Tag Archives: Joy

Cultural Engagement that Avoids Triumphalism and Accommodation

Greg Forster’s important and practical new book helps Christians think out how to engage culture. Many would say this is not a proper goal for believers, but that is a mistake.

51mjgUdKvBLActs 17 records Paul’s famous visit to Athens, the academic center of the Roman Empire of the day. One commenter likened the intellectual power of Athens at the time to all the Ivy League schools as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities all rolled into one. Though Paul was repulsed by the idolatry he saw there, he did not turn away from the city in disgust. Instead, he plunged into the marketplace, the agora, where we are told he daily “reasoned” with those he found there about the gospel. Now when you or I think of a “marketplace,” we think of shopping and retail. Of course the agoras of ancient cities contained that, but they were much more. The agora was the media center—the only place to learn the news at a time before newspapers and other technological media. It was also the financial center where investors connected with businesses. It was the art center as well, the place where so much art was performed. It was the place where new political and philosophical ideas were debated. In short, the agora was the cultural center of any city. And since this was Athens—which along with Rome had the most influence of all cities—it could be said to be part of the cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. The ideas forged and accepted here flowed out and shaped the way the rest of society thought and lived.

It is instructive, then, to see that Paul takes the gospel literally into the public square. It means that he did not see the Christian faith as only able to change individual hearts. He believed that the gospel had what it took to engage the thinking public, the cultural elites, and to challenge the dominant cultural ideas of the day. He was after converts of course—he was first and foremost a church planter, not a theologian or Christian philosopher. But he wouldn’t have been able to engage the hearts of cultural leaders unless he also engaged the ideas of the culture itself. He did not shrink from that challenge. He did not merely try to find individual philosophers to evangelize in a corner. He addressed them as a culture, a public community.

It is often missed that, although later Paul was invited to give an address, he did not start by preaching in the agora. He did not get up on a soapbox and merely declare what the Bible said. It says Paul “reasoned” (Acts 17:17) in the marketplace, using a word—dialegomai—that sounds like “dialogue.” However, as John Stott says in his commentary on Acts, this term probably denoted something more specific than we would think of today when we hear it. Stott says it was something closer to what we might call the Socratic method. This was not a “debate” as we see debates today, where two parties read off talking points at one another. It required lots of careful listening, and in particular it meant asking questions that showed that your opponents were self-contradictory, that is, they were wrong on the basis of their own premises. And indeed, when we actually hear Paul’s address to the philosophers in Acts 17:22-31, we can’t help but notice that he does the Socratic method even here. He does not expound or even quote Scripture, but rather quotes their own thinkers (v. 28) and then shows them that, on the basis of their own intuitions and statements about God, idolatry is absolutely wrong (v. 29). Many have pointed out how Paul’s address lays the foundation for a doctrine of God, contrasting the contemporary culture’s beliefs in multiple, fallible, powerful beings who must be appeased with the idea of one supreme Creator, sovereign God who is worthy of awe-filled adoration and worship. Every part of what Paul says is deeply biblical, but he never quotes the Bible; instead he shows them the weakness and inadequacies of their own views of the divine and lifts up the true God for their admiration. He appeals as much to their rationality and their imaginations as to their will and hearts.

What It Is and It Not

The term “cultural engagement” is so often used by Christians today without a great deal of definition. This account of Paul and Athens gets us a bit closer to understanding what it is by showing us what it is not. Christians are to enter the various public spheres—working in finance, the media, the arts. But there we are neither to simply preach at people nor are we to hide our faith, keeping it private and safe from contradiction. Rather, we are as believers to both listen to and also challenge dominant cultural ideas, respectfully yet pointedly, in both our speech and our example.

When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They “mocked” him (Acts 17:32) and called him a “babbler” (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.

Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans’ call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics’ insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Greg Forster’s new book does a marvelous job of showing us a way forward that fits in with Paul’s basic stance—not just preaching at people, but not hiding or withdrawing either. Within these pages, believers will get lots of ideas about how to “reason” with people in the public square about the faith and how to engage culture in a way that avoids triumphalism, accommodation, or withdrawal. Paul felt real revulsion at the idolatry of Athens—yet that didn’t prevent him from responding to the pagan philosophers with love and respect, plus a steely insistence on being heard. This book will help you respond to our cultural moment in the same way.


