An Honest Approach to the Mystery of Suffering

Topical Scripture: Psalm 3

It’s been a hard week in the news. From a three-year-old boy attacked with acid to flooding victims on the East Coast to shootings in Canada to wildfires in Greece and bombings in Pakistan, the headlines have been painful.

When we learn of such unfairness, we want to ask how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow this world to be the way it is. If I were God, infants would never be attacked; shootings and bombings would never occur; fires and floods would not happen. I’m sure you’d say the same thing.

Before we study this week’s psalm, let’s explore the issue we need it to address.

Hard answers to a hard question

I know the traditional theological responses: One, we live in a fallen world. In the Garden of Eden, storms didn’t rage, and wildfires didn’t kill people. Two, Satan is alive and well. As the Bible says, he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Three, people can misuse their freedom. It’s not God’s fault if people choose to attack children and adults. Four, God suffers as we suffer and promises to give us all we need for the hard days. Five, he redeems for greater good all that he allows.

However, if you’re like me, there’s a “but” in the back of your mind. I understand all of that, but still—if I were God, it wouldn’t be like this. If God can still work miracles, why didn’t he on the East Coast and in Greece? If he’s more powerful than Satan, why does he let the devil steal, kill, and destroy?

I understand the importance of free will, but the Lord sometimes prevents the consequences of misused freedom, as when he freed Peter from Herod’s prison and Paul from his Philippian jail. He will help us through hard days, but we’d rather not face them at all. He will redeem what he allows, but we’d rather he not allow it.

Now consider another factor: It’s illogical for God to make a world in which there is human free will but no evil and suffering. If we don’t have evil as an option, how are we free to choose? If there are no consequences to wrong choices, did we really have a choice?

But that’s just what he will do for us in heaven. We will still be ourselves—even more fully ourselves than on earth. But in heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

If there, why not here?

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know. I don’t know why we can have free will in a perfect paradise in heaven but not on earth. I don’t know why God sometimes intervenes miraculously but not always. I don’t know why three-year-olds get attacked and families die in fires and bystanders get shot.

I can choose to let the mystery of suffering drive me to atheism, concluding that there cannot be a biblical God in a universe like ours. But then I must account for all the good that makes no sense in such a godless world.

I must account for the astounding beauty and complexity of creation that so surpasses supposed evolutionary purposes. I must account for the goodness of people who sacrifice so unselfishly for each other. I must account for the basic human drive for morality that makes no sense apart from a Creator who bestowed this impulse.

And if there is no God, I must account for the overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture, the existence of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and the transformed lives of his followers. I must account for the billions of lives changed by his saving grace.

And I must admit that by definition, my finite, fallen mind cannot comprehend the nature and purposes of an infinite, perfect Deity. Just as a mathematician could not explain calculus to my four-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is!), a God as described in the Bible could not fully explain his ways to me.

I am left with a binary decision. Either choice requires a commitment that transcends the evidence. The universe is not so evil that its depravity proves God does not exist. It is not so good that its virtues prove he does.

So, it seems to me that our decision when facing the mystery of suffering is practical rather than theoretical. We can let suffering drive us further from God, or we can use it to draw us closer to him. Neither decision can be proven before it is chosen. It is as though we’re facing two roads and cannot know their destination until we travel on them.

Here’s why we should choose the road of faith.

Three steps to the grace of God

Psalm 3 is one of fourteen psalms linked to actual events in David’s life. As we will see, the setting of this psalm makes it especially relevant to this message.

Note the presence of three “Selah”s. This is a musical term instructing the worship leader and congregation to pause, reflect on what has just been said, and praise God as a result. We will use them to divide the psalm into three sections.

Tell God about your suffering

David begins: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me” (v. 1). The setting explains his suffering.

Psalm 3 was composed by King David after his son Absalom staged a successful revolt against him. This was the greatest crisis of his life. The king was forced to flee Jerusalem, with no guarantee that he would return to his throne or even survive the night.

Things were so bad that Absalom’s armies were taunting David: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’. Selah” (v. 2). Note the three-fold repetition of “many” in these two verses, emphasizing the danger of his situation.

Rather than allow this crisis to drive David from God, he used it to seek God. He turned to his Lord in honesty, describing the peril and grief of the moment.

Unless your son has rebelled against you and sought to kill you, you have not met circumstances like these. But Psalm 3 is in the Bible for all who face suffering and tragedy of any kind. Its beginning is God’s invitation to turn to him with our suffering in honesty and pain.

Not because we’re telling God what he doesn’t know, but because we’re admitting our need of his provision and power.

Turn to God in faith

In spite of his peril, David did not give up on his Lord: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (v. 3). “But you” is emphatic in the Hebrew.

Note the present tense. Despite all appearances, despite the dangers he faces and the peril of the moment, David chose to believe that God is a “shield about me” who bestows glory on him and lifts his head when it falls in discouragement.

How can this be so? “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah” (v. 4). “His holy hill” refers to God’s presence prior to the building of the Jerusalem temple. It was from his high and holy presence that God heard his suffering child and answered him.

Our circumstances change nothing about God. Whatever he was before Absalom rebelled, our Lord is after his rebellion. If he was our shield yesterday, he is our shield today.

