Elyse Fitzpatrick developed a heart for ministry not because she had all the answers, but because she had a lot of questions. As a young woman with only a passing acquaintance with Christianity, Fitzpatrick says, her life was a train wreck when she came to Christ. “I needed answers that would calm my own troubled heart. As a believer, as I saw how much help I needed, I began to see that there were a lot of other women out there who needed the same kind of help.”

That awareness led Fitzpatrick to earn a master’s degree in biblical counseling at Trinity Theological Seminary. She has been counseling women for nearly 30 years while also writing and speaking about the Bible’s message of hope. She recalls seeing her own brokenness and confusion mirrored in the lives of the women around her—even the Christians—and it motivated her to search Scripture for answers.

“I needed to know what God said about the difficulties of life in the here and now,” she recalls. “So many Christian women feel lost and abandoned. There’s a message out there that says, if you come to Christianity, then everything will be lovely in your life. But then life doesn’t turn out that way.”

Starting with the Good News

At first, Fitzpatrick’s writing and teaching focused on the Bible’s prescriptions for discipleship—the practical ways that  Christians should live out their faith.  But for years, she kept encountering believers who were surprisingly unfamiliar with foundational Christian teachings. “I don’t get asked to speak at what we would call a 'f'fluffy’ church,” she says, alluding to her assumption that listeners were knowledgeable about basic theology. “But when I ask the women in an audience, ‘What does the word “justification” mean?’ most of them have no idea.”

So she made an important shift in her focus. Fitzpatrick recognized that she needed to center her message on the core teachings of the gospel. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to find out what God would have you do, but I began to ask more foundational questions: What has God already done? What are the promises or declarations that I need to be living in right now?” she explains. “I moved from focusing on commands or obligations. It’s not that I never use that language anymore, but I realized the importance of communicating, ‘This is what God has done for you in Christ.’ Let’s spend the majority of our time talking about that instead of, ‘This is what God has commanded you to do.’ ”

Romans 4:23–25 has been one of the biggest influences on her teaching. “It’s all about Abraham’s faith being counted as righteousness: ‘But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.’ The message—that I’m presently righteous by faith alone, that the righteousness of God has been counted to me—that’s kind of a shock. When God looks at me, I have the righteousness of God. That’s what he’s saying. Justification is not simply as if I had never sinned; it’s as if I had always obeyed. That truth is brought about because Jesus was delivered up for my trespasses.”

For Fitzpatrick, shifting the focus from our obligation to Christ’s work on our behalf frees people from the burden of performance. “Instead of saying, ‘Jesus died for your sins. How could you act this way?’ the message ought to be, ‘Jesus died for your sins, and that’s the motivation for you to live a godly life.’ ”

“How would our lives be different if we believed that, when God looked at us, he was completely pleased and saw nothing but perfection? You’re justified; live in the light of that.”

Fitzpatrick believes that understanding the gospel more deeply can change how believers deal with hardships in their lives. She mentions anxiety as an example. “The Bible has a lot to say about worry. Jesus talked about it in the Sermon on the Mount. But he doesn’t just say, ‘Worry is bad.’ He reassures his listeners that they don’t need to worry because they have a Father who loves them.”

“That assurance changes the way I think about my worry. I have a Father who loves me and who knows what I need … every miniscule aspect of my life. And as a good Father, he has promised to take care of me.”

For Fitzpatrick, this example from Matthew 6:25–34 reinforces the idea that God’s redeeming love comes first, and Christian obedience is a response to that love. “Are there commands and obligations in Scripture? Yes, of course—they’re all over. But they come to us in the context of what God has already done for us in Christ.”

Fitzpatrick is quick to admit that her own struggles with worrying haven’t disappeared with her new understanding, but she now has tools to address it. “I used to say to myself, ‘Stop it, worry is sin.’ And it is. But now I say, ‘Why are you worrying? You have a Father who loves you, and he has promised to take care of you.’ That change takes the focus off me and what I need to do, and onto him and what he has already done. The advice is the same, but the perspective makes a huge difference.”

