The Gospel and Northerness; or, Preaching to the Why

C.S. Lewis called it “Northerness”. An overwhelming, bittersweet longing in your gut when confronted with the stark, harsh, beauty of the world. It rests heavy on a man’s heart and in his mind before bleeding into a sense of deep joy. Joy that I am very small and there is something very, very big of which I am a part.

I won’t try to improve on Lewis’s own description of northerness, found in Surprised by Joy:

Pure “Northernness” engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss…

It’s important for us to understand what Lewis means by “joy”. He says in the same book, “[Joy] is that … unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

N.D. Wilson beautifully explains the moments that bring on a sense of longing for more in his book Death By Living:

Those moments in life when we realize that we are standing in open jaws, when we feel so small that it arrives with a dominating immenseness—when the stars are suddenly no longer twinkly things, but massive seething explosions punctuating an unimaginably cold and near-infinite nothing—those are the moments when we feel our true size, our true pitiful (feed me three times a day, keep me breathing, beat my heart once a second, don’t let me stay underwater for too long, don’t let me get hot, don’t let me get cold) dependence. Those moments are when we yearn. That yearning, that groaning against the curse, that desire to feel all that can be felt in a given moment, is how I think of northerness.

This sense of joy is the reason people flock to the Grand Canyon. It’s why families save for years and years to drive to Yosemite. It’s why a walk through the redwoods gives us such a childlike sense of wonderment. It’s why my Californian friends were so disappointed to learn that the namesake of Round Rock, Texas is just a little round rock. They wanted so badly to feel small standing next to some great giant circular boulder, towering over the central Texas plains. What they got was a little stone and a lot of disappointment.

We all long for and seek out things that make us feel small because it reminds us that we are part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, the Teacher says, “God has made everything fit together beautifully, but he has also placed eternity in the human heart.”

What the Teacher means is that God has woven together existence in beauty that goes beyond our capability of description. He has created an existence so vast in scale that we cannot possibly comprehend. And in His wisdom, He has placed a God-sized hole inside of our hearts so that we seek out this beauty, this magnitude, just to remind ourselves, in the deepest recesses of our souls – in a part of us that we don’t even recognize as existing – that we are missing something we should not be missing. He has set everything in its place, in its time, and all of it shouts His name because it shows us just how small we are.

Isaiah 55:12 looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises when mountains will shout God’s glory and trees will clap their hands. But Romans 1:19-20, says that the trees of the field are clapping their hands now, and the mountains and hills are singing now, screaming at the top of their lungs to remind us of our Creator.

As Christians, this truth, this universal longing for God, should profoundly affect the way we preach the gospel. The concept of northerness should change preaching from an argument or a set of instructions into a reminder. It is a presentation of a story of which we are all a part, and a reminder that we have a place within it.

The idea of northerness is one that many of the greatest marketers and business leaders have tapped into, but they call it something else. Simon Sinek (seen below) calls it “The Why?”

Successful leaders, Sinek says, don’t present a product and how it works as an answer to why you should buy something. Rather, successful leaders address the deep purpose that must be addressed. Why do we exist as a company? Why do we need this product? Why must we go to the moon? After answering the Why, they proceed to the how and the what.

Watching this video, I was struck with how often I and other Christians present the gospel as an answer to a question that no one is asking. We say, “Hey you should be saved. By praying this prayer. Because you want to go to Heaven and be with God.”

Well, no, not really. I don’t think I want that at all.

N.D. Wilson comments, “I don’t remember one particular lecture from my entire senior year of high school. And maybe a couple from my time in college. But those lectures happened to me. I engaged with them in the moment. They were never meant to be permanent.”

Preaching the gospel too often becomes a lecture happening to an audience. This is not the way it was ever intended. I know that because all of creation is designed to show people that there is more than this finite existence.

We’ve been seeking fulfillment in a billion different things that never satisfy. Things that turn to dust in our mouths. Relationships that end by death or changes of heart or geography. Identity in jobs – until we get too old or too replaceable. Identity in abilities until all of a sudden I’m 35 and my basketball prowess on the court has changed from a quick first step and a smooth jumper to cheap fouls and old-man-elbow rebounding techniques because my body just doesn’t do what I want it to do anymore. And in everything we try, every pleasure sweet on our tongue, every shiny new product we attempt to sedate ourselves with, we are never satisfied. Because you and I are small, and we were made for much, much more than the latest iphone and houses full of stuff.

So we preach the gospel with all the gusto of some sort of three-step eternal insurance policy?

My brothers, this should not be so.

The gospel is an invitation. Preaching – our communicating the gospel – should be a raucous shout to come drink the living water and never thirst again. Preaching is a plea, joining in chorus with the yearning in each of our souls for more – for joy made complete.


Unreached Peoples and the Church

When we in the church think of evangelism and missions, the first thing that generally comes to mind is The Great Commission. Matthew 28:16-20 describes a resurrected Jesus, given all authority over all of creation, instructing His disciples to stand up and go make disciples where there are not disciples.

In Matthew 24:14, when Jesus is speaking on the end times, He tells His disciples, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth, as a testimony to every Gentile, and then the end will come.”

