Archives For Spiritual Life

Christmas_LaughterNOTE: It has been far too long since I have posted. Launching a new church kept me busy in 2013. Hope and plan to write more in 2014. Thanks for your patience and for following my blog. This post is modified from something I wrote for our church, but I think it’ll encourage you as well.

Christmas is one of my favorite seasons. This week I’ve laughed with family around the table remembering old times (good and bad), old movies (good and bad), old haircuts (also good and bad). It is rare we all get together, but it is always fun to yuck it up when we can. Christmas gives us an excuse to get together, and that itself is a gift.

I pray that we will be people that laugh. I hope we laugh deeply the big belly laughs of people who know they are free. Martin Luther said, “You have as much laughter as you have faith,” and from the stories that are told about the way Luther lived, he was a man of large faith (and laughs). Those of us who take the Bible, sin, and salvation seriously sometimes seem to forget that the gospel of Jesus is “good news.”

Christmas should be a reminder that God is for us. He wants our good. One man has said that Jesus’ incarnation is God saying YES to the human race. He chose us. He wants us. He became one of us so that he could enjoy us forever.

God Made Us to Laugh

We are creatures designed by a Creator. He might have made us laughless creatures, but he chose to make us laugh. God made people with lungs that push air over vocal cords so that they can sound like Santa. Who taught you how to laugh? No one. Kids laugh without training. They laugh a lot, even when you want them to stop. No kindergarten has ever had a course on laughter to prepare kids for further laugh development. Face it, we were made to LOL (even if we don’t like the overused short-hand abbreviation).

Consider this: God made giraffes. That’s funny all by itself. He made the lady bug and the roly poly. The porcupine and the platypus. He made daffodils and daisies. He made the Alps to rise up and the water of Niagara to fall down. He made tiny turtles to peak out from their hiding place, and enormous elephants that could not find a place to hide. The moose: who can’t laugh at a moose with its overlong legs and awkward oversized horse head that seems to grin at you? I believe God wanted us to laugh with him and all the crazy things he created for us to enjoy.

God Laughs

In Isaiah 65:18-19, God says: “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people…”

God’s Grace Gives Laughter

Let me give you two more passages that speak to God’s laughter. These are two of my favorite sections in all the Bible, and I think they will radically alter your life if you internalize the important truth they offer to us. I’ve bolded a few of the key statements. The first verses are from Zephaniah 3. I’d love to elaborate extensively on these, but for the sake of brevity, let me just say a couple of things. Can you imagine God himself rejoicing over you with gladness? Can you imagine God exulting over you with loud singing? This is not an unhappy crank of a grandpa disappointed in who you are and tolerating your presence in the house. No, this is a God that loves and laughs over his children. Read the verses for yourself, and ask, “Do I believe these verses to be true? Do I believe God could feel this way towards me?”

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

I can imagine no news that we need to hear more than this: God loves you, and laughs over you with great joy. If this sinks deep into your heart, it will revolutionize the way you view your life with God.

The second passage is from Luke 15. Jesus himself told this story to a group of religious types to show them how they were getting God all wrong. One of the messages Jesus made loud and clear is that our gracious God laughs uproariously when his children come home to him. Jesus leaves absolutely no doubt about it. His grace toward broken and sinful people should always lead to celebration of the most extravagant kind. Again, I’ve highlighted a few phrases to make sure you see them.

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ 

Jesus tells us what our God is like: A father running to greet his son, a giant bear hug, over-the-top gift giving, new clothes, custom jewelry, a perfectly prepared meal, music, dancing, and the loud laughter of loved ones celebrating together. Sounds like a perfect family Christmas to me. The older son missed out because he would not laugh with the Father’s grace. He was too proud for laughter. I pray we laugh freely at the grace of God.

As you celebrate this Christmas season, may you truly celebrate. May you laugh deep laughs at God’s grace and goodness toward you. God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. You can’t hear it enough. Never stop laughing at how good that news is.


“This is harder than I thought it would be.” We’ve all thought it at one time or another. Difficult tasks that require long seasons of effort can be exhausting. If we lose sight of the goal, we can face discouragement, depression or burnout. Many will veer off course before reaching the finish line. If we are going to persevere, we need to remember five keys to help us along the way.

Most great rewards demand long diligence before they can be seized. This is true in nearly every area of life. Family, work, sport, or cause: all require great patience and long toil before they yield results. In my current role, I am constantly reminding myself of these things and adjusting both my heart and my routine as needed. I hope you find these helpful as you engage in the battle to persevere.

