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Gospel Guardrails for Spiritual and Relational Health

May 4, 2020

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

When it comes to helping people understand how the good news of Jesus transforms us personally and guides our relationships, I often use the illustration of guardrails on a highway. The gospel provides two critical guardrails to keep us faithful and fruitful in life: the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15-16). In other words, sin really is sinful, because God really is holy. And grace really is sufficient, because Christ’s blood really is enough.

Emphasizing both of these realities in our lives and relationships helps us live faithfully before God. It frees us to deal honestly with sin (both our own sin and the sin committed against us) because we have an adequate solution in Christ. Lose sight of either guardrail, and your life and relationships are likely to end up in one ditch or another.

To illustrate what’s at stake here, think about what happens when we lose sight of these guardrails. In fact, there are at least eight painful and destructive ways to land in the spiritual or relational ditch when we miss or minimize just one of them—either the sinfulness of sin or the sufficiency of grace.

The first two come from losing sight of my own sinfulness:

1. Prideful self-sufficiency. The motto of prideful self-sufficiency is: I can do this on my own. “I don’t need the gospel, because I have the strength and strategies to make the Christian life work on my own. I’ve read the right books; I know the right methods. I’m certainly not as bad as those people—look at all the ways they compromise their faith. I’m sure glad I’m not like them.”

This is self-righteous pride. I minimize my sin and maximize the sin of others because my view of identity is still caught up in how well we all perform for God, rather than our union with Christ. I can’t acknowledge or even see my own sin, because then I won’t look as good to God or others. This is a prideful heart that, regardless of what the mouth says, doesn’t really believe it needs the gospel.

2. Shameless self-indulgence. The second way that minimizing my own sinfulness can lead to spiritual and relational carnage is by giving myself to shameless self-indulgence. Here the motto is: It’s not that sinful. “I don’t need the gospel, because my heart and my actions aren’t really that ugly. How sinful is it, really, to prioritize my job over my wife and kids?” “Everyone else looks at porn every now and then; isn’t God’s grace sufficient for that? After all, God made me with sexual desires, and at least I’m not sleeping with someone. It can’t be that bad, can it?”

And so we justify our sin. I tell myself it’s not that sinful, because I still like doing it. Or perhaps because I can’t bear the guilt and shame of admitting that I’m doing it. Either way, I disregard the holiness of God and take my eyes off the first guardrail, which will eventually destroy my relationships by making everything about me.

There are two other spiritual and relational dangers that come from losing sight of sin, this time the sinfulness of someone else, whether it’s my spouse, children, parents, colleagues, neighbors, or friends:

3. Naïve over-regard for someone. The motto here is: They can do no wrong. “They never do anything wrong, or at least nothing that I can’t handle.” “My friend would never say that.” “My children would never do something like that” (i.e., “because if they did, that means I’m not as good a parent as I think I am”).

These are the rose-colored glasses of love and admiration for a mentor, hero, or someone in whom we find our identity. We have some vested interest in protecting the pedestal we’ve placed them on, which of course only sets them up for failure down the road when they do in fact do something hurtful and come tumbling down. We hold onto false expectations, putting our hope in someone who can’t deliver what we want from them (since only God can). Moreover, we deprive them of the opportunity for transformation, which comes from having to deal with one’s sin, however painful or dislocating it may be.

4. Evasive disregard for someone’s sin. This is second tragic result of overlooking someone else’s sin, and the motto again is: It’s not that sinful. “Their sin isn’t so bad”—the pornography addiction, the alcohol abuse, the constant cutting words. “Everyone is just overreacting; it’s not that big a deal.” “My marriage isn’t that bad; so we have a couple problems, nothing we can’t handle.” “My children aren’t that bad; sure, they could be making some better choices, but they love God . . . I think.”

Here, instead of justifying our own sin, we justify the sin of someone else in effort to escape the reality and weight of it. Perhaps because we don’t know how to address it, or because we can’t imagine bearing the pain and shame of it. Perhaps because the results would be too damaging if word got out.

But as with every other attempt to downplay sin, in time it will be found out. Moreover, when we minimize sin, we necessarily marginalize grace. If we can’t be honest with how ugly our own sin is, or the sin of those we love, then we will withhold from both the very means of change God has given us—the grace of the gospel.

So what happens when we lose sight of this second guardrail—the sufficiency of grace? Again, we see two possible results of minimizing grace in our own lives:

5. Legalistic performance. Here the motto is: I’m a sinner, and I have to make it up. “I’m fully aware of my sin, but God’s love and favor for me are contingent on my being good enough,” whether it’s loving my spouse well enough, having my daily quiet time, obeying my parents, going to church, or telling others about Jesus. “If I can just stop doing certain bad things and start doing other good things, I’ll grow in my walk, and God will be happy with me.”

