Reading Together, Early Church Style

New historical research by Brian J. Wright shows that early Christians were surprisingly bookish.




Brian J. Wright first experienced communal reading more than 15 years ago, which led him into the field of textual criticism and put him “three inches from the text.” He spent time photographing manuscripts and working with the fine details of the biblical texts. But when he began PhD work, Wright wanted to step back and ask who was reading what in the first century. His advisors told him—and others scholars all thought—that he would have to include the first three to four centuries to have sufficient evidence on communal reading, but his research revealed a vibrant and active culture of communal reading in the first-century Greco-Roman world.


Wright’s recently published book, COMMUNAL READING IN THE TIME OF JESUS, details his findings and has been drawing praise from a wide variety of established scholars. Wright, now an adjunct professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke with associate theology editor Caleb Lindgren about what Christian reading communities in the first century looked like and what that means for Christians today.


Most of our study Bibles tell us that many of the apostles and early Christians were not members of the educated elite classes, and are often assumed to be illiterate. How widespread was literacy in the ancient world?


Great question. My book is not specifically on ancient literacy, but the consensus view of literacy in antiquity, as you just mentioned, is that the vast majority of people were illiterate. Up until now, no one has documented or argued for the widespread practice of communal reading in the first century. So while I disagree with that illiteracy assumption, it really isn’t the focus of my work.


Because I’ve demonstrated that communal reading events were widespread socially and geographically, you really don’t even need to prove that many people were literate in order to have an overwhelming majority of people that could have known literary texts well or had access to them regularly.


And so we shouldn’t be surprised when we read in the Gospel of John (12:32–34) an account where a crowd of people—not scribes, religious leaders, or elites—challenged Jesus on his use of one verb in one subordinate clause. Or we shouldn’t be surprised when we read of other first-century accounts outside of the Bible where someone in the audience would stand up and object to some detail being shared in a communal reading event because it differed from what they had been hearing elsewhere.


Can you give a picture of what a first-century communal reading would look like?


It would have occurred in many different ways. It could have been friends sharing literature. It could have been public figures actually having something at a theater or auditorium. They happened in both formal and informal venues: apartments, temples, synagogues. They were happening everywhere, courtrooms, private homes, schools.


There are even some pretty humorous examples of one first-century writer, Martial, who talks about how annoying it was when people were reading everywhere to everyone, even while he was in a public bathroom. So there are a number of accounts in the first century where it seems like there were more people reading communally than scholars have thought, and it was just pervasive.


Also notable is the type of reader, that it’s not just the elite. All sorts of people were reading. What my book really shows is there were more people involved in this than have been really seen so far. So I think, in one sense, their problem back then was everyone seemed to be reading and reciting literary works. But our problem today is thinking that no one was doing it or no one could do it.


So, it sounds similar to the way we talk about people using their smartphones today. Is there any kind of correlation between what you are talking about and social media today?


Yes, absolutely. Two things come to mind. One of them is that there was a kind of public reading mania in the first century. It was the trend of the day, and people were talking about it just like what’s on Facebook and Twitter today. The second is that because of that, one historian even notes that the distinction between authors and readers became blurred, and this really damaged what he referred to as the intellectual fabric of the empire.


Because everyone was just posting things or reading their works, a person could become instantly popular. So people wanted to become well known. There’s even accounts of teachers in the first century complaining about students trying to fast track their schooling so they could participate in the reading culture. They just wanted to be out there reading their works and participating in it. And so that caused a lot of self-taught, immature writers and readers and a lot of non–peer reviewed books. Overall quality really decreased because nobody knew who really wrote what or who to listen to. So I think the comparison to social media is pretty striking. There were a lot of self-made experts.


But also, if you’re on social media, it’s almost impossible to quote a popular movie line or name a wrong player on a sports team without somebody noticing and correcting it. Imagine if that type of control was in literature. That’s what you see in the first century because of how pervasive communal reading was. People would stand up and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not what I heard.”


Are you then suggesting that this phenomenon of communal reading events might have provided some consistency to the transmission of Christian literature?


Absolutely, for the texts that would have been read more frequently. Let me give one non-biblical example. If someone were to misquote Homer, everybody would know, because that was just read so frequently. Paul’s writings and other early Christian writings that would have been quickly or immediately read and used, even in the first century, would have been similar. In fact, there’s countless examples after the first century of somebody standing up to read and there’s an uproar in the congregation over one word that had changed because of a new translation.


I reference in the book a letter Augustine wrote to Jerome about when Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate. Augustine’s congregation was in an uproar over one verse in Jonah (4:6) because there was one word that had been changed from what they knew. But I wasn’t just finding examples like this in later centuries like the third and fourth. I started seeing those same type of things in the second and even first century.


So, texts that were read more often would necessarily have been more well known, and people could, in a sense, stand up and say, “That’s not what we’ve been hearing” or “I’m not sure that’s the correct reading of that text” or things like that. I think that should increase our understanding and confidence that there may have been more stability to the transmission of Christian tradition and more stability to these texts than we’ve thought.


You’ve talked about the similarities between the way that Christians might have been reading and the way the rest of the ancient world was reading. Are there differences?


Yeah, a number of them. One of the main ways that I believe Christians and their reading practices stood out from their surrounding culture was their humility and their distinctive focus on spiritual formation. They didn’t write to make money like Martial. They didn’t read to show off their knowledge like Lucian. They didn’t complain about their exiles or sufferings like Ovid. They didn’t seek fame or status like Propertius. They weren’t prideful in their accomplishments like Juvenal. They didn’t laugh at or embarrass other people like Arrian describes in many settings.


Christians read communally so they and others would become more like Christ. It was about communal transformation as much as individual change. And so they valued the input of others. They were grateful for the people God had placed around them. And so one of the big distinctions is that Christians encouraged communal reading not as an end in itself but as a way of comprehending the text, promoting unity, of forming spiritually, of becoming like Christ.


How does this renewed understanding of how early Christians were reading and interacting with the literature of their day affect how we understand the first century? And also how does that affect how we understand our Bibles?


I think I could sum up everything I’ve learned in early Christian reading practices in four words: “They did it communally.” And so in two words, I feel like I can sum up what that means for believers today, and that’s “Read communally.”


I think Christians today, in an attempt to kind of “win the world,” have become too much like it. Christians are no longer bookish, like the earliest Christian communities. Christians are more self-focused than communally focused, unlike the earliest Christian communities. And so I hear people saying all the time, “I don’t need to go to church.”


