Why don’t Christians only have communion once a year?

Q. If Jesus had communion with his disciples as part of the once-yearly Passover meal, why do modern Christians usually have communion much more often (sometimes every week!)?

The observance of communion or the Lord’s Supper is based on more than the once-yearly Passover meal. It is true that the observance draws great meaning from its continuity with Passover, with Jesus seen as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But the observance is also based on the fellowship offerings that are described in the Old Testament. Those were a frequent occasion for worship in the life of the Jewish community in the time of Jesus.

These fellowship offerings were understood to be a meal that was shared by the worshipers with God. Part of the animal whose meat provided the meal was completely burned up. That was God’s share. The person making the offering would share the rest with invited guests, the priests, and even with the poor. These offerings could be made in fulfillment of a vow, in thanks to God for help, or spontaneously (as a “freewill offering”) specifically in order to provide the occasion for such a shared meal.

We can see the analogy to communion, which is understood to be a meal shared with God. (Indeed, the word “communion” means basically the same thing as “fellowship.”) And since fellowship offerings were made frequently, it was natural for Jesus to tell his disciples at the Last Supper, when they were sharing the Passover meal, that he wanted them to re-enact the same observance whenever they ate together. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So Jesus himself said to observe communion frequently, and his first followers understood that this was his intention. That being the case, perhaps the question should now be  why most Christians observe communion more than once a year. Instead, perhaps we should ask why most Christians do not observe communion even more often than weekly or monthly. There seems to be a case for Christians to have communion every time they gather together for a shared meal.

If we sin and ask forgiveness, is God our friend again?

Q. If we sin and ask forgiveness, is God our friend again?

I do believe I can reassure you that if we genuinely recognize and acknowledge that something we have said or done is wrong, a sin against God, and if we ask God to forgive us, God not only forgives us, based on what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, but God also restores our relationship to him.

Sin does create a break in our relationship with God. We relate to God as creature to Creator, as child to Heavenly Father, and ideally, as you have suggested, as friend to friend. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

However, just before Jesus said that, he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” So obedience to God is consistent with friendship with God, and disobedience to God is inconsistent with friendship with God. It breaks that relationship. However, repenting, confessing, and receiving forgiveness  restore that friendship, particularly if we make it our resolve to obey in the future where we have disobeyed in the past.

We should bear in mind that it is God who takes the initiative in cultivating a friendship with us. God is the one who sent Jesus to save us so that we could be restored to relationship with him as his children and friends. God is also the one who sends the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin so that we will repent, confess, and ask forgiveness. So we should not be wondering whether God still wants to be friends with us. Instead, we should respond gratefully to God’s initiative to create and preserve the friendship by confessing and forsaking our sins and then eagerly embracing God’s offer of continuing friendship.

Is every marriage ordained?

Q. Is every marriage ordained?

I understand you to be asking whether we can be confident that if two people are married, this is because God wanted them to be married and arranged their lives and circumstances so that they would get married.

I don’t believe we can necessarily have that confidence in the case of people who make their plans and decisions without regard to God. But I would hope that every marriage between two followers of Jesus Christ is one that the husband and wife each entered into as a matter of obedience to God’s leading. I believe that God shows two such people that they can have a greater influence for his purposes together than they could separately and that he is calling them to enter into both the joys and challenges of marriage for that purpose.

Of course people who get married are excited about each other, very much in love, and eager to be married. So we don’t always think of getting married as a matter of obedience to God. But I believe that must be the foundation. If it is, it will help the couple make it through difficult times and grow together into a deep, rich, happy relationship that is a blessing to them and to those around them.

So I do believe that God “ordains” marriages in the sense of leading two people of faith to recognize that his will for them is to enter into marriage as a life partnership to advance his purposes, and at the same time to experience the many joys of sharing life together.

Shouldn’t Uriah have gone home to be with his wife?

Q. I have a question about 2 Samuel 11, but not about the behavior of David or Bathsheba. My question is about the behavior of Uriah. He is often seen as heroic, manly, virtuous because he does not spend the night at home with his wife but sleeps with the servants as a show of solidarity with the troops who are still on the front. Certainly as a soldier he has a commitment to the troops. But as a husband, he also has a commitment to his wife. I think his behavior is not all that commendable. We all face competing competing commitments, obligations, etc. when they all seem worthy. How do we sort out the correct choice?