This is to miss the essence of the gospel, that Christ has done for us through his life and death what we couldn’t do under the law, and to turn our relationships and love into a cold duty, rather than a warm delight.

6. Hopeless despair. The second (and inevitable) result of overlooking God’s grace for oneself is hopeless despair. The motto: I’m a sinner, and I can never make it up. “I now realize that I will never be good enough. I will never measure up no matter what I do or how hard I try; and so why try any longer? I give up.”

So we turn inward in depression, or maybe outward to other things that we think could fill the void—the things I can conquer, like food, pornography, romance novels, internet relationships, adultery, entertainment, eating disorders, any variety of addiction or abuse which destroy us and those we love.

But just as deadly for our relationships is losing sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in someone else’s life. Here again we see two tragic results:

7. Vindictive manipulation. The motto here is: You have to make it up to me. “You hurt me and let me down, and now you have to make it up. You have to work your way back into my good graces. But I’m always going to hold the bar just an inch or two higher than you can reach, so that I can keep you in debt to me and make you feel the pain you’ve caused me to feel. Don’t worry about performing for God, I’m the one you have to worry about. And I will withhold forgiveness and peace until I’m convinced on my terms that you deserve it. And just in case you try to do the same thing to others, I plan to warn them and tell them what you did. To protect them, of course, and so they can pray for you. And (if we’re honest) so that you suffer.”

This is vindictive manipulation. Instead of extending to others the grace we have received from God, we set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner.

8. Unforgiving resentment. The other way to withhold grace toward others is to take the passive aggressive route of unforgiving resentment. The motto is: I won’t say anything, but I’ll never forget. “I may not make a big deal of your sin. I may not even tell you that you hurt me. But I will not forget it. I might smile and nod when people praise you to me, but I know the truth. I simply add each new offense to that secret list of grievances that I’m carrying around in my pocket, until one day, when you really blow it, the whole thing is coming out.”

This is cancer for human relationships. It slowly and secretly eats away at trust, affection, and devotion, often without symptoms, until it is (humanly speaking) too late. Moreover, these last two examples take us full circle, back up to downplaying my own sinfulness. I can only stand in judgment over someone who has sinned against me if I believe that I’m a far less sinner than he or she.

But what happens when the framework stays in place? How does a constant awareness of the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace guide and guard our spiritual health and relationships with each other?

It doesn’t mean we will see less trouble or conflict. In fact, we will likely be more aware of and sensitive to it, as our eyes are opened to our own sin and the sin of others. But it does supply us with the resource we need to deal with conflict and sin, rather than managing it or sweeping it under the rug. The only resource that can actually bring lasting humility, repentance, forgiveness, and health—the grace of God through the finished work of Christ.

Let the gospel be your guardrails for spiritual growth and relational health: sin really is sinful, and grace really is sufficient.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2:11-14 ESV)


Five Marks of Spiritual Fruit to Guide Your Prayers

April 27, 2020

Photo by Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash

Over the past several months our staff and elders have been reading and discussing a book by Jared Wilson called The Gospel-Driven Church. It has been a stimulating conversation starter and a helpful point of reference as we have been discussing what it looks like for the gospel of Jesus to be in the driver’s seat of our approach to ministry, as opposed to the more pragmatic or consumeristic approaches that are so common today.

Of the many ways Wilson helps us think about how the gospel ought to drive our aims, methods, and expectations in ministry, one is the kind of fruit we hope to cultivate among our people. Drawing on Jonathan Edwards’s The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Wilson elaborates on what he calls “five metrics of grace”—the kind of fruit that God calls us to, but can only be borne by the Spirit of God in the power of the gospel of Jesus. Not only is this a far more helpful diagnostic than simply counting attendance and giving, it’s also something that can guide our prayers as we seek to grow in spiritual health and fruit.

So here are Wilson’s five metrics (drawn from Edwards), along with some explanatory quotes. Let them be an occasion for personal reflection, and a prayer for God to bring the finished work of Christ to bear on our lives and ministries.

1. A growing esteem for Jesus Christ

“The primary and overarching concern for Jonathan Edwards was the glory of Christ. Did Edwards want to see his church grow? Yes, and by God’s grace it did. Did he want to have a widespread impact through his writing and teaching ministry? Yes, and by God’s grace he continues to do so. But that all amounts to nothing if Jesus is not at the worshipful center of everything. . . . Is your church growing in its affection for Jesus? Is he actually more important than everything else?” (55-56)

“How do you know if a church is focused on the glory of Jesus Christ above all? Let me make a few suggestions. . . . In the sermon and song, is Jesus the focal point? In the sermons you preach, is Jesus a bit player, an add-on for the invitation time, or a quotable hero? Or does your preaching and worship promote his finished work as the only hope of mankind? . . . Musically, is the church focused on creating an experience for people or on adoring the Creator? Do our songs tell the story of the gospel? Are we, the people, the stars of the show, or is Jesus?” (56-57)

