Category Archives: Featured

Hearing God in the Midst of Suicidal Thoughts

No one ever suspected. I worked hard to have a polished smile and on-cue laugh. But several times during my teen years I contemplated taking my own life.

Had someone asked me why I was thinking about suicide, I would never be able to rationally explain my reasoning. It's hard to admit that I thought life was so hard that I wanted to end it—especially considering how easy my life has been in comparison with people suffering all over the world. It's also hard to describe the experience of depression. It's like trying to describe living in a room that is pitch black.

Suicide-prevention-pictureOnce I became a Christian, I thought I had victory in Jesus, my Savior. Yet within a few months I found myself fighting the demons again. Why did I continue to struggle with this? Why does depression continue to crouch at my door even today?

It can be dangerous to speak generally about depression and suicide, and I don't want to give anyone the impression that such thoughts of self-harm are acceptable. While they are more common than we care to admit, we should not give in to the debilitating lie that death is better than life. This is true especially in light of our overly psychologized culture that too readily qualifies us as victim—and not also a perpetrator in our own mess.

No Easy Answers

Lest you think that I ascribe an overly simplistic approach to depression (by saying it's all about decisions and doing), let me clarify that I offer an anecdotal account and do not mean to prescribe or denounce your experience. But for those going through such struggles, I hope you may find that much of my antidote—listening for the voice of God in Scripture—will speak to your own experience.

I am writing to you who feel like suicide shouldn't even be entering your mind. After all, you have the mind of Christ, and such thoughts seem contradictory to his. You know you have been declared righteous—but you don't care. You just want the world to stop. You want the blur of confusion and numbness to go away. If you could just cast yourself upon the rocks below, you think you would be able to enjoy bliss.

Let's start with what we know to be clear in Scripture. You know that it is wrong to murder (Lk 18.20). You know that God will never leave you or forsake you (Heb 13.5). You know you have been brought out of darkness into his marvelous light (1Pet 2.9).

Yet you also know that the darkness seems to pull you in like a black hole. No matter how much you preach to yourself, the darkness doesn't flee. You feel alone and forsaken. And you know you have murdered yourself a hundred times over in your heart.

God Meets Us in the Darkness

This is where the gospel meets us. The sadness you feel over your sin and the world is exactly how you should feel. The darkness surrounding you is real. No shiny, happy people holding hands here. Grief and disgust is entirely appropriate for our fallen world.

When I had suicidal thoughts in my Christian life I used to condemn myself for thinking such horrible things. I used to try to think of my "happy place." But I have come to embrace the reality we live in: This fallen world is painful.

God invites you to embrace this sadness, for on the other side lies hope. It may only be a flickering flame, yet it pushes back the darkness. Hear your maker's voice asking, "Where are you?" (Gen 3.9). And as your head is heavy with grief, you hear his voice again saying, "My soul is so sorrowful, even to death" (Matt 26.38). You hear him as he weeps and cries out in anguish. You feel the torment. You grieve. You feel helpless. And yet, you hear his voice again asking, "Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" (Jn 20.15).

This is the beginning of the remedy. In the midst of your garden of sorrow, seek his face. Know that he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53.3). You are not alone or forsaken.

The Magi and the Eternal Effect of Our Work

Have you ever wondered what led the wise men to undertake their long, dangerous journey to Bethlehem? What led them to believe that the particular star they followed would lead them to a great king?

What most people know about the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, few of which are supported by the biblical text. Matthew does not suggest the Magi were kings, he does not say they were three in number, nor is it likely they were from the Orient.

magiWho then were these Magi, and where did they originate? Craig Chester, past president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy gives the following description of the Magi:

The group of Magi in question came "from the East." They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances in order to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects and offering gifts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus' kingship, or that Herod would regard their arrival as a very serious matter.

The Magi were important, powerful people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew's way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.

There are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors. For example, Tiridates, king of Armenia, led a procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. Josephus records that Magi also visited Herod in about 10 B.C. A visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew's gospel.

It would not, however, have gone unnoticed. In fact, Matthew 2:3 says that not only was Herod disturbed but also "all Jerusalem with him." The Magi were such important individuals; they probably traveled with a large entourage that included soldiers, even a small army for protection. So it should not be surprising that Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem were troubled when they arrived.

What Led the Magi to Jerusalem?

The Magi must have seen an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi indicated that they saw something in the night sky that was so significant it convinced them to make the trip of more than a thousand miles to Jerusalem to look for this new king.

How could seeing "signs in the sky" inform the Magi that a king of the Jews had been born?

The answer may take us back more than 500 years to the work of one of God's faithful servants during the Babylonian exile. We read that King Nebuchadnezzar assigned Daniel to the high office of "chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners" (Daniel 5:11). In other words, Daniel was appointed chief of the Magi.

The Magi of the first century would have most certainly studied the writing of Daniel and possibly other Jewish writings with which Daniel would have been associated, such as the book of Isaiah. This connection between Daniel and Magi may help to explain why the Magi in question 600 years later expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century.

