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Why Do Missionaries Get Depressed?

It comes as a surprise to many to find out that some of their heroes of the faith, overseas missionaries, go through difficulties in their emotional and mental health. But when you think about the added stress of raising your family in a new country, along with the challenge of sharing the gospel among the unreached, should we really be surprised?

Below are just a few reasons that missionaries are especially prone to depression, and, in the conclusion, I’ll share some of the ways that you can help missionaries that you know.

1. Missionaries want to change the world.

One of the ironies of depression is that high expectations can only make depression worse, and missionaries often have sky-high expectations. As a teenager, I remember reading the stories of Bruce Olson, Adoniram Judson, and Don Richardson, and thinking, “What greater privilege could there be, than to take the gospel and the Bible to a people who never in human history have heard it before?”

Wanting to change the world is only half of the equation. Missionaries have to put the rubber to the road by putting practical steps into place that start with bridging culture, learning language, and sharing life relentlessly. This is no small task for a set of visionaries, idealists and discoverers that often arrive to the mission field bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—not to mention twenty-something. Often a missionary’s first term overseas is simply a time of adjusting expectations, of reining in what they can’t do and learning what they can.

2. Missionaries have unique health challenges.

Anyone that emigrates will have health and diet challenges that come from the new environment. And missionaries are often sent to the places of greatest need, which can mean health care is scarce or poor in quality. Even if there is good health care, they have to learn a new medical system. For some missionaries I know, they are the health care—there is no hospital for miles around, and the only medicine is what they bring in.

What we gain in the excitement of travel we lose in health and hygiene obstacles. I have eaten from a roasted goat along with half-a-dozen Arab men, none of whom used utensils. I have been quarantined on Air France because they thought I was at risk for MERS. I have been to a gym that had a “communal water cup” that everyone used. Since becoming missionaries, my wife and I have had diarrhea on five different continents. I have been to the ER with a poison ivy rash that was not only unknown to the pharmacist, it was impossible to even get in that country because that plant doesn’t grow there.

Depression tends to correlate with a host of other health problems; diabetes and depression, for example, can cause each other. That means that if you have diabetes, you are more likely to fall into depression, and if you are depressed, you are more likely to get diabetes. So it’s no wonder that, along with all the other health challenges of living overseas, come challenges to a believer’s mental, social, and emotional health.

3. Missionaries share a prophetic calling.

Have you ever noticed that the prophets of the Bible were not a particularly cheery lot? The Bible is realistic in its portraits of human character. Moses interceded intensely for the entire nation, placing his own life on the line (Ex. 32:1-14). Jeremiah was nicknamed the weeping prophet. Joel commanded the priests to “weep between the porch and the altar” (Joel 2:17).

In biblical narratives, prophetic success is almost as bad as failure. After the great victory at Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed that he might die because of the threats and isolation that success had brought on him (1 Kings 19:4). Jonah was dragged by God to Nineveh, and when his message had succeeded, he became suicidal (Jonah 4:3).

Other examples of emotional hardship in the Bible are directly connected to calling. As part of his missionary consecration, Ezekiel was commanded not to grieve the loss of his wife (Ezek. 24:16). Hosea was commanded to marry an unfaithful woman as a demonstration of God’s overwhelming faithfulness. Abraham left behind his pagan family in Ur, and his family was nearly torn apart when God came down to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

All of the above are examples of the cost of the prophetic calling. Jesus himself was called “a man of sorrows,” and this emotional cost was not limited to his atoning work on the cross. His life of holiness led him to grief at his hearers’ hardness of heart (Mark 3:5), anger at religious hypocrisy (Matt. 23:33), and to weep and feel troubled at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33, 35, 38). Jesus’ emotional suffering culminates, of course, in Gethsemane, where his “soul is overwhelmed to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38, Mark 14:34).

Success, failure, family pressure, and spiritual pressure—all of these are scriptural situations that can lead a missionary to feel depressed.

4. Missionaries are isolated.

Missionaries are called to build communities of faith where there are none, so it goes without saying that they are often isolated from their peer groups. Historically, some missions agencies wanted their missionaries as dispersed as possible. You can read memoirs, for example, of Sarah Stallybrass in eastern Siberia, or James Gilmour in Mongolia; although their ministries were impactful, isolation took its toll on their overall health, and they were frequently depressed. More agencies are turning towards a team mentality, and away from the mentality that one family—or one man—can do all the work.

Isolation can be especially rough today for women in cultures where women are expected to remain at home or curfews are in effect. Isolation, culture shock, and rejection by your host culture can become a potent cocktail for negative thoughts, and security can be another roadblock to communication.

5. Missionaries are humans.

Depression and anxiety are staggeringly common today. Current estimates are that around 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It’s also estimated that 15 percent of American adults will experience depression at some time in their life. It should be no surprise that pastors and missionaries suffer from it too.

But ministerial life, with its spiritual and social pressures, has strangely high rates of depression according to some surveys:

The September/October 2000 edition of Physician magazine reported that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or dealing with depression. [source]

If depressed Christians ask for prayer and aid from their pastor and their church in times of trouble, who does the pastor ask for help? Do pastors and missionaries have anyone they can go to for advice and counsel, other than fellow pastors and missionaries, who often suffer from the same issues?

How can we help?

Unless we break the silence and create new strategies for our changing world, mental health issues will likely to continue to abound both inside and outside the church. But hopefully we as believers can take time to identify the causes, and show that we care for our missionaries and pastors by taking some steps in the right direction.

1. Share failures and successes.

Missionaries that are on a fundraising model can be pressured to put on a brave face and regale their listeners with tales of changing the world. We are either on the way to the field, sharing pictures of potbellied pagan orphans, or we are on the way back, sharing videos of new converts singing joyous hymns. Needless to say, neither is a complete picture of missionary life. In fact, it’s the in-between that is so hard to write and speak about—the humdrum of having only one or two inquirers here and there, of feeling that your role in God’s kingdom has gotten smaller since becoming a missionary. Whether missionaries, pastors, or laymen, we all need to re-imagine a missionary life that is less about us and our successes and more about Jesus, his Church, and his glory.

2. Share the load in times of stress.

Missionaries have tremendous psychological pressure, and often they just need someone to sympathize. When one of their converts is murdered by a family member, or their church has decided to split, what a missionary needs more than anything is a listening ear. One of the predictors of healthy adjustment after trauma is simply how much a person was able to get support (i.e. communication) from their family and friends—so if you know a missionary who’s in a rough time, don’t be hands-off; let them know you are there for them.

3. Share the mundane in times of monotony.

Isolation is one of the biggest contributors to missionary depression, and it is ironic in a time when most missionaries have access to Facetime, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Zoom. If security is an issue and you don’t feel you can discuss their work, you can always just talk about everyday life. And most missionaries would love to hear news from their home country, too. More so than newsletters can ever do, this kind of contact can help us to share together the highs, lows, and even the monotonous “middles” of missionary life.

