One of the common myths of the Second World War is that the Germans were equipped with far better weaponry. It is certainly true that German equipment was often technically more advanced. They were the first to introduce jet aircraft into the front line (the Me262 fighter and Arado 234 light bomber) and use ballistic missiles (the VI “cruise missile” and V2 rocket). Much western and Soviet military technology of the 1950s-70s, especially aircraft design, was based on captured German technology or the expertise of captured German scientists. As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landings, we would do well to reflect that it was largely a German achievement, building on their rocket programme and led by Werner Von Braun.
Although individual German equipment, such as the Tiger Tank, might have been more technically advanced, this does not mean that it was superior to the Allied equipment. My colleague Adrian Reynolds encouraged me to read James Holland’s recent book Normady’44, where he thoroughly deconstructs this myth. His assessment is that German military equipment was over engineered and too sophisticated for the task at hand. It was difficult to manufacture, more expensive to build, harder to operate and near impossible to repair in the field. Allied equipment was more rudimentary but more robust, cheaper to produce, easier to operate and simple to repair. Individually each item might have been slightly inferior, but collectively it did the job much more effectively in the conditions of the front-line.
The Tiger Tank, for example, had an incredibly complex 6-speed hydraulic gearbox. In contrast the Allied Sherman has a simple 4-speed manual gearbox based on conventional automotive designs. Only 1,347 of the complex Tigers were built, compared to 49,000 Shermans. The German Panther Tank has 18 wheels that were interleaved, which all had to be removed before any could be replaced. The standard German machine gun, the MG42, could fire 1,400 rounds per minute. However, it took 75 man-hours to manufacture compared to 45 for the Allied equivalents, and cost roughly twice as much to make. The rate of fire meant that the barrel overheated, requiring multiple barrel changes such that German machine gun squads had to carry at least six spare parts.
It seems to me that there are parallels with our gospel ministry. We are involved in spiritual warfare, but we can all too easily make the task more complex than it needs to be. God has supplied us with all that we needed to fight and win the battle. We wear his armour for protection, and our weapons are the gospel-word and prayer. Gospel ministry ought to be fundamentally simple: Glorify God, love people, pray for opportunities and boldness, tell people about Jesus.
The danger is that we over-engineer these fundamentally basic tasks. We complicate the message and the method, and insist on such a high level of training for the messengers that we cannot meet the needs of the hour. For example, sermons become overly complex lectures on systematic or biblical theology that do no preach Christ with a clarity and directness. Evangelism becomes high-level academic apologetics addressing the questions that most ordinary people are not even asking. We presume that a high level of education is essential for pastoral ministry. I am astounded by the job adverts that assume that a Doctorate or Postgraduate degree is somehow a necessary qualification for pastoral ministry. Some seminaries spend years teaching their students a high level of competence in biblical languages that is, in all likelihood, of marginal benefit to their gospel effectiveness. Ministers can parse Hebrew but not connect with people. This desire for technical mastery is a feature of conservative evangelicalism and deeply rooted in our history, and our idolatry of academic and social respectability.
I am not at all rejecting the need for a high level of ministry competence, nor for appropriate spiritual gifting. However there comes a point at which we need to have confidence that what we have is adequate for the task in hand, no matter how much we could improve it. There is always an opportunity cost in working to achieve further marginal improvement, meaning that there are other vital things we will not be able to do. A pastor who expects to spend 20 hours a week preparing a 35 minute sermon, for example, will inevitably have less time for other ministry activities that might grow and build his church more effectively than the marginal gains to his message produced by the last 5 or even 10 hours of his sermon preparation.
This tendency to over-engineer ministry also makes it harder to multiply ministry. If we make evangelism over-complex and intellectual, requiring lengthy training, then it is no wonder that we fail to produce confident church members who can speak simply to others about Jesus. We set examples and establish expectations that disempower them and make them feel inadequate and incapable of ever attaining the skills we have inadvertently taught to be essential. The most rapidly growing evangelical movement around the world is Pentecostalism, which has a less intellectual approach to gospel ministry but far greater scale and ability to deploy members to work in evangelism. There is much we could learn from it.
The vast majority of the work of the gospel in the world today is, as it always has been, done by relatively uneducated church members who love Christ, rely on the power of his Spirit, pray fervently, and have confidence that the simple gospel message declaring Jesus to be Lord is God’s power for salvation. They are the equivalent of the Allied Shermans, less sophisticated but adequate, and they get the job done. We can too easily be the equivalent of the German Tigers, individually more advanced but unable to be produced in enough quality and insufficiently robust to thrive in the front-line.