As the saying goes, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. 80 hour weeks don’t pay off in the long run. Get plenty of rest. For me, this means avoiding late night diversions that keep me from getting to bed on time. The Bible speaks of a time of sabbath rest, where we set everything aside for a day to recoup and refocus spiritually. When I say “set everything aside,” that likely includes cell phone, tablet and laptop. This is not easy, but God himself set this pattern of rest in order. In Genesis, after six days of creating, God rested from all the work he had done. And just in case you were wondering, God never tires. God did not need a siesta. No, this was an object lesson for our benefit. We need to incorporate this pattern into our weekly schedule. What 24 hour period per week have you marked on your calendar for sabbath rest? When I’m at my best, this rhythm of rest is a part of my routine.

Ever sprinted through a week or two on a project and suddenly realized you’ve barely connected with Jesus or your spouse? Have you started calling your kids by the names of your co-workers? Not good. The busier you become, the more important it is to prioritize your schedule.

In college, I read an article called “The Tyranny of the Urgent” by Charles E. Hummel. I’ve never forgotten the simple distinction it made between the truly important things in life and the urgent tasks that clamor for our minutes, hours and days. Hummel writes:

We live in constant tension between the urgent and the important. The problem is that the impor­tant task rarely must be done today or even this week. Extra hours of prayer and Bible study, a visit with that non-Christian friend, careful study of an important book: these projects can wait. But the urgent tasks call for instant action—endless demands pressure every hour and day.

Like the busy, distracted priest in Jesus’ story of good Samaritan, we become so busy with the urgent tasks at hand that we often miss the truly important stuff. If we are to weave perseverance into our lives, we must prioritize the important stuff so that we thrive over the long haul.

Trying to live as a Christian without prayer is like trying to live without air. You aren’t going to make it very far. Martin Luther famously said, “I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.” Prayer confesses for us our dependence on God. Prayer sustains us during difficulties. Prayer provides strength to take the next step. Prayer humbles us in success, and prayer comforts us in failure. Prayer emboldens us to take risks. Prayer offers friendship with our most loyal companion. As we travel the road of life, prayer centers us on what, or who, is most important.

Have some fun. Find a hobby. Play some golf. Go to a movie (by yourself). Go fishing. Build something. Shoot something (but not someone). Go to a concert. During a season of life transition, a wise woman said to my wife, “Stop doing so much, and go read some fiction.” Pastor Tommy Nelson used to tell us to”go get some rocky road, and be sure you get two scoops.” Do whatever it is that you do when you are having fun.

A counselor friend once gave me an assignment to carve out an undisturbed three hour block each week to do something I enjoyed. This was harder than I thought it would be. In my college years, three hours of play would have been cutting back, but at this stage of life finding three free hours in a week meant saying a firm “no” to other things. For some, this may feel impossible or even selfish, but I’m learning that self-care is critical to staying power. Play promotes perseverance.

This last key will require a little more explanation, but I am currently finding this to be incredibly helpful. In a letter to a younger leader, the Apostle Paul wrote:

It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Let me shoot straight with you: I’m a city boy, not a farmer. But I have been thinking lots about what Paul said, so I’m going to offer a few thoughts about it anyway. Farming itself is an act of faith. A farmer works long hours for a long period of time before he reaps any benefits from his labor. He shows up day after day and puts in a good day’s work trusting that it will all eventually produce an abundant crop. This requires a unique combination of diligence and patience.

There are two things I will point out about the farmer. First, stuff grows when it grows, and the farmer must trust his crops to appear when the timing is right. Second, there is nothing he can do to speed up the process. Working harder or faster or longer will not change the rate of growth.

What’s the point for us? When I remind myself to “plow,” it is a reminder to work hard and to trust the growth process, no matter how long and slow it seems. Show up like a farmer and do work, and then put your head on the pillow at night trusting something good will eventually grow. When I start to get overwhelmed with all that I have to get done, I find myself saying out loud “just plow the field today.” I can’t control the outcome, so I try to “do a good days work and leave the results to God.” Perseverance requires that we balance diligence with patience.


It is said that “in comedy, timing is everything.” The same is true of perseverance. Reminding yourself of these things before you are at the end of your rope makes all the difference. Otherwise, you will learn a life lesson the hard way. The athlete who becomes dehydrated during the match will find it impossible to rehydrate until after the game is over.

Personally, I am learning that the more my responsibilities expand, the more I must narrow my focus on these key areas. For me, these are not annual check-ins. They are daily and weekly reminders that help me persevere as I fight to fulfill my calling.

If you practice these five keys — pace, prioritize, pray, play, and plow, you will be more likely to persevere in the days ahead.

