Running Toward the God Who Is Running to Us

Have you ever noticed how persistent God is when seeking a relationship with His people? He went looking for Adam and Eve in the garden after they’d sinned and hidden from Him (Gen. 3:8-9). He called to little Samuel four times to make sure He got his attention (1 Sam. 3:1-10). He helped Elijah do great things then followed him into hiding to speak reassurance in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:1-8). He portrays Himself through the prophets as Israel’s husband, who loved her so much that He kept seeking a restored relationship even when she was unfaithful (Hos. 1-3). He’s the Father in Jesus’s parable who runs out to meet his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24). God consistently makes active moves to initiate, deepen, and restore relationship.

This is a really good thing for us. How would we dare come before Almighty Yahweh, the Creator of the Universe, unless He wanted us there? Though we haven’t done anything to deserve His attention or desire, He makes it very clear that He wants us. He also makes it clear that His choice to seek relationship with us comes with an invitation for us to seek Him just as fervently.

Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.

Hebrews 4:14-16, NET

Over and over, God calls people into relationship with Him. He’s so serious about building relationships that Jesus died in order to ransom us from sin and make a close, familial relationship between humans and God possible for all eternity. He will never run away or abandon us (John 10:12-15), and so we ought to run toward Him.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Running To God

This idea of us running to God isn’t mentioned very often in scripture. It does, however, appear several times in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament writings. It seems that “running to God” is similar to the idea of boldly approaching Him, but there are a few other meanings as well. For example, in these two verses the focus is on running to God for protection:

Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord.
I run to you for protection.

Psalm 143:8, NET

Yahweh’s name is a strong tower:
the righteous run to him, and are safe.

Proverbs 18:10, WEB

Scripture also talks about people running toward God in response to His call. Isaiah talks about nations running to God. Similarly, in John’s gospel, he records that the Pharisees recognized “running” as the way people responded to Jesus (even if they didn’t think to link it with this scripture in Isaiah).

“Behold, you shall call a nation that you don’t know;
and a nation that didn’t know you shall run to you,
because of Yahweh your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel;
for he has glorified you.”

Isaiah 55:5, WEB

Thus the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you can do nothing. Look, the world has run off after him!”

John 12:19, NET

Like the people Isaiah prophesied about and those whose devotion to Jesus worried the Pharisees so much, we also ought to run to God. When He calls us, we ought to respond eagerly. When we’re in trouble, He should be the first person we turn to. This topic makes me think of a song I first heard shortly after I started attending a Messianic congregation. I think music is one of the best ways to engage our whole selves in our relationships with God, so here’s the song, if you’re interested in listening to it:

Running With Faith

The Bible also talks about a specific way that we’re supposed to run. In this sense, “run” is used as a metaphor for how we live as Christians. Paul in particular uses this analogy several times to talk about how he lived and how we ought to live (1 Cor. 9.24-26; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; Phil. 2:16). Staying in a close, faithful relationship with God our entire lives requires the same commitment, endurance, and perseverance as running a race.

Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2, WEB

This type of running isn’t something we do on our own. God runs to us, so we run to God, and then we run the race that is our lives together with Him.

Those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength.
They will mount up with wings like eagles.
They will run, and not be weary.
They will walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31, WEB

Running To The Right Thing

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

There are a lot of things that we could run to other than God. Many of us ran toward the things of the word in times past, or currently struggle with keeping on-track running toward God. Even when we are running properly in a God-ward direction, people in the world around us will “think it is strange that you don’t run with them into the same excess of riot, blaspheming” (1 Pet. 4:1-6, WEB). The more we align ourselves correctly as we run toward God, the more it will look the the world as if we’re running in a very strange direction.

As Christians today, we should ask ourselves questions like the ones my dad brought up when I shared this study with him. “How can I run to God today? How can I draw near to Him? How can I become more like Him?” Those are the sorts of things which ought to be our focus as we discipline ourselves to run our race of faith the way Paul talked of in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians: with self-control, with purpose, and with perseverance.

God runs to us. He persistently pursues a relationship with us because of His great love and desire to have us in His family. We also can run to God, boldly seeking Him out for protection and simply because we love Him. The more we run toward Him, the stronger our relationship will be and the less we’ll care about how odd our choice to pursue the things of God looks to the world. Then, as we stay close to God, we receive strength to keep running “the race set before us” without getting tired or discouraged.

