The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Somewhere in the book on missions I say, “You will not to know what prayer is for until you know that life is war.” Somebody gave me the title for this time together: “Men at War: Pursuing an Undistracted Passion for God.” I love the title; it’s a great title. So let me spend a few minutes setting the stage with this idea of men at war, and the biblical foundations of thinking that way: that we are at war, and in what sense we’re at war.
Fight the Good Fight
In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul says to the younger man, Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” Fight the good fight. There’s a good fight, brothers, to be fought. There are bad fights to fight. We’re not to be a mean-spirited group of people who pick fights. We are to be fighters of the good fight — namely, the fight of faith, the good fight of faith — meaning, whatever it takes, whatever roughhousing, whatever shrewdness, whatever tactics, whatever strategies it takes to build faith in our lives and the lives of people we care about; that’s the fight we’ll fight.
The warfare we’re in is primarily a warfare against unbelief. That’s why I preached the series years ago called Battling Unbelief, and then wrote Future Grace based on it. I don’t think Satan is the main enemy; I think he’s the second main enemy. I’ll tell you how I pray with my wife at night: We get down on our knees, and very often I use four S’s that I pray against. And I’ll pray them in the order of their importance against me. Guess what number one would be. Sin. I pray against sin. “Lead me not into temptation. Deliver me from sin. Sin is the only enemy that will damn you at the judgment. Satan can’t damn you; he’s number two. Third is sickness. None of us wants it to come to our families though it often does. And last is sabotage. What I have in mind there is somebody breaking into my house and hitting me over the head, or burning my house down, or persecution — only persecution doesn’t begin with S.
So I say, “Lord, in my warfare with my wife tonight I pray that you would protect her, and Abraham, and Benjamin, and Karsten and Shelly, and Barnabas, and Talitha, from committing sin.” That’s my number one concern for my family. Number two, protect them from Satan. He can rough them up. He can beat them up. He can tempt them and lead them into sin, but it’s the sin that’s terrible, not Satan. He can make them see green things on the room at night. He can make them have terrible dreams. He can lead other people to persecute them, but he can’t condemn them and destroy them. Sin can. So, lead us not into temptation. Don’t let us sin. Guard us from Satan. Then we cry out for the sickness all around us, that God will deliver us from that third enemy. Then we cry out for protection in hard neighborhoods, or in hard mission settings.
Sin, the Enemy
So we are in a warfare, but our main enemy is sin, which is rooted in unbelief. Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:7–8, at the end of his life,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
So, he had three pictures: I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course like an athlete, and I have kept the faith. The fight and the race are images of keeping faith. You have to fight to keep it. You have to run to keep it, because it’s not automatic. Faith is always trying to get away from us, because Satan is always sifting us, like it says in Luke 22:31–32. Jesus said to Peter,
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat. What does that mean? I think that means: take your life and take the grate of the sifter and squish you through it. Now, what is this great design to pull out of you once you fall through? Faith. Then Jesus says,
But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.
So, it’s faith that comes out when Satan tries to squish us through this grate, and you fall out the other side like sand. I used to work for a swimming pool building company. My job all day long in 90-degree heat in South Carolina was to shovel rough sand onto a piece of screen so it would fall through fine enough so that it would go into the cement mixer. I was in good shape at the end of that summer. And I learned that you can get lots of things out of sand. I’d have to take the grate and throw all these rocks out. That’s what Satan asked to do to you, you guys. He wants to do that this weekend probably. He’s been doing it this week with all kinds of circumstances. “I’m going to sift them like wheat. Sift them, push them through this thing.” But Jesus prays for you. He did for Peter, and he said,
And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.
Jesus knew he was going to stumble — three denials. So, fighting the good fight of faith is something you do all the way to the end, because Paul said, “Now I’m on the brink of being poured out, and I’ve fought the good fight.”
I just want to say a word about finishing well. I think a lot about dying these days because of how many people are threatened with cancer. When I think about this at Bethlehem, I think about finishing well. I want to finish well. My life — whether it’s early or late — I want to finish well. I want to fight well. I just need to encourage you that to have been saved a while back, or yesterday, is the beginning, guys, of the battle — not the end of the battle. It’s the beginning of the battle not the end. And you need to know that. It’s encouraging to know it and it’s discouraging to know it — encouraging to know that we are not in the battle alone, and discouraging perhaps that you’re not going to make it to the end if you don’t fight, and not grow weary.