“If a church is not explicitly and persistently making Jesus the focus, it is not fruitful. Conversely, if a church is making Jesus the focus explicitly and persistently, it is being fruitful since the ongoing worship of Jesus is an essential fruit of the new birth.” (57)

2. A discernible spirit of repentance

“The fundamental problem for every human being is not an unmet felt need but the unkept law of God. Our primary disconnect is not between ourselves and our best lives but between our lives and our Creator. People have lots of problems, and the church can help with many of them, but if we are not helping our people comprehend, confront, and confess their sin, we are failing them.” (57)

“Is the church preaching the dangers and horrors of sin? And then, in its preaching of the gospel, is the message of grace in Jesus Christ clear? Are people responding to the Spirit’s conviction and comfort with repentance? Do people own and confess their sin? . . . Repentance is a sign of genuine fruitfulness.” (58-59)

3. A dogged devotion to the Word of God

“A mark of a fruitful church is a love for God’s Word. Preachers preach from it as a life-giving source of food and oxygen for spiritual growth. The people study it with determination and intensity. They believe the Word of God is sufficient and powerful and authoritative.” (59)

“An approach to teaching and preaching that minimizes the use of the Scriptures or relegates them to a less than primary role is one that functionally assumes the Bible is not living and active. It denies the power of the gospel. It treats the Bible as old and crusty, something that must be cleaned up for the crowds, softened up by our logic and understanding. . . . This is another way of saying that God’s Word isn’t enough.” (60)

“Is the Word of God actually God speaking to us? Is God speaking to us actually powerful? Is this power actually what helps people get saved, grow, and treasure Jesus more and more? If the answer to those questions is yes, then a church that does not stubbornly devote itself to the Bible, as if no other words can compare, is unhealthy and unfruitful.” (62)

4. An interest in theology and doctrine

“Having a mind lovingly dedicated to God is biblically required of us, most notably in the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matt. 22:37). Loving God with all our minds means more than theological study, but it does not mean less than that.” (63)

“Healthy, fruitful churches are made up of Christians who are searching out God’s ways and following the trails of doctrine in the Scriptures straight to the throne. In our day, emotion and experience are often set at odds with the study of doctrine and theology, and churches that devote themselves to one will often keep the other at arm’s length. Both extremes are unfruitful—a church that’s all head knowledge without heart and a church that’s all feeling without depth.” (64)

5. An evident love for God and neighbor

“A move of God’s Spirit will bear the fruit of evident love for God and for neighbor. . . True fruitfulness is evidenced chiefly in obedience to the commands of God, the greatest of which is loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). If a church exists for the sake of its own survival, for the sake of its own enterprise, or for the sake of creating wonderful experiences for people, it is not fruitful, no matter how big it gets.” (65)

“The first way this love is made evident is through the way Christians love one another. . . . [A second is] love of the church corporately for its neighbors and community. Love requires knowledge, awareness, and sacrificial devotion to the needs of others. Are the leaders aware of their surroundings? Does the church operate almost as an island in a sea of outsiders? Do you feel like you’re in a bubble? If your church were to close tomorrow, would the neighborhood care?” . . . If your church does not have relationships with those outside the church body and leaves little mark in the community, it may not be a fruitful church.” (65-66)

Nurturing an Eternal Perspective

April 20, 2020

Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

For many of us, trials like the COVID-19 crisis have fostered what’s called a “cognitive dissonance.” What we know to be true about God doesn’t seem to square with what we see or experience in the world.

For instance, we know that God is on his throne, but our world feels so chaotic. We know that God is good, but the coronavirus has brought so much heartbreak. We know that God provides, but we’re not sure how we’ll cover the bills. Our knowledge of God seems out of sync with reality. And the longer this goes on, the harder it can be to hold those two in tension without the latter dislodging the former.

This was the very trial that Asaph found himself facing in Psalm 73. Asaph was the chief musician during David’s reign (1 Chron. 16:5)—basically, a worship pastor. His theology was solid. He begins Psalm 73 with a declaration of what he knows to be true of God: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1). But his theology seems to fall apart when faced with his reality. “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2-3).

His doctrine told him God was good; his eyes caused him to question that. Because from where he stood, it was the wicked who seemed to have it all together. He details this in vv. 3-12, how they have no pain until death, they don’t face the same trouble as everyone else, they are proud and brazen, always at ease and increasing in riches. If God is so good to Israel, why do the wicked prosper while the righteous perish?

Asaph focused on his present experience—what he could see and understand right now—and nearly concluded that his doctrine had been wrong. He offers his tentative conclusion in v. 13: “Truly all in vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.” If God’s goodness is measured in earthly peace and prosperity, then following God has been a waste of time.

