The Necessity of Grief

Dictionary.com defines the English word ‘necessary’ as: being essential, indispensable, or requisite. It is necessary for me to continue breathing oxygen if I am to stay alive. It is necessary that cars stop at red lights in order to prevent accidents. It is necessary to pay $2.00 for a drink priced at $2.00. And so forth.

An entirely striking example of ‘necessity’ is found at 1 Peter 1:6. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the verse reads:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”

Did you catch that?

If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.

If as an essential, you have been grieved by various trials.

If as a requisite, you have been grieved by various trials.

Rocks and concrete are both incapable of finding anything necessary. You have to be alive (not to mention intelligent) to determine that something is necessary. So a living agent is implied in 1 Peter 1:6—a living agent who determines the necessity of “grief by various trials.” That living agent is God, and we are the ones upon whom God necessitates grief over a variety of trials.

Why would God determine it necessary to have us grieve over various trials? Isn’t grief (or ‘heaviness’ as the King James Version renders it) something to be avoided at all costs? How could grief ever be necessary or indispensable or requisite in our lives? And further, what do we do with the earlier part of 1 Peter 1:6, which talks about ‘rejoicing’?  How can ‘rejoicing’ and ‘grieving’ be juxtaposed in so short a span? Aren’t these mutually exclusive categories?

Earlier today I read a wise and pastoral sermon on 1 Peter 1:6 written almost two hundred years ago by Charles Spurgeon. In the sermon, Spurgeon gives four main reasons for the necessity of grief during times of trial.  Summarized, they are as follows:

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because in all things we must be like our Head.

Here Spurgeon points to Mark 14:33-34 (cf. Matthew 26:37-38), where in his final hour, Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled,” saying, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” Spurgeon remarks:

[Jesus] had to bear the burden, not with his shoulders omnipotent, but with shoulders that were bending to the earth beneath a load. And you and I must not always expect a giant faith that can remove mountains: sometimes even to us the grasshopper must be a burden, that we may in all things be like unto our head.

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because it keeps us humble before God.

During times of buoyancy and light-hearted happiness, it is all too easy to forget God. Spurgeon writes:

Lest we should be satisfied from ourselves, and forget that all our own springs must be in him, the Lord sometimes seems to sap the springs of life, to drain the heart of all its spirits, and to leave us without soul or strength for mirth, so that the noise of tabret and viol would be unto us as but the funeral dirge, without joy or gladness. Then it is that we discover what we are made of, and out of the depths we cry unto God, humbled by our adversities.”

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because only through such difficulty do we learn uniquely valuable lessons.

Have you ever noticed how the tops of the Canadian Rockies are mostly barren rock, while the valleys below are where the bulk of the trees stand? We love our mountaintop experiences, but is the valleys of life where the most abundant growth can (and often does) occur.

  • Grief during times of trial is necessary because it makes us uniquely competent in the counsel of others.

Spurgeon puts this so beautifully:

There are none so tender as those who have been skinned themselves. Those who have been in the chamber of affliction know how to comfort those who are there. Do not believe that any man will become a physician unless he walks the hospitals; and I am sure that no one will become a divine, or become a comforter, unless he lies in the hospital as well as walks through it, and has to suffer himself. God can not make ministers—and I speak with reverence of his holy Name—he can not make a Barnabas except in the fire. It is there, and there alone, that he can make his sons of consolation; he may make his sons of thunder anywhere; but his sons of consolation he must make in the fire, and there alone. Who shall speak to those whose hearts are broken, who shall bind up their wounds, but those whose hearts have been broken also, and whose wounds have long run with the sore of grief?

Last, what about that seemingly odd juxtaposition of “rejoicing” and “grieving” in 1 Peter 1:6? Is it possible to rejoice even as one grieves?  Always colorful in his imagery and profound in expression, Spurgeon writes,

Mariners tell us that there are some parts of the sea where there is a strong current upon the surface going one way, but that down in the depths there is a strong current running the other way. Two seas do not meet and interfere with one another; but one stream of water on the surface is running in one directions, and another below is an opposite direction. Now, the Christian is like that. On the surface there is a stream of heaviness rolling with dark waves; but down in the depths there is a strong under-current of great rejoicing that is always flowing there.