Which of the five keys grabs your attention? Which of the five keys do you find most difficult? Would you add anything to this list? What is your favorite quote about perseverance?


This video made me hit the pause button on my day. I’ll admit I had to fight back tears. Not much needs to be said. Just watch and consider:

  1. Everyone has a story. When we enter into others’ stories, we connect with their humanity and remember our common Creator.
  2. Use your gifts for good. God has given you talents, training, and experiences so that you can serve and do good in the world. Find the good you were made to do.
  3. Imagine the beauty that God sees. If a talented artist like Rick Guidotti has eyes to see such beauty in the midst of struggle, can you imagine the beauty that God sees in the ones that he himself created?
  4. One day, God will make all things new. May we love and serve others, especially the marginalized, until that day. Come, Lord Jesus.


What stood out to you as you watched the video? Did you find the story as moving as I did? If you or someone you love deals with one of the conditions mentioned in the video, I’d love to hear your honest thoughts on this.


*Sorry I had to link to an external site; apparently, wordpress can’t embed NBC video player. It’s worth the trouble.

Every now and then I run across something that so hilariously or so painfully illustrates a larger problem that I have to share it. Sometimes, it is both hilarious and painful. Give this two minutes of your time, and I guarantee that you will laugh, and you’ll probably watch it again to make sure it wasn’t a joke. Then, somewhere along the way, you’ll be a little bothered by the tragicomedy of it all.

Only in Texas, right? Kind of reminds you of the verse from scripture that says, “Without elegance, it is impossible to please God.” (If you are looking for this in your Bible, you are going to be looking for a really, really long time).

Leslie, from Big, Rich Texas says, “It is appropriate to have a baptism anywhere. You can actually have it in a church…I prefer a beautiful swimming pool. It’s a little bit more controlled and it’s a little bit cleaner.”

Isn’t that how we’d all like our spirituality–a little bit more controlled, and a little bit cleaner?

You know, a clean place like the manger that welcomed the infant Jesus to the world. Or, a little bit more controlled like the cross where Jesus’ battered, bruised, bloody body bid the world goodbye (or at least “see ya later”). No, there was very little elegance in Jesus’ life, but his life was more glorious than the grandest of parties.

This video is a reminder how easily we can veer off course. Sure, few (if any) of us would throw a $10,000 baptism celebration that completely misses the point, but we are not immune to the temptation to embrace the trappings of Christianity without engaging Christ.

This is perhaps rarely more true than at Christmastime. We go to church without seeking Christ. We sing songs about Jesus without being awed by him. We decorate our homes with heart-warming reminders of the Baby Jesus, but we are not heart-broken over our sin that begged for the Savior to come. We throw office parties in Jesus’ name but never mention him to our co-workers. We too play religious games.

This is what makes Christmas so amazing. God came. In a manger. For people like us.

He didn’t hide until we became like him. He left heaven for us.

He didn’t wait for us to clean up the mess. He entered the mess for us.

He didn’t expect us to become righteous. He offered his righteousness for us.

He didn’t hold our brokenness against us. He was broken for us.

He didn’t hope that we would conquer death. He beat death for us.

Immanuel. God with us. God for us. In spite of us, yet also because of us. Jesus in our place.

The Bible says nothing about our need for elegance, but it says a lot about our need for faith: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6).

My prayer for you this Christmas:

May you believe in Jesus. May you rejoice in the God who took on flesh for your sake. May you leap at the thought that the perfect Savior gave his all for imperfect you. May you rest in the reality that he forgives sins–all of them. May you laugh like a child fully accepted and adopted by a forever Father. May you celebrate Christ, our Rescuer and King.


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. I love everything about it. I love the food, the weather, the family, the food, the football, the food, the fun. I love the pace, which always seems slower and less hurried than Christmas. I love that we stop to say what are thankful for.

We should enjoy these things. And we need to enjoy the one that gave them to us. I want to offer a quick reminder that we need to remember the God that we are thankful to.

We say “I am thankful for __________” a lot, but the more important sentence to complete is this: “I am thankful to __________.” If you scan your twitter feed or facebook feed, I bet you’ll find “I am thankful for __________” repeated over and over, but you will rarely see a mention of who people are thankful to.

A “thank you” does not terminate on itself or vanish into the Autumn breeze. It is not intended to stop with us. A thank you is intended to go somewhere. It has a destination. Our thanks need to be offered to a particular recipient.

Let me illustrate. A letter is mailed from a father to a daughter. A football is passed between quarterback and receiver. A kiss is blown from one lover to another. Each is a great example of something offered and something received.

But each of these becomes meaningless if there is no one to receive that which is offered.

