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    Read the Bible with Your Heart

    We cannot truly read the Bible without patient and rigorous engagement of our minds. That’s probably obvious to us. But we will not have read it well, not as God intended us to read it, without eager, even relentless, engagement of our hearts. It requires more faith, effort, prayer, humility, vulnerability, and often time to read God’s word with our hearts, but that’s because the heart is precisely where God wants his word to land.

    What does it mean to read the Bible with your heart? Before I explain, I’ll point to an example, because a good example is often a great explainer. And the example comes from the Bible itself.

    With My Whole Heart

    Psalm 119 is a (long) song of wholehearted love and desire for God. And if you read it with an engaged mind, you’ll hear the psalmist sing of how and why he received God’s word with a relentlessly, even desperately, engaged heart. It’s worth reading the whole psalm, but here are a few tastes:

    • “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart” (Psalm 119:2).

    • “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10).

    • “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34).

    • “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

    • “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:24).

    • “I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:47–48).

    When we read Psalm 119, two truths are unmistakable: the word of God is for the heart of man, and the way to the heart is through the mind.

    Treasure to Be Loved

    In Luke 10:27, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, where Moses says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Any time, however, the Gospels record Jesus quoting this text (see also Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30), Jesus adds the word mind, which Moses didn’t include. Perhaps this is because the Hebrew hearers of Moses’s day understood implicitly that affections included reason, while the Greco-influenced mixed crowds of Jesus’s day needed the clarification.

    Whatever Jesus’s reason for adding “mind,” it is clear that both reason and affections are crucial to loving God. But there is a hierarchy. God wants our hearts, because, as Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). God is not merely an idea to be pondered, but a person to be loved — the supreme treasure to be supremely treasured.

    God’s way to our affections (heart) is through our understanding (mind). So, when we read the Bible, we read it with our hearts engaged, because God’s word is primarily for our hearts.

    Read to See Glory

    As Christians, we rightly stress the importance of reading the Bible. In stressing this importance, however, we can easily fall into a subtle, deceptive misunderstanding of why it’s important. The subtle misunderstanding goes something like this: if we read the Bible regularly, God will be pleased with us, and therefore we can expect his blessing. As if the act of reading, rather than the purpose of reading, warrants God’s favor.

    What’s deceptive about this is that it bears such a close resemblance to the truth. Regular, disciplined reading of the Bible is a means of great blessing from God. But not because performing the act of reading merits his favor. If we read the Bible this way, it’s not much different than the Muslim who practices the disciplines of the Five Pillars to merit Allah’s favor. This is apparently how many leaders in Jesus’s day approached the Scriptures. Listen to Jesus’s rebukes:

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27–28).

    “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40)

    God is not interested in our Bible reading as some kind of ritual to perform as proof of our piety. He wants us to read the Bible so that we will see him! God wants us to see his glory, again and again.

    The Bible is where the most important glories of the triune God shine brightest and clearest — especially the glory of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and through whom comes “grace and truth” (John 1:17).

    This makes the Bible itself shine with a peculiar glory, worth mining deeply because of the priceless wealth it contains. As John Piper says,

    In all the details and particulars of what we find in the Bible — Old Testament and New — the aim of reading is always to see the worth and beauty of God. Notice that I say “in all the details and particulars.” There is no other way to see the glory. God’s greatness does not float over the Bible like a gas. It does not lurk in hidden places separate from the meaning of words and sentences. It is seen in and through the meaning of texts. (Reading the Bible Supernaturally, 96)

    God’s glory is seen in and through the meaning of texts. That’s why we pray, “Make me understand the way of your precepts” (Psalm 119:27). Because understanding God’s word is the means of God’s word getting stored up in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).

    Don’t Read Just to See

    God wants our hearts in Bible reading, not just the attention of our minds. As important as seeing God’s glory is, it’s not enough. God wants us to see his glory so that we will savor his glory. And “if there is no true seeing of the glory of God, there can be no true savoring of the glory of God” (96). Charles Spurgeon said it this way:

    Certainly, the benefit of reading must come to the soul by the way of the understanding. . . . The mind must have illumination before the affections can properly rise towards their divine object. . . . There must be knowledge of God before there can be love to God: there must be a knowledge of divine things, as they are revealed, before there can be an enjoyment of them. (100)

    The “love to God” and “an enjoyment of divine things” are what God most wants us to experience as a result of reading our Bibles, and neither happens without knowledge. Knowledge is for the sake of love and joy.

    When I said the word of God is for the heart of man, I meant it is for, to borrow from the hymn, the “joy of every longing heart.” Bible reading “in all the details and particulars” is frequently rigorous work. It can be quite difficult. At times it can even be disturbing. When we deal with the Bible, we’re dealing with the infinite and mysterious mind of God. His thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). But ultimately, if we really understand why God has given us a Book, reading his word becomes a hedonistic pursuit. What we’re after is the pleasure our souls are designed to enjoy most: the savoring of God’s glory.

    Read Until You See and Savor

    Those who have known God best, and loved him most, have understood the crucial importance of savoring God deeply through seeing God clearly in his word.

    George Müller, when reflecting on his remarkable, demanding life of prayerful dependence on God for the sake of the Bristol orphans, recalled an important moment early in his ministry: “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord” (100). He was speaking about his daily, disciplined Bible reading and prayer each morning. This was his oasis of refreshment. Time in the word functioned like a ballast keeping his ship upright in a life of significant stress and at times turbulent storms. “Unless some unusual obstacle hindered him, he would not rise from his knees until sight had become savoring” (100).

