Strachan: True Excellence


To function as human beings, we don’t have to enjoy what might be called high culture. Listening to classical music is not a necessary duty. But if we pay attention to our society, we can observe a steady downward pull toward the low and the base. Gravity seems to exert pressure not only on our vertical leap, but also on our souls. We choose what is easily consumed rather than that which requires thought, attention, and concentration.

The Fall not only left us as sinners, but has lowered our gaze and affected our appetites. We do not run toward the excellent, the complex, and the beautiful; rather, as Jonathan Edwards observes, “We are the highest affected with the lowest excellencies.” In Adam, our affections have grown dull. We stare listlessly at screens, when a realm of real beauty lies just inches away; we send our video-game characters on grand adventures while our own lives languish; we consume silly, pointless media instead of pursuing things of “the highest excellence.”

Conversion saves our souls. It also saves our senses. It reenchants the world. We come out of the waters of judgment, washed by the blood of Christ, to find the “greatest excellencies” all around us. The natural order teems with the beauty of God; the Word unfolds to us the mind, will, and heart of the Lord. Salvation does not remove us from this realm; it plunges us more deeply into this place and urges us to plunder our surroundings for God’s honor. Our hearts will not find contentment in lesser pursuits; God’s work in us means that we have a ferocious hunger for him—and for all true excellency, all true beauty, and all virtuous pleasure.

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 299.

Strachan: Hope

“Generations of children have grown up with Winnie-the-Pooh and his circle of friends. One of the indelible characters from these books is Eeyore. No matter how well things are going, the little gray donkey finds a way to inject gloom into the conversation. Eeyore spots the shadow in every sunbeam. His friends love him, and he loves them, but he has a hard time with life. He’s not exactly a barrel of laughs to be around.

It is not hard to be an Eeyore. If we want to wallow in discouragement, we can find ample opportunity. It will gladly show up on our doorstep. It will crowd its way into our daily newsfeed. It will flood our social media accounts like a host virus and take them over. Discouragement spreads contagiously, and one cannot easily run it off. Before we know it, it has taken over our thoughts, and we’re on our way to becoming bitter, wounded people.

We all need godly hope. The opposite of an Eeyore is not an Icarus, soaring up to the sun. We needn’t pretend that evil doesn’t exist. But we must remember, above all, the nature of the God we worship. He creates from “chaos,” from “utter confusion” as Jonathan Edwards argues. He brings order where there is none, and causes “light to shine” in the shadows. He does this not merely in a make-your-day-a-little-brighter way. He is busy saving a people for himself. He is building his church through Christ. It is often when his people are at their lowest, as in the days before the Protestant Reformation, that he will strike suddenly, saving souls and growing his people in grace.”

Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12-13)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 287.

Strachan: Come Out

What was it like to be Lazarus? What went through his mind as he walked out of the tomb? We can only imagine what he must have thought. His final days were, no doubt, painful. He had no expectation of resurrection. He had descended, as every person must, into the depths. He had experienced the process of passing from life to death. He had seen his loved ones weep and thrash and wail as the light left his eyes. But now, his eyes beheld Jesus.

All hail Christ, the death killer! Just as the morning sun “renews” the”whole world” each day, so Christ brings us back from our sleeping, our eternal slumber. Jonathan Edwards saw the spiritual in the physical, and took great comfort
from what he observed. So may we. We do not worship a God who only set up a working creation, thankful as we are for it. We worship a God who breaks in to our realm. We follow a Savior who interrupts our deathward spiral. He feels no need to stay apart and stand back. He enters our nightmare, he goes right to the door of the tomb, and he commands us to come forth.

It isn’t Christ who must obey the world; it is the world, and everyone in it, who must obey him. We know in part what Lazarus experienced, for we too have tasted bitter, painful days. We have descended, day by awful day, into the depths. We have been without hope, with no one able to rescue us. But then Jesus came to the door of the tomb and summoned us. He called,”Come out!” and out we came. Today, we live as once-dead, now-alive people.