A letter mailed without an address indicated is marked “Return to Sender.” A football with no receiver bounces crookedly in the grass and must be retrieved. Someone walking the city streets blowing kisses to nobody is eventually invited to the psych wing of the local hospital.

If we offer our thanks generically, without intending them for someone specific, they lose their power. Yet far too many of us, maybe even most of us, fail to think about this most important question: To whom are we saying our “thank yous”?

Let’s remember that Thanksgiving is about the one to whom we offer thanks: God.

The bible points out our human tendency to enjoy God’s creation without showing gratitude to our Creator (Romans 1). This is our habitual way of acting in this great world of ours. We become so swept up in its beauty and tastiness and laughter and love that we fail to look beyond them to the Great Giver of All Good Things.

In some way, when we find ourselves continually saying “I’m thankful for ________” without ever saying “I’m thankful to   G O D ,” we are repeating the harmful pattern of those who “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom 1:21).

The joy of Thanksgiving is in celebrating all of the good that we’ve been given.  It is a time when we set aside worry and heartache and achievement and striving to pause and give thanks for our many blessings. We soak turkey in rivers from the gravy boat, stuff ourselves with stuffing, pretend we are interested in an oversized Snoopy bouncing off towers in NYC, sneak an (second) piece of pumpkin pie. We remember that we love our children more than we love the Dallas Cowboys, even when the kids keep running between us and the TV. We make the most of the life we’ve been given. And it is good.

These are days to be remembered.

These are days to be thankful for.

And these are also days to be thankful to.

May we celebrate life to the fullest today,
and may we be “abounding in thanksgiving”
to the one who gives us life to enjoy.



October 23, 2012 — 8 Comments

As I am planting a new church, I pray a lot for our future staff. I pray for humble, high-capacity leaders. I pray for the Spirit-led culture that we want to create. I pray for God’s protection and providence. I pray for the men and women who will invest their lives to help Redemption Church honor Jesus and reach many with the gospel.

Last week, I spent four days on a staff retreat with The Village Church. Many are familiar with The Village because of Pastor Matt Chandler (cancer fighter, preacher, author). The Village is one of the partner churches in my church plant residency with Fellowship Associates. We were graciously invited to be a part of their staff retreat with the goal of learning about building a healthy staff culture.

I don’t have a lot of time to fully process this post, but I wanted to throw a few observations down while they were fresh on my mind after being with The Village staff this week. I want to give you a sense of the things we are processing in the residency, and I want to give you a glimpse of my heart for our church. It was good for my soul to see God at work in this group, and it was a good reminder that it’s worth fighting for the gospel to be lived out in authentic community.

Ten Observations on a Healthy Church Staff

  1. A Staff that Loves Jesus – On the retreat, a real love for Jesus was on display through the worship, conversations, preaching, prayers, testimonies. Forgiven sinners love Jesus.
  2. A Staff that Worships Passionately – I loved the extended times of singing and worshiping Jesus. The emphasis on extolling the person of Jesus is central and carries throughout the staff. It was great to see staff from a church of 10,000 worshipping passionately in a room with 100.
  3. A Staff that Laughs – The Village staff laughs. A lot. At jokes. At one another. At old stories from past retreats. They are committed to having fun. It shows up in the way they schedule their time, play games, share meals.
  4. A Staff that Encourages – I have seen real encouragement, both through one on one conversations and in large group settings. This is a group that wants to spur one another on through words of affirmation and encouragement, which is a practical outworking of “love one another.” The ability to speak the truth into one another’s lives is a powerful tool to edify the church. They give healthy honor to those that God leads them to honor.
  5. A Staff that Generously Gives – The fact that they are on a four day retreat says a lot, but they also play games every day at lunch and give away gift cards–with real amounts of money on them. I’ve had Christmas “bonuses” that amounted to less than the gift card I got for painfully singing “She’s Lost that Loving Feeling” with a group of guys (and it was as painful for me as for everyone that had to listen). One pattern I see over and over is that a church that is generous with their staff is generous toward others. Churches are either generous or they are not–it’s a heart thing.
  6. A Staff that is Kingdom-minded – The staff was publicly encouraged to follow God’s leading, even if it means leaving the Village to plant a church or join another work. They made a real investment in our church planting residents, both in terms of finances, wisdom, and time. It doesn’t surprise me that churches whom God seems to be blessing in terms of conversions and growth are also the most generous with their people and resources. These two are linked: a dependence on God’s work among us to save people and build his church, and a freedom with God’s blessing and resources for the sake of the kingdom.
  7. A Staff that Prays – I appreciate the time spent in praying for one another, praying for those with specific needs, praying for those with sin struggles or faith struggles, praying for families. Gospel dependence produces prayerfulness.
  8. A Staff that is Not Perfect – There is a willingness to embrace the imperfection and messiness of their lives. Not just in a theoretical way, but in real and honest ways. They let their sins be real (see Martin Luther) so that forgiveness is real. This freedom comes from sincere faith in the gospel. Leaders cannot possibly shepherd an entire church toward repentance if they are not authentically repenting themselves. The path to spiritual growth/renewal is always repent and believe.
  9. A Staff that Loves One Another – As a staff, relational connection must be fostered. They intentionally invest time together. On the retreat, every person from every department in the church was invited, including both ministers and support staff. They committed an entire work week to being together as a team apart from any “ministry” activity. They also do this for a 1/2 day each month. They work hard, but they also take time to rest and to connect. They are committed to sharing their redemption stories with one another, moving beyond life circumstances to talk about heart shaping events. They don’t hide the rough stuff, and they receive one another in love.
  10. A Staff that Remembers a Shared History – On the retreat, the staff took time to remember past retreats, recall people and events, reflect on how God had worked in the past. I believe it is important to remember this shared history and to celebrate God’s sovereign hand in the life of the church. God weaves many lives and stories together in a local church, and they make something more beautiful together than they could in isolation. Three benefits I see to remembrance: orienting new people to your culture, stepping back to see the big picture of God’s past work, building hope and expectation of God’s future work among the church.