Featured image by David Mark from Pixabay

Crash-Course In Jude: Pre-Reqs for Paul, Part Four

The final general epistle is the shortest section of scripture we’ll look at in this blog series. Jude only wrote one letter that we have in our Bibles, and it’s just 25 verses long. That will leave us with enough space in this post for a wrap-up looking at common themes in all the letters that we’ve been studying over the past month.

Before we dive into Jude, here are links to the posts on James’s, Peter’s, and John’s letters. As I mentioned in those posts, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order had these letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. The general epistles give us a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers, all of which is essential for properly interpreting Paul’s more complicated teachings. We can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course for understanding Paul.

The identity of Jude is as debated as that of James (see that first post for more detail), and people went back-and-forth for centuries on whether or not to include his letter in canon. Now, though, it is “generally received over the whole Christian world” (Clarke’s Commentary). This letter’s theme is similar to 2 Peter and, as we’ll see later in this post, it also connects to themes that all the general epistles share. Taken as a whole, the general epistles by all four writers connect the New Testament back to the Old Testament, warn about dangers from outside persecutions and from evil men working within the churches, offer hope and encouragement, and tell their readers to do good and keep the commandments of God.

Warnings and Punishments

Jude addresses his letter “to those who are called, wrapped in the love of God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1, all scriptures from NET). Like most other general epistle writers, he has a broad audience that includes all Christian believers. He said he’d planned to write “about our common salvation,” but even though that topic is exciting he felt compelled to write about something else. He wrote “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (1:3). The NET footnote on this verse says, “The verb ἐπαγωνίζομαι (epagōnizomai) is an intensive form of ἀγωνίζομαι (agōnizomai). As such, the notion of struggling, fighting, contending, etc. is heightened.” When Jude talks about us contending for our faith, he means we need to fight and struggle for it with focus and determination.

In this letter, Jude focuses his warnings and encouragement to fight on a specific problem: “ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (1:4). He further describes them as people who “as a result of their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and insult the glorious ones” (1:8). They are murderous, blasphemous, rebellious, spiritually dead, double-minded, unstable, and a danger to everyone they encounter (1:10-13). They’re
“grumblers and fault-finders who go wherever their desires lead them, and they give bombastic speeches, enchanting folks for their own gain” (1:16). Jude elaborates on the dangers these people pose and the evil they’re practicing throughout most of this letter. By the end, there’s no danger that we could see those who try to undermine the church as anything other than a serious threat.

These warnings about those who’ve “secretly slipped in” to the churches are placed alongside reminders from Jude that people who do such wicked things won’t get away with them. He bids his readers remember “that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe” and references a couple other Old Testament examples as well (1:5-7). This verse is one of several in the New Testament that explicitly identifies Jesus as the member of the God family who worked directly with Israel. With this short phrase, Jude reminds us that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever and that He still values justice and judgement as well as mercy (Jude 1:14-15).

How Ought We Behave

Jude doesn’t just focus on scathing indictments of those seeking to undermine the church while pretending to be faithful believers. He also warns us about how to recognize those people and gives us guidelines for how we ought to respond. As part of this, he references a scene that we don’t get anywhere else in the Bible.

Jude tells his readers, “But even when Michael the archangel was arguing with the devil and debating with him concerning Moses’ body, he did not dare to bring a slanderous judgment, but said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you!'” (1:9). This story serves two roles in Jude’s epistle. First, it shows that those who dare slander spiritual beings, even the wicked ones, have no idea what they’re messing with. Even angels don’t go up against the devil directly; they call on the Lord to rebuke him. Secondly, the story gives us hints for how we ought to respond when faced with wickedness. We, too, can call on the Lord to handle the matter of wicked beings, be they human or otherwise. That’s the safest and wisest thing to do. This is a good illustration to keep in mind when reading things Paul would later elaborate on, including the fact that we’re involved in spiritual warfare and that vengeance belongs to God, not us (Rom. 12:17-20; 2 Cor. 10:1-6; Eph. 6:10-20).

Finally, Jude ends his epistle with encouraging remarks. He’s confident that those he’s writing to are not part of the problem he’s describing. Rather, they’re part of the solution as they continue to build up their faith, pray in the Spirit, stay in God’s love, and practice mercy.

But you, dear friends—recall the predictions foretold by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. For they said to you, “At the end of time there will come scoffers, propelled by their own ungodly desires.” These people are divisive, worldly, devoid of the Spirit. But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith, by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life. And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh.

Now to the one who is able to keep you from falling, and to cause you to stand, rejoicing, without blemish before his glorious presence, to the only God our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, and now, and for all eternity. Amen.

