Angry? Try Singing Together.

"Then I heard voices speak, entreating there
The Lamb of God who takes our sins away
For peace and mercy; this was all their prayer,

For Agnus Dei did they still begin,
So that one speech, one measure kept they all,
And perfect concord seemed to fold them in.

"Master," said I, "these voices I hear call
Are spirits?" "Thou are right," said he, "they go
Loosening the knot of wrath that held them thrall."

-Dante's Purgatorio

As Dante and Virgil pass into the third cornice of Purgatory, they stagger uphill through a blinding smoke. Feeling gingerly forward, Dante and his guide are first struck not by the sight but the sound penetrating the black haze:


A unified prayer.

Repentant sinners singing to the Lamb of God.

The third cornice is the place of the wrathful. And yet, voices that were once raised clamorously now sweetly join with “perfect concord” in gentle prayer.

In their worldly lives, these wrathful souls were blinded by rage. Now they endure the purging effect of a blanketing fog. However, in this God-given blindness they no longer pass their days in malice, “hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). As one soul explains to Dante, the blindness has awakened a koinonia of the ear: “Hearing instead of sight shall neighbor us.”

Anger has been overcome through listening.

Of course, James connects these concepts together in his Epistle: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). However, reading Purgatorio is the first time that I have considered how effective congregational singing is in “loosening the knot of wrath” that holds us in thrall.

Singing together requires listening. We have to listen to the rhythm of our neighbor’s voices, the pace, the tune, the words, so that we move together, swell together, start together, stop together. As the gathered people, we achieve “perfect concord” and “one speech” only as we tune our ears so that “one measure” keep we all.

Moreover, as the people of God, we must tune our hearts in one accord if we are to pray as a unified people. When we give our ears to one another, our hearts are soon to follow.

And this is the perceptive truth Dante has unravelled. As our ears are intently listening to our neighbors, as we endeavor in melodious prayer to Agnus Dei, the knot of wrath loosens. Tight anger against our neighbors, our spouses, our children, our co-workers, our bosses, our nation, slowly slackens.

And where does it start?

“Hearing instead of sight shall neighbor us.”

(photo credit)

Farewell to the Farm: A Personal Note

“My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.”

Karen Blixen (1885-1962) begins the chapter “Hard Times” with a statement of surrender. This unyielding truth had brought a life both foreign and familiar, beautiful and dangerous, wearisome yet rewarding to a punctilious end. Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa (1937) does not wrap up at the end; it unravels. The farm, friends, efforts, and dreams woven into the landscape of the Ngong Hills near Nairobi, Kenya, are left a jumbled heap on the floor.

As she retells it, the truth becomes obvious in hindsight. And yet, the clarity does not make the truth easier to stomach–or the loss less painful. (I think you know where I’m headed with this piece.)

Several elements were outside of Blixen’s control. The elevation of her coffee grove meant late frosts killed young berries each year, hamstringing their production. The farm barely survived in years of frequent rain, and a pair of years with severe drought “were disastrous to the farm.” During the same time, the market price for coffee fell. After seventeen hard years of pouring her life into the soil, shareholders back home in Denmark wrote they would have to sell the farm.

In response, Blixen grit her teeth: “I thought of many devices for the salvation of the farm.” She tried planting flax to supplement her coffee earnings. She explained her scheme to a Belgian farmer. His response: “Ça, madame, c’est impossible!” She planted 150 acres anyways. With satisfaction, she watched the greasy, sky-blue fibers shoot up from the ground. However, dismay set in when processing the product proved too difficult: “So my flax-growing was no success.”

She tried spreading manure around the coffee trees to increase production. Nothing. She thought of growing lumber, but that would supply no immediate relief. She tried her hand at keeping cattle and running a dairy. All these scramblings and stunted starts formed the tangled mess of her final years on the farm.

“It is a heavy burden to carry a farm on you.”