Because David prayed, God could answer. A doctor cannot serve a patient who will not seek her help.

Act in trust and courage

As a result, David testified, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Sleep was the most dangerous and vulnerable time in war, but after David prayed to God and claimed the fact that the Lord was his shield and protector, he “lay down and slept.” When he woke again the next morning, he discovered that the Lord had sustained him.

His experience of God’s provision in the present encouraged him to trust God with the future: “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v. 6). Now he could pray specifically, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (v. 7a).

He could claim his Lord’s omnipotence: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7b). God can do what David cannot do. But he can act only if David will ask.

David concluded: “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (v. 8). Salvation “belongs” to God and thus comes only from him. If we will not turn to him, we cannot have what he alone possesses. But if we will use our suffering as a bridge of faith, we will find his “blessing” on the other side.


Who is your Absalom? What suffering are you facing today? Choose with David to turn to God in honesty and faith, and you will be able to act in faith and courage.

There are some lessons that can be learned only the hard way. One of them is that God provides in the depths of life’s greatest challenges.

And there are some decisions that can only be made in hard times. One of them is the choice to turn to God in honesty and faith. When we do, we discover that we can act in trust and courage.

An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

So can we be. This is the promise and the invitation of God.

Does God Still Do Miracles?

Topical Scripture: Acts 9:36–43

You’ve made it to Spring. Not officially, of course—the first day of spring is March 20, which is when the sun crosses our equator (the Vernal Equinox) and the day contains twelve hours of sunlight and twelve hours of darkness.

But most of us think of March as the first month of Spring. You may not know that all is not goodness and light with this month. It is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. Wars in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen all started in March.

Not all March military events are planned. On March 1, 2007, a detachment of Swiss infantrymen got lost on a training mission and accidentally invaded neighboring Liechtenstein, a country approximately the size of McKinney, Texas. Its 37,000 residents were not aware that they had been invaded. Since they have no army, they chose not to retaliate.

Wars are just one symptom of our fallen planet. A zookeeper in Florida was training a rhinoceros named Archie when it struck her with its horn, sending her to the hospital. In worse news, a woman in South Carolina was wrestling with her dogs in her front yard when they attacked and killed her.

The world reminds us every day that we live in a fallen world. Where do you need God to intervene in your life? What miracle do you need from him? It could be physical, financial, emotional, or relational.

Does he still do miracles? If so, how do we pray for them? What should we do when he doesn’t do what we want him to do?

These are pressing, practical questions we’ll ask Peter this week.

A miraculous story

Our story begins in Joppa, which has been called the oldest seaport in the world. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. Jonah sailed from here to Tarshish to avoid God’s call to Nineveh (Jonah 1:3). Logs for building the temple were sailed to this port before being transported to Solomon in Jerusalem.

A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic and means “gazelle”; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1).

Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).

Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11–17, John 11:1–44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. “Prayed” translates the Greek aorist tense, indicating a one-time action.

He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.

The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.

If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a wonderful church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.

Are miracles plausible today?

As C. S. Lewis observed, the man who denies the sunrise does not harm the sun—he only proves himself foolish. What can we learn about our culture from its views of the miraculous? And about ourselves?

Mad at miracles

Most dictionaries consider a “miracle” to be an event or action which apparently contradicts scientific laws as we understand them. Sometimes we experience a miracle of coincidence, where highly improbable but not impossible events occur (a friend calls you unexpectedly, just when you most needed to hear from her). Other miracles are actual violation of physical laws (a friend calls you on a telephone which is disconnected).

Both kinds occurred often in the biblical record. Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all experienced and initiated them. And Jesus’ miracles were crucial to his ministry. They validated his Messiahship (Matthew 11:4–5), showed that he was from God (John 5:36; 14:11), and were intended to lead to saving faith (John 20:30–31).

Yet miracles themselves may not convince those who witness them (cf. John 15:24; Luke 16:31). At issue is our worldview. As J. S. Mill said in 1843, “If we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence.” Either we didn’t see what we thought we saw, or there’s another explanation than the miraculous. Many have taken such skeptical positions.

Benedict Spinoza (died 1677) argued that it is impossible for natural laws to be changed. If an event appears to be a miracle, this is only because we have not yet found the natural explanation. Isaac Newton agreed that time and space have an absolute fixed character, so that miracles by definition are impossible.

David Hume added that we cannot prove any cause and effect, much less the cause of so-called miracles. He believed that we should test all reported events in the light of our personal experience. If you have not experienced the miraculous, you cannot trust the testimony of another to its veracity.

Ernst Troelsch, the famous historian, took Hume’s position a step further: no writer of history should include a reported experience which does not occur today. If people no longer walk on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t, either. Karl Marx added the conviction that miracles are supernaturalistic wishes, nothing more.

You may be surprised to find that some Christians are likewise skeptical of the miraculous, though for different reasons. Some believe that miracles ended with the early church. Others maintain that miracles no longer occur, as the need for them in establishing revelation is now past.

