Ten Reasons Christians Are Deconstructing Their Faith

I have been observing former students, classmates, and friends deconstructing their faith for years. I have been grieved, puzzled, and angered (at the Evil One) at the loss of once-professing brothers and sisters in Christ. By “deconstructing,” I mean they have turned against their former profession of faith and have denounced Christianity. Some of these can be rescued and some cannot (for reason #10). I will be unpacking each of these over the next ten Fridays. Comments, input, and corrections are welcome.

  1. They have experienced some hurt, trauma, or abuse at the hands of professing Christians, churches, and/or pastors.
  2. They have spent too much time reading, listening, watching, and talking to people espousing weak theology, heresy, and the hiss of the serpent asking, “Did God really say?”
  3. They have wittingly or unwittingly absorbed and adopted naturalistic, atheistic, and hedonistic assumptions and presuppositions and then critiqued the Bible in light of those. As a result they find the Bible objectionable, ludicrous, or repugnant.
  4. They have tired of the scorn, ridicule, and pressure of the unbelieving world, and find it easier to abandon the faith to just get along.
  5. They had deeply-felt expectations for life and what God would do, and when disappointed, could not bear the thought of worshiping the God they feel has let them down.
  6. They have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Bible’s revelation about the character and actions of God, and have come to believe that they are more moral than God, and now stand in condemnation of God’s character and his actions in the pages of Scripture.
  7. They grew up in legalistic churches and families where an abundance of man-made rules were added to the gospel and to God’s moral law. At some point they tired of these oppressive environments and could not separate true Christianity from the legalism, and so left the faith.
  8. They fed on liberal social justice and incipient Marxism, and found the Bible’s acceptance of inequality because of the curse of sin and the Bible’s call to suffering wanting according to their new belief system that salvation is deliverance from inequality.
  9. They simply no longer wished to be bound to the biblical ethic, most often related to the Bible’s clear restriction of sexual activity to one man and one woman in a monogamous covenant of marriage. They wanted to have sex and not feel guilty about it.
  10. They were never true believers to begin with. They are apostates who posed as Christians, very convincingly and for a long time. 1 John 2:19–22 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. [20] But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” (ESV)

Knowing the Sovereignty of God through Suffering, Part 2

See Part 1 here.

My comfort in suffering comes from the knowledge that God ordains my suffering for my eternal good and his glory. It is not enough to say that God allows my suffering. After all, why would God allow something if it wasn’t for the best. For God to allow something would imply that another force of equal or greater power was the actual cause of my suffering. That is clearly not the case. So, the all-wise God must be the prime cause of my suffering, and if He is all-loving and all-powerful, then He ordains it for my good and fully controls it. 

Some may ask, how is that comforting??? I am comforted by the truth of God’s all-wise and sovereign ordination of my suffering because I know that none of it is wasted, and I do not suffer one more second than God ordains. Every second of my suffering is precisely what God knows I need to grow in holiness. Romans 5:3-5 reminds us:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

The suffering we experience produces character in us when we endure it in a way that is surrendered to God’s will. This character has eternal value as we are made more like Christ through it. The priority of eternal glory over temporal comfort is a constant theme in the Apostle Paul’s writing. 

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)

The weight of glory. That is why the sovereign God ordains the suffering in our lives that he does. He is preparing us in this brief lifetime for eternity. He does not promise present comfort and ease. He is making sure that we are ready for an eternal glory that we cannot comprehend and that is too terrible to consider unless our hearts are transformed to long for it.

In his book, The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis writes of our weak desires for the paltry prizes of comfort and ease. 

Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

As Tim Keller has said, “If I knew what God knew I would do exactly in my life what he is doing presently.” That is a difficult truth to accept because many times we don’t see how the suffering we endure could possibly ever have a purpose. Like a child who must trust her father as he entrusts her to the hands of a surgeon, so we must trust our Father’s plan in the suffering he ordains. Resting in God’s sovereignty is the key to peace in the midst of suffering.

I conclude with the words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist pastor: 

“Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there. You are placed by God in the most suitable circumstances, and if you had the choosing of your lot, you would soon cry, ‘Lord, choose my inheritance for me, for by my self-will I am pierced through with many sorrows.’ Be content with such things as you have, since the Lord has ordered all things for your good.” 

Knowing the Sovereignty of God through Suffering, Part 1

“More bad news.” Throughout my nine-month ordeal with the brain tumor and lymphoma there were few positive developments. Even what we thought were positive developments turned out to be false hopes. My wife and I felt like we were slowly descending into an abyss. I felt like I was slipping down a steep slope to death, which lay at the bottom with its mouth open for me like a yawning chasm. I wanted to stop and get off the ride, but this wasn’t a ride, and I couldn’t stop anything. I had no control.

