Below is my article recently published in our church’s newsletter, with some minor edits.
Ultimate reality is that Christ is exalted above all things. During times of change – especially during times of unplanned, unsettling, and maybe even scary change – it is so important to keep our eyes focused on what does not change: Christ is exalted over all things, and nothing, and no one, can usurp His rule and authority.
Of course, this means that COVID-19 is under His rule and authority, and therefore it has come about because He decreed it to come about. Far from being a surprise to Him, it was something He ordained. Often what unsettles us is, our Lord does not always explain His reasons to us for what He decrees. We like to be in the know, but He often keeps us out of the Trinitarian loop, and so we must live by faith.
Even though we don’t always know why He does what He does, and even though changes like this one can throw us off emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, we need to be reminded He is exalted over all things.
The author of Hebrews spends much time making this point in chapter 1 of his Epistle. Really, the whole Epistle is about how Christ is “greater.” But chapter one focuses on His exaltation.
For example, it was through Christ that everything was created. Not only was it through Him that everything was created, but “He upholds the universe by the word of His power” (1:3). Certainly He is exalted as Creator and in His providence. But, there is another aspect of His exaltation having to do with Him as our Redeemer. In order for Him to achieve this ultimate exaltation, He first had to experience ultimate humiliation, which He did when He made “purification for our sins” on the cross (1:3). (There is another sense in which the crucifixion was actually an aspect of Christ’s exaltation as well. See John 12:32-34 and Isaiah 52:13.) After He made purification for our sins on the cross, the author tells us “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:4). Then, from the end of verse four through the end of the Epistle, the author of Hebrews will compare our Lord to the angels and will highlight His surpassing greatness over them.
Let me highlight some of the author’s other statements pertaining to Christ’s exaltation. In verse 5, the author quotes Psalm 2:7: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?”; Romans 1:4 suggests this declaration of Christ’s sonship occurred at His resurrection. In verse 6, we are reminded that even now, during this pandemic, the angels on high our worshiping our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. In verse 8, the author reminds us of the eternal reality of Christ’s rule over all things: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” Christ is God, and his rule cannot be broken. In verse 12, quoting Psalm 102, we are reminded that Christ never changes. Do our circumstances change? Absolutely. Can these changes make us uncomfortable? They certainly can. When I look at my own heart, I realize that the extent to which changing circumstances impact my faith is tied directly to how much faith I put in my circumstances (rather than in my Lord). Our circumstances do, and will, change. This is not the first time, and this certainly won’t be the last time. But Christ, our Lord, never changes! He continues to rule over all things.
One final thought. His absolute rule is for us! This does not mean, as we well know by this point, that our lives are always going to be pleasant. This does not mean that He is going to orchestrate everything the way we want them to be orchestrated or the way we think they should be orchestrated. Christ will not allow Himself to become an idol we fashion to do our bidding. It does mean, however, He is working all things for our salvation, as Heidelberg Catechism 1 says. This means we will experience sanctification. It means we will draw near to Him – has your prayer life increased during this time? What about listening to sermons online and reading your Bible? It means we will learn to be content and rejoice in whatever our circumstances. “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Being content in any circumstance by Christ’s strength is what Paul meant by this verse.
As we continue to face various uncertainties during this pandemic, there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Christ is risen and is ruling over all things for our sake. No one and nothing can overthrow or thwart His rule. Let us continually set our minds on things above where Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand (Colossians 3:1-2).
“When Rebekah had conceived children . . . though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of Him Who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”
Ok. I know. Here goes another Calvinist quoting their favorite verse to support their ridiculous – even heretical – doctrine of election. If I have not lost your attention just on reading the title and Scripture selection, please keep hanging with me. I promise that this post is not going to develop the way you are probably imagining.