4. Ask a missionary how they are doing—not how their work is doing.

One of the greatest problems with pastors and missionaries is that they can become so closely identified with their work, to the point that when someone asks “how are you?”, the response always involves how your Bible study group is doing, the recent opportunity you had at the market, or who is becoming curious about the gospel. Just like anyone, often missionaries and pastors need to be asked a second time, “how are you doing?”

5. Pray for a missionary.

It goes without saying that prayer is the best thing you can do for a missionary; but it is not the only thing you can do. Take a moment now and think about the missionaries you know—is there someone that is in need of extra prayer? Is there someone you should reach out to or renew contact with, even now?

Cover image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, c. 1630.

Passion and Purgatory

Joshua Harris, Elisabeth Elliot & the ongoing search for balanced teaching on Christian romance

Recently, I have been revisiting the love story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot while reading The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testimony of Jim Elliot. As a missionary who has spent many weeks exploring Ecuador, I was well aware of the “Palm Beach” canon, which includes a shelf-full of books and two documentaries—most notably the works of Elisabeth Elliot and Steve Saint—related to the martyrdom of five men seeking to reach the then-untouchable Huaorani of the Ecuadorean jungle.

A notable element in Elliot’s repertoire is her advice on Christian dating and relationships, which are boiled down into a palatable form in two books, Passion and Purity and Quest for Love. Simply stated, Elliot is quite disdainful of what she calls “the dating mess.”

Although some know her for books on missions, Elisabeth Elliot’s impact on the Christian dating scene is by no means trivial. Her 1984 book Passion and Purity is more or less the root of the entire “purity movement,” and was ample inspiration for Josh Harris’ 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Her endorsement helped launch that book, in fact. Elliot’s and Harris’ books advocate “courtship” over “dating,” believing that, as Don Raunikar put it, “Christian dating is an oxymoron.” [1] Over against “dating,” these authors seek to define “courtship” as a patient, prayerful process in which a couple more or less never escapes the supervision of a Christian chaperone.

While revisiting the story of Elisabeth Elliot’s “courtship” and eventual marriage with Jim Elliot in The Shadow of the Almighty, the whole tale of their romance strikes me as incredibly overspiritual. I can only write this in disappointment as a missionary who was impacted by Elliot’s books as a young believer. I believe that her writings on romance and those that follow in her train are symptomatic of a breakdown not so much in Christian romance as in Christian decision-making. Let’s look at their decision-making process:

Elisabeth Elliot’s Slow Courtship: Purity or Purgatory?

Jim and Elisabeth believed that God had led them to a life of singleness. They cite passages like Isaiah 54, Matthew 19:10-12, and 1 Corinthians 7 in support of this specific guidance. But this doesn’t come from the whole counsel of God: it comes from a few cherry-picked verses which they believed at the time to be the Spirit speaking in the Word. I cannot say that God had not given them “special guidance”—but I only state the obvious: these Scriptures are not sufficient guidance to keep someone from marrying.

They believed that remaining single greatly enhanced their effectiveness on the mission field. Edith Schaeffer gives this as a helpful rationale for Christian marriage: our ministry and outreach should become more, not less, through marriage. [2] Jim Elliot reasons in his journal, for example, that language school would be impossible while married. I have spent much of my married life in language school, and I can’t say that I found this argument convincing; to Jim Elliot, though, it was such a conviction, that he required his fiancée to learn Quichua for the mission field before he would marry her.

Jim also mentions the extreme difficulty of starting married life as a new missionary. This is one piece of counsel with which I can agree: major life shifts should, whenever possible, be tackled one at a time! Moving to a new country and joining a new spouse are two of life’s greatest psychological stressors, and combining them could increase the stress exponentially.

But again, I would not prescribe this as being from the Spirit of God. God may guide some to make that double leap, and they may make it gracefully. I speak especially for myself when I say that I would expect to flounder under the stress.

Just a few days ago, I read of James Calvert, famous missionary to Fiji:

Early in 1838, it was resolved to send men to reinforce the mission to the Fiji Islands, and the missionary committee, unexpectedly finding themselves able to send three [missionaries] instead of two, called upon Mr. Calvert to go. Forthwith he consented, and went down to Buckinghamshire and asked Miss Fowler to share his lot. The proposal was sudden, but probably not altogether unexpected. There was little time for delay . . .

Mr. and Mrs. Calvert were married in March, and in about a month afterwards . . . set sail on a four months’ voyage to New South Wales [en route to Polynesia]. [3]

The Calverts were exemplary missionaries for 17 years in Fiji—more than thrice as long as Elisabeth Elliot was with the Huaorani. They were fluent in Fijian, well regarded by the people, and ministered widely across dozens of sparsely-laid islands.

Like singleness on the mission field, marriage has its advantages and its dangers. But neither the Calverts in rushing nor the Elliots in dragging their feet are finally normative. The Bible warns against both hastiness and delay in the specific context of marriage (Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians 7).

Jim Elliot was disdainful of marriage ceremonies in general. Based on her writing, Elisabeth Elliot tacitly shared this opinion, or she would not have published her late husband’s opinions at length. But this, along with most other negative statements in Jim’s journal, seems to stem from his Brethren upbringing more than from Scripture. Scripture neither bashes ceremonies nor dictates how they should be done.

All of these rationales to delay and avoid marriage run directly athwart of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . .  Now to the unmarried [marg., widowers] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Contrary to his own counsel, it is obvious from his journals that singleness was a distraction for Jim Elliot on the mission field, however it may have freed up his schedule. Given that Paul clearly wrote a whole chapter addressing these issues, it seems like a huge blind spot for someone so consecrated to Scripture. Jim writes more than once that he could not stop thinking about Elisabeth, but continues to rationalize why they must keep waiting, even though they are mature believers, living on nearby mission fields.

I say this with greatest respect for all that was accomplished by Jim, Elisabeth, and their associates: This doesn’t sound like purity—it sounds like purgatory. Purgatory, in Catholic teaching, is where believers go to finish atoning for their guilt. We have a hard time accepting the grace that God has for us; we would rather gain a sense of moral achievement by making things more difficult than his Word. (See 1 Tim. 4:1-4, quoted below.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose very life reminds us of “the cost of discipleship,” wrote that we sometimes try to be “more spiritual than God” in making our decisions.

From a glance at the cross of Christ there comes to many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible, earthly blessings of God are in themselves at least a questionable good, and in any case a good not to be desired. They take, then, the corresponding prayers of the Psalter to be an incomplete first stage of Old Testament piety, which is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be more spiritual than God himself. [4]

Joshua Harris’ Slow Backpedal

When we were getting acquainted, my wife and I both read Passion and Purity. We both found the book challenging at the time. Last year, after many years of marriage, going back through Shadow of the Almighty, I felt that I had been sold a bill of goods. Elisabeth’s book came off as prescriptive, touting imbalanced ideas about church life and relationships, lacking a Scriptural rationale for avoiding marriage as long as they did.