In fact, there is evidence that Daniel's prophecy of the coming of a powerful Jewish king was well known to many in the ancient world in the first century. Both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about a widely held belief based on ancient writings among the Jews of a great world ruler that would be from Judea. It is likely therefore that the Magi followed the star based on their study of Daniel's writings.

Because Daniel was faithful in his work, God used him to bring the news of the birth of Christ to both his fellow Israelites and even the some of the most powerful, knowledgeable, and influential Gentiles of the day.

For the Good of the City

In Jeremiah 29, we find part of Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon: "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

These exiles, including Daniel, had seen the destruction of their homeland, the death of their family members, and the demolishing of their holiest place of worship. It must have been hard to work for the good of a city that had destroyed his homeland, yet Daniel obeyed God's call and became "chief of the Magi" and an adviser to the king.

In a way, we too are in "exile," for we live in a fallen, sinful world and look forward to when Christ will return and restore it. But rather than sit passively, we actively engage in the world because God calls us to "work in the peace and prosperity of the city" here and now.

With Christmas passed and the business year about to start again it is good to be reminded about the effect of our work. God calls us to be faithful in the here and now, even when we can't always see the result of what we do. We have no idea how God will use it.

Take the story of Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher. Concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of his pupils, he never gave up, even though the task of teaching a group of rowdy boys could be mundane and difficult.

It turns out that through Kimball's teaching, evangelist D. L. Moody came to Christ. In his lifetime, Moody led thousands to Christ, including Wilbur Chapman. Chapman himself became an evangelist who converted the famous preacher Billy Sunday. During his many evangelistic meetings, Sunday led Mordecai Ham to accept the gospel. And who did Ham reach? His preaching led to the conversion of Billy Graham, who preached to more people than any other individual and led untold thousands to Christ.

Today, few people remember Edward Kimball. Yet because of his faithfulness and tenacity, God used his efforts to set off an incredible chain of events that saved millions.

The story of the star of Bethlehem and the Magi does not start in Matthew 2. It extends hundreds of years back to the Babylonian exile where Daniel faithfully answered God's call to work and engage in the culture—even in the most difficult of times. If we are faithful in this same call, who knows how God will use what we do today to further his kingdom tomorrow.

The Ridiculous Grace of Adoption

Have you ever heard of the game Two Truths and a Lie? It's a game where each person shares three statements about herself, but only two are true. The other people in the group try to guess which statement is the lie.

I'm a pro at this game because I have a secret weapon. The key is having one really outrageous truth that sounds like a lie. My truth is that "my parents were at the circus when I was born," and since people assume that my parents probably weren't carnies, they assume that's my lie.

My parents really were at the circus when I was born. I'm sure they were having a great time with my older brother, but I was at the hospital . . . being born.

The explanation: I was adopted at birth.

Ridiculous Grace

adoption1The adoption agency my parents used had a policy that if a sibling was old enough, he could go back with the caseworker and actually carry the child out to the parents.  So my brother, Jeremy, carried me out to my parents. I did not look exactly like a Gerber baby. I had been delivered with forceps that left a slight indentation on one side of my face and temporarily pinched a nerve, which made my mouth hang down on one side. But when my brother carried me out in his 6-year-old arms, he presented me to my parents and said, "Isn't she pretty? Doesn't she look just like me?"

For me, being adopted is a picture of God's total sovereign control over all of the specific details he lovingly orchestrates in our lives. Over time, I have come to recognize a theme in my life of what I call ridiculous grace.

I'm talking about the times God intervenes in our lives in such flagrant, extreme ways. He interrupts the logical order of things, and turns everything upside down in the best way possible. He took me from being an unplanned pregnancy, to being a much-wanted "chosen child."

And there's the gospel—things were going along one way, but God intervened, and changed everything, because he's God and he's good and sovereign.

When God adopts us into his family, it's a picture of what Christ has done to come and save us and bring us to the Father. And when Christ, our elder brother, presents us to his Father he says, "Isn't she pretty, doesn't she look just like me?" The Father loves and accepts us because of what Christ has done on our behalf.

In the past few years, my experience of adoption has taken on new meaning in a lot of wonderful ways. Watching my brother and sister-in-law adopt my nephew, Nate, and seeing how he is so clearly a part of our family since before the foundation of the world, I "get it" on a whole new level. I had the immense privilege of going to the final court appointment when Nate was legally adopted as their child. That is the ceremony after the first few months when a judge pronounces that the adopted child is legally yours.

When the judge was finishing the proceedings, he said, "When I drop this gavel, it will be just as if Nate had been born to you." I felt like I was in the inner circle with Nate and knew what he would one day know, that the judge spoke the truth, and that it had been that way since long before the gavel dropped.

And as I watched my brother, his eyes welling up with tears, hold his now-legal son, I knew that it is great to be right with the judge, but it is so much greater to be loved by the father. The one who would stop at nothing to have you as his own.

Earthly Version of God's Gift

adoption2In the past few years, this theme of adoption has become a part of my daily professional life. Having been adopted, I've always assumed I had somewhat of a near-miss in that my biological parents may have considered the choice not to continue with the pregnancy. So I've always considered myself naturally and fully pro-life.

