By / Aug 22

This past week, I opened my computer and logged in to Facebook. I read an article about a recent shooting, scrolled past a post about a new virus, and read someone’s account of living with long COVID (long-term effects from the infection). Moving on to Twitter, I skimmed through a heated argument about the Dobbs decision, read news about famine and war, and saw several death announcements. I decided not to move on to Instagram. 

I often feel heavy and overwhelmed after spending time online, and I know I’m not alone. Someone recently shared with me how much he had struggled after reading about the Ukraine war. He saw pictures of a family being separated and began to replay these images in his mind. Lying awake at night, he considered what he would do in a similar scenario. 

Another person described her struggle with anxiety and racing thoughts. She had watched a video of a recent school shooting and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She worried about her own children. She grieved the children who were lost. The thoughts would not relent. 

Constant online access has made us daily witnesses to the grief and trauma of millions of people. Each time we open our internet browsers, we encounter news that forces us to consider issues of political conflict, theological disagreement, global suffering, financial stress, illness, and war. Many people feel a sense of tension. We want to stay informed, but too much information can leave us weighed down with thoughts and emotions that feel too heavy to bear. 

What should we do? Should we attempt to carry the sorrows and burdens of the world? Or should we distance ourselves from other peoples’ suffering to protect ourselves? Perhaps it is some of both. 

Remember those who suffer 

Scripture suggests there is something good and holy about remembering other peoples’ suffering, even when they are physically distant from us. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We honor people in their suffering by not forgetting about them. Instead of withdrawing from the world, we bear witness to other peoples’ pain and remember them in the same way we would want to be remembered in similar circumstances. 

Remembering often awakens a sense of compassion, which often leads to a desire to act. It might lead us to pray, give money, volunteer, speak up, or push for change. These are all good things. But too much remembering can lead to racing thoughts and anxiety. Overextending compassion can result in compassion fatigue. Giving to the point of exhaustion can lead to burnout. Absorbing too many stories of other peoples’ trauma can result in secondary trauma. That feeling of tension remains. 

Carry your own load 

We can break out of this tension by balancing wisdom from Hebrews 13:3 with wisdom from Galatians 6:5. A few verses after we are told to carry other peoples’ burdens in Galatians 6:2, we are instructed to each carry our own load. 

Recently, I realized that I was trying to carry someone else’s load. This person was experiencing a heavy struggle, and there were some practical ways I could help to carry her burdens. I could listen and ask good questions. I could sit with her in her grief. But I could not fix the problem. There was a depth to her emotional pain that I could not truly, fully understand. Aspects of her suffering could only be carried between her and God. I had to let go. I had to let her carry her own load. 

As we are inundated with stories of global suffering, we may be tempted to carry loads that do not belong to us. We may hold on to a false sense of responsibility that leads us to overextend ourselves in our care and compassion for other people. We may attempt to fix problems and over identify with burdens that were never given to us to carry. 

Cast your anxiety on the Lord 

The other day, after I closed out of Facebook and Twitter and went to bed, my mind remained filled with thoughts about what I had just read. What if I also get long COVID? What do I think about this or that debate? How should I respond to this person or react to that cause? 

Lying in bed, I used a strategy I often teach people who come to me for counseling. I closed my eyes and began to mentally list my concerns. I gave each concern a name and visualized myself writing it down on a slip of paper. The pandemic and fear of illness went on one slip. Images of hungry, displaced people went on another. A political post that frustrated me, a news article about a school shooting, and several death announcements each got a slip. I took each slip of paper and visualized myself placing them inside a box one at a time. I closed the box and remembered that God was right there with me. I handed him the box and prayed a short prayer, releasing my concerns to him. 

In counseling, this strategy is called containment. In Scripture, we see this idea described in 1 Peter 5:7 as casting our anxieties on the Lord. It is a way to set aside thoughts, feelings, and images that feel upsetting or distressing so we can proceed with our day. The goal of containing our thoughts and giving them to God is not to ignore or downplay important issues. It isn’t being selfish, indifferent, or ignorant in the face of suffering. Instead, it is a way to accept God’s care for us. He invites us to trust him by releasing to him the fears, problems, and concerns we cannot solve. 

