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Fear God or Fear Everything Else

Fear God or Fear Everything Else

Safe but afraid

I am grateful that we are some of the safest people who have ever lived. Some of us live with the kind of comfort, prosperity, and longevity that people across history and geography couldn’t have even been able to dream about. Yet, we are also arguably the most fearful, anxiety-driven people who have ever lived. Could it be that we are the safest and the most scared all at the same time–both safe and afraid simultaneously? Michael Reeves writes: “Protected like never before, we are skittish and panicky like never before.”

Much has been written on this, and we could point to all kinds of culprits for our chronic low-grade terror. Some have argued that we now simply live with too much information. We receive a constant barrage of bad news, delivered to us almost instantly, 24 hours a day. It reminds me of what the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 1:18: “…he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” I certainly feel that, and I sometimes wonder if part of my fear is that I simply know too much. You and I were never designed to know all the bad things all the time everywhere. I’m sure this contributes to my fear.

Others have made the case that it’s the comfort, ease, and prosperity for many of us that have increased our fears. The more you have, the more you fear to lose, and the more comfortable you are, the softer you may become. This also feels incredibly plausible and rather personal. I’m sure this contributes to my fear, and again, much has been written on both subjects.

Fear God or fear everything else

A third major contributor that I hadn’t considered, recently captured my attention. Could it be that we now fear everything because we no longer fear God? And could a proper fear of God actually be the prescribed antidote for our nagging fears of everything else?

I first began to consider this while reading a brilliant little book, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves. Consider this blog as simply my best effort to get you to read this book.

He writes: “With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown–indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns–from personal health to the health of the planet–have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.”

When I read those words, I thought: that doesn’t just sound like us, that sounds like me. Even as Christians, if we’re honest, we often struggle to believe that God is real, and even more so to believe that He is actively engaged in our lives and in our world. We don’t typically trust Him to know and do what is best, and because we no longer fear Him, we fear everything else.

Fear God

At the same time, I think many of us find great reservation with the idea that we should “fear God.” We either dismiss it as an outdated bit of theology or we try to water down the word “fear” until it means almost nothing at all. Yet, the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, speak regularly of the joy of fearing God.

Most famously, Proverbs 9:10 declares: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Essentially, you cannot be wise without it, and wisdom is part of what helps us discern between our fears. In Psalm 86:11, King David actually asks for fear. “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” I’m not sure I’ve ever asked God to help me fear Him.

In Ecclesiastes, our entire duty to God and the summary of the good life is this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). 

Lest you think this is purely an Old Testament notion, remember what Mary sings when she discovers she’s pregnant with the Savior of the World, the One who frees us from all fear? “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50).

While there are many other examples, let me include just one more, from Jesus himself. Jesus makes the contrast between our typical fears and a proper fear of God when He says: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

Essentially He says, God is the only thing we should fear. No one and nothing else can really hurt you. Yet somehow we’ve reversed the two. Instead of fearing Him we fear almost everything else.

What does it mean to fear God?

So if we want to overcome our chronic fears, we have to ask: what does it mean to fear God? Some have called it awe, which is close, but according to Reeves we should take it a bit further. We can be in awe of the amazing footwork of Patrick Mahomes but I wouldn’t exactly say that I fear him. Fearing God is more than just awe.

I think of it a bit like this. A few years ago our family hiked Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, called by Outside Magazine one of the top 20 most dangerous hikes in the world. We did it with our then 10 and 12-year-olds. You have to hike up this crazy ridge, at some points only 3 feet wide, with a 1000 foot drop off on one side and 800 feet on the other. We did this with our children! Take a moment to google “angel’s landing” and get a glimpse of what I’m talking about.

We were terrified. We were also overwhelmed with the spectacular beauty of the place. We were filled with intense joy at having to work together. We knew this was not something to be trifled with, but we also knew that if we respected the boundaries, we would not just be ok. We would be filled with an incredible sense of wonder and sheer delight. 

This is, I think, a little bit of what it means to fear the Lord. With God, however, He is also both loving and holy, merciful and sovereign, tender and all-powerful. He isn’t just a beautiful and dangerous hike. He is a Person who loves us but also expects something of us.