Now to the point. The doctrine of election, as understood by Calvinists, brings tremendous comfort. And while I could list many examples – assurance of salvation, for example – the point of this post is meant to challenge my fellow Calvinists, because the context of this passage shows that the doctrine of election is intended to bring comfort to an area where, I fear, many of us are rather nonplussed. I admit that God in His grace is bringing me to repentance in this very area. So, maybe this post will simply be a confession of an area where I have slipped practically into hyper-Calvinism, which is a heresy. But I ask you to pause, examine yourselves, and be honest with yourselves by God’s grace.
After all, our non-Calvinist brothers and sisters, I believe, are rightly justified in their claim that our doctrine of election means we have no evangelistic zeal. What is your reaction to that claim? My knee-jerk reaction is, look at church history! And I know in my own life I have taken opportunities to evangelize people, like the Muslim shuttle driver I met on a recent trip and the lady who cut my and my son’s hair about a month ago. And, yes, I, like many of you, want to see people saved. But, to be honest, I go to bed quite comfortably those nights I have not shared the gospel with others. That should not be the case, and it was not the case for some of the Majesterial Reformers, those who honed our understanding of Sola Gratia.
More to the point, what Paul wrote in Romans 9:6ff – the passage we most likely turn to in a discussion with someone about the Reformed doctrine of election – is in the context of his extreme anguish over the loss of those who have heard the gospel and rejected it. Here’s the beginning of chapters 9 and 10:
“I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. [And here’s the real throb of his statement:] For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.“
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”
Here are some observations:
The depth of Paul’s anguish and the lengths he is willing to go for the sake of the lost are astounding. I’m sure many of us feel some anguish in our hearts when we think about the lost, whenever we do think about the lost. If not, we really need to examine ourselves. But Paul takes an oath to swear to his Roman audience that he is enduring great sorrow and anguish on behalf of the lost. Most of us might think of ourselves as evangelistic superstars if we had this kind of existential response to people rejecting the gospel. But, as you can see, Paul does not stop there. He says he wishes he could be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of such people – many of whom, by the way, stirred up strife for him on his missionary journeys, including stoning him and leaving him for dead. Ok. Full disclosure: I’m not there yet.
I can only think of two other people in Scripture who desired to be cursed and cut off from God for the lost. Moses is the first. In Exodus 32:30, Moses said to the people of Israel, after they made the golden calf: “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD [at the top of Mt. Sinai]; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Because the sacrificial system arose under Moses, we might draw the conclusion that Moses would sacrifice an animal for the people’s sin. However, in Exodus 19:12-13, the Lord explicitly forbade “beast or man” to touch the mountain – even the edge of it. In other words, Moses was going to offer himself for this “disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21). This perspective is confirmed by Moses’ actual prayer to the Lord: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin – but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exodus 32:32, NKJV).
The Lord’s answer to Moses was essentially, “No.” Moses could never be a substitute for the people of Israel. Moses himself was sinful. Moses himself needed a Substitute. Which takes us to the only other Person I know of Who offered Himself to be accursed for His people: the Lord Jesus Christ. (I am so tempted right now to tear down the “cross as cosmic child abuse” argument. Suffice it to say, the Lord Jesus came willingly and voluntarily to this world specifically to be slain by the Father. That’s a different post, however.) In Galatians 3:13, Paul wrote: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).
The point here is that Paul did not merely view the gospel as something that benefited him. So often we are content to rest in the knowledge that through the gospel we have forgiveness of sins. However, for Paul, the gospel shaped his entire life-purpose and all his relationships within and outside the church, including with those who persecuted him.
Another point along these lines is, Paul was not so zealous to protect the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement that he refused to use language suggesting his own participation in it, or “worse”, his own ability to be a substitute for Israel. Paul talks about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). In our passage in Romans 9:1-3, he desires to follow Christ in His gospel mission of self-curse – not merely self-sacrifice – for the sake of the blessing – salvation – of the lost. Like Moses, Paul is essentially saying: “these people have the ‘adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises . . . the patriarchs’ (Romans 9:4-5), and from them came Christ. Yet, they have rejected Christ. Therefore they are cursed. But my heart’s desire is be cursed in their place so they might experience the blessing of salvation.” The gospel shaped Paul’s desires for the lost to the point that he wished to emulate Christ in His substitutionary atonement for the lost.