As I mentioned before, this is not a fully developed summary. These are simply my first thoughts typed up quickly on the day after the retreat. I’ll reflect on these things in the days ahead.

I’m sure I’ll add or tweak things along the way, but if these things come to pass in the life of Redemption Church, I will have a full and grateful heart for God’s work among us.

As you reflect on your church staff, what are they doing really well that you could share with us? If you are not on staff of a church, what is one way you could bless and encourage the staff at your church? If you serve on a church staff, what is one practical thing you could do to become a healthier staff team this year?


My copy of the classic.

At the suggestion of my friend, Blake Holmes, I’ve been rereading The Pilgrim’s Progress. Blake mentioned to me this Summer that the book is the most accurate depiction of the spiritual life available. It’s been decades since I read it, and like any good book, you see things differently with each reading. John Bunyan’s fantasy story about a man, named Christian, who goes on a journey is an allegory for the spiritual life. It begins with one of the greatest opening lines:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”

I love this passage from Christian’s journey that deals with differing approaches to the spiritual life–law and grace:

Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large Parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he reviewed a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a Damsel that stood by, Bring hither the Water, and sprinkle the Room; the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.

CHR. Then said Christian, What means this?

INTER: The interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel: the dust of his Original Sin and inward Corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the Law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about the Room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou was almost choked therewith; that is to shew thee, that the Law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue.

Again, as thou sawest the Damsel sprinkle the room with Water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure; this is to shew thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then I say, even as thou sawest the Damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with Water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of Glory to inhabit.

Some of you grew up in churches or religious movements that were steeped in Law and external morality. You found them to be stifling and powerless to change your heart. You felt condemned and suffocated because Law only stirs up sin but cannot remove it.

There is another way called Grace. The Gospel of Grace brings freedom and pleasure. It does not wink at sin, but deals with it by a powerful and deep cleansing, extending even to the hard to reach corners and the tiny cracks of your heart. And, best of all, this cleansing was not just for your joy and your goodness (though these are certainly true), but it was also done that you might share it with the King of Glory, who comes to live with you.

Did you grow up in a church or movement that was centered on Law rather than Grace? What was it like when you discovered Grace? Is Grace still having it’s way in your heart? Have you read The Pilrgim’s Progress? Thoughts?


I wrap up this three part series (read Part 1 & Part 2 here) with a look at how one hero of the faith describes his own journey from chasing the fleeting shadows of self to resting in the stronger shadow of God.

It is an act of grace that God reveals himself and awakens us to his goodness and his glory. The following quote is from Augustine (354-430). He is clearly drawing on Psalm 36, which is the same psalm that we explored in Part 2, and he answers the question: what is it like to hide yourself in God?

