Ask Him for Joy


Like a seismograph, my wife is intimately tuned to recognize any time the ground is moving in the lives and needs 0f our five children. She can sense a fever from a mile away and knows if her offspring need a Kleenex five minutes before a nose begins to run. This has come not only because of the amazingly intuitive and attentive mother she is, but also because of the immense amount of time that she has invested in our children. She has been the primary resource to meet every one of their needs from their conception onward. As each of our five children developed in her womb, there was not a physical need her body didn’t anticipate or provide for them. As they have entered the world and have grown, she has been a constant presence and provider for them. When they have a need, she meets it. As a result, they go to her for almost everything.

It’s a bit humorous when I’m at home, because even when I’m close by and available to meet their needs, my kids don’t default to me as a major resource for their most basic needs. There are times when I will be in the room near my wife when one of my smaller children walks in and asks her a question like, “Does Daddy have to go to work today?” At that moment, Keri and I will exchange a bemused and knowing glance. Her eyes will momentarily return to the child’s, and with the power of a gravitational force (I’m convinced that mothers actually have tractor beams in their eyes) will guide a pair of five year-old eyes—simply with a nod—to my waiting and attentive face. She’ll gently say, “Your dad is right here. Ask him.”

The resulting transformation of a child’s face from query to comprehension (and on a good day, to delight) is miraculous. It’s as if a veil has been lifted and the child has noticed my presence in their world for the very first time. Their eyes widen, a smile broadens across their face, and oftentimes a hug ensues (these are the sweet times). The child’s attention is then diverted to me, and the questioner has been re-introduced to the appropriate party with a simple directive: “Your dad is right here for you. Ask him.”

Christ, the Perfect Mediator

Christian theology has long acknowledged and celebrated Christ’s unique office as Mediator: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Through his sacrificial and atoning death, burial, resurrection and ascension, Christ has accomplished the enduring reconciliation of relationship between God and his people. There is no greater truth, no greater reality.

And yet the robustness of Jesus’ mediation is often weakened when we tell ourselves that maybe God isn’t really happy with us. Maybe he just tolerates us. So we are hesitant to get too close to him. This is one reason why we need Jesus to continuously run interference for us with an unhappy God.

The fact of the matter is that Christ is such a perfect mediator between us and God that he has provided a way for us to come to the Father directly. His righteousness is now our own (2 Cor. 5:21), and we are counted as fully-vested, adopted children. It is utterly profound, and often rather difficult, for us to believe what Jesus says in John 16:

“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full…In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.” – John 16:23–24, 26–27

Jesus references a radical change in relationship between his followers and his Father that will happen through his mediating work; specifically, through his redemptive death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is assuring his gathered disciples that “that day” will come when direct access to the Father will take place. In that day, Jesus says that we will be able to ask directly, that is, we will be able to pray. We will be able to approach the Father directly in Jesus’ name and through his mediating work—and we will be the ones asking (“I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf”). In turn, the Father himself will be the one hearing, listening, and responding, “for the Father himself loves you.”

A pastor friend of mine often reminds me that at the core of the gospel is the often-missed truth that Jesus died so that we could pray. The author of the letter to the Hebrews assures us that we may “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). We have truly been given “boldness and access” to the Father “with confidence through our faith in him” (Eph. 2:18, 3:12).

And God expects us to come, to pray, and to ask. In fact, he commands us to ask. He wants us to ask. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Your Dad is right here for you. Ask him.”

Ask Out of Joy, Not Shame

But, if you’re like me, prayer is often a labor and a grind for you, accompanied by overtones of duty, burden, and guilt. We know we ought to pray, so we simultaneously carry an awareness of our deficiency in prayer. Ask any of your Christian friends how their prayer life is going, and you will likely get a sheepish aversion of the eyes, a quick change of the subject, or a dejected expression.

Yet the fact that we now have access to the very throne of God is incredible, and should be for us a source of much joy. What else could bring us greater joy than a new, intimate relationship with God himself? God doesn’t want us to associate prayer with guilt and shame. Instead, he grants us the ability to find joy in our relationship with him through prayer: “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn. 16:24).

We often take this to mean that our joy will be full because of our receiving, but its true meaning is deeper than this. Joy comes because of the relationship in which we can ask God something because he loves us:

“In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.” – John 16:26-27 (emphasis added)

Perhaps Jesus is saying that joy comes because of our new relationship with the One whom we are asking—the One who is present; the One who loves us; the One who listens to and answers our requests. Because of this new relationship, we are learning to ask for that which is actually able to make us joyful. As a result, we receive what we truly want, the very thing that we will find ourselves asking for, more of God.