This is why Reeves titled his book Rejoice and Tremble — the fear of God is both. He writes: “This right fear of God, then, is not the minor-key gloomy flip side to proper joy in God. There is no tension between this fear and joy… As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled love, so our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled–yes, fearful–joy.  For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him. And what more benefits his infinite magnificent than an enjoyment of him that is more than our frail selves can bear, which overwhelms us and causes us to tremble?”

To fear God is to delight in Him, but in a way that gives Him His proper due as King of the universe. It’s to find our joy in Him, but to also recognize that He cannot be trifled with. It’s an acceptance of His sovereign rule, His definition of the good life, and His commands for living. It’s to believe deep down but with joy and relief that He knows better. 

How does a right fear of God free us from our fears?

When you fear God like this, what else is there to fear? Yes, lots of things. Our world is a scary place! Yet when God grips our hearts even the scary things begin to lose some of their power, for we know that our good Father loves us and takes care of us. We know that when the scary things do happen, they don’t happen outside of His tender provision for us.

If we rejoice and tremble daily before God, fearing Him above all else, all the other fears begin to seem just a little less terrible. Let me quote Reeves one more time: “I want you to rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear.”

Embracing the better fear

So how do we embrace this better fear, learning to fear God instead of fearing everything else? First, always find ways to get to know God better. Who is this One we are to fear? We do this through His Word, through prayer, through others, by spending time at church, and time in His wonder-filled world with our eyes wide open. The more we know God for who He truly is (and not just how we imagine Him to be) the more we feel the commingling feelings of fear and joy.

Second, as we do that, compare Him to your fears and ask yourself: whom shall I fear? For example, I fear something bad happening to my children…but God loves them more than I do and He is sovereign over them. Fear the Lord.

I fear the messes in our world, the divisions, the polarization, the hatred…but God sees all and knows what is best for His people. Even though He never promises us a comfortable life, He does promise us life to the full. Fear the Lord.

I fear illness for me or for someone I love, and ultimately death…but nothing can touch me apart from my Father’s hand, and because of Jesus, even the grave no longer has any power over me. Fear the Lord.

No, none of this will fix it and none of it is easy. Our world is still scary and many of us will continue to carry our anxieties. But as we daily bring them to Him, over time He will help us put them in their proper place. For when we fear God we have nothing else left to fear.

God’s Home

God’s Home

What does a home say?

Our family moved a few months ago. I have no doubt we were motivated by the COVID-craziness (what were we thinking?!). I also have no doubt it was God’s incredible hand of loving provision that got us there. We love our new home.

If you were to take a quick tour, what would our home say about the Miller family? You’d instantly learn that we love nature more than just about anything. You’d learn that we love family time more than nice things, and that we’re not particularly great decorators. You’d learn that we’re ok with an older, fairly simple house, in need of a few updates with a little farther commute to work and church, in order to have more trees, more quiet, more bugs, ticks, snakes, rodents, cobwebs, yard work and so much dirt. Our home would tell you a great deal about who we are and what we love.

Where does God live?

So where does God live? There are so many potential answers to that terribly cheesy question, and since He’s omnipresent (alway everywhere), you’d be hard pressed to come up with a wrong answer. But where is His home? I typically picture Him in heaven, but even there I get confused. Is it the Far Side version with clouds and harps? Or is it the heaven I grew up imagining with streets of gold, big ol’ pearly gates, and wandering angels?

Either way, I tend to picture His home somewhere up there. Far away, out of touch, and often the stuff of a bad fantasy novel. Is that God’s home?

Yet, there’s this section in the Gospel of John. It’s Jesus talking to His disciples shortly before His execution. In some ways, it’s a major downer of a speech. He tells His disciples everybody hates Him, soon they’re going to kill Him, and then they’re going to start doing the same to us. The world is going to be ugly towards Christians, He says, and you’re probably going to be killed soon. Thanks, Jesus.

But, He says, I’m going to send you a Helper. Other translations have Comforter, Encourager, Counselor, Advocate, Friend. We don’t really know how to translate it, but Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit. The very presence of God, with us.

