Not all preachers are created equal. Some are more helpful than others, and Scripture makes it plain that some preachers are downright dangerous because of their proliferation of false teaching. How can someone know who is a preacher worth listening to, and who isn’t? Here are 5 suggestions to look for in a preacher.
Preaching is not just about the message, it’s also about the messenger. The Bible lays out qualifications for church leaders that include a number of moral issues they must be free from (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). Preachers are to be men of integrity. They must be good husbands and fathers, honest and hard working, sacrificial and generous servants. Even if someone has great skill in communicating God’s Word, it is not sufficient if they have significant character flaws. Preachers must be men of godliness.
The job of a preacher is to teach and preach God’s Word—it’s just that simple! Some preachers do a better job of this than others (1 Timothy 5:17), and all who share God’s Word must work to get better at this vital task. A good preacher is one who knows how to teach the Bible so that the people gain understanding and insight. They should be clear and concise with their content and not leave the congregation scratching their heads by the end of a sermon. Teaching the Bible with clarity is the expected requirement of a minister of the Word (Colossians 4:4).
A preacher must be a someone who is disciplined and self-controlled. They can’t be the kind of guy who is easily swayed by emotions or cultural trends, but should remain steadfast under the guidance of the Word. A good preacher will preach the Bible consistently. It is no gift to a congregation when they are not sure what they will get from Sunday to Sunday. The preacher should methodically open the Word and preach it week in and week out. That is the bread and butter of his ministry and the main food for the sheep he is charged to feed.
The Bible says some things that are offensive to the spirit of our age. A preacher must not allow this reality to determine whether he will share God’s Word with truthfulness and conviction or not. He must proclaim God’s truth as it is. It will mean that people will inevitably be offended and some will leave the church. It will sometimes invite scorn and hurt the popularity factor. But a good preacher never allows this to make him waver. With boldness from the Spirit, he is a messenger for the Lord and not an editor. He says what God says and makes no apologies for it.
Lastly, a preacher must preach Christ. In fact, if he is a faithful teacher of the Word, this will be a natural byproduct. The Bible is about Jesus, and Christ said so himself (Luke 24:44). Any preacher who is teaching the Bible but fails to make Christ the centre has failed to teach the Bible well. Let such pep talks or religious homilies be for inspirational speakers or Jewish Rabbis. But for the Christian community, we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. A Christless preacher is a worthless preacher. The main thing must always be kept the main thing.
Teaching students the Bible can be hard work, but it is simply too important a task for us to take lightly. We can all improve on our speaking skills and work to get better at reaching the next generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his leadership coaching material from 2012, Mark Driscoll shares these 9 tips for teaching students (points are his, comments are mine). They are still solid advice today.
1. Start strong — grab their attention right away
The first 30 seconds sets the tone. Students will either tune-in or tune-out right based on their first impression. Start strong with an engaging story, interesting question, or visual aid. And make sure the tone of your voice conveys to the students this is something you’re gonna want to pay attention to!
2. Teach one concept
Trying to cram too much into a talk is a bad idea. Keep it simple and flesh out one key concept. You want students to be able to easily answer the question, “What was the main point?”
3. Make it interactive
Ask questions and engage the group. This will keep their interest alive and can possibly drum up some helpful input. However, be careful with this one. If you engage too much, the talk might be hijacked and derail a good flow of thought. Know your group and who to call on and who to give less floor time to.
4. Be enthusiastic and keep the room alive
Keep your energy level up and show students that you care a lot about the material you are sharing. One pastor told me, “students won’t remember everything you say, but they will remember what you get excited about”. This proved to be true when a student who was converted in our youth ministry was sharing his testimony and talked about “this pastor who was always talking about Jesus. I’ve never seen anyone so passionate about anything before in my life”. I don’t get everything right, but that was a pretty cool moment for me!
5. Make it fun
Learning doesn’t have to be dry or boring. In fact, it shouldn’t be! Be creative and make the lesson fun to be a part of. Use humour, videos, props, perhaps bring a student up on stage with you, or whatever else might help to liven things up a bit.
6. Allow time for Q&A
You might not be able to do this every time, but giving students the chance to respond can be really helpful. It gives an opportunity for additional clarification and perhaps ways to personally apply what was taught.
7. Connect everything to Jesus
Christianity is about Jesus—duh! Make sure to keep the main thing the main thing. If we are only giving motivational speeches or moral lectures, we are not properly teaching the Bible. Christ is the centre of God’s Word and so he must be at the centre of all that we say.
8. Give away nice Bibles
Nowadays, everyone can get the Bible for free on their phone, and I think we should encourage every student to have a Bible app downloaded. But paper Bibles or devotionals make great giveaways, too.
9. Take a parental tone
Or, that of a big brother. More and more, student ministry needs to pick up a lot of what parents used to teach but no longer do about the practical stuff of life. Many kids just don’t get a lot of guidance from home, and so the youth ministry needs to work to incorporate it.