What stayed him amid this crisis of faith was two things. First, he considered the impact his apostasy would have on the congregation (v. 15), and decided not to give up so easily. Second, and more importantly, he went into the sanctuary of God (v. 17), and that’s where his perspective took a dramatic shift. “Then I discerned their end,” he says. As he approached God in worship, God gave him an eternal perspective. And seeing the end changed his interpretation of the present.

Imagine knowing that your team would win the World Series this year before the season even starts (if it ever starts!). That knowledge of the future changes how you interpret situations in the present. A bad game, or a bad string of games, that might otherwise cause you to lose hope, exerts far less influence on your estimation of your team or your joy in their season. Knowing the end reshapes how you think about and live in the present.

So it was when Asaph finally understood that however peaceful and prosperous the wicked appear now, it doesn’t end well for them. As he declares in v. 18, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.” The Lord will deal with their wickedness in the end (vv. 19-20, 27). And so Asaph was foolish to envy those whose “success” was ill-gained and short-lived (vv. 21-22).

In contrast, God’s promise to his people is so much better than whatever temporary comfort we might look for in this life. For starters, he is with us even when we don’t feel it: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (v. 23). Second, our relationship with him is eternal: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (v. 24). And third, he is supremely satisfying: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-26).

What Asaph comes to realize through his present trial as it’s reshaped by an eternal perspective, is that God’s goodness is not ultimately measured by or experienced in the things he gives us or does for us, but in giving us himself. His presence is the treasure. “As for me, it is good to be near God” (v. 27). A treasure he has given us ultimately through his Son, Jesus Christ, the fullness of God in bodily form, crucified and risen for us.

And so one important lesson from our current crisis is the invitation to nurture an eternal perspective. Amid the frustration, disenchantment, fear, or loss, to fix our joy not on our current situation, but on our God above and our inheritance to come. To treasure God’s goodness not primarily in what he gives us, but to treasure God himself.

The apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

Knowing the end reshapes how you think about and live in the present.

Can Anything Good Come out of the Cross?

April 13, 2020

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

A Good Friday meditation, delivered at Stonebridge Church on April 10, 2020.


Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:4-6 ESV)

This is the word of the Lord through the ancient prophet Isaiah, looking across the centuries to One who would accomplish all God’s will, deliver his people, and establish his kingdom. Not by conquering with the sword, but by being pierced for our transgressions. A victory he accomplished on Good Friday.

It’s strange that we call it “good” when you consider the loss, doubt, pain, and death. As people said of Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46) so it’s tempting to say of his ministry’s end, “Can anything good come out of the cross?”

After all, before the cross was the symbol of Christianity, or a piece of jewelry to wear around your neck, it was an object of torture and execution. It was a symbol of shame and defeat, reserved for the worst of criminals. It was violent, brutal, beyond painful. Even today, our word “excruciating” comes from the word “crucify.” How can anything so intensely violent and painful be good?

The goodness of the cross comes not from what man intended by it, or accomplished through it, but what God intended by it, and accomplished through it. What the Sanhedrin and the soldiers, what Pilate and Herod and even Jesus’s followers didn’t understand that day, is that God was about to take the greatest symbol of shame in the Roman world, and the greatest act of evil in human history, and turn it into the greatest expression of love in human history, and the most profound revelation of his glory.

What happened that day was no accident. It’s not as though Jesus’ plans went sideways, or his Father slipped off his throne for a moment at the expense of his Son. The cross was always the plan. It was born in the heart of God before the foundation of the world. Hundreds of years before Roman crucifixion was even invented, the Bible describes how God’s king would give himself for his people. “He was pierced for our transgressions,” Isaiah 53. “They have pierced my hands and feet,” Psalm 22.

At the cross the brokenness and rebellion of this world come face to face with the perfection of God’s holiness and love. We see God’s holiness in how he deals justly with human sin, pouring out his holy anger against all unrighteousness and all human rebellion. We see God’s love in how he offers deliverance from that judgment according to the riches of his grace.

And what makes that possible is that in Jesus, we have a willing and worthy substitute. The eternal Son of God took on human flesh and became like us, that he might represent us in both life and death. He lived for us the life we couldn’t and wouldn’t live, in perfect obedience to his Father. As Isaiah described, all we like sheep have gone astray. And as our innocent substitute, as the true Passover Lamb, Jesus died for us the death we deserve, that God might deal justly with sin and mercifully with sinners.

That’s what Isaiah 53 describes—one who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, who has borne in himself the full weight of sadness and sickness and all the pain of this broken world, even as he is smitten and stricken by God. One who was pierced for our transgression and crushed for our iniquities, who dealt decisively with our sin and rebellion, taking the judgment we deserved, paying the debt in full, such that with his wounds we are healed.