God faithfully provided a job for me at an organization called Heroic Media. We're a national organization that uses mass media messaging on television, radio, the Internet and billboards to connect women in crisis with help and hope at pro-life pregnancy resource centers.

As I learned more about the circumstances surrounding so many unplanned pregnancies, I saw the hopeless nature of many of those situations. I felt called to share with women about hopeful alternatives.

It's because someone shared with my birth mother about the option of adoption that I am alive today and had the joy of becoming a mother myself this summer. Through my pregnancy and in the moment I met my baby girl, I gained a new and deeper appreciation for the selfless love that is embodied in motherhood and particularly in adoption.

I was born out of what I imagine at times felt like a hopeless situation, but because of God's providence in giving my biological parents the courage to give me life, I have a life defined by hope. I want other people to have that life, to see the picture of redemption and hope painted by God in Christ.

God has given us an indescribable gift in adopting us as sons and daughters. And I believe you will find that the gift of participating in the earthly version of adoption is a pretty fantastic fringe benefit.

Barton and Copeland: The Bible Says Soldiers Should Not Suffer from PTSD

The Story: On a Veterans Day broadcast program, televangelist Kenneth Copeland and controversial historian David Barton told listeners that soldiers should never experience guilt or post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from war.

The Background: As Religion New Service reports, Copeland read from Numbers 32:20-22, saying, "So this is a promise — if you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the Lord for the war ... you shall return, you're coming back, and be guiltless before the Lord and before the nation."

"Any of you suffering from PTSD right now, you listen to me," Copeland said as Barton affirmed him. "You get rid of that right now. You don't take drugs to get rid of it. It doesn't take psychology. That promise right there will get rid of it."

Barton added that many biblical warriors "took so many people out in battle," but did so in the name of God.

"You're on an elevated platform up here. You're a hero, you're put in the faith hall of fame," Barton said. "... When you do it God's way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you're esteemed."

You can watch the full video here.

Why It Matters:  "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Proverbs gives us two approaches and expects us to use wisdom in knowing when they should be applied.

How then should we answer the fools Copeland and Barton? While it is tempting to ignore them completely, I believe that would be a mistake. Had they merely proffered another laughably inept reading of the Bible, it would have hardly been worthy of notice. Throughout his career, Copeland has been accused of various heresies, most of which he created through his inept handling of Scripture. And though Barton is still, inexplicably, trusted by many conservative evangelicals, he has himself built his reputation on twisting and misrepresenting historical documents for ideological and propagandist purposes. They are, in other words, among the last people who could be relied on to intelligently interpret a text.

Yet many people will erroneously believe that Copeland and Barton speak as experts on the Bible and that their interpretation is the natural result of a literal or inerrant view of Scripture.

To those who are unclear on that point, let me express what I believe is the shared opinion of Biblical scholars, intelligent laymen, and just about anyone else who has ever bothered to read the Bible: Copeland and Barton's application of Numbers 32:21-22 to modern veterans suffering from PTSD is one of the most profoundly stupid interpretations ever uttered.

When those verses are read in the context of the chapter, and in the context of book of Numbers, and in the context of the Old Testament, and in the context of the entire Bible, it becomes almost impossible to imagine how anyone with an elementary school level of reading comprehension could have come up with such an interpretation.

Yet this type of misreading is sadly common. In his book Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, James W. Sire lists 20 popular ways people twist Scripture to mean something orthodox Christians have never believed it to mean in two thousand years. Barton and Copeland appear to be using what Sire would call a "Biblical Hook":

BIBLICAL HOOK: A text of Scripture is quoted primarily as a device to grasp the attention of readers or listeners and then followed by a teaching which is so nonbiblical that it would appear far more dubious to most people had it not been preceded by a reference to Scripture. Example: Mormon missionaries quote James 1:5 which promises God's wisdom to those who ask him and, then, follow this by explaining that when Joseph Smith did this he was given a revelation from which he concluded that God the Father has a body.

Their mishandling of Scripture is inexcusable, but what makes it unconscionable is they use God's Word to shame and berate veterans with PTSD. Barton and Copeland imply that PTSD is due to guilt over actions carried out in wartime that leads to self-condemnation. This is a profoundly ignorant view of both the causes of combat-induced PTSD and the motivations behind medical and psychological based treatment.

PTSD is psychological trauma that can change how the brain and mental processes function. While in combat, veterans are exposed to the stresses of hyper-violence while living in a near constant state of hyper-vigilance. As psychiatrist Jonathan Shay explains in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character:

A human enemy strikes not only at the body but also at the most basic functions of the human mind. The Vietnamese enemy defeated the soldier's perception by concealment and his ability to understand what he saw by camouflage. The basic mental state of intention and will was attacked by ambush, deception, surprise, and anticipation . . . . The cumulative effect of prolonged attacks on mental function is to undermine the soldier's trust in his own perceptions.

On returning from combat, the veteran is no longer exposed to violence, yet the reflex for hyper-vigilance -- whether conscious or subconscious -- may remain intact and beyond the person's control. "Exposed to continuous threats of warfare," says Shay, "the body remains mobilized for battle indefinitely." Veterans suffering from PTSD can lose some of the authority over mental processes, such as perception and memory, which civilians take for granted.