Jude 1:17-25, NET

Common Themes in the General Epistles

As mentioned in the introduction, the general epistles all connect the Old and New Testaments, warn about dangers coming from inside and sometimes outside the church, offer hope and encouragement, and remind us to do good and keep the commandments of God. I won’t spend too much time on these shared points, but I want to make a few comments and share scriptures that show this overlap.

OT Connections

All the writers of the general epistles were very familiar with the writings we now call the Old Testament, and frequently reference the law and the prophets. Their insistence that Jesus did not do away with these writings and that we do well to read them today are a great foundation for understanding how Paul talks about the law operating on a spiritual level for New Covenant believers.

James 2:8-13; 4:11-12

1 Peter 1:10-12; 2:4-10

2 Peter 3:1-2

1 John 2:3-3:11

Jude 1:5; 14-16

Warnings

These four writers do not shy away from the fact that those who follow Jesus Christ will face opposition and trials. Most of them also talk about the possibility that theses trails will come from other people who are (ostensibly, at least) part of the church fellowship. These are warnings to help ensure that we don’t get caught off-guard by threats to our faith or discouraged when trials come.

James 1:2-4

1 Peter 1:6-9; 2:19-25; 3:14-18

2 Peter 2:1-22; 3:3-7

1 John 2:18-19, 22-26; 4:1-3

2 John 1:7-11

Jude 1:3-4, 6-19

Hope

It would be terribly depressing if all the general epistles focused on warnings and trials without offering hope and encouragement. All four of these writers encourage their readers to be ready, to hope in God, and to keep living faithfully. They also speak about the help God offers us, the certainty that He hears our prayers, and the wonderful future He has prepared for us. We are precious to God and He’s fully invested in us.

James 1:17-18; 5:7-11

1 Peter 1:3-5, 18-21; 2:4-10; 5:5-13

2 Peter 2:4-11; 3:8-10

1 John 2:12-14; 2:28-3:3; 5:4-5, 14-17

Jude 1:20-21, 24-25

Do Well

Finally, all four writers of the general epistles tell us that there’s something we’re expected to do. We need to love God and keep His commandments. That’s what shows our faith is real rather than just a surface-level thing that we talk about without actually practicing.

James 1:22-25; 2:8-26; 5:17

1 Peter 1:13-17; 1:22-2:3; 4:2-6

2 Peter 1:2-11; 3:14-18

1 John 2:3-6; 3:4-10, 18-24

2 John 1:5-6

Jude 1:20-22

Featured image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

Why Millennials Might Feel Alone In Their Churches

I had a strange moment at church several weeks ago. As I was sitting at a table fellowshipping after services and looked around, it hit me that I was the only person in my 30s in the whole room. That day, there wasn’t anyone there in their 40s, either. The 50-and-older and younger-than-30 age groups are well represented in my congregation, but there’s a whole generation that’s missing.

Technically, I suppose we do have some younger millennials and older Gen Xers, so it’s more like two halves of two generations. But there’s a whole two decades’ worth of people that’s represented by just a few people. I can find people my age and a little older if I travel to other congregations across the country, but it still seems like a pretty small number. And from what I’ve heard talking with people in other church groups and denominations, low numbers of Millennials and Gen X in Christian churches is fairly common. If you’re a Millennial who feels alone in your church, there’s a good chance it’s (at least in part) because you’re the only person there in your age-range.

Of course, I already knew that I’m the only person in my congregation in my 30s before that moment a few weeks ago. And I don’t really feel “alone” because I have great relationships with other people in the congregation who are younger than me or who are my parents’ age. But this time, I started to dwell on the idea of being the only one here since I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful that weekend (as I shared a couple weeks ago, I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression again). I started worrying about whether or not my church group would vanish some day, decades from now, as the older people grew older and younger people moved away. I wondered if the younger people who are here would be ready and able (and if there’s enough of us) to step-in and take over service roles in the church in the years going forward as the people in their 50s, 60s, and older need or want to cut-back on their responsibilities. I started feeling sorry for myself, thinking about how this is one of the reasons I’m still single.

I journaled about these thoughts and mentioned them to my counselor, who reminded me this isn’t an uncommon thing to see when looking at Christian groups today. As I started writing this blog post, I did a little more digging into the numbers of Millennials and Generation X in churches. I found that a Pew research study in 2014 reported the number of people who say that religion is important to their life drops as the generations get younger. The younger the generation, the less likely they are to identify as Christian, believe in God, or place a high priority on any religion (click here for more info).