The logic of the miraculous

Are there answers to the above skeptics? Absolutely. Most critics decide that the miraculous is by definition impossible, though they have no empirical or rational reasons to do so. Many point to their own lack of experience with miracles as reason to debunk the category itself. But could a man living in a warm climate believe in ice? Should we trust the experience of a person who denies that such experience is possible?

Science works with probability, not absolute logical proof. Those who seek incontrovertible evidence for the miraculous demand a standard they could not fulfill with their own truth claims. For instance, when experimenters measure light in one way, they determine that it travels as waves; measured in other ways, it appears to travel as particles. Both cannot be true, but neither can be disproved or proved. Niels Bohr called this phenomenon the “principle of complementarity.” Aristotle would call it a contradiction.

Newton saw the universe as a machine incapable of behavior outside the parameters of natural laws. After Einstein, this analytical era in science has come to an end. We now know that to observe or measure something is to alter it. Predictability is less possible, and antisupernaturalistic presuppositions are less defensible. Even Einstein stated, “I think of the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle.”

It all comes to worldview. If God created and designed the universe, he possesses the freedom to alter it as he wishes. He may act according to “laws” we discern within its operations, or he may not. What is a miracle to us is not to him. The laptop on which I am writing these words obeys none of the laws within which my father’s manual typewriter operated. But its “miraculous” abilities are nonetheless obvious.


When you need a miracle, what should you do?

One: Ask God.

In this case, Peter “knelt down and prayed” (v. 40). He did not assume that God could not or would not answer his prayer. He knelt, showing that the answer would come not from him, but from God.

Two: Expect God to answer your prayer.

Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, arise.” He believed that God had heard him and would do what he asked God to do. In this case, the Lord did.

Three: Trust him to do what is best.

Here, it was best for him to raise Dorcas back to life, since “it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (v. 42). Since Joppa was such a significant seaport, this story could quickly travel all over the world.

However, this was not best for Dorcas. She had to come from heaven back to earth, from God’s perfect paradise to our fallen planet. Then she had to do her dying all over again. She was a missionary by the call and purpose of God.

At other times, God does not heal as we ask. When Paul pled three times with God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord responded: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). Paul learned: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). His ability to live with his “thorn” was a greater miracle than if God had removed it.

A dear friend of mine in Midland was dying from breast cancer. Our entire congregation prayed fervently for God to heal her. I have witnessed other such miracles—people healed of cancer, heart disease, and other terminal illnesses. But God did not heal my friend physically.

Instead, he gave her the grace to withstand her suffering with such grace and joy that she marked every person who knew her. She glorified God far more by her faith than she would have by her healing. And then the Lord healed her eternally when he took her to paradise.

Pray for a miracle and trust your Father for what is best. This is the invitation of God.

Expect the Best from God

Topical Scripture: John 5:1-9

Dr. David Fite went to be with the Lord last August. He was a former missionary to Cuba and a colleague of mine when I served on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth.

Dr. Fite and his father-in-law were both imprisoned in Cuba for preaching the gospel there. They spent forty-two months in prison, where they were often put in solitary confinement or made to stand at attention all day. Dr. Fite’s father-in-law, advanced in years, often fell when standing in the hot Cuban sun. The guards would then hit him.

One day was especially hot. Dr. Fite and his father-in-law stood at attention all through the day; the elderly man never flinched but stood with amazing strength. That night, David asked him how he had done so. His answer: “David, I’m surprised at you. You forgot that my birthday is today! Southern Baptists all over the world were praying for our missionaries. God’s grace was my strength!”

All that God has ever done, he can still do. As we continue our series on Jesus’ healing miracles, we come today to one of the most surprising stories in Scripture. And we will hear Jesus ask us the strange but penetrating question, “Do you want to be healed?”

Listen to his voice

Our story begins: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews” (John 5:1). He had to go “up,” because Jerusalem sits atop a plateau whose sides must be scaled by pilgrims coming to the Holy City.

He came for a “feast of the Jews,” but which one? The options are Purim in March, Passover in April, Pentecost in May, Tabernacles in October, and Dedication in December. This episode likely occurred during the springtime, as the lame were lying outside in the weather and Jesus referred to the time of harvest earlier (John 4:35). Thus Purim and Passover are the best guesses.

If this feast was Passover, Jesus attended it out of religious obligation. Every Jew within fifteen miles of Jerusalem was legally required to attend Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Our Lord knew the controversy which awaited him, but he came anyway. The healing of a paralyzed man was worth all the trouble it cost him.

Verse 2 continues the narrative: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” John used the present tense, “there is in Jerusalem . . .”, even though he wrote these words long after the Roman destruction of the city in AD 70. He wanted us to experience the reality of this miracle as if it occurred in our time, for it still can.

The Sheep Gate was one of the entrances through the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt by Eliashib the High Priest and his fellow priests during the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:1), more than four centuries earlier. It was likely the entrance through which sheep and lambs were brought from the neighboring fields to the Temple for sacrifice. Through this gate the Lamb of God came to heal a crippled man, as one day he would die for the spiritual healing of our crippled world.

Here lay a “pool” (this word is found only here in the New Testament). It was surrounded by “five covered colonnades.” These colonnades were covered porches called stoa where people gathered (the “Stoics” are named for the fact that they began by meeting on porches like these). The pool in question was trapezoidal in form, 165–220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades on four sides of this partition, and one on it. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pools.