I will address your question about sorting out competing commitments, but I would like to observe first that one possibility we do need to consider in this passage is that Uriah knew about David’s crime against his wife Bathsheba, or that he at least suspected it. If that is true, then he would also have recognized that by arranging for his return to Jerusalem, David was trying to make it appear that he (Uriah, not David), was the father of the child Bathsheba was expecting. We can then understand all of Uriah’s behavior as something he pursued in order to prevent that false appearance. He was not neglecting his wife, he was preventing a coverup.

Bathsheba could have sent word to Uriah, just as she did to David, that she was pregnant with David’s child. Or one of the many servants in the palace who knew what happened could have told Uriah when he arrived. Or Uriah might just have found the circumstances of his recall to Jerusalem a bit too suspicious. I am not an expert on ancient military practices, but it seems to me from what I read in the Bible that a warrior champion such as Uriah (he was one of “The Thirty,” David’s mighty warriors) would not ordinarily have been sent from the front just to provide a report on how a campaign was going. That was the work of messengers. Fighting in those days centered around these warrior champions, so it seems to me that it would have been unusual to send one of them away from the front during an active campaign. I may be wrong about that, but in any event I think there are grounds to believe that Uriah knew or suspected what David had done to Bathsheba, and so by staying away from home, he was preventing David from creating the impression that the child Bathsheba was expecting was his.

However, your question also deserves an answer on the premise that Uriah did not know or suspect anything about what had happened. Could we still commend his behavior under those circumstances? I think we could.

Each one of us needs to strike a balance between our competing commitments. For example, we should not neglect our families for our work, but at the same time we need to meet the reasonable obligations of our work and not fail to meet those because we are spending time with family and friends when we really should be working. And the balance that we strike needs to be sustainable. That is, it needs to be something that ordinarily holds for the long term.

However, from time to time there will also be extraordinary circumstances that call for us to make an exception to the usual arrangements. For example, to honor his responsibilities both to his family and to his church, a man might commit to arranging his work schedule so that he is, as a rule, free every Wednesday evening to participate in a home group that his church sponsors. But what if, one week, there is a project at work that requires his participation, is vital to the company’s success, and has a deadline that can only be met if he works late into the evening that Wednesday? Under those circumstances, he could miss the group that week, and that in itself would not throw his competing commitments out of balance. If that happened every week, it would be a problem. But if he were back in the group the next week and the weeks that followed, this would be seen as a genuine and legitimate exception.

I think we could understand Uriah’s actions in this light. For all he knew, he was being sent back to Jerusalem on an overnight mission to give a quick report on the campaign and then return to the front. (It was David who extended the visit to two nights in an effort to make Uriah look like the father of the baby.) Under those circumstances, it seems, Uriah felt that his commitment was to his fellow troops and that he needed to show solidarity with them. If he never went home to his wife, even when the army was not in the field, that would be a different matter. But I think that under these exceptional circumstances (and I believe they certainly would have seemed exceptional to Uriah), we can give him the benefit of the doubt for honoring the commitment that he felt needed to take priority at the time.

How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

Q. How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

I’m not sure whether you mean this question in the sense of daily matters of obedience or in the sense of a life “calling” (that is, a vocation). But I will answer it in the first sense and then say how the answer applies to the second sense as well.

Ideally, we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus by developing a close relationship with him through prayer, worship, devotion, and obedience. There is an analogy that Jesus himself gave that I find very helpful. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” He said that after explaining in general terms about a shepherd: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” So the ideal is to learn to recognize the voice of Jesus so that we know enough to follow him when we hear him speaking, and we also know enough to run away from what opposing voices are telling us.

But this is a process that takes time, and there are things that can help us along the way. I think it is accurate and helpful to expect that a number of factors will converge to show us how God is leading us. In addition to the way we may have a sense of God speaking to us, these factors include what God says in the Scriptures; the advice we receive from wise, trusted advisors; what the circumstances permit (“open doors” vs. “closed doors”); the godly desires of our own hearts; the fact that we find we are yielded and willing to obey God about something—to have it, not to have it, or to wait; a sense of peace about it; and a recognition that it will require faith and that God is giving us the faith to believe for it. When many such factors converge to point in a direction that we sense the voice of Jesus is also indicating, then we can reasonably proceed in that direction, believing that he is guiding us that way.