Blixen took to wandering about the farm at night, a ghost haunting her dying landscape. Her manager Farah warned her about predators that had been spotted close to the house at night: “But I was too sad to get any idea of leopards into my mind.” The numbness of denial had set into her soul. Just before the coffee harvest, she left on a trip clinging to false hope that upon her return she might be surprised by their take. Her manager met her on her return. They avoided the topic all afternoon, but in the late evening she asked how many tons of coffee they had managed to pick. “Swallowing his sorrow, he said: ‘Forty tons, Memsahib.’ At that I knew that we could not carry on.”

That same year, locusts swept through the African continent. Towns sent runners to warn the next farmers of imminent attack. In the course of time, the messengers of doom came running up Blixen’s drive. She shrugged, “I have been told that many times…but I have seen nothing in them. Perhaps it is not so bad as people tell.” The messenger responded, “Turn round kindly, Madam.”

Blixen beheld what looked like a long stretch of smoke, a town burning.

“What is that?”


The locusts descended. Their sheer weight broke the limbs from her coffee trees. They destroyed her garden, eating all vegetation, fruits, and flowers. She describes how the hungry horde violated her farm: “They whir against your face, they get into your collar and your sleeves and shoes. The rush round you makes you giddy and fills you with a particular sickening rage and despair…”

The grasshoppers laid eggs in the soil. The next year when the rain came down, the grasshoppers came up. Again.

In the end, the money ran out, and Blixen had to sell the farm to a corporation. The new owners didn’t plan to farm the land anymore. They would pave over her seventeen years of labor, sweat, and toil with roads and parcel the land for development.

It all felt like a terrible nightmare; surely she would awake soon: “During these months, I formed in my own mind a program, or a system of strategy, against destiny…Lose [the farm], I thought, I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?”

“In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going.”

This past Thursday, I had to choke back tears repeatedly. I was teaching Blixen’s wistful tragedy in my World Lit class even as I was living my own. Her struggles, the inevitability of her failure, and the seeming futility of all her efforts hit way too close to home. The dam of emotions broke as I closed our class in prayer. I was shaking.

Lose the farm? I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?

And yet it has. After nine years of toiling in the fields of Newberry County, the Lord has refused to let me stay. Moreover, it seems he is determined–at present–to prevent me from entering another field of vocational ministry.

So many seeds planted. So much fertilizer slung. So many efforts, half-starts, and stunted endeavors. Looking back, it feels like I was throwing rocks against the wall of inevitability: “My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.

A little too high. These are the challenges that are the most frustrating. The ones that feel just barely out of reach. God has been teaching me a painful lesson the past several years: “With God nothing is impossible–but with Chad, some things are.”

We hear about the ministers who ride off in a blaze of glory or the ones who fall like lightning from heaven. We posterize the stories of those who plant multiple church campuses, baptize thousands, write opuses, and build networks of international missions. The pastors who commit grievous sin, abuse, or adultery thus forfeiting burgeoning ministries find their way into the headlines too.

But where’s the story of the pastor who is faithful–and still fails?

I’m still trying to figure out that one.

It seems our natural inclination is to dig deeper: He must have done something wrong. There must be some hidden problem. I’ve thought the same. I suspect the reason we sow these seeds of doubt is that we want to deny the existence of this category altogether: Doing everything right, and still failing.

My point is not that I have done everything right in ministry–just ask literally anyone!–but that we want to believe that if we always do the right thing, we will always succeed. Build the right ministry structures, craft the right liturgies, hold to the right confessions, attract the right families, and preach the right style of sermons, and we cannot fail.

The old hymn is true: “His kingdom cannot fail.” But mine might. The author of Hebrews talks about faithful men and women being stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the edge of the sword. Sounds like losing. Sounds a lot like failure–at least in the short-term. But obviously, that won’t happen to me, we comfort ourselves.

“In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going.” Perhaps it is God’s grace that has prevented me from succumbing to defeatism all these years–or a bull-headed personality–but I have finally come to that place of surrender.

This morning, I was reading the story of the rich young ruler. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” If you know the story, Jesus baits the young man by enumerating several of the Ten Commandments. The young man responds, “I’ve kept them all–what else?” Jesus’s response is terrifying: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

My terrifying moment has come. If I am truly to follow him, I must sell the treasure I have clung to these past nine years: pastoral ministry.

