God in the Dark

Written 2008

When I travelled to Myanmar last month, I was asked what prompted my decision to go. I told my questioner, “I get to see God’s grace at work in some surprising places.” One of the most surprising is my own heart. That is, it takes God’s grace to teach fools like me that we should never be surprised where God’s grace is at work. I’m writing not just from prison, but from one of the most notorious prisons in America. Angola Prison in Louisiana was once considered the darkest prison in the country. Ninety percent of the men sent here will leave in a casket.

Seventeen years ago, within a prison population of roughly 5000 men, there were 500 assaults among the prisoners in a year. A year ago there were 50. Three things happened in the interim.  Warden Cain came here thirteen years ago. He determined to treat the men with respect. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary opened an extension within the prison. They determined to feed the men with the Word of God. And Lyndon Azcuna, of Awana Ministries, began training the men to be godly fathers. Or, to put it another way, one thing happened- the Spirit blew where it wished.

The Spirit did not merely blow into Angola prison. Instead, He blew into the hearts of the elect who live therein. The glory of this story, in other words, isn’t the prison, but the prisoners. I was privileged not only to preach and teach to these men, but to learn from them. I was welcomed in their love. I was both shamed and fed by their joy. I walked in the midst of their peace. I was humbled by their patience. I was touched by their kindness. Walking through Angola was like walking through an abundant orchard, with the fruit of the Spirit swelling round about me. I got to enter into Kyle’s passion. I got to drink deep of George’s contentment. I got to draw strength from Big Lou. The men I met there were not merely worthy of our attention and our prayers. They are not merely worthy of our respect. Instead I came away hoping that by that same grace I might one day be like these men. They are clearly my spiritual superiors. Is it just possible that Jesus calls us to visit the saints in prison for the sake of we visitors, rather than for the sake of the prisoners?

God is at work, in all the places we ought to expect. Where there is brokenness, He is there. Where there is despair, He is there. Where there is suffering, He is there. Where there is great sin, He is there equipped with great mercy. Which means we have reason to hope.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

In January we will face a most grim anniversary. Within a matter of months we will have lived through a full generation of legalized abortion across our nation. Forty years and over fifty million tiny little babies intentionally murdered by paid assassins, at the request of their mothers. Few would challenge that Francis Schaeffer was the father of the evangelical pro-life movement. It was he who first commented on the intersection of the world of abortion, and the church when he said, “In front of every abortion clinic there needs to be a sign that reads, ‘Here by permission of the Church.’”

Why is it that forty years later we have made no progress? Why are we no closer to ending this holocaust then we were forty years ago? The key to the answer is found in Schaeffer’s quote. We still have abortion because we permit it. We permit, I would suggest, because we want it. Why though, would we want it?

First, we want it because we do not love our enemies. That is, we are content to allow abortion to continue because we think that only the heathen, and mostly the poor heathen, procure abortions. Like Margaret Sanger before us we behold all the dysfunction of the inner cities, and somewhere, in the darkest corners of our darkened hearts think, “The world is better off if those people do not have more children.” How much worse, we secretly fear, would that world be if those people kept having all the babies they conceive? Better that they destroy their own before their own destroys me.

Second, we want it because we do not love the least of these.  From the earliest moments of the pro-life movement we have adopted a calculated strategy that focuses on “abortion on demand.” We argued against, lobbied against, voted against, legislated against abortions for this reason, abortions by that method, abortions at this gestation, abortions of this kind of baby. And in so doing, in determining to talk politically we have lost the ability to speak prophetically from the Word of God, which calls us to care for the least of these, that affirms all babies bear His image, that affirms that all murders are wrong.

Finally, we want abortion on demand because we love our sins, because we demand abortion. Schaeffer’s quote accurately affirms that we are at fault if only because we are content to allow abortion to continue. But it is much worse. The abortion mills exist in part by the patronage of Christians. Whether it is the father who takes his daughter there to protect his job and his reputation, whether it is the youth pastor who thinks he can’t afford another child, whether it is the deacon who is abusing his step-daughter, professing evangelical Christians account for one in six abortions in American according to the Focus on the Family website Heartlink.org- http://www.heartlink.org/prodevelopment/A000000409.cfm.  We keep them in business by giving them our business.