The Crusaders built a church over this pool, with a crypt framed like the five porches and an opening in the floor which descended to the water. This structure is known as the Church of St. Anne; its remains stand today on the northwest corner of Jerusalem near the gate by the sheep market. I’ve seen it, as do most tourists to Jerusalem. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy.” Jesus fulfilled its name this day.

Beside this pool “a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (John 5:3). This was likely not a winter scene, given their exposure to the weather. They were “paralyzed,” withered, atrophied. Why were they there?

Verse 7 supplies the answer: “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.” There is a subterranean spring beneath the pool which bubbles up occasionally, stirring its waters. The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed.

And so later copies of the Greek New Testament supplied this explanation, continuing verse 3: “and they waited for the moving of the waters.” Then a fourth verse: “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.” The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain these words, so biblical scholars are certain they should be omitted from the text. They appeared in the manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Version, which is why these words were included in that version. But no modern translation of the Bible includes them in its text.

Now we meet the suffering man Jesus came to heal: “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). The length of his incapacity proves the fact that it was medically incurable. Jesus did not provide him a medical solution but a miraculous healing.

So, “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (v. 6). Unlike the healing of the nobleman’s son, this miracle was initiated by Jesus himself. The crippled man could not come to Jesus physically, and did not know to ask Jesus to come to him. So Jesus met him at the point of his great need.

But first he asked what seems to us a strange question: “Do you want to get well?” What crippled person wouldn’t want to be healed?

However, Jesus “learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.” This man has spent his adult life and perhaps longer in this condition. He may have become accustomed to living on the donations of others. He may not want to return to the responsibility of an earned income and work to perform. Jesus will only work in our lives with our permission. He always limits himself to our free will.

Where do you need his healing, helping touch today? Jesus knows your pain. In fact, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Jesus is calling to us in our suffering, for he shares it with us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). He promised that he would never leave or forsake us (Matthew 28:20). He hurts as we hurt, and calls to us in the pain of our lives.

But some of us feel that we are beyond his help, that our sins have exempted us from his grace. The world would have said the same of this invalid. In Jesus’ day, popular theology taught that physical illness was proof of spiritual judgment. A person with a physical birth defect, as may have been the case with this man, was under the justice and judgment of God (cf. the disciples’ question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2). And those who experienced suffering for other reasons were judged to be sinners as well.

No self-respecting rabbi would have stopped for this man, but Jesus did. Perhaps you think no one cares about you or your pain today. If we knew your secrets we would reject you; if the world knew your problems, it would turn on you. But not Jesus. He initiated this miracle, as he will yours. He went to this man, as he will come to you. He stands ready to meet us where we need him most.

But we must listen. The Psalmist invites us to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We must set aside our own furious activity, the crush of the calendar and the press of the day’s demands and listen to his voice.

One of the most life-transforming essays I have ever read is Mike Yaconelli’s Lost and Found: My Soul. This late, well-known Christian columnist related a time years ago when he retreated to be alone with God, with this result: “It only took a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover that I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, ‘Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.”

Yaconelli then testifies: “I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.” As he waits for us.

To feel the touch of Jesus, first listen to his voice.

Trust his heart

The invalid replied to Jesus’ question, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (v. 7). He wanted to be well but could not be on his own. He needed help and sought it from our Lord.

Notice how little he asked of Jesus. He believed that he would be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the spring stirred its waters. And so he wanted the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, simply to carry him a few feet into the water. Jesus stood ready to heal his body, and the man instead asked him to help him get wet.

Are we so different? Do we ask for all God can do, or merely what we need for the present moment? Do we limit God’s power in our lives by our lack of faith in his power?

We might object that the crippled man didn’t know who Jesus really was. True, and this ignorance is his defense. But we have no such argument. When we give our need to Jesus, we must trust his heart and expect his best. For that is what he waits to give to us.

Our Lord said to the invalid, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (v. 8). He called the man to do something he had not done for thirty-eight years. He did not carry the man to the water—he healed him so he could walk there himself. He did not offer him a temporary cure or help for the symptoms of his disease—he worked a miracle which would banish this disease from his life forever. He told him to pick up his “mat,” the light pallet on which he had begged for so long.

And he told the invalid to “walk.” He has not moved the muscles of his legs for thirty-eight years. Even if a physician were to cure the cause of his paralysis, perhaps a rupture in the spine or nerves, his muscles would be so atrophied that years of physical rehabilitation would be required by him. But not by Jesus. He did for the man far more than the man asked of him.

Now the divine-human partnership emerges again. Jesus healed the man, but the invalid had to get up with the power given him by God. Jesus restored his body but told him to carry his own mat. Jesus cured his limbs but required the man to use them himself. And when he did, “At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked” (v. 9a).

When we trust our problem into Jesus’ hands, we must always expect the best from him. He will always do as we ask, or something better. We often misunderstand his ways or timing and feel that he will not hear or help us. But he is giving us what is best for us, whether we know it at the moment or not.