This article was adapted from the foreword to Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway, 2014), by Greg Forster. This book is the second installment of the Cultural Renewal series edited by Tim Keller and Collin Hansen.

Jesus Is Better

The writer of the book of Hebrews aims to convince his Jewish audience of one paramount truth: Jesus is better. He is better than the angels. He’s better than the prophets. He’s better than Moses. His priesthood is better than Aaron’s. His new covenant is better than the old covenant they could never fulfill. His blood is better than the blood of bulls and goats. In every way and at every turn, Jesus is better.

It isn’t that the treasures of the Jewish faith were in and of themselves detrimental; it’s simply that they were insufficient. The blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. Jesus’ blood atoned for sin once for all. The old covenant was written on stone tablets. The new covenant is written on our hearts. The high priest entered into an earthly place of worship to intercede for the people once a year. Jesus entered heaven itself, into the very presence of God, and forever intercedes on our behalf. Though the Jews were richly blessed with God’s favor through the ministry of prophets, priests, and kings, it would be foolish for them to continue living in shadows once the substance of their faith had been fulfilled in the person of Christ. Why continue to live on crumbs when invited to a feast?

Two thousand years later, we share in our ancestors’ propensity to miss the greater by clutching onto the lesser. Our modern American culture daily entices us with temporal blessings as if they are superior to the riches found in Christ. Perhaps we need a modern-day apologetic to answer our culture’s questions: Is Jesus better than material wealth? Is he better than the relationships we yearn for? Is he better than our sexual freedom? Is he better than comfort and ease? All these we may be called to sacrifice in order to follow the way of the cross. And at every turn, the Christian should be able to resound with joy: Jesus is better.

Jesus Is Better than Material Wealth

Money can seem to provide so much: vacations, security, relational peace. Yet, in truth, the love of money is dangerously corrosive to our soul. He who loves money never has enough. One can be extremely wealthy and completely miserable. The poorest saint who has the Holy Spirit residing within her soul is far richer than the wealthiest man devoid of knowledge of God. How many have labored endlessly for money only to look back in deep regret at a wasted life? Yet those who set their hearts on pilgrimage go from strength to strength. Their hearts are wedded to Christ’s kingdom in such a way that they can enjoy material blessing here, without being possessed by their possessions. To those who labor long and enjoy few material blessings, rest assured. Jesus is better.

Jesus Is Better than Relationships

We were created to be in relationship with one another. However, when we seek for another person to fill the relational void that can only be satisfied in Christ, every relationship we encounter will be lacking in some way. Our spouses can never love us enough, our friendships will be marred by insecurity, and our children will suffer from the pressure of our relational demands. Fear of losing relationships leads to anxiety and worry. Despair at what we may never have leads to bitterness and anger. In Christ alone can our relational needs be fulfilled. No other person can make the promise, “I will never leave or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). All other relationships suffer from the finite nature of the participants. Only an eternal God can promise that nothing will separate us from his love. Indeed, by growing in our affections for Jesus, all the other relationships we treasure are not lessened but increased. Jesus is better.

Jesus Is Better than Sexual Freedom

The world entices that sexual freedom is paramount to love. To lack the freedom to express oneself sexually is seen as repressive and, by some accounts, harmful. In truth, however, sexual immorality enslaves its victims, and the freedom promised most often results in the painful chains of regret. But Jesus breaks the chains by offering forgiveness and true freedom. “Greater love has no one than this,” he says, “that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The call to chastity outside of marriage in no way precludes our ability to love. The greatest demonstration of love the world has ever witnessed wasn’t found in the passion of the bedroom, but in the passion of the cross. Jesus is better.

Jesus Is Better than Comfort and Ease

In the world’s estimation, Christians do seemingly ridiculous things: They move their families thousands of miles away to share the gospel. They adopt children when they already have a full house. They forfeit jobs that would require them to sacrifice their integrity. They give to others financially at cost to themselves. They are labeled as foolish and ignorant because they believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God. They get involved in messy relationships and keep pursuing peace, even when it would be much easier to let the relationship go.

