The Fear that Leads to Abundant Life

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

-Proverbs 1:7

The beginning of a river often starts subtly: A melting snowcap, a million drops of rain, rolling down tree trunks, seeping through the underbrush. Yet, before long, it’s crashing together and cascading downhill, bringing clean, clear life.


Knowledge, too, starts with something seemingly simple: “The fear of the LORD.” Not a degree or a genetic advantage or a particular age or experience or instructor. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.

The fear of the LORD is not terrorper se. It is recognizing, acknowledging, concluding that there is a God, and I am not that God. It’s something very like the simple second step from Alcoholics Anonymous:

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

-Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, “The 12 Steps Illustrated”

The fear of the LORD starts to gather and gain momentum when we realize that the very definition of “God” suggests this God is above me. That this God is above me implies that what God is like effects me. Thus, I should investigate what God is like. If this God deserves something from me, I should find out. If this God has power over me, I should know.

To jump right to the N-th step, if God is truly revealed in Jesus Christ, then what Jesus Christ says and does will become significant, perhaps consuming. Unexpectedly, Jesus Christ reveals that God not only deserves something from us but also wants something for us, that He has come like a shepherd, “That [His flock] might have life and have it abundantly.” What God wants, deservers, does, promises, cautions, provides–all these questions warrant inquiry and response.

It all starts with the fear of the Lord. When we recognize that there is “a Power greater than ourselves,” we find that we live in a different world than we otherwise thought. This new world only starts with a vague recognition; it begs exploration and deserves our lives and promises knowledge–the knowledge that leads to abundant life.

How Faith/Love Is Like Health

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

-Galatians 5:6

Why is this the thing that “counts” in Christ Jesus, “faith working through love”? What does this mean, and what’s so special about it? Is there faith without love? Is there love without faith?

The New Testament’s continual answer (to these last two questions) seems to be “no.” There is something like faith that lacks love. There is something like love that lacks faith in Jesus Christ. However, faith as God designed it cannot not love. Love as God designed it finds its model, inspiration, and power in Jesus Christ’s love.

When we believe something, it will determine the way we speak and act, at least in particular situations. This is what Elaine Graham suggests in Transforming Practice: If an idea is not enacted and embodied through praxis (that it, idea-driven practice), then it is not actually normative and authentic for that community. Conversely, as she puts it:

What is normative and authentic for the Christian community is enacted and embodied in praxis.

-Elaine Graham, Transforming Practice, p.139

When we try to enact faith in the love of God–the love we see in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the fitting embodiment is love. In fact, this idea was prevalent in the Christian community long before “embodiment” became a buzzword in 20th c. thought:

Was not Abraham justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

-James 2:21-23, 26

Faith working through love is like health. Health is not a test result; it’s what our bodies can actually do. Meanwhile, doing something doesn’t mean we’re healthy enough to do it, as we may well discover when trying to get out of bed the next morning.

Likewise, as those in Christ, what counts is the spiritual health of faith working through love. If we want to love, we need to develop the trust in, understanding of, and focus on the love of God through Jesus Christ that helps and enables us to love. If we do believe in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that faith will change the way we use our actual bodies. If we really believe, then we will move our lips differently to make different words, we will move our limbs differently to perform different deeds, to love our neighbors as ourselves, as we now know and believe God has loved us.

For Christ is By Christ

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.

-Galatians 2:20

When I read this verse, two things happen. First, I hear the tune we learned it to in Team 3, the in-house Awana-like program I attended as a child. Second, I automatically think about how I need to stop living for myself and start living for Christ. I don’t want to belittle that; it’s a valuable reminder of a fitting and important truth.

However, this verse tells us more than that we need to stop living for ourselves and start living for Christ. It also assures us that we can stop living by ourselves and start really living by Christ. Christ lives in us. What we couldn’t do we now can do and what we couldn’t not do we’re able to refuse. We can become who we weren’t and move on from who we were. We can be loved by God and love God and love like God, all because Christ has stooped and delighted to live in us. We can live by faith in Christ because Christ has been, is, and will be faithful.

The very practical point that should not be missed in this claim that the reality of heaven is now in some sense “accessible” to the church is that the very transformative energy of the age to come (“the powers of the coming age” [Heb 6:5]) is already being made available to the church for its ministry and mission. Alas, all too often the church today is being run on the natural energies of this age, rather than the supernatural energy loosed by the resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit! If we have lost our heavenly imagination, we will be disinclined to access, by faith and prayer, the heavenly energy from above.