“The soul of men shall hope under the shadow of Thy wings; they shall be made drunk with the fullness of Thy house, and of the torrents of Thy pleasures Thou wilt give them to drink; for in Thee is the fountain of Life, and in Thy Light shall we see the light? Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the Spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about…” *

God’s grace is a magical, mysterious, hope-drenched wonder. When we limit it to mere doctrine or morality or religiosity or family heritage or common sense, we can never capture what Augustine describes here. Augustine is forced to use comparisons to make his point. He says that you will know what it is like if you know what it means to be in love; or know what means to thirst in the desert; or know what it is like to ache and groan for a better world. The cold or dispassionate or guarded man won’t get it; he will never comprehend what it means to be overwhelmingly satisfied by God. There is a delight with God that is greater than our proper demeanor. To speak of being drunk on the fullness of God’s house is a uncontainable joy. In our legal circles, people who are drunk on alcohol are said to be “under the influence.” When God’s grace enters our lives, it also exerts its influence on us but to a much better end.

(By the way, if you were hung up on word drunk, you have likely missed the point.)

The following verses tell us how we come to know this love:

  • “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19)
  • “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4)

The order is important–God loves us and leads us first. Reverse the order, and you are doomed. In both verses, God initiates, and we respond. Functionally, however, many of us live as though we are the cause of God’s love and kindness. Mistakenly, we think that our repentance leads to God’s kindness, and we act as though our love to God earns his love in return. If we think this way, we will find ourselves saying things like “if I get this decision right, then God will bless me” or “if I devote myself to this good cause, then God will give me peace.” Of course, such thinking will stress you out. How will you know when you have loved God enough to earn his love in return? How will you determine when you’ve achieved enough good in the world to merit his care and affection? But take it the other way round (the way the Bible teaches it), and your outlook will be much better.

Grace is about the good we receive from God. 1 Corinthians 4:7 was very significant in Augustine’s thinking on this issue. This single verse helped to change his entire paradigm of the spiritual life. It says, “What do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why then do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The verse is saying that there is nothing naturally in you that makes you better than anyone else. It is all of grace. If you are more mature or more faithful or more missional or more passionate or more moral, it is only because you have received something good from God. The verse is a mighty ax swinging away at our pride. What good do you possess that you did not receive from God? Answer: nothing at all.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his journey from rebellion to surrender. He insists that his rescue was not found in an act of his own will or wisdom. Instead, it was God’s work within Augustine that brought about the change.

“During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke?” **

The answer to these rhetorical questions is obvious: his will did not help him find Jesus. Yet, God burst into Augustine’s heart to change his life forever.

“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!…You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” ***

When Ultimate Joy comes to us, our happy response is to enjoy this greater joy and to let our little joys go. That is why Christians so often speak of surrender. It is not that we, being smarter and better than others, have searched for and discovered something great. Instead, something great has come to us, and we surrendered ourselves to it.

This is what grace is all about. God comes to us, not because of our goodness but in spite of our badness. We see this in the cross of Christ, who became sin for us and died for us: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus lovingly took the bad that we deserved, and we received the good that he deserved.

When you know grace like this, you want to shout like an Olympian who won a gold medal when he deserved to lose. The gospel is such good news that you never recover from it. It marks all of your life. It reorients all of your life. It fuels all of your life.

Whenever people have lost a sense of wonder and awe about the gospel, the church has lost it’s way. One of the times when the church especially seemed to drift away from the gospel of grace was in the centuries prior to the Reformation. People began to depend more on their own goodness and religiosity than on the grace of God, and the church suffered. This is why the Reformation caused such a stir. The issue wasn’t that a few theologians slightly tweaked some doctrinal stances or religious rituals. No, the Reformation was a recovery of the sense of worship and passion that overtakes a man when he knows the grace that comes through the cross of Jesus. The renewed exaltation of the true gospel was a shock and awe attack on the religion of the day. For those that experienced it, it was a joyous revolt against the tyranny of false religion, and such a revolution of God’s grace deserved a great celebration.

I love the way Robert Farrar Capon describes it: ****

“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.”

In our day, I pray that we will be increasingly overcome by the gospel. This is the only way forward. May we drink deeply of God’s grace. Like the prodigal that returns home to his father’s hug and excessive celebration, may we always treasure the gospel party thrown by the one who is our Ultimate Joy.

Have you ever really tasted this grace? How does this understanding of grace shape your life? Are you living with a sense of awe and wonder at the gospel?

– jdl


* Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pp.374-375 (Tractatus in Joannis Evangelium, 26,4).

** Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), p.181 (IX,1). NOTE: I think that originally saw this quote and the quote that follows in something that John Piper wrote, but my books are in boxes from our recent relocation so I’m unable to find the quote.

*** Ibid.

**** Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).

In part one, I shared a video of my daughter chasing her shadow and wrote about the fleeting shadows of earthly pursuits that never fully satisfy or delight us. We feel we are close to joy, but we can’t quite catch it. In part two, I will point you to the only antidote to our shadow problem.