Daniel Dennett is a hardcore atheist. He is also a philosopher and scientist, but for the purposes of this piece, I am thinking of him primarily in terms of his staunch atheism. He is considered to be one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, along with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. He writes and speaks often against the plague of religion and has argued that religious beliefs are nothing but products of evolution in his work Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
One of his most well-known quotes is a powerful and pointed one:
The secret of happiness: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.
What I find interesting is that I could not agree more with him. Finding happiness is one of the fundamental questions of life, and though he and I have completely different worldviews, I am 100% on board with his statement.
The reason we enjoy sunsets, a mountaintop view, and gazing at the stars is because we were made for bigness. We are the most exhilarated when we feel our smallest. It’s why we pay money to stand at the edge of the grand canyon. It’s why we are forever changed at their birth of our first child. The more we feel like the world doesn’t revolve around us, the more free and happy we will be.
Perhaps he did not realize it at the time, but this quote directly lines up with what the Bible teaches about Christianity and the meaning of life. Christians believe that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever“. This simply means that the purpose of life is to get outside of yourself and centre your life on God, and reap the joy that comes with that kind of life.
In other words, Christians believe that the secret of happiness is to find something more important than they are and dedicate their lives to it. And that “more important” thing that you devote yourself to? Well, that’s God.
We all live with a hierarchy of importance. Certain things are more important to us than other things, and many people do eventually get to the place where they find something that is even more important to them than their own lives. Such people discover happiness. All Christians aim to suggest is that if you keep following that chain of importance upward to the very top, you find God. And when you get there, and dedicate your life to him, you hit the pinnacle of human existence. We experience degrees of what this can be like now, and then we will know it’s fullness on the other side of death.
You show me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
How much happiness we enjoy depends on:
- How big is it?
- How long will it last?
Some people find a little happiness for a long time. Others find a lot of happiness for a brief while. Still others don’t find much or very often. But Psalm 16:11 promises that with God, happiness is “full” and “forever”. It can’t get bigger and it can’t last longer. It’s the best that this universe has to offer.
Daniel Dennett is right. If you want to be happy, find something more important than you and dedicate your life to it. I’m simply suggesting that, if you really want to pursue this goal, keep climbing the ladder of options until to get to the top.
A pro-choice individual recently posted a thread of tweets creating a scenario that he says proves that pro-life people are dishonest and don’t actually believe that life begins at conception. It’s a sort of “gotcha” question that is supposed to stump the pro-lifer and expose them for the fraud they really are. It might be worth mentioning that he also went on a spree of blocking people on Twitter who took him up on the challenge, but that’s none of my business.
Here’s the challenge in his own words:
Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question. Here it is. You’re in a fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. This question absolutely evicerates their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you. They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who cliam [sic] to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end.
So, as a pro-lifer, what am I to do with such a dilemma?
The first thing to say is that in that situation I am pretty much 100% certain I would save the 5-year-old child. I suppose no one ever really knows what they would do in a moment of crisis until they are there, but if I’m answering as honest as I can, I save the crying child.
Now, what does that do to my pro-life argument that life begins at conception? Have I just proven that I don’t really believe that to be true? Or that I am morally inconsistent by letting 1,000 human beings die in exchange for only one?
Well, let me counter this scenario with one of my own. It is equally as unlikely to happen as this first one, so work with me.
You have a significant amount of money saved up and one day you are standing at your kids’ bus stop (which happens to be in front of your house) before school. Chatting with the other parents, you discover that one of the other kids in your child’s class has fallen very ill and needs a serious medical treatment to survive that will cost about $3,000. The parent of the sick child does not have medical coverage and has no money to pay for the treatment. In your own mind, you begin to think that you could dip into your savings and pay for the treatment yourself. As you are standing there mulling it over, the mailman comes by and hands you the mail. You glance through it and notice a flyer from World Vision. They are running a campaign to dig wells in Uganda. A single water well can be dug for only $3,000 and will effectively provide clean water to an entire community of at least 1,000 people, saving them from dying of malnutrition and disease-carrying dirty water. Now, you have a choice to make. You can afford to part with only $3,000, so you must choose which of these two noble causes you will donate to. Which one do you choose?
My guess is that the vast majority of people would donate to save the kindergarteners life. But why? Aren’t they trading just one life for a thousand? Wouldn’t the more prudent choice be to donate to the water well?
Maybe it is the more prudent thing to do. But here’s the reality: people make decisions not only on their logic but also on their emotions. The pro-lifer probably saves the 5-year-old from the fire not because they don’t actually think that the embryos are human, but because the little kid has a a face. They can see the terror in their eyes, the screaming cry that turns your stomach to knot. They can see in this kid their own child, their niece or nephew. Even though the embryos are human life and are to be considered people, the personhood of this kid, much more immediately evident when compared to a metallic test tube, is so overwhelming that you can’t help but scoop the little tike up in your arms and run for safety.
