At a time when other Americans were throwing rocks in first grader Afshin Ziafat’s childhood home and kicking him off the soccer team, there was an American lady who loved him.
What Afshin didn’t realize at the time was that her acts of love would one day connect him to the Source of love.
When he was 2, Afshin and his family moved from Houston to his parents’ home country of Iran.
Four years later, the Islamic Revolution hit the country and the Ziafats returned to Houston.
“I was in the middle of first grade,” Afshin said. “I didn’t speak English and God in His incredible providence gave me a tutor who taught me English by reading me books.”
But that’s not all she did for him.
“In the second grade, she said, ‘Afshin, I’ve been reading you all these books but now I’m going to give you the most important book you’ll ever get in your life,’ and she handed me a small New Testament. She said, ‘You’re not going to understand this book today, but promise me you’ll hold onto it and read it later in your life.’”
And a seed was planted.
A doctor and prominent Muslim in the Houston community, Afshin’s father taught his children the five pillars of the Islamic faith and that Jesus was merely a prophet. Despite that, as a senior in high school, Afshin became curious about the person of Christ.
“God, in His amazing plan, had this guy on a basketball court say to me after I said ‘Jesus’ in vain, ‘Hey, that Jesus is my God.’”
Afshin thought the guy was crazy, but one thought led to another until he went looking for the Bible his tutor had given him. Years after she gave him the book that had the power to change his life, Afshin found it at the bottom of his closet.
With the covers pulled over his head, he began reading the Bible every night by flashlight, afraid of what would happen if his family discovered him.
But then Afshin discovered something worth immeasurably more than his security.
“I got to the book of Romans and read about a righteousness that comes apart from the law but comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” he said. “That day was a turning point for me and a couple of weeks after that I was invited to an evangelistic event where I gave my life to follow Christ.”
Not fully understanding the commitment or call of Christ to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, Afshin drove home from the evangelistic event wondering what he would tell his family, especially his father. Instead of telling them anything, he hid his faith from his family, intercepted mail from the church he snuck out to attend, and continued to hide his Bible.
Eventually, however, his father found out and presented him with an ultimatum: Christ or him.
By God’s strength, Afshin chose Christ.
“You’re no longer my son,” was the response he received.
In what he now sees as a definitive moment in his life, Afshin went upstairs and cried, “God, how could You do this to me?”
The Lord, full of compassion, led him to Matthew 10 where he read,
So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father…
“I’m reading that going, ‘That just happened to me,’” Afshin recalled.
…and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. –Matthew 10:32-38
“That’s when I really understood what it means to be a follower, not just to believe the right things, but to be willing to lose your dad, your family to follow Christ.”
As detailed in Scripture, our lives intersect with other lives and weave together in affliction, suffering, and comfort, ultimately displaying the faithfulness of God for the glory of God.
Afshin’s story is no different. Though persecution came and his family disowned him, Afshin learned to embrace the God who is sovereign over suffering and with us in the midst of it.
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. -1 Peter 4:19
“Normal human experience would be to shake your fist at God because suffering is coming,” Afshin said. “But if you’re suffering, I believe you have an opportunity to say to the world, ‘He’s faithful. Even in my suffering, He’s faithful and He’s got a purpose for this.’ I think that’s a huge opportunity.”
This, along with Jesus’ high priestly prayer, directly counters the comfort-driven lives of the Western world.
“In John 17, Jesus prays for His disciples and He says that the world hates them and they don’t belong to the world,” Afshin said. “We would probably say, okay, if the world hates me and I don’t belong to the world then Jesus is going to say, ‘God, keep them separate from the world, protect them from the world and they’ll become monks in the mountains somewhere away from the world.’ But that’s not what He said.”
As You have sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. … I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word… –John 17:18, 20
“Leveraging our life for eternity means I understand that the days I have here are limited and God has not left me here to pursue comfort and the American dream,” Afshin said. “He’s left us here for mission.”
“I wish the church in America would wake up to our calling to love and serve the least of these and to spread the Gospel to a spiritually dark world and not be fixated on our protection and our comfort and our safety,” he said. “You’re not here for you. You’re here to be on mission. That’s why God has left you here.”
That mission does not cease during trials but, through the lens of the Gospel, we see the opportunity to magnify God actually expands during suffering.
“Why would you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? Why would you hate your father and mother and your wife and children to follow Jesus? Why would you forsake all you have in order to be His disciple? There’s no way you would do that unless you understand what you’re getting in the Gospel.”
