The Issue Of Identity


Setting aside the upheaval that the gender identity crisis has created, especially among the young, I realize we’ve been having an identity crisis of a different sort for years, even decades.

I don’t have the exact timeline, but at least for two decades according to one blog article I read, kids have been receiving participation trophies for involvement in youth sports. One article in the Baltimore Sun ties the proliferation of trophies to the push for self-esteem. “In the 1980s, self-esteem building became an educational priority really kicked off by the state of California.”

Apparently there is some debate about how healthy receiving these awards have been. I mean I read articles in the Washington Post and New York Times that discussed the subject, and the one above is reporting on a league that has decided not to give them out any more. Then there are bloggers defending Millennials who have been called The Participation Trophy Generation.

The argument seems to be entitlement and learning from not coming out on top versus low self-esteem.

All this has much more far-reaching affects than what anyone may have realized when they first came up with the idea that it would be cool to give all the kids a trophy—win or lose. For instance, some of this “everyone wins” thinking may explain why socialism seems appealing to a certain age demographic. But I have something even more serious in mind.

I wonder if there aren’t serious spiritual ramifications, not just from participation trophies, but from the entire self-esteem push. I wonder if we aren’t training kids to lie to themselves.

I’ve heard more than once, contestants on some “reality” TV game show, like Survivor—people who did something mean or really, really foolish that caused them to get kicked out of the game—say that no, they didn’t regret how they played; they were actually quite proud of themselves for their involvement. At the time, I was confused. I thought, You made such horrible mistakes and you don’t regret even one of them?

But now I’m thinking that’s what we are teaching our kids, and the adults who grew up with this self-esteem emphasis.

What’s also interesting is that teaching our kids to love themselves and that they all deserve a trophy for being on the team doesn’t seem to be producing happier people. Teen suicide hasn’t gone away. According to the CDC, teen suicide has increased in the US by 30% since the year 2000.

Mental Health America, in an undated article, reports,

Adolescent depression is increasing at an alarming rate. Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five teens suffers from clinical depression.

Science Daily reported a year ago that “More than 1 in 20 US children and teens have anxiety or depression.” We’re talking kids aged 6-17. Six!

Off hand, I’d say, the push for higher self-esteem isn’t working. I mean, what I see is closer to people feeling bad about themselves but unable to deal with the cause because they’re supposed to be winners.

I realize that’s an oversimplification. Like any problem, it undoubtedly has multiple contributing factors. But I don’t think we should ignore the fact that we are living in a culture that tells kids they aren’t sinners, that they do deserve . . . pretty much whatever they want. The word deserve continues to be advertisers’ favorite, I think.

But here’s the truth about each and every one of us. We are made in the image of God, though marred by sin. Not the individual acts of sin we do—those are results, not causes. The sin that we inherited from Adam makes us wonderful image bearers who walk away from the One who created us. We are, in essence, kind of schizophrenic.

But for the grace of God.

He was not content to let us turn our backs on Him without putting into motion a rescue plan. A plan that declares how loved we are, how forgiven, how washed, how renewed, made alive.

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13-14)

We are the princess, saved by the knight in shining armor. We are the citizens of Metropolis rescued from destruction by the Superhero who saved the day. We are the servant girl pursued by Prince Charming.

The point is, our identity comes because of our relationship with God.

Some years ago I attended a Dodger baseball game with some friends, and our seats were one level up, right behind home plate. They were the very best seats. But I only sat there because my friends had company tickets. I was ushered into the primo section of the stadium, not because of my standing, not because I was someone special. I got there because of who I was with.

That’s an incomplete picture, to be sure, but spiritually speaking, I am not in relationship with God because of my merit. I’m in relationship with God because I am in Christ. I’m with Him.

And where is He? Seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Heb. 1:3)” And I’m with Him.

That’s actually a transforming identity. No longer dead in my trespasses and sins, but alive, living in freedom from sin and guilt and the Law.

Funny how I could never enjoy this identity if I didn’t first admit that I can’t get there on my own.

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Easter Starts With Sin


In many respects, sin is a pivotal moment in all of history, but certainly Easter starts with sin. No sin, no need of a Savior—no Christ, no crucifixion, no resurrection. No Easter.