It’s no different with the water-well example. Aren’t those people in Uganda human? Don’t they deserve to live too? Of course. Even a pro-choicer would agree with that. But the kindergarten kid situation hits closer to home. It’s more personal, and so you are likely to be more emotionally engaged in that situation than the other. The Uganda people are so far removed from your situation that you can’t help but have a harder time thinking of them in terms of personhood. Of course you know they are people. But it just doesn’t feel the same.
It’s like that with any act of kindness. There are a million great causes out there to support and donate to, but we almost always choose to get involved with the ones that affect us on a personal scale. We donate money to Autism research and not AIDS research because our sibling has autism. Or we go to the benefit concert for our co-worker instead of volunteering at the Red Cross event. Why? Because there is always good causes to support, but we can’t support them all. So we tend to pick and choose based on what is more emotionally and personally engaging than by sitting down and crunching the numbers to see where our time or dollars could be used most effectively.
We save the 5-year-old from the fire not necessarily because it is the logical thing to do, but because it is more emotionally and personally engaging to do so. We are creatures not just of logic and reason but of personality and emotion. Those parts of our human makeup play a huge role in how we make decisions.
So if the pro-choicer thinks this situation exposes the immorality of pro-lifers, he should at least be willing to admit that he does the same thing in other ways. No one lives in such a way as to clinically and systematically calculate their resources and determine how they are best allocated for the good of all humanity. We simply try to help people. And in doing so, we will inevitably choose to help someone for personal reasons even when our aid could have helped more people if we had let ourselves become a little more emotionally detached. But humans don’t work that way, not pro-lifers and not pro-choicers.
First, the facts. Studies show that in Canada:
- 4 out of 10 first marriages will end in divorce (source)
- 3 out of 10 children are born out of wedlock, a figure that is rising quickly (source)
- The average monthly car payment is $570 for at least 48 months (source)
- The average student graduates with $25,000 in student loan debt (source)
- 77% of grads have regrets over their student loans (source)
- About 25% of college grads are working in a field they didn’t go to school for (source)
- The average adult has $22,000 in consumer debts (source)
- By age 40, 40-50% of the population will have struggled with a mental health problem (source)
In other words, many young Canadians are up to their eyeballs in debt, unlikely to be able to pay off that debt anytime soon, unhappily employed, in unstable family situations (possibly with a child to support), stressed out and struggling with anxiety or depression.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the way we are doing things isn’t working. If you want to have a different outcome for your life, it means you are going to have to be weird compared to your peers. It means you will need to make different life choices than most everyone else is making to get better results.
One example of what this might look like is known as “The Success Sequence“. Studies have shown that if you live out the following formula in order, you will have only a 3% chance of being poor. You must, in sequential order:
- Graduate from high school
- Get a job
- Get married
- Have children
Those who follow this simple formula are more likely to beat the odds and have successful, happy lives. I’m not judging anyone—these are just the facts.
This comes as no surprise to me, since these basic concepts align perfectly with what the Bible says about having an abundant life. Right from the beginning, God laid out his plan for mankind:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
In other words, a man grows up, establishes his independence (personally and financially), gets married, and enjoy sexual intercourse with his wife, usually leading to the creation of a family (“be fruitful and multiply”). It turns out that God’s way still works all these years later, yet we can’t help ourselves but fight against it.
Those who have found themselves outside of God’s plan are not destined to misery, but they will likely have a harder struggle to face. It is not easy to build a stable life in a sequence that is out of order, but through God’s grace and a lot of determination it can be done.
My point is not to bash the culture or look down on those who make different life choices. I could not care less about doing those things. My point is to encourage young people, especially those still in their teen years, to look at the data, look at the Word of God, and see if it makes sense. God loves you and knows what is best for you. Following his path for your life is the most likely way to lead you into the best life possible. Wisdom shows us that if we are going to find better outcomes, we are going to have to take a different way of getting there. Normal isn’t working.
Financially, God has warned us against the dangers of debt.
The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)
When you borrow money from someone, you become their slave. They own you until you pay them back. The average Canadian is well over $50,000 in debt (minus a mortgage) and is struggling to find a good job to pay it off. When they get a paycheck, $1,000 immediately goes out the door for the car, the student loan, and the credit card…and that’s before taking care of rent, food, and other basic necessities. Ouch. They are also in the middle of trying to navigate raising a child out of wedlock. At any moment, add a crisis to this mix—an aging parent who needs care, losing a job, a health crisis, or a relational strain—and you have a recipe for disaster. No wonder everyone is so stressed out.
But imagine a different scenario. You are 26 years old, graduated with a 4 year degree from a local school, married, with a child on the way. Your schooling is paid off, your cheapo car has no payments, and your Visa has a balance of $0. Now, things might not be perfect. You could be having a hard time in the early stages of marriage, or there still could be trouble finding ideal employment. But throw some kind of trial on this scenario and you are far more likely to survive it than the first. No guarantees, but there is a more stable foundation to work from.
Life is hard enough as it is. Don’t make it harder through unwise decision making. While none of these things will necessarily cripple you for life, they will make it harder than it has to be. Pray for wisdom, ask God to help you along the way, and do your best to make good decisions as you follow God’s plan for your life. He loves you enough to have shown you the way. You will do well to follow it.
