The Importance of 1 Peter 3:15-16 for Apologetics

The text of Scripture that most clearly teaches us about every believer’s responsibility to be involved in apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15-16. In this passage, every believer is commanded to be prepared to “give and answer,” lit. “make a defense” (Greek: apologia) for what he believes. This defense is made through appeal to a “reason,” (Greek: logos) or a logical, rational argument. And the content of the argument is the hope within us (essentially our belief in Christ’s resurrection and return). The rest of the passage proceeds to tell us how to do so: gently, with respect, and supported by a pure life and conscience.

Many believers find such an injunction daunting. Yet, this passage also contains the seeds of encouragement by what it does not command us to do. Greg Bahnsen summarizes the encouragement:

1. This text does not say that believers are supposed to take the initiative to start arrogant arguments with unbelievers, telling them we have all the answers. We do not have to go looking for a fight. Rather, we offer a reasonable defense in answer to those who ask for such from us, whether they do so as an opening challenge to the integrity of God’s Word or as the natural response to our evangelistic witness.

2. This text does not say that believers are responsible to persuade anybody who challenges or questions our faith. We can offer sound reasons to the unbeliever, but we cannot make him subjectively believe those reasons. We can refute the poor argumentation of the unbeliever, but still not persuade him. We can close the mouth of the critic, but only God can open the heart. Only God can regenerate a dead heart and give sight to the blind. This is why apologists should not evaluate their success or adjust their message on the basis of whether the unbeliever finally comes to agree with them or not.

3. This text does not say that defending the faith has a different ultimate authority than does the task of expounding the faith. It is a common  mistake to think that the Scriptures are an adequate basis for our theology, but inadequate or inappropriate for defending our faith. Believers are often misled into thinking that whatever they take as the ultimate standard in apologetic thinking must be neutral and agreed upon by believer and unbeliever alike; and from here they go on to make the second mistake of thinking that something like “reason” is such a commonly understood and accepted standard.

1 Peter 3:15 teaches us that the precondition of presenting a defense of the faith (apologetics) is the same as doing theology—setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts. It would be a mistake to think that Peter is speaking of the heart here as though it is our center of emotions over against the mind with which we think.

Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Covenant Media Press, 1996), 111-12.

These observations relieve much of my anxiety about sharing the gospel. The burden is not on me to convince anyone or convert anyone (although that is my desire). My responsibility is simply to prepare myself to answer those who ask me why I believe the gospel. God does the convicting, convincing and converting. I can’t persuade people, but I can prepare myself.

For those interested in getting started in the basics of preparation for apologetics, I recommend two books. Although there are many websites that contain helpful information, I have found these two books to be the best introduction:

http://www.amazon.com/Always-Ready-Directions-Defending-Faith/dp/0915815281/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1283886697&sr=8-1

and

http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Belongs-Lord-Scripture-Defending/dp/087552561X/ref=pd_sim_b_34

The Greatest Challenge to the Faith of Serious Students of the Scriptures, Part 2

Against-the-Gods-300x462John Currid’s new book, Against the Gods: Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Crossway, 2013) offers answers to the challenge of OT higher criticism that provide a welcome alternative to evangelical scholars who feel that they must give priority to ANE texts in the interpretation of the OT. Without denying the complexity of the relationship between OT and ANE, Currid offers solutions to some of the thorniest problems while maintaining a high view of Scripture.

Currid advocates, among other approaches, polemical theology as a way through the difficult terrain of OT studies. Polemical theology “is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning. The biblical authors take well-known expressions and motifs from the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.”

Currid is not the only one who advocates polemical theology. Others agree, but with a caveat. These scholars believe that since the OT writers were using thought forms common in the ANE in order to proclaim Yahweh as the true God, the details need not be factual. What matters, they say, is that Yahweh, and no other god, is the true God. They claim that many of the stories in the OT are mythic in nature, but they accomplish the purpose of countering pagan myths and establishing Yahweh as the true God. Many of these same scholars also believe that Genesis is directly dependent on Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. One must ask, if this is the case, where does inspiration fit, or more pointedly, why is it even needed?

