How to Be Joyful (When You Don’t Feel Like It)

Last weekend, as I was relaxing with my family and preparing to preach on Sunday, I received the news that my 91-year-old grandfather had passed away. It just so happened that I was preparing to preach from Philippians 4:4-9, which begins with this command: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!'”

The juxtaposition of grief and joy shaped my sermon in some significant ways. Living with the tension between loss and hope, between death and new life, sharpened my thinking about what it looks like to be joyful in the midst of our fallen world. I thought I would share the sermon with my readers this week, as it expresses what I’ve been thinking about lately. In this case, I think the spoken message communicates my thoughts more clearly than would a long blog post.

I hope you find this message encouraging and helpful:

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God’s Love Never Leaves

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m increasingly grateful for the fact that nothing can separate me from God’s love. For the past several days, Romans 8:38-39 has been running through my mind:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’m often tempted to see this passage as a simple statement of the theological concept of eternal security. Once we have been given eternal life, nothing can ever take it away. While this passage does speak to the issue of eternal security, I often forget that it’s also talking about God’s active love for me.

In other words, God keeps me secure because He really loves me. He gave His Son for us out of love for us (John 3:16). He doesn’t love me because He needs to love me or because somebody is forcing Him to love me. He just loves me. Unconditionally and eternally. When I’m good, when I’m bad, when I act intelligently, when I make stupid mistakes, when I’m accomplishing something important and when I’m doing nothing at all.

So while I’m grateful for my job and my house and family and friends and turkey (yum!), I’m infinitely more grateful to be in the hands of a loving and gracious God. He is loving whether or not I have any of the other things I just enumerated. My prayer for Thanksgiving is that I will learn to rest in His love. From the security of His boundless love and grace, then, I hope to be a person who extends that love to others.

What are you thankful for right now? I’d love to hear from you!

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Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I was fairly confident prior to reading Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that I would disagree with many of her conclusions. I’ve read the author’s blog from time to time, so I knew that her positions on gender roles differ from my own. In a nutshell, I believe that the New Testament teaches a complementarian position, while Evans describes herself as egalitarian. For definitions of these terms, you can read my previous post, “Evangelicalism’s Gender War.” 

The book has generated a level of controversy out of proportion with its actual content, as is usually the case with projects like this. Some of the controversy was apparently generated by Evans herself, when her publisher suggested she remove one or two anatomical references in order to make the book more palatable to Christian bookstores. Much of the controversy, however, was stirred up by reviewers who felt that Evans was misrepresenting, and even disrespecting, the complementarian viewpoint.

Despite my disagreement with much of what Evans has written, however, I also found portions of the book with which I agreed, and one or two ideas that challenged my thinking a bit. I’ll explain below why I find her presentation of egalitarianism flawed and unpersuasive. Before I do, though, I want to summarize the book and highlight a bit of what I appreciated about it.

The book revolves around the question, “What constitutes ‘biblical womanhood’?” To explore the subject, Evans decided to take one year of her life and actively seek to obey the various commands and models given in Scripture relating to women. She focused on a different aspect of “biblical womanhood” each month. For example, in October she tried to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit,” in keeping with Peter’s admonition to women in 1 Peter 3:4. Some of the other monthly topics included modesty, purity, fertility (no, she didn’t have a baby!), and submission.

The best part of this book was the way in which Evans highlighted how some of our modern perceptions regarding gender are entirely rooted in our own culture. For example, are all women required by the Bible to learn how to cook, or is that merely a cultural presupposition? Is raising children necessary in order to be a godly woman, and if so, what do we say to those who remain unmarried or involuntarily childless? I found her questions refreshing, even though I often disagreed with her conclusions.

In some cases, Evans effectively questions long-held interpretations of passages about women. The best example of this is her discussion of the well-known Proverbs 31. Is Proverbs 31 a prescriptive text, meant to describe in detail how all wives ought to act, or is it a descriptive ideal, meant to highlight to men that the very fabric of society depends upon skilled and valorous women? Her discussion reminded me that we evangelicals need to be careful in the way we apply ancient texts. It’s quite easy to import our own cultural baggage to the Scripture.

Let’s move on, then, to the aspects of this book that troubled me, and even angered me at times. 

First, Evans’ tone is sometimes disrespectful and flippant toward those with whom she disagrees. For example, when she describes her own evangelical background, she identifies evangelicals as people who are obsessed with the idea that everybody else is going to hell. She says she is “no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell,” but that she still sees evangelicalism as her “religious mother tongue.” She hardly seems to notice that she has egregiously misrepresented most evangelicals. In the same context, she manages to compliment her own parents while skewering the religious tradition that nurtured her.

I wish I could say this is the only time Evans caricatures the opposite position into something completely unrecognizable, but she does it throughout the book. It always frustrates and angers me when an individual who feels she has outgrown her own tradition then feels the need to insult and degrade that same tradition. It’s one thing to disagree, and another to barbecue one’s spiritual forebears.