Unless or until we own abortion, until we see that it is an us-horror and not a them-political problem, until we have the courage to see 1.3 million not as a statistic but as 1.3 million discreet acts of murder against helpless little babies, until we have the moral clarity to see 13,000,  (most believe that abortions for “exceptions” account for one percent of all abortions, therefore roughly 13,000 annually) not as a reasonable concession to a tangled situation, a negotiable part of our election strategies, but as the murder of 13,000 helpless little babies, until we repent for the blood on our hands, we will have more generations whose entire brief lives were spent in a womb, until Mommy had them burned alive and suctioned away. As long as our delicate middle class sensibilities refuse to repent, refuse to look directly and honestly at reality, bloody baby parts will continue to be refuse.  And we will become least in the kingdom.

Some Straight Skinny on Crooked Thinking

We serve an exponential God. He who made everything out of nothing does not increase through addition, but through multiplication. We move from faith to faith, from grace to grace, from blessing to blessing. The more we grow in grace the more blessed we are. The more blessed we are, the more we grow in grace. All of this reaches its crescendo when we reach eternity. We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

This exponential reality, however, applies to His woe as well as to His weal, to cursings as it does to blessings.  For those yet outside of Christ one of the gravest judgments over sin is being given over to sin. Those outside the kingdom find themselves circling ever lower toward that vortex that is the Lake of Fire. Consider Pharaoh. Here is a man deeply blessed of God, not only made the ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, but blessed with an entire nation of priests to instruct him. He, however, remembered Joseph not, and hardening his heart, enslaved those priests, God’s people. So God hardened his heart and in His grace sent a prophet. Pharaoh’s heart already hardened, he would not hear God and hardened his heart. God returned the favor once again.

The same is true for those caught up in that peculiar perversion that Paul addresses in Romans 1. He tells us that though they knew God, they suppressed that truth in unrighteousness. They hardened their hearts. So God gave them over, that is, He hardened their hearts. And so they lusted after one another. This lusting, however, isn’t the root desire of the homosexual. The primeval desire is to rage against God. Since He is out of reach, they rage against His creation. They do what they do precisely because it is an abomination. It is its very vileness that makes it attractive. They are less caught up in an all consuming and merely misdirected libido, and more shaking their angry fists at God.

Which puts them in a rather damning dilemma. The cultural push, or putsch if you prefer, of the homosexual movement is for acceptance. They keep promising us all will be well if we would just get over the heebie-jeebies we feel over their behavior. As they succeed, however, they fail. For the more the culture accepts their behavior, the less it works as spitting at the sky. Which drives them in turn to more and more flamboyant and perverse behavior. The next time you are tempted to conclude that these folks are just like straight people, but with one crossed wire, watch five minutes of a Gay Pride Parade. The rage is the meta.

Until the church begins to understand this we will continue to lose the cultural battle over homosexuality. Some Christians want to lob Bibles at these folks, arguing merely that God said it’s a sin, and that settles it. Others want to take a more natural law approach, pointing to suicide and substance abuse rates, and low life expectancies among the homosexuals. The truth is the God who wrote Bible and made nature condemns this behavior, which is why they do it. What the culture needs is what we all need, to cease suppressing the truth, and to repent and believe. That will happen when we in the church cease suppressing this disturbing truth about our relationship with the Queer Nation- there but for the grace of God go we. Not because thankfully He didn’t cross our wires, but because thankfully He changed us. Our nature was to rage against Him, to suppress the truth. But He came and remade us, so that now we move from grace to grace, from faith to faith. We must call to all the lost not to cease from perversion, but to cease from rage. Our Father, prodigal in His love, delights to turn death into life, hatred into repentance, rage into peace.

Oops, We Did It Again

The RC Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics does not just work with the historical passages of Scripture. It should always be in play. The principle reads, in its most basic form, “Whenever you see someone doing something really stupid in the Bible, do not ask, ‘How can they be so stupid?’ Instead ask, ‘How am I this stupid?’” There are illustrations galore in both the Old and New Testaments of people doing really stupid stuff, even as our own lives are living illustrations. That’s because we’re stupid creatures, hence the principle.

