Speaker Panel Q&A
Desiring God 2007 National Conference | Minneapolis
Justin Taylor: Jerry, you talked and you’ve written so much about the gospel being for believers for everyday life. It’s not just for unbelievers; it’s for us in the Christian life. And you said in your talk that you didn’t always believe that. At one time you thought it was just for unbelievers and it’s something you begin the Christian life with. How did you make that discovery and when did it click in your mind that the gospel is also for believers?
Jerry Bridges: It really started out in the early 1960s when I was serving with The Navigators in Holland and going through some real struggles. Satan was on my back a lot, and out of sheer desperation I started preaching the gospel to myself using passages like Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We’ve turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” I also sang some of the old gospel hymns like, “Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me. O Lamb of God, I come, I come” (Charlotte Elliot, “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” ). That’s what I was doing, but unfortunately I did not connect the dots. I mean, I thought that it was just me. It was several years later that I realized that really what had occurred in my life was a significant paradigm shift from just thinking the gospel was for unbelievers to realizing it was for me. And then I began to share that and to teach that to other people.
Justin Taylor: When did you discover the Puritans? Could you say a little bit about what their writings have meant in your life? I’m sure many people haven’t read any Puritan writings. Where would you recommend starting?
Jerry Bridges: Well, again, I discovered the Puritans in the 1960s. There was an older lady in San Diego, California, who was quite a sympathetic observer of the Navigator ministry where I was in the 1950s. And she began to send me Puritan books to read. The first one that she sent was John Owen’s Sin and Temptation. That was such a tremendous help to me. And then she sent me Stephen Charnock’s great massive volume, The Existence and Attributes of God. Because I was interested in the subject of holiness, I looked in the table of contents and turned immediately to the chapter on the holiness of God, a hundred pages long. When they got through with a subject, there was nothing left to be said! I started reading that chapter on the holiness of God, and I hadn’t read more than a half dozen pages when I found myself down on my knees before God, just overcome with his holiness. I got up and started reading again, and a few pages later I was down on my knees again. And so that’s really how I got started with them.
Justin Taylor: Whom would you recommend? If somebody wanted to start, would you recommend Charnock and Owen?
Jerry Bridges: Yes. Now, one of the beauties of Owen is that much of his work has been put in contemporary language. You yourself, Justin, have had a part in bringing Sin and Temptation to modern readers in its original language, but in a format that makes it more readable. I think you just finished one on Owen’s Communion with God, too. I would highly recommend those books. As for Charnock, I would say you could go to the publisher Banner of Truth: any Puritan book that they’ve published, you can take to the bank. It’s good.
Justin Taylor: Randy, I want to switch to you. Keeping on the topic of books, I know that when you travel you carry books along with you and you give them out. The Lord has used that small step of faithfulness in some really powerful ways. I wonder if you could share a story or two on that.
Randy Alcorn: For many years I have been very convinced of divine appointments, and often before I travel I’ll ask the Lord, Just put me next to the people on the plane you want me to be next to. I meet people in airports. I meet taxi drivers. If you want to meet people from all over the world, it’s taxi drivers. I have opportunities to share the gospel, and I give out books. I usually have some of my smaller books along, usually something evangelistic, sometimes different types of things.
Just last week I was in Charlotte, and there was a woman whom I shared some things with. Actually when I flew in here in Minneapolis there was a woman in the airport who had asked me a question. She was an older woman who was a little distraught because her baggage hadn’t come in. I told my wife, Nanci, “You know, I feel like I should go back to that woman and bring her a book.” So I took my book 50 Days of Heaven, and I walked back to her. As I was walking toward her, she was walking the other way, and she fell. I came, and several other people came, and we were able to help her out. She was put into a wheelchair, and I started talking with her, making sure she was okay. She knew I was the guy whom she had talked with earlier about the baggage.
So I looked at her and I said, “You know, ma’am, the reason I came back was because I’m a writer. I just wanted to give you one of my books.” I said, “Shall I put it in your bag with your baggage here?” Her husband was there with her, and she said, “Oh no. I want it now.” And so she sat there and started reading it, and then she was wheeled away in the wheelchair. And I thought, Now here’s a woman who, for one thing, can actually read because she’s not walking; she’s being wheeled through an airport. But secondly, she just had a scary experience that reminds her of her own mortality. And I see God do that over and over again.
One time I was walking through the airport in Chicago, and there was a girl sitting there. She was reading her Bible, and I only had one book in my briefcase. I always pray, “Lord, help me to have the right book for the right person.” And it happened to be my novel Safely Home, which I usually don’t carry with me because it’s a larger book. I usually carry the smaller ones. But I just felt like the Lord wanted me to give her this book.