We have a man from our church who is now in Bangkok, and I pray being worked on by God. Four years now he has been separated from his wife because he left and went into prostitution. And he’s living there now. And Wendy’s at our church. We pray for Daryl to repent and come back. He was a missionary with the Baptist General Conference — a very effective one. He learned the Thai language beautifully, and sin triumphed in his life.
He’s come back two or three times in the meantime, and we’ve gotten together, and I’ve looked at him and I said, “Daryl, what is it? What happened?” One of the most telling things that he said to me was, with regard to sexual temptation, “All through college I had it, this battle, and I just got tired of fighting the battle. I just got tired. It just wasn’t worth it.” So a blindness came over Daryl’s eyes and it stopped looking like it was worth it. So, his two little kids are growing up without him. Can you believe that? His beautiful, loyal wife of four years, separated, waiting, willing, willing to work on reconciliation. That isn’t worth it — yet. That’s a blindness of a very profound kind.
Brothers, we must fight that like crazy, because it can come suddenly, alone, in a distant city with the red- light district nearby, or it can come slowly, slowly, slowly with just a little more aggravated pornography each time. You’ve got to fight for faith. There was a homosexual person in our church. We have numerous and some may be here who struggle with that. The struggle is not the problem; it’s the caving that’s the problem. He was here with us, struggling for several years and I just was told a few weeks ago that he’s just thrown it in and gone back to the lifestyle, which is no life. So, I’m real keen on fighting the fight to the end — finishing well.
What Shall Separate Us?
There’s a text that’s real familiar to all of us from Romans 8 that puts this finishing well in a very peculiar context. I want to say it for you. You know this. Romans 8:33–39 says:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now, take those seven things, warriors, and think about finishing well. How are you going to finish your life? Hopefully, all of you will have a long life, but in a room this size it’s almost guaranteed all of us will not have a long life. Finishing well means keeping the faith, holding fast to the goodness of God, relying upon him, trusting Christ for the forgiveness of all of our sins, and for carrying us through whatever pain there is, and without getting angry and rejecting him and throwing in the towel and saying, “If this is the kind of God you are, who’s letting me die early, then I won’t have anything to do with you.” How are we going to end?
Now, just pick some of these trials out and think about it. Famine — have you ever thought about what it feels like to starve to death? Famine will not separate us from the love of Christ. What’s the point of saying that, unless he really held out the possibility that you might die from lack of food? In fact, many of you will die from lack of food. Your throat will swell up so bad they can’t give it to you anymore.
Nakedness — what’s that? During a time of persecution there were sixty or so very devout Christian people in a time of persecution in the winter time, and the enemies of the church stripped them naked and drove them out onto a lake frozen in the wintertime. They surrounded them with weapons and just held them up until they froze to death. So there’s nakedness. Shall nakedness separate us from the love of Christ? Paul says no.
Peril — that’s probably some kind of very cataclysmic dangerous situation. Now, the question I’m asking you is: How will it be like to finish the fight of faith there, when you’re so cold, you’re losing your mind? Or when you’re so hungry you’re being eaten up from the inside, and it hurts so bad you’re and retching and nothing is coming up? And it’s not heroic, clear-minded, “Christ is all”; it’s just agony. I think the only way will be a lifetime, a trajectory, of having fought well. It may be that you will be so tormented in the last hours that your own mind will not function adequately to lay hold on any promises to rest in, and somebody will have to do it for you, and may we do that for each other.
One of the things I’d like you to go home able to do is help people die. Don’t run away from the sick. Don’t run away from the problems. Let’s be the kind of guys who not only fight well for our own faith, but help others fight well. When you don’t know what to say — you don’t know what to say — walk into that situation and say, “Father, I don’t know what to say. Bring to my mind some thought.” He may say, “You don’t need to say anything. Put your hand on their arm and sit quietly for a minute.” We must help each other die well, live well, fight well. We are men at war.