Then Jesus says this, recorded in John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

Let that sink in. For those who follow Me, who love and obey Me, who trust in Me. We (God the Father and God the Son–the dynamic duo) will come to him (through God the Holy Spirit–that makes three–the entire Trinity) and make our home with him.

So where is God’s home? Well, where are you right now? Look around. Where are you reading these words? If you are a Christian, wherever you are right now is the answer to that question. For you are God’s home. YOU. And everywhere you go, He is right at home with you.

What does that tell you about God?

What does that tell you about God? Think about it. God’s home is with His people. Of all the places God could make His home — I mean, He is God after all! Hawaii? Alaska? Colorado? Utah? All these would be high on my list. A palace? A private island? An endless forest? Yes, please! Yet, of all the places God could make His home (look around again), He chooses to live with us.

He chooses to live in the cubicle with you at work, even when you’re overwhelmed or frustrated or demeaned. He chooses to live with you in your classroom or when you can’t find anyone to sit with at the lunch table. He chooses to live in your house, even in the places you feel completely unseen. He chooses to live uniquely in our church, when we gather together to celebrate Him. He chooses to live with you even in those places you wish He wouldn’t (a little privacy, please!), either due to your shame or sin or both.

God makes His home with you. What does that tell us about God? Well, as I think about my own life, it tells me His standards are pretty low. I mean, He will literally live anywhere. He’s not afraid to get His hands dirty. He’s not ashamed of me or my sin. It’s like He’s willing to be roommates with a slob.

Which means His mercy and grace really are that big. God is holy and worthy of my fear. Yet because of Jesus, He has taken my sin and given me His goodness, so that God can make His home with us. Where God chooses to live shows me just how big His forgiveness is.

And how dearly we are loved. It’s not just in the gospels that we see God’s home on display. We see it in Genesis 1-2, the first chapters of the Bible, when we learn that from the very beginning this was God’s heart for us. We were meant to live in the Garden with Him forever, in perfect intimacy and joy. This home was always His plan.

We also see it in Revelation 21-22, the final chapters of the Bible, when at the culmination of all things, creation is restored and God Himself comes to live with us. We get a taste of this now through God’s Spirit, but this is the ultimate reality in store for God’s people. For heaven is a New Creation, where we dwell once more with our Maker.

What does it tell you about us?

We learn a lot about God by the home He chooses. But what does this tell us about us? What do we learn about ourselves from a verse like this? There are two quick observations here that I’ve been chewing on and delighting in recently.

We were never meant to live our lives alone.

First, this reminds us that we were never meant to live our lives alone. You and I were never meant to live without God by our side, or outside of His constant presence with us. If that’s true, I should probably stop trying to live my life as if I can do it without Him. I was never meant to do anything without Him!Where are the spaces you need to invite Him into? Where are the places you need to remind yourself that He is right at home with you? When you feel alone at school or overwhelmed at work. When parenting gets the better of you or you feel stuck knowing how to encourage your friends or share your faith. When you look at our world and wonder how it could ever get better.In those moments, and it feels like there has been a lot lately, I have tried to just pause and briefly pray. God, you are here and I need your help. Please.This is also why the gathering of God’s people is so important. Sometimes I can’t sense God next to me but I can sense Him next to you. Sometimes I don’t feel like looking for Him but I see Him in you. And when we’re all together, singing to Him, hearing from Him, loving one another and celebrating His presence, it reminds us loudly of His home with us. Yes, He’s at home with you, but all the more when we gather together as His people.

We experience this at church, in our community groups or bIble studies, and through the warm smiles or encouraging words of our dear friends. So often the primary place I experience the presence of God is through His people. You and I were never meant to live our lives alone.

There is not a place you can go without Him by your side.

And the good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to; there is not a place you can go without Him by your side. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are never alone.Is there anything we humans fear more than being alone? Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my alone time. I need my alone time. Many of us do. But there’s an ocean of difference between needing a little alone time and feeling utterly alone or abandoned.I know many of us right now feel pretty lonely. Our relationships and social interactions have changed so dramatically over the past 18 months. Some of us have lost loved ones. Others of us, accelerated by the stress of this past year, have experienced deep wounds in your marriage, your family, or your friendships. Maybe you’ve started at a new school or moved to a new town. Or maybe the weight of your job right now feels as if it’s crushing you.And you feel alone.I do, too.Yet, God is at home with you. Right now. And He’s at home with me.