When I shared with my wife my strong misgivings about the Elliots’ “courtship” advice, she reminded me that Joshua Harris had issued a retraction of sorts regarding his own book in 2016. Although it took many years, the dialogue on Christian purity is making a much-needed course correction. (In some camps, this is an 180-degree course correction, but that’s a topic for another article.) In fact, Harris has made an agreement with the publisher that they will have no more print runs of his first book:

I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. I recommend books like Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and True Love Dates by Debra Fileta, which encourage healthy dating. [5]

In addition to his partial retraction, Harris just released a documentary to better understand the negative impact that his book had. The documentary premiered just a few weeks ago.

Harris can be excused for lacking balance back in 1997—he was only 20 when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, while the executives at Multnomah, who made him their poster child, might have known better. Although Paul tells Timothy to let no one despise him for his youth (1 Tim. 4:12), in the same letter he warns against giving too much leadership to new believers (1 Tim. 3:6).

Harris’ writings are, for the most part, biblically grounded, but lack the kind of balance and finesse that leaders gain with age. Martin Luther is credited with saying that we are like a drunk peasant riding home in the dark—to avoid falling off the horse on the left, we fall off on the right. [6] Rejecting modern dating norms, Harris swings the reins hard, and—with a hand from Elisabeth Elliot—tries to transplant “courtship” in place of “dating.”

Does Courtship Cast Out Fear?

What Harris regrets most, though, is that he was motivated by fear, not by a heart of grace.

Fear is never a good motive. Fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex. [6]

Part One of I Kissed Dating Goodbye is titled “Isn’t There a Better a Way?” and the first sentence of Don Raunikar’s similar book is, “If dating is so wonderful, why does it hurt so much?” This points to the overall negativity of the purity movement—it’s not “look how great courtship is,” but “look how bad dating is.” Ian Maclaren warned us against this in an 1897 article:

The Gospel is never negative—an embodied threat—”refuse if you dare”; the Gospel is ever positive—a living promise, “Come and be blessed.” [7]

F. W. Boreham echoes Maclaren numerous times in his preaching:

No man ever yet helped the world by publishing a negation. Iconoclasm is the policy of despair. The hunger of the human heart can never be satisfied with denials. [8]

The solution to Christian relationship problems will come, not as an iconoclasm, but as an affirmation of life, steadfastly focused on the Redeemer whose grace teaches us how to live (Titus 2:11-13).

An Eschatology of Dating

In his advice on Christian marriage, Paul reminds us that the true motivation for balance in our romance is eschatological:

The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none . . . and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29, 31, ESV).

His words echo those of the Savior, who said that the end would be like “the days of Noah,” with men eating, drinking, and getting married (Matt. 24:37, Luke 17:27).

In his great little book, Love Not the World, Watchman Nee points out that we should not think that we can live without “secular” things like careers, cars, or candlelit dinners; but our attitude toward these things should be directed by the reminder that they are not eternal. In his words, they are “under a death sentence.”

Conclusion: Prescriptions or Principles?

We’re right about what’s wrong but wrong about what’s right. The problem has been incorrectly stated. We don’t just need more boundaries and rules; we need God himself.

A. J. Gossip, a Scottish preacher, said the following in a sermon on “What Christ Means by a Good Man”:

Our dull and prosy minds ask for little invariable rules and a full code of minute by-laws, and are given instead, much to their discomfiture, mighty principles which we are left to apply for ourselves. Newman went over to the Church of Rome largely because it told him definitely what to believe and what to do, took the ordering of things away from him, and so saved him from the turmoil of uncertainty in his own mind, and the bother and the danger of decision. [10]

Let’s make a few positive statements that can help young believers:

1. Marriage is a good thing. Let them marry!

When someone wants to marry, they should not undertake it lightly. But if someone decides to marry, our Scriptural default reaction should be positive.

Some ministry internships for young people have strict no-dating policies that are meant to maintain the consecration of that time period. I have friends in their thirties who have been forbidden from pursuing marriage by such policies. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom … but lack any value in restraining indulgence.” (Col. 2:23, NIV)

“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22). Jim Elliot was horrified when a ministry colleague decided to get married ahead of joining the mission field. Paul tells Timothy, though, that avoiding marriage because of asceticism is not a Christian behavior:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith . . . forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim. 4:1, 3-4)

2. Singleness is a great thing.

As great as marriage is, Jesus says that there is for some a lifelong gift of singleness, and that those who are able to receive it should. If you believe that you have this gift from God, then nothing should make you feel forced to marry; but if you haven’t received this gift, and you are a mature believer following godly counsel, there is no reason to feel forced not to marry.

3. Children are a gift.

If Scripture defines marriage as integrally good, then that includes children. One of the causes of abortion is the belief that children are a burden. One of the ways that we can reverse this trend is by relentlessly affirming that children are a gift.

4. Flee from sexual immorality.

This is the theme of Henry Cloud’s books: “boundaries” are a way of staying as far from sexual immorality as you can. Sexual immorality, contrary to what our culture might say, is clearly defined in Scripture over and over, and part of that definition is that sexual intimacy belongs inside marriage.

5. Our hope isn’t in the past—it’s in the future.

On a theological level, the biggest problem of the anti-dating movement is the “Golden Age” fallacy. The Golden Age fallacy is the idea that the past—-whether Victorian-era England or 1950s America or even 1st-century Palestine—was more moral, more spiritual, or had a holier generation of believers. But a candid look at Victorian-era England shows that teenage pregnancy was not especially rare; nor was homosexuality, though it was less accepted. America in the 1950s was undergoing its own sort of middle-class revolution; and Scripture never tells us that everything recorded about the 1st-century church is perfect or even normative.

All of the “Christian purity” books I have read are filled with appeals not to Scripture, but to an age when English-speaking Christians had stronger mores about marriage. And we need stronger norms as a culture. But the way to come about them will be an affirmation of life, singleness, sex, marriage, pregnancy and children—not just a rejection of their abuses.

The Church’s brightest heroes act as lighthouses, not iconoclasts. Dashing idols in the dark like Gideon only leaves God’s people wondering on waking, “how then shall we live?” It is the positive exposition of Scripture that provides the answer, not criticism of our culture, however flawed.

1 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

2 I believe she says this in the book The Tapestry.

3 Rowe, George Stringer. Memoir of Mary Calvert. London: T. Woolmer, 1882.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book Of The Bible. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition, p. 43.

5 Harris, Josh. “A Statement on I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

The earliest available source for this saying is Richard B. Wilke’s 1973 book, Tell Me Again—I’m Listening.

Klett, Leah Marieann. “Joshua Harris Apologizes for Mistakes in ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ in Powerful TEDx Talk.” The Gospel Herald Ministries, 8 December 2017.