What if instead of loading our prayer life with false expectations, guilt, fear, aversion, humiliation, anger, frustration, or even boredom, we were to ask for what God is so willing to give? What if we were to ask God for joy?

For God prayer is all about relationship; it’s all about being with his children. And for us, it should be about being with our Father, in whose presence is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11). God would have you be joyful, even in your sadness, sorrow, broken-heartedness and pain. So come to him—especially if you don’t feel joyful—and ask for joy from the Healer, the Care-giver, and the only One who can turn your sorrow into joy.

Ask for joy! Fight for joy! Find joy! For in Christ, you are in the smiling, happy presence of the God who made you and loves you more than you could ever ask or imagine. He wants to be with you. He wants you to devote your time and attention and energy to him. He loves you and offers you joy.

Your Dad is right here for you. Ask him.

Mike Phay serve as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as an Affiliate Professor at Kilns College in Bend, OR. He has been married to Keri for 20 years and they have five amazing kids (Emma, Caleb, Halle, Maggie, and Daisy). He loves books and coffee, preferably at the same time.


The Joy and Sorrow of Parenting

Forty-eight hours ago I was plagued by the thought, “I am a bad mom.” That complete sentence ran through my mind—uninvited and multiple times throughout the evening. I tried to push the thought out of my mind, but the truth is, it was gaining significant ground. Deep down, in those moments, I believed those words to be true. Twenty-four hours ago I overheard a podcast that my husband was playing on his computer. One speaker encouraged listeners to remember that parenting is much longer than a day. She reminded me that when I lift my eyes up and see five, ten, fifteen years down the road, I gain a completely new perspective of my job as a mother. When I’m focused just on this day—when I wasn’t patient or kind during bath time, and the kids seemed to be sustained on sugar and “screen time”—I have a much harsher ruling for myself. Bad Mom.

Parenting to See Jesus

When I remember, however, that I am called to parent them to see Jesus exalted, for all of eternity, today’s bath holds much less sway. Yes, a lifetime is made up of seemingly little moments, and their weight should not be dismissed. My purpose as a mom is refocused when I consider worshipping before God’s throne forever. I am not a significant player in that picture at all!

My ability to control a situation or procure the attention and obedience I think I deserve is revealed to be utterly insignificant, and an erroneous pursuit in the light of God’s overwhelming glory!

The second speaker on that much-needed podcast discussed our complete dependence on Jesus. She reminded me that as a regenerate believer in Christ, I have died to myself and have been raised to life with him (Romans 6:4)! It is when I remember and rest in my identity in Jesus that I can live on mission and be full of joy, more accurately displaying God’s love and glorifying him as he deserves.

Rather than respond to my discouragement with self-esteem boosters and affirmations of, “No! You’re a great mom!” the Holy Spirit lovingly took my eyes off of myself and put them where they need to be—on Jesus.

Meeting Our Culture’s Standards

My primary goal as a mom is not to ensure that my children meet our culture’s standards—whether that is in regards to diet, entertainment, education, dress, activities, or any other myriad of topics. I am commissioned to teach my kids about Jesus. I am given the extreme honor and privilege of telling them about the God, who creates, redeems, and restores. As part of teaching them about who God is and what his kingdom is like, I am also called to teach them about sin.

Mine is clearly on display, so I must respond biblically, demonstrating repentance and refusing to become complacent. It is vitally important that my kids not only hear me say, “I’m sorry,” but that they also see me battling to slay my sin by grace alone. Sin threatens our relationships and darkens that already dim mirror through which our children see the Lord reflected (1 Cor 13:12). Reading the Word and praying, therefore, become far greater than duties which I must check off my daily chore chart! In addition to addressing my sin, I also must lovingly teach them about theirs.

Remembering that our children are born sinful and are dead apart from Christ’s life-giving work prevents me from focusing on behavior modification more than spiritual discipleship. As difficult as that is and as foreign as it feels in our culture today, teaching my kids about their sin will set them up to fully revel in God’s mind-boggling grace!