As the psalmist delights:“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139:7-10.

Prayer for God’s Presence

O God, give me today a strong and vivid sense that you are by my side. In a crowd or by myself, in business and leisure, in my sitting down and my rising, may I always be aware of your presence beside me. By your grace, O God, I will go nowhere today where you cannot come, nor seek anyone’s presence that would rob me of yours. By your grace I will let no thought enter my heart that might hinder my closeness with you, nor let any word come from my mouth that is not meant for your ear. So shall my courage be firm and my heart be at peace.

John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 63

Return to Joy

Return to Joy

I am ready for joy. I am hungry for it. After a year of pandemic, characterized for many of us by disappointment, loneliness, and fear, our appetite for joy has only increased. Spring has arrived and the vaccine is becoming available. “Normal” doesn’t feel too far away. Will we return to joy?

We were created for joy. It is the root of every longing, and we spend the majority of our lives searching for it. Joy is both a command and a promise, but we’re often not very good at understanding it or finding it. Every one of us wants more of it, so how do we do it? Where do we get it? How do we sustain it? How do we return to joy?

The Most Joyful Book of the Bible

To answer these questions, I often turn to Philippians in the New Testament. Philippians is sometimes referred to as the most joyful book in the Bible, which means for me, it’s pages are well-worn. I even memorized all 104 verses of it back in college (please don’t quiz me!).

Now before you think that’s me bragging — look how spiritual I am, I memorized a whole book of the Bible —I only share that to show you my desperation. That’s how hungry I am for joy! You see, I am not very good at it. As someone who is definitely a bit on the melancholy side, joy often feels out of reach.

As a result, I can easily gravitate to the many pseudo joys around me. Maybe the next meal, or the next drink, or the next vacation, or the next purchase, or the next show, or the next accomplishment, or the next whatever will finally do it. Have you been there? Even though these are often good things, it can be a vicious cycle of escalating disappointment and discontent. 

Paul shows us a better way. And what always amazes me about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that he wrote it from prison! From prison, suffering for preaching the good news of Jesus, Paul writes one of the most joy-filled books of the Bible. At the very least, this should remind us that joy is not based on circumstance. But if it’s not circumstance, where do we get it?

Choose Joy?

I know you’ve heard the phrase or seen it on some home decor or motivational poster: Choose Joy. I have a love/hate relationship with that phrase. On the one hand, I do love it. Joy is a command from God and therefore we all have an active role in pursuing it. Joy is not an option for Christians. Choose Joy!

On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with mild depression for most of my life, I also sort of want to punch that phrase in the face. Believe me, I’ve tried to choose joy! It’s not that easy, is it? I don’t think we can just “choose joy” and have it magically appear.

Choose Habits of Joy

But we can choose habits of joy, and I think this is where Philippians encourages us. We may not be able to simply choose to have joyful feelings but we can choose to pursue the practices that are most likely to build joy into our lives. Paul shows us some of these practices, and while there are many lessons on joy here, let me focus on three primary habits of joy: prayer, people, and presence.

Habit of Joy #1: Prayer

Perhaps the most obvious habit of joy from Philippians is the habit of prayer. According to Paul, prayer is not simply a means of getting stuff from God, but a means of receiving the kind of peace that leads to rejoicing.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4, 6-7

It’s interesting to me that more and more is being written today from a variety of worldviews about the importance of mindfulness and gratitude when it comes to joy. People from several disciplines (neurology, psychology, theology) all agree on how important this is to joy, even if they disagree on other foundational principles.

The practice of quieting ourselves mentally, articulating our feelings, and focusing most on the things we’re grateful for is good for your brain, and more importantly, it’s good for your soul! The people of God have been doing this work for millenia. We are actually invited to express those things to the God who made us.

If you want more joy in your life, but are not growing in prayer, you are going to be disappointed. For me, I try to start each day with prayer, and I try to spend about half my time thanking God for those ways in which I’ve recently experienced His love. All joy is relational (more on that below) and when I pray with gratitude, my joy increases. I think yours will as well.