Why do Christians make their lives more difficult instead of pursuing comfort and ease? They follow Jesus, who left the comforts of heaven to enter into the difficulties of this broken world. Jesus came to provide abundant life for his followers. However, the full life promised in the gospel isn’t found by making our lives easier; it’s found by laying down our lives. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it,” Jesus said (Luke 17:33). Christians don’t lead safe lives. They lead joyfully purposeful ones.

Drink and Live

One who attempts to quench his thirst in seawater will only find himself thirstier still. If he keeps drinking, eventually he will die. Likewise, one who attempts to quench his spiritual thirst with temporal stuff will only find himself thirsty for more. This world’s treasures simply cannot satisfy our souls. They were never intended to do so. Jesus is the only remedy for our spiritual hunger. It’s the greatest kindness, then, to invite others to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). 

As we share our faith, may we do so with the winsome confidence that life in Jesus is so much richer, fuller, and better than any life apart from him. The gospel is good news! Lives that reflect a joy deeper than circumstances lovingly bear witness to this soul-satisfying truth: Jesus is better.

Feeling Shame Is Not Repentance

“What do you say to people who are dealing with shame from sexual sin?” a longtime friend asked me in a text message.

That question deserves more than a text response, but I wrote, “It could only be the strategy of Satan to allow the shame of one sin to lead you into more sin. And so I would go to Psalm 51—this psalm shows how to deal with shame from sexual sin.  And the prayer for restored joy is a big key.”

Insight from Screwtape

screwtapeThis question from my friend hints at the heart of many struggles in the Christian life—how we respond to the choices we make is just as important as the choices themselves. In popular media when someone is being tempted, it’s common for an angel and a devil to appear, each trying to sway the person toward good or evil. Once a character makes a decision, the devil disappears.

In our everyday experience, however, the tempter never disappears. In fact, he does the most effective work after the supposed “crisis moment.” C. S. Lewis offers insight on this work in The Screwtape Letters

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact?. . . Catch him at the moment he is really poor in sprit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I am being humble,” and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.

Our tempter can take our obedience to God and turn it into a source of pride, and he can take our disobedience to God and shame us to the point that we do not repent from our sin, but rather turn to it again and again. Is all shame from Satan? No. But isn’t he the only one that would want to use our shame to lead us into deeper sin?

Insight from Scripture

In Psalm 51, King David prays,

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Here King David acknowledges a proper sense of shame over his sin when he asks God to hide his face from his sins. His sin is ugly and offensive to a holy God. Yet in his repentance, he not only seeks cleansing from sin, but also freedom from shame when he prays, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

David knew the tempter remained. After committing adultery with Bathsheba, David was not left alone. He was then tempted to lie, and still the tempter remained. David was then tempted to kill, and still the tempter remained. At each step his response to his sin led him into further sin. Thus, David needed to not only stop doing what he was doing. He also needed to start enjoying God again. He needed not only forgiveness from past sin, but also renewed joy that preserved him from future sin.

Back to Screwtape

Again, we learn from Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:

You will say these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Shame has its place, but feeling shame over sin is not the same thing as repentance from sin. Shame can come from wounded pride as much as it can come from our love for God. And when we allow the shame of one sin to lead us into more sin, the tempter can focus on small sins and still yield big results.

So ask for joy in the same way you ask for forgiveness, not because you deserve it, but because you need it.

Is Self-Sacrifice Ultimately Selfish?

If sacrificing my interests for another’s sake makes me feel good about myself, is my so-called “act of kindness” selfish at its core?

Most of us don’t know how to answer. Does tithing just make me feel good inside? Do heroes just die just for their own glory? Since we are sometimes blind to the true reasons behind our actions, how can we ever be sure our own motivations aren’t somewhat selfish?

We’re not alone in our altruistic skepticism. According to Judith Lichtenberg in The New York Times,”[T]he view that people never intentionally act to benefit others except to obtain some good for themselves still possesses a powerful lure over our thinking.”

The idea that humans are always motivated by selfishness is called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoists believe that even if an action seems altruistic, it’s ultimately done for direct or indirect personal gain. The possibility of true self-sacrifice without receiving anything in return is completely ruled out.