Pray for me to be filled with gratitude for this season. There is no greater joy than to sell everything to follow Jesus. And he has led our family to a place where I believe we will be deeply cared for this next year.

I pray the Lord will be kind to me one day and allow me the privilege of returning to the farm–to vocational ministry. As I follow him, perhaps what sounds a lot like “No” today, in hindsight, will turn out to have been “Not yet.”

If you have been a part of our ministry at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, we would love to see one of our final two Sundays:

May 23 or May 30 @ 11am 3240 College Street, Newberry, SC.

The Tabernacle Is a Parable

“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

–Hebrews 8:13

As Americans living in a consumer-driven society, we understand the author of Hebrews intuitively. Our culture thrives on making the old obsolete by speaking of the new. It doesn’t matter what we are talking about—clothes, laptops, phones, movies, restaurants—the moment we hear that there is a new one, the old one begins to feel obsolete and worn out.

In Chapter 8, the author of Hebrews notes God’s pointed use in Jeremiah 31 of the word new. By implication, that tells us all we need to know about what came before–old.

What purpose then does the Old Covenant serve? Specifically, what was the purpose of the Old Testament tabernacle with its regulations and worship and priests and sacrifices and furniture and curtains and so on—if God knew he was just going to make it all obsolete when Jesus came? 

The First Covenant teaches us to long for the Second. The Law is our teacher. It instructs us not to long for the Law and all of its trappings but to long for the Gospel. Hebrews 9 expounds on this truth using three words to explain the purpose of the Old Covenant tabernacle.

The tent is a parable.

Our author begins, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). I’m not sure how familiar you are with worship in the Old Testament, but God instructed Moses to erect a tent with two sections: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Between these sections was a giant curtain. Day by day, the priests went into the first section, the Holy Place, but they could never go through the curtain into the second part, the Most Holy Place, in which was the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy-seat, and the glory cloud of YHWH.

Our author doesn’t go into great detail about these things, so we won’t either, but in verses 8 and 9, he says something interesting: “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing  (which is symbolic for the present age).” What verse 9 literally says is, “which is a parable” (ἥτις παραβολὴ). The tent is a parable.

Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Lost Coin, Parable of the Fig Tree, Parable of the Mustard Seed. What is a parable? A parable is a visual aid to help us understand a spiritual reality. A parable shows us what something is like. The author of Hebrews is telling us that the two sections of the tent are showing us what the First and Second Covenants are like. It’s a parable–a visual aid to feed our longing for the Second Covenant.

Let’s say you’ve got an iPhone 11. It’s amazing! It’s so great! So powerful! But then Apple has a big event where they announce, “iPhone 12 now exists!” The moment you hear these words, you know that however great your iPhone 11 is, it’s second best.

Now consider the priests. You’re a Levitical priest! Amazing! You get to go into the Holy Place. So great! But also, a Most Holy Place also exists. The moment you see that curtain and know that something called the Most Holy Place is behind it, no matter how great the Holy Place is, it’s second best.

As a consumer, You may never have seen the iPhone 12, but simply knowing it exists tells you your iPhone 11 is old news. As a priest, you may never have seen the Most Holy Place, but simply knowing it exists behind that curtain tells you that your Holy Place is old news–and you know that you want to go in. 

It’s a parable. As great as the first section, the Holy Place, is, knowing that behind the curtain is something called the Most Holy Place makes you long for the second. As good and holy as the Law was, it’s not the Most Holy Place. In Second Covenant, the New Covenant, that’s where the presence of God is–that’s where we want to be. 

The tent is an imitation.         

The first teaches us to long for the second. A second word appears in verse 23: “It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Hebrews calls the earthly tent a pattern of the things in heaven–or more exactly, an imitation (ὑποδείγματα).

