By / Nov 5

Do you feel the world is broken?
(We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen?
(We do)

These opening lines from Andrew Peterson’s song “Is He Worthy?” leave many of us wanting to shout “We do!” We do feel the world is broken. We do feel the shadows deepen. We feel it as a pandemic rages around us. We feel it as natural disasters ravage our lives. We feel it as political tensions dominate our communities. And we eventually find ourselves living in fear. 

According to a Pew Research study, 69% of Americans fear that state governments have eased restrictions too soon amid the pandemic. In May, 83% of Americans said they were concerned that lifting restrictions in their area would lead to additional COVID-19 infections. Fear of this virus is real, and it rages all around us. Is it okay to go to the grocery store or give a friend a hug or travel for the holidays? The things that so many of us used to do without worry are now sources of sometimes intense fear.

On top of the pandemic that seems to keep dragging on is a U.S. presidential election that has consumed media and conversation and been the source of high tensions across the country. A report from the American Psychological Association last month found that 68% of adults said that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was a significant source of stress. This is driven not only by fears of whether their candidate will win but also by fears surrounding filling out absentee ballots correctly, intimidation at the polls, and election violence in the days following the election. 

How should the church respond to such fear?

We should be reminded that Scripture speaks to our fears. Fear should not be a taboo subject in the church. Jesus is not intimidated by our fear. Instead, he recognizes our fear (Matt. 10:28) and invites us to come to him (Matt. 11:28). And Paul reminds Timothy regarding his calling as Christ’s ambassador, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). Our fears are real, but we are not alone. As followers of Christ, we are equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever you’re afraid of in this moment, remember that Jesus is bigger (1 John 4:4), and he will sustain you. 

In our battle against fear, we should be honest in acknowledging that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:2). The enemy wants to use fear to lead us away from trusting in Christ, but fear is not the victor of this story. Those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin or fear. Instead, we are children of God called to righteousness (Rom. 6:16-18).

But what do we do with the very real fear we are experiencing right now? What does it look like for us to surrender our fears to the Lord and rest in him? How do we live in the righteousness God has called us to when we can find reasons to fear all around us? Perhaps this could be a starting place for us:

  1. Stop doomscrolling. Doomscrolling is “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.” Set up app limits on your phone to help you cut back on the time that you spend on social media, or set aside periods of the day to do something you enjoy without checking social media or the news. 
  2. Live in community. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to live in community. For some, that may look different in this season of COVID-19, but nonetheless, we should be faithful in seeking biblical community for the building up of the body of Christ. In community, we find diversity in thought and giftings, which God uses to bring hope and healing and ultimately his own glory (Eph. 4:1-16).
  3. Delight in the Lord. Be faithful to spend some time each day reading Scripture and praying. We were created for relationship with our Creator. Delight in him, and allow him to shape the desires of your heart (Psa. 37:4).
  4. Be still. And know that he is God. He will be exalted among the nations and in all the earth (Ps. 46:10). Trust that the sovereign creator of heaven and earth is still on the throne. None of our fears change who God is. He will be glorified even if our worst fears come true. 
  5. Seek counseling. As we navigate fear, we sometimes experience hurting that we don’t know how to navigate alone but that we know we want to grow through. Seeking a professional counselor can be a step toward light and restoration.

As believers we are called to know Christ, trust in him, and make him known. Any fear—whether that be COVID-19 or a political election or anything else—that is stopping us from pursuing Christ and living to glorify him can be used by the enemy to dishonor our faithful God. Instead, cling to the Father (Psa. 91). Whatever you’re afraid of in this moment, remember that Jesus is bigger (1 John 4:4), and he will sustain you. 

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah with a message about his character that is still true today, saying, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). The fear that we may be experiencing is real, but it has no power over us. God calls us to rest in him. He is the one who is our refuge and strength in the midst of uncertainty (Psa. 46:1). Even though we feel that the world is broken and see the shadows deepen, we will not fear because we know that our God will be exalted (Psa. 46:10).

By / Sep 23

For a long time I’ve had a serious problem. And it is the kind of thing I’ve always thought I couldn’t talk about. My problem is doubt. I know that might not seem like a scandalous revelation. But to be honest, for most of my life I felt enormous pressure to keep my doubts a secret. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first reason is that I didn’t want to undermine the faith of anyone around me. It’s not as though I felt like the people in my life only believed in Jesus because of me. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing someone else to question their faith. The second reason is even more personal. I didn’t want to admit that I often struggle to believe in my best friend. And that is what Jesus has been ever since I was a small child—my very closest friend.