One final observation: after the extended section on election at 9:6, Paul writes: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). Whatever the doctrine of election means – and I believe the Reformed/Calvinist understanding of the doctrine is the most honest one biblically-speaking – it did not preclude Paul from praying for the salvation of those who rejected the Lord. Here’s a point of application, and one I am sure you already know: we may hold to the Reformed doctrine of election, but we also know that the Lord has chosen not to reveal to us His secret list. Far from hampering Paul’s evangelistic zeal, we see Paul desiring to offer himself for the sake of the lost and desiring and praying from the heart that the Lord would save them. Paul’s prayer in 10:1 is resonant with the Lord’s stated desire in Ezekiel 18: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (v. 23), and “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD, so turn, and live” (v. 32).
Let’s return to the main point to conclude. Paul is grieved over those who reject Christ. We have seen what the depth of that grief has cause Paul to pray and to offer to the Lord. He then gives us one of the clearest statements of the doctrine of election, in which he anticipates the objections all Calvinists have heard to their understanding of the doctrine. The point is that Paul discusses the doctrine of election to bring comfort to his anguish over the loss of unbelievers.
I wonder, brothers and sisters, do we need such comfort? Or, again, are we content to go to sleep at night with hardly a thought of the lost, comforted by the fact that at least the Lord chose us and therefore we have all the spiritual blessings of Christ in the heavenly places? Do we cling to the doctrine of election for self-serving purposes, to comfort us despite those perishing eternally this minute? For Paul, it drove him to deep anguish and to pray for those who are not saved, including those who rejected the gospel.
Let us become so anguished and sorrowful over the lost that we need this aspect of election’s comfort, as we wet our pillows with tears for the lost.
Sometimes, life is the pits. The Christian is not exempt from suffering and trials in this life. In fact, sometimes God’s people endure things non-Christians don’t even endure. A couple days ago, I read through Psalm 10 with my family at breakfast. Here are a couple verses:
(v.1) “Why, O LORD, do You stand far away? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?”
(v.5) “[The wicked’s] ways prosper at all times.”
I told my family that the Bible is just plain real; it’s honest about life in this fallen world. Maybe this raises other questions for you about God’s goodness or power, but we’ll tackle that some other time. (If you are really curious about, that leave a comment below letting me know.)
So, what do we do when life is the pits?
AS CHRISTIANS, WE NEED TO EMBRACE T.H.E. P.I.T.S.
T. Take Time to Read, Memorize, and Meditate on Your Bible
We need to be sure we are spending time reading, memorizing, and meditating on our Bibles. I am sure many of you have a quiet time. However, when life gets hard, it’s easy to let this special time slide. We must resist that temptation. I’d also say that we need not merely to read our Bibles. One of the psalmists wrote, “I have stored up Your Word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11). A little later he wrote, “I will meditate on Your precepts” (v. 15). Psalm 1 tells us that the person is blessed who delights “in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
If we read our Bibles in a rushed manner, while focusing mainly on our problems, this is not going to help us. When I memorize Scripture, I find I have to slow down to process what it is saying; I have to focus on the portion of the Bible I am memorizing, or I simply won’t be able to memorize it. I struggle more with memorizing the Bible when I have many things on my mind.
Of course, meditation on Scripture by definition means it is our sole focus.
H. Ensure a Healthy Diet
Whether it’s depression or a stressful situation, we need to be sure we are consuming a healthy diet. Most of us don’t appreciate how much the foods and drinks we consume impact us, especially the foods to which we most naturally turn when life is hard. When our bodies are impacted negatively, it can have a significant impact on us spiritually as well. We are psycho-somatic beings; we are body and soul, and the two impact each other.
It is natural, given the relationship between body and soul, that getting exercise is important as well. There are many benefits to regular exercise. Here’s an article by the Mayo Clinic listing seven of them. Two of the benefits they list are improved mood and better sleep. Both are critical when we are in a rough patch.