As western culture moves more and more toward the secular, fewer people celebrate Easter as a day of remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus. Now we have schools that take Spring Break, not Easter Break. We have a holiday that is known for Easter eggs and flowers and bunnies and pastel colors, especially pink and yellow and green. Yes, falling as it does after the spring equinox (officially Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox), the secular version of Easter has become a celebration of spring.

But even such an understanding recognizes the end of the bleak winter months—the cold, the gray days, the bare trees, dead grass, flowerless gardens. Spring signifies life after death.

And of course the ultimate life after death took place that first Easter morn when Jesus took on His resurrected body and came out of the tomb. I’d say, walked out of the tomb, but I don’t think He necessarily did walk. But more on that another day.

For now, I want to focus on the truth that so many people don’t like—we all, every one of us—have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

I’ve been shocked by a number of people who don’t want to accept this fact, even as they will whole-heartedly agree that nobody’s perfect. As I see it, that’s just another way of saying, Since we can’t be perfect, we’ll accept close enough, and God should do the same.

Because most of the “nobody’s perfect” crowd see themselves as a little better than most of the others. Or at least on average. Sure, the rapists and murderers might be sinners, but not the adulterers or people fudging on their taxes.

That perspective is not one God shares:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11)

Sin is simply not a minor offense with God, even if we look at it that way. Later in James He says, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (4:17). So even neglecting to do what we know we should do, carries the same weight of guilt and lawbreaking as any of the “thou shalt not’s.”

I remember a time or two when I was a child waking up to a blanket of new snow covering the yard. It was so perfect . . . until my dad walked out and began shoveling the sidewalk. Of course we needed him to make the way clear, but every step on the pristine white coating our property, marred it, spoiled it, left a blemish, a mark that could NEVER be removed.

Sin is like that. It simply can’t be undone. And no matter if a dog left a little trail across the snow, or we had a roaring good snowball fight that left pits and ditches of chewed up snow, that yard was never going to look as it had in the morning right after the snowfall.

Sin is like that, too. One little disobedient act. One bit of defiance, or multiple acts of waywardness. Makes no difference.

There is One and only One answer to the problem of sin. And it isn’t by doing multiple acts of kindness, as helpful as those are and as grateful as many may be for them. The acts of kindness can’t erase the acts of disobedience.

But there is hope:

“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18b)

Only the cross can do that. Which comes before the resurrection.

So Easter, to be understood properly, must be seen in the light of humankind’s fall into sin.

I suppose the term “fall” comes from the idea of falling from grace or from a favored position in God’s eyes. But it really is a little misleading. I mean, generally when people fall, they do it by accident. They didn’t actually mean to fall down the stairs, but they slipped. That sort of thing.

But this fall was more of a walking away. Adam, who was not deceived as his wife was, purposefully and willfully chose against God. Yes, he knew what God had said. Yes, he understood the consequences. He was going to do what he wanted anyway. That’s rebellion, in a nutshell.

Because of this willfulness, humankind has been separated from God, and only because of God’s persistence and His desire to fix what was broken, to bring life to what was dead, is there any hope in the world, any Easter to look forward to.

Published in: on March 18, 2019 at 5:06 pm  Comments (9)  
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Living In Joy?



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In Isaiah 55 the prophet says, “For you will go out with joy/And be led forth with peace.” In Nehemiah this governor of the returned exiles tells them, “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” King David write in Psalm 16, “In Your presence is fullness of joy.” In fact, the various psalmists write about joy a lot.

Even the writers of the New Testament have a lot to say about joy, and those who penned the gospels report that Jesus mentioned it more than once. Yes, sometimes they speak of future joy, as Isaiah did, but sometimes they talk about joy in the immediate, even in the midst of trials.

James is a case in point when he says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.”

Of course Paul includes joy among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, in essence saying that every Christian has joy.

We do?

I was listening to Pastor Greg Laurie this afternoon. At the end of the program he interviewed a guest, Pastor Levi Lesko, author of I Declare War. He mentioned that often we reach a crossroad in our day at which we can choose.