Throughout most modern wars, from World War I to Vietnam, both the military and civilian worlds denied or downplayed the existence of this form of psychological trauma. It wasn't until the post-Vietnam era that the medical community began to recognize that experiences of PTSD sufferers were not only real, but also that the causes were likely rooted in genes and brain chemistry, rather than a defect in the veteran's character.

For Copeland and Barton to resurrect this "blame the victim" trope and coat it with the veneer of Biblical warrant is Satanic. Christians need to counter this demonic, gospel-destroying message by letting the men and women who are suffering from combat related PTSD know what the Bible really says about hope, healing, and deliverance through Christ Jesus.

Most Popular at TGC Last Month

Top Articles

(1) Can a Christian Commit Suicide? (Miguel Núñez)

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Though Scripture doesn't tell us explicitly, there are good reasons to believe even the sin of suicide can be forgiven.

(2) Why You Should Criticize Your Pastor (Jared C. Wilson)

Measure your thoughts out appropriately, choose the right hills to die on, and pray for your pastor. He needs it.

(3) Church, We Have a Problem (Tullian Tchividjian)

Is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God rescues the lawless, the unethical, and the disobedient?

(4) Toward a Biblical Approach to Dating (Paul Maxwell)

The Bible legitimizes dating in this age, but it is not necessarily holy.

(5) How the Ayers Family Buried Their 8 Children (Kristen Gilles)

We can trust our Lord no matter what suffering we may endure because he has already endured it for us. He will help us until the day he returns.

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(1) Why We Should Legalize Murder for Hire (Betsy Childs)

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(2) Where Did All These Calvinists Come From? (Matt Smethurst and Mark Dever)

(3) Learning from a Lesbian Visitor to Your Church (Trevin Wax)

(4) The Loving Intolerance of God (Melissa Kruger)

(5) How to Get Real, Honest Community (Bob Thune and Will Walker)

Top Interviews

(1) How to Prepare for Pain and Suffering (Tim Keller, Collin Hansen)

Tim Keller's new book forces us to confront life as it really is and not as our Western fairy tales suggest.

(2) Evidences of a Maturing Evangelical Mind (Michael Lindsay, Albert Mohler, Phil Ryken)

Three respected institutional presidents discuss evidences of a growth in Christian thinking.

(3) Is God a Moral Monster? (Bryan Chapell, J. D. Greear, Mike McKinley)

Three pastors discuss street-level objections to God's morality.

Top Book Reviews

(1) Strange Fire (John MacArthur | Review by Thomas Schreiner)

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Though I largely agree with MacArthur exegetically, I'm afraid he paints the charismatic movement with too broad of a brush.

(2) A Call to Resurgence (Mark Driscoll | Review by Andrew Wilson)

The flaws in the central chapters of Mark Driscoll's new book are significant enough to spoil it.

(3) Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Tim Keller | Review by Joni Eareckson Tada)

After 46 years of quadriplegia, Joni Eareckson Tada sometimes wonders if there's anything new to say about affliction and the Almighty. That's why Tim Keller's new book is so special.

News and Notes

(1) TGC Announces a New Site en Français

Our new French-language website [Twitter | Facebook] is filled with editorial content provided by pastors, theologians, and other church leaders in France, Quebec, the United States, and elsewhere. Our editors they hope to highlight and assist the French-speaking church by producing and distributing thoughtful, faithful resources from a variety of sources.

(2) Arabic Translation Web Project: The Gospel as Center

Edited by Don Carson and Tim Keller, this book will help Arabic-speaking church leaders join the movement dedicated to a Scripture-based reformation of ministry practices and the centrality of the gospel—and stand united under the conviction that what holds us together is worth fighting for. Please consider helping us make this resource available.

(3) God's Word, Our Story: The Gospel Coalition 2014 National Women's Conference (June 27-29 | Orlando, Florida)

Join us for this conference for women but all about the Word! We'll focus on listening to this Word . . . living in light of it . . . helping others hear it . . . worshiping according to it . . . waiting on the Spirit who inspired it . . . exalting Jesus at the center of it. The stellar lineup of speakers includes TGC founders Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper. Dozens of workshops run in themed tracks and cover topics such as biblical theology, sexuality, evangelism, writing, the persecuted church, and the ministry of hospitality.

Ordinary Cook, Unlikely Hero

He is history's most widely read preacher outside of Scripture. More written material exists from him than from any other Christian author, living or dead. It's estimated he preached to more than 10 million people during his lifetime. The ripple effect of his life and ministry is immeasurable.

And he got his theology from an old school cook.

Unlikely Mentor

Mary King was the stout and sturdy cook at Newmarket Academy in Cambridge, England, when a young teenager named Charles Haddon Spurgeon enrolled in the fall of 1849. Over the next two years "Cook," as the students affectionately called her, would feed the boy far more than food. In his autobiography Spurgeon recounts:

She was a good old soul [and] liked something very sweet indeed, good strong Calvinistic doctrine. . . . Many a time we have gone over the covenant of grace together, and talked of the personal election of the saints, their union to Christ, their final perseverance, and what vital godliness meant; and I do believe I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays.