So I went over and said, “Hi. You don’t know me. I wrote this book Safely Home. Here it is.” I handed it to her. I was kind of late for the next connecting flight. So she said, “Well, thanks,” and that was it . . . until five or six years later (about a year ago) when I got an e-mail from this gal. The e-mail came from China, and she said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I was in a Chicago airport, O’Hare. You saw me reading my Bible, and you gave me a copy of your novel Safely Home.” Well, I immediately remembered her. She went on to say, “I just wanted you to know that I read that book, and God drew me to a deeper level of commitment to Christ. He called me to study Mandarin Chinese, and I have come over as a missionary to China as a result of reading your book.”
When I hear those stories, I say, “Lord, how gracious of you and how easy for me. All I did was give them a book.”
I’ll throw one last story in. We were on the plane on the way home from someplace. (These kind of things don’t just happen on planes, but it’s just the ones that are coming to mind.) There was a guy who was on his way to the University of Oregon, and he said he was Persian, of Persian descent. He was a nonbeliever. We were talking about certain things. I was having a good chat with him, and this time I had my book Deadline, another novel I don’t usually carry with me.
We had a good talk about the Lord, but I didn’t get into a complete gospel presentation or anything. I said, “Look, here’s a novel I’ve written. It’s got some spiritual dimensions in it. It’s a murder mystery and all this kind of stuff. And you might enjoy it.” And that’s the last I knew of it. I prayed for him for the next few weeks or something like that, but you know, people drop off your prayer list. You lose touch with them and all that. Well, I was speaking a couple of years ago at my home church in Oregon. This gal comes up to me and says, “Are you Randy?” I said yes. She said, “Well, I’m going to tell you a story. I know you don’t know this because this guy told me he’s never told you or tried to contact you. But do you remember a guy, a Persian guy, and you gave him your novel?” “Oh sure,” I said. “Yeah, I remember him.” And she said, “Well, he got down to the University of Oregon. It turns out he was one night early. He went to his room. Nobody was there. Nobody was there in the whole dorm.
And he was totally by himself, totally bored. So he takes your book. He reads through your book through the night. In the middle of the night when a character in the book, Jake Woods, is reading Mere Christianity and bows his knees, confesses his sins, and gives his life to Christ, this guy did the same thing: he got down on his knees, confessed his sins, and gave his life to Christ.” I’m hearing this, and I’m thinking, Wow. But then she says this: “And I want you to know that that young man is the godliest man I have ever met.” So in other words, it wasn’t just a conversion story; it turned out that the fruit of the Spirit has been born in his life. I haven’t met the guy. Maybe I won’t meet him again, until heaven.
God is so gracious to do these things. I think we’re not going to hear most of these kinds of stories until we’re in heaven with him. And what a great thing that will be.
Justin Taylor: Dr. Roseveare, is there a particular missionary biography that has impacted your life or a missionary biography that you would particularly recommend for people?
Helen Roseveare: Isabel Kuhn. I can’t remember the title any longer, but it was marvelous. Any of her books. I’m from a slightly older generation than most of you, though I go back to Hudson Taylor (if possible the original Hudson Taylor double volume). Also Amy Carmichael, and anything that’s come from Dohnavur.
Justin Taylor: Let me ask you about being single and about women who are single. I know there are a number of women who struggle in their singleness. Could you give any counsel on remaining faithful through the long journey in singleness, and how those two relate?
Helen Roseveare: Those of you who are single and want me to say something else, you won’t like what I’m going to say: It is a privilege. God has been so good to me. Okay, there have been one or two occasions where it would have been rather nice if I had a husband. Not that I really wanted a husband; I wanted a man about the house to mend a chair leg when it broke! But quite honestly, the Lord Jesus has been my all-sufficiency all through. And it is a privilege, because as a single on the mission field, I was able to do things that I certainly would not have been able to do had I been married, had a family, and had responsibilities for a home. I was free. I could go into any African home. I didn’t have to look first or think, Is there a leprosy patient here who might take infection to my family? I could just go in. I didn’t have to look at my watch to see that I got home on time to make the kids’ evening meal. I was free, and God blessed that so richly. He gave me African sisters who’ve been closer to me than any blood sister ever was. I’ve had friendships with them on a level that I’m sure I wouldn’t have had in the same way had I been married. It’s been a privilege.
Just keep your eyes on Jesus. And never allow anybody to suggest to you or say to you or even think about you that God gives you second best. God doesn’t know the phrase “second best.” He’s promised you his best.