Image from PewForum.org

A more recent worldview survey released in 2021 by Arizona Christian University reported that “Millennials Seek a Nation Without God, Bible and Churches” (click here to read). Though 57% of Millennials (which this survey defines as those born between 1985 and 2002) identify as Christians, the report also noted that only 16% “can be classified as born-again Christians based on their beliefs about personal salvation.” This report also reminds readers that what’s going on with Millennials is continuing a trend away from belief in the Bible and God that began gaining ground with Gen X. It’s definitely a trend I’ve noticed among my Millennial peers and Generation Z as I interact with them at university.

My counselor is the one who suggested I blog about all this rather than keeping it just in my journal. It’s a relatable topic, since there are so many Christians in their 40s, 30s, and younger who feel like I did when they look around their churches. There just aren’t that many of us here. I’m not sure what the right word for this feeling is. “Lonely” or “alone” doesn’t seem to fit because we can still have great relationships with people older than and younger than us. No one in a healthy church ever needs to be alone since the church can provide a community and support system (though of course we can still feel lonely even when surrounded by people we genuinely like). “Underrepresented” is probably closer to what Millennials in the church face, but it seems a little odd to use in this context; as if Churches should recruit based on age rather than welcoming all faithful believers who are called by God.

As I’ve been working through my most recent struggles with depression and anxiety, I’ve been asking questions about my thoughts. Questions like “Is this helpful or useful?” and “Is this encouraging?” Musing on how lonely or underrepresented I could feel isn’t either of those things. But is there something helpful or useful that could come from thinking about the dwindling number of faithful people as we look at more recent generations? Perhaps there is.

I think it’s useful to acknowledge that people from certain age groups are less common in the churches for a few reasons. Firstly, it helps those of us in that age group know why we feel like there aren’t very many of us in the churches, and lets us know we’re not alone in that feeling. Knowing which generations seem less interested in and committed to faith also gives us a chance as churches to examine ourselves. The diminishing numbers of younger people is likely a sign of the increasing secularity of the world as we draw closer to the time of Jesus’s return. Even with that being the case, we should still see if there’s anything we ought to change and improve in order to be more faithful and therefore a better environment for new people (of all ages) whom God is calling. To give a few possible examples, we might guard more closely against hypocrisy, embrace enthusiastic worship services, preach a stronger message of personal responsibility, or show how meaningful a life of faith can be.

Ultimately, we can’t force people into churches to fill some kind of quota we set up in our minds. God the Father is the one who calls people, though we do get to participate in sharing the gospel. Prayer is the best thing we can do in response to worries, questions, or loneliness related to the decreasing interest in faith among young people or our feelings of being alone in our churches. We can pray that each of us, as individuals and as parts of church communities, be drawn into closer and more meaningful relationships with each other and God. We can pray for the gospel to reach more young people and touch their hearts. And if we are feeling lonely, we need to be praying about that as well. One of David’s psalms says, “God sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6, WEB), and He can do that for each of us.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Are there any generations that seem to be “missing” from your church group? Or maybe you’re part of a group that does have a lot of people in their 40s, 30s, and younger and you’d like to share what that’s like. Let’s discuss in the comments!

Featured image by Anggie from Lightstock

Crash-Course In John: Pre-Reqs for Paul, Part Three

For the last two weeks, we’ve been studying the general epistles. Here are links to the posts on James’s and Peter’s letters. As I mentioned in those posts, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order had James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general (also called “catholic”) epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. That reading order makes sense, since the letters that James, Peter, John, and Jude write are phrased in simpler language than Paul’s writings. The general epistles also give us a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. You can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul’s writings, similar to how you’d need to take intro to composition courses before specializing in teaching writing.

In today’s post, we’re going to focus on John’s three epistles. The first of these epistles begins without addressing a specific group, though from the context of the letter it’s clear he’s speaking to Christians–those who whom the gospel was preached and who chose to believe it. James’s letter addressed those of Israelite descent who believed in Jesus, Peter’s letters addressed Jewish and Gentile believers, and now John’s letter is written to everyone. The purpose he gives for writing this letter is “so that our joy may be complete” (or “your joy” depending on the Greek manuscript you use) (1 John 1:4, all quotes from NET).The mention of joy comes at the beginning of all three of his letters, and frames the encouraging and weighty subjects he’ll be covering.

Walk in the Light

The strongest theme throughout John’s three epistles is love. Here is where we learn “God is love,” and are reminded over and over that because God loves us we must love one another. Though John brings up other topics as well, he ties them all back to this core message. God is love, and because we’ve received God’s love we are duty-bound to respond to God and to other people in certain ways.