Years ago, I was using a razor blade to scrape paint from a window one Saturday morning when one of our small boys happened by. Attracted by the shiny “toy” in my hand, he wanted to play with it and was not happy that I wouldn’t give him what he asked. But of course, no amount of begging or anger would have persuaded me to give him what he wanted.

When we stand with our Father in glory, we’ll see how many times he met our needs and answered our prayers with what we asked. And how often he gave us even more.

Where do you need his touch? Listen to his voice, and then trust his best. As the song says, when you can’t see his hand, trust his heart.


When we pray, God gives us what we ask or something better. Where do you need his touch? Where is a paralytic lying on a mat in your life? Get alone and still with the Father, so that you can hear him call to you by grace. Trust his heart, believing that he will give you what you are praying for unless he can give you even greater blessing. Seek spiritual health, not just temporal happiness. And join God at work, adding your hands to his, touching the spiritual, emotional, and physical paralytics who lie at your side. Believe that he can use you for great Kingdom work, and he will.

I have seen God do things in Cuba that we seldom see him do in America. Why is this?

I was discussing this question with a longtime missionary friend. She pointed out the obvious but often overlooked answer: the Cubans know they need Jesus. They know they need his power, his presence, his encouragement and joy. So they pray with passion and expectation, and God answers.

Mother Teresa was right: “You’ll never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

Following God into an Uncertain Future

Topical Scripture: Joshua 1:1–9

The coronavirus pandemic presents us with challenges unprecedented in a century. Not since the 1918 flu pandemic have we faced a disease with such a global impact on every dimension of our lives.

As we move into these uncharted days, it is vital that we follow the One who knows where we need to go. He sees the future better than we can see the present. If we will follow him, we will discover that his will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

To help us, I’d like us to spend the next several weeks with the book of Joshua. Here the Lord met his people on the edge of the Promised Land and led them where they needed to go. These principles are in God’s word because they will do the same for us.

We’ll begin today with two steps that will enable us to hear our Lord’s voice and follow his will. As we study them, let me ask you to identify your greatest concern about the future.

Faith does not mean that we do not face fears. It means that we know where to face with our fears.

Let’s learn how to face our Father together.

Listen for the call of God (vv. 1–5)

Alexander the Great led his armies by the strength of his single focus and indomitable will. After his death, his generals met to plan their future. To their dismay, they discovered that they had marched off their maps. They were in an unknown location, facing an unknown future. They were not the first, or the last.

Listen in the hard places

So it was for Israel as the book of Joshua opened. Moses had died. This was easily the most traumatic event in the young life of the nation of Israel. He had been the “servant of the Lord” (v. 1), an exalted title given only to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Caleb to this point in Jewish history (Joshua would be added to the list at the end of his life and work; cf. 24:29). Now their mentor, guide, and hero was gone and the future was uncertain at best.

The book of Joshua connects its narrative directly to this crisis. Its first word, translated “after” in the ESV, is “and” in the Hebrew. The narrative continues directly from the end of Deuteronomy and the death of Moses. Perhaps the thirty days of mourning for Moses after his death had now ended (Deuteronomy 34:8). But the crisis facing the nation had not.

It has been calculated that the typical adult faces six crises in their life. Not just the routine problems of daily living, but major issues such as death, divorce, and serious disease. If a person graduates from adolescence without trusting personally in Christ, they are typically open to the gospel only during such times of crises. It is then that Christians who have built relationship with the person can show God’s love in theirs.

It is also in such periods of crisis that we can hear the Lord most clearly. He speaks far more than we are willing to stop and listen. But when we know that we need his word and help, that we have come to the end of our own wisdom, we will listen for his voice with desperation and faith. And we will always hear him speak.

So, whatever your circumstances may be, ask God to use them to bring his word to your heart. And he will.

Expect God to speak to you

In the immediate context of Moses’ death, “the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant . . .” (v. 1b). Joyce Huggett wrote a marvelous book titled The Joy of Listening to God. She’s right—whenever we are still enough to hear God’s Spirit speak to us, the result is joy. Whenever we are yielded to the truth of Scripture, to the words of a sermon or Bible study, to the truth contained in a worship song, to the truth of God revealed through human agents and means, there is joy.

So it was for Joshua, even in the crisis of the moment. So it will be for you. But you must expect God to speak to you, if only you will listen. You must tune the frequency of your spirit to his voice.

Seek his will for the now

God does not reveal himself in five-year strategies. You and I have inherited the Western worldview, with its linear philosophy of history. We like to think of history as a line on a page, progressing logically toward some conclusion. But God knows that this day is the only day which exists. His will is first and foremost for the here and now. He speaks to us in the present, about the present.

Joshua needed to know the next step to take. He didn’t need a long-range plan, but a present-tense guide. Not a map, but a flashlight. God gave him exactly what he needed to know, for the moment he needed to know it.

God gave him the who: “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people” (v. 2a). Not just the leaders of the tribes. Not just the army. Not just the priests. Not just some part of the population. The entire nation intended by God to live west of the Jordan River was now involved in the call and purpose of God.