Currid, however, refuses to think so uncreatively and simplistically. He believes that there is no conflict between polemical theology AND inerrant Scripture.

“We must strongly question, however, whether the position that the Bible demythologizes ancient Near Eastern legends is the only and proper way to understand the relationship between the two literatures. It seems to me that this position emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between Genesis 1 and other Near Eastern cosmogonies [theories of the origin of the universe] to the detriment of the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the biblical record. It undervalues and undercuts the originality and exceptional nature of the Hebrew world-and-life view. Thus sits the question in a nut-shell: is the Hebrew creation account distinct thought at its very core or not? Is it merely another ancient Near Eastern myth that has been cleansed or is it a radical, unique cosmogonical view? Or is it something in between?”

Currid also questions whether every Mesopotamian ANE text that is claimed to be the source of OT texts really is all that similar to the OT text. “Indeed, important parallels do exist between the two; however, one wonders whether these parallels have not been overly emphasized to the detriment of cosmogonic parallels among other societies of the ancient Near East.” He proceeds to document in several chapters that the parallels between OT texts and ANE texts are abundant, and not limited to one culture or language. This fact worries many people and leads critical scholars to conclude that the biblical text is, therefore, not unique, and consequently our concept of inspiration and inerrancy must change.

It perhaps would be helpful for OT scholars who feel that there is no way to preserve the traditional view of inerrancy in the face of these issues to consider the doctrine of the universal implanted knowledge of God (Romans 1:18-23). The ANE creation and flood accounts (among others) that parallel the OT accounts are best explained, I believe, by an understanding that every person has a knowledge of God from birth, yet suppresses that knowledge and exchanges it for a lie. Societally this could mean that early civilizations retained knowledge of the creation and flood, yet exchanged the truth of these events as sovereignly initiated by Yahweh for pagan myths. As a result, many ANE texts written before their OT parallels were partially distorted, pagan cosmogonies developed in rebellion from the truth and rejection of Yahweh. The OT texts, therefore, serve a twofold purpose: reveal the true accounts of the origin of the universe, AND refute the parasitic, counterfeit pagan accounts with the truth.

Surprisingly, few OT scholars have considered this possibility, which has the explanatory power needed for the most significant challenges in OT studies. This oversight may arise for any number of unfortunate reasons. Either these scholars are unfamiliar with this concept, or they don’t find it has sufficient explanatory power, or finally, they may already have a pre-commitment to the OT as a document of its times, with no revelatory uniqueness. Either way, it is unfortunate that only a few scholars, such as Currid, leave room in their proposals for an idea that is effective and faithful.

Currid concludes his book with a cautious approach to OT studies that belies a humble, yet confident belief in the reliability of Scripture. “Polemical theology certainly does not answer every question about the relationship of the Old Testament to ancient Near Eastern literature and life. There is much to that relationship that simply cannot be understood and explained by the use of polemics.” At times, however, he argues that polemical theology can serve as a solid and reliable interpretive lens by which one can provide explanations for the relationship between ANE and OT parallels.

I highly recommend Currid’s book for those who have encountered some of the problems of OT studies. He documents enough parallels to demonstrate his argument convincingly. Additionally, he provides a creative solution to the challenges of OT studies that doesn’t require an abandonment of inerrancy as has been traditionally held. Against the Gods is highly beneficial to the body of Christ and to OT scholarship. He is to be commended for his valuable and faithful work.

The Greatest Challenge to the Faith of Serious Students of the Scriptures

If someone asked you what the greatest intellectual challenge to the Christian faith is for young Christians who really care about their faith, how would you answer? Atheism? Actually, no. While the spate of diatribes by new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens over the last ten years attracted many angry and disillusioned young professing Christians, it didn’t really influence serious students because, well, it was blind faith posing as science or bad philosophy.