God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 286.

Strachan: We Need the Lord

You can tell what our hearts long for by our screen savers. Perhaps they show coastal vistas, with people lounging by azure pools. Or maybe they reveal windswept cliffs and craggy hills, the kind a certain kind of tourist loves to scale. They could also show charming towns, filled with picture-perfect shops selling the best bread imaginable. One way or another, we are drawn to a vision of serenity.

But no place on earth knows pure calmness. People in every place, however appealing, have what Jonathan Edwards calls “great necessities,” and beyond this, serious challenges. He points to countries that suffer drought, or floods, or a lack of light; we can extend the point, and acknowledge crippled economies, natural disasters, and troubled politics in the places we yearn to visit. Nowhere is without need; nowhere is without trouble of some kind.

By his grace, the Lord at once wants us to know both satisfaction and deprivation. We should want to visit lovely destinations. But we must also know that we cannot find lasting serenity or fulfillment without God. We, too, have huge, gaping needs. More than any psychological matter, we need the Lord. It is right that we observe the places and peoples of this world and see how they lack essential elements. But we must turn from there to ourselves. We need God. Thankfully, we have him today, whatever the screen saver shows, whether a vacation beckons us or not.

The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. (Psalm 34:10)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 316.

Strachan: Death and Life

Death is a problem that will not go away. Without eternal hope, death hangs above our heads like a murderous cloud. We can distract ourselves for a time, and act as if death doesn’t loom over us. We can drown out the prospect of death in worldly things, or at least try to. We can explain death away, viewing it as nothingness, or the end of being, and nothing more. But in reality, we know to the core of our souls that there is no solution to death.

That is, except one. Jesus Christ performs the miracle of miracles. He overcomes death—but more than this, he uses death to give us life. Christ turns the worst possible thing that can happen to us into the best possible thing. That which we rightly fear, we rightly dread, we rightly hate, becomes the very passageway to glory. There is one who died but who rose from “the power of the grave.” This single instance births everlasting hope in us; a hope so strong that nothing can overcome it.

Of course, we must still suffer the effects of the Fall. Coming to faith does not mean that we instantaneously escape the consequences of sin, whether Adam’s or our own. Unless Christ returns first, we will die. Our bodies will age and break down, and then our earthly life will leave us. We may face great pain in the terminal process.We may have to endure hardship before we depart this earth. But our hope is Job’s hope. Our confidence is Job’s confidence. Because Christ our Redeemer lives, “we shall live also.” Our chief problem has become the gateway to our chief hope.

If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 315.

Strachan: Rejoice!

God is conspiring to make you happy today. In order to be sad and downcast, you will have to work against God. This doesn’t mean that everything in your day will come up roses; it doesn’t mean that clouds will avoid you, songbirds will accompany you on your errands, and people will pay only nice-but-nonintrusive compliments to you. Following God right now may involve twists and turns you never anticipated. But whatever your course, God desires your “happiness” and “pleasure….”

If God had not intended to make us full of grace, and thus surpassingly happy, he would not have given us Jesus. Jesus is a terrible gift if you’re trying to drench people in misery. The pleasures of Christ are not small and insignificant; they are explosive and great. What a salvation he won on our behalf. He took on the very wrath of his Father against our sin, and exhausted it at the Cross. He willingly underwent terrible “torments” in order to remake and renew us. As great as the cost of our deliverance was, even greater is the happiness it yields, for all this work is Christ’s work, and Christ’s accomplishment.

With a foundation like this, no wonder Paul tells the Corinthians, “Finally, brothers, rejoice” (2 Corinthians 13:11). He says this after two letters of correction and rebuke. Nonetheless, despite the weakness of this people, they must rejoice. They are the people to whom God has given his Son. They can do nothing other than rejoice. So it is with us. God is actively conspiring to make us happy in the Son. The question is: Will we rejoice?

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 313.

