Archive for February, 2019

Suffering is no obstacle to joy; it is the necessary means

February 26, 2019

The following are lightly edited notes on Genesis 3:16 from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

3:16: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing”: The occasion for greatest joy in life—the birth of a child—will now be accompanied by pain and suffering. This is emblematic of life in this fallen world. Joy is impossible to achieve apart from suffering.

Why do I so often forget this?

See, I usually consider suffering an obstacle to joy, rather than its necessary means. Suffering, I believe, disrupts the plans that I’ve made to achieve joy—as if my plans would have succeeded in the first place! But God’s plans for our joy will always succeed, provided we trust him.

But it won’t come easily—because “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matthew 7:14 KJV).

The very next sentence points to the reason: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” As a result of sin, the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, is no longer what God intends. The human being to whom we are closest and with whom we have greatest incentive to live in harmony will often strive against us.

And if this is true of our spouse, a flesh-and-blood person whom we can see, touch, and talk to, how much more true is it of our God? “Your desire will be contrary” to our Creator as well, as a necessary consequence of sin.

So what should a loving God do about it?

This quote from C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain is fitting:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[1]

To say the least, God is not a “host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests.” He loves us enough to hurt us, or be willing that we suffer hurt, if it means our ultimate happiness.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.

More Instagram-sized video highlights of my trip to the Holy Land

February 26, 2019

I’m still working on these videos of my recent trip. Here are a few more. The Day 4 video includes narration. Enjoy!

No one hurts me more than I hurt myself

February 23, 2019

The following are lightly edited notes on Genesis 3:12-13 from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interlinear Edition.

3:12: “The woman whom you gave to be with me”: Regardless of extenuating circumstances, we must take responsibility for our role in sin—for our contribution to it. The man blames God first, then the woman. The woman blames the serpent. Yet there’s always a sufficient amount of guilt for which we are responsible.

As I consider my frustration over ways in which I perceive that I’ve been mistreated in life, like Adam and Eve I want to prove myself righteous: I want to avoid blame; I want to to justify myself. My pride—my ego—is a genuinely destructive sin. And my anger is a related sin: I’m angry because I don’t perceive that I’m getting what I deserve.

Honestly… I’ve said this before, but it’s true: I go very easy on myself when it comes to the sins of pride and anger; yet I’m guilt-ridden when it comes to other, lesser sins. But if an alien from outer space were able to read my thoughts and observe my behavior for a few days, he would surely conclude that pride and anger were, by far, my biggest, most harmful sins—to myself and others. Why do I so often fail to see it this way?

Instead of falling on my knees and begging God for mercy—and thanking him that he hasn’t punished me worse for my sinful pride—I burn with anger, thinking, “This person, or those people, or this organization, or this institution of which I’m part, has badly mistreated me!” Yet no one has done anything worse to me than I’ve done to myself through pride and anger!

No one has ever hurt me worse than I’ve hurt myself! Full stop.

“This woman whom you gave to be with me…”

Oh, please, Adam! It’s not the woman, and it’s not God: it’s you! It’s how you responded to this particular test. You failed.

And you also failed, Brent. After all, your hero, the apostle Paul, was facing death at every turn—whippings, beatings with rods, imprisonments, hunger, shipwrecks, nakedness, not to mention the worst kind of slander from his enemies (which, in my experience, hurt worse than any sticks and stones)—yet he could say things like, “This happened so that we wouldn’t rely on ourselves but God” (2 Corinthians 1:9), and “We rejoice in our sufferings because of all these good things that God is doing through them” (Romans 5:3-5), and “I give thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20), and “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

By contrast, at the first sign of adversity, I say, “Poor, poor pitiful me!”

My point is, I have more than enough sin for which I can take responsibility. Let me never say again—alongside Adam—”This person, or these people, or these circumstances are to blame. No… I’m to blame for how I respond to this person, or these people, or these circumstances.

Usually I don’t respond well. Forgive me, God.

