following Jesus

The Joy of Trials


It’s good to know where to go for solace when you desperately need it. More than once, challenging circumstances have driven me to the first few verses of the epistle of James, where God has met me with fresh perspective and encouragement. Lately, I’ve been ruminating on these verses once again.

The original recipients of James’s letter were Christians scattered by persecution. They knew what it was like to leave their home, their job, and their social network—all at once. While I know nothing of the kind of persecution those early believers experienced, I do know something of the stress of leaving home, job, and social network to step into an unknown future. We’re about to do this again, and that’s what has drawn me back to James’s advice. Sooner or later, all of us who follow Christ are going to need to hear this. James says,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
— James 1:2-4

James could have advised us to be joyful despite our circumstances—to rise above the negative messages that get in the way of reaching our goals. Had James done this, his voice would easily have gotten lost in the sea of advice so prevalent in our culture, as evidenced in so many commencement speeches this time of year. But James is offering something altogether different.

What God holds out to us is not joy despite our trials but joy because of them.

It sounds like a typo, but it’s not. I checked.

James is saying that the reason we should consider our difficult circumstances to be sheer joy is that they provide an opportunity to stretch our faith in God which, in turn, expands our capacity to trust him even more. Hard times create the conditions where faith and perseverance can flourish. And when that happens we start to become spiritually mature. It’s a process that takes time. But stick with it and eventually you’ll start to resemble Jesus more and more. You’ll be a complete, fully formed disciple of Jesus who exhibits all of the virtues he exhibited. Imagine how wise and loving and courageous you would be!  

This perspective on difficult circumstances jars us out of our self-pity and points us to something deeper, more worthwhile, more enduring. It provides a glimpse of who we were meant to be when we’re all grown up. The thought of it emboldens us to embrace with joy the difficult circumstances required to get us there.

Do your work, perseverance. Do your work.

Our Responsibility to Fight Hypocrisy


Have you ever known people who pretended to be virtuous and godly, when in reality they were self-serving and phony? Did their hypocrisy make you angry enough to turn to a public forum to denounce their duplicity? If so, you have something in common with Jesus.

Here’s a sample of what Jesus declared publicly to the hypocrites who would eventually get him crucified:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
— Jesus, Matthew 23:27-28

Jesus hates hypocrisy, and so should we.

But before we post our tirade on social media against the hypocrites in our life, we should consider something else Jesus said about hypocrisy:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
— Jesus, Matthew 7:3-5

Christ’s words should give us pause. He was justified in pressing charges against hypocrites because he himself was free from hypocrisy. We are not.[1] If we’re honest, we have to admit that we fall short of our own standard of morality, let alone Christ’s standard. Whether you’re an atheist or the apostle Peter,[2] we’re all guilty of pretending to be more virtuous than we really are. We’ve all played the hypocrite.

In a strict sense, the accusation that “The church is full of hypocrites” is true. But by the same standard, the entire world is full of hypocrites, including the hypocrites who complain that the church is full of hypocrites.

Pascal reveals our double standard when he writes, “We do not like others to deceive us; we do not think it fair that they should be held in higher esteem by us than they deserve; it is not then fair that we should deceive them and should wish them to esteem us more highly than we deserve.”[3]

What makes someone a hypocrite is not that they lack moral virtue, but that they pretend otherwise.

Most of us already agree with Jesus that hypocrisy is wrong. What we easily forget is that our responsibility to fight it begins with identifying and denouncing whatever self-righteousness we find in our own hearts.

Given time, all true Christ followers rise above hypocrisy. We’ve already admitted our need of forgiveness and transformation in coming to Christ. If we’re truly following him, we’ll become more honest about our need, not less.


[1] This, by the way, does not imply that we’re disqualified from ever judging behavior as right or wrong. What the immediate context (Matt. 7:1-5) makes clear is that what is prohibited is not judgment of any sort but hypocritical judgment in particular.

[2] See Gal. 2:11-13.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensees and the Provincial Letters (New York, NY: Random House, 1941).

What Christ Followers Have to Offer a Weary World


“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). No doubt our world is just as weary now as it was when Jesus first offered this invitation some two thousand years ago. It was intended for all of us, which is why Christ followers have something to offer this world. 

“The world can get on very well without you and me,” D. L. Moody said, “but the world can not get on without Christ, and therefore we must testify of him.” Jesus’ first disciples did just that, declaring, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). 

This, as it turns out, is Christ’s will for all his followers. Shortly before his ascension to heaven, Jesus solemnly charged his disciples with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). 