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While her handle on Scripture was impressive, King didn't live and move and have her being in the realm of ideas alone. She was a woman of vital godliness, one who "lived strongly" as well as "fed strongly." As Spurgeon reflected, "There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their own souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days." King, he said, was one of those people.

The cook's appetite for spiritual nourishment was voracious. Once when young Charles asked why she kept attending a particular church from which he himself gleaned nothing, King replied there were no other options. He then quipped it'd be better to stay home than to hear such insipid teaching. "Perhaps so," she said, "but I like to go out to worship even if I get nothing by going. You see a hen sometimes scratching all over a heap of rubbish to try to find some corn; she does not get any, but it shows she is looking for it, and using the means to get it, and then, too, the exercise warms her."

Spurgeon's unlikely mentor had a sense of humor, too. On one occasion when he bemoaned not finding so much as "a crumb" in the minister's whole sermon, she said, "Oh! I got on better tonight, for to all the preacher said, I just put in a not, and that turned his talk into real gospel."

Forever Grateful

The Prince of Preachers never forgot King and the formative role she'd played in his life. "A cook taught me theology!" he would often say. In fact, upon learning of her financial straits years later, the world-renowned pastor sent regular checks to support her from a distance.

After Spurgeon himself died in 1892, a professor in Belfast who'd known him wrote to The Christian World: "[Charles told me] it was 'Cook' who had taught him his theology. I hope I am not violating his confidence in mentioning this fact. It is no discredit to the memory of a great man that he was willing to learn from the humblest sources."

Mary Kings Today

We don't know when Mary King died, but her descendants live on among us. We may not notice them, quote them, or follow them on Twitter, but these faithful plodders are seen and honored in the sight of heaven. Indeed, Christians have always served a God who delights to use those whom the world ignores. As the apostle Paul put it to that ragtag band in Corinth:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)

King's influence makes little sense in the world's economy, but Scripture reveals and experience confirms its value in God's kingdom. So who are the unsung heroes in the story of your life? Whose quiet service has the Lord used to touch and shape you? Are you still eager to learn from the humblest sources?

You're a Theologian

Mary King didn't have a theology degree, but she was a theologian. And so are you. In fact, the moment you think or say anything about God, you're doing theology. It may be bad theology, no doubt, but theology it is.

King was a fine theologian because she relished studying her Savior.

We study what we love, don't we? When I was a kid I studied Michael Jordan statistics, not because I loved stats, but because I loved Jordan. Or imagine if today you were to ask about my wife, and I responded, "Oh, she's incredible—the most amazing girl I've ever known! She's from Oregon, has beautiful red hair, and hates chocolate." Would my chocolate-loving brunette who hails from Virginia feel honored and loved by this description? Of course not. I can gush about her all day long, but unless my words reflect who she really is, she'll be insulted. Does it make sense for us to operate with careless indifference when it comes to how we think and talk about God?

Mary King is proof that theology is intensely practical and absolutely crucial—the joy of those who cherish him. As the psalmist put it, "Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them" (Ps. 111:2).

You Could Be Next

Countless thousands are spiritually indebted to the Prince of Preachers. He was indebted to a cook. "From her I got all the theology I ever needed," he wrote in his first published book in 1857.

But what if King hadn't known her Bible? What if she'd felt knowing doctrine was irrelevant, impractical, not part of her job description? What if she'd sighed, I'm just an uneducated school cook, not some Bible scholar. What do I have to offer?

Don't begrudge obscurity, don't avoid opportunity, don't underrate faithfulness. And don't overlook Mary King figures—those inconspicuous heroes of whom this world isn't worthy.

Who knows? God might just call you to be one.

Miley, Sinead, and Grace-Filled Mentoring

In the plot of Disney's Hannah Montana, "Miley Stewart" (played by Miley Cyrus) becomes a famous pop star who uses the stage name "Hannah Montana." Because we live in a world of inauthentic relationships, Miley goes to great lengths to disguise "Hannah Montana" in order to protect her true identity. The young girl worries that if everyone knew who she really is, they would like her only because of her fame.

mileysineadLife seems to be imitating art in a twisted reversal of this plot line. Miley Cyrus appears to be wearing the disguise of a sexually liberated pop star, hiding the former, more modest version of her previous self, so that she can have it all while really having nothing at all. The world is witness to her shocking display at the VMA's, in her new video, "Wrecking Ball," and in a recent appearance on Saturday Night Live. Sadly, this may just be the beginning.

Sinead's Motherly Appeal

Over the years we've all watched a number of child stars self-destruct while longing for them to have parents or other wise folks who might protect them from the exploitation inherent to the industry. Many of us were therefore pleasantly surprised by the recent open letter to Cyrus by singer Sinead O'Connor. In her "motherly" appeal, O'Connor pleads for Cyrus to take another look at who she is becoming and who is profiting from her new pop persona. O'Connor writes "in the spirit of motherliness and with love" as someone who has been in her shoes:

I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief, that it is in any way "cool" to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. It is in fact the case that you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether its the music business or yourself doing the pimping. . . .

