The other day, one of my sons asked if I liked a certain music artist he had heard about from a friend. “I like a few of his songs,” I told him. “A couple of them are beautiful, but some of his songs are not God-glorifying.” This spun off into a conversation with my two boys about music.
How do we help our teens discern whether or not a song is godly? As I told my boys, there are many helpful questions we can ask (thank you, Bob Kauflin!), but one way we can determine if a song is God-honoring is to ask: “How does this song make me feel?” I know, I know, it sounds like I’m throwing open the doors to whatever music we “feel” like listening to. But hang with me for a moment.
God gave us feelings to motivate us. Emotions move us to action. We feel happy and so we laugh, we feel righteous anger and we defend, we feel compassion and we help. And music? Music stirs up the feelings that move us to action. This is the ultimate purpose for the gift of music: to stir up emotions that move us to God and godliness. We sing praises and play instruments, in order to excite feelings that move us toward God.
So if this is God’s purpose for music, then it is vitally important that we ask: “How does this song make me feel about God? How does this song make me feel about godliness? And how does this song make me feel about sin? Or, more broadly, think about the kind of music you like to listen to. Does the music on your playlist leave you more angry at others, or grateful for God’s goodness? Discontent with your life or desirous of doing good? Hating sin or loving righteousness?
How does your playlist make you feel? Better yet, does the music you listen to make you feel the way that God wants you to feel?
As I told my boys, a song may not contain any “bad words” but still be bad if it stirs up emotions that warm your heart toward sin. A song’s meaning may even be vague or the words enigmatic, but if it stirs up arrogant, selfish, or lustful desires, then it is ungodly. On the flip side, a song may not mention God or his Word, but the words and music together generate feelings of awe at his beauty and majesty in creation, shame for sin, or selfless love for others. This is a good song.
Like medicine through an IV, the music that flows through our children’s earbuds affects every part of them—including their emotions. And their feelings, in turn, influence how they act and think. If we are to be wise parents, we must not simply tell our children not to listen to ungodly music (although we must tell them that!). But along with biblical boundaries, we must also help them curate a music playlist that stirs up and promotes godly emotions.
Asking “How does this song make me feel?” doesn’t lower the standard, allowing a flood of ungodly music into our teens’ libraries. Rather, it raises the standard higher—for them and for us. Music that is pleasing to God is music that generates godly emotions.
Envy isn’t just a kid problem, but kids haven’t gotten good at hiding it yet—which gives us as parents the opportunity to help them see and overcome its tenacious grip. How can we help our kids overcome envy? Three simple ideas.
1. Talk to your children about envy. Talk to them when they are tempted, and before they are tempted to envy. First, explain what envy is. Envy not only wants what someone else has (“Why can’t I have an iPhone too?!”) it resents the other person for having it (“I just don’t like her.”).
Then, starting with the 10th of the 10 commandments, and moving through Scripture (a simple keyword search will get you started), talk about what God thinks about envy (Hint: it’s pretty bad). Show them how envy is what Jonathan Edwards once called “the most foolish kind of self-injury” because it only makes the envier miserable. Take them through John 21 and talk to them about Jesus’s antidote for envy.
2. Help your children repent of envy. If our child has given into the sin of envy, help them pinpoint the who, where, and why. Lead them through a specific prayer of repentance. Remind them of the forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross, and the Holy Spirit’s power to help them change. Encourage your child that God is graciously revealing this sin now as a sign of his mercy and goodness. If they can learn to turn away from envy at a young age, they can be spared years of unhappiness.
3. Give your children a plan for overcoming envy.
1. Spot envy. Help them to recognize the feelings of envy, and what they mean. Emotions of envy are like an alarm that tells us there’s a sinful fire in our hearts, and we need to put it out now.
2. Stop comparing. Comparison is envy’s bread and butter. No comparing, and envy starves and dies. So teach your child to stop looking at others and thinking about what she has or what she looks like or what she gets to do.