Though they may not use the term, many people believe in psychological egoism for two reasons:

  • As economists claim, every rational being behaves in his or her own self-interest.
  • As Christianity teaches, humans are fallen and prone to selfishness.

However, psychological egoism challenges our Christian call to be self-sacrificing like Christ.

Self-interest and Selfishness

Before exploring how psychological egoism and self-sacrifice are at odds, we need to set one thing straight: there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness.

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But this is far from the true definition of self-interest.

Selfishness is a sin, but self-interest is necessary to live out the Christian life. While the Bible clearly condemns selfishness, self-interest is a good thing—it enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community. Self-interest motivates us to get up and go to work in the morning, to make friends, to care for our children, to drive carefully to work, and to go to church. It is even in our self-interest to be altruistic. Self-interest is not mutually exclusive from altruism in the Bible.

But is altruism also selfish if you like the way it makes you feel? No. Feeling good after an act of charity or self-sacrifice is not selfish. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

God loves a cheerful giver. That means God wants us to give freely and enjoy the act of giving. Rather than attributing the benefit of cheer we feel after giving to our selfishness, we should accept this joy as a blessing from God. After all, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Why would God want us to feel bad for doing something good?

God’s Pleasure—and Ours

This brings us to a deeper and more theological question: Is it sinful for a Christian to seek joy and happiness in this life? Aren’t we supposed to seek God, not our pleasure?

To answer questions about our own pleasure, we need to understand a crucial truth about hedonism, or pleasure-seeking. In 1986, John Piper introduced the term “Christian hedonism” in his book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Although the term “Christian hedonism” sounds like an oxymoron, it is not a contradiction at all. We are Christian hedonists because we believe the song of Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness and joy, in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

According to Piper, Christian hedonism is desiring the vast, ocean-deep pleasures of God more than the mud-puddle pleasures of wealth, power, or lust. Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy. Piper dispels this myth in his essay “What Is Christian Hedonism?

We value most what we delight in most. Pleasure is a gauge that measures how valuable someone or something is to us. Pleasure is the measure of our treasure.

[. . .]

If a friend says to you, “I really enjoy being with you,” you wouldn’t accuse him of being self-centered. Why? Because your friend’s delight in you is the evidence that you have great value in his heart. In fact, you’d be dishonored if he didn’t experience any pleasure in your friendship. The same is true of God.

Even Christ, who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the history of the world, died for joy. Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Knowing this truth should make our own giving and sacrifice all the more joyful.

5 Ways to Find Joy in a Job You Don’t Love

Working a job you love is a wonderful thing. To be sure, all gardens this side of the Fall have thistles and weeds, but doing a job that fits you, that excites you, feels different. It fills you, gives you a sense you’re doing what God meant you to do.

But what do you do when you get stuck in a job you don’t love? When you’re waiting for a better one to come along, feel called to stay in certain work, or aren’t yet qualified for a job you think you might enjoy more? Is it possible to keep getting up day after day and actually have joy in your work?

Scripture promises that we can have joy through any work. Ecclesiastes 2:24 says work is a gift of God, and it is good to “find enjoyment in [it]”—the Hebrew literally reads, “make his soul see the good in [it].” Some jobs will make this joy easy for us; some won’t. But God wills that we make our souls see the good in our work, whatever it may be. We may never become heel-clicking happy about our job, but it is possible for us to have robust joy in it.

Here are five ways to cultivate joy in less-than-ideal jobs:

1. Repent of “ideal jobolatry.”

It’s a gift to be doing work you truly love. But if we dream about our ideal job and start saying, “I will be truly happy when I’m doing ______,” we elevate work to a functional savior and give it the place in our hearts reserved only for Christ.

No job will make you happy in and of itself. Ecclesiastes, an ever-reliable bucket of ice water to the face, tells us, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. . . . This also is vanity” (2:22-3). Watch yourself for the beginnings of “ideal jobolatry” and turn from them, reminding yourself that joy depends entirely and only on Jesus Christ.

