You know when you find something new, and you enjoy it so much that you want everybody else to know about it? Well, that’s happened to me. I recently received a book: A Spectacle of Glory by Joni Eareckson Tada and I want you all to know about it. It is a daily devotional book. You know the ones: a short reading for each calendar day. Somehow over the years, I have accumulated a bunch of these devotional books, but this particular one has become a favorite. I have been reading it every day at the end of my Bible study and prayer time. What a sweet addition to my devotions it has become!
Joni’s devotional book includes insight from one verse concluding with a short prayer for every day. Let me give you just one example to whet your appetite:
April 19/Psalm 107:27-28
Today’s Scripture reads, “They were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.” The expression “at their wits’ end” has been around a long time and is still in use today. It’s that point in life where you run into a massive obstacle or paint yourself into an impossible corner and have no idea what to do. The psalmist, however, gives us a snapshot of people who cried out to the Lord a their wits’ end—and He brought them out! What has brought you to your wits’ end? A family situation? Financial trouble? A health scare? A rebellious child? Here’s the good news: We might come to our wits’ end, but God never does. We might be out of answers, but God has answers. The solution is simple: Cry out to the Lord.
How unspeakably wonderful, God, to remember that Your wisdom has no limit. There is no knot on earth so tangled that You can’t untie it. There is no situation in life too involved, too complicated, or too baffling for You. When I’ve exhausted my last option, when I finally arrive at my wits’ end, You are able to bring me out.
There are 364 more gems, just like this one! Joni writes like she is sitting across from you, sharing—with all her contagious enthusiasm—the hope and comfort she herself has received from God’s Word. We could all do with a “Daily Dose of Joni” in our lives, spurring us on in our love for the Savior! I hope you will pick this book up and add it to your summer devotions.
When my mom graduated from high school, she had a plan. She was going to Bible college. She resigned her job as a secretary for a Christian ministry, enrolled in school, and packed her bags. Then a few days before she was set to move, she met my dad. It was love at first sight.
Mom never made it to Bible college. She got her old job back and a few months later married my dad. On May 17 of this year, they celebrated forty-two years of marriage and they are more in love than ever. Needless to say, her life didn’t go as planned.
What are your plans after graduation? Whether you have a five and ten-year plan or feel in a fog about the next step, there’s something about life you need to understand:
Life is unpredictable, and that’s on the best days.
If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it is that this is an uncertain world. Your life won’t go as planned. Sometimes the unexpected is exciting—like when my mom met my dad—but it can also be discouraging and bewildering at times.
We find a mini-commencement speech of sorts on this topic in Ecclesiastes chapter eleven. It contains valuable wisdom for graduates and everyone considering their future plans. Four times in six verses we find some variation on the phrase “you do not know.” Basically, there is a whole lot you don’t know about your life.
“You know not what disaster may happen on earth…” (v. 2) Another terrorist bombing. Another tornado season. You do not know what disaster, near or far, may change the course of your future.
“You do not know the work of God who makes everything…” (v. 5) You cannot explain God’s providence in your life so far or predict what he may call you to do in the future.
“You do not know which [effort] will prosper…” (v. 6)The economy is unpredictable. People and trends are unpredictable. You cannot know for sure what path will lead to the most success.
Life will surprise you, and not always in a good way. It’s uncertain and unpredictable.
Not only that, the only thing we can predict in this uncertain world is that it will be hard: “So if a person lives many years…let him remember that the days of darkness will be many” (v. 8).
In other words, Graduating Class of 2017, you don’t know what will happen with your life; but there’s one thing you can know one thing for sure: you will have many bad days.
Hardly the inspiring message you were hoping for, I know. But Ecclesiastes doesn’t just give us the bad news, it tells us how to live well in an uncertain world. When we face up to the unsettling reality that life doesn’t go as planned, we learn from Ecclesiastes how to make new and better plans.
How do we make good decisions in uncertain times? Ecclesiastes gives us three ways.
1. Be an Entrepreneur
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (v. 6).
Young people often spend a lot of time worrying about their life. They hesitate to commit to one direction or another. They worry about finding the will of God. They flounder.