And so it is, that everything wrong with this broken world finds its answer in the cross. If you’ve ever been whitewater rafting, one of the things they tell you to do when the river begins to get really choppy, is look for the V in the river, the point where all the water is converging, because that’s where the raft is going to go. And you want to point the boat toward the V. If you hit it sideways, you’re likely to flip over.1

The cross is the V of all human history. The point where all the water of human suffering, evil, sin, pain, sickness, and sorrow is all converging. The sin that every one of us has committed, the ways we color outside God’s lines: the cutting things that we think or say, the selfish moves we make, the subtle idolatries of our heart when we look to created things for that which only our Creator can give, or give to created things that which only our Creator deserves. And not just the sin we commit, but even the sin committed against us. The betrayal or injustice we’ve experienced; the pain others have caused us. The sorrow of this world. The shame, sickness, sadness, death. Even the COVID-19 crisis, with all of the dislocation and frustration, the pain of the disease, the loss of life—the suffering and sin of all humanity converges at the cross, where it finds its answer. A willing substitute who bears it in our place, and is able to deliver us from it.

Good Friday is God’s invitation to take all that is not good in your life, all that is not good in this world, and fold into the cross of Christ. To give it by faith to the one who has dealt with it, and find forgiveness, wholeness, and new life in him.

Because, of course, the cross is not the end of the story. It can only answer our brokenness and rebellion if there’s a resurrection on Sunday morning. Without the resurrection, Jesus is just another criminal. The resurrection both demonstrates his innocence and defeats the power of death. The resurrection is what brings God’s new life and new creation to bear on this broken world. We’re going to celebrate that Sunday morning.

And even before that comes Holy Saturday, a day when at Stonebridge we’re used to being out on the street corners proclaiming the good news, carrying the cross. Streets that feel hauntingly empty right now. Perhaps as empty as that first Holy Saturday, when the disciples were gathered in their homes, afraid for their lives, and giving themselves to prayer. And so we encourage you to make Saturday a day of prayer for our community, nation, and world.

But tonight, consider the cross. See in it God’s holiness and love. See your sin, your sorrow, your shame, even your sickness folded into it, accounted for, answered, addressed, dealt with decisively through the loving sacrifice of our Savior, and know that the love of God is for you.


  1. This illustration comes from N. T. Wright, Christians at the Cross (Word Among Us Press, 2008) 53.

But First, Lament.

April 6, 2020

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

This is getting old. And for some of us, increasingly scary.

Weeks ago, COVID-19 was for most of us national news but a faceless disease. Today, almost everyone can name someone they know who has tested positive. And with the disease’s spread, layoffs increase, schools and businesses extend their closures, and plans are constantly being canceled. There’s a collective sense of loss and frustration.

If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to these kinds of situations is to try to “do something.” Anything. And that’s not entirely bad. Love moves us to action. But there is very little tangible action that one can take right now beyond staying at home. And so our primary action only feeds our sense of frustration and loss.

But what I’ve discovered for these situations, when everything is so far beyond my control, is that my first reaction isn’t always the most helpful one. Sure, it’s important to do whatever we can. But first, lament.

As I mentioned briefly in last week’s post, the Psalms are full of lament—the kind of songs that give voice to the pain, grief, and frustration we’re experiencing, and bring those cries to the Lord. They’re honest and raw. For instance, Psalm 13 begins: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”  (Ps. 13:1-2 ESV)

Elliot Grudem, a friend and mentor, recently wrote about the importance of lament in this current crisis. He writes:

We moved from New Orleans to Raleigh two months before Katrina destroyed the areas of the city we spent the most time in and around. One of the high school students we were closest to posted a message to the state high school athletic association asking if the destruction meant his football season was canceled. A writer turned that question into a story for Sports Illustrated.

I thought about that story Sunday night as my daughter lamented the CDC news that seemed to put an end to her rowing season. Other friends texted the sorrow there were feeling for their kids whose school and activities were brought to an abrupt halt.

Like the Sports Illustrated writer did for my friends from New Orleans, I want to honor my daughter’s sadness and help her hope for something better. The best way I know to do that is to help her pray a prayer of lament.

My friend Paul Miller in his book on prayer calls lament prayers the nuclear option. It’s the often messy, loud, unfiltered prayer we cry out to God when we are out of other options. It asks God to fix the seemingly unfixable situation. . . .

Praying a lament helps you embrace your limits. It puts you in your right place, a human being with limits, praying to the omnipotent God. Cry out to him, asking him to fix the situation only he can fix. Teach your family to pray similar prayers, allowing them to pray for the things that are important to them. Teach your church to join you in those prayers.

Elliot has provided a guide to writing a lament, including a section on helping your children write a lament. It’s important to grieve what we’ve lost, as we fix our hope on the Lord above.

So, yes—don’t just sit there during this crisis. Do something: pray, give, encourage, share, serve, help. I’ll share more ideas on this soon. But first, lament.