The common perception among many in North America, especially among those who are not exactly fond of religion, is that Christianity is a religion for old, white men. It is seen as a closed-club for people of power, and in our part of the world that generally is understood to be people who are the opposite of minorities. It is sad to say that many reject Christianity for this simple reason. They believe it is not for them, and that it in fact is a scourge because it only further entrenches people of power into their places of privilege. Christianity is for:
- Men, not women
- Older, not younger
- Whites, not minorities
- Wealthy, not poor
All of this is interesting, except that it is flat-out wrong.
The facts show that Christianity is the most diverse religion in the world. Unlike most other major religions which are still primarily centralized in their places of origin, Christianity has spread to every corner of the globe.
The Christian Church began in the middle East where Christ was crucified and rose from the dead. From there it spread to Europe and North Africa, later to North and South America, and currently is growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. The Pew Research Centre has some good data (albeit a few years old) on the distribution of Chistians across the world.
In addition, women are also more likely to be people of faith than men are on both a North American and global scale. The average church in the United States sees an average of 61% attendance from females, with just 39% from males.
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and picture a Christian, most people would see a middle-class white man. But the reality is that the average Christian in the world is lower-class, non-white, and female. Our perspective is all messed up!
A big-picture overview of Christianity will show that it spreads to a new region as a grass-roots movement among the lower class, over time gains footing and becomes well-established, and later begins to disintegrate and shift to another area. This is because Christianity isn’t meant to be forced onto people. It is not a political view like Socialism or Communism. Rather it is a spiritual experience and worldview that emanates from the heart. Whenever Christianity gets into bed with power, it is only a matter of time before things collapse.
This is exactly what we see happening in the United States right now, and what has been witnessed in Europe over the last 50 years. The increase of secularism has come while Christianity was at peak political power. It should be no surprise. This very thing has occurred over and over again throughout history and will continue to do so. When Christianity is forced onto people from the top-down, it is not really received or believed by people, but rather it is imposed on them. But Christianity cannot live where it is imposed onto people. The admonition from Christ to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself”, while putting ones faith in Jesus the Son of God….well, these are all personal choices that an individual has to make. They cannot be done for you. And so as soon as Christianity becomes an established power that others must submit to against their free will choice, the magic is gone.
Here’s the truth: Christianity is for anyone and everyone because Jesus is for anyone and everyone. The Christian Church has an open door policy because Jesus has an open door policy. He calls out, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest”. There is no qualification to meet for this request—no gender, race, age, or economic status—just simply the personal responsibility to respond.
That’s what Christianity is all about. It is a personal response to God’s love. God is a Father who opens his doors to anyone who wishes to enter. If one chooses to remain out, so be it. But no one is excluded up front. Christianity is not some old-boys club for power-hungry white guys. It is an invitation to a party that God is throwing, and anyone who wants to join in may do so.
One of the most powerful testaments to the truth of Christianity is it’s longevity, adaptability, and diversity. It does not require great wealth to thrive. It does not require a certain kind of culture to thrive. It just thrives simply because it is a move of God. Many Christians are panicking because Christianity is dying in the West, and that scares them because they live in a “Christian nation”. Except that there is no such thing as a Christian nation, only Christian people. Christianity will die off in one area but spring to life in another, because it is not a culture. It is not a white mans club. It is not only for the rich. It is not only for men. It is not only for Americans. It is for all and always has been and always will be.
If you are someone who thinks of Christians in narrow terms—white, middle class men—then you have a very narrow understanding of Christianity. You need to realize there is much more happening than what you see. The good news of Christ has spread, and will continue to spread, all over the world to every people group. If you think Christianity is dying because of what you see in America, you must remember the promise of Christ: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Jesus will build his church. It is a guarantee. And the best part is that it is open to all.
In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap of the events that unfolded over the last week.
Star NFL quarterback Cam Newton was asked by a female reporter about one of his teammate’s improved route running, to which Cam laughed and chided, “it’s funny to hear a female talk about routes”. Not surprisingly, he received a lot of backlash for his comments and was accused of acting in a sexist manner. He was even dropped by one of his sponsors. The reporter took to Twitter to briefly express her disgust, and later in the week Cam issued an apology for his comments.
Here’s the twist though. The reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, had someone later dig up some comments on her own Twitter account from several years ago in which she uses the n-word and talks about laughing at her “father’s racist jokes about Navajo land”, which she has since apologized for.
What has happened in the middle is a whole lot of back and forth between the public who aren’t sure who’s side they want to support. At first, Cam was the villain and Rodrigue was a feminist hero. But only days later, she was quickly being abandoned by those who had jumped on her bandwagon. As I have listened to various sports talk shows cover the situation, there’s a whole lot of confusion over exactly how we’re supposed to respond to this.