8 Maclaren, Ian. “The Positive Note in Preaching.” Christian Literature, 1897.

9 Boreham, F. W. The Crystal Pointers, p. 142. London: Epworth, 1925.

10 Raunikar, Don. Choosing God’s Best.

11 Gossip, Arthur John. “What Christ Means by a Good Man.” In The Hero in Thy Soul: Being an Attempt to Face Life Gallantly. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928.

The Call of God

God’s call is not just about missions. Os Guinness explains that “calling” in Scripture begins with and includes salvation; it is as much a calling to a person as it is a calling to a work or a place. We are called first into a relationship and a new identity in Christ, and any discussion of a “missionary calling” is incomplete without mentioning this first. (1)

God’s call is both repeated and prolonged. Paul and his group experience a variety of “callings” in the book of Acts. The call of God is not a one- time event. It is a complex, life-long driving force leading us to and through salvation and service. It is the “due north” by which we set our compass and take our bearings every day. The call of God is the general direction for all our specific obedience to God.

God’s call is multifaceted. Paul had a long road between the vision on the Damascus road, and the prophetic call in Antioch. He is called first to salvation (Acts 9), then to a work (Acts 13:1-3), followed by a variety of locations and ministries. Sills writes:

God seems to call some to a particular kind of missions service, others to a people group, others to a region, others to a country, others to a city, and others to a life purpose (such as rescuing young girls from prostitution) or some combination of these. (2)

God’s call is not about location. We tend to focus on all of the visible aspects of calling: where we will go, what we will do, who we will marry, and who we will work with. God focuses on the invisible aspects: spiritual preparation, the burden of prayer, the willingness to proclaim, and the stubborn ability to plod on without stopping.

(1) See Os Guinness’ book The Call. Chapters 4 and 5.

(2) M. David Sills. The Missionary Call. Kindle edition. Location 364.

Pentecost_mosaic cred Pete Unseth

Christ’s Body Is the Temple

There is only one verse in the New Testament that teaches specifically that a believer’s physical body is a temple:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Cor. 6:19)

But it seems like believers today have removed this verse totally from its immediate context, its greater context, and from the many similar verses that clarify the full meaning of this truth. Let’s take a look.

A Variety of Passages

Now, there are at least seven passages in the New Testament that compare believers themselves to a temple or building, but we commonly only hear that our bodies are temples. In fact Paul is emphasizing different things in different passages, but we’ll note some patterns that bring them together.

You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor. 3:9)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them ...” (2 Cor. 6:16, q. Ezek. 37:27)

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are … members of the household of God … Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure … grows into a holy temple in the Lord … (Eph. 2:19-21)

The main thing you should notice is that Paul is talking about the entire, invisible Church as God’s temple in the New Covenant—not the individual believer, or the physical church—and that none of these verses are talking directly about physical health.

Health Is Never Mentioned—Sexual Purity Is

In none of these verses does Paul mention working out. 1 Corinthians 6:19, so often trotted out in that sense, is actually about avoiding sexual immorality by keeping away from sexual immorality and prostitutes, which are still so common in many of the world’s cities.

Prostitutes were kept in pagan shrines, and money from sex funded the work of these temples. Shrine prostitutes are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. So it makes sense for Paul to say to them, you shouldn’t be going to the shrine of a pagan god for sex, when you yourself are the shrine of the one, true living God.

Indirectly, you can of course say that a miniature “temple” demands respect and care. I’m not saying that health isn’t important, or that Christ’s workers shouldn’t live long, healthy lives. That may be true and implied, but it’s simply not directly what this verse is saying. If anything, rather than teaching on working out, we should teach from this verse against pornography and its vital role in maintaining the wicked global sex trade. Any believer that supports this sins against much more than his own body.

I Am Not God’s Temple—We Are

The subject is plural in every case except for 1 Corinthians 6:19. So Paul teaches that we are God’s dwelling place much more often than he teaches that our individual bodies are. (The singular/plural distinction was clear in the early modern English of the King James: “Ye/you/your” was plural, while “thou/thee/thine” was singular.)

Paul used the singular just once, to emphasize the sense of personal responsibility, and the personal defilement that comes from misusing your body sexually. But in most of the New Testament he teaches not that God dwells in me, but that God dwells in us.

When Paul compares the body to a temple, he is taking a cue from Jesus, who compared his body to a temple. Now, in the same passage where he says that “your body is a temple,” he uses the word “body” to mean Christ’s body:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (1 Cor. 6:15)

So each of us is only one part of the picture. Even the most commonly quoted verses on Christ’s indwelling, like Colossians 1:27, where he says that “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory,” are plural, and being addressed to a group. “The Holy Spirit dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). “He put his Spirit in the midst of them” (Isa. 63:11).

We Are Not a Religious Building—We Are a Sanctuary

The word used for temple in these verses is slightly more specific than ‘temple’; it is the sanctuary of the temple. Richard Trench points out that the distinction is well maintained in New Testament Greek. Whenever Jesus is teaching “in the temple,” we are to understand that he is in the courts of the temple; whenever Zechariah goes into the temple and has a vision, we can understand that he was in the sanctuary, the Holy Place.

Every verse that compares believers to a temple uses the word for sanctuary. The implication is not that it is a grand, important building, consecrated to a religious purpose, but that it is a sacred place, consecrated to God, whatever else it may be.

The teaching that says that our physical well-being honors the indwelling Christ, may be true in some sense. But is this to say that people with lifelong illnesses are dishonoring Christ? That is not what the Bible teaches, and we dishonor the sick when we try to create a karmic link between health and spirituality. There is no mystic link between physical fitness and spiritual fitness.

A Church Is Not God’s House—The Church Is

Another misunderstanding about God’s dwelling is the still-frequent usage of the phrase “house of God” for a church building. This phrase, when used in this way, is essentially a vestige of Judaism, or a holdover from heathenism. It is not the language of the New Testament. Paul and Peter both teach that the church itself—that is, believers—are the house, or family, of God.

If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in [or among] the household of God, which is the church of the living God … (1 Tim. 3:15)

Some versions say “house of God” in 1 Timothy 3:15, but only a medieval interpretation of the Bible would say that Paul was referring to a physical church.

We are his house. (Heb. 3:6)

You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house … (1 Pet. 2:5)

The word for house also means household. In the time when Paul wrote this, when most churches were still meeting in houses under threat of persecution, Paul could not have conceivably taught that a church building is God’s dwelling place. He taught something much more shocking—he taught that we are.


When Jesus said that the Comforter was with the disciples, but would be in them, he was teaching the fulfillment of multiple prophecies given over hundreds of years. He was teaching that Moses’ wish, that all God’s people could prophesy, was one step closer to fulfillment. He was teaching the end of the Old Covenant—in which God dwelled in limited believers and limited places—and the beginning of a new economy of grace, in which God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh.