Here are a couple of songs that are on point:

How history’s first temptation relates to us

February 19, 2019

With some light editing, I wrote the following reflection on Genesis 3:5 in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

3:5: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”: It’s as if Satan were saying, “What God is asking of you is both unfair—because why should you deprive yourself of this delicious fruit?—and not in your best interest. And it isn’t even ignorance or naiveté on God’s part—as if that wouldn’t be bad enough! No, God knows that he’s harming you.”

In other words, Satan is attacking God’s character!

At this point, Eve should have said to herself, if not to Satan, “No, it can’t be that! God loves me and wouldn’t harm me or work against me. I must misunderstand the command if it leads me to this demonic conclusion. God is only good. If he’s issued the command it must be for my good. Regardless—and this is most important—who do I think I am in relation to God that I should second-guess him? How could I possibly know what he knows? Therefore I’m going to trust him, even though I don’t understand him.”

Satan tempts us in a similar way today: to believe that God’s Word (as revealed in scripture) is unfair, unwise, or harmful; to think that we “know better” than what he’s told us. And our skepticism about the goodness of God’s Word, we reason, is based on what we think it reveals about God’s character. “If the doctrine of hell is true, for instance—as scripture seems to teach—then that would make God less than loving”—as we understand love. If hell exists, something would be wrong with God; he would possess a character defect.

Of course we’re too pious to believe that. But now we don’t have to! We have recourse to a different idea! We can instead believe that a particular scripture is wrong, that it doesn’t reflect God’s true character or will, that the human authors who wrote it down got it wrong.

One reasonable alternative—that God is infinitely wiser than we are, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t always understand his ways, especially since he tells us in Isaiah 55:8 that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”—apparently doesn’t cross our minds.

And neither does this: Why couldn’t an all-powerful and all-good God ensure that his written Word is telling the truth?

What the Wailing Wall represents for me

February 19, 2019

Two days ago I was at the Wailing Wall, that portion of the western wall of the Temple in Jerusalem where millions of pilgrims go each year. Some friends asked me to pray for them there. By all means, my prayers for them in Atlanta would be equally effective, but I obliged. I took this photo to prove it. (I obscured the prayer and their names.)

Above and over the Wailing Wall is the Temple Mount on which the Temple once stood. The Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70. Today, there’s a Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock in that location.

Besides praying for my friends, as I was touching the wall and praying, I had this thought: This wall exists because of my sins. This massive building was built in the first place because of my sins (and the sins of everyone else, of course). And as I peer up to the top of the wall and imagine the Temple, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies—the small room of the Temple where the Holy Spirit dwelt, into which only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter, and then only once a year—I think, I could never scale this wall to reach God on the other side.

This wall represents the barrier that my own sin placed between me and God. “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)

Indeed, ultra-orthodox Jews won’t even walk on the Temple Mount above (unlike Gentiles like me who will do so later today), for fear of treading on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. For them, this wall is literally as close as they can get to God.

And so it would be for me—not only a sinner but a Gentile sinner, a double outsider.

But God’s Son Jesus did everything necessary for me, not only to enter the Holy of Holies, but to have the Holy Spirit living within me! When Christ died, the thick curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Through faith in Christ, nothing needs to separate us from God! This means my sins are forgiven; I am sanctified; I am made perfectly righteous, not with my own righteousness but with the righteousness of Christ! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Thank you, Jesus!

My view looking up the wall. Apart from Christ I could never reach God.

Learning to want what Jesus wants for me

February 18, 2019

“He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’” Matthew 16:15. Here I am at Caesarea Philippi, the place of Peter’s great confession—also the place where Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus is patient with us that way.

He certainly has been with me! Today he has given me exactly 49 years of life—of which every moment, every heartbeat, every breath has been nothing but sheer, undeserved gift. Yet I feel like I’m just starting to figure this life out—for example, that being happy, genuinely happy, means learning to want what Jesus wants for me. And trusting that what he wants for me is nothing but good!

I want you who are reading this blog post to be happy in the same way. I want you to know Jesus like I do. He wants to forgive you, to give you eternal life, to show you his favor, to give you new power to live now.

And if you actually know me, you might be thinking—as I would be—“Who are you to tell me this?” I agree. That’s the point! Jesus has done all of this for me. Me! Crazy, right?

Love y’all.