I think my book provides yet another way of countering that argument because there was extensive interaction among Christians in the first century. There was a broad circulation of Christian writings. There was an emphasis on reading texts communally both biblically and non-biblically. I mention in the book a few communities like that in Jude or in 1 Peter. These would have been bookish communities that were reading literature outside of the Bible, apocryphal literature, Enoch and others.


So instead of reading little and gathering infrequently, what might happen today if Christians read a great deal in community like they did in the first century? As I was doing my research, I saw that communal reading was a powerful discipleship tool because it aided understanding. It fostered community. It promoted a healthy interactive discussion of our common confession.

Think of how many times in the Book of Acts or elsewhere you see them communally expounding the Scriptures, you see them doing it to engage the culture. Today a lot of people are individually listening to Scripture read aloud on CDs or individually listening to a reading while merely sitting around other people, without any genuine Christian community, with no interaction, with no expounding feedback, audience responses, etcetera.


I hope my book challenges those practices today in healthy ways. Granted, both extremes are bad—reading doesn’t always have to be communal. But I think the evidence shows that reading in the early church was more often communal. And so I would say if you want to read your Bible well or just read well, period—like Jesus, like Paul, like the earliest Christians—do it communally.


I think that is something that is in our heritage. It’s our pedigree. And this wasn’t some new phenomenon that started in the New Testament times with Jesus or Paul. It goes all the way back. This pedigree runs from Moses through Jesus through Paul to the early church and beyond. I’d love for us today to retrieve this great Christian tradition and reinstitute this important spiritual practice that we have neglected— taking up and reading together.



Who is iGen?

Kids between the ages of 6 and 23 fall into a generation now getting labeled Post-Millennial or Gen Z or iGen. I want to introduce you to the research on this generation, then process the implications for pastors, leaders, and parents: How do we steward teens in the digital age?

To be honest, I don’t know which sin is worse: the arrogance of speaking in generalities about an entire generation, or the sin of ignoring data-trends. With God’s help, we can avoid both.

iGen is a recent label given to those born between 1995 and 2012. It is 74 million Americans, or 24% of the population, and the most diverse generation in American history. It is also the most digitally connected and smartphone-addicted generation. iGen’ers were born after the Internet was commercialized in 1995. They have no pre-Internet memories. Each entered (or will enter) adolescence in the age of the smartphone. As parents, we face many challenges in shepherding these teens in the digital age.

Trends Among Teens

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, has written the most systematic study about iGen. She ran the datasets, conducted the interviews, and has now voiced her concerns — first published in a feature article for the Atlantic, under the bombshell title “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article was an excerpt from the book that soon followed, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

“Teens are statistically less likely to go to parties, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or experiment with sex.”

If Tom Hanks represented a generation in the movie Big— children impatient for adulthood — iGen is the exact opposite: children with the ability to postpone all transitions into adulthood.

Twenge’s extensive study summarizes the observations: iGen’ers are safe. They are the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills at school since kindergarten. They are the most protected generation by parents. By preference, they are the most self-cloistered generation of teens. Taking all the evidence together, iGen teens are more likely to be homebodies. Compared to previous generations, iGen teens are statistically less likely to go to parties, to go on dates, to get their driver’s licenses, to drink alcohol, to smoke tobacco, to ride in a car without a seat belt, or to experiment with sex.

Now many of these trends are good, and we should celebrate the turning away from foolish behavior. But as Twenge says, taken together, these trends offer a portrait of behaviors that mark a generation of delayed adulthood and prolonged adolescence.

Five Marks of iGen

Along with this delayed adulthood and prolonged adolescence, the iGen is marked by a few other things:

1. They are smartphone natives.

According to one study, the average age for children getting their first smartphone in the U.S. is now 10.3 years old. Many of these phones are hand-me-downs from mom or dad, but between 12- to 17-year-olds, nearly 80%identify as smartphone users.

2. They are always online.

iGen’ers are spending less time working jobs, volunteering, engaged in student activities, and doing homework. The result: they’re spending massive amounts of time at home and online. They’re virtually never offline — driven to their devices by social promise, by friendships, and by relationships.

3. They are secularizing.

Among iGen, about 1 in 4 do not attend religious services or practice any form of private spirituality. “iGen’ers are more likely than any generation before them to be raised by religiously unaffiliated parents” (Twenge, 121). Obviously there are many believers in this generation, but 1 of 4 is thoroughly secularized.

4. They perceive one another through fractured bits.

“The average age for a child getting their first smartphone in the U.S. is now 10.3 years old.”

Using a skill Clive Thompson calls “ambient awareness,” it turns out that teens are good at taking little fractured fragments of social media — discrete images, texts, tweets — and fitting those bits into a better understanding of one another (Smarter Than You Think, 209–244). For me, it feels weird to connect someone’s online life to their real life when I meet them in person. Teens are more natural at this. Though separated, through screens they connect through this ambient awareness. They learn about one another, digitally, in fragments.

5. They are woke.

Twenge argues that Millennials are, at heart, optimists. iGen’ers, who grew up during The Great Recession, are more pessimistic, more sensitive to social tension, and more compelled to protect anyone they believe to be vulnerable. As we’ve seen, they can act on this woke-ness, too, evidenced in the Parkland rally, the March for Our Lives, the National School Walkout Day, and the #NeverAgain movement. iGen’ers may be homebodies, but they can rally. (Of course, this is not without layers of problems, as teens can get used to push the political agendas of adults, as pointed out in Alan Jacobs’s recent piece, “Contemporary Children’s Crusades”). Nevertheless, iGen’ers are socially woke, and this will play a major role in the 2020 election, as it shapes how pastors and parents interact with this generation.

What Challenges Does iGen Face?

By far, the most concerning takeaway from Twenge’s research, and confirmed by others, is the spike in teen depression. Between 2012 and 2015 — in just three years — depression among boys rose 21%, and depression among girls rose 50%. These upticks are reflected in suicide rates. “After declining during the 1990s and stabilizing in the 2000s, the suicide rate for teens has risen again. Forty-six percent more 15- to 19-year-olds committed suicide in 2015 than in 2007, and two and a half times more 12- to 14-year-olds killed themselves” (Twenge, 110).

“Between 2012 and 2015, depression among boys rose 21%, and depression among girls rose 50%.”

It is “the paradox of iGen: an optimism and self-confidence online that covers a deep vulnerability, even depression, in real life,” writes Twenge (102), going so far as to say, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones” (source).

