My father would have been ninety-nine years old today. However, he had a heart attack at the age of thirty-six, lived for nineteen years with congestive heart failure, and died of another heart attack at the age of fifty-five when I was a senior in college.
Dad fought for his country in World War II, where he witnessed such atrocities that he never attended church again. As a result, I grew up in a loving home but with no spiritual life and all my father’s questions: If there is a God, why is there war? What about heart disease? Science and faith? World religions?
Friends invited me to church when I was a teenager, where I heard the gospel and eventually came to faith in Christ. But my father’s questions persisted, leading me to study apologetics and eventually obtain a PhD in philosophy of religion. I have devoted my ministry to engaging intellectual issues with biblical truth. I’m sure a counselor would say that, in many ways, I am still trying to reach my father, or at least people like him.
Over the years, however, I’ve discovered a crucial flaw in my ministry strategy, one that I believe is relevant to all pastors and helps point the way forward to the moral transformation our fallen culture so desperately needs today.
“Why does God allow Alzheimer’s?”
During my first pastorate, I took an occasional Sunday evening service to do a question-and-answer session in place of my usual sermon. During one such session, one of our members raised her hand and asked me, “Why does God allow Alzheimer’s?”
The issue of evil and suffering is known to scholars as the subject of “theodicy.” The word was coined by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to combine two Greek words: theo (God) and duke (justice). It asks how an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God can allow the evil and suffering in our world. It was my father’s most pressing question and has thus been central to much of my scholarship and writing over the years.
When my friend asked her question, I started to launch into a philosophical and theological response focusing on the fact of our fallen world (Romans 8:18), God’s permissive versus his perfect will, and his ability to redeem even our suffering for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28).
However, that night, the Spirit stopped me in my tracks.
Before I began my academic exposition, I felt prompted to ask my friend why she asked her question. Tears came to her eyes as she told us that she and her husband had just come from a facility where they had committed her mother as an Alzheimer’s patient.
In that moment, the Spirit helped me realize that she needed our comfort, community, and intercession, not a theological and apologetic exposition.
She needed to hear from God through us, not about God through me.
That event was a formative moment in my ministry.
“Go near and hear”
Deuteronomy 5 is Moses’ recitation of the Ten Commandments given at Horeb for the people of Israel. It outlines the famous and foundational truths that forged Israel’s world and worldview. The Commandments had their origin in this event as described by Moses: “The Lᴏʀᴅ spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lᴏʀᴅ and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (vv. 4–5).
After Moses delivered the Commandments to the people, they responded with fear and awe at God’s fiery majesty (vv. 24–26) and implored Moses, “Go near and hear all that the Lᴏʀᴅ our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lᴏʀᴅ our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it” (v. 27).
The Lord confirmed the call of the people to Moses: “Stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess” (v. 31). For their part, the people were required to “walk in all the way that the Lᴏʀᴅ your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (v. 33).
To recap: Moses was to “go near” to God, “hear all that the Lᴏʀᴅ our God will say,” and then “speak to us all that the Lᴏʀᴅ our God will speak to you” (v. 27a).
- Moses’ first job was to be so close to God that he could hear his voice.
- Second, he was to hear “all” that God would say.
- Third, he was to “speak to us all” that God spoke to him. When he did, the people promised, “We will hear and do it” (v. 27b).
The result would be that the nation of Israel (and the larger world) would hear from God, not just about him.
“When a man has been in the fire”
One downside of academic training is that we can rely on our training more than on God’s Spirit. That was the lesson I learned on that Sunday night, one I want to encourage us to consider today.
Imagine the difference if every pastor followed Moses’ threefold proclamation strategy every time we speak. Imagine the wisdom we would offer the world and its challenges, the revelatory truth we would declare, the empowered messages we would share. God’s Spirit would lead us, speak to us, and then use what we say to change the minds, hearts, and lives of those who hear us. People would be drawn to the God whose words they heard from his servants, and the culture could not be the same.
Of course, I am not claiming that you and I are Moses or that our discernment of God’s word to us could be assumed to be infallible divine revelation. We would have to test all that we believe we hear from God by the Scriptures, the discernment of his Spirit, and the accountability and wisdom of others.
But I do believe that if we would draw near to God as our first calling, then listen for his voice before speaking to those we serve, our Father would be pleased to make his word and will known to and through us. We would speak and lead with greater wisdom and divine direction. And others would know that we have “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” noted: “When a man has been in the fire, and has the smell of it still upon him, he is the one to warn others not to meddle with fire.” He added, “I love to preach a gospel of which I feel the sweetness in my own soul.”
When last did you “feel the sweetness” of the gospel in your soul?