Grieving and rejoicing can co-exist.

So where are you at today? Are you living under the divine necessity of grief? If so, take heart. Your grief is not reason-less, and the reasons for it have been dictated by a good and wise God.

Grace and Peace,

Brent

No Lenscrafters for David

The Wednesday night Bible study at Renfrew Baptist Church is currently focused on the life of David. So far we’ve covered 1 Samuel 16 and a section of chapter 17. The motif of ‘seeing’ in these chapters is an interesting study:

1 Samuel 16:6

The aging prophet Samuel sees the wrong things as he gazes at the impressive stature of David’s older brother Eliab. Samuel thinks Eliab must surely be the one whom Yahweh has chosen for anointing, because of Eliab’s commanding looks. But Yahweh says to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.’ Here Samuel is shown to have bad eyesight.

1 Samuel 17:4-7

A labored description is given concerning Goliath’s appearance: he is a seemingly impenetrable fortress of armored might. In giving such a detailed description, does the narrator want the reader to reflect back on 16:6? Perhaps the message is that despite Goliath’s rather terrifying appearance, all would be well: ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature.’

1 Samuel 17:11

Saul and the men of Israel cower in fear at the voice of Goliath. Goliath’s stature and his impressive bravado have paralyzed the king and his entourage. Why can’t they see the truth, that  Goliath is a defeat-able foe?

1 Samuel 17:24-25

The men of Israel “saw” Goliath and became terrified. They cried “have you seen this man?!”  Clearly they were undone by Goliath’s Bronson-on-steroids appearance.

In truth Goliath was entirely vincible for the person or persons who walked in the Spirit, but the men of Israel didn’t have such vision. They too needed strong corrective lenses.

1 Samuel 17:28-29

Eliab (the impressive-looking guy that Samuel had been enamored with) looks upon his brother David as something of a runt. Eliab is curt with David. Eliab doesn’t see David as being any kind of solution to the crisis. Eliab too needs corrective lenses.

1 Samuel 17:33

Saul (who was tall [see 1 Sam 10:23] and also the king of Israel, making him the most logical choice to face tall Goliath who defied Israel) also looks upon David as a runt like Eliab had. Saul sees poorly once again.

1 Samuel 17:42

The Philistine [Goliath] looked and saw David,” and “disdained” David, “for David was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.” Goliath sees nothing but a young weakling as he looks upon David. Goliath needs strong glasses also. He doesn’t see well.

1 Samuel 17:26, 36-37, 45-47

It is David who sees perfectly! Only David in this section of Scripture has 20/20 eyesight. David can see perfectly well that Goliath is but a pagan who had been defying Israel’s God. David’s eyesight penetrated into the folly of Goliath. Goliath had been trusting in conventional weapons, which would be no match for the Spirit of ‘Yahweh of armies’ who rested upon David.

So why could David “see well” when everyone else was so visually impaired? Perhaps the main (only?) reason is given in 1 Samuel 16:13: “The Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.” It was the Spirit who was giving David his 20/20 vision.

Part of the reason the Greater David (Jesus) came was to restore sight, both literally and spiritually. When a person comes under the regenerative influence of the Holy Spirit, that person’s spiritual eyes are opened. “I was blind but now I see.”

If you are a Christian with the vision of the Spirit, will you be like Saul or the men of Israel or Goliath or Eliab: seeing but not seeing? Terrified and perturbed for reasons of blindness? Focused on the wrong things?

Or will the focus of the eyes of your heart turn persistently and consistently to the God whose Spirit indwells you?

With Paul I pray for you, that “the eyes of your heart would be enlightened, that you may know what it the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18).