But we should always be open to continual refinement of our understanding. We need to learn from experience. If it turns out that somehow we got the wrong sense of what God wanted us to do, then we need to think about how that happened and learn from it for the next time. There is a learning curve here. But it is also an adventure of walking by faith with a loving God who will reward us for our desire to hear and obey his voice, not punish us for hearing imperfectly while we are learning.

All of these principles apply to God’s guidance about a life “calling” or vocation. Vocation includes our paid work or profession, but it also includes our relationships, the ministry we have in our church, volunteer and leisure-time activities, and so forth. It is the “whole package” of life, but it does center around certain key decision such as what work to do and where, and what our primary relationships will be. The main difference between guidance about this and about daily obedience is that vocational guidance unfolds over time, as the result of much exploration. So you should still study the Scriptures, pray, seek godly counsel, understand the desires of your heart, and so forth. But you should just expect that you will need to find your way over time into your vocation; it’s unlikely that one day God will suddenly announce the whole picture to you.

Here are a couple of questions that are usually helpful for people exploring what their vocations should be.

  • What would you do if you could do anything in the world, if money were no obstacle and assuming that you could get any education or training you might need for it? Those limitations might actually be there, but answering this question helps you know what direction to head in.
  • What can you “not not” do? Most people can do a number of things well. But there is one thing, or a related cluster of things, that they just can’t help doing, no matter where they are. That points very clearly in the direction of God’s vocation for their lives. So don’t ask, “What can I do?” Ask, “What can I not not do?”

I hope these reflections are helpful, and may you find yourself able to hear more and more clearly all the time what Jesus is calling you to do.

What does it mean to “cooperate with God when sufferings come”?

Q. I have just finished reading God Mingled With Us, an inspiring little book about a wife’s difficult journey caring for her terminally ill husband. It reminded me a lot of the extended blog your wrote about your own journey. (Sorry, I can’t recall the name, and I couldn’t find it on your home page. Is it still available?) At one point the author writes, “There is a transformation process that occurs, making us more like Him as we cooperate with His divine life in us. This is ultimately what God is after in the process. The question is, will we cooperate with Him when sufferings come?” My question is, if you agree with this statement, what do you think cooperating with Him when sufferings come looks like?

Thank you for your question. First, let me say that Endless Mercies is the name of the story I have told of God’s faithfulness to my late wife and me during the four years when she battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) with unfailing faith, joy, and courage. As you noted, I told this story in an extended blog format, and you can still read it here. (I have also added a link to this blog in the sidebar.)

I have not yet read the book God Mingled With Us, but it sounds very interesting. It does seem that the author and her late husband experienced God’s presence and help during his illness in many ways similar to the ones in which my late wife and I experienced those things. Let me share some thoughts in response to your specific question about what it means to cooperate with God when sufferings come.

My wife would often say to people about her illness, “This is something that God is trusting me to trust him with.” She felt that God was giving her the opportunity to believe by faith that her sufferings had meaning and purpose, even if she never found out in this life what the meaning and purpose were. She also felt that God was giving her the opportunity to rely on him for grace and strength for each day, no matter what challenges came. That does sound to me like cooperating with God.

My wife also talked about “peace through acceptance.” (That was a phrase she learned from Amy Carmichael, who became a historical mentor to her through her books.) If we do not question the wisdom, goodness, or love of God, but instead accept that God has allowed these sufferings for reasons that must be wise and good, even though beyond our understanding, we can experience peace and even joy in the midst of sufferings.

Someone once asked my wife, “Don’t you ever wonder, ‘Why me?'” She responded, “Why not me?” She explained that this is currently a broken world in which people experience sufferings, and we shouldn’t expect that just because we have faith in God, we will be exempt from them. Instead, she resolved to live each day of the illness as someone who loved and trusted God and who wanted to honor him by the way she conducted herself.