This final charge of Jesus is often referred to as “The Great Commission”--and for good reason. Notice that it’s backed by all authority. It extends to all nations. It encompasses everything Jesus commanded. And it remains in effect until the very end of the age. It’s a great commission. It’s our commission.

It means that to follow Christ is not just to know him but to make him known as well. Disciples of Jesus make disciples of Jesus. As Paul told Timothy, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Writing during the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon shared a timeless word about the joy of pursuing this commission: 

Even if I were utterly selfish, and had no care for anything but my own happiness, I would choose, if I might, under God, to be a soul-winner, for never did I know perfect, overflowing, unutterable happiness of the purest and most ennobling order till I first heard of one who had sought and found a Savior through my means. I recollect the thrill of joy which went through me! No young mother ever rejoiced so much over her first-born child, no warrior was so exultant over a hard-won victory. Oh! the joy of knowing that a sinner once at enmity has been reconciled to God by the Holy Spirit, through the words spoken by our feeble lips.

If you’re a follower of Christ, you have something significant to offer a weary world. Introduce them to the one who offers rest for our souls. 

The Secret to a Disciple's Resolve


At one point in Jesus’ ministry many of his fair-weather followers found his teaching too difficult, so they quit following him. So Jesus asked his closest disciples, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). That’s when Peter came up with this profound reply: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God?” (vv. 68-69). 

We will always have unanswered questions--sometimes big ones. But there comes a time when we know enough about Jesus to be convinced that he’s our only hope of ever sorting it all out. It’s what keeps us following him when others call it quits. We simply have nowhere else to go. 

In a culture that values having lots of options, it may seem regressive to suggest that there’s only one person to whom we can go for eternal life. On the other hand, there’s something incredibly freeing about being done with dead-end pursuits regarding life’s big questions and discovering what we’ve been looking for all along. In any case, when you’ve just seen Jesus walk on water, as Peter had (John 6:16-21), it seems a little silly to keep your options open in case a more impressive teacher comes along. 

Peter would later testify publicly that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Likewise, the apostle Paul declared that, “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). 

All this is corroborated by Jesus himself, who declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

As disciples of Jesus, we may not be able to explain everything Jesus said. We may not understand everything he’s doing even now. We’re still learning, still growing. But regardless of what we still need to learn from him and about him, we know this: Jesus holds the keys to life’s ultimate questions. 

Herein lies the secret to a disciple’s resolve. Even if we’re confounded by something Jesus says, we continue following him because of what we do understand: he has the words of eternal life. He is the Holy One of God.

Where else would we go if not to Jesus? Then again, he’s all we need. 

Why Some People Feel Drawn to Jesus While Others Don't


Why do some people choose to follow Jesus while others seem to have no interest in doing so? Is it determined largely by a person’s family of origin? If so, Jesus’ family is a notable exception. His own brothers rejected his message throughout his earthly ministry (John 7:5). Other explanations have been offered—such as, our personality predisposes us to either faith or reason. But this implies that religious faith and empirical reasoning are at odds, an assumption that plenty of scholars have debunked.[1] Some have even tried to reduce this to a matter of a person’s IQ, as if to suggest that following Jesus is clearly the sensible choice, or conversely that intelligent people can’t possibly believe that Jesus is God incarnate. Such disparaging generalizations are neither helpful nor true.

So what does Jesus have to say about why some people follow him while others don’t? He addressed this issue succinctly when he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). In other words, whatever additional factors may be involved, the first condition for someone to want to follow Jesus is that God must draw that person.

But what exactly does Jesus mean when he says that the Father draws us? He doesn’t mean that God coerces us against our will. No, the Father opens our hearts to the truth about Jesus in such a way that we desire of our own will to follow him. Still, the Father can be very convincing, as Jesus points out a few verses earlier where he declares that, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37).

And it’s not just the Father who draws us. The Son draws us too. Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). He meant that by his crucifixion he would draw to himself all kinds of people—both Jews and Gentiles. And indeed he has!

Charles Spurgeon, a well-known nineteenth-century pastor, put it this way:

Jesus knows how by irresistible arguments addressed to the understanding, by mighty reasons appealing to the affections, and by the mysterious influence of His Holy Spirit operating upon all the powers and passions of the soul, so to subdue the whole man, that whereas he was once rebellious, he yields cheerfully to His government, subdued by sovereign love.[2]

If true, this revelation upends the notion that those who choose to follow Christ are inherently more sensible or moral than those who don’t. It’s not like that. If you’ve come to Christ for salvation, it’s ultimately because God has drawn you to himself. Coming to Christ is without a doubt the best decision we can ever make, but we can’t take any credit for it.