-John Jefferson Davis, Meditation and Communion with God, kindle loc. 1186

A Hard, Promising, Merciful Commandment

And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he he will cast you off forever.

-1 Chronicles 28:9

Sometimes, it’s easier to care for someone than to care about them. By that I mean, when we feel no affection for certain people, it is easier to do something for them than to feel something for them. In fact, we sometimes believe that we cannot change how we feel.

This is problematic, considering none of us really feel the affection for God that such a good and holy God deserves. Because of this, it can be intimidating to hear that God searches hearts and understands every plan and thought. I go to church. I do devotions. I try not to lie or cheat, but these alone don’t fulfill the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” I sometimes wish I could trick God by my behavior into believing that I’ve fulfilled this command, but I haven’t, and God knows it.

David’s command here can seem heavy. “Serve him with a whole heart and a willing mind.” He’s asking Solomon to dig much deeper than changing some of his behavior. He’s asking Solomon to take on a less conquerable task. It seems like hard advice, but it’s also a promising and merciful command.

God’s desire for our hearts is promising because our love steers our life. If we start by learning to love God, our love for God can change our loving and our living, our present and our future. Jonathan Edwards wisely said,

That which men love they desire to have and to be united to, and possessed of. That beauty which men delight in, they desire to be adorned with. Those acts which men delight in, they necessarily incline to do.

-Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Banner of Truth, 1994), p.317

God’s desire for our hearts is merciful, because it gives us the chance to please God today. Despite what culture says, there is such a thing as “too late.” It’s too late for me to be a doctor. Someday it will be too late for me to have been a perfect dad. However, it is never too late for me to please the God who sees my heart for what it is. My heart may always be disordered, but if I turn to and trust Him with an honest heart, I don’t have to convince Him–He knows, and He is pleased..

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

-Psalm 51:17

Calling It Good

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

-Psalm 138:8

I can trust God’s purpose for me without knowing what it is, because I know God and Who He is. To trust His purpose is to aim to do what He would have me do, but it is also to accept His evaluation of it in the end. To trust his purpose is to say, “I am discarding my own expectations as measuring tapes for my life; I am throwing away others’ expectations, too.” If God says it is good then I will try to do it, and if God says it is good, then I will call it good.

This often means committing to the responsibilities that God has put before us, such as family, neighborhood, congregation, business, or friends. It often comes at the expense of what we’ve been told to choose: Not just money, but also ministry worth writing about in the paper, experiences worth Instagramming, sometimes our dreams. Yet, we will not be disappointed in the end if we exchange our hopes for God’s hopes for us. He is the God of all wisdom, our loving Father, the Beginning and the End. He knows. More over, He has promised: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me. Your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.”

Young adults desperately collect experiences. They almost seem to be operating under the idea that by collecting the largest number of travel, sexual, thrill-seeking, drinking and social experiences, they will be happy. Yet to [my wife] and me, these young adults seem far from happy. Many of them wander from bed to bed, pub to pub, ski area to ski area in a haze of unfulfilled good cheer—cheer that only touches the outer layers of the soul.

-Everett Worthington Jr., Coming to Peace with Psychology, p.220

Why I Am Not a Priest

David said, “The LORD, the God of Israel, has given rest to his people, and he dwells in Jerusalem forever. And so the Levites no longer need to carry the tabernacle or any of the things for its service”… For their duty was to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the LORD, having the care of the courts and the chambers, and cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of the God. Their duty was also to assist with the showbread, the flour for the grain offering, the wagers of unleavened bread, the baked offering, the offering mixed with oil, and all measures of quantity or size. And they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD (1 Chronicles 23:25-31).

As the years passed, the priests’ roles changed. Originally, they were responsible for carrying God’s tent through the desert; now that had God set up a home for his people in Jerusalem, their job changed. They maintained the courts and the chambers. Soon, they would keep up the temple. Most importantly, they would “stand every morning, thanking and praising the LORD.” We should respect and learn from this, the recognition that God deserves continual praise, that we should figure out how to make sure He gets it.

When I tell people in the Northeast (barbers or seat mates, for example) that I’m in seminary, they typically ask if I’m going to be a priest. I often say something like “Basically, though as a protestant I’ll be called a ‘pastor.'” There is a difference, though, and it does matter. Roman Catholic priests have some similarities to the Israelite priests that Protestant pastors do not take on. Like the Israelite priests, I respect and learn from my Roman Catholic brothers, but I would not take on that office myself.