After completing high school, Afshin graduated from The University of Texas in 1996 with a Bachelors of Arts in History then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2000 with a Masters of Divinity with Biblical Languages. He and his wife Meredith now live in Frisco, Texas, with their two daughters, Elyse and Ansley, where he serves as lead pastor of Providence Church. Afshin also works with Elam Ministries to train Iranian men and women called into ministry to go back into Iran to preach, teach, and plant underground churches.
The hymn is a standing favorite and go-to for many in the midst of crisis and, according to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, it was writer Horatio Spafford’s own agony that equipped him to minister so directly to others in theirs.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Born in 1828 in Troy, New York, Spafford later settled in Chicago where he met and married his wife, Anna. In the late 1860s, Spafford was a prominent attorney who acquired substantial wealth through real estate investments along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Those investments, however, turned to ash during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, resulting in significant financial loss for the Spaffords.
Two years later, the business and investments were reestablished and Spafford planned for his family a European holiday to coincide with their friend D. L. Moody’s speaking engagement in France. At the last minute, Spafford was detained on business so he sent his wife Anna and their four small daughters ahead to Paris aboard the French luxury liner S.S. Ville du Havre.
Around 2 a.m. on November 22, 1873, the steamship was hit by the iron-hulled Scottish sailing vessel Loch Earn. The Ville du Havre broke in two and sank within 12 minutes. Out of 283 passengers, 57 were saved.
According to reports, Anna Spafford was found unconscious and floating on a piece of debris. She was rescued taken by vessel to Cardiff, Wales, where she cabled Horatio in Chicago with the words, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
On the voyage to meet Anna in Paris, Horatio was summoned to the Captain’s cabin, where he was told they were passing over the place where the Ville du Havre sank and his daughters drowned. It is said he returned to his cabin and there penned the words we now sing through the fires, floods, and victories of our own lives.
When peace like a river,
Attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot,
Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
Out of unimaginable tragedy came the words that have become one of the most treasured and influential hymns of all time.
Turbulent waves of anguish and grief have been stilled with the peace-producing words of It Is Well With My Soul as the lyrics push the heart to rest in God’s sovereignty though “sorrows like sea billows roll.” Why is it so meaningful?
This song lifts our hearts to God’s flawless character and into confidence that the Judge of all the earth can do only right. The words remind us that we are no longer our own, we’ve been bought with an enormous price and we can trust our Master. God holds our lot and, because of who He is, His grace enables our hearts to sing “whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”
“Whatever my lot.” Even if, like Spafford himself, that means being stripped of all we hold dear. To lose everything and still rejoice, think also of the Apostle Paul, going so far to say, “It is well with my soul,” is something that can only be explained by the Gospel.
It doesn’t make sense on the surface, and it is not our natural default setting, but your heart can sing the Gospel in agony and anguish. But how?
How could Spafford write and believe these words?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose three children to shipwreck?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose almost all your financial investments?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose all sense of normalcy in your life?
It can only be well with your soul in the moment of tragedy if your heart is locked on the One who is not only better than your circumstances but has divinely orchestrated them for your highest joy.
Though Satan should buffet,
Though trials should come,
Let this blessed assurance control,
That Christ has regarded
My helpless estate
And hath shed
His own blood for my soul
It can only be well with your soul in the middle of misery when your hope is found in the regard of Jesus Christ the Righteous. It is that “blessed assurance” which reorients our thoughts and focus and places at center the One who bore our sin and shame thereby enabling us to worship and suffer at the same time.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by remembering the Gospel. We bake our souls in the truth that says Christ has defeated every sin and has shed His own blood for our souls.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by looking to the day when all our pains will be dissolved into gain, all our sorrows will be diffused into eternal joy, all our agonies will be disintegrated into glory, and all our death will be decomposed into resurrection.
We suffer with an eternal perspective when we remember Jesus is the Man of Sorrows who once wore our grief like a garment and now sits at the right hand of the throne of God as our High Priest.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by anticipating when the faith shall be sight and acting on God’s promise to one day completely eradicate sin and all the pain that goes with it.
We suffer with an eternal perspective when we trust Him to sustain us to the end (of all our suffering [1 Corinthians 1:8]).
We suffer with an eternal perspective as we breathe in the blissful reality that Jesus took our sin not in part but the whole and nailed it to the cross, enabling us to praise Him with our whole hearts despite the circumstances around us.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by staking our hearts in the truth that He does all things well, therefore, it is well. And that hope stands firm though the winds and waves try to convince us otherwise.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by finding hope not in this world but in the One who reigns over it and has purchased our passage through it to eternal rest.
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee,
For Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel!
Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed rest of my soul!
It is well.
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Lord, I really want my own house. I want to make a home and get to know my neighbors and have get togethers to reach them with love and the Gospel. I want to have a library and a cute kitchen and slumber parties with my small group girls. I want my home to be a place where people are well loved, well fed, and well treasured. A place where people feel safe, accepted, welcomed, and warm. Where they receive cookies, gratitude, encouragement, love, and the Gospel. Where they can come to relax, to be quiet, to talk, to praise, to read, to cry, to laugh, to sing.
I want a home.
A home not just for me but for my girls,
Lord, in Your time, would You give me a home? A semi-nice one, not for luxury but so more people can squeeze in and be squeezed by Love?
According to Scripture, we do not have anything that hasn’t been given to us from the Lord, and from His Word we know His gifts were not intended to find their eternal home with us. It is clear we have received all we have in order to leverage all we have for the joy of all people and the worship of our Savior (1 Peter 4:10-11).
If our lives, lips, talents, and gifts are to be used for God’s honor, why should our living situation be any different?
How can we use our homes to make God famous? How can we strategically use our dorms, apartments, houses, and yards in such a way as to make God look as good as He is?
The goals of my (future) home are simple. I pray it will be a place of refuge for people to gather, celebrate, weep, struggle, pray, and feast on good food and the Gospel.
What are the goals of your home? Do they line up with the Gospel message? Are they in line with Jesus’ mission? How can we redeem the home from self-itis (selfishness, self-gratification, and all things “mine”) and instead glorify the One who has given us a spiritual and earthly home?
When we remember the Gospel, we see the truth in vibrant color: we are not our own, we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). In light of that glorious reality, we now live to glorify the One who redeemed us from the curse of sin by employing every resource we have for His exaltation.
Our homes should be a refuge for our own souls but it doesn’t stop there. Because of the Gospel, we see this life is not about us. Therefore, counter-culturally, our homes are not just for us. Do you see your living space as an instrument entrusted to you by God for the purpose of loving Him and loving others?
Because Jesus has paid our debt, we now exist for His glory and the joy of everyone around us, so we are driven to unlock our hearts, doors, and lives to others, ready and eager to share with them the storehouses of God’s grace and kindness.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. -1 Thessalonians 2:8
Do we extend the Gospel with our lips and lives?
“Be a pipeline not a puddle.”
“Be a fountain not a drain.”
Be a giver of God’s goodness not just a receiver.
Do not hoard the gifts of the Savior as if they were intended for you alone. If God is anything, He is a divine multi-tasker who has given us what we have to be a blessing for others.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. -1 Timothy 6:17-19
Because I was bought with a price, what I once claimed as “mine” has been laid down before the King who saved me and therefore I am at His disposal to do with as He chooses (as are all my resources). The way my life and home are stewarded should reflect that.
Are we stingy with what we own or do we recognize the gift of the Gospel that reveals the way we have been undeservedly loved and, as a result, equipped to love others and live in the surplus of the Gospel?
Living to impress others is like walking into a prison cell, locking the door, and asking the guard to burn the keys. You’re enslaving yourself.
Love doesn’t seek to impress. Love lays itself bare and serves another, come what may. As Dustin Willis said in Life in Community,
The Gospel says the pressure is off. You’re freed to love people because there’s no need to impress them. You don’t have to give people Disney World every time you open the doors of your home. Give them you.
People don’t need to see the illusion of perfection. That includes the illusion of a perfect soul, personality, or home. You are not Chip and Joanna Gaines. You do not have to give your guests a Magnolia-worthy atmosphere. They don’t need your “perfect” aesthetics. They need Jesus.
No one benefits from seeing perfection unless they are seeing the perfection of Christ. In the Gospel, we have been freed from any lingering pressure to self-promote or appear better than we are. People need to see real, raw, honest faith that repents quickly and welcomes all into the lavish generosity of the Gospel.
Are you laboring with the people God has placed around you? Are you serving and inviting them to your table as a way to glorify the One who invited us to the greatest table of all time?
In a world of words that slice and dice, strive to represent the Word by creating a space where ours are used only to build up, heal, and edify.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. –Proverbs 18:21
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. –Ephesians 4:29
We serve a God who speaks and in whose words contain the power of eternal life. Do our words reflect and point to the Word made flesh?
Making much of the Lord and having open doors can happen regardless of the size of your apartment, dorm, or home. Upon examination, one may realize the one-two punch combo command to “show hospitality without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:8) and to “make disciples ‘as we go’” (Matthew 28:19) is not contingent on a luxurious environment.