How about the challenge of world religions? Again, no. Compared to the verifiable historical record of Christianity, belief systems such as Islam and Mormonism simply do not compare, since they cannot be verified. Scientology is too weird for all but the most extreme, intellectually darkened narcissists. Hinduism is a designer religion that appeals to personal choice and provides nothing greater than one would receive from following Hollywood celebrity comings and goings in the tabloids.

What then is the great challenge that possesses genuine power to lead students of Scripture away from confidence in Scripture and undermine their faith? The answer: Old Testament Studies, specifically, OT higher criticism.  Over the last few years a growing number of evangelical OT scholars have begun to promote the idea that since the OT bears similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) writings (often written before the corresponding OT texts), we ought to interpret the OT as a document (or collection of documents) in the same manner that we do the ANE texts.

In many ways these ANE texts shed light on the OT in very helpful ways. After all, the events of the OT didn’t take place in the late 20th century in New York City. They took place more than 2,500-6000 years ago at minimum in a land and culture very foreign to our own, with interaction with many neighboring peoples and cultures, including Hittite, Sumerian, Canaanite, Egyptian, Akkadian and others. Much as been learned about the biblical concept of covenant by studying ancient Hittite Suzerain treaties and royal grants.

The problem lies in the ANE accounts of events that present an opposing worldview and conflicting record of events to the biblical description and account. The primary characteristic of many of these ANE texts is that they are mythic in nature. That is, they describe significant events similar to the creation of the world, the flood, the Exodus, and so on, in ways that are obviously (to our modern scientific world) merely myths, and not descriptions of reality.

The aforementioned evangelical scholars have begun to go public with their agreement with critical scholars that the OT is, in many ways and in many places, mythical in nature and not factual. They claim that OT authors (whoever they might be, but not who we thought they were) didn’t have a modern mind (true), and therefore couldn’t have described events in a way that we can take as scientific fact (false). This has raised doubts about many things evangelicals have taken for granted for generations, and that Christians have believed for centuries: the historicity of Adam, the direct creation of the world by God as described in Genesis 1-2, Adam and Eve as first humans, the fall into sin as described in Genesis 3, the worldwide flood, the confusion of languages at Babel, the authorship of the Pentateuch, the existence of a Hebrew nation in Egypt, the Exodus, any predictive prophecy, and so on.

Why has this had such a devastating impact on the faith of so many? First, without a doubt, the OT presents Christians who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture with a host of difficult questions of consistency and historical verifiability that are not easily answered. For those committed to inerrancy, such as myself, these questions often have no easy answers. This has prompted many to redefine inerrancy to remove the tension of taking apparent contradictions literally, but in the process they have undermined the reliability of Scripture. Serious students often have no answers to these challenges and are shaken in their faith. They come to doubt the reliability of Scripture and the foundation of their beliefs begins to crumble. Before they know it, skepticism toward the Bible as the authority for the faith begins to grow, and they are left at the mercy of higher critics who are more than happy to completely gut the faith of anyone who relies on their methods of interpretation. Second, a sense of intellectual superiority grips a person who comes to believe that he can sit in judgment of the truthfulness of the Bible. This downright Satanic and Edenic spirit is intoxicating and often takes a person much further than he intends to go in his judgment of Scripture.

Admittedly, some of the problems that the OT presents are thorny. In a two-month study of OT higher criticism two years ago, I found it very difficult (but not impossible) to reconcile inerrancy with some of these problems. But one dare not jettison inerrancy that is clearly claimed in Scripture for the difficulty of some obscure passages. That is, the Scripture’s claims about itself as inspired and inerrant are clear. The apparent contradictions that trouble us are mostly obscure, and in the past many have been solved by discoveries in linguistics, archaeology, history, and other intersecting disciplines.

The point is that one does not have to resort to using ANE myths as our guide to interpreting the OT. There are better ways of dealing with OT problems than accommodating Scripture to the spirit of the Ancient Near Eastern age or our modern age of scientific enlightenment. The question is, where can we find a reliable guide through this perilous journey of understanding the OT in light of its ANE setting?