Who is iGen? They are woke. They have ambient awareness. They appear confident online. They are never offline. Technology conveniently buffers and brokers their relationships. And technology feeds their loneliness and the toxic comparison that hollows meaning from their lives. Parents know most of this. They saw these problems long before we had books about iGen.

Twelve Tips for iGen Parents

When talking about teens and screens — or “screenagers” — we need to get concrete. So let me offer twelve practical suggestions to stir into the discussions you’re already having in your churches and homes.

1. Delay social media as long as possible.

Social media poses a dilemma. Journalist Nancy Jo Sales wrote a fascinating (and frightening) book titled: American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. There she recounts a conversation when one teen girl said to her, “Social media is destroying our lives.” Then Sales asked her, “So why don’t you go offline?” The teen responded, “Because then we would have no life” (Sales, 18). Social media is where teens look for life, and it’s what costs them their lives. We must help our kids see this paradox. Social media, unwisely abused, will cost them something precious.

2. Delay smartphones as long as possible.

Once you introduce your child to a mobile-connected smartphone, with texting and apps like Instagram and Snapchat, parental controls are virtually futile. I’ll offer one example of how this plays out.

“Social media is where teens look for life, and it’s what costs them their lives. We must help them see the paradox.”

Your kids can be exposed to sexualized conversations and nude selfies and you may never know it. Again, in her book, Sales investigates the troubling phenomenon of girls receiving unsolicited nude selfies from boys in texts, often as a first step of showing interest in them. And boys often ask the girls for nudes in return. Obviously, we must warn our kids of this phenomenon before it happens. But there are virtually no parental filters to prevent a nude selfie from arriving on your child’s smartphone via text or Snapchat, even if your child does not ask for them. And 47% of teens use Snapchat, a premiere app to send and receive expiring images and “throwaway selfies.” In the smartphone age, sexting has become “normative” to the teen years. These are potent devices. Resist the pressure to give your kid one. And don’t leave old phones around.

3. Inside the home, take control of the wifi.

In our home the default is to keep wifi off until needed. Many routers allow you to pause service in a home. I’ve been impressed with a device called “The Circle,” which sits beside our router at home, and gives me the power to cut off the wifi entirely, or to a specific device, based on content filters, ratings, time limits, and bedtimes. It breaks a wifi connection between the router and the device or computer. Instead of setting up parental controls on each device, you can control the flow of data to every device. It’s brilliant. In fact, I can pause the wifi at home with my phone — our 2 smartTVs, 3 computers, iPods, iPads — all disconnected from wifi with one button, from here. When a child in our home wants to use the computer, they make a request and explain why they need it. More can be said here, but it’s a small way to help them to bring clear purpose to tech use, all made possible because the wifi is not always on.

4. Outside the home, connect without smartphones.

For ages 6–12, consider something like the Verizon Gizmo watch. The Gizmo is a smartwatch, with speakerphone, that receives and makes calls to a limited number of phone numbers set by the parent. It has a GPS locator built in for the parent to see via an app on the parent’s phone.

Parents want phone technology to deliver three things: (1) to call their kids whenever, (2) to be called by their kid whenever, and (3) to know where their kid is via GPS. You don’t need a smartphone. The Gizmo offers each of these things, and not much more — which is a good thing. Ask your mobile carrier for the latest options to meet these three criteria. And for ages 13+, consider a flip phone. They are inexpensive, and in many cases you lose GPS, but ask around for a phone with only the features you want. And be prepared for cellular salespeople to look at you like you’re an alien. As my wife says, go into the store of your mobile provider and ask the salesman for the “dumbest phone they have.”

5. Stairstep technology over the years.

I think the most common mistake parents make is in assuming that the smartphone is an isolated gadget. It’s not. The smartphone is the culmination of all the communications technology a child has been introduced to from birth. To be given a smartphone is a sort of graduation from several steps of technology mapped out beforehand.

“Once you give them a smartphone with a data plan, you move from having strong parental control to virtually none.”

Here’s how my wife and I outline those steps: Once you take control over the home wifi — that’s crucial — then you can begin to introduce technology that your kids can only use inside your home. On paper draw a big box. On the top-left side, write age 0, and on the top-right side, write age 18. Left to right, this is your child’s first 18 years with technology. Now, draw stairs diagonally from the bottom-left to the top-right. At some early point, you might introduce a tablet with coloring and educational games. Age 3 maybe. Or 5. Or 8. Whenever. One stair up. Then you introduce a tablet with educational videos, maybe age 6. Next step up. Then at some point you introduce a family computer in the living room for writing projects. Maybe age 10. Step up. Then you will introduce a phone like the Gizmo, or a flip phone. Step up. Then you allow Google searches on the computer, for research. Maybe age 12. Step up. Then perhaps at some point you introduce Facebook or messenger apps to connect with a few select friends, from the computer. Step up. And then comes the capstone, the smartphone — the final step up. Age 15 or 16 or 17 or I would suggest, 18. But you decide.

The advantages to this are twofold:

(1) You can accordion out the steps as needed while also showing your child where the smartphone fits into a digital trajectory you’ve set for him. As he proves reliable and wise on wifi in the home, he is stepping toward mobile outside the home. It shows him that being faithful in small things leads to faithfulness in big things.

(2) It also reminds parents that once you give a child a smartphone with a mobile data plan, you move from having strong parental control over your child’s Internet experience to virtually having none. You can draw a bold black line between all the steps on the left (wifi at home) and the smartphone on the right (mobile web everywhere). That’s a graduation — a major transition.

6. As a blanket rule, for all ages and all devices: Keep screens out of bedrooms.

Or, at the very least for 12 hours, like from between 8pm to 8am. Make a set rule here. No TVs, gaming devices, tablets, laptops, or phones. Break off the endless social demands. Break gaming addictions. Preserve sleep patterns. Make sure all devices are charged overnight in one place, not in a child’s room. A simple charging station in mom and dad’s room is a good solution.

7. Write a smartphone contract.

When you move to the smartphone, write a contract of expected behaviors, curfews, and family expectations that come along with the phone. Have your child share their login info. And get familiar with the steps necessary to temporarily pause or deactivate the phone. Most carriers make this easy. For parents who made the mistake of introducing a smartphone too soon, as well, it’s never too late to set in place a phone contract.