Habit of Joy #2: People

The second habit of joy that stands out to me from Philippians is people. This letter is deeply relational, deeply personal, and highly communal. Paul addresses conflict among Christians, he encourages the relationships within the church, and he demonstrates that there is no real joy apart from others.

There is no real joy apart from others. That may be a shocking statement, but the older I get and the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I am of this truth. Although I’m an introvert, need a lot of alone time, and occasionally just don’t like people, I am convinced that the majority of our joy is found in the context of relationships. 

I recently read that one definition of joy is knowing that someone else is glad to be with me. Simply being with that person and knowing that you are loved and respected — that they want to be with you — is the place of deepest joy.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.… Philippians 2:1-5

What will make Paul’s joy complete? The same thing that increases our own joy — a community of people shaped by the love of Jesus.

Sadly, we often think joy will come by doing what we want, expressing ourselves, possessing unrestricted freedom, and essentially getting our own way. Which means, if you think about it, many of our faulty definitions of joy actually hinder community, and therefore hinders our joy! True community isn’t possible if I’m always getting my way. True community demands a sacrifice of some of my rights, preferences, and desires, yet even with these sacrifices, this kind of community is the place of deepest joy.

This is why Paul can tell us to put others first, to serve relentlessly, and to give generously. He can tell us all that and keep a smile on his face, because he knows: if you want joy, you need people, and the best relationships are characterized by the way of Jesus.

This has shaped my priorities. For example, even though I often think I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix (which only rarely satisfies), I’ve forced myself to schedule greater time with the people I love (which almost always satisfies). The church is a great place to do this, even though it certainly takes work. Prioritize these relationships, and when you see that people are glad to be with you, and they see that you are glad to be with them, there will be joy.

Habit of Joy #3: Presence

This also applies to God. God is happy to be with you. His face lights up when you enter the room. He delights in spending time with you, and in His “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

The presence of God is always available to His people. In the third chapter of Philippians Paul lists many of the things we run to in order to give us joy. He mentions his heritage, his national and ethnic background, his accomplishments and good works. But that is not Paul’s joy.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… Philippians 3:7-9

Knowing Christ and being found in Him — this is Paul’s joy. And we also can know Him and be found in Him. We can spend time consciously in His presence. We can get to know Him through prayer and people, spending time with Him and spending time with His community. We also get to know Him through His Word and through His Spirit.

And for Paul, that is a joy greater than personal self-expression or unlimited freedom. It is a joy greater than power or accomplishment or feeling like a good person. It is a joy that is greater than any circumstance and it is a joy that is available to us.

Prayer, people, and presence…I’m not going to say just choose joy. But I can encourage you to choose the habits of joy. They take time and they take work but it is a lifelong path worth taking. And together, we can return to joy.

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Additional Reading

Philippians — Read it, study it, meditate on it, and perhaps even memorize it. You can also engage in our sermon series: Return to Joy: Studies in Philippians.

The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder & Michel Hendricks. (While not perfect, this book does a fascinating job in bringing many of these things together. It’s a pretty short read but very worth it. I’m still chewing on a lot of it.)

 

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Can You Celebrate Easter Without Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.

I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.

Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?

But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?

That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.

Alaska and Lent

Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.

When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.

But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.

In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.

So much work

But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?

It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.

And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!

Then we saw it

And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.

I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.

Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.

We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.

And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.

Lent and Easter

And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.

For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.

Our hike toward Easter

We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.

Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.

To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.

If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.

With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.

And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!

Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?

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Originally published February 20, 2019

2019 ONLINE LENTEN DEVOTIONAL FROM BIOLA UNIVERSITY

Learning to Trust (and Love) the Bible

Learning to Trust (and Love) the Bible

My relationship with the Bible has always been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. And it all began for me with a fairly lukewarm prayer.

Jesus, I’m going to try to take you seriously for a while. As best I can remember, these are the words I prayed down in the basement of my childhood home when I was 18 years old. It wasn’t a very poetic prayer, and it even seems a bit half-hearted, but it was enough. That night Jesus grabbed onto this reluctant convert and nothing for me has been the same since.