What people, causes, local issues, and global concerns weigh on you today? Sit for a moment and honor those who suffer by remembering them. Perhaps choose one or two ways to carry someone else’s burdens. But then, let go. Carry your own load, and let your neighbor do the same. Release your anxieties to God. The world is not yours to carry. 

By / Oct 5

Jill Waggoner: You’ve mentioned your vision for next year’s annual meeting as “Jesus is the Center of it All.” What does this mean for us as believers and for the SBC as a whole?

Ed Litton: I loved J.D. Greer’s theme: “The gospel above all.” The Lord made it very plain to me that it is one thing to say the gospel is above all, but what really makes the gospel above all? Jesus has to be at the center of it all. We can assume that is the case for people, but I think it is a false assumption. It is a constant [work] in my life to make sure Jesus is the center of it all. I think the struggles we’re facing as a convention are going to be helped when we return to our first love.

JW: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the SBC?

EL: I think unity is key, and it’s what I hear the most from people. I’m teaching right now in the book of Philippians. The very text I’m going to be approaching this Sunday, chapter 2:1-11, tells us what unity is, what destroys unity, and ultimately, our example of unity is Christ. We have to become self-forgetful and Christ-centered. Unity is something we all have a choice in — how we’re going to live and participate, how we’re going to disagree with one another. The toxic nature of the public discourse within the SBC should be alarming to all of us. 

I hear people say [things] about one person versus another person in our convention. I hear all the time: “He hates this other person.” That’s unbecoming a child of God. That is so elementary and so clear. One might say, “Well, that’s not his problem. That’s what people are saying.” We need to clean up our public discourse. We need to go back to the basics of the gospel, and with Jesus as the center of it all.  We must say, how does that mean I treat my neighbor? 

Obviously, we’re having issues with sexual abuse, and the convention in Nashville was very clear they want that addressed. I think, also, that racial reconciliation is huge. Southern Baptists said, as they added to the 2025 vision, those two things. One of our greatest leaders of my lifetime, Fred Luter, said, “Southern Baptists just don’t do racial reconciliation well.” That’s wrong [of us] because the Scripture is very clear. This is not a theory. This is biblical, gospel reconciliation. 

JW: What does the SBC need to do to make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse? 

EL: Some of our state conventions have really led the way in this. They have taught pastors, and they hold seminars for pastors. But we need this in every state. We need a national convention focused on how we prepare pastors in seminary to know how to report and what to report, so that is the first line of defense. Then there are other things we can do to make our churches safer for children and safer for the vulnerable. We also have to be safe for those who have been abused. They need to know that they will be heard, that they will be seen, and that we care about their suffering. All of those things are important. 

The convention made it powerfully clear that we’re to have an investigation of our own Executive Committee. It’s always a painful thing to be investigated, but the truth is what sets us free, and we need to know the truth. 

JW: How can God redeem times of suffering? What have you learned about God and his work in your own life? 

EL: One of the first questions I was asked after my wife, Tammy, died was, did your view of God’s sovereignty help you or hurt you? I said yes. 

It was utterly devastating that God would let me hurt that bad. But at the same time, it was the most comforting thing that this wasn’t an accident. I’m still a part of a divine plan, and God is moving through that suffering. Now, it’s not automatic because you have a choice as to what attitude and mind you will have toward suffering. 

We often, as Baptists, are critical of the health-and-wealth gospel, but I think we have our own form of health-and-wealth gospel — that everything’s going to work out great. My kids are going to be good and not embarrass me too much. But the reality is that is a false gospel. Our salvation came through suffering. And Jesus [said] to take up your cross and follow me. He didn’t say, take up your Lexus and follow me. We’re on a mission with him into a world of suffering. 

By the way, our credibility for the gospel hinges on how well we suffer. We have the resources for suffering. We have a presence of the powerful Holy Spirit of God. Jesus walks with us. He draws near to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit. We cling to his Word. We comfort one another. We pray for people that suffer. My church was the most amazing ministry to me in my times of suffering. Ultimately [suffering] is the platform for the gospel. 