2. Fill yourself with Scripture and prayer daily.

Christians ought to be practicing these disciplines anyway, but believers in unpleasant work environments especially need this reminder. Every difficult environment is like a soul-desert—it dries us out, sapping life rather than giving it.

Jeremiah 17:5-8 tells us that the one who makes flesh his strength will have a soul like a parched shrub. By contrast, though she faces heat and drought, the one “whose trust is the Lord” plants her roots in a life-giving stream and does not wither. Psalm 1:1-3 uses a similar image specifically to describe our relationship to God’s Wordfeasting on God’s Word enables us to bear arid spiritual climates. Meditating on Scripture—not just reading it, but thoughtfully and prayerfully digesting it into our souls—provides us with soul-nutrition that can help us through tough job situations.

Praying throughout the day connects us to God. Think back over your morning meditations. Remind yourself of the gospel with simple prayers like “Abba, Father/I belong to Thee” and “Jesus, Son of David/Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

3. Invest in the tasks and the relationships of your work.

It’s easy to be tempted to slack in a job you don’t enjoy. But we’re actually commanded to “work heartily” in everything we do, “knowing that from the Lord [we] will receive the inheritance as [our] reward” (Col. 3:23-4). And when we take ownership of a job and strive to do our best in it, we come to enjoy it more. See God as your true boss. Remind yourself that he is the one from whom you hope to be rewarded.

Investing in your work community can also cultivate joy. If you work with Christians, these relationships may come easily. If you work with mainly nonbelievers, give thanks for this natural way to minister to neighbors outside the church. And look for ways to invest redemptively in your work relationships. I’ve worked in offices where most of the water-cooler conversation involved complaining or gossip. Resist the temptation to remain silent and disengage. Challenge yourself to find ways to introduce loving or pleasant conversations into your workplace.

4. Contemplate the goodness of your job.

It’s easy to think of the unpleasant aspects of a job we already dislike. Dwelling on them reinforces our dislike. But most jobs somehow harmonize with God’s redemptive work in creation.

Does your work bring order out of chaos? Then you’re in effect gardening, in line with the command to fill and subdue the earth. Does your job involve correcting errors? Then you’re establishing justice, which is part of God’s character. Even if your work doesn’t resonate with your sense of calling, look for a way in which it does something good and connect that to the goodness of God.

5. Remind yourself that your identity is in Christ, not your job.

We tend to define ourselves by our work. “What do you do?” is one of the first five questions we ask people we meet, and it chafes us to say something like, “I park cars.” We must not esteem ourselves (and others) highly or lowly depending on how we perceive our jobs (and theirs).

Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For [Jesus’] 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” (3:8-9). If your job feels beneath you, remind yourself that you belong to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus alone. You have infinite value to God because of Jesus. Find yourself in Christ alone, and you will find joy in any job circumstance.

Fight for Joy on Valentine’s Day

You know the routine. It’s Valentine’s Day, that special holiday set aside to celebrate love and romance. But you’re single. You don’t have a girlfriend, a date, or even a female friend willing to be seen in public with you. So you invite over a few buddies to watch Braveheart, play Halo, and talk about how you don’t understand girls. “Happy Singles Awareness Day” is your Facebook status. You tell all your married friends you’re content, enjoying the freedom of your singleness, and that you’re glad you didn’t have to plan a date and pay for a fancy dinner this year. You do all these things and yet, at the end of the night as you climb into your empty bed, loneliness and despair come crashing in, leaving you wondering why no one—perhaps not even God himself—loves you.

Valentine’s Day is hard for many single people. The cynical humor of the typical Christian single offers little more than a thin veneer over the pain and worry lurking within his heart. Cultural pressures to find his worth, identity, and security in a romantic relationship only exacerbate the inner struggle. And those pressures are often amplified in conservative Christian communities, as singles become collateral damage in the battle to defend marriage and the family. To many married believers, the singles in their midst are pitiable at best, dangerous at worst. But in the face of all these worries and pressures, Christian singles can lay hold of some glorious biblical truths to propel them in their fight for joy this Valentine’s Day—and every day thereafter.