That pouring out began on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish celebration centered around the assembly of men at the temple. But now this outpouring has broken the bounds of upbringing, ethnicity, gender, age, and nation. It is not limited to any physical church or temple, but has entered the hearts of a manifold spiritual assembly, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). This assembly now gathers to no physical meeting place, but under the spiritual banner of the slain Lamb.

Each person who is part of this assembly is like a single stone of a sacred building, or a single cell of Christ’s body, which he said was the temple. Each cell contains the DNA blueprint that represents the whole, which is why we can point a finger at a fellow believer and say, “You yourself are God’s dwelling place.” But it would be far better to imagine every believer from Pentecost onwards, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and say together, “We are God’s dwelling place.”

Your body may be a temple. But Christ’s body is the temple.

Mosaic credit: Pete Unseth

Echoes of Eternity: How Death Affected Great Men

Thoughts after the death of Nabeel Qureshi

On September 16, Nabeel Qureshi tragically passed at the age 34, and went confidently into eternity. He had been diagnosed with aggressive Stage IV stomach cancer just a few short months ago, in the middle of a busy career of academic study, preaching, writing, and evangelism.

In many ways, his death is a challenge to Western believers. Lest we miss the lesson his death would teach us, I want to look at some historical precedent for how many believers have been challenged by the immediacy of death.

I could give a long list of faithful believers who re-examined their lives after the death of someone near them. J. J. Doke went to the mission field dreaming of carrying on the impact of his older brother who had died doing mission work in the Congo. On the other side of Africa, in 1846, Ludwig Krapf buried wife and child in the remote deserts along the Eritrea-Ethiopian border, and there he famously wrote that the church ever advances over the graves of its members.

For the church of the resurrected Christ, death has always been transmuted by the deathless optimism of the one who saw the travail of his soul and was satisfied. Let’s take a look at three ways that untimely death has caused many to hear the echo of eternity.

1. Eternity calls us to consider if we living for things that will last.

Adoniram Judson is one of the most famous missionaries in Protestant history. With a small cadre of friends, he spearheaded the founding of America’s first missionary society, and, in 1812, he was on the first ship to leave America to bring the gospel to the world’s unreached people.

But few know that in college, Judson was a hardened skeptic. The atmosphere at Providence College was in the grip of Enlightenment thinking. He had one friend in particularly—he is called E— in the story—who was an outspoken, revelling, scoffing skeptic, mocking the church and all that pertains to it.

In between college terms, Judson was travelling on horseback, touring the northern states. He stopped into an inn. We have one vacancy, the innkeeper told him, but the tenant in the room next door is horribly ill—he may not pass the night. No matter, Judson told him. Death was less than nothing to him, although he would feel sympathy for the dying.

As he lay in that inn, he heard the racking coughs and groans of a dying man. The walls seemed paper thin. Whoever he was, he must be dying comfortless, with no family member to attend him. Judson lay awake thinking of the nearness of death, struggling to use his young age as a shield against the spectre of eternity. After all, what would his skeptic friends back at college think? What would his friend E think?

The rest of the story is in F. W. Boreham’s words:

“He rises at dawn; seeks the innkeeper; and inquires about his neighbor.

“‘He’s dead!’ is the blunt reply.

“‘Dead!’ replies Judson. ‘And who was he?’

“‘Oh,’ explains the innkeeper languidly, ‘he was a student from Providence College; a very fine fellow; his name was E!’”

Judson was shaken to the core. Eternity stared him in the face, and it wasn’t long before he turned to Christ. He cut short his vacation, went home, and discussed the state of his soul with his parents. He was soon a member of their church.

2. Eternity calls us to remember that there are no little people and no little places.

Although his name is no longer well known, Ion Keith-Falconer was a serious intellectual with both evangelistic and medical experience, willing to use whatever means to reach his Muslim neighbors.

Keith-Falconer seemed to have everything going for him. He was from a noble family; he was a champion athlete; he was at the top of his class at Cambridge; he was newly married; and he was ordained under the Free Church of Scotland to an important and difficult mission field.

After studying Arabic at schools in Germany and Egypt, he went to Aden—in present-day Yemen, then a British colony—to see if it would be feasible to bring his family there. After receiving a very flexible appointment as an Arabic lecturer at Cambridge, he took his wife and a young child to live in the neighborhood of Sheikh Othman.

He only preached and practiced medicine for five months before he died of a fever, now believed to be malaria. News of his death reached Scotland the night before the opening of the Free Church’s annual General Assembly, the same meeting at which Keith-Falconer had been ordained just one year before. The moderator, Dr. Somerville, spoke about his death:

“What may be the beneficent result which God may educe from this calamity, we know not. This, however, we may venture to hope for—that the death of this noble young man may prove the means of awakening attention, greater than has ever been directed, to all Arabia’s provinces, and tend to give a lasting wound to that fatal system of Islam which so long blighted the souls of millions. What Christian Scotchman, with qualities in any way resembling those of him who has passed away, will stand forth to raise the banner of the Gospel in the place of the gallant warrior who has fallen?”

The custom in that day was not to withdraw when a missionary was lost; the usual response was to send two more to take his place! After his death, his mother and widow offered a stipend that would fund two more missionaries for Arabia. In the months that followed, a total of thirteen students of Edinburgh’s New College offered themselves for foreign mission work. Eleven of those were from the 1888 graduating class, which only included forty students. Needless to say, the appeal of Keith-Falconer’s death is attributed to be an important factor.

3. Eternity calls us to remember that even short lives can have an lasting echo if they are lived for Christ.

There is another story in Arabian missions of a young Lebanese preacher. Like Nabeel Qureshi, Kamil Abdulmasih ‘Itany turned to Christ out of a Muslim background, and it wasn’t long before he was doing everything he could to persuade other Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Hindus, that Jesus was the only way.

Kamil learned the basics of the Bible from Henry H. Jessup for a few months in Beirut. Later, he joined Samuel M. Zwemer and James Cantine in the Arabian Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the few years that he lived as a Christian, Kamil did preaching and Bible distribution tours in Syria, Yemen, Djibouti, and Iraq.

He showed in his letters that he knew both the Bible and the Quran well. He was persuasive and tactful in evangelism. While selling Bibles in the remote coasts of eastern Yemen, a group of men went around forbidding people to accept his books. Kamil found the troublemakers and quoted to them several scriptures in which the Quran praises both the Old and New Testaments which they were selling. He recorded the conversation in his journal, which Henry Jessup later translated:

“Then I said, ‘Does this Quran speak truth or falsehood?’

“They said, ‘Allah forbid that it should speak falsehood.’

“I said, ‘Are my words true?’

“They replied, ‘Yes; there is no doubt of it.’

‘Then,” said I, ‘Why did you forbid the boys buying the books?’

“They said, ‘We did not,’ and denied it absolutely.

“I then said, ‘You should buy the books if my words are true.’

“They said, ‘We certainly will after hearing the proofs you have given us.’”