But Ecclesiastes would tell you that the surest way to succeed in an uncertain world is to get to work. Work as hard as you can at whatever work God has put right in front of you. And you never know, it just might work.
Instead of “thinking of may-be’s and might-have-beens…our business is to grapple with what actually is, and what lies within reach,” advises Derek Kidner. “Few great enterprises waited for ideal conditions; no more should we.”
Coming to grips with uncertainty frees us to take risks for Christ. These words from Phil Ryken make an outstanding mission statement:
“It may be true that, to paraphrase this passage, ‘you never know,’ but it is equally true that ‘you will never reap if you never sow.’ So work hard for the kingdom of God. Live boldly and creatively. Try something new! Be a spiritual entrepreneur. Even if you are not completely sure what will work, try everything you can to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel. Work hard from morning till night, making the most of your time by offering God a full day’s work. Then leave the results to him, knowing that he will use your work in whatever way he sees fit.”
Be a spiritual entrepreneur. Work hard from morning until night. Try everything to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel. In an uncertain world, this is the certain path to a useful life.
2. Give Your Life Away
“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth” (v. 2).
Trying to control our lives or predict the future makes us stingy. We won’t spend time on a “hopeless case.” We won’t serve the ungrateful. We won’t stay in that small church. We won’t volunteer for children’s ministry or the cleaning crew. We won’t give our all to a boring job.
But the woman who understands life’s volatility gives generously, almost recklessly, of her time, her love, and her service to others. She seeks out the lowly and the outcast. She listens patiently to the troubled. She serves in secret, and has what Zach Eswine calls “the stamina to go unnoticed.” Because who knows what may happen tomorrow?
[T]ime and chance can overturn our finest plans. If that can be a paralyzing thought, it can also be a spur to action: for if there are risks in everything, it is better to fail in launching out than in hugging one’s resources to oneself. We already catch a breath of the New Testament blowing through the first two verses, a hint of our Lord’s favourite paradox that ‘he who loves his life loses it’, and that ‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’. ~Derek Kidner
Give of yourself to others and don’t count the cost. Lose your life. Lose it now and you won’t worry so much about losing it later. You won’t have a mid-life crisis or what I heard about the other day, a quarter life crisis (for real?). Don’t react to the uncertainty of life by hoarding your time and talents. You do not know what will happen tomorrow, so give your life away today.
3. Enjoy Today
“So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all” (v. 8).
If it’s true that you will have many dark days—and it is true—then Ecclesiastes tells you to rejoice today.
Sure, you may have troubles today. You may have fears about the future, trepidation about your new job, despair about difficult circumstances, frustration that you are not yet where you had hoped to be yet. But don’t let the specter of the dark days of the future rob you of the joy of today.
Enjoy this moment, the grace of graduation, for it is an astounding grace! Be grateful for the privilege of learning, revel in the godly relationships you have forged, laugh over the memories. Relish every moment of the graduation experience with gratitude in your heart to God.
We lose so many of the good moments of our lives trying to prevent the bad ones. When we know that they will come, no matter how hard we try to avoid them, we are free to give God thanks for the evidences of his grace today.
When we enjoy each day, one day at a time, we will look back and realize that we had a happy life. There may be many sorrows, and many dark days, but when we deliberately rejoice in God every day, we will find we are a happy person in the end.
A Stimulating Call
Life is unpredictable. My mom could not have guessed how her life would radically change one summer day in 1974. And neither can you know what tomorrow holds. So how do we respond to life’s unpredictability?
Derek Kidner drives the lesson home:
“The true response to uncertainty is redoubling of effort…It is a stimulating call, with no thought of faltering, yet no trace of bravado or irresponsibility. The very smallness of our knowledge and control, the very likelihood of hard times so frequently impressed on us throughout the book, become the reasons to bestir ourselves and show some spirit.”
Class of 2017: May you not falter or boast, but armed with the knowledge of how little you know, may you rise up, show some spirit, and make the most of your life for the glory of our risen Savior.