The first thing to say is an easy one: both comments are distasteful and downright inappropriate. Cam’s refusal to take a female reporter seriously was a classless and stupid demonstration of male chauvinism. Jourdan’s flippant racial comments were likewise a disdainful way to speak of other people groups. Both were wrong, and both people have since apologized. As I see it, we should try to move on.
But a different angle on the story, the one that intrigues me, is how people have handled the dirt dug up on the reporter. At first everyone was happy to stand behind her as a bastion of righteousness, but only a few days later she went from Cinderella girl to evil villain. And this is exactly the kind of thing we see happen in our culture over and over again. We raise up our heroes only to dethrone them later on. The very pedestal we use to prop our idols up on we are happy to kick out from under them the moment they no longer fit exactly into the squeaky-clean mould we had put them in.
We do the same thing in Christian circles too. The Christian sub-culture has favourite pastors, authors, bands, comedians, celebrities, and the like, which we champion and promote as shining examples to our kids. But then, when one of them shows their darker side, or begins to drift away from their faith roots, we feel shocked and almost personally betrayed by them.
This is the danger of making too much of any human being. We are all flawed, Christian or not. We all have the capacity for great evil within us, and it is bound to show sooner or later. Every person has a past filled with poor choices that could be drug out like skeletons from our closet for the purpose of public shaming. Seriously—for all those who are expressing outrage towards Cam and Jourdan, are you really acting as if there is nothing people could learn about you that would cause the mob to turn on you?
This is the result of secular humanism becoming the dominant worldview in our culture. If there is no God who demonstrates perfect righteousness, then we must look to ourselves and prop up those whom we esteem worthy of looking up to. But when these people fail us, which they inevitably will, we discard them and look for the next best person to champion our cause.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that people should take seriously their place as role models. We should be able to point to others as those worth emulating. But we ought to do so with the understanding that we are imperfect sinners, even the best of us. Rather than raise someone up as an idol to be worshipped, we should consider their noble character qualities and aspire to them ourselves. But there is not one person alive—save the man Jesus Christ—whom we can point to as the ultimate model to follow. Everyone else is doomed to fail, so let’s not put that burden on them in the first place.
Deep down, we all like to feel superior to others. We love to point out other people’s sin because it makes us feel like we are better than them. That’s why so much of our culture is dominated by public outrage over every little thing, along with public demands for apologies and the like. And to a degree, there is nothing wrong with calling out sin when it confronts us. But we ought to do so as people who are also sinners. There should be a measure of humility, not toxic self-righteousness. The Christian worldview can uniquely empower people to stand against sin and injustice while still keeping human pride in check. We are all in this boat of sin together. All of us need forgiveness, and we should be as quick to extend it as we are to receive it. That kind of attitude is better served to bring the kind of peace among people our world so desperately needs.
Everyone knows the story. Well, actually most people don’t know the whole story, but everyone knows the most memorable part of the story: Jonah being swallowed up by the whale, only to be spewed out on dry land three days later. Here’s the very brief account as recorded in the Bible:
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10)
An obvious and immediate question arises: did this really happen? We all know that it is scientifically impossible to spend three days inside the stomach of a sea creature and live to tell about it. Yet here it is, in the pages of Scripture, expected to be taken seriously. Many who discredit the Bible point to the story of Jonah to argue that the Bible is just a book full of fanciful tales and imaginary legends that we can readily dismiss.
So, for people like me who take the Bible seriously and believe it to be true, how do we explain such an absurd phenomenon?
Christians generally hold one of four positions when it comes to the story of Jonah and the whale. I will briefly list them and mention their strengths and weaknesses.
1. The story is allegorical
The first option is that the story isn’t literal at all, but more like a fairy tale with a moral point. If someone were to read the short four chapters of Jonah it becomes apparent that the fish is a mere side point to the story. The big idea is that God is a God of forgiveness, and that his mercy extends to even those we despise. Additionally, the story reveals that often we are unwilling to extend to others the very mercy that we have received from God. In short, it is a story about God’s grace.
There are some Christians who believe that the moral of the story is what matters, not the historical truthfulness of the account. They would argue that the events never really took place but are simply a legend used as a teaching tool, somewhat similar to Jesus using parables in the New Testament.
The strength of this approach is that it immediately alleviates any need to explain the impossible. One can still gain from the Bible the teaching point while not being hung up on the fanciful notions that the story includes. In that way, the problem disappears with convenience.
Yet this view has some significant weaknesses. The first is that the story is written more like history than a fable. Legends usually use generalities in the storytelling (ie. “long ago in a land far away”). But Jonah is written in a historical setting, with the names of real, physical cities (Ninevah and Tarshish) as part of the plot. The book also mentions the name of Jonah’s father (1:1). The whole account appears to be written so that the reader believes the events are actual, historical fact.
A second weakness in this view is that it creates all kinds of problems when interpreting the rest of the Bible. If the events of Jonah aren’t real, what else in Scripture isn’t real either? Was the exodus from Egypt just an imaginary story with a moral lesson? Was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ just an allegorical teaching point? If you say that Jonah’s story isn’t real it becomes next to impossible to determine what else in Scripture isn’t literally true either. It also seems to betray a basic reading of the Bible, much of which is written as real historical events, naming real people and places and kingdoms that actually existed in the ancient world.