Kamil’s life was cut short in a season of intense preaching and visiting in Basra, in present-day Iraq. His journals written in 1892 show that he had visitors of every variety, some hostile, and some very keen to find copies of the New Testament.

When he died, Zwemer found him surrounded by soldiers and religious authorities. They believed he was poisoned, but the authorities prohibited an autopsy. They protested that he was a Christian, but the authorities buried him as a Muslim. They had proof that he was a Christian, but the soldiers had seized his papers. There was no recourse.

Henry Jessup wrote that Kamil’s life was “a rebuke to our unbelief” in God’s power to change the Muslim heart. His tragic murder must have brought home to supporters of the Arabian Mission the reality of people who turn to faith in Islam’s heartland. Grace may be free, but that doesn’t mean faith doesn’t cost us.

After Kamil’s death, Zwemer eventually became the most widely known name connected with Christian missions to Muslims. He left behind a stream of literature long enough to fill a bookshelf. God only knows how the loss of this budding native preacher must have hardened Zwemer’s resolve in his early career.

Final thoughts

Death, then, doesn’t have to be a white flag; in Christian missions, it is a call for advance, not retreat. When a soldier on the front lines is lost, someone must rush forward to hold the line.

When I woke up to the news of Nabeel’s passing, I thought of how the disciples felt when Jesus ascended and left them. Leaderless, they thought—but they wouldn’t be left comfortless. There was a greater work that they would have to begin.

The task of missions is the task of the whole church. With Nabeel’s passing, we mourn the loss of a leader who had a monumental impact in his short time—but when we dry our eyes, we remember, we have a lot of work to do.


F. W. Boreham, “Adoniram Judson’s Text.” A Temple of Topaz.

Henry H. Jessup, Kamil Abdulmasih: A Syrian Preacher of the Gospel.

Robert Sinker, Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer.

Meet the Moravians

Two Moravians didn’t volunteer to be slaves for the Gospel—three did. But none of them actually became slaves.

You may have heard a story passed on in many sermons about two Moravians. A former slave comes to the Moravians and tells them that his people are longing to hear the Gospel—but no one has access to them except for slaves. “Fine,” respond the undaunted Moravians. “We will sell ourselves into slavery.”

Then we fade into a shot of the two Moravians on the deck of a slave barge, headed to the West Indies, shouting at their weeping families, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” And that is the last that their flesh and blood ever heard from them.


This story has taken on legendary proportions in the modern evangelical church, probably because of Paris Reidhead’s erstwhile viral sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt,” and its reincarnation as the “Revival Hymn.”⁠1 But of the two scenes that pass before your mind’s eye, only one of them is true.

Fortunately for the two Moravians, the second scene is either somewhat mythical, or it is someone else’s story. The two Moravians did go to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas as missionaries, and they did preach the gospel to many slaves, but they did not become slaves themselves. Here it is worthwhile to unpack the full story of these remarkable men. I think you will agree with me that the truth of this story is just as inspiring as the legend—or more so.


The story starts with a widespread revival in the Moravian community, dated to August 13, 1727.⁠⁠2 There was a great stirring among the immigrants who had sought asylum in Count Zinzendorf’s estate, and many spoke about the claims of Christ in unknown lands.

According to Hutton’s account, many Moravians were longing to spread the Gospel abroad during the years that followed, but without any precedent, they were unsure how to move forward. On February 11, 1728, several of them made a covenant that they would go overseas once the way forward was made clear. No Protestant church was sending its own missionaries at that time, although the Danish government had supported a few in its colonies.⁠⁠3

In 1731, that changed. Antony Ulrich, a former slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas, visited Copenhagen. He told the Danish king that the residents of the island and its slaves were primed to respond to the Gospel. He especially pleaded on behalf of his family members.

On July 24, 1731, Count Zinzendorf shared Antony’s story with his Moravian brothers. The shocking Macedonian call was passed on from ear to ear among the Moravians. A few were quietly contemplating the possibility of going to St. Thomas, but no one spoke up publicly or immediately.


In time, Johann Leonard Dober brought the matter up with his friend, Tobias Leupold, and they wrote a letter to Zinzendorf, declaring their intent to go. Zinzendorf shared the news of the letter with the congregation, but did not disclose their names.

Antony Ulrich, the Caribbean freedman, was still in Europe, and he followed up with Zinzendorf around this time (in present-day Germany). He spoke to the Moravians in Dutch. When Zinzendorf asked Ulrich about sending two men right away, Ulrich—mistakenly—told him that they could only come as slaves.

Both Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold repeated without hesitation their willingness to go to St. Thomas, even as slaves. Dober wrote the congregation as he had earlier written their leader. It was a heroic declaration of sacrifice that shocked and stirred the Moravian settlement, and inspired many others to consider a commitment to preach abroad. In the end, though, such a sacrifice of freedom was both inadmissible and unnecessary.

Changed Plans

Eventually, the church decided that only Dober should go.⁠⁠4 Dober then chose another Moravian named David Nitschman to accompany him. Just like Tobias Leupold, whom he replaced, Nitschman fully expected to become a slave for the Gospel. Thus, at that point, three men had publicly and enthusiastically declared that they would be enslaved in exchange for the opportunity to preach to the unreachable.

Hutton describes the two men, waiting outside Zinzendorf’s house in the pre-dawn hours on August 21st, 1732. The Count spent the night in prayer, and then he drove them part of the way to Copenhagen. They received a prayer of blessing, and departed on foot to Denmark to secure their passage to the Caribbean.

They had a few belongings and very little money. Although the idea may have been naive, both of them—Dober and Nitschman—fully intended to sell themselves into slavery.

In the end, however, the Danish king deemed this impossible. Dober and Tobias met with Von Plesz,  the chamberlain of King Frederick VI. Here is the dialogue given in Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church:

Von Plesz, the king’s chamberlain, asked them how they would live.

“We shall work,” replied Nitschman, “as slaves among the slaves.”

“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”

“Very well,” replied Nitschman, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”

“But what will the potter do?”

“He will help me in my work.”

“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”⁠⁠5

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1706, King Frederick IV of Denmark had sent the first Protestant missionaries to his colonies. But Dober and Nitschman went without royal support. They were not even offered passage by the Danes.

The Rest of the Story

The ‘tall tale’ of two Moravians says that they never saw their families again.  In fact, Leonard Dober only stayed for about two years, until he was called to Herrnhut to take office as General Elder of the church there. Amazingly, Tobias Leupold—who had been turned down as his companion—broke the news to Dober in person in June 1734.⁠⁠6 This was not the end of the mission, however. The Moravians would send 18 more missionaries to those islands in the next two years.

Dober arrived in Europe February 5th, 1735 and held the office of General Elder for six years, travelling often to Holland and England during the remainder of his life. He spent the last few months of his life in Herrnhut.