He gave Joshua the where: “into the land that I am giving” (v. 2b). The Jordan is typically only eighty to one hundred feet wide, and not deep. I have baptized several groups there over the years and had no difficulty wading out into the middle of the slow-moving current. But when the spring rains come, the river can flood its larger bed. Where Joshua and his people would be crossing, the river would be more than a mile wide and a raging torrent.

They didn’t know what the Lord already knew—that they would face an insurmountable obstacle which he would lead them across miraculously. We are called to follow God today and leave tomorrow in his hands. He already knows every step he intends us to take.

Next the Lord gave Joshua the what: they would go “into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel” (v. 2c). God had earlier promised this land to Abraham for his descendants (Genesis 15:18–19) and had renewed his promise to and through Moses (Deuteronomy 11:24–25). Now he would bring it to fulfillment.

Our text continues: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory” (vv. 3–4). The Hebrew tense indicates that the land was already theirs, though it remained to be taken. It already belonged to God, and thus to his heirs. They just had to go and claim it.

God did not give Joshua the long-term plan, but only the immediate next step to take. This is always how we will hear his call. We must be close enough to hear his voice when he calls to us. We are to be faithful to the last word we heard from the Lord. Only then can we hear the next.

Trust his provision for his purpose

God promised them: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (v. 5). To “forsake” meant to abandon, to turn loose of. Imagine a mountain climbing guide, holding the lifeline for a climber who has lost his grip on the mountain. This is precisely our condition spiritually. But our Father will never turn loose of our rope. He will always hold us up until we have climbed to his full purpose and will.

Have you heard the call of God for your life and work? Expect God to speak to you, if only you will listen for his voice. Seek his will for the now, the next step you are to take into his purpose. Trust him to provide for every step of that pilgrimage. Sign a blank check to him. Give him your unconditional commitment to his purpose, whatever it might be.

And you will know what you are to do next in the plan of God for your life.

Choose courageous obedience (vv. 6–9)

The next words Joshua heard from God were a direct command: “Be strong and courageous” (v. 6a). “Be strong” translates a Hebrew word which means to be bound strongly together, to be put together well. To be “courageous” meant to be firm-footed, to take a strong stand, the opposite of shaking or quaking knees.

Why would Joshua need such courage? Because “you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them” (v. 6b). Even Moses did not fulfill this purpose. Their greatest leaders had not brought them to this place of victory. Now Joshua would lead a nation numbering in the millions into hostile territory inhabited by some of the most wicked cultures known to human history. Indeed, he would attempt something so great it was doomed to fail unless God was in it.

What is the secret to such courage? Faithful obedience: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go” (v. 7).

Obedience was and is the prerequisite for divine power and protection. Such obedience would position them to receive the power and provision God intended to give.

So what is the secret to such obedience? Constant communion: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (v. 8a).

“Meditate” in the Hebrew describes a low murmuring sound made by a person contemplating something. We will not simply read the words and leave them on the page, but we will bring them into our hearts and lives.

When you read the word of God, first read its words aloud. Then use all your senses. Imagine yourself in this setting—how it feels to your skin and how it smells, tastes, sounds, and looks. Experience these words fully and sensually. Then ask the Lord for one thing you should do differently because you have spent this time with him in his word. Write down that idea or fact; read it over through the day; ask the Lord to apply it to your unconscious thoughts as well as your intentional decisions.

When you “meditate” on the word of God “day and night,” the result will be “so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (v. 8b). As we commune with God in his truth, we find his help in practicing the faithful obedience which creates courageous strength.

Last, what is the secret to such constant communion? Trusting the presence of God: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (v. 9).

He is “the Lord your God.” Martin Luther believed that the most important single word in the 23rd Psalm is found in its first clause: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Not just the shepherd or even our shepherd, but my shepherd.

Likewise, the Lord is your God. You can go no place that is exempt from his providence and presence. If you will trust him to be present in your life in this and every moment, you can then practice his presence through communion in his word. When you commune with him in his word, you have his guidance to practice faithful obedience. And as you are obedient to his word and will, you will have his strong courage to fulfill that purpose.

As we will see across these weeks, Joshua experienced precisely such strength and courage. He would lead the people to the great military conquest which would create their nation. He would establish them in their Promised Land and make of their roving tribes a permanent and mighty people.

His God will do no less with us.


When this pivotal chapter opened, we found Joshua and the people still mourning the death of their beloved hero and leader. Their future was uncertain in the extreme. Their leadership was unclear, their direction undetermined.

When the chapter ends, the people are one. Joshua is their strong and courageous leader. The people are unified and resolved to follow him into their future. And they will find that future to be as bright as the promises of God.

In these uncertain times, your culture needs Joshua-type Christians today. As we face medical fears and financial challenges, the people you know want to know if you will follow the Lord with your personal obedience and faithful commitment.

They cannot be expected to go further with God than we are willing to lead them. If the people you influence were as close to the Father as you are this moment, would this be a good thing?

Perhaps this text could be as pivotal to your soul as it was for Joshua. The choice is yours.

I Am the Bread of Life

Topical Scripture: John 6:35

The Masters concludes today. The tournament is played on one of the most beautiful and historic golf courses in the world. However, the tournament was cancelled from 1943 to 1945 due to World War II. To assist the war effort, cattle and turkeys were raised on the grounds.