Doubt and despair

I was in junior high school when I first began to deal with doubt. And of all things, I think it was reading Greek mythology that kicked it off. As I began to learn about the vastness of our world and the multiplicity of beliefs about God and life after death, I began to question my beliefs. And for the first time I wondered if I was merely assuming my beliefs were true because they were the only ones I’d ever known.

As time went on, more things compounded these questions. I learned about other religions, each of which had its own perspective on both the divine and the meaning of life. I was introduced to agnosticism and atheism, and alongside these, secular humanism and Big Bang cosmology. And even as a teenager, I realized that Christianity wasn’t something I could believe by default. My faith was no longer something I could take for granted.

In college I was surrounded, for the first time, by smart people who rejected my beliefs. Not only that, but many of them were effective apologists for their own. And during those years, I went through something like the dark night of the soul.

I remember lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, and feeling ridiculous because I was certain no one was listening. I was crushed and in despair. My faith that was once so certain was anything but secure. And Jesus, my best friend, felt so far away. But probably the worst part was that I was ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t want to harm anyone else’s faith, and I didn’t want to admit where I was with my own. 

But thankfully, Jesus came through.

Help for my unbelief

One day during this time I wandered into a LifeWay bookstore and picked up a tiny book called, of all things, Doubting. In this little volume, the author, Alistair McGrath, offered real answers to my questions instead of merely brushing them to the side. Though I have not read it in many years, what I remember most is that McGrath helped me understand that my doubts didn’t erase my faith. He showed me, as strange as it may sound, that my faith was actually the best defense against my doubts. 

 Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too.

Around the same time, I started to dig into apologetics. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions people put forward to challenge Christianity. The more I learned about defending the faith, the more answers and hope I gained. Ultimately, I realized that if the Christian story is true, it is strong enough to withstand any challenge or scrutiny.

But as much as those things helped, nothing helped me more than Scripture. I learned that the Bible is a book for doubters and skeptics. And in my early 20s, I began to devour God’s Word, specifically the New Testament. The more I read, the more I found that my doubts were relieved.

The men and women featured within the pages of the New Testament who followed Jesus and continued to advance his ministry after his ascension laid everything on the line to do so. Nothing stills my doubts more than this reality. The Apostle Paul suffered greatly—stonings and shipwrecks and snakebites—all for the sake of the gospel. For me, his most comforting words were these: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) Or as Lecrae put it, “If Christ ain’t resurrected, we’ve wasted our lives.”

Freedom to doubt, and believe

One of the most helpful passages of Scripture for doubters like me comes from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist—the cousin of Jesus, who declared him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—is in prison. At this time, John knows he is about to die. But before he makes that final sacrifice, literally giving up his head for the sake of his faith, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John is imprisoned because he made enemies by faithfully proclaiming the words of righteousness. But before he embraces martyrdom, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Christ, just to be sure. Instead of rejecting John because of his doubt, Jesus answers John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus assures John that indeed the kingdom has come and that he is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus was not ashamed of his cousin. In that very passage, Jesus offers John assurance, and then commends John as the greatest man ever born of a woman (high praise coming from the eternal king of the universe).

Meditating on that passage brought forth a realization for me. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of John, he isn’t ashamed of me or my doubts either. Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too. After all, Jesus is also the good shepherd. He is patient and gentle with his sheep. If, like me, you are prone to wander in the midst of doubt, Jesus is always faithful to seek us out. And he will carry you, if necessary, in order to bring you back and help you believe.

By / Aug 31

I wore it with the confidence of a No Fear brand ambassador. I believed my neon yellow WWJD bracelet flashed the message I’M A CHRISTIAN, setting me apart from the world and in with the Jesus freaks.

Like other Christian movements of the 1990s, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon spawned a generation of youth group zealots motivated by peer pressure and rewarded with false assurances of holiness. Yet also like other movements during that era, WWJD carried a grain of truth. Christians should act like Jesus. Even in our current politicized evangelical landscape, the command to imitate Christ is indisputable.

Though WWJD had obvious flaws, I wonder if it deserves something of a reboot today. Hop onto any social media platform, and you’ll soon find examples of Christians acting in less than Christ-like ways. While many evangelicals have panned cancel culture, the problem extends beyond casting out a public figure to casting stones at anyone who expresses a thought or opinion that bothers you.