8. Watch how each child responds to the digital age.

This has been so fascinating for me. My wife and I have three iGen’ers, including two teens, and each of them uses digital media completely differently. I have one kid who will endlessly watch every Dude Perfect video 40 times and waste hours. I have another child who will buy a new music instrument, watch 30 minutes of YouTube, and master the basic chords without any paid lessons. She’s done this with the ukulele, then the keyboard, and then the clarinet, and those introductions led to formal training classes. I’m fascinated by YouTube’s power to unlock new tactile skills in my kids — and quite frankly, I want my kids to learn from YouTube tutorials as soon as possible, but not until they are ready.

“Smartphones do not invent new sins; they simply amplify every extant temptation of life.”

Each child responds differently. Some teens will want social media so that they can follow 5,000 people. Other kids will want social media so that they can follow 5 close friends. Those are radically different uses. Parent each child uniquely based on what you see in them. And when your kids claim unfairness, refer back to the stairsteps, and explain why each child in the home is on different steps in the same progression.

9. Re-center parenting on the affections.

Smartphones do not invent new sins; they simply amplify every extant temptation of life, and manifest those temptations in pixels on HiDef surfaces. Old temptations are given new levels of attraction and addiction and accessibility. Which means that the tension and anxiety parents feel in the pit of their stomachs in the digital age comes from the realization that we are waging an all-out war for the affections of our teenagers. This is what’s so frightening. Parenting has always been a war for our kids’ affections, but the digital age exposes our parental laziness more quickly.

If our teens cannot find their highest satisfaction in Christ, they are going to look for it in something else. That message has always been relevant — it just comes like a hammer today because the “something else” is manifested in smartphone addictions. We are not just playing word games, or just saying that Christ is superior on Sunday. We are daily pleading with the Holy Spirit to open the hearts of our teens. They must treasure Christ above every trifle of the digital age or those trifles will overtake them. That’s why parenting seems so urgent today.

10. Take up digital discipleship.

It is not enough to isolate a handful of Proverbs and scatter them like general seeds of wise counsel. Discipling teens in the digital age requires all of Scripture planted and cultivated in all of the heart. And this is because we are dealing with all the facets of what the heart wants. This war for the affections in the digital age holds unprecedented new opportunities for discipling teens, if we can move from temptation to biblical text to Christ. This is our challenge.

Our parental passivity has been exposed in the digital age. I will not belabor this point, because that’s what my book does in taking 12 ways that our phones change us (and de-form us) and then showing us how to be re-formed from Scripture. Once we as parents (and pastors) are humble to self-criticize our own smartphone abuse, then we can turn and help our kids, too. The digital age is scary and exhausting, but it opens up phenomenal new opportunities to disciple teens.

11. As a family, redeem dinners, car rides, and vacations.

Make the dinner table and car rides together and family vacations phone-free zones. I am regularly amazed how the pressures of life get voiced at the dinner table. Unhurried time together, decompressing from the day, is very fruitful. What happened at school? Getting to know my kids happens so often at dinner. This fellowship carries over in more intense ways on family vacations.

12. Keep building the church.

The stats are in: iGen is now the loneliest generation in America — lonelier than the 72+ demographic. Twenge believes smartphones cause iGen loneliness. But perhaps it’s wiser to look at larger phenomena predating the iPhone.

Surround yourself with enough technology, enough machines, and you’ll need nobody else. Get the right gadget, and you can do anything. Dozens of sci-fi novels have already walked out a robot-saturated planet to its furthest consequences and it is pure social isolation (e.g. Asimov’s The Naked Sun). But once the tech age has rendered everyone else unnecessary to you, you soon discover that you have been rendered unnecessary to everyone else.

“The digital age is scary and exhausting, but it opens up phenomenal new opportunities to disciple teens.”

When no one needs you, we see catastrophic spikes in social loneliness. iGen teens feel this. The elderly feel this. Midlife men feel this. And into this age of increasing isolation and loneliness, social media “offers a rootless remedy for diseases incident to rootless times” (Kass, 95). The smartphone becomes a “painkiller” — promising to solve our loneliness problem, but only cloaking the pain for another moment.

The greatest need of our teens today is not new restrictions and new dumb phones and contracts and limits. Their greatest need is a community of faith where they can thrive in Christ, serve, and be served. They need to find a necessary place as a legitimate part of a healthy church. Keep building faithful families and churches. Listen to teens. Don’t mock them. Don’t laugh at them. Envision them for risk-taking mission — online and offline.



I Want To Buy Your Cheapest Phone!

Afew weeks ago I walked into my local Best Buy, marched up to the counter, and said “I want to buy your cheapest phone.” The guy looked at me quizzically for a moment, then wandered over to the shelf and returned with a box labeled “Polaroid A300.”

“Forty-nine bucks. That cheap enough?”

“Let’s do it.”

Then and there we swapped the SIM card out of my iPhone and popped it into that new flip phone. It hasn’t budged since.

I believe the smartphone is one of the most remarkable devices ever created. It is undoubtedly also one of the most powerful and captivating. With each new iteration it expands its capabilities and extends its indispensability. It’s getting hard to remember life before it and even harder to imagine life without it. All the more reason to try, I say.

For some time I had been battling a growing conviction that my phone had taken an outsized place in my life. This manifested itself in a number of ways, but none more concerning than how it had come to fill up nearly every single one of life’s little cracks. In almost any spare moment of standing, waiting, or pausing, I’d unthinkingly grab it and start tapping, typing, and swiping. In almost any context of boredom, I’d find that it had somehow materialized in my hand, almost as if by magic. It’s like I just couldn’t help myself. It’s like I just didn’t want to. This little glowing rectangle had become my near-constant companion. I had to start asking myself: Do I own this phone, or does it own me? Who here is the servant and who’s the master?

I love my smartphone for all the ways it enhances my ability to succeed at those things in life that are most important to me. I want to write and it helps me write. I want to travel safely and efficiently and it helps me travel safely and efficiently. I want to stay in communication with my kids and it helps me stay in communication with my kids. In these ways and others, it is a tremendous blessing.

But I hate my smartphone for all the ways it erodes my ability to succeed at those things in life that are most important to me. I want to read good books, but it offers a world of more entertaining alternatives. I want to think deeply, but it distracts me with its endless beeps and buzzes. I want to live a life of moderation, but it lures me into indulgence. In these ways and others, it is a tremendous curse. It giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. It promises to help me live the life I want to live while actually keeping me from it.

The problem I keep encountering is that it seems almost impossible to have the blessing without the cursing. I see no clear path to enjoying all the benefits of the smartphone without also bearing the cost of all its drawbacks. I love my phone when I own it; I hate my phone when it owns me. And I just haven’t figured out yet how to be the one who remains in charge.