Control. That was the illusion I missed the most. I say “illusion,” because we should all be painfully aware that we have control over absolutely nothing in our lives. Zip, zilch, nada. Yet the illusion is so strong that it is almost irresistible. The consequences of maintaining that illusion are serious. 

We think that we can avoid difficulty by living wisely, eating healthy foods, and exercising; yet, even healthy people drop dead suddenly. We think that if we follow God’s directions for rearing children and we try to be the best parents possible that our children will never wander from God. We think that if we work diligently to be the best in our vocation we can protect ourselves from economic hardship; yet, something like the Coronavirus can turn the economy on its head in a matter of weeks, leaving us jobless.

The truth is we have no real control of our lives. Thankfully, that does not mean that no one is in control. Christians have always confessed that God is sovereign, that is as the Westminster Confession of faith says: 

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Simply, sovereignty means that God is in control of everything. Nothing happens outside his express decree. This has profound implications for suffering. Not a minute of my suffering is wasted, and I will not suffer a minute more than God decrees.

I will never forget the first time I experienced instantaneous relief from an occasion of suffering. It was a few years after my kidney transplant, and I had contracted a stomach virus. This was of great concern to my doctors since after the transplant I would have a suppressed immune system for the rest of my life. This made viruses especially dangerous because if they were left unchecked they could affect the health of my transplanted kidney.

I was lying in the emergency room with uncontrollable nausea, vomiting every fifteen minutes. This had been going on for hours. I begged the doctor to help me. He injected an anti-nausea drug into my IV and promised I would feel better in a matter of minutes. I was skeptical. About three minutes later my nausea stopped instantaneously. I was stunned by the immediate change. While we certainly want to credit the secondary means God uses, such as medicine, ultimately, we acknowledge that God is the one who controls our suffering.

This truth—the sovereignty of God—has been the single most important attribute of God to my wife and I as we have navigated serious health crises for more than a decade. This doctrine turns the typical argument against God on its head. The standard atheistic argument against God says that if there were an all-loving and all-powerful God there would be no evil or suffering in the world, and since evil and suffering do exist, there cannot exist an all-loving and all-powerful God. 

The problem with this argument, however, is that it assumes that God could not have a perfectly good reason for allowing the evil and suffering that exist. This argument assumes that if we cannot imagine a reason for the evil and suffering that exist, then there cannot be a good reason. It assumes that humans can have knowledge of all things, past, present, and future in order to render such a judgment on God.

Taking this position leaves us without hope, where evil and suffering are chance occurrences in a blind and deaf universe, with no meaning or purpose. Yet, all people, when they experience suffering and loss, instinctually cry out, “Why?” in either anger or grief. We know intuitively that the world is not as it should be. Yet, apart from the explanation provided in Scripture, we don’t know why.

This is why the sovereignty of God has been the single most important attribute of God to us. To know that God is in control of my suffering reassures me that it is not out of control or meaningless. I can find peace in the midst of pain and grief because I know God in his perfect wisdom is bringing about my eternal good through my trials. Nothing is wasted. Every ounce of pain is carefully administered by the hand of a loving God, just as every milligram of medicine is carefully dosed by my attentive doctors for my good. As John Newton wrote, “Everything is necessary that God sends our way; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.”

In Part 2 of this essay we explore how the sovereignty of God comforts us in suffering.

How the Trinity Helps Us in Our Suffering, Part 2

God can seem impersonal and heartless. Who has not begged God for relief, even if no more than for a few drops of water on a parched tongue, only to hear the silence of heaven? Maybe the deists are right. Maybe God wound up the clock of this world and walked away. Maybe no one answers because no one is there.

The Trinity reminds us that God is personal and loving and responsive by his very nature. Yahweh can no more become indifferent to your situation than he can deny himself, something we are told in Scripture he explicitly cannot do (2 Tim. 2:13). The Father is better than any earthly father in his attention and care. He is far more concerned about you and your suffering than the created world, which he upholds with the most delicate and detailed watchfulness (Matt. 6:25-30).

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?] Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

The Son understands your suffering and has experienced the greatest sorrow, suffering, betrayal, injustice, and pain that can be conceived. He knows fully what it is like to live in a sin-cursed world and has drunk deeply of the sorrows of this life for us (Heb. 4:15-16). 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

He knows what it is to fear for his life, as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. He felt the sharp sting of betrayal as Judas kissed him to identify to the soldiers which of the men in the Garden should be arrested. He suffered the infinite wrath of God against sin on our behalf, so we don’t have to. He does all this because of love. He does it for the joy of providing salvation to those who believe (Heb. 12:2).

The Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of believers as a comforter, as one who provides an internal witness to the truths of God so we can have assurance and not be swallowed up by fear. The Spirit is the engagement ring of the bride of Christ, the promise that very soon we will be united with God in a place of eternal bliss where He is the center. The Spirit is also the one who is sanctifying us, transforming us into the image of Christ by the renewal of our inner being. We can be comforted that not one moment of our suffering is wasted, but that every second of it is being used by the Spirit to shape us to be like our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Each person of the Trinity is fully God, yet they are distinct from one another. This is the great mystery of God. It is incomprehensible, in the sense that we can never fully understand how God can be one and three at the same time. Yet, the Scriptures teach this truth and we believe what God has revealed to the extent that we can grasp it. This shouldn’t surprise us. Since God is unlike anything in creation, we should not expect to find parallels in this world. God is divine and everything else is created. We should expect that an infinite God should be beyond our understanding. Yet, in his graciousness He has revealed much about himself so that we can know Him and relate to Him.

For the purposes of this series, the Trinity serves as the foundation of our faith in God. He is a personal God whose very nature is to love and give for the purpose of drawing us into fellowship with him. He desires to share the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father and the Spirit has for both the Father and Son, and that they have for Him. This is what our soul ultimately desires—restoration of the joyous fellowship with our loving Creator.

In the midst of suffering it is easy to imagine that our greatest need is relief from our pain. Our prayers often reflect this. “Lord, make this stop.” Such a prayer is understandable, yet it reveals a temptation to desire nothing more than a cessation of pain. Our real need, however, is God himself. Countless believers through the ages have suffered illnesses, injuries, and situations where the anguish would never end. Yet, in the midst of it, they found peace and comfort in the fellowship of God. Despite their circumstances remaining the same, the peace of God enabled them to endure with joy.May the truth of the triune, personal God of the Bible, Yahweh, comfort you in the midst of your suffering. May Father, Son, and Spirit minister peace to your body and soul that you can say, “His grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

How the Trinity Helps Us in Our Suffering, Part 1

You may be thinking, why start a series on knowing God through suffering with the most abstract and difficult doctrine known to Christians? Why not start with something simpler, like mercy or faithfulness? All in due time.

I start with the Trinity because who God is in his fullness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the starting point for all our understanding about God. If we skip who God is at the very essence of his being, we may get off on the wrong foot. But even more importantly, the triune nature of God in his three persons is a gold mine for understanding the riches of God and his reasons for allowing his creatures to suffer.

Christians worship one God, and it’s a good thing, too. In the religions of the ancient world, and in Hinduism today (and in some ways the system of saints in Roman Catholicism), you couldn’t just go to one source for all your problems. Each god had its own realm over which it exercised dominion. As a result, you had to offer sacrifices at the temple of the god connected to your problem. If you wanted to pray for your wife to get pregnant or your crops to succeed in the Canaanite religion, you would appeal to Baal. If you wanted healing in the Greco-Roman world, you would offer a clay replica of your diseased body part at the temple of Asclepius. None of the gods were sovereign over it all.

In Christianity, however, we have one God who is sovereign and absolute over all creation. He controls all that happens, from the expansion of the universe to the mutation of a gene. No matter what your source of suffering, whether it be an oppressive spouse, antagonistic boss, metastasized cancer, or crippling arthritis, the LORD, whose name is Yahweh, alone can help you. There are no lesser gods through whom you must go to get to the most powerful god. There is only the one true God who rules space and time.

On the other end of the spectrum is the god of Islam and the god of Judaism. Allah and the Jewish concept of God are what we call monistic gods. That is, there is no internal distinction within them. Both deny the persons of the godhead that Christians embrace. Why is this important? It is important because it means that inherently these gods are not relational. Before the world began to exist, these gods existed by themselves in relation to no one. They simply existed in a state of silent self-consciousness or were inactive substances. 

This impersonal nature shows in the vision of each religion when they address what happens to a follower when he dies or in the eternal state at the end of time. Judaism is diverse, so its vision of life at the end of time varies, but regardless the god of Judaism was in relationship with no one until he (or she) created. Similarly, in Islam the vision of the future includes a world of pleasure, but not one where followers enjoy a relationship with Allah, ever growing in their knowledge and delight of him.

Contrast this to Christianity. Before Yahweh created anything, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed outside of time in relationship to one another. The essential nature of this relationship was loving, giving, and knowing the other. In other words, the essence of God includes loving and enjoying another. God did not need to create the world to express love or have a relationship with another person; he already had that perfectly and infinitely within himself. Because the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is eternal and by its very nature personal and relational, the Scriptures can rightly say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Unlike the gods of other religions, God is personal at the very essence of who he is.

What does all this have to do with suffering?  In the midst of suffering God can seem far away. The immediacy of IV’s, ventilators, catheters, heart monitors, and medications can seem like the only reality. When you are constantly being stuck, injected, scanned, and stitched, the physical reality of your illness pushes God and his presence to the periphery of your sight. God seems unreal and the suffering of your body or heart seems like the only reality.

Alternately, God can seem impersonal and heartless. Who has not begged God for relief, even if no more than for a few drops of water on a parched tongue, only to hear the silence of heaven? Maybe the deists are right. Maybe God wound up the clock of this world and walked away. Maybe no one answers because no one is there.