Quick highlights of Day 1 of my trip to the Holy Land

February 16, 2019

I will add more videos as I have time to make them—between an ambitious itinerary, the effects of jet lag, and unreliable broadband access.

But here are the highlights Day 1. I formatted these videos for Instagram, which requires that videos last no longer than one minute. You can follow me on Instagram at @brentlwhite .



The disciple’s most important work

February 16, 2019

I’m in the Holy Land this week—for the first time since my life-changing experience back in 2011, which has continued to bear fruit in my life and ministry. One completely new (to me) site that I visited is the excavation of the ancient city of Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2; Matthew 28:1; John 20:11-18). Rome destroyed the town after the Jewish revolt in A.D. 67, and its ruins reflect first-century Jewish life in Galilee moments before that world came to its cataclysmic end.

The most important discovery in Magdala is what’s known as the “Magdala Stone,” which likely served as a desk for reading scrolls of the Bible in the synagogue. The stone was sculpted to symbolize the Second Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70. Since this sculpture pre-dates the temple’s destruction, it is, for historians, a reliable source of information about the temple and its activities.

The Magdala Stone

There’s a recently built church next to the Magdala ruins, which commemorates Mary Magdalene. Since I’m trying not merely to be a tourist on this trip but also a pilgrim, I took the few moments between the talking of the tour guide and the inevitable gift shop at the exit to reflect on Mary’s life, as revealed in the scripture above, and to pray in the sanctuary.

Mary’s story of deliverance reminded me of Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mary was that sinful woman—she wasn’t. But Jesus words contrasting that woman and Simon are pertinent:

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The extent to which we love Jesus is directly related to the extent to which we perceive that Jesus has healed us, rescued us, forgiven us—saved us. Mary herself, whom Jesus had delivered from seven demons, loved Jesus as much or more than most, as reflected in her steadfast refusal to leave him—either during the shame of his cross on Good Friday or after his death. She had the privilege not only of being the first eyewitness to the resurrection, but also the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, because she wanted more than anything to be with Jesus.

Indeed, being with Jesus is the first responsibility of a disciple. We see this part of our job description in Mark 3:14-15: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”

Before we do anything as disciples, we are to be with Jesus—which, today, we do through reading God’s Word and prayer.

But even putting it like that—contrasting “being” with “doing”—is misguided: because it implies that the time we spend with Jesus—which in my tradition is called having a “quiet time”—isn’t doing anything.

Yet we know that being with Jesus is the most important thing we can do.

Isn’t this the lesson of (a different) Mary and her sister Martha in Luke 10:38-42. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

What was Mary’s “good portion”? To sit at Jesus’ feet alongside the other disciples and learn from him—rather than helping her sister in the kitchen—being “productive” or “working” or “doing.”

To say the least, according to Jesus himself, Mary was hardly “doing nothing”; she was doing the most important work of all.

Through the Holy Spirit, through the scripture that the Spirit “breathed out” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and through our access to our Father in the heavenly throne room (Hebrews 4:16), we may choose the same good portion.

Will we?

More highlights from my sermon on 02-03-19

February 11, 2019

Here are three more Instagram-sized highlights from my sermon, “Submit to One Another.”

Feel free to follow me on Instagram at @brentlwhite.

Genesis 2:17: “you shall surely die”

February 11, 2019

With some minor editing, here are my notes from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

2:17“you shall surely die”: i.e., you will begin a process that inevitably leads to physical death, but your spiritual death begins immediately. This is ultimately the only kind of death that matters—to live outside of God’s will, to live against the grain of one’s existence, to be separated from one’s Creator. (“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Matthew 10:28)

This scripture is ingenious—because it practically forces us to be “tempted” in the same way Adam and Eve were tempted: Because I want to ask why: “Why, God, did you put this tree (of the knowledge of good and evil) in the center of the Garden? Was this wise? Was this necessary? Was your command arbitrary?”

But even in asking, I am attempting to place myself above God, to assert some superior knowledge, to claim some moral high ground above God himself. “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1)

Why do I presume to second-guess God’s Word? Why do I presume to know what’s best for me apart from God? This presumptuousness is at the heart of so much of my own sin and—not to mention—unhappiness!