We need to avoid the danger of over-engineering gospel ministry. It looks more impressive but is wasteful, unnecessary and ultimately reflects a lack of confidence in what God has supplied that will win the war.
Public libraries are enthusiastically joining the LGBTQ crusade
Post Date: June 12, 2019 – Issue Date: June 29, 2019
I drove to the library for a book by Max Lucado that might help me with my puppet show. I asked the librarian if she had heard of him. She said yes. We walked together to the “L’s” and she went through the motions of looking, but no Lucado was to be found between the Longs and Ludvigs.
What I did spot was a large free-standing rack of children’s fare dedicated to LGBTQ topics.
I said, perplexed: “Lucado is a famous author. What happened?” “There are new authors coming out all the time,” she said. “So the new titles push out the old?” I asked, not wanting to embarrass her or myself, though already suspecting it was more than that. “Unless they’re classics,” she gratefully seized on my out.
You are probably not so thoughtless as I have been to suppose that books just somehow show up in libraries—the way we all once thought babies just showed up in hospitals. You probably have not been so naïve as to think that beneath the sartorial primness of the local librarian still beats the heart of old heartland American virtues.
I googled the ALA (American Library Association) official magazine, American Libraries. The home page featured a drag queen in a hot red dress, faux pearls, garishly painted eyes, and a strawberry blond wig, dancing in seductive manner before a roomful of sponge-like 3-year-olds, the caption promising to bring this show on the road to all of America, including “red-state towns like Juneau, Alaska, and Lincoln, Nebraska.”
‘Librarians are suiting up for battle.’—American Libraries, June 2017
A June 2017 article titled “Standing Up for Our Communities” announces:
“Librarians are suiting up for battle. Faced with … an awakening of hate groups …, librarians have become more emboldened by their core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and are fighting to maintain those values. … This is a guide for librarians seeking best practices to serve the LGBTQ+ youth community in these times of uncertainty, and a road map for those who might be new to serving this community.
“… ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) has developed a series of professional tools for serving LGBTQ+ library users. … The latest toolkit is an eight-page document that … covers a variety of topics including user needs, collection development [italics mine], terminology, outreach, and recommended reading.”
Christian Max Lucado evidently didn’t make it through the “collection development” process.
I grabbed three colorful hardcover books from the LGBTQ display, sat in the kids’ room, and read them one by one:
Transphobia: Deal With It, by J. Wallace Skelton, is a large-picture book that starts with a bang. Certain female students complain to the coach that a trans girl (i.e., biological male child “transitioning” to, or declaring himself, female) on their team has an unfair advantage in competitions. These complainers are schooled in short order. One by one, other unenlightened objections against fellow trans students are set straight. Trans is to be celebrated.
Princess Princess Ever After, by Katie O’Neill, manages to have it all: LGBTQ, race, and toxic masculinity propaganda packaged in one revisionist knight-in-shining-armor story. A (white and weak) princess named Sadie is rescued by a dashing (black and butch) princess named Amira, and they ride off on Amira’s horse into the sunset and love “ever after,” but not before making a dunce of a boorish and bumbling (white male) prince who is not up to the job of rescuing.
Star-Crossed, by Barbara Dee, takes us back to school where 12-year-old Mattie, by a lucky turn of events, gets to play Romeo to a Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet in the 8th grade play, Gemma being a girl she has a mad crush on—though she is also attracted to Elijah (there’s your “B” in “LGBTQ”).
Feeling nauseated after my foray into modern kids’ lit, I brought the three books to the front desk and complained to the librarian about the library’s all-out effort to plant these disturbing suggestions into innocent minds.
“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come. It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).
We don’t want to remain spiritual children, perpetually stuck in infancy. We don’t want to be weak, vulnerable, and immature. Nor do we want to be ignorant about God’s truth, because we want to fully glorify Him for everything He has done. We want to appreciate Him in all His fullness, knowing and loving Him thoroughly. If that’s the goal, then how do we get there? How do we respond to the Word in a way that drives that progress?
I see three definitive steps in the biblical pattern of sanctification.
The first is cognition. John 17:17 gives our Lord’s prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” We have to understand what the Bible says and what it means if it is going to produce growth in us. Sanctification begins with spiritually renewing the mind, that is, changing how we think. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). There is no premium on ignorance or naivete in sanctification. The discipline of putting the truth constantly at the forefront of our minds is crucial.
If we lack spiritual maturity, we must read everything we can that faithfully and accurately explains the Word of God to us. We must study the Bible and memorize it; we must read commentaries from biblical scholars, listen to sermons from faithful expositors, and read the biographies of godly saints whose lives display the kind of maturity we want to see in our own lives. We must soak our minds in the Scriptures, fueling the Spirit’s sanctifying work.