This is where the truth of God’s triunity shows us God’s personal, merciful, healing care. To that we return in Part 2.

Knowing God through Suffering: Introduction, Part 2

If God has ordained my suffering, what can I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing about my circumstances, but I can do something about my heart. 

I only have three choices. First, I can cry out to God like the psalmists and cling to what I know to be true about God’s character and promises. I can, in great weakness and desperation cling to the sure and steadfast anchor (Heb. 6:19), the shepherd and overseer of my soul (1 Pet. 2:25) who has promised to never leave me or forsake me (Heb. 13:5).

Second, I can make the mistake of distorting the biblical picture of God into something more palatable. I can come to believe that God is not in control, that God does not will my suffering, and that he weeps with me in my agony, but cannot do anything about it. Those who choose this path often want to attribute suffering only to Satan, but certainly not to God. They may even come to believe that God only ever wills for his children to live in health and prosperity here and now, so that He could not possibly ever desire suffering, difficulty, or loss.

It is true that Satan can be an instrument of God to bring suffering (Job 1; Mark 1:13; 2 Cor. 12:7), but to attribute all suffering to him is to reduce God’s Lordship in the universe. So, God does not sit by helplessly as suffering happens, neither does he promise bliss and glory now. 

Third, I can grow bitter and ultimately reject God. This is actually an easier choice to make than the second one for some people. For those who cannot accept a diminished God or the false promises of the prosperity gospel, the realization that God controls their suffering is unbearable. They cannot see how their suffering could possibly be good. They cannot discern any justifiable reason for God allowing their circumstances. They surrender to the truth that God is control, but it does not lead to worship. Rather, it leads to resentment. This typically leads to an abandonment of the faith, at least for a while. The unfortunate thing is that such a response does not change the circumstances of their suffering. They continue to suffer as before, but now with no one to whom they can turn.

What is the solution for this dilemma? The solution lies in one of the purposes for suffering—to know God. That is, one of the reasons God ordains suffering in the life of his children is that we may be cast upon him in our desperation and come to know him more fully, richly, deeply, and truly. Paul connects suffering with knowing God when he says,

…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… (Philippians 3:10)

It was through sharing in the sufferings of Christ, enduring incredible trials, pain, loneliness, and betrayal, that Paul came to understand more deeply the love that Christ has for his people. When we endure suffering, great or small, and taste its bitterness, we are reminded that Jesus suffered the infinite wrath of God for us. We come to appreciate the incomprehensible price Jesus paid out of love to bring us into the grace of God.

All our suffering should draw us into a desire to know God more. This does not mean that we will gain answers for the “why” of our suffering. It does mean that as we know God more fully we can trust him and rest in him in the midst of the pain. We can, with Paul, glory in our weakness and suffering because through them we come to know the sustaining grace of God better and God’s power works in us mightily (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

This series is meant to draw you into a deeper, personal knowledge of God through your suffering. The more we know the truth of God, the more we can accurately and transformatively worship God (John 4:24). Theology is not meant to be merely academic but should lead to worship. After Paul contemplates the inscrutable acts of God in history, he bursts forth in praise:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)

The purpose of this series is to help you know the riches of the glory of God so you might worship him with an overflowing heart. Such worship in the midst of suffering is transformative. It moves us from a focus on our pain and circumstances to a focus on our glorious God who is greater than our pain and circumstances. It allows us to step out on the stormy waters with our eyes fixed on Jesus, rather than looking around at the storm and sinking beneath the waves. 

My prayer is that as you come to know God more fully, your suffering will be transformed. Whether your circumstances change any time soon or not, may you be changed by fixing your eyes on the one who has promised to never leave you nor forsake you.

Read Part 1.

Knowing God through Suffering: Introduction, Part 1

“So, this is it. This is how I’m going to die,” I thought as I kneeled over the toilet in my underwear, waves of pain slamming my stomach. For the sixth time in two weeks I was experiencing unbearable pain, caused by the lemon-size tumor in my small bowel. What I didn’t know was that it had almost completely blocked my intestine and that I would be in the hospital within the hour. It would be my first of four stays in the hospital, culminating two months later in emergency surgery to fix a perforated bowel.

All of this was happening in the middle of chemotherapy to treat the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had been diagnosed a few months before. And that followed the discovery of a brain tumor weeks prior to the cancer diagnosis. I felt for the first time like I understood completely what the Psalmist experienced when he cried out that God’s waves overwhelmed him (Ps. 88:7). It had been one blow after another and little did I know that it would continue this way for some time to come.