And that’s the thing: the smartphone is carefully engineered to remain in charge. Neither the creator of the device nor the creators of its apps make their money through my moderation. They keep their shares soaring through my indulgence and so they do all they can to foster it. They make their timelines scroll endlessly so I can never get to the bottom. They make me pull down to refresh, turning their apps into miniature slot machines that may—just may!—reward me this time. They make their notifications colorful and compelling so I almost can’t resist responding. Their great strength is taking advantage of my great weaknesses.

But it’s too easy to lay all the blame at their feet. In so many ways they are only giving me what I want. I want to feel important, so they reward me with hearts and likes and accolades. I want to feel informed, so they constantly feed me news and headlines. I want to stay in touch, so they prompt me to initiate, to reply, to respond. What I crave, they deliver. Yet the more I get it, the unhappier I become. It’s a vicious circle, this.

For now I’ve interrupted the circle by acquiring this ancient/new phone. And through the weeks I’ve begun to feel like a fog is slowly lifting, like things that were opaque are beginning to come clear. I’ve begun to feel like I’m waking up from a long sleep. I’ve begun to remember what life was like before the iPhone and its millions of imitators invaded my life. I’m starting to see what it has offered to me and what it has cost. There are a few things I miss, like Maps and Music and Uber. There are far more I don’t care if I never see again.

So here’s the plan: I will keep this flip phone until I have been cured of that subconscious reflex to pull out my phone in every one of life’s unspoken-for moments. Until then I’m the addict varying his route home so he doesn’t pass by his dealer, I’m the glutton banishing all snacks until he’s established self-control. And when that reflex is cured, I will take back my iPhone, but only if it is stripped of social media, email, and obnoxious notifications that demand my attention. And then maybe I’ll pass that little flip phone to someone else so they can use it to wake up and to remember.


Tim Challies blogs at INFORMING THE REFORMING.


Ordinary Christian Work

Of the many legacies of the Protestant Reformation, few have had greater and wider-reaching impact than the rediscovery of the biblical understanding of vocation. Before the Reformation, the only people with a vocation or calling were those who were engaged in full-time church work—monks, nuns, or priests. As Gene Veith writes in God at Work:

The ordinary occupations of life—being a peasant farmer or kitchen maid, making tools or clothing, being a soldier or even king—were acknowledged as necessary but worldly. Such people could be saved, but they were mired in the world. To serve God fully, to live a life that is truly spiritual, required a full-time commitment.

As the Reformers looked past uninspired traditions in their return to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word, they found that full-time ministry was a vocation, but it was by no means the only vocation. They saw that each of us has a vocation and that each vocation has dignity and value in the eyes of the Lord. We can all honor God in the work we do.

Yet that old tradition is never far off, and if we do not constantly return to God’s Word and allow it to correct us, we will soon drift back. It is encouraging that today we find many Christian pastors and authors exploring what it means to be ordinary Christians doing ordinary work as part of their ordinary lives. It is encouraging to see these leaders affirming the worth of all vocations.

The questions every Christian faces at one time or another are these: Are Christian plumbers, cooks, doctors, and businessmen lesser Christians because they are not in “full-time” ministry? And what of Christian mothers and homemakers? Can they honor God even through very ordinary lives? Can we honor God through ordinary lives without tacitly promoting a dangerous kind of spiritual complacency? What does it mean to avoid being conformed to this world and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) in this area of vocation?

As we would expect, God’s Word addresses these questions. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul responds to questions he had received from the people of the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, one of the questions they asked the apostle was something like this: How can we live lives that are pleasing to God (see 4:1–12)? They had been told of God’s creation mandate, that God created us and placed us on this earth so we could exercise dominion over it as His representatives. They had been told of Christ’s Great Commission, that His people are to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the earth, and as more and more people come out of darkness and into light, to train them in the things of the Lord.

This church knew those big-picture commands, but they found themselves looking to Paul for specific guidance. What does it look like for ordinary people in ordinary places and ordinary times to live out the creation mandate and the Great Commission? Does it require full-time ministry? Does it require moving to the far side of the globe? What is the life that is pleasing to God?

Paul’s response is fascinating and perfectly consistent with the doctrine of vocation. His response addresses three issues: sexual morality, the local church, and work.

Life Under Control

The first thing Paul tells this church is that if they want to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to avoid sexual immorality and instead pursue sexual purity: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thess. 4:3-4). The Thessalonians needed to reject the worldly counterfeits of sex and relationships to instead pursue godliness in those areas.

Life in Community

The second thing Paul tells this church is that if they are to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to commit to loving the people in their local churches: “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another. … But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (vv. 9-10). While Christians are to extend love to all men without discrimination, they are to focus their love especially on the brothers and sisters in their local church.

Life at Work

Paul’s third point is especially important to ordinary Christian work. He tells these Christians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (vv. 11-12). If the Bible was going to tell believers that full-time ministry was a better or higher calling, if it was going to tell us that the best Christians are the ones who sell all they own and move to the other side of the planet, this is exactly where we would expect to find it. But we do not. We find something altogether different.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul gives very simple instructions that transcend time, geography, and culture. He tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to work with their hands. When he tells them to live quietly, he means for them to be content to be unknown and unnoticed. There is a paradox here: They are to work hard to be still, or to make it their ambition to be free from worldly ambition. They are to be content with their lot and to know that this contentment is how they can best honor God.

When Paul tells them to mind their own business, he means for them to focus on their own work and to avoid being busybodies, who are busy with everything but what matters most. And when he tells them to work with their own hands, he means for them to carry on the work in which they are engaged, even (or especially) if that work involves manual labor. He could call them to all of this because their work had intrinsic value simply because it was their calling—their God-given vocation.

As far as we know, Paul was not writing to a group of brand-new Christians here. He was not giving them the basic instructions that would carry them through their early years, before they eventually graduated to better and more difficult things. This church appears to be strong and spiritually mature, and still Paul’s word to them is very simple: You bring honor and glory to God through your very ordinary lives.

Life on Mission

In case the instruction was not sufficient, and before he moves on to other matters, Paul explains the importance and the effect of doing these very simple things. He wants them to do this “so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (4:12). Here Paul shows that Christians live out God’s desires for them through their ordinary work and their ordinary lives. This quiet life, this life of minding one’s own business and working hard, allows them to carry out the Great Commission. After all, if they do these things—if they pursue sexual purity, if they love one another, and if they work hard—Paul assures them they will be walking properly before outsiders. Not only that, but they will be displaying love for their Christian brothers and sisters.