But it also works in the abstract. That is, those parts of the Bible that are teaching us, rather than recounting history, work the same way. In Romans 1, for instance, Paul describes the response of fallen man to the wretchedness of his condition. He knows there is a God. He knows he stands guilty before God. But to escape that guilt he constructs a false god, one that won’t hold him to account. That’s why fallen men always end up worshipping creatures rather than the Creator, because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. We tell ourselves lies so as to escape the simple truth that we are under judgment. Here Paul is showing us how stupid people are in the abstract.

There is, as we well know, now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus. But we have not yet been fully sanctified. We ought to expect, therefore, that we would see some of the same stupidity in us. Worldliness, in other words, isn’t simply acting like the world. It is instead acting like the world for the same reasons the world acts like the world. We too, because we want to escape our feelings of guilt, suppress the truth in unrighteousness. We divert our eyes from the plain teaching of the Bible, because it shows us our sin.

We determine instead to see the Bible as a most general guidebook, a broad compendium of manners that contains no more law than that which we glean from William Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true” and Kurt Vonnegut, “But d*#@&*!, you’ve got to be kind.”

The truth is that the Bible condemns our sins, and the Author condemns us not. We of all people should be most eager to look directly into the harsh glare, the glorious light, of His Word, for it tells us both these things. It does show us our sins, but always and every where reminds us that we already are beloved of our Father; we are the apple of His eye.

We who are loved by the Truth ought of all people be those who love the Truth. Truth be told, we’re just too stupid, concretely so.

The Bible will not only show us His will in showing us His law. It will not only remind us that He loves us. It will also remind us of our own propensity for stupid sins. It will also show us the right path. We are called not only to embrace the truth rather than suppress it, but ought also to worship the Creator rather than the creature. We ought to exchange the corruptible for the incorruptible. We ought to pray to the living God, our Father, that we would lean not on our own understanding, but would trust Him with all our hearts.

Forty Days of Mourning

The Way of the World

It’s never hard to pick a fight on the internet. The real challenge is to avoid one, particularly during election season. All my friends agree President Obama needs to get on with his life’s work. Ninety percent of my friends think voting for Governor Romney is how to get that done. And some of them are hopping mad at the other ten percent. They insist that if we don’t learn to get along, if we don’t all get on the same political bandwagon, bad things will happen. They can’t understand why we can’t get along like the heathen.

For which I now propose some good news. No, try as I have, I have been unable so far to unite the evangelical right around this rather simple creed- No man not eager to use every power of his office to protect every unborn child will receive my vote.  We evangelicals are still divided into at least three camps- those who love Governor Romney, those who love liberty and want us all to vote for the Governor, and those of us who love liberty. The good news, according to my Bible, is that the heathen really can’t get along. The heathen all agree that we Christians are a real problem (see a fine piece touching on this claim here http://www.dougwils.com/Mere-Christendom/the-limitations-of-kitten-hugging.html#JOSC_TOP). Happily, however, and ultimately, they all hate each other. Hate is all they have.

The tower of Babel is instructive for us here. For here God came down from heaven and blessed His people. It was the heathen who refused to fill the earth. It was the heathen who sought to build a tower to heaven, to make a name for themselves. When, however, God divided their tongues He divided the people. The unregenerate can’t ultimately cooperate with each other because they are all incorrigibly selfish.  Assassination, intrigue, betrayal arrive with all the timely precision of trains under Mussolini.  The Roman-Jewish alliance that killed Jesus, and which for decades oppressed His servants, soon brought us Masada, and in Jerusalem, not one stone upon another.  The secularist regime of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality soon had the guillotine cutting down those who built it. And in 2001 the secularist American regime watched its towers crumble under an assault from Islam.

Too often, election season or not, Christians forget that our God reigns, that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, who sent us His Spirit to dwell in our midst. They, fearing that this faction of our enemies will unite with that faction to destroy us, encourage us to align ourselves with whichever of our enemies will take us in. Somehow, they keep telling us, we must set aside the glorious truth that Jesus is God in the flesh, or put the once for all atoning death of Christ which is ours by faith alone on the backburner, so that we don’t get swallowed by the secular juggernaut.