Like many believers who seek to grow mature in their faith, I knew that suffering is part of the Christian life. I knew through the study of the Scriptures that we should not be surprised when we encounter fiery trials, as though something foreign and improper were happening to us (1 Pet. 4:7). I knew through my studies in theology that the way of Christ and all his chosen servants in Scripture was “humiliation before exaltation.” I echoed Martin Luther’s rejection of a “theology of glory” that seeks trouble-free bliss and glory in this life. If the Bible taught a “theology of the cross,” with Jesus as our example, then I should not expect any different in this life as one of his disciples. I had heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous quote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” My hope for trouble-free bliss and glory should have been firmly rooted in my hope of eternal life with Christ, not in this short sojourn.

Yet, which of us hasn’t struggled with the same doubts about the worth of suffering loss now? Peter voiced the same wavering skepticism as I often feel: “Lord, what’s in it for us? Will it really be worth it?” (Mark 10:28-31). How often I have grappled with the thought that it will not be worth it, that nothing in eternity will be worth my pain and anguish now. And this internal agony devastates me. I know what I ought to believe, but the pain if it is not true, is too much to bear.

If God is not sovereign over my suffering, if he will not ensure that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for me an eternal weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor. 4:17), then my only recourse is despair. There is either an all-powerful, perfectly loving God who directs my suffering for my eternal good and his glory, or there is only chance in an unguided, meaningless world. In that case suffering is pointless and will bear no fruit that will make it worthwhile.

Suffering, then, puts a believer between a rock and a hard place. If you reject the idea of a godless universe, or one in which the gods are too weak to help, you must accept that your suffering is orchestrated by God, and that until God is finished with his project of transforming you, you can do nothing to escape his hand. This realization is felt keenly in several psalms where the psalmist attributes his troubles to God.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. (Psalm 42:7)

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)

For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. (Psalm 102:9-10)

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:75)

Nowhere is God’s control of an individual’s suffering more keenly felt than in Psalm 88, often called the psalm of the Dark Night of the Soul.

You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; (Psalm 88:6–8)

Photo by Emiliano Arano on Pexels.com

I am shut in so that I cannot escape. Hmmm. Ever feel that way? In the darkest moments of my trials with cancer and surgery, laying in the hospital bed during those long nights, unable to sleep because of pain, or alternately drifting in a nightmarish fog because of opioids, I felt profoundly trapped. Trapped by God. No way to run, like David in Psalm 139:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Psalm 139:7–12).

If God has ordained my suffering, what can I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing about my circumstances, but I can do something about my heart. We will look at that next time.

When Jesus Says, “Mind Your Own Beeswax”

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” How true. How often does our contentment vanish when we see (what we perceive to be) the superior condition of another person. We lack nothing until that catalog arrives in the mail, and suddenly we are awakened to all the items we are missing. We experience a heart of gratitude until the Instagram reel informs us that we are, in fact, deprived of something.

This principle can extend to the lot in life that God has ordained for us. In the last chapter of the Gospel of John we see Peter struggling with the different paths that Jesus laid out for him and John. Peter and Jesus are walking down the beach after Jesus has just asked Peter three times if he loved him. Jesus cryptically informs Peter that he will be martyred for his faith and exhorts him one more time to “Follow me.” 

Peter must have been troubled at the prospect. At the same time, he turns and sees John walking behind them. He then asks the question we all tend to ask when faced with a difficult future: will others share this fate with us, or will we walk that path alone? The wording in John 21:21 is interesting. Peter doesn’t ask, “What about John?” but “What about this man?” It is not as though Peter doesn’t know John; after all, they had fished together on the sea of Galilee long before they met Jesus.

Why “this man” and not “John?” Comparison tends to depersonalize. The one who is my brother or sister, with whom I ought to rejoice over their success, prosperity, and happiness becomes a rival—“that one.” We become like petty children consumed with sibling rivalry, sulking at our sister’s birthday party because she is getting all the presents. Our close kin become objects of resentment.

It is interesting that verse 20 refers to John as “the one who had been reclining at table close to him” right after Jesus gives Peter a chance to retract his threefold denial of Jesus with a threefold affirmation of his love. We could easily surmise that Peter the Denier is going to suffer martyrdom while John the Beloved will escape such a fate, and each will do so based on their faithlessness or faithfulness. Yet, there is no hint in the text that this is so. Their differing fates were the result of the good pleasure of God—“if it is my will.” 

When I was young it was common to tell nosey people to “mind your own beeswax” instead of “business.” I don’t know why, but it seemed cleverer. This is essentially what Jesus tells Peter. John’s fate was not Peter’s concern. Jesus was not bound to explain this any more than he was bound to be “fair” in how their lives panned out. Peter simply needed to obey the call of Jesus to follow him.

What motivated Peter’s question? We don’t know for sure, but it was probably more than simply curiosity. It could very well have been rooted in covetousness. Peter certainly wasn’t happy at Jesus’ prediction and perhaps wanted someone to share his misery. Perhaps he felt that if the Beloved Disciple was going to share his fate that it wouldn’t be so bad and he wouldn’t feel so singled out.