Still Wanting More

Twelve hours ago I walked through the Columbus Zoo, hand-in-hand with my six-year-old son. He’d been wanting to go on their Pirate Island boat ride for quite a while! He had been hoping it would still be there since our passes expired last season, and, when it was closed on our first visit of this season, the forbidden fruit became even more desirable! He finally got to ride it with his dad today. Afterward, I asked him how it was, and he said, “It was so fun! I wish I could’ve gone twice.” I immediately recognized my tendency to feel this way. By God’s grace alone, I was able to tell him that we all experience the feeling of good things not being enough, of being sure that something will make us happy, only to find that we still want more.

I told him the reason we feel this way is that only Jesus fully satisfies us. Only Jesus meets our true needs and meets them completely!

I don’t know if he’ll remember that exchange. It only lasted about thirty seconds. But I am encouraged that the Spirit guides my thoughts and words in those moments, despite my many shortcomings, to teach Eli the gospel once again.

Therein lies my joy!

As Christians, our calling, no matter what life-roles we fulfill, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Eternity is our timeframe, and the perfectly righteous Son of God is our advocate. So take heart, return to the source of your fulfillment and identity and keep walking forward.

Myra lives in Newark, Ohio with her husband and 3 children. She blogs at dependentongrace.com

Names for the Nameless

“I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)

While I was working on this chapter, I got a call from a man who wouldn’t give his name. My assistant buzzed me, laughing. “I have a man on the line who says he needs to talk with you and that it’s urgent,” she said. “He says that he’s a big fan of yours. By the way, he’s lying about that. He called you ‘Dr. Greene.’”

When I picked up the phone and said hello, I asked the man his name. “Let’s go with Bobby,” he said, “if that’s okay with you. I don’t want to give you my real name because I’m ashamed about what I’m going to tell you and, after I tell you, you won’t want to have anything to do with me. I would rather you not know who I am.”

It was an interesting conversation because neither of us knew the other’s name.

We don’t, you know. Know each other’s names, that is.

[K]nowing that your heavenly Father is for you not against you is the only reason to give up your masks and develop the type of authentic relationships you never thought you could have.

In the Bible, names aren’t just names. The name reveals the essence of the person. In fact, sometimes the names of biblical figures were changed to reflect a change in who they were. Revelation 2:17 says that we’ll have a new name in heaven and that name will reflect who we really, ultimately, are. My pointing that out probably makes both of us uncomfortable. If our name reflects the essence of who we are, then everybody will know, and (we assume) that “name” won’t be very appealing.

Isaiah, the prophet, had some good news for God’s people: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.’ And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken” (Isaiah 62:11–12).

I have some good news for you too! It’s about your name, and it’s not what you think

It is said that Augustine, after he had committed his life to Christ, was approached by his former mistress. When he saw her, he started running in the other direction. She ran after him shouting, “Augustine, it’s me! It’s me!” “Yes,” he called back over his shoulder, “but it’s not me!”

When Augustine said, “But it’s not me!” it really wasn’t him! And therein lies the best news you’ll ever hear.

Let’s start with a statement made by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:19–20: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

According to Paul, the good news is that you’re already dead (we’ll talk a lot more about that in the next chapter).

Normally, I know that isn’t good news, but it is in this case, and I’m going to show you why. Please note that in the verses I gave you, Paul isn’t giving us a command. He’s giving us a fact. It isn’t one more thing you have to do (crucify yourself) to “get right with God,” “to change the world” or “to make your life count.” The truth is that it’s already done. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” it really was finished . . . done . . . over. In Romans 6:11, Paul wrote that we should “consider [i.e., reckon, number, think of yourself] yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, we should think in a new way about who we really are.

When you die, you not only experience resurrection, you get a new name. The name is Forgiven, Redeemed, Acceptable, and Loved. That changes everything about our hidden agendas and our masks. When you’re crucified with Christ . . .

Your Name Is Forgiven 

I once asked a Jewish friend to forgive the church and me for what we did to Jews in the name of Christ. I waited for him to tell me to get lost or, maybe, to forgive me. Instead, he started weeping. I had no idea why and asked him. “Steve,” he said, “I didn’t hear a ‘kicker’ in your remarks. Often people will say something like what you said to me but there is always a kicker. You guys want me to receive Jesus, get saved, or to ask for forgiveness for what ‘we’ did to Jesus. I waited for the kicker and there wasn’t one. Thank you.”