That seems like an obvious first step, but it’s one that many believers fail to take. They can’t fathom why they keep succumbing to the same temptations and why their love for the Lord has cooled and their interest in His church has plateaued. They fail to understand that the absence of biblical knowledge retards spiritual thinking and slows spiritual growth.
Don’t confuse childlike faith with childish thinking. Legalism won’t lead us to holiness and spiritual maturity. Mysticism and sacramentalism won’t get us there, either. Pragmatism will likely lead us in the wrong direction, and it invites us to pursue quick fixes and worldly wisdom instead of grounding us in the truth of God’s Word. The only activity that catalyzes the ongoing sanctifying process is taking in the truth of Scripture. Cognition—knowing and understanding the truth—is the first step in pursuing spiritual growth through the Word of God.
After cognition comes conviction. As we learn the truth of Scripture, we must begin to develop beliefs into convictions. Our lives are controlled by our convictions. As the truth of God’s Word begins to occupy our minds and shape our thoughts, it will produce principles that we desire not to violate. This is what sanctification is about—being inwardly compelled to obedience.
The Apostle Paul suffered many things during his ministry—imprisonment, severe beatings, shipwrecks, and a constant stream of unfounded accusations from false teachers.
In 2 Corinthians 4, he describes the difficulties of his life: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8–9). In verse 11, he continues, “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” Every day, he understood that any one of the several plots against him could come to fruition. At any moment, he could be dead. Everywhere he went, he offended people. He was constantly being thrown out of synagogues and into prison. He lived in a perpetual cycle of opposition and oppression.
What made him keep going in spite of all the hardship he faced? In verse 13, he quotes the Psalms, saying, “I believed, therefore I spoke.” That is conviction. Paul might as well say: “What else do you want me to do? There is no alternative for me. This is my conviction from the Word of God.”
That conviction shaped Paul’s life and ministry. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, he testified, “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you” (1:12). Paul was true to the wisdom of God, and his conscience did not accuse him, regardless of the accusations against him. In Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day,” and in Acts 24:16, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Paul’s firm convictions, rooted in Scripture, helped him live a righteous life, with nothing to be ashamed of.
John Bunyan, the great Puritan preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, remained in jail for twelve years, but it wasn’t the prison bars that held him there. He could have walked free if he would simply promise to stop preaching. Facing that option, Bunyan wrote, “If nothing will do, unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughter-shop, unless putting out my own eyes I commit me to the blind to lead me, I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.”1 That is conviction. When we read the Bible, we are learning the Word of God in order to develop convictions that will rule our lives and hold our consciences captive, activating them when we start to violate God’s righteous standard. Biblical truth establishes cognition in the mind and develops restraint in the conscience.
The third feature is affection. The love of God’s truth is a consistent theme throughout Scripture, and particularly in the Psalms. Psalm 119 is an exhaustive account of the psalmist’s love for the truth and his delight in the law. We’ve already looked at Psalm 19, where David says that God’s Word is “more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). Or look at Psalm 1, which describes the great blessing for the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2). As we expose ourselves to the Word, we begin to understand what it says. It begins to form our convictions, and then it becomes our sincere affection.
How strong should that affection be? Peter put it this way: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual growth comes when we know the Word, when it shapes our convictions, and when we learn to long for the sustenance it alone can provide.
Psalm 42:1 says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God.” The psalmist is not referring to the way some people read the Bible as a curiosity or as ancient literature. He’s not talking about perusing the Bible for intellectual stimulation or gathering ammunition to win an argument. This is studying Scripture eagerly and earnestly, hungry to extract all of the nourishment we so desperately need out of the Word.
The Word of God is our spiritual sustenance. May we have the same solitary longing for it that a baby has for milk—because by it, we are conformed to the image of Christ, who sanctified Himself for us. The Word reveals Christ to us, and the Word transforms us into His likeness. We are reminded of what our Savior repeated three times in the upper room—that He would send us the Holy Spirit. We know that sanctification is a divine work through the Word by the Spirit of truth. So, we must plead with the Spirit that He would mold and shape us into the image of Christ, through the truth, from one level of glory to the next. As the Apostle Paul explains, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.
