What Seems Like Failure

blue sky over tall mountains

The books of the Old Testament prophets can be so challenging to read that it’s easy to overlook the big concepts and the larger historical events that these books reference.

I’ve been reading through the Old Testament books of Amos and Hosea lately and one of the most fascinating things to me about these men is that although they devoted their lives trying to save the people of northern Israel, they ultimately failed.

What does it mean that God called Amos and Hosea to spend their entire lives doing something that was met with utter failure?
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Angry at God

dark purple clouds and lightening

In his spiritual and ethnographic account of being a missionary to African Masai tribes in the 1960’s, Vincent Donovan writes of a surprising encounter with a Masai leader (Christianity Rediscovered, ch 4).

Vincent begins his outreach to the Masai quite sincerely, by bringing up various spiritual themes and asking the people their opinion. During his first week with the Masai, he asks what they think about God (God was not a foreign concept to the Masai, they already believed in a supreme deity).

“If I ever run into God, I will put a spear through him,” says one elder.

As different as the Masai are from Westerners today, this sentiment toward God is surprisingly similar to our own reaction toward God when faced with mounting suffering.

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Why We Don’t Believe

belief God mountains and green valley clouds

But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matthew 11:16-21)


As a physician, one of the things that always perplexed me was how two people could have such a different response to illness or death. At times I saw patients with the very same disease but contrasting reactions to it.

Some drew closer to God and became increasingly grateful.

Others cursed God or denied him. He had stolen from them or never existed at all, they claimed.

What makes a person fall into one category or another, I often wondered. And now that I have my own disease, with my life goals and trajectory altered, I think about my response to illness.

I never understood the passage cited above in Matthew. The reference to children singing and playing the flute seemed cryptic. So too the statements about John the Baptist, Jesus, and wisdom. And the statement of judgement seemed confusing and hard to bear.

Yet, I just heard the most lucid explanation of this text by Tim Keller, and one that confirms a conclusion I had already been reaching.

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