David Nitschman only went to St. Thomas as an assistant to Dober in his travels, and so he left St. Thomas after just four months.⁠⁠7 Nitschman later took passage to Georgia in 1736, where he met John Wesley, and spent the later years of his life in the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Forerunners in Protestant Missions

Today, Moravians are little known in America; we tout them as a missionary powerhouse, but that’s where the story ends—at least at missions conferences. But in the 18th century, many Europeans viewed the Moravians as a cult, an uneducated church for spiritual outcasts and fanatics.

They had strange and unique customs, some gleaned from Zinzendorf’s leadership. The original settlement had a rote discipleship system which would sound today like a drug rehab program. They were passionate, committed, communal, innovative, and evangelistic.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia with twenty-six Moravian shipmates, they were greatly impressed by their no-nonsense attitudes and the way they returned blessing for insult. John Wesley feared for his life during day after day of violent Atlantic storms, but he wrote in his journal of the Moravians:

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces. … A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’

He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’

He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'”⁠8

The Moravians’ historian takes great pride in the fact that many English Moravians preceded William Carey to the mission field. When they left for St. Thomas, Dober and Nitschman preceded William Carey by sixty years. There is no doubt that they were the first Protestant church, as far as we know, to send missionaries with no worldly or political ties.


Why, then, does the modern legend transform Nitschman and Dober into slaves? It betrays a deep confusion in modern American missiology. Maybe deep down, we believe that going overseas is pointless unless the sacrifices are tangible, irreversible, and impressive.

But it was not their romantic sacrifice that gave them access to the unreached—it was their flexibility. They did not hang on to some heroic vision of missionary life, but showed that they would undergo any hardship—even pursuing a secular vocation!

“For over one hundred years no missionary in the West Indies received from the Moravian Church one penny of salary for his services. Each man, during all the period, had first to earn his own living.”⁠9

Maybe we should also think about where the legend ends: “They went overseas.” But that is where the preface ends, and we reach page one. Leonard Dober and David Nitschman, in fact, preached the gospel to numerous slaves. They worked hard, maintained careers, baptized disciples, and preached the Gospel in the Caribbean. And their impact outlasted them.


An important point to this story is that these two were not just two among a centuries-long stream of missionaries out of Herrnhut. They were the first. Immediately inspired by their commitment, a trio of Moravians joined Hans Egede in his apostolic work in Greenland.⁠⁠10

Many of the workers that followed our wayfaring pair to the Caribbean died of tropical diseases. After they left, 18 Moravian missionaries began work in St. Croix, and within two years, half of them had died. In fact, Moravian missionaries had to take their own headstone across the Atlantic with them, because the Caribbean islands couldn’t supply them with stones.

By the time Leonard Dober died, there were more than 5,000 former slaves in the Moravian congregations of the West Indies.⁠11 The Moravian Brethren still have disciples in the Caribbean today, and it started with those two young men volunteering.


There are a few things that stick out about this story.

First, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery; they did something much less heroic—they plied their trade. No one wants to share a story of two volunteer missionaries saying: we will do anything to reach people, even manual labor.

Second, volunteering was not enough. After they declared their intent to go to the mission field, they had to find a way to support their work. They had to be sent. The church decided one of them shouldn’t go. When they got there, real life had to happen. Willingness was only one ingredient.

Third, the story didn’t end when their ship weighed anchor from Denmark; then their work had only begun. They only contributed to the work for a couple of years, but they paved the way for the Moravian missionaries that followed them—both in the West Indies, and globally.

In the end, the mythical version says more about our generation than theirs. We would not pass on the story if it did not have a ring of romance to it. The legendary retelling certainly appeals to our heartstrings. But the heroes this generation needs are not going to be those one or two who give it all, forsake their families, and cross the seas to become slaves. We need an army of workers willing to scrap their way, by any means, to the unreached and the inconvenient lost, whether or not they have to use a university degree to do so.

Share the true story and help restore our generation’s understanding of missions. As A. W. Tozer said, you don’t become a missionary by crossing the sea; you become a missionary by seeing the cross.

1 The audio of Reidhead’s famous sermon is available here.

2 You can read about this revival, for example, in John Greenfield’s book, Power from on High, or The History of the Moravians by J. E. Hutton.

3 See, for example:

Helen H. Holcomb, Men of Might in India Missions. 1901.

J. Ferd. Fenger. History of the Tranquebar Mission. 1842. Translated from the Danish in 1863.

Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. 1904.

4 Remarkably, this decision was made using a system of casting lots for Scriptures, a practice that the Moravian Brethren have since given up, for obvious reasons.

5 J. E. Hutton. History of the Moravian Church. Book II, Chapter VI. “The Foreign Missions and Their Influence.”

The story is also told by J. E. Hutton in his History of Moravian Missions. 1922.

6 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 37-38. 1922.

7 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

8 Richard Watson. The Life of John Wesley, p. 43. 1857.

9 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 38-39. 1922.

10 Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. Ch. 6.

11 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

On Racing Against Horses

The prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament complains to God that men in his hometown are plotting to kill him. He has had a difficult ministry towards unwilling people. You would think God would say something like, “that’s okay, Jeremiah, just trust in my grace.” Instead God says, in effect, “suck it up. It’s gonna get harder.”

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
(God’s word to Jeremiah, Jer. 12:5)

At first, it does not sound encouraging. G. Campbell Morgan points out though, that Jeremiah had raced with men. God didn’t say he failed. He had done well in a ministry that was filled with conflict. He had already preached boldly in a temple to religious people who had missed the entire point of the temple. He had brought some brutal, yet God-sent words. The nation was in danger—not because of karma, but because God couldn’t allow himself to be misrepresented ad infinitum.

And it was going to get harder! Sometimes we expect God to set us up for success and affluence, but he sees all the chess pieces, and he knows what we can handle. He knows that he can ask us to face something that is more difficult. The logical inverse, though, is that God wouldn’t send Jeremiah to race horses when he hadn’t won against men. God knows what’s too hard for us, and the Bible says that he doesn’t ever send his children to a battle that they can’t fight with his help.

In connection with this, I have been asking, is it possible to race horses? The metaphor sounds fantastic, but there are at least two races that have pitted men against horses in long-distance running: one is a 22-mile race in Wales, and one is a 50-mile race in Arizona. In 2004, for the first time a man won the race in Wales. In Arizona, the horses have never lost, but the race is often close. In 2009, the race director said that the first man, Jamil Coury, clocked in just over seven hours for 50 miles of running, and could have beaten the first place horse if he hadn’t gotten off course.

So God’s question—how will you compete with horses? is not only relevant to long-distance runners. A man can’t compete with a horse over short distances. But it is possible for a human to beat a horse, if the human doesn’t quit. Maybe that was really God’s key to facing difficulty in ministry anyway.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
(Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:5)

Books and Bottles

“You have kept count of my tossings [or ‘wanderings’]; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)

In the psalm quoted above, David recounts to God all that his enemies have marshaled against him. They have haunted his steps; injured his cause; plotted against him; oppressed him daily. But God is not unaware of David’s enemies. He keeps the books in heaven. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and all-encompassing, and there will be a day when God settles David’s account.