One of the reasons our churches are not as effective as we could be or should be is because we have gotten distanced from the world that’s hurting. People don’t think of us when they’re hurting. They think of a bar. They think of drugs. They think of maybe a counselor or a therapy or another religion. But they need to think of us as people who know what suffering is about. Our best, and most effective, evangelism is when we’re not separated from the world, but we are actually showing them the love of Jesus Christ in the midst of their suffering. 

JW: What encourages you the most about the SBC?

EL: The thing that encourages me the most right now is that Southern Baptists are a praying people. The people who came to the convention [in Nashville], or didn’t come to the convention, pray. Other presidents have told me that there is a unique power in this role that comes from the fact that Baptists pray. 

The other thing is watching our SBC Disaster Relief work. Kathy and I stumbled onto Disaster Relief workers in Grand Lake, Colorado, nine months after a tremendous fire had swept through that region, hit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and destroyed homes. They are still out there ashing out homes, and most of them are in their 70s!  Man, what a great way to spend your retirement. I encourage [your readers]: Don’t think about sitting on a beach the rest of your life. These people are out there doing hard work, loading heavy equipment, but with smiles on their faces, sharing the gospel with people and the love of Jesus. That, along with what’s happening with hurricane relief and what’s happening on the border with different associations and churches that are feeding the hungry and helping, is one of the greatest testimonies of what we really believe.

JW: How should we be praying for the SBC and Christians, particularly in America?

EL: Pray that we will return to our first love, that Jesus will be the center of it all. That we will renew our focus on sending missionaries and planting churches, revitalizing churches and making your own church revitalized. We’re in a terrible time coming out of COVID. We keep using that terminology. I’m not sure we’re out of this time, but wherever we’re at right now, we have to be there, and we have to say, “All right, what’s God’s plan?” I don’t know of any pastor whose church has grown during the COVID times. I’m sure there are some. Most of us, however, have suffered profoundly. I have buried more people that I love in the last two years than I want to ever think about. 

It’s important that we ask the Lord, what are we doing here? What would you have us do differently? We can’t hold on to things that we’ve always done. We’ve got to say, “Lord, what are you doing,” and follow him. That’s one of the greatest challenges for any pastor. 

Pastors are exhausted. This is a good time for us to put ourselves before the Lord. One of the best and most dangerous verses in the Bible is in Psalms: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psa. 139:23). God wants us to enter into a time of not just renewal and refreshing, but a time of really searching out our motives, and, ultimately, getting back to the simplicity of the gospel. 

By / Apr 16

He was a professional skier. During a competition he was favored to win, he lost control on the downslope, plunged 30 feet off course, and rolled like tumbleweed down a hill until a tree trunk broke his fall. When paramedics found him, he denied any pain, but repeated over and over, his voice taut with panic, that he couldn’t move his limbs. 

Days later, he lay in an ICU bed with metal screws and rods fixing his spinal column into place. We’d saved his life, but couldn’t save his spinal cord, and he remained paralyzed from the shoulders down. Hour after hour he stared at the ceiling, and when we examined him each morning, he’d answer “yes” or “no,” but said little else. 

Then one day, his nurse motioned for us to talk with her in private. She looked stricken. “I offered to brush his teeth, and he suddenly burst into tears,” she said. “He says everything he cares about is gone, and that he doesn’t know who he is anymore.” 

I am lost 

Although few experiences are as devastating as quadriplegia, outbursts like that of this young man echo in every hospital hallway. When an accident or sudden illness assails us, our first desperate pleas are for our survival, and when we escape with our lives we gush with gratitude. In time, however, the dust settles. We stare dumbfounded at our strange surroundings and realize that the lives through which we once absentmindedly strolled have disintegrated. The images we took for granted have burned up, and the elements of ourselves we most highly prized crumble into ash. 

In such moments we can lose sight of who we are. Severe injuries that leave us disabled not only impair us physically, but also can threaten our understanding of our identity, value, and dignity. 