My grandma likes to tell about the time my dad, a little boy of five at the time, wandered away from the house and out onto a busy street. He most certainly would have been hit by a speeding motorist, had it not been for his dog. True to his herding instincts, this noble collie walked between the cars and my dad and kept my dad from straying into traffic until the police found him. My dad’s dog saved his life.
We might not think about it like this at first, but trouble and hardship are like Dad’s dog. They keep us from straying into the busy street of sin. We don’t always appreciate their life-saving presence in the moment. Trials feel to us like that collie might have felt to Dad: annoying at best, painful at worst. Trouble sticks so close, it shoves so hard. It keeps us from going where we want to go. At times, trials knock us to the ground. We long to be free from their troublesome presence.
But the Psalmist views his trials as a life-saver: “Before I was afflicted I went astray,” he confessed, “but now I keep your word” (Ps. 119:67). To hear the Psalmist tell it, he’s actually glad that he experienced affliction! Now no one—least of all the Psalmist—is saying that affliction is pleasant or we should enjoy pain or hardship. But in the mystery of God’s ways, we should see each and every trial as a blessing. Afflictions are divine herd-dogs, sent by our gracious heavenly Father to protect us and keep us from sin.
For one, trials protect us from pride. They keep us humble; they keep us needy and dependent on God. It’s hard to think too highly of yourself when you are brought low—and that’s a blessing. Affliction can also keep us from straying out into the shiny streets of worldliness. We realize something of our frailty and our mortality when we suffer. We get a glimpse of the emptiness of all this world has to offer, and so we don’t rush headlong into sinful pleasures. And trials, when we respond to them as gifts from God, can keep us from being callous others. We are more compassionate, more caring, more understanding because we know a little of what pain feels like. Each trial in our lives—big or small—protects us from sin and leads us back to God. And to joy.
Wait, did you say joy? We think of our trials as joy-takers, not joy-bringers. “Before I was afflicted I was happy, but now I am sad all the time” is how we put it. But there is a difference between trials being unpleasant—which they are—and trials robbing us of our joy. Our afflictions are sent by God to lead us joy. Listen to Joni Eareckson Tada, quadriplegic and in chronic pain since she was in a diving accident at age 17. “I’m grateful for my quadriplegia. It’s a bruising of a blessing. A gift wrapped in black. It’s the shadowy companion that walks with me daily, pulling and pushing me into the arms of my Savior. And that’s where the joy is.”
Trials not only keep us from sin, they push us back to the arms of our Savior. And that’s where the joy is. The Psalmist doesn’t just get back to the duty of God’s Word, now he delights to keep God’s Word. Now he has joy! One of the things we lose in our Stoic-slanted view of the Christian life is how to find joy. We think all the delight and happiness is out there, on the busy byways of sin. So we go wandering from home, we stray from Christ. And affliction, by the grace of God, brings us back. It keeps us safe. It leads us back to where the joy is.
So if you feel followed by that “shadowy companion” Affliction, if Trial is always nipping at your heels, if Trouble keeps shoving you to one side, give thanks for your “bruising of a blessing.” May your trouble, major or minor, push you into the arms of the Savior. May your affliction lead you back home—to joy.
2017 at 8:59 am | by Janelle Bradshaw
Summer was always my favorite season as a little girl, and I ran headlong into those glorious months free from school with all the energy I possessed. So now, as I come upon another summer as a mom with four children I’m equally excited. I’m also grateful for the example my mom set for me growing up. As with everything else in life, she approached our summers with great intentionality. Now don’t get me wrong—she provided many wonderful opportunities for fun and rest. I still remember our local pool which offered an hour of “free swim” every morning from 8-9 during the summer. Most days, my mom would drive us, and a carload of our friends, to swim in the ice cold waters of Upper County Pool. How we ever thought “freezing swim” was summer fun is a mystery to me, but Mom provided this and many other summer memories that I will always cherish.