    George Müller read the Bible like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119: with a rigorously engaged mind and a relentlessly engaged heart. And so must we. We read the Bible with our minds to see the glory of God, and with our hearts to savor the glory of God. We pass the Bible through our minds to store it in our hearts, because our hearts are with our treasure. And if possible, we don’t stop looking until our hearts are “happy in the Lord” — until we feel fresh joy in some aspect of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.


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    All We Do Is Succeed

    On the morning of November 12, 1660, a young pastor entered a small meeting house in Lower Samsell, England, preparing to be arrested. He hadn’t noticed the men keeping guard outside the house, but he didn’t need to. A friend had warned him that they were coming. He came anyway. He had agreed to preach.

    The constable broke in upon the meeting and began searching the faces until he found the one he came for: a tall man, wearing a reddish mustache and plain clothes, paused in the act of prayer. John Bunyan by name.

    “Had I been minded to play the coward, I could have escaped,” Bunyan later remembered. But he had no mind for that now. He spoke what closing exhortation he could as the constable forced him from the house, a man with no weapon but his Bible.

    Two months and several court proceedings later, Bunyan was taken from his church, his family, and his job to serve “one of the longest jail terms . . . by a dissenter in England” (On Reading Well, 182). For twelve years, he would sleep on a straw mat in a cold cell. For twelve years, he would wake up away from his wife and four young children. For twelve years, he would wait for release or, if not, exile or execution.

    And in those twelve years, he began a book about a pilgrim named Christian — a book that would become, for over two centuries, the best-selling book written in the English language.

    Tinker Turned Preacher

    John Bunyan (1628–1688) was not the most likely Englishman to write The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that would be translated into two hundred languages, that would capture the imaginations of children and scholars alike, and that would rank, in influence and popularity, just behind the King James Bible in the English-speaking world. “Bunyan is the first major English writer who was neither London-based nor university-educated,” writes Christopher Hill. Rather, “the army had been his school, and prison his university” (The Life, Books, and Influence of John Bunyan, 168).

    As Paul said of the Corinthians, so we might say of Bunyan: he had few advantages “according to worldly standards” (1 Corinthians 1:26). In his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he confesses that his father’s house was “of that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land” (7). Thomas Bunyan was a tinker, a traveling mender of pots, pans, and other metal utensils. Thomas sent his son to school only briefly, where John learned to read and write. Later, after a stint in the army, he followed his father into the tinker trade.

    Meanwhile, Bunyan recalls, “I had but few equals, especially considering my years, which were tender, being few, both for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the name of God” (Grace Abounding, 8). Sometime in Bunyan’s early twenties, however, God laid his hand on the blasphemous tinker and began to press. For the first time, Bunyan felt the load of sin and guilt on his back, and despair nearly sunk him. He agonized over his soul for years before he was finally able to say, “Great sins do draw out great grace; and where guilt is most terrible and fierce, there the mercy of God in Christ, when showed to the soul, appears most high and mighty” (Grace Abounding, 97).

    Bunyan soon carried this travail and triumph of grace into the pulpit of a Bedford church, where he heralded Christ so powerfully that congregations throughout Bedfordshire County began asking for the tinker turned preacher — including a small gathering of believers in Lower Samsell.

    Trying Days for Dissenters

    Not everyone in England responded warmly to Bunyan’s preaching, however. “He lived in more trying days than those in which our lot is fallen,” wrote John Newton a century later (“Preface to The Pilgrim’s Progress,” xxxix). Yes, these were trying days — at least for dissenting pastors like Bunyan, who refused to join the Church of England. Throughout the seventeenth century, dissenters were sometimes honored, sometimes ignored, and sometimes arrested by England’s authorities. Bunyan’s lot fell into the last of these.

    Some dissenters did not exactly help the cause. A Puritan sect called the Fifth Monarchy Men, for example, took to arms in 1657 and 1661 in order to claim England’s crown for the (supposedly) soon-to-return Christ. Often, then, “the authorities did not seek to suppress Dissenters as heretics but as disturbers of law and order,” David Calhoun explains (Life, Books, and Influence, 28). Bunyan was no radical — simply a tinker who preached without an official license. Still, the Bedfordshire authorities thought it safer to silence him.

    Once arrested, Bunyan was given an ultimatum: If he would agree to cease preaching and remain quiet in his calling as a tinker, he could return to his family at once. If he refused, imprisonment and potential exile awaited him. At one point in the proceedings (which lasted several weeks), Bunyan responded,

    If any man can lay anything to my charge, either in doctrine or practice, in this particular, that can be proved error or heresy, I am willing to disown it, even in the very market place; but if it be truth, then to stand to it to the last drop of my blood. (Grace Abounding, 153)

    Bunyan was then 32 years old. He would not be a free man again until age 44.

    Bedford Jail

    Despite Bunyan’s boldness before the magistrates, his decision was not an easy one. Most trying of all was his separation from Elizabeth, his wife, and their four young children, one of whom was blind. Years into his jail time, he would write, “The parting with my wife and poor children has oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones” (Grace Abounding, 122). He would make shoelaces over the next twelve years to help support them.

    But Bunyan would not ultimately regret his decision. Though parted from the comfort of his family, he was not parted from the comfort of his Master. “Jesus Christ . . . was never more real and apparent than now,” the imprisoned Bunyan wrote. “Here I have seen him and felt him indeed” (Grace Abounding, 119).