Related Posts:

Being the Church in a Day of Social Distancing

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

5 Conversation Topics for the Church in Quarantine

5 Conversation Topics for the Church in Quarantine

March 30, 2020

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

As we begin another week of social distancing, I want to return to another suggestion from an earlier post on ways we can be the church during this season: talk.

Again, while visiting one another in person may be limited, God’s common grace has provided a remarkable variety of resources for communicating with people remotely: text, chat, FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Portal, etc. And that good old fashioned medium, the telephone.

But what should we talk about? You don’t need to overthink it, but here are a few suggested conversation topics to help God’s people connect meaningfully during this season of isolation.

Life. Again, you don’t need to overthink it. Talk about whatever you would talk about if you were visiting in person. Update each other on how you’re doing, what you’re doing—the kind of stuff that we’re used to discussing in passing throughout the day. While small talk might feel kind of trivial, it’s also normal, and many of us are missing it. Resist the temptation to think that you have to have some grand reason for actually picking up the phone. Just call and catch up.

Fear. While it’s good to catch up on normal things, we all recognize that this season is anything but normal. Life is so disrupted, a deadly virus is spreading, and there is so much uncertainty about the future, that it’s really easy to be afraid. Discuss those fears with each other. What’s bugging or distracting you? What’s keeping you up at night? How are your family members handling this? Listen empathetically to each other, and encourage each other with the truth of the gospel—that in Christ, we have someone who is bigger than anything we might fear (cf. Mk. 4:35-41).

Grief. As the closures and self-quarantines drag on, a lot of people are experiencing loss. Families losing loved ones, workers being laid off, students unable to finish the school year. It hits us in different ways, but this is a sad time. And sometimes the church is scared of being honest about our sadness. Grief feels weak or unspiritual, as if real Christians should be able to pull themselves together and block out negative emotion. Not only is that silly and unhealthy, it’s anti-biblical. Grieving together is good for our hearts, and good for the church. Our Lord grieved at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11). And we’ve been given a soundtrack for our grief through the psalms of lament—the kind of songs that give voice to the pain, grief, and frustration we’re experiencing, and bring those cries to the Lord (e.g., Ps. 13; 22; 42-43; 88). Talk about your sadness and grief.

Hope. At the same time, in Christ our grief is not without hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Despite the uncertainty of this season, we know how the story ends. And COVID-19 doesn’t win. Jesus wins. He has already conquered the grave through his bodily resurrection, and when he returns we will share in that resurrection and receive an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Cor. 15:20-26; 1 Pet. 1:3-4). Remind each other of the hope you have in Christ. Preach the gospel to each other—not because you don’t know the information, but because it’s worth rehearsing, celebrating, and applying to our daily lives, fears, and grief.

Perseverance. And because we have hope, we can encourage one another to persevere in faith and obedience amid the suffering and dislocation. And we need that encouragement. The encouragement to keep listening to God’s voice in the Scripture. To keep holding fast to the gospel. To keep saying no to sin and yes to Christ. As the author of Hebrews reminds us,

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb. 3:12-14 ESV)

Let’s keep talking and encourage one another, that we might hold firm together.


Related Posts:

Being the Church in a Day of Social Distancing

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

March 23, 2020

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

While the coronavirus continues its spread in the U.S. and we all continue to adjust to the new realities and rhythms of social distancing and self-isolation, as I mentioned in last week’s post, one thing the church can do in any situation is pray. Today I want to elaborate on that and share four ways you can pray for your church during this season of self-isolation.

Pray for the situation. The psalms are filled with the prayers of God’s people crying out for help and deliverance from hard situations. “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck” (Ps. 69:1). “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord” (Ps. 77:2). As we face a national and global crisis, it is fitting that God’s people would lift their voices to seek God’s help, protection, and deliverance from this dreadful disease.

Pray for spiritual fruit. Though it’s good to pray for the situation, we also recognize that God works through hard circumstances to bring spiritual growth and maturity to his people. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jms. 1:2-4). So don’t just pray that all this goes away; pray also that God accomplishes in and through his people all he intends through this hardship.

Pray for the saints. While it’s good to pray generally for these things, it’s even better to pray them for specific people in your church. “To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Pray these things for your family and for your small group—those with whom you regularly share life. Pray them for the elderly and vulnerable, the lonely and isolated, who need God’s encouragement in a special way. Pray them for your leaders, who are making hard decisions about how to shepherd the flock in unpredictable circumstances. Pray them for your missionaries, whose life and work has been similarly turned upside-down, with even more unpredictable circumstances.

Pray for salvation. Finally, pray that God would use this season of disruption, sickness, and fear to awaken the hearts of the lost, that they might sense their need of Jesus and turn to him in repentance and faith. Pray that God, through the witness of his church, would “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18). Pray specifically for those in your life who don’t know Christ, even those for whom you had all but given up hope, that God would do a great work of salvation in this time. And be ready to celebrate when he answers. Pray with expectation—that God will do it.