Grace and Peace,

Brent

“Serve the Lord By Holy Inaction”

Below I reproduce a rather long quote from Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. Spurgeon’s words were written to pastors in the nineteenth century, but they remain highly relevant to workaholic pastors in 2015. In fact, they remain relevant to workaholics generally! If you are a pastor about to take a summer break, a very happy holiday to you! May Mr. Spurgeon help you to see that it is right, necessary, good, and appropriate to take a (guiltless!) break:

“The bow cannot always be bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the body. Our Sabbaths are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we. Hence the wisdom and compassion of our Lord, when He said to His disciples, “Let us go into the desert and rest awhile.” What! when the people are fainting? When the multitudes are like sheep upon the mountains without a shepherd? Does Jesus talk of rest? When Scribes and Pharisees, like grievous wolves, are rending the flock, does He take His followers on an excursion into a quiet resting place? Does some red-hot zealot denounce such atrocious forgetfulness of present and pressing demands? Let him rave in his folly. The Master knows better than to exhaust His servants and quench the light of Israel. Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength. Look at the mower in the summer’s day, with so much to cut down ere the sun sets. He pauses in his labour—is he a sluggard? He looks for his stone, and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, with a “rink-a-tink—rink-a-tink—rink-a-tink.” Is that idle music—is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mown while he has been ringing out those notes on his scythe! But he is sharpening his tool, and he will do far more when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him. Even thus a little pause prepares the mind for greater service in the good cause. Fishermen must mend their nets, and we must every now and then repair our mental waste and set our machinery in order for future service. To tug the oar from day to day, like a galley-slave who knows no holidays, suits not mortal men. Mill-streams go on and on for ever, but we must have our pauses and our intervals. Who can help being out of breath when the race is continued without intermission? Even beasts of burden must be turned out to grass occasionally; the very sea pauses at ebb and flood; earth keeps the Sabbath of the wintry months; and man, even when exalted to be God’s ambassador, must rest or faint; must trim his lamp or let it burn low; must recruit his vigour or grow prematurely old. It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on for ever, without recreation, may suit spirits emancipated from this “heavy clay,” but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for a while, but learn from the experience of others the necessity and duty of taking timely rest.”

Grace and Peace,

Brent

Disadvantaged Goliath

1 Samuel 17 gives us the well-known story of David and Goliath. Have you ever noticed how laborious is the description of Goliath’s gear? Verses 5-7 tell us that Goliath wore a heavy bronze helmet, as well as bronze leg armor, and that he carried a bronze javelin between his shoulders. Additionally we’re told that Goliath’s coat of mail weighed 126 pounds and that the head of his spear weighed 15 pounds. Certainly, the overall picture in these verses is that of a weighed-down warrior. It would be difficult for Goliath to move quickly and with agility should he need to, and this is precisely where David’s genius comes in.

When David and Goliath met on the battlefield, Goliath requested that David “come over” to him, so that Goliath might quickly dispose of David (v. 44). This request seems to indicate that Goliath wanted hand-to-hand combat. Up close and personal with David, Goliath would simply overcome his opponent by brute strength and defeat David soundly.

But David didn’t play by Goliath’s rules: “When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (v. 48). But David didn’t quite get up close enough to Goliath to engage in the hand-to-hand combat that Goliath had desired. Before getting in too close, “David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.”  David took advantage of his weighed-down opponent.  He knew that Goliath was unable to maneuver quickly, so just before entering the danger zone, the unarmored David shrewdly, efficiently, suddenly and unexpectedly cut the giant down with a sling and a stone.

Who had the real advantage?  Most of us are familiar with the saying, “It was a real David and Goliath situation.”  Normally that saying expresses a situation where the little, disadvantaged, inferior guy (David) takes on the equipped, advantaged, powerhouse person or corporation (Goliath).  But on a close reading of 1 Samuel 17, I wonder if we have it exactly backwards.  Maybe the clear advantage went to David and not Goliath.