John Piper shares his own struggle with comparison. “That’s the way we sinners are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. There is some kind of high if we can just find someone less effective than we are. Ouch. To this day, I recall the little note posted by my Resident Assistant in Elliot Hall my senior year at Wheaton: “To love is to stop comparing.” What is that to you, Piper? Follow me.”[1]

“To love is to stop comparing.” Hmmm. Jesus has just asked Peter three times if Peter loves him. Yet, here Peter is, comparing his fate with John’s.

None of us like to suffer alone, and it is doubly vexing when you are suffering and others around you are living carefree lives. You can be drowning in difficult trials and overwhelmed with pain and grief, while all around you, others are enjoying the good things in life. It is difficult in times like that to not be overcome with envy. Nothing can be more disheartening than when you are denied the blithe sunshine and rainbows that others seem to experience in uninterrupted succession. After a while you feel singled out. You feel rooked, cheated, targeted. 

John Calvin said, “We have in Peter an instance of our curiosity, which is not only superfluous, but even hurtful, when we are drawn aside from our duty by looking at others; for it is almost natural to us to examine the way in which other people live, instead of examining our own, and to attempt to find in them idle excuses.[2]

And then you realize how entitlement and ingratitude have snuck into your heart. You have forgotten that God does not owe you the same life that he gives others. This is understandable. Suffering can wear you down and make you resentful if you are not careful. You can begin to think like Job who grew to view his suffering as a culpable oversight on God’s part (Job 23). Job, too, struggled not to resent those who were free from suffering.

This is not even a case of envying the wicked, as the Psalmist does in Psalm 73. This is simply wondering why God ordains suffering for some and not for others, or at least great suffering for some and minimal suffering for others. But Jesus’ words bring us up short: “What is that to you?”

In other words, stop focusing on what others have or get, and live faithfully in the path that God has laid out for you. Don’t worry about what others are doing or whether you feel you deserve what they receive, follow Christ faithfully in the life he has given you. Piper again: “Jesus’ blunt words—’None of your business, follow me’—are sweet to my ears. They are liberating from the depressing bondage of fatal comparing.”

This is difficult. This requires fixing our eyes on Jesus. This demands a heart with no attachments to comfort or possessions, but only one that desires to please Christ. This calls us to kill covetousness and refuse to desire what others have. This is taking up your cross and following Jesus. Jesus sets the example by fixing his eyes on the joy of accomplishing redemption (Heb. 12:2-3), not on the release of Barabbas or the injustice of his accusers. So who was Peter to lose his focus?

Calvin exhorts, “As there are various kinds of Christian warfare, let every man learn to keep his own station, and let us not make inquiries like busybodies about this or that person, when the heavenly Captain addresses each of us, to whose authority we ought to be so submissive as to forget everything else.[3]

So, are you struggling with the difference between your lot in life and someone else’s? First, remember all that God has done for you in cleansing you from sin (2 Pet. 1:9). Second, accept your path as specially chosen for you, and that it will be different than that of others. Embrace God’s will for your life and take to heart the admonition to refuse to concern yourself with what God lays out for others. This is tough love, but it is exactly what we need. Piper concludes: “O the liberty that comes when Jesus gets tough!”

[1] John Piper, “What Is That to You? You Follow Me! Freed from Comparing by Blunt Words”; https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-that-to-you-you-follow-me

[2] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Gospel according to John (Vol. 2, p. 296). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[3] Ibid.

My Top 10 Reads of 2020

2020 was perhaps the best year of reading I can remember since 1980 when I was fourteen and read twenty Louis L’Amour books and the Hobbit for the first time. Not all these books were released in 2020, but these were my favorites (in no particular order).

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig Carter (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018)

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of  Premodern Exegesis: Carter, Craig A.: 9780801098727: Amazon.com: Books

If I could beckon every one of my seminary classmates (and former students) to read a book in 2021, it would be this one. Carter’s book is an expose of how much the Enlightenment influenced the field of biblical interpretation over the last 150 years. In other words, many of our interpretations are more influenced by the modern scientific method than the history of faithful Christian interpretation of Scripture, as if no one got it right until the 1870’s.

“The inter-disciplinary practice of biblical studies as found in academic settings today is an agent of secularization in the church and needs to be reformed so that it becomes a servant of Christian theology and spirituality rather than a confusing amalgam of history, philology, archaeology, literary theory, sociological theory, and philosophy operating with unacknowledged metaphysical assumptions and without any material center.”

Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher (NY: Sentinel, 2020)

Live Not by Lies by Rod Dreher | Audiobook | Audible.com

Rod Dreher gives a blunt and eloquent description of the new fascists of the political left and their growing power. These elites are profoundly anti-Christian and militant, and they intend to take unprecedented control of society by force through technology. The second half of the book is a manual for Christians of how to survive in such an environment by drawing on the wisdom of those Eastern Bloc Christians who outlasted Communism in the 20th century. I have written a brief piece about this book here

“Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual , and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups…Further, these utopian progressives are constantly changing the standards of thought, speech, and behavior. You can never be sure when those in power will come after you as a villain for having said or done something that was perfectly fine the day before. And the consequences for violating the new taboos are extreme, including losing your livelihood and having your reputation ruined forever.”