In part 2, we’ll review a new book that provides a biblical framework for engaging these issues while maintaining a strong view of the inerrancy of the Bible.

When Will We See Peace on Earth?: Reconciling the Newtown Tragedy with the Christmas Story

Guest Post from Ray Jones, Pastor of Lighthouse Community Baptist Church, Pawcatuck, CT, and frequent religion writer in Southeastern Connecticut.

Every d460xay, my wife and I pray with each of our four children before they leave for school.  Some days, we simply ask God to help them with a particular assignment.  Other days, a classmate might be the subject of our petition.  But with each prayer, we always ask God to keep our children safe.  Beforethe “Amen” has barely left our lips, the kids are racing for the door to catch the bus and embark on their school day.

As parents, we experience two polar opposite emotions as we watch our children board a school bus: joy and fear.  There’s joy that comes with watching your child grow and mature as they go to meet their educational challenges for the day.  But, at the same time a quiet fear emerges as we release them to a world that is neither safe, nor kind.

That’s why Friday’s inexplicable tragedy in our own state shakes us to the core.  Every act of terror evokes sympathy, but it’s aentirely different story when the massacre takes place just 100 miles or so from here.  What mom or dad in this area, or anywhere for that matter, cannot help putting themselves in the shoes of the 20 sets of parents who went to their child’s school yesterday, not to pick them up for early dismissal, but to identify their lifeless body?  What educator does not mourn for their colleagues whose lives ended alongside their peers and pupils?

In my opinion, Governor Dan Malloy nailed the motives behind the events in Newtown when he said, “evil visited this community today.”  Can there be a better explanation for a 20 year-old-man killing his mother in her sleep and then arming himself to go attack an elementary school?  Is there a greater act of cowardice?  What motivates someone to express his anger at life by killing kindergartners and first graders?

Events like this remind us that our world is not safe.  Stiffer laws, greater police presence and new safety procedures may minimize risk, but they are powerless to eliminate evil itself.  Sadly, the image of the firehouse adjacent to Sandy Hook Elementary School adorned with Christmas lights and wreathes is a cruel and ironic symbol of the season.  Christmas is a time where we’re supposed to celebrate peace.  For the residents of Newtown, this Christmas will be marked by pain.

Yet, the Christmas story has the capability of speaking to this tragedy.  In an often neglected portion of the Christmas story, there is an account of a madman who murders innocent male children in the little town of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18).  The mothers of this ancient borough just outside Jerusalem had a day not unlike the one 20 mothers in Newtown had on Friday.

But, there is a significant difference between these two acts of terror.  Bethlehem’s assassin was not a deranged citizen, but a maniacal ruler.  The mothers of Bethlehem could look neither to politicians, nor to police for safety.  In a harsh twist of fate, these very people were the ones directly responsible for their misery.  Matthew 2:13 records their sorrow: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Why did Herod the Great inflict such suffering upon his subjects?  He was after a baby boy who he perceived to threaten his rule.  The news that one had been born “The King of the Jews” in Bethlehem led this despot to kill many to ensure that he murdered just one.  Herod’s assassination plot on King Jesus failed, but it left much carnage in its wake.  Mary and her baby may have escaped, but their deliverance was only temporary.

The angels’ famous Christmas greeting to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” did not become a reality in Jesus’ day, nor has it in ours either.  The birth of Jesus represents the announcement of God’s plan for defeating evil and making peace and good will the norm on this earth.

Jesus’ life and more importantly His death were Phase 1 of a two phase mission of bringing peace to this war-torn world.  Jesus’ resurrection three days later shows death and evil hold no power over God.  Yet, evil continuesto hold sway over us.  Mothers continue to grieve for lost children while fathers struggle in vain to provide 24/7 protection for their families.  All of humanity groans as we await the final step in God’s plan.