So there is my initial overview of the justifiability of this title that we have, “Men at War.”
Where to Make War
Fighting for passion — that’s what the theme is about — fighting for joy, fighting for satisfaction, fighting for hope. I believe all those are part of fighting for faith. So, I want to give you some texts on those and just sow the seeds of how you fight, how you make war on unbelief, and on lack of passion.
Some of you come up here and you see that word passion, or you come to Bethlehem and you hear that our affirmation, our big mission statement is: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, and you’re saying inside, “I don’t feel like a passionate person. I am not a passionate person. It’s not my personality to be a passionate person, at least, not like I see John preaching,” or whatever.
Now, that’s probably OK. It might not be OK. But it’s probably OK, depending on whether you mean, “I’m incapable of loving God deeply.” If that’s what you mean, that’s bad. If what you mean is, “My personality doesn’t get loud,” that’s no big deal. So passion can run very deep, very strong, very quiet, and it can run very shallow and very loud. So, don’t measure your passion by my personality, or anybody else’s in the room; measure it by what you see in the Bible as the depth of affection that we are able to have for God through whatever personality we are wired with. It will more-or-less affect your personality some, but probably not much.
So let me just give you some texts on this whole issue of battling for zeal, or passion, joy, satisfaction, hope, and just share with you how I fight some, and then we’ll work on that some more tomorrow, when we see from some of these sheets where the battle is being fought, or where the battle is being lost most frequently. We’ll take some of those things up tomorrow.
Take passion. In Matthew 24:12, it says, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” Because wickedness, or lawlessness, is multiplied, the love of many will grow cold. Now, that’s why we’re having this retreat: to help that not happen to you. We must learn ways to not allow lawlessness to get you. Most of you rub shoulders with people who couldn’t care less about God. They’re not even thinking about becoming passionate for God. They’re thinking about becoming passionate for a woman, or bragging about the number of beers they can put down, or bragging about whatever. And how easy it is, the Bible says, for you, in that milieu, to grow cold. They’re already cold, and coldness spreads. You put a nice warm thing in the ice box, it’ll freeze unless you get a little wire running in there with a little coil inside making it boil.
That’s what we are for each other. That’s what the Bible is. That’s what this weekend is: it’s a little wire into your little icebox with a coil hanging in the coffee of your heart so that it doesn’t freeze over into a coffee popsicle, and you become useless for God. I’ve never met anybody who wants to lick a coffee popsicle. But it seems like everybody in Minnesota is inclined to drink hot coffee. So, if you can maintain your hotness as coffee, then you will be drunk, and we want people to drink our lives and be made awake, which is what coffee is supposed to do.
Well, not everybody is going to grow cold toward the end of the age, because just two verses later, in Matthew 24:14, it says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Believe me, in this world, where Muslims are yet to be reached, and Hindus are yet to be reached, and Pakistan. There are people who are ready to blow your brains out with an AK-47.
Now, missionaries know that can happen to them. I just read the story of the Wheaton graduate, 34-years-old, working for the Christian Reformed Church in Quito, Ecuador. He was with his wife and two children, and they went out into the country. He saw something he wanted to photograph. He got out with his two little children. He started photographing. Four armed men approach. They say, “Give us your camera.” He gives them the camera. They say, “Give us the keys.” He says, “You can have the vehicle; just leave the family. They get in, make the family move. And he’s got one kid in his arms. The men make the other kid move to the back seat. He sees they’re going to take his wife and kid away. He moves toward the car. They shoot him four times in the chest. The boy, he falls over, the wife is pushed out of the car. In the shuffle, she escapes and they drive away. There she is left with a dead husband, and two kids in the middle of nowhere. Everybody who does missions knows that’s a possibility.
Now, cold people don’t do that, right? Cold people don’t go to Pakistan. They move to the safest possible neighborhood imaginable, and put as many locks on the doors and stay away from as many troubled people as they can. Only people who are red-hot for eternity are going to finish the Great Commission.