Here are some other surprising facts I discovered this week:

  • Vending machines kill more people than sharks.
  • Cockroaches can live for weeks without their heads until they die of hunger.
  • Humans share 50 percent of our DNA with bananas.
  • Under extreme pressure, diamonds can be made from peanut butter.

I was doubtful about each of these “facts” until I researched them and became convinced by what I read. Of course, the documentation I studied could have been wrong. Or I could have misinterpreted it. Or I could have communicated it incorrectly to you today.

One certainty in life is the reality of doubt.

The renowned historian Will Durant mailed questionnaires about the meaning of life to a number of famous people. After reading their answers, he published them in a chapter he titled, “An Anthology of Doubt” (On the Meaning of Life). Who hasn’t contributed to that topic?

This week we’ll begin a series on faith questions. We begin with questions about our faith itself. What do we do when we doubt our salvation or our relationship with the Lord? How can we help someone else with their doubts?

How to eat the “bread of life”

Our text is built on one of the most famous scenes in Scripture. Moses is a shepherd in the desert when he encounters a bush that is on fire but not being consumed. Here he meets the God of the universe and is told that he will lead the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery.

Moses anticipates the Israelites asking Moses the name of this God he met in the desert. The Lord answers, “I AM WHO I AM.” Then he says, “Say this to the people of Israel: “I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).

“I AM” translates the Hebrew YHWH, sometimes transliterated in English as “Yahweh.” It is God’s personal name for himself. The Hebrew can be translated “the One who was, is, and ever shall be” or “the ever-present God.”

Fast forward to the time of Jesus. This Galilean carpenter has fed the crowd of five thousand (John 6:1–14) and walked on the Sea of Galilee (vv. 16–21). When the crowds gather around him again, he makes this staggering statement: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

Note his first two words: “I am.” This rabbi is laying claim to the personal name of God himself. He is identifying himself as God. And he is using God’s name to explain his essence and ministry.

He does this seven times in John’s Gospel. He calls himself the “bread of life (John 6:35),” the “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), the “door of the sheep” (John 10:7, 9), the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and the “true vine” (John 15:1). We will study each of these in the following weeks.

Jesus’ first “I am” identifies him as the “bread of life,” literally “the bread that gives and sustains life” (Word Biblical Commentary). Clearly, he means spiritual rather than physical life, since he claims that “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He explained further: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).

How do we eat of this “bread”? Billy Graham explained: “This bread satisfies the inner longings and hungers of the human heart. Have you taken of that bread? You must repent of your sins, change your mind, turn your back on sin and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”

When we do this, we will never hunger or thirst for salvation again. Once we have eaten this bread, we never need to eat it again.

Here we find the doctrine of “eternal security,” the theological assertion that those who become Christians cannot lose their salvation. We believe this, not because we can be trusted to hold onto Jesus, but because he holds onto us: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

Nothing in life can separate us from our Savior: “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). Scripture is clear: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Questions about the “bread of life”

Once we have experienced salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose it. But many of us have doubts about such certainty.

What if I don’t feel close to God?

Jesus didn’t tell us how it feels to eat the “bread of life.” Nowhere does the Bible say how it feels to become a Christian. That’s because our feelings are such unreliable indicators of reality. They can be affected by the weather outside or the latest headlines or the pizza we had for supper.

What if I’m not sure I trusted in Jesus?

If you chose to eat a piece of bread for breakfast today, you’d know it. You wouldn’t have to wonder, “Did I eat bread this morning?” It’s like getting married: I’ve met thousands of married couples over the years, but not one of them was unsure of their marital status. If you have ever asked Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and become your Lord, he answered your prayer and you ate the “bread of life.” If you’re not sure you have ever made this decision, the best advice is to be sure, today.

What about sins in my life?

Jesus didn’t promise, “Whoever comes to me shall not sin.” To the contrary, the Bible teaches, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). My sons became my sons when they were born as my sons. They may not want to be my sons, or act like my sons, but nothing they can do can change the fact that they are my sons.

Are there various ways to eat the “bread of life”?

To extend Jesus’ metaphor: there are many ways to eat bread. You can bake it, or fry it, or grill it. You can make it into a loaf, or a breadstick, or a muffin. So long as it contains the necessary ingredients to be bread, the way it is made and consumed is secondary.

So it is with trusting Christ as your Lord and Savior. Some people do this as a one-time response to a gospel sermon and invitation, such as at a Billy Graham event. Others do this through a confirmation process in their church. Some do it gradually, while others do it abruptly. The important thing is to know that you have eaten this “bread,” that you have asked Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Lord. If you have, you have eternal life.

Here’s the bottom line: once you’ve eaten a piece of bread, you cannot “uneat” it. You cannot go back and undo history. If you asked Jesus to become your Savior and Lord, he answered your prayer and gave you eternal life.

If you know you have made Christ your Lord but still face doubts about your salvation, try my favorite prayer in the Bible. After a father pleads with Jesus to heal his demon-possessed boy, Jesus says, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). And the father exclaims, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24). You can pray that prayer today, and Jesus will hear you and help you.