    With comfort in his soul, then, Bunyan gave himself to whatever ministry he could. He counseled visitors. He and other inmates preached to each other on Sundays. But most of all, Bunyan wrote. In jail, with his Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs close at hand, he penned Grace Abounding. There also, as he was working on another book, an image of a path and a pilgrim flashed upon his mind. “And thus it was,” Bunyan wrote in a poem,

    I, writing of the way
    And race of saints, in this our gospel day,
    Fell suddenly into an allegory,
    About their journey, and the way to glory. (Pilgrim’s Progress, 3)

    Thus began the book that would soon be read, not only in Bunyan’s Bedford, but in Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, London — and eventually far beyond. The Bedford magistrates sought to silence Bunyan in jail. In jail, Bunyan sounded a trumpet that reached the ears of all the West, and even the world.

    Calvinism in Delightful Colors

    The genius of Bunyan’s book, along with its immediate popularity, owes much to the writer’s sudden fall “into an allegory.” As an allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress operates on two levels. On one level, the book is a storehouse of Puritan theology — “the Westminster Confession of Faith with people in it,” as someone once said. On another level, however, it is an enthralling adventure story — a journey of life and death from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would later write, “I could not have believed beforehand that Calvinism could be painted in such exquisitely delightful colors” (Life, Books, and Influence, 166).

    Those who read Pilgrim’s Progress find theology coming to them in dungeons and caves, in sword fights and fairs, in honest friends and two-faced flatterers. Bunyan does not merely tell us we must renounce all for Christ’s sake; he shows us Christian fleeing his neighbors and family, fingers in his ears, crying, “Life! life! eternal life!” (Pilgrim’s Progress, 14). Bunyan does not simply instruct us about our spiritual conflict; he makes us stand in the Valley of Humiliation with a “foul fiend . . . hideous to behold” striding toward us (66). Bunyan does not just warn us of the subtlety of temptation; he gives us sore feet on a rocky path, and then reveals a smooth road “on the other side of the fence” (129) — more comfortable on the feet, but the straightest way to a giant named Despair.

    The cast of characters in Pilgrim’s Progress reminds us that the path to the Celestial City is narrow — so narrow that only a few find it, while scores fall by the wayside. Here we meet Timorous, who flees backward at the sight of lions; Mr. Hold-the-world, who falls into Demas’s cave; Talkative, whose religion lives only in his tongue; Ignorance, who seeks entrance to the city by his own merits; and a host of others who, for one reason or another, do not endure to the end.

    And herein lies the drama of the story. Bunyan, a staunch believer in the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance, nevertheless refused to take that perseverance for granted. As long as we are on the path, we are “not yet out of the gun-shot of the devil” (101). Between here and our home, many enemies lie along the way. Nevertheless, let every pilgrim take courage: “you have all power in heaven and earth on your side” (101). If grace has brought us to the path, grace will guard our every step.

    ‘All We Do Is Succeed’

    Within ten years of its publishing date in 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress had gone through eleven editions and made the Bedford tinker a national phenomenon. According to Calhoun, “Some three thousand people came to hear him one Sunday in London, and twelve hundred turned up for a weekday sermon during the winter” (Life, Books, and Influence, 38).

    If the Bedford magistrates had allowed Bunyan to continue preaching, we would still remember him today as the author of several dozen books and as one of the many Puritan luminaries. But in all likelihood, he would not be read today in some two hundred languages besides his own. For Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of prison literature — and it bears the marks of Bunyan’s confinement. Without the prison, we would likely not have the pilgrim.

    The story of Bunyan and his book, then, is yet one more illustration that God’s ways are high above our own (Isaiah 55:8–9), and that the best designs of the devil can only serve the progress of God’s pilgrims (Genesis 50:20). John Piper, reflecting on Bunyan’s imprisonment, says, “All we do is succeed — either painfully or pleasantly” (“The Chief Design of My Life”).

    Yes, if we have lost our burden at the cross, and now find ourselves on the pilgrims’ path, all we do is succeed. We succeed whether we feast with the saints in Palace Beautiful or wrestle Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. We succeed whether we fellowship with shepherds in the Delectable Mountains or lie bleeding in Vanity Fair. We succeed even when we walk straight into the last river, our feet reaching for the bottom as the water rises above our heads. For at the end of this path is a prince who “is such a lover of poor pilgrims, that the like is not to be found from the east to the west” (Pilgrim’s Progress, 61).

    Among the company of that prince is one John Bunyan, a pilgrim who has now joined the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). “Though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4) — and urges the rest of us onward.


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    Humility Was His Secret Strength

    In my pastoral disappointments and discouragements, I have found great power for perseverance by keeping before me the life of a person who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace.

    I have needed this inspiration from another century, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. And one of the pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. It hangs in the air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We blame easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition. And if we think that we are not children of our times, let us simply test ourselves to see how we respond when people reject our ideas or spurn our good efforts or misconstrue our best intentions.

    We all need help here. We are surrounded by, and are part of, a society of emotionally fragile quitters. The spirit of the age is too much in us. We need to spend time with the kind of people whose lives prove there is another way to live. Scripture says, be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). So I want to hold up for us the faith and patient endurance of Charles Simeon for our inspiration and imitation.

    Raised with Christ

    Charles Simeon was born on September 24, 1759. His father was a wealthy attorney, but no believer. We know nothing of his mother. She probably died early, so that he never knew her. From age 7 to 19, he attended England’s premier boarding school, the Royal College of Eton. The atmosphere was irreligious and degenerate in many ways. Looking back late in life, he said that he would be tempted to take the life of his son rather than let him see the vice he himself had seen at Eton.

