February 4, 2009 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Joy | Sin | Sports | Worldliness
By now most of you have seen the photograph of Olympic superstar swimmer Michael Phelps filling his giant lungs from a bong of marijuana. When the picture appeared in a British tabloid, Phelps acknowledged it was “youthful and inappropriate.”
Now there is no debate over whether the 23-year-old is gifted with athletic greatness. He is. And financially Phelps is set for life, his agent Peter Carlisle estimating his potential earnings will reach somewhere around $100 million.* Which I’m told would equal a stack of $100 bills 360 feet tall!
The photograph of Phelps reminds me of myself prior to conversion, a competitive swimmer (of slightly lesser skill), a sinner (of greater degree), held captive by sin, pursuing the fleeting pleasures of this world. And sadly, in my case, pursuing sin with passion.
So what was Phelps searching for in that bong pipe? What emptiness in his soul was he trying to satisfy?
Once again we are reminded that athletic gifting, championship trophies, gold medals, and million dollar endorsement deals cannot satisfy the soul.
Last year, in the wake of his third Super Bowl championship, disillusioned Patriots quarterback Tom Brady admitted on 60 Minutes,
Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, “Hey man, this is what is.” I reached my goal, my dream, my life. I think, “God, it’s got to be more than this.” I mean this isn’t, this can’t be, what it’s all cracked up to be.
I commend Brady for his honesty.
And no doubt some Pittsburgh Steelers players are beginning to have similar thoughts.
But in Phelps’s case, if you listen to the media (with the exception of my man Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post) you hear a common chorus of excuses like “Give Phelps a break, nothing he did was anything worse than happens in an average weekend at a typical college campus.”
But we are not talking about a typical American college student. Phelps is a rich superstar.
This is what I find so striking: A man whose chest has been covered with gold medals, has achieved international fame, showered with awards, and blessed with an incomprehensible amount of money, still feels compelled to press his face to a bong.
It was Augustine who said that the soul is restless until it finds its rest in God. So true. Only God can satisfy the soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ provides forgiveness of sin, and therefore it is here in this gospel that we find rest for our restless souls.
Study the unflattering picture of Michael Phelps to be reminded of the deceitfulness of sin and the superficiality of fame and money. But also study the picture to be reminded of the message of Christ and him crucified for restless sinners like you, and me, and Michael Phelps.
* “Phelps Apologizes for Marijuana Pipe” By Karen Crouse, New York Times, February 1, 2009.
C.J.’s message from the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference, “Sustaining the Pastor’s Soul,” has been added to the sermon archive. To read, listen to, watch, or download the message, click here.
Sustaining the Pastor’s Soul
April 17, 2008
Together for the Gospel Conference; Louisville, KY
July 14, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Humor | Joy | Sermons
The audio recording from C.J.’s message Sunday at Covenant Life Church:
Don’t Waste Your Humor
Proverbs 15:13-15; Ephesians 4:29, Psalm 126:1-3
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Covenant Life Church; Gaithersburg, MD
52:12 run time; 11.9MB MP3
Art by Zak Parsons.
The Sovereign Grace Leadership Interviews feature a roundtable discussion among C.J. Mahaney (president of Sovereign Grace Ministries), Jeff Purswell (dean of our Pastors College), and Joshua Harris (senior pastor of Covenant Life Church). The three gather on a regular basis to discuss a wide array of theological and practical leadership issues.
This third podcast episode, “The Pastor and His Joy,” focuses attention on the priority and cultivation of joy in the pastor’s heart, and reminds us there is more to pastoral ministry than mere faithfulness. In the early moments of the interview, C.J. says,
In my experience over the past 30-plus years of pastoral ministry, I have encountered too many pastors who I think would be characterized as burdened, wearied, discouraged, and not joyful. These men are serving the Savior faithfully and for that they are to be commended, and they have my deepest respect. It is required of us to serve the Lord faithfully.
But it is not sufficient for us simply or solely to serve the Lord faithfully in the context of pastoral ministry. In order to accurately represent God, in order to please and glorify God as pastors, we must serve him joyfully. We must serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2).
That forms part of my burden in choosing that topic and addressing that topic and addressing pastors and seeking to equip them with an understanding of this as a priority for them personally as well as in pastoral ministry.
The full hourlong podcast, “The Pastor and His Joy,” can be downloaded here.
June 20, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Joy | Pastoral ministry
Joy-filled pastoring is partially dependent upon joy-filled church members. So how can members of a local church help foster joy in their pastor? This topic is discussed in this third excerpt from the upcoming Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview podcast
(“The Pastor + Joy”).
: For non-pastors listening who are asking, “How can I be a joy to my pastors?”, what are ways they can be encouraging and boosting the joy of their pastors?
: Well, excellent question. In Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” [ESV]
So for all those who are listening, that is an excellent question to be asking. This is a biblical question: How can I make pastoring a joy for my pastor?