Interesting that another sermon I heard at breakfast mentioned how under sin, we had no choice. Meaning that sin controlled us. Now, as believers in Jesus Christ, we’ve been set free from sin. We are no longer slaves.

And here was Pastor Lesko saying, we have a choice to live in a funk or to believe what God says in His word. Things like, the joy of the LORD is our strength.

He then told us about how casinos in Las Vegas are built. Apparently when you’re on the outside, the entrances are clearly marked and the access is easy. But once you get inside, in the middle of the casino, it’s constructed like a labyrinth and finding your way to sunshine is like walking the maze.

I don’t know how true that is, but the illustration certainly seems to apply to sin and specifically to choosing joy over its counterpart—despair, regret, discouragement, depression. Sin, even though we are free from its mastery over us, is still compelling. It’s gained strength over the days and years and has created habits that are easy to fall back on.

This is a really simple example, but I’ve decided I want to treat other drivers (and here in the LA area, we all have to drive all the time, everywhere, or so it seems) with more courtesy and respect. Which is good. Until someone cuts me off in traffic. At that point all the frustration and anger at someone not willing to wait his turn flares inside me.

It’s a habit. For far too long, I’ve been an angry driver, always in a hurry, more aggressive than is good for me, and wanting every other driver to play by the rules. Breaking that habit doesn’t come over night.

Instead I have to let the word of God inform me what is true. Behind the wheel of that car is someone who Jesus included when He said, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

But I don’t love that guy even to the point of giving him a little grace on the road. In truth, I don’t know what the driver’s problem is. God does, though, so instead of steaming about his bad behavior, maybe I should bring him to God in prayer.

That’s the cool thing about joy. Yes, joy. We can actually choose joy in the same way that we can obey the command to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s not by trying harder. It’s by reminding ourselves, by preaching to ourselves—really by letting the Holy Spirit bring to our remembrance—what God’s truth is.

And His truth is that no matter what circumstances we live under—financial pressures, wayward kids, unhappy relationships, unemployment, open disdain for our faith in Christ—we have the joy of the LORD. Not, we can have. Not, we will have some day. No. The Holy Spirit lives in every believer and gives us all His fruit, which includes joy.

I think the fruit of the Spirit is part of the abundant life. Jesus painted a metaphor in which He said He was the door to the sheep pen. But then He goes on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Sin does steal and kill and destroy. For one thing, it steals our joy. But we have this fountain of joy in us through the provision of the Holy Spirit.

When I was a kid we sang the little chorus,

I’ve got I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart –Where?
Down in my heart –Where?
Down in my heart –Where?
I’ve got that joy joy joy joy down in my heart –Where?
Down in my heart to stay

There’s so much truth there, but it’s so easy to forget, so easy to let the old habits dictate and confuse, so easy to let sin steal that joy.

God’s truth makes it clear: we can live in the light of His word—and live according to the joy in our hearts—not in a maze of darkness and confusion

Are We Over-complicating Life?



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I’ve heard of oh, so many people who are stressed out, and any number of new books are hitting the shelves about managing our anxiety. I’ve even written blog posts on the subject (such as this one or this one).

Worse, the suicide rate among teens is on the rise, and there’s apparently so much pressure on kids to get good grades, to get into the right universities, that some people have simply thrown away the book on right and wrong.

What’s the matter with us? Our technology is supposed to make life easier, but teens are now getting killed because they allow their screens to dictate their lives. They get lured into places by dangerous people, they text while they drive, they tarnish their reputation by foolish pictures or comments or arguments.

And parents aren’t far behind. They work so hard to accomplish so much and then face their empty nest without a relationship with the kids they thought they were doing all their frantic activity for.

I didn’t mean to get started on the negative stuff. The fact is, even if we’re not living it, we rub shoulders with those who are.

But we ought to live differently. God put all people on this earth that He might enter into a friendship with each of us, that we can enjoy Him, that we can shine a spotlight on Him to show others how great He is.

Isn’t that what we do with our family? Pull out the phone and show pictures of the new baby or post the graduation shots on social media? We want people to know how great our kids are. How cute, how accomplished, how hard working. We want everyone to know what we know about them.

So, why shouldn’t we want to do the same about our Father? Our Heavenly Father? It’s a normal, natural family reaction—hold up the picture so everyone can see Him. Tell others how great He is.