    At age 19, he went to King’s College in the University of Cambridge, and in the first four months God brought him from darkness to light. In January 1779, the provost announced that Simeon had to attend the Lord’s Supper. Simeon was terrified. He knew enough to fear that it was very dangerous to eat the Lord’s Supper as an unbeliever or a hypocrite. So he began desperately to read and to try to repent and make himself better. He eventually turned to a book by a Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper. As Easter Sunday approached, a wonderful thing happened. Here is his own account:

    In Passion Week, as I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect — “That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” The thought came into my mind, What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer.

    His hope gradually rose throughout the rest of Passion Week until, on Easter morning, “I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips: ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul” (Charles Simeon, 25–26).

    Unwanted Vicar

    Through the next three years, Simeon often walked by Trinity Church in Cambridge, he tells us, and said to himself, “How should I rejoice if God were to give me that church, that I might preach the Gospel there and be a herald for Him in the University” (Charles Simeon, 37). His dream came true when Bishop Yorke appointed him “curate-in-charge” (being ordained only as a deacon at the time). He received the assignment and preached his first sermon at Trinity Church on November 10, 1782. He met with opposition and difficulty from the start.

    Humility Was His Secret Strength y6jkk9ya

    The parishioners did not want Simeon. They wanted the assistant curate Mr. Hammond. Simeon was willing to step out, but then the Bishop told him that even if he did decline the appointment, Hammond would not be appointed. So Simeon stayed — for 54 years! And gradually — very gradually — overcame the opposition.

    The first thing the congregation did in rebellion against Simeon was to refuse to let him be the Sunday afternoon lecturer. This second Sunday service was in their charge. For five years, they assigned the lecture to Mr. Hammond. Then when he left, instead of turning it over to their pastor of five years, they gave it to another independent man for seven more years. Finally, in 1794, Simeon was chosen lecturer. Thus for twelve years he served a church who was so resistant to his leadership they would not let him preach Sunday afternoons but hired an assistant to keep him out.

    The second thing the church did was to lock the pew doors on Sunday mornings. The pewholders refused to come and refused to let others sit in their personal pews. Simeon set up seats in the aisles and nooks and corners at his own expense. But the churchwardens took them out and threw them into the churchyard. When he tried to visit from house to house, hardly a door would open to him. This situation lasted at least ten years. The records show that in 1792 Simeon got a legal decision that the pewholders could not lock their pews. But he didn’t use it. He let his steady, relentless ministry of the word and prayer and community witness gradually overcome the resistance.

    Despised in His Own University

    As the students made their way to Trinity Church, they were prejudiced against the pastor by the hostile congregation, and for years he was smeared with all kinds of rumors. The students at Cambridge held Simeon in derision for his biblical preaching and his uncompromising stand as an evangelical. Students who were converted and wakened by Simeon’s preaching were soon ostracized and ridiculed. They were called “Sims” — a term that lasted all the way to the 1860s — and their way of thinking was called derisively “Simeonism.”

    But harder to bear than the insults of the students was the ostracism and coldness of his peers in the university. One of the fellows at the university scheduled Greek classes on Sunday night to prevent students from going to Simeon’s service. In another instance, one of the students who looked up to Simeon was denied an academic prize because of his “Simeonism.” Sometimes, Simeon felt utterly alone at the university where he lived. He looked back on those early years and wrote, “I remember the time that I was quite surprised that a Fellow of my own College ventured to walk with me for a quarter of an hour on the grass-plot before Clare Hall; and for many years after I began my ministry I was ‘as a man wondered at,’ by reason of the paucity of those who showed any regard for true religion” (Charles Simeon, 59).

    Deepest Root of Endurance

    For decades, Simeon responded to trial and suffering in ways ordinary humans do not respond. Something else was at work here than a mere man. How did Simeon endure his trials for so long without giving up or being driven out of his church?

    There were numerous biblical strategies of endurance. He kept before him, for example, a strong sense of his accountability before God for the souls of his flock. He learned to receive rebuke and grow from it. He saw suffering as a privilege to bear his cross with Christ.

    But there was also a root that was deeper than any particular strategy of endurance. It is so utterly different from the counsel we receive today. Handley Moule captures the essence of Simeon’s secret of longevity in this sentence: “‘Before honor is humility,’ and he had been ‘growing downwards’ year by year under the stern discipline of difficulty met in the right way, the way of close and adoring communion with God” (Charles Simeon, 64). Those two things were the heartbeat of Simeon’s inner life: growing downward in humility and growing upward in adoring communion with God.

    Growing Downward

    The remarkable thing about humiliation and adoration in the heart of Charles Simeon is that they were inseparable. Simeon was utterly unlike most of us today who think that we should get rid once and for all of feelings of vileness and unworthiness as soon as we can. For him, adoration only grew in the freshly plowed soil of humiliation for sin. So he actually labored to know his true sinfulness and his remaining corruption as a Christian.

    I have continually had such a sense of my sinfulness as would sink me into utter despair, if I had not an assured view of the sufficiency and willingness of Christ to save me to the uttermost. And at the same time I had such a sense of my acceptance through Christ as would overset my little bark [i.e., ship], if I had not ballast at the bottom sufficient to sink a vessel of no ordinary size. (Charles Simeon, 134)

    He never lost sight of the need for the heavy ballast of his own humiliation. After he had been a Christian forty years he wrote, “There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty years to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ: and I have always thought that they should be viewed together” (Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, 518).