That conversation is one I’ve thought about a lot. One of the most tragic things about the church is that we have become, as it were, a “church of kickers.” It’s the “Of course God loves you . . . but don’t let it go to your head,” “God will forgive you . . . but don’t do it again,” “God’s your loving Father. . . but don’t forget about the discipline,” or “God loves you . . . but that should make a better person.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve brought up Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, his love and forgiveness given to her (John 8:1–11), and people will bring in the kicker: “Yeah, but don’t forget that Jesus told her to ‘sin no more.’” It’s not that there isn’t some truth in those statements. But they sometimes make God’s love and forgiveness so conditional that, frankly, I can’t deal with it. What was meant as good news very quickly becomes bad news because of the kicker.

I have an acquaintance in the billboard business. During the “troubles” in Northern Ireland he wanted to do some- thing about the hatred between Catholics and Protestants. Do you know what he did? He bought billboards across Northern Ireland with one message: “I love you! Is that okay?—Jesus.” That was a powerful message and it wasn’t powerful because Jesus said that he loved them. Everybody knows that. It was powerful because there wasn’t a kicker.

You’re forgiven.

I know, I know. Your “Pavlovian” response (and mine) is to wait for the kicker. You can keep on waiting because there isn’t one. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, who you’re sleeping with, what you’re drinking or smoking, what you think, who you’ve hurt, the games you’re play- ing, the masks you’re wearing, the agendas you’re hiding, or whether or not you get better. When you bring it all to Jesus, you’re forgiven.

Deal with it.

As an aside, the fact that our new name is Forgiven has amazing implications for relationships between Christians and for the masks we wear. The reason Jesus embedded “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have sinned against us” in the prayer he taught us is that he knew that without forgiveness at the heart of our relationships, we would continue to play at religion, and never love or be loved.

You can’t forgive until you have been unconditionally forgiven (no kicker) and then you can only love to the degree to which you have been unconditionally forgiven. I will never remove my mask and set aside my agendas as long as I think Christianity is about fixing me and others, building empires, changing the world, making my life count, correct- ing doctrinal truth, promoting programs, raising money, and being nice. It’s not. It’s about the forgiveness of sins. Paul wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul, your name is “Forgiven.”

If you know Jesus, yours is too.

Are there implications to that? Of course there are . . . sometimes. Does it make you a better person? Of course it does . . . sometimes. Does it make a difference in your relationships? Of course it does . . . sometimes. Does it bring you into the stream of compassion and practical ministry to the world? Of course it does . . . sometimes. Does it give you a “burden for souls”? Of course it does . . . sometimes. And sometimes it doesn’t. That’s not the issue. Your name is “Forgiven.” Rejoice and be glad.

But you have other names too. When you’re crucified with Christ . . .

Your Name Is Redeemed

The word “redeemed” is a very strong word. It means to gain or regain something at a price. The Scripture says that in Christ we have been redeemed “through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7–8). Again, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24).

There is an old sermon illustration about a boy who worked hours making a small boat. He took it down to the seashore and put it in the water. To his horror, the boat was picked up by a wave and carried out into the ocean, eventually disappearing. It was sad because he had worked so hard and long making the boat. Later he was walking by a pawn- shop and saw his lost boat in the shop window. He told the pawnbroker that it was his boat but the pawnbroker said, “It may have been yours, but it’s mine now. If you want it back, you’ll have to pay for it like anybody else.”

The boy worked all summer. He mowed lawns, babysat, and walked dogs to get enough money to buy back his boat. When he had enough, the boy went back to the pawnshop and purchased it. As he walked out of the shop he was heard to say, looking at his boat, “Little boat, I made you, I lost you, I found you, I bought you back, and now you’re mine, all mine.”

That’s what happened to us. God said, “I made you, I lost you, I found you, I bought you back, and now you’re mine.” But being his isn’t just about ownership; it’s about being adopted by a father who is rich, generous, and kind. The Bible says that he “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption . . .” (Colossians 1:13– 14). Again, the Scripture says that God has sent the Spirit of Jesus into our hearts, causing us to cry out, “Abba Father.” “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6–7).

I’m often asked what I do. I never know exactly what to say. Sometimes I say that I’m a preacher, or clergyman, or pastor, or professor, or writer, or broadcaster. There are times when I say that I’m a “religious professional” who “works for God.” A friend of mine told me to stop saying that: “When you work for someone, you have a job as long as there is work to do and you do it well enough to please the boss. But when the day’s work is over, you leave and go back to the house you paid for with the money you earned. Steve, you don’t work for God. You’re his son. When the day is over, you go up to the big house where you live. Try to remember that.”

I do. My name is “Redeemed.” That’s your name too.

But you have other names as well, because when you’re crucified with Christ . . .