What, then, of classical music in particular? Strictly speaking, “classical music” is the music of a fairly brief era (roughly, the second half of the 18th century), but the term is commonly used to refer to the whole stream of music associated with European concert and operatic culture, emerging around 1600. Sometimes called “art music,” it’s generally regarded as there to be listened to, not just heard. This doesn’t make it superior or more valuable than other music, just different. It asks for your concentrated attention over time, a willingness to stay with it in the belief that it will deliver more with each listening. It means suspending the question, “Do I like it?” and asking instead, “What’s going on here?”
And the Christian can ask a further question: “What might I learn theologically from what’s going on here?”
If you are new to this genre, here are six pieces of music (listen to them on Spotify or Apple Music) that might provide a good “way in.”
This is arguably the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era. Vivid, compelling, and emotionally direct, it takes you inside the story of the suffering and death of Christ in a way that perhaps has never been equalled. Bach, a committed Lutheran, was steeped in Scripture, and understood its nuances, subtleties, and ramifications better than most other musicians of his time. You are made to feel responsible for what happened on Good Friday, and made to rethink your entire relation to the One who was crucified. Bear in mind that it lasts almost three hours. It’s best not to listen to it in one sitting, especially if you are new to Bach. Digest it in sections. And it’s wise to use a guide. Try Calvin Stapert’s book My Only Comfort, the best introduction to Bach’s theological world. (See also Bethany Jenkins’s article “Without Luther, There Would Be No Bach.”)
Pity the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to include Messiah at Christmastime, when album sales and downloads of the oratorio escalate. Written at breathtaking speed (in less than a month), it has understandably become a classic. Handel sets to music nothing but biblical texts (the majority are from the Old Testament) in order to show the coherence of Scripture’s story, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ. The result is a drama in three parts, roughly corresponding to Christ’s incarnation, redemptive work, and eternal reign. Again, Calvin Stapert provides the best guide (Handel’s Messiah). The best recording, in my view, is that by Stephen Layton with Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia. Stunningly dramatic.
In his later years, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth used to listen to Mozart’s music every day as a kind of spiritual practice. In it he said he heard the physical world being enabled, by Mozart, to praise God. In other words, Mozart doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t struggle to “say” something, or express his inner self. He simply lets himself become the vehicle of a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah. Listen to the bubbling, joyful abundance of this piece’s third movement for piano and orchestra, and you may end up thinking Barth had a point.
Standing at the turn from the “classical” to the “Romantic” era, Beethoven unleashed forms of human expression that permanently changed the course of music history. His massive output mesmerized the 19th-century composers who were unlucky enough to come immediately after him.
Beethoven become well known for his “heroic” style—aspiring, thrusting, and often highly aggressive. This “Pastoral” symphony shows a different side to him—less assertive, far more settled, gracious, and thankful. For him, this work was meant to turn into sound the feelings evoked by the countryside surrounding Vienna, the fields and lanes where he often wandered. The fourth and fifth movements lead you from a fierce storm into “Shepherd’s song: cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” It is one of the great transitions of Western music: The sense of almost childlike gratitude is likely to melt even the hardest of hearts. (Simon Rattle’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic is exceptional.)
Never has the longing of the human heart for a distant Home been more eloquently evoked than in the music of Rachmaninov, a composer forced to spend much of his life away from his beloved Russia. Composed as he emerged from severe depression, the second piano concerto is perhaps the best-known piece of classical music ever written, and it deserves its popularity. N. T. Wright has said our world is marked by an “aching beauty”—its splendor is glorious, but it is marred and awaiting fulfillment. Listen to the second movement with that in mind. (Among the plethora of recordings, try Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)
I began with the cross, and now return to it. Sir James MacMillan may be the most theologically profound Christian composer alive. He manages to give voice to a vibrant hope, but never descends into sentimentality, never allows us to forget that God heals the world by descending into its darkest depths. In seven short movements, the last words of Christ are set to music in a way that is both profoundly true to the Gospels, and disturbingly fresh. Among other things, we are reminded how silence can become the very substance of music. In the last piece, we hear an evocation of Jesus actually dying, taking his last breaths. If you ever need to be convinced of the theological power of music, you could hardly do better than begin here.
It is a visual age. Cameras are ubiquitous, software is cheap, computers are powerful, and together they give us a video for every occasion. We, as Christians, have a video for every occasion. I love to watch the ones that tell the story of a husband and wife who had been on the verge of divorce but rekindled the flame, the ones about the godly wife who was willing to reconcile with her adulterous husband, the ones telling about the couple who endured the difficulty of a long and complicated adoption but were able to return home triumphant, holding that precious child in their arms, the ones about the dear, elderly man who found joy and contentment in caring for the wife who could no longer recognize or acknowledge him.
