November 30, 2013

What's up with Lottie Moon?

In recent years (and months, even!), the Lord has brought many people from wide and varied backgrounds into our congregation. Some of them have come from other states (or even other countries); some from other church or denominational backgrounds; and some have been newly brought to Christ, though growing up with little or no Christian background at all. Praise God for the diverse family that He is building here at Pleasant Ridge! Truly, what we have in common is Jesus!

But the fact of our diverse backgrounds means that, sometimes, certain things may get ‘lost in translation’, as they say. There are compartments of our lives that may not exactly compute with the folks down the pew, because they have landed at PRBC from a completely different chute. For instance, what exactly is this etouffee that the pastor and his wife keep serving at their Sunday lunches? And what is this Facebook thing that all the young folks seem to talk about? And what do why do we call our meals fellowships? And do Cincinnatians mean ‘vacuum cleaner’ when they say ‘sweeper’? And what’s up with all this talk about Lottie Moon? Is that a person? Or does it have something to do with those folks who wear strange hats and ring bells outside of Kroger at Christmastime? And what has all this to do with missionaries?

Confusing, I know! The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering® is a Southern Baptist tradition like no other. And yet, if you are not coming out of the Southern Baptist chute, you too might wonder at an offering with such a strange name! As a kid, I think I had it confused with some group of people I’d heard of called the Moonies – whom I think I pictured as quasi-Shriner’s (or something like that)! Some of you may be similarly confused! So let me demystify you just a bit.

Who was Lottie Moon, and what exactly is this offering named in her honor? Well, to put it briefly, Charlotte Diggs ‘Lottie’ Moon was the most famous of all Southern Baptist missionaries. Born in Virginia in 1840*, she set sail for China at the age of 32 and spent her life there, sharing Christ with a feistiness that must have been a sight to see for someone who reportedly stood only four feet, three inches tall! For nearly forty years she lived among, loved, and shared Jesus with her Chinese neighbors and friends. Surely many are in heaven today, worshiping at the feet of Jesus, because of her witness for Him!

But many more have since followed in that heavenly train – not only because of Lottie Moon’s direct missionary work, but because of the way she stirred up the churches at home to give, so that many more like her could go and speak for Jesus at the ends of the earth. In 1887, she wrote a famous letter in the Foreign Mission Journal, urging her fellow Southern Baptist to open their purse strings to the cause of world missions, and suggesting Christmas as the perfect season for doing so:
Is not the festive season, when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of The Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of the human race, [is this not] the most appropriate time … to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?
And thus it was that Southern Baptists began the tradition of collecting, each Christmas season, a special offering to support their international missionaries. The tradition continues down to this day, the offering having since been named in the great missionary’s honor. 100% of the money that is given goes directly to international mission work. Today our denomination fully supports nearly five thousand international missionaries. And over half of the money needed to do so is collected through this one offering! It’s an incredibly worthy cause (the gospel!); and an incredibly sound kingdom investment. And I hope, now that you know the story behind its unique name, that giving liberally to this offering will become a tradition of your own … so that many, many more – “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” – will someday join Lottie Moon (and you, and me!) worshiping at the feet of King Jesus.

*My information about Lottie Moon comes mostly from the International Mission Board pamphlet: Lottie Moon: Remarkable Gift, Incredible Life.  For more on her life, visit the IMB's "Who's Lottie" page.

November 18, 2013

‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’ Really?

‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’ This is one of those statements that we’ve probably heard multiple times, from multiple lips. Some of us have said it ourselves. After all, it sounds right, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t this what we’ve always been told? ‘God will never give us more than we can handle.’

But, as we tell our children, just because everyone else is doing something, doesn’t mean it’s right. And just because everyone (even among fellow Christians) is saying something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right either! Rather, when we hear little clichés like this, it is important to ask whether or not they’re actually true.

So what about this one? Is this adage – that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle’ – is that a biblical saying?

Well, it’s true that God “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” (1 Corinthians 10.13). Maybe that’s where our more over-arching cliché comes from. But that statement is specifically about temptation to sin, not a generic statement about all the trials of life. So then, what of the over-arching statement: ‘God will never give us more than we can handle’? Is that sentiment true, not only of temptation to sin, but of life in general?

Well, we need look no further than the apostle Paul for evidence that the answer is surely ‘no.’ Because Paul, speaking of the trials that he underwent in his missionary travels, says something that we will do well to take careful note of (2 Corinthians 1.8):

“We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength”

Read it again, carefully: “We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength.” That doesn’t sound like the modern mantra does it? Neither does the Israelites’ being backed up against the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army breathing down their necks, and no place to hide; or Daniel being tossed into the lion’s den, or his friends into the fiery furnace. Do you see? Both Paul and his Israelite ancestors faced difficulties that were, frankly, more than they could handle! They faced situations in which they would have utterly collapsed had not God Himself intervened on their behalf! And so may we – perhaps more often than we realize. And if we do not make room for this fact in our theology, bad fruit will result.