Those are some thoughts in response to your question. But I think the best thing I can do in reply is to invite you to read Endless Mercies. Having learned the phrase “cooperating with God in sufferings,” I do believe that you will see that modeled and illustrated throughout the story. Thanks again for your question.

Would being baptized with “tongues” help me experience God’s presence more?

Q. I gave my life to Jesus over 40 years ago and throughout those years, I have had times where my walk with Him has been blessed and I knew He was with me. However, many of these years have been done by will power. I know God is with me, but that is mostly an intellectual choice. I have been water baptized, but I have never been “baptized” with tongues, although I have prayed and prayed and prayed for it. I love God as best I can, but I feel like God has chosen my life with Him to be one of service by willpower with drops of his Spirit to keep me going. This can’t be what He wants for anyone who wants Him. Do you think it is because I haven’t been “baptized” in His Spirit by speaking in tongues? I know there are disputes about what baptism means, but if it is, why wouldn’t He want this for someone. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated. God Bless.

Thank you for your question. I do sympathize with what you are feeling and I understand what you are asking. Let me respond to your specific question about “speaking in tongues” first, and then let me respond to your general concern.

The phrase “speaking in tongues” refers to a spiritual gift that God gives that allows people to speak a language that they have not learned. (The word “tongues” in this phrase is being used in the older sense of “languages.” So “speaking in tongues” means “speaking in languages,” that is, languages that the speaker has not learned.)

I believe that the teaching of the Bible is quite clear that not every Christian receives this gift. Paul asks, rhetorically, in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Do all speak in tongues?” The expected answer is “no,” just as that answer is expected to his other questions, for example, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (I say this with no disrespect for the Christian traditions that teach that “tongues” in the form of a “prayer language” is a gift available to all believers. I do not find that the Bible teaches that, but as I said, I intend no disrespect for those who hold that it does.)

So while I do believe that this gift is still available today, I do not believe that every Christian should seek it or expect it. I certainly would not say that having it is the key to a life in which someone experiences the presence of God all the time. In fact, if you have prayed and prayed and prayed for it and God has not given it to you, then I would conclude that you are not one of the Christians who is going to get this gift. But this only means that God has another wonderful gift for you. It is probably already in your life and you just need to recognize it for what it is and develop it for God’s glory and for greater fulfillment in his service. Please see this post: Why haven’t I received a spiritual gift like tongues or prophecy? Please also see this post regarding the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”: Are people “filled with the Holy Spirit” once or multiple times?

Beyond this, to speak to your larger concern, I would encourage you to consider that perhaps you are someone who will experience God’s presence in your life not primarily through your emotions but through other means. Every person is different, and every person who knows God experiences God differently. Jesus said that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Perhaps different people will love God more with some of these than with others. I actually hear in your question how you are already loving God with your mind (intellectually) and with your strength (willpower). Maybe the thing to do is to recognize these as genuine ways of loving God and to realize how much God values and appreciates receiving love from you in these ways.

If the feeling of God’s presence continues to come and go, please don’t be discouraged by that. That is the nature of feelings. They come and go. But I hope you can always experience satisfaction in your faithfulness to God. Our hope is not that when we stand before God in heaven, he will say, “It was so nice that you felt I was there all the time.” No, our hope is that he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So let us seek to be good servants and faithful servants. If we are, we can be sure that God is pleased with our lives, no matter what we are or are not feeling at any given time.

Could remarriage after divorce not “amount to adultery” in some circumstances?

Q. My question is one seeking clarification. You wrote in this post: “It’s clear from Scripture that God does not like divorce, and so the Bible says many things to discourage divorce, such as the warning that marrying a divorced person can amount to adultery. (This is especially true if someone gets divorced in order to marry someone else.)” First, you’re one of the few people I’ve seen who mentions the “in order to” part. I believe that’s an important point of translation. What I want to know is, based on the phrase “can amount to adultery”: Is it your stance/belief that there is a situation of remarriage after divorce that might not “amount to adultery”?

I would say yes, I do believe that a person who is divorced and then remarries, or someone who marries someone who has been divorced, can have a marriage that is honoring to God and not under any condemnation from God as adultery. I say this after many years of pastoral experience and many years of studying and teaching the Bible.