That moment set me on a path–a lifelong quest–to learn how to trust and love the Bible.

I’d grown up in church. My dad was a pastor during my formative years. I knew the Bible pretty well, and if we were doing a Bible trivia night, I could dominate. But it wasn’t until that lukewarm prayer that I began to hear God’s voice through its ancient pages. I could see God’s love for me. I could see myself in His words. A life and a love and a joy calling out to me from its pages.

Weird, right? As a senior in high school, unsure of my future, lonely and depressed, God found me and He used His Book to do it.

I couldn’t get enough.
Almost instantly, I couldn’t get enough of this Book. It was like food and I hadn’t eaten for years. I’d read it in the morning before school and at night before bed. Sermons (at Christ Community no less, vintage Pastor Tom) came alive. I began discussing it with friends and a few months later even began leading a Bible study with my peers. 

I wanted to know it and understand it and trust it and obey it and build my life on it. I wanted to know the One who’d made me and there He was on these dusty pages.

But then doubt settled in.
I don’t know if you know this about the Bible, but it is a hard book. Once you start reading (more than just the inspiring soundbite), questions surface. Brutal, sometimes seemingly unanswerable questions. And then, of course, doubt.

The next fall I headed off to Bible college (I told you, I fell hard for this book!), yet the more I studied and read, the more questions I had. In fact, the greatest season of doubt in my life (so far) happened while in Bible college and then seminary. Could I really build my life on a Book so old, so often confusing, so very difficult at times, with so little certainty?

Can we really trust (and love) the Bible?
Well, no surprise, I’m going to say yes. Let me go ahead and name my bias. Big shocker that a pastor says we should trust the Bible. But it has never been easy for me. Doubts still surface. Regularly. As I said, my relationship with the Bible has been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. To some extent, that remains true today (though thankfully less debilitating).

I know that there is nothing I could say to instantly make you trust and love the Bible. Faith is still required. But I want to share with you why I believe. Or perhaps more importantly, why I keep believing. Why do I keep returning to this beautiful, difficult, mysterious, ancient Book? Here are the three most important reasons for me personally: the person of Jesus, the character of God, and the testimony of its pages.

But first, a few warnings.
This is not meant to be exhaustive and it should be noted that everything here has been the subject of countless blogs and books. There are people smarter than me if you want to dig deeper. I also want to acknowledge that my reasons can easily be questioned. I don’t have any unassailable arguments and some of what I’m going to say is clearly circular in its reasoning. (Trust the Bible because the Bible tells you to trust the Bible–it’s great logic, I know.) 

Here’s the deal. If you don’t want to trust the Bible, there is nothing I can say to convince you. Faith is still required.

That is exactly right. My goal is not to convince those who don’t want to believe but to encourage those who do.

The Bible is a difficult book. It’s ok to admit that. Yet being difficult to understand isn’t the same as being untrustworthy. There is a lot I still don’t understand about the Scriptures, and a few things I just don’t like. But I keep coming back for these three reasons.

  1. The Person of Jesus

Everything in my faith comes down to the person of Jesus. Everything! I answer each of my doubts with this: did Jesus rise from the dead or not? If He didn’t, I’m out. But if He did, everything changes! If Jesus actually rose from the dead that is the most important truth the world has ever known, making Jesus the most important person. You see, one day I’d like to rise from the dead as well. So if He did, I want to hang on every word He said and all He did. 

There is good historical evidence (not just the Bible tells me so) supporting the validity of the resurrection. While much could be said, until someone more compellingly answers the following questions, I will continue to believe Jesus did come out of the grave alive. 

Questions like:

  • Why was the tomb empty and why couldn’t anyone find the body?
  • What about all the eyewitnesses who saw Him alive?
  • If it was a legend, why would the inventors make women (who couldn’t even testify in court in that time period) the first eyewitnesses? And why would you make all the men doubting cowards?
  • How do you explain the transformation of the eyewitness, from doubting cowards in hiding to literal martyrs for their faith that Jesus was alive?
  • Where did the church (and this crazy movement of His followers) come from, in the midst of so much oppression?