For one thing, if we buy into the idea that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ then what happens when actually do find ourselves “burdened excessively, beyond our strength”? We may be tempted to doubt the Lord; to question why He has not done for us what we were always told He would do – namely protect us from these unbearable situations.

On the other hand, believing the catchphrase may also result in robbing God of the praise He deserves for upholding us when we could not uphold ourselves. For, if we believe that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ we presume that, while God knows our limits, and will not go beyond them … we actually can handle at least a little a bit of difficulty ourselves. And so when a situation arises, and our backs are against the Red Sea, and all hope seems lost, but then we make it out alive, and with our faith still intact … the presumption will be: ‘Boy, I’m more resilient than I thought. God will never give me more than I can handle. And I just handled that awful situation. So my faith must be quite robust after all.’

And that is completely the wrong response! We ought to walk out of the lion’s den, or the fiery furnace, saying: ‘Praise God! I was as good as dead. I had no way out. I could not handle what was being thrown my way … “but God” intervened! God was strong when I was weak. God did it!’ And I submit to you that that sort of praise will happen, not when we buy the line that ‘God will never give us more than we can handle,’ but when we realize that, for wise, loving purposes, He might well do precisely that – give us more than we can handle! “So that we [will] not trust in ourselves, but in God” as Paul concluded in 2 Corinthians 1.9; so that we will realize that the ability to ‘handle’ life’s problems is in God, and not in us!

So the catchphrase is not exactly true. Better that we learn to say: ‘God will never give us more than He can handle.’ Or better still, that we memorize the Bible’s own words about such things (e.g. 2 Corinthians 1.8-9), and learn to quote them in times of trial!

November 11, 2013

"Earthen vessels" - Hope for the Mentally Ill

One of God’s great gifts to the English-speaking world has been the Christian publishing trust known as The Banner of Truth. For over fifty years, they have been achieving their goal of “Biblical Christianity through literature.” One of their trademarks has been the attractive re-issue of old, otherwise hard-to-find books by men that the contemporary world has largely forgotten (but shouldn’t have!). Because of the Banner’s hard work and commitment to the wisdom of the former ages, modern readers can bathe in the wisdom of the Puritans, benefit from the beautiful simplicity of J.C. Ryle, read the sermons of Whitefield and M’Cheyne, get to know Spurgeon, set sail with John Newton, and so on!

One of Banner’s recent re-issues is a classic book called The Atonement, originally published in 1870 by a Scotsman called Hugh Martin. In the foreward (written by John and Sinclair Ferguson, and printed as a separate article in the October 2013 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine), one can read about Martin as “a thinker of extraordinary penetration and great power”; one “whose works … every Christian should possess and read carefully.” His writing is described as “a powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light and gospel logic.” He is lauded for the interpretive freshness with which he approached the Bible, never leaving his readers bored! I wish those things were said of my preaching and writing!

In short, Hugh Martin was a great man, a gifted thinker, and a tremendous blessing to the Christian church!

But then, in the midst of the Fergusons’ foreward, one also reads this startling fact: Some time in his late 30’s (just maybe 2-3 years older than me), Martin “became mentally incapacitated for the duties of his office.”* We then learn that, in 1865 (only in his early 40’s), Martin’s struggles finally necessitated permanent retirement from his pastorate … and that he died 20 years later, having spent his final two years in an asylum.

O, how sad it made me to read of this marvelous man being so mentally debilitated! My heart aches to think of the great theologian, bent double by fears, or delusions, or anxieties, or whatever it may have been that he just could not fully overcome. But Martin’s story also gives me hope! Because Martin published his classic book on The Atonement in 1870 – five years after he had to retire from his pulpit due to mental illness! I suspect that he was probably, in many ways, still a broken man. Perhaps the clouds had cleared for a season, but the mental struggles evidently weren’t completely gone (since he didn’t go back to a pastorate, and eventually died in an asylum). But in the midst of whatever it was that plagued his mind so heavily, Hugh Martin was yet able, by God’s grace, to be useful in the Lord’s work … and even to continue writing “powerful, original, compelling, sometimes blazing light” kinds of words about his Lord Jesus! And that gives me great hope that God can use me, with all my foibles and quirks.

I’ve recently had occasion to hear the stories of several Christian men (a few of them in the ministry) who have suffered significant mental or emotional breakdowns. And it seems (and is!) so tragic in so many ways. The world, and mankind in God’s image, were not intended for this kind of suffering. And yet, fallen and cursed as we and our planet are, there will always be Hugh Martin’s in this life, even among God’s elect – those who struggle mightily to keep their sanity together. And yet God can use them! Through the brokenness of the “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4.7), the light of Christ can and does still shine through! And therefore our modern-day Hugh Martins are not finished yet! And, if you are reading this, having struggled with mental or emotional breakdown, you are not finished yet!