Your Name Is Acceptable 

Most Christians have a handle on the forgiveness thing. You’re forgiven and then you work hard to be good. It’s all about pleasing God, being faithful, and trying your best to be obedient. It’s hard but we love to quote that “in Christ we can do all things.” In other words, a Christian is for- given and then he or she becomes better and better every day in every way.

What if I told you that God was already pleased, that he already thinks of you as faithful, and in his eyes you are already obedient? It’s true. The theological word is “imputation” and it is so radical, so amazing, and so unbelievable that I have trouble believing it. But God said it and, unless he’s started lying, it’s true.

The Bible says, “. . . and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ . . .” (Philippians 3:9).

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteous- ness” (Romans 4:5). “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 61:10).

When Christ died on the cross, there was a trade. God traded my sin for Christ’s righteousness. I would have settled for forgiveness because that is more than I deserve. The problem with forgiveness is that it can become something similar to a professor who cuts slack for a student. “Okay,” the professor says, “I’m going to overlook your poor work and give you a passing grade, but don’t ask me to continue doing this for you. You are going to have to work harder.” Imputation is far more than that. It’s the trade whereby the professor’s academic record becomes yours.

I went to a banquet once where ties were required. Nobody had told me. A friend of mine saw me outside the banquet hall and said, “Steve, you don’t have a tie. I have an extra one in my room. I’ll be right back.” Two minutes later he handed me a tie. I put it on and was acceptable.

The interesting thing about the tie my friend gave me is that it was his best tie. All evening people said to me, “Nice tie!” Not only was I dressed properly with a tie, I was dressed extravagantly with the best tie in the house.

That’s what God has done to make us “Acceptable.” He’s given us the best clothes in the house, the righteousness of Christ.

In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Mercy, one of the characters traveling with Christiana, Christian’s wife, laughs in her sleep. Christiana asks Mercy about it and Mercy explains that she had a dream in which she was very convicted about her “hardness of heart.” Then, in her dream, Mercy says a man came and wiped her tears with his handkerchief and dressed her in silver and gold—clothed, as it were, in the righteousness of Christ. Then he takes her to the throne room of a holy God where Mercy hears, “Welcome, daughter!”

That was my experience.

You see, as my friend Rod Rosenbladt, says, “It’s not what’s in your heart, it’s about what is in God’s heart.”1 They told me that God was holy. He is. They said that he was a consuming re. He is. They told me that if I worked at it, studied “to show myself approved,” and if I were faithful and obedient, the holy God would be pleased. They were right. But I just couldn’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, I tried. I really tried hard. My heart and my “clothes” were simply too dirty to get clean. Finally, I gave up and started to walk away.

That’s when I looked down at my new clothes—the righteousness of Christ—and I heard his voice, “Welcome, child! Welcome!”

I laughed too.

But there’s one more name. When you’re crucified with Christ . . .

Your Name Is Loved 

You should meet my wife Anna. She’s a saint. Very few could live with somebody like me. And just so you know, I’m not being “authentic” or “humble” when I say that. It’s the truth. I can be angry and kind in the same sentence, happy and sad in the same hour, and loving and hateful in the same day. I would be bipolar if either my manic state or my depressive state lasted longer. Anna, on the other hand, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. She is a gift from God and an anchor for this crusty old preacher.

I don’t want to get too detailed here (you’re not that safe) but the other day I called home and my wife wasn’t there. I left a message on our answering machine. I don’t even remember what the message was but I’m almost positive that it included the words, “Love you.” I happened to get home before my wife did and listened to the message I’d left. I was shocked. I sounded ticked, upset, and kind of harsh. When I got home, I told Anna that I had listened to my message (the one intended for her). “I sounded very angry in that message . . . and I was wondering if I always sound like that.” She smiled and I knew. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I’m going to be a lot kinder than I have been.” She smiled again and then . . .

. . . she gave me a Baby Ruth.

A Baby Ruth?

Yeah, and she’s been doing that for almost all of our adult life. In fact, sometimes I fake bad stuff when I’m hungry, just to get a Baby Ruth. When I yell, forget a birthday or anniversary, do something a preacher ought not do, I get a Baby Ruth. Of course I don’t deserve the Baby Ruth. That’s the point of love. The principle is this: you can’t experience love until it’s given when you don’t deserve it. Everything else is reward.

That’s what God has done. Listen to what Paul writes: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). I would suggest that those words pretty much cover it. They cover all of our masks and all of our hidden agendas.

God gives out Baby Ruths! Bet nobody ever told you that before.