Being the Church in a Day of Social Distancing

March 16, 2020

flatten the curve 2We all know that the church is not the building—it’s the people. Specifically, the people of God who are united in Christ. Yet gathering together regularly is an essential part of being the local church. The word translated church in the New Testament means “assembly, gathering, congregation.” So in a day of social distancing, when loving our neighbors means staying home, what does it look like to be the church?

Because the details of our government’s guidance concerning crowd sizes and social activities are still unfolding, it’s unclear what the precise implications of all this will be. If you’re part of Stonebridge Church, we’ll update you as soon as things become clearer.

But here are a few ways we can be intentional about being the church for one another, even if gathering as a church in person is not advisable in the weeks ahead.

Pray. One thing we can always do in any situation is pray. And the Lord hears our prayers. Pray for protection. Pray for peace amid the panic. Pray for healing for those infected. Pray for wisdom for leaders making hard decisions. Pray for patience for everyone. Pray for the church to step up in gospel witness. Pray specifically for people in your church family that you regularly interact with. And pray specifically for those who are hurting in various ways. Then write them a note to let them know you prayed for them, and encourage their hearts.

Talk. While visiting one another in person may be limited, we can still connect with each other. Stay in touch with your small group. Check in with elderly friends, family, and neighbors. Encourage those who are having a hard time. God’s common grace has provided a remarkable variety of resources for communicating with people remotely: text, chat, FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc. And then there’s that old fashioned medium: make a phone call. And as you talk, remember to speak the truth of the gospel to one another. Encourage each other with Scripture. Pray for each other on the phone. We all need help keeping our eyes on Jesus.

Help. Watch out for those in need, both in your church family and in your community. With schools closed, some families are scrambling to figure out what do about their children while they still have to go to work. Consider pitching in to watch them if you’re able. Offer to go to the grocery store or run errands for church members or neighbors who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, so they don’t have to go out and be exposed. Take proper precautions, but be willing to step up and help out. As one church put it recently, “Yes, wash your hands. And then wash someone’s feet.”

Share. Watch for opportunities to give of yourselves for one another. Consider how you can come alongside church members, family members, or neighbors whose jobs are put on hold during this season. Share resources with those who need them but keep finding empty shelves at the store. Keep giving to your local church, whether online or mailing in your offering, not just so they can stay up on expenses, but so your congregation can be mobilized for ministry during this unique time.

Learn. While binging Netflix is tempting, use the extra time at home to nurture your spiritual growth as well. Do it remotely but together. Select a book that you and your small group or a few friends at church can read together and discuss. Consider taking a class together (hint: right now you can take an online course from the Simeon Trust for only $9!). There are so many great resources available. But make sure you share what you’re learning with others in your church family.

Worship remotely. Don’t let yourself get out of the habit of setting aside time to “gather” with God’s people every Sunday. While it’s going to be tempting to treat the next few weeks like a snow day or a vacation, logging on to your local church’s livestream on Sunday morning (or whatever your local church is doing) is important not only for nourishing your soul during this difficult season, but nurturing a healthy commitment to gathering weekly with your church family. It may feel weird for a little while, but what a glorious reunion it will be when we’re finally able to come back together in person!


May 17, 2019

NOTE: This guest post was written by my wife, Carissa, as we prepare to leave Boston and move to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We lost our daughter, Ruby Kate, at 18 weeks of pregnancy in March, 2016. She is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Natick, MA.


cemetery cropped

May 9, 2019

Today is beautiful. As I sit here at Ruby’s grave, the birds are singing, the sun is bright and warm, the slight breeze brushes my cheek, the trees have exploded with flowers. Yet in the beauty of life that is bursting all around me I am surrounded by death. And herein lies an ironic truth about the world in which we live. Surrounded by a beautiful glimpse of life when it was first born in perfection, yet clouded by the shadow of death and sin. And so as I sit in the reality of this paradox–my baby girl’s broken body in the ground at my feet as the colors and sounds of life that spring brings explode around me–I realize that, in this meantime we live in, goodbyes are part of the brokenness we must bear. And I am being asked to say goodbye again.

ruby's tree 3Not to Ruby herself, my sweet baby girl, who is being securely held in the arms of Jesus. That goodbye has already been said. But to the places around me that sing her name. The places where these mommy hands of mine can still be a mommy of sorts–caring for them, sitting at them, touching them. The Ruby tree in our yard that we planted for her and that erupts with ruby-red flowers each spring. This stone inscribed with her name and verses of hope–Ruby’s special place–where we come to remember, long for Jesus, and leave little gifts of beauty behind. This stone that I leave a Mommy kiss on every time I come (and my kids know that Mommy kisses don’t come off-ever!:)). And so I must say goodbye to all of the tangible things–what I can see, touch, and smell–that give me a small glimpse of my beautiful baby girl, my Ruby Kate.