These days, to call something an imitation implies it is substandard. In countries that don’t honor trademarks, you can find some fun imitations. I saw online a pair of Mikes for sale. In a neighborhood overseas you could eat at Pizza Huh? or KFG or grab a latte at Sunbucks Coffee.

Here in America you will find all kinds of imitation flavors in the baking aisle. What is the purpose of imitation vanilla? It’s meant to taste like the real thing. But if you had both imitation vanilla and real Madagascar Vanilla Bean extract in your cabinet, which one would you reach for?

Once a year, the Old Testament people got a foretaste, a picture of what Jesus would one day do. On the day of Atonement, one man would pass through the curtain into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place carrying the blood of a bull and goat to take away the sins of the people. Question: Did it take away the sins of the people? Of course not. It was an imitation. It only tasted like the real thing. But that little taste in the first was meant to make us long for the second.

The tent is a copy.  

Everything about the first earthly tent was meant to make us long for the second heavenly tent. The author of Hebrews employs one final word of explanation in verse 24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The earthly tent was a copy of the true things.

The difference between the first and the second is the difference between seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and visiting the Grand Canyon. Seeing the picture is no substitute for actually being there. In fact, the copy only makes us long to see the real thing.

The first makes us long for the second by serving as a parable, imitation, and a copy. The Old Covenant with its earthly tent, high priest, sacrifices, and worship arouses in us a desire for the New Covenant with its heavenly tent, High Priest, eternal sacrifice, and worship. When the New appeared in Christ, the Old was pleased to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30).

(photo credit)

Books Are Friends

“Books are remote but reliable friends.”

-Victor Hugo

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Books are that kind of friend. Books are always there, waiting to be opened, waiting to be read. A good book sticks closer than a brother. A great book is not merely read—it reads us. Those are the kind of books Victor Hugo is talking about.

Books are remote friends. They are outside of us. Other. We need books that come from distance places, distant times, and distance worlds. Friendly books are the ones that are different from us. Their value lies in how foreign they feel. A book that flatters us is no friend; we need confrontation from differing perspectives to grow: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

Books are also reliable friends. King Solomon writes, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Great books never leave us. Their lines return to the reader in times of adversity and triumph. They reward the one who pores over them with treasures anew. Their stories and characters leech into our bones. They become the metaphors that shape our imaginations. 

Virgil’s Aeneid, Danté’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Hugo’s Les Misérables–classics like these have befriended men and women for centuries. They are remote enough to draw us out of our parochialism by speaking to us from foreign cultures, languages, and eras. But they have proven to be reliable companions that push us toward the truth, raise questions about life and existence, and sometimes just provide a laugh in hard times.

Ultimately, it is the essence of the book that suited it so perfectly to special revelation. God, our remote but reliable Friend, comes to us in the Scriptures. He is both transcendent and imminent, both Other and Immanuel. And he comes to meet us in the reliable Word. The pages of Scripture are not merely metaphors but history. Not merely questions, but answers. Not merely an attempt at the truth, but Truth itself.

Many of the qualities we love about the Bible–many of the qualities we love about great books–are the same qualities that make a good friend. Spending more time with great books might make you a better friend. Spending time with the Bible surely will.

Make a friend. Read a book. Then go be that kind of friend.

The Problem with Audiobooks

Kids love audiobooks. Heck, parents love audiobooks! Our family has enjoyed listening to entertaining renditions of Mr. Popper’s Penguins and My Father’s Dragon on long car rides up the East coast. Many commuters have found audiobooks to be a handy way to redeem the time. Who can say no to a good audiobook?

The Read-Aloud Revival championed by Sarah MacKenzie has brought to light the many benefits of hearing stories and books in the home. Shared books inspire, cultivate relational warmth, and promote learning. In fact, children can comprehend advanced concepts through aural learning long before they can decode them phonetically on the page. Psychologists have found that babies and toddlers who hear more words in the home are at an advantage when they become school-aged.

Moreover, audiobooks provide a convenient compromise for parents who know their kids should read but for one reason or another won’t read. Kids who refuse to sit still and read a book are often willing to listen to a book while they draw, play legos, workout, or lay in bed.