Of course we can’t tell people about what we don’t know, so we need to wrap ourselves in this relationship and learn all we can about the God who made us, who loves us, with whom we will spend eternity.

Instead, we scurry and storm about trying to accomplish all the things the world tells us are important. We need to earn, accomplish, move up the corporate ladder.

But why?

If we were made for one thing, just one thing, why do we trouble ourselves with doing so many other things?

Jesus put it this way to His friend Martha:

But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40-42; emphasis mine)

What had Mary chosen? To sit at Jesus’s feet and learn from Him. Enter into relationship with Him. Spend time with Him.

I don’t know how that would look for others living in western society in the 21st century. Each person has to decide that for himself or herself, but I’m pretty sure we all think there’s more than one thing that “is necessary.”

Jesus said, No. Only one is necessary.

The rest? We put them into places of importance, sometimes even crowding out the necessary to work on our other stuff.

Ironic. I recently heard a pastor preach on knowing God’s will. He gave something like eight questions that he asks to know what God wants for him—the ones he suggests everyone else asks in order to figure out God’s will. In the back of my mind I thought, Really? Jesus put two things before us: love God and love our neighbor. That’s what God’s will is. I don’t need to over complicate this issue. To Martha, He narrowed that down to one thing: the necessary thing.

We love God by sitting at His feet until we desire what He desires, until we do what He directs us to do. We love our neighbors by putting the needs of those who cross our paths before our own needs. I could give examples, but really it’s not up to me to define what this means for other people. I have to know what God is saying by His Holy Spirit, to me.

But it’s not complicated. Not really.

Solomon’s Warning


I’ve never liked the book of Ecclesiastes. I thought parts were cool—a cord of three strands cannot be broken, for instance. And a time to laugh, a time to cry and so on. But the book? I didn’t really get it.

Then some pastor explained that the phrase repeated over and over, “under the sun” was Solomon’s way of saying, “Apart from God.” I wasn’t convinced. How did the scholars know that’s what Solomon meant? Finally I became convinced that’s truly what he was saying, but that just made me angry. I mean, the wisest man on earth, and he came up with some of the nonsense in that book?

And there was plenty of nonsense. Mostly his conclusions are nihilistic. Everything totals out to, zero. Even that passage made famous by the folk rock band The Byrds in their song “Turn Turn Turn.” I used to like that passage. Yes, I thought. It’s a statement of the rightness of the place all these things have in a person’s life. In my life. Until that same pastor pointed out that actually what Solomon was saying was that these things cancel each other out and the sum of them all is, zero.

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.

It gets worse when Solomon says, essentially that riches and poverty make no difference because the one who is rich and dies and leaves all his wealth to . . . he doesn’t know who. Will the one who takes control of his estate use it well or squander it? Or how about the wise man and the fool? No advantage, Solomon says, because they both die and end up going to the same place.

Uh, no, I think. This brilliant guy Solomon, is missing the truth. He is ignoring God and the ways He makes a difference, now and in the hereafter.

And that’s the point.

I heard a message by one of my favorite pastors on the radio, Philip De Courcy, and it “happened to be” his introduction to his series on Ecclesiastes.

What I learned from Pastor De Courcy is that God used Solomon and his own personal struggles to find meaning in life, to inform us, so that we don’t have to go through the same crash into meaninglessness before we resurface and find God to be our anchor.

That was Solomon’s trajectory. He was the thirsty man building broken cisterns that could hold no water. He tried to achieve by building all kinds of awesome structures. He tried to acquire by gaining more wealth than anyone. He lived for personal pleasure—wine, women, and song. He tried to hone his wisdom. In the end, he concluded none of it was satisfying. It all left him empty.

And that lesson is for us. We don’t have to follow in Solomon’s steps. We can read his testimony, and we can skip to the last chapter so that his end and be the guide in our own lives:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14)

Instead of being angry at Solomon, I should be grateful to God for including in His word the struggles of this intelligent, capable, powerful king who “had the world on a string,” yet strayed from the truth. All those women he married brought into his palace and into his heart and mind, the foreign gods they brought with them. Which explains how someone so wise could go so far astray.