Whenever I pause to consider how God has drawn me to himself—how I would not even know him if he had not done so—I find myself wanting to pursue him all the more. A. W. Tozer was right: “The impulse to pursue God originates with God, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him; and all the time we are pursuing Him we are already in His hand.”[3]

So let us, as C. S. Lewis urges, “Continue seeking Him with seriousness. Unless he wanted you, you would not be wanting Him.”[4]


[1]See, for example, William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).

[2]Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening Daily Readings (Lynchburg, VA: The Old-Time Gospel Hour, n. d.), 423.

[3]A. W. Tozer, The Best of A. W. Tozer: 52 Favorite Chapters, compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1993), 13.

[4]C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, rev. ed. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1993).  

A Better Way to Assess Spiritual Health


“We don’t smoke. We don’t chew. And we don’t go with girls who do.”

That about sums up what some people think it means to be a Christian. But judging a person’s spiritual health (our own or someone else’s) based on what we don’t do can be misleading. I’ve known plenty of people who don’t smoke or chew tobacco who are not Christ followers. I’ve also known plenty of people who smoke or chew who are Christ followers.

This very conundrum has led some to believe that it’s futile—not to mention intrusive and judgmental—for us mortals to try to evaluate anyone’s spirituality.

But the apostle John seems to have no problem with our testing someone’s spirituality. “Do not believe every spirit,” he says, “but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The apostle Paul even exhorts us to “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Since there are times when we need to evaluate our spiritual health and that of others, what metrics are we to use?  How can we “test” such things?

It’s instructive to note that while Jesus issued plenty of prohibitions, he never said, “People will know you are my disciples if you don’t do such-and-such.” He does say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35) and “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8). It turns out that recognizing Christ’s true followers is more about what we do (loving one another, bearing spiritual fruit) than about what we don’t do (smoking, chewing, fraternizing with those who do). As one writer put it, “[True spirituality] is not suppression: it is expression. It is not holding in self: it is living out Christ.”[1]

Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). The presence of this fruit is the true measure of spiritual health. The apostle Paul picks up this same idea, calling it “the fruit of the Spirit.” It’s that set of virtues that the Holy Spirit manifests in the life of those living in vital union with Christ. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are the qualities we can expect to find in the life of a growing disciple of Jesus.

So in our diligence to weed out the sin from the vineyard, let’s not forget to check on the quality of the fruit that might be growing there.



[1]Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That is Spiritual (Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1918), 60. 

The One Thing about Following Jesus We Must Never Forget


Discipleship was not invented by Jesus. Various secular and religious forms of discipleship were already well established when Jesus called his first disciples.[1] And yet Jesus’ brand of discipleship was different in one very important respect.

In the ancient world, a disciple of some master or movement was someone who was committed to learning a particular skill, acquiring some body of knowledge, or pursuing a certain way of life.[2] By the time of Christ, discipleship increasingly emphasized the relationship between the disciple and the master,[3] who embodied the ideals the disciple wanted to emulate. Still, the master was, strictly speaking, a means to an end.

The reason the Pharisees of Jesus’ day considered themselves “disciples of Moses” was that, in their own words, “we know God spoke to Moses” (John 9:28). The goal here was to hear from God, and Moses was a means to that end. Even though they self-identified as Moses’ disciples, they considered it blasphemy to make Moses the ultimate goal of their discipleship, as if he were God himself. We know this because that’s how they responded to Jesus’ claim to being the ultimate goal of his brand of discipleship. They picked up stones to stone Jesus, telling him it was “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).

In saying this, they put their finger on the uniqueness of discipleship to Jesus. The one who calls us is not just a wise teacher or even the personification of the noblest of ideals (though he is both of these). Jesus points us to the highest goal of all. He points us to himself.

Oswald Chambers points out that, “There is a difference between devotion to principles and devotion to a person. Jesus Christ never proclaimed a cause; He proclaimed personal devotion to Himself.”[4]

So here’s the one thing about following Jesus we must never forget:

While the fruit of our discipleship to Jesus is a transformed life, that’s not the ultimate goal. Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the end.  

“But wait a minute,” someone will say. “Didn’t Jesus come proclaiming that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)? Isn’t eternal life the ultimate ideal Jesus points us to?”

Indeed it is. And what is eternal life? Jesus answered that question when he prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The ultimate goal of discipleship to Jesus is knowing him. No amount of knowledge about him or service to him can substitute for the sheer joy of knowing him.

The apostle Paul speaks for every disciple of Jesus when he says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). 

May we never forget it.


[1]For a thorough discussion of this topic, see chapter five in Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992).

[2]Wilkins, 72-75.

[3]Wilkins, 76.

[4]Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1960), 16-17.