You Are Loved

God loves you. That simple statement should blow you out of your chair. Sadly, however, the truth has lost its power for many Christians. Our culture assumes and even demands God love everyone the same—no exceptions. Even within the church, God’s love can be tossed around so lightly believers begin to think he’s required to love them. If we’re honest, his love rarely shocks us anymore, since we rarely pause to ponder the scandal of a holy God embracing a rebellious people.

We’ve all sinned and fallen short of divine glory. We were children of wrath, dead in trespasses and enemies of God. But God, being rich in love, while we were yet sinners, gave up his Son as a bloody substitute for us. And now, resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father, he intercedes for us and has sent his Spirit to be with us.

God’s love is unearned, unfettered, and unending, and it’s given to everyone who relies on Jesus as Savior and Treasure—regardless of your relationship status. It’s easy to feel unloved when you’re single. But the truth is that as a Christian single on Valentine’s Day, you couldn’t be more loved. Rejoice that the Lord of creation has delighted to set his affection on you!

You Are Not Alone

Not only are you loved, you are, in fact, never alone. God built you to be in relationship with himself. Again, let that sink in for a moment. The one lacking nothing, the one surrounded by a heavenly court that praises him without ceasing, and the one who’s been satisfied in love and communion with his triune self from all eternity, that God made you by hand and wants a relationship with you.

Of course, we’re all relationally broken because of our sin. But if you’re trusting the Son, the Spirit dwells inside you, and you can commune with the Father at all times. An overflowing fountain of joy—God himself—is within you. Friend, you are not alone.

You Are Family

Jesus didn’t die to save just you; he died to save his bride. Your relationships within the church, then, surpass mere friendship. Jesus said those who do his Father’s will are family (Mark 3:35); “brothers and sisters” is the most common way of addressing Christians in the New Testament; Paul went to Thessalonica “as a nursing mother” (1 Thessalonians 2:7); he became “a father through the gospel” to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:15); and when he wrote Timothy, he called him a “true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2; cf. Titus 1:4).

The New Testament reveals that family ties—the strongest human bonds—are redefined not by biological relationships, but by mutual faith in Christ. Even human marriage is limited: the institution won’t continue into the next (Matthew 22:30) but will instead give way to the reality to which it was all along pointing—the marriage of Jesus and his bride (Eph. 5:22-33; Rev. 19:6-10; 21:1-4). This means that in your church you’re interacting with men and women who are closer to you than your biological brothers and sisters. You’re forming relationships that will carry into eternity, in fellowship with one another and the Godhead forever. What joy is there to be found in the communion of the saints! Christian single, you are far from being alone.

So be honest with yourself, your friends, and, most of all, with the Lord about how you’re feeling this Valentine’s Day. When you begin to feel unlovable, ponder the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for you (Eph. 3:14-19). When you begin to feel lonely, spend time communing with him through his Word and prayer and surrounding yourself with brothers and sisters who will lift you up and encourage you, as you do the same for them. And most of all, when you feel the urge to make that cynical “bachelor till the rapture” joke, fight it. Fight the bitterness, the loneliness, perhaps even the despair. Fight for joy in the Savior.

The Beauty in the Busy

The thought often greets me, that this is how I get to spend my life. This is how I get to earn a living and support my family. This is how I get to use my mental and communicative gifts. This is what I get to research, memorize, and know. This is what I get to teach others. This is what I get to mentor others to teach to others. This is who I am. This is what I do. I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no higher honor and, other than my own salvation, no joy can compete.

I live every day with a deep sense of privilege. I carry a realization of the granduer of the task, that I’ve been chosen to be a lifelong ambassador of the King of kings. I’ve been called to tell his story, the greatest story ever told. And I don’t just get to tell it once; I get to tell it again and again. In fact, I’m called to never stop telling it and to never stop training others to tell it. I’ll never have a personal audience with the President or be welcomed into the court of a king. I’ll never be rich or internationally famous. But I am a spokesman for the King of kings and get to dispense his riches to the poor every day.

It’s the joyous mystery of my life that this is what I’ve been chosen and gifted to do, and I regularly pray the ardor of ministry will not cause me to lose that joy. Does joy color your ministry? Does it quiet complaint and defend you against weariness or bitterness? Has the beauty of what you’ve been called to do been lost in the busyness of schedule and the repetiveness of the task? Does your heart celebrate even when the days are long?