In short, we toss out the Holy Spirit,  the one thing that actually unites us, that sets us apart from the world, because we think the world is united, when it can’t be because it has not the Spirit.  We are one, because Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. We are united by our Savior. We are united by our creed. We are united by our covenant. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.  So let us fear no man, but fear God- “Do not say, ‘A Conspiracy,’ concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, Nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, HIm you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, And let Him be your dread.” Isaiah 8:12-13

Brothers, We Are Not Professors

Dr. Sproul speaks to pastors on the Desiring God website

Salt, Light, Fire and Brimstone- A Thought Experiment

Imagine if you will that you are Lot, living in a wicked culture caught up in abominable perversity. You seek, at least a little, to serve the Lord while living there. You and your neighbors are about to choose your leader for the next four years. One candidate not only embraces perversion, but champions it. His desire is that the state should tax all the people to subsidize the practice of their perversion. He believes the state should indoctrinate the children to embrace this perversion, and to judge as hateful enemies of liberty all those who call perversion perversion. Liberty, to this candidate, is allowing adult perverts to practice their perversion on all little children.

A second candidate is more circumspect.  He does not champion perversion. He is not at all eager to see the state subsidize perversion. Broadly speaking he thinks perversion is generally a bad thing. But, he does agree that the state should protect the rights of perverts to assault a small percentage of the children, no more than 12,000 a year, those who were conceived during the commission of a crime. He even, from time to time, suggests that his regime would be willing to see the end of the assault on little children, except for the 12,000. Their suffering, he will see to it, will continue.

There is a third candidate. He affirms that all assaults on little children are not only perverted, but ought to be illegal, that God Himself requires the state to use the power of the sword to protect these little children. He promises, if elected, to do everything in his power to protect every child from every assault by every pervert. Of course, precious few in Sodom have ever heard of this candidate, and he clearly has no mathematical chance of winning the election. The open perverts, after all, represent 43% of the population, with who knows how many being secret perverts.

In fact, as you and your wife approach the polls you are told that you will be the last two in the whole city to cast your votes. All other votes have already been counted. The first candidate has amassed 149,999,996. The second candidate has his current total at 149, 999, 995. The third candidate has 8 votes. If the two of you vote for the first candidate, he will win. If you vote for the second candidate, the more reasonable one, he will win. If you vote for the third candidate, the first candidate will win. Now before you decide how to vote, let me remind you of your calling to love your neighbor. You need to love all the children who are being assaulted by the perverts. You need to love the perverts. You need to love your own family. You want to see your culture survive, and eventually to thrive. And let me remind you of one more thing- God reigns and rules over the affairs of men. Now, for whom do you vote?

(My desire with this piece is that it would provoke thought on the thorny issue of voting. It is not my desire to spark yet another on-line debate on how we should vote. As such, comments on this piece are turned off.)

How can we pray for you in light of the passing of your daughter?

As always I give thanks for the prayers of God’s saints on my family’s behalf. One of the best lessons learned over months of mourning has been the experience of being held up by the prayers of the saints. We who are Reformed aren’t always the most adept pray-ers. Being on the receiving end, however, makes me long to do better. Thank you for your prayers and every other offer of helps. In the hopes of giving specific answers to this common and welcome question- how can we help- here are five peculiar challenges we are now facing.