These videos provide a glimpse of God’s grace in the lives of his people and they are inspiring in the best sense. They give us hope that if we were to find ourselves in those situations, we would experience the Father’s kindness and blessing.
And yet, not every story has a happy ending.This world is so broken, so marked by sin, that many of our stories do not end with a kiss, they do not end with fulfillment, they do not end with a clear purpose. I love these videos just as you do, but they tell only select stories, not everystory.
For every powerful story of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, there are many husbands who break their vows and never repent, who walk away, never to return. There are wives who are willing to grant forgiveness, willing to save their shattered marriage, except that the husband will not have it. There are husbands who are repentant but wives who cannot or will not forgive. These stories are equally real, but we do not make films for them. We don’t see the soft camera shots and hear the music swell dramatically as she gets served with the divorce papers.
There are the adoptions that fall apart at the last moment, the man and woman who had set their hearts on a child, who had fallen in love with him, who had traveled across the world to pick him up, but who had him snatched away. I have watched a family adopt a child only to find that he was so scarred by his time in brutal Eastern institutions that he returned their love with violence, threats, and sexual deviancy so dark they felt they had to relinquish him. There were no cameras to capture the story and to inspire us with it.
I love to see the film of the elderly husband caring for his dear wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s. It’s powerful and effective and inspiring and I want to be like him should the situation ever befall me. But there is no film for the man whose wife no longer recognizes him and is terrified of him and who, locked into deeper and deeper dementia, must be placed in an institution far from the husband who loves her. There is no narrator to speak words of hope and inspiration.
It is as natural as the sunrise to want to find meaning in our suffering and often we find it, or believe we find it, in a happy ending. It was a grueling time, but I endured it and now I can say it was all worth it because I have the baby in my arms, my marriage has been renewed, my husband is reconciled to me, my prodigal son gave up his rebellion and returned home. But sometimes–oftentimes–the answers are not so readily apparent. So often these films do not represent life as we actually experience it.
But the Bible does. The Bible is full of unhappy endings or unexplained endings. There are Psalms of all praise and all rejoicing, and there are Psalms of pain and bewilderment. There is joy in the Bible, but there is grief too. God saw fit to capture many stories that end without a word of explanation. And these, too, matter to him. These, too, are important and are full of meaning and significance.
There is danger in our dedication to happy endings. We may come to believe that God extends his goodness and grace only in those situations that end happily. We may believe that a happy ending is what proves God’s presence through it. We may believe that the experiences that do not have a happy ending mean that God is somehow removed from it. We may resent the times that we do not hear the crescendo of the music and see in our own lives a story other people will want to hear.
We all desire happy endings to our suffering. Of course we do. But God does not owe us a happy ending and he does not owe us the answers. At times he chooses to give one or both. At other times he does not. Some day these things will make sense and and in that day we will acknowledge that God has done what is right. But until then, it is faith in his character and in his promises that will sustain us far more than a happy ending.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17-18)
Challies highlighted Peter Krol’s analysis of Ecclesiastes. Krol writes, “[The Book of Ecclesiastes] offers a great case study in how perception can drastically affect both interpretation and application. This fact ought to motivate us to be as meticulous as possible in observing the text within its context.” He then presents his take on the following three ways Christians typically approach the book: 1) The cynic refers to the view that says the entire book is not commendable, nor is it even godly. 2) The hedonist approach relates to both the vanity of life and the joy of God in the midst of it. In other words, even though life is meaningless, the Christian can enjoy it. 3) The apologist primarily associates the book to an expose on worldview where half the book is true and half the book is false.
I will suggest a fourth way (or at least a very revised second view – the hedonist) to approach the Book of Ecclesiastes. Essentially, the Book explains how a Christian must respond in a world where a) God is sovereign and b) the world suffers under great depravity. Different than the hedonist view mentioned above, the Book is not about a meaningless life that God allows us to enjoy in spite of its meaninglessness. Instead, the Book describes life’s purpose under God as well as provides guidance along the path.
Understanding Hebel (vanity, meaningless, or what?)
Krol further explained in a second article that one must understand the key word hebel in order to understand the book as a whole (which I agree). He writes:
But I can say that any interpretation of the book that doesn’t frontline the “unsatisfying, endless repetition of old things…” is not using hebel the way the Preacher used hebel. For him, hebel is not really about nihilism, cynicism, or purposelessness. It’s about the tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction God built into the universe.