If Jesus rose from the dead, then it doesn’t matter if you like what He said or not or whether or not you find Him personally compelling. If He rose from the dead, He wins, and I’m listening.

Jesus believed the Old Testament.
And Jesus believed the Old Testament. I struggle with the Old Testament. I love the stories and poetry, but I find it much harder than the New Testament. Not only did Jesus believe it, He loves it! He quotes it and makes references to it constantly. You can’t even really understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament.

He said things likeScripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), referring to the Old Testament. In His most famous sermon, considered to be a kind of summary of His main passions, He says: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).

He even referred to Himself as the center of the Old Testament Scriptures and the key to their understanding. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me… (John 5:39).

...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself… Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead… (Luke 24:27, 45-46)

The one who defeated death believed, taught, loved, obeyed, and even revealed Himself as the focus and fulfillment of the Old Testament. I’m siding with the One who defeated death—every time.

Jesus commissioned the New Testament (sort of).
It also seems like He commissioned the writing of the New Testament through the work of the Apostles. The people who knew Jesus best were the ones who wrote these things down for us.

Jesus told them: I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12–15).

It is reasonable to believe that Jesus wanted His Apostles to write these things down, and promised that His Spirit would guide them in it.

Jesus reveals the character of God.
Jesus also shows us who God is. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). And what does Jesus reveal to us about God the Father? 

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us that God wants to rescue. God wants to love and be loved. God wants a really big, beautiful, diverse family. God wants a relationship with His creation. Our God wants to be known. That doesn’t prove He gave us the Bible, but it does give us a motive. Jesus shows us that it is God’s heart to communicate with His people. 

Hebrews begins with these words, making a similar connection: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (1:1-2) The Apostle John does the same when He refers to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1).

If God so wants to be known that He would send His own Son, it’s at least plausible that He would find other ways to reveal Himself as well. I trust the Bible because I trust the person of Jesus.

  1. The Character of God

I also trust the Bible because I trust the character of God. Jesus shows us the character of God, but so do the Scriptures. You cannot read the Bible without the overwhelming sense that God wants us to know Him. The reason we exist is to know God and be known by Him. Here are just a few such scriptures:

Exodus 6:6-8: I am the Lord… I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I am the Lord. 

Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God. 

Proverbs 8:17: I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.

John 17:3: And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Jeremiah says it perhaps most beautifully. What is the most important thing any human can do? Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (9:23-24)

And what is God’s goal for humanity? I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God wants to be known. This doesn’t mean the Bible is His Book but it does show us a deep motivation for self-revelation.


God cannot lie.
It’s also important to note here that God cannot lie. He wants to be known and, as God, He has the power and creativity to reveal Himself. But how can we trust Him? We can trust Him because He can only be truthful. He can only be faithful and honest. 

1 Samuel 15:29: The Glory of Israel [meaning God] will not lie.

Numbers 23:19: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

If God is real and if He wants to be known, He will reveal Himself accurately and honestly. I trust the Bible because I trust the character of God. 

  1. The Testimony of Its Pages

I also trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages. If the Bible is not God’s Word, it is perhaps the most arrogant, self-confident, full-of-itself book ever written.

If it is not God’s Word, it is not just a nice book with nice stories and nice morals. If it is not God’s Word, it is evil, because it claims to hold the very words of God, and to be the greatest, most important, most sacred book ever written. Trust it or trash it.

The claims it makes.
Listen to just a few of its claims:

2 Samuel 7:28: Now, O Lord God, You are God, and Your words are truth…

2 Samuel 22:31: This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.

Psalms 12:6: The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

Psalm 18:30: As for God, His way is blameless; the word of the Lord is tried…

Psalm 19:7: The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

Proverbs 30:5: Every word of God proves true.

2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

2 Peter 1:19-21: And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 

Revelation 22:6: And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place.

The Story it tells.
The Story it tells also nudges me toward belief. I can’t tell you if its words are true, and perhaps I’m only speaking from my own experience, but the Story of Scripture has a ring of truth about it. Yes, it is easy to get lost in the details or all the individual stories, but when you see its grand narrative, many of our questions and longings find compelling answers. The grand Story can be summed up in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.