Our home is a tool, not a trophy. –Jani Ortlund
Because of what Jesus has done for us, we are to reject any inclination toward selfishness and instead use our homes as catalysts for ministry, creating spaces for retreat and refuge for others to receive the Gospel demonstrated in real life.
“Excitement for this new chapter filled with opportunities and fulfillment, and fear because this next chapter will last the next 40 years of their life,” he said. “There is a great trepidation of entering the ‘rat race.’”
Though both feelings are valid, Dennis said they must be guided, lest we end up falling into the same pitfalls as the rest of the world.
“Those are the two fallacies we must guard our hearts against lest work becomes either an idol or it becomes utterly toilsome,” Dennis said.
He gives two pieces of advice to do so.
“Fear that excitement and be guarded,” he said. “Be excited for the God-given joy to derive from work, but beware the danger of work becoming your life pursuit. An ambition for earthly greatness and finding self-worth in work has been the downfall of many Christians.”
“Work is frustrating and toilsome, there’s no sugar-coating that,” he said. “The flip side of the temptation to make work an idol is the temptation to think work is meaningless and should be avoided.”
Guard your heart from pursuing freedom from work.
Guide your fear into a realization that work is cursed not a curse.
Invited to a feast, a banquet of epic proportions, to celebrate the greatness of this God who redeemed us from our sin and separation from Him. The festivities have begun and the appetizers are being served so we can taste and see that the Master of Ceremonies is indeed as good as He claims, but we’re not yet to the main celebration.
No, the doors to this eternal marriage supper have yet to fling open and we haven’t been granted full entrance to the reception, but until then we’ve been issued a divine edict and a high privilege.
A few days later, His Spirit exploded on the scene and His followers were given power and authority to bring as many people as possible to the party that will (literally) end all parties.
Jesus enlisted us in this amazing mission, giving the command and the ability to carry it out. What could possibly keep us from joyfully obeying?
Well, as it turns out, lots of things.
When the Gospel is nothing more than a list of facts, we won’t see the need to participate in the mission. We might not even realize or remember the mission is for us.
Do we remember what we’ve been rescued from? Do we remember how Jesus came to us at our darkest and spoke light into our self-built cave of sin and shame?
Not remembering, not having our lives saturated in the truth that saved us, will hinder us from fulfilling Jesus’ command because the importance and urgency will be drowned out by our day-to-day routines.
When we don’t know the Gospel for ourselves and we forget what Jesus has done for us, there is little to no motivation to get into the messes of others in order to snatch them from the fire (Jude 23). But when we remember how Jesus laid aside His dignity and got into our miry pit to lift us out, it propels us to do the same for others so they can know the hope and rescue we’ve been given.
This life on life stuff is no joke.
Discipleship, as Jesus defined and demonstrated, takes work. It would be so much easier to do other things (or nothing) rather than invest in others for the long haul, but Jesus didn’t rescue us from the wrath of God to give us an easy life.
Running the race, fighting the fight of faith, waging war on sin, and pouring our lives into others are action verbs for a reason. When Christ saves us, He doesn’t call us to a passive existence but to an abundant life of activity where we forcefully discard self-gratification (including our inclinations to laziness) and intentionally pursue holiness.
Laziness sets in when we forget that extending party invitations is a joy and privilege, not a depressing duty from a harsh taskmaster. When we remember what the Gospel has done for us and called us to, we will be willing to lay aside our desire for ease and comfort and actively pursue Christ and others for His glory.
“What do you have to offer anyone?”
“You don’t know enough.”
“You’re not equipped for ‘ministry.’”
“If people spend time with you, they’ll see you’re not as holy as you claim to be.”
The lies rattle in our brains with compelling force. And you can be sure of this: Where two or more lies are gathered, fear is there in the midst of them.
Fear hinders disciple making because it’s an anesthetic, a potent tranquilizer that numbs us to our responsibilities and to the truth that God has called, equipped, and will continue to equip us to fulfill His mission.
But fear can also serve us because it exposes where our dependence is.
Fear arises when we imagine everything depends on us. –Elisabeth Elliot
When dependence is on what we can do not what God can do through a jar of clay yielded to Him, our hearts will be tossed to and fro by the turbulent fears. But when we remember the Lord is the One who chose us and has provided all things that pertain to life and godliness, which includes providing the grace necessary to make disciples who make disciples, confidence rises and action will be taken.
Do you believe that when God saved you, He gave you everything you needed for this situation? Your life will reveal what you believe.