Justin Taylor: We’ve talked in the conference so far about our own deaths and enduring until the end. But I know that the death of people we love is a major challenge for our own faithfulness. And I think of people who say, “If I lost a child, if I lost a spouse, if my mother died, I don’t know how I could go on.” How do you counsel people in those situations? John and Jerry, I know you’ve each experienced situations of death, of people you love very dearly. So how have you worked through that and remained faithful? And how do you counsel people in that sort of grief that challenges their faithfulness?
Jerry Bridges: I’m more of a teacher than a pastor, of course. In fact, I’m not a pastor at all. I have not ever been, so I don’t find myself in those situations very often. But I go back to what I said in my talk. We have to cling to the promises of God that he said he will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:35–39). That, along with 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This year I’m actually walking along with a friend of mine whose wife died January 1, and those are the passages I keep bringing up to him, along with the fact that God does all things well.
John Piper: I wasn’t sure whether you were asking one or two questions, so let me take them both. How do you counsel a person who says, “I don’t know what I would do if my child died”? That’s one person. And the other one, their child already did die. In the first person’s case, you have some time before it happens, and what you want to do as a pastor is build into their lives the kind of vision of God and his sovereignty and his goodness that gets them ready. I consider that one of my main responsibilities at Bethlehem: to so preach and so teach and so live as to prepare people to suffer. And suffering, the hardest kind, is losing what’s precious to you, whether it’s your own health or somebody else’s life. I think that if someone says something like that, that’s a signal for those who have any input into their life. It may be off the cuff, but it’s usually a signal that, biblically, they don’t have all the pieces in place yet to settle their soul to say, “I do know what I would do. I would throw myself on God. That’s what I would do. Weeping my eyes out, I would throw myself on God, and he’d be enough.” That’s what they would say. That’s what I would do.
If it’s already happened, then you’ve got the question, where are they theologically and spiritually? Are they angry at God? Are they despairing? Or are they a rock? Try to discern that as to the timing and the nature of your comments. But mainly, get your arms around people and hold them until enough time goes by that there’s enough . . . I don’t know what to call it. I don’t want to say “healing” or “steadying.” But time is amazing in what it does to the horror of a moment. Time. An hour makes a difference. A day makes a difference. A week makes a difference, and a month makes a difference, and ten years make a difference.
I spoke with one man down here who knew that we did the funeral this past Wednesday for my stillborn granddaughter. And he said, “Tomorrow is the twenty-first birthday of our stillborn son.” Think of that. For twenty-one years they’ve not known this baby, and they still mark the day because that’s how long the pain can last. And yet, as he signified, it’s a totally different experience today than it was then. Time has an amazing effect on that.
What you want to do with anybody is hold them up while that time passes. Hold them up. They may want to just run out in front of a car or throw themselves off a cliff, but you’re going to grab them and you’re not going to let that happen. Tell them, “I’ve got you. I’m for you. I’m your strength right now on behalf of Jesus.” Hold them long enough, and don’t necessarily say anything. Then discern what they need you to say. As a pastor, I have no canned speeches. Zero. I have no filing system: “Death of baby talk”; “death of wife talk.” I don’t have any files like that.
So when a man in our church lost his wife of about thirty-six years, about five weeks into it I thought, Perhaps today he needs a word. And I wrote a fairly long letter, about three-fourths of a single- spaced page, and sent it to him. He called me up, and we went out to lunch. He just poured out his heart about how significant that letter was. You know, most of the comfort ends after about two, three, or four weeks, and then you have to navigate life, and life feels totally different. Nobody knows quite what to say to you, and so the fact that anybody would stop and try to say anything by way of empathy five weeks later is really significant.
Justin Taylor: Dr. Roseveare, a lot of people think about missions and feel called to missions but fear the prospect of suffering. They might read the biographies that you mentioned or read your own works and have a genuine fear of suffering. They know that they’re doing the Christian life here in America, doing okay and remaining faithful, and they’re wondering, If I go overseas and I undergo tremendous suffering, I don’t know what will happen, and I fear that. How would you speak to somebody who’s wavering between staying here and going to another country?
Helen Roseveare: I know that the evening that I came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior, seven o’clock in the evening, I was at a youth house party over the Christmas holidays from college. I went downstairs at the evening meeting, and somebody said, “What’s happened to you?” I guess I was just so overwhelmed at the wonder that God loved me so much he sent Jesus to die for me. I was given a Bible, and it was the first Bible I ever owned. The man who’d been doing the Bible studies at the house party, Dr. Graham Scroggie, wrote in the flyleaf of my Bible, Philippians 3:10. For some of you today I’ve been signing books, and you’ll find Philippians 3:10 is written in because that was my verse that was given to me. First he quoted the verse to me: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” And then he said, “Tonight you started that verse, ‘that I may know Christ.’ My prayer for you in the years that lie ahead is that you’ll know more and more of the power of his resurrection.”