But Mom also saw summer as a land of opportunity and refused to let us squander it. One specific memory I have is the afternoon of “quiet time” she required. After lunch from 1-3, we had to stay inside and spend at least an hour of that time reading. The other hour was to be spent in some other constructive pursuit such as art, music, cooking, sewing etc I still remember chafing against this rule, not exactly appreciating “quiet time,” as it interrupted my play time. Sorry about that Mom! But I was chatting with Nicole the other day about this very thing, and we were recounting all the good that came from that small requirement. Obviously, it instilled in us a love for reading but that was just the beginning. It also helped us to appreciate the value of structure and scheduling, of habit and discipline. It gave us focused time to cultivate our gifts and desires. Many of the things we love and pursue today such as art and writing were born in those hours of summer quiet. The benefit we have received helps us persevere in creating similar structures for our own children. So much value from such a small and simple practice.
And so, as school draws to a close, let’s ask: How can we be intentional this summer? Is there a skill that one of our children has been wanting to learn? Is there a particular character quality where we can creatively facilitate growth in our family? Maybe for you, this will be the “summer of kindness” for your kiddos, like it was for Nicole’s a couple years ago. Maybe you can create a structure for your kiddos to grow in reading, which happens to be my summer goal this year. This will look different for each of us, but just remember, a little bit of intentionality in these years has the power to effect not only your kids but even your future grandkids. That’s a summer to get excited about!
2017 at 9:40 am | by Nicole Whitacre
When my youngest daughter Sophie first came into our home at the age of three, she, like every toddler, wanted my constant attention. If I wasn’t looking at her, she would tug on my arm and repeat, “Mom, mom, mom.” I would turn around from the dishes or look up from my laptop and respond with an exclamatory “Look at you, Sophie! What a good job!” After a few weeks, Sophie picked up on the phonetics (if not the grammar) of my response and began to call out “Lookachoo, Mom! Lookachoo!” It took me a few times to realize that she wasn’t speaking in her native Amharic—she was saying my words back to me. She wanted me to “look at you.”
One of the most precious gifts we give our children is our attention. We watch their twirls in the kitchen, and we examine the new bug they found in the backyard. We look for signs of a sniffle, and we look both ways before we help them cross the street. We pay attention to their diet and their sleep and the neatness of their handwriting. We keep our focus through their long, rambling stories. We attend to their needs, and we keep an eye out for their temptations. We watch them crawl around the corner of the living room and down the hall; then, in the blink of an eye, we watch them back out of the driveway and down the street. According to legend, we even have eyes in the back of our head. From the moment our newborn (or our three-year-old) is placed in our arms, we begin a vigil that never ends. We moms are always on lookachoo duty.
Alas, we mothers are only human after all. We cannot watch our children every moment of every day. Our eyelids grow heavy. We must sleep when they sleep. And then we get distracted. We fail to listen. We miss so many moments. Or we get anxious, fretful with the care of these eternal souls. We grow weary with all the watching.
But as we watch over our children, our Heavenly Father is watching over us (Prov. 2:8). He does not grow weak or weary (Isa. 40:28). His attention doesn’t flicker or fade. As we attend to our children’s needs, we are constantly being attended to by God, who knows exactly what we need (Matt. 6:32). All of our motherly duties are carried out beneath the gracious umbrella of his attentive care (Ps. 34:15). Every story we listen to, every picture we praise, every sin we correct, we do under the watchful eye of our Heavenly Father.
JI Packer writes:
What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind….I know him because he first knew me and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is not a moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort—the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates—in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good.
We don’t have to cry “lookachoo” to get God’s attention. He’s already looking. He’s already caring. He already knows what we need. In fact, when we call out to him, it’s because he first prompts us to pray. If we are his children, in Christ, then there is not one single moment when our Heavenly Father’s eye is off of us. He is always watching over us for our good. Here, my fellow moms, is an unspeakable comfort. And energy! I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I want for Mother’s Day.
We all have limitations. A condition of limited ability; a defect or failing. Our particular limitations could be alack oftime, money, energy, ability, or experience; or the unwelcome constraints of life circumstances and obligations. Whatever our limitations, many of us may wish we could get rid of a few, if not all of them.
But let’s not forget: God is the one who lovingly limits us. The Bible gives us clear evidence that He controls every detail of our lives (Job 14:5, Jer. 10:23, Dan 4:34). In his wisdom, he determines what we can and cannot do. And we must be careful not to be so preoccupied with what we can’t do that we miss out on all that we can do to love, serve, and please Jesus.