He lost his relationship with God and that left him trying to find meaning apart from God. It wasn’t in any of his stuff, his pleasures, his brilliance. Earlier in the book he said everything added up to zero. Life was futile. A miscarriage was better than a rich man because he didn’t have to face the struggle.

That’s worse than sad. It’s bleak, the words of someone who has no hope. But for the grace of God, his life, and the book of warning could have ended there. But no. God gave him clarity before it was too late. His conclusion to all his struggles is the most important part of the book: fear God—treat Him with reverence and awe—and keep His commandments.

Published in: on March 11, 2019 at 5:39 pm  Comments (7)  
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Reverence – An Expanded View


My alma mater’s semi-annual magazine that goes out to alumni featured an article by communications studies professor Gregory Spencer taken from his book Awakening the Quieter Virtues (InterVarsity Press). I know of Professor Spencer because he also has written a couple fantasy novels; consequently I was particularly interested in reading his article entitled “Reverence: The Church Without Shoes.”

Professor Spencer quickly moved from an introduction to his subject, to Scripture—specifically to the account of Moses’s encounter and reaction to God speaking to him from a flaming shrub. Remove the shoes, God said, as if the shoes were somehow less clean than the feet. And Moses was quick to do so. While we may not understand the whys and wherefores of God’s command, there’s still much we can learn, by metaphor if not by principle. And Professor Spencer did a wonderful job drawing out those lessons.

In contrast to Moses’s position—standing barefoot on holy ground—Jesus and Paul knelt in prayer and four others who encountered Christ knelt before him. Others in Scripture fell on their faces. So how do the these reactions to the holy, these postures before the holy, inform our understanding of reverence?

Professor Spencer uses the physical attitude of people in reverent communication with God as metaphors to explain what reverence actually means. As he describes it, the concept has two prongs. One aspect is what we often think of—kneeling or falling on our faces before the sacred:

Noticing the sacred is noticing all of God that we can see, especially his holiness. Sometimes the sacred is found because it is searched for. Sometimes it seems to crash upon us unannounced. Either way, reverence increases as we cultivate eyes and ears for the God who is there.

The second aspect of reverence, the part we too often miss or mistakenly practice, is standing up to the profane:

The profane is that which intentionally dismisses, ridicules or destroys the sacred. When our loved ones are attacked or defiled, don’t we bristle and seek to defend them? Aren’t we saddened when they are misrepresented, ostracized or harmed? And so it is in our life with the Lover of our souls. Who cares about sacrilege these days? The reverent do.

Professor Spencer closes this section with a good reminder that not everything offensive to us is offensive to God, and vice versa. The standard we must use is that which grieves His heart.

The article did not elaborate on this point (perhaps the book does), but I’d add that Scripture is the source we can rely upon to know what moves God’s heart. For example, Jesus mourned for Jerusalem because He longed to gather its people like a hen gathers its chicks, but they would not. It’s safe to say, then, that people rejecting Christ grieves God’s heart.

The books of prophecy are filled with things that grieve God’s heart. At one point He says He wants justice and mercy rather than sacrifice. He then chastises His people for idol worship, for neglecting the Sabbath, for profaning His house, for mistreating widows and orphans, and on and on.

I admit. I know that Proverbs tells us that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, but I seldom think what that fear, that awe, that reverence looks like. These metaphors, drawn from our posture before God, help me to understand both avenues our Heavenly Father wishes His followers to take: kneeling before the sacred; standing against the profane.

From the archives: this article contains minor revisions from one posted here in January, 2011.

What God Has Said



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I might be wrong, but it seems to me as if here in western society, specifically here in the US, there has been a devaluation of the Bible. Certainly as the secular mindset becomes the norm, there’s a noted absence of religion in the realm of entertainment. There are some exceptions, but they are notable because they stick out as NOT LIKE THE REST.

But more than this change from “religion as expected practice,” is a change in the attitude toward the Bible. Once, Biblical references punctuated literature in various ways. In fact I’ve heard of some professors saying the Bible ought to be required reading so that students would understand the classics. And poetry, I might add.