When we read of books and scribes in Scripture, we must keep in mind that literacy was a specialty, reserved for a privileged few, and still is in some parts of the world. Study was a luxury, and books were priceless. How much more priceless are they when we consider the books that God must keep.

Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.

Tears and Tossings

“You put my tears in your bottle.”

In most biblical contexts, a bottle would mean a skin, such as the wineskins Jesus refers to. In this verse, the psalmist is probably referring to a ceramic bottle used in ancient funeral rites. Ornate containers called lachrymatories were commonly added to graves all over the ancient world.

The symbolic act of putting tears in bottles is well-known to historians. Tear-bottles were added permanently to graves, perhaps both as a symbolic goodbye and an honor to the memory of the lost. Museums still hold plenty of examples of these from various centuries as well as regions. They were ceramic in New Testament times; glass was invented later on.

The fact that God puts our tears in his bottle suggests that God shares in our grief with us. The Creator alone knows the innermost self, in its sin, its suffering, and its solace.


“She broke an alabaster jar.”

Bottles were also used in funeral rituals to pour ointment on a body for burial in several ancient cultures. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus, she truly was proclaiming his death beforehand, preparing him for burial. (Mark 14:8) She understood what the disciples were blind to: Jesus had to face a shameful death. (John 12:7)

If we take Matthew’s estimation, the value of the alabaster jar was about a year’s wages. Alabaster was mined in Egypt and carved into exquisite containers; the rare spice inside, nard, grows at elevations above 12,000 feet, and is only found in the Himalayan Mountains. Why then did Mary have this priceless jar? Was it like a life insurance policy, saved for the day of death? Is it possible that she had been saving it for her deceased brother’s grave? In the light of Lazarus’ resurrection, did she surrender to Jesus the safekeeping that would follow her own death? He who holds the keys knows.

There is no blessing in being comfortable, but “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept not only because of Lazarus and his family, but because death is an enemy, and a result of the curse that our sin has brought to us.

God’s Books

“The books were opened.”

Daniel says in his end-times vision that court was convened, and “the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10) We think first of the Book of Life, and those who are blotted out. God calls it in some places “my book.” (Rev.) The most important record that God keeps is those who receive his salvation.

There are other books in heaven though. Both Daniel and John mention that God has books. Malachi tells us that one of them includes the records of our fellowship, our faithful prayers, and the results they wrought in lives changed:

“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” (Malachi 3:16, ESV)

There is a crumb of comfort here for ministers with few visible successes. We struggle to reconcile our experience with the thrilling accounts of missionary biography. We could read of the apostolic triumphs in Uganda, and how Bishop Hannington perished on the forbidden road, and yet a church rose in his wake. We could read about the Palm Beach Five in the jungles of Ecuador, facing death for Christ, but giving life to a marginalized tribe. These sacrifices and successes are what fill our books. These are the ingredients of bestsellers.

But heaven has a different best-seller list. The prophet tells us that God writes it down when two believers sit and talk of him. If Malachi’s words are to be taken seriously, God keeps each of our biographies in heaven, and a page-turner to him is when his people take heed, and fear him, and talk about how they may follow on to know him

What God Values

“The Lord paid attention.”

Books and bottles are both vessels of preservation. They tell us what is precious. Precious tears are preserved in bottles; precious thoughts are preserved in books.

God values our thought life. God noticed those that feared him, and thought upon his name. We could spend our whole lifetime in the library, scouring a thousand volumes on theology, history, religion, and ritual. But one honest moment thinking about his name, dwelling on who he really is, drinking in his character from his revealed Word, would outweigh a whole lifetime of any other study.

God values our fellowship. They “spake often one to another.” Speaking to one another about spiritual topics should not be rare or specialized. One preacher said, “We are not called upon to talk theology, but we are called upon to talk gratitude.”  We need to talk to God and of God long and often.

God values our mourning. We are not the ones who treasure up our tears; God puts them in his own bottle. Our suffering is not taken lightly by God, even when he leads his children into it. One prophet said, “In all their suffering he also suffered”; and another, “He does not willingly afflict the sons of men.” He treasures the pain that we have been through, not for its own sake, but because of the eternal weight of glory that it’s working in us. Shouldn’t we?

Never a sigh of passion or of pity,
Never a wail for weakness or for wrong,
Has not its archive in the angels’ city,
Finds not its echo in the endless song.


There is really only one way to hike up a mountain:  You must use the switchbacks.  It would seem shorter to walk straight uphill, but you’d have to leave the trail that everyone else has been taking, which is safer, and you would be exhausted a lot faster.  Yes, I am very glad that we stuck to the trail.
It may take longer, but the only way to really walk with God is one step at a time, always uphill, and you will only ever see in front of you as far as the next turn.  That is the path that has been patiently trodden and cleared by those who have walked with God before us, all the way back to Enoch, Abel, and even Adam “in the cool of the day.”  Each of them took the long path but in the end they found it was worth it.
Abraham did not see around the next hairpin.  God told him to get out of his father’s house, “to a land I will show you.”  He did not know many of the consequences that would come, and God left the next page unturned–Abraham had to take the next step, and it wasn’t until after he obeyed that the Lord made a covenant with him, gave him a son, and promised to him the land of Israel.
The Lord required of his son Isaac a similar hike.  Like Abraham he had learned to pray, but had to learn to take a step without seeing ahead; the Lord commanded him, “stay in a land I will tell you about.”
All great men of God, I believe, have learned to walk the trail before them, whether or not they knew how far, how long, until the destination was reached.  Moses didn’t know how he would speak boldly to the Pharaoh, Paul didn’t know the way to Ananias’ house–he was blind!–yet they walked, like Abraham, “not knowing whither he went.”  None of them were concerned primarily with where they were headed, but with Who was walking with them.
The footfall of the saints on the mountain of the Lord has left a trail for us–it is a narrow way, but it is also the only way.   And as one of Abraham’s descendants sang long after him, he who ascends the hill of the Lord will receive “blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
And the path didn’t level out; there were many more switchbacks for Abraham.  Even after Isaac was born they could not see the peak, for the Lord asked him again, “Go to a mountain I will tell you about.”  So the switchbacks continued even after he had walked with God for decades.  But there is always blessing after obedience; and when Abraham set his face to do what the Lord asked of him, there was an unforeseen blessing on him, his family, and even the nations of the earth.  And Abraham never became a king, but after millennia the King of kings came to the same mountain and offered not His son nor an animal, but Himself–and when He rose again indestructible in glory the full blessing brought by His attuned heart of obedience to the Father we have not yet seen–but He saw it from the beginning, and perhaps that was His secret.

[*See also John 10:18, Isaiah 49:4]

Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.