Humility and Joy Meet

But there’s another theme of heart that must live next to and interact with ministry joy. It’s ministry humility. My celebration must not cause me to forget my need. If I pay attention, ministry will quickly reveal that what I’m called to give to others I also need. As I’m telling the old, old story to others, I must tell it over and over to myself. As I’m studying the ways of grace, I must apply the truths of grace to myself. As I’m preparing to preach grace to others I must pause and worship, recognizing that such grace includes me. As I welcome others to run with confession and repentance to the Savior of grace, I must do the same again and again.

My sense of privilege for what I’ve been called to do must never degrade into the pride of thinking that I’m special or different. I need the rescue I hold out to others. This means I’ve been chosen to tell God’s story and to represent his grace not because I’m worthy or up to the task, but because he is. He is able to take people in need of rescue and employ them as useful tools of his rescue. He is that great, and his grace is that powerful.

So as you start another year of ministry, guard your joy. Don’t let anything quiet your celebration of what you’ve been called to do. And as you’re celebrating, remember you’re not just preaching to the needy; you are needy. And remember both you and your people have been drawn into personal communion with the One who is up to the task.

Our Delightfully Strange World

It would be unfair to the work to describe my first encounter with Orthodoxy as a reading. That makes it sound so benign, so mild and harmless. The first time I picked up G. K. Chesterton’s most important book—and maybe the most important book for the twenty-first century—was a collision, a smashup that left my outlook on the world in pieces and me panting for breath.

I was at the time tempted by the depressed cynicism from which many undergraduates at Christian colleges never quite recover. Having grown up in the church, chin-stroking deconstructive anti-institutionalism (combined with a strong sense of intellectual superiority) had an intoxicating allure. Even if I had wanted to, I could not escape the vague, uncharted feeling that I had missed out on a critical dimension of the world. Instead, I reveled in my restlessness  and reminded everyone else of it as well.

That was a little more than a decade ago, just before my sophomore year at university. I still walk with a limp. Before I started reading, I heard reports that it was not an easy book. That is one way of putting it: on a first read, though, Orthodoxy almost appears not to be a book at all, but rather a long string of glittery sentences, each threatening to undo our reading by drawing us into the world anew. It wasn’t until my fourth reading or so that I realized Chesterton has a subtle and sophisticated argument at work through the book. The previous three times, I simply ruminated on whatever “mental pictures” and sentences happened to jump out.

Still, reading Orthodoxy that first time was a bit like guzzling an intellectual solvent. Chesterton didn’t merely demonstrate the deadliness of popular intellectual currents such as materialism and intellectualism. He put forward a more thrilling, more cheerful, and more intellectually satisfying alternative. Chesterton makes the world seem so delightfully strange. He confronts us with its peculiarities and its oddities–all to show how the phenomena are solved only within the paradoxical affirmations of Christianity. Critics had painted Christianity as simultaneously too pessimistic and optimistic, that it simultaneously prevented men, “by morbid tears and terrors,” from enjoying their pleasures while providing them irresponsible degrees of comfort through its notion of providence–critiques that, in Chesterton’s hands, turned out to be reasons to believe. The whole thing left me dazzled, not merely by Chesterton’s wit but by a picture of Christianity that was so remarkably sane.

Final Page

All this led up to the final page of the book, a page that included nearly 400 words that (as the saying goes) “changed my life”:

The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one comer of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

Chesterton does not simply magnify “joy,” a concept we hear much about and experience very little. He understood the permanent temptation to view the sadness and the sorrow as the substance, and the cheerful and uplifting as the shadow.

Chesterton marks out a path that leads away from despairing cynicism, the besetting sin of hipster Christians. When our resistance to the overwrought, pollyannish cheerfulness of suburban megachurch Christianity (or so the story goes) crosses over into treating the “real” and “authentic” as that which is broken and sorrowful, we have embraced a sub-Christian outlook on the world.