This leads to my second critique, which is that Evans fails to seriously interact with the complementarian view she attempts to discredit. It’s easy to spout off chauvinistic statements from Mark Driscoll and lead one’s readers to believe that his remarks represent the complementarian viewpoint. But doing so does not respect those complementarians who have spent a great deal of time and energy genuinely trying to understand what the Bible says about gender roles.

In addition, although her biblical exploration of womanhood is interesting, it bears little relevance to the debate over gender roles at church and at home. Most complementarians aren’t advocating that women sleep outside in a tent during that time of the month, or bear unlimited children, or dress like an Amish woman for the sake of modesty. As interesting as those experiments are, they are truly beside the point she’s hoping to make. In her attempt to subtly poke fun at the concept of “biblical womanhood,” Evans undermines her entire project with an array of red herrings.

The biggest problem with the book, however, relates to how Evans interprets the Scripture itself. First Evans acknowledges correctly that we all bring presuppositions to the biblical text. To some extent, we “find what we are looking for.” Every responsible exegete understands that total objectivity is impossible. However, the task of biblical interpretation involves attempting to remove as many barriers to correct interpretation as possible. We study Greek and Hebrew, examine cultural backgrounds, read the context carefully, and (most importantly) interact with other believers as we try to understand God’s Word.

However, Evans seems to throw up her hands in despair, giving up on the idea of even a partially objective interpretation of the biblical text. After stating that we often find in the text whatever we are looking for, she then says that she came to the text looking for “permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.” In other words, she approached the text determined that it would say what she hoped it would say. From the start, then, the game was rigged. That’s a fatal flaw to the premise that this was a meaningful exploration of the Bible’s ideals regarding women.

I think Evans’ hermeneutic damages the way she interprets specific texts. For example, in addressing the texts that speak to wifely submission (Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-6; Col 3:18), she rightly points out that the surrounding contexts also deal with slavery. Her point is that we no longer enforce slavery, because we recognize a progressive ethic in the Scripture leading us to abandon archaic and sinful structures like that. In other words, Jesus and His apostles, while instructing people how to live in the culture of their day, nonetheless subversively advocate the dissolution of those cultural norms. It’s obvious that the ultimate desirable ethic is found in Christ’s final kingdom, in which there will be no teachers, no marriage, and no slavery.

Her problem, of course, is that Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 also command children to be obedient to their parents. The big question, then, is this: If slavery is no longer the ideal, and wifely submission is obsolete, then should we do away with the obedience of children as well? If not, then why not? Is it simply because children are immature, and if so, how do we defend that position from the text? Could it be that there is a basic structure imposed upon the home and the Church in order to create order and peace, so that everybody is able to effectively serve the Lord? Perhaps the structure has nothing to do with one’s actual inferiority or superiority in an ontological sense, but instead has everything to do with each person’s proper role as God has defined it. That role might be rooted in basic affinities and abilities, but it might simply be an expression of the fact that God is asking us to submit to earthly authorities.

As much as Evans researched the status of women in the ancient context, she seems to have completely avoided doing the same regarding the status of ancient slaves. Perhaps there are reasons why the apostle Paul, in good conscience, could command slaves to submit to their masters. Perhaps, just as wifely submission has its limits, Paul knew that submission to one’s master did as well. (A case in point, of course, is the book of Philemon). Paul could be making the general case that we are to submit to all earthly authorities. Whether those authorities are just or unjust is not the primary concern in this context. Evans has also neglected to point out that Ephesians 5 contains an extended discussion of why wives are called to submit to their husbands, and relates the issue to Christ and the church. The same cannot be said for the relationship between slaves and masters. Paul seems to expand the household codes when it comes to marriage, while remaining rather terse when it comes to slaves. Those are significant points, but Evans doesn’t even attempt to address them.

I could not escape the conclusion, frankly, that Evans is deeply uncomfortable with the concept of authority, per se. She makes the blanket statement that passages like Galatians 3:28 abolish any earthly hierarchies. Yet Paul himself does not seem to believe such a thing when he consistently tells people to submit to authority. Is it possible that Galatians 3:28 is a description of our equality before God in Jesus Christ, rather than an abolishment of any sort of distinct roles or authority levels in His kingdom? I tend to answer that affirmatively.

In summary (as this is getting quite long), this book was a very mixed bag. Portions of it were delightful, amusing, and thought-provoking. Other parts of it were frustrating and misleading. On the whole, it was an interesting book that fell short of achieving its purpose. It’s clear that Evans is capable of the research and study it would take to produce a truly helpful discussion of gender roles. For that reason, I wish she had taken more time to understand those she criticized and attempt to answer them thoughtfully from the biblical text.

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Who’s in Charge Here?

Last Sunday I preached from Acts 12, an amusing and delightful passage about the relationship between Herod Agrippa and the early church.