One final weakness with this view is that Jesus himself spoke of Jonah as if he were a real, historical figure. He makes reference to the story of Jonah—and specifically to the three days in the belly of the fish—as if he assumed it to be true (Matthew 12:39-40). So to say that the Jonah story isn’t real is to undermine what Jesus appeared to believe…dangerous ground to say the least!
As a result, I think it is fair to say that this first option is simply too problematic to be accepted.
2. It was a unique fish
A second option is to say that the particular fish that swallowed Jonah was uniquely designed by God so that a person could actually live inside of it for three days and nights. This idea comes from the statement that “God appointed a fish” to swallow Jonah. This means that a particular animal was chosen by God for the task, and it is at least theoretically possible that this creature had the proper features to sustain life in it’s own stomach.
This would mean that the swallowed person would somehow gain access to oxygen and be preserved from decaying in the fish’s stomach acids. It would be a horrible experience but potentially survivable. As far as I know, such a fish or whale does not exist in the animal kingdom. But is it possible that God somehow created and designed a specific fish for this very purpose?
This view is possible, at least in theory. God could have appointed a fish for this task and custom designed it for the needs of the job. But since Scripture gives very little indication that this was the case, other than a creative inference from the word “appointed”, this view is at best a minority perspective that most Christians don’t hold.
3. Jonah died and came back to life
A third option is that Jonah died in the whale’s stomach and was later brought back to life. This is a fairly common view among Christians and does have at least some biblical credibility to it. During Jonah’s prayer from the fish, he says “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2). The term Sheol is a Hebrew reference to the place of the dead. A modern-day synonym might be something like “the afterlife” or “the next world” or “the hereafter”. Jonah says in his prayer that this is where he called out to God. Therefore, many take this to mean that Jonah actually died in the fish (not exactly a surprising result), prayed to God from the afterlife, was then revived and spit out onto the land.
This does seem possible based on the text, and it eliminates the trouble of trying to explain how a person can live for days in the stomach of a fish. Not only does Jonah’s prayer open up this possibility, but Jesus’ interpretation of the Jonah account adds to the likelihood that Jonah had died in the fish. Jesus says “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Since we know that Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, the fact that he would parallel his experience with Jonah’s time in the fish at least suggests that in both instances death and resurrection were the result. If Jesus really did taste death and come back to life, wouldn’t it makes sense that Jonah did also?
Perhaps. There seems to be good reason why this view is a very real possibility. But the weakness of this interpretation is that speaking of being in Sheol does not always mean literal death. For example, king David speaks about being delivered from Sheol in the Psalms on a number of occasions, even though he was not speaking of literal death (Psalm 18:5, 30:2-3). In such cases, Sheol is more of a poetic expression about the dire circumstance a person is in. David’s life was often in jeopardy from his enemies, and similarly Jonah was facing a hopeless fate in being swallowed by a fish in the open sea. It is possible that just as David was speaking metaphorically of being in mortal danger, so Jonah was referring to a near-death experience.
4. God miraculously sustained Jonah
The fourth position, and perhaps the most common among believers, is simply that God somehow kept Jonah alive in the belly of the fish. The explanation would certainly be beyond scientific understanding or human logic, but if God can create the universe with a spoken word, command the wind and waves to obey him, and raise the dead to life, can he not find a way to supernaturally keep a man alive in the middle of a fatal experience? Surely he could do so if he wanted to. It is not clear exactly how that would happen, but that God has the power to do it is of no question.
Since the story of Jonah gives no clear, definitive indication that the other three options are true, most Christians believe that Jonah really was swallowed alive and really did spend three days in the stomach of a great fish. That is the plain sense reading of the text. And as those who believe in the accuracy and truthfulness of Scripture, is easy to conceive—though hard to understand—of a scenario where God supernaturally preserves a man’s life. Nothing is impossible with God. In fact, the story of Jonah probably would not even make God’s top ten list of supernatural accomplishments recorded in the Bible.
Here’s my point. Jonah in the fish is far from evidence that the Bible is a fairytale book not to be taken seriously. The same people who espouse that idea also believe that the universe created itself out of nothing, evolved into an incredibly complicated ecosystem that can thrive and grow by random chance, that life arose from non-life, and that we are all here by accident and there is no meaning or purpose to life. Believing that is at least as “out there” as believing the story of Jonah, if not more so. The whale account doesn’t need to deter anyone from believing in the trustworthiness of Scripture at all.