I know that when it says the love of many will grow cold, it doesn’t mean everybody. It doesn’t mean everybody. My life is devoted to making it mean as few of you as possible. That’s what I’m devoted to: to spreading a passion, a zeal, a hotness for the glory of God. Your calling may not be missions but it may be. Or it may be right there in your suburb when you hear some strange sounds, or some screams next door, you don’t go into your basement and call 9-1-1 only. You go out. You check it out. You take some risks with your life, so that people can see you’ve got a hope somewhere other than in the world. And they’ll ask you the next day, “What’s the ground of your hope? What are you hoping in that makes you live like this? You came right into this house when you heard the screaming and the pop, pop, pop, pop. You could have been shot.”
Joy is a piece of this thing. I was just focusing on passion or zeal. Let me focus for a minute on joy. I’m a big one for joy. I was down in Macon, Georgia talking on future grace last week. And I said very candidly to those 300 people or so who were gathered there about why I write on joy. I said, “Everybody who writes books on overcoming something is because they struggle with it.” How to Overcome Pride — well, there you’ve got a person who wrestles with pride. Well, I write books on how to be happy because I’m not a very happy person. By nature, I am a melancholy person. I mean, listen to all of my advent poems — fifteen years of agony. I mean, there’s always a death. This year there’s going to be deaths and misery.
So I want to be happy but I don’t want to be glib, and I don’t want to be facile, I don’t want to be trivial, I don’t want to be trite, and I don’t want to be these “rah-rah” kind of Christians that paste a smile on and just say, “Praise the Lord anyhow.” I don’t want to be that way. My vision of joy, it’s real deep, and it’s real big, and it’s more like Mount Everest than Buck Hill. I want joy to be significant, and I know that that takes work, for several reasons.
In 2 Corinthians 1:24, Paul says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” Workers with you for your joy, which means joy takes work. Joy in God takes work. I suppose joy in television takes no work at all. Flop — that’s all it takes. That takes no work at all, and by the end of the night you’re relaxed, and you’ve had some laughs, and you’ve been titillated by about half-a-dozen sexy commercials, and you’ve been tempted to covetousness by twelve reasons for getting what you do not need, but you feel a little relaxed. So, that kind of joy takes no work at all. Neither does the work of pornography take any work at all, or a lot of cheap joys take no work. They’re cheap because they don’t take any work.
Joy in God, or even joy in the moon that we saw out there just a little while ago trying to get through the snowy weather — to look up and pause and feel that that was the moon that Shakespeare looked at, and the moon that Calvin looked at, and Jonathan Edwards looked at, and Paul, and Moses, and Adam, and soak in the stability of the solar system God made for us, or the beauty of the night sky, that takes some work, because by nature we don’t do it. We go on home and just grumble about how cold it is, or slippery the roads are. Grumble, grumble, grumble, grumble. It takes no work to grumble. It takes work not to grumble, but to fix your eyes on something beautiful, like your wife, or your child, even if they disappoint the daylights out of you because of something. That takes work.
In Philippians 1:25, Paul is struggling with whether he’s going to die and go to heaven, or whether he’s going to stay. He says, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” “My ministry,” he says, “is for the advancement and joy of your faith.” That was the text I preached on my first Sunday at Bethlehem. I wanted Christ to be magnified (that’s verse 20), and I got down to verse 25: “for the advancement and joy of your faith.” It’s still my watchword. I want to so minister to you that you advance in the joy of your faith.
These are all things that have to be worked at or fought for. We’re still on war: men at war — war to be zealous, war to be passionate, war to be joyful, war to be satisfied. Just take the prayer from Psalm 90:14: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” I wonder, brothers, when you get up in the morning if you pray that prayer. Do you take a little time, find a little time away, alone, and pause and say, “Father, satisfy me this morning with your steadfast love, that I may rejoice and be glad in you all my days”?
You see, satisfaction in God is not automatic in the morning. It’s not automatic in the morning, or any other time of day, but especially in the morning for some non-morning people. So, where’s it going to come from? It’s going to come from the answer to that prayer. We got to fight for satisfaction in God.