Let’s be clear: This is not a call to complacency or a call to a bare minimum. It is a call to be faithful right where we are and to know that God is pleased with His people when they live out their ordinary lives.

There will be some who are called to full-time church ministry as their vocation. There will be some who will put aside manual labor in order to be trained and tasked as full-time pastors, dependent on the support of others. There will be some who will stop working with their hands to go into the mission field. This is good, and it honors God. But it is not a higher call or a better call or a surer path to pleasing God. We please God—we thrill God—when we live as ordinary people in ordinary lives who use our ordinary circumstances to proclaim and live out an extraordinary gospel.


This article by Tim Challies originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine. 

O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING ?! a review by Geoff Thomas

O Death Where is Thy Sting?

I have just completed the best book I have read for years, or perhaps in all my life. It is hard to be sure of that, of course, but it must be up there with the most life-changing books that providence has brought my way. It is the book that I hope will be read to me in my last days on this earth, for it is full of the Saviour who has covenanted to take me and every believing, repenting sinner to himself. It is called O Death Where is Thy Sting? a book of fifteen sermons preached by Professor John Murray  and published in 2017 by Westminster Seminary Press (most for the first time).

Mr. Murray was beautiful in life. I was reminded of this again at the Twin Lakes conference in Mississippi earlier this year. There I met up again with an old friend, Larry Mills, whom I first met at Westminster Seminary in 1961. He and his wife were immensely kind to me, and during his years there Sally Mills had a stillborn child. He told me that within hours of the child’s arrival, Mr. Murray and Dr. Van Til came to the hospital individually to express their sympathy to Sally and Larry and offer to help in any way.

This month of May 2018 marks the forty-third anniversary of Mr. Murray’s death. This book will make its author come alive to those who never knew him and awaken gratitude in those who were his friends, colleagues, and former students. It has a host of small attractive features, it is a hardback edition with a sober blue dust jacket illuminated by lines and leaves of gold. Each sermon begins on the stronger right hand page, often leaving the left page blank. Its indices are exhaustive and comprehensive. Its technical details focus in the sermons and where there is reflected a fuller more exegetical treatment of the texts in Mr. Murray’s commentary n Romans. In the book about half the sermons give us the privilege of hearing Mr. Murray’s opening prayers, permeated with the Authorised (or King James) translation of Scripture so that his prayers are the Words of God sewn together. There is one long pastoral prayer, magisterial and humble like all true prayers are. All these features indicate the enormous respect the Seminary has for its beloved first professor of theology – it wants to honour him, and others to honour him too.

One gets a glimpse of this attitude to the author in reading the tributes that 27 of the good and great of the evangelical and reformed would pay to the book in the first 12 pages; a quite excessive feature, but reflecting the influence that Mr. Murray continues to have, and of which he would be surprised. Allow me to quote a few sentences from some of these commendations.

‘Here is a collection of sermons without additives — no unnecessary words, no superfluous illustrations. I am thrilled to have this new volume which I commend with a measure of pride in the work of this Highland Scot!’ writes Alistair Begg.

‘This meaty preaching — exegetical, doctrinal, God-glorifying, Christ-centred and wedded to the text,’ writes Don Whitney.

‘These sermons represent the very finest sermonizing material. Every word, carefully chosen, every argument carefully analyzed. A book to read and re-read. Treasure indeed!’ writes Derek Thomas.

‘The ongoing momentum of each sermon is breathtaking. . . We expect edification in a sermon, but these sermons give us pleasure as well’ writes Leland Ryken.

‘Seldom has justification by faith been preached with greater clarity or the Father’s love found a more passionate expositor. A feast for the hungry soul!’ writes Donald Macleod.

‘His awesome delight in the triune God is contagious. I was humbled and lifted up to worship as I heard Jesus proclaimed through these sermons’ writes Dennis Johnson of Westminster Seminary, California.

‘Honestly, if John Murray wrote a grocery list I’d read it, so when he writes on such magnificent topics there isn’t any good reason not to read him’ writes Mark Jones.

I will stop there. There are a dozen more who also write and identify with Mr. Murray and want a share in the reflected glory of the preacher and his sermons. This is the tone of voice with which we would also write, and which even the whole church should speak in being confronted with the book’s glorious words magnifying our Saviour. Mr. Murray is our exemplar of what free grace effectually accomplishes, and he is our spokesman. Here you find what it truly is to be full of the Spirit, or how the divine unction on a preacher is manifested, or what preaching in the Spirit is all about. The neo-orthodox movement has had a pervasive influence in the professing church for eighty years now: where are its preachers who fill churches and save the underclasses, the farmers, housewives, teenagers, colliers, and fishermen? Where are its books of sermons?

This response of unalleviated delight in the ministry of Mr. Murray is a new phenomenon. During his life he was considered orthodox, a spokesman for the old paths, safe but rather dry, ‘A dour Scot’ one famous preacher described him to me. The old joke was very tired to me (and utterly untrue) that his glass eye was his compassionate and kindly eye. What a change! Now there is doxology! There is unqualified praise. How they love him! How they have benefited from him! What a sweet sign this is of a new spirit of wisdom and discernment in the church.

As Sinclair Ferguson points out,

. . .what we have here is not Professor Murray’s manuscripts but the transcripts of the messages themselves, and this adds interest and vitality to teh words written. . . This is the ministry of a man to whom God providentially gave great gifts, but who never appeared to think of himself more highly than he ought.

So the book lies before us and the world. What will we do with it? Three of the sermons many readers already know. The Banner of Truth gave permission for Westminster Seminary to publish sermons 5, 8, and 15 from Volume 3 of The Collected Writings of John Murray, and this includes the magnificent sermon on ‘The Father’s Love’ from Romans 8:32, ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’ And there is his moving single sentence prayer at the end:

O God, do thou be merciful to us, meet our insufficiency with the abundance of thy provision, meet our unbelief with the power of thy grace, and grant that we may be able more and more to abound in faith, in love, and in hope, that we may put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, but that we may lay hold upon all the promises that are yea and amen in Christ, and out of his fulness may we all receive grace upon grace, in his name. Amen.

One longs that  one benefit of this book will be that people will be constrained to buy and read and read and read the four volumes of the Collected Writings of John Murray.