As we move on, each of the letters of “P.I.T.S.” have to do with different aspects of prayer, though they extend beyond prayer to other actions as well. This part of the acronym also roughly corresponds to the more familiar acronym “A.C.T.S.” (For those who aren’t familiar with this acronym, it stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.)
P. Praise God
When we pray, especially when life is the pits, we need to begin by praising God. Take the time to meditate in your prayers on Who God is. Later we will thank Him for what He has done and is doing. But, for now, take time worshipping God. For example: “I praise You, Lord, for You do not change. I can always count on You. Because You do not change, Your love for me cannot change. Therefore, though it doesn’t feel like it right now, I praise You, because Your love is unchanging. As it says in the Bible: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).” Be specific in your praise of God. If you don’t know how to describe God (His attributes, which He has given to us in the Bible), the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 4, is a good place to start. You can find it here. But, notice, I included Scripture in the sample prayer. That’s always a safe place to turn for guidance in prayer.
(Let me also say quickly, what I am writing here is not law. If you mix praise with thanksgiving at this point, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, as I began writing the first draft of the previous paragraph, I realized I had quickly moved from praise to thanksgiving. It’s easy to do. Whether you begin with praise or thanksgiving, or some mixture of the two, you are beginning your prayers by focusing on God and His goodness and love toward you. That is what matters.)
However, praising God is not something we do just in our prayer life. We do so, more foundationally, when we gather with our brothers and sisters to worship God. As much as we do not need to neglect our quiet times, the Bible commands us not to forsake the gathering together with one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). This gathering is not limited to corporate worship on Sunday, though it is critical to make that a priority. It also includes small groups, meeting a brother or sister for coffee, etc. We can also praise God in our speech with those we encounter throughout the day. When I used to ask my grandfather how he was, he always responded with “Praise God.” It was a carry-over from the typical Arabic greeting (my grandfather was a Lebanese Christian, as was my other family from the area.) This may seem small, but it is a place to begin. What other ways can you simply work praise into your speech and conversation with people?
We begin our prayers by focusing on the God Who is worthy of all our praise, Who sits enthroned in majesty in heaven. But before we move onto ourselves, we can intercede for others. Intercession is important and helpful during those rough times, because we cannot intercede on others in any specific way if we are only thinking about ourselves. We have to get to know others and care for them in order to intercede for them. Furthermore, as we do so, we are reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. Maybe as we ask others how we can pray for them, they will ask the same of us, and we can bear one another’s burdens. So, intercession means that we pray for others, and partly how we do so is to ask others how we can be praying for them, or just listening to them as they talk about what’s going on with them. We can also pray more broadly for the needs of the world and the broader church, especially the persecuted church.
There is another facet to intercession. We are also reminded that Christ is interceding for us. “Christ Jesus, Who died – more than that, Who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Actually, all of Romans 8 is a great place to turn when life is hard. But, here I just want to remind you that Christ knows you intimately, knows every detail of what is going on with you, and is not ignoring your situation. He is constantly interceding for you, even as we confess our sins to the Father. And if the Father is going to hear anyone’s prayers, it must be the Son’s prayers.
T. Thank God
After we’ve praised God and interceded on behalf of others, we can thank God for all He has done for us, is doing for us, will do for us, and for hearing our prayers, whether for ourselves or for others in our intercession. Again, like in our praise and intercession, let’s be specific. Depending on where you are, thinking of specific things may take time. Take that necessary time. When we make the attempt to think of specific reasons to thank God, the list grows quite long. If you cannot think of anything for which to thank God in your current circumstances, then I would suggest you might be struggling with bitterness. Repent of this, and ask God to help your heart soften toward Him. He is always loving, good, kind, slow to anger, etc. toward us, and therefore the problem does not lie with Him. In His love, goodness, kindness, patience, etc., He will help you. (See Exodus 34:6-7 for these attributes, along with others, all of which God uses to describe Himself to Moses.)