Audiobooks end the fight over reading. Parents are happy. Kids are happy.

After all, whether your child listens to a book or reads it is really immaterial, right? What matters are the stories, the ideas, the concepts. Whether it’s seen or heard doesn’t really matter, does it?

Books and Audiobooks Are Not the Same.

I hate to throw a wrench in the works, but not all mediums are created equal. Tell me you haven’t said this before: “The movie was good, but not as good as the book.” There is a difference between books and movies, even if they are communicating the same story. This is because they are two different forms of media. There is a difference between reading a new article about genocide and seeing a photograph of the mass grave. Media are not one-to-one replacements for one another.

The same is true for books and audiobooks. Each have their benefits and disadvantages, but it would be unfortunate to assume they are essentially identical. Well-intentioned as they may be, many parents are operating under this false equivalence. We assume, or at least hope, the same educational benefits come from hearing and reading.

While audiobooks can be a great piece in the educational growth of students, there are at least three vital areas where audiobooks cannot duplicate the benefit of reading visual text.

Spelling and Vocabulary.

In my experience as a high school English teacher, students who rarely read physical books often turn out to be poor spellers. Some of this is probably due to the fact that they never mastered decoding to begin with–which might explain why they began to favor audiobooks early on. However, I would guess more of it has to do with the fact that they have a very limited visual memory.

We don’t realize it, but over years and years of reading, we subconsciously build a sight-word bank. When you send an email at work or type a tweet, I would bet you don’t think about the phonetic syllables of a single word you use. That’s because you have memorized the spellings of thousands of words from your encounters with the English language on the printed page.

Students who rarely read have infrequent visual encounters with words. The effect is cumulative and debilitating. Without years of regularly seeing text on a page they will have a limited bank of sight words. When it comes time to write papers, they will be clueless as to how to spell even basic words. Those who can decode will do their best to sound out words, but writing will be an absolute slog. Imagine: To write a basic five-paragraph essay a high schooler not only has to wrestle with complex ideas but also has to struggle for the correct spelling of every other word they want to use in composing those thoughts. Absolute torture.

A small sight-word bank will also lead to a limited writing vocabulary. Students will favor words they know how to spell over those they don’t. Even if a student has an extensive speaking vocabulary, never having seen words spelled on a page will discourage them from incorporating more complex words into their writing. While audiobooks may be the easy short-term option, good spellers are fashioned by years regularly spent with the printed word.

Syntax and Structure.

There are certain lessons I would rather not have to teach in English class: how to write a bibliography, the proper use of commas, capitalization rules. While these structured lessons are necessary, many of these concepts are caught more than taught. Students learn a language’s punctuation, syntax, and structure simply from seeing it in action.

A student knows whether a space goes before a period because she’s seen tens of thousands of sentences in books. She intuitively understands how to punctuate dialogue because she sees it all the time in her novels. She knows how a semicolon and colon function. It’s second-nature that the title of a book should be italicized and capitalized. She doesn’t know how she knows it. She just does.

There are certain questions students who read never have to ask themselves: Do I indent a paragraph? Do I capitalize the first letter of the sentence? Does the period go inside or outside of the quotation marks? They pick up these rules as they read. In-class teaching only reinforces what they already know.

Students who heavily favor audiobooks will struggle with syntax and punctuation when they do their own English compositions simply because they don’t have much experience watching the experts do it. It would be like setting your high schooler loose in the kitchen who has never seen, tasted, or smelled sofrito. Something may end up on the plate–but I’m not going to want to eat it.

Active Learning.

There’s a reason why your kids don’t fight you about audiobooks. They are easier than books. That’s because listening is a passive activity while reading is an active one. In a child’s education, there should be ample space given to both passive and active learning. Students should both hear stories aloud and read them on the page, watch documentaries and create their own WWII collages, read poetry and compose their own rhymes, learn about great paintings and try their own hand with a brush.