    If Simeon is right, vast portions of contemporary Christianity are wrong. And I can’t help wondering whether one of the reasons we are emotionally capsized so easily today — so vulnerable to winds of criticism or opposition — is that in the name of forgiveness and grace, we have thrown the ballast overboard. Simeon’s boat drew a lot of water. But it was steady and on course and the mastheads were higher and the sails bigger and more full of the Spirit than most people’s today who talk more of self-esteem than self-humbling. He actually fled for refuge to the place that many today try so hard to escape.

    ‘My Proper Place’

    On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his work at Trinity Church, looking back over his many successes, he said, “I love the valley of humiliation. I there feel that I am in my proper place” (Charles Simeon, 159–60). Why? Why is this evangelical humiliation a place of happiness for Simeon? Listen to the benefits he sees in this kind of experience:

    While we continue in this spirit of self-degradation, everything else will go on easily. We shall find ourselves advancing in our course; we shall feel the presence of God; we shall experience His love; we shall live in the enjoyment of His favor and in the hope of His glory. . . . You often feel that your prayers scarcely reach the ceiling; but, oh, get into this humble spirit by considering how good the Lord is, and how evil you all are, and then prayer will mount on wings of faith to heaven. The sigh, the groan of a broken heart, will soon go through the ceiling up to heaven, aye, into the very bosom of God. (Charles Simeon, 137–38)

    My conclusion is that the secret of Charles Simeon’s perseverance was that he never threw overboard the heavy ballast of his own humiliation for sin, and that this helped keep his masts erect and his sails full of the spirit of adoration. As Simeon grew down in humiliation, he grew upward in worship and joy — all the way to the end. As he lay dying in October of 1836, a friend sat by his bed and asked what he was thinking of just then. He answered, “I don’t think now; I am enjoying” (Charles Simeon, 172).


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    ‘I Never Knew You’

    Is any lostness worse than remaining lost while believing you’re found?

    Of all those who finally travel the broad way to destruction, are any so wretched as those who sang Christian songs, prayed Christian prayers, and sat under countless Christian sermons along the way? The man sipping sand in the desert, because he thinks he holds a cup of water, is the most tragic and pitiable of sights. To plunge thoughtlessly into the next life is one horror; to play the saint, and still be deceived, is another.

    There was a time I wouldn’t have believed such people existed — least of all, that I was one of them. Certainly, all who audibly called upon Jesus as Lord would be saved — why else would anyone show up every Sunday? But there it stood before me, glowing as if engraved in fire, Jesus’s own words giving us a transcript of some on judgment day:

    Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23)

    I read it again. And again. No verse had ever made me lose sleep before.

    I realized that I must be one of the “many.”

    Three Fatal Dreams

    I was like so many sermon-hearers, Bible-readers, and synagogue-attenders of Jesus’s day: lost in a dream, traveling toward hell in church clothes. “As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched” (Isaiah 29:8), I merely dreamt of eternal safety .

    But God, as I pray for many who read this, woke me up through his word. At the end of the greatest sermon ever preached, Jesus exposed three fatal dreams that I dreamt as one of the religious lost: dreams that mere intellectualism, mere emotionalism, and mere activism are solid grounds for the hope of my salvation.

    Correct Doctrine Is Insufficient

    First, Jesus shows the insufficiency of intellectualism — of the one who would say, “I know and, thus, I am saved.” Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These men and women were addressing him with the appropriate term, “Lord” (Greek kyrios), the characteristic title for God in the Old Testament — and so he was.

    Calling him Lord proved their orthodoxy, they may have thought. They knew something every child of God knew to say. They did not approach him as a mere prophet or religious teacher; they addressed him as exalted majesty. They knew the Scriptures, the books to read, and which podcasts to follow. But calling on him as Lord did not open the kingdom of heaven to them. As the scene shows in full sobriety: knowing the right mantras, solas, verses, or doctrines is not sufficient for eternal life.

    Emotions Are Inadequate

    Second, Jesus shows the inadequacy of mere emotionalism — of the one who would say, “I feel and, thus, I am saved.” Addressing him as “Lord, Lord” shows that this wasn’t spoken dryly. They spoke enthusiastically, expectantly, confidently. They spoke emphatically to convey a sense of familiarity with who they perceived to be their Lord.

    No doubt, this was the product of lives filled with great sensations toward Jesus. Certainly, they had a relationship with him, they thought — he was not “Unknown judge” or “Distant deity” but “Lord, Lord.” If asked whether they felt affection toward Jesus, all would have answered, “Of course.” Yet, they heard in reply, “I never knew you; depart from me,” proving that positive emotions toward Christ are not in themselves an adequate response to his word.

    Activity Can Be Deceptive

    Finally, Jesus shows the fantasy of mere activism — of the one who would say, “I’ve done great things for God and thus I am saved.” Jesus says, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” They took action in Jesus’s name. They performed visible, effective works for others. They had a résumé of miracles. They acknowledged him before the world. People heard them prophesy, watched them cast out demons, and do many other mighty works in his name — and they concluded that this counted for more than it did. They were “used of God” — surely, they must be his. And yet, they heard, along with those who outwardly hated God, “I never knew you; depart from me.”

    Surprising Oversight

    What was missing? Jesus’s answer might surprise us: They were not doers of the word. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Instead of doers of God’s will, they amounted to “workers of lawlessness.” They called him “Lord, Lord” but failed to do what he told them (Luke 6:46).