In Acts 1:6-8, Luke tells the same story as Matthew 28, giving more detail. Jesus’s disciples ask the Risen Savior, “Are you going to restore the kingdom now?” Although the disciples were referring to the political kingdom of Israel (Isaiah 32:15-20; Ezekiel 39:28-29; Joel 2:28-3:1), Jesus does not correct their question. Instead, He gives them a new focus. The Holy Spirit will descend on them, so that they can move from emulating Jesus to continuing His work in the power of the Spirit.

In summing up Psalm 67 John Piper makes a great statement about God’s plan of salvation, saying, “The will of God in choosing Israel and creating the church is to be known, praised, enjoyed, and feared among all the nations.”

God has chosen to create a people for Himself that He will use to draw all peoples to Himself.

To put it a different way, “God’s people have been blessed so that they might be a blessing to everyone else.” This was the message given to Israel in Genesis 12:2-3, and it is the message for Jesus’s church, which Paul explains in Galatians 3:16.

But when I begin to think about the Great Commission, it honestly starts to stress me out. How could we possibly accomplish this task? Make disciples of all nations? Continue reading

The Real Story

If I’m being completely honest, there are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t understand.

I’m not necessarily talking about things that I can’t articulate, explain Biblically, or work through systematically. For example, I could define to you the Trinity – One God existing in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I can’t fully wrap my mind around it.

One of those things I long struggled to understand comes from the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35.

“Jesus wept.”

The simple statement is in the middle of the story of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus’s sisters come to Jesus because Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits around a couple days, then goes to Bethany, where Lazarus has already died and been in the tomb for four days. Then, Jesus goes to the entrance of the tomb and commands Lazarus to come out, alive, spawning the most egregious overuse of a thinly-veiled codename in all science fiction. But I digress.

Here’s what is confusing to me about John 11:35. Why does Jesus cry? Why does the Lord of the universe, who John describes just ten chapters prior as being the One through whom all things are created and by whom all life is sustained, shed tears over the death of His friend?

Why does Jesus, who will moments later raise Lazarus from the dead, weep because Lazarus has been laid in the tomb?

Furthermore, why would Jesus cry over Lazarus’s being laid in the tomb, knowing that in a short time, He will be put to death on a cross, buried, and raised to life, putting death itself to death so that Lazarus will spend eternity with Him in glory?

The passage always confused me because I thought the story was about Lazarus. But the story isn’t about Lazarus. The story is about Jesus.

Jesus isn’t weeping for Lazarus. Jesus weeps because Lazarus, Martha, Mary, you, and I were never meant for death.

Jesus weeps because the pain of separation Martha and Mary feel – the pain that is causing such deep grief and such deep mourning – is a pain that we were never meant to endure.

Jesus weeps because all men have sinned, are separated from God, and are condemned to die just as Lazarus has died.

When the people saw Jesus weeping, some asked, “Couldn’t he who healed the blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?” They didn’t understand the story of which they were a part. Jesus had already told the disciples, “For your sake, I am glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.” We see this come to fruition in verses 44 and 45 when many of the people who had come to mourn with Mary and Martha see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

A year and a half ago, Ronnie Smith, a former pastor at The Austin Stone, moved to Libya with his wife and son to teach chemistry at a local school. He loved Libya and the Libyan people deeply, and his greatest desire was to see the people of Libya know peace and prosperity and the joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ.

On December 5, Ronnie was shot and killed in the streets close to his home.

That morning, the staff at The Stone gathered together, and we prayed for Ronnie’s family, for Ronnie’s students, for Ronnie’s killers, for the people of Libya.

And we wept. We wept over the pain of separation, over having a friend who was no longer with us. We wept for Anita and Hosea who had a husband and father taken away. We wept for Ronnie’s students who loved him deeply.

But we did not weep for Ronnie, because Ronnie’s story was Jesus.

We did not weep for Ronnie because he was standing before the throne of God!

I don’t know God’s ultimate sovereign plan in Ronnie’s death. I really don’t. But I stood in a room with a hundred people who loved that man deeply, all crying out prayers to God “Save the men that murdered Ronnie! Reveal yourself to the men that killed our brother! Exalt your name in Benghazi through the death of our friend!” 

That is the honest prayer of my church. And our God hears. He is making Himself known throughout Libya and America through Ronnie’s death and through Ronnie’s wife Anita as she proclaims Jesus name in English and in Arabic because her story is Jesus, too.

The final thing we did in that staff meeting the morning of Ronnie’s death was worship. We sang songs of praise to Jesus, who conquered death on the cross. We could worship in honesty and with hope because of what Jesus says of Himself to Martha in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.

I don’t want to make The Austin Stone out to be some sort of super hero church like we have it all together and are spiritual giants because we consistently make mistake and are consistently in need of God’s grace. But I have been so deeply blessed by the witness of this church through its response to Ronnie’s death. My pastors mourned deeply. They didn’t pretend to have the answers. They were honest in tears and cracked voices.

But the story of our church is Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and His coming return. So even now, while we mourn, we can worship and look forward, expectantly, to the day when Jesus will set all things right.