In Mark 14, we read the story of one woman who did not let her limitations stop her from expressing her love for Jesus. The setting is a dinner party that was being held in Jesus’ honor, just a few days before his crucifixion. While Jesus was reclining at the table, a woman (John 12:3 identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus) approached him and poured very expensive perfume over his head. The disciples were indignant, viewing such an act as a complete waste of money. But Jesus ordered the disciples to leave her alone and commended Mary’s deed. Then he says of her: “She did what she could” (v.8).
Mary may have wished to do more for Jesus. But Mary didn’t allow her limited resources or abilities to hold her back. Instead, she did what she could. Whatever our God-given limitations, they do not hinder us from serving our Savior. In fact, our limitations are often the very means God uses to propel us into fruitful service. Consider Fanny Crosby. Blind from the age of six weeks, she became the author of more than 8000 hymns, many of which we sing today. Of her blindness, she said: “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
Fanny Crosby didn’t begrudge the limitation of her blindness but deemed it a gift that nourished and fostered her hymn writing. Perhaps Mary’s example played a part in shaping Fanny’s attitude toward her limitations, for on her tombstone she requested these words: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.”
Like Mary and Fanny, let’s do what we can to serve our Savior. Let’s regard each of our limitations as a gift—a special provision from God for fruitful service. All he asks of us is that we do what we can, by his grace. And when we do what we can, he has one more thing to say. It’s the same thing he said about Mary. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). Oh my, how marvelous is that? To think that when we simply do what we can, we are doing something beautiful to the One who did the most beautiful thing ever to us—dying on the cross for our sins! How can we not, with gratitude and joy, do what we can?
Whenever I attempt to decorate a room, create a centerpiece, or fill the planters on my front porch, I try to find a picture that I can replicate. I’m not one of those gifted women who can come up with a design idea on my own, so I benefit greatly from having a picture to copy. Although my finished product rarely looks as good as the picture (not even close sometimes!), at least it looks better than what I would have produced without a picture.
Did you know that God graciously gives moms (and dads) a picture to follow? In Psalm 144:12 we find a striking image of what our children should be like as they enter their young adult years: “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace.” Now granted, “plants” and “pillars” may not be the first images that pop into your mind when you think about the young girl with her mood swings or the boy whose clothes cover the floor of his room. So let’s a take a closer look at this photo to discover what we can learn.
Our Sons. They are to resemble a plant. This plant is not a seedling or slow growing. It is already full grown with deep roots. And because it is such a hardy plant it can withstand the heat, survive the cold and endure tough weather conditions. Here we have a picture of strength and endurance. Our sons are to grow early and quickly to maturity and be able brave the storms of life. In other words, young men are not to spend years in perpetual adolescence, but be fully grown in their youth. Obviously, a son needs a whole lot of his dad (or another godly man, if dad is not involved) for this project! But how does this picture influence my mothering?
For one, we should resist the urge to shelter our sons when they need to face their fears. We must refuse to coddle them when they need to be tough. We must allow them to take on difficult tasks, on their own, without our help or interference. In short, we should not be afraid to put our boys out in the elements. This doesn’t mean we throw them into the cesspool of culture, but rather that we train them to take steps of boldness, courage, and principled resistance.
Our Daughters. They are to be like a corner pillar. A corner pillar not only bears the weight of the palace but also joins the palace walls together. A corner pillar adorns the palace with beauty. This is a picture of strength and beauty. So instead of closing our eyes and gritting our teeth until the teen years are over, we must set about teaching our daughters how to be strong and beautiful.
For starters, our daughters should have strong character. They should be able to shoulder responsibilities and bear up under pressure and adversity. But they won’t grow strong by indulging their selfish desires, so now is the time to teach them sacrifice and self-denial. Our daughters should also be relationally strong. As the corner pillar, they should be people-connectors, drawing and holding people together. So instead of giving them free reign to hang out with whomever they want, we should encourage them to reach out to the lonely, include the new girl, and stay close to friends who provoke them to godliness. Finally, we need to teach our daughters the meaning of true beauty: to behold and reflect the beauty of God. A corner pillar not only holds up the building, but it also attracts the eye. And so we want our daughters to be beautiful from the inside out so that they might draw attention to God’s beauty.