Do you remember George Müller, the owner, or runner, of the orphanages in England a hundred years ago, who is known for his answered prayer? He said that he began to have his devotions by trying to pray when he got up in the morning without the word, and finally he gave up and began to read the word and turn that into prayer because, he said, his mind would wander if he didn’t. And secondly he said, “I have to get my heart happy in Christ before I meet anybody, or I am of no use to them.” That’s right. If you go to the breakfast table and you’re just as sour, and sad, or discouraged, or grumpy as you were when you went to bed — or worse — how are you going to bless your family, or your roommate, or your friends, or whomever? How are you going to be a minister to them? We’ve got to fight for satisfaction. We do it by prayer, and we do it by the word.
I think one of the messages I gave was on a Sunday night near the beginning of my time, seventeen years ago or so at Bethlehem, and it resulted in that big sign going up on the side of the 1914 building out there as you come east on Eighth Street and you drive in. What does the big sign say? Hope in God. Psalm 42:5 — I remembered it in those early days. I can’t tell you how scared I was coming to Bethlehem. I’d never been a pastor before. I was 34 years old. I’d probably preached twenty times in my life. I’d never done a funeral, never done a baptism, never done the Lord’s Supper, never counseled anybody with any serious problem, and they hired me. I couldn’t believe it. I had taught up till that time, just taught — simple, straightforward, healthy 18–22-yea-old students, and they never had any major problems. At least they didn’t come to me with them. So, my experience was squeaky easy up till that point.
I knew the Lord called me to the ministry, but I thought it would be to a nice small rural church where I’d learn a few things. And maybe someday the Lord would take me to an urban city with a larger downtown church. That was not other people’s ideas for me at all, and so they called me. You’ve got to know that, though I may look like I’ve got it all together, I grew up scared to death of speaking in front of a group. I’ve told you this story before. I’ve written it down in two of my books, especially in Future Grace in the chapter on anxiety. I Had to take C’s in my civics class because I wouldn’t give oral book reports — couldn’t give oral book reports. My mother took me to a psychologist back when there weren’t any Christian psychologists — back in the early sixties — and he told me it was my mother’s fault, and I got so mad I walked out and wouldn’t ever go back, because I love my mother and didn’t believe him then, and don’t believe him now.
I don’t know what the problem was, but I was just incredibly nervous. My throat would close up, my shoulders would begin to shake, and I couldn’t talk. Some of you say, “I’m nervous when I get up in front of a group.” Well, yeah, but you do it. My son Abraham tells me, “I’m so nervous when I get in front of a group.” Well, I can’t see it. You don’t have any problem like I had. I can remember speaking in larger settings at Bethel and wondering, “Oh my, am I losing it? Am I going back to where I was?” Because the Lord really did a work when I was in college.
Well, anyway, all that to say, I came to this church very full of misgivings and many battles with anxieties, and therefore, as always in my life — it was the same thing when I went to Germany in 1971. I was so scared. I didn’t know any German. I didn’t know what I’d do when I get off the plane. I didn’t know how I was going to find my way to a motel, or how to pay the bill, or order breakfast. I mean I am “Mr. Anxiety” when it comes to those kinds of cross-cultural situations, or whatever.
The Psalms live in those settings. They just bust with life for me. So, I get alone with God in those early days in 1980 and ’81, and just hang on the Psalms, and especially in those days, Psalm 42:5 says:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
In Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s book Spiritual Depression, he takes Psalm 42 and gives a major warfare strategy that you should take home from this retreat — namely, talk to yourself instead of listening to yourself. I’ll read you what he means by that. He’s saying it in response to Psalm 42:5:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. . . . Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for a moment. I will speak to you.”
If you have not preached to yourself that way from the Scriptures, talking truth back to yourself as lies are being spoken — and don’t blame all this on Satan. Let’s not demonize sin. Satan has his little role to play in the world, and it can be excruciating and horrible, but most of the bad messages in our minds are not coming from demons, they’re coming from our flesh, and our old man.
John Piper is plenty bad to handle most of the tapes that are going off in my brain here, and the other, new John Piper, whose got the Holy Spirit, and he’s being renewed from one degree of glory to the next by looking to Jesus, has got to preach to that old John Piper. And he’s got to preach with power. Sometimes he has to cut off his hand and gouge out his eye like Jesus says. You’ve got to get tough. You’ve got to make war. We must make war.