You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don't encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals. . . .

You are worth more than your body or your sexual appeal.

If you read the whole letter you'll find coarse language as well as many statements where we as Christians would not fully agree. But we can all embrace the central claims made by O'Connor—that Cyrus is being exploited, that she has placed herself in a dangerous situation, that young women ought to protected, that she ought not be objectified. These truths reflect our understanding that human dignity resides in having been created in the image of God, which means we are to be valued above all earthly values—including the greed and sexually depraved vision of a godless industry.

O'Connor rightly says that we must not encourage immodesty with our daughters because they may become the "prey of animals," those who exist to fulfill their own self-serving desires. O'Connor reflects wisdom gained from her experience. She explains that "nakedness" is the industry's means to fulfilling their financial ambitions—and the reason she chose her own unique look.

The look I chose, I chose on purpose at a time when my record company were [sic] encouraging me to do what you have done. I felt I would rather be judged on my talent and not my looks. I am happy that I made that choice.

O'Connor has taken some heat from women—including from Cyrus herself—and this open letter has since been removed from her website. But I think as the church, we should be willing to point to this appeal to Cyrus as an example of sacrificial love from a woman who has been viewed as a mentor and now seeks to function in that way.

Cost of Mentoring

Even further, we should recognize the cost of speaking truth into someone's life. It may mean that we are brutalized for being counter-cultural. It may lead to the functional end of a relationship. Or it may lead to an immediate blessing in the life of a woman who needed to hear that truth. Titus 2 calls women to risk everything for the sake of the gospel and to be godly examples to younger women, and for younger women to seek their wisdom. Our words should be grace-filled, patient, and firmly rooted in the Word of God.

As for Miley Cyrus, we can pray for godly influences that can help reroute her toward a journey that honors God while using her obvious talents. Her life is worth far more than what the industry will gain in profits.

But the truth is, Miley isn't the only one who needs mentoring. We all need the teaching and encouragement from those who have gone before us and have walked in a similar pair of shoes. Ultimately, the trials and struggles of younger women are not all that different from the older women around them. Wherever we are, we've been called to live as Christ lived—a life of humility and sacrifice—and to encourage the same in the lives of others.

Economic Malady, Church Opportunity

A majority of Americans can't find full-time work. And more than two-thirds of those who are employed full time hate their jobs or consider themselves disengaged from their duties. These are startling numbers, but they represent an opportunity—and an obligation—for the church.

Unemployment and underemployment are widespread. There are 11.8 million unemployed Americans, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The United States experienced 54 straight months with the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent or higher, the longest stretch of unemployment at or above that rate since the BLS started keeping such data.

But those numbers don't paint the full picture. According to the BLS, just 47 percent of adult civilians have full-time jobs. There are more than 8.2 million Americans who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, according to the The Wall Street Journal. More than 1 million "discouraged workers" have stopped looking for employment. The American Enterprise Institute reports that a full 30 percent of adult American men are neither working nor seeking work.

Miserable at Work

Given this environment, you might expect those with full-time work to feel fortunate, even ecstatic. Two more studies reveal otherwise. In June, The Los Angeles Times reported on a Gallup survey that found a staggering 70 percent of American workers—roughly 70 million people—are disengaged at work or outright hate their jobs. In addition to the emotional and spiritual toll these numbers represent, Gallup notes that this malaise is a "problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies."

A new study from the London School of Economics confirms this widespread dissatisfaction in the workplace. When respondents considered a range of activities—such as dancing, dressing, and conducting household chores—work edged out only one option: illness. According to the researchers, "paid work is ranked lower than any of the other 39 activities individuals engage in, with the exception of being sick in bed." A Wall Street Journal headline summed up the findings: "Work Makes People Miserable."

The magnitude of these numbers indicates that Christians and non-Christians alike are struggling with workplace and economic issues. Unfortunately the church often overlooks this problem. Pastor Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, writes:

God designed the local church to be a transformed people scattered in their various vocational callings throughout the week. One of the highest stewardships for local church leadership is to encourage and equip apprentices of Jesus for their work. Yet this stewardship rarely gets the attention and commitment it requires.

At a 2013 Oikonomia Network seminary faulty retreat, pastor Dan Scott, author of The Emerging American Church, echoed that sentiment. "American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy," Scott noted. "The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are focused on lesser things."

A dualism that neglects to address the workplace—where most Christians spend the bulk of their waking hours—is at odds with the theology of vocation. As British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote, "The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith."

Americans are struggling in the workplace and in the economy. The pandemic nature of these economic maladies cries out for church engagement. Financial challenges, family strife, depression, contentment, effective witnessing, and myriad other areas are affected by these realities. Fortunately, the church is in a unique place to explain Christ's restoration of work, the meaning of suffering, and the hope and peace that result from putting our trust in him.

How Churches Can Help

Here are three things church leaders can do:

1. Teach and affirm a theology that recognizes that:

  • work is an integral part of God's plan from Genesis to Revelation;
  • God uses workplace challenges to shape our character and increase our faith;
  • our labor, no matter how menial, serves others; and
  • Christians' response to work-related circumstances can be a witness—or turnoff—to those around us.