I had the privilege of meeting Jaquelle last year at a writer’s workshop at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference and my soul immediately connected with hers. She is a light in this generation, full of humility-cloaked wisdom and grace, and a gentle but fierce warrior for the Gospel. Out of the overflow of God’s work in her life, she has written This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years (Crossway, 2017).
And it is a necessary gem for the church.
If you could potentially encounter a teen at some point in your life, you should read it. It’s that important. This is for teens, yes, but also for parents, teachers, and the entirety of the church.
As a youth leader, I’m grateful for Jaquelle’s beautiful heart and her desire to see this generation of teenagers changed and motivated by the only thing worth living and dying for. Within this book, she powerfully speaks truth as a peer, honors her parents who have modeled the Best Story in front of her, and drives readers toward the one thing that will give them eternal incentive to swim against the tides of the culture: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It really does change everything.
Sophie McDonald: Why is it important for teenagers to be involved in a local church? What’s their role and function?
Jaquelle Crowe: The Bible is pretty clear about calling every single Christian to be involved in a local church—and nowhere does it exclude teenage Christians. Teenagers have the same role in the local church as any other Christian—to be servant-members who worship, sacrifice, give, love, fellowship and are held accountable in the context of covenant community. How they actually function will look different because of their age, but it won’t change their fundamental role or position. The church doesn’t have an age limit.
SM: Life for a teenager is primarily a self-focused time (picking colleges, classes, friend groups, activities, etc.); how does the Gospel change that?
JC: Without the Gospel, everyone lives a purely self-focused life, dictated by our own selfish desires, dreams, and motivations. But the Gospel strips us of this idolatry and gives us an identity as submissive slaves to Jesus. For teenagers, He is Lord of our lives now, so in a radical act of counter-culturalism, we pick colleges, classes, friends, activities, and everything with the ultimate purpose of honoring God first and submitting our lives to His word.
SM: You say teenagers don’t have to rebel. Why? Expound on that.
JC: Culture expects teenagers to rebel. It’s become more than just a stereotype; it’s a pervasive assumption. But the Gospel calls teens to submit to Scripture’s expectations, not the world’s. The Gospel actually gives us a reason not to rebel—because we serve a faithful, peace-making God.
SM: How can teenagers join the greater Story and push back the darkness, or, as you say in the book, reject the status quo?
JC: Teenagers face overwhelming pressure and temptation to conform to culture. But the Gospel invites us to join this greater, bigger, happier Story by trusting in the redeeming work of Jesus. Living for this Story means we fight the temptation to be accepted by the world and all that it believes in and choose instead to stand for the truths of the Gospel.
In the preface of his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan, who was born in 1628 in Bedfordshire, England, said, “It is profitable for Christians to often call to mind the very beginnings of grace in their souls.” It is the Giver of that grace whom Bunyan seeks to magnify as he recounts his journey of salvation.
In that journey, we find Bunyan no stranger to unbelief but rather one who wrestled extensively with heavy doubts, guilt, and condemnation, often arguing that God could not save him.
Sin and corruption would as naturally bubble out of my heart as water would bubble out of a fountain. I thought now that everyone had a better heart than I had; I could have changed hearts with anybody. I thought none but the devil himself could equalize me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell at the sight of my own vileness into deep despair, for I concluded that this condition that I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, I thought, I am forsaken of God; sure I am given up to the devil and to a reprobate mind. And thus I continued a long while, even for several years.
In full disclosure I admit that as I read Bunyan’s story, I found myself getting so impatient (and sometimes frustrated) with the length of his conviction period that I would catch myself subconsciously praying that God would save him and relieve him from the weight of his doubts and paralyzing unbelief. Then I saw myself in his place. Praise for a God who is patient and forbearing with the frailty of our flesh. What a Savior.
During his years of battling for belief, the already vulnerable Bunyan was constantly plagued with the Accuser’s taunting, torments, and distortion of the truth. As you read the following excerpts, perhaps you will see, as I did, that the enemy of our souls has no new material but continues only to repackage the same lies he’s used for centuries. “Same cake, different party,” as my dad says.
However, because he still remained in the flesh the battle with unbelief never ended but victory was gained.
I leave you with two final quotes from the book. These were penned while Bunyan was in prison for not conforming to the Church of England. All glory to our Conquering King.
I have never in all my life had so great an inlet into the Word of God as now. The Scriptures that I saw nothing in before are made to shine on me in this place and state.
I never knew what it was like to have God stand by me at every turn and every offer of Satan to afflict me as I have found Him since I came here. For as fears have presented themselves, so have support and encouragement.