So to the sermons. One is on the rich man and Lazarus, which the book has entitles ‘Lazarus and the Rich Man.’ I know this passage well; I have preached on it. The Chapel Library in Florida has produced a booklet of mine on this incident. I read Mr. Murray’s treatment of it with expectation. How fresh it is! How what I have said needs to be sharpened and clarified. Obvious insights need to be added. My main application of the sufficiency of Scripture is there too but how Mr. Murray declares it,

They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them. . .if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rise from the dead. Visitors from heaven or hell would not bring us a message would have the validity or the authority or the power of the Word of God! In particular, such a message would have nothing of the validity or the authority or the power of him who is the speaker on this occasion: the Lord himself who is the Word of God incarnate, who is himself the way, the truth, and the life (p. 200)

That sermon is not my most favourite. I could not choose one, but the sermons on the Father’s love (pp.73-89), and the priesthood of Christ (pp.157-171) are incredibly moving, but asking which is my favourite is like asking me which of my three daughters is my favourite. I love them all immeasurably and equally. Please get this book and so read it that you can understand my enthusiasm for it, but going on and surpassing me in the profit you gain from it, especially in deeper, stronger love for the Altogether Lovely One, so loved by the preacher in this book.

One little request, there are other recorded sermons of Mr. Murray gathering dust around the world, in Canada, Scotland, USA, and England. The standard has been set for their production. Let them be gathered and printed! When will we be blessed with volume two?


What We Can Learn from Reformation Worship and Liturgies

Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present is a resource of almost unparalleled richness in its field, representing an immense labor of love on the part of its editors and translators. It gathers together liturgies crafted by some of the leading figures in the Protestant Reformation and employed by them to aid worship in a wide variety of places and churches.

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to those who have participated in this project. They would, I feel sure, tell us that the best way we can repay that debt is to read carefully, to assess biblically, and then to reach down into the first principles of worship variously expressed in these liturgies from the past, and apply them wisely and sensitively in our worship in the present. This can only lead to a new reformation of the worship of God the Trinity.

Such access to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit can alone help the congregations of God’s people, in the place and time they occupy, to worship with renewed mind, transformed affections, and holy joy.

Importance of Worship

Reformation Worship is an important book for several reasons.

The first—so obvious that we might not underline it sufficiently—is that it gives impressive testimony to the way the reformers in various countries devoted so much attention to the subject of worship. They well understood that the rediscovery of the gospel and the reformation of worship were two sides of the same coin, because sung praise, confessions of sin and faith, prayer, and the reading and preaching of Scripture are but various aspects of the one ministry of the Word.

For that reason, the reformers regarded the liturgies that framed the church’s worship as being an important aspect of the application of Scripture. An order of service could not therefore be simply thrown together casually. It might belong to the adiaphora; but “things indifferent” are never to be treated with indifference to the general teaching of Scripture (as the Westminster Divines would later make clear, WCF 1.6).

The integration between gospel rediscovery and worship transformation was made clear by John Calvin, when, in 1544 (and still in his mid-30s), he wrote The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Penned in preparation for the Imperial Diet at Spires, he prefaced his tract with a “Humble Exhortation to the Emperor, Charles V,” in which he tellingly wrote:

If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, [namely], a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshiped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain. . . . If any one is desirous of a clearer and more familiar illustration, I would say, that rule in the church, the pastoral office, and all other matters of order, resemble the body, whereas the doctrine which regulates the due worship of God, and points out the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation, is the soul which animates the body, renders it lively and active, and, in short, makes it not to be a dead and useless carcass.

As to what I have yet said, there is no controversy among the pious, or among men of right and sane mind.

What is immediately striking here is not only the combination of fundamentals—worship and gospel—but the fact that the former is given pride of place, perhaps because the first fruit of rightly understanding the gospel is true worship. It is that important.

For this reason, we ought not to devalue the contents of this book by treating them as a kind of liturgical archaeological dig, the concern only of those who are interested in antiquities or aesthetics. For these liturgies were crafted out of a passion for the glory of God.

And while this compilation is not formulated as a tract for the times, it carries an important and powerful message for the contemporary church.

Active Participation in Worship

The 16th-century reformers shared a deep underlying concern that late medieval worship had become a kind of spectator event. The congregation was largely passive.

“Worshipers,” if they could be thus described, were essentially observers of the drama of the Mass, and listeners to the words of the choir. The service of divine worship was not an event in which the congregation were participants so much as spectators.

The “quality” of worship was therefore measured not by the holy joy of the worshipers but by the standard of the music, the excellence of the singing of the choir, the aesthetic impressiveness of the drama of the Mass, with its vestments, bells, incense—and, of course, its Latin. Worship was, for all practical purposes, done for you—vicariously.

All this the Reformation transformed into the active participation and understanding of the individual worshiper and the congregation, praying and singing (as well as listening to the Word and seeing and receiving the Sacraments), with both the mind and the spirit.

Asking Fundamental Questions

It’s tempting to think that such a reformation is needed again in an age when church consultants assess “the quality of morning worship” (a task one would have thought beyond the wit of anyone but its Divine Recipient). Is our gaze being set horizontally, more so than vertically, and has our desire ceased for the Isaiah-like or John-like experience of being laid prostrate and undone in hand-over-the-mouth adoration?

How different was Paul’s perspective on worship from ours:

If . . . an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted . . . he is called to account . . . the secrets of his heart are disclosed and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Cor. 14:24–25)

Whatever lacunae in the churches’ traditional liturgy that contemporary worship has rushed in to fill, the modern “worship revolution” has usually paid scant attention to this vision of worship. The kind of questions that drove the reformers do not drive us:

  • “How has God revealed to us what his pleasure is in worship?”
  • “How can we work that out in practical terms in our own congregations, so that everything is done for the glory of God and the edification of the saints?”

When we fail to ask these fundamental questions, and consequently do not probe Scripture to find answers, our approach to worship (that is, to God) will be in danger of becoming simply pragmatic, even a relatively thoughtless imitation of “what works,” or even seems “cool” in some other church.

To give one example, it is rarely noticed that even such an apparently well-meant and innocent change from having the words we sing printed in psalm- and hymn books to showing them on large screens can easily produce unanticipated effects. Rather than achieving the goal of “edification” the result is often to its detriment.

Thus, for instance, the young Christian sees only one verse of the hymn or song on the screen; the flow of the whole is lost; he, or she, does not know whether a psalm, a hymn, or a spiritual song is being sung. And, to boot, contemporary worshipers are unlikely to know virtually by heart—as their grandparents did—many of the 150 psalms, with both their praises and laments, plus many paraphrases of Scripture, and hundreds of other hymns written by men and women whose literary skills and theological acumen were, to say the least, impressive by comparison with ours.