I think one would be wise to begin with a text like this and to recognize the priority of making it a joy to serve in pastoral ministry by your appreciation of those in pastoral ministry—your appreciation of their character, their care, their labor, their unique work on your behalf. So there is an appropriate responsiveness expected of you towards their leadership and service in the context of the local church that will make it a joy for them to pastor.
And it would be wise for everyone listening to ask another question: Am I a joy to pastor?
And don’t confine the evaluation of yourself to yourself. I would encourage everyone listening to approach your pastor and ask, “Am I a joy for you to pastor? And if not, why not? I want to be a joy to pastor. I want to bring you joy in pastoring.”
So I think Scripture is clear: By appreciating the character of their pastor and the labor of their pastor, by encouraging their pastor, by the member’s own participation in the local church, they can be a pure joy to pastor.
God wants happy pastors. Any other kind of pastor does not accurately represent God. Yet happy pastors are, to some degree, dependent on individuals who make it a joy to pastor.
June 17, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Joy | Suffering | Trials
Rejoicing in the Lord is a lesson often best learned in trials. In this excerpt from the upcoming Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series podcast (“The Pastor + Joy”), C.J. describes a trial that God used to shift the ground of his joy.
Joshua Harris: C.J., I am wondering if there is a personal story in your own life where you experienced—whether it is a trial or a difficulty—a shift where God was helping you realize your joy wasn’t grounded enough in the work that he had done for you?
C.J. Mahaney: Many stories come to mind (and the lessons continue to this day). I wouldn’t want anybody to perceive me as some kind of compelling model of joyfulness on a daily basis. It is a fight I seek to wage on a daily basis. And I can certainly look back and discern instances, circumstances, and periods of time where there was a transfer underway in my life, helping me to shift the ground of my joy from created things to the Creator, a shift from temporary to the eternal.
A pronounced one for me was a ten-year period where I contracted a particular virus that had a debilitating effect on my body and mind on a daily basis. I am reluctant to speak of this and rarely do speak of this, because I don’t want to be misunderstood as I make reference to this period. Though it was challenging, there was nothing life-threatening about this, and I don’t even consider this experience to be suffering, per se. I know people who have suffered. I know people who presently are genuinely, severely suffering.
But for me it was prolonged. It was chronic. It was wearying. It was challenging. And it did remove any sense of happiness or joy, as derived from circumstances, from my life on a daily basis over those years.
So the fight was a particular challenge during that ten-year period. From the wonderful care I have received from my friends and fellow pastors, from the wonderful books that I have read in relation to suffering, from the wonderful examples that I have observed in and throughout Covenant Life Church over the years, and primarily from the clear teaching of Scripture, I was able to see, early on, the many ways God was working. This was intended to be a sanctifying work in my soul.
So one aspect of my sanctification was to be weaned from emotional dependence and weaned from any dependence on circumstances.
Throughout those numerous years, by God’s grace I was able to experience this transition from the ground of my joy being in any way a personality, emotion, or circumstantial, to an appreciation for the person and work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. And I would argue the trial left a purer form of joy.
June 13, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Cross-centered life | Joy
The gospel is central to everything in the Christian life, including the cultivation of personal and pastoral joy. In this excerpt from the upcoming Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series
(“The Pastor + Joy”), Joshua Harris, Jeff Purswell, and C.J. discuss the connection between the gospel and the fight for joy.
I would love to just hear from you, Jeff and C.J., about what the fight for joy each day looks like in the life of a pastor. What are some key moments for you when it comes to cultivating that kind of joy? How is it expressed?
Your reference to the fight for joy is right—it’s a fight each and every day. So this is not a natural disposition that one possesses. Each day sin will be opposing the experience and cultivation of joy in our lives. I am personally very familiar with weariness and discouragement and, therefore, what I read in Scripture about the priority of joy and the experience of joy is very applicable to my soul.
And each day what I seek to do, from the outset of the day, is position myself as close to the gospel as possible so that I might experience the effects of the gospel. One pronounced effect of preaching the gospel to my soul is joy.
I am the worst sinner I know. And given the countless sins I have been forgiven of, as I contemplate the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for my sins, the effect of that contemplation in my life is joy.
So from the outset of each day I seek to “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.” I seek to study the doctrines of grace. I seek to prepare my heart to discern evidences of grace throughout the day. And as I devote myself to those practices at the outset of each day and throughout the day, the effect upon my soul is joy.
Yeah, I think, C.J., what you started that with is so important. You quoted Psalm 100:2 a moment ago: “Serve the Lord with gladness.” It is just so critical to have the basis of that joy right.
Paul puts it in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord
.” Without that “in the Lord,” the command to “rejoice” would be an unreasonable command or a superficial command. But when it is rejoicing “in the Lord,” that is really what distinguishes it from mere happiness.
There are theological reasons for all commands in Scripture. There are theological reasons for the command to “rejoice in the Lord.” And in all the times in Scripture that speak of Christians being joyful, even in the Old Testament, they are rooted in God’s character and especially in his activity—his gracious activity towards his people.
And so, as C.J. was talking about staying close to the gospel, the inevitable and natural result of doing that will be a recognition of God’s gracious activity to us. We will be joyful. And that is the only way we can sustain joy.