Lately I have been reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. I’m a bit disappointed with myself that I haven’t read this Christian classic earlier on. It is a fantastic read, captivating and painful and inspiring all at the same time. If you are not familiar, Corrie Ten Boom was the leader of an underground movement in Holland during Nazi occupation that sought to save as many Jews as possible. Using her home as the base of operations, a “hiding place” was built into her bedroom where several people could be placed in the event of a Nazi raid. It was a brick wall built 30 inches out from the actual wall, covered with an aged bookcase, with the only access point being a sliding wood panel on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
Knowing that it was only a matter of time before she was found out, Corrie packed a prison bag with some precious belongings—a Bible, changes of warm clothes, paper, pen, needle and thread, soap, medications, and a toothbrush. Though it wasn’t much, in the case of imprisonment those items would prove very valuable, providing at least some measure of comfort during the impending hardship.
After managing to keep their operations a secret for a few years, the day finally came when the Ten Boom house was raided by German soldiers. Several Jews were able to make it into the hiding place, including an elderly woman who was wheezing so loudly you could hear her on the other side of the wall! Corrie, who was sick in bed with the flu, prayed that God would somehow keep the hidden Jews safe during the raid and waited until the soldiers made their way into her bedroom.
Only moments later, a Nazi came bursting in, demanding that Corrie come with him at once. Corrie got out of bed and instinctively was about to turn and grab her prison bag, until she realized she had shoved it up against the sliding panel of the hiding place. Would she dare risk the lives of people in order to take the bag she had so carefully packed for herself? She recounts in her own words:
The man threw the papers back at me. “Hurry up!”
But he was not in half the hurry that I was to get away from that room. I buttoned my sweater all wrong in my haste and stuffed my feet into my shoes without bothering to tie them. Then I was about to reach for my prison bag.
It stood where I had shoved it in my panic: directly in front of the secret panel. If I were to reach down under the shelf to get it now, with this man watching my every move, might not his attention be attracted to the last place on earth I wanted him to look?
It was the hardest thing I have ever done to turn and walk out of that room, leaving the bag behind.
It might not seem like much to you and I living our comfortable lives, but for someone who was sure to be spending time in a harsh prison environment, having a bag full of life’s basic necessities and conveniences would have been a very precious thing. Yet it was God’s plan for Corrie to have to leave behind her prison bag—her safety blanket, so to speak—and face this trial alone. She would be walking into the unknown with nothing of worldly value at her side. It was just her and God. Would she have the faith to trust him to get her through?
While none of us are hiding Jews in our bedroom from Nazi’s, there is a parallel here for our lives. Each of us has our version of a “prison bag”, something that represents the plans we have made for our own lives that will get us through troubled times. We have carefully put together our school grades, or our resume, or our retirement fund, or our perfect family, or whatever else, that we hope will be the thing that makes us feel safe and secure. We are all trusting in something to get us through the unknown future that lies ahead.
For Corrie, that was the prison bag. It represented her plans to alleviate future pain and hardship. It, for her, was the thing that was going to make prison a bearable experience. Yet now here she was, stripped of her plans, facing what lay before her with nothing but God to rely on. Amazingly, this is exactly as God intended it to be. He didn’t want Corrie to have her faith placed in her prison bag. He wanted her faith to be placed in him. The only way he could accomplish that was to take away the very thing she cherished the most.
As she said herself, “It was the hardest thing I have ever done to turn and walk out of that room, leaving the bag behind.”
Let me ask you this question: What’s your prison bag? What’s the thing you are trusting in to give you a comfortable life? What would cause you to have extreme anxiety if you were left without it? What, if you had to part with it, would cause you to say, “This is the hardest thing I have ever done?”
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7)
God loves us enough to strip us of the false idols that give us security. He alone is the one who can provide for our every need, and sometimes we learn that lesson the hard way—by being forced to leave our “prison bags” behind. God’s plans are not our plans, and he will often mess them up so that we stop relying on our carefully scripted life course and instead walk by faith with him.
Faith. It is the most precious thing in the world, “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7). In order for us to learn this, sometimes God takes away our gold. Sometimes he takes away our prison bag. He strips us of all that causes us to rely on ourselves so that we can instead rely on him. And this is a good thing, because he alone can be all that we need.
I’m not sure where you are today. Perhaps you are still carefully packing your prison bag. Perhaps your prison bag has been recently taken from you. Perhaps you are being asked by God to leave your prison bag behind. Regardless, the point is the same: will you trust God to take care of you no matter what, or will you put your faith in something that can only give you false hope? One way or another, because he loves you, God will make sure your prison bag isn’t there to save you when you need it. You’ll need to call upon him instead, and though it might be the hardest thing you will ever have to do, it will also be the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you.
The United States’ Declaration of Independence says that all people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is interesting that the statement used is the pursuit of happiness and not just happiness itself. Apparently, it is evident that happiness is not easy to come by. We must pursue happiness because it is elusive. We all chase after it in one form or another, but few people ever really feel like they’ve found it.
While no one can control the circumstances in their life, all of us can control how we respond to them. Happiness comes from an attitude of contentment, which is a conscious choice more than it is a status of life. Being content is not easy, but the Bible does give us some guidance as to how we can be people who grow in contentment. The following are five things the Bible says will empower our contentment and therefore improve the level of happiness in our lives.