3. Start thanking. Envy dies in a thankful soul. Help your child make a list of God’s many good gifts, and then help them add to that list. Have them save their “thankful list” and pull it out whenever they are tempted to compare or envy. For every envious thought about what they don’t have, teach them to pray and thank God for what they do have.
Envy is an emotion that is fed by a habit—a habit of comparison. When we help our children, at a young age, to look up in gratitude instead of sideways in comparison, we can protect them from envy.
Much more needs to be said about applying the gospel, God’s sovereignty, the doctrine of sin, personal holiness, forgiveness, and reconciliation etc. to a conflict between Christians. For further study, I recommend starting with Charity and its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards.
I want to wrap up by touching on a few practical issues related to forgiveness: issues that are seldom addressed and yet are troublesome to our emotions.
Christians can be pretty fuzzy about forgiveness, which makes this point from John Piper particularly important:
“[F]orgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person. In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.”
What do we do when there is no repentance to respond to? Or how do we respond when someone talks and acts as if they have not sinned against us? Do expressions of affection from someone who has betrayed us mean we should all go back to the way things were? In this post, I’m considering these questions in light of sins by another Christian such as slander, hostility, cheating, stealing, lying, or deceit.
Given our fuzziness on forgiveness, we need to press in and better understand what Scripture says about forgiveness and friendship, and also what it does not say.
If we are to live at peace with all men so far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18), we have to understand exactly how far it depends on us. Our question must not be: What do other people expect from me?Rather, we must ask: What does God require of me?
Answering this question brings clarity. It helps us to move forward with a clear conscience, even if we are swimming against a current of expectations from others; and it clears up a lot of the confusion that follows in the wake of broken relationships.
1.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must agree.
Nowhere does Scripture require us to agree in order to resolve a conflict with another Christian. We are to love them. We are to refrain from retaliation. We are to pray for them. But we are not required to agree with them.
In fact, we must not agree if agreeing means violating a biblical conviction. To hold your ground on a moral or ethical issue is not unkind, unforgiving, or stubborn, but right. It is not un-Christian, but uniquely Christian.
Even if well-meaning people encourage us to agree for the sake of unity, we must graciously resist that pressure when biblical issues are at stake.
Charles Spurgeon humorously put it this way: “I have known good men with whom I shall never be thoroughly at home until we meet in heaven: at least, we shall agree best on earth when they go their way and I go mine.”
2.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must trust.
“You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you” insists John Piper. This is not rude or unforgiving. It is wise.
If a person has betrayed you and shown a disregard for the truth or for your reputation, you are not obligated to trust them again, even if they ask for your forgiveness.
Sometimes as Christians we experience false guilt on this point. When someone asks for our forgiveness or acts like nothing has happened, we may feel like we are withholding forgiveness by not trusting them again. One insightful pastor explains:
There is confusion between forgiveness and restoration….To explain: If a friend seriously betrays me, I am mandated as a Christian to forgive him if he asks for it. But I think I would be foolish to restore him to a position of trust. I often drew the analogy with babysitting—if someone babysat my kids but neglected them, I should forgive them if they repent; but it would be delinquent to let them babysit again.
It would be unwise to trust an individual who, through lying or slander, has violated our trust. We must be cautious and careful in how we relate to that person in the future.
If someone has betrayed our trust, they must re-earn it, proving over time the genuineness of their sorrow and the fruit of repentance in the form of godly character. This is possible, by the grace of God, and I have witnessed, as you may have as well, the sweet restoration of trust that can flow from repentance.
But a glossing over of the issue, a half-hearted apology, or an expectation of immediate restoration does not obligate us to trust someone, unless or until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
3.Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must remain close.
Sentimentality muddies the waters of forgiveness. A longing for “the way things were” is not a reliable guide for friendships. A close friendship in the past does not obligate us to remain close.
Friendship is a significant category in Scripture, and we must hold it in high regard. If we pretend that certain sins don’t have a devastating effect on a relationship, we deny what Scripture says about the meaning of friendship: trust, loyalty, honor, truthfulness, constancy, and sacrificial love.
True closeness is only possible under these conditions.