What is that plan?  When will God finally accomplish it?  The next to last chapter of the Bible explains Phase 2 of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus, the one called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God With Us,” having finally vanquished Satan and his evil foes, will come to rule and reign on this earth for all to see.  What will characterize the reign of “The King of the Jews”?  Revelation 21:3-4 gives us a description:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

So…where does that leave you and me in the meantime?  How are we to live in such a cruel world?  How can we find the peace we need to function in a world where madmen roam?  How can we keep our anxiety at bay as we kiss our kids goodbye and send them on their way to school each morning?

I believe Mary the mother of Jesus sets an example for all of us to follow.  She holds her baby tight, but entrusts Him to the care of God the Father who holds the future of her son in His hands.

What Jesus Was Really Saying When He Talked About the Kingdom

How radical was Jesus’ preaching to Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?

Imagine what it would be like, in Britain or the United States today, if, without an election or any other official mechanism for changing the government, someone were to go on national radio and television and announce that there was now a new prime minister or president. “From today onward,” says the announcer, “we have a new ruler! We’re under new government! It’s all going to be different!” That’s not only exciting talk. It’s fighting talk. It’s treason! It’s sedition! By what right is this man saying this? How does he think he’ll get away with it? What exactly does he mean, anyway? An announcement like this isn’t simply a proclamation. It’s the start of a campaign. When a regime is already in power and is simply transferring that power to the next person in line, you just announce that it’s happening. But if you make that announcement while someone else appears to be in charge, you are saying, in effect, “The campaign starts here.”

N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus

lament for a friend

David’s lament for his friend Jonathan stands as one of the most touching expressions of grief for a friend in all of ancient literature. Read these selected verses from 2 Samuel 1 to feel the intense sorrow of one friend for another.

19 “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

20 Tell it not in Gath,
publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult…

23 “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles;
they were stronger than lions…

25 “How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! “Jonathan lies slain on your high places.

26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.

27 “How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!”

 

Are Lamenting and Grieving Biblical? Read Psalm 88 Before You Answer.

It seems that in the American evangelical world, we know very little about lament.  We much prefer the happy sayings and the happy songs.  We like things to be tied up nicely and neatly.  We prefer our theology to be bite-sized; slogans that fit easily on a tee-shirt or a bumper sticker are best.  We particularly dislike any display of discouragement or depression on a Sunday morning.  Each Lord’s Day, we ask the hurting among us to “pull themselves together” and rise with us to sing “songs of faith” in praise to the Lord.  We muzzle the mouths of the downcast.  After all, we reason, we are called to “rejoice always.”  But Scripture tells us also to “weep with those who weep.”  For, after all, there is much in our world that calls for lament.

Returning to that ancient hymnal, the Hebrew Psalter, will help us greatly in this regard.  Psalm 88, for example, is affirmed by nearly all to be the “darkest” of the Psalms.  It begins with a barely smoldering wick, and it’s all downhill from there.  To many evangelicals, the psalm would seem nearly unsingable for a person of faith.  One commentator I read stated that, in light of the resurrection of Christ, Psalm 88 represents a “theological impossibility” for the Christian!  Certainly it seems difficult to add our “Amen” to its conclusion.  Yet this song is a Holy Spirit inspired prayer for those seasons of the soul when all seems lost.  And, as difficult and discouraged as its language is, the entire psalm is addressed to the “Lord God of my salvation.”  On any given Sunday, surely, there are folks in our gatherings who feel something like the psalmist did as he penned these desperate pleas.  But we often give no voice to the cries of their hearts.  Just as significant, on any given Sunday there is pain all over our world, pain that we should duly note, and even join ourselves to, rather than simply ignore or wish away.