David crushed Goliath’s forehead. Back in the book of Genesis, God had promised the deceiving serpent that his head and that of his offspring would be bruised. David is the “man after God’s heart.”  He is the seed (or offspring) of the woman who levels mortal injury on the seed of the serpent (Goliath) who was threatening devastation on God’s people.

Another David would later arise whose heel would be bruised by the serpent on Golgotha, but who would counter by crushing the serpent’s head.  Like his ancestor David, Jesus refused to play by his opponent’s rules. The stone in front of Jesus’s tomb was unexpectedly rolled away, and the shocked serpent fell to the ground defeated; his greatest weaponry vanquished and his battle plan thwarted.

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Grace and Peace,

Brent

A D.Min. Update

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Progress in the Doctor of Ministry (Biblical Theology):

I am now 75% finished my mandatory on-site class seminars.  The most recent seminar (July 14-17) was “Old Testament Use of the Old Testament,” for which the various readings covered at least the following ground:

  • Discerning and exploring the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors
  • Learning to interpret Scripture using a framework that is textual, epochal, and canonical
  • Grasping the nuances which differentiate typology from allegory
  • Discerning the parameters of canonical authority as understood by the early church
  • Identifying then ‘when’ and ‘how’ of the shape of the Hebrew Bible
  • Studying the biblical hermeneutic of the early church
  • Learning about the shape and progress of current canonical studies

One of the best parts of journeying through this program has been the development of personal relationships. I have been privileged to think, laugh, listen, share, and become friends with 8 other upstanding pastor-theologians who entered the program with me in 2014. Our friendships have been deepening, and I have been encouraged and challenged and taught and helped by these guys in more ways than I can count.  We’re already talking about how to stay in regular contact with one another once we graduate. Somehow we have to maintain our friendships though we are spread across the miles, from Calgary to Texas to Ohio to Maryland to Chicago to North Carolina to South Carolina to Wisconsin!

I will return to Louisville, Lord-willing, in January 2016 for our final seminar, “The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament.”  Following that will be a solid year of writing, and then comes the defense of my thesis-project (which is focused on approaching/preaching the book of Exodus in biblical-theological fashion).  Should I stay on track, I will graduate in the spring of 2017 as the first-ever Canadian graduate of Southern Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Theology.

What a rich blessing!

Peace and Blessings,

Brent

Red Apples and Sugar

A few decades ago, Robert Adams wrote a profoundly intriguing essay entitled ‘Flavors, Colors, and God.’[1] In the essay, Adams explores a particular aspect of human consciousness that—at least according to his argument—might point to the existence of God.  Adams begins by terming “such things as the look of red and the taste of sugar” as phenomenal qualia (244). His interest is to explore the correlation between phenomenal qualia and physical brain states.

What is actually happening when we look at a red apple? How does redness get from the apple to the mind, especially considering the fact that the red surface of the apple is not in immediate contact with our body? If brain state R (a certain pattern of electrical activity in the brain) causes me to see red, why is that? Why doesn’t R “cause me to see yellow – or to smell a foul odor?” (245). Why, when I look at a banana, am I instantaneously in brain state Y (a pattern of electrical activity that causes me to see yellow)?

For Adams, purely scientific explanations that center on light wavelengths reflecting in certain ways that then feed into our retinas and brains are inadequate and miss the point. As he explains, “What I want to know is why these relationships between brain states and phenomenal qualia obtain rather than others—and indeed why any such regular and constant relationships between things of these types obtain at all” (245).

After surveying and critiquing Aristotelian and materialistic solutions to the problem, as well as those of Locke, Leibniz and others, Adams proposes that theism provides the only viable explanation.  The correlation between phenomenal qualia and brain states can only be explained by the existence of God.

For me the upshot of all of this is that henceforth, the fact that in my consciousness I perceive colors and experience tastes will be more wondrous and awe-inspiring than it was before!