He was a very straight, upright man, and then very quietly, looking straight at me, he said, “Maybe one day God will give you the privilege to know something of the fellowship of his sufferings.” I’d been a Christian half an hour and I was told that it was a privilege to suffer for Jesus. Ever since then, I think that the word privilege has stayed with me possibly more than any one word in my Christian life. It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege that he saved me. It’s a privilege that he’s allowed me to have any part in talking to others about him. Everything has been privilege, and I was told the same night that I came to know Jesus as my Savior that it’s a privilege to have fellowship in his sufferings. I fear that in today’s climate we — that’s any of us who have the privilege of speaking to others, encouraging others to accept Jesus as their Savior — we don’t underline straightaway that the Christian life will involve suffering. In our country we don’t really know what persecution is, but in Muslim countries we expect new Christians to accept suffering, and we think it’s very marvelous of them. We don’t think about it for ourselves, but we should all of us know that if we love the Lord Jesus, he himself said, “If you’re going to follow me, take up your cross and follow me.” And where was he going? He was going to Calvary. And we follow him there.
The death-to-the-self life — the death to our ambition and our rights to be who or what or where we wish; the giving of that over to Jesus and letting him really live his life in and through us under any circumstance — will involve suffering. I believe the Savior suffers today for the millions of unreached, untouched people who have never yet even heard his name. And he invites us. It’s such a privilege. It’s such a privilege to be invited to share with him in his sufferings.
I’ve got no panacea to offer you. I’ve got no way of saying you won’t suffer. You will suffer. You should suffer if you’re really a Christian. Christians are indwelt by Jesus, and he suffers.
Justin Taylor: Randy, what are some practical strategies you use in your own life, or have used or encourage others to use, for cultivating courage? For people who fear man, who want to avoid suffering or are in love with comfort, what are some practical things we can do to be more courageous?
Randy Alcorn: I think one thing is when God lays something on your heart. It kind of relates to something I said earlier about the instruments or members of your body. For instance, you’re in a situation. Many of us are in these situations where we’re around somebody — maybe it’s at a bus stop, maybe we’re at a restaurant, or maybe we meet somebody somewhere — whatever it is, we feel this inclination from the Lord, You know, I should say something about Jesus. I should share my faith or at least get the ball rolling here with something. What I tell people and what I experience in my own life is that you need to open your mouth and start talking. The big battle is what precedes that, not what follows that. Because once you’ve committed yourself that you’re going to be talking about Jesus, now you can talk about Jesus. But what holds us back? O Lord, help me to, oh, to, you know . . . could I just . . . ? But once you get it going, then it goes somewhere. With courage, it’s often that you just simply need to take the step.
My wife is very courageous. She’s very courageous because she does not like to fly on airplanes, and many people who don’t like to fly on airplanes just don’t. But she does. It takes no courage for me to fly on an airplane because I don’t fear it. What takes courage is when you fear something and then do it anyway. And that’s exactly what I think we so often lack in the Christian life. We ask ourselves, “Should we speak up?” I tell college kids who are in college classrooms that it’s not healthy for them to be in their classrooms and hear professors day after day defame the name of Christ and not speak up. You must speak up and confess Christ before men. If you do, you will experience growth and reward. You’ll have other kids in the class say, “Yeah, I feel that way, too.” They’ll start speaking up, too.
God rewards courage, but it’s that first step. Tell God, “I’m just going to do it, and now I’m going to trust you to help me. I’m not going to wait until you miraculously open my mouth. I have to do it and go forward.”
Justin Taylor: Jerry, you’ve spent decades now working with college students. I’m sure you’ve seen many changes over the years. What encourages you the most and what concerns you the most about the current generation?
Jerry Bridges: I would say what encourages me most is that, on the one hand, I believe there is a genuine hunger, particularly among Christian young people who have come to know Christ. They do want to grow, and they do want to be involved. In our own organization, The Navigators, we have hundreds of students every summer who are going on short-term mission trips and things like this. Contrary to that, I think the thing that is most concerning is the students, both outside and inside the church, who simply have no notion of sin. They just go along with the world, and as long as it’s not really flagrant or outside of the box, so to speak, of the culture in which they’re living, anything goes. There’s no shame regarding immorality and things like that, and that’s very distressing. I was asked to speak to a student group in a particular state, and the campus minister said to me privately, “I’m really concerned that immorality has begun to penetrate within our group here.” And that of course is a tremendous concern today. Obviously, in our culture what the Bible calls immorality is just assumed to be commonplace. There’s absolutely no shame attached to it. And the students are falling in line with this.