2. Be intentional about understanding the struggles of your congregants.

Nelson, in the short video below, describes his own efforts to ascertain the vocational and economic well-being of those in his pews. Pastors should listen, care, and support, while affirming the intrinsic (not just instrumental) value of work in the context of Christian hope.

3. Assess how effectively your church or parachurch organization is ministering to the unemployed and underemployed within your congregation and community.

Examine whether you are providing encouragement, dignity, and accountability, or merely engaging in what long-time urban ministry leader Bob Lupton describes as "toxic charity." Look for ways to foster entrepreneurship to creatively meet human need, add value, and further the common good. Engage business people in finding solutions to joblessness and poverty.

When the emptiness and futility of worldly approaches are exposed, people are open to new answers. When material security is threatened, people seek new sources of stability and hope. The church has the message and resources necessary to revive the broken spirit and restore the downtrodden. The question is whether the church will discern this opportunity and take action.

Questioning Within the Borders of Faith

"If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3)

I was reminded of the psalmist's question as I read through Matthew Lee Anderson's latest book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. David's desperate question (and Matthew's excellent book) has particular resonance for me. David's question kept me seeking, kept me hoping, kept me pressing on during a dark season of doubt during my sophomore year of college. In the psalm, "the foundations" that David is referring to are most likely the wise and just rulers of Israel, those responsible for the well-being of God's people. If the wicked destroy such leaders, what will the rest of Israel do? When the guardians are laid low, who will protect the people?

In my experience, the question hit closer to home. It was not the safety of foundational leaders that I was concerned for, but the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures, the foundation of my faith and the source of my knowledge of Jesus Christ. During my freshman year at Texas A&M, the Bible broke open to me in unprecedented and life-altering ways. I devoured sermons, articles, and books, and most of all, the Scriptures. During those days theological anchors such the doctrines of grace and the glory of the gospel were set. "Growing by leaps and bounds" is the phrase that always comes to my mind when I think about that year.

Unprepared for the Questions

In the fall of my sophomore year, I decided to develop this love for the Scriptures by taking a class on the Old Testament. In that class I was first exposed to higher criticism of the Bible, to the JEDP theory and other attempts to deconstruct the integrity of the Bible and treat it as just another ancient (and error-filled) collection of texts. Suffice it to say, I was ill-equipped to deal with such theories.

The questions came and kept on coming. Is the Bible true, trustworthy, and authoritative, or is it just another human and fallible expression of man's religiosity? What if Christianity isn't true? What if Jesus isn't the way to God? What if Buddhism or Islam or atheism are actually true? If the Scriptures are up for grabs, how can I have any assurance about reality? And given the eternal stakes involved, how can I begin to sort through it all?

The question of the stakes involved really set me spinning. The reality of hell landed on me like a ton of bricks. I knew what the Bible taught: millions of people, including people I knew, would suffer for eternity for their rebellion against God. But now I was unsure whether it was true. The swirl of questions sent me into a tailspin: extreme anxiety, panic attacks, desperate tears followed by emotional numbness, an extended spiritual depression. In that context David's question about destroyed foundations proved to be so meaningful to me. If the Scriptures are destroyed as my foundation, what am I supposed to do?

David's question didn't answer my questions. They remained as potent and incessant as ever. In fact, they had become more than mere questions; they were now deep and unsettling doubts. And as Anderson points out in his book, doubting and questioning aren't the same thing:

Doubt seems to be more of a state or condition, while questioning is a pursuit. When we doubt, we hesitate over whether to welcome or accept what is before us. We waver in our stance and hold ourselves back from committing ourselves. The posture of doubt is even different from outright unbelief: it is neither the boldness of an outright rejection or the humility of belief. It is, instead, a vacillating double-mindedness that prevents us from living a fully integrated life within the world. It is to be tossed about by every wave and wind of the sea.

But David's question was so helpful precisely because it didn't try to answer my specific questions. I'd already chased (and caught) enough answers to know that I could always (and would always) come up with more questions. David's question anchored me for the same reason that John Piper's description of "self-extinction" in his biographical sketch of Charles Spurgeon did: It confirmed that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't the first to feel the despair of foundations melting beneath my feet. And in the absence of answers, that was enough to keep me going.

Christ Is the Answer

Psalm 11 confirmed for me that it wasn't answers that I really needed. Instead, I needed to encounter the Answer, the One whose throne is in heaven, the Righteous One who tests the righteous so that they can stand before him. David's question re-oriented my questions, so I now sought the face of Yahweh.

I wish I could say this re-orientation produced dramatic results, that God responded to my new pursuit with the "Job moment" I so desperately desired. I recall begging God to break down the door with a whirlwind and kick me in the face with his own questions, for at least then I would know that he is real. But the Job moment never came. Instead, I kept believing, even if it was a "help my unbelief" kind of faith. I kept seeking since it was the only way to find what I was looking for. I kept hoping since, I thought, if the biblical God is real, then surely he can break in. And over time, the darkness became less dark, the depression less intense, the questions less incessant. Dawn came slowly, but it did come. I came to realize that the shakiness I felt was not so much in the Scriptures but in me. I realized the truth that, as Anderson writes, "We cannot . . . 'suspend judgment' on whether Christianity is true as though we are standing beyond and outside of it and rendering a verdict in the court of law. . . . If our faith makes us who we are, then all our questioning happens within the borders of faith."