I remember the lament of a man who survived a stroke, only to sink into despair when he could no longer provide for his family. 

A woman for whom I cared would moan through the night from searing pain in her dying limbs, but refused amputations because she could not fathom life without the freedom to walk. 

Another woman cried in anguish when an operation cured her thyroid cancer, but forever altered her singing voice. 

Such stories highlight that even when we escape a health catastrophe with our lives, every disaster leaves a mark. Some scars so disfigure us that we no longer recognize ourselves, and like Jeremiah stumbling through the ruins of Jerusalem, we cry out, “I am lost” (Lam. 3:54). 

Called out of the darkness

And yet, when we look with dread upon the pieces of our fractured lives, our worth derives from something far more permanent, far more precious than these scattered fragments. Our worth doesn’t derive from our self-reliance, our talents, or our independence. We can’t earn it via anything our trembling hands accomplish. Rather, our worth springs solely, wholly, beautifully, and immutably from Jesus. His blood, for ours. Our renewal, caught up in his. 

Our true and foremost identity has nothing to do with the vigor of our limbs or the keenness of our eyesight and everything to do with the truth that we are image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:26), loved by God (John 3:16), and made new through Christ (Rev. 21:5).

Consider the words of Peter:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

In Christ, when God looks upon us, even in our lameness, even when we cannot recognize ourselves, he sees righteousness and holiness, a reflection of his own marvelous light. 

A child of God

One day, after a horrific accident, you may glance in the mirror and struggle to recognize yourself. You may remind yourself that you are a spouse, a mother, or a father. You may remember that you were a lawyer, a teacher, or a bus driver. But first and foremost, remember that in Christ, you are a child of God. Revisit John’s declaration: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; And so we are!” (1 John 3:1).

Cleave to this truth if the steps you took for granted decades earlier now feel like labor. Revel in itw hen the person you envisioned yourself to be seems a distant memory. When the days unfold before you like a path plunging into the fog, the destination hazy, and the journey bleak, dare to rejoice that all meager, worldly identifiers shrink before who you are in Christ

As a follower of Christ your identity, now and forever, is as one called out of the darkness into his holy light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). By that light, you conform to the image of God’s Son. By that light, God wraps you in his love. And nothing, not illness or death, not halting speech or a crippled limb, can snuff that light out, or enshroud you from its brilliance (Rom. 8:38–39). 

This article was adapted from Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor’s Reflections on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God, Crossway, April 2021.

By / Dec 8

I didn’t know about Advent growing up. We had an Advent calendar—a blue cardboard illustration of Bethlehem with punch-out doors that revealed mini Bible verses—that my sister and I dutifully unpacked every year and remembered to open in fits and spurts. I heard the term in church from time to time during December and ultimately came away with the idea that “Advent” was just a grown-up word for “Christmas season.”

But Advent is not the same as the Christmas season; at least, not by default. A person can do Christmas-y activities every day without observing Advent. But participating in Advent inevitably leads to a celebration of Christmas.

The word “advent” simply means the beginning of something important or the arrival of someone important. In the case of Christmas, it means both. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we think about, look forward to, and finally celebrate the advent of God’s incarnation—his showing up on Earth as a human. That’s a very big deal, and it is very hard to understand. Christ’s coming was anticipated for a long, long time, and it foreshadows another, final advent of Christ that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a lot to think about. No wonder Advent is so long.

Part of what I love so much about Advent is that it doesn’t carry the same expectations that Christmas sometimes does. There is no pressure to be cheerful, no need to get everything (or anything) just right. Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

Yearning for Advent 

It wasn’t until I was a new mother—new not only to motherhood but to the world of rare genetic disease and medical fragility and disability—that I found myself yearning for an Advent practice. 

My son’s life started with a long stay in the NICU. Then a feeding tube. Then seizures. Then a diagnosis that told us nothing certain other than that things would be difficult. By that Christmas, I had been living in pure survival mode for months, barely functioning during some of that time. More than any other time in my life, I felt myself deeply wrestling with the thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. And in response, I felt my soul cry, Come, Lord Jesus. Advent resonated with me that year in a way it couldn’t have before, and I wanted to participate in it meaningfully.

Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

The sensible thing would have been to choose a simple practice, perhaps a daily reading to start with. But I craved something hands-on. My life was so messy and up in the air that it felt important to me to make something concrete and beautiful.  So, together with a couple of friends, I hatched plans and made craft store runs and worked and worked and worked. What I ended up with was a hand-crafted Advent calendar consisting of a garland of hand-sewn felt envelopes, each embroidered with the number of the day. I selected my own progression of Scripture, wrote each out by hand on fancy paper, cut it with fancy edges, slipped it inside the envelope, and fastened the hand-sewn button to seal it up like a present. 

My family did use that calendar for years, but it was the making of it that impacted me most deeply. It was unnecessary and over the top and felt desperately important. Every step of the process echoed the wonder of Christ’s birth back to me in the midst of some of my darkest hours. Christ’s coming is an affirmation that our physical world matters to God. Therefore, what happens in it matters. And, therefore, my suffering matters. Simultaneously, his coming is a reminder that our physical world isn’t everything. It isn’t the end. In a way I didn’t fully grasp at the time, making the calendar was stepping into those truths. With my hands and my time, I was crying out, I need You so much more than I ever knew. I need to be reminded of the promise of beauty and wholeness to come.

Even though the crafting of that Advent calendar was so meaningful for me, it was not a sustainable tradition. I never took on a task of that scale for Advent again. But it did teach me the importance of doing something tangible during the season when I’m turning my mind to God’s physicality, to his humanity. 

A stick-with-it approach to Advent 

As my son got older and was joined by cousins, my sister and I wanted them to establish their own hands-on Advent practice. The trouble was that we couldn’t find resources we could stick with through the whole month. Some had too many words for little ears and some required too many steps or supplies for tired moms. So, we started experimenting with designing our own activities. Over time, our project evolved into Unexpected Gift, a storybook and activity book set that was published this year

Our goal for Unexpected Gift was to provide an all-in-one resource that would make the observance of Advent meaningful and accessible for a wide range of ages, abilities, interest levels, and life situations. It needed to be simple, hands-on, and gospel-centered. For several years, the development of the books was part of our own Advent practice, and we still use the completed materials every year.

In our home, we don’t have a regimented program for practicing Advent, but more of a small handful of (more-or-less) daily rhythms that quiet us down and focus our attention. These days, our Advent practice involves three main things:

  1. Slow down. After Thanksgiving, we start to wind down for the year. We shed commitments as the month of December goes on, stopping therapy sessions, ending school early, backing away from regular social commitments. We slow down and make space wherever possible. The point of Advent is to prepare him room in your heart and mind and life, and that can be tricky if you’re cramming too many extra things, no matter how fun or good, into already full days.
  2. Do one day from Unexpected Gift. I help my son make the day’s craft (we almost always do the most basic version), we read one page and one verse (from the ornament). Sometimes we’ll talk or pray about it a little bit. It’s just right for us.
  3. Shut down early. In the evenings, we stop a few minutes early. We turn off our screens, turn down the lights, and sing one Christmas carol together. Everyone takes turns choosing and sometimes we try to learn more verses than we knew the year before. Most nights, this little ritual turns into extra minutes of closeness and quiet. Ten easy minutes well spent.

If ever there was a year to establish an Advent practice, this is it. We are all carrying more fear, more sadness, and maybe more anger into this holiday season than we have in a long time. I encourage you to choose something simple, tangible, and gospel-centered: a touchstone for the coming December days. Let it remind you that your life on those days matters and that Jesus came to us to give you the promise of beauty and wholeness.

By / Aug 7

It was life as usual on Tuesday evening in Lebanon’s capital city when a massive explosion ripped through the city—overturning cars, throwing people across the room, shattering windows and doors for miles around. One hundred and thirty-five people were found dead, while thousands more were injured and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. 