Behind the Mask

  • You’re forgiven without a kicker. Sit with that a moment. What does that mean to/for you? What does God’s forgiveness do to your masks and agendas?
  • As a son or daughter, you are “adopted by a father who is rich, generous, and kind.” Do you really believe that? How would you live if you did?
  • “It’s all about pleasing God, being faithful, and trying your best to be obedient.” Why doesn’t this work? What is it about instead?
  • How does God’s unconditional love cover all your masks and hidden agendas?

Steve Brown is a radio broadcaster, author, and the founder of Key Life Network. A former pastor, he also sits on the board of Harvest USA and devotes much of his time to the radio broadcasts Key Life and Steve Brown, Etc.

Excerpted from Steve Brown’s Hidden Agendas: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart. New Growth Press, ©2016. Used by permission.

Tethered to the Gospel

Common Grace and Scoliosis

My mouth dropped and my eyes filled with tears as the surgeon lifted my daughter’s spine x-ray up to the light box. As a former chiropractic assistant, I had seen my share of spine films twisting and coiling from scoliosis; I had no idea one day the film I saw would be my own eleven year old daughter’s. Four months earlier, a checkup as part of a school transfer had revealed that Sarah’s thoracic spine was beginning to curve into her right shoulder blade. Now, the x-ray showed that instead of stabilizing, the curve had nearly doubled in size. At her age, with the trajectory of progress her condition seemed to be on, it was no longer a question of if my daughter needed surgery, but what kind she should have, and how quickly she should have it.

Scoliosis is rarely fatal in and of itself, but left uncontrolled, an excessively curving spine can make everyday activities painful, give women difficulty during pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, and restrict heart and lung function—not to mention the psychological trauma of disfigurement so distinctive that in earlier centuries it was associated with demon possession (and still is today in some countries). The surgical “gold standard” for progressing scoliosis in adolescents is spinal fusion, a complex surgery which sandwiches the spine between rods, and screws threaded through them, into the vertebrae. Fusion is usually corrective, but it renders parts of the spine permanently immobile, inhibits growth, and can stress the non-fused portion of the spine, causing pain, arthritis and the need for more surgeries later in life.  Sarah would need to spend the formative years of junior high and high school in a shoulder to hip brace, which would hopefully squeeze her spine into submission until she was nearly done growing. Then she would have the fusion surgery and spend months recovering. It was a daunting, discouraging prospect. There had to be a different approach.

Partner—GCD—450x300Through the common grace of the Internet, we discovered a brand new type of spine surgery that leverages rapid adolescent growth to correct scoliosis curves. Similar in approach to orthodontic braces with teeth, vertebral body tethering involves inserting screws on the outside of a spinal curve, and a heavy polyethylene cable threaded through the heads of the screws, which are then tightened to straighten the spine part way. As an adolescent child continues to grow, the tension on the cord causes the spine to continue to straighten, often completely. With no fusion to restrict movement or inhibit growth unnecessarily, kids who receive this type of surgery are able to enjoy sports and all kinds of physical activity with no restrictions, With freedom of motion and growth maintained, and little to no risk of complications associated with fusion, kids are able to grow, play any sport, and generally return to just being growing kids.

One month of insurance drama, round the clock emailing and phone calling, and an eventual plane flight across the country later, I again looked at an x-ray of my daughter’s spine with eyes filled with tears, this time from inexpressible thankfulness as she slept nearby in a hospital bed.  In less than five hours, the chief of surgery at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia had done the tethering procedure, and taken a post-operative film to make sure everything was just right, and it was, beautifully so. Sarah’s curve was less than half of what it had been mere hours before.

Today, six months after her surgery, Sarah has dived, literally, back into all the water sports she loves, with several small scars her only visible reminder of the procedure, as the invisible tether helps her grow stronger and straighter every day. The experience itself was sanctifying for our entire family. But through it, I have given a profound, and profoundly helpful, picture of how the “tether” of the gospel, rather than the crushing of the law, empowers our life as believers in Jesus.

homo incurvatus in se

Martin Luther summarized our battle with sin with the Latin phrase homo incurvatus in se—humanity curved in toward self.  My natural “bent” is away from God. Left to myself, I see only myself—my needs, my desires, my idols—and I am powerless to change. I need spiritual surgery.