1. Don’t rely on your own strength
(Philippians 4:11-13) Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Try for a minute to force yourself to happy. It doesn’t matter what your current mood is, just make the mental decision to not feel that way any more and be happy. Ready? Set? Go!
Well, did it work? Of course not! We all know that happiness is not something we can just choose to do anytime we want. Our emotions are often beyond our immediate control. They ebb and flow on their own. Therefore, if we try to force ourselves to be happy we will inevitably fail.
The apostle Paul understood that the secret to being content no matter what situation he faced, whether it be good or bad, was to rely on Christ and not his own strength. If he was trusting in his own power to control his level of contentment, he was sure to fail. But Christ can do what we cannot. He has the power to produce in us what we cannot produce ourselves. And so the first thing we need to do in our efforts to be more content, no matter what life brings our way, is to rely on the strength that God provides. We simply can’t do it on our own.
2. Remember the promise of God’s presence
(Hebrews 13:5) Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Contentment happens when we are satisfied with what we have. But what if we don’t have very much? What if it seems like we are lacking in what we want or need? The truth is that we have more than we realize! This verse says that our level of contentment will increase when we remember this promise: we always have God. He will never leave us or forsake us. He is with us always. And if God is with us, what more could we need?
The beauty of this promise is that God will provide everything we need no matter what circumstances we face. Even though it may seem like we are lacking, the truth is that God is never lacking, and if he is with us, we are not lacking either. King David had this in mind when he famously wrote, “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). If God is present, all your needs will be covered. Knowing this and taking it to heart will help produce a life of contentment and freedom from the craving for material possessions.
3. Everything is on loan to us
(1 Timothy 6:6-8) Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
The ancient Egyptians had some interesting beliefs about the afterlife. For instance, they believed that you could be buried with items that would somehow affect your post-death experience. Based on this belief, many Pharaoh’s were buried with enormous amounts of wealth in hopes that they could enjoy their riches on the other side of death.
This practice demonstrates the absurd level of desperation that many people have to cling to their possessions. And yet the Bible says very plainly that “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world”. We enter life empty-handed, we leave empty-handed, and everything in the middle is just on loan to us for a little while. The fact that we obsess over stuff that is just going to get old and decay anyways shows how foolish we are. What we need is a change in perspective. Putting material things in their rightful place—as temporary gifts to use but not idols to cling to—frees us from the anxiety of trying to preserve them and allows us instead to simply enjoy them as they come and go in our lives. We can shift our focus to the things that really matter, such as laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20) by serving God and people through acts of love.
4. Change the measure of success
(Luke 12:15) And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
What makes a person successful? For many the answer is found in their material possessions. How big your house is, how nice your car is, how fancy your cell phone is—these are the kinds of things we use as indicators of a successful life. By this standard, those who have lots are doing well, and those who have little are not. But Scripture tells us that this standard of measurement is exactly the wrong way to think about things.
Jesus immediately followed up the statement quoted above with a story. There was a very rich man who decided one day to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all of his goods. He then decided to kick his feet up and take it easy, since he had more than enough to last him the rest of his life. Yet a sudden and shocking reality comes when God enters the picture:
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.
The point Jesus is making is that life is not measured by how much wealth you accumulate but by your relationship with God. Those who are rich but forget God are actually poor. Yet those who are poor but honour God are rich. If we are to be content in life, we need to have our focus on the right priorities, keeping an eternal perspective instead of an earthly and temporal one.
5. Weaknesses are opportunities for strength
(2 Corinthians 12:10) For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
No one likes to feel weak. I don’t know anyone who enjoys not being able to accomplish something or feeling like they don’t have the power to control their lives. Everyone wants to have the sense that they are in the drivers seat. Life, though, has a way of messing up those plans. Hardships inevitably come and give us a healthy dose of humility. The storms of life—financial strain, emotional distress, disability, betrayal, and the like—tend to remind us that we are not as in-control of our lives as we wish.
So what is one to do? There are really only two options. You can increase your resolve and try to control everything, which will end in failure every time, because some things are just beyond our ability to control. Or, you can accept those things as realities and change the way you think about them. The above Scripture says that we should do the latter and not the former. Rather than act as if we have no weakness, we can embrace our weakness as opportunities for God to show up in our lives. This doesn’t mean we roll over and give up on everything, but it does mean that those things which are beyond our ability to control we simply give to God and allow him to use them for his own purposes. We can be content, despite our weakness, when we know that God has a plan for them and will use them as occasions to show up in power in our lives.
What’s It Going to Be?
Happiness is something we can’t exactly control, but contentment, on the other hand, is a conscious choice. We can choose to be satisfied with what we have, and that choice is a whole lot easier when we realize:
- God will provide everything we need
- God will always be with us
- The things in life are just temporary
- True success isn’t measured by our standard of living
- Weaknesses are opportunities for God to show up
So, what’s it going to be? Will you keep on being dissatisfied with life and live in perpetual misery, or will you have a change of perspective and embrace what God has given you? The choice is yours.