We would soon learn the cause—2,750 tons of highly explosive materials caught fire at the city’s port. We would also learn about the ongoing negligence of officials to safely dispose of or export these explosives before a tragedy like this occurred.

You may have heard that the Lebanese people are angry and raging at the government. And it’s true that some are. But as I walked into the scene of the tragedy today, I saw a different story all around me. Hundreds of citizens have picked up shovels and brooms and showed up to help. A teenage girl offered me bottled water, a stranger extended his afternoon snack, an older man insisted I take a sack of bread, and a church group burst into worship together as they took a break from shoveling glass out of a hospital.

I found myself thinking that there are always stories of redemption if you get close enough to the tragedy to see them. The Lord has not abandoned us. These moments lift my spirits and lift my eyes to Lord, for all of our help comes from him. 

In light of the Lord’s heart for redemption and restoration, here are three ways to pray for Lebanon right now.

Pray for daily bread

This catastrophe happened as Lebanon is already on the brink of economic collapse. Due to mismanagement of finances, the country has been experiencing daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water, and limited public healthcare. These, among other things, led to a nationwide revolution starting last October and continuing until today. COVID-19 shutdowns then put the struggling economy on its knees. Since October, the Lebanese pound has lost 75% in value and the unemployment rates are soaring.

In short, we were preparing for famine before this happened. Now this blast has taken out the port, which was the main import source of food for the country. Collateral damage was 85% of Lebanon’s grain silos, making things like bread and pasta even scarcer.

Pray for peace

Lebanon has been a chessboard for proxy wars since its inception and is also no stranger to civil war. Tensions are high right now within the country and without. Blame has been cast, accusations have been vehemently denied, and rumors are swirling around. The threat of war stands at the door.

Pray for wise council and wise decisions made by leaders. Pray that the voices of peace will be louder than the voices of dissension. Pray that the plans of wicked men would be thwarted. Pray that love would be stronger than vengeance.

Pray that the gospel would bring hope

As I watched people working together to rebuild today, I wondered if more was being rebuilt than brick and mortar. I wonder if God could use this tragedy to bind people together in unity. There are many Christians here, willing to be boots on the ground, to stand in the heat and hand out water bottles and pray with people; willing to shovel glass and sweep sidewalks; willing to share the hope of a God who has not abandoned us.

Pray that we will have wisdom to see what God is doing and join him. Pray for supernatural hope and joy to continue to bubble up in our own hearts. And pray that the Spirit will move in this land again and reveal Jesus to weary hearts and minds.

Editor’s note: For the safety of this author, we cannot include a name.

By / Jul 29

The New Testament presents the Christian life as a journey, a pilgrimage—what one Christian author has described as “a long obedience in the same direction.” In Scripture, we see a picture of the Christian life with all of its anquish and simulatenous hopefulness. A spiritual struggle, a battle, continues throughout one’s life. This struggle is quite real as exemplified in the life of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25 and his teaching in Ephesians 6:10-17. And his own difficulties on full display in 2 Corinthians 11 must not be ignored.

The tension between the now and not yet

Yet, for Paul, these challenges are not an excuse for a joyless or slothful life. In fact, his approach is quite the opposite. Deliverance from the struggle is clearly promised, but it is an eschatological hope. We need to recognize that believers live between the fulfillment and consummation of ultimate redemption. We are “in Christ,” but the old age of flesh is still in existence. While our justification has been accomplished by Christ at the cross and affirmed by his resurrection (Rom. 3:24-4:25), we nevertheless are “in Christ” and “in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). Between Christ’s resurrection and his return, there is an interval, which is the time in which we currently live, a time characterized by tension as believers struggle with sin, weakness, suffering, and death (Rom. 8:17-27; 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5; Phil. 3:10-14).

The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day. Conversion is only the beginning; the new has not swallowed up the old. We do not attain sinless perfection in this life, nor are we ever freed from the tension and struggle with indwelling sin. Believers remain in the conflict of which we are ever aware and responsible. Christ followers are called to persevere in the midst of this struggle so as not to be overcome by the world, the flesh, or the devil. We seek to make progress in godliness with the hope of complete transformation into Christlikeness at the time that we receive our resurrected bodies at the consummation of our redemption (Rom. 8:29-39). 