We’ll return to love before the end of this post, but that word actually doesn’t show up in John’s first letter until the second chapter. Originally, of course, there wouldn’t have been chapters dividing up the text of this letter, but that fact does make me curious about what things John felt it was important to talk about before diving into the main theme of his letter.

Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:5-10, NET

This recap of the gospel is what John starts his letter with. “God is light” is something that he wants to establish for his readers before sharing that “God is love.” If he just started off with “God is love,” then perhaps his readers might make the mistake that so many modern people have of assuming that because God is love, His love doesn’t come with any expectations placed on us. We who’ve received God’s love and who’ve been cleansed from our sins by Jesus’s sacrifice must walk in the light as well as live in God’s love. In short, we must “walk just as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6).

John’s instruction to walk in God’s light is not a new commandment (1 John 2:7). It echoes all the commands from the Old Testament that could be summed-up as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9-10; James 2:8). On the other hand, John also describes this as “a new commandment” because the darkness of old has now passed away and we have a far clearer picture of the true light shining through Jesus Christ (1 John 2:8). As Jesus said, he came to fill the “law and the prophets” to their fullest extent. Doing that magnifies what obedience looks like now as we follow the spirit of God’s commands. With that background, John moves into talking about love.

The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person. But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected. …

The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness. The one who loves his fellow Christian resides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.

1 John 2:4-5, 9-10, NET
Image by Pearl from LightStock

Be Warry of Dangers

John’s not writing about the contrast between people who are in God’s love and light and the people who are living a lie in order to scare us. Indeed, he has some very reassuring things to say to his readers (1 John 2:12-14). He’s writing to them, and to us, because we’ve been forgiven, we know God, and we are already overcoming the evil one. But John also knows that Christians face many challenges, and it’s easy to slip away if we don’t have reminders for how to follow God. So he writes to us about the wonderful life that God offers. He reminds us of all the wonderful things that await us as people who God calls His very own children. He also talks about the fact that if we have that hope inside us, we will work to purify ourselves just as God is pure (1 John 3:1-3). Alongside all this talk of love and light, John highlights the need to keep God’s commandments and stay faithful to Him in spite of the dangers we face.

Over and over again in these letters and in the gospel he wrote, John links love with commandment keeping. Alongside that, John highlights the importance of living according to the truth. This idea goes along with walking in the light, keeping God’s commandments, and practicing righteousness. In both of his two shorter letters, John says that he rejoices to learn that his children (apparently referring to those he taught this faith to) are living in the truth (2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:4). Living and walking in the truth ought to be our intention as well, but there are many things that try to work against that goal.

Many dangers face God’s people, and a lot of them are spiritual. One example that John talks about is people who are “antichrist.” Though there is a figure known as “the antichrist” coming in the end times, Johan says we’re currently in “the last hour” and that “many antichrists” have already appeared. These are often people who were once part of the Christian body, but have now left and who deny both the Father and the Son (1 John 2:18-19, 22-26). Much like Peter did in his second epistle, John warns that the most dangerous antichrists are those who are working from inside the church to subvert people into denying the Father and/or the Son. For that reason, we need to “test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-6; see also 2 John 1:7-11).

Even though John is very reassuring to his readers and continually reminds them of things like “we have eternal life” (1 John 5:12-13), he also does not soften the strength of his warnings. In the second letter, he even says, “Watch out, so that you do not lose the things we have worked for, but receive a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:7-8). John wants us to take these warnings seriously and let them inspire us to remain in holiness. Whether or not we choose light, love, and commandment keeping is a choice that has eternal consequences.

Image by Anggie from LightStock

Love Always

It’s in the context of all these reminders, reassurances, and warnings that John highlights the vital importance of love. In these three letters, “love” is translated from agape or its root word agapao. This is a selfless, benevolent love that always seeks the good of the one who is loved. Agape is often described as “godly love,” although other words, like philos are also used of God’s love in the New Testament. As we read through John’s letters, we’re warned not to “love the world or the things in the world,” but rather to focus our love on God as we practice the things which are in accordance with His will (1 John 2:15-17).

John tells us, “Everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God” (1 John 3:10). From that, we can infer that practicing righteousness involves loving our brethren. Indeed, John goes on to say, “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:14). It’s worthwhile at this point to go and read all of chapters 3 and 4 because that section of the letter goes into so much depth on this particular topic. Because of God’s love for us–which results in us being redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice and being called the Father’s children–“we also ought to love one another “(1 John 4:11). If we don’t genuinely love each other, we can’t even say that we love God. Unless our love includes other believers, we have no concept of what God’s love truly means. And our love must also include keeping God’s commandments (2 John 1:5-6).

Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

As John wraps up his letter, he looks back on everything discussed so far and says this:

We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:18-21, NET

I find John’s writings some of the most poetic and inspiring of the New Testament. His emphasis on God’s light and love is beautiful, and I love the way he talks about God welcoming us into His light and His family. In a compassionate, empathetic way, John also writes about the need for Christians to live and walk in a certain way. We’re not to be fearful, worried that God will cut us off and cast us away if we slip-up, but we must at the same time commit to practicing righteousness instead of sin. God has given us everything we need for salvation. He loves us and He wants us as part of His family. We just need to be on guard to make sure we don’t let those good things slip away from us through neglect or rejection. We know the truth of what’s going on in this world and behind the scenes, including that the world lies under the power of the evil one. With that in mind, we can be vigilant in order to guard against putting any idols before God or falling prey to the influences of those who are antichrist.

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Crash-Course In Peter: Pre-Reqs for Paul, Part Two

Last week, we started a study on the general epistles by taking a close look at James. As I mentioned in that post, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order put James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general (also called “catholic”) epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. That reading order makes sense, since the letters that James, Peter, John, and Jude write are phrased in simpler language than Paul’s writings. The general epistles also provide a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. You can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul, similar to how you’d need to take general psychology courses before specializing in adolescent psychology or organizational psychology.

In today’s post, we’re going to focus on Peter’s two epistles. While some scholars question whether these two epistles were written by the same person because of the change in style and tone, I see no reason to doubt the author’s self-identification as Peter (1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1). The change in writing can easily be explained by the epistles being written at different times and with slightly different focuses. Peter’s letters differ from James’s in having an even broader audience–while James wrote to “the twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (James 1:1), Peter wrote to all those “temporarily residing abroad .. who are chosen by God” (1 Pet. 1:1-2, all quotes from NET translation ). Though the Greek word diaspora is typically used of “Jews not living in Palestine” (NET footnote), the context of the epistle hints that Peter is using the term more generally to address all those living in the word as Christians. For the second letter, he simply calls his audience “those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, have been granted a faith just as precious as ours (2 Pet. 1:1). The audience for these three general epistles broadens as we read through them, mirroring the way God opened the way to salvation up for all people and also laying groundwork for Paul’s more in-depth writings on Jews and Gentiles.

Trials, Joy, and A Spiritual Perspective

Peter begins his first letter much the same way James does by discussing joy and trials. Peter focuses on the cause of our joy–that we’re recipients of God’s great mercy and are being given “an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:3-9). This is the source of our joy which doesn’t go away through trials. We can even find joy in the trials since we know they “show the proven character of your faith” (1 Pet. 1:7). We’re each in the process of “attaining the goal of your faith–the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9), and that is a wonderfully joyful thing even if there happen to be trails in our lives at the same time.

This theme of trials and salvation is a strong one in 1 Peter. He comes back to it again to point out that we’re called to do good and to suffer for it because that’s what Jesus did, and we really can’t expect the world to treat His followers better than they did Him (1 Pet. 2:19-25). Then a little later Peter tells us to do good, be ready to answer any who come at us with questions about our faith, and be willing to suffer the way Jesus did (1 Pet. 3:13-18). The reason for this emphasis becomes clear when Peter says, “Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). His readers were currently facing a trial and he wanted to encourage them to face it armed “with the same attitude” Jesus had, which was “concerned about the will of God and not human desires” (1 Pet. 4:1-2).

Peter’s message isn’t all about passive acceptance of suffering, though. Yes we’re to respect human authorities and accept suffering as Christians (1 Pet. 2:13-25), but we’re also to remember we’re called to be soldiers in a spiritual war. “Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” and we need to resist him. We can succeed in this, but only with God’s help and by submitting to Him (1 Pet. 5:5-11). Our Lord has great power, and He gives us everything necessary for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). With His help, we can endure through the trials and emerge from battle victorious.

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Stirred Up to Hold On to Truth

In Peter’s second letter, he says he wrote both letters “to stir up your pure mind by way of reminder” (2 Pet. 3:1, see also 2 Pet. 1:13). He uses much of his time spent “stirring up” for encouragement, but there’s also a lot of warnings. In the first letter, he focused on the trials we experience in the world. In this next letter, he focuses on trials within the church.