If someone betrays us but fails to acknowledge that sin or make restitution, then to relate to them as if nothing has happened would be to undermine the meaning of biblical friendship.
But if a person realizes their sin, asks your forgiveness, and proves their trustworthiness, your relationship may be restored; you may even be closer than ever before. However, we are under no biblical obligation to be close again. We have not fallen short of forgiveness or failed to honor God if we graciously go our separate ways.
It may be that we now find ourselves in a different place or situation than before. God, who brings good out of every trial, may have used this broken relationship to move us into new areas of service and caused new, godly, friendships to blossom.
We must recognize these as blessings from God and move forward to serve him in the new ways to which he has called us. God does not expect us to maintain the same level of closeness with every Christian for the rest of our lives.
4. Forgiveness does mean we trust God.
Finally, as we try to carefully pick our way through the rubble of a broken relationship, we must leave the remaining confusion and questions in the hands of our loving, heavenly Father. Take this wise counsel from Dr. Cotton Mather:
It may not be amiss for you to have two heaps: a heap of Unintelligibles, and a heap of Incurables. Every now and then you will meet with something or other that may pretty much distress your thoughts, but the shortest way with the vexations will be, to throw them into the heap they belong to, and be no more distressed about them.
You will meet with some unaccountable and incomprehensible things, particularly in the conduct of many people. Throw them into your heap of Unintelligibles; leave them there. Trouble your mind no further; hope the best or think no more about them.
You will meet with some [unpersuadable] people; no counsel, no reason will do anything upon the obstinates: Throw them into the heap of Incurables. Leave them there. And go on to do as well as you can, what you have to do. Let not the crooked things that can’t be made straight encumber you.
And remember, above all, that God is good and wise as he rules over every aspect of your situation. I leave you with these encouraging words from John Piper:
God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up. He is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ.
“The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.” Ps. 37:39
“How do we raise our children in this world of beauty gone bad?” This question—in the appendix of Mom and Nicole’s book, True Beauty—is on the forefront of my mind these days as my three daughters are getting older. Two simple ideas have been guiding my approach of late.
First, I’ve been considering my own childhood experience. My mom—following the counsel and example of her own mom—was careful to minimize excessive focus on my appearance at a young age. It will come in its own in time, my grandma would tell her. No need to rush. In my case, I was so unconcerned about my personal appearance, that even when I had reached my mid-teens, “it” still hadn’t come.
My sisters (four and five years older than me) love to tell the story about how they finally went to my mom and asked if Janelle could maybe start brushing her hair occasionally. They had to appear in public with me after all. I’m happy to report that I now daily brush my hair and even wear make-up. “It” finally came! But looking back, I see how the lack of focus on my outward appearance when I was young was a means of protection in my life. I have found my struggle with worldly beauty standards to be minimal, and I know that is in part due to my mom’s wisdom in allowing me to be “young” and not hurrying my transition into adulthood.
Secondly, I was provoked by a conversation with a friend a couple years ago. After having four boys she became pregnant with a little girl. My friend was finally getting to design that girly-girl nursery and wanted to have a quote from True Beauty featured in her daughter’s room: “True beauty is to behold and reflect the beauty of God.” She wanted her daughter to grow up with a daily reminder of the true definition of beauty. Such a simple idea, yet the potential effect is immeasurable. I followed her example, hanging the same words on my daughters’ walls. My youngest can’t even read yet, but as soon as she can, I want thoughts of the Savior’s beauty to fill her mind each day.
Never has the world around us made it more difficult to raise daughters with a biblical understanding of beauty. But God has not called us to a hopeless task, and I encourage every mom (of girls and boys) to read True Beauty and spend careful time considering the appendix, “True Beauty and Our Children.”
“The beauty of grace that overwhelmed our own hearts through the gospel of Jesus Christ has lost none of its power. Our Savior can do for our children as he did for us. Grace makes true beauty irresistible. So we pray with hope in God to open the eyes of the hearts of our children to the dazzling beauty of Jesus Christ.” ~Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre
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.
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?
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.