In this incidence, Krol missed this meaning. Instead of the word pointing to the tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction of the universe, the word literally means “breath” and, as used in context by the Preacher, means “frustratingly enigmatic.” For the Qohelet (Preacher), life is beyond figuring out. As he seeks to understand life and the purpose of life, his search ends in frustration and mystery. As much as he desires to understand, he simply cannot. Therefore, he concludes the best thing to do for the one who walks with God is to, “Fear God and keep His commands…” – even when you do not understand the world around you.
Putting Ecclesiastes Together into Context
The Preacher begins and ends Ecclesiastes with the summary, “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2; 12:8). Thirty-eight times Solomon uses the term hebel(frustratingly enigmatic, הֶבֶל) to describe what is hard and difficult to understand about the world around him. When one seeks to comprehend the world and understand some kind of meaning in life, all he or she is left with is a sense of frustration and mystery. This process alone of seeking to know and make sense of the world around us is frustrating.
The Burdensome Task God Gives to Men
People want to make sense of the world around them. They desire to know. Individuals are not satisfied to just live. We touch, consider, mull over, and ponder what we see, try, and learn. We do these things naturally. God built into each person the desire to put the pieces of the world together in a way that is comprehensible. At the end of the day, we want to understand today and be able to predict tomorrow.
Of his own journey, the Preacher wrote,
12 I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, And what is lacking cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. (Eccl 1:12-17)
He desires to know and make sense of the world around him. He describes it as a burdensome task given by God to all people. As he makes his observations, he concludes, all is frustratingly enigmatic and is like chasing after the wind. He recognizes that if you were to try to catch the wind, you would be frustrated. It is impossible to catch. In a similar way, it is impossible to understand life by mere observation and participation. Why? Because in our depravity, we do not have the proper advantage point to straighten out what God has made crooked or to count what cannot be seen. The burden of every person is to make sense out of the world, even though all the pieces are not there to figure it out.
Things Do Not Happen Like You Assume They Should
Part of the Preacher’s frustration stems from the fact that things do not happen the way you assume they should. For instance, you work hard all your life to ultimately leave it for someone else – who may be wise or foolish (Eccl 2:18-23). If you seek pleasure and a sense of meaning from life, you end up empty in the end (Eccl 2:1-11). In fact, ultimately the wise person and the foolish person both go through similar life events and people forget them both when life is over (Eccl 2:12-16). All of this is frustrating.
He points us to God’s plan as an example of what is frustratingly enigmatic.
13 Consider the work of God; For who can make straight what He has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, But in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, So that man can find out nothing that will come after him. 15 I have seen everything in my days of vanity:
There is a just man who perishes in (in spite of) his righteousness,
And there is a wicked man who prolongs life in (in spite of) his wickedness. (Eccl 7:13-15)
God’s work or plan differs greatly from what we expect or assume. God appoints good days next to bad days and bad days next to good days. We do not know what is next. In fact, frustration builds if you try to determine how it all works or what is next. How is it that a good man can die young or a wicked man live long? This does not make sense. This is a frustrating mystery.
Therefore, Understand Life from God’s Perspective
Enjoy what you have in life as it is God’s gift
The Preacher provides us a perspective on life. Whatever you have today is God’s gift to you. It is your portion. Therefore, be grateful to God and make the most of it for His glory. Enjoy eating, drinking, working, and personal relationships (Eccl 2:24; 3:12-13; 3:22; 9:9-10). Whatever you have today is what God has given you for today. How it connects to yesterday is a mystery. How it connects with tomorrow is a mystery as well. All you know is that today you have it and are responsible for what is in front of you.
All of life fits in God’s plan
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven… (Eccl 3:1-15)
God brings seasons of life upon every person. The Preacher provides fourteen examples of seasons of life. His conclusion: God makes everything fitting or appropriate. Whatever season it is, that season fits in your life as part of God’s plan. Again, this is where life can be very, very frustrating. Although in God’s plan everything fits, in life we do not understand how it fits. In fact, God places darkness in your heart such that even when you try, you cannot see what comes next or how it is connected to what happened last. This is frustratingly enigmatic.
Therefore, fear God and obey Him
In a world you cannot understand, even though it is hardwired by your Creator to seek to understand, what are you to do? How should you respond to life’s circumstances, mysteries, and uncertainties? Fear God and obey Him. The Preacher writes:
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all. 14 For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13-14)
Our only option as we seek to live in a world where God is sovereign, does not let us see around the corner toward tomorrow, yet has a plan that He is working out in life is to fear God and obey Him.
To fear God means that we trust Him, stand in awe of Him, and respect His character and works. Jerry Bridges used to refer to this as reverential awe. Because of what we know about the character of God, we trust Him. Even when we do not know how today’s portion fits in life, especially in light of yesterday and what is possibly going to come tomorrow, we trust Him.