Use your imagination for a moment. I was tempted to shoot another video of my daughter to introduce this post, but I would have changed things around this time. In the video from part one, she was chasing her shadow. This time, I imagined that she would run away from her shadow. As hard as she would try, it would always follow. Just as we cannot run after our shadows to catch them, neither can we run away from our shadows to escape them. They chase after us.

Of course, we can no more run away from our sinfulness than we can run away from our shadows. We seek to escape sin through greater determination. We try to identify our sin patterns and avoid situations in which we commonly sin. In spite of our greatest efforts, the reality is that we can’t do it, and our striving leaves us tired and frustrated. The only way to escape the shadow of sin is to hide yourself in a stronger shadow.

Have you ever had the experience of seeing a small shadow swallowed up by a larger shadow? In the plains of Oklahoma where I grew up, if you stand on a small rise in the fields, you can see forever. In the hot afternoon summer’s sun, even a scrub oak can cast a long shadow. When the wind blows clouds in overhead, you can see them coming for miles. They drop a dark shadow on the prairie that marches over everything beneath. When the line of clouds approaches, the long shadow of the trees vanish. The smaller shadows simply disappear into the larger shadow of the clouds.

Source: unknown

When we run into the strong shadow of God’s presence, we forget about the fleeting shadows of our lives. Psalm 36 says, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (italics mine).

This is good news. God is available to us and ready to be our joy and our comfort and our protector. What is astounding is that his care is motivated by genuine love for us. He’s not some distant relative begrudgingly mailing us checks from a giant trust fund in the sky. He engages us because he wants to. His comfort and protection are not earned by our goodness or performance or wisdom. Instead, they originate in God’s love. He’s the initiator who offers joy and care to us even as a bird cares for her young before they can leave the nest.

My fear, for some of us, is that we tend to sentimentalize this verse. We make it sugary and sweet. We imagine our moms cross-stitching this verse and putting it on the wall above the toilet in the guest bathroom. This is a Christian-bookstore-coffee-mug sort of verse. And it should be, but only if we truly comprehend the good it offers to us.

There are a couple of obstacles that may cause us to minimize the power of this verse. The first is the word “precious.” When I hear this word, I go in one of two directions and neither of them helps me grasp the magnitude of God’s love. In my mind, precious is either: (1) the creepy and hyper-possessive hiss from Gollum in Lord of the Rings (of course, this may be a personal problem resulting from the fact that my boys are reading LOTR and like to talk like Gollum), or (2) the most common term applied by 16 year old girls to describe pictures of kittens on Facebook. Nevertheless, God’s love is precious, and we need to discover why.

The second obstacle is the idea of “taking refuge.” In a society that exalts independence, strength, and success, we’d rather pretend that things are just fine. Strong dudes and dames don’t like to run and hide, but the gospel says to proud people: “you are desperately in need of rescue.” Sin is a tyrant bent on enslaving you. Underestimate the strength of your enemy, and you will not seek refuge.


If you dismiss the refuge of God as mere sentimentality, you will miss the point. The preceding verses (Psalm 36:5-7) show us the strength of this hiding place:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

Our God is not weak, and this is not mere sentimental love.  This is an enormous, expansive, explosive kind of love. Look again at the images used. God’s love “extends to the heavens”–that’s unsearchable. His righteousness is “like the mountains of God”–that’s unshakable.  His judgments are “like the great deep”–that’s unfathomable. His protection is big enough for every “man and beast”–that’s immeasurable. God’s love and goodness and care  are beyond description. Nothing in our experience can be compared to his majesty, and his majesty. *

Have you piled up sins higher and higher?
God’s mercy extends to the heavens!

Have storms clouds rolled into your life?
God’s faithfulness dwells amongst the clouds!

Have the consequences of sin blown you around?
God’s goodness is stronger than mountains!

Have the opinions of men beaten you down?
God’s thoughts are as deep as the ocean!

Have doubts about God’s care left you lonely?
God’s love reaches to the ends of the earth!

It is only in God that we find the perfect combination of vastness and intimacy. He is bigger than Mt. Everest and, at the same time, more personal than a bird in a nest with her young. God is both “out there” beyond us and “right here” with us. Theologically, we say that God is simultaneously transcendent (above his creation) and immanent (engaged in his creation). We hold on to both of these truths. If you are in Christ, you are personally, gently hidden under the wings of God who holds the entire universe together with his immense power.

