
Second, be a calm presence in their lives.

This has two parts. First, we need to be a presence in their lives. Quantity of time matters. We can’t just show up when there’s a problem. We need to be developing relationships with them.

The second part is that we need to be a calm presence. We should not let the children bear the brunt of our anxiety. There are ways to resolve anxiety. Dumping on our children is not a good one.

Think of Jesus and the disciples. He had opportunities to speak into the disciples’ lives because He was with them constantly. He was also a calm presence in their lives, even while they were really struggling.

Teach Them
Third, do teach them.

It’s easy to think that we might not have much to offer or that you have no influence. You do. Your children do listen, and you have much to teach. God has put you in the position of parent in large part for the very purpose of helping your child learn how to live.

Whatever other things you do in discipline, let the majority of your shaping of their lives be through conversation, discussion, and instruction.

The Bible tells us, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

The book of Proverbs is a great guide. The book is basically a father teaching his child about the consequences of various actions.

These are rather simple principles. I find, though, that the most important principles are generally the simplest.

What are some general principles that you might offer for speaking into our children’s lives?

God Is Our Ultimate Source of Value, Love, and Provision

I have accomplished many things that give me satisfaction. When I put together a small group program and see people connecting, I feel good. When I am able to help someone get involved in an area of service where they flourish, I am thankful to God. When I finish a paper and hand it in, it gives me a sense of accomplishment, especially if I get a good grade.

God has also blessed me with many friends, an amazing wife, children who value me, parents who care about me, and various mentors, counselors, and advisers. When I think of all the people in my life, I am truly grateful for the love that comes my way.

I am also financially stable. I have money in the bank. I’m putting money toward retirement. My church takes good care of me.

The problem is that sometimes I try to do things and fail. Sometimes people hurt me or are not there for me. Sometimes I get a bill that’s big, and I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it. If I lean too hard on any of these things for value, love, or provision, they fail me.

And that reminds me that all of these gifts cannot be the ultimate source of my value, love, or provision.

The ultimate source of my value, love, and provision is God Himself and the promises in His Word that He loves me, values me, and will take care of me.

Most of our great sins and pathologies arise from trying to take God’s good gifts and make them the ultimate source of our love, value, and provision.

It is only when we trust in God’s promises that we have an unshakable foundation of value, love, and provision. It is only when we trust in God that we can value His gifts for what they are and not turn them into an idol.

Trust in God is necessary to human functioning and flourishing (for a fuller discussion of this issue, see my article here).