Obey His commandments
As we trust God, we learn to better obey Him. Obedience is hard when we realize that it may not turn out the way we want it to turn out. It is hard when we are frustrated. Obedience is hard when we do not understand God’s greater plan. Yet, we must obey Him. We recognize God will ultimately judge us and everyone else around us. In the end, nothing escapes God. All those issues that frustrate us and the people who sin against us or cause us suffering in some way, God will judge. Our position is not of judge; instead, we are to respectfully obey.
Ecclesiastes Pushes Us toward Sanctification
Ecclesiastes helps us. The point of the Book is not that God built tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction into the universe. It is not simply about the unsatisfying, endless repetition of old things. The point of Ecclesiastes is that God built into each one of us a desire to make sense of the world around us even though by design in our depravity we cannot. Therefore, God wants our observations of the world – and of our lives individually – to bring us from a place of pride to humility. He desires for us to simply fear/honor/respect Him and obey Him. When we do this, our lives will be ordered correctly. We will grow in sanctification. We will respond to life’s pressures for His glory and honor, in ways reminiscent of Romans 8:28-29 and James 1:2-12.
As the old hymn writer John H. Sammis put it in 1887, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
 Robert V. McCabe, “The Message of Ecclesiastes,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Volume 1 1 (1996): 85-112). Also invaluable to my understanding of Ecclesiastes is my colleague Stephen Schrader, who teaches Hebrew.
KevinCarson.com | Walking together through life as friends in Christ sharing wisdom along the journey
Before he became a scholar, Barrett had an awakening to the God of the Bible, and now he’s seeking to make his character and attributes clear and accessible to laypeople so that learning the attributes of God transforms lives.
I interviewed Barrett—associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—about his new book and theology for laypeople in general. We discussed his desire to write theology for the local church, justification by faith, whether it’s possible to talk Christian living without talking theology, and more.
In the introduction to None Greater, you recount an experience prior to entering ministry that opened your eyes to the greatness of God. Talk a bit about that.
As a young Christian attending evangelical churches, I noticed there was a main objective whenever Christians talked about God: He must be relatable and relational, intimate and immanent. That often meant you determined who God is by looking to your human experience. So, if we experience love, God just has more love. If we have knowledge, God just has more knowledge. This also worked in the other direction: If we grieve or suffer, God grieves or suffers too. What kind of God does this leave us with? A God who is just a bigger, better version of ourselves.
But then I (accidentally!) read Augustine’s Confessions. I had read my Bible for years, but Augustine opened my eyes afresh to the God of Scripture. Augustine taught me that God is not just our ideal version of ourselves; he is an altogether different kind of being. He is not the finite creature but the infinite Creator. He is not merely greater in size but in essence; in fact, his essence is immeasurable and unbounded, incapable of being limited by human experience.
God is not just our ideal version of ourselves.
Then I stumbled across Anselm, who said God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived; he is the perfect, infinite being. Anything that would limit God cannot not be true of God. That means certain perfect-making attributes must follow, attributes that shield God from limitations like change, emotional fluctuation, divisible parts, dependence on the creature, lack of knowledge, a succession of moments, and so on.
This view turned my world upside down. I thought I knew God, but I was surprised by God. This left me frustrated—how could I be in church for so long and have read my Bible so many years and never heard of attributes like immutability, impassibility, simplicity, aseity, and timeless eternity? But this discovery also left me thrilled—this God is far greater than I ever imagined and must be worthy of worship. After this discovery, my Bible became a strange new world.
One of the best features of your book is the target audience: It’s a volume on the attributes of God that is impeccably researched but written for laypeople. How important is it for academic theologians to serve the church in this way?
So important. I often hear scholars lament how shallow church is these days and how little theology churchgoers (or even pastors) know. Yet they do nothing about it. That must change, but it won’t unless scholars who spend their lives studying Scripture and theology start lisping to novice students, pastors, and churchgoers. When we look back at the greatest revivals of theology in church history, they occurred in part because scholars communicated truth to those in pews and then mounted pulpits. The church fathers who wrote the Nicene Creed, for example, understood the survival of the church itself was at stake. Reformers like Martin Luther may have started off writing theses for academic debate, but they quickly realized the Reformation would only take root if its ideas (and its Bible) were put in the vernacular. I could go on. Point is, scholarship divorced from the church is a bad hangover from the Enlightenment. In most of history, scholarship was for the church.
We don’t often talk in church about things like the aseity or the simplicity of God. How have you sought to make those things accessible to lay Christians?