Take the example of the debate about COVID-19 gathering restrictions. Various opinions have been shared and stances taken on social media. In one situation, a commenter tagged several friends and told them to come after a particular individual in order to “share truth.”  Within 48 hours, more than 500 accusing comments maligning this person’s character had been recorded. 

You’d think that Christians would rise above such malicious behavior and strive to maintain a credible witness. Yet, we seem just as likely to set comment threads ablaze as the next keyboard warrior.

Tracing the source of the fire

Why is it so hard for us to tame our tongues on social media? Social scientists posit several theories about what ignites these online firestorms. One study suggests that people become aggressive online to punish those who are violating social norms—for example, insulting a politician who is abusing power. Aggressors assume their words are justified because they believe they’re standing up for the greater good.

Another study indicates that moral grandstanding—the use of moral talk to seek higher social status—contributes to vicious speech online. That study also found a link between moral/political conflict and social vigilantism, which is the desire to correct others for espousing what you consider to be bad or incorrect beliefs. Both moral grandstanding and social vigilantism are associated with polarization and breakdowns in effective communication.

Given our mission to shine truth in a dark world, it’s understandable that Christians could fall into harsh communication patterns while trying to champion moral imperatives. You could call it a misguided inversion of WWJD: “I believe I’m doing what Jesus would do, and will take down anyone who opposes Jesus’ (my) conviction.”

The problem with this mindset lies in a basic yet often forgotten truth: We’re not Jesus. We’re sinful. We don’t possess all authority, wisdom, and power. We can’t peer through our screens and pierce the thoughts and intentions of other people, nor do we bear responsibility for correcting every person for every wrongdoing we think they committed. 

Asserting ourselves as Jesus doesn’t effectively serve Jesus. As Christians who are being sanctified in truth, we still make mistakes and jump to wrong conclusions. So we can’t rely on our assumptions as a compass for how we respond to other people. In fact, the Bible issues a stern warning against those who assume superiority while speaking venomously: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). And as fallen human beings, we still have trouble taming our tongues (James 3:8). 

Christians are supposed to submit every idea we encounter to the authority of Scripture, but we rarely submit our gut reactions to the same scrutiny. Even when righteously indignant fires burn within our chests, we should bring our frustration to the Lord first before spewing it online. Though there might be times to correct error and call out false teaching, we should try to do so gently and with humility. Recognizing our own faults and exercising patience with others can help us avoid the ruin of foolish talk. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2).

Looking to the author and perfecter of our speech

Following Jesus’ lordship means we should learn from observing his communication style during his ministry on Earth. Jesus spoke to others with compassion, gentleness, and concern for their physical and spiritual welfare. He talked to strangers, practiced active listening, sat with the suffering, and remained silent under false charges. At no point did he tell his disciples to gang up on someone who offended him. Throughout his life, Jesus submitted to the mission that directed his every step: to obey the will of his Father.

Of course, we can’t overhaul our sinful speech habits by simply parroting Jesus’ words. Change must begin in our hearts. Michael Horton emphasizes this distinction in Pilgrim Theology: “The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ.” When we root ourselves in Christ, digging into the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and meditation, and service, we can banish corrupting talk and speak what is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). As we draw close to our source of renewal, words of life will naturally pour out of our mouths like fresh springs instead of cesspools.

So what would it look like if Christians today committed to examine our words before engaging online? Making such a radical pledge of self-moderation could revolutionize the digital forum and testify to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

Think of how reflecting on Jesus’ example might change the way you interact on social media. What if, before firing off a nasty comment on someone’s Facebook rant, you prayed for them? What if, instead of bashing a person who tweeted something you considered wrong or offensive, you DMed them to initiate a private conversation? What if we, as children of God being conformed to the image of his Son, made the shocking decision to not post anything on social media when we’re too riled up to communicate in a gracious, God-glorifying way?

We can’t say with certainty what Jesus would post or not post on social media, or if he would create any accounts in the first place. Rather than invent hypothetical scenarios of what Jesus would do if he were to take over our social media platforms, I suggest we adopt his main ambition in life. Before posting, let’s pause and ask, “Would this please God?” For we aren’t ambassadors of our own opinions or feelings, but rather imperfect, in-progress followers of Christ.