So question within the borders of faith. Let your faith seek understanding. Or, as David shows us in Psalm 11, take refuge in the Lord, then ask about those foundations. This posture, this type of faithful and imaginative exploration, will inevitably lead us into the presence of the Lord. There we behold his glorious face, shining with brilliance sufficient to still all doubting waves and calm all panic-stricken seas.

I Wouldn't Trade Seminary for Anything

Editors' note: This is the fourth in a series of brief articles from students and graduates answering the question, "What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?" Previously:

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I associate my seminary years with a wide range of emotions and experiences. I went through a period of unhindered excitement and joy, of grave disillusionment, of utter heartbreak, and ultimately of satisfied contentment. I experienced a new appreciation for my church, the personal heartbreak of divorce, the camaraderie of lasting friendships, the frustration of academic hardship, and the satisfaction of slowly discovering my place in God's kingdom. It wasn't anything close to a utopian experience, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Like any of God's good gifts, seminary can be rightly appreciated, but it can also be idolized and mismanaged. Your time will be temporary and focused, and as such, the atmosphere is uniquely specialized for the specific task you face. Your primary challenge is to find your identity in Christ rather than in academic, social, or vocational success. Embrace your seminary experience, just not too tightly.

Seminary is a great gift, given to us that we might do even better jobs as ministers than we might have otherwise. As a result, it's our job to steward that gift appropriately and with the proper perspective. This, of course, is a balancing act for anyone. Here are five things I've learned that, by God's grace, will help you along the way.

1. Be Comfortable as a Mere Church Member

Seminarians often spend their first few months looking for a church that's not a "seminary church," then gunning for some kind of leadership position or teaching opportunity within that church a few months later. Stop. The best thing you can do for your growth as a leader is to serve your church in ways that are commonly overlooked. Be the sound guy for a while. Wash dishes after church supper. Sit in the pews, take in the sermon, and talk about it with others in the congregation—especially those who tend to be ignored. Servant leadership is more than an abstract leadership philosophy; it's a concrete series of actions you're in the perfect position to live out at this stage of your life.

2. Have Other Hobbies or Interests Besides Theology

If all you care about is theology, biblical studies, and the inner-workings of kingdom ministry, non-seminarians will find you insufferable. Such friends and family have all sorts of interests, and while you may not have a vested interest in popular culture, fashion, decorating the house, or sports, they do. Therefore, if you fail or refuse to engage these subjects, you'll seem like a bump on a log at best and a jerk at worst. Caring about people extends even to caring about the things they care about, even if it may feel trivial or like a waste of time.

3. Embrace Empathy, Not Merely Conviction

Seminary tends to be a safe space to share your convictions with your seminary buddies without having to "walk on eggshells," but after a while it's easy to forget those eggshells are often the fragile hearts of hurting people. Discussing hot topics may be a fun intellectual exercise, but in the real world those hot topics are usually attached to genuine human pain. Abortion, gay marriage, welfare, drug use, and other polarizing subjects are more than just abstract philosophical-theological-political footballs. They're tied to realities we may not be able to readily comprehend until we put in the work. So put in the work. Don't merely seek out the opinions of those different than you; seek out their stories and their company. Listen carefully to the struggles of those whom Jesus came to seek and save, laboring to understand exactly what experiences have made them so adamant about their position.

4. Be Yourself

Seminary should be a place for discovering how to best use your gifts and interests to further God's kingdom, but for many it's simply a place to learn how to mimic the gifts and interests of others. Time in seminary can be incredibly clarifying and freeing if you're not too wrapped up in pleasing other people. Unfortunately, the seminary atmosphere often seems to invite uniformity to a damaging degree. If you're not careful, you'll subtly bend your personality to match the whims of others. Change should come from humble obedience to Jesus Christ, not social pressure and unbiblical expectations.

5. Be Ready to Change Course

When I started my seminary career, I had every intention of being a full-time minister. All my desires, counsel, and intuition pointed in that direction. I'd done ministry before seminary and found it to be fruitful and rewarding. And yet, as I neared the end of my seminary career, my life had changed to such an extent that I no longer envisioned myself in a traditional, full-time ministry position. I quickly switched my degree program from an MDiv in theology to an MA in theology and the arts and graduated much sooner than expected. It was one of the best decisions I've made, even though it meant not finishing my language classes.

You may feel convinced in your call to ministry now, but God doesn't always make his plans for us as clear as we'd like. Sometimes he has another kind of ministry for us in mind that doesn't involve being formally employed by a church or ministry. Sometimes this means cutting our losses and leaving seminary. Other times it means finishing and moving on. Either way, it's up to you to be honest with yourself as the time spent in seminary reveals—whether through confirmation or redirection—the concrete reality of God's glorious plan for the rest of your life.