  1. Fear in my little ones. The passing of both my wife and my little girl has brought forth fruitful conversations with all my children. The littler ones, however, are the most open and honest. They are at peace, but I am not surprised that they sometimes find themselves wondering, “Who is next?” My desire is that they would learn to believe and rest in the unchangeable verities, that they are loved on earth and in heaven, and that no circumstance could ever change that. My prayer is that they would rest on the Rock.
  2. More pressure to deliver the goods. I noted many months ago that many people seem to believe that there is a special kind of tree, heavy laden with juicy morsels of unusual wisdom, growing down in the valley of the shadow of death, and that we who walk there are supposed to bring out those nuggets on the other side. I have been delighted to share my journey over the months, and deeply grateful for the encouraging words I have received from so many. Now though is the burden of the looks of expectation I receive- what will he tell us now? Please pray that I would continue to be a help to others, but also that my foolish vanity would make me content to disappoint people waiting for amazing insights from me, that my vanity would be the next to die.
  3. Competing demands for the ladies in my life. Darby, Delaney, Erin Claire and Maili are doing well and continue to be a joy in my life.  They are all blessing, and no burden. The weirdest thing I’m currently struggling with is I don’t know which way to look. I was not done mourning my wife. And now time and energy and tears spilled over the loss of my daughter feel weirdly disloyal. Time and energy and tears spilled over my wife also feel weirdly disloyal. I know it makes no sense. I know they experience no jealousy. But there it is.
  4. Jealousy of my wife. Over the years as she grew bigger, even when my wife was well, Shannon became something of a special project for me. One key way I sought to help my wife in her domestic duties was to do the heavy lifting of the heavy lifting. I took Shannon up and down the stairs. I lifted her up into her bed. I fixed and fed her most of her meals. And now the two of them are talking, while I am left out.  That sliver of me that is not an idiot rejoices for them both, and gives thanks to our Father in heaven. The rest of me wishes I could be there too.
  5. That I would come to know who I am. My identity is wrapped up in Christ. My self-image, right or wrong, however, has been wrapped up in being a husband and a father. What we do is make things better. As irrational as it may seem, it is difficult not to believe that I have failed my wife, failed my daughter, and in so doing, failed all of my children.  I know that God numbered their days. I know also I wish there was something I could have done. Pray especially that I would not fail the seven children that are yet with us.

The pain cuts deeply. I pray it will change me deeply, that I am being remade into the image of that Man who is well acquainted with sorrow. My scars, I am confident, like His, will survive into the new creation, for they are not wood, hay and stubble, but precious jewels. Please pray with me that I won’t waste my mourning.

The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin

One of the many blessings of having eight children is all that you learn about sin. Though my children are sinners, my point isn’t a snickering allusion to that reality, suggesting that all those children mean an awful lot of sin. Instead all those children make for far too many opportunities for me to sin. Better still, all those children give me opportunity to see the ugliness of my sin.

One of the dangers of hamartiology, the study of sin, is that it turns sin into an abstract quality. If we were to take roadkill and stick it under a microscope we would see all manner of interesting little creatures. Were our microscope strong enough we might see cell walls or mitochondria. What we would miss is the ugliness of roadkill. By looking at it too closely, we miss what it really is. The same is true with our sin. By studying it we distance it from ourselves. By objectifying it, by turning it into some kind of substance, we miss its destructive power. Sin is less a condition I suffer from, and more when I make my children cry. It is a more a sledgehammer in the home, less a subdivision of systematic theology.

This is true not only of sin, but of our sins. That is, the problem with anger is that it hurts our children. The problem of selfishness is that it hurts our wives. The problem of gossip is that it hurts our friends. I don’t have an anger problem, but a making my children sad problem. I don’t have a selfishness problem, but a frustrating my wife problem. I don’t have a gossip problem, but a stealing from my neighbor problem. Sin is a subject. Sins have an object.

In God’s grace, however, those same children that make my sins so obvious, make His grace more obvious. That is, just as quickly as tears fill their little eyes when I speak to them too harshly, the children joyfully forgive when I in turn repent. Their tears drive me to repentance, and their forgiveness drives me to tears.

My children love me. They race to meet me and shower me with hugs and kisses. They long to please me, showing me their latest creations, regaling me with their latest adventures. This, I suspect is true of most children in most homes. I suspect as well that most parents fail their children as I too often fail mine. A home, however, that is filled with forgiveness is a home suffused with the gospel. I, at their births, gave my children a propensity to sin. Their heavenly Father, at their rebirths, gave my children a propensity to forgive. He loves them even more than I do.

Our calling is to face the sinfulness of sin. We will do so, however, not by curling up with dusty volumes in our studies, but by looking into the eyes of those we have hurt. Our calling is in turn to face the grace of His grace. We will do this, however, not by listening to the latest and greatest theological downloads, but by hearing our children tell us, “I forgive you Daddy.” Own your sin. Cling to His grace. And tell your children that you love them.

Stand on the Word. Walk by the Way. Run to the Battle. Rest in the Son.
Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. teaches at Reformation Bible College and Ligonier Ministries in Sanford, Florida.
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