And as I weep again and long for Jesus to come and make all things right, because of Him I can say goodbye with hope. Knowing that my faith in Jesus and the promises that He gives are not always seen, not always felt, not always heard, but always sure. I can leave these places with much weeping, but with great hope that all of this death will finally be brought to life. True, eternal, perfect life. A life that one day I will see, touch, and hear. And part of that life will be the sweet face of my baby girl (and the sweet faces of our other two babies we never held) whose face I will see and touch and whose sweet voice I will hear.

It’s really the same for all of our goodbyes this side of heaven. We weep because we’ve shared life and been loved. But we weep with hope that no “gospel goodbye” is forever, because we have the assurance of the hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus. Through Him we can trust that any earthly goodbye is temporal and we will once again see one another–if not this side of New Creation, then when we are perfectly rejoicing in the presence of our Savior who defeated the reality of eternal goodbyes for us, and whose omnipresence gives us assurance that though we may say goodbye for a time, Jesus never will. He is with all of us, always. In that hope I am eternally thankful, through the tears. And so I will let Him bear my sorrow, leaning into Him with steadfast hope and say goodbye to one of the sweetest parts of my heart.

Mommy loves you, baby girl!

ruby's stone

Family Update: Candidating at Stonebridge Church in Cedar Rapids

February 1, 2019

IMG_0324 2I don’t typically use this blog for family updates (let’s be honest . . . I don’t typically use this blog lately). But it seems as good a venue as any to let folks know about some recent developments in our life and ministry.

In two weeks, I will be candidating for the Lead Pastor position at Stonebridge Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Pastor Randy Scheil, who has served in that role for 27 years, will be retiring this year. And if God wills, it will be my privilege to succeed him in joining the elders and pastoral staff in leading Stonebridge in their passion to help each person they meet take their next step with Jesus.

For some of you this will come as quite a surprise. When we came to New England nearly eight years ago, we had no intention of ever moving on. And it has been an unspeakable privilege to share life with our Westgate Church family and partner with them in gospel ministry. We truly cherish the years God has given us here, and especially the people he has placed in our lives.

Yet being far from our family in Nebraska has been difficult. And with some recent health concerns among our family back home, and the increasing difficulty of making the trip back, the Lord brought Carissa and me to a place last summer where we felt we needed to be open to the possibility of relocating to the Midwest.

Little did we know that within a few weeks we would be contacted by Stonebridge Church. I had met Randy and several others from Stonebridge a few years earlier through the Charles Simeon Trust Workshops on Biblical Exposition. With the help of their search consultant, Greg Allen, we began getting to know each other more closely last fall. Through our conversations with the Stonebridge search team and leadership, and through the counsel and prayers of friends, mentors, and fellow elders at Westgate, the Lord recently brought Carissa and me to a sense of unity and confidence in his call to Stonebridge. We are thankful that our Westgate family, despite their sadness, has supported us in this call, and we are prayerfully eager for the Lord to confirm it through the candidation process at Stonebridge in two weeks.

Transitions like this are by nature bittersweet. There is a real excitement at the prospect of serving God in this new opportunity. Stonebridge is a healthy church, with godly leaders, humble servants, a heart for their community, and a gospel-driven approach to ministry. We have really enjoyed getting to know the leadership, and are excited for the days and years ahead. But it’s not without the sadness that comes from saying goodbye to our Westgate family, to dear friends, to our Veritas school community, and to life in New England. New England has been our home. We have seen God move here. We have been deeply loved here. One of our children is buried here. There have been many tears so far, and there will no doubt be more to come.

Several years ago, when we were coming to the end of our time at College Church in Wheaton and waiting on the Lord to see what was next, I sat down with one of our pastors, Wendell Hawley. I remember lamenting to him at the time how awkward it felt to think of serving a new church, and how I didn’t know how I’d be able to love them the way I loved College Church, or Oak Lake Church (where we had previously served in Lincoln, Nebraska). Wendell’s response went something like this: It’s kind of like having another child. When you have your first child, your heart is so full with love for them, that it’s virtually impossible to imagine having any more room for loving a second child. And then one day you meet that second child, and the love is just there. Not because you love your first child less, but because God has expanded your heart.

That was certainly our experience when we came to Westgate; we loved you as soon as we met you. And that love has only grown over the last seven-plus years. And so far, that’s been our experience with Stonebridge too in the time we’ve spent with your leaders—we loved you as soon as we met you. And we trust, by God’s will, it will be our experience as we meet the rest of you in the weeks ahead.

So we invite you to pray with us—for our family, for Westgate, and for Stonebridge, as we seek to follow God’s call. May his gospel continue to bear fruit and grow, for the glory of his name and the good of his people.

Brandon & Carissa