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive  Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution: Trueman, Carl R., Dreher,  Rod: 9781433556333: Amazon.com: Books

This book is a roadmap through Enlightenment philosophy, art, and literature into a world where a person’s concept of himself becomes the center of the world. This book isn’t primarily about the sexual revolution but focuses on the way people have been steadily conceiving themselves as consisting of their desires. It is not an easy read, but essential to understanding how our world has come to the place where the statement, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is not only intelligible, but normal to most people. See my short essay on this book here.

“Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech also becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age by Josh Chatraw (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020)

Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age: Chatraw,  Josh: 0025986108632: Amazon.com: Books

This is the best apologetics book published in 2020. Chatraw explains that people are guided less by conscious worldviews than they are by narratives that provide them an identity and explanation for their experiences. As a result, an effective apologist needs to understand the narratives popular in the West and be able to counter them with the true narrative of the gospel. 

“Once viewed as a tool to win debates, apologetics is now becoming more focused on generating productive conversations that open doors for people to consider the gospel…Many apologists are emphasizing the need for Christians to become better listeners who seek to understand the person they are speaking with before making appeals. This enables us to meet people where they are and find points to affirm before finding points to challenge.”

Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything by Robert C. Reilly (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014)

Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing  Everything: Reilly, Robert R.: 9781621640868: Amazon.com: Books

I took more notes on this book than any other this year, and I could barely put it down. Reilly traces the rise of Rousseau’s views about human nature through the biological, legal and moral developments that led to the acceptance of homosexuality in the West. He exposes the stunning health hazard that homosexuality poses for those who practice the behaviors, as well as the march of the LGBT agenda through education, science, the Boy Scouts, and the military. This is one of the best three books available on the impact of homosexuality, and easily one of the most readable.

“Sex is so important that its misuse has become the principal means for dismantling our culture and political order…But if we want to replace God with our own definition of ourselves, we must lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, about what we are. We must seek ourselves independently of what we ought to be. If we succeed in this endeavor, we will make ourselves into monsters and oddities.”

The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat by Peter Jones (Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press, 2015)

The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity's Greatest Threat: Jones, Peter:  9781577996224: Amazon.com: Books

Peter Jones is one of the few experts on Eastern religion among conservative Reformed thinkers, and his ability to perceive all the ways it is infiltrating our culture is invaluable to the church. He contrasts the “One-ism” of the Eastern view that sees no distinction between God and creation with the Christian “Two-ism” of the Creator-Creature distinction. Jones traces the infiltration through psychologist Carl Jung (the primary influence on Jordan Peterson), through contemporary spirituality and the spiritual formation movement so popular among Christians today. He also sees Oneism in the new paganism, the LGBT movement, mindfulness, and progressive Christians, such as Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, and Ken Wilber.

“The death of God is not the victory of secular, atheistic humanism but the return of spiritual paganism; not the death of any notion of divinity, but the death of the specific transcendent God of biblical Twoism…At the death of God we will see the rebirth of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020)

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race,  Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody: Pluckrose, Helen,  Lindsay, James: 9781634312028: Amazon.com: Books

All I can say is, “wow!” Pluckrose and Lindsay, two humanist philosophers, explain as clearly as is possible, the confusing and twisted world of postmodern Critical Theory in all its varieties. They show the presuppositions and core values of everything from post-colonialism, queer theory, and Critical Race Theory to disability and fat studies, concluding with social justice scholarship. Even though their critique fails to provide a Christian solution, it exposes the underlying irrationality of Critical Theory in a way that equips Christians to dismantle it in all its forms. Not an easy read, but essential.

“Throughout postmodern Theory runs the overtly left-wing idea that oppressive power structures constrain humanity and are to be deplored. This results in an ethical imperative to deconstruct, challenge, problematize (find and exaggerate the problems within), and resist all ways of thinking that support oppressive structures of power…”

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity by Douglas Murray (NY: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019)

The Madness of Crowds eBook by Mr Douglas Murray - 9781635579994 | Rakuten  Kobo United States

Douglas Murray has found incredible success in recent years critiquing the insanity of applied postmodernism in the West, including his best-seller, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. In The Madness of Crowds Murray documents the insanity that has become embraced by a significant portion of the western world in regard to radical feminism, race, and the LGBT movement, especially the transgender community. He shows clearly that it has not been reasoned arguments that has won the day, but emotional and political pressure that has coerced mass capitulation to these agendas.