S. Bring allyour supplications to God
Finally, once we have praised God specifically, brought specific intercessions to Him on behalf of others, thanked Him for the specific ways He has and is demonstrating His love, goodness, kindness, etc. toward us, it’s time to bring our supplications to God.
We are not saving this part til last because the Bible frowns on us bothering God with our requests. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, since He is concerned for you” (1 Peter 5:7). All of your anxieties. There is none too small to escape His loving, compassionate gaze, and there is none too large for His wisdom, provision, and power. And, just like with our praises, intercessions, and thanksgivings, we need to be specific with our supplications. This is an act of faith.
The reason we wait until this point under normal circumstances to bring our supplications is to turn our hearts toward God and others first. By praising Him, we are reminded that He has all this under control, and He is intending it for our good (Romans 8:28). By thanking Him for specific things, we are reminded that He truly does care for us. In all of this, our circumstances should begin to shrink in comparison to His majesty, and our confidence in His willingness and ability to hear and answer us should grow.
This post is intended to give you practical steps to take when life gets hard. It is not intended to present a quasi-stoic response to the difficult things in life. It is not intended to suggest we should never grieve. Christians must grieve at the proper time, and we must remember that Christ grieves with us. We must also remember that we are not immune to medical ailments and conditions – like depression – that need medical treatment. I am not qualified to offer you medical advice, and if you think you are depressed, or suffering some other medical issue, I would encourage you to seek your doctor’s advice. Nonetheless, there is a spiritual component to our suffering, and that is what I’m addressing here – how do we re-orient our spiritual side toward praising God when we encounter hard times?
Because, sometimes life is the pits for God’s people. When it is, will you embrace and practice T.H.E. P.I.T.S.?
One of the most difficult things to reconcile in theology is God’s absolute sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility. If God is absolutely sovereign, what room does that leave for my own thinking, volition, or decision-making? Really, what do these things matter, if God is absolutely sovereign? Furthermore, how can He hold me responsible for the things I do? Do I even have a choice? The simple (simplistic?) answer is, God is a Personal Being, not the arbitrary reality called fate. Furthermore, He made us in His own image, so that we also have a will, the ability to reason, and even the responsibility to exercise our own sovereignty under Him as His viceroys on earth.
A more challenging question is: if God is absolutely sovereign, why have you titled your blog “God Begs You”? Kings are not beggars. They issue decrees, and those decrees are followed closely, sometimes on pain of death. There is truth to this penal reality when we think about God as the King of Kings. God warned Adam that the penalty for his disobedience to the first commandment, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because if you eat of it, dying you will die” (Genesis 2:17, my rendition). Adam disobeyed (sinned) and died. His sin injected sin into the whole world; now everyone sins. Therefore all die (see Romans 5:12). “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Some of the words used for “sin” involve the idea of treason. So, we must affirm that God is the absolute sovereign, and that disobeying Him brings about the death penalty. He warned us it would. This death includes separation from God. We have made ourselves His enemies.
But that explanation of God’s sovereignty doesn’t come close to answering the question raised above, does it? In fact, it seems to lend support to the objection. The thing is, God is not merely absolutely sovereign. He is also merciful, gracious, and loving. In fact, when He proclaims His name to Moses, He begins by saying, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NIV). While God has a just, reasonable, well-founded, and controlled anger toward rebellion against Him – and it is the more just and well-founded because He is so good – anger is not His only response to sin and the unrepentant sinner. He is also compassionate, gracious, and loving toward us, because He sees how lost, deceived, and enslaved we are by sin.
This is why He sent His Son into this world to save us and why His Son came willingly and voluntarily to save us. “All this is from God, Who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, ESV). God is so gracious, compassionate, and loving, that He doesn’t desire for any sinner to die. Instead, He desires that sinners repent and live (see Ezekiel 18:23, 31-32). It is the King’s grace, compassion, and love that causes Him to stoop so low as to become a beggar: “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV).
God would do anything to bring you back to Him, so great is His love for you. In fact, He already did. He sent His Son to be an offering for our sin. Will you receive this gift?