But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them.

2 Peter 2:1, NET

You can read more details about these false teachers and the dangers they present in 2 Peter 2:12-22. They’re irrational, deceitful, seductive, greedy, and enticing. They say they give freedom but really offer destruction and enslavement to sin. It is vital that we be on guard against such dangers, which is why Peter writes to stir-up faith and remind his readers of the truth. He also emphasizes our reasons for hope, a word which appears more times in Peter’s letters than in any of the other general epistles.

It can be discouraging to have people both inside and outside the church scoffing and trying to tear down your faith (2 Pet. 3:3-13), but we have a hope for our future to hold onto. We know God isn’t delaying His return for no reason; He is patient, giving people many opportunities to repent. We also know it is certain He will return and we need not worry about Him following-through on that, nor do we need to listen to those who question His promises. In fact, we don’t need to pay any attention to those who distort the scriptures.

Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence. And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your firm grasp on the truth.

2 Peter 3:14-17, NET

Who Should You Be, Given What You Know?

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One question Peter asks when talking about Jesus’s approaching return is, “what sort of people must you be, conducting your lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” (2 Pet. 3:11-12). We know there will be trials, we know there will be challenges to our faith, and we know that the time of Jesus’s return grows closer each day. Now what do we do with that knowledge?

The answer is woven through both letters. Near the beginning of Peter’s first letter, he tells his readers to be “obedient children” who follow God’s way rather than “evil urges.” In short, “like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Indeed, Peter assumes his readers are already working to purify their souls, obey the truth, and show sincere love (1 Pet. 1:22-2:3). What else would we do as people who’ve experienced the Lord’s kindness?

Being recipients of God’s kindness is something Peter links with a long history of faith. His readers aren’t just new adherents to a new faith in Jesus. They (along with us) are included in the people Hosea the prophet spoke of who once were “not a people” but are now “God’s people;” who were “shown no mercy” but have now “received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:4-10; Hos. 1:6-9; 2:23). We’re all part of this group that God has been working with for thousands of years–a group He calls “my people,” and so we need to devote ourselves to doing what is good (1 Pet. 3:8-13).

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly affection; to brotherly affection, unselfish love. For if these things are really yours and are continually increasing, they will keep you from becoming ineffective and unproductive in your pursuit of knowing our Lord Jesus Christ more intimately.

2 Peter 1:5-8, NET

As we read these two letters, Peter wants to “stir up” our minds; to remind us to “recall both the predictions foretold by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). Keeping those foundational truths from both the Old and New Testaments in mind will help us combat false teachers and ensure we’re living godly lives as we wait for Jesus’s return (2 Pet. 3:1-13). During our time here on this earth, we must work to increase in peace, goodness, and patience, guarding ourselves and growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day.” (2 Pet. 3:14-18).

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Still Struggling Even When Life Is Good? It’s Not Just You

Do you ever feel like everything’s going really, really well in all the parts of your life except inside your head? That’s where I’ve been at for a while now. I started grad school and that’s going really well. I’m teaching and tutoring a wide range of ages and subjects and that’s going really well. I have great relationships with my parents and siblings, I’m getting a new sister next year when my brother gets married, and I have a stable, supportive church family. It’s all fantastic. This is probably the best my life has ever been.

And yet, I keep finding myself sinking into depression and struggling with anxiety. What if all this goes away? Going to grad school was always my back-up plan and if that doesn’t work I don’t have anything in mind to fall back on. I look at what’s going on in the world today, and I don’t really have a lot of confidence that society’s going to remain stable. I tell myself that I’m okay with being 32 and single–that I’m not sure I even want a relationship at this point–but then I feel like I might be lying to myself. So I start worrying, and then I feel guilty for worrying, and then I worry about how my glumness is affecting the people around me. And when people who care about me notice there’s something wrong I struggle to tell them what’s wrong because there’s no good reason for all this worry.

This post isn’t just about me sharing my struggles, though. I’m going to be okay–I’m seeing a counselor again a couple times a month to help get myself back on track with my mental health. My reason for writing today is to get us thinking about how to work through the guilt, shame, and disconnected feeling that can go along with having mental health struggles when everything in life seems to be going well. I often hear people talk about how it’s normal to struggle with depression and anxiety when things in your life aren’t good, or recommendations to focus on the positive and get engaged with your life so those feelings will go away on their own. But what if things are already good, and you are engaged with all the positive things in your life, and you still struggle? That can be “normal” too. Not normal in the sense that it’s a good thing to stay there, but normal in the sense that there are lots of other people struggling with it as well.