“Intersectionality is the invitation to spend the rest of our lives attempting to work out each and every identity and vulnerability claim in ourselves and others and then organize along whichever system of justice emerges from the perpetually moving hierarchy which we uncover. It is a system that is not just unworkable but dementing, making demands that are impossible towards ends that are unachievable.”

The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics by Robert A. J. Gagnon (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001)

The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics: Robert A. J.  Gagnon: 9780687022793: Amazon.com: Books

It has been twenty years since Robert Gagnon wrote the definitive book on what the Bible says about homosexual practice, but it took me until this year to read it. Even some of the foremost scholars supporting homosexuality admit that Gagnon’s book clearly shows in 500 pages that the Bible and early Judaism unmistakably condemn homosexuality. This volume is a tremendous resource for answering the avalanche of books and articles that claim the Bible is unclear on this issue.

“While antihomosexual violence deserves to be vigorously denounced, it does nobody any good to ignore the dangerous way in which isolated and relatively rare incidents of violence against homosexuals have been exploited to stifle freedom of speech and coerce societal endorsement of homosexual practice.”

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020)

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church: Diane  Langberg: 9781587434389: Amazon.com: Books

Although this book comes toward the end of this list, it is probably the most important book that Christians could read this year, especially pastors. Langberg is a certified expert on abuse, especially in the Christian community. Her book will unsettle many readers with the truth that abuse of power is quite common in the church. Langberg fearlessly exposes and rebukes the tendency for pastors and other leaders to exhibit blindness to abuses of power. The sad result is that many have suffered silently, as recourse is hard to come by when those in leadership are the problem.

“People with specialized knowledge can wield great power, speaking authoritatively and expecting what they say to be accepted because they “know.” Positions of authority confer power…Depending on my position and the way it is understood, I may use that power to justify many wrong things and overreach extensively, particularly if I’m a respected authority figure.”

The Appalachian Trail: A Biography by Philip D’Anieri (NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).

The Appalachian Trail: A Biography | HMH Books

I have loved the AT since my first hike on the Presidential Trail in the White Mountains when I was twelve years old with my best friend and our fathers. This iconic trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine holds many fascinating stories, from the hilarious hijinks of Bill Bryson, in his book, A Walk in the Woods, to the intriguing tales of through-hikers. D’Anieri’s book traces the history of the conception of the idea of the AT in the 19th century to its finalization as recently as the 1990’s. I couldn’t put this one down!

“Entering the wilderness was not just an unusual thing to do in early America—economically useless, physically dangerous—it was morally suspect as well. Popular thinking held that the farther away people traveled from Christian civilization, the more they opened their inner selves to the heathen nature of the dark woods. It made no sense at all to plunge into the wild on its own terms; there was nothing to gain, and everything to lose.”


Am I Just My Brain? By Sharon Dirckx (The Good Book Company, 2019)

Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey (Baker, 2018)

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller (Penguin, 2013)

“We Knew Mordor Was Real”: What It Takes for Christians to Survive under Totalitarianism

Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, includes many stories of Christians who survived life under the communist regime of the Soviet Union. One of those families, the Bendas, who lived in the Czech half of the communist Czechoslovakia, modeled Christian resistance through family unity, radical hospitality, and by placing a higher value on faithfulness than their own political freedom. 

One of the things the mother, Kamila Benda, did, in addition to her role of teaching at a nearby university, was to read to her six children several hours every day (yes, several hours!). One of their favorite books was J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, because, as she recounts, “we knew Mordor was real. We felt that their story”—that of the hobbits and others resisting the evil Sauron—“was our story too. Tolkien’s dragons are more realistic than a lot of things we have in this world.”

For those who are not familiar with the storyline of the Lord of the Rings, Mordor is the land of Sauron, the embodiment of evil trying to take over and dominate Middle Earth. Tolkien drew from the evil and destruction of communism and fascism to imagine a force that sought to bring everything into subjection to its control. In the novels, therefore, Mordor represents the enemy of dignity, freedom, and life. 

Live Not By Lies is a warning to the West and a call to Christians. It warns that many of the social and political trends in the West that increasingly curtail freedoms also happened under communism in the Soviet Union. Dreher interviews many older Eastern Europeans who are genuinely alarmed at the changes in America and Europe. More importantly, the book is a call to Christians to understand that individualism, big-box churches, and “my house is my castle” lifestyle will not sustain believers under totalitarianism.

We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who suffered under genuine oppression and persecution in the Soviet system, something I began to learn more than twenty years ago during my first teaching trip to Ukraine. To survive the persecution coming from increased surveillance, the LGBT+ lobby, intolerance, and secularism, we will have to change our way of life. We will need communities of Christians to share life together, strengthen one another, and perpetuate our faith to the next generation, as we stand in opposition to the ideology forced upon us.

The church can and will survive under any amount of pressure, but only if believers faithfully teach and live courageously. Live Not By Lies may very well become the manual for Christian dissidents within the next decade.