Acts 12 highlights in vivid color how the goals of earthly rulers often (always?) are in conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. Agrippa was a man who desperately tried to control the world around him. He killed James and arrested Peter in an attempt to consolidate his own power. He was thwarted at every turn, however, because God’s plans continued to move forward in spite of Herod’s arrogant schemes.

Keep in mind that I prepared this message without knowing the outcome of yesterday’s election. The principles it contains are timeless.  So how should we think about earthly governments in light of Christ’s eternal kingdom?

First, recognize that there will always be conflict between the goals of worldly governments and the values of God’s kingdom. You and I might feel that one leader better represents God’s values than another, and we might be correct in our assessment. Nonetheless, no politician is a substitute for Jesus. Consider Herod for a moment: His basic goal was to establish his own authority in order to keep his position of leadership. That’s quite often the goal of political leaders. Even the best and most benevolent earthly leaders are simply imperfect representatives of King Jesus. If there is one idea that emerges from the history of Israel, it’s that no king is a substitute for the King.

When we forget that basic principle, we can easily begin to confuse the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of mankind. The consequence of that confusion is a failure to faithfully fulfill the mission we have been called to do, which is to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Mt 28:18-20). I’m not suggesting that we abstain from political involvement (see below), but instead that when we do participate, we do so as Kingdom representatives, determined to demonstrate Christ’s love and grace and justice and truth in every arena of our lives.

Second, don’t panic. I love the fact that Acts 12 tells us that Peter, on the night before his execution, was sleeping so soundly that an angel had to punch him in the ribs to wake him up. Why was Peter so calm? Because he knew that Herod wasn’t really in charge! Peter didn’t know he would be rescued, but he knew that whatever happened was part of God’s plan.

When we Christians panic about the outcome of an election, or angrily spew venom toward our political opponents, I think we demonstrate hearts that are a bit off center. We proclaim to those around us that we don’t trust God’s plan. As I study the book of Acts, I am convicted time and again by the response of the early Church to violent and wicked rulers. The Herods and the Caesars were much worse than either of our current political parties. Yet the apostles never seemed to respond in panic or fear. They simply preached the Gospel of grace, even to leaders who planned to have them killed.

Third, pray. In Acts 12, one little house church was quite startled to see Peter released from prison in response to their prayers. The passage vividly illustrates both the power of prayer, and the fact that we often doubt its power. Appealing to God is not the last resort of political losers. It’s the most effective means of participating in His work. Through prayer, we have the opportunity to see God change the hearts of sinners like you and me. God hears the prayers of His people, particularly when those prayers are earnest pleas for His kingdom to come (Matthew 6:9-13). So pray for our country, pray for our churches, pray for our leaders, and pray for yourself. Pray that you and I will be agents of His kingdom right now, as we wait for the eternal Kingdom to arrive.

Finally, participate in politics with the mindset of eternity. Just as we are called to represent Jesus in the classroom, the home, and the office, we can represent Him in politics. We can speak and vote and participate in a way that shows those around us where our allegiance is found. I think the manner in which we participate is as important as the positions we take. There are ways to speak the truth passionately without insulting or demeaning other people who are made in God’s image. In the final analysis, we hope and pray that men and women will come to know our Savior and be a part of the Kingdom that never ends and will never be voted out. Our primary goal, then, is not to align with a particular politician, but instead to represent Jesus in the political sphere (and every other sphere, for that matter).

I would love to hear your perspective, as well — as long as you keep it civil. What are your thoughts on the relationship we Christians ought to have with politics?

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Falling on Grace

I’ve been thinking for a while about renaming my blog. The old title, Ministry Musings, no longer describes my blog’s purpose and content as well as I would like.

As I considered new names, one theme kept coming back to me. My hope and prayer for this tiny corner of the web is that it confronts men and women with the grace of God, and constantly reminds us that we are sinners in need of a Savior. I work and minister at Grace Bible Church because I strongly believe that God’s grace is the only hope for this broken world. In other words, the name of our church is reflective of our theology — the Gospel is the message of God’s absolutely unmerited favor toward sinners like me. I want my life’s work to be the worldwide proclamation of that message.

The name, “Fall on Grace,” comes from a line in one of my favorite songs by the late Rich Mullins. The song is called, “If I Stand,” and here are some of the words:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that You will pull me through, 

And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You. 

If I sing, let me sing for the joy that has borne in me these songs, 

And if I weep, let it be as a man, who is longing for his home. 

Those words express the desires of my heart as I seek to walk with Jesus. As I’m growing older, and hopefully growing up a little bit, I’m increasingly aware of my utter inability to obey God apart from the power of His Spirit. I’m increasingly aware that I need God’s grace every day, as much as I needed it when I first believed. I fall frequently, but I pray that I fall on grace.

As I reflect on theological and biblical issues and wrestle with them on this blog, I hope you’ll see that theme emerge over and over again. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey to live out God’s grace in a graceless world, and I pray that in some small way my writings will encourage you on that path.

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