Before any mom becomes daunted by the prospect of fulfilling such a picture, or perhaps discouraged that your older sons and daughters do not reflect this picture, let me focus your attention on this wonderful truth: This picture is more than a picture. It’s also a prayer.
We are not responsible—nor are we capable—of raising sons and daughters like this on our own. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). That’s why this verse is first and foremost a request to God that he would fashion our children to resemble this picture; that he would cause our children to become difference makers in the world for the sake of the gospel.
As J.C. Ryle reminded parents of the importance and effectiveness of parents’ prayers:
“Without the blessings of the Lord, your best endeavors will do no good. He has the hearts of all men in His hands, and except He touches the hearts of your children by His Spirit, you will weary yourself to no purpose. Water, therefore, the seed you sow on their minds with unceasing prayer. The Lord is far more willing to hear than we to pray; far more ready to give blessings than we to ask them;—but He loves to be entreated for them.”
So Moms, let’s make this our prayer: “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace.”
The greeting sections of New Testament epistles fire my curiosity. We are given tantalizing morsels of information, hardly the full back-story. But if we look at these verses like archeologists searching for clues, we can discover a surprising amount of truth for our edification and encouragement. Take Romans 16, for example. You can’t read this passage without appreciating the vital role that women played in the ministry of the early church. Nine of the twenty-four greetings are to women, and their efforts are hardly peripheral or tangential. These women are at the nerve center of ministry in the local church, playing a vital role in its mission to preach the gospel. Four women are particularly interesting, for Paul greets them each in the same way:
“Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (v. 6)
“Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa” (v. 12)
“Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord” (v. 12)
Imagine it. You gather for the regular assembly of God’s people, and at the conclusion of this soaring theological letter, Paul greets ‘lil old you? I wonder what these women felt when they heard their names read aloud. Did they realize that they were going to be immortalized in Holy Scripture? Here, at least, are two lessons we can learn from what Paul does and doesn’t tell us about these four women.
Our Work Matters More Than We Think
Most of the time, our work for the Lord seems unimportant and insignificant. Especially when it seems to produce so little in the way of measurable success. We’re called on to organize an outreach event, but it’s poorly attended. We give hours to counseling a woman who decides she wants to be mentored by someone else. We make yet another meal for yet another new mom, but it’s just what everyone expects us to do. And so we measure our service the way that we measure everything else—by results, or by how fulfilled it makes us feel, or by the gratitude we receive. And frankly, it’s discouraging.
But Paul doesn’t commend these women for reaching certain numbers goals, or for their successful organization of the largest church event in local church history, or even for the warm fuzzy feeling of fulfillment they derive from their efforts. That’s not how Paul measures gospel success. Here, at the end of his soaring theological treatise, he commends four ordinary women for one thing: working hard. The verb here implies “strenuous exertion.” These women spent all their energy to further the gospel mission. We don’t know how much or little these women accomplished in the way of “measurable” earthly results, but we do know that they were wildly successful. They received one of the greatest honors in human history: to be commended, by name, in the eternal Word of God. Now that’s worth working hard for!
So if you’ve felt discouraged of late; if you’ve started to wonder if your work in the church is a grand waste of time and talent—take heart. Whether or not others recognize your efforts, God does. He called out these four women, and he calls you out today. Be encouraged and don’t give up. Keep working hard for the Lord. Or, as the author to the Hebrews encourages us: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints as you still do” (6:10).
Our Work Matters Less than We Think
Often, it can seem like people only notice the women in the church who are gifted in public ways. The rest of us do our work quietly in the background, with little fanfare. But here in Romans 16, Paul not only draws attention to Phoebe and Prisca who were wealthy and influential but also to sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa who were former slaves, freedwomen. In an ironical side-note, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’s names mean “Dainty and Delicate.” You have to wonder if Paul smiled to himself as he wrote: “Greet those strenuous workers in the Lord, Dainty and Delicate.” The point is: nothing in our background, no physical or spiritual weakness, no lack of experience or gifting hinders us from working hard in for the Lord. We are all eligible for the commendation these women received. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” said Paul in another one of his letters, “and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). May the same be said of us.