By / Jul 7

Many pastors are in the midst of an identity crisis. As the importance of religion in the American psyche wanes, along with the unique experience of a global pandemic, churches are experiencing a corresponding decrease in attendance, baptisms, and budgets. Too many pastors find themselves scrambling to apply the secrets of secular business to the local church. Christian publishers have responded by publishing innumerable books each promising a “silver bullet,” multipoint plan that will fix all the issues in the local church. While there is indeed value in strategic planning and discipleship models, many pastors, myself included, have bought the book and tried the plan only to learn that ministry is not reducible to a multistep process. In this setting, Herold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart is a breath of fresh air.

Developing a pastoral habitus

In The Care of Souls, Senkbeil (M.Div. and STM, Concordia Theological Seminary) combines lessons he learned watching his father work on the family farm with over three decades of pastoral experience to provide practical advice to pastors. Senkbeil argues that pastors need to develop a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil defines a habitus as “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17). Seminaries cannot teach a habitus, nor can a pastor develop a habitus by reading the newest book on pastoral ministry. Pastors refine a pastoral habitus through years spent patiently walking with the church in faithful ministry. Through the failures and successes of his ministry, the pastor slowly develops his habitus.

Senkbeil’s concept of a pastoral habitus is promising. The rigidity of silver-bullet solutions to local church woes is why most multistep plans fall far short of their lofty goals. What works in my church in the Cajun country of Louisiana would almost certainly be an abject failure in a large urban church. Senkbeil’s habitus has much more flexibility. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all approach, Senkbeil encourages pastors to be faithful to their calling while acknowledging that pastors fulfill their calling in countless ways. The ultimate goal is faithfulness; however, faithfulness can look different in different settings.

A pastoral habitus begins with understanding who a pastor is and what a pastor should be doing. The pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of Christ. As a servant, the pastor’s highest aspirations are faithfulness and obedience. Senkbeil uses the apt example of a sheepdog and shepherd to illustrate this point. Pastors are to God what sheepdogs are to shepherds. The sheepdog does not know everything that the shepherd is planning. The sheepdog merely does what the shepherd has taught it to do. Likewise, as pastors, we are not privy to all of God’s plans. Indeed, his ways are often inscrutable. He is truly a God of surprises. Our highest goal is to be faithful servants of God our King.

God’s command to pastors is simple and yet complex. God has called pastors to lead Christians closer to himself. On one hand, this charge simplifies ministry greatly. Pastors and congregations have seemingly illimitable ideas of what a pastor ought to be doing. At times, serving as a pastor can feel like being the CEO of a small corporation! In this setting, having the single goal of leading people to know and love Christ is refreshingly simple.

On the other hand, the call to lead people closer to God is incredibly complex. As Senkbeil recognizes, pastors lead people closer to God in many different ways. Pastors will find Senkbeil’s view of Scripture refreshing. Senkbeil argues that one of the ways pastors lead people closer to God is by rightly applying the Word of God to everyday experience. When sitting by a hospital bed, a pastor can lead a person closer to God by comforting them with Scripture. Likewise, pastors can lead people closer to God by helping people understand their identity in light of Christ. In Christ, they are a new creation and have been given victory over sin, and pastors can help people embrace this view of themselves. 

Senkbeil also stresses the importance of the pastor’s spiritual standing. Indeed, pastors ignore their spiritual standing at their own peril. Senkbeil argues that too often pastors focus on the external problems in their church without realizing that most external problems have an internal, spiritual root. As God’s missionaries, pastors and their families are the target of demonic attention and hatred. To lead people closer to God, pastors must have a healthy devotional life full of Scripture and prayer. Indeed, Senkbeil argues that all pastors need a pastor to hold them accountable. 

Leading people closer to God while remaining personally devoted to the faith is a multifaceted undertaking that cannot be succinctly described in a single book. The complexity of God’s simple call on the pastor’s life is why pastors need a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil’s book is refreshingly different from most books on pastoral ministry precisely because he never provides a blueprint for how to establish a pastoral habitus. Such blueprints are simply too rigid to withstand the demands of the pastorate. Instead, Senkbeil provides the basic building blocks. By being faithful to God and their church, any pastor can develop a pastoral habitus tailored to their specific context, and Senkbeil’s book is a welcome companion along the way.