Fighting the Battles in our Heads

Some time ago, I wrote a post called “Fighting Something You Can’t See.” I’ve been thinking about that idea recently, and I just went back and read what I wrote three years ago. Near the end of that post, I said, “It’s so hard for me to turn anxiety over to God. In a way, letting go of the thoughts demanding constant attention doesn’t seem safe. … [but] God doesn’t want us to cower in the face of attacks inside our minds. He wants to help us fight back. Casting our anxieties on God frees us to let Him help us fight the real battle behind all the other struggles we face.” Past-me had some wise advice, and I think I need to tell myself this once again.

This idea that God wants us to keep trusting Him during the tough times is also something I’ve been studying recently, sort of by accident. It came up when I was reading Peter’s letters as part of studying for the next post in my new series on the general epistles (you can read my post on James here). Peter spends a lot of time, especially in his first letter, reminding people that confronting trials is a normal part of being a Christian and that the source of those is the adversary, the devil who stalks about like a lion seeing to devour God’s people. Peter is also very clear that, with God’s help, we can resist this adversary.

And God will exalt you in due time, if you humble yourselves under his mighty hand by casting all your cares on him because he cares for you. Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour. Resist him, strong in your faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are enduring the same kinds of suffering. And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him belongs the power forever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:6-11, NET

May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord!

I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.

2 Peter 1:2-3, NET

God gives us tools for success. He does not promise we won’t face trials or that we will not need to fight battles. Rather, He says He’ll be with us through those things. James and Peter even agree that we can have joy during the challenges and trials we face. That joy comes from us having faith faith and hope that provide context for understanding what we’re going through (James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:3-9).

Practical Steps We Can Take

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It’s all very well to talk about having faith, hope, and joy when we face trials and using the tools God gives us, but how does that work in real life? As I think most Christians who struggle with mental health issues can attest, it’s not like we haven’t tried praying about these things. We know we’re supposed to turn things over to God and stop worrying, but if you’re like me you’re not really sure how to do that.

I’m going to share a few tips now for practical steps that we can take. Some of these work for me already, while others are recommendations that others have shared and which I’m working on trying out. It’s not an exhaustive list, and since we’re all so different they won’t all work for everyone. I hope, though, that you’ll find something here that’s helpful for you or which sparks an idea of something that might help.

  • Practice mindfulness. My dad, sister, and counselor have all stressed this to me recently. It’s not a good idea to live in the fearful “what ifs” of the future. They might not happen at all, and we don’t really have control over them anyways. As Jesus says, “So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34, NET). Being mindful of the present is a conscious choice/effort. It’s part of taking “every thought captive to make it obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NET).
  • Keep the context in mind. When we’re struggling with something inside our minds, we need to remember that we’re not alone and that this is a very real fight. Paul counsels us to remember that “though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds,” including ones inside our own minds (2 Cor. 10:1-5, NET). When you feel like your mind’s under attack or like you’re fighting against something, you’re not going crazy. We are fighting in spiritual battles, and we are not doing it alone. Remind yourself of this, and go to God in prayer. Ask Him to keep His promise to fight alongside you.
  • Sing and praise. One way to counter the dark things inside our minds is to speak light out of our mouths. Did Paul and Silas sing in prison because they were so happy to be there, or because they knew that praise would connect them with God, who is the source of the strength and joy they’d need to get through this? (Acts 16:24-26). I’m not sure, but I’m starting to suspect that it’s not very helpful to try and muster up joy silently when we’re struggling. We need to speak/sing to God whether we feel like it or not, and then the joy may follow that. I know I tend to feel better when I sing and listen to Christian music, but I’ve gotten away from that recently. Today as I write this, I’m listening to a lot of Jean Watson and I find that music very uplifting. I also find Jason Gray’s “Sparrows” very fitting for how I feel right now.
  • Talk with someone. I know it’s tempting to keep everything to yourself and not let people know how much you’re struggling. But the people who love you would rather have you let them know what’s going on and how they can help and support you than to have you struggle on your own. And if you don’t have anyone you can talk with (or even if you do have someone but your struggles are still having a negative impact on your life), I highly encourage you to seek professional counseling. Click here to start searching for therapists in your area.

Those are the four things I’m using right now to try and work through the anxiety and depression that I’ve been dealing with recently. I’d love to hear from anyone else who wants to share their experiences in the comments or who has advice for others going through similar things. What tips do you have for maintaining a focus on God and holding on to joy during times of inner struggle?

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