    They heard the word of God — in the gospel message and in the written Scriptures — but they did not obey it. These were those who, as Jesus teaches in the next breath, built their lives on sand because they heard his words but did not do them:

    Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:26–27)

    They thought and felt and acted, at times, like saints, but their lives were marked by self and sin. They listened to the Sermon on the Mount, only to go away not to cut off limbs of lust, nor cease their adulteries, nor end the hatred toward their brother, nor renounce the love of money, nor forgive their neighbor, nor relinquish their anxieties, nor resolve to be charitable in their judgments — all by faith in and love for the Preacher. Nor would they be bothered to ask, seek, and knock for the Spirit’s help (Matthew 7:7–11). Their righteousness would not exceed that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

    They vainly thought — as I thought for many years, and ache over how many in our day still think it — that hearing was sufficient. That feeling was enough. That public displays of religion would do the trick. They wandered, as in a dream, trusting in the fact that they heard, that they felt, or that they did, even though they continued to practice sin.

    James, who would have been unbelieving when he heard his brother preach this sermon, later urges the church not to similarly live in this dream of disobedience: “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:21–22). Later he calls such “faith” useless, dead, and demonic (James 2:14–26).

    Thy Will Be Done

    We are justified by faith alone, as the Reformers taught, but not by a faith that is alone. To truly receive the words of God is to intentionally, through a joyous faith in our crucified and resurrected Lord and active reliance upon his Spirit, obey them. Consider that if exposure to God’s word in the spoken gospel and the written Scriptures doesn’t soon change your behavior (even if slower than you might hope), if the transformation of your inner person does not extend to your outer life, you may well be wandering in the dream of those who never knew him.

    Remember, the word of God, by its very nature, reproves us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness, that we “may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It reaches into our homes, our work, our world, doing business in every crevice of our hearts, and having implications for all of our lives. The Bible is a Book to be obeyed, for it is the Book through which our God speaks.

    And these words of our God are not burdensome. They are words of eternal life, and glad obedience to them is abiding in his love and the fullness of our joy (John 15:9–11). Scripture contains no impersonal instructions for everyday life, but living words to children from their Father, strategic commands from the General to his soldiers, necessary instruction from the Shepherd to his sheep, life-giving vows from a Groom to his bride. If we love him, we will obey him (John 14:15).

    Thus, while requiring us to think (true doctrine matters), saving faith is not merely about thinking; while requiring us to feel (we must love the Lord with all of our hearts), it does not terminate in our passions; while affording great displays of power and wonders, it calls for private fruits of a holy life to corroborate public showings. It produces men, women, and children who, in union with Jesus and given new hearts, happily do the will of God with a new, childlike aim: to please him (2 Corinthians 5:9).


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  • 11/14/19--11:00: We Need Not Parent in Fear
  • We Need Not Parent in Fear

    Would you believe that many, if not most, of today’s working parents (especially mothers) spend just as much time engaged in parenting activities as stay-at-home parents of the 1970s did? I, for one, was astonished to discover that trend in one excellent, well-researched article.

    Having written about the benefits of having moms stay at home if they can, I wondered, can this be true? The article outlined how “hyper-parenting” begins in utero, as moms today pay much more attention to their diet, read more parenting books, and sign up for more classes. It continues when the baby is born, with more monitoring, exclusive breastfeeding, sugar-free diets, homemade baby food, and Pinterest birthday parties. Apparently, parents today read more to their children (that surprised me), initiate more crafts at home, enroll their children in more lessons and sports (that did not surprise me), help more with homework, and the list goes on.

    Interestingly, after all the additional time, energy and expense, today’s parents are still more anxious about the job they’re doing — and still worry it’s not enough.

    Why Are We Hyper-Parenting?

    What has driven all of the change? The article sums up the motivation: economic anxiety — “doing everything to ensure children climb to a higher class or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.” While the article didn’t mention it, I know from my experience and friendships that parents also simply want their children to be happy. They believe all of this effort and activity contributes to that well-being.

    It is worth noting that many Christian parents can be just as preoccupied with providing every opportunity, protecting from every potential danger, and sacrificing to meet every desire. These loving parents may be somewhat less concerned with upward mobility than secular parents, but they similarly believe they are simply taking seriously the responsibility to be loving stewards over their children’s lives.

    The article interviewed some experts who said that while there are some indications of benefits in upward mobility, there is no question children are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety, are more dependent on parents, lack self-reliance, and experience less satisfaction with life. Suicide rates among teens and young adults are much higher than in previous decades. In addition, many parents, especially mothers, feel more stress, exhaustion, and guilt, and have little time for spouses, friends, and other activities.

    What Do We Fear?

    As I reflected on these realities, I was struck by the fact that the bottom-line motivation behind it all boils down to fear. The article cited fears about children’s financial future and position in the world, but we might add some justifiable fears about greater risks to the physical safety of children in neighborhoods and schools. There is also evidence, fueled by the dynamics of social media, which suggests many parents are driven by a need for approval (a fear of what others might think).

    These fears are grounded in earthly realities, and miss transcendent truths. These fears stir a response in human nature which addresses fears by seeking to do more and control more. In proper perspective, doing more may be a healthy response, but an unhealthy anxiety and fear that drives us to do more and more in order to assure a result flies in the face of what we hear in God’s word. And, as the article indicates, this kind of doing does not necessarily lead to happier, better adjusted, self-motivated children.

    In fact, when we parent in fear, there’s a greater chance we will raise up fearful children. No parent wants to raise fearful children. As Christians, we also will be concerned that parenting out of such fears may foster in our children the lie that effort is more important than trusting God.