Creation. The world had a beginning. It was made with purpose and significance, with humans made in the image of God. Regardless of what you believe about how or when God made the world, the fact that He made it answers so many questions. It compellingly explains why we live as if our lives matter, why beauty touches us so deeply, why love and relationships are so essential, and why, even now in the 21st Century, we just can’t seem to shake our longing for a Maker. The Bible shows us how we were created with these things in mind.

Fall. But everything is broken. We hurt the people we love. We run from God. We choose self-destructive paths. We break the things we touch. And despite all our effort, we can’t fix it. Then add to that cancer, viruses, tornados, infertility, pain in childbirth, loneliness, depression, anxiety, terrorism, war, racism, trafficking, and eventually death. We know in our bones the world shouldn’t be this way. The Bible tells us why.

Redemption. Yet we long for things to be better, and we work to that end. We strive toward self-improvement and we long for it in the people we love. We celebrate stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, rescue and redemption. These things are hard-wired into us by a God who offers them to us, and we see them on display through the climax of this Story in His Son. The Bible explains these longings.

New Creation. One day things will finally and completely be made whole. We want utopia. We want to live forever. We want to be reunited with the people we’ve lost. We want to see God. All these longings find fulfillment in the Story of Scripture.

No, none of this proves the Bible is true or that this grand narrative is the narrative we’re living. Yet, it gives me just one more piece of confidence in believing. It tells a compelling Story.

The way it speaks.
And if you thought that last point was too subjective, you’ll hate this one.

The way this Book speaks to my heart reinforces its veracity. When I read it I can almost hear God’s voice. I feel comforted in my heartache, convicted of my sin, and exposed at my deepest level. I don’t just read this Book. It reads me! It knows me and speaks directly to me. I trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages. 

So what now?
So what are we supposed to do with all this? I want to end with three action steps.

  1. Bring Him your doubts

First, bring God your doubts. I know I didn’t answer your questions and I realize there are fair reasons to doubt the Scriptures. Don’t sweep your doubts under the rug. Take your doubts seriously enough to look into them.

Sometimes people say things like “the Bible is full of contradictions” without actually looking at any supposed contradictions. Or sometimes we reject the Scriptures not because of any logical argument, but simply because we don’t like what it says. I don’t want to obey this so it must not be true. There are also times when we assume the Bible must be false simply because we haven’t taken the time to properly understand it in its cultural context.

Instead, take your doubts seriously enough to do some of the work to really understand. I discovered early on that many of my doubts had more to do with a lack of understanding or an unquestioning loyalty to my own cultural assumptions than with anything inherent in the text. Do the work. Bring Him your doubts.

  1. Trust that God knows better

Second, in all matters, trust that God knows better. Easier said than done I know, but if God has spoken, trust that He has spoken for our good. His Word is for your good. I love how the statement of faith for our denomination the Evangelical Free Church of America summarizes what we believe about the Scriptures. Pay close attention to how it ends.

We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.

Believed, obeyed, and trusted. Not just read or studied or proclaimed, as important as those things are.

Jesus said: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Trust these words. Obey them. Build your life upon them. They are for you from God. Trust that He knows better.

  1. Make this Book your food

And finally, eat this Book! Make it your food. It is strange to me how regularly the Bible refers to itself as a kind of food, sweeter than the best dessert and more satisfying than the richest feast. For Jesus while fasting even chose God’s Word over bread. He said, quoting the Old Testament: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).

 So eat up, Church! Read it regularly and systematically. Memorize it and meditate upon it. Learn to study it and dig deeply into it. Know it so that you can trust it, love it, obey it, and build your life upon it.

Where else can we go?
I love this Book and I want you to love it too. It has been twenty-three years since that half-hearted prayer in my parent’s basement. Twenty-three years and I still feel like I’m just barely at the beginning, still struggling, still doubting, but still growing.

Whenever I’m wrestling with my faith (which is more often than I care to admit) I often think of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels. Jesus was at the height of his popularity but then preached a really hard sermon. After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:66-69).

I often feel like Peter. For I am often burdened by doubt and unanswered questions, tempted, like the crowds, to walk away. But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life! So here I am, learning to trust (and love) the Bible.