The benefit of a gospel perspective is easy to talk about in a hypothetical situation, or with respect to everyday trials. But what about times of illness, grief over a loved one’s death, or other all-too-common hardships? Fitzpatrick gets quiet, but maintains that the principle is still the same. “Jesus Christ understands our suffering. … Hebrews 4:15 tells us, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ Everything you feel in the middle of hardship—disillusionment, grief, abandonment, loss—Jesus Christ has faced. Not only that, but he enters into our suffering with us.”

Ministry for a Fast-Paced World

The tagline for Fitzpatrick’s ministry website reads: “No fluff. No bricks. Just Good News.” In addition to providing biblical and theological depth in her teaching, Fitzpatrick wants to avoid  adding unnecessary burdens to women.

“I think often, as Americans, we look for a pragmatic ‘five steps to happiness’ message. When we focus on that, we lose all the underlying truth,” she says. “Women are so overburdened. We work,  we enroll our kids in five sports each, our houses have to be perfect, and our husbands have to be completely satisfied in life all the time. … Many women who would be interested [in studying Scripture] feel like they don’t have time to do a deep study of the Bible. It’s a hard situation for a women’s ministry leader, to try to minister to women who are already far too busy.”

In an effort to address the needs of women with busy lives, it can be tempting to distill a message into a set of to-do’s or to stay at the surface level of understanding. Fitzpatrick hopes that ministry leaders will aim to challenge women with in-depth studies of the Bible and theology: “It’s been my experience that if you’ve got a ministry that isn’t either silly or overburdening, women will make time for it.”

Hoping in the Future

Fitzpatrick’s drive to teach the theology of the gospel has resulted in 24 books over three decades of ministry. “My books are never going to be poetry, but I counsel people, and I think often about the places in my life where I’m really broken,” she says. “I need help, and I ask the question, ‘Where does the Bible talk about this, and how can I communicate it?’ And then I spend a lot of time studying.”

Fitzpatrick has written on a range of topics, from discipleship to counseling to theology. Her newest release is Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings. The book was born when personal hardships drove Fitzpatrick to the Bible for answers and comfort. “It was a whole series of circumstances that were really heartbreaking. A ministry I was very close with fell apart, our home church went through a heart-wrenching change in leadership, a very dear friend’s ministry fell apart. People I thought were friends began to talk badly about me. I sought to build a bridge back to them, but couldn’t make it happen. At the end of the year, my uncle, who really functioned as a father to me for much of my life, died.”

Throughout that year, Fitzpatrick found herself talking and studying more about heaven. “I began to realize that what I wanted wasn’t going to come around in the here and now,” she says. “Home is part reflection on our need for a future hope, and it’s a study on what that future is going to be like. If we think about our future at all, we might imagine it as a millennia-long worship service, or floating on a cloud, strumming a harp. Neither one of those images was satisfying my soul with encouraging truth. So I started reading and studying.”

As she worked through biblical passages on heaven, Fitzpatrick studied books by Randy Alcorn, J. Richard Middleton, N.T. Wright, and Tim Keller. “I read, and read, and ended up with more than 100 pages of notes from other theologians and writers.”

Fitzpatrick hopes that the hardships she has worked through will be worth the pain if, as a result, she can share her assurance of a heavenly future with others. “Paul talks about the future life in 1 Thessalonians 4, and he ends that section by saying, ‘Encourage one another with these words’ (1 Thess 4:18). Sometimes encouragement comes in the form of seeing that we’re are all struggling together, and sometimes encouragement comes from sharing what you’ve learned. This book is a little bit of both.”

As she addresses important Bible passages in Home, Fitzpatrick encourages her readers to find hope in the future: “Faith doesn’t mean that we pretend that life here is all we hoped it would be, or that every promise given to us is fulfilled in the here and now,” she writes. “The saints in Hebrews 11 saw only ‘preliminary glimpses of what was promised.’ They were living in the hope of a better, a greater future. Like them, we are on a pilgrimage, heading toward a heavenly Jerusalem.” *

* Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings, 137.

 
Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.


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