We sometimes read about professing believers who deny the faith they once professed or who experience what seems to be a moral collapse. While there are various factors and life issues that contribute to these events, one of the problems for the church is that the New Testament picture of tension and struggle is not adequately portrayed, causing people along the way to give up or give in. The picture of the Christian life, as presented by Paul and the other apostles, must continually be presented in the church’s teaching and preaching. For a proclamation that promises only peace, pardon, and power will ultimately result in disillusioned followers of Christ who live with a sense of defeat and duplicity. 

The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day.

While the understanding of struggle and tension is never an excuse for slothful living, believers need not be depressed nor conclude that grace has lost the struggle. Instead, perseverance is a marker of genuine life for true and persevering believers. We must constantly be judging indwelling sin as an offense toward a holy God. We live with the lifelong struggle while also living with the sense of joy, peace, and thankfulness for the life of grace and for the eschatological hope of ultimate transformation. The conflict seen in Romans 7 and 8 is real and does not represent only a minority of the regenerate community. Instead, it applies to the whole church as we constantly declare our dependence on God, the grace provided for us in Christ, and the spiritual enablement that comes from the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.

Helping one another pursue faithfulness

Are there practical ways that will encourage faithfulness in this life as we await our ultimate redemption? Perhaps Paul’s concluding words in his first letter to the Thessalonians will provide a helpful guide. Participating in a grace-filled church community that shows compassion for those in their struggle will be extremely helpful (1 Thess. 5: 14-15). Encouraging believers to regularly read the Bible devotionally and to develop a prayerful lifestyle is another important step. 

We are told in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to be joyful, to pray continually, and to give thanks in all circumstances. Joy is not the same as happiness; it does not depend on our circumstances and is the antidote to gloominess. Whether in the midst of conflict, in times of desperation, or on a peaceful day, we are exhorted to always be in an attitude of prayer. We may not be happy about all of our circumstances, but even in them, we are to be thankful, because it is God’s will for Christ followers to be people of gratitude. Ambrose of Milan said, “No duty is more urgent than returning thanks.” When our lives are one constant “thank you, Lord,” we are liberated from selfish ingratitude and lives of debilitating self-interest.

As we participate in this journey with others in the church, we are called to encourage theological and spiritual discernment (1 Thess. 5:19-22). We are not to be gullible on the one hand or overly critical on the other, but we are called to a life of wisdom and discernment that comes from knowing and understanding God’s Word and his will and way for believers. We need to surround ourselves with other believers who have Spirit-enabled insight into the meaning of Scripture and its application for the contemporary world. 

Believers need to prioritize the importance of making progress in this pilgrimage while also finding ways to help others along the journey. We are able to do this as we are sanctified through and through in every aspect of our being (1 Thess. 5:23-28). This journey is not individualistic, but it is to be carried out in fellowship with others, praying with and for others, investing in their lives and asking others to do the same for us. Genuine fellowship and love for others is vital for progress in the Christian life and for the gospel to advance.

May God help us all develop lives of faithfulness carried out in grace-filled communities that will provide encouragement for us and for others—a community in which we can celebrate together and cry together. We must recognize that the Christian life is not some one-time decision but is an ongoing purposeful and intentional commitment for a lifetime. Both the struggle and the deliverance are true and real in the lives of believers. Although Paul speaks autobiographically about these things in Romans 7 and 8, it is apparent that he speaks by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as well as by implication for all of us who are constantly in need of God’s grace, enablement, and blessing. May God grant us grace to persevere in this life so that those who live and serve with us in community as well as those who come behind us will find that we were faithful to the end.

By / Apr 30

Josh Smith shares some of the central lessons he's learned through his family’s suffering. 

By / Dec 11

Richard Stearns shares how Christians can help alleviate human suffering around the world. 

By / Nov 3

Erick Erickson delivers a keynote address on The Suffering Family and the Goodness of God at the 2018 ERLC National Conference. 

By / Aug 14