But as the Bible slipped into this role of foundational to literature, its status as the authority to govern our lives has faded. Now, even among those who identify themselves as Progressive Christians, the Bible is treated as little more than interesting (and sometimes boring) myth about things we know couldn’t possibly have really happened.

I’ve heard over and over in my discussions with atheists, either here at my blog or in the Facebook atheist/theist group, that the Bible is simply not reliable, can’t be trusted at any level, and—worse—shows god to be hateful, vengeful, cruel.

I was first made aware that people looked at the Bible like this when I had a lengthy exchange some years ago with someone who was a professing Christian, claiming that god the father “repented” of his anger, which is why he sent Jesus, a loving, kind, and gentle version of himself.

Clearly that guy did not get his ideas from the Bible. They came from what Paul calls “philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

And that’s the problem. Some people still calling themselves Christians have given up believing the Bible, understanding it as God’s revelation of Himself—His Person, His plan, His work, His Word. They no longer believe it is authoritative. They don’t believe it’s sufficient for life and godliness either, or that how we respond to it determines our eternal destiny.

Sadly, this attitude seems to be seeping into the Church as well—not just the false church, but the true Church. It starts with parts we start labeling “cultural.”

Don’t get me wrong. One of the things atheists do, if they read the Bible at all—and many don’t—is take verses out of context and treat Christians as if we are waiting in the wings to implement the Law of Moses right here in the US. They have no understanding at all of how God, because of His grace, satisfied His just wrath by the blood of Jesus, and thereby fulfilled the law.

So, no, Christians don’t want to stone adulterers or disobedient children or any other sinners. Because, as Paul said, “Such were some of you.” We are all deserving of God’s wrath, but because of His great love He extended to us—to the whole world, Jesus said in John 3:16—those who believe have eternal life, not judgment.

In short, we are saved by faith, not by works. But faith that saves, works. That’s essentially what James says in his letter to first century Christians running for their lives from the persecution brought on by the religious Jews (like Paul, before he became a Christian).

Yet I’ve heard James’s letter challenged by a preacher who claims to believe the Bible. Just not that book, as if it was mistakenly put into the canon.

Other people challenge bits and pieces of Paul’s letters, as if he wrote them without really meaning them. There are whole chapters about how the gifts of the Spirit are to be used in the assembly of the Church, but today there are whole denominations that claim some of those spiritual gifts aren’t around any more. So where does that leave the instruction of the word of God? Apparently on the cutting room floor. There are other parts, too—wives submitting to husbands comes to mind, as does women serving as pastors.

Because these things don’t fit nicely into the way our culture is moving, we Christians now want to dump the authority of the Bible instead of doing the hard work of understanding the principle behind the words of Scripture. We forget that all Scripture is inspired by God. All. Not just the parts we like. Not just the ones that sound good. Not just the ones that promise hope and help.

Scripture tells us to deny ourselves daily. Scripture says we are to take up our crosses. We can’t XXX out those passages because we don’t like them, because they are countercultural or contrary to the image we want to project to the world.

God’s word is absolutely authoritative because God is Sovereign Ruler of everything. What He says is true and right and good. Even the parts of His revelation that are hard for us—hard for us to do, hard for us to understand, hard for us to accept. The world will scream at us that the Bible is old-fashioned, out-dated, irrelevant. But the truth is just the opposite. God wrote about gender wars back in Genesis 3 and Paul talked about how to solve those problems in multiple passages. But we want to ignore those solutions because, well, some people might misuse his council or it might make us look foolish to our culture or . . .

Yes, ignoring God’s council is no better than XXXing out the parts we don’t like. So when He speaks about gossip, we ought not chuckle behind our hands and double-down on our hatred of abortion. Abortion is a horrible sin and we should stand against it, but shouldn’t we stand against gossip just as strenuously? Or lying? I mean, if God’s authoritative word says He hates lying (and it does, more than once), why do we view that as an “acceptable” sin and homosexuality as an unforgivable sin?

I just heard a woman speak on Christian radio who was saved out of a homosexual lifestyle, and in the conversation the fact came out that some Christian colleges will not invite her to speak to their student body because of her past. Apparently they missed the “and such were some of you” part of the Bible. Or they’ve decided they only need to concern themselves with the parts of the Bible they like. Which actually makes them authoritative in their lives rather than God and His word.