[1]Robert M. Adams, “Flavors, Colors, and God” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 243-62.

Anthrakia

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[This post is inspired significantly by a sermon I once heard Darrell Johnson preach, where he made the connection between John 18:18 and 21:9 that is discussed below].

One of my favorite summertime activities is barbecuing over lump charcoal. I’m not talking about “grilling” on a propane or natural gas unit. I’m talking about real barbecue, where one cooks delicious cuts of meat over a slow-burning charcoal fire while voluminous billows of blue smoke waft slowly and deliciously into the air. Real barbecue sees a large cut like pork shoulder staying on the cooker for over sixteen hours, tending excitingly toward the final result which is monumentally scrumptious fare.

But this post isn’t about barbecue. Rather, it’s about the two instances in the Bible where the words “charcoal fire” appear. Both occurrences are in the Gospel of John, and both concern Peter.

Peter was shivering as he denied knowing Jesus. He needed to be comfortable as he pretended not to be a disciple of Jesus, so he warmed his hands over a charcoal fire (John 18:18, 25). In John 18:18, the Greek word that the ESV translates as charcoal fire is the word anthrakia, and it is found in only one other verse in the New Testament: John 21:9. At John 21:9, it is the Risen Jesus who—about eleven days after Peter’s denial—prepares an anthrakia on the shore in order to barbecue some fish for the disciples. (I am thrilled that my Lord would prepare fish in this way!)

After the Risen Jesus and the disciples had eaten the barbecued fish and were content, Jesus turned his attention to Peter (John 21:15-19). Although it doesn’t specifically say this in the text, I imagine Jesus speaking to Peter after breakfast from across the crackling, warming anthrakia: Peter on one side of the fire and Jesus on the other. The reason I think this is highly probable is that the anthrakia was mentioned specifically at verse 9 (just before breakfast), and there is no indication that the fire was extinguished after breakfast when Jesus began his conversation with Peter.

Oftentimes in the Bible, “fire” is associated with refining and purification (see Mal 3:2 and Isa 6:6-7, for instance). With the fire that Jesus built on the beach, could there be some refining and purification in the offing?

Peter’s stomach was full of barbecued fish and bread, he was content after a delicious breakfast, and now the Risen Christ began to speak to him from across the anthrakia. Again, the last time Peter was near an anthrakia in the narrative of John was when he denied Jesus. Now sitting across from Jesus at this anthrakia on the beach after breakfast, was Peter plagued by the memory of the earlier anthrakia where he had had his fateful failure of nerve?  Was there an association in Peter’s mind between “charcoal fires” and “denial”?  Did the very sight of the beach bonfire cause Peter to remember with shame the words he’d spoken at the John 18 bonfire?

At the beach anthrakia, Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved him. At the John 18 anthrakia, Peter had disowned Jesus three times (John 18:17, 25, 27). What is Jesus doing with Peter on the beach? He is doing nothing less than re-writing Peter’s history. He is restoring Peter; hitting the re-set button, even resurrecting Peter. Jesus wants to redeem Peter’s past. He wants every alarming, negative association that Peter has with the anthrakia to melt away and for Peter to live in obedience to a new commission to feed and tend Jesus’s sheep and lambs. Interestingly enough, Peter was first called by Jesus at the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:18), where Jesus had said to Peter, “Follow Me.” Now again at Peter’s “resurrection by fire,” Jesus re-issues the call to Peter to “Follow me” (John 21:19). Jesus desires the full restoration of his friend.

So what about you?  What is your anthrakia; your “charcoal fire”?  Where or when did you disown Jesus?  Have you spurned him?  Are you plagued by memories of how you walked away from him or disobeyed him or failed him? The good news for you is that the same Risen Jesus who restored Peter can restore you. He wants to re-write your past. He wants to resurrect you and give you new life. He sits ‘across the fire’ from you and desires to take away your shame and guilt.

Will you spend quality time with him today?

Grace and Peace,

Brent