I would stress once again that there is no biblical sanction to divorce a spouse in order to marry someone else. But consider the much different case of someone who, before they gave their life to Christ, married as a young and immature person and whose marriage broke down because of sin and immaturity on the part of both spouses. What if, many years later, once they had given their life to Christ, been transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and learned the lessons of their first failed marriage, they met another believer and were truly convinced that the two of them could serve God more effectively together than apart? In such a case, after making very sure that all these things were true, I as a pastor would be prepared to perform the wedding (and I have done so in such cases).

My reasoning is that God is not so much against divorce as in favor of marriage. (The reason why God is so against divorce is that he is so in favor of marriage.) So I believe that if the two people I have just describe hypothetically could form a strong, healthy, God-honoring Christian marriage together, then the purposes of God in the world would be much better served by allowing them to live out that ideal as a model and example to others, and as a blessing in itself, than by continuing to penalize them for the rest of their lives for something that happened when they were young and immature and before they knew the Lord.

I recognize that some Christians would still disagree with this, and I acknowledge that they would do so wanting to honor what they understand to be the biblical teaching. But you asked what my understanding was, and so I have shared it with you. I hope this is helpful.

If Jesus didn’t sin because he didn’t have a sinful nature, why did Adam and Eve sin when they didn’t have a sinful nature?

Q. I once held the view that Jesus to be truly human had to have at least the option of sinning. I changed my view when I was taught that Jesus didn’t have a sin nature like us, thinking that without this fallen nature, it would have been impossible for Him to sin. But, the thought came to me that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sinful nature at first, yet they sinned. So, any thoughts?

Your question bears on the issue of whether Jesus on earth was “not able to sin” or instead “able not to sin.” Christians of good will with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture hold different views about this. I personally believe that it was not the case that Jesus was “not able to sin” while he was on earth. I believe he was instead “able not to sin” (your original view). But this was not because he did not have a fallen nature or sin nature.

Rather, to borrow the language of Augustine, once we come under the influence of original sin or a fallen nature or sin nature, we are “not able not to sin.” We may do some good and right things in life, but we will also sin, inevitably. We need to be born again, regenerated, so that we will have a new nature that is no longer under this constraint.

Without original sin or a fallen nature, we would then be in the same situation as humans before the fall. To quote Augustine further, in that situation, people were both “able to sin” and “able not to sin.” That is the radical nature of human freedom. So Adam and Eve sinned, even though they didn’t have a sinful nature at first, because they were “able to sin,” in addition to being “able not to sin.”

So what about Jesus on earth? I would describe him as “able not to sin,” and that was true of him because he was completely yielded and obedient to his heavenly Father and because he lived his life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This was true of him to such a degree that I would actually hesitate to describe him as “able to sin” while on earth, although technically that was a possibility, in my view. What I mean is that while it was a theoretical possibility, it was not an actual one, given how absolutely devoted he was to God.

In that way Jesus sets an example for us. We, too, are “able not to sin” when we yield our wills completely to God’s will and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did this consistently for a lifetime, which is far more than we can realistically hope for ourselves, but we can at least hope for more and more occasions on which we find that we are “able not to sin” as we are yielded to God, obedient, and Spirit-filled.

And we can also anticipate the wonderful time when, glorified in the presence of God after this life, we will be truly “not able to sin.”

Can you lose the Holy Spirit?

Q. Can you lose the Holy Spirit?

I believe personally that when people genuinely put their trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, the Holy Spirit comes to live in them and does not depart. However, the Bible does warn us that we can “grieve” or “quench” the Spirit.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes the kind of behavior that grieves the Spirit: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

And in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes the kind of behavior whose absence or presence can quench the Spirit: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”

So if a Christian is wondering whether they have lost the Spirit, it’s possible that they have grieved or quenched the Spirit in one of these ways. The Spirit has not left them, but the Spirit has withdrawn out of grief or been relegated to a marginal role in their life. I would say to all who might be wondering about this that they should examine themselves to see whether they have done this. They might be harboring bitterness towards another person, for example, or indulging in some activity that they know is wrong. They should recognize what they are doing, ask God’s forgiveness, and change their ways. Then, I believe, they will be able to pray confidently, in the words of William Cowper’s hymn:

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.