Like the Israelite priests, the Roman Catholic priest is responsible to lift up an offering to God, the mass, each day. They consider the mass the body and blood of Jesus Christ because they believe it is Jesus’ sacrifice (not essentially their sacrifice) that pleases God; they believe it is Jesus’ sacrifice that pleases God, so they consider the mass they lift to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They recognize that God deserves continual praise, and they make sure that He gets it, through the mass that the priests perform.

However, there’s a verse in Hebrews that suggests the leaders of God’s people now have a different role:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feed. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified…

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25).

When Hebrews says “us” and “one another,” I believe it’s talking about all of us. All of us are to draw near to God, all of us are to stir one another up to love and good works, all of us are to encourage one another. This is how we praise God, how all of us take part in the praise God deserves. All of us are to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (13:15).

The devotion of the Israelite priests and the Roman Catholic priests should remind us that God’s praise is more important than we likely remember on a day to day basis. We are responsible to make sure that God is praised every day, but thanks to Jesus we can give that praise. Because of Jesus, we must not delegate that praising to chosen clerics; because we can each praise God, we are each responsible to praise God. We are each responsible to praise God, and thanks to Jesus we can.

Christ is not an agitator. He offers no new, intense experiences. He does not sell anything. He is, and that is all–like a flower on the restaurant table in the midst of the smoke and the talk. This is not what everybody else is promising today. In the advertisements, in the porno papers, in the new spiritual movements the message is clear–we have exactly what you have been looking for! Here is the answer to all your questions! We’ll straighten out the mystery of life for you! This simplification turns everyone into nothing more than a shallow consumer. Christ is not for consumption but for worship (David Wells, Turning to God, p.128).

Why It’s Better to Be Weak

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

Lately I’ve wondered whether we should define adulthood as the season that starts with realizing that we will carry certain limitations to the grave. Adulthood takes off once we realize that we will be mediocre to average at most things and, despite our strengths, likely will not be the best in the world at anything. I say this with a smile.

God is slowly freeing me from believing that that’s what life’s about. Being the best at something is not a bad goal, but it’s a terrible source for one’s identity. Jim Collins’ “hedgehog concept”–finding the one thing you can become the best at–is a good way to develop an organization that meaningfully contributes to society. However, it’s a broken way to develop a life, because our specialities don’t make us who we are. God’s grace makes us who we are.

If God looks better when we are more inadequate, then it is better to be inadequate, because God will still cherish us and use us and display His mercy. If God’s power is made perfect in weakness, then it is better to be weak, because God will carry us and guard us and show His glory. It would be a fleeting rush to be the best among humans; it is a lasting joy to abide in the only God, the God who promises to abide in us.

The reality and confession of personal spiritual weakness is not a grave danger to your ministry. God has chosen to build his church through the instrumentality of bent and broken tools. It is your delusions of strength that will get you in trouble and cause you to form a ministry that is less than Christ-centered and gospel-driven (Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling, p.152).

A Psalm for Troubled Hearts

I say to God, my rock:
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?’
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
‘Where is your God?’

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God (Psalm 42:9-11)

At the end of the semester, I often hit a rough patch. I don’t know if most grad students experience this, but I do most of the time. Perhaps it’s the letdown of the glorious summer that turns out to be more normal life. Perhaps it’s the missed-step feeling the comes from finding too much of my identity in my work and then not having any work to do. I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, but I was happy to read this Psalm this morning.

Whenever I read this Psalm, I’m reminded of a sermon I heard from Paul David Tripp at Crossroads. I appreciate, first, that he was honest, like the psalm is honest, that even Christians go through rough patches. Even Christians go through seasons when we are troubled–anxious or sad or angry or blasé–Tripp takes up a phrase from St. John of the Cross, calling these times “the dark night of the soul.”

Second, I am grateful for Tripp talking about this refrain that runs through Psalms 42 and 43, where the psalmist talks to his own soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul // and why are you in turmoil within me? // Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, // my salvation and my God.” We often take our feelings for granted; we see them as controlling us, like in the movie Inside Out. What’s to say that “we” (that is, our thinking, our actions, our decisions) can’t also influence our feelings? What’s to say that we can’t speak theology to our souls that will soothe our troubled hearts? Nothing. In fact, the psalmist does this, and so can we. It’s not an instant solution, but it helps, and it honors God.

Tripp explains:

One of the most important things to do in those moments of darkness is to remember the things that you’ve learned in the light. It is very easy, when darkness comes, to think that somehow God has changed, somehow His promises have changed, somehow God has moved. If on a bright and sunny day, you walk down into your basement where there is no light, and you’re surrounded by darkness, the reality that you left is still reality, the sun still shines. You just happen to be in a place of darkness. It would be wrong to panic and say, “The light is gone, the light is gone!” The light still shines (Paul Tripp, “Day and Night”).