    What Parents Cannot Do

    The truth is that our efforts alone cannot guarantee any result, and the degree to which we depend upon our efforts may even put us at odds with God. Paradoxically, God’s way is for us to understand that he is the only one who truly controls anything. Our work is to “fan into flame the gift of God . . . for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6–7).

    Christian parents, if you find yourself in the cycle described in the New York Times article, I encourage you to take a deep breath, try to cease your anxious striving, and ponder the assurance we have of God’s help and care for us as we do everything in life, including parenting our children. God does not want us to do anything out of anxiety, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

    Facing Fear with God

    When, as parents, we become driven by fears for our children’s earthly well-being, we are forgetting what we know about the goodness of our God. God promises us that “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).

    When we are anxious about whether our children will be able to get good jobs or be able to provide for themselves or their families, yes, we should make sure they get a good education and learn to work hard, but we also need to remember and be teaching them the higher truth in Philippians 4:19: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Our children’s ultimate provision is not up to our effort or theirs, but to God’s.

    When we are concerned about our children’s future, we should stop projecting out our desires, and make sure that, instead of anxiety, they see the reason for our hope. What can blow away the anxiety that creeps into Christian parenting? For starters, ponder in wonder this amazing truth:

    He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3–5)

    Our greatest parenting task is to be sure our children see our hope and learn about the way they too can have this glorious assurance in Christ.

    When we face inevitable parenting challenges, challenges that illuminate the reality that we are in far over our heads, we must remember and draw strength and hope that it is God who promises, “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you’” (Isaiah 41:13). Do you believe God wants to help you? Are you daily praying for this help?

    God Knows We’ll Make Mistakes

    Because of the saving grace available through Jesus Christ, Christians need never parent out of fear of punishment for getting it wrong. God knows we will not always get it right. God’s love rests on the perfect sacrifice of his beloved Son, Jesus, who did get it all right. Yes, there are consequences for foolish decisions, and we should make every effort to make responsible, godly decisions, and teach our children to do so, but our future and the future we want for our children does not rest on our getting everything right. Isn’t that wonderful news?

    It is so freeing to know that our God is not standing somewhere on the sidelines waiting to see if we will get our children into the right schools, or involve them in enough sports, or even protect them from every possible earthly danger so that they never experience suffering. God holds our children’s future, and he is eager to guide and direct our parenting to help lead our children toward the things that assure a deeper joy and satisfaction than anything the world will ever be able to provide.

    This God is watching to see if we are

    • loving him most and best (Luke 10:27),
    • praying earnestly for his help and leading as we parent our children (Philippians 4:6–7),
    • being obedient to his leading rather than catering to the world (John 8:31),
    • working to introduce our children to the wonders of who he is,
    • training our children from his word to understand, and long to be, the kind of people he wants them to be (Deuteronomy 6:4–7),
    • teaching them about the amazing sacrifice Jesus has made so that they might live in joy forever (1 John 4:10; Colossians 1:21–22; Ephesians 1:7),
    • displaying joy in Jesus and the life we (and they can) have in God (John 10:10; 15:11); and through all of these things if we are
    • encouraging them to love, trust, and enjoy God above all things.

    The Result Is God’s

    It is sobering to remember that even if we love and trust God, and do everything in our power to live our lives to display the goodness of God, and teach our children diligently the wonderful truths of the Bible, our kids may still have difficult lives and may ultimately reject Christ. We are promised that God will be with us as we parent, but we are not promised our children will have easy lives or be saved.

    The truth is our children are not our own. We are merely stewards of them while they are young; they belong to God and he decides their future. None of our anxiety, worry, and fear changes this reality, and, paradoxically, this is glorious news! We are free to trust not in our own efforts, but in the loving God who first entrusted these children to our care.

    Because God controls the outcome, we have perfect freedom to do all that we are able, drawing upon his strength, and then trust him for the result. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the best schools, most prestigious jobs, and accolades from the world, preoccupation with these things has the power to divert our eyes and our children’s eyes from God. Working to make sure our children receive these things will amount to nothing in eternity.

    But if we introduce our children to the glories of their Creator and Redeemer, they have the opportunity of both an earthly life of deep joy, which sustains them in the trials and suffering that will surely come, and eternal joy in the presence of God, where there is no suffering or pain. That is the purpose of parenting, and the result is God’s. So parent diligently, but “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).


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    Wait for the Ending

    Faith in a sovereign God does not prevent us from sometimes feeling bewildered about what our sovereign God is doing.

    On a small scale, we can grasp for reasons behind everyday frustrations like dead car batteries and sleepless nights — mere inconveniences, to be sure, but nevertheless enough to sometimes ruin what we thought were God-honoring plans for the day. Perhaps we can agree with J.I. Packer when he writes, “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything” (Knowing God, 105).

    Such confusion is troubling us enough in the everyday, but it can become altogether faith-shaking when, contrary to all our expectations, we witness the last breath of what seemed to be a God-given dream. How do we make sense of a church plant that fails to take root? Or of a child who, despite every spiritual privilege, walks away from her parents’ God? Or of a long-hoped-for relationship that finally comes, and then ends after the first few notes?

    No matter which way we turn these stories, our most creative imaginings can invent no happy ending. Like Noah’s dove, our faith flies away from the ark in search of solid ground, but returns without an olive branch (Genesis 8:8–9).

    Perplexed, but Not Despairing

    The apostle Paul was not exempt from such bewildering experiences. True, he could write, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), but he could also write, “We are . . . perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). The peace of God does not shield us from providences of God that feel, for a moment at least, utterly perplexing.