Justin Taylor: Can you tell us a little bit about your book Respectable Sins and what motivated you to write that?
Jerry Bridges: The respectable sins are sins that Christians tolerate in their lives — pride, a critical spirit, a judgmental spirit, selfishness, gossip, impatience, anger, an unforgiving spirit — these kinds of things. The reason I wrote that book is because as I look at the broad stream of the Christian community, it seems to me that we have begun to define sin in terms of the flagrant sins that are being committed out there in society. We do not see our own sins. This is not to lessen the seriousness of those flagrant sins by any means, but we can get upset about, for example, a major denomination that ordains a practicing homosexual as a bishop, but we don’t get upset about our gossip and our pride and our critical spirit. And that’s what motivated me to write the book.
Justin Taylor: John, this final question is for you. I know in an audience this size there are people who have come here maybe as an act of desperation, ready to throw in the towel on their marriage or the ministry they’re involved with, or throw in the towel on Christ himself. If you could speak to that person or those people, how would you counsel them at this time?
John Piper: Well, it’s not God’s will that you throw in the towel on your marriage. It might be God’s will that it might be time for a change in your ministry, but if you’re thinking in terms of towel tossing, it’s probably not time. So that’s the first thing I’d say: Don’t do it yet.
Then I think I would say to ask God against all human expectation, though your marriage may seem hopeless and the ministry may seem hopeless, to give you grace to persevere. Pray, “Keep me. Keep me. Do a miracle. I don’t know how you would do it. I don’t know what it would feel like, but do a miracle.” I have seen in relationships with children, spouses, and churches that you can come to a point where the whole emotional framework of the relationship looks to all rational appearances as though there is no way forward. At that moment Satan will say, That’s exactly right. There is no way forward. And you have to have a view of God that says he “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). There are some situations where there is no human solution. Jesus said, “With man it is impossible” (Mark 10:27). So if I’m looking at a couple in my office and they say it’s impossible, I say, “You’re right.” So we’ll just start there. But we’re believers in the living God, we believe in supernatural reality. God brought the universe out of nothing, and he can bring hope in a marriage out of nothing. You do not feel that as a rational or emotional possibility at this moment. But because God is God, I’m asking you to simply to ask him to do that.
Then go to his Word and look for evidences of his patience, evidences of his grace, verses like that. That’s where I would go. God’s God-ness creates a future where there is none. Out of nothing, he brings something. Nothing you could tell me — no eighteen prostitutes in your spouse’s experience, or serial adulteries, or “he turned out to be gay” — nothing you could tell me would make me say this is impossible. I will never say that about a covenant-keeping relationship, because we are called to model Christ and the church. Christ will never divorce his church. She may abandon him, but he will never divorce his church. He has the power to bring her back. You don’t have that power, but God has the power to bring out of nothing that which is both in church situations and marital situations.
I know a situation right now very close to this conference where the teenage boy believes he’s gay and is wanting to die. That’s all he wants. He doesn’t want anything else. His parents are absolutely desperate. They don’t know if they’ll find him dead at any given day. And I spoke into that parent’s heart: There’s hope here. This boy is gay or not gay. Maybe he is wired to delight in men. All right. I’m wired to be really feisty with my wife. There is a future in this battle. He needs to feel hope. He can feel hope. God can bring something out of nothing. Some situations feel absolutely hopeless and we feel absolutely powerless. But if Christianity has to go with that kind of flow, we’re just packing up our bags. We’re quitting. If God can’t bring to bear on this world a supernatural reality that breaks through those situations, then what do we have to offer? We’re just a bunch of secular psychological massagers of people’s needs and have relative degrees of making their lives better, but as far as eternal reality, God will break in.
Finally, find someone. Go down to the prayer room. Share as much of your situation as you can. Get two or three people around you, hands on your shoulders, and ask God for a miracle.
Justin Taylor: Would you please close in prayer?
John Piper: Father, right now those kinds of situations abound, and so I want to get my hand out there right now on every shoulder where it feels hopeless. And I ask that you would come with an awakening, a mustard seed of hope. All right. God is God. I see no way forward. Make a door in the sky. Spread a banquet in the wilderness. Make quail come out of nowhere. May waters of the sea divide. May the sun stop in its course. May these five loves feed five thousand. So, Lord, do an amazing work. We don’t want to just talk about endurance. We want to see your mighty hand bring people through this present crisis out into a day of embattled hope. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.