There is an imbalance, however, when a student’s only diet of text comes through passive learning. Often, phonetic decoding is the first hurdle for grade school children. Audiobooks can present a tempting alternative, especially when it feels like your student is falling behind content-wise. However, struggle should not be seen as something to avoid in education but as a part of the growth–both for teachers and students! Inasmuch as read-alouds cultivate relationships, the struggle to overcome educational hardships together is also a God-given opportunity to grow as a family.

Give the Gift of Literacy.

The goal for our students is literacy, the ability to read and write. While audiobooks have many benefits—especially when used in conjunction with books—they are unable to teach basic literacy on their own. Students cannot learn to read or write by listening to audiobooks. Literacy requires the written word.

Literacy is a precious gift. In the narrative of his own life, Frederick Douglass recounts how learning to read and write were the key to his freedom. His mistress began to teach him the ABCs but when his master found out, he put a quick end to it. Douglass writes,

“The very decided manner with which [my master] spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”

At his own peril, Douglass learned to read and write through glances stolen over the shoulders of white boys, moments spent with tattered bits of newspaper, and stubs of stolen chalk. The zeal with which his master guarded the printed word only strengthened his resolve to gain mastery of it himself.

Even as we take advantage of the many benefits of audiobooks, particularly as a secondary reinforcement, may we as parents and teachers encourage our students through hardship and hurdles to take firm hold of the treasure that is literacy.

Ivan Ilych and the Middle-Class Avoidance of Death

“What do you want?”

There are certain questions that cut straight to the core. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid such questions, filling the silence with noise, Netflix, friends, busyness, work. We cope with the uncomfortable seriousness of these eternal questions with humor and sarcasm. In the end, it’s avoidance. We don’t like to sit with these kinds of inquiries long enough for them to do their work.

We are afraid of what might be unearthed.

The Russians used to call these cursed questions. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) unravels the tale of a man forced to confront the meaninglessness of his life pursuits by a minor injury that results in a painful, drawn-out death.

Resourceful, clever, and well-bred, Ivan was always able to avoid crises in his workplace, marriage, finances, and relationships—that is, until death showed up at his doorstep. The comfort and ease provided by a middle-class lifestyle shielded him from ever having to wrestle with questions like, “Why do I exist? What is my purpose? What do I want? Does any of this matter? What will happen when I die?”

Tolstoy’s novella is a crisis moment for anyone who reads it. George Gibian explains, “Tolstoy believed that facing a crisis was necessary, even desirable, if a person was to arrive at a genuine understanding of what he or she wanted to achieve in life. [Men] have a need to confront extreme situations in order to discover what is truly important and what is not.”

Tossing in agony during his waning hours, Ivan’s head echoes, “What do you want? What do you want?”

Angry with himself, he finally answers: “What do I want? To live and not to suffer.” 

“To live? How?”

“Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.”

This honesty–that the greatest yearning of his soul is for a comfortable life–sends Ilych into a tailspin.

His life had been filled with pleasant dinner parties, games, polite dalliances, fashionable clothing, a tolerable marriage, long work hours, and a big house. He had gotten everything he wanted.

But what is the value of a soul that longs for nothing greater than comfort? Ease? A life devoid of suffering? Suddenly, all the greatest joys of his comfortable life–the fun, the admirable career, the trendy house, the pleasant relationships–now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial.

“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have,” it suddenly occurs to him.

Ought. That’s a hard word. Is there an ought to living? Ought implies there is a right and a wrong way to live. Ivan’s mind races: “What if my whole life has really been wrong?”

No more pleasantries. No more distractions. No more busyness or games or conversation or entertainment. Death has a way of forcing Ivan to finally confront this cursed question.

Ivan’s life was one big avoidance. Nice meals with friends, the kitchen remodel, the new furniture, the promotions–they were all just fancy wallpaper over a decaying soul. Ivan Ilych’s comfortable middle-class life was a giant charade orchestrated to help him ignore the existence of death.

The way we answer the question “What do I want?” reveals more about us than we’d like–which is why we, like Ivan, surround ourselves with endless distractions to avoid such cursed questions. What kind of person wants ease as his supreme desire? Could it be that a life whose chief end is to avoid suffering is a life wasted?