Comedy But Not a Joke

Chesterton never minimizes the reality of brokenness: his haunting poem on suicide makes it clear he tasted enough of the dark to know its power. To declare defiantly that the good is fundamental requires seeing and acknowledging the parasitic power of evil. But Chesterton’s cosmic and transcendental oath of patriotic affirmation demands that we acknowledge that the world may be a comedy, but it is not a joke. There is no vicious prankster at the end, waiting to pull the rug from beneath us. There is only resolution and satisfaction, a good more potent and real than any of its degraded imitations.

These days, we tend to suspect that things done in secret must be working to our harm. But such a joy, for Chesterton, is too overwhelming and powerful for it to be had easily, or even to be displayed in public. There is a joy beyond words, a joy behind the veil that runs too deep to show others. And it is a joy that, when we taste, we realize that we are ill equipped to live with. Like those poor Israelites who plead with God to hide himself, it is goodness that we are not equipped to handle, even while we include sorrow and suffering among our friends. Here Chesterton closes his work: “Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. . . . There was something that [Jesus] hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.”

Trembling Joy: Emotional Paradox in the Christian Life

For I’ve beheld with trembling joy the sight of Calvary’s Scarlet Rose,
For You have captured me
.  -Steve and Vikki Cook

We have all heard that the word “blessed” means “happy.” True enough. But the kind of happiness that “blessed” conveys is something that transcends the typical American definitions of happiness. It communicates a satisfaction and contentment that is firmly settled in the soul. It isn’t touched by the trivial. It communicates a sense of joy that more often than not is expressed by tears rather than laughter. It isn’t inspired by jokes.

Oftentimes in Scripture this kind of happiness or blessedness is strangely combined with emotions that we intuitively think are contrary or opposite. For instance, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even more striking is, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Those who feel their own poverty, their own helplessness and moral and spiritual bankruptcy are in a state of happiness. Those who mourn over their sins are in a state of contentment and peace. Strange? Not really. What these paradoxes demonstrate is that there is joy that Christians experience when they embrace reality and truth about God and themselves.

Job experienced something like this. After besmirching God’s character time after time, Job is finally confronted by God in Job 38. God gently rebukes His servant: “Who is this who darkens counsel?” (Once God is done with Job in His two speeches, Job repents 42:2-6). Job, in the words of Francis Anderson, “is at once delighted and ashamed.” Here he is, contrite, humbled and yet he is awestruck with things too wonderful for him to understand (42:3). He loathes himself but is overwhelmed with God (42:5-6). After all his suffering, all his misery, Job is both joyfully in awe and mournfully contrite. This sounds like “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who mourn.”

In the final chapter of Isaiah we are told that God looks with favor on those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at His Word (Isa. 66:2b). The one who knows he has nothing to offer, who sees his own sin and that he really needs help, this is the one God looks on with favor. The next description is he trembles at God’s Word. He who sees the awful majesty of God in the Word and his own sin in light of that majesty, the one who is cut deeply, wounded and humbled under the Word, this is the one to whom God says, “I am pleased with you.”

The Word comes to each of us and there is either pride that sits over the Word with a critical spirit, or there is humility and brokenness that responds with contrition and trembling. The broken, contrite trembler is described by Jesus as poor in spirit and mourning and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. What is his ultimate condition? Blessed! Truly happy.

The one who trembles at the Word joyfully finds refuge in Christ. To be humbled and trembling is incredibly sweet. There should be no place we would rather be than flat on our face before a holy God, trembling at His majestic Word and realizing that in that Word we do hope and in that Word is our salvation and in that Word our righteousness is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is in this “unpleasant” position of trembling that we find the greatest joy.

B.B. Warfield knew of the paradox of joy and misery:

The attitude of the “miserable sinner” is not only not one of despair; it is not even one of depression; and not even one of hesitation or doubt; hope is too weak a word to apply to it.

It is an attitude of exultant joy.

Only this joy has its ground not in ourselves but in our Savior.

We are sinners and we know ourselves to be sinners, lost and helpless in ourselves.

But we are saved sinners; and it is our salvation which gives the tone to our life, a tone of joy which swells in exact proportion to the sense we have of our ill-desert; for it is he to whom much is forgiven who loves much, and who, loving, rejoices much.

(For Warfield’s whole article, go here.)