Strachan: Appreciating Complexity

The battle over Christmas music is the true culture war of our time. Here is the center of the debate: Can we listen to our favorite songs before December? I know purists on both sides. Personally, I try to resist playing such pieces before the season really kicks off. But there are certain tracks I cannot help but play—they are simply too beautiful. This is true of Handel’s Messiah. Composed in 1741, when Jonathan Edwards was at the peak of his vocation, the Messiah seems to me one of the greatest musical accomplishments of all time.

Whatever one’s precise opinions about the proper beginning of the Christmas season, to hear an orchestra at the height of its performance exhilarates the mind and moves the soul. This is especially true of “very complex tunes.” Most of us do not have a carefully trained ear to appreciate “a great many notes together.” But in heaven, Edwards suggests, we will hear “thousands of different ratios” and so listen to symphonic worship in perfect harmony.

A love for classical music is not a necessity for the Christian faith. But Edwards’s point is worth considering. The Trinity itself directs us to appreciate complexity—a complexity we would not have thought possible. A piece that brings many voices and instruments into harmony speaks to a richness, a depth of experience that transcends the power of even many voices singing one note together. Whatever our exact aesthetic interests in the afterlife, we can know that the praise of Christ in song will exceed by far anything we have heard on earth. Let us prepare ourselves to exalt God. Let us now, whether as professionals or amateurs, sing praise to God—in season or out.

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 309.

Strachan: The Trinity

It is hard to discover the spiritual realm. It is everywhere around us, but we cannot find a physical doorway into it. The way into the knowledge of God is the Word of God. The Word of God not only gives us revelation about spiritual beings, like angels and demons, it also allows us to traverse what Jonathan Edwards calls “glorious inlets” into the Godhead. We learn the very foundation of reality in Scripture: Father, Son, and Spirit. Knowledge of our three-in-one God promises to transform both our faith and our practice.

God is three persons, but God is one. We don’t hop between gods in our prayers. We pray to one God. Unlike the pagans of old, we do not believe that our lives depend on the clash between warring deities. We need not fear that the sea god’s quarrel with the sun god will submarine our life goals. The three persons of the Godhead are not clashing Titans; they are loving colaborers.

All around us, people pick and choose their spirituality. They think they can select a spiritual reality for themselves, and then direct their worship and needs accordingly. But we know this isn’t so. We love the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We believe in unity in diversity because we find it in the Godhead. Some will tell us that our love of the Trinity is foolish, but we have left our foolish speculations behind. The Trinity is fact. The Trinity is truth. The Trinity gives us a foundation to stand on, and a loving, authoritative God to worship. Let us study the Trinity.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 308.

Strachan: Terrible Challenges

We need not find joy in bad circumstances. We should actively despise illness, disunity, conflict, death, and the other evils of a fallen world. Scripture never encourages us to think of the bitter fruits of darkness as good. Indeed, we should pray against these woes. We should seek happy, prosperous lives for our families, We should desire good for our congregations. We should exult when sickness departs and health dawns.

While there is no inherent good in what Jonathan Edwards calls “the miseries of this life,” it is profitable for Christians to contemplate them. This will not prove difficult for us; after all, we must all face trials. God does not withhold adversity from any believer. One way our earthly difficulties benefit us is this: They remind us how “sweet” God’s blessings are. Without any challenges, we would not know how joyous joy is, or how happy happiness is. This is true not only of temporary afflictions, but even of hell itself. How glorious is heaven by contrast!

Some Christians will undergo terrible challenges here on earth. Whether this is true for us or not, we may know that the pain we taste here will only amplify the “heavenly happiness” we will soon enjoy. This does not lead us to give thanks for sickness, unemployment, conflict, or death. It does lead us to give thanks to God, who uses even the worst things to give us the best things. Affliction may seem unending; but truly, the night will not last long. The morning is coming, and it will be all the sweeter for our suffering.

If the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 5:1)

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards, 306.