Salvation And The Need To Forgive


Forgiveness is two-pronged—something we need and something we need to give.

One of the parables that used to make me uncomfortable is the one Jesus told in answer to Peter’s question about how many times they needed to forgive those who sinned against them. After giving the now-familiar seventy-times-seven answer, Jesus proceeded to tell a story to illustrate his point.

As it goes, a slave owed his master an insurmountable debt. When his lord decide to sell him, his family, and his belongings to recoup some of what was owed, the slave begged for more time.

The master turned around and forgave him the debt entirely.

Such a great story. Expecting deserved punishment, the slave pleaded for mercy and found grace. Complete grace that washed away his debt in its entirety.

But the story didn’t end there. The slave, upon leaving his master, ran into a colleague who owed him a modest sum, within the man’s ability to pay. The first slave required what he deserved.

The second slave asked for mercy—just a little more time, and he would meet his obligation. But the first slave was unwilling and had the man thrown in prison. When the other slaves saw it, they told their lord.

The master brought the first slave before him again and chastised him:

“Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?”
– Matthew 18:33

I said this parable made me uncomfortable. I just didn’t understand what this meant for salvation. Was God going to take back salvation if we didn’t follow his example, at least in this area of forgiveness?

And if forgiveness is a necessary action I am required to take, how then is grace free of my works and based upon faith alone?

Recently I heard a great sermon that explained the troubling story. Yes, I’d heard sermons that explained our forgiveness of others is a sign of our right standing with God, not a condition for it. But for the life of me, though I believed that to be true, I couldn’t see that teaching in this passage.

Well, the sermon I heard, from Allister Begg, most likely or maybe my pastor, explained that the first slave, if he had understood the concept of receiving unmerited favor, if he’d understood that he truly owed more than he could ever pay, if in fact he had humbled himself and received the grace his master offered him, would have extended his own small measure of grace to the second slave. By not doing so, he demonstrated that he had never grasped the enormity of his own debt and the grace his master held out to him.

In essence, by not extending forgiveness, he proved he didn’t “get it.” Though it had been offered him, he didn’t believe himself truly in need of his master’s grace, didn’t humble himself, and didn’t appropriate what his master extended to him.

My forgiving my neighbor, then, is not the cause of my salvation, not the root from which my salvation grows. It is the fruit, the product of my rooted-ness in God’s forgiveness of me. If I in fact humble myself before God, will I not also humble myself before my neighbor? Humility, I don’t think, is a trait that should come and go. I’m humble before God but demanding of others?

By insisting others pay me my due, I show my own nature, not the one God clothes His children with. I wish I’d learned this years ago.

From the archives: this post originally appeared here in March, 2009.

Published in: on March 5, 2019 at 5:36 pm  Comments (5)  
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About That Loving Your Neighbor Command


The Bible is really clear about how Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—are to treat our neighbors. Jesus broadened the command further by identifying our neighbor as the person we come across who is in need.

So love them. Give them what they need to reach a point in which they are no longer in need. Like the Good Samaritan did. He gave medical attention to the guy he came across who had been mugged. Further, he put the wounded guy on his own donkey, took him to a nearby inn and paid the man in charge to provide for the next layer of needs. I take that to be shelter and food and perhaps clothes. For how long? The Samaritan didn’t know, so he gave an open-ended promise. Whatever the innkeeper spent on the wounded man, above and beyond the money he’d already been paid, the Samaritan would cover the cost.

It’s a great story of selflessness and generosity and letting go of ethnic stereotypes. Of refusing to give in to prejudice.

But here’s what I’m thinking about. What if the Samaritan took him home instead of to an inn. What if the Jewish victim proved to be . . . difficult. What if he was unappreciative and demanding? What if he wanted to argue politics or religion? What if he was not someone the Samaritan liked?

More often than not, I think that’s our challenge today. We are fine if we can throw some money at a problem, as if our generosity equates with love. We forget that the Samaritan was committed to coming back, that he would be checking in on the wounded Jew, that his responsibility was more than a one-time donation.