C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) writes of God’s care:

“The Lord overshadows his people as a hen protects her brood, or as an eagle covers its young; and we as little ones run under the blessed shelter and feel at rest. To cower down under the wings of God is so sweet. Although the enemy be far too strong for us, we have no fear, for we nestle under the Lord’s wing. O that more of Adam’s race knew the excellency of the heavenly shelter! It made Jesus weep to see how they refused it: our tears may well lament the same evil.” **

It is a foolish evil to refuse the care of God. He wants to bring joy to us. Why would we turn away from him and search elsewhere? Simply stated, sin is our effort to find joy in something more than we find joy in God. Jesus knew this was futile, and he wept for those who attempted life without God.

To take refuge in our God is both humbling and reassuring.*** It is humbling because we must acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, and, in fact, our attempts at self-sufficiency have put us in grave danger. It is reassuring because we are offered a place of refuge that is as strong as it is good.

If we will not humble ourselves and take refuge in God, then we will continue to deceive ourselves with the idea that we can manage sin on our own. While this path inevitably ends in defeat and despair, the refuge road leads to deliverance and delight in God.  We overcome sin as we delight in God’s love, delight in God’s strength, delight in God’s protection, delight in God’s grace, delight in God’s provision, delight in God’s mission.


Psalm 36 goes on to say of those that take refuge in God (vs. 8-9):

They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.

I love that our place of refuge is not somber and fearful. No, it’s a place of overflowing goodness. When we take refuge in God, we celebrate a great feast as sons and daughters of the Most High King. He offers us unending drink from the best wine. What comfort that our God is not a tyrannical God! What joy that our God longs to share with us the river of his delights!

When we sin, the problem is not that our delights are too strong. In fact, they are wrong-headed and weak. We are tempted to settle for delights of our own making, when heavenly delights await us. To take refuge in God is to repent from little delights to embrace the enormous delight in God. It’s the greatest swap meet of all: trading the shallow, short-lived mini-joys of our lives for the deep, forever joy of God.

As Jesus’ work of redemption works itself out in our lives, may we hide the fleeting shadows of our sin under the trustworthy and eternal Shadow of the Almighty.

What about this post resonates with you? Do you find is difficult to set aside the fleeting pursuits you are drawn to seek? How committed are you to seek refuge in God? Do you find it difficult to believe that God is the greatest joy?



* Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975): Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Ed. D. J. Wiseman.

** Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol 1: Psalms 1-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974).

*** Kidner, Ibid.

On a walk, my daughter, Kate, decided to chase her shadow and see if she could catch it. In this obviously unscripted moment, I did what all parents in the smart phone era do–I pulled out my phone to capture her chase.

For those with concerns about my parenting, she did eventually give up the chase and make her way back to me so that we could finish our walk. As much as I enjoyed the moment, it also got me to thinking about the things that we chase.

Two types of shadows appear in the Bible. First, the Bible points out the fleeting shadows of our lives which we spend in pursuit of wisdom, wealth, pleasure, significance and more. We read in Ecclesiastes:

All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied….Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind….For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? (Ecclesiastes 6:7, 9, 12)

We chase success for significance, health for security, sex for pleasure, vacations for fulfillment, wealth for comfort, body image for approval, good deeds for self-importance, morality for measuring up. We pursue so many things but never find real or lasting satisfaction. They are good things, but they are never enough to bring the fulfillment we want from them.

I love what these verses from Ecclesiastes say about our pursuit: “the sight of the eyes is better than the wandering of the appetite.” In our minds, we think these things will bring us happiness, but our actual enjoyment of them is short-lived. Maybe you’ve experienced this before. You chased after something until you got it, but then you found that you wanted something else. You can feast at a king’s banquet table, but you will be hungry again when the morning comes.

When I was a teenager, I had this experience. I had been living in isolation from God, ignoring him and pushing him away in my rebelliousness. At the time, I had what I imagined every teenage boy wanted, even though I always wanted more. I lived this way for quite some time, but one day I realized that I wasn’t happy. I knew that I had been chasing shadows that would never fulfill me. But I also knew where real joy was found. I returned to Jesus that day. In an instant, I sensed that things had changed. Repentance is like that. It didn’t mean everything was perfect going forward, but I did experience a sense of joy in life that had been missing.

We were made for more that the fading shadows of earthly pursuits. In these, we will never find our ultimate Joy and Satisfaction. Augustine famously said in a prayer to God, “The thought of you stirs [man] so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”*

May we be increasingly dissatisfied with shadow pursuits until our restless hearts find joy, rest and satisfaction in God.

Are you too focused on the fleeting shadow of your life’s earthly pursuits? What are you forever chasing yet never reaching your desired destination? Is your soul deeply satisfied with God?

In Part 2, I discuss our need to find joy and rest under the shadow of God’s protection.



*Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961).