Written by Gary Parrett, Professor of Educational Ministries and Worship, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Parrett wrote these comments on Psalm 88 in his journal. On July 3, 2010 a bus in which he was riding drove off a bridge and plunged 30 feet to the road below in Seoul, South Korea. A Korean-American pastor accompanying Dr. Parrett was killed, and Dr. Parrett has been in a coma since the accident. His wife writes these words:

Gary often preached about and lamented over the fact that in our churches we do not sing songs that speak of hopelessness and despair, even though that pain is felt by so many members of the church.  We only sing victorious songs and want to ignore the pain and despair that some of us feel.  In the hallway of the ICU,  I realize how much this feeling of despair and desparation is a part of living as a human, and I think of Gary’s commentary on Psalm 88.

Please pray for Dr. Parrett!

Is the Book of Acts Intended to Be a Model for the Church Today?

Many of the differences in the various evangelical denominations and flavors of Christianity in the world exist because of conflicting views of the early church in the Book of Acts. Pentecostals and Charismatics understand the gifts of tongues, healing, and miracles found in Acts to be normative for all times, while others see them as only temporary. Some understand the “Jerusalem Council” to be normative for church government, establishing an episcopalian form of hierarchy, while others see the incident as confirming apostolic authority in tandem with congregational rule. Still others read Acts as a collection of stories from the “Golden Age” of Christianity for which we are to pine away in sentimental reminiscence.

The underlying problem in many faulty readings of Acts stems from conceptions of the book that find no actual support in Scripture. As a corrective, Richard Gaffin reminds us how not to read Luke and Acts.

If, as is too often the case, Acts is read primarily as more or less random samplings of earliest Christian piety and practice, as a compilation of illustrations taken from the early history and experience of the church—a more or less loose collection of edifying and inspiring episodes, usually with the nuance that they are from the “good old days, when Christians were really Christians”—then we will tend to become preoccupied with the experience of particular individuals and groups recorded there, to idealize that experience, and to try to recapture it for ourselves.

But if, as ought to be the case, Acts is read with an eye for its careful overall composition and what we will presently see is one of Luke’s central purposes in writing, then these passages and the experiences they record come into proper focus.

Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (P&R, 1973), 23.

Gaffin proceeds to clarify that Acts 1:8 is the program specifically given to the apostles, and therefore we cannot indiscriminately take Acts to be the proper pattern for everything in the church today. It’s not that Acts is completely unrelated to the church’s mission today, but rather that Acts 1:8 and the whole book is only derivatively applicable to us today. The reason, says Gaffin, is that the apostles actually completed the mission given to them in 1:8, as confirmed by Colossians 1:6, 23.

This is an an important insight that has at least two implications. First, it corrects many of the erroneous notions that have arisen from reading Acts as examples of piety and practice to be emulated with no input from the later New Testament. And second, it frees us from a concept of the church that was never intended to serve as the sole ideal. The later New Testament demonstrates what became the settled norm for the church.

The church in Acts, therefore, serves as a testament to the signs and wonders God performed to confirm his founding of a new entity, the church. At the same time, it points toward the rest of the New Testament for what we should consider normative today.

Do Works Save? No, But They Evidence Salvation

It’s very hard to derive the idea from the Bible that good works save a person from his sins. Scripture is very clear that we are saved only by grace through the righteousness of Christ. The idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone was bitterly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation. The Catholic reasoning said that if good works were not required for salvation, there would be nothing to hold over the heads of people to motivate them to do good. This is exactly opposite of the teaching of the Bible. Scripture says that good works flow naturally from a heart than has been regenerated. Paul rejects the idea that salvation by grace produces lawlessness (Rom. 6:1). Instead, says Paul, it ought to produce a desire to please God unlike anything before that was motivated by guilt or fear.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that once a person is saved, he can exhibit no spiritual fruit, that is, no evidence of salvation. The apostle John rejects this idea throughout his first epistle.

The Sermon on the Mount causes many to stumble because it seems to teach works salvation. But the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that genuine believers will practice good works as a result of their regenerated hearts. Herman Ridderbos explains this eloquently:

What Jesus thus requires is that men reflect the light which they received from Him. The endowment of the Kingdom accomplishes good works in its recipients, and thus the Kingdom finds embodiment in the lives of the faithful.