There is a popular caricature that says the doctrine of God is some abstract theory that has nothing to do with the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mentioned how I providentially read Augustine, but keep in mind that his Confessions are biography in the form of prayers. That’s right, prayers! As he prays, he puts his theology on full display. Apparently, the greatest minds of the church thought who God is has everything to do with the Christian life.
We see this with God’s attributes. Ask yourself, what are the consequences of rejecting attributes like aseity, simplicity, immutability, or impassibility? The consequences are devastating. If God is not life in and of himself, self-sufficient, and self-existent—but a God who depends on us finite creatures—then he is a God who needs saving just as much as we do. If God is not simple—but instead is composed or compounded by parts—then he is divisible. Frankly, this is a God who will fall apart on us, for he is destructible. If God is not immutable—but changes—then how do we know whether we can trust him? Will he come through on his saving promises? If God is not impassible—but suffers alongside us—how can we have any assurance that he can or will overcome the suffering we experience in this world? Is he not just as much a victim as we are, and should we not feel pity for him rather than pray to him?
In short, everything from Christian assurance to the gospel itself hinges on who God is eternally. To undercut these attributes is to rob the believer of gospel promises that not only give him confidence in the moment, but also hope for the future. Why in the world would we not cherish such attributes in church and proclaim them from the pulpit?
Do you think the way we often talk in church about God is faulty? We often hear him spoken of as “the man upstairs” or something similar. I heard a woman many years ago who encouraged a Sunday school class to call God “buddy.” How can we help people in our churches think (and talk) more reverently about God?
Our God talk betrays us. This is a God made in the image of our culture, but it’s not the God of the Bible. This type of God is more like the pagan deities of the nations around Israel, gods these nations created and could control or manipulate. But when we open the Scriptures, we see a different picture of God. He is the God of Moses: No one can see his glory and live. He is the God of Isaiah: high and lifted up. He is the God of Jeremiah: There is no one like him.
Only when we stand in utter awe of his transcendence—saying, with Isaiah, “Woe is me!”—will we be baffled by his gracious immanence. Only when we grasp that he is the infinite Lord will we be amazed that he would stoop so low as to speak to and save sinners.
The God talk we’ve imbibed from the culture is ironic. In our desperation to make God immanent, we’ve lost immanence altogether. We’ve domesticated him, making him safe and tame. Why are we surprised that we have little desire to worship this God, let alone fear him?
I heard a statement from a person defending a wildly popular book written by a Christian giving advice on everyday living. It went something like this: “This book is not about theology, so it shouldn’t be critiqued as a work of theology.” Is it possible to write about everyday living as a Christian while remaining atheological?
Don’t take the bait! Any book that claims to talk about God, his people, or the Christian life is a book that cannot escape things theological. Its main purpose may not be to expound theology itself, but to pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is (that is what theology is, after all) is to write like an atheist.
To pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is is to write like an atheist.
It’s also dangerous. It gives people the impression that the books that really matter are those you see in the “spiritual life” or “Christian living” section of bookstores. Meanwhile, books on “theology” are reserved for those who sign up for cemetery—I mean seminary. Again, don’t take the bait. One of the wisest things C. S. Lewis ever said (you can read it in his preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation) had to do with his discovery of old books of theology. He was far more likely to hit his knees in prayer when he had a pencil in hand with a tough bit of theology than he ever did with the latest, hippest book on spirituality.
Theology exists because worship does not. Theology should always lead to doxology. If not, then you are either not studying the God you think you are studying, or you are trying to study God without knowing God. Both are tragic in God’s eyes.
One last thing: If spending your time learning about the character of God is not relevant to what it means to be a Christian, then honestly, I don’t know what it means to be a Christian anymore, nor am I sure I want to be one.
You have another book that recently released on justification by faith. Why is it so important that we assert and reassert that critical doctrine every few years?
That’s right! If you enjoyed None Greater, then consider working through The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls (Crossway, 2019). I’ve asked some of the best minds in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology to come together and write a positive presentation of the doctrine of justification.
Protestants since the Reformation have rightly believed that the church stands or falls on this doctrine. If we get justification wrong, it’s just a matter of time before we misunderstand the gospel and its power to make us right with God. Few doctrines have come under such severe attack today as our doctrine of justification. I fear that the Reformational view of justification—which I believe is the biblical view—is so muddied by competing interpretations that not only the churchgoer and pastor but also the student and scholar are left in ambiguity, not sure what to believe anymore. So, it seemed wise to gather a team that could clear away the fog and give a positive case for justification—one that returns to Scripture afresh and does so with theological rigor.