Unfortunately, Ivan’s adept ability to sidestep every possible crisis in his life and maintain a safe, comfortable status quo means that he has never been forced to wrestle with the meaning of life until it’s too late. It seems that Tolstoy would have us pity Ilych. Moreover, we would do well to heed his warning: Death, the Great Crisis, comes for us whether we have ignored its existence our whole lives or not.

Tolstoy means to infect our minds with this thought: “Maybe I am not living as I ought to be…” To live and not to suffer–is that really it for you? To live well and pleasantly–is that your purpose? What ought is steering your life?

(photo credit)

What Feels Like Suffering Is Your Salvation

There are many reasons we drift.




And pain. If you’ve had kids, you know that one way babies deal with pain is by drifting off to sleep. Sometimes, we deal with pain and suffering the same way.

The author of Hebrews knows that. That’s why, when he’s addressing “those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14), he pauses mid-sermon to warn us, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb 2:1). 

It’s sad, but often we turn our brains off when we hear the word salvation: “Oh yeah, salvation. The cross, Jesus, etc. etc. I know it all by heart. Wake me up when you get to something that’s actually going to help me in my struggles, in my suffering, in my daily life.”

But we cannot drift away, because the preacher has something intensely practical to tell us: What feels like suffering is actually salvation. Suffering–being brought low spiritually, physically, emotionally, in every way–is the means by which God saves us.

What feels like suffering is actually salvation.”

How can this be?

Our salvation is wrapped up in the fate of one particular man: Jesus Christ.

When your star quarterback goes down after a hard tackle, everyone holds their breath–because the fate of the team hangs in the balance. And, when you see him lifted up from the turf, waving to the fans and running to the sideline, you breathe a sigh of relief. Why? Because the captain is up, and the team’s fate is secure.

When it comes to what he suffered, Christ our Captain went down–hard (Heb 2:10). Crucified. Buried in the ground. And the whole cosmos held its breath. The fate of the universe, the fate of those who were to inherit salvation–our fate–hung on our Captain. But he got back up. God raised him up forever.

What is important to realize is that this suffering was not a detour in the plan of salvation. The preacher tells us in Hebrews 2:9, “Jesus, the son of man, was crowned with glory and honor because of his suffering.” Suffering made Jesus our glorious King. This is what was foretold hundreds of years before in Psalm 8. The king who would rule over every created thing, to whom God had planned to subject the entire universe, would wear a crown of suffering.

On that dark Friday, what the Roman soldiers meant as humiliation, God meant as exaltation. When they put a crown of thorns on his head, when they put a robe on his shoulders and a staff in his hand, when they bowed down and mocked him in salute, when they beat him, whipped him, stripped him, nailed him to a cross and suspended his dying body between heaven and earth, they meant to lay him low.

But that moment of intense humiliation and suffering was his coronation ceremony.

We do not look away from the cross. The head of Christ beams with glory and honor because of his suffering. The truth is posted above him for all who have eyes to see: King of the Jews. He did not become king after the suffering of death–but because of it. He was made for a short while a little lower than the angels because the cross was where he collected his crown (Heb 2:9).

Brothers and sisters, the same is true for us. God has foreordained before the foundation of the world that you and I should rule the cosmos with Christ. We are “those who are to inherit salvation.” But for a little while, we have to stoop below the angels. For a little while, we have to endure suffering.


Because we have to stoop to pick up our crown.

“For a little while.” It’s not forever. When we come through the other side, when we emerge from the grave, we will be crowned with Christ because of our suffering–not despite it. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17—“[We are] fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

I don’t know what temptations you are facing today. Tempted to apathy. Tempted to doubt. Tempted to despair. Tempted to take matters into your own hands. Tempted to give up. Tempted to drift away.

Brothers and sisters, do not let suffering cause you to drift away. Christ is proof. However you may feel today, know this much is true: What feels like suffering is actually your salvation.

If you’d like to hear the whole sermon click here.

(photo credit)