Over the past few years, I’ve often been comforted by Brian Eicrhelberger’s musical meditation on this psalm, “Satisfied in You.” You can listen to the song and download a chord chart here.

The True Prosperity Gospel


What does this verse mean?

The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

Phony prosperity preachers love this verse, pushing the poorest to give to what little they have–or credit card debt that they don’t have–to add to their millions. This spiritual and financial abuse is disgusting, and it makes the actual Church of Jesus Christ look bad.

On the other hand, this verse is also a promise from God, in the Scripture that we trust and attest as the Word of God. So what does it mean?

The surrounding verses give us some clues:

  1. God does not promise to give us what we want; He does promise to give us what we need to honor Him and love others.
    • “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (9:8).
    • “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (9:10).
    • “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:11).
    • “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (9:12).
  2. Christian leaders are responsible to lead the Church in financial practices that are self-evidently honorable.
    • “Now concerning the collection for the saints: …when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem [where there is a famine]” (1 Cor 16:1,3).
    • “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will. We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (8:18-21).
    • “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction” (9:5).
  3. Money should move in the Church, not to make anyone rich, but to save brothers and sisters from suffering under poverty.
    • “And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (8:10-12).
    • “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack'” (8:13-15).

These points in the surrounding verses help us understand what 2 Corinthians means when it says, “whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” They unfold for us the true prosperity gospel: Not that we should give another $1000 on our credit card in faith so that our credit card debt would disappear–by no means! Not that we should keep mailing in money until the cancer goes away–not at all! Rather, that God richly provides for His Church to be His body in this time and place. God provides His people with what we need to honor Him and care for our brothers and sisters.

We are failing to do so, yes. We look around our world and do not see a bountiful harvest for all the people of God. Ironically, these phony prosperity preachers are the epitome of why we do not. They extort by faith in their own ability and superiority. The Church–our family–around the world will flourish when we share and sacrifice by faith in God’s power and glory.

There is a true prosperity gospel. It has nothing to do with private jets. Rather, it is centered on God’s promise to provide us with what we need to honor Him and love our brothers and sisters. It is only rightly administered by leaders who transparently employ honorable financial practices. It is not to make us rich; rather, it is to combat the famines and wars and whatever else would lay a burden of poverty on our brothers and sisters.

This is the true prosperity gospel: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (9:11). “Thanks be to God for this inexpressible gift!” (9:15)

The Newness of Redemption

“He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
Blessed is the man who makes
the LORD his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:3-5).

Yesterday I wrote about Shimei in 2 Samuel and Marcus’ account of fleeing Monrovia, about how the saddest thing about genocide is how common it’s become. Here’s where Ian Fleming paints a false picture of the world: Wicked people aren’t novel Bond villains. Sin has been stale for centuries now. They gobble up the same things (power, sex, and money) by the same means (exploitation, neglect, and violence) over and over again. That’s why two young men being killed for stepping out of line doesn’t surprise us.

I’ll tell you what did surprise me: The second half of Marcus’ book, sitting in Starbucks yesterday afternoon. Now, I’ve read Miroslav Volf’s search for reconciliation after ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. I visited the Holocaust Museum a couple weeks ago, and heard the voices of hope in the video at the end. I knew the subtitle of Marcus’ book: “A Story of Letting Vengeance Go.” Yet, the way it unfolded still took me by surprise. It moved me and encouraged me, humbled me.

Bombed out cities look more and more similar, the more violence they suffer. Every painting, on the other hand, is unique. Every cathedral differs. Every poem, every lyric is something new.

That’s the difference between sin and redemption. Sin is stale; redemption is creative. Destruction is tragically repetitive; each act of God’s new creation is fresh, abiding, and irreplaceable.

I’m reminded that we need to take the time to listen to these “new songs,” these new “songs of praise” to the God who has “multiplied his wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us.” Surely, “they are more than can be told,” but as we tell and attend to these stories, “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”

“For us to get past the atrocities and the dark memories, we must first be able to forgive those who deeply hurt us. We must forgive even those whom we know will hurt us again if they get the chance. God was teaching me this improbable, insurmountable reality through the broken, hurting young men that I met” (Marcus Doe, Catching Ricebirds, p.247).

I recommend Marcus’ book, Catching Ricebirds, a story that taught me about God and the present world. Amazon has it on Kindle and in paperback here (this is an unsolicited recommendation).