Gratitude for the “bread of life”

If you have eaten of the “bread of life,” how should you respond today?

One: Share it with others.

My favorite definition of evangelism is “beggars telling beggars where they found bread.” We did nothing to earn or deserve what we have been given. But we can share with others what we have received.

Billy Graham: “A doctor in America said some time ago that more people die of loneliness and guilt and depression and insecurity and heart hunger than die of physical starvation. Bread in the Bible is the symbol of spiritual life. People all over the world are the same; they have an inborn hunger for something, and that something is Christ. People cannot be satisfied with anything less than Christ.”

When you share your faith with others, you are not imposing “your truth” on them. Rather, you are giving them what they need most, in this life and in eternity.

Two: Serve in gratitude for grace.

When I lead study tours to Israel, we usually visit an area known as the Upper Room. This is a Crusader-era building located in the vicinity of the home where Jesus took the Last Supper with his disciples.

One reason the Crusaders built their room here is that they found a very interesting sculpture in the area. It depicts a mother pelican with two baby pelicans, one on each side. The babies are eating the flesh of their mother. It was believed that in times of extreme drought and deprivation, a mother pelican would give her flesh and blood to her young. This became an early symbol of the Lord’s Supper.

What this sculpture depicts in metaphor, Jesus did in reality. He literally made his body our spiritual bread. How can we not serve him in gratitude for such grace?


Expect to face doubts about your salvation. The stronger your faith, the more likely you will be subjected to such attacks, intended by the enemy to paralyze and cripple your faith and prevent your service to God. The stronger your faith, the greater a threat you are to the enemy. Doubts sometimes come not because our faith is weak, but because it is strong.

No circumstances or events can guarantee our salvation. It takes as much faith to believe I am a Christian today as it did to become one four decades ago. I still haven’t seen God or proven my salvation in a test tube.

Either the Bible is true, or it is false. Either God keeps his word, or he does not. John 3:16 promises that whoever believes in Jesus “should not perish but have eternal life.” Present tense, right now.

You cannot lose your salvation, for you are already the immortal child of your Father in heaven. This is the assurance of God.

I Am the True Vine

Topical Scripture: John 6:35

You and I live in a culture that separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world.” We learned this heresy from the ancient Greeks, who had transactional relationships with their gods.

They offered their gods what their deities wanted in order to get what they wanted. But these were mean, capricious gods. You didn’t want a personal, intimate relationship with them. You made offerings to placate them, then went on your way.

The Romans adopted this approach to religion. When Christianity spread into the larger Roman world, many of its followers adopted the same mindset.

They eventually invented the concept of “clergy,” separating the religions leaders from everyone else. Then they constructed buildings so the clergy would have a place to work while everyone else watched. Then they developed a monastic mindset that measures spirituality by time spent in the building.

All the while, the “real world” outside the church recognized none of these values. You had to go along to get along. You had to make a living to make a life. So, you went to church on Sunday to please God, hoping he would bless you on Monday.

None of this is what Jesus intended for his followers. In our last “I Am,” he offers a metaphor that explodes our Western separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular.” Let’s see what he taught and why it matters so much to our souls today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Our text is part of Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” with his disciples. The “I am” he states is simple and profound: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). “I am” is emphatic in the Greek. The definite article, “the true vine,” shows that he is the one and only. But how is he a “vine”?

Our Lord and his disciples have probably turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. Here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter. The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord.

To what vine are you attached today?

What is spiritual fruit?

It’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here is the “fruit” God inspects.

One: Our lives glorify God. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: We have the joy of Jesus. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: We reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16). A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine: “apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went.

I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

You may not have the human ability to love all those God loves. There may be people in your family, community, or church whose words or actions have hurt you. You may find it difficult if not impossible to forgive. But your Father will help you. If you will abide in him, his Spirit will give you the grace to give others. He will lift the burden of your pain, heal the wounds of your betrayal, calm the fears of your frustration. He will love his people through you.


Your culture wants you to separate soul and body, Sunday and Monday. Your Lord wants you to abide continually in his presence in dependence, prayer, and obedience.

The choice is yours. But know this: the only way you and I will impact our lost world is by abiding in Jesus. The only way we can speak words that change lives is if he speaks through us. The only way we can love those who do not love us or our Lord is with his love.

But when we abide in him, he works in us and through us. And the world cannot be the same.

Many years ago, my church in Midland, Texas invited a retired Baptist missionary to Vietnam to speak to our annual missions banquet. He told a story I’ll never forget.

It had been a difficult day. People were not responsive to his work; churches were struggling; his car had broken down and he had to ride around town in a beat-up taxi. The heat was oppressive. He got home that evening to discover that a thief had stolen all his family’s furniture and belongings, leaving only their sofa in the middle of the living room.

The missionary collapsed on that couch in total frustration and prayed, “God, I can’t do it any longer. I don’t love these people. You have to get me out of here. I don’t love the Vietnamese anymore.” He sat for hours on that couch, praying and crying, angry and bitter. Around 2:00 in the morning, the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese. You’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

If you abide in the vine this week, someone will see your Father’s love in yours. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.