Yes, if we assume the gospel, or neglect the gospel, or neglect to preach the gospel to ourselves on a daily basis, if we do not review and remind ourselves of the doctrines of grace, if we do not prepare our hearts to discern evidences of grace, all we will be left with throughout the day is an increasing awareness of sin and an increasing awareness of adversity.
June 4, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: God's love | Joy | Legalism
The question “Do I love God?” is often overshadowed by a bigger question—“Does God love me?” This personal doubt of God's love has haunted Christians for centuries and remains a common question today. So it was not surprising to see the Sovereign Grace (e)mailbag receive a number of requests for more information on a particular quote C.J. shared at the end of his second New Attitude message.
Over a century ago a woman posed the same question to pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
I once knew a good woman who was the subject of many doubts, and when I got to the bottom of her doubt, it was this: she knew she loved Christ, but she was afraid he did not love her. “Oh!” I said, “that is a doubt that will never trouble me; never, by any possibility, because I am sure of this, that the heart is so corrupt, naturally, that love to God never did get there without God’s putting it there.” You may rest quite certain, that if you love God, it is a fruit, and not a root. It is the fruit of God’s love to you, and did not get there by the force of any goodness in you. You may conclude, with absolute certainty, that God loves you if you love God.
It was this succinct and biblically rich counsel C.J. shared in his second address at the Na conference.
Spurgeon’s entire sermon can be read online for free here. C.J.’s Na message—“God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption”—can be downloaded here.
Recently, I spoke to a pastor walking through a prolonged and difficult season in his church. As he was informing me about the specifics, I had a mixture of emotions. I care deeply about this friend and pastor. And as he communicated his diverse challenges, I grieved with him and sought to counsel him wisely.
After listening thoroughly to his situation I communicated my care and sadness and then sought to draw his attention away from the immediate circumstances to evidences of God’s grace in his life and the church (which are easy to ignore or overlook in trials). Also, I drew attention to issues of his heart now being revealed by these circumstances so that he could apply the gospel to his heart.
But most importantly in that conversation, I attempted to strengthen my friend by reminding him of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and grace. God is working through these difficulties to accomplish his good purposes. God is at work in the adversity to sanctify his heart. God is at work using the trials to draw my friend into a deeper relationship with himself.
Rejoice in the Lord
And I drew my friend’s attention to one particular passage: Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (ESV). There was nothing new or unique in what I said. I was only applying counsel I have learned from others and—by God’s grace—applied to my own soul.
I find this verse easy to ignore in the midst of adversity. But I must not ignore this verse or assume that this passage doesn’t apply to me. It does. God has given this verse to us for the good of our soul and, ultimately, for his glory.
Permit me to put this story on pause in order to explain why I normally draw attention to just one verse when I have the privilege of caring for someone.
This approach of focusing on one specific passage in counseling settings is one I learned from my friend David Powlison, articulated in his article “Think Globally, Act Locally.” He writes,
In a nutshell, connect one bit of Scripture to one bit of life. In other words, always ask two questions for yourself and others: What is your current struggle? What about God in Christ connects to this? … Apply one relevant thing from our Redeemer to one significant scene in this person’s story. Bring one bit of Bible to one bit of life. You can’t say it all at once. (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2003, p. 3)
Well, you cannot and should not say it all at once, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying in the past! My impulse is to help others by downloading as much information as possible. But I’ve learned this is not wise and really unhelpful. Those we counsel can contemplate and apply a limited amount of information, so in caring for their souls—and especially in the immediate situation—I want to provide counsel they can easily consider and remember. And that’s where David’s wisdom proves so valuable.
In these situations, we must restrain the impulse to bury others under vast amounts of theological information.
Back to the Story
Now, back to my friend. I reminded him of Philippians 4:4 and passed along D.A. Carson’s comments on the verse from his book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996):
The ultimate ground of our rejoicing can never be our circumstances, even though we as Christians recognize that our circumstances are providentially arranged. If our joy derives primarily from our circumstances, then when our circumstances change, we will be miserable. Our delight must be in the Lord himself. That is what enables us to live with joy above our circumstances. As Nehemiah puts it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Lord sometimes allows miserable circumstances to lash us—that we may learn this lesson.…Whatever the mysteries of evil and sorrow, they do have the salutary effect of helping believers to shift the ground of their joy from created things to the Creator, from the temporary to the eternal, from jingoism to Jesus, from consumption to God. (p. 106)
How about you? Are you personally experiencing a season of adversity with no end in sight? If so, rather than peering into the future trying to predict the concluding date of the trial, I recommend you look down
and then up
and realize a transition is under way to shift the ground of your joy “from created things to the Creator.” Then look up
and delight in the Lord himself. Contemplate his changeless character and the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then—dependent upon God’s grace—obey this command given for our good and his glory. Rejoice as you realize afresh you are doing much better than you deserve.
This will not alter the severity of your trial, but it will transform your perspective and strengthen your soul for the trial.