By / Aug 27

Our lives can be dictated by our emotions, riding the rollercoaster to the heights in a time when things are going well and crashing into discouragement and frustration when we face difficulties, failures, and obstacles. It’s often a rollercoaster we don’t enjoy, yet getting off can seem impossible.

How do we take away the power from those uncontrollable things around us? How do we develop a contentment that overrides the experience of both the highs and the lows? 

A battle for contentment

I once thought about contentment as a predisposition or a spiritual gift—something that happened to a person like her eye color or athletic ability. Yet, I have concluded that in order to minimize the power of unwanted emotions and to experience the fullness of life in Christ, we must recognize that we are in a daily battle for contentment. 

I recently experienced a season where almost every area of my life went through a major change—having a third child, moving, and a significant job shift for my husband. I had so much to be thankful for and so many prayers answered, yet negative emotions were dominating my days. I was frustrated daily by the actions of my small children. I felt insecure in new and old relationships. I had to step back at work because I couldn’t get it all done. All of these situations left me discouraged, anxious, and jealous of others who didn’t seem to have the same struggles. 

My story and the circumstances are specific to me, but I believe most people can relate to the feelings of not measuring up, being dealt an unfair hand, or being left behind. We wonder why we didn’t get the job, the praise, or the friends. The emotions of discouragement, and even anger, become a powerful force in our lives.

A crippling comparison

In this season, I found myself deep underground on the rollercoaster ride. But the Lord in his kindness began to reveal ways in which I could pursue and experience a contentment found in him alone. I also talked to a counselor and my doctor and would encourage anyone who experiences the emotions I have described to do the same. 

Yet, through Scripture, godly counsel, and prayer, I began to understand my emotional experience largely as the result of my sin and a false gospel I was believing. One regular area of sin was the practice of comparing my life to that of other women. This happened in real life, on social media, at work, and at church. I was watching friends and colleagues achieve goals, become leaders, build beautiful home lives, and flourish in relationships. At least, that’s what I thought. This daily exercise of self-judgement, as well as covetousness, was like a wrecking ball swinging into my heart.

Scripture helped me unwind my twisted heart. At the end of the book of John, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, and Peter repeatedly stated his love for Jesus. Jesus also told him that “someone else will tie your hands and carry you where you don’t want to go,” alluding to Peter’s martyrdom. Peter turned to look back at John and asked Jesus, “What about him?” There seems to be fear, jealousy, and competition mingled together in his words.

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” Some translations read, “You must follow me.”

I have concluded that in order to minimize the power of unwanted emotions and to experience the fullness of life in Christ, we must recognize that we are in a daily battle for contentment.

When we focus our attention on others, whether their successes or their failures, we derail our own relationship with Christ and misunderstand our relationships with others. We need the truth of the gospel to reorient us. Those of us who are in Christ are co-heirs with him through his death on the cross; we are sons and daughters of the King. This links us together as family and partners in the mission of God. We should see each other “as members of one body,” each doing an important and interconnected work. (1 Corin. 12)

We should view those who are unbelievers with compassion because we know they are trapped in sin. We are tasked with sharing the hope we have with them, with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). There is no room for self-focused comparison in this mission. Praying for the people God has placed in my path and seeking to grow in relationship with them are some of the best ways for me to push away sinful thoughts. 

A distorted gospel 

In addition, I found a distorted gospel at the heart of my comparison. I wanted to follow Jesus, but I wanted it to result in ease. I wanted others to see it and applaud. I wanted it to result in the blessings that I had determined were appropriate. In short, I thought my good works counted for something. Paul writes about this warped pursuit of godliness in 1 Timothy 6: 3-8. 

“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

A false gospel brings frustration. My emotional experience was evidence that I was not believing right things about God and about the life of following him. I was being led more by ambition, self-sufficiency, and pride than I was by the Word of God and the Spirit. In 1 Timothy 6:10, Paul said that those who love money have “wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Mine were self-inflicted wounds. 

The battle of contentment is work. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:11-12, “Flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness,faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called.”  

We need God’s help in this battle. We will find him in the Scriptures. Go to God and let him work in your heart. And may he help us understand rightly our place as his undeserving children, changing how we see ourselves, our lives, and those around us—all for his glory.

By / Dec 1

Jonathan Leeman talks with Dan Darling about how he's helping equip pastors to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ into an increasingly secular world.

Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks.

Twitter: @JonathanDLeeman