    Nevertheless, Paul can tell us in the next breath, “But [we are] not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). Perplexed, but not despairing; bewildered, but not hopeless. Where did Paul’s hope rest when God’s providence disoriented him? And how do we follow the apostle, and revive our hope in God when we can see around us no reason to keep hoping?

    We do so, in part, by closing our eyes to hope in what we cannot see: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). When God’s promises to do us good seem to have fallen to the ground, we do not resign ourselves to what our eyes can see, what our ears can hear, or even what our hearts can imagine, but rather to “what God has prepared for those who love him.”

    Perhaps many of us have heard these words from Paul spoken at funerals or in conversations about heaven. But if we are going to feel the force of 1 Corinthians 2:9, we need to notice that Paul is looking backward, not forward. Paul does not declare here his hope of what God will do; he celebrates what God has already done in the crucified and risen Christ, the Lord of glory (see 1 Corinthians 2:8, 10).

    And if God has already done what our eyes can’t see, what our ears can’t hear, and what our hearts can’t imagine — and on a far grander scale than anything we’re facing — then we can hope that he will do so again.

    No Eye Could See

    On this side of the cross and empty tomb, we seldom feel just how improbable God’s promises could have appeared to God’s people before the coming of Christ. By the end of the old-covenant era, the promises of a king and a kingdom seemed to have died beneath Israel’s disobedience. At the same time, however, God kept making promises — promises that did not diminish as Israel’s earthly prospects waned, but rather intensified through the prophets.

    As Israel’s temple lay in ruins, God promised to build a bigger, more glorious temple (by far) than Solomon’s ever was (Haggai 2:6–9; Ezekiel 40–48). As the worshipers of Yahweh dwindled through exile, God promised that all nations would one day stream to Jerusalem (Micah 4:1–2). As the presence of God seemed confined to a remnant in Babylon, God promised that the knowledge of his glory would one day flood through all the earth (Habakkuk 2:14). As Israel grew more skilled in wickedness, God promised that they would one day obey him with a whole heart (Jeremiah 32:39–40).

    And somehow, God would fulfill all these promises while remaining relentlessly committed to his own name. He would forgive rebels without injustice, redeem Israel without unfaithfulness, rescue sinners without forfeiting his right to say, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11).

    No eye could see what God would do. No ear could hear his plans. No heart could imagine the coming fulfillment.

    What God Prepared

    I can imagine a perceptive Israelite looking upon God’s promises, looking upon God’s people, and feeling perplexed. As John Frame writes,

    Had I been living in the Old Testament period I would have had very little idea (despite the hints of the coming Messiah) of how God would resolve the problem. Were I of a skeptical bent, I might even have been tempted to say that God could not possibly solve the problem. . . . But God does solve the problem, in a way that none of us would likely have expected, in a way that amazes us and provokes from us shouts of praise. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, 183–84)

    Yes, God does solve the problem. Though generations of Israelites entered their graves “not having received the things promised” (Hebrews 11:13), the promises came true. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son — the greater temple (Matthew 12:6), the desire of nations (Matthew 12:18–21), the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3), the soon-to-be crucified Messiah (1 Corinthians 2:8).

    In a moment, God revealed what he had long prepared for those who love him: a resolution so stunning that no prophet could see it, no wise man could hear it, and not even the most fanciful dreamer could imagine it. Angels themselves longed to look into the eternal counsels that, finally, after centuries of waiting, sent a boy to save the world.

    Harder Happy Ending

    The grand story of redemption (and hundreds of smaller stories within the grand story) reminds us of the kind of stories God loves to tell: stories where everything seems to go wrong, and happy endings feel impossible. Stories where, for what feels like far too long, we are perplexed at his plans. Stories with endings that defy our despair and usher in a joy beyond all reckoning.

    If we could see now how God will resolve our confusion, dispel our disappointment, and heal our broken hearts, we would no longer be living in a story, and we would no longer need hope. “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). In our own moments of bewilderment, our role is not to know the ending of this story, but to wait for the ending, and in the meantime to live as faithful characters.

    And we do so, in part, by remembering with Paul that the most perplexing problem in this world’s history has already come, and has already resolved. No matter how confusing our own stories are, God has already brought to pass the harder and happier ending. He has already made a way for his justice and mercy to kiss. He has already turned a cross into a throne and a grave into a footstool. He has already broken the curse that hung over all of Adam’s race.

    To us, it may feel impossible for God to weave the frayed threads of our broken dreams into something beautiful — and, from all human perspectives, it may be. But compared to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what feels impossible to us is a small thing for God.

    Wait for the Ending

    Today, we are living in the grandest story ever told, but we are not yet at the ending. We walk in the wilderness, not the Promised Land; we carry a sword, not the spoil; we look up to a dark night, not the dawn. If our eyes could see the solution, if our ears could hear the coming deliverance, if our hearts could imagine the ending, the final rescue would not be so wonderful, so happy beyond expectation.

    After acknowledging the apparent pointlessness in the ordinary providential course of events, Packer reminds us that

    the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing, and “doeth all things well,” even if for the moment he hides his hand. (Knowing God, 107)

    Beware, then, of judging your story before God reveals his hand. If you are in Christ, the finale is sure. What your eye cannot see now, what your ear cannot hear now, and what your heart cannot imagine now, your God is preparing for you. Trust him. Love him. And wait for the ending.


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  • 11/15/19--03:00: Will We Pray in Heaven?
  • Will We Pray in Heaven?

    If heaven is a world of love, with no grief or pain or loss, then will we have any need to pray to God once we are there?

    Listen Now


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