The gospel, Paul reminds us in Romans 1, is that power. United with Christ through repentance and faith and made alive through the Holy Spirit, it is the power of the gospel that “tethers” our hearts and minds, reducing the curving inwardness of our sin and lifting our hearts towards our heavenly Father. In our times of struggle with temptation and discouragement, it is the tether of the gospel that keeps us from coiling back in on ourselves.

When my children seem determined to make Titus 3:3 their collective life verse, it is the tether of the gospel that helps me respond to them with the same goodness and kindness God showed in saving me (Ti 3:4).

When the administrivia of junior high homework and house projects “get in the way” of my plans for writing and study, the tether of the gospel reminds me of the One who emptied Himself of his glory to become a servant for me (Phil 2:7).

When my husband does not utter the precise arrangements of words and phrases that would make me feel loved at the precise moment I want him to, the tether of the gospel reminds me that God exults over me with singing (Zeph. 3:17).

And when the weight of my sin and weaknesses and failures begin to curve my heart inward toward my wretched self, it is the tether of the gospel that reminds me that before the very foundation of the world, God had chosen me in Christ before the very foundation of the world and that redemption and forgiveness are mine in him, forever (Eph 1).

The law can only crush me into rigid, outer conformity. But the tether of the gospel empowers me to move freely, as a beloved child of God and a growing disciples of Jesus Christ by curving my affections towards the Triune God.

Rachael Starke (@RachaelStarke) lives with her husband and three daughters in San Jose, California. A graduate of The Master's College, she is now pursuing a master's degree in Nutritional Science, and writes about the intersection of spiritual and physical nutrition at What Food Is For. She also writes for and co-edits Gospel-Centered Woman, a newly repository of resources for for pastoral staff and lay leaders to support women’s discipleship through the local church. She and her family are members of West Hills Community Church in Morgan Hill.

Show Them Jesus

If kids are leaving the church, it’s because we’ve failed to give them a view of Jesus and his cross that’s compelling enough to satisfy their spiritual hunger and give them the zeal they crave. They haven’t seen that Jesus himself is better than any “Jesus program.” He’s better than the music used to worship him. He’s better than a missions trip. He’s better than their favorite youth leader. He’s also better than money. Better than video games. Better than romantic teen movies. Better than sex. Better than popularity or power. We’ve failed too many kids. We’ve fed them things to do. We’ve fed them “worshipful” experiences. But we’ve failed to feed them more than a spoonful of the good news. Now they’re starving and they’ll eat anything. They’re trying to feed their souls with something—maybe even a churchy thing—that feels like it fits them, when what they need is some one utterly better than themselves.

Who Has the Best Answers?

Church kids don’t just need the good news as much as other kids— they need it more. I saw an example of this while teaching at another Bible camp. Most of the campers were church kids, but not Ryan. His mom had signed him up because a neighbor had invited him and because camp was cheaper than other activities. Ryan had seldom been to church and didn’t even have a Bible at home.

At the start of the week I wondered if Ryan would be able to keep up. I needn’t have worried. He was my most attentive student, asking good questions and listening with excitement as I taught.

Most Bible teachers have experienced this phenomenon. Kids who are new to church are transfixed, while church kids hear the same lessons and remain ho-hum. Accepted wisdom says this is because the church kids have heard it before. But this time there was more to it. I was teaching the good news with every Bible story and the church kids were interested enough—they just weren’t excited by it. I soon realized that they weren’t even noticing the good news part of my teaching.

One evening near the end of the week I taught about King David and Mephibosheth. David had become king after his nemesis, Saul, died in battle. Not many descendants of Saul were left, which was good for David; they were a potential threat to his throne.

Mephibosheth was Saul’s grandson. As a boy he’d been crippled, but survived and lived in an obscure home on the fringe of Israel’s territory, away from his family’s land. From David’s perspective, this would have been a safe end for a potential enemy. But David was an extraordinary man who wanted to show kindness to a member of Saul’s family, so he summoned Mephibosheth to the palace. The lame man must have been terrified, but David told him, “Do not fear, for . . . I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always” (2 Samuel 9:7). David treated Mephibosheth like one of his own sons, and the Bible mentions three more times how Mephibosheth always ate at the king’s table.

I asked the kids an open-ended question: “What can we learn about life with God from this lesson?”

Several hands shot up. “We should be kind too,” said one. “God wants us to love our enemies,” said another. More heads nodded in agreement. These were good answers. But were any of them the best answer?

“Anything else?” I asked. Nope. Everyone seemed to have the same thought.