We forget that he first took a risk. After all, he could have been walking into a trap. He set aside his own needs, even his religious ones—his interaction with the wounded man made him spiritually unclean, because it’s hard to imagine that he tended the man’s wounds without getting his hands a bit bloody and that maybe he’d be touching a dead body. Then there was the change in his plans. The delay, the inconvenience of walking while the Jewish man rode. The commitment to put him up and check in on him and to pay more if needed.

All this makes me aware that loving our neighbor requires some level of commitment, of interaction, of relationship.

Which brings me back to the question: what if our neighbor is someone we don’t like?

I don’t think our likes or dislikes change God’s command. We don’t get to say to God, Well, I’d love him if I liked him a little better, because You do know, He’s a Jew. Set aside for a moment that Jesus was also a Jew. The point is, He told that story particularly because love crossed the ethnic divide.

What if the Jewish man was cursing and complaining the whole way to the inn? What if he was demanding and simply had an irritating personality? Jesus doesn’t give us an out because someone is not easy to love. He simply says, love your neighbors.

So here’s what I think. Paul tells us that when we are weak, we are strong. Because when we are weak we turn to God and let Him give us the strength we need. My guess is, if a neighbor is hard to like, God will give us the strength to love them anyway, and maybe even to like them.

I’ve had that experience, more than once. When I was teaching, there were a few times that I had a student I didn’t really like. They were . . . annoying. But as soon as I realized I was having a hard time, I started praying. And in each instance, the student and I actually developed a close relationship by the time they moved on to another grade. In other words, God took my willingness to follow Him and my admission that I was weak and needed His strength, and He forged a better relationship than I could have ever imagined.

In truth, I would have been poorer if I had missed out, if I had let my likes and dislikes dictate who I loved or didn’t love.

God really knows what He’s talking about when He tells us to love our neighbors!

Published in: on March 4, 2019 at 5:48 pm  Comments (2)  
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Do I Pray My Priorities?


Photo by Garon Piceli from Pexels

More often than not, when a speaker addressing Christians addresses the topic of priorities, an established order of what’s important surfaces: God first, others second, self third. Generally “others” is broken down into family over friends or neighbors or business associates or church contacts.

I suspect most Christians, when asked, would also say they value missions highly, care about their pastor, and are interested in evangelism, missions, or some other ministry. I’m confident many would add a concern for our schools, public or private, and what’s happening in national government, maybe in state government, and some even in local government.

These things and others that we care about according to our priority lists, should be occupying more of our time and money and energy and thoughts than what we so often do think—and pray—about: things that will make me, my family, and my friends happy or more comfortable.

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t “live my list” like I wish I did. But even if I fail to welcome the new neighbors on the corner, can’t I pray for them? Even if I don’t have offering money beyond what I give to my local church, can’t I pray for missionaries or other ministries? Even though I don’t write a note of encouragement to my pastor, can’t I pray for him?

Living out our priorities is hard, hard work. Prayer? I know some people talk about laboring in prayer, but it seems to me conversations with God about the things I care most about ought to be conversations I rush to have, ones I look forward to, and have to be pulled away from with reluctance.

And if that’s not the case, then maybe the problem is my understanding of prayer, or my list. I know what my priorities should be … what I say they are. But are my priorities like my New Year’s Resolutions—a list I make knowing full well it’s more wishful thinking than a guide for what I intend to do?

I understand wishful thinking. I’ve wished I was a good housekeeper, a good correspondent, a conscientious exerciser. But do I wish those things to the point of change? The first clue to the answer to that question, I think, is whether or not I begin to pray for the thing I say I care about.

If I believe God hears and answers prayer, and I do, then why, why, why wouldn’t I pray about the things I say are top most on my list of priorities?

From the book of James:

The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. (vv 16b-18)

Elijah’s nature was just like ours. James was clearly implying that we have the same kind of power in prayer as Elijah had. But his prayer had to do with God getting the attention of a wayward king, a disobedient people. In other words, his prayer had to do with the spiritual welfare of those to whom he was sent as a prophet of God.

Would that my prayers will become more centered on spiritual needs than on physical ones!

From the archives: this post is a revised version of one that appeared here in July, 2009.

Published in: on March 1, 2019 at 4:51 pm  Comments (7)  
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