Incapacitated for his work as a gospel minister, Hugh Martin was still ministering the gospel; still sitting in his study, glorying in Christ … and writing gloriously about Him! I don’t know the details of his struggle, but I wonder if there may have been many days when Martin was fretful, paranoid, or just incredibly fearful of the kinds of who-knows-what that plagues many people in his shoes. But he still reveled in Jesus! In fact, maybe it was the reveling in (and writing about) Jesus which kept him sane enough to keep doing so! But whatever the case, God was not finished with Mr. Martin, even when he came to the end of his own rope!

In 2005, John Piper wrote an excellent piece on Alexander Cruden, another mentally sick man whom God used extraordinarily. And here is what Piper says by way of lesson from Cruden’s life:
What encourages me about this is to realize that God’s ways are strange. And in this strangeness, sinful and sick and broken people fit into God’s designs. He has purposes for the mentally ill and for the emotionally unstable and for the socially maladjusted. And he has purposes for you.^
So take heart, you who cannot seem to hold yourself together. And take heart, you who love those who can’t. As the Fergusons remind us, “The glory of the gospel is indeed contained in jars of clay.”#


*Quoted by the Fergusons from the Proceedings and debates of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (1881), p.46, under the heading ‘Dr Hugh Martin.’
^From the “The Good, Insane Concordance Maker” at
#For "jars of clay" see 2 Corinthians 4.7 (ESV).

November 5, 2013


It’s a biblical theme that I’ve run up against a few times lately – and been convicted by. God’s people ought to be marked by gentleness (or meekness in the King James rendering). Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I see that this ought to be one of our primary character traits. After all, this quality finds itself in some of the greatest character checklists in all the Bible!

What are some of those check lists?

One is the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Do you remember that list? “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are the pure in heart,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and so on. What about gentleness? Does it make the cut? Check. “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5.5).

And then there is Paul’s famous basket full of “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” So there it is again, in another very famous place – gentleness!

Paul also compiled a famous list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. And, you guessed it … gentleness makes this list, too! Among other things, “an overseer” (or elder / pastor) “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle.”

The beatitudes, “the fruit of the Spirit,” and the qualifications for elders. Along with the Ten Commandments, I think we’d agree that these are some of the most important moral and spiritual checklists in the Bible! And all three of them encourage gentleness in God’s people. And that’s not by accident! God must hold this quality in very high regard! He must consider it one of the great marks of true spiritual maturity – that we, each of us, grow in and exhibit gentleness!

Are there times when even Christians must be stern, or even forceful? The examples of Jesus, Paul, and other godly men surely tell us that there are (especially when religious hypocrisy rears its ugly head). But for all the times when severity is called for, it seems to me that there are many, many more times when gentleness is the order of the day.

For most of us, the rubber meets the road most obviously in our home lives. How many husbands, at the end of a long day’s work, are less-than-gentle with their wives? We tell ourselves that we’re just grouchy about our monotonous or stressful jobs. But the Bible doesn’t call for gentleness only when we’ve had a good day! In fact, it’s on the lousy days that our true character probably shows itself most. Are you gentle, men, even then? Am I?

And what about moms and dads? Do we discipline in anger, rather than with deliberate and patient consistency? Do we respond to our children’s repeated questions with great irritation, rather than helpful explanation? Do we snap at them from above instead of kneeling down at eye-level and explaining to them why mommy is disappointed in their behavior (and why, more importantly, it is displeasing to the Lord)?

Grandparents, older siblings, pastors, supervisors, co-workers, teachers, and many, many others can be guilty along these same lines, too. And, oh, I am convicted by these things – by how easy it is just to dominate a situation with severity, rather than to teach, and explain, and motivate, and actually lead others forward with gentleness.

The character of Jesus Himself, found in the four gospels, is our great guide and example in these things, of course. But let me leave you with another testimony that I came across recently. It’s from the introduction to the Diary of Kenneth MacRae (edited by Iain Murray). MacRae was one of the great preachers of the last century. But here is what his daughter said of his family life, away from the public eye: “his rebukes … were given in such a Christian and fatherly spirit that they drew one yet closer to him, and made one admire him more than ever.”

That, to me, is a marvelous picture of biblical gentleness – and one I wish to emulate! That, even when I offer critique or rebuke, people would sense the Spirit of Christ in me, by means of a spirit of gentleness … and would therefore be drawn to me (and to Jesus in me) rather than pushed away! Make it your aim to be the same. “Blessed are the gentle.”