And what young person today, taking a new interest in the Christian faith, in the worship he or she attends, learns by heart in a matter of weeks, almost effortlessly, a summary of the Christian faith such as the Apostles’ Creed, which enables him or her to state the fundamental truths of the gospel for the first time?

We’re all familiar with “Jeroboam the son of Nebat who caused Israel to sin.” But it is all too easy to forget that the Old Testament also introduces us to the sin of “Rehoboam, the son of Solomon” who, accepting the counsel of his peers rather than exploring the wisdom of the past, led Israel into disaster.

In such a culture the liturgies presented in this book may seem like a cold shower in the morning; but cold showers can be wonderfully reinvigorating. It is usually not the fault of the individual whose whole life has been a diet of popular music that he or she regards it as both the normal and the preferable.

But if perchance a classical music radio station is discovered, and an entry is made into the world of Bach and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Handel, a new taste for richness and depth develops, and a world is discovered that is both more nourishing and more satisfying.

So it is with the old liturgies that give shape and flow and rhythm to our worship.

Let Us Worship God

This isn’t a plea for a wooden adopting, or a slavish imitation, of any or all older liturgies; nor is it an intimidating and metallic insistence that we should use them today “because the reformers used them.” That could—and almost certainly would—have a deadening effect on our worship. Most of us do not live on the continent of Europe, and none of us lives in the 16th century.

Our greatest need is for worship in Spirit as well as in truth today. But older liturgies should stimulate us to careful thought, and cause us to ask how we can apply their principles today in a way that echoes their Trinitarian, Christ-centered, biblically informed content, so that our worship, in our place and time, will echo the gospel content and rhythm they exhibit.

This is no easy task, and it requires wisdom, tact, sensitivity, and careful communication of principles and goals. But it’s also true that, at the end of the day, people tend to learn and to grow as much by experience as by verbal instructions. They need to sense and taste the help and the value of a better way. And since their appetite may have been blunted by a diet of modernity, it’s important to advance little by little.

Nor must we forget the Reformation keys: the centrality of Scripture and its exposition, the focus on Christ, the wonder of grace, the need for faith, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the desire for the glory of God alone. For without these realities, at the end of the day, our worship may be ordered by the finest of liturgies and yet be stone-cold dead, lacking the holy power of the presence of God.

Worship involves first and foremost God’s welcome of us, not our welcome of each other.

In my childhood, virtually every service of worship began with the same words: “Let us worship God.” One hears them rarely now. They have been ousted by various forms of words that functionally mean “Let us be comfortable” or “Let us welcome you.” Our welcome should indeed be warm and real.

But worship is drawing near to the Holy One; his presence effects a sense of solemn joy, and of densely humbling awe. It is this that creates our overwhelming sense of privilege that he welcomes us into his presence. For worship involves first and foremost God’s welcome of us, not our welcome of each other.

We need to return to this perspective of the Bible and the Reformation. This exceptional collection of liturgies points us in the right direction. In the hands of anyone who uses it well and wisely, it will surely be a benediction to the church.

Editors’ note: This is the adapted preface of Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey (New Growth Press, 2018).


How Breastfeeding Changed My View of God

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isa. 49:15).

This was always one of my favorite verses. I pictured the deep bond between a breastfeeding mother and her baby, her delighted love for her child, the profound intimacy of nursing: mother and baby in life-giving relationship.

But then I had a baby, and I began to breastfeed.


At first, nursing was agony. Neither I nor my daughter knew what we were doing. Both of us were frustrated and distressed. I’ll never forget one nurse’s comment, delivered kindly, but like a knife to my heart: “My observation about this baby is that she is very hungry and very tired.” I felt desperate.

Gradually, we got the hang of it. But then came the real test. The frequency with which my baby needed to feed was exhausting. Some nights, I would hear her cry, and long from the depths of my soul not to go to her. I was more drained than I ever imagined. I felt like a climber scaling Everest, wanting nothing more than to lie down in the snow to sleep—too tired to heed the consequences.

But I knew my baby needed me. So, I got up, crawled through my exhaustion, and went to her.

Can Mom Forget?

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?” Isaiah asks. At times, she certainly wishes she could. Weary, frustrated, and lonely from the night watches, her body aches from giving birth, and her mind rolls to the edges of despair. To be sure, there are joyous, mountaintop moments with a newborn. But these are interspersed with suffering.

Whether or not she breastfeeds, every mother knows the ongoing sacrifice required to care for an infant. Like climbing in the death-zone, mothering can look easy from the outside; but every small step takes physical and psychological strength, drawing on an oxygen tank that is running out.

Whether or not she breastfeeds, every mother knows the ongoing sacrifice required to care for an infant.

Last weekend, I drove past a hospital with signs advertising a newborn “safe deposit.” I imagined how desperate a mother must be to drive to a hospital and leave her baby there, knowing she couldn’t care for him or her.

I remembered how difficult it was in the early weeks with my first child, despite all the support I had from family and friends, and I felt great compassion for the women who make this choice—not to lie down in the snow, but to stagger on to the first point of safety and pass her baby over the line, into the care of strangers.

God’s Maternal Sacrifice

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” God’s love for us is no Hallmark sentiment. This image is not primarily a celebration of our newborn cuteness: “God could never reject such lovable little creatures as us!”

Rather, this verse reveals God’s hard-won, self-giving, dogged commitment to our good, a refusal to let us go—however frustrating we become, an insistence on seeing his image in us—and a painful provision for our most desperate need.

Motherhood metaphors for God punctuate the Old Testament. “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18). “I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant” (Isa. 42:14). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isa. 66:13).

God’s love for us is relational, and it is sacrificial.

God’s love for us is relational, and it is sacrificial. We see this most clearly in Jesus’s bloody death on the cross for our sake. By his sacrifice, we are united to him.

God Who Can’t Leave

I am currently pregnant with my third child, and the vulnerable experience of carrying another human within my body reminds me of our safety in Christ. When he died, we died, and our life, like an unborn child, is now “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

Yes, God loves us with all the affection of a mom for her infant. We are his blood-bought image-bearers, and he delights in us! But breastfeeding taught me that his care is more than just affection.

When I fail and frustrate my Lord again and again, he nonetheless gets up in the night to meet my needs. Though a desperate mother may forget—or at least give up the fight of caring for her child—he will not forget us.

“See,” says the Lord, right after his breastfeeding metaphor, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:16). Babies leave wounds on their mothers’ bodies. We’ve also left wounds on Christ.

But, like a tender mother, he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5).