(When the Time Had Fully Come, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, 31)

So, is the light of Christ being reflected in our lives? If not, maybe there is no light! And if we are truly converted, good works, such as those described in the Sermon on the Mount, ought to be ever-increasing in our lives.

Suffering and Self-Pity, Part 2: Rooting Out Self-Pity

If anyone ever had a reason to pity-himself, it was the Apostle Paul. His fall from premier Pharisee in Israel to persecuted apostle is fantastic. His sufferings are recounted in 2 Corinthians 11, and they are as significant as any Christian in all of church history. He suffered physical, spiritual and mental abuse from others, extreme discomfort for long periods of time adrift in the ocean and in prison, hunger, thirst, insecurity, and exhausting toil. His life seemed to be a series of seasons of intense suffering, interrupted occasionally by relief.

So, is Paul’s description of his sufferings a case of self-pity? Not at all. The Corinthian church was challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, so to demonstrate his legitimate right to admonish them, he recounted his sufferings. In the chapter 12, Paul further demonstrates his proper attitude toward suffering regarding the infamous “thorn in the flesh.” After pleading with God to deliver him from it, Paul accepted God’s answer that the suffering remain and that he would rely on the grace of God to sustain him. If God’s power was perfected in Paul’s suffering, then Paul was content to suffer. Here is the suffering soul delivered from the demand for relief!

And Paul didn’t do this grudgingly. He bore it “gladly” because his suffering brought God glory. There is no scent of self-pity here. There is only joy and gladness in the midst of suffering, because he valued God’s glory so much. Paul didn’t want people to feel sorry for him, because he saw suffering as something glorious—not in its present experience, but in its eternal outcome. Earlier in the epistle, Paul says that it was the eternal weight of glory that made the present suffering bearable:

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.

Paul would not seek sympathy beyond what was appropriate. He would not grimace a little more or wear a long face all the time. He modeled Jesus’ command to those who were suffering the deprivation of fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). He would not wear a gloomy face, but in effect “washed his face and anointed his head,” symbolism for the joy of celebration.

Paul’s example reminds us that our natural response to suffering must be overcome by the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ. By recognizing that God allowed his own Son to suffer incomparably for our eternal glory, we can, like Peter, rejoice in that we share in the sufferings of Christ when we ourselves suffer. This frees us from the feeling that God is not just or does not care that we suffer. The fact that he gave his Son shows us the lengths that God will go to ensure our eternal glory and freedom from suffering.

Now you may be thinking, “I believe that intellectually, but I don’t feel it.” I hear you loud and clear. Being able to write these things does not mean I always practice them. The last time I had to go to the emergency room at 11:00 at night for a crisis with my newly transplanted kidney, I was in the depths of frustration and despair. All these truths ran from my mind like people from a burning building. It was my wife who pulled me out of the pit of despair with these reassurances. She reminded me of God’s sovereignty, the worth of his glory and his sustaining grace to get us through. Exactly what I needed to hear.

So what do we do when we don’t feel the truth that we believe? It is through the training of our responses to suffering that we teach ourselves to speak the truth to ourselves, instead of listening to our doubts. Or as the Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson says, we must learn to talk to ourselves, and not to listen to ourselves. In other words, the more we tell ourselves the truth of God, the less we’ll be inclined to believe our thoughts of self-pity. Our self-centered suffering will be transformed into God-glorifying endurance.

So how do you know if you have fallen into self-pity in the midst of suffering? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I believe that my suffering is worse than everybody else’s?
  • Do I play up my suffering to gain more sympathy?
  • Do I post my suffering on Facebook before I pray to God for strength and relief?
  • Do I always talk about my suffering when someone asks how I’m doing?
  • Do I sympathize with and minister to others as much as I like others to sympathize with and minister to me?
  • Am I able to put on a brave and joyful face even when I don’t feel like it?
  • Do I speak of God’s blessings in my life as much as I do my suffering?

These questions should help us to root out self-pity and replace it with God-glorifying endurance.