Then I saw Ryan’s hand. “It sounds like us and God,” he said. “We’re like Mephibosheth. We’re the hurt guy who’s not on God’s side. But God is kind to us anyway. He’s so good!”

Yup. That was the best answer, all right—and Ryan saw it before any of the church kids did. The church kids had years of experience with Bible lessons and had learned to respond to questions about God by thinking first, “What do I have to do for him now?” They’d need to unlearn this before they could admire Jesus as the King who invites them, his crippled enemies, to sit at his table. Both they and Ryan had heard the good news for a full week, but only Ryan was ready to respond to a question about God by thinking, “He’s so good!”

Partner—GCD—450x300How Christian Growth Stalls

There’s one more reason kids who are raised in Christian homes and familiar with church need more of the good news. This time it isn’t because of anything wrong; it’s because that’s just how Christian growth works.

As kids learn about God’s goodness and holiness, they ought to increase in awe of him. That’s growth. And as they examine themselves and see the ugliness inside, they ought to increase in conviction of sin. That’s growth too. But the combination of these will drive them to despair—unless their understanding of the forgiveness and righteousness they have in Jesus also grows.

Think of a kid who’s a new Christian as one starting to see God’s light. As he learns, the beam of light in his life shows him two things: (1) God’s holy demands and (2) the kid’s sin in falling short of those demands. We at Serge use a helpful illustration of this. The diagram shows these two things as the top edge and bottom edge of God’s light. The kid also sees the cross, which covers the gap between the kid’s sin and God’s demands. The kid has joy and confidence. He’s eager to live for God.

As his Christian life goes on, the kid learns more. His understanding of God’s holy demands grows. He also sees more fully how neither his life nor his heart can ever measure up, so his understanding of his own sinfulness grows as well. The beam of light widens. And if he hasn’t also been growing in appreciation for the good news—if the cross remains roughly the same size in his life—there will be gaps.

The kid becomes an Anxious Alice. He’s aware that his good deeds aren’t good enough and that his feelings for God aren’t strong enough. He knows he’s a hypocrite and is secretly haunted by guilt. He becomes a pretender, constantly scheming to make himself, his friends, and his parents believe the situation isn’t so bad.

He tries working harder to do better, but with no success. So he also acts like a Complacent Kyle. He fills the gap between the cross and God’s holiness by pretending that God’s demands aren’t really so extreme. Whatever little obedience he can muster up, he tells himself, must be okay.

The same kid acts like a Smug Sarah too. He fills the gap between the cross and his sin by pretending his sin actually isn’t so horrible. He stops repenting. Instead, to keep up a Christian image, he will lie, get defensive when corrected, tear others down, and do churchy things or obey his parents only to look good.

In short, the kid’s Christian growth stalls. Learning more about God’s greatness can’t help him because he can’t handle it. Telling him to sin less and obey more can’t help either, because he fights back, tunes out, or does both. For a church kid, this stall can happen very soon after becoming a Christian because he already knows so much about God and sin.

The solution is for the cross to grow along with everything else. The more a kid learns about himself and God, the more he must learn to trust and delight in the good news too. He must become ever more certain that he’s totally accepted in Christ, forgiven and adopted by God. It’s the only way he can keep growing.

The Bible tells us to expect this dynamic. Consider the prophet Isaiah, who had a thundering vision of God in the temple. His understanding of God’s holiness grew huge in an instant, and he couldn’t handle it: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5). But an angel touched his lips with a hot coal and declared, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). Only then, once Isaiah’s bigger understanding of God’s holiness and his own sin was matched by a bigger confidence in his forgiveness, was he ready for ministry.

A kid who’s fed by the good news has a growing appreciation for Jesus and all he has done for him. That kid will be an amazing, non-pretending Christian. He won’t try to look better than he is but instead will dare to confess sin openly and repent earnestly. He also won’t have to pretend God is easily satisfied with a little churchy behavior, but he will dare to draw ever nearer to a holy God. This is because his sin and God’s holiness just show him how much more he’s been forgiven. They enlarge his love for Jesus.

Jack Klumpenhower is a Bible teacher and a children’s ministry curriculum writer with more than thirty years of experience. He has created Bible lessons and taught children about Jesus at churches, camps, clubs, conferences, and Christian schools all over the world, including Serge conferences. Currently he is working on a middle-school gospel curriculum in conjunction with Serge staff. He lives with his wife and two children in Durango, Colorado.

From Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids, Copyright © 2014 by Jack Klumpenhower. Used by permission of New Growth Press, www.newgrowthpress.com.