But all too often we get caught up in what “our role” is in the church, whether or not we have a title or a position or, as we like to call it, “a place to serve.” We get locked in petty rivalries with other women, comparing and obsessing about who gets recognized or utilized more. Paul’s greetings graciously redirect our gaze to the right reasons for ministry. Like Mary, we should work hard “for you”—our work is to be out of love for the people of God. And like the sisters and “beloved Persis” our work is to be “in the Lord”— for the glory of our Savior. These women did not strive for position or honor, but they served their hearts out for the greatest cause in human history: the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so should we. Let us follow their example and remember that the cause we are working for is far more important than the kind of work we do for that cause. Let us be willing, eager in fact, to labor strenuously in a lowly position in the church.
It might be easy to skim the conclusion to the book of Romans, assuming that the important stuff got covered in the first fifteen chapters. But really, the book of Romans closes with a pressing question for each one of us: Are you working hard for the Lord? If Paul sent a letter to your church today, are you the kind of woman he would greet and thank? May we unhesitatingly seek the glory and honor these women were striving for, simply to be known as hard workers for the Lord.
When I prepare a message to speak (which I did this past month), I always create two documents. The one document is the message itself, and the other is the message “extras.” My “extras doc” is full of discarded sentences, points, quotes and ideas, and usually ends up much longer than the message itself.
One point from John 21—that ended up in extras because of time restraints—continues to affect me. It’s about failure.
We all know about the apostle Peter’s failure. While Jesus was enduring unimaginable torture leading up to his crucifixion, Peter, just a few yards away, was denying that he ever knew Jesus. Three times Peter denied his Lord. Then there is that vivid scene that Luke records (22:60-62): After Peter’s third denial, the rooster crowed, “and the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Can you imagine the agony, guilt, and shame that overwhelmed Peter when his eyes met his Lord’s? Peter “went out and wept bitterly.”
Fast forward to John 21. The resurrected Lord meets his disciples, including Peter, on the beach. They have been fishing all night, and they are tired, and in one of the most beautiful
scenes in Scripture, Jesus makes them breakfast. Then he turns to Peter.
Three times he asks Peter: “Do you love me?”—giving Peter the opportunity to make three public reaffirmations of his love and loyalty to the Lord, in place of his previous denials.
Three times he commissions Peter: “Feed my sheep.” Not only does he restore Peter, but he also commits his flock into Peter’s care.
Peter’s restoration and the renewal of his calling offer hope to all of us when we consider our grievous sins and failures. As John Stott put it, “No matter how desperate our failure, or how deep-seated our shame, he can forgive and renew us and then use us in his service. Failure is never final with God.”
Whether you live with regret because of a wife fail, a mom fail, or a friend fail. Whether you feel guilty because you compromised your gospel witness at school or work. Whether you feel shame because of sexual sin or because you had an abortion. Whatever sins and failures mark your past, remember: failure is never final with God.
First of all, if you have repented of your sins, you are forgiven. Completely forgiven! Even if the person you sinned against doesn’t forgive you, God does. Jesus Christ has taken the punishment for your sins. He received the wrath of God that you deserved. He suffered in your place. He took your guilt upon himself. You need not carry it around anymore! In fact, to do so is to deny the guilt-obliterating power of what Christ has accomplished for you.
Secondly, you are not finished yet. No matter what our past sins or failures, we are not useless or ruined for kingdom work. God not only forgives and renews us, but he also uses us for his good purposes. Jon Bloom writes: “Jesus is the great restorer of failures who repent…[He] specializes in transforming failures into rocks of strength for his church.” Peter is the prime example, but throughout church history up through this very day, God is still in the business of deploying forgiven sinners in kingdom work.
If failure is never final with God, then let it not be so with us. Let us repent. Let us